My Sisters Will Not Be Silenced

My Sisters Will Not Be Silenced

Over the past year, there has been a public outcry and protests on college campuses across the nation due to the handling of sexual assault and sexual harassment cases filed by students with their respective institutions.

The most recent survey by the Association of American Universities found that more than 11 percent of college students have experienced nonconsensual sexual contact in their college careers. The same report found that less than half the women surveyed did not even report their sexual assault. The picture is clear, women are survivors of nonconsensual sexual contact at alarming rates on college campuses (and everywhere else), yet do not report or the incidents and do not receive the help and support they deserve.

Recent examples of confronting this system of sexual injustice include the protests on the campus of Howard University in March. I, myself, am a Howard alumnus and was proud of my fellow Bison as current students stood in solidarity with a survivor of sexual assault. This was a result of what was perceived as an unsatisfactory response by university administration in dealing with the real issues.

Yes, it is true that the university must follow due process because of the possibility of false accusations, which also happens. But with the number of cases that are, in fact, valid, it is good to see students speaking out against these issues and standing in solidarity against the institutional and cultural dynamics that have not yet dismantled our rape culture in the United States, especially on college campuses.

Like many of my peers, I also have personal stake in fighting against rape culture. I, personally, know too many women who have been victims of sexual harassment, assault, and rape.

One particular case is etched in my mind as I remember the fury I felt when I learned that one of my close friends at Howard had been raped. “How could a man do something like that?” I asked myself. My friend felt guilty that it happened. There was a sense of guilt for putting herself in that position, defiled and sinful for something that was never her fault.

It is never a survivor’s fault that they are assaulted. She didn’t report it because she didn’t think it was “worth it” and didn’t want to “be responsible for another black man in prison.

There are several scriptures that address sexual violence in the Bible, but the rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13 captures these emotions and their aftermath best in my view. The lust, misogyny, anger, denial, guilt, depression, lack of fulfillment, and self-hatred and shame of the rapist, the stigma, the sorrow of the survivor, Tamar, are all found in scripture.

The anger of the aftermath and how it impacts people so far beyond the parties directly involved are also found there in those verses. It is illuminating that the aggressor, the victim, and their families experience psychological, social, and spiritual pain from the event, even in scripture.

Jesus stood on the side of those who were survivors of oppression, violence, and sexual devaluation. So, it is also safe to say that He would stand against rape as well.

As men, we must stand with our sisters against patriarchal, oppressive structures and influences. We must stand with them in the midst of the pain. We must, as Christians, stand and speak against sexual violence in all of its forms, against men and women.

We must stand for God’s Kingdom Culture influenced by love and justice against the rape culture that covers our country. We saw a step toward that on Howard’s campus in March and on other campuses nationwide last year. We have to keep walking toward justice and true love. We must break the silence about sexual violence.

Watch for more details on the Howard University protests below:

What are your thoughts on the recent protests? Share them below.

The Thankful Blues

The Thankful Blues

BLUES SINGERS: Until their departure last night, Howard University's Afro-Blue turned heads with their tight, melodic sounds on NBC's "The Sing-Off."

“In everything give thanks for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” 
1 Thessalonians 5:18 (KJV)

In everything.

Really.

Everything.

As I reflect on this Thanksgiving holiday, I can’t avoid thinking about many of the difficult things I’ve endured in the last 12 months.

Five months ago, I lost a part-time job in church ministry, a job in which I learned a lot, grew a lot, made a lot of great relationships, and felt a such a keen sense of calling and belonging that it became a core part of my identity.

Less than a week ago, I lost another part-time job in public speaking, a job in which I learned a lot, grew a lot, made a lot of great relationships, and felt such a keen sense of calling and belonging that it became a core part of my identity.

In both cases, I was immediately aware of some of the logistical benefits of freeing that time up to pursue other things, but that knowledge did nothing to blunt the sting of loss.

Losing those jobs hurt, and hurt bad.

Times like these, I have a hard time giving thanks.

Until, that is, I remember that many of the things I’m currently thankful for now — areas of success or blessing or peaceful satisfaction … these things have all been intimately intertwined with events and seasons of crushing pain and humbling defeat.

Struggles embattled give way to humility embraced, which leads to victory empowered.

Because this is beginning to sound a bit too much like a motivational poster, let me give you an example.

While I was on staff at my last church, I developed a technique to leading worship music that helped to compensate for a lack of a consistent band. It involved creating and replaying accompaniment tracks in the form of patterns, which helped me with all of my multitasking (leading vocals, leading the band, directing the singers, et cetera). I got pretty good at it, and when I realized that there were no existing resources to help others do the same thing, I decided to start one.

This was a pivotal decision for me, because it represented a strategic convergence of so many of my interests. Beginning this work, I felt as though I’d finally identified my calling from God. I was excited, motivated, and full of vision.

The irony of the situation, however, was that despite the fact that the genesis of my idea flowed out of my passion for multicultural corporate worship music, the logistical and emotional demands of my church job were such that I was unable to make much headway on my idea. So being asked to resign was, while difficult and painful, quite beneficial to the long-term success of my entrepreneurial ministry venture. It was, in many ways, the best-case scenario — despite the fact that it felt like my world was coming to an end.

Struggles embattled, humility embraced, victory empowered.

This is a lesson that all successful people have to embrace at some point, whether it’s Conan O’Brien getting kicked off The Tonight Show, or Afro-Blue being booted off The Sing Off.

And believe me, I was among the legion of fans shocked and offended by that last outcome, reading Ben Folds‘ explanation did little to assuage my anger. That Conan thing was sad and ridiculous, but this Afro-Blue thing feels like a travesty.

Yet, as I look back on that whole Tonight Show brouhaha, I can tell that Conan has become better for it. Conan himself was able to articulate this painful-yet-positive dynamic when he said the following:

There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.… it’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound reinvention.

My man Coco said these words last June during his commencement speech at Dartmouth College, an ironic note since Afro-Blue was eliminated from The Sing-Off in favor of The Dartmouth Aires, the Ivy League show choir from Hanover. And I have no doubt that the men and women of Afro-Blue, the pride of Howard University and DC’s finest, will continue to exhibit the poise, heart and talent that propelled them to their fourth-place showing on the megahit NBC a cappella singing competition.

I’m hopeful, of course, and not just for the obvious reason that all of the singers in Afro-Blue still have a tremendous future in music ahead of them (especially lead vocalist Danielle Withers).

I’m hopeful because, in the grand scheme of things, God can and does use all things to take his children and mold them into the people that He wants and calls them to be. And the extent to which we become more like Him is the extent to which we submit to His will, which sometimes requires profound heartbreak.

So in the meantime, I will have to resign myself to replaying Afro-Blue’s cover of “Put Your Records On” over and over, because … wow, that is my jam right now.

And for this, as for so many other things in life, good and bad, I will do what Paul charged the church in Thessalonica to do.

I will give thanks.

More God, Less Crime?

More God, Less Crime?

In a recent Wall Street Journal review of Baylor University sociologist Byron R. Johnson‘s new book, More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More, James Q. Wilson questions Johnson’s assertion that religion reduces crime.

Johnson looked at every study conducted between 1944 and 2010 that measured the possible effect of religion on crime. In 273 such studies, he found that “even though their authors used different methods and assessed different groups of people, 90% of these studies found that more religiosity resulted in less crime,” writes Wilson, who then assesses what he alleges are the weaknesses of Johnson’s approach. The key weakness he identifies is the lack of control groups in the cited studies. Nonetheless, Wilson concedes that the sheer number of studies show “a religious effect.”

Dr. Harold Dean Trulear is an associate professor of applied theology at Howard University’s School of Divinity, as well as the director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project in Philadelphia. He’s also a longtime colleague of Johnson’s. In an email response to UrbanFaith, Trulear said he thinks the Wall Street Journal review is “honest and fair.” He added that, as a fellow social scientist, he has “found it best to … use data to be suggestive, but not conclusive.”

“I use Johnson’s work, my own research in religion and social behavior, and the work of others to point academics, researchers, and policy makers toward religion and religious institutions as valuable contributors to our common good.  But I always stop short of saying ‘religion works,’ precisely because it is God — not human religious activity — that has true efficacy,” Trulear wrote.

“As a person of faith, my ultimate allegiance is to Christ and His Kingdom, and my sociological training is but a tool for His use. That said, I do not rely on sociology to ‘prove’ the effectiveness of religion or Christianity,” he added. “The whole idea of Christian ‘proofs’ is a late phenomenon in Christian history, coinciding with the scientific age, and the faith’s unfortunate sense that it needed to be scientific to have validity. I use social science to point in the direction of religion’s efficacy concering crime reduction, but strict cause-and-effect language is inconsistent with Christian faith, whether in social science or in prosperity ‘name it and claim it’ theology.”

Wilson’s review mentions Prison Fellowship as the largest effort to increase the religiosity of “convicted offenders.” The Christian organization utilizes a three-stage approach that includes Bible study, community service, and commitment to a church and mentors upon release.

“Johnson looked at the program’s effectiveness in Texas and found that those who completed all three phases were much less likely to be arrested or incarcerated for a new crime than those who dropped out. The key question is whether the inmates who go through all three phases differ in other ways from those who never join the program or drop out early,” writes Wilson. He concludes that in an earlier study Johnson found “no difference between Fellowship and non-Fellowship groups over an eight-year period except for those members of the program who worked hard at Bible studies” and then “the effect lasted for only two or three years after prisoners’ release.”

Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson responded to Wilson’s review in a Breakpoint commentary that praised Johnson’s work.

“What Johnson’s book More God, Less Crime shows so clearly, is that we’ve been right all along: The Gospel changes lives, and it’s the best hope for keeping men and women out of prison,” wrote Colson.

But Trulear would temper any enthusiasm about the book with this caution: “As valuable as Johnson’s work is — and it is extremely valuable in pointing us to religious institutions and behavior as available loci in the fight against crime — people of faith must remember that their ultimate allegiance is not to what works, but to what is best and right. The answers to these two questions will not always coincide.”

Beyond the Scandal

The unresolved drama surrounding Bishop Eddie Long and his alleged misconduct with four young men in his congregation raises serious questions about clergy abuse and matters of sexuality in the Black church. But are we ready to be honest? Three scholars respond.

One of the top religion stories of 2010 was the controversy involving Bishop Eddie Long, in which four young men filed civil suits against the Atlanta megachurch pastor accusing him of sexual misconduct and manipulation. When the story broke last September, it generated a variety of responses, but two recurring themes were the issue of clergy sexual abuse and the unofficial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy toward homosexuality within the African American church, which was heightened by Long’s outspoken preaching against same-sex relationships.

As UrbanFaith columnist Wil LaVeist remarked last year, Bishop Long is innocent until proven otherwise, and it is not UrbanFaith’s intention to pass judgment one way or the other. The case is scheduled to move into mediation next month. In the meantime, however, we asked three leading Christian scholars to share their perspectives on the larger themes that this scandal has raised for the Christian community, and especially the Black church. Their remarks reflect their own opinions and do not necessarily represent the views of UrbanFaith.

CHERYL J. SANDERS: We Must Confront Clergy Abuse

Because I have not heard of any clear statement from Bishop Eddie Long admitting or denying that he committed the sexual acts alleged by his four young accusers, I can assert neither his guilt nor innocence with any degree of certainty. However, I am convinced that religious leaders and congregations can learn some lessons from the crisis that has arisen as a result of the highly publicized charges against him.

The first lesson is to be aware that clergy sexual abuse can occur in any congregation. Awareness empowers us to be proactive about creating and maintaining safe sacred spaces for children and adults to worship and grow spiritually. It includes offering age-appropriate instruction to our children and teens about how to identify and report inappropriate sexual acts.

Second is the importance of setting boundaries. We cannot assume that everyone who participates in a faith community is automatically equipped and motivated to maintain proper boundaries. How many of our congregations have developed and published guidelines and policies to safeguard interactions between adults and children during church activities and trips? When it comes to sexual harassment and misconduct, it is essential to show everyone where “the line” is before anyone crosses the line.

The third lesson is that our congregations must exercise vigilant stewardship of the physical well-being, mental health, and spiritual potential of our young people. This requires a commitment to do everything in our power to prevent sexual molestation. If it does occur, we have an inescapable obligation to administer discipline to the offender and offer healing to the victim. The issue here is not homosexuality per se, and this scandal brings neither “homophobia” nor hypocrisy to an end in the black churches. Can we develop viable structures of accountability to check those pastors, teachers, counselors and mentors who would gratify their own sexual desires by preying upon the vulnerable young people entrusted to their care? If not, then we would do better by our children to shut our churches down rather than to support and defend their abusers in complicity with crimes against God and humanity.

Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders is Professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University and the senior pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C.

HAROLD DEAN TRULEAR: Sex in Its Proper Context


Sexual immorality is dirty.

I offer this as a social scientist who, with Margaret Mead, argues that “dirt” is “matter out of place.” Our yards and parks consist of dirt, but they are not “dirty.” Rather the soil is in place, therefore we pronounce them clean. But if a discarded newspaper covers the soil, the area is “dirty,” not because of dirt, but because of the presence of the paper strewn about. Sex is not dirty, but sex away from its proper context is.

Sexual immorality is sinful.

Much of our revulsion to practices like adultery and homosexuality, and hence the silence of the Black church, reflects our sense of dirt, not sin. The emotional energy exerted toward reviling the “dirty” points to a desire to avoid the “out of place.” Sexual sin is dirty because it is sex out of place, whether fornication or adultery. But the incongruity is even more pronounced when two persons of the same gender engage in sexual activity, because one of the two is “out of place.” Hence, as with all repulsive reactions, we either rail against the dirt or turn our heads.

Sexuality is fragmentary.

One’s sexual behavior never fully defines one’s personhood, therefore to call someone a “homosexual” can only identify a portion of who they are. And, likewise, male heterosexuality can never fully define someone as a “real man.” True manhood and womanhood flow from the Imago Dei, and not from sexual practice. Persons can never be fully defined by, and personhood can never be fully achieved by, any type of sexual behavior.

Jesus transforms dirt to medicine — redeeming that which is out of place.

Jesus sets us free from sin — the sin which separates us from God.

Jesus makes people whole — sending His Spirit into every aspect of an individual life.

Jesus does not throw away or suffer revulsion from dirt; He transforms it. Jesus does not couch sin in terms of cognitive development; He names it and heals it. Jesus does not lift sexuality and sexual behavior to definitive status; He, as part of the Trinity at creation, blessed humanity with it to express union in a manner consistent with His union with the church.

Harold Dean Trulear, Ph.D., is an ordained American Baptist minister and an Associate Professor of Applied Theology at the Howard University School of Divinity.

RANDAL JELKS: The Black Church Needs to Be Honest About Sexuality

Black Christians must fess up and acknowledge that human beings are sexual. Sexual intercourse is a reality. Intercourse is a biological mechanism for procreation and a
pleasurable desire. Like all things, sex can become deviant. By deviant I do not mean same-sex relations, I mean sex can be used to satisfy needs for power, control, and status. By not having frank discussions and theological reflection with Black congregants, biological urges and sexual desires take on a greater place in the imagination of Black Christians than is healthy.

Here’s the problem. Historically, sex was used against Black people. Let’s just think about it for a moment. Slave owners could sexually abuse and rape a slave woman without recourse to the law. The justification for this use of power was the notion that slave women had uncontrollable libidos, proverbial “hot mommas.” After the Civil War, Black people sought to legalize their relationships through marriage, a civil benefit that slavery did not permit. These new marriages attempted to give Black women legal protections that they did not have against powerful and abusive men. Following the war, sex was used in post-emancipation America to justify lynching. A chief justification for lynching was the rapacious nature of Black men, even though a question of property ownership underlined most lynching. Sex and sexuality justified abuse of both black women and men. As a result, many Black men and women tried to suppress their sexuality. They hid their sexual behaviors behind middle-class mores, lest there be another justification to subjugate Black lives.

This attitude should also be placed in another historical context of evangelical Christianity. The evangelicalism that Black Americans adopted and transformed served to give a conflicting outlook about sex, sexuality, and sexual expression. This theology, while promoting fidelity, also promoted a level of prudery about sex that most rural people never had. Attitudes about sex as Black people became urban were supposed to be restrained and only acceptable among married couples. Sexual desire was chastened by calls for “purity,” especially among young women, but purity did stop people from cavorting. The rates of sexually transmitted diseases were terribly high in Black communities long before the advent of the civil rights movement. The evangelicalism that Black people used as a tool of middle-class respectability could not hide the fact that churchgoing people had desires and were acting upon them then as they do today.

Sex or sexuality is not mechanically or psychologically pure. We know this from psychology, anthropology, and biology. Therefore, it seems incumbent on Black Christians to discuss sexuality that happens inside and outside churches in a more thoughtful theological way.

The angry preachments that condemn same-sex relationships are the same ones that are completely silent about the disastrous rates of HIV/AIDS killing Black communities today. This is quite ironic, because the mythic Black church — the liberating Black church — was suppose to be a community where all Black people could find loving freedom and equality as children of God.

Randal Jelks, Ph.D., M.Div., is an Associate Professor of American Studies with a joint appointment in African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He is also an ordained clergy person in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and a founder and co-editor of the blog TheBlackBottom.com.