“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” is a verse found in Matthew 16:18. It is also a well-known epithet preached from many pulpits in Black churches. The interpretation of its meaning, however, often varies from denomination to denomination. Catholics, for example, consider Peter to be the first Pope, ordained by Jesus as the “Rock.” Evangelicals, on the other hand, consider Peter to only be one of the founding Apostles, whose faith in the message of the cross was the “rock,” that Jesus spoke of. Putting the question of Peter’s role aside, this verse, like so many others in the Bible, say more about the current state of the (Black) church than it does about the church’s founding.
In fact, “the rock,” or what I understand as the crux of the Christian faith, is the formation of a beloved community of individuals. While on Earth, Jesus broke bread with all. Whether it be the woman caught in the act of adultery, blind Bartimaeus, cussing Peter, Judas the deceiver, the unapologetically sexual Mary Magdalene, or even stubborn theological malpractitioners—namely the Pharisees and Sadducees—who sought to silence Jesus ever since he was 13. Jesus certainly loved all, but he did not love everything. When one thinks about Jesus’ life as a boy born to a single mother, at war with a white supremacist empire, and all that he preached and lived, Jesus’ message put simply was “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” To be Palestinian and politically Black meant that Jesus’ life was one of scorn. He had no choice but to love all. In many ways, the oppressed oppressing others conjures a matrix of oxymoronic confusion. Hurt people hurting other people only produces more hurt. In fact, Jesus’ ministry as a radical and a revolutionary was to break cycles of oppression, so that the hurt would be made whole, and could experience abundant life.
However, many churches have done such a poor job preserving the true and “unadulterated” ethos of Christ’s message and the sermon he embodied. In fact, many focus more on the “hell” piece of the aforementioned scripture, than they do on the “rock.” The rock pushes us to love beyond superficiality and beyond aesthetic performance. The rock pushes us to love people to the point where we want to see them live in their whole truth. The rock calls us to love even when we do not completely understand. The rock commands that we reevaluate our practices even when we hold our traditions near and dear to our hearts. The rock moves us away from enslavement and into the light of liberation. The rock does not send people to a metaphorical hell, but the rock inspires us to cast the hell out of our own hearts and out of our sacred institutions.
Nine innocent Black lives were taken during the Charleston massacre, and “Prophet” Brian Carn has blamed them for their deaths (as seen in the ridiculous video below). Twenty-plus Black women pastors have been threatened with letters from a Black man saying they ought not preach. 60% of Black women and girls report having been raped before the age of 18, according to Black Women’s Blueprint. SCOTUS has ruled that marriage equality is legal, and faux social media theologians have posted more theologically irresponsible statuses than I can count. Studies show that suicide and depression have traumatically increased among queer and trans Black youth. Six Black churches have been burned to the ground throughout the nation. Domestic violence in the Black church remains under discussed. Stigma around HIV and other STDs fosters a culture of unsafe sexual practices. Pastors and preachers continue to preach, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” when loving the “sinner” rightly means not calling people’s truth, “sin.”
In short, our Black churches are simultaneously under attack and are guilty of assault. All of these issues have distinct nuances, but they are all interconnected by White supremacy.
In this moment, as a follower of Christ, I am convinced that the church has let the gates of hell prevail against it. And no, the massacre that occurred in the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church is no indication of this, for certainly, the only wrong those beautiful souls did was be Black. However, it is the pervasiveness of the sins of patriarchy, sexism, homo- and transphobia, elitism, and anti-Black religious rhetoric, that signal that hell is in our midst. Hell is in our pews, in pastors’ studies and pulpits, and the prophets who expose “our hell” are beaten like Jesus.
Our communities are on fire and blessed oil applied maliciously, wrinkled Bible pages turned violently, and hateful religious incantations said in tongues can only further set us ablaze.
In the words of Jesus, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” We can’t unite against white supremacy and deny the very real implications of gendered and sexualized terrorism in our churches. The gospel has always been holistic, the “rock” of the Christian faith is love, and Christ’s love “bears all things.”