By Ahmad Greene-Hayes
I grew up hearing holiness or hell theologies every day of my childhood upbringing. “Be ye holy as he is holy” along with “without holiness, no man shall see God” were refrains that consumed my childhood mind. They made me fearful of everything. Some nights I wouldn’t fall asleep until I had repented for every single thing that I had done and I even repented for the things that I didn’t do just to be saved, even though I never quite felt “safe.”
I was trapped in this cage that was suffocating me to death. Holiness or hell: if you do this, hell, and if you do that, hell. No one ever said what we could do. I, a black child, was never given agency over my own body—don’t do this, don’t do that. It was dangerous. Crippling, even.
As I’ve gotten older and have come to terms with what it means to be a survivor of child sexual abuse, and also what it means to be surrounded by so many other survivors—many from the Black church—I am left convinced that that which the church calls “holy” is often a cover-up or a mechanism to conceal that which is truly unholy.
If you wear white, long dresses, clergy robes and the like, you can cover up every sadistic imagination possible, harm as many people as you’d like, and still “serve” without accountability. In fact, that same white often hinders churchgoers from seeing the bleeding souls of survivors. It is that white—or the goal to be as white as snow, or as white as Massa—that renders the voice of the child survivor null and void.
Triggers and remembrances of assault resonate—like visions, premonitions, and psychic dreams—decades after the seven-year-old was told to suck his father’s penis or forty years after the sixteen-year-old Oprah was raped and impregnated by a family member. Sexual violence alters the psychic capacity for survivors to look at and to their families, communities, and churches the same. When these violations take place within or with proximity to the Black church, the church is no longer safe and one must question if it ever was. Like murderers, church people and the harm-doers they protect wear the blood of child survivors on their saintly hands even as they wear the holiest of winter whites.
It’s hell to come to sacred edifices where survivors are shamed and unable to find healing, wholeness, and justice. It’s hell to hear sermons that demonize Black people, women, LGBTQ folks, especially when those same sermons never call in those who rape and molest. It’s hell when Bishop Eddie Long can be accused of molesting boys, yet garners the support of most of his congregation and continues to serve as a leading pastor.
Unfortunately, the (Black) church does not consider these things to be their own kind of hell. As Bishop Yvette Flunder reminds us, “hell”, especially in the Evangelical context, is the place—metaphorically and literally—that religious folks collectively send the people that they do not understand. It is also the place where they send the folks who refuse to conform to normativity and respectability: the people who unapologetically live in the messy, the chaotic, and the ugliness of this life. The people who acknowledge that their truth matters, even when their truth is nontraditional or can’t be backed up by first century scriptures.
As a survivor, I am unwilling to engage with such a simplistic construction of “hell”. How can you send me to hell, when I have experienced hell on earth?
I can recall being read the words of the Apostle Paul, “in this flesh dwells no good thing,” repeatedly as a child. Indeed, my child survivor body was dirty. I felt shameful. About half the time I went to my baby-sitter’s house as a child, I was dirtied by the perversion of molestation.
The way I cleansed myself was through Old Testament stories. David’s defeat of Goliath was my favorite. I would close my eyes and dream that this Goliath in my face—in my underwear, too—would be able to die. But it never did. The giant got bigger, and the church people in my life never noticed. Goliath sat next to me in Sunday school class. Goliath was with me in the pulpit as I preached. Goliath went to bed with me, it woke me up in the morning, and it walked with me to school. Goliath was an enemy that cleaved so close to my soul that you’d think we were friends.
Even as I still see myself as a part of the black church tradition, I’m unapologetically over a holiness or hell gospel that doesn’t make me whole or actually address the unholiness of our churches and our communities—that being racial-sexual violence. Especially when those same holiness or hell theologies have historically been anti-black and manufactured by white evangelicals who have false prophet-ed off the backs of black people. I cannot commit myself to a gospel that does not acknowledge sexual violence as perverse, or a gospel that allows churchpeople to sit comfortably after learning of these violations.
Indeed, the church is complicit in the sexual abuse of children. Far too many testify to these brutalities at the hands of pastors, church leaders, and parishioners. Child sexual abuse has for long been brushed under the rug and/or deemed unimportant for sermonic consideration.
How many Davids has the church let wander around Bathshebas? How many Tamars have been left—bleeding—in church parking lots or under church pews? How many Black women and girls have been forcibly impregnated and forced to walk to the altar in shame? How many Black boys have been told not to cry and yet they are crying because of their assault?
How many queer survivors have been further pathologized because they are both queer and survivor? How many pastors and preachers have blamed survivors for their assaults or condemned survivors to hell for not “forgiving” the harm-doer, while simultaneously excusing the harm-doer for their harm? How many times have little boys and girls tried to tell an adult that they were assaulted only for them to be hushed by the loudest of tongues and hallelujahs? How many have used the Bible as a tool of violent rape and torture—commanding women and girls to be subject to men and boys?
“What you do to children matters and they may never forget it,” writes Toni Morrison in her new novel, God Help The Child. Most survivors of sexual violence in African American communities attest to having been raped, abused, and sexually violated as children. They never forget, but are often prohibited from giving voice to the secrets of their homes, churches, and schools that forever changed their relationship to their own black bodies.
They are rendered silent, but the silence does not stem from the children. The collective silence—from adults, from the village, from the elders—is deafening even as childhood screams, hollers, and pleas to live unbothered and untouched by the perversion of molestation and incest blare the silences. As Jesus reminds us, “[They] that hath ears to hear, let [them] hear.” Will the church hear the cries of the survivors in our midst?
*This is the abridged version of remarks given at “Love Thyself: Black Bodies and Religious Space” at Princeton Theological Seminary on March 5, 2016.