Earlier this week, when Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson and author Sophia Nelson verbally sparred on The Ed Show over Dyson’s claim that President Obama’s recent endorsement of marriage equality has brought out "sexual rednecks" from within the black church, it brought to head the passionate debate raging in black America over gay marriage. The intense theological climate that the same-sex marriage debate has stirred begs the question: What’s at stake for the black church on this issue?
Jamal Harrison-Bryant, pastor of the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore, Md., has been one of the most vocal voices on this front.
“This is a season where doctrine has had a collision with opinion and the carnage has yet to be calculated,” he told me when I asked what he believes is at stake in the debate. “I suspect same sex marriage will signal a civil war amongst congregations over societal influence and scriptural allegiance.”
Bryant, like other black clergy who share his view, safeguards the marriage institution as a tradition of the church, rather than as a civil or human right.
Anne Howard, whose organization The Beatitudes Society helps train faith leaders to adopt the “welcoming and inclusive love of God expressed in the words and actions of Jesus,” has a very different take on the matter. “Jesus welcomed all people to the banquet table," she told me. "He got in trouble for sitting down to supper with the people that the religious establishment wanted to exclude. So the Christian church --the church of Jesus --ought to be the same kind of place, a place that welcomes all people to all of its practices, positions and sacraments.”
When I interviewed Rev. Otis Moss, III earlier this week, the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ suggested that the preservation of the marriage institution as we have historically understood it should not overshadow the Christian community’s need to progress towards greater love.
“The church has a grand opportunity to demonstrate love, justice and reconciliation,” he says. “It is not necessary for all involved in the debate to demonstrate doctrinal unity, but simply engage the core of the Gospel: love.”
Leslie Callahan, pastor of St. Paul Baptist Church in Philadelphia, PA, offers yet another view. She makes the point that many black clergy are privileging their views over and above that of congregants who may disagree.
“President Obama is himself a black Christian,” she says. “To ignore the ways in which he framed his current position in the light of his own Christian commitment points to a larger problem of only seeing the church's response in and through the words and opinions of clergy.”
These conflicting viewpoints among black clergy reveal that this is an issue that almost forces folks to stand on one ideological extreme or another. And while there’s often overlap between the conservative and progressive Christian camps, the stakes are undoubtedly very high for both.
Rather than clawing towards a win on either side of the issue, I believe that the nation would stand to benefit from analyzing how we are carrying out the debate itself.
As marriage equality has elicited such a polarizing effect in black religious communities, some black religious leaders believe that the church has entered the fight of its life. What both clergy and congregants seem to be vigorously debating is love – love for neighbor (loving your neighbor as you love yourself) and, of course, love for God (loving nothing over and above your maker). But is it fair to alienate Christians who struggle with the fear that they’re being asked to privilege love of neighbor over and above love of God?
I am reminded here of Christ’s own warning to his followers against mixing governance with God. Rather than give in to this tendency, I hope that the black church will be able to “give back to [Obama] what is [Obama’s] and to God what is God’s.”
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and TheRootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.