Evangelical

Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church – The Devil is in the Unknown

This post is a part of a larger series, which can be viewed here.

Let me tell you about one of my favorite people on this side of the sphere: Ebony Janice of the Free People project. In addition to her vlogsjustice work, and philanthropy, Ebony Janice is the author of a few books. #PutyourfriendsonFriday

The point is that in one of these books she coins the term #ChristianDemonicFilter. This is the notion that everything that is not EXPLICITLY in the Bible with EXPLICIT EXPLICITNESS in all EXPLICITRY… is not just unknown… it’s demonic.

And anyone who grow up under the influence of folks who interpreted the Bible literally knows exactly what I’m talking about:

Under this type of teaching, you begin to (either ignorantly or arrogantly) think that the only acceptable spiritual practices happen within the confines of Evangelical Christianity.
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This post is not intended to debate on whether malevolent forces are real. It’s to share a personal understanding: the devil, demons, and / or malevolent forces are not involved in every thing we do not OR willingly refuse to… understand.

When I was in high school, there was a “minister” who came to prominence by the name of G. Craig Lewis and Ex Ministries. In high school Bible study, we watched one of Lewis’ dvds (lol) in which he posited that hip hop music & artists were demonic. As in… literally transferring demons through our “ear gate”.

Ya’ll think I’m kidding. I can feel it through the computer screen. Yes, this is a real dude. Yes, he really taught such drivel. And yes… this was the topic of an entire high school Bible study. #IdontlooklikewhatIbeenthrough (LOL).

It seems far-fetched now, but I can see how this type of teaching came to prominence at the time. It was the time where everything, anything could be cause to cry out “Demonic”! And unfortunately, some of this rhetoric still persists. It often confounds me.

For more on this, consult Bartlett’s 2006 work, Rachel Pollack’s 1998 work, and Katz & Goodwin’s 2015 works (to name a few).

As a note, if it was not clear, these same spaces are where some of our chakra centers are!

Given this logic, we could also have an entire conversation here on the ideas of cultural arrogance / dominance that comes from Christian religious privilege. Because these are practices that have also been in place for thousands of years. For now, I will say that this is a thing… and folks have to do better about acknowledging it – and fixing it.

According to this logic, there are thousands of trap doors – thousands of levers that the enemy can pull. So, as you can imagine, this gives way to a dominating fear… a fear that renders people incapable of exploring anything outside of their own understandings of the Bible (oooorrr their pastor’s understanding).

This simply wasn’t a sustainable way to live for me. The concept was toxic because it bred fear, constant penance, and even a bit of arrogance. And this is not the type of person, I believe, we are actualized in the earth to be.

I’ve benefited from a variety of spiritual practices through the years but in the past 3 years I have been increasingly vocal about it. My friends will tell you, if you come into my home with low vibes… we’re doing an aura cleansing at the door. Saging or burning palo santo happens at least once a week in my home and as we speak, my crystal is charged to assist me in the work I’m doing on my crown chakra.

I’ve learned to sit in meditation and it’s absolutely necessary and non-negotiable for me to do this. It calms me, grounds me, helps me remember why I’m here. And I do all of this in addition to prayer and other forms of charismatic spiritual practice I grew up with in the nondenominational (but Pentecostal-leaning) Black church (the irony is that those things aren’t spelled out literally in the Bible either… they are a product of cultural / ancestral lineage i.e. shouting, “catching” the Holy Ghost, etc). These aren’t necessarily “new” practices for me – it’s simply that for a while, I had to go through the process of being unbothered. It is through pursuing these practices that I have found no slippery slope – simply more expressions of & languages for the Divine / G-d in my life!

This year, I decided to fully embrace the things that once caused me inordinate (and unnecessary) amounts of fear. I decided to trust that God was within me; that God would guide to me the things that served me… and away from the things that would harm me. This year, I decided to pursue the “spiritual technologies” that called out to me the most (Lomax, 2016).

Through reading & speaking with various ministers & healers, I also began to understand a bit more about my social location as a Black American Christian. Perhaps you can imagine my *mind-blown* moment, when I realized that in a not-so-distant-past, Black ministers were often diviners as well. There was room for spiritual syncretism (and there still is, in many traditions). For example, in the 1997 text Conjure and Christianity in the Nineteenth Century: Religious Elements in African American Magic, Chireau unpacks:

“For generations, magic has persisted in black culture, often obscured but deemed compatible with other spiritual traditions. Its widespread appeal is attested to by numerous accounts describing conjuring relics, supernatural rituals…among African American churchgoers. From slavery days to the present, practitioners and clients of the magical arts have moved freely across ecclesial boundaries, drawing copiously from the symbols and language of Christianity”. (p. 226)

Yet, given all this, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve been asked “But are you still ‘saved’ (in the Evangelical sense)”  more than enough this year. I’ve realized that this question is not necessarily about me and that it is, to some level, socialized into people. On an individual level, there will be (and are) practices that we may be uncomfortable with. However, I think it’s time to (at least) consider that there’s toxicity in believing that everything unknown, unexplored through evangelical Christian lenses or fundamental Christian lenses = demonic.

Read the rest of the ‘toxic concepts’ series here.

Additional Resources:

Yvonne Patricia Chireau. (1997). “Conjure And Christianity In The 19th Century: Religious Elements In African American Magic”. Religion And American Culture. Volume 7, Issue 2. 225-246. http://works.swarthmore.edu/fac-religion/38

Lomax, T. A. (2016). “Technology of Living” Toward a Black Feminist Religious Thought. The Black Scholar, 46(2), 19-32.

Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church – On Sex & Throwin’ It In a (Prayer) Circle

“Once you know the truth, you can’t ever go back and pick up your suitcase of lies. Heavier or not, the truth is yours now”. – Sue Monk Kidd

“What are the heavy truths that are yours now”? – Journaling exercise

In the past, I’ve chronicled the toxic concepts that I have unlearned from church and / or church adjacent spaces (campus ministries, study groups, etc.).

Today, I’m picking up the series with three more posts on toxic concepts I unlearned (because…word count).

Toxic Concept: Women’s sexuality can be and SHOULD be treated as a commodity, define her level of “purity”, and only be used in the service of gaining & keeping a husband.

Lena, a youth group minister*, sat us all down for one of her infamous ‘talks’. You never really knew what to expect from Lena, so the best course of action was to brace yourself for whatever was coming. In this talk, she took out a box of tissues:

“If I need to wipe my nose, then I use one of these tissues”. She feigned wiping and dramatically dropped one to the ground. “Now that I’ve done that… who wants to use this tissue”.

Of course, the room was enveloped in silence and stares.

“Some of you want to be hoes in the hallway and sluts in the stairwell. But once it’s gone, it’s gone. Once it’s used, it’s used. Have some more pride and dignity in yourself. You ought to carry yourself in the manner with which you want to be treated!”

Humming under the surface of my consciousness, I learned that having sex (and moreover, having it freely) would bring my worth down to the size of a snotty, used tissue – fit only to be discarded.

If you’re not familiar with this type of rhetoric, then this example can seem pretty extreme. To be clear, there are many spaces where similar analogies are made: “Your virginity is a gift – you don’t want to give your husband an opened gift”. Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye (and icon of the Evangelical Christian movement in the early 2000s), likened virginity to a rose. “Losing it” or giving it away would result in all of the petals being plucked off – there would be nothing left to give for your someday-husband.

So, I learned to be afraid. Afraid of my own body and its desires.
I learned that good Christian women “keep their legs closed” (as if that’s the only way to… you know what, let me not get ahead of myself) until marriage and that THIS would result in procuring a wonderful husband – and at that point, he would be provided with access to your body as a gift, an unused tissue, a fully blooming rose.

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I know it sounds like… a lot. But it is this rhetoric that reinforced what we now refer to as ‘purity culture’.

So, why am I writing about this again and why am I writing about this now? First, because this culture still exists and is now being further distilled down / spread abroad via memes. (Help us, Jesus). Second, because many Black churches have adopted, repackaged, preached, and profited off of these ideals. (Help us, Jesus).

It suggests that women who do NOT make the choice to abstain until marriage are unclear about their body’s worth. Not even THEIR INTRINSIC worth. The worth. Of their body. Yikes.

But perhaps most importantly, I bring it up now because these beliefs have such harmful ramifications in day-to-day life. These ramifications are things that some of the people I love are STILL living with & through. The No Shame Movement chronicled an entire chat  regarding some of these lasting impacts.

I want to tell you about the countless moments of attempting to comfort friends who really & truly felt like / feel like “losing” their virginity means losing their greatest “commodity” and “asset”. (Shudder). I want to tell you about the private spaces I’ve curated with the help of some good friends – in order to address the feelings & even questions that come up when you’ve grown up with this type of toxic belief. I could tell you about the women I’ve known who married hastily – simply because they had sex with their partners and felt that penance meant marrying that person.

I could tell you about the panic attacks that came over me in waves – even after I knew that my sexuality wasn’t a bargaining chip. Even after I knew I could make my own decisions about my sexuality AND have a secure relationship with the Divine. Even after I knew that my virginity wasn’t just some commodity for a husband to enjoy. And I want to tell you that I’m not the only one who experiences this – that after healing from this, I went on to curate private spaces for other women to process unlearning this shame & to ask basic questions about sex & sexual health after the gaps that abstinence-only education left in their path. I could tell you, from first-hand conversations I’ve had, that sometimes your body has to unlearn the trauma of this toxic concept… has to learn how to experience pleasure without guilt. But the word count it would take would be too great for just one post…

So, I’ll end by sharing a story about its ramifications in my own life.

A friend of mine is doing research on this very topic (and it’s going to be amazing when it comes out). I’d agreed to help out with a research query she had – and responding opened up my own experience to me in a way I’d never considered before. I told her:

I saw the toxicity of this belief first-hand when I ended up in a pretty bad relationship with an aspiring minister. I was beginning to do more formal study into this topics at the time, which really wasn’t agreeing with this partner. So, asking for what I wanted resulted in being seen as “domineering” and / or a temptation to deviate from the Gospel. I listened to their stories about they repressed their own sexuality and was told that even passionate kissing paved a way to the slippery slope of eternal damnation. (This is not hyperbole). It was clear that the only circle I was going to be throwing it in… was a prayer circle.

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The hilariously awkward Netflix show, Chewing Gum, does a great job of showing this type of dynamic

Who knows whether that choice was actually mine – I was too busy worried that my “feminine wiles” would steer us “off the path”. Hashtag the patriarchy is a mind-fuck.

Of course, over time, I had to re-imagine my role in that relationship (read: chile, we broke up – Mama didn’t raise no fool). But after debriefing this period of time, I realized two major things:

1) My partner got this from somewhere. They got these notions from the pulpit, from their Bible college, and from their socialization into male privilege.

2) This didn’t just happen to me. 

There is an unbalanced pressure on women in religious spaces to view their sexuality as nothing more than a commodity – something to preserve and give away in service of a husband. Given the huge industry that purity culture makes through selling rings, books, and multimedia efforts – sex is selling – even the lack of it.

So, what I’m saying is this… and this alone… WHENEVER we feel we have the right to be prescriptive about every woman’s body & sexuality… we’re already in the wrong. And although not under the same circumstances, it’s still helpful to ask the question that James Baldwin posited (one that gets me free every. single. time): Who benefits?

Who benefits from the mass sexual repression of women? And how does it point to making money off of our bodies?

Ending Notes:
In the pursuit of answering this question, do feel free to check out Dr. Tamura Lomax’s work on religion & the erotic, NoShameMovement.com, and the #Blackchurchsex thread on Twitter.

*The title “throwin it in a prayer circle” stems from a popular meme which made its rounds on Twitter & Instagram

This post is a part of a larger series. You can read the other posts in the series here.

Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church – White Jesus, Colorblind Savior

This post is a part of a larger series, which can be viewed here.

Toxic Concept: Jesus’ cultural context doesn’t matter.
(read: Jesus didn’t have a color)
(read most often as: Jesus was White)

“The Christian Church has tended to overlook its Judaic origins, but the fact is that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew of Palestine when he went about his Father’s business, announcing the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited

Last week, I saw the Fences movie for the second time. It was my favorite play when I studied Theater and I cannot overstate how amazing Denzel Washington & Viola Davis were in that film. However, one thing that I could not miss came through the set design. Just above the sink where Rose (played by Davis) would peel potatoes and wash dishes was a rendering of White Jesus.

Yo…

This was such an interesting set choice because in my lived experience (and you might be able to argue that in the experience of many Black Americans), White Jesus is a part of the walls of many of our elders’ homes. Not all. But enough to have been chosen as a part of the set design for Fences.

In my own upbringing, White renderings of Jesus moved like a ghost in the subtext of my religious heritage.

Now, to be clear, my parents are committed to our cultural heritage. In other words…

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They told me about where Jesus was born, pointed to it on a map. They made it clear that given his sociocultural context… Jesus was not White. My parents aren’t theologians.

Neither am I.

However, most of my friends are theologians. They say the most brilliant things I’ve heard and that is not debatable. 🙂 On one such occasion, I reposted a thought from Dr. Ashon Crawley which directly discussed the social impacts of imagining Jesus as White.

In a manner of min…seconds, someone piped in with a case for White Jesus, Colorblind Savior. My first (internal) response? “Chile… my ancestors did not die for this”. *Rolls eyes and rubs temples

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I’ve known, deeply and intimately, the ramifications that primarily White Jesus, Colorblind Savior has. When I got to college, I attempted involvement with campus ministries. Campus ministry at a predominantly White institution often means… welll… predominantly White theological understandings. I don’t want to mince words here: it was, overall, a demoralizing experience.

When Jesus wasn’t being rendered as White, He was off – busy telling me… through them… that my own culture & ethnicity did not matter – under a gross misinterpretation of the Galatians 3:38 text. 

It wasn’t until years later, when I read Howard Thurman’s 1948 text “Jesus and the Disinherited”, that I realized just how much Jesus’ own sociohistorical and cultural contexts made a difference. Or that I realized just how harmful and dishonest rendering Jesus as primarily White is.

To render Jesus as White is to say that the various times He was referred to as Jesus “of Nazareth” can be erased right out of the text… right out of what his lived experience was… It means missing out on how hard they TRRIIIIIEEED ITTTTT in the book of John 1 (verses 45 & 46):

45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (NSRV)

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And you don’t get the “try” if you don’t get that Nazareth held its own social location. As did Jesus.

The toxicity of the White Jesus concept is that it allows Jesus’ personhood to be invoked right along efforts of American conquest & the subjugation of people of color – the purposes for which the social construct of Whiteness was built upon in the first place. Putting a construct of Whiteness onto Jesus is certainly convenient when you’re trying to justify a notion that the Divine affirms the genocide, stolen land / resources, and enslavement of people of color. Pft.

Put in other terms by Dr. Crawley:

“i sometimes forget and ask myself what would white evangelicals do if they finally realized, in earnest, that jesus was not a white man. but then i remember: white evangelical christianity has already rejected the biblical jesus. they do not believe he was a palestinian jewish man, they believe he was white with sometimes blond hair. and such a rejection of his personhood – he certainly would be a POC in modern parlance, though it’s an anachronism of sorts – but such a rejection, the continued need for him to be white, goes hand in hand with the continued need for him to be capitalist, sexist, homo- and transphobic. white evangelical christianity remade jesus into an image that would allow for conspicuous consumption, for manifest destiny, for the genocide of indigenous peoples, for the enslavement of black peoples.
what we’re noticing now with folks like paula white and vicki yohe are simply the extension of a quiet displeasure, a sorta disdain and contempt with difference itself. it ain’t new. but folks are gonna have to choose if they’re gonna sing with them still (like travis) or make a different kind of stand”

In my own life, I’ve found the concept to be toxic because in addition to all of this… the notion of primarily White Jesus, Colorblind Savior is demoralizing. It denotes a ghastly racialized lack of imagination: that the imago Dei – the image of God – can be found in people of color. It denies that the Divine exists, yes, even outside of the construction of Whiteness. When it is suggested that Jesus had no color at all, it is a gross erasure of his humanity AND the humanity of those who come from his sociocultural context.

I’ve seen how conceiving Jesus as primarily White allows us to continue building up  and excusing away Christian conferences that are the antithetical to intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1995). It allows us to ignore how our current political landscape has employed White Evangelical Jesus & White Evangelical Christianity towards further subjugation: the stripping of reproductive rights for women, the taking of sacred lands via pipelines, and as Kieryn Darkwater so eloquently describes… all under the guise of  “Taking Back The Country For Christ” .

So let’s all be clear:

“Jesus was an actual person.
That means he had an ethnicity, nationality, and cultural background. Because all people who walk the earth do”

And this sociocultural location was as a Palestinian Jew.

The quoted text above were words I literally had to say to someone. Just a few days ago. In 2017. And so, this notion bears repeating.

For more on this topic, see John Pavlovitz’s post, “Dear Jesus, You’re Fired From American Evangelical Christianity” (2017) and read you some Howard Thurman (like literally everything… anything).

This post is a part of a larger series, which can be viewed here.

I Didn’t Choose Mystic Life, It Chose Me! (Also titled: Inheriting Mysticism from Other-mothers)

Monday – Group Meditation and affirmations
Tuesday – Chat – “Sounds like your sacral chakra might be out of balance. Let’s see if there are any exercises we can do to help with that”
Wednesday – Too-good-to-be-true coworkers lovingly refer to me as “The Apothecary” – known for having an assortment of herbal teas at the ready to ease things like stomach discomfort, lack of focus, headaches, and so on. 
Thursday – Text from friend: “Thanks for letting me know about the sage! It seems like things are looking up”
Friday – *Research on contemplative practices rooted in my cultural heritage

Many of my friends refer to me as “mystical”. I grew up in a pretty theologically conservative (yet, sometimes subversive) place for most of my childhood. In that space, we were discouraged from that which we could not easily understand through literal readings of Biblical text.

Yet… at the same time…

My other-mothers, who are now my ancestors, taught me to have a life filled with mysticism.

My godmother, Lynette, was one of the joys in my world. She became my mother’s best friend when they were both in the fourth grade. She was a consistent force of love in my life. She passed when I was 12 years old. For years, after my dear Mother woke up early, kissed my forehead, and set off on her long commute to work, I spent the remaining hours before school at my godmom’s house. She made sure I was washed, dressed, fed, and that my hair was neatly arranged before I went out.

She lit a candle for me everyday, so that I would have something delicious to smell, first thing in the morning. She regularly brewed me cups of Lemon Zinger and Raspberry tea, and introduced me to new blends when she could. I learned mindfulness from her as we sat at her dining room table, slowly sipping, sometimes listening to music – mostly, just being present.

My godmother believed that what the earth offered us was good. My mother, a medical professional, taught me about biology, different types of medicines, and their effects on the body. Simultaneously, my godmother, a children’s occupational therapist, took me to orchards to pick fruit and taught me their properties. She explained the usages of tea and the benefits of the probiotics in yogurt. She made things from scratch and believed in the healing of laughter.

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Circa Age 5-6 at Net’s Home

My grandmother was serious about God. She grew up in the Baptist church, in the lineage of the Reverend Lewis Rice, who helped to form  African Zion Baptist Church,  with “a group of free Black families” in 1852. She would often tell the story of how she was “born again” in her 40’s – converted towards a charismatic, nondenominational, Evangelical display of belief in God. When I wasn’t home, I accompanied her almost everywhere – to her home town of Charleston, West Virginia, in the summer, through her everyday errands, and to countless tent services and churches during their Revivals and Healings.

My grandmother believed in God and in spirits -in benevolent angels and vicious demons. She believed in the power of anointing with oil and the symbolic protection of a Cross drawn on the foreheads of her grandchildren. She believed that healing could happen through prayer and “laying on of hands”. She took me to places where I might encounter healing energy. She hid me in her car, armed with snacks and a coloring book, during services that intimated that an evil spirit might be nearby. She would stand watch and pray.

Afterward, she told me that when I’d encounter an evil spirit, I would know it by my “gut” and by the Spirit. She gave me rides through our city, casually making conversation about where she believed the warlocks and haints might be. She taught me to be vigilant against that which would steal my joy and peace.

When I got older, when I learned more, when I started using “big girl” words like hermeneutics and epistemological, I found a great deal of her expression of belief to be a bit odd and a bit “problematic”. I craved and loved the intellectual rigor and on visits home, I would share what I’d learned with my Gramma. She would smile deeply and genuinely, saying:

“Jadey-Mae, sometimes I don’t know what you’re talking, but you sure are talkin’ it good”. 

For a long time, I distanced myself from this type of faith and mysticism… for so many reasons. It took me a while to see the deep spirituality in what my Grandmother and Godmother were offering me – even if we didn’t verbalize these things in the same way.

As I grew older, I began making my own tea blends to assist with some of my ailments (ginger/licorice root/cinnamon & clove for stomach upset, chamomile and lavender for sleep), and I thought of my Godmother. I learned about chakras and practice of reiki – energy healing – by the hovering or laying on of hands and I thought about my Grandmother. I recalled the way she would whisper prayers and rub our backs, lingering on those places where she felt a bit  of tension. She was the first person to verbalize the importance of regarding our bodies with loving and healing touch.

I learned about mindful meditation, and then, circled back to the shared moments at the dining room table with my Godmom. I made decisions and reflected on my Gramma’s lesson that I’d know what would serve me well “from my gut’s response” to a person, place, thing, energy, spirit. I began buying essential oils for varied reasons (eucalyptus for cold / flu season, lavender for calm) and mapped it with my Gramma’s Christocentric understanding of “The Oil”. What I gained from Gramma’s impartation is that not all energies are good ones, and that I must be vigilant against that which would harm me. What I gained from Lynette’s impartation is that slowing down, meditating, stretching, brewing, were all gifts that could center me throughout my life.

In the year 2016, I opened up a chat with my good friend and asked, “Gurl, people swear I’m mystical. They might be right”. Her response told me that I was probably the only one still working through this fact (lol)! I responded offhandedly, “I didn’t choose the mystic life – the mystic life chose me” and then I realized what I said was true.

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Delivering the Invocation at Princeton’s Black Theology & Leadership Institute – Photo Credit, Dr. Regina Langley


I talked about these experiences with Ebony Janice of the Free People Project on her vlog. You can view that here!

Featured Image Credit: Createherstock.com