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Breaking Silence

Reverend Mariah Britton challenges the black church to talk openly about marriage, parenting, and “wild, loose ways”

When we talk about sex, on the one hand, there is a saturation of messages and images in the media. On the other hand, sexuality remains an extremely private and uniquely complex sphere of human behavior with social taboos and rules of behavior that make talking openly about it quite unusual. In one sense, it may require more intimacy to discuss sex than to engage in it.

Fear of these feelings, mostly fear of lack of control of these feelings, has dominated Christian teaching for centuries; the early “church fathers” revered the ascetic denial of bodily urges. The body was a burden. And though most of us today would agree that sex is a good that God gave humanity, we still have few clues as to what to tell our children to do with their sexual feelings – except just say “no.” Or, by example, we show them the roles we play but do not offer insight into the depth and range of our actions or discuss with them the new possibilities.

What is Christian sexuality? How can we encourage young people to explore the world and ignore their sexual passions? What is it that the black church is saying, has said, or wants to say about sexuality?

In many ways, I think answers to this question are linked to how we view our bodies. Are they for pleasure? Are they for suffering? A great deal of our religious tradition speaks to the suffering black people experience on this Earthly plane under the lash of racism and oppression. Delores Williams (at a Union Seminary Women's Conference in 1995) contends that we must do away with the overemphasis on suffering because it sets up a complacency, even an expectancy, for suffering rather than strengthening people for hope and working out the difficulty.


The silence of history

The history of slavery in this country is one that has left deep psychological scars that pose obstacles to every aspect of our vitality and even basic survival. During slavery, black bodies were beasts of burden, subject to command of the plantation owner; female bodies were used by the plantation owner for satisfaction of his sexual urges and for breeding children. Black men, stripped of all possible opportunity to act as husbands, fathers, and providers for their families were “thingified” as a work tool or in some cases used as a stud.

After the civil war and reconstruction, black women continued to be abused by white men and black men were portrayed as sexual monsters, eager to de-flower the purity of white women. Between 1882 and 1962, Ida B. Wells recorded that some 5,000 lynchings occurred in the South, and about one fourth were predicated upon accusations of attempted rape.

In the 1960s black became beautiful, and there were many years of self-denigration – characterized by bleaching creams, straightening creams, processed hair, blond wigs, and a general longing for European standards of beauty – that needed to be overcome. Grier and Cobbs in their late 1960s landmark work, Black Rage, talk about the struggle for black women to feel they are beautiful, desirable, and worthy of tender love. They also talk about the struggle for black men to realize that their sense of personal worth is not always linked to sexual conquest.

“Black Power!” and “Self-determination!” were the cries of the youth beginning to examine the world from a black perspective; these voices broke the silence of Euro-centered models, standards, and cultural codes.


Conquering this world

Throughout all the decades of struggle for black people in this country, the church offered renewal through the salvation story. It was the church that provided opportunities to learn how to read, acted as a social service for many who had no place to go, and was the rallying point in times of trouble. The church was also the place where one learned how to behave in a Christian way. As means of protection against the fragile fears of menacing whites in the South, the church preached against wild, loose ways. The church showed a path to Christian life that was not the way of the world – no drinking, no dancing, no cursing, no intimate relations before marriage. Prayer, church-going, and clean living were the ways to conquer this world.

For many of us today, going to church is still synonymous with getting cleaned up and going the straight and narrow, but few of us, if we are single, have an understanding of what it means to be single from a contemporary Christian perspective. Premarital chastity expresses an ambivalence about women. On the one hand, it protected them from the ravages of men when no contraception was widely available; on the other hand, it views women as property to be handled only by their husbands. Premarital chastity ignores the sexual feelings which all healthy human beings have. Premarital chastity espouses repression and denial of vital life forces. Yes, celibacy is a gift, but what to do about the countless many who don't have the gift and who don't have any prospect of getting married or don't even want to get married?

There are many in our midst who are gay and lesbian, who are loving, caring, giving members of our congregation. Some of them are in hiding because of the homophobia we preach from our pulpits; many love the Lord so much they are even tolerant of the hostility we spew. What say you? Does Jesus love them? Our hearts already know – everyone is precious, everyone is known by God.

This day calls for a new ethic – one that is of compassion, one that trusts and has love as the guiding principle. The truth of the matter is that people – young and old – are making sexual choices with or without the blessing of the pastor or benefit of civil ceremony. In this climate where your selection of mate could be your death sentence, it is critical that the church speak with knowledge and compassion about condoms, contraceptives, and STDs.

If the black church is going to impact the outrageous numbers of reported STDs among black youth, it must break the silence about human sexuality and sex. Data shows that only 11 percent of US teens get most STD information from their parents or other family members. Eighty-nine percent get it from peers and the media. Where is the voice of the church?

We need to help parents explore issues about their own sexuality and develop the facility to talk with their children. In a previous job as liaison to churches, trying to prevent early teen parenting and the spread of STDs, I encountered many pastors who refused the program, saying, “We don't have this problem with kids in our church.” With an attitude like that, it was clear that if they did have young persons who were sexually active, they certainly were not confiding in the pastor.

The problems in our community are opportunities for companionate ministry. The time has come for us to awaken from complacency and move from self-righteousness to struggle with these issues. If we are going to break the silence, let's go all the way.


Reverend Mariah Britton is the associate minister to youth at Riverside Church in New York City. She is in the doctoral program in human sexuality at NYU. This article is adapted from a talk Rev. Britton gave at Howard University.

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