|Mark Tooley and Holland Webb
Institute on Religion and Democracy
ECUMENICAL ABORTION-RIGHTS COALITION HOSTS WASHINGTON SUMMIT
July 14, 1999
The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) hosted its annual "Breaking the Silence" summit on black sexuality in Washington, DC, attracting over 600 clergy and laity. Summit speakers defended not only the full availability of abortion, but also the full acceptance of homosexuality by churches and the distribution of contraceptives to sexually active children.
With few exceptions, RCRC speakers were skeptical of sexual abstinence programs for teenagers and declined to mention traditional Christian teachings about heterosexual marriage as the proper context for sexual expression.
RCRC is a coalition that includes 44 religious organizations, including the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the United Methodist Women's Division, and agencies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, several Jewish organizations, and numerous independent church caucuses such as Catholics for a Free Choice.
Although RCRC is comprised primarily of predominantly white religious bodies, the annual summit on black sexuality appears to be an attempt to enlist more socially conservative black churches in the abortion rights movement. RCRC is absolutist in its defense of abortion on demand, defending the legality of late term partial-birth abortion and opposing parental notification or consent laws for under-age teen-agers seeking abortions.
"This movement is really picking up speed," boasted RCRC president the Rev. Carlton Veazey. "God is in this movement," he affirmed. "The work that we are doing [abortion rights activism] is holy work." Veazey, who is Baptist, also expressed hope that churches are beginning to change their traditional opposition to homosexual practice.
Perhaps one of the most theologically provocative speakers was John Kinney, who is American Baptist and Dean of Virginia Union Theological Seminary in Richmond. He bewailed the notion that God is "over" humanity or that God is threatened by human "self-expression." Similarly, Kinney dismissed the notion that spirit should control the body, as both spirit and body should be accepted as equally powerful. He likened this balance between spirit and body with Jesus as the incarnation of both God and man. He called this balance an "africological understanding of the body."
"Theologically, Mary was not a virgin," Kinney said of Jesus' mother. Whether she was biologically a virgin or not Kinney said only God knows. But he said she had been so influenced by her patriarchal culture that she believed she needed a man to father her child when God told her she was to conceive. This dependence on a man meant Mary could not be a true virgin.
Kinney blamed Christianity's too often false view of God as "above" humanity on the serpent in the Garden of Eden, who told Adam and Eve that God would resent their knowledge. "If God's place is over, and your place is under, you go to a church with no God," Kinney complained. "Your humanity is an invitation to majesty." He asked the audience to love their bodies and to refrain from sexual activity when "whole love" is not present, but he did not define whole love.
Kelly Brown Douglas of Howard Divinity School shared an angrier message with the RCRC audience. As a self-professed "womanist" theologian and theorist of the "black Christ," she blamed sexual irresponsibility among black youth on America's racist, patriarchal, classist and heterosexual system. "It is our sexuality that allows us to put into action Jesus' words to love one another," she said. But too many are oppressed by the "white, Euro-centric view of the body as evil." Sexual discourse is the first step towards loving ourselves and loving others, she affirmed.
Workshop leader Jay Cooper, a student of Morehouse College, also faulted sexual irresponsibility on racism. He compared the black, inner-city situation to the situation of European Jews under the Nazis. "There's a holocaust going on in our community," he announced, inferring that America was similar to the Hitler regime. "I don't dislike white people," he admitted, "but I don't particularly like them either." He urged greater condom distribution to combat the fear of AIDS.
Deya Smith, a lobbyist with the National Minority AIDS Council, also touted condoms. "The religious community is afraid to talk about condoms in schools...[because] of abstinence only," she said. Abstinence-only programs originate with conservative Christians, of whom Smith expressed distrust. The church must educate youth in safe sex procedures, she insisted. An audience member gained applause by responding to Smith by saying, "I believe Jesus would give someone a condom."
Jeremiah Wright, a United Church of Christ pastor in Chicago, told the RCRC audience how he once had been "homophobic" but now accepts that God has created a certain number of animals in each species to be attracted to the same sex. He now asks parents to accept their children's homosexuality and to avoid the example of Saul in the Bible, who Wright believes opposed Jonathan because of a homosexual relationship with David. "Fag hags [meaning women who support homosexual causes] need to rise up and put Homo-bashers in their place," Wright concluded.
Joining Wright in the same workshop was Bishop Kwanebe Rainer Cheeks of the Inner Light Unity Fellowship, a New Age-type group. Cheeks, who is homosexual, said, "My sexuality is a gift of God. It is between me, God and whoever I'm with." He said he was merely following the example of Jesus, who preached love and acceptance but was rejected by the religious elites of His day.
Most prominent among the speakers was current U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, who encouraged churches to talk about sex, a topic on which the church he believes has been silent for too long. Churches should help young people by helping to raise their self-esteem and by encouraging sex as appropriate only for "special relationships."
Seemingly the only major speaker at the RCRC conference who vigorously upheld traditional Christian teachings regarding sexuality was David Blow, a pastor at the New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore. "We have allowed our young people to get turned out every day because we allow them to awaken love without support and barriers," he lamented. The black church needs to begin re-teaching the beauty of the word "virgin," he suggested.
Blow complained that parents were not offering sufficient sexual guidance to children, who instead look for direction from moves, television and rap music. While the media must realize their responsibility to the youth culture, parents must accept the primary responsibility for the rearing of their children, he urged. Youth should understand that the body is good, Blow said, but also that it must be used according to God's mandates.
The traditionalist message that Blow delivered received little affirmation by other speakers. A ceremony during the conference honored graduates from an RCRC program for youth called "Keeping It Real." The program is an apparent response to church-based abstinence-only programs. According to one leader who spoke, "We need to stress abstinence, but we need to understand that not everyone is going to do that." According to another, "I would rather tell our young people that, 'If you are going to do something, use a condom.'" The overall theme of "Keeping It Real" is one of dialogue and openness about sexuality among young, acknowledging the option of abstinence, but also "keeping it real" by arming young people for safe sex.
"People ask me how I get into the black community," said RCRC president Veazey at the concluding press conference. "I get into the black community by talking about the whole range of reproductive health. Choice is only one issue; it's a big issue for us, but it's only one issue."
Added Bishop Cheeks, "Conferences like this begin to open the door [to acceptance of homosexuality in the churches]."