Authentic Communal Ethics: Constructing Ethics Rooted in Black Queer Experience
Religious Institute’s Seminary Spotlight with Elyse Ambrose
What’s your theology of sexuality in 10 words or fewer?
God calls humanity toward individual and communal wholeness, including sexuality.
Growing up, what did you learn about sexuality in religious spaces? And how, if at all, has that influenced your approach as a scholar?
I was not raised in religious spaces but garnered a sense of certain Christian understandings through our Southern culture. Relationships that were honored before God were those between a “man” and “woman,” and the proper context for sexual expression, especially for women, was marriage. Teenagers were to choose abstinence, and all forms of intimate touch, with self and others, were off limits. I carried many of these repressed notions into my adulthood and into my practice of Christianity which I adopted in my early 20s. For a while, I even encouraged others along these ways of being.
These ideas influence my approach as a scholar because I have observed them as insufficient for a wholistic and life-giving sexual ethic that values the pleasure, creativity, desire, and relationality that shape our human experience and our sexual lives. I did not feel that I was teaching people a liberative way of relating to themselves and others which I felt God was calling each of us to. My understanding of my calling alongside my own and others’ dissonance with traditional Christian sexual ethics inspired my search for and eventual development of a liberative sexual ethic.
Tell us about your research/project: why sex and sexuality? What draws you to work at the intersections of sexuality, gender, and religion?
My dissertation explores liberative Christian sexual ethics through a Black queer ethical lens. Constructing ethics rooted in the experiences of Black queer persons allows Christian sexual ethics to function as an authentic communal ethics, which counters disintegrative patterns of white supremacy, patriarchal and cisgender dominance, and heteronormativity inherent in traditional U.S. Christianity.
I situate my scholarly inquiry in the particular context of 1920s Black queer Harlem and explore their public and semi-public spaces for strategies toward communal thriving and resistance. I believe these histories to be fecund for moral theorizing particularly for how they subverted norms of gender and sexuality amidst both whiteness and Black respectability. My approach to sexual ethics is what I have termed a communosexual ethic — a sexual ethics that is less rules-based and more relation-based.
I focus on constructing a sexual ethic because I believe that the experiences of Black queer people have significant contributions to make to Christian moral meaning-making. Additionally, for decades, I and others have committed ourselves to the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the United Methodist Church and in Black churches of which I have been apart. In doing so, I have learned that our capacity to fruitfully dialogue has been severely limited by focusing on a particular issue (e.g. LGBTQ inclusion, teen abstinence), which reduced persons’ lives and wellbeing to “an issue.” It seems to me that a comprehensive analysis is needed, one that assesses whether or not our ways of relating sexually (as queer, gay, bisexual, lesbian, pansexual, heterosexual and more) are serving the ends of wholeness, authenticity, and healing offered through the liberating Spirit within. I am drawn to this work at the intersections of sexuality, gender, and religion because I believe that leaving our sexual ethics in a state that fragments us from ourselves and prescribes unholy limits on the kin-dom of God is unjust and irresponsible, particularly when it is within our power to critically reflect and to transform our ethics.
What do you wish every graduate theological student knew about religion and sexuality?
I want them to know that sexuality is not a private or personal matter; it is deeply social and political. Any struggle for liberation must embrace sexuality and examine the ways that it is limited and perverted by social injustice. If individual and communal wholeness and healing (i.e. the kin-dom of God) is the goal, then no part of our being can be excluded. In my experience, students are often willing to “try on” a variety of perspectives, except for when it comes to sexuality, namely the sexuality of people who have been pushed to the margins (e.g., LGBTQ inclusion, women’s right to abortions). This is where I have seen students (on any side of these concerns) really plant their feet and become immovable. In the end, many conclude “that’s their business (this is private), but they can’t make me support it.” That individualization of sexuality absolves the responsibility, compassion, and accountability that is essential to community. It completely shuts down connectivity. With this sort of mental block in place, I do not see how the kin-dom can come about in their individual lives or in our communal lives.
As you know, our newsletter is called “Sexuality: From the Seminary to the Sanctuary.” How do you make connections between your theological education and your practical life and ministry? (How is your research/project connected to the day to day realities of life and ministry?)
My work arose out of my own theological questions and those of the people I served as a minister and later as a reverend. Additionally, I am committed to merging theory and practice in my scholarship. I have practiced this commitment by utilizing ideas from my dissertation to create “Sexual Healing Workshops” which I have offered throughout New York City, making the theory accessible and applicable to everyday lives. I also offer articles, devotionals, liturgies, and sermons toward these ends.
Lastly, three quick-fire questions:
Book/activity/article that has had the most impact on your thinking about religion/sexuality?
Kelly Brown Douglas’ Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective.
Favorite self-care practice?
Doing nothing/being unproductive for a moment.
What are you currently reading?
Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur; Finding Soul in the Path of Orisa: A West African Spiritual Tradition by Tobe Melora Correal; Black Queer Ethics, Family, and Philosophical Imagination by Thelathia Nikki Young
Elyse Ambrose is a healing activist, sexual ethicist, and word artist. Her justice work, research, and art lies at the intersections of race, sexuality, gender, class, and spirituality. She is a Ph.D. Candidate at Drew University (Religion and Society). As the Founder and Creative Organizer of phoeniXspark, she offers workshops and retreats that center the experiences of queer and trans people of color (QTPoC) to create space for healing of sexual and gender selves. Currently, Elyse serves as a Research Fellow at The Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics, and Social Justice at Columbia University.
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