Theological conflict

By Andy Balaskovitz

Two prominent black ministers say same-sex marriage is a "civil right" but one that doesn't square with the Bible

Two of Lansing’s leading African-American pastors agree that President Obama deserves praise for taking a stand on same-sex marriage.

And one of them even said he’d vote to overturn Michigan’s constitutional ban on it.

But neither of them thinks same-sex marriage is right in the eyes of God.

“I think the president is to be commended. He did not allow his own Christian philosophy or theology to dominate his presidential responsibility,” said Bishop David Maxwell, head of Mayor Virg Bernero’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.

“Many of my comrades in the faith community have a struggle and cannot separate the theology with the civics of the president executing fairness and equity for all persons,” Maxwell said. “It’s a civil right. The sad thing about it is: You would have thought that the African-American pastoral or theological community would have sensitivity when they themselves have struggled civil rights-wise.”

Maxwell, pastor of Eliezer Temple Church on West Jolly Road, and his position underscore the uneasiness among the African-American community toward sexual orientation and same-sex marriage.

“Historically, the African-American community has been very accommodating to people who do not look like them,” Maxwell said. “But homosexuality has been a divisive element in the black community, especially from the theological community. A lot of it I think is homophobic as well as insensitive theological ranting from pulpits regarding the abhorrent nature of homosexuality. They personify and degrade the person.”

Maxwell added that the challenge is creating understanding across religious, historical, physiological and cultural lines.

The Rev. Melvin T. Jones, leader of the Clergy Forum of Greater Lansing, offered a similar view.

“I tend to think that there has to be a division between the political, civic and legal and the religious and moral” side of issues, said Jones, pastor of Union Missionary Baptist Church on South Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. “I can’t really color everybody in the public square with my beliefs. The government has a responsibility to ensure equality and freedom for all people. Therefore, I side with the president as president, not as a pastor.”

Both Maxwell and Jones oppose same-sex marriage based on their interpretations of the scriptures. Jones said it conflicts with his religious beliefs from a “dogmatic point of view,” but added that he is “researching” whether there is a “theological” point of view that supports the president.

Jones said that “it’s an issue, period,” not just for the African-American community. “I think African-Americans, in terms of their faith, remain rather conservative. Of course, it’s very centered around certain doctrinal issues related to the Bible.”

Both pastors are addressing the issues at the pulpit. Maxwell took it up on Sunday, he said, using the example that while he may not agree with atheism, agnosticism or paganism, to degrade those who do “would compromise my Christianity. … Who am I to deny a person their rights?”

Jones is preparing a series of lectures to give to his congregation. Jones, in a sort of preview, said the African-American faith community needs to move away from a “don’t ask, don’t tell” position on sexual orientation. “For me what has happened is that it is forcing the church and religious community to deal with this issue,” Jones said. “I need to prepare my congregation to engage the issues and engage it intelligently so that they can see all angles of it.”

Jones and Maxwell do have one important difference between them. Jones said he would vote to overturn Michigan’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. He said he does not recall how he voted on the ban when it was enacted by referendum in 2004.

Maxwell, on the other hand, said he voted for the amendment because it defined marriage as being between a man and a woman and that he would do so again.

Maxwell and Jones believe that Obama’s position will not hurt him politically. “There are other important issues than what people do in their bedroom,” Jones said.

But how the issue plays out politically remains to be seen. Some commentators suggest Obama’s endorsement will galvanize support from young people, liberals and LGBT rights backers. Others say it galvanize religious voters against him. Still others say it’s not enough of an issue to overshadow something like the economy.

Lansing City Councilwoman A’Lynne Robinson, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the 68th state House seat and one of two African-Americans on the Council, declined to comment.

At-Large Councilman Derrick Quinney, the other black member of Council, was quick to join the president in support.

“It’s not a contentious issue for me. I don’t think I should judge folks. At the end of the day, we’re all going to have to answer to a higher power, and I am fully supportive of the president’s position on that. I commend him,” Quinney said. “The faith-based community has spoken out in a lot of ways. That’s their belief, and it’s based on a biblical interpretation. It’s the interpretation of one group.

“And to believe that there aren’t gay individuals in the religious community,” Quinney added, “is pretty far-fetched also.”