On sex: Smart black Christians vs. you know who

Brace yourselves, GetReligion readers. I am about to do something shocking. I would like to take this opportunity to offer careful praise for a Baltimore Sun story that focuses on the lives of two African-American believers who are have struggled with same-sex attractions. I say "have struggled" because the story focuses on two radically different people whose experiences and decisions have led them in two radically different directions, in terms of how they view the Bible and their own Christian lives.

The opening of the story sets up the framework that shapes this long news feature. The goal, quite simply, is to let two people tell their own stories. The result isn't perfect -- more on that in a minute -- but it's evidence that journalists can, by featuring candid human voices, help readers wrestle with complex issues in human life and faith.

While growing up in an African-American Baptist church, Harris Thomas was taught homosexuality is an "abomination in the eyes of God." As a young minister, he disparaged the gay lifestyle even while secretly pursuing it. Today he heads a Baltimore church that serves gay Christians of color "right where they are."

Grace Harley, too, grew up in a mainstream black church. She discovered the gay underground as a teen and lived as a lesbian for nearly 20 years. But God freed her from homosexuality, she says, a "blessing" she gladly recounts as a straight minister based in Silver Spring.

Both longtime Marylanders began their spiritual journeys in a similar place, as black Christians who felt strong same-sex attractions. Both faced rejection from family and community, and particularly forceful disapproval from fellow African-Americans, a group whose values have long been shaped by conservative religious thinking. But on a key question of the day, Thomas and Harley could not be more different.

As Maryland's same-sex marriage referendum looms next month, Elder Harris Thomas, 57, the openly gay pastor of the Unity Fellowship Church of Baltimore, backs "marriage equality." The Rev. Grace Harley of Fruit of the Spirit Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., 58, opposes it. Both have arrived at their views at a steep price.

And, thus, the story wades into some of the messy details. It's crucial to know that both of these ministers, one liberal and the other conservative, have lived lives that defy simple labels. Both could, in some sense, accurately describe their lives in terms of bisexuality, as well as homosexuality.

This is a long story for a good reason: It takes time to let these two people tell, and interpret, their stories. (By the way, I should mention right up front that I happen to know the reporter -- Jonathan Pitts -- whose byline tops this report and I know a bit about how he works. He is a solid interviewer with a long, long attention span.)

So what is my problem with this story? Simply stated, the story falls into an easy trap when talking about issues of scripture and sexuality. Once again, readers are offered the simplistic notion that the modern church is divided into camps of "biblical literalists" -- simple code for "fundamentalists" -- and more nuanced believers who have spent some time in a seminary and, thus, have grown to accept modernized teachings on sexuality. Thus, readers are told:

African-Americans have deep spiritual roots in the evangelical tradition of Christianity, a broad school of faith incorporating the Pentecostal, Baptist and African Methodist traditions, among others, and stressing biblical authority. Evangelicals tend to read Scripture literally, religious historians say, and at first glance, the Bible seems to leave little room for tolerance of homosexuality.

Later, there is this kicker, care of the Rev. Cedric Harmon, an "African-American pastor who is co-director of Many Voices, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for same-sex marriage within the black church."

First, Harmon says, black preachers were among the first African-Americans who could read, and their interpretive skills were rudimentary. Second, slaveholders abused black sexuality so badly, it took hundreds of years for their descendants to develop a healthy sense of self. As they did so, he believes, a culture developed inside and outside the church that scorned behaviors that might be seen as aberrant. He wonders whether African-American men adopted a culture of machismo at that early stage.

"Literal readings can lend themselves to condemning and ostracizing interpretations," Harmon says. "Now that many of us have gone to seminary and studied those scriptures, that language has begun to lessen a bit. But that doesn't diminish the intensity of what many people have gone through."

In other words, there are smart people on one side, people who have gone to seminary, and on the other side there are, well, macho biblical literalists who have never been to school.

This is a very poor and simplistic way to describe the viewpoints of biblical scholars who -- in a variety of traditions, Catholic and Protestant -- keep clashing in these debates. The Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area, I might add, offers very deep resources when it comes to finding articulate, informed, academic voices on both sides of this debate. Where are the conservative scholars? This story, in other words, reduces 2,000 years of orthodox Christian doctrine on human sexuality to one form of Protestant literalism.

The journalistic goal, of course, should be to do justice to the theological viewpoints on both sides. This story does a good job of accurately quoting the voices of these two ministers -- the stakeholders in this feature -- but falls short when it comes time to quote experts who are asked to frame and explain what these stories mean.

So I can offer some praise to the Sun for letting these two believers tell their stories, in their own words. The problem is that the story slips back into a familiar, simplistic journalistic rut when it comes time to explain the bigger picture. The result is yet another warped portrayal of a very complex debate.

This was a good try, but one that failed to take seriously the sources of the beliefs of people on both sides of these painful stories.

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