Interview: The answer was love
The priest and campaigner Broderick Greer talks to Stephen Tomkins
At this summer’s Greenbelt festival, the Revd Broderick Greer urged festivalgoers to do theology ‘as if lives depend on it’ – because they do. Greer argues that, when 49 people were murdered at Pulse nightclub in Orlando on 12 June, when nine people were murdered in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston a year before, and when everyday hatred for one group of people or another costs lives, the Church’s message of God’s loving embrace of all God’s children failed – or at least failed to get through. And part of that breakdown is the Churches’ failure to live that message itself.
Greer’s mission is to challenge hatred, misunderstanding and prejudice, in the Church and in the world, in the name of the God who ‘welcomes all (no asterisks)’. Reform talked to him at Greenbelt, where, having just left Memphis in 110F, he was appreciating the milder joys of the British summer.
Can you tell us about the faith that you were brought up in?
I was raised Missionary Baptist in the National Baptist Convention, which is all black, predominantly in the American south. I was baptised in Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, on 1 November 1998. I was eight years old. My grandmother was the minister of music in that church and worked there for 40 years. My mom was baptised and married in that church and both of her children were baptised there. So, very formative. I grew up on the liberation theology that our pastor preached.
When I was 13 I became Church of Christ, which is a predominantly white denomination, and ended up being baptised three more times in that church. Because I was gay. Some people think that they can ‘pray away the gay’; I thought I could wash away the gay. It did not work.
What took you to the Church of Christ?
It was the certitude. They are fundamentalists, they don’t use instruments in worship because they’re not authorised in the New Testament, they take Scripture very seriously, and I admired their ability to answer questions with no ambiguity or muddiness.
The Missionary Baptist Church was more affirmative of gay people, is that right?
I wouldn’t say that, no. But there was accommodation of gay people, so long as they didn’t say that they were gay. There was a sense that there was room for gay people. I remember going to a funeral when I was about 16 for a music director of a black church in our area – he was a gay man, died of Aids – and the pastor said: ‘Some of you think this man is in hell.’ And he didn’t say why, but everyone knew what he was saying. He said: ‘I talked to him before he died, and Jesus was his Lord, and he is in heaven.’ However you understand that phrase, in his mind there was room for that man in God’s love. So it’s more complex than people give it credit for being.
How did you end up in the rather different faith you have now?
In college I read Bishop NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope and Simply Christian, and both had a theological vision that I hadn’t heard before, that was more holistic and had a lot to do with the real world, with justice, and with liturgy. I thought I’d give the Episcopal Church a try.
At the same time, I met a Church of Christ minister who had fallen in love with the Book of Common Prayer and encouraged a friend and me to begin saying the daily office. This liturgical, sacramental practice led me to a vision of the body, of creation, of God as a good creator, not an entity who is waiting to devour us. And later, in seminary, to seeing the incarnation, the whole sweep of Jesus’ life – not just Holy Week – as salvific for humanity and for creation itself.
You’re speaking at Greenbelt about the dominance of a white perspective in western theology. What effect does that narrowness have?
It diminishes the ways we see God. Think about before whiteness existed: you had St Augustine in north Africa, the Cappadocian Fathers and Mothers in Asia Minor, all these different voices across Europe, north Africa and western Asia, who were having brilliant conversations about the Trinity, about the Church, and what made them Christian was not a racial identity, it was a creedal identity, a baptismal identity. The conflation of whiteness and theology has conflated one race with one religion, and deflated that rich variety and diversity of thought, that openness to dissent and difference.
The Trinity models this for us: there is equality there, but also a difference that enriches their
community and life. When the Church has one dominant voice, we all lose out on the richness and
dynamism of the triune life.
There are a lot of [non-white] voices talking, but they are being ignored. Think about the Church that I grew up in. No one in mainstream white theology is going to engage the pastor that baptised me on his experiences working on the south side of Fort Worth for 25 years. But he’s still doing that work and he’s still a voice in that community. He’s talking, but the dominant voice is not listening.
Do you hear things taught in churches that wouldn’t be taught if they were being challenged by other perspectives?
Yes, I do. I think of the black Church’s approach to the Iraq war in 2003. I was 12 or 13, and the Moderator of our Baptist District Association got up and said: ‘As I speak, American troops are landing in Iraq, and this is wrong.’ Black Christians in the United States have a deep moral conscience that makes them, for the most part, opposed to war, opposed to torture, opposed to unjust punishment and imprisonment. That’s something that is, statistically, not present in white-dominant churches. A study a few years ago showed that white evangelicals in the United States overwhelmingly support the use of torture in getting information from terrorists. That lack of a moral conscience comes from being in a place where they have never had to suffer torture. If your people have never been tortured, if your people have never been lynched, then of course it’s OK to do that to other people. Being in that privileged place robs many white Christians of a fuller moral conscience.
Do you think things are getting better? Are Churches learning to hear a wider range of voices?
For the most part, no. I don’t think things are getting better. In the US, as Dr King said, Sunday morning at 11 is the most segregated hour in our society. A lot of the pushback I receive from white Christians is from my insistence on calling what we would usually call ‘mainstream theology’ ‘white theology’ – Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Brian McLaren, NT Wright. An unwillingness to understand the way that white racial identity informs the way white people do theology will keep white churches from engaging really important issues in perpetuity.
So the Churches need to recognise whiteness?
Recognise whiteness, recognise the way that white theology underpins white identity – and recognise that race is not biological. That’s very basic, but the average white American does not know that race is simply a social construct. Basic education around a more critical perspective on race would go a long way. A long way.
Is Black Lives Matter having an impact in the States?
I think so, yes, it is. Think about the uprising in Ferguson in August 2014 and the way the clergy slowly got on board with that, with a mass of them being arrested in late September 2014, really understanding that the Church can often be a caboose to the train of justice and not the leading car.
I think the movement has also shown the urgency of what it means to be black in America, of the state beginning to protect the lives of black people instead of sanctioning violence against them.
It’s a holistic approach to black citizenship in the United States, to see black people as worthy of voting, as worthy of jobs, adequate housing, adequate income and healthcare coverage. It’s just saying that we are full citizens of this country and are thus entitled to all the privileges of American citizenship that have been held back from us since 1619 when the first Africans were brought to the continent, before the country even existed.
Would you say this is a moment comparable to the civil rights movement of the 60s?
Absolutely. It’s in continuity. The movement’s never stopped and there was already a movement before the 60s. Enslaved people in 1811 rose up against enslavers in New Orleans and were decapitated and their heads were put on the Mississippi River to remind black people not to rise up against their enslavers. In 1822 Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was burned down by white Americans because a revolt had been planned there. Fast forward to June 2015, nine people were killed in that church. So we have seen this repeated numerous times throughout American history.
I didn’t ask you when we talked about your childhood church what it was like for you growing up as a gay Christian.
Very conflicted, as a child and as a teenager. I was deeply devout, deeply involved in church. But I understood those seven ‘clobber passages’ – from Genesis, Leviticus, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy – as condemning me. I always assumed I was going to hell and that God did not love me and that there was no purpose in living if I could not become straight. That was honestly the only prayer I prayed till I was about 19, that God would make me straight. And God’s answer to that prayer was: ‘I love you.’ And love is never domination, it is an invitation to be who you are. So that is my understanding now of how God in Christ sees me.
What a burden to carry all those years, because of the story religion had told you about yourself.
Do you feel angry?
Yes, I feel angry. I feel sad. I know so many people who have died as a result of those narratives. About three years ago I went to two funerals of men my age who I went to school with, who grew up in Baptist churches as well, who both died from Aids, in 2013/14, and there was absolutely no reason they should have died from Aids in this era. They could have contracted HIV, gotten the proper medical attention and lived full lives, but because of those narratives, they’re dead now. Two people who were deeply committed to the church, but the church never affirmed them as human beings, as baptised people. So yes, I’m angry and I’m sad that there have been numerous casualties as a result of such toxic theological malpractice.
Are things changing? Do you think kids growing up today hear better stories in church about their sexuality?
I do actually. There have been improvements. With the mainstreaming and legalisation of gay marriage, and campaigns like It Gets Better and broader media representation of LGBT people, in many schools, churches and neighbourhoods it’s very normal to be in a sexual minority.
But then we look at tragedies like the Pulse nightclub shooting in June where 49 people were killed simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. You think it’s exciting that we have gained on gay marriage, gained on gay adoption, gained some on legal protection or non-discrimination in hiring and firing, but sexual minorities are still a protected class in many ways, because there are people who still seek to do harm to us, simply because of who we are.
You said in a blog that the slogan ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ is on the same spectrum of violence as that shooting.
Yes. Number one, that’s an unscriptural teaching. If anything Jesus calls Christians to love the sinner and hate their own sin. Also, homosexuality is not a sin, bisexuality is not a sin, being transgender is not a sin. That’s like me saying heterosexuality is a sin – you can’t classify a whole category of people as sinful based on their sexual orientation. If people misuse their sexuality for dominance, coercion, abuse, then absolutely; but if it has been consecrated for use by God then in the words of Pope Francis: ‘Who am I to judge?’
What can Christians who face exclusion from the establishment do to challenge it?
Organise. Demand inclusion. There is no excuse for those who read the Gospels to think that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is abusive, exclusionary or violent. It’s unfaithful to write off whole classes of people. The faithful thing is for minorities to claim their place at the table, to say that they too are nourished by the bread and wine, that they too deserve to have their marriages blessed by the Church and have their children baptised. They are not better than us and there is no reason to act as if they are.
This article was published in the October 2016 edition of Reform.