50 Years After ‘Dream’ It’s Time For Black Churches To Lead on LGBT

Here’s an idea for black churches: be justice churches. That’s right: black churches can and should unequivocally take up contemporary mantles of justice—and lead the way. Allow a new dream to emerge: black churches—lay and clergy—take a decisive lead in advocacy for “the least” (and “struggling”) of humanity and its home—whoever we may be, wherever we may be found, whatever our race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, region, or ability—especially when we suffer as a result of these aspects of our identity.

In their post entitled “Some black clergy not comfortable with LGBT movement sharing mantle at civil rights march,” Julie Zauzmer and Michelle Boorstein riff on what has become a familiar theme: black folks—and especially black Christians—reject LGBTQ equality and rights. While they continue the trend of overemphasizing a black-gay dissonance and downplaying the presence of black LGBTQ Christian voices, to their credit, they found some “evolving” black clergy—sexual identities unmentioned—who can conceive of the possibility that human rights include LGBTQ rights. And (at the very least), these clergy perceive the inclusion of LGBTQ rights as part of contemporary civil rights struggles is a fair extrapolation of King’s legacy. Is this progress? Yes, but—from the activist child to the butler parent—(respectfully) it’s not enough.

So what’s better?: black churches—even historically black churches—blazing the trail, taking the lead, and building the case for why LGBTQ equality is essential among the other justice concerns raised in this fiftieth year since the 1963 March on Washington. Yes, a stronger expression of progress: black churches emerge as among the most committed and effective allies of LGBTQ equality. Why? Because a faith founded in the triumph of a prophet who survived great suffering and state execution due to his social and spiritual identity demands it. Why? Because the ways that LGBTQ people are targeted for violence are similar to the ways that blacks have been and continue to be targeted.

Why? Because, within black communities, LGBTQ people (and especially youth) are the most disadvantaged. Why? Because disciples of Jesus know that whatever is done to the least among us, has also been done to Jesus.  

Why should we, black church leaders and members, drag our feet or come along reluctantly, kicking and screaming when a cry for justice swells around us? Why should we forget that all other commands fall under the laws of love for God, self, and one another? Why should we forget the ways that legalistic readings of biblical scriptures have often justified human oppression—and often been, appropriately, bracketed and contextualized in the name of our highest virtues? Why should we be about being the “respectable” among the least instead of being about the least of the least? We shouldn’t!

Perhaps we hesitate because we know that as soon as the microscopic measure of justice turns onto our houses, we will be found wanting. Women’s equal pay for equal work may be a valid civil right for U.S. society, but the virtues that undergird such a right have no place when we call new pastors to our churches or make ministerial appointments.

Mass movements for justice that do not rely on an individual “Moses” figure are ideal, but our churches continue to celebrate the earthly apotheosis of preachers, pastors, prophets, presidents, and bishops. Equal opportunity regardless of social identity is compelling for society, but, internally, we cling to a hetero-masculinist nepotism that privileges particular bloodlines and biologies over holy boldness. Still, we must press on until we are just black churches—defending what is just without and within.

Until black churches walk courageously in paths of justice that unite communities under siege, we will take our moral cues from political, corporate, and other social agents . . . and we will not be churches at all.

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jl2550@columbia.edu'

Jennifer S. Leath, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS) at Columbia University.  Leath is also an itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.