No “New Wineskin” in Sharpton’s Rhetoric

With the “No Hope Baptist Church of God and Christ” and the “Apostolic Church of Hell” standing front and center in our black communities, and with two decades of trauma and death in part due to many churches’ inattention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaging our communities, should the black church continue to have such a central role in the life of black communities in 2006?

As progeny of the African diaspora, many of us pause in the month of February to pay homage to our ancestors who survived the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. We pay homage to our ancestors by remembering the Yoruba proverb that “if we stand tall, it is because we stand on the backs of those who came before us.”

When it comes to the black church, however, this is a present-day horror. Many of us lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children of the African diaspora would say our ancestors left us neither teaching nor direction on how to survive the black church with its virulently homophobic climate.

… should the black church continue to have such a central role in the life of black communities in 2006?

For centuries, homophobic yet charismatic pastors of the black church have provided the primary paradigm of leadership in the African-American community. But when the black church is selling out its social gospel message of justice to grab cash and power from George W. Bush’s “faith-based” initiatives, how can it serve as the locus of liberation for African-American LGBTQ people? Is there another way forward?

Those attending the National Black Justice Coalition’s (NBJC) Black Church Summit on Gay Rights over the weekend of Jan. 20-21 at the First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta certainly think so. The Summit’s goal is to build a Black Church Social Justice Community Action Network, which would be a national coalition of affirming black churches and clergy to provide leadership to NBJC’s ongoing campaign to end religious-based discrimination.

The Black Church Social Justice Community Action Network will host community trainings, develop a speakers network, and reach out to NBJC’s allies in the media, seminary students and others with its message of inclusiveness of LGBTQ families. More than 100 African-American LGBTQ clergy, religious activists and allies came to hear sermons and speeches on how to develop specific strategies challenging the systemic homophobia in black churches, from pulpits to pews. Most notably, the Rev. Al Sharpton delivered the event’s keynote address.

“Martin Luther King said there are two types of leadership. There are those who are thermometers, who measure the temperature in the room, and those who are thermostats, who change the temperature. I come to tell you to be thermostats. Turn up the heat in the black church. Make these people sweat,” said Sharpton, a former Democratic presidential candidate.

Sharpton’s rhetoric of inclusion may be calculated to exploit African-American LGBTQ people hoping for greater acceptance in black churches to regain the national stage as a leader for all black people.

And the heat was turned up even more in Sharpton’s homily as he pointed out how the black church fell prey to the divisive tactics of both the Christian Right and the Republican National Committee to garner votes by any means necessary:

“The Christian Right were not concerned about same-sex marriage; they were concerned about the same president being elected. They use gays and lesbians as scapegoats. They knew they couldn’t talk to the black church about the war, health care, about education. They took the cheap way out; they used gays and lesbians. . . . The Republican National Committee stopped being involved in the marriage issue after the election. It was hard for them to sell morality after [Hurricane] Katrina.”

Sharpton plans to take his message on the road. However, many African-American LGBTQ people are asking why Sharpton is speaking up now when we needed to hear his voice crying out for queer justice in the homophobic wilderness of black ministers two decades ago.

For Sharpton, it is both personal and political. He has a personal stake: Sharpton’s sister is a lesbian. In the October 2005 issue of The Advocate, Sharpton said, “I understood the pain of having to lead a double life in the system [since] we grew up in the church.” And at the Summit, he made reference to his sister: “Black, gay, and female. Imagine the social schizophrenia.” And then Sharpton has a political stake in his memory of working with Bayard Rustin, the chief architect of the 1963 March on Washington, who was kept largely behind the scenes because he was gay. Rustin gave Sharpton the funds in the early 1970s to start the National Youth Movement.

“No one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and then wine and skins are both lost. New wine goes into fresh skins.”

However, with no church of his own, Sharpton lacks credibility for many African-American LGBTQ people, who suspect that Sharpton may simply be repackaging himself to stand out more from the slew of homophobic black religious leaders vying constantly with each other for the spotlight. Sharpton’s rhetoric of inclusion may be calculated to exploit African-American LGBTQ people hoping for greater acceptance in black churches to regain the national stage as a leader for all black people.

It isn’t working for homophobic black leaders either. Immediately following the closing of the Summit, the Rev. Wayne Cooper of Atlanta sent the NBJC this message:

“I am literally sick and tired of the Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson trying to force people to accept gay marriage! In fact, most Americans are. I am black and I believe that marriage was ordained by Almighty God to be between one man and one woman. It is clear from the distinct physical anatomies of men and women. It is a sad day for men who supposedly represent God to believe that God would ordain for a man to put his penis in the rectum of another man! The rectum was/is not made for ‘entry’ but for ‘exit’ of toxic human waste. I’d love to publicly debate either man on this subject and I have no doubt that I will eat them alive!”

So I ask the question again: can we rely on the black church’s paradigm of leadership by charismatic preachers? Like my ancestors, I turn to the bible, and see a potential answer in Mark 2:22: “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and then wine and skins are both lost. New wine goes into fresh skins.”

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