By: Samuel Doyle
The African American religious community has every reason to be proud of J. Kameron Carter: a theologian of the highest order courageously thinking through a new black theology (or perhaps a theology for the new black). It is my sincere hope that – providing the Lord delays His coming – my generation will produce a massive collection of free-thinking and free-living scholars and theologians from various theological stripes to do theology alongside the black community.
As a Communications minor, I’m always asking myself where messages and worldviews that surface in various communities come from. Do they spring from the hearts of the people, or are they infringed upon the minds of the people by the powers that be? Sadly, theology in the black community has been so monitored, chaperoned and overtaken by liberal and conservative “big brothers” that it is hard to peer through the fog and find the gem of organic and authentic black Christian thought. The rise of a new black theology (and the organizing of forums like the Jude 3 Project) presents pastors, scholars and theologians who minister to black people the opportunity to let the seed of authentic theology grow and blossom among us.
Last month during the height of the Orlando tragedy, Carter wrote an article for ReligionDispatches.org, entitled Emanuel’s Pulse. In classic Carter style, it proved to be a very well-crafted and articulate work: poetically advocating for solidarity between the black church and the LGBT community. To reach such solidarity, Carter attempted to make their stories common by speaking of their common tragedy. Pulse and Emanuel were both “sanctuaries” in the sense that sanctuaries are places where joy abounds and where celebration endures. Sanctuaries are places where “congregationing” takes place. By “congregationing”, Carter seems to be capturing the beautiful mystery of community: the sense of transcendent euphoria that seems to fill any gathering that meets on one accord. He’s attempting to explain what Howard Thurman might have called the “religious experience”: an authentically human sense bearing witness something beyond one’s own sensual experience beckoning them to a deeper humanity (a universally abstract beckoning and feeling that seems to reach any congregation, regardless of their particularly concrete doctrines). Emanuel and Pule, therefore, are both sanctuaries on this basis. In one sanctuary hymns are played and confessions are made, while in the other sanctuary people of common love come together after along week to kick back and have a good time. Both were sanctuaries and both had fateful days into which hateful and deranged infiltrated and did the catastrophic; desecrating their respective sanctums.
What proves to be a decisive point of departure – to begin – is how he defines blackness. Blackness, for Carter, is “an alternate imagination of communion”. For him, “blackness” means “other” or “marginal”. Of course, this view of blackness has deep roots in our thinking. This expanded view, seen in Henry McNeal Turner’s sermon, God is a Negro, reimagines blackness as a marginal reality. Everyone who suffers is black: the impoverished, the oppressed, racial minorities and gender minorities. All who suffer find their identity in this alternate definition, and therefore find strength in the accompanying theology that “God is a Negro”: God takes the side of the oppressed.
This definition of blackness has played itself out in some very uncomfortable ways. On May 16, 2016 at a plenary session of the United Methodist Church’s Quadrennial Conference, protestors shut down the proceedings, dressed in black and chanting “Black Lives Matter”. It actually had nothing to do with the systematic attack waged by police officers against young black men. It was a protest against the UMC’s stance on homosexuality.
The problem with this expanded definition of blackness is that it hijacks a movement and gives said movement a legion of voices. When the images of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland and Alton Sterling are being lumped together with every other agenda one might think of (all the while police brutality in this country is getting worse while laws benefitting LGBT people are getting better) we have a serious problem with terms.
Another term that seemed quite problematic for me was his use of the word “sanctuary”. It will always be hard for a Christian to share the same vision of a sanctuary with that of the night club attendee (the sexual identity of the night club notwithstanding). His reduced definition to them as places where there is joyful congregationing is compelling, but not convincing.
Admittedly, I’ve only been to a night club twice in my adult life. I must say, however, that the euphoria and joy felt has many common traits to the feeling one gets in worship. As a trained musician, I have musical explanations for why this is so. Sacred music has always followed the musical trends of secular innovation in music, because such innovations make for the heartbeat of an entire generation. The reason our music makes the trends it makes is because we feel the trends. To say you can feel Fred Hammond and not feel John Legend is simply hypocritical (for me, anyway). We have always sanctified and set apart the innovative voice of each generation lifting such innovation to the One true God. So, if contemporary gospel will make you move, it follows that rhythm and blues can do the same thing. They make us move in different ways because of the lyrics and what those lyrics invite us to do.
You will also get a deep sense of fellowship there as well. A sort of religious experience is bound to take place when a person is out with their friends having the time of their lives. Selfies capture monumental moments, but nothing will ever compare to having been there. You’re bonding with friends and making new friends: all under the banner of the reason for which you have gathered (which is to kick back and party).
Feelings of fellowship and joy are experiences felt in both the night club and the worship hour, but no devout Christian would ever define a sanctuary by how it feels: at least in any substantial way. The Christian agrees with Jesus who says, “Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there I am in the midst”. For the Christian, therefore, the purpose of our congregationing makes for a sanctuary, not the feelings we experience. Such purpose gives indication to who is present, which makes for God’s definition of “sanctuary”. For God, a sanctuary is any place He, Himself, dwells. He who (as the psalmist says) “inhabits the praises of His people” sanctifies spaces by dwelling in them and making them sanctuaries.
I pastor a congregation that meets in a historic church building. Each time I drive past it I am immediately awestruck by its imposing Roman pillars at the old entrance. When I walk into the sanctuary on Sunday, I’m greeted by a friendly smile and a warm hug, directed to my seat by the usher, moved by the contemporary worship music and struck by the feel of this vibrant congregation “congregationing” in this old historic Waco gem of a church. None of this makes Greater New Light a sanctuary. What makes it a sanctuary is that the people who gather, do so in the Name of Jesus Christ and trust His promise to be in our midst.
His most compelling case for solidarity came when he spoke about their common griefs. The theme of common stories is an important way for the church and LGBT people to regard one another as authentically human, each person on both sides being made in the image of God having intrinsic value and worth, therefore being deserving of dignity and respect. As a pastor and a devout Christian, Cameron’s work – along with the outcry and sadness seen on social media – reinforces my convictions against abusive and mean-spirited language against gay people from behind the pulpit. Further, it reminds me LGBT people are my neighbors: those whom God in Christ convicts me to love and offer the Church of Jesus Christ as their family, just like every other fellow sinner who walks through the doors of my church. In this sense, solidarity is greatly needed.
The title of the article makes clear implications of what Carter is envisioning for this solidarity: Emanuel’s Pulse. Emanuel, which stands as a type for the normative state of the black church, needs a “pulse”: especially if you agree with Eddie Glaude that “The Black Church is Dead”. Many will recall Glaude’s scathing indictment on the black church in his above titled 2010 Huffington Post article. The reason for its death, according to Glaude, was the complex existence of conservativism within black churches, which for him are “necessarily prophetic and progressive institutions”. In short, if they weren’t so conservative black churches would probably be more vibrant. Therefore, the black church needs a pulse, and Pulse – which stands as a clear type for the gay community – is the lifeline that will bring the black church’s heartbeat back.
The implications made by the title – and the clear thrust of the article advocating for a sweeping affirmation of homosexuality within the black church – frame this solidarity as one in which Pulse revives Emanuel: or perhaps influences Emanuel. The gay community must change the church’s worldview if the church ever hopes to live again. Of course, you can imagine my struggle at this point as I try to reconcile all this with the clear declaration in Scripture that the Church is built on faith in Jesus Christ, the gates of hell never prevailing against it.
There is a probing question that must be examined at this point: Does Emanuel need a Pulse or does Pulse need Emanuel? Granted, at the point of mourning and pain, it must be clearly emphasized that we all need each other. This goes without saying, but at the point of deeper existential matters one must consider this question. When I examine the Scriptures for an understanding of Emanuel, I turn immediately to the first Chapter of John’s Gospel. John exclaims, with the personal passion that so poignantly marks his writing, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us as we beheld His glory: the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth”. The Name Emanuel embodies this watershed verse. He is “God with us” in a way that we behold life-changing and life-giving glory before our midst. The central idea of God the life giver and life changer is seen all throughout the Scripture, but is most centrally seen in the life of Jesus Christ: the Cosmic Word in mortal flesh. He who showed us the Father revealed to us that God gives life, never being a passive presence. He’s never been more vulnerable than contagious. We never see Him worried about touching unclean people or catching the condition of those he healed, because God with Us is redemptive contagious: He’s miraculously infectious and salvifically transmissible. I’m trying to convey that you’ll always catch what He has, and John is clear when it comes to what He has: “full of grace and truth”. Any sincere walk with Jesus always results in a true encounter with grace and truth: an encounter that promises to change anyone who walks with Him. To say it more plainly, no one walks with Jesus and remains the same. He always brings about a change – a change which renders the death of the church impossible, because it’s a change from eternal death to eternal life.
Perhaps, at this point, the church should make a counter offer to the gay community. We are not convinced of our death, because God through Jesus Christ has given us life. We have not been persuaded of our defeat, because in Christ we have overcome the world. However, it is clear that we share a common story with our gay friends: one in which solidarity and community can happen. However, instead of calling it Emanuel’s Pulse let’s call it Pulse’s Emanuel. Allow us to mourn with you and comfort you. Allow us to walk with you through life’s ups and downs. When we open our sanctuary doors and invite you to worship, come and commune with God. Ask pressing questions with us: argue with us and struggle with us. Let us serve you, but be open to whatever the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ is wanting to perform in you as you are fellowshipping with us. Let us be Pulse’s “God with us”: the Living God with us, the Loving God with us, the Liberating God with us and the Transforming God with us. After all, the age old testimony of Jesus is that those who encounter Him never stay the same.
Samuel J. Doyle is a teacher–preacher, and currently serves as the Senior Pastor at the Greater New Light Missionary Baptist Church of Waco, TX.