This weekend across the United States - churches, civil organizations and non-profits will provide various opportunities to celebrate and honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King is a spiritual hero of mine, and having been inducted into the (MLK) Board of Preachers at Morehouse College in 2009 remains a humbling honor and thrilling highlight of my life.
One of the ways I've traditionally celebrated MLK Day has been to attend the local MLK Celebration at one of the larger African American churches in town. They hold an annual festival, traditionally broadcasted on local public radio. It is an all day gospel extravaganza featuring amazing music, speeches and special presentations. I truly enjoy it.
However, I am not sure that I'll attend this year. Due to a flurry of recent events I've begun to reflect even more deeply on Dr. King's Dream and how we celebrate it today. I recently learned that the minister of the church that puts on this event has been reported to have included anti-gay messages in his sermons. The news came on the heels of my heavy involvement in posting comments on a series of blogs about the role of the Black Church regarding fight for Equal Rights in the LGBTQ community.
It all started when my friend Monique Ruffin posted an article on Huffington Post entitled "It's Official, Gay is the New Black." Needless to say the article caused quite a stir. I chose to become involved in several comment threads both on the blog site and on Facebook, and what became clear is that the black church community is divided on the issue of Gay Rights/Marriage Equality. This was not news to me - but rather a topic of sincere curiosity.
You see, I serve on the board for The Community of Welcoming Congregations and we have experienced a struggle to have any meaningful involvement or support from leaders in the black church community on this very important civil rights issue. I struggle to understand why.
Now, let me say up front that the generalization of "the black church community" is a difficult one to make. Across the nation I know African American clergy and church leaders who are on the side of LGBTQ Equality. I am fortunate enough to call Bishops Carlton D. Pearson and Yvette Flunder among those friends and allies. But by and large the majority of the "black church community” (by which, I mean traditionally evangelical, Baptist, Pentecostal, Holiness, and Non-denominational African American congregations) do not take a favorable, and in some cases takes an actively adversarial, position on Gay Rights.
Yet, the NAACP* and the late Coretta Scott King have taken a stand for LGBTQ Equality, deeming it the civil rights issue of our day. So why then are so many black churches (not all) either silent or adversarial to the cause?
This seems to be the case for (at least) 2 reasons:
1. Theology - "for the Bible tells me so"... many black churches, just like many white churches - believe that scripture is clear on the subject of homosexuality and that it is a sin.
This issue is really a “red herring” - I'll address it in a post at the end of the month on Equality Sabbath, Jan. 29th. For now, I'll refer you to the words of Bishop John S. Spong on this topic in one of my previous posts (Bishop Spong's Manifesto).
The arguments used here are the same used in all-white churches - or any church that fights (actively or passively) against Marriage Equality. Assuming we are able to agree to disagree on scriptural interpretation, the issue at hand is that of Civil Rights - not religious ones.
2. Cultural tradition "Don't usurp The Civil Rights Movement!" ... it seems that many are upset at the perceived effort by the gay community to usurp the original intent of the movement thereby diminishing the focus on equality issues that remain in the black community. Certainly there are still issues of inequity and discrimination which affect the African American community as a whole. But does the recognition of this fact warrant the apparent silence from the black church when it comes to the discrimination of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters? (Are they mutually exclusive issues?) It was Dr. King that taught us that silence in the face of oppression and discrimination is just as much a sin as the behavior of the opressor.
An argument could be made that "occasion and context informs intent." Under this lens the Civil Rights movement rose from the extreme inequities and moral injustices facing African Americans and thus the intent of the movement was to right the wrongs of civil injustice. But Dr. King and those around him did more than seek to right the wrongs of the current conditions. Dr. King had a Dream. A dream that we would as a nation “rise up and live out the true meaning of our creed, that all men are created equal.” He called us to the high American moral standards of Equality and Justice for ALL. And while his message began with boycotts of buses and sit-ins at lunch counters (righting wrong conditions) - his intent clearly expanded over the years to include speaking out on issues of justice for immigrant farm workers, economic injustices and the moral efficacy of the vietnam war. Yes, Dr. King understood that context gives rise to message - but he also powerfully understood that what emerges from this is Principle. If a Principle is to have any validity at all - it must transcend the context from which it was uncovered, and be applicable in others.
There are those who would say, and have done so on the blog threads, that the plight of the LGBTQ community cannot come under the banner of the Civil Rights Movement because they do not have the history of 300 years of oppression, slavery and discrimination. There are those who would say, "it is not the same" because black folks can't "blend-in" the way gay folks can.
But how much discrimination must a people endure to qualify? How much suffering does it take? Must the discrimination be visible for all to see? Isn't hidden racism and discrimination just as insidious as the visible kind?
Dr. King called on us to transcend labels and understand that at our core we are all human beings, and for that fact alone are deserving of basic rights and equal treatment under the law. The black church community has traditionally been the champion of both the Civil Rights Movement and the "Keepers of the Dream" of Dr. King. Now, the LGBTQ community is calling the champions of equality and justice for all to come to their aide. But rather than pick up the phone and answer the call, many leaders of back church community seem to let the call go straight to voicemail - with an outgoing message saying: "we're sorry, we can't take your call right now, our theology won't let us."
Dr. King taught us that the church, white or black, has a role in the social sector. That role is to stand up for the oppressed and discriminated and to call on our political leaders to remember the inherent dignity of all human beings when shaping public policy.
"The church should be the headlights rather than the tail lights on loving first, best and most, all people inclusively.” - Bishop Carlton D. Pearson
Dr. King’s Dream of Equality has always been a call to action, to rise to the occasion of our most honorable intentions toward one another, whether or not we are in agreement and whether or not we even like one another. The Dream of equal treatment under the law is not reserved for just one people.
Dr. King’s Dream is for everyone.
- Rev. David Alexander is senior minister at New Thought Center for Spiritual Living (www.newthoughtcsl.org) and serves on the Board of Directors for CWC.