Black Women, Faith, and Sexuality

A Queer Manifesto for the Black Church

An Assignment Submitted for My Queer Theology Course, Spring 2022, Dr. Peng Yin

Out of love for the Black Church and a desire to see it grow and be sustained, the Minister Deirdre Jonese Austin, Master of Divinity student at Candler School of Theology, intends to defend and expound upon the following statements in reflecting upon the question: What is queer theology’s potential to shape Christian thought and practice in the Black Church?

  • Queer theology encourages us to center the most marginalized.

To begin, my discussion of this statement develops out of reflections on the works of Audre Lorde and Marcella Althaus-Reid. Often, the Black Church has centered and uplifted cisgendered, heterosexual Black men as the leaders and representatives of the church, justified the submission and oppression of Black women, and stigmatized those who would fall outside of the idealized Western heterosexual relationship norm such as unmarried mothers and LGBTQ+ folk. Queer theology provides a framework with which we can work against that through the centering of the voices of the most marginalized in the space. Rather than center cisgendered, heterosexual Black men, the Black Church can center the voices and experiences of LGBTQ+ folk, providing them with space to lead, live into their full potential, and push and challenge the church to be better. The Black Church cannot fully be a space of justice and liberation as it has historically claimed to be if it only works for justice and liberation for middle class and upper middle class cisgendered, heterosexual Black men.

  • Queer theology encourages us to move beyond the heteropatriarchal system.

Judith Butler and Marcella Althaus-Reid are informative as it concerns this statement. Similar to my discussion of centering the most marginalized, queer theology invites the Black Church to address the ways in which it has systemically been a place of heteropatriarchal supremacy. The bylaws, practices, and traditions of the church must be reimagined and reconstructed. There is no freedom and liberation in an institution whose roots are intertwined with heterosexism and patriarchy. Thus, the heteropatriarchal practices must be uprooted, and new practices and teachings around gender and sexuality that promote healing and wholeness for all must be developed. Both centering the marginalized and uprooting heteropatriarchal practices are based in the life and teachings of Jesus. It was Jesus who spent time with the tax collectors, lepers, and women who fell outside of the sexual norms of the time. It was Jesus who said that all are welcome to the table and that the “last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Matthew 20:16). As such, queer theology invites us to live out a fuller vision of what it means to follow Jesus.

  • Queer theology encourages us to move beyond dichotomies.

            This statement is informed by the film Paris is Burning, the film Tongues Untied, E. Patrick Johnson’s “Feeling the Spirit in the Dark: Expanding Notions of the Sacred in the African-American Gay Community,” Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, and José Esteban Muñoz’s introduction to Disidentifications. I would offer that the Black Church adopted dichotomous thinking from Western Christian practices, and queer theology can reshape our Christian practice into one that aligns more with African spiritual practices. In queering the Black Church, one can lean into the ‘both/and’ of life rather than seeing Christian thought as that which falls within the ‘either/or.’

Queer theology provides space for a God who is beyond the gender binary. Biblically, one can reflect on the ways in which God is described with both feminine and masculine descriptions or reflect on God as one who is beyond our understanding of gender. When we can understand a God who is beyond the gender binary, we can understand more deeply our sibling in Christ who identifies as nonbinary. We can see each other beyond the limiting boxes of gender that have been ascribed.

Also, significant to moving beyond the dichotomy is that related to body and spirit as well as sacred and secular. In alignment with Western Christian values, the body and one’s sexuality has been demonized in the Black Church, but queer theology leads me to question this demonization. Queer theology provides a space for us as sacred and spiritual beings to both love and appreciate our bodies and sexualities. There is no distinction between body or flesh and spirit as both are united in how we live and move and have our being. Furthermore, there is no distinction between the sacred and sexual as they are ‘two sides of the same coin’ (Johnson). We can encounter God in our everyday lives and in every encounter, whether in the church, in the boardroom, or in the bedroom.

  • Queer theology encourages us to move beyond respectability politics.

            Audre Lorde and Marcellus Althaus-Reid are influential as it relates to the development of this statement. Like other Black spaces, the Black Church has been shaped by a desire of Black people to survive. One such survival strategy is that of assimilation and practicing respectability politics. This can uphold classism and capitalistic practices that can harm those who may be marginalized economically. Additionally, it works to silence, hide, and ignore the sexuality of its members and participants. The Black Church must move beyond respectability politics to become a space that is truly welcoming and justice-centered and must do so if the church is to grow and be sustained. Jesus did not only spent time with those who were perceived as respectable, so we must resist the urge to do the same.

  • Queer theology encourages us to love and affirm all bodies and to love and appreciate ourselves unapologetically.

            For this statement, I am drawing on Paris is Burning, Little Girl, Tongues Untied, and Rowan Williams’s “The Body’s Grace.” In its promotion of both respectability politics and Western sexual norms, there is often shame attached to bodies and sexuality that prevents people from loving and appreciating all of themselves within the Black Church. Yet, there is a need to see one’s body as sacred and to see even sexual encounters as an opportunity to come to know both ourselves and to come to know and understand God in new ways. It is through our bodies as well as our spirits that we connect to the divine. Furthermore, queer theology encourages us to come to love ourselves and one another as God loves us, regardless of the shape or nature of our physical bodies. We can love and affirm our bodies while not being defined by them, and the body can be understood as a place of grace, pleasure, joy, and worship.

  • Queer theology uplifts the importance of relationships.

            The discussion of ball culture in Paris is Burning and Kathryn Tanner’s discussion on unnatural relationships inform this statement. In alignment with Western Christian values as well as respectability politics, the Black Church has often placed a certain level of significance on the nuclear family. Thus, heterosexual relationships have been uplifted most often, specifically romantic heterosexual relationships as sanctioned by marriage. Nevertheless, there is a need to understand relationships in a broader sense. There are extended family connections and alternative family connections that are developed within queer theology. These associations are “unnatural” in that people may not be united by blood; nevertheless, they are family, united by experiences and/or united by God (Tanner). With queer theology, romantic, platonic, familial, and spiritual relationships all play a significant role in the life and formation of the individual.

Moreover, our relationship with God is reflected in our relationships with others. As such, queer theology provides a model that the Black Church can use to better support all its members and participants, facilitating the development of a family, community, and connected body of Christ. All members of the body must feel loved, affirmed, and supported as all parts of the spiritual body are important (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).

  • Queer theology encourages us to move towards transformation and employing our power to enact change.

            The works of Cathy Cohen, Audre Lorde, Michel Foucault, Adiraan van Klinken, and ACT Up helped shape this statement. One tension in the Black Church is that between the priestly and prophetic role of the Church. The Black Church must not only care for its members, but it must work toward justice, liberation, and transformation in society; the Black Church must be prophetic. In this regard, those in the Black Church must employ their erotic power and use any power they have to demand change, creating coalitions across lines of difference with those who have similar goals. Engaging queer theology, highlights the importance of putting faith into action and combining faith with works (James 2:14-26).

            Hence, queer theology has the power to reshape the Black Church’s thoughts and practices into those which are more sustained and are needed for the Black Church to continue in the generations to come. It is queer theology that can help us become the institution centered on justice and liberation that the Black Church has claimed to be and live into a fuller vision of what it means to follow Jesus. Queer theology invites us into new ways of thinking and new ways of being, moving beyond the limited boxes and traditions that we’ve used to restrict the Black Church as an institution and individuals within the institution.

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