I was unsurprised to hear of Kim Burrell’s recent comments about gay men and lesbians and, one can infer from the tenor of the video that she feels the same about queer and trans folks of all shades and stripes. For a while, I ignored the video until the uproar in my social media feeds reached a fever pitch and I felt I should watch it to see why it was stirring so much commotion. Much of what Burrell preached is not new to those of us who are queer, gender non-conforming, and trans folks. Many cisgender straight people are also intimately familiar with Burrell’s discourse and the frenzy she’s able to whip up in the pews by delightedly describing the “perversities” of gay and (a rather misguided conception of) lesbian sexual intimacy. In the wake of this video and Burrell’s hasty (and weak) apology, she has been roundly denounced by many in black churches and defended by others. But one thing is clear, it’s not just queer and trans folks who are discussing this. Many straight, cisgender people, folks who understand themselves as allies or conservatives wanting to consider themselves to have a loving approach to disagreeing on homosexuality are wanting to discuss what Burrell’s comments mean for how sexuality is engaged with in black church spaces. In light of the tensions that emerge from different identities trying to position themselves in relation to Burrell’s comments and black church spaces, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on how framing anti-queer theologies as matters of inclusion and exclusion or morality and hermeneutics are not necessarily the most transformative ways forward.

Power, Pleasure, and Authority

When we talk about sex we are not simply engaged in a discussion about morality or even what is correct in terms of biblical interpretation. These struggles have everything to do with who has the power to define who is ‘in’ and ‘out’ in terms of secular or religious group acceptability. These struggles have to do with the power to determine who is or is not worthy of safety and respect, who does or does not have the right to be self-determining/self-defining. It has to do with the power to lead institutions, to control reproduction, to define the norms for family structure. the power struggles that underlie the contentious religious debates over human sexuality are struggles over who gets to speak for God.[1]

In multiple essays, black lesbian theologian, Renée Leslie Hill, attempts to challenge the standard conversations that occur when conflicts around sexuality emerge in church spaces. In the above quote, she provides a helpful and clarifying shift of focus. Rather than simply seeing conflicts around sexuality in churches as matters of morality (is being gay a sin?) or hermeneutics (does the bible say that God despises same sex intimacy?), Hill highlights how determining and defining the boundaries of morality, hermeneutics, and inclusion or exclusion in church spaces are the effects of a deeper struggle over power and authority in the church. Understanding the relationship between power, pleasure, and authority, can help us reframe the conversation not simply around the need to include certain voices or bodies in pulpits—Burrell’s preaching performance as full-figured black woman did not prevent her from misnaming LGBTQ folks, after all—to questions of how power is established and maintained in black churches and toward what ends it operates.

In this sense, Burrell’s participation in heterosexist, anti-queer performativity and rhetorical flourishes is not simply a matter of false consciousness among another oppressed group in black church spaces (straight cisgender black women). Rather, it’s an example of the complex negotiations of power, pleasure, and authority that people of various identities undertake to sometimes self-serving ends. There are many reasons why black people, and cishet black women in particular, might subscribe to such theologies. As Hill writes,

Related to this struggle [around morality and hermeneutics] are the actions of those who benefit or think that they benefit from hetero-patriarchal structures, and who fiercely protect and maintain those structures. The rigid boundaries of gender identity and sexuality are maintained in order to sustain power and control in hetero-patriarchal system.[2]

In cases like Kim Burrell’s viral video or Eddie Long’s scandal, it’s not clear to me that investments in maintaining hetero-patriarchal structures fall neatly along lines of identity. This is also not something exceptional for persons of any identity. Many misogynistic and transphobic queer folks participate in hetero-patriarchal understandings of gender, attempting to manage and translate trans and gender non-conforming bodies as a way to establish their own power in certain spaces. This is simply to say that we all are capable of participating in the pleasures that come with power and authority, even in spaces that are created by marginalized people. To return to Hill again, we must begin to ask ourselves:

Who needs liberation from us? It is only with this type of complex engagement, self-examination and solidarity that we can move toward sexual health, sexual justice, and well-being for Black people.[3]

In thinking about how we might proceed in these conflicts around sexuality and black churches, I find the framework of transformative justice is helpful for getting us out of a model of inclusion/exclusion or morality/hermeneutics toward a discussion of power, as Hill suggests. This is not to say that figuring out issues of inclusion and exclusion or morality and hermeneutics don’t matter, but that when these are taken up without an eye toward the conflicts in power that attend the definitions, borders, and interpretations we hold, we do a disservice to all involved, but especially to the queer and trans folks whose vulnerability and precarity in these conflicts and black church spaces is heightened.

The possibility for transformation cannot preclude accountability and it is necessary for individual transformation and communal restructuring of power to occur in order for these kinds of abuses to be prevented.

Transformative Justice and Black Church Sexuality

In a recent blog post, Candice Benbow highlighted some of the issues single, cishet black women face that may lead to the kinds of violence on display by Burrell and others black pulpits. Certainly cishet black women bear an old and heavy burden in black church spaces, being made the scapegoats of so much in the black church and coming under microscopic investigation at any minute infraction against respectability. It’s a deeply harmful set of structures to all black women in black churches. Growing up as a girl in a southern, black baptist church, I experienced and witnessed many of these harms and oppressive narratives myself. The point of my post, then, is not to exacerbate that scapegoating by exceptionalizing cishet black women’s anti-queer theologies via Kim Burrell or to pick a fight with Benbow. It is meant to consider what possibilities of accountability actually exist intramurally for folks whose experiences of oppression are continuous and discontinuous?

Benbow highlights important issues to consider when parsing out how harm occurs in black church spaces and whether there are transformative possibilities for cishet black women who participate in the abuse of queer people from pulpits and pews. Yet working for such transformation also requires that we keep in mind how straight black women’s abuse of queer folks are not reducible to experiences of marginalization, castigation, and scapegoating in black churches lest we pathologize cishet black women as only victims with no ability for responsibility, accountability, and self-determination in their forms of relating to others, especially marginalized others. Thus, we can note (as many have), that Burrell also seems to take a certain amount of pleasure from describing gay and lesbian sex. Her denouncement of queer sex does not simply trade in disgust rooted in a particular hermeneutic commitment to literalism. Rather, Burrell’s performance works to get the congregation excited, to make people happy to participate in denigrating the sexual lives of those sexual minorities who are likely among them. The enjoyment that occurs by participation in this abuse cannot be forgotten as we work to understand the complexities of straight cis black women’s negotiations of power, pleasure, and authority in black church spaces.

When we talk about pleasure,then,—especially as people committed to a progressive and holistic understanding of sexual health and enjoyment—we cannot simply talk about it as a positive in itself. We must understand that pleasure, as an affective register or a practice of enfleshment, doesn’t engender an ethic that sustains life or transformation without communal discernment and accountability. In this case, multiple communities’ conflicting values are on display. As Hill points out, reducing these conflicts to questions of morality and interpretation can occlude how the power of definition and influence is not given to out queer and trans folks in black church spaces. Thus, the conflict on display here and the responses of LGBTQ folks to Burrell highlights an attempt to wrest that power out of the hands of those who would continue to wield for harmful purposes and rework it toward transformative ends. At stake in this conflict is the power to shape black churches’ values and norms around how our church communities ought to live together.

Transformative justice [4] is an increasingly important field of thought and practice for social justice organizing and it’s an important resource for helping us all to think in a more liberative and holistic way about our theologies, ethics, politics, and relationships. One aspect that resonates in regards to this current conversation is the steps of accountability for transformative justice.

People that commit violence are not born that way; they are created by their histories and given permission by the inequitable practices and arrangements of power within the society in which we live. Accountability in relationships means we are willing to interrupt problematic behaviors or dynamics and then support a process for transforming those behaviors. Accountability at a minimum requires:

– Acknowledging the harm done even if it is unintended;

– Acknowledging its negative impact on individuals and the community;

– Making appropriate reparations for this harm to individuals and the community;

– Transforming attitudes and behaviors to prevent further violence and contribute toward liberation;

– Engaging bystanders to hold individuals accountable, and toward shifting community institutions and conditions that perpetuate and allow violence;

– And building movements that can shift social conditions to prevent further harm and promote liberation, including holding the State accountable for the violence it perpetrates and condones. [5]

In a transformative justice framework of accountability, then, acknowledgement of harm and reparations are necessary steps to beginning transformative work. Immediately after a harm has occured, it may not be appropriate to attempt to complexify what the offender’s motivations were as this can seem to derail the discussion of the harm. The importance of acknowledgement of harm and making reparations requires us to think more carefully and reflectively about what steps of reparation need to be taken so that communities can discern what transformations of power, pleasure, and authority need to occur in black churches. While I want to be careful not to frame the points above as rigidly linear, there is a sense in which they follow from each other or open up into the succeeding steps. Perhaps by working through such practices, we can continue to deepen conversations past the inclusion or exclusion of queer and trans people and the same tired debates on morality and hermeneutics. Renée Hill offers a helpful word for moving us through to transformative thought and practice:

Instead of the dialectical language of ‘inclusion/exclusion,’ we must talk about and act out of nurturing, just, emancipatory practices that will bring about a transformed church. We need to have a vision of a church rooted in freedom, compassion, and justice. We must develop a process for getting there. Self-reflection and self-critique must be part of our emancipatory practice, part of our vision, part of our process. An important question is, Are we willing to be shaped by our own emancipatory practices? This is the risky business of admitting that we do not know all of the answers and that we are in constant need of God’s freeing and forgiving power.[6]

With the necessity of self-critique and self-reflection in mind, attempts to nuance and complexify why cishet black women like Burrell might hold to anti-queer theologies can seem like an elision of the real differences of power and authority available to cishet black women that queer people in the church don’t have access to in the same ways (if at all). Furthermore, evoking black women’s unfair burden and scapegoating in black churches as a way of throwing light on straight cis black women’s plight can appear to obfuscate or forget the many black women who are queer and trans, positioning straight cisgender black women as the assumed norm when we are talking about women in churches and the burdens they bear, erasing the perspectives of queer and trans black women responding to Burrell’s anti-queer theologies, and establishing a competition of attention. But attending to anti-queer theology as distinctive, even though interrelated to cishet black women’s oppression, does not mean that we don’t also have time and attention to give to those issues. As Hill writes in her essay, “Who Are We For Each Other?,” addressing womanists directly:

The lesbian is seen as ‘other.’ Her otherness has been such a powerful source of fear that she has had to be made invisible, her liberation and well-being made non-issues. But in looking directly into the eyes of the ‘other’ and by listening to her voice, womanists may find the tools to re-examine and do away with not only lesbian stereotypes, but also other negative images of Black women …. In recognizing the oppressive images that lesbians have been given in the community (including the invisibility that has been maintained by womanist scholars thus far), womanists can begin to work toward liberating images for all Black women. In listening to the lesbian voice womanists, heterosexuals and lesbians, can learn the importance of self-naming.[7]

Thus, even as we understand the importance of transformation, it is a hard and risky way forward that requires straight black women give attention to the facts of differential power relations that exist between them and queer and trans women in black churches. That Hill’s essay was written over 20 years ago and many of the same issues are still erupting suggests we have much work to do.

The responses of those harmed by anti-queer abuses in black churches will vary greatly. Some may not be able to personally stand such communal interventions. Others who remain in black churches such as Burrell may work to intervene in more careful ways due to their precarity or more bold ways to directly interrupt these abuses. Still others who have been cultivating their own communities of queer and trans religiosity and faith may press on Kim Burrell’s video as another instance in which the conflicting communal politics of queer and trans black Christians and straight, cisgender black Christians, including cisgender straight black women, is exposed. These conflicting communal politics are apparent in Benbow’s blog post. I don’t read Benbow or the many allies whose thoughts I’ve seen across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as desiring to effect obfuscations of harm and power, but such occlusions persist because so often cisgender straight people who experience other forms of oppression understate the power differences at play in situations of harm against queer and trans people. It is not simply a matter of violent words and practices that exclude queer and trans people. It is, more deeply, a matter of power and authority in church spaces and who has the power and authority to shape the hearts and minds of black churchgoers. Cishet people, then, are not the arbiters of whether a theology is anti-queer or not, or whether it’s a matter of hermeneutics instead of homophobia as though homophobia is not also a form of interpreting and measuring queer and trans people’s bodies, lives, and intimacy against heterosexist norms and ideals. Such determinations about homophobia and its wide-reaching effects must occur in conjunction with queer communities working for self-determination in black church spaces in the multiplicity of forms that takes.

I make these critiques not because seeking transformation for cishet black women who are anti-queer is out of the question, but because steps toward repair and transforming cultures requires practices of healing, critical reflection, and transformation of values and institutions. Apologetic words are not the only form in which acknowledgement of harm occurs (And I am not attempting to make clairvoyant judgments about what practices individuals are doing to acknowledge harm outside the purview of social media feeds). Denouncing Burrell’s words as causing harm is not the same thing as sitting with the weight of how these harms are repeated structurally, not simply in individual black clergy women, but in the structures and rhythms of church life, norms, and values. We must sit with how we have seen a rise of women preachers in black churches that has not necessitated a transformation of its power structures. What is it about black church structures that enable cishet women to be assimilated into them without a deeper transformation? Is this related to the misogyny of black men in church leadership? Of course. But perhaps we can also consider how well meaning inclusive gestures can also carry extensions of problematic forms of power rather than their resolution. Simply including queer and trans folks will not be how a transformation of black church structures happens either. We must get serious about the conflicts of power that attend these eruptions and work for a deeper justice than simply diversifying our pulpits (which I fully support). Confronting the need for transformative justice in black churches means that accountability must be a practice, not just a word we apply to ourselves. To close with a final thought from Renée Hill:

The work for justice for lesbians and gay men in the church is not only or simply about rights and recognition. It is about a church transformed and brought into alignment with God’s love and justice, a church that counters the violence of hatred with creative, constructive power. This work is about power.[8]

  1. Hill, Renée L. “Human Sexuality—The Rest of the Story.” In Walk Together Children: Black and Womanist Theologies, Church and Theological Education, edited by Dwight N. Hopkins and Linda E. Thomas, 185.  ↩
  2. Hill, Renée L. “Human Sexuality—The Rest of the Story,” 186.  ↩
  3. Hill, Renée L. “Human Sexuality—The Rest of the Story,” 191.  ↩
  4. On transformative justice, Mariame Kaba has a great post collecting resources on TJ, and includes a link to this very helpful resource by Generation 5  ↩
  5. Generation 5  ↩
  6. Hill, Renée L. “Power, Blessings, and Human Sexuality: Making the Justice Connections.” In Beyond Colonial Anglicanism: The Anglican Communion in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Ian T. Douglas and Pui-lan Kwok, 194  ↩
  7. Hill, Renée L. “Who Are We For Each Other?” In Black Theology: A Documentary History, edited by James H. Cone and Gayraud S. Wilmore, 345–351. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1992.  ↩
  8. Hill, “Power, Blessings, and Human Sexuality” 196.  ↩

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