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The United Methodist Church’s recent decision to uphold the theology of marriage as the union of one man and one woman has been making the news again. It seems that some who voted may have been ineligible to do so, although there weren’t enough ineligible votes to change the outcome.

I do not wish to enter into a debate about the nature of marriage or improper voters but want to reflect on the role of black traditionalists in the discussion. Most people acknowledge that votes from delegates from the booming church in Africa and other parts of the majority world proved decisive. The UMC’s theology of marriage remains unchanged because a majority of black and brown members do not believe that a revision of the church’s teaching is warranted.

African Methodists

As someone on the conservative side of a similar conservation, which took place about 15 years ago in the Anglican communion, this division between largely white progressive voices in North America and conservative voices in Africa feels familiar. The major difference is that the Methodists eventually allowed African voices to have a full hearing while my own communion has managed, much to our shame, to stifle and distort the voices of black and brown Anglicans. This is not to say that African Anglicans or African Methodists are a monolith. But on the whole, they are more traditional than many of their North American brothers and sisters.

One quote, representing these African Methodists, has been making its way around the internet. It came from Dr. Jerry P. Kulah, Dean of Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia. He said:

Friends, please hear me, we Africans are not afraid of our sisters and brothers who identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, questioning, or queer. We love them and we hope the best for them. But we know of no compelling arguments for forsaking our church’s understanding of Scripture and the teachings of the church universal.

And then please hear me when I say as graciously as I can: we Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics. We do not need to hear a progressive U.S. bishop lecture us about our need to “grow up.”

Conservative white Christians have shared this quote to highlight the hypocrisy of white liberal calls for inclusion. Conservatives rightly point out that it is one thing to applaud inclusion when black voices agree with you, but it is quite another thing to listen and learn from people of color when they diverge from the progressive consensus.

Some white conservatives claim that white liberals are dismissing black voices in a way that smacks of theological colonialism, and there is nothing more enraging to a post-colonialist than to be called that which they now despise.

White progressives have responded to accusations of hypocrisy by claiming that African theological traditionalism is nothing more than a manifestation of white fundamentalism. Progressives claim that African theological reflection has been unduly influenced by American evangelical biblical interpretation. Furthermore, white progressives assert that white conservative evocation of black voices is self-serving.

Social Activism + Orthodox Theology

There may be some truth to the progressive critique of white conservatives’ self-serving use of black voices. Nonetheless, it is startling to witness white progressives’ unwavering confidence that their own theologically liberal, Western European/North American consensus is so clearly correct that to oppose it is to oppose all that is true and good. It is also shocking to see white progressives insinuate that black conservative beliefs can’t actually originate from black spaces but must be the result of white influence. Someone can disagree with black traditionalists, and not be a colonizer, but if someone criticizes the opposition like a colonizer, they may be a colonizer.

Historically, the black theological tradition, at least in its ecclesial manifestation, has combined a passion for social activism with orthodox theology. They have combined theological orthodoxy (including traditional teachings on marriage and sex) with a commitment to fight for a place to live and breathe and dream in a country that denied them basic freedoms. I was formed by this dual commitment to orthodoxy and orthopraxy. This combination, however, means that I and others often feel out of place in the context of our present controversies where biblical fidelity, as the Church has understood it, is placed in competition with justice.

When Christians of color speak about justice in the context of police violence, poverty, immigration, and racism, we are lauded by progressive white Christians. When we advocate for what they consider to be conservative ideas (traditional marriage, the sanctity of life, the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures), we encounter the same disdain that African Methodists experienced.

On the other hand, some white conservatives instrumentalize Christians of color when we speak about marriage, yet ignore us when we call for a pursuit of an expansive vision of justice, namely the definition found in the Bible. Some white conservatives only value black voices when we are willing to repeat talking points that do not originate in our communities.

Keep That Same Energy

The North American church needs to listen to the whole of the Black Church’s witness, not simply the parts that fit with their agenda. The same Scriptures and orthodoxy that compel us to denounce white supremacy also compel us to speak about the sanctity of those black and brown babies in the womb. These same Scriptures lead us to plead for a compassionate immigration policy and to also argue that women are image bearers who deserve the freedom to pursue their varied callings, free of the sting of misogyny.

Be consistent about the passion you have for justice when we speak about the real damage that the president is doing to people of color. We also want our white progressive friends to know that there is more to being a Christian than being woke. We want to say that our best reading of the Scriptures, alongside the catechesis of the human body itself, leads us to affirm traditional marriage. This is not about hate, homophobia, or a denial of the essential worth of all human beings. It is about an earnest desire to be obedient to the faith as we understand it.

Christians of color are not weapons in a war between white conservative and white liberal Christians. Theologians of color are just that — theologians who can reason and learn for themselves. Listening to black voices involves learning that black theology, in its ecclesial form, is multifaceted. It defies caricature and challenges the too-easy narratives of both the Right and the Left.

Where can these voices be found? They are right across the street in the pulpits of your city.  These voices are in the prayers of black Sunday school teachers, church mothers, and deacons. They are black Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Methodists, and Anglicans. They are those who left mainline churches to form their own communions and also those that remained.

These voices are found in the hymns, spirituals, and gospel songs that retain their power to inspire. These voices are found in the defiant, but hopeful words of Mother Pollard who articulated the spirit of the Montgomery bus boycott when she said, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” To listen to these voices means to take them seriously as sources of theological insight. We too have the Spirit.

Therefore, it will not do for white progressives to dismiss the arguments and concerns of black traditionalists with accusations of being on the “wrong side of history.” No one person or party owns the copyrights to our stories.

Progressives must not simply evoke white supremacists’ sinful use of the Bible to justify black enslavement and use that historic injustice to argue for every change in the church’s teachings. It is a colonization of our history. The early black American Christians did not argue that the Bible is wrong and that to reject it equaled freedom. Black Christians argued that the slave masters had poor exegesis. And the work of rejecting poor exegesis continues.

Until the Lord returns, we will do our best to faithfully read and interpret the Scriptures and present those meanings to the broader church for debate and discussion. We follow in the footsteps of brother Paul who said, “We believed and therefore we spoke (2 Cor, 4:13).”

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