The Black church may have created a role that warrants reconsideration.
I want to pose a challenge to all of our readers. I’ll give $100 to the first person that can find the phrase First Lady or First Gentleman in Scripture as it pertains to the Church. If my wife knew I made this promise, she’d probably have me sleeping on the couch tonight. But I’m just that confident it doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as a First Lady or First Gentleman when it comes to the Word of God. They are fabricated, idealistic titles that have invaded Black church culture. I’ve written previously about my disgust with the term on A&E’s show “The Sisterhood”, which closely followed the lives of a group of women who deemed themselves First Ladies. But this week, I think it turned into some righteous indignation (which is a good thing, I think). It’s table turning time.
But let me start with a brief history lesson. The African American pastor has, as long as I can remember, always held a distinguished position in the Black community. In my hometown, you can talk about Black teachers, Black politicians, and other Black public figures. But you bet no dare “put your mouth” on the man of God. There’s that “Touch not mine anointed…” (see Psalm 105:15) thing going on there (a passage of Scripture that’s butchered from a contextual standpoint, by the way). The Black pastor enjoys certain privilege in the Black community. He has a nice parking space at the church, drives a nice vehicle (used to be a Cadillac), and gets fed well.
Enter the first lady. Because of the royal treatment of the black pastor, many of their wives benefit from fact that they are married to the shepherd of the church. Over the years, in the Black church, she has come to be known as the First Lady. As with any title, there are certain privileges that accompany the role of First Lady. Reserved seating is a no brainer. In some instances, she sits in the pulpit with her husband, while in other instances she is front and center in the pews. Depending on your context, an oversized hat may be involved. In that setting, nobody, I mean nobody, wears a hat larger than the church’s First Lady. That’s disrespectful. Regardless of context, certain things are expected of a First Lady. She’s to be supportive, highly visible, elegant, a prayer warrior, and, where children are involved, a great mother. That list is by no means exhaustive, but it gives you an idea of how Black culture has carved out a clearly defined role for preacher’s wives.
Yesterday I saw something related to the First Lady concept appear in my Facebook Timeline (because Facebook Timelines are basically our news sources these days). I checked out this picture of a pastor celebrating his third anniversary with his spouse. Honestly, my first thought was, “Is this real?” So I did what any sensible, intelligent person would have done. I googled the church. Sure enough, the church existed and the Pastor and his spouse just celebrated their third anniversary. The wording on the original flyer is what got my attention. The pastor’s spouse was referred to as the “1st Gentleman” of the church.
If you haven’t already figured it out, this pastor has a partner in a same-sex relationship. As such, that partner has embraced the role traditionally seen in the Black church in the context of heterosexual marriages—The First Gentleman. And this is not an anomalous occurrence. There are other First Ladies and Gentlemen out there in same-sex marriages helping lead churches. Look, I’m not here to argue the merits of same-sex marriages. That screams red herring and will distract from the main point I’m making here. Well maybe I will say a few words. First, there’s no scriptural support for same-sex marriages and, as a minister, I wouldn’t officiate a wedding involving one. As “radically inclusive” as we make Jesus out to be, Scripture is very clear about this issue. The fact that Jesus never condemned same-sex marriages in Scripture doesn’t automatically mean He condones the behavior. There are no specific teachings from Jesus or “red letter” passages on bestiality, pedophilia, or polygamy either. And no, I’m not making a direct comparison between those activities and same-sex marriages. I’m just saying that absence of teaching doesn’t mean that Jesus would condone certain human behavior. Trust me, this is huge and is something the Black church has to process and deal with in the coming years. According to a site dedicated to the community, there’s at least 7,100 documented gay-affirming churches. Some of them are led by pastors who themselves are in same-sex relationships. So there’s an active subculture in the Christian faith that has adopted the practices of the Black church. Among those practices is the adoption of our church leadership structure—including First Ladies (and now First Gentlemen).
But when folks adopt practices that are flawed in the first instance, I think the best approach here is the address those practices in their original context. So the main point I want to make here is that the Black church can’t keep hijacking cultural practices and slapping them in the church setting without seriously considering if we’re missing the mark. Can we eulogize the terms First Lady/First Gentlemen already? Like, for real, for real. Yes, 1 John address the “elect lady“. But scholars can’t even agree if the author is addressing a female leader in the church or the church as a body (Scripture often uses feminine terms to describe the church). Either way, there’s NO WAY we should use this text to excuse our canonization of First Ladies or First Gentlemen when it comes to church practice. Part of the reason we have so many problems in the black church is because we covout titles. That’s the antithesis of the Gospel message. Paul tells us in Philippians 2 that Christ himself took on the form of a servant. Paul, himself, hated titles (see Philippians 3). James, Jesus’ own brother (who could have plugged that fact in his letter), calls himself a term most Christians wore as a badge of honor in the first century—a servant. Does the New Testament address bishops, elders, deacons, and other leaders? Of course it does. But are we faithful to Scripture when we create our own structures, slapping titles on folks that don’t exhibit the accompanying fruit (oops, did I just say that)? Maybe, we should be less worried about titles and degrees and more concerned about worship on our knees. Many in the black community joked about worship-like atmosphere in the white smoke announcement of the Pope this week, but in reality we go to churches and worship our leadership weekly—including the First Lady and First Gentleman. The harsh reality is that if we don’t seriously think about making changes our places of worship will become museums with artifacts rather than places of transformation and change. And that’s a scary thought.
Depending on whom you ask, the question of what most defines the African American community varies. Some will point to strides made toward racial integration. Others will point to the establishment of our own culture, traditions, and institutions that distinguish us from other races. And depending on whom you engage in this debate, most will admit, there are significant cultural and class divisions among African Americans. Creating a sense of community among African Americans is challenging, but imagine attempting this when the prevalent identifier was slavery.
In his book A Nation Within A Nation: Organizing African American Communities Before the Civil War, scholar John Ernest offers an insightful view of how African Americans to establish their identities before the civil war. This is a unique view since most accounts of this time in history focus on how the Civil War changed our status and sense of community. Ernest presents a view of the oft-overlooked organizations that were pushing for the establishment of an African American community well before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Ernest, a professor of American literature at West Virginia University, presents a historical account of how five types of social organizations — the church, Masonic lodges, conventions, schools, and the media/press — got their start. He traces how each attempted to meet the unique needs of the African American community.
One of Ernest’s most striking observations is that our forefathers held two key approaches on how the establishment of community should be accomplished. Some believed that African Americans should fight to assimilate into the majority community, and that finding acceptance there was the ultimate measure of progress. Others, smarting from their experiences with severe racism, believed that creating a new community — i.e., a nation within a nation — was the best approach.
What’s fascinating to consider is that the African American is still divided along those lines. What’s more, the tension between those two mindsets still polarizes our community. Those who fight to be accepted among the majority, which in our time is still white Americans, are often accused of being disloyal to their heritage. Those who fight to establish their own culture are often accused of being separatist, or in the most severe cases racists themselves.
Ernest also highlights the painful fact that from our earliest history, oppression was the most common connection among most African Americans. Even free African Americans faced oppression, opposition, and racism. Many of the organizations formed during that time were built on freedom from that oppression.
A Nation Within a Nation, although focused on the past, whispers to our current conditions. What would our culture be like if the oppression of our ancestors was removed from our current community? How would we then define ourselves? This book made me wonder if a common denominator could ever be found for African Americans. It also made me wonder about the efficiency of trying to define ourselves by a single idea.
But don’t expect answers to those questions in this book. Ernest writes the book in true historian style, only presenting information without his personal beliefs. His writing has the density of academia, so this is not a quick read. In my opinion, this is the best approach. So much our history has been interpreted for us by pop culture or presented in snapshots. It’s refreshing to be able to read such rich history without a filter and with all the weightiness it deserves.
I think the most enjoyable aspect of this book is the discussion that has arisen among those in my African American community. This is a topic that needs to be revisited, and A Nation Within a Nation provides a great springboard for beginning that important dialogue.
FREE AT LAST?: In ‘Runaway Slave,’ pastor and activist C.L. Bryant and other African American conservatives reject liberal politics and ask whether big government entitlements are a new form of slavery.
The title of the new film Runaway Slave might lead some to dismiss it as just another dramatization of a commonly rehearsed chapter of black history in America. But when one discovers that the film is actually a documentary about a politically liberal African American pastor’s conversion into the conservative political movement, the title suddenly takes on a much more provocative tone. On one level, Reverend C.L. Bryant’s Runaway Slave is a coming-of-age narrative about his shift from being a pastor and NAACP Chapter President to being a prominent defender of small government, free markets, and personal responsibility. On another level, however, it is a clear rebuke of what the filmmakers perceive as the black community’s enslavement to the Democratic Party and progressive politics. Bryant wants us to understand that the black community is not a political monolith, and that our moral and economic concerns might be better addressed by the Republican Party’s conservative platform.
A press release for the movie leaves no doubt about the film’s point of view. After announcing that the movie comes to us “from the creators of Tea Party: The Documentary Film,” it goes on to describe the film’s general premise:
Rev. Bryant takes viewers on an historic journey across America that traces the footsteps of runaway slaves who escaped to freedom along routes that became known as the Underground Railroad. But in the film, he also travels a “new underground railroad” upon which Black Conservatives are speaking out against big government policies which have established a “new plantation” where “overseers” like the NAACP and so-called “civil rights” leaders keep the Black community 95 percent beholden to one political party.
The great achievement of Runaway Slave is its geographically and ideologically diverse portrait of black conservatism. Bryant talks with financial conservatives like Marvin Rodgers, a Rock Hill, South Carolina, an aspiring politician who emphasizes the “pocketbook politics” of supporting small businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship. He speaks with academics like the economist Thomas Sowell, conservative school-reform advocates, right-to-life activists, and small business owners. Interestingly, everyone but the Wall Street and country club conservatives are present. Their omission is noteworthy — precious few black conservatives are a part of the proverbial 1 percent. Nevertheless, by interviewing grassroots activists and organizations in nearly every region of the country, Bryant convincingly demonstrates that black conservatism is a national thread within the African American political tradition.
The film sets forth a conventionally conservative view of government: lower taxes; less government regulation; strong defense of property rights. Additionally, participants construe the government as a presumptuous behemoth that presents itself as the “Daddy,” “Slave Master,” and “God” of American citizens. In this framework, reducing the size of the public sector becomes an article of faith, not simply a political position.
Two dynamics merit mentioning here. First, deep appreciation for our nation’s originating documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc. — sits alongside profound disappointment with the current state of government. If our origins are laudable and our contemporary moment is lamentable, as the movie claims, then we must conclude that we lost our national footing somewhere along the way. The documentary avoids conceptual clarity about how this moment of decline happened, when it happened, and who is responsible for it. Progressives and Socialists — two distinct traditions which are conflated in the film — are blamed for leading America astray, but the accusation is too vague to persuade anyone who is not already a true believer.
Secondly, the attacks on government are general — there is no exploration of the merits and demerits of Social Security, Medicare, and the GI Bill, for instance, programs that are popular across the political spectrum. Instead, the viewer encounters Government as a monstrosity that overtaxes, overregulates, and overreaches at every turn.
Runaway Slave is also noteworthy for its conservative form of American civil religion. Many Americans are familiar with more progressive forms of civil religion — Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, for example. But there is another side to American exceptionalism. U.S. congressman Allen West of Florida alludes to this tradition when citing Matthew 5 to position America as “a city set on a hill.” America, in this view, is the country where you reap what you sow. A land where hard work, education, and the hand of Providence guides families upward on the ladder of social mobility. It’s not difficult to see how many of these cultural values have become inseparable from the American brand of Christianity.
After watching the documentary, the viewer is left to wonder: what distinguishes conservative visions of government from the liberal visions? Reverend Bryant is not endorsing a libertarian or anarchist view of society. Despite his impassioned pleas about escaping from the plantation, there is no sign that he wants to destroy the master’s house. That is to say, Runaway Slave does not explicitly or implicitly advocate dismantling our social insurance system, ending subsidies to large agribusiness corporations, or stopping the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).
Generally speaking, political realities temper the policy visions of liberals and conservatives. Bryant documents a deep commitment to liberty within the American political tradition. Rightly so. But there is little — if any — mention of our political tradition of equality, a complementary thread in our tapestry. The argument of the film would be strengthened if it directly addressed, for instance, the policy trade-offs that Presidents Nixon (expanding food stamps, starting the Environmental Protection Agency) and Bush (Medicare prescription drug program, comprehensive immigration reform proposal) made between liberty and equality. That oversight notwithstanding, Runaway Slave is one of the most expansive treatments of black conservatism currently available, and is therefore worth watching and discussing.
View the theatrical trailer below, and visit the Runaway Slave website for information on where to see the film in your area.