When I facilitate quarterly Interfaith Spirituality & Sexuality discussions, I often encourage people to look at the authority in their lives by simply asking, “What is the Truth? What is the Lie?” Although some religions discount the wisdom of our bodies, they are excellent truth and lie detectors. When someone affirms my personal spiritual truth, I typically feel open, expansive, safe and light. On the other hand, when someone negates or discounts my personal spiritual truth, (what I refer to as the lie), I can feel constricted, heavy and closed. My truth is freedom.
This year I’ve had the pleasure of attending six conferences that focused on sexuality, religion or both. Two of those conferences examined notions of freedom in unique ways which inspired me to write this essay. The first was Be the Change, Metropolitan Community Churches Conference for People of African Decent. The second was Are the Gods Afraid of Black Sexuality?, hosted by Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African American Studies.
At Be the Change, I met clinical psychologist and professor, Rev. Dr. Ronald Hopson. We shared a ride from the airport to the conference hotel. When I saw him later that day I asked, “What are you presenting on tomorrow?” He smiled and replied, “Shame. I don’t know what I’m going to say.” Well, it turns out he had plenty to say as he gently challenged everyone to examine their theology as it related to Christ, Violence and Bodies. Dr. Hopson went further to name guilt and shame as key components of fear related to sexuality and the body. His theory of the Three Pedestals of Shame as it pertains to body phobic theology is as follows:
1) Encounter with an authority figure
2) Assumption of one’s failure, sin or error
3) Hiding and/or suppression of one’s life or liveliness
I have learned from personal experience and working with clients that it is difficult to live freely while simultaneously letting an authority figure’s truth control your life. Denying our personal truth is an assumption of error, but not according to God or the Divine. It is usually the opinion of a religious authority figure whose image of God or the Divine seeks to regulate and deny sexuality rather than uplift and celebrate it. When the weight of this shame causes us to suppress our liveliness to make other people comfortable, we can often find ourselves in a sexual and spiritual closet.
Over 15 years ago, I witnessed the pastor who baptized me as a child use his religious authority to scare and humiliate people during a weekly Sunday service. Towards the end of his sermon, the pastor spoke to the congregation about same-sex behavior. It was odd to me because it had nothing to do with what he had been preaching about. I will never forget his words. “I don’t care; I’m gonna say it. Homosexuality ain’t right in the mind and eyes of God and I don’t care who doesn’t like it!” Several people applauded and a few others shouted, “That’s right!” However, the majority of the church, which normally seated several hundred people, remained silent. The pastor continued, “See there’s a new thing out here now. We got a lot of these men calling themselves bisexual! You women need to watch it. You don’t know who you dealing with. You gonna mess around and catch something you can’t shake. If you do what you are supposed to do you won’t have to worry about that.”
My body detector received the end of the pastor’s sermon as a lie. Several questions raced through my mind. Why are women being held responsible for men’s behavior? Why isn’t he speaking directly to bisexual men? Why is the pastor dancing around the issue of STDs and HIV instead of naming it openly? I have never heard him talk about sex in all the years I’ve been here. Why now? How does he know what is right or wrong according to God when he in fact is not God? And if homosexuality is not right, why does this church embrace and praise gay men when they sing in the choir?
At that time in my life, I had not started exploring theology, world religions or the spiritual path of Ifa. All I had to guide me in that moment was the wisdom of my body. It told me not to listen to or follow someone who would use religious text and doctrine to shame people. The pastor’s behavior was the catalyst that started my journey of seeking my own personal spiritual and sexual truth.
Perhaps Wallace Best was right when he made the following statement at the Are the Gods Afraid? conference, “Nothing scares us more than an individual or society who is sexually free.” I would also add there is no God, Goddess or Universe afraid of our sexuality other than the one we project our fear onto. Fear does not come from the Divine. We have been socialized (and many of us violently oppressed) by religious leaders and other institutions as a means of control. Therefore, we owe it to ourselves and the generations coming after us to find liberating spiritual paths and body-affirming theologies to transmute shame that denies the truth and beauty of our humanity.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.