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By Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou
A few years ago, I interviewed to serve as the Senior Minister of a church in the Bronx. I was excited about serving as a pastor in the poorest congressional district in the country, plus the “Boogie Down” is the birth place of Hip Hop. Surrounded by the thick cloud of pollution that is the air and decaying housing while being serenaded by blaring sirens and Nuyorican accents, the century old white stone church stood in all of its majesty.
I rang the door bell. A tall stately woman with a graceful all gray hair cut invited me into the small conference room. The Pastoral Search committee was waiting–five “little old ladies” dressed in their Sunday morning best on a weekday evening. Directed to the empty chair at the far end of the room, I greeted each one of them with a hand shake and slight genuflection. I anxiously took my seat at the head of the table. “Mother,” a small, dainty, if not fragile, yet dignified elder, sat directly across the reckoning table.
After a softball question from the tall woman who initially welcomed me, “Mother” came-a-swinging. With disdain in her voice she asked, “Reverend Sekou, what do you think of gay marriage?!”
Taking a deep breath, I hesitated. In the silence she forcefully reminded me, “And you know what the Bible says!”
With head bowed in deference to my elder I said, “Mother, the Bible says, women be silent in the church.”
The committee nodded in recognition, as I continued to seal my fate. “You got around that, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” they all said.
“Bible says ‘slave be obedient to your masters.'”
“Yes, yes,” they perked up.
“We got around that.”
“This is true,” Mother conceded.
“I think we can get around this,” I said.
“Black folks looked at the text that affirmed their humanity and rejected the text that did not. Do not gay folks have the right to do the same? In fact, I would argue that the Bible does an amazing job arguing for justice for all. Did you know that there are over 3,000 references to poverty and the poor in the Bible?”
They nodded in collective astonishment and deployed the cultural idiom, “Umph.”
Taking it up a notch, I leaned forward and preached, “And it really makes God mad. In the Bronx, with the highest rates in poverty, per capita imprisonment, HIV/Aids cases, and asthma in New York City, should we not be focused on that work? I am doing what you taught me, ‘Mother.’ Black women like you taught me that wherever folks are catching hell I am to show up. Gay folks are catching hell so I gotta show up. Black folks should not ever be part of denying anyone rights.”
Collecting my emotions, I sat back. The committee agreed to send my name to the broader congregation to be voted up after a Sunday morning sermon. This story does not end perfectly, though. I did not become the pastor of that church. I lost the congregation vote, 16-8. It seems, in that case, I was only able to convince the five “little old ladies” and three living husbands. I persuasively converted five older African American church ladies and leaders. They left that interview believing that gay marriage was consistent with their own sense of theological agency and the African American freedom struggle.
Bible verses are often cited as the god-given admonition against gay marriage, same gender loving, and as the penultimate guide for relationships. First, there is the ever popular Old Testament Leviticus 20:13, “If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.” In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul poses and answers questions concerning the unrighteous. He writes in his first letter to the church at Corinthians, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived, neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.” In this same letter Paul offers some very clear instructions for women. “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
Paul also writes to the church in Ephesus and encourages, “[s]laves, be obedient to them that are [your] masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.” As signification of their faithfulness, the text demands obedience of women and slaves to those “placed over them” and calls same gender loving an “abomination.”
Black folks applied a hermeneutic of suspicion to the Bible and the Constitution. Faced with an oppressive Christianity that justified their bondage and beating, they ingested scriptures that fed their ontological desire to be liberated. They, in turn, rejected texts that were counter to their beingness. To be Black was to be queer, signifying that to be queer is to be at odds with the democracy. Through the blood stained freedom struggle of the small, but prophetic, church, Black folks queered democracy and Christianity, changing the oppressive systems into symbols of liberation for all to behold. Perhaps, then, if queer folks use this hermeneutic of suspicion, they can also reclaim the liberating promise of Christianity and democracy. Linkages can made between the African American struggle for civil rights and the struggle for the rights of queer folks.
Coretta Scott King, noted activist in her own right, makes the connection. Speaking once upon a time at a gathering for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Mrs. King believed articulated a common struggle between civil and queer rights.
I say “common struggle” because I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere. Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.
King believed that the rights of citizenship were god-given. He often
noted that he wanted America to be true to what she said on paper. This sentiment emerges out of the prophetic tradition. The prophetic
African-American Christian tradition has always read the biblical narrative in close proximity to the nation’s founding documents–the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence that have served to expand democracy. There have always been religious forces that promoted democratic expansion. What has moved history and expanded democracy has been prophetic minorities willing to risk life and limb to seize the public’s imagination and transform politics and public policy. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, and the Civil Rights (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) are public policy testaments to the prophetic tradition of democratic expansion. Based on this tradition, religion in the public sphere must aim to continue democratic expansion.
With this in mind, the passage of legislation that denies gay marriage and adoption restricts democratic expansion instead of expanding democratic access. Such actions are counter to nearly two centuries of small yet vocal religious social movements to expand democracy. The religious precedent of democratic expansion mandates that such religious calls for restriction have no place in public policy.
Equally, there are religious denominations that ordain queer folks and administer the sacrament of marriage to same sex couples. The first sentence of the First Amendment of the Constitution states that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof[.]” Given the religious dogma used to justify anti-gay marriage legislation, state laws and a proposed Constitutional amendment are a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution because they impose one form of religion over another. The repressive forms of religion, such as those citing same-sex association as Biblical abomination, or encouraging the enslaved to be obedient to their masters, have only served to undermine the democracy–and these restrictions cut against the religious precedent for democratic expansion. In concurrence with the constitutional formulation, the Iowa Supreme Court struck down the passage of a ban against gay marriage. The Iowa decision privileges democratic expansion over religious restriction.
As a result, civil marriage must be judged under our constitutional standards of equal protection and not under religious doctrines or the religious views of individuals. This approach does not disrespect or denigrate the religious views of many Iowans who may strongly believe in marriage as a dual-gender union, but considers, as we must, only the constitutional rights of all people, as expressed by the promise of equal protection for all. We are not permitted to do less and would damage our constitution immeasurably by trying to do more.
A new distinction based on sexual orientation would be equally suspect and difficult to square with the fundamental principles of equal protection embodied in our constitution. This record, our independent research, and the appropriate equal protection analysis do not suggest the existence of a justification for such a legislative classification that substantially furthers any governmental objective. Consequently, the language in Iowa Code section 595.2 limiting civil marriage to a man and a woman must be stricken from the statute, and the remaining statutory language must be interpreted and applied in a manner allowing gay and lesbian people full access to the institution of civil marriage.
Religious discourse in public policy must be about the expansion of democratic opportunity. Marriage grants over 1,300 civil rights to its participants, including property rights and end of life decisions. This must be extended to queer folk as part of the democratic expansion. To deny civil rights is to cut against the grain of both the best of the Black Church, and the prophetic tradition that has served to make America more democratic. In a word, the anti-gay marriage movement is anti-democratic.
Raised in the rural Arkansas Delta, Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is a third generation ordained Elder in the Church of God in Christ (Pentecostal). He is the former Senior Minister of Lemuel Haynes Congregational Church (UCC) in South Jamaica Queens, New York. He is the author of the forthcoming, Gods, Gays, and Guns: Religion and the Future of Democracy. Rev. Sekou authored the critically acclaimed Urban Souls, which takes a refreshing approach to the spiritual crisis in America. Rev. Sekou has given over 1000 lectures throughout the country and abroad, including Harvard Divinity School, Princeton University, University of Virginia, the University of Paris IV- La Sorbonne and Vanderbilt University. He has studied continental philosophy at the New School, systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary, and is currently studying religion at Harvard University.