When the President made his stance regarding Same Sex Marriage I feared that there would be a certain backlash from a contingency within the black church. What I didn’t prepare for, however, was the current media’s local and national recapitulation of the black preacher, church and community being consistent with the stance of a particular segment. If one is novice or untrained regarding the particularities of the black faith experience it may be easy to assert that all black people of faith are homophobic, hypocritical, anti-intellectual and that black faith leaders are all pimpish priest and not prophets. To be clear, there have been a few exceptions projected nationally (and even fewer locally, in Memphis). Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Rev. Otis Moss III, Pastor Leslie Callahan, Dr. Renita Weems and even a couple of those on the Faith in Memphis Panel and Rhetoric Race and Religion blog have expressed views in opposition of those opposing the President. Yet, in a broader and more vast sense there has seem to be a strategy by some to demonize, reduce and re-project black faith as buffoonery at worse and misguided spirituality at best. I believe this mythical, monolithic portrayal has compartmentalized our faith based expressions of love, hope in the American Democratic system, and the activism that is the bi-product of our spirituality.
This strategy is not new. In 2008 Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. was ostracized by pundits, public commentators and various others of the political and priestly persuasion. We have recently seen the soon to be Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s constituency plan to represent Rev. Wright as the quintessential model of the “worst” of the black church. To expose the irony here would be a convenient dissertation topic. Instead, what I’d like to push back against is the notion that any ONE person, church, group or geographical location can adequately represent a people of faith with a legacy as long as the Nile and Mississippi River’s combined.
People of faith, who are also people of color, many of whom have been actively involved in the political process, have never collectively been one value voters, in complete agreement with any theological premise or political legislative stance. We are a complex people, and that is a good thing. We never agree totally on anything, just like other ethnic groups. The diversity of thought, theology, expression and practice of the black faith community is part of our beauty and when it is disregarding and reduced it becomes a tautology of xenophobic slave master sensibilities that stem from a hermeneutic of privilege.
We have warred against this throughout our history in our attempts towards spiritual liberation, communal emancipation, racial desegregation and other issues of discrimination not limited to sexual orientation. And to be honest, we have seen several setbacks on this sojourn. This ought to be expected when a group of diverse and complex humans gather and seek to progress collectively. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies; most responsible for our own stagnation.
But we have never been defined by one group or one era. The civil rights vein of the black prophetic tradition was not limited to the 50’s and 60’s. The prophetic element can never be monopolized. When the attempt is made to do so, the movement ceases to be prophetic. It is commoditized for the sake of profit and disregards the voices of true prophets. But prophetic movements don’t succumb to commodification. In all of our diversity we stay committed to the struggle for justice because of the call and cause of our Christ and never for the sake of compensation and conceit (even though sometimes money and notoriety accompany prophetic persona in a hyper-technological, social networking culture).
It seems clear to me that faith in our current climate has political requirements and implications. This is not to say that our ministerial leaders need to be politicians, but if our theology is disconnected from practical life and the political ethos, our theology becomes irrelevant. This is why the prophetic narrative is not Ameri-centric. True prophetic persona and presentation is universal at its core. Therefore one cannot, in my opinion, faithfully interpret the life and ministry of Jesus devoid of his political realities (i.e. the treatment of lepers, Sabbath, the status of women and other politically affirmed cultural values of his day). Doing so is to be reductionist relative to Jesus’ prophetic ministry, the prophetic tradition in which he stood and his divinity in general.
I believe God CALLS us ALL in our various vineyards to raise our voice (not always in agreement, that’s unison, but still in harmony) to adequately represent the beautiful hues of our humanity and the complex cords and tones of our theology to continue to help us progress. We must find a way for all of these voices to be adequately and authentically represented.
Rev. Earle J. Fisher