(Jesus Is) Not My Savior
Religion has played a vital role in my upbringing for as long as I can remember. Whether that be learning how to pray over each meal or being dragged to Sunday church service questioning: “Why am I here?”
Before any pleasantries of “How are you?” and “Is work going well?” my mother will always ask, “Do you like Jesus?” I believe it’s her way of ensuring she hasn’t completely failed to raise a good Christian girl. My inner response is, “Why does it matter?” Knowing that if I said that, she would drag me to church, bawling her eyes out, questioning where she went wrong.
While many of us would hesitate to admit it, wanting our respective families to be proud of us is a natural human desire. As an honor roll student from elementary to high school currently on my way to obtaining a master’s degree through a scholarship, I know I have the “smart thing” down to a T; why can I not get the religion thing right too?
During my childhood, Christianity was used as a disciplinary practice. To challenge my parents’ authority was to challenge God’s as well. In contrast, religion in my household was also employed to celebrate whenever my brother and I brought honor to our family, such as praising God for blessing us with good grades. Regardless of the occasion, I knew the matriarchs in my family—my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother—were silently looking for ways to keep religion as the foundation of our family, thinking to themselves, “What would Jesus do?”
Beginning with my great-great-grandmother, the women in my family have had Christianity intertwined with their identity. She instilled the importance of honoring God and Christianity into my elders. Because of her experiences dealing with hardships, Christianity allowed her a way to find a light at the end of the tunnel. This led to the following generations of women in my family becoming affiliated with the church in any way possible. Regardless of hardship, one can only guess whom they are thinking about now: Jesus.
Unfortunately, this practice of being a devout Christian never resonated with me. Whenever I was brought to Sunday service or Wednesday night Bible study, I would think to myself: “What am I doing here? I feel like a fraud.” I would look around the church at the people kneeling or singing hymns, wishing I could be like them but counting down the minutes until I could leave.
This feeling of being an impostor or outcast contributed to my wanting to denounce everything related to Christianity as it felt like a way to silence me and strip away pieces of my identity. Between the ages of 8 and 9, I would sneak around to watch The Real World. Jokingly, I tell everyone, “MTV raised me.” Although I was too young to grasp the concepts of the shows or understand the lyrics to certain songs I would listen to, I felt seen in a way that I had never felt before.
This led to an internal conflict that I still struggle with now, as an early twenty-something—the religious teachings of my family battling it out with the liberal entertainment I consumed in my early youth.
In recent years, I have found myself drawn to alternative spirituality in a way that many Christians may see as the “devil’s work”. Spiritual practices like astrology have given me the feeling of being understood in a way that I had never experienced through Christianity before. Through this practice, I have recognized that the location of the sun, moon, and planets at the time I was born holds a direct impact on my being, and how I interact with the world around me gives me the sense of being seen and heard.
I particularly found myself drawn to tarot readings during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. At moments of extreme uncertainty around me, I felt moved to consult the cards on what the future holds for me. Tarot readings on YouTube from the likes of Stargirl the Practical Witch and the Gem Goddess gave me a sense of clarity and reassurance that I could never find in the Christian Church.
While welcoming this new practice into my life, I constantly think to myself, “Is this how a good Christian girl would behave?” When the larger question at hand is, why must my upbringing with Christianity dictate my self-worth?
Christian religion can be viewed as the bedrock of the United States. We are often told that one of the main reasons the United States of America was “founded” was for the idea of “freedom of religion,” which should allow U.S. residents to express their belief in a particular religion and change their beliefs as they please.
The real question here is: whose religion we are referring to?
Another essential component of the United States’ history is the enslavement of Black bodies, which still plays an integral part in how Black Americans interact with everyday life. Christianity and America’s dark history with slavery are forever connected and their influence on the lives of Black Americans still lingers on to this day.
Let’s be honest here, Christianity’s stronghold on the Black experience has seeped into every aspect of our community and how we live our lives. From dating to family relationships to the workplace, Bible verses can be used to describe how one should act in these spaces. I cannot help but raise the question: why should this generation of young Black folx even care?
Gen Z and Millennials are known for disrupting the status quo. Whether it is how we approach wealth or the institution of marriage, these two forward-thinking generations are looking to dismantle it all and take no prisoners. But what about when it comes to organized religion and its direct impact on Black and POC youth? When will we be able to move freely without the looming sense of guilt?
Religious guilt can stem from a multitude of factors, one of the major causes being their upbringing and the role religion had in it. Two prime examples of this are the notions of premarital sex and same-sex relationships being “ungodly” and partaking in either will constitute the eternal damnation of one’s soul.
Unfortunately, this type of fearmongering does work and has profoundly affected many young Black adults. Leading them to feel as if they cannot be their authentic selves because God and their close-knit communities will not accept them.
White America’s relationship with religion has always been different. Racism amongst white Christians was reportedly higher than among those who identify as “non-religious.” Although this experience differs from Black Americans, it comes as no surprise when you consider how Christianity was initially employed to justify racism, genocide, and slavery in North America. Many white supremacists hate groups consider themselves to be Christians, most notoriously the Ku Klux Klan.
As the most notorious white supremacist hate group in the country, the Ku Klux Klan’s hateful imagery is embedded in the minds of Black people, both old and young. Visuals such as the burning of crosses and white hoods have traumatized generations of Black Americans. The weaponization of Bible scripture, Christian symbols, and the belief of the Aryan race being “God’s chosen” is still at the root of our country and influences how public officials make laws. While they may not wear white hoods, white supremacy has eternally rooted itself in every single facet of present-day America.
The ideology behind white supremacy and the separation of the two races goes back generations, seen during the Jim Crow era through racist Southern Baptist preachers. In an NPR article from July 2020, author Tom Gjelten highlights the early days of a young Freedom Rider who was the late great John Lewis. The article highlights how a racist Baptist preacher, Henry Lyon Jr., denounced the Civil Rights movement.
“Ladies and gentlemen, for 15 years I have had the privilege of being pastor of a white Baptist church in this city,” Lyon said. “If we stand 100 years from now, it will still be a white church. I am a believer in a separation of the races, and I am nonetheless a Christian.”
This quote from Lyon perfectly illustrates how white supremacists weaponized the Church’s power on people, and how a sacred space that is supposed to be a safe space for all can become a breeding ground for hate.
I believe the first step in eradicating white supremacy’s hold on Black lives is taking a thorough look at how Christianity has prevented Black identities from living their truth, fully loving themselves, and forming healthy spiritual relationships and beliefs.
When I think of my upbringing in a historically Black church environment, the first thing that comes to mind is the demonization of homosexuality or “queerness”. Although my family had many queer friends, mainly Black queer men, there was this everyday discourse of “hate the sin, not the person.” I can also recall most of my family’s thoughts about same-sex marriage being legalized. An almost collective statement was made along the lines of “it is the beginning of the end.”
As mentioned previously, Black Christianity and white Christianity have the same bigoted tendencies; the only difference is one is packaged differently. Even though Christianity for Black America has offered them a safe space during times of hardships, it still has been a breeding ground for incessant homophobia and transphobia.
The Holy-Homophobic Church
Rev. David Brown, Deacon of the Wharton-Wesley United Methodist Church, and a diversity advisor at Temple University in Philadelphia offered a fascinating insight into his experience as a reverend who disavows the homophobia and anti-trans rhetoric that can be evident in the Black Christian Church experience.
“[A] a lot of us found our voice in the Black church,” says Rev. Brown. The church offered Black individuals the safe space to plan and protest, evident during the Civil Rights era. Influential figures such as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and former Congressman John Lewis showed how social protest and the Black church were often intertwined, at least when fighting racism.
Rev. Brown sees himself as a “social policy” preacher. “Jesus was someone who was very much a social advocate and radical, right, try to shut up and shake up the status quo, and that’s kind of how he’s lived and died,” he says.
I wonder where is that energy when it comes to Black congregations breaking the hold homophobia has over the Black Church.
As a member of the Reconciliation Ministry Movement within the United Methodist Church, Rev. Brown has been at the forefront of advocating for an inclusive church environment for the LGBTQ community within the United Methodist Church and beyond.
By performing a same-sex marriage, Rev. Brown risked being excommunicated from the United Methodist Church. This experience influenced his belief that continued radical actions are needed to eradicate the homophobia and racism embedded in the church.
“Jesus was a radical, right?” says Rev. Brown. “He wasn’t the sanitized, compartmentalized Christ figure that enabled to encourage racism and homophobia and everything else. To me, it’s going to take this type of radical continued fight and protests to broaden the tense as wide as possible, in terms of what it means to be a Christian.”
In contemporary media, religious figures such as the Christian Right have used Jesus to justify transphobic and homophobic behavior. Although the Christian Right is often depicted as older white Christian televangelists, many parishioners and leaders within the Black community are guilty of using these radical religious sentiments as a means for bigotry.
Then there is Lil Nas X. The rapper has become a rising figurehead amongst the new pantheon of Black Queerness. In the past year, he has caused an interesting conversation within the Black community and its relationship with religion, gender identity, and sexuality. Challenging the gender binary and the heteronormative ideologies rooted within the Black church is often met with much protest, most notably in Lil Nas X’s Montero era.
Don Abram of Pride in the Pews spoke about how the music video for Lil Nas X’s single Montero (Call Me By Your Name) and the song itself resonated with him due to his own experience as a queer child being raised in the Black Christian Church.
Abram suggests that Lil Nas X finally allows himself to “center his inherent worth and dignity, permitting himself to exist out loud. Dusted off the shackles of shame and reclaimed his ability to embody divine freedom.”
An Open Conversation
Regardless of the church, you found yourself in Hell and the eternal damnation of one’s soul was often used as a fear tactic to get those who strayed back on the right path. However, one may have deviated from God, Hell was your soul’s assumed destination.
Abram mentioned that fearmongering will always be a part of the church until you stop allowing it to affect you. “I eventually realized I was damned either way. Even if I remained loyal to anti-LGBTQ+ churches, they would surely use my past against me—continuing to use hell as a fear-mongering tactic to keep me in line,” he says.
I can recall my own experiences with these intimidation tactics, focused on the crime of telling trivial lies or even thinking about same-sex dating. Although the lying portion of the fearmongering no longer has a profound impact on me as it once did, the shame around same-sex dating still haunts my mind as someone who identifies themself as bisexual.
This was something I did not feel comfortable discussing with a larger audience until now.
Unpacking the generational trauma that Christianity has done within the Black community is long overdue. It should be noted that Christianity has offered the Black community a means to cope with the trauma that American Slavery has caused us. This relief has not come without a tremendous price of trauma for Black queer and trans folx.
It is time to see where spiritual and nonliteral approaches to organized religion take our community. As someone who consults with tarot readings every day and has had a personal astrology chart reading done, I have found this to be more of a welcoming experience compared to my Christian upbringing. There is no one force-feeding me their religion’s doctrine or shaming me for the things that bring me joy.
This isn’t meant to shame anyone for following Christianity or any other religion, but to allow those to think deeper about how it has conditioned their views on gender, sexuality, and gender identity. Black culture is the culture of America, and it is time for it to breathe and experience life as it should without the chokehold of organized religion.
It is time to have an open and honest conversation about the role of Christianity in our lives and how it has impacted us negatively and positively. I am no longer modeling myself to others’ expectations of how I should live based on their religion.