I’m a feminist who believes in God. Raised Christian, I still attend church. But what I am not is a person who will willingly check her brain, political convictions, or academic training at the door in order to enter the house of God or to participate in a community of faith. Express homophobic views, tell me that God requires me to let a man rule my house because I have a vagina, or spout a prosperity theology premised on the idea that poor folks are poor because they lack faith, and you are likely to see me get up and walk out.
I love Jesus, and I remain a person of faith, because I know, to put it in the parlance of the Black Churches of my youth, how good God has been to me. And while that kind of God-talk doesn’t play well in secular academic contexts, it doesn’t have to. My Christianity isn’t about trying to save anyone else’s soul but my own. I know that’s not what a good evangelical is supposed to say, but if you haven’t figured it out yet, a good evangelical is not what I’m trying to be.
U.S. Black women are the most religious demographic in this country and most of that religious identification falls within the bounds of Christianity. But if Black feminism does not grapple with the fact that Black women still love the Black Church, still sustain that institution in startling numbers, it will miss a significant segment of the population. And that is untenable because conservative evangelical Black Churches are one of the central places that black women pick up harmful gender ideology.
A few weeks back Toni Braxton, the daughter of a preacher and product of a conservative Christian family, released a memoir in which she discusses her one-time belief that her son’s autism was a punishment from God for having an abortion. Luckily she has revised her thinking, no longer seeing autism as a form of God’s judgment.
Autism is not a punishment. It is a different way of learning and being and encodes different kinds of ability. Disability is not a punishment. Disability is a fact of life. And it is an opportunity if we are mindful to think about how to make our built and lived worlds more hospitable for each and every person that has to live in it.
As abortions go, we really need to think about whether a loving God wants women to have children that they don’t want to have or can’t afford to have. We need to ask ourselves if God conscripts women’s wombs in service of His purposes (sorry for the gendered language but evangelical God is always male.) And if God does such things, as the story of Jesus’ mother kinda suggests, we need to ask ourselves if we have the right to disagree. (Like what if Mary had said no, when the angel came to her?) We need to think about whether God actually dictates that a fetus’ life is more important than its mother’s life. We need to ask ourselves if God values our reproductive capacity over valuing us.
Moreover, abortion ethics in the church are steeped in shame, shaming women for having sex outside of marriage, while assuming married women don’t have or need abortions. But it is clear to me from the biblical story of the woman caught in adultery, a woman who Jesus saved from being stoned, that Jesus was not a slut-shamer. He didnt permit his community to cast stones at another woman because of her sexual practices, but he invited that community to consider their own practices. And in so doing, that story demonstrates among many other things, that our impulse to judge and harm others, is fundamentally about all the things we don’t want to confront in ourselves.
Conservative theology, of the evangelical sort, is rooted in a view of God as a great judge who metes out divine retribution for our sins. Because of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, we are allowed to have a personal relationship with this God, but we better toe the line. God loves us and forgives us, but we better be in a continual state of confession, repentance, and trying to live right. Otherwise, our sin will bring us terrible consequences, because even though God loves us, the divine Homie don’t play that.
Sin is a word that is used often in conservative evangelical churches. There’s a whole lot of talk about individual sin, the preponderance of which seems to be of a sexual nature. A whole lot of talk, a lot of fear, and a lot of guilt. Individual sin, in this theological reckoning, separates us from God and puts us outside the realm of God’s blessing, puts us beyond “the hedge of protection,” where all manner of evil will befall us. And it’s all our fault, because of our failure to deal with our pesky sin.
We don’t talk much though about the sins of capitalism, or racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or militarism or the evils of the prison industrial complex. We tell women to wear longer dresses and boys to pull up their pants. We seem to believe that if we merely conquer our individual sins, God will protect us from the effects of all the other isms. We in the Black Church have allowed church philanthropy to take the place of radical social critique. It’s incredibly short-sighted.
From this angle, punishment looks like God holding us from achieving the very societal ideals that these systems hold up as carrots – a fancy house and car, a beautiful partner, lots of money. Instead of questioning our investments in these systems, we think serving God will give us greater success within them.
So many of us have a faith built on theologically thin terrain.
This brings me to Sherri Shepherd, one of the co-hosts of The View. Back in 2010-2011, I watched fascinated as she candidly discussed her courtship with Lamar Sally, and her choice to remain celibate until she married him. She routinely expressed shame over the multiple abortions she had in her youth. Her deeply conservative evangelical commitments made her and Elizabeth Saddleback unlikely bedfellows on the show.
According to conservative evangelical scripts, Sherri Shepherd “did it God’s way.” She courted Lamar properly, waited until after marriage for sex, and should now be on her way to happily ever after.
But she isn’t.
Recently Sally filed for separation papers, prompting Shepherd to file for divorce. In a bizarre addendum to their prenuptial agreement, leaked to TMZ, Sally made several troubling demands of Shepherd. The revised agreement included statements like:
“I, Sherry Sally, am a happy, godly, attractive, and sexy wife. I provide a peaceful and pleasant haven for my husband to come home to. I respect my husband’s opinions and recognize him as the leader of our home. I always speak well of my husband to others and look for specific ways to compliment his fine character and behavior. I enjoy having sex with my husband. I crave intimacy with him and want to be uninhibited and free in our lovemaking together. I care about my appeareance and take effort to look attractive and stay fit. I am a fun person who loves to laugh.”
It goes on to say:
“It is my joy to submit to my husband as a way to honor God. Even if my husband doesn’t respond the way I’d like, I will respect him and be loyal to him.”
Say what now?
So you need a prenup to tell your wife that she enjoys sex with you? You need a prenup to ensure she gives you compliments? And you need a prenup to make her “joyfully submit” to you?
My head aches. And so does my ass.
All of this language is straight out of conservative Christian theological doctrine. In fact it reminds me of an unfortunate experience I had in a class I took at my former church several years ago called “Marriage without Regrets.” When the author of the study, famed Christian writer Kay Arthur started railing against wayward women who had stepped out of their rightful place causing the downfall of society, I knew that something had gone incredibly wrong.
But what was more striking was the fact that the Marriage Without Regrets class was overwhelming populated by single women, all hoping to prepare themselves and positions themselves for a “godly mate.” In order to do so, we were supposed to endure 16 weeks of study about “what the Bible says about marriage,” and how to style our lives to meet such goals. I dropped out at week 3, right around the time that the facilitator told us that as women, we were “biblically mandated” to manage a household.
My household management skills suck. And since I’m utterly uninterested in the domestic arts, I don’t anticipate that they will get any better.
Moreover to riff on one of my favorite womanist preachers Dr. Renita Weems, I already have a head. I’m not looking for a man to provide me one. Or as I’ve heard more than one popular Black minister put it, I’m not interested in letting him by the head while I be the neck. What the entire…? (Well, I’m talking about Jesus things today, so let me not show out with the profanity).
But I know a whole lot of women who think like Sherri Shepherd. I used to roll hard with chicks like Sherri Shepherd. They have this view that celibacy and proper courtship are “God’s way.” They have a view that following this plan to marriage will insure God’s blessings and a happily ever after.
It seems in this case that all this God-talk covered up the screwed up beliefs of a deeply controlling man that sees women as property, views sex as being primarily for his pleasure and thinks women serve an ornamental function of looking pretty and keeping him happy.
I wonder how much better our relationships and partnerships might be if churches spent less time regulating our intimate space and more time dealing with the lack of emotional and spiritual maturity that plagues so many unions.
Moreover, I long for the church as an institution, to stop touting this biblical literalism and biblical inerrancy madness. It encourages a shallow faith, grounded in false notions of security, propped up by people who have been discouraged from thinking for themselves.
When I see the way the Old Testament demands that women marry their rapists, I have a problem with that.
When I see the ways in which the Old Testament seems to sanction genocide so a chosen group can get to their “Promised Land,” I have a problem with that.
When I see the proscriptions Paul or the Pauline writers place on women in the New Testament, the calls for silence and submission, I take issue with that.
When I see discussion of queer people as an “abomination,” I disagree.
And when Paul tells “slaves to be kind to your masters,” I wholeheartedly reject such thinking. And I’m so glad Harriet Tubman and Harriet Jacobs and Freddie Doug and all the rest rejected it, too.
The idea that we can’t struggle with the Biblical text, that we have to agree with and live by every thing it says is not only impossible, but unhealthy. For Black women to agree to live by it all is for us to sign up for silence, submission, and slavery. Literally. And that would mean that the Bible and Christianity offer us no greater alternative than what white folks dreamt for us when they drug us to these shores.
We deserve more than that. And God wants more for us than that. And this means that we have to stop letting these preachers toss the Bible in our face as a rule book. We have to stop letting them manipulate us with fear of divine punishment for asking questions and coming to different conclusions. Based on this conservatism the church exploits and appropriates Black women’s time, labor, and money, while giving back to us a theology that does not serve us well. I’m not denying Black Christian women’s agency, experiences of God, or accusing them of false consciousness. I’m saying that we have bought into some ways of thinking that don’t serve us well, that limit us spiritually and that often do us harm.
At my most conservative, I was incredibly resentful and angry with God because I felt I could never live up to the standard. I suffered perpetual guilt and anxiety and got little joy. I know better now.
Now I view the Bible as an invitation. An invitation to come to the table equipped with stories of other people’s faith journeys and to use their stories to grapple with my own journey with God. I come able to see and call out racism, sexism, patriarchy and homophobia in the text. While we will never live in a faith journey outside of these contexts, the text becomes instructive for thinking about who we are, what we’re capable of, what we want to be and what we don’t want to be. And we learn about ways in which God showed up for generations prior to us, and are perhaps encouraged that God will show up for us, too.
So many Black women have full-bodied commitments to church – we give our mind, heart, spirit, body, time, labor, and money to the church. We deserve for it to serve our needs. We deserve for the theologies we hear to be liberatory. We deserve for those theologies to help us to create healthy full, loving lives, whether we have partners or not, whether we want marriage or not, children or not, sex or not.
Bad theology is harmful. It misrepresents who God is and who we are. But we must give ourselves permission to construct a new way to live if spiritual matters are going to retain their importance to us. I am actively in the process of reconstructing an informed theology that works for my life by reading people like Delores Williams and Katie Cannon and Wil Gafney and Rachel Held Evans and Brian McLaren and Jay Bakker. And if you didn’t know it’s in our spiritual Black feminist legacy to do exactly that. I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from Anna Julia Cooper:
“And I do not mean by faith the holding of correct views and unimpeachable opinions on mooted questions, merely; nor do I understand it to be the ability to forge cast-iron formulas and dub them TRUTH. For while I do not deny that absolute and eternal truth is – still truth must be infinite, and as incapable as infinite space, of being encompassed and confined by one age or nation, sect or country – much less by one little creature’s finite brain. To me, faith means treating the truth as true.”
So I encourage y’all, to figure out what is true for you, and have enough faith in yourselves and your God to treat those truths as true.