Gay Marriage Divides Black Religious Leaders

The Rev. Harry Jackson, who pastors a church in the Washington suburbs, believes same-sex marriage is a threat to the African-American family. But the Rev. Michael Eric Dyson, a leading scholar of the African-American experience, disagrees. The two Christian leaders explain their opposing views. Both say their faith informs their perspective.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the Barbershop guys talk about this week in the News. Dick Cheney, Miss California. What could be better than that? But first, our regular Faith Matters conversation. That's where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Earlier we spoke with former Washington, D.C. mayor and current city councilman Marion Barry. He was the only member of the 13 member council to oppose a measure that would've allowed D.C. to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed elsewhere.

That vote came just as Maine became the sixth state to legalize gay marriage. As we just discussed, Mr. Barry's vote came as a surprise to some who knew him as a champion of civil rights and an early supporter of gay rights. And as you just heard, he says he still is, but he says his decision was very much motivated by his understanding of the views of his overwhelmingly African- American constituents and most particularly, the views of their religious leaders and his own religious convictions.

So what about that? If there a consensus among African-American faith leaders, one way or the other? Is there a vigorous discussion about this in the African- American faith community? Here to talk about that, we have two prominent African-American faith leaders. Joining me here in our Washington, D.C. studio is Bishop Harry Jackson Jr. He is senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in the Washington, D.C. Area. He has been a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage and the D.C. council's decision to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Also with us is Michael Eric Dyson. He is a Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University. He is an ordained Baptist minister. He is author of many books on race, politics and the culture. His latest is "Can You Hear Me Now?" And he is host of a radio program, The Michael Eric Dyson show. He is with us from New York. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us both.

HARRY JACKSON J: Thank you.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Let me ask each of you how you arrived at the decision, at the place you are now on the issue of same-sex marriages and sanctifying, particularly sanctifying those relationships. I'm interested to know whether this is an issue you struggled with either personally or theologically or spiritually? And Bishop Jackson, why don't you start.

JACKSON J: Well, I'm against same-sex marriage. I struggled with the issue of the civil rights question. I think it's little bit trumped up. And I'm looking at the next generation. It's not really about me or folks who want to get married it's about what's going to happen when you redefine marriage, family, parenting? And then in the schools we've got "Heather Has Two Mommies," we've got all those kinds of things. Do I want to go down this slippery slope where I begin to change what has been established, I believe by God in the Scriptures. So I think it's - the fight is about what the next generation will think.

MARTIN: But is the core of your view theologically driven? Would that be accurate to say this is your understanding of what scripture requires and demands?

JACKSON J: Absolutely, that's where my starting point is. Absolutely.

MARTIN: And Reverend Dyson, can I ask you, is this question you struggled with personally, theologically, spiritually? And what animates your point of view on this issue?

ERIC DYSON: There's no question that I struggled with it theologically. I suppose that I inherited the same vocabulary and world view as most black Christians do, most Christians in general, to be sure. It was heterosexist in the sense that it took the heterosexual orientation as the norm from which to start as the given. And everything that fell outside of that was not acceptable. But as I began to dig deeper into the Scripture where I read, you know, love the Lord thy God with all thy soul, heart and mind. Love thy neighbor as thy self. That's what the law of the prophets comes down to, Jesus says. There's no asterisk, oh, except the gay or lesbian or transgender to bi- sexual people. Unlike Bishop Jackson, I think it is a matter of extending a trajectory of civil rights along with theological reflection into our consideration here.

He says, you know, we're redefining marriage. Well, look at what the heterosexuals are doing with it now. "Heather Has Two Mommies," Shaniqua got four baby daddies and I defend Shaniqua.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ERIC DYSON: My point is that heterosexual arrangements, if we check them for their health, certainly have not led to an endorsement of what those arrangements might look like, even if the ideal is failed. So I believe ultimately that God is a God of love, God is a God who creates human beings in splendorous difference. And I think we must embrace all of those differences and be careful about applying a biblical stricture against homosexuality when the same biblical stricture was applied to black people by white supremacists who sought to use the Bible as a cajole to beat black people over the head and keep them enslaved and to keep women subordinate to men.

MARTIN: What about that Bishop Jackson? There are those who say, well, for every person who sites Scripture in defense of their view against same-sex marriage, there are those who say you can certainly site Scripture that were used to warrant slavery, that has been used to warrant child abuse, that has been used to warrant the abuse of women partners. What do you say about that?

JACKSON J: Well, I will say that they are correct, but those are not appropriate and correct interpretations of the Scripture. Anyone who looks at this Scripture doesn't see child slavery as being endorsed in the Bible. It's not there, does not see if you really read the New Testament, a male-oriented bashing of women. It's not really there. The culture, as Dr. Dyson has already discussed, brought it's eyeglasses to the Scriptures instead of seeing what the Scripture has to say. So we profoundly disagree. Most African-American clergy agree with me.

MARTIN: But how do you know that your interpretation is correct on this point given that throughout history, you would agree, I know, that as you just said that other interpretations of Scripture have been, in the current view, incorrect?

JACKSON J: Well, it's one of those things about faithfulness to what you believe to be the truth of the Scripture and the council of folks who are the faith community. As Dr. Dyson knows, people who decided in the early days of the faith, these particular books would be in the Scriptures and these would not be. And essentially, the elders of the faith have gathered together and said, this is the orthodox path. This is truth as we understand it from the written word of God and how we understand Scripture to be inspired and we as a community say, this body of truth means this. Now could that group be wrong? Certainly, but I don't think that I really have the right to play with the Scripture.

MARTIN: When you said that earlier that you've struggled with the civil rights aspect of that, what do you mean?

JACKSON J: I mean, individuals. I've got gay family members, I have folks who are in all kind of walks of life. And as a black person thinking about 400 years of slavery, thinking about the stuff we've gone through, I would not want to keep anybody from a genuine right. I think most of us black people feel like that.

On other hand, black folks, it seems to me, have a pension for calling right, right and wrong, wrong. Meaning that I may not even be living right but I say, that's wrong even though I'm not doing the right thing. And in that spirit, I think we are very much in danger as a whole culture of letting people do whatever they want in the name of, it's not my business, I'm not in your bedroom, whatever. And Doctor Dyson, I've read some studies by Doctor Stanley Kurtz of Harvard that say that in places that have allowed same sex marriage that there is an acceleration of a kind of breakdown in the family that we already see in black families.

MARTIN: You are talking about overseas? You're talking about in other countries?

JACKSON J: Overseas, other countries, like in Europe. And so if we got 40 percent of the young single women probably will never be married in the black community and we're looking at my grandbabies coming into world that is spiraling out of control, this is not the only aspect of the problem. But somewhere, I got to say stop the madness, I'm going to stop this negative influence and then I'm going to do marital intervention, I'm going to try to heal marriages. I've been married 33 years and that's what I want to promote.

MARTIN: Reverend Dyson, what about that? Bishop Jackson says right is right and the Bible may have been wrong on some things but it's right about this thing?

ERIC DYSON: Well, you know, you pressed him on the critical issue. I don't think, with all due respect to the brilliance of the Bishop, that he gave sufficient answer to you because it is arbitrary ultimately. And it depends upon poll driven analysis of the Scripture, which is contrary. Jesus said, wide is the way that leads to destructure, in other words 80 percent of the people, narrow is the way to leads toward heaven. The smaller percentage. So the minority is in the right here, according to Jesus. And slaves obey your masters was applied during child slavery.

When you look at the (unintelligible) the house codes, those, in Ephesians for instance, slaves obey your masters, women obey your husbands, children obey your fathers. Get this, if you are that dude, if you're the guy, because you could be a slave master and a husband and a father, you rolling big. And the Bible is being written by people who look like you. So I disagree, I think that the philosophical architecture of gender oppression got written into the Scriptures. I think that the bias and bigotry toward the vulnerable was written there, but that the Bible is big enough and deep enough and profound enough to argue with itself and to allow various interpretations to prevail. I ultimately think that what we are responsible for is to interpret this Bible according to love. I don't think, finally in ending, that's it's an experiment. I understand Bishop Jackson when he talks about this experiment and the crushing numbers in Europe.

Let's do an analysis right here on the ground in America, given the fact that heterosexual communities that generate marriage or the lack of marriage in African-American communities, gay marriage ain't the problem, 'cause there ain't many gay people married. And when people say, well, it's a lifestyle choice, look, when did you decide to be heterosexual? Let me see, at seven years old, you went to your momma, look, check this out. I'm going to need that Corvette at 16 because I'm about macking the ladies, and I need that black book so I can appeal to them.

There is no conscious choice of heterosexual identity any more than there is a homosexual one. The last person in the world who wants to be homosexual, for the most part, are homosexuals.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr., and Professor Michael Eric Dyson, also, an ordained minister, about the gay-marriage movement and how it is being received among African-Americans, particularly the faith community of African-Americans.

Bishop Jackson, what about that? What about Reverend Dyson's point, that the Bible is a living document and that a love-based perspective would sanction marriage for those that love each other, and that the core of that is the love and the commitment of the parties as opposed to their gender. What do you say to that?

JACKSON J: Well, I disagree. It's really not good hermeneutics, good exegeses of the scriptures. A word, obey, that he talked about to be translated slightly different in terms of arrange yourself, adjust yourself. So I don't think that...

ERIC DYSON: All of which remain problematic. I just want to throw that in: all of which remain problematic.

JACKSON J: Well, they do, but most theologians don't come out where you come out. And so you make a good statement that hey, the path is narrow that leads to truth. But right now, it feels as though in our culture, especially in our communications field, that everybody is pro-gay marriage, pro-this, pro- that. It's popular, and I think there's a difference between being Biblically faithful and being politically correct.

MARTIN: Is the core of your view, Bishop, that homosexuality is indeed a matter of moral choice as opposed to biological determination? Is that, do you think, the core of your difference between you and Reverend Dyson?

JACKSON J: I think so, because the complexity of choosing your gender - let's say you feel you're gay - there's so many psychological aspects that could cause you to feel like you're gay. But I believe that God has put a divine sentence in every individual, a reflection of himself, that maleness and femaleness are a part of this divine revelation of who God is put in human form.

In other words, he wired men to be men, women to be women, to reflect something of his glory. And he did that on purpose. He wasn't confused, he didn't stutter, he didn't stammer. If that's the case, then we've got somebody who's trying to mar and reverse the indelible image of God that has been put there, on purpose, by the God who put the stars in the sky. The people that say they can see God in nature and creation, that God said male and female.

MARTIN: Can I just ask at one point, though, a point that I had made with Councilman Barry earlier, which is - for many people the proof of justice, the proof of right and wrong, is not a matter of what is popular. And you'd said that most African-American clergy, in your view, and most African-American citizens, in your view, agree with you on that. Is that dispositive(ph)? Is that what makes it right?

JACKSON J: No, that doesn't necessarily make it right. It's really the scriptures as I see it. Again, Reverend Dyson comes from more of a liberal interpretation of the Scriptures. I come from a more conservative, in terms of a Scriptural approach, and that means we're miles apart. And anyone listening to us would say hey, I agree with one or the other, based on how they value and approach the immutability or the surety of the word of God.

MARTIN: Reverend Dyson, what about you? Go ahead.

ERIC DYSON: Well, the words certainly may be immutable, you know, but not our interpretation of it. You know, when I was a child, I thought as a child, I spake as a child; when I became a man, I put away childish things, Paul said. But he said now we see through a glass darkly. Then we shall know, even as we are also known. So there's an epistemic gulf. There's a knowledge division between us and God.

JACKSON J: Yeah, but what makes you right?

ERIC DYSON: That's what I'm saying to you, but let me finish. So I'm saying to you the fact is that as human beings who are marred, to use your word, limited, fractured and therefore provisional, we can't make absolute statements about truth because we don't know them because we're not God. And in that sense, to say that we're giving the absolute, inerrant, infallible word of God is a contradiction in terms, because as Paul says, we have these treasures in earthen vessels.

We don't know the whole deal. And Howard Thurman, the great African-American mystic and preacher, said: look, you can go to the Atlantic Ocean, you can dip your glass in the Atlantic Ocean, it may be full of the Atlantic Ocean, but it's not all of the Atlantic Ocean.

MARTIN: black people need to be the last people in the world, A, to tell anybody who they need to get married to - because look, I'm just amazed that gay and lesbian people want to get married after seeing what we heterosexuals have done to the institution, number one, that restores my faith in marriage more than heterosexuals doing it.

And number two: at the end of the day, it is about love. The love of God mediated to all human beings. And since we can all acknowledge we are fallible, and we are limited, and we're cracked vessels, and we don't know the whole truth, let's in the meantime, until we find out, love each other into the next stage.

MARTIN: Bishop Jackson, we are down to our last minute. Can you give us a concluding thought?

JACKSON J: Well, we have to be Biblically faithful, let me say that again. And if the truth is not in the word, how do you know you are Christian? How do you know you really believe God's word? It seems like, to me, that you have decided you're going to interpret those Scriptures the way you want to, and you are going to live it the way you want to.

Orthodox Christianity, being born again, all those kinds of things, come out of a reverence for what thus sayeth the Scriptures, not twisting it to fit the cultural needs of the day.

MARTIN: And Reverend Dyson, I do believe that you deserve a response to that. I'm going to give you the last word to Bishop's point. How do you know you're right?

ERIC DYSON: Well, there's an implicit judgment there, suggesting that my particular interpretation of the Bible is less morally informed and theologically sophisticated. I would quibble with that, though that is his right to believe so, but therein is the problem that there's a judgementalism that is exercised.

I don't worship the Bible, I worship the God who gave the Bible. When you have closed the Bible, you have neither closed God's mind nor shut God's mouth. God continues to speak, live and exist. I think we should consult the living God for the living word for living people dealing with death, destruction and despair in the midst of our hurt humanity. I believe love will conquer all.

MARTIN: Bishop, I gave you the first word. I think it only fair to give Reverend Dyson the last word, clearly a very rich an important discussion. A professor, author and minister, Michael Eric Dyson joined us from New York. Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr., was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. We'll have links to writings by both of our guests today on our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

JACKSON J: Thank you, Michel.

ERIC DYSON: Thanks for having us on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Remember at TELL ME MORE, the conversation never ends. We'd like to hear your comments about this ongoing debate, and for the highlights of listener comments and blog posts, please check out the online edition of Backtalk.

This week, our letters segment is exclusively on the Web. You can find out what your fellow listeners are saying about our stories and add your own two cents by checking out Backtalk on the TELL ME MORE page of npr.org.

Coming up, Miss California blames her political critics for putting semi-nude pictures of her on the Web, but are the Barbershop guys buying that?

JIMI IZRAEL: This is about the rules at the end of the day. I mean, the rules say you disclose whether or not you've got these pictures out there. She said oops, I forgot I had these pictures out there. How did you forget you had these pictures out there? You're half-naked.

MARTIN: The Barbershop is next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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