Living Out Religion on the Everyday Level: Wrestling with Sex and Religion Monday through Saturday
Religious Institute’s Seminary Spotlight with Ahmad Greene-Hayes
What’s your theology of sexuality in 10 words or fewer?
Sex is a gift. Honor it with consent.
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 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. I was also taught that “in this [Black] flesh dwells no good thing” and that all sexual desire was sinful if outside the bounds of heterosexual marriage. This included masturbation, same-sex desire, premarital and extramarital sex, and so on. Yet, no one ever said anything about child sexual abuse and its prevalence in the church and beyond the church’s four walls.
As a queer person and as a survivor of child sexual abuse, these theological hermeneutics have been immensely detrimental to my wellbeing and sense of self. And, it has only been through therapy and intentionally uprooting these harmful theologies that I have been able to forge forward as a scholar, thinker, survivor, advocate, organizer, and faith leader.
I couple my scholarship with work through my organization, Children of Combahee. We are a group of theologians, scholars of religion, pastors, lay leaders, and anti-rape activists working to end child sexual abuse in Black church communities.
Tell us about your research/project: why sex and sexuality? What draws you to work at the intersections of sexuality, gender, and religion?
In the academy, I research and write about 19th-20th century Africana and African American religious histories, specifically Pentecostalism, conjure, rootwork, and popular religions, and I also do work on gender, sexuality, sexual violence, and religion. I see my scholarship as bridging the gap between African American Religious History and Black Queer Studies. Without a doubt, my upbringing in Black churches has been pivotal in shaping me intellectually and professionally. In fact, it was the mothers of the church and my Sunday school teachers who initially nurtured my intellectual curiosity. Those same women encouraged me to pursue higher education and to keep pushing. They didn’t have answers to many of my “deep” theological questions, but they always pressed dollars or peppermints in my hand and urged me to keep going. As a graduate student, their support has meant the world to me. It has been the church’s inadequate attention to many of my questions about sexuality, gender, and religion that has actually led me to think about these questions as a religionist attentive to how Black people of faith live out their religion on the everyday level, or “between Sundays” as Marla Frederick describes it. While public proclamations of faith typically necessitate Puritanical discussions of sex and sexuality on Sunday morning, I have found that Monday through Saturday provide lots of room and space for church people to wrestle theologically. I am interested in what intersections between sex and religion lie behind closed doors, in closets, in pastors’ studies, at happy hour, in nightclubs.
What do you wish every graduate theological student knew about religion and sexuality?
It is the responsibility of the current and future generations of theologians, religionists, faith leaders, pastors, clergy, and lay leaders to move beyond the language of “inclusion” and “exclusion” regarding queer, transgender, and gender nonconforming persons, and to conceptually and literally dismantle queer- and trans-antagonistic theologies, ways of worshipping, theologizing, preaching, teaching, and being Christian. Time is up, and queer, transgender, and gender nonconforming persons will no longer wait. We are the church.
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?)
I am not a theologian, nor am I an active preacher. Much of that has to do with the queer-antagonisms in the church, in seminaries, and among those who claim progressive ideals. Yet, I believe that my work to end child sexual abuse in Black church communities is fundamentally theological, and specifically, an embodied practical theology. I wish to continue developing our organization so that we can move into a future where no child is sexually harmed, especially in communities of faith among those who speak God’s name.
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 and lots of articles and books by E. Patrick Johnson, especially his oral history, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South.
Favorite self-care practice?
I workout 5–6 times per week, and that gives me energy and helps me blow off the steam of living in this anti-black world that does not love my Black flesh.
What are you currently reading?
C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity.
Ahmad Greene-Hayes is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Princeton University in the Religion in the American subfield, where he is also pursuing graduate certificates in African American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies. He was the 2017–2018 LGBTS Research Fellow at Yale University; and he is currently, the 2018–2019 Religion and Public Life Fellow at the Princeton University Center for the Study of Religion. He is also founder and director of Children of Combahee, a faith-based organization that works to end child sexual abuse in Black church communities.
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