black church hug

There’s a great hashtag trending on twitter at the moment called #BlackChurchSex. No, it’s not some kind of strange niche fetish involving black people and pews. It’s shedding light on the cultural attitudes towards sex and sexuality within the black church and hopefully, what we can do to encourage better ones.

I actually believe that this is probably one thing that the black and white church has in common – warped, unbiblical views of sexuality that are rooted in a history of misogyny and misunderstanding of God’s intention for our sexuality. As far as the black church, things are complicated even further when we add the historical disrespect of black bodies and sexual abuse of black bodies during slavery and colonialism, often at the hands of ‘Christian’ masters, in the formation of our attitudes towards sexual behaviour.A natural response to black sexuality being treated as cheap is to enforce a legalistic code of conduct around our sexuality that encourages ‘sacredness’.

One thing that stood out to me from the hashtag were the stories of sexual abuse at the hands of ministers and and authority figures. Thankfully, I’ve never personally encountered what most would consider serious sexual abuse, but I did have an incident where a man who was known for being predatory sat me on his lap and started touching my thigh (I was 9)  and I was chastised for kicking him and running out the room. Yeh, I kicked him – and I still maintain that it was the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, the prevailing attitudes in the black church tend to foster a culture of shame and secrecy when it comes to anything sexual. I know other women who were treated inappropriately by the same man, but felt extremely embarrassed about informing the relevant church authority. Fortunately for me, I was young and had a great relationship with my parents, so I didn’t feel the pressure of having to deal with that situation after it happened – they did it for me. For the other women who were in their 20’s, they didn’t have that luxury. It doesn’t help that the close environment of the church means that the person who abuses you might well be the uncle, cousin, brother or sister of one of your church leaders.

The sexual abuse that is rampant in the black church cannot be examined in isolation. The entire sexual formation of black people as they grow up in the black church actively encourages an environment where sexual abuse can grow.

Not least on the list is the head-in-the-sand attitude we have towards sexual desire. Granted, I absolutely discourage people from being very open about the particulars of their personal sexual history, unless they feel moved to do so. I tend to believe that the modern tendency to put your sexual past and present on loudspeaker is pathological, but I do believe that there needs to be a culture where general discussion about sex and sexuality is welcomed and encouraged.

Denial of human sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality is part of the reason why sexual abuse and sexual immorality run rife. You cannot address a problem when you are constantly ignoring it’s existence.

The basic teaching in many churches on sex and sexuality is:

1)Don’t have sex until you’re married.

2)If you do have sex as a woman, you are slightly damaged. As a man, we kinda expected it anyway, don’t worry – you can still marry a virgin.

34)Don’t worry either ladies, God forgives you even if the good men won’t, but don’t get pregnant.

4)If you do get pregnant we will disfellowship you. The guy might get disfellowshipped also, but YOU will suffer everlasting shame while he might well go on to marry a ‘virgin’ in the next couple of years.

5) Don’t sleep with the Pastor. If he abuses his power and position of authority to sleep with single women in his congregation, it’s because they lured him with their Jezebel charms.

6) Men can’t really control themselves, so women, the onus is on YOU.

7) Gay is bad. With no further commentary.

With attitudes like this, is it a wonder that we have so many women getting pregnant outside of marriage? Is it a wonder that most of our young people aren’t abstinent or celibate? Is it a wonder that sexual abuse goes unpunished and ignored? Is it a wonder that men who are sexually abused feel ashamed to admit it? Is it a wonder that many of those who don’t have a heterosexual orientation instead of going to the church for help, reject faith altogether?

There are simple solutions though. The first is proper training of Godly, committed church leaders on Biblical principles of sex and sexuality. In a culture where so many negative attitudes have been formed, there needs to be formal, intentional training about sexuality.It is not something we can afford to leave to chance.  This includes a complete departure from any teaching that encourages men to feel like their sexuality is something the do not have any ability to steward and any teaching that suggests that women are inherently less sexual than men. It also includes focusing on wholeness rather than simply dodging sin.

The second, is churches enabling and empowering parents to teach their children these principles, including confidence in their own sexual choices and how to articulate when someone makes them feel uncomfortable sexually.

The third, is a zero tolerance policy on sexual abuse. All leaders should have appropriate government checks before being placed in any position. Any leader that sexually abuses a child or a member of the congregation needs to step down immediately and be reported to the appropriate legal body.

The fourth, and most important is an emphasis on the heart of the gospel – God’s love redeeming all our brokenness. And none of it being too broken for him.

Our sexuality is a key part of who we are, and today more than ever, the church cannot be a relevant force to share a gospel which encompasses the totality of human experience  while it refuses to deal with this issue.

atheism meme

I remember the end of the first year and beginning of my second year of uni. I remember sitting in church, shivering, in the the midst of one of several seasons of doubt,and realising that this was it. I didn’t believe in this anymore. In between the stories of resurrection, talking animals and parting seas,I had found the ridiculous. I imagined telling my parents that this faith that they had grounded their whole lives on, that they had taught to my brother and I and practiced with consistency was something that no longer seemed plausible. I felt a sense of relief – no more confusion or questions. No more guilt over sins. No more struggling against the part of myself that wanted to do the wrong thing.

I had awkwardly a few years earlier, asked a friend at the time, “Do you ever doubt whether God actually exist?”. She looked at me strangely.”No..” she said, and shrugged.It was then that I decided that doubt wasn’t something that a lot of Christians coped very well with.

How I regained my faith is another story, but I will say that nothing miraculous happened (in the traditional sense of the word), there were no angel sightings, voices or divine coincidences.

Throughout my experience with faith though, I’ve had more than one person ask me how as someone who appears to value reason, I can believe in the God of the Bible. There are a host of websites which give reasons for faith, who offer answers for the difficult bible passages and scientific questions, and they do it far better than me.

What I do want to challenge, is this idea that the majority of people who identify as atheists are atheist because of some sort of rigorous thought process.

There is a new atheism that peaked in popularity a couple of years ago, before it’s patron saint -Richard Dawkins, went a bit doo-lally. The new atheism revels in painting believers and belief as a festering pustule of dangerous stupidity that has come to a head, and must now be eradicated from the planet if human beings are to ever progress. It delights in taking passages out of historical or social context, painting every moderate believer as a potential extremist, and making massive overreaches from science into philosopy. It prides itself on reason and intellect, and scathes at anything that hints at the spiritual.

But a lot of atheists are more apathetic than atheist. It’s become almost a badge of honour for 20 somethings to smugly proclaim that they are atheist. They are above the infantility  and naivety of virgin births and bearded prophets, but when you start to probe more carefully you find that their atheism isn’t very well substantiated. Not that there aren’t very good arguments against belief in God – there are – but they’re not familiar with most of them. They aren’t budding Bertrand Russells. They haven’t read David Hume and the New Testament and then come to a conclusion. Given the fact that belief in the existence or non existence of a God or gods could potentially be a life-defining decision, they haven’t given it much thought at all.

You see, some atheists tend to paint the decision to believe in a faith as an one that primarily rests in our emotions or as a result of cultural norms. It’s comforting to think that Sky-Daddy watches over you and there is something more than atoms, cells and oceans. I would argue though, that our natural instinct to self determination and our dislike of guilt are emotions that are just as powerful, if not more so.

It’s not the idea of God that is necessarily offensive to some of us, it’s the idea of a God with rules.  There is a reason why many of the new atheists tend to be less vociferous about Buddhism and some of the Eastern religions. They would contend that it’s because these religions are the most peaceful, that monotheistic religions cause wars and tragedy, (Which frankly, is a load of bunkum. People cause wars, many wars have little to do with religion and are largely cultural or economic with religion as a scapegoat)

I think a large part of the reason is that these religions appear (on the surface at least) to come with far less difficult terms and conditions. Western middle class interpretation of Buddhism appears to be mostly confined to meditating, various attempts at vegetarianism and a sense of ‘being a nice person’. This is a lot more simple and less guilt inducing for the average young westerner. If they discovered that included in Buddhism was no sex before marriage, no alcohol, modest clothing, some variation of kosher food laws, Saturday night clubbing being frowned upon, no lying under any circumstances, and a duty to actively share your faith with people you meet, they would have far less interest in Buddhism. (I can’t remember enough from R.E school lessons to comment on how many of these things do apply to Buddhism and to what degree)

Few people, even atheists, have a problem with spirituality, as long as it doesn’t prevent them from doing all the things they want to do or encourage them to do things they don’t want to do. Simply put, even if Christianity was true, many of them wouldn’t want to believe. This assumption that atheism or belief is solely to do with reason, logic and intelligence  or lack it, it simply that – a massive assumption.

voting

A week or so ago I watched the parade of rhetoric and mediocre scriptwriting that they call ‘television debates’, and sighed. I sat there, drinking my Supermalt, in my Primark onesie, with my hair looking like an extra from 12 years a slave, and realised that my physical appearance was more or less indicative of my attitude to the whole affair. Unbothered.

I used to be one of those people who foamed at the mouth at the idea of not voting. I would feel my blood pressure rising when people, especially other ethnic minorities, or women, casually declared that they hadn’t voted/ didn’t intend to/hadn’t got round to registering. “BUT PEOPLE DIED SO YOU COULD VOTE!” I would screech, as the foam collected in an angry froth around the corners of my mouth. “AT LEAST SPOIL THE BALLOT! AT LEAST ENGAGE IN THE PROCESS!!!”, leaving my largely non-captive audience slightly uncomfortable as I stood on the edge of one of my longwinded soapboxes.

But last election I didn’t vote.

It wasn’t a decision I took lightly, mind. I didn’t happen to wander past the closing date for registering on my way to the medical library, or decide that it was too cold to go to the polling station so it was perhaps better to stay indoors with a mug of warm soya. It wasn’t voter apathy.

I consciously, after much thought decided that I wasn’t going to vote.

And I regretted it.

I had some good reasons. My primary reason, strangely enough was to do with my faith. My particular denomination has a long tradition of being hesitant of voting for political parties. Not hesitant at being involved in political issues – many early founders of the church were heavily involved in the abolitionist movement and the underground railroad, and regularly spoke out on issues of civil and religious liberty.  They did caution though, that aligning yourself with a particular party too closely makes it difficult to speak truth to power. Once you decide to label yourself as ‘Labour’ or ‘Tory’ publicly and become involved in any way more than just a regular voter, there is incredible pressure to work on the behalf of the party and not just on behalf of what you believe to be true and right. Not only that, they suggested that by voting for a party, you take some responsibility for their actions once in power, and if you aren’t convinced that they represent your belief system adequately, you shouldn’t vote for them. And to a large extent, I agree with that.

My second reason, and the one that most of us can sympathise with, was a general distrust of politicians evoking any real change. They say what they don’t mean and do what they don’t say. I wasn’t convinced (and smugly feel that I have been proven right), that Nick Clegg was anything more than a less charismatic David Cameron who occasionally wears a yellow tie. Poor lad. I wasn’t convinced that my voting or non-voting would actually do anything to change a system that at the core was radically unjust, where the three men, yes MEN, who could represent me all went from Eton to Oxford to Westminster, and I had NO alternative to this. This might appear to be a rather surface and naive opinion, but I don’t think it is. Really, honestly I asked, what is the drastic difference between Conservatives and the Lib Dems? Or even Conservative and Labour? What drastic measures are either party going to bring in come May?

Unfortunately, although I still maintain that the system is rotten and that it’s futile to look to politicians to change that system, David Cameron and his coalition have proven that yes, one (and a half) party can screw up an already screwed up thing even more, fairly quickly.  I don’t think every single thing Cameron has done or suggested is awful, and I think a bipartisan (or tripartisan) approach is the best, but I think a lot of us, especially those who work in the NHS  will agree that he has managed to effectively urinate on everything the NHS stands for.

Granted, the groundwork had already been laid for him, but  we now know that believing anything Cameron said about the NHS was like believing a junior doctor who told you she could remove your prostate. You both know she’s lying, and it’s a bit comical.

For that reason alone, I’m voting in this election. Not because I think that any of these parties are good, represent what I stand for, or will even be able to dramatically change anything. In that sense, I remain unbothered.

But  because faced with the option of two evils, for some reason I can’t bring myself to not at least try and help avoid the greater of the two.

Are you voting? Why? Care to share who you’re voting or?

baby ivf

I think the main reason why some people are making a big hoopla over the three person baby gig, is that people don’t quite get the science behind it and it’s freaking them out. There are two methods of creating so-called “three person babies”. One is where the both the donor mother and the ‘real’ mother’s eggs are fertilised, the donor mum’s nucleus is removed and the ‘real’ mum’s nucleus inserted so that the baby has pretty much all of the her genetic material apart from a tiny fraction (the mitochondria). This obviously poses ethical questions for those of us who believe that life begins at conception and that any destruction of life beyond that point is wrong. (Personally, I struggle to have a lot of emotional commitment to a just fertilised egg apart from the ‘slippery slope’ argument).

The second method does not involve destroying a fertilised egg, just fiddling around with the insides a bit, so ethical concerns about destruction of life disappear – unless you’re Catholic and believe that eggs and sperm are still important before they meet.

My main issue isn’t really anything to do with the actual method of conception – the first method which doesn’t involve a fertilised egg sounds like a pretty good idea to me. I’m all for reducing mitochondrial disease in babies. The idea of muddled parenthood because a donor mother has contributed 0.2% of her DNA to a baby is, in my opinion, making a big deal out of a very,very small percentage of genetic material. I’m far more worried about the ethical implications of sperm donation than I am about this. I doubt most of the children who are told that 0.2% of their DNA came from a donor egg are going to have a massive existential crisis at 18.

Other people are worried about the potential safety, and the fact that mitochondria are poorly understood. Scientists claim they are fairly well understood, but scientists are sometimes wrong. *shrugs*. We should be far more worried about the drug industry and some of the poorly understood drugs used- they affect far more people than 3 people babies will. (Read Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre for more info).

What I am having problems grappling with, is this idea that everybody MUST have a baby with their own genetics from their own womb, and that a considerable amount of time and money is being spent on this. I guess it’s very easy for me to say that being young, childless and only occasionally broody. Children are fairly far off into the horizon for me.

However, at a time when the NHS is in crisis (not in ‘crisis’, because it actually IS), I’m not sure IVF treatment issomething that tax payers should be paying for. In an ideal world we would be able to afford it, but at the moment we can’t. Much less, forms of IVF treatment that are probably more expensive and at this stage, quite new. I’m not sure how the NHS is going to approach this, but I sincerely hope that this is not going to be a treatment offered on the NHS.

I understand that not everyone wants to adopt or feels that they have the emotional capacity to do so, but there are so many children who need and want a stable family environment and have the misfortune of not having one, that I wish more people would consider it as an option.

If the government really wants to pass new laws, they should spend time and money reforming the social services we have in this country. There’s a lot wrong going  there that could do with some money and research being thrown at it that would benefit children that need stable homes, and make life easier for the parents willing to offer that option to them. That’s my two cents.

What do you guys think?

segregated churches

I read an article a couple of days ago detailing a sermon giving by a white pastor on MLK day(his race is significant to this), decrying the fact that so many years after King, my denomination (Adventist) still has racially segregated conferences. Conferences are how the denomination organises groups of churches, and currently in the U.S there are state conferences and ‘regional’ (black) conferences.

In his sermon, Dwight Nelson said “With American society racially fragmenting in front of our eyes, how persuasive is church organization that depends on ‘separate but equal’ still, when the nation long ago abandoned it? How can we appeal to a fragmented society on the basis of love when we ourselves are fragmented?”.

I somewhat agree with that statement. The body of Christ cannot represent the love of Christ accurately to the world when the body parts refuse to work together.

In England, our churches are segregated too, just not officially. The white churches are segregated from the black churches, and within the black churches there is segregation amongst different cultural groups ( although you are more likely to find a church with a mixture of different black groups than you are to find a church that is racially mixed).

Churches such as London Ghana, are quite obviously named in a way that is assertively separatist. The idea of reaching a local non-Ghanaian community with the gospel, when the church is called “London Ghana” and the services are in Twi, frankly, puzzles me.

However, it would be unfair for me to speak of London Ghana as if it is the only church that is separatist. There are Filipino churches. There are Brazilian churches. Many of the ‘white’ churches in the UK are predominately white because when my Grandparent’s generation first came to England, the indigenous British people refused to worship with them, and participated in a polite, Christian version of white flight and racism. Caribbeans are not wholly innocent – there have been cases where we have been resistant to our African brothers and sisters joining churches in large numbers, and where both groups have separated themselves along country lines. None of it is good enough.

So while I agree with Pastor Nelson’s statement, I don’t agree with his solution. Churches in America and the UK are segregated because communities are segregated. Because friendship groups are segregated.

Forcing people who mostly socialise with people who look like them, to worship with groups of people they tend to avoid socially, once a week, isn’t going to work.

White Adventists and other white Christians need to address the racism (both individual and institutional) that they uphold through their stereotypes, behaviour patterns and sub conscious beliefs, before they can ever have a hope in heaven of successfully integrating with black and other non-white Adventists. You can’t pop up at church once a week to participate in some lively gospel music, while at the same time defending systems and institutions that oppress black people.

Additionally, the institutional racism in the church makes some black people naturally suspicious of any moves to integrate conferences. Who will be the leaders of these new ‘integrated’ conferences? Unfortunately, history suggests that it’s highly unlikely that it will be brown faces in the most prominent leadership positions. While I don’t feel like clamouring for leadership should be at the forefront of our minds, too often, white people have used the call to ‘humility’ central to Christianity to effectively oppress black Christians. Black churches have always held a powerful role in the black community in terms of being bases for political action and support for an oppressed community. It’s very easy for white people, who have the privilege of not being subjected to the daily demoralising influence of racism, to demand that black churches integrate with them, without any thought to what effect that will have on the community.

There is a need to be sensitive to the fact that church, for many people is a place of comfort after a stressful week. It is a place where we can feel safe and loved and at home. For many of the people who attend London Ghana, forexample, I can imagine that those hours at church form an important part of bonding with their community that they might not get as a minority group in a country that isn’t entirely favourable to them. In the same way, many black people may feel that being surrounded by their own once a week is a ‘safe place’ where they can be themselves without the hyper-awareness that comes from being in predominately white environments.

Do I want to spend my Sabbath being subject to the same micro-aggressions and racial stereotypes that I am subject to in the workplace? No, not really, is the answer. I would be lying if I said that I care about the fact that the majority of churches I attend have very few white people. But I probably should care.

Because I understand that part of the work of the gospel is to transcend the barriers of race. I want this to happen. I believe that this can happen in the church, even if it can’t anywhere else.

What we need though, is not enforced desegregation of churches, but for the racism that is present in the hearts of many white Adventists, and the prejudices between different cultural groups, both black and white, to be eradicated by a saving relationship with Jesus and by frank, open and honest conversations about the continuing legacy of racism in our church and in our society.