At the age of ten, I graduated from elementary school. During the ceremony, many peers spoke of their future vocation. They said things like, “When I grow up, I want to be a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman.” When my turn came, I too spoke of my future vocation: “I want to be a pastor.” Today, as a licensed minister and student at Princeton Theological Seminary, I still desire to bring a pastoral dimension to my work. Looking back, it surprises me that God endowed me with the spiritual vision to perceive a glimpse of my future at such a young age.

These spiritual insights notwithstanding, I also experienced another problem: my natural vision was deteriorating. I went to the eye doctor expecting to have my condition assessed and remedied. The eye doctor—my mother—informed me that I needed a pair of glasses in order to see properly. As a doctor she possessed the expertise to pick out the right pair of glasses. Just as a near-sighted person cannot wear the glasses of a far-sighted person, the converse is also true. If the lenses in the glasses are too sharply or loosely focused, the vision of the patient will be obscured. Therefore, the task of the doctor in our scenario is twofold: accurately diagnose the patient and select the proper pair of glasses.

My fellow ministers, let me suggest that all of us need to take to a visit to the doctor. We already see through a glass darkly, but we, like much of hip-hop culture, possess a case of gender glaucoma that dims our spiritual vision. In Matthew 7:3-5, the Great Physician offers this diagnosis: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” Considering the sexist setting of many of our sanctuaries, could it be that black clergy have taken a hypocritical stance with respect to our oratorical neighbors—hip-hop rappers? In response to this query, let us briefly set hip-hop in historical context, and then ponder three aspects of Jesus’ diagnosis for our spiritual vision.

In Africana, the landmark African-American encyclopedia compiled by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kwame Appiah, Gates suggests that the church incubated three African-American musical contributions: blues, jazz, and gospel. Hip-hop, however, has its origins not in our sanctuary songs, but, for the most part, in the streets of the South Bronx, New York. Soul artists like Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke had one foot in the church and another in popular culture; hip-hop artists like Ludacris and Young Joc on the other hand, appear to have both feet firmly situated in popular culture. On this topic, Trinity United Church of Christ pastor Rev. Otis Moss III echoes Nelson George when he states that hip-hop emerged in a “post-Soul” climate. To sample Walter Bruggemann’s insights, in the post-Soul climate, rappers, not black clergy, are the prophets who “publicly process the pain” of the people. When black teenagers and young adults wrestle with the promise and pressure of “blackness” in America, they turn to T.I before T.D. Jakes, and Jim Jones before James Cone. Nevertheless, I contend that the black church, and black clergy in particular, has provided and continues to provide the contact lens for hip-hop; the relationship between the two is estranged, but our vision still influences their worldview.

Mason Betha, the man who rose to fame as the shiny suit sidekick of P. Diddy—back then he was Puff Daddy—left hip-hop near the turn of the century, citing his newfound Christian faith. Throughout that process, the famous Atlanta pastor Creflo A. Dollar counseled Mason Betha in a much publicized relationship. The rapper Ludacris featured another popular Atlanta preacher, Bishop Eddie Long, on Freedom of Preach, a song on 2006 album Release Therapy.

On the Spirit of Hip-Hop, a popular Christian radio show hosted by Atlanta DJ Coco Brother, the rapper Yung Joc revealed that he grew up in Atlanta’s Macedonia Baptist Church. Also on Coco Brother’s show, Lil' Jon, the world’s most famous hypeman, called in and confessed Jesus as his Savior. Cee-Lo Green, one-half of the Grammy-nominated supergroup Gnarls Barkley, is a preacher’s kid. Chicagoan Kanye West, the rapper who literally struck gold with Jesus Walks, has revealed in interviews that his father was a Christian counselor. Heaven knows Fantasia, a popular guest on hip-hop hooks, grew up in the church; where else could she have developed that squall that she does? Mary J. Blidge, the queen of hip-hop soul, publicly testifies about giving her life to Christ. In addition, Lil' Mo, a singer who crooned choruses for the rapper Fabolous and penned several of her own hits, gradually left the hip-hop scene and re-emerged some time later as a highly visible Christian, making appearances at T.D. Jakes’ Megafest. Moreover, Nas, one hip-hop’s most revered figures, occasionally quotes Rev. Michael Eric Dyson. And then there’s Archbishop Magic Don Juan, a man who was admittedly ordained ‘bishop’ by his congregation, Magic World Christian Church of the Royal family, and 'arch' by a friend; the former Chicago pimp reportedly serves or has served as a 'spiritual advisor' to Snoop Dogg and Lil' Kim.

My fellow preachers, however difficult it may be to state the exact nature of the relationship between black reverends and black rappers, it is likely that a substantial number of hip-hop artists grew up in our pews, lived under our roofs, or at least heard somebody preaching the good news. The jury is still out as to whether many rappers are practicing Christians, but the point remains: some of the most renowned rappers have sat—and perhaps are sitting—in our sanctuaries, soaking in our sermons. This reality then, raises a piercing question: If rappers are listening to our message, then why does misogyny prevail in the music? Some attribute the malady to those who, in a rush to bridge the gap between church and culture, embrace hip-hop without extending a thoroughgoing critique of its misogyny. This view, in its most disturbing manifestations, either dismisses or downplays sexism in hip-hop culture. Others see a speck of sexism in church, and the log of misogyny in the culture; we might call this the “blame the heathens” approach. This perspective generally asserts that all rap is ungodly and therefore misogyny will persist until every single rapper gets saved. Both prescriptions contain partial truths, but ultimately commit malpractice by going to the extreme. This misdiagnosis forces us to raise another set of questions: Can we simultaneously integrate hip-hop culture into our church and confront its misogyny? Similarly, can we convert individual rappers—some of whom profess Christ—while considering corporate social responsibility and resisting monolithic portraits of the culture? These are questions we must ask ourselves. But if our ultimate goal is to comprehensively affirm women in both the Christian and hip-hop culture, then we must deal with our Doctor’s diagnosis in Matthew 7: we need a new pair of glasses. This threefold treatment plan recommends that we acknowledge the “log” of misogyny, discard our log-filled lenses, and then use a pair of biblical bifocals to remove the “speck” from hip-hop culture.

Interpreting the Bible through a sexist lens—whether inadvertently or intentionally—is a ''log” in the pupils of black clergy. Saint Augustine, the theological progenitor of Archbishop Magic Don Juan, once said the following quote: never fight sin as if it is something entirely outside yourself. Looking back, his position strikes us as ironic; many pastors and theologians, including Paul Smith, author of Is It Okay To Call God Mother?, and feminist theologian Mary Engels, have “called out” the Church father for his sexist views. According to book 7 of his landmark work, Confessions, Augustine believed that women were equal to men in a spiritual sense, but in terms of their physical body, he denied that they even possessed the image of God. Disturbingly enough, Augustine likely held this view of all women except for his mother Monica (sounds like Tupac Shakur to me). This 4th century male bishop, a chief architect of Western Christianity, is a progenitor of a troublesome—and sexist—inheritance that, lamentably, drips from the lips of both rappers and preachers in our twenty-first century American society.

Today, Augustine's unjustifiable—if not altogether repulsive—views of women's bodies find a home in the symbolism of Archbishop Magic Don Juan. Perhaps more than any other person, he symbolizes the pink elephant in our African-American room: black clergy’s impotence in pointing out and putting down sexism in hip-hop is due, in large part, to the persistence of sexism in the church. We have ineffectively denounced sexism in the “them” of hip-hop culture because we largely refuse to acknowledge that it also infects “us.” In True to our Native Land, womanist theologian Raquel St. Clair notes that the gender issues of African-American women took a backseat to race and womanhood in the civil rights and feminist movements respectively. While black clergy praised God for important political victories in the midst of our stained glass windows, we continued—and still continue—to hermeneutically and homiletically handle the Bible with a patriarchal paradigm; we need a new pair of glasses.

In many of our black churches, God-language is so thoroughly masculine that it attacks the validity of feminine biblical metaphor about God. Many preachers invoke the Divine as Father God, King Jesus, Heavenly Father, and if he or she is old enough, as the man upstairs. From these distinctions, we come to understand God as protector, deliverer, and disciplinarian—and rightly so. But what shall we make of the Bible associating the 'feminine aspects of God with protection, comfort, wisdom and even the Holy Spirit? In Hosea 13:8, God protects the Israelites like a she-bear; in Isaiah 66:13, God comforts like a mother; in almost all of Proverbs 8, feminine personification describes the Wisdom of God; and in Genesis 1:2, the word for Spirit is ruach, a feminine word. In Is it okay to call God Mother?, Paul Smith dedicates a chapter to this issue entitled “Scriptures you’ve never heard.” What a provocative title! If we conducted a survey of (suggestion to Pew Studies) scriptures most laity never hear on Sunday morning or Wednesday night, I suspect that “liberals” would stay away from certain portions of Paul’s epistles, “conservatives” would neglect certain portions of the Old Testament prophets Amos and Isaiah, and both would avoid Gal. 3:28, Rom. 16, Judges 4:4, and a litany of other passages that affirm women’s equality in Christ, and present them in ecclesiastical/national leadership roles.

When black preachers encounter hermeneutical difficulties in the Old Testament, it is not uncommon to hear interpretations hinge on God as Liberator (Ex. 20). In an effort to remain hermeneutically consistent, could we not extend the liberation theme into the New Testament and juxtapose the more difficult portions of Paul against the clear, liberating posture of Galatians 3:28: “There is therefore no longer male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free in Christ Jesus?” This suggestion is by no means original but perhaps my outrage is in one respect. I wonder how we can believe God labors for the liberation of an entire people—whether the Israelites or African-Americans—for 39 books, and then all of a sudden “flip the script” for the 27 books, which revolve around our captive-freeing Prophet of Luke 4:18, Jesus Christ? Perhaps it is because men want to maintain the pulpit palace of patriarchy. Or maybe the idea that women will “take over” the sacred desk scares black clergy because exposes men’s insecurity and women’s feelings of inadequacy more so than it jettisons scriptural authority. Here’s my conjecture: sexism persists among black clergy because we have largely failed to acknowledge two things. One, interpretation is a deliberate act in which the Holy Spirit, ideally, permeates and guides. Secondly, and most perniciously, I suspect many women and men somehow believe that God favors men more than women.

In order to remove the “speck” out of hip-hop’s eye, we must not only acknowledge that we have a log, but also commit to removing the stain from our sexist spectacles. Sexism, in this work, is defined as any thought, word, or deed that denies, devalues, or otherwise dismisses the image of God in women. Most of the arguments that African-American ministers trumpet about women not being called to preach, lead, or do anything that involves exercising “dominion” hinge on a questionable understanding of Genesis 1:26-28. In that scriptural account, verse 27 informs us that God created men and women in his image. In the New Revised Standard Version, it then goes on to say in verse 28 that “he blessed them and said to them, go out and fill the earth subdue it and rule”: other translations render the verb as have mastery over, or exercise dominion. I prefer Eugene Peterson’s take on dominion in the Message translation; he renders that word this way: be responsible for. How can it be that the image of God equips both men and women to exercise dominion and be responsible for the earth and the created order, but then women cannot exercise dominion and leadership responsibility in the church? Some suggest that Genesis 3, which narrates the fall of humanity, reverses women’s capability in this regard. Assuming that this problematic interpretation is true, most of us can agree that Jesus Christ came—amongst other purposes—to redeem creation and enable us to live as God intended for us to live. A possible interpretation of Genesis 1:26-28 is that it reveals how God intends for both women and men to live in terms of leadership and authority in the created order. Therefore, denying the women the opportunity to exercise leadership responsibility (i.e. pastoring, leading ministries and committees, organizing events, etc.) in the church, which is a critical part of the created order, is ultimately to deny the image of God in women, and therefore assault the feminine personality, which is divinely equipped—even as men are equipped—to lead businesses, community organizations, and churches.

Generally, I affirm people’s right to perceive scripture differently after the exegetical work is done. Some interpretations however, have practical implications that are so pernicious as to demand an unequivocal stand against them; in this regard, American chattel slavery comes to mind. Another example is the “chattel theology” of some traditionalist black male preachers. Some of male brethren present a theology that emphasizes phrases like “a woman’s place,” “a man’s authority” and the like, when the practical implication is that women are essential chattel whose worth is to be determined, not by their intellect, leadership, or their intuitive grasp of life’s issues, but by the quality and quantity of their food, sex, and baby output. Such interpretations and implications, which ultimately suggest that women are more like animals than carriers of God’s image, demand that those who view Scripture with a liberating lens compellingly articulate that God’s image affirms women’s full participation in our church and culture. Speaking of which, it seems disturbingly peculiar that women can earn doctorates in a wide range of fields, lead multinational corporations in business, and yet wrestle with an ecclesiastical culture that expects them to only pray and as Dr. Ernestine Reems said, “Go to the back and cook chicken.” On many occasions, it seems like non-Christians respect the image of God in women in terms of encouraging leadership and positions of responsibility more so than the African-American church, which has historically sounded the trumpet for liberation in America!

Any good pair of glasses contains two clear lenses; likewise, ridding our spectacles of sexism entails at least two things. First, we must comprehensively affirm the image of God in women, and embrace all of the practical implications thereof (Gen. 1:26). Taking a passive approach is not enough; we must active uplift women in an authentic manner. In my particular context, this means appreciating and affirming the women who helped form my theological convictions. Throughout my flirtations with a socially detached evangelicalism and an individually enslaving liberal theology, my mother’s firm convictions in the grace of God and courageous grappling with existential questions as an African-American woman anchored me in the tradition of our great Liberator. Recalling our rich conversations, the set of premises which systemically deny—or in worse cases—refuse to acknowledge women’s call to lead in the sanctuary and society do not persuade me. Our dialogues also inform my belief that we must intentionally highlight maternal and feminine imagery in the Bible, such as Isaiah 66:13 which reads: “As a mother comforts her children, so will I comfort Israel.” Far from promoting an anthropomorphic, transgendered concept of God, I submit that incorporating such language will ultimately help us actualize an ethic that allows women to create, organize, and lead as is fitting for one patterned in the likeness of God Almighty.

Second, I suggest that we extend the liberation lens to the New Testament epistles. Many black preachers interpret the entire Old Testament through the Exodus narrative paradigm, call on Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, and continue the liberation march through the Gospels on the basis of scriptures like Luke 4:18, which reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”. However, when we get to the New Testament epistles, the section of Scripture to which sexist appeals are predominantly made, most preachers cede hermeneutical ground to 1 Timothy, and 1 Corinthians. Appropriating New Testament scholar Abraham Smith, I suggest, in contrast to this predominant practice, that we interpret all of Paul works against Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer any male nor female.” This interpretative emphasis on Galatians 3:28 occurs for several reasons. One, this paradigm asserts that God originally created the world, without hierarchical stratifications in terms of gender roles; there is a difference between men and women, but it is not one of exclusivity access to leadership or above/below. Two, it continues the liberation march by forthrightly acknowledging bias, highlighting the portions of Paul which line up with the liberation view of Exodus, the Hebrew prophets, and the ministry of Jesus Christ. The tertiary assertion of this vantage point is that Gal. 3:28 should be the departure point for gender roles in all of Paul’s writings. Given the inevitability of interpreting Scripture through some lens, I humbly believe that we would be most Christlike in our ministry by interpreting Galatians 3:28 in a way that comprehensively affirms humanity and intentionally dismisses gender as a bona fide occupational requirement for leadership opportunity, rather than abiding by a job description that is not listed in scripture.

Once we exchange our sexist spectacles for a liberating lens, then the third question becomes as follows: in an attempt to “clean out the speck,” how then, should black clergy relate to rappers? The answer is simple, but difficult to implement: affirm the God-imprint in women in the hip-hop culture through engaging the arts. Practically, this commitment contains two implications. First, we can enlarge the alternative platform of explicitly Christian rappers. For a variety of reasons, the black church, to our great detriment, does embrace this genre on a wide scale. The white church however, has largely embraced contemporary Christian music artists to the point where the industry is self-sustaining and artists get an opportunity to impact popular culture with a mainstream mouthpiece. In the black community, this has not been a comparable option for economic reasons and others, but also because a culturally conservative, post-Scopes trial, pre-Roe vs. Wade, socially detached White evangelical theology prohibits many black churches from embracing artists that present a different portrait of hip-hop. We could wisely wield our resources by helping urban gospel artists, particularly rappers, get into the marketplace of ideas by financially supporting them; having well-equipped residents of the culture change it from within, as opposed to preachers attempting to change it from without is a plausible, practical, and if done right, profitable idea.

We can embrace this initiative in a few ways. First, we can support quality urban gospel music. By quality, I simply mean music that sounds good enough to play on mainstream radio, that wholly affirms humanity, and that is scripturally rooted. Just as a decent singer should not make it past being a soloist at the local church, an average rapper should not move beyond the same platform. Secondly, churches in the community can pool their resources together to purchase a studio so that rappers can develop their craft, work on new projects, etc. With the advent of accessible music production software like ProTools and Reasons, it is possible to produce quality music affordably. According to Music Education Technology, a leading publication for music educators, a quality studio can be built for roughly six or seven thousand dollars. Even if it were ten thousand dollars, between three or four congregations in most any community, this goal is within reach if our budgets prioritize the gospel message in the music form (hip-hop) that captivates this generation. Also, black clergy can persuade their congregations to offer sanctuaries, and if applicable, multi-purpose rooms as a venue for concerts. This step is critical because it simultaneously says that the black church affirms the artistry of hip-hop in general, and the ministry of gospel rappers in particular. The following action steps notwithstanding, it would be most beneficial to invest liberally in urban missionaries. As I understand the term, urban missionaries refers to individuals like Emmanuel Lambert Jr., better known as Da’ T.R.U.T.H, who is currently the most influential voice in Christian rap. He serves and performs through his parent organization, Cross-Movement Ministries, a Philadelphia-based entity that actively seeks—and to a large extent has succeeded—in making Christian rap, Christian disciples, and in short, infusing hip-hop culture with Christian character. By prayerfully and financially supporting entities like the one I just mentioned, we black clergy could embrace the arts in a way that, as Rev. Michael Eric Dyson once suggested in an email to me, affirmatively contributes a Christian voice the public discourse of hip-hop culture.

Enlarging the platform of Christian rappers is important, but secondly, we must also embrace and critique the hip-hop culture (Christian rappers are a part of hip-hop culture; I make distinctions between Christian rappers and hip-hop culture for conceptual clarity and ease of communication) itself. In particular, we must compassionately confront the complicity of our laity in supporting “entertainment” that either strongly or subtly suggests that women are less than the beloved of God. With hearts harangued by humility and hurt, we black clergy must pose the following question to ourselves and laity: Are we so “entertained” by the exploitation of women that we refuse to entertain the notion that God is outraged by our spending habits, and theological silence which economically and theologically justify the idea of women as chattel? Even more disturbingly, I suspect that most laity perceives no inconsistency between our belief in Christ and supporting misogynistic music. As a general statement, it is not uncommon for women and men to call each other brother and sister in church, and then dogs and bitches elsewhere. Here’s an inconvenient truth: soft-porn magazines, pornographic videos, strip clubs, degrading video images, and much else under the hip-hop umbrella remains profitable because Christians of all hues—red, yellow, black, and white—supply, demand, and in many cases, help distribute music that dehumanizes women who are precious in God's sight.

Honestly, on this point, I have more imagination than implementation, to use Walter Bruggemann’s phrase. Nevertheless, the point remains if African-American Churches do not take a long, prayerful look at re-formulating a theology that addresses the nature of contemporary entertainment, then as Dr. Martin Luther King and Ralph Watkins suggest, albeit at different time periods, substantial portions of two generations—hip-hop (1965-1985) and hip-hop squared (1986-2005)—will dismiss the Church as an irrelevant social club with no real power in the community. We clergy get outraged periodically, (the uproar surrounding 2 Live Crew’s Me So Horny, Rev. Calvin Butts’ steamrolling over gangsta rap CD’s, and Don Imus’ callous remarks comes to mind) but then it’s back to business as usual. Perhaps we do not preach a comprehensive, biblically-based affirmation of women because we buy the same stuff our congregants do, and engage in many of the same conversations that misogynistic media sparks—but behind closed doors. I know I have. I am not proud of it, but maybe the first step towards compassionately confront our laity about misogyny is for black clergy—especially males—to take a cue from the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin and admit that all men are recovering chauvinists. That in turn, could lead to black male clergy corporately admitting that we do not approach the text in disinterest; we approach the Bible with a patriarchal scope that perceives a social and ecclesial order which favors men more than women. Once we admit that we all too often have wounded our fellow female clergy, maybe then we can restore the African-American Pulpit to wholeness; perhaps it is only by modeling the desired behaviors ourselves, that we black clergy can regain the moral authority to lead our community in a sustained effort to affirm and treat black women as the beloved of God, and not beasts of beauty to be used for economic exploitation.

In a media-saturated world that consistently caricatures African-American women, a God that sides with the oppressed must surely hold black women are near to the pulsating pathos of Her heart. As I said earlier, I wish I had more ideas for implementation, but my purpose here is to provide an alternative paradigm—a set of lenses that attempt to be “logless”—to the dominant consciousness of sexism. Imagine a world where our proclamation and praxis of the Gospel affirm life in such a way that our laity feel uncomfortable sitting in a strip club, watching pornography, or otherwise being “entertained” by women engaging in demeaning labor. Envision with me, if you will, a nation of churches where teenage males and females who are indelibly impressed by hip-hop nonetheless negotiate their adolescence with gritty biblical paradigms that are both relevant and life-transforming. Close your eyes and picture the black middle class and working class worshipping together in a church that integrates hip-hop culture in worship and weekly ministry programs, and models comprehensive affirmation to the larger hip-hop culture by providing women and men the full opportunity to lead (serve). In our time, maybe this is what a church and culture might look like where God’s kingdom reigns “on earth as [it does] in heaven” (Matt. 6:9 NRSV).

Conclusion

As it concerns misogyny and hip-hop, we African-American clergy should publicly apologize for having eyes that do not see. Let me be the first: I, Andrew James Wilkes, solemnly express contrition for vigorously denouncing misogyny in hip-hop and yet only occasionally lamenting its pernicious presence in the church. Before we criticize and proselytize our rapping, rhetorical brethren, let us first apologize and subsequently analyze, and then maybe, just maybe, we can witness to this generation more effectively. During the past twenty-five years, black preachers’ have regarded hip-hop in one of two fashions: either the clergy regarded hip-hop’s negative manifestations as a uniform evil, or the cloth snootily condemned rappers as if we “scored” better in our treatment and affirmation of women. The result of both courses of action has been a wholesale compromise of our prophetic witness that implicitly gives theological justification to misogyny in hip-hop and the church. Historically, black clergy have offered some of the most prophetic witness in the nation, if not the world; now, a great vacuum exists where the trombone once sounded. Prophetic witness demands spiritual and societal perception and then the bold faith of proclamation.

As it concerns misogyny, our proclamation is impoverished—in some cases nonexistent—because a sexist log blocks our spiritual vision. In a postmodern age where relativity reigns, we preachers have largely failed to inspire the spheres of art and society—which includes rappers—with clear and compelling moral vision that uses the Bible to comprehensively affirm women. Certainly, there are preachers scattered among us that have made it their business to comprehensively affirm women, and they should be celebrated. But at the same time, we must admit that the aggregate articulation of black clergy has simply not done so. The question may well be asked, what can be done to restore the vision of black clergy as it relates to misogyny in the ministry and amongst our oratorical neighbors? This article endeavored to explore the “what,” yet my concluding appeal for us clergy is that we pray the more appropriating, and appropriate prayer for our respective circumstances: How, O Lord, in (insert your community here), do we adhere to the Doctor’s diagnosis to remove the sexist spectacles, replace them with designer Matthew 7 bifocals, and then commence the difficult work of speck-cleaning?

By Andrew Wilkes