A few weeks ago, I was inspired to begin exploring the relationship between sexuality, religion and fear. In Part 1 of my essay, I purposefully chose an image of God that was a man with a stern expression because this is what I was socialized to believe God was as a child. God was male. He sat in the sky weighing every action I took in effort to make the final judgment of whether or not I would go to heaven or hell when I died. I imagined he kept a list with my name on it in a file cabinet. Ironically, this was similar to my image of Santa Claus. A white man from the North Pole, making a list, checking it twice, deciding how many toys I could have if I was naughty or nice.
My angry jealous God gave a clear distinction between acceptable and unacceptable expressions of sexuality. He wanted us to control our bodies and rise above our desires. We couldn’t trust our bodies because they wanted us to be naughty all the time. If I didn’t believe what I was being taught, there was proof to back it up. Christian clergy or teachers would reference scripture. A favorite was 1st century theologian Paul, who wrote the following words in the book of Galatians, chapter 5, verse 17 of the King James Bible, “For the Flesh lusteth against the Spirit and the Spirit against the Flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.” Teaching sexuality from this perspective assumes that human beings are divided and fragmented resulting in a mind, body and soul split. If we choose to believe the body is at war with Spirit or an obstacle to salvation or enlightenment, it should be of no surprise that we live in a world where religion is often used as justification to control what we do with our bodies.
Institutionalized slavery is one of the most tragic examples of how religion was used to regulate bodies, oppress and sanction sexual violence. The first enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Slavery remained in place for 246 years until it was abolished by the 13th Amendment in 1865. The Bible was often used by slaveholders to “prove” that God supported their actions. A common scripture quoted at that time was in the book of Ephesians, chapter 6, verse 5, “Servants (slaves), be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.”
Even after slavery ended and African-Americans were no longer the legal property of slave holders, sexual stereotypes persisted. Men were viewed as wild predators to justify castration and lynching. Women were often portrayed as jezebels providing an excuse for continued exploitation and sexual violence without the perpetrators being held accountable and brought to justice. When I take this history into account, I now understand why some predominantly African-American churches offer women and girls a cloth to place over their legs during worship services. This fear-based practice not only dishonors women, it is clear evidence of internalized shame rooted in historical oppression that devalued the sexuality and bodies of African-Americans. So the way we choose to connect to God as well as who historically controlled and shaped that image, is extremely vital to understanding who we are.
Episcopal Priest and Professor, Kelly Brown Douglas writes in her essay, Black and Blues: God and Body Talk for the Black Church,
“The narrative of hyperproper sexuality and demonizing the body are constraining and confining narratives. They alienate black people from their bodies and seize control of black sexuality by limiting the ways in which their sexuality may be expressed. It is as if the Black Church has made a pact with white Prostestantism, trading its sensuous African heritage for a chance to be accepted within mainstream non sensuous society.”
Religious Historian and Scholar, Dr. Tracey Hucks served as Respondent on the panel ”Religious Narratives of Black Sexuality in the New World” during the IRAAS Fall Conference at Columbia University last month. She expressed the importance of having other images of God present in the sexuality discussions taking place. “So similar to the closet that reinforces the dominance of heteronormativity, these (African) gods are often hidden in the shadows of Christian normativity.”
Traditionally, many African Indigenous spiritual traditions upheld the body as sacred and promoted teachings of an integrated self with every level of existence being part of the whole. This meant every aspect of life was divine including the temple of one’s body. Many mythology stories of Yoruba gods and goddesses (commonly referred to as orisas), as well as artistic sculptures and statues, reflect a culture that was not afraid of sexuality.
Once I began a journey of spiritual and sexual truth, the judgmental, angry, male version of God I was told to believe in as a child lost its power. I discovered the beauty of feminine faces of the Divine and images that transcended traditional conceptions of gender. Becoming a Yoruba-Ifa spiritual practitioner served as the foundation for my personal liberation. Whatever spiritual path, religion or philosophy we follow, it should be one that affirms all of who we are and encourages us to live authentically.
Consider this: what if “original sin” is denying instead of celebrating your originality? Everyone possesses an exquisite, extraordinary gift: the opportunity to give expression to Divinity on earth through our everyday lives. When we choose to honor this priceless gift, we participate in the recreation of the world.
~ Sarah Ban Brethnach
Image from “Orishas Life” on Pinterest.