Theology As Survival
Gay Christian Network Conference
January 7, 2016
I am Broderick Lee Greer, a child of God, baptized in Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church on November 1, 1998 and since that time I have sought to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. I tell you this because I ended up being “baptized” three times after this November 1, 1998. I tell you this because while some try to “pray away the gay” I - in dramatic fashion - attempted to “wash away the gay”. I tell you this because I survived - and am surviving - the strain of being subject to white heterosexist patriarchal theology.
I tell you this because I have a hunch, given that you’re here, that you’re a survivor as well.
says poet and prophet Lucille Clifton. Something has tried to kill me and has failed. Over the past few few years, I have been forced to confront the somethings that have failed at killing me: white heteropatriarchal capitalist theological constructs, abusive religious leaders, heartless pundits, law enforcement organizations with military-strength capabilities. This has led me to conclude that, in words of theologian David Guetta, “I am titanium.”
A couple of years ago, I was sitting in my spiritual director’s office when he reached across his desk and handed me an interview of British theologian, James Alison. When asked what drew him to academic life, the ever-honest Father Alison quipped, “I’m...not sure that I’ve ever been drawn to the academic life as such. Theology has been a matter of survival for me.”
In that moment, I realized that like Father Alison, I do theology as a matter of survival. Like him, this journey has not been as full of lofty academic or professional goals as it has been the ebb and flow of life with God: desolation and consolation, life and death, oasis and wilderness.
While some do theology from the perches of power and privilege, others of us do theology as a form of survival. Never at one point during my short twenty-five years has my way of thinking about and reflecting upon God, Scripture, Church, or Life have I not wrestled with how these realities intersect with my own lived experience.
I remember being a sophomore in college and sitting through sex week at my southern Church of Christ university chapel. During it, a local minister spent two days addressing homosexuality. On day one, he made the claim that the average gay man has no less than forty anonymous sexual partners per year and then went into eye-opening detail about anal sex.
Ever the scholar, I searched the minister’s claims on Google, desperately concerned that my experience as a person who was beginning to understand himself as gay was being misrepresented. This led me to find a group of Church of Christ members in Manhattan who were studying same-sex attraction and the Bible.
Months later, I had a lengthy conversation with that study group’s facilitator, a conversation in which I - a gay, black college student in rural Tennessee - told this New York-based former pastor that I understood myself to be gay and that I needed to figure out how I was going to continue living as a baptized person. Because for me, my budding understanding of my sexual orientation and the practice of Christian faith had become less a zero-sum showdown and more an awkward prom dance.
During that season of self-discovery, I began the difficult work of reflecting on the lines that had echoed in the inner-recesses of my heart for years:
“I am a failure.”
“I am going to hell.”
“There is no hope for me.”
“God will only love me if I’m straight.”
And then, for a few moments at a time, I would grant myself permission to wonder. Wonder if these lines actually held any truth. “Am I actually a failure?” I’d wonder aloud to God. “Am I really going to hell? Is there really no hope for me? Will you only love me if I’m straight?”
These are the questions of those of us who do theology as a matter of survival, the bare bone challenges we present before God and the church, daring them to look us square in the eyes and utter the truth. These are the questions of courageous people, of people who have experienced the underside of human experience, people who desire space to love and be loved. These are the gritty questions we often prevent ourselves from asking in Sunday School.
Theology as survival is Joseph telling the angel-god, “I will not loosen my grip on you until you give me a blessing.” Theology as survival is Job waving his fist before the Almighty, demanding an answer to the unmitigated suffering he experienced as God looked on. Theology as survival is Mary, the blessed Mother of God, making sense of her surprising, revolutionary pregnancy under brutal Roman occupation. Theology as survival is Rahab, more likely called harlot than heroine, lying just to keep a band of foreigners alive.
Doing theology as a matter of survival is doing theology as a matter of life and death. It is making sense of wounds inflicted by the people who are supposed to love, care, and protect us.
Theology as survival is the mother who came up to me on the streets of Ferguson, MO on the afternoon of August 23, 2014 - two weeks after Michael Brown’s lynching by Darren Wilson - who said that she and her children would remain on the streets of that war-torn suburb until justice is done. I don’t care what FOX News or Glenn Beck say: That woman is not a victim. She is a survivor. She witnessed state law enforcement officers sworn to protect and serve her occupy the streets of her community like a foreign army. She watched as peaceful American protesters were teargassed by American state troopers. She took care of her children while local schools postponed the first day of classes due to civil unrest.
I grew up in a multicultural middle class neighborhood in Fort Worth, TX from birth until age 18. I was in classes and developed friendships with white, Latin@, Vietnamese, and Thai classmates. My parents took my brother and I on vacation every year and we always had warm, hefty Christmases. My grandparents lived five minutes from us, so we never had to go to day care. We spent every holiday with our large extended family; with my dad and uncles barbecuing the best brisket this side of the Mississippi River and my mom, aunts, and grandmothers preparing potato salad and baked beans even Ina Garten would drool over.
Since we were all black, I didn’t give much thought to racism. I watched my parents, aunts, and uncles play spades while my cousins, brother, and I talked about the newest episode of Kenan and Kel. Again, I didn’t think much about it. Because it’s all I knew. I knew I was loved. I knew I was safe. I knew I had nothing to worry about. Until I was sitting at Olive Garden with my immediate family one scorching evening in July.
I received a notification on twitter that said that George Zimmerman had been found not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin, an eighteen year old unarmed black boy. I announced it to my and we just fell into silence for the next twenty-four hours. What could be said in the face of such evil, in the wake of another chapter in this nation’s ongoing campaign of terror against black people? Nothing.
That same evening, in a different region in the United States of America but in the same zip code in Black America, Alicia Garza took to Facebook to voice her rage. At the end of her lengthy post she wrote, “Our lives matter. Black lives matter.”
Little did I know that almost exactly thirteen months later, this mantra would emerge as the hashtag of a generation, the foundation of yet another iteration in the long journey toward black liberation on this continent. On August 9, 2014, after being killed by Officer Wilson, Michael Brown’s body lay limp and unattended in the oppressive Missouri sun for four hours.
According to my friend, Dr. Andre Johnson, a scholar of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner; he could have gotten word of Michael’s death at his home in Memphis, driven to St. Louis, and still have found Michael’s body lying in the middle of Canfield Drive. Over that four hours, the three hundred ninety-six year chasm between white and black people in this country grew exponentially. Because, just like in past eras of white terror, the black body had been left “hanging” or “lying in state” so that the rest of us could visualize our own fate.
Knowledge of Michael’s death sent me into a theological tailspin. I was beginning my third year in seminary and none of the classes I had taken so far could give me the language needed to understand what happened to Michael. And no pithy prayer or sound bite could assure me that death-by-police didn’t too await me or the people I love.
And so, I took to twitter. I immersed myself in the #blacklivesmatter hashtag, connecting with the despair and pain of others. I began tweeting my own theodicies, convinced that there must be other people around who felt as helpless as I did. Little by little, the stories began trickling in. Stories of black and brown people oppressed, silenced, and erased by white church leaders, pastors, and theologians - or theobrogians - as some of them are affectionately called. And the stories were like mine: incomplete, sore, familiar, frustrated.
And I began to wonder, “If theology can be usedto oppress, murder, and brutalized women, black people, trans people, queer people, bisexual people, and people with disabilities, then why can’t theology be used to liberate us, dignify us, renew us?”
For decades, many of us in this room have been told that our experience of God, our interpretations of Scripture, our experience of the church is invalid. We have been told that any pain we’ve endured or suffering we’ve survived has just been “a part of God’s plan”.
I stand here today to say “Enough”.
“Enough” to every manifestation of white supremacy, heterosexism, homophobia, sexism, and transantagonism.
“Enough” to every person who defends the calculated, systemic assault of law enforcement against black people and other vulnerable populations.
“Enough” to every pastor, theologian, theobrogian, political leader, and self-appointed expert who would relegate us to an “issue” rather than stare us in the eyes as dignified human beings.
Theology as survival develops out of necessity, out of a situation in which we have no where else to turn. This is not ideal, but it is the reality. Now, what I don’t want people to walk away from this session saying is this, “Well, I better ramp up my oppression of racial, sexual, gender, and ethnic minorities. If I don’t persecute them, they won’t be able to theologize. They won’t have a story.”
There are whole non-profit organizations committed to that way of being in the world, that twisted, toxic posture of capitalizing on the fears and insecurities of ignorant people. Of further marginalizing and disenfranchising people whom God loves relentlessly. And to them, we say “Enough”. Stop. Cease from your campaigns of spiritual and emotional terror. Make space for us to not just exist, but live. To not just survive, but thrive and flourish.
I descend from enslaved people. From lynched people. From racialized people. From people who took the Jesus their white enslavers introduced them to - a white Jesus happy to watch them suffer in order to maintain the proper social and economic order - and understood him not as enslaver, but as emancipator. I descend from people who created liturgical music not in grand cathedrals or impressive basilicas but on labor camps from Texas to Virginia.
Folk who cried out, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen // Nobody knows but Jesus” and “Tell old Pharaoh // Let my people go”. Folk who sang, “ And before I’d be a slave // I’ll be buried in my grave”. Folk who did not dream of a pie-in-the-sky-when-they-die, who awaited a heavenly home free from the troubles of this life. No. They expected their God to act decisively, in history, to free them from the ravages of white domestic terror.
These were people for whom theology was more than an intellectual exercise. They did not have the comfort of ivory towers or lengthy sabbaticals. They just had each other: families and communities forged during the evil institution of African enslavement. And that’s what “powerless” people have to do: theology on the go, without books, seminary, theology on the streets, in the face of people wearing white sheets. Theology after we’ve been kicked to the corner for a perfectly holy and wholesome sexual orientation and gender expression, from the text of our very lives.
Which is where we make sense of God, anyway, right? Only a few have the luxury to theologize as sport, to theorize how Christians should or should not make sense of God’s presence and activity in our lives. The rest of us - the everyday folk who don’t quite have the verbiage for what we’re experiencing - make do with what we have: each other. And this happens on the go: as we are collecting the pieces of our shattered existential dreams; dreams of straightness; of cisness; of whiteness; of being anything but ourselves.
If you have a Bible, turn or scroll to Acts 8. A messenger from God appears in verse 26 telling St. Philip to go out to a wilderness road. While making his way along this road, St. Philip happens upon an Ethiopian eunuch, a sexually-other devout person from Africa. In that time in history, very few people read in their heads like we do today, so St. Philip hears the eunuch reading aloud from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Like every good Bible teacher, St. Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I unless someone guide me?,” replies the sassy eunuch. And then the author of Acts give us a glimpse into the passage the eunuch is reading:
And how can the eunuch not see himself in this passage? How can he not read his own experience of castration, sexual otherness, marginalization along with this text? Which may be why he ends up asking in verse 34, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Besides learning that the eunuch is polite, we learn that he is inquisitive, even curious about where her fits in God’s economy. He is doing theology as survival. Is this about me? Am I the one being led like a sheep to the slaughter? Am I the one being denied justice?
Now, turn in your Bible to Isaiah 56. Remember that when St. Philip and the eunuch were reading this passage, there were no chapters and verses. This means that it is very likely that St. Philip and the eunuch came across this interesting passage, beginning around verse 3:
“About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or someone else?” At this point, I would like to imagine St. Philip turning to the eunuch and say, “You. This is you.”
Now back to Acts 8, verse 35: “Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’”
The eunuch - the sexually-other official of African descent - questions his way right into the waters of baptism. Waters of belonging. Waters of renewal. Waters of love. St. Philip accompanies him through the story of Jesus in word, and invites him to rehearse the story of Jesus in action. Which is all that sacraments ever really are: outward and visible signs of a deep, invisible reality: that we and all creation are loved infinitely. That we belong. That we weren’t born to fight, but to be loved and to love. That we have a place at God’s table.
Which is why the Church throughout the ages has said - in the Apostles’ Creed - that there is one baptism. Not four, Broderick. One. We only need take that plunge once because Jesus took it once. Because we have been loved once and for all time. And so I say again, I am Broderick Lee Greer, a child of God, baptized in Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church on November 1, 1998 and since that time I have sought to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. And I do theology as a matter of survival because if people can do theology that produces brutality against black, transgender, queer, and other minority bodies, then we can do theology that leads to our common liberation.
I write, sing, pray, and laugh in order to remind myself that I am a whole human, loved profoundly by God. And I - like the eunuch -, with full throat and heart can ask, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or someone else?” And God will say, “Yes. Yes. Yes.”
© Broderick Greer | 2016