Controversy Should Bring Out the Best in Christians

Controversy Should Bring Out the Best in Christians

How Christians ought to respond to major debates in society is always an issue. Some current examples are same-sex marriage, abortion, the war on terrorism, and U.S. immigration policy. We form our positions based on our backgrounds and religious beliefs, but since our faith traditions differ widely, we are often all over the map just as much as people of other faiths or even agnostics or atheists.

Regardless of the sides Christians take, how we address and confront others is an important indicator of our relationship with God. It reflects how our lights are shining or not shining. When we exercise our right to protest, are we yelling at each other? Do we understand the difference between critical analysis, criticism, and judging? A judge is one who has the authority to render punishment upon someone who has broken a law. Are we holding up signs that damn to a hell those who disagree with us or whose behavior we disagree with, even though we own no hell to send them to? Isn’t this why Jesus, the ultimate judge, warned us not to judge? Are we seeking first to model ourselves after Jesus and how He would have us to address these critical issues of our time?

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the author of “Letter from A Birmingham Jail”, exemplified a direct and gracious way to communicate when we disagree with our conversation partners. (Photo Credit: ClarksvilleOnline.com)

Fifty years ago during the civil rights movement, one of the most contentious moments in America’s history, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed for a nonviolent protest in Birmingham. Many who were against him were fellow Christians who felt his methods were too radical—even ungodly. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Dr. King addressed his fellow brothers and sisters directly. In the rhetorical tradition of African American Jeremiads, Dr. King eloquently cried out for justice by using rational, biblically grounded arguments to defend the cause of the civil rights movement. He wrote:

“A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”

Dr. King also defended his methods and behavior. He wrote, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham.”

Dr. King had modeled the “ladder of hope” outlined in 2 Peter 1:4-14 We must have faith in what we believe and that we can accomplish all things through Christ. We need knowledge to apply that faith, so we ought to thoroughly educate ourselves regarding all sides of the issues we are confronting before we act. This faith and knowledge should prepare us to be self-controlled and respectful toward our fellow human beings—to be nonviolent in our interaction and, if necessary, confrontation. We will have the ability to persevere in a way that honors God in our positions and everything we do. And when people who do not know Jesus as their Lord and Savior see our behavior, they should see not hate, but God’s love in us – even if disagreement remains.

And so, as we confront the issues of the day, no matter how much our individual passions are riled, perhaps we Christians, as varied as we are, should remember to consider what we should be modeling.  We should model our speech after the direct, but loving conversational approach of Jesus.

When Rights Go Left

When Rights Go Left

In 1963, Malcolm X famously referred to the assassination of President Kennedy as America’s chickens coming home to roost – a bold statement to a nation still mourning the loss of its president. When pressed to elaborate in an interview, he explained his comments by saying that Kennedy’s murder was the culmination of a long line of similarly violent acts perpetrated by the U.S. government.

Today, the political pundits continue to focus on the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to render a series of judgments with direct relevance to the legal institution of marriage. And most of the political left is united under the banner of what they refer to as “marriage equality,” the idea that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry and enjoy the same legal benefits conferred on heterosexual marriages.

And while most speculation is focused on either what should or will happen, I’m more concerned with what has already happened, specifically in the intersections of church life and civic duty. The Black church, though generally conservative socially and pro-traditional-marriage, has been unknowingly complicit in the hijacking of civil rights rhetoric by progressive liberal activists advocating for same sex marriage. Black clergy need to own up to the fact that the demand for civil rights from gays and lesbians is another case of chickens coming home to roost.

Diversity in religious Black thought

Rev. Irene Monroe, author, public theologian, and syndicated religion columnist, is a prominent supporter of same-sex marriage. (Photo Credit: IreneMonroe.com)

Now, I realize that referring to “Black clergy” and “the Black church” may give some the impression that Blacks are monolithic and uniform, always on the same page. This has never been true.  At the dawn of the 20th century, the two most prominent Black leaders were Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, whose approaches differed greatly in tone and substance. In the 1960’s, Dr. King and Malcolm X were polar opposites. Even now, there are worlds of difference between the Christianity of President Obama and that of Ben Carson or Herman Cain. There are a variety of political and ideological flavors in the expression of Black organized religion and its connection to politics.

So it’s logical for certain, more left-leaning factions within the black church to promote open-and-affirming policies with officially sanctioned LGBT ministries. For these folks, civil rights for the LGBT community is the next logical step in their evolution of faith-based activism.

However, most African-Americans who believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ also believe that homosexuality is a sin. We may have a measure of empathy for gays and lesbians because of the ways in which they’ve been ostracized and persecuted over the years, but we still resent the comparison between gays and blacks as people with morally equivalent struggles. Instead, we resonate with articles like Voddie Baucham’s “Gay Is Not the New

Rev. Voddie Baucham, author of Gay is Not The New Black and pastor of preaching at Grace Family Baptist Church in Spring, Texas. (Photo Credit: Gospelcoalition.org)

Black,” primarily because, except for a few of the most light-skinned among us, Black folks have never had the privilege of choosing whether to come out of the closet.

This latent resentment probably burns the hottest from those believers in the Black community who have labored the longest, who are entrenched most directly in the ongoing battle, and who confront racialized economic disparities through the pursuit of better enforcement of civil rights. Their offense over the mostly-White gay activists borrowing the language and legacy of the Black civil rights struggle was crystallized by Dr. King’s youngest Bernice King in a 2005 march, when she said that her father “did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage.”

Unfortunately, these are the folks who helped same sex marriage become a foregone conclusion. Why? It’s all the focus on rights. In the Black church, we’ve elevated the pursuit of rights into an art form. We march, sing, and preach for our rights. “I got a right to praise Him,” said Karen Clark-Sheard.  He’s a “Right Now God,” said Dorinda Clark Cole. “Receive it RIGHT NOW,” said Andrae Crouch.

Discipleship breeds activism, not vice versa

In our attempts to necessarily address local injustices, we’ve inadvertently modeled church life as consisting primarily of activism for social change, rather than as a place for spiritual discipleship. Not to say that we shouldn’t do both; outward social change should be a natural flow of spiritual discipleship. But the issue is of primacy – which do we do first, best, most naturally, and more completely? If we’re about a social cause more than we’re about being disciples, we might do all of the same programs, but for different reasons and in different ways.

Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church and the founder of the High Impact Leadership Coalition, is a prominent supporter of marriage being defined as a one man, one woman covenantal relationship. (Photo Credit: TheHopeConnection.org)

So take mass incarceration, for example. It’s one thing if, in the process of learning how to consistently receive God’s grace and love, we recognize our value as being made in God’s image, then transfer that recognition to others (in this case, Black men) who are being disproportionately victimized by drug laws, police harassment and unfair sentencing biases that feed them into the prison industrial complex.

It’s another thing, though, if you show up at church and everyone’s always talking about this problem with Black men in prison and it’s really bad and c’mon people we’ve gotta DO SOMETHING about it because somehow Jesus doesn’t like it (maybe he was Black? not sure).

I’m exaggerating to make a point, but there’s so much Biblical illiteracy nowadays because as ministers we assume that people understand that it’s our faith that provides the emotional, moral and philosophical foundation for our civic engagement. But in a post-Christian society, that assumption is dangerous. After all, the Pharisees were very skilled at doing the right things for the wrong reasons.

Liberated theology

Liberation theology has been wonderful in helping people to contextualize contemporary suffering into the narrative of Biblical suffering, but we need other theological constructs and frameworks to fully engage people with the gospel in a multicultural context. Without balance, our liberation theology ends up becoming what I call “liberated theology” – where we tend to view the gospel only through the lens of the freedom to self-actualize.

And this is a problem, because it blurs the boundaries between our rights as citizens and our rights as believers. As a citizen, I support the idea that gay and lesbian couples should be able to enjoy all of the municipal benefits of marriage as sanctioned by the local state. But that’s different from my belief that as a believer in Christ, I really don’t have any rights, other than to be grateful for God pouring His love on us instead of His wrath.

Thus, my sexuality, like any other facet of my life, is subject to His wisdom and guidance, which is tied to my understanding of His Word. There are a lot of things I could do with my body that I choose not to, and some of them I avoid because I’m constrained by the laws of the land. But others of them I choose to avoid because God’s grace and mercy causes me to trust His principles, even when I don’t personally enjoy them, even when rationalizing my way around those principles is perfectly within my legal rights as a citizen.

If liberated theology is my only guidepost, I’m tempted to have a distorted view of the Scripture, where Exodus 9:1 is reduced to “let my people go,” rather than the full text of the verse, “let my people go, so that they may worship me.” The first part is connected to citizen rights, but the latter half is all about being humble worshipers in God’s kingdom.

So I don’t have a problem with people demonstrating with marriage equality. But I have a feeling that there would be less appropriation of civil rights language if our Black churches weren’t as focused on securing rights for the African-American community.  And I know that part of our calling as Christians is to battle the injustice that we encounter. But I hope we can do it with the humility and freedom that comes from knowing we are fully loved and forgiven.

Mostly, I’d just rather our preachers would spend a little less time engaging 1 Cor. 6:9-10 (which denounces sin) and more time engaging 1 Cor. 8:9 (NIV), which says the following (emphasis mine): “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Dr. Ben Carson’s Brain Freeze on Fox News

Dr. Ben Carson’s Brain Freeze on Fox News

Dr. Ben Carson, internationally renown neurosurgeon and author of Gifted Hands, garnered political attention for his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 7th, 2013 in Washington D.C. (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

If you told me that renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson would make comments that sounded more like they came from the mind of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, I would’ve told you to get your head examined.

Sure enough, Carson did the unbelievable and now people are wondering where his head is.

Recently on Fox News, Carson, the former chief neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, had an apparent brain freeze when asked about the gay marriage issue that is before the U.S. Supreme Court. He said, “My thoughts are that marriage is between a man and a woman. It’s a well-established, fundamental pillar of society and no group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality–it doesn’t matter what they are–they don’t get to change the definition.”

It’s clear that most of us, who are Christians as Carson is, believe that marriage is a godly covenant between a man and a woman. But for such a brilliant man to defend that position by comparing same-sex relationships to pedophilia (NAMBLA stands for the North American Man/Boy Love Association) and bestiality was shocking, troubling and disappointing. I expect attention-craving media types like Rep. Bachmann, Gov. Sarah Palin, or Herman Cain to spew such nutty logic because they’re political entertainers, not serious thinkers. But if any national figure could clearly articulate a rational biblical position regarding gay marriage, I expected that Carson could. I expected Carson would adeptly state what the bible affirms, while accounting for the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state. He would address the right of consenting adult citizens to pursue life, liberty and happiness as they deem fit, agree that the government is responsible to protect all of its citizens regardless of their faith, yet remain firm concerning Christian morality. I expected Carson, whose gifted hands have literally been ordained by God to heal, to eloquently and gracefully deliver a position that begins first and foremost with the love of Jesus Christ – especially during the season we honor His death and resurrection. Instead, Carson on the following day added to the pile of logical fallacies during an interview on MSNBC rambling something about apples, oranges, bananas and peaches as he tried to explain his head-scratching comment.

Carson’s life and prestigious career (his bestselling book turned movie “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story” chronicles his amazing rise from poverty to prestige) has been inspiring. He recently announced his retirement from Johns Hopkins, which has fueled speculation that he may seek a career in politics of the media. Carson has been labeled the latest “flava of the month” among Conservative Republicans after he criticized the Affordable Care Act to President Obama’s face during the National Prayer Breakfast. Though Carson said he’s an independent voter, the conservative Fox News devoted an hour-long show to him. But knowing brain surgery doesn’t necessarily prepare you to be on the news media’s operation.

Much of Carson’s goodwill is in jeopardy now. Carson has since tried to extract his foot from his mouth by apologizing for his comment, but he may have lost too much oxygen. Johns Hopkins medical students have petitioned to have Carson removed as their 2013 commencement speaker. University officials remain supportive of Carson. Still, it’s a shame what the situation has come to because Carson certainly knows better.

Academicians and or those who are thoroughly trained in the sciences know well how to construct reasoned arguments with sound evidence. Shooting red herrings or other logical fallacies from the hip, or in this case the butt, is unacceptable. Carson is yet another example of an otherwise intelligent person who when a TV camera is on, suddenly loses his righteous mind. Sadly, a potentially promising second career for a brilliant man of God may already be off its rocker.

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Editor’s Note: On April 5th, Dr. Ben Carson sent out the following statement concerning his remarks about gay marriage.

“Dear Colleagues, Friends and Associates:

As you know, I have been in the national news quite a bit recently and my 36 year association with Johns Hopkins has unfortunately dragged our institution into the spotlight as well. I am sorry for any embarrassment this has caused. But what really saddens me is that my poorly chosen words caused pain for some members of our community and for that I offer a most sincere and heartfelt apology. Hurting others is diametrically opposed to who I am and what I believe. There are many lessons to be learned when venturing into the political world and this is one I will not forget. Although I do believe marriage is between a man and a woman, there are much less offensive ways to make that point. I hope all will look at a lifetime of service over some poorly chosen words.”

Sincerely yours,
Benjamin S. Carson Sr., MD

Is the Black Church Misapplying Its Power?

Is the Black Church Misapplying Its Power?

Black preachers holding press conferences about gay marriage and churchgoers boycotting Election Day? I wonder if our squabbling about gay rights amid so many greater problems plaguing the black community is a symptom of a bigger issue for the church — impotence in the community. In Acts 1:8, Jesus tells of the power believers would receive to have a wide community impact. Yet, we waste energy on what is ultimately a private personal matter between a person and who they choose to live their life with. Perhaps gay marriage is that low-hanging fruit that’s easier for the church to pick at.

Amid all the talk about gay marriage rights and the black church at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 42nd Annual Legislative Conference last week, I was intrigued by a panel discussion among some of the nation’s leading black preachers that actually targeted a more critical community concern. Ironically, the panel was moderated by the Rev. Al Sharpton (my Brownsville, Brooklyn homeboy), who the same day was prominent at a press conference where preachers correctly urged churchgoers to NOT sit home on Election Day in protest of President Obama’s support of gay marriage rights.

The panel dealt with the church engaging the public policymaking process. Sharpton, who heads the National Action Network, pointed out that during the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s, most black church leaders sat back or criticized as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists risked their lives out on the limb reaching for more important community fruit. Sharpton began by asking each panelist what the church should focus on to improve the black community.

PREACHING TO THE PREACHERS: Rev. Al Sharpton moderated a panel discussion with black clergy at the Congressional Black Caucus. (Photo: Michael Holahan/Newscom)

The Rev. Charles Williams II, president of Detroit’s National Action Network chapter, stressed church involvement in economic development. “The only institution that we still own is the black church. It may not be perfect, it has faults, but it’s the best thing that we’ve got going,” he said.

Juan Thomas from Chicago said that historically black preachers and lawyers (for example, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell and Thurgood Marshall) have worked closely together to affect public policy. This must continue.  “After this cycle we need to do our part to changes these voter ID laws and suppression laws,” added Thomas, who is also an attorney and the secretary of the National Bar Association.

The Rev. Timothy McDonald, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, said that churches had abandoned discussions about “the sin of poverty” in favor of the prosperity gospel.

Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, a leader of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, noted the AME’s history of political engagement dating back to Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first black person sworn into the U.S. Congress. “We need to sit at the table while you’re (elected officials) making the decisions because we’re right there in the trenches … We can tell you what’s working and not working.”

The Rev. David Alexander Bullock of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church in Highland Park, Michigan, targeted health care disparities such as, the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “The church refuses to move from the pulpit to the pavement … We’re sleeping with each other on Saturday, shouting on Sunday, and dying on Monday.” He also mentioned the prison industrial complex, which disproportionately targets African Americans.

The Rev. Dr. Suzanne Johnson Cook, the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, urged black clergy to get involved in policymaking, including at the international level. “We have to be local, but we have to go big, go global.” She added there needs to be more alliances with other communities, such as Hispanics, to address common concerns.

The Rev. Lennox Abrigo, of Seventh Day New Covenant in Hyattsville, Maryland, also emphasized the need for community partnerships. He mentioned his church’s relationship with the American Cancer Society to bring early diagnosis to black men who may be suffering from cancer.  “I’ve promised God that I’m not going to restate the problem anymore. I’m just going to go out and make things happen,” he said.

The Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, also targeted economic development, noting that 50 percent of black households in Detroit make under $25,000 per year. He said the number of children under 18 living in poverty is 53 percent. “It’s not just Detroit; it’s your city,” he said.  “… As a pastor, I have to speak to that on a daily basis.” There needs to be a “social gospel ministry” that speaks to public policy, he said. “We have so many issues, we can’t deal with them all, but we can deal with those issues and policies that lift people up every day.”

So what do you think? Is the church doing enough with its power to uplift the community? And, before you answer, remember that WE believers ARE the church.

The Politicization of ‘I Do’

The Politicization of ‘I Do’

Many are discussing the moral and social obligations of the Black church in the wake of President Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage. The details of what should be the appropriate reaction of the media-crafted monolithic “Black-church vote” are being hotly debated, and well they should be; this is good political discourse. However, the limited focus of these debates seems to ignore a much larger picture.

Many wonder about the timing of this announcement. Some have pointed out that it was all too conveniently issued on the eve of Obama’s $40,000 per plate re-election fundraiser among the super rich who might favor such a move.

I believe this timing touches on the fringes of the picture we see, yet to gain better perspective we must first reflect on the 2008 election. In the months following Barack Obama’s announcement of his candidacy, Hillary Clinton – with the anointing of the Democratic establishment – was well on her way to being “in it to win it.”

Then we saw a great reversal at the Iowa caucuses, transforming Obama from a Black candidate driven by politics to a mainstream candidate driven by a movement. This caused a convergence of multitude paradigm-shifting factors, resulting in a tipping point. Even African American Democrats who favored Hillary experienced this paradigm shift — a shift that was completed with the South Carolina primary. The rest is history.

A cultural movement will always trump politics when they go head to head; this is culture vs. politics. The “marriage equality” advocates seem to have learned this lesson, but those who advocate for traditional marriage are, like a needle on a record, stuck in the groove of an ineffectual political approach.

With Obama’s recent endorsement as we approach the 2012 election, it seems that the order of the day will be politics vs. politics. This time, there is no euphoric movement on the horizon. In this light we can understand Obama’s pronouncement as a matter of political calculation.

I am mystified by the shocked reactions emerging from various quarters, since as early as 1996 Barack Obama is documented as stating, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” As the dates add up, his talk of “evolving” now seems a ruse.

Without a movement to ride, perhaps Obama felt the need to assemble a winning coalition. He took for granted the Black vote, in spite of their traditional opposition to same-sex marriage. Given the alternatives, perhaps he reasoned that Black folks would “get over it” and still choose him. After all, why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free? Likewise, he counts on the liberal/left vote. It seems to me that this well-timed endorsement of same-sex marriage was aimed at shoring up the enthusiastic support of the LGBT community, with its considerable wealth and clout — a community that was beginning to show signs of antipathy towards him.

In my perspective, same-sex marriage is not the ultimate issue. What disturbs me more is that today’s politicians and judicial activists presume that they can redefine stabilizing institutions that have survived for millennia merely for the sake of short-term gain. Their hubris is rooted in the notion that they are wiser than all the generations that have preceded us. It is this calculated approach that will “fundamentally transform” this nation from a government of laws into a government of men. In such a society, power is applied according to the impulses of flawed leadership. The winds may blow in your favor today, but tomorrow they may tragically reverse, with no recourse.

If our institutions can be redefined at whim for political gain, it makes us all — Black, White, gay, straight, liberal, conservative, or what have you — into pawns in a game in which there are no rules.

You wanted equality, same-sex advocates? Congratulations. You are now a vulnerable piece on the chessboard — just like the rest of us.