The Courage to Commit: Empowering Black Men for Family Leadership
February 23, 2013
This presentation addresses the imbalance in Black male/female relationships. Several factors create a “perfect storm” that makes the marriageable Black man a commodity in an unhealthy relationship economy. This makes relationships stormy and the waters of marriage especially difficult to navigate. Reflecting on the Paschal Mystery and the sacrifice of Jesus, we will explore possible remedies.
My brothers in Christ,
I present to you a message of challenge– a challenge that will have you digging deeper into your faith – a challenge that will make you a better builder of God’s Kingdom, the beloved community. The scriptural foundation for the challenge that I present to us this morning can be found in Luke 6:27-36, which reads:
But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
And Matthew 5:43-48, which reads:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you only greet your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus doesn’t mince words about loving our enemies. However, it’s so “out there” in terms of how we relate to others. If our enemies are at a distance, we rarely get tested on this directive from Our Lord. When was the last time an enemy slapped you and you were tested to literally turn the other cheek? Some of us may very well face such adversity in their daily walk. But, I suspect that’s not most of us. So, we take this clear instruction from Our Lord and reduce it to simply what we think of our enemies.
My brothers, I want to take on this challenge with you by bringing it home, literally HOME! If you are involved in a serious, long-term love relationship with a woman, there are those times when it feels as though she is the enemy.
For those of you who live with siblings, there are those times when it feels as though your brother or sister is your enemy. There are times when it feels that the people who love us the most are indeed our enemies. Right within our homes, in our families lives that nemesis who gets in the way of our pursuit of happiness.
What does Jesus’ directive to “love your enemies” mean within the context of our families? The more you think about it the broader the application. It’s about putting the wellbeing of others in our sights and taking action on their behalf, even to our own detriment. To expound on this would take much more time than what I’m allotted. So, I would like to focus this on a very particular phenomenon in our society.
Sociological studies report a serious pathology in family life among African Americans. Of all measured groups, African Americans have the lowest marriage rate. Compared to all other ethnic groups in our society we African Americans are least prone to public commitment between men and women in a permanent conjugal love relationship from which children are nurtured and covenantal love is modeled.
At the same time, the rate of divorce is highest among African Americans. The rate of fatherlessness is also highest among African Americans. Essentially, the institution of marriage has collapsed for African American families for a variety of reasons.
There are several factors that create this sociological “perfect storm” that has devastated marriage in the African American community.
Looking for my soul-mate: The over-romanticizing of marriage puts marriage out of reach. The expectations for marriage today are such that we want our lover, best friend, parenting partner, and spiritual companion all in one package. This, along with the expectation that all of that will be constant and unfailing, make marriage unrealistic. It’s a wonderful idea to dream about. But it doesn’t take very long for reality to seep in and squash any notion that we make the grade for what makes a good marriage.
The unspoken promise of ease: The high production of endorphins in the early stages of a relationship give us the false expectation that our love should be easy. The euphoria of the dating period becomes the opiate that we strive to sustain as the standard experience of the relationship. In the earliest stage feelings of love are compelling. The very notion of “falling in love” suggests that even gravity assist us. “I just can’t help it!”
The disparity in the availability of marriageable women and men: Studies show that African American women are the least likely segment of our society to marry for a variety of reasons.
· Disproportion of African American men in prison or in the penal system.
· Lower numbers of African American men enrolled in and graduating from institutions of higher learning.
· High unemployment and under-employment among African American men.
· Higher number of African American women in the middle and upper-classes
· African American women are most prone to select a mate within their race and least prone to select outside their race.
· These factors create a wide gap in educated and sufficiently employed (i.e., marriageable) African American men and African American Women.
An Unhealthy “relationship economy”: The disparity between available African American men and African American women, as I just described, creates an unhealthy economy of relationships. A healthy, committed relationship is between a man and a woman who make room for each other’s issues. Though the promise was based on all that was promising about the relationship – the promise of ease, overactive endorphins – a healthy marriage matures into a relationship that embraces the good and puts up with the not-so-good. You’ve heard of the three rings of marriage, right? You know! The engagement ring, the wedding ring, and then the suffering. In healthy marriages spouses put up with each other’s flaws. They do “suffer” each other.
However, in that suffering there is a becoming that happens. The commitment of marriage creates a ring in which they bounce off each other and discover ways to live well together; they learn how to keep their relationship promising and they learn how to keep their promise. In their suffering there is a shaping that happens that only commitment can bring about. They are shaped by a promise that mirrors God’s covenant. They reflect God’s love and become a witness to God’s presence in our world. In them is an openness to God’s grace that performs miracles in their life. Through that grace and in that shaping they become who they need to be. Through their unearned suffering they find redemption. There is a rising to a new relationship less dependent on over-romanticized expectations and formed in God’s grace.
In the unhealthy economy of relationships among African American men and women, men become a “rare commodity” of sorts. A basic understanding of supply and demand reveals a “male market” that gives men options that, if chosen, would help them to escape the necessary suffering that shapes them into the godly men they need to be. The unhealthy economy causes a fragility in those relationships that make them more breakable. It inhibits their ability to go deeper and weather the inevitable storms that blow in. Too often these couples don’t become who they need to be; they don’t reflect God’s covenantal love; and they don’t bring the light of God into the darkness of our sin-sick world. Everyone involved suffers as a result. However, their suffering isn’t redemptive; it’s destructive and it unravels the basic fabric of society – the family.
Institutions in the society, particularly the Federal Government, have made attempts to remedy the situation with skills-based curricula that teach men and women how to communicate effectively, how to parent, and how to manage a home and finances. The jury is still out on whether the Healthy Marriage Initiative has made any significant difference to our families.
The Church, too, is strategizing how to call men and women into a life of vocation in permanent partnerships with each other. My wife and partner in ministry, Terri and I have been leaders in both initiatives. And what we see very clearly is that we need to do this for ourselves – not by ourselves, but for ourselves. Above all, we African American men need to take the initiative to form ourselves so that God can have his way with us.
We African American men need to develop relationship skills that give us confidence in our abilities to put up with our women and ultimately be shaped by womanly wisdom.
We need to act on the proverb that says, “The greatest gift I can give my children is to love their mother.”
We need to educate ourselves on the benefits of marital commitment, benefits to ourselves and especially the benefits to our children. We need to know ultimately that when we allow God to shape us for family life we greatly contribute to the good of society.
We need to develop the moral fiber we need to forgo those options given us by an unhealthy relationship economy – options that inhibit our growth and stunt our becoming who we need to be.
We need to model that goodness and create higher standards of manhood for ourselves and our sons. We need to do that modeling beyond our doorsteps and be witnesses of manhood to those boys whose fathers are not in their lives.
And this needs to be an initiative by us and for us. While I truly cherish the modeling I have gotten from my brothers in faith who are not of the African American community, those African American men who have mentored me into manhood create a catharsis that heals wounds inflicted centuries ago. Through them I know that there is a “balm in Gilead!”
My brothers in Christ who are not African American, we need you to stand with us and pray with us and hold our feet to the fire. We need you to be witnesses to the miracles that God does in us. You too take heed by refusing to opt out of what God demands of us as godly men. While the urgency is in the African American family, the encroaching darkness is targeting all of us. Your standing with us and witnessing our plight will also strengthen you and protect your families, as well.
Loving our enemies, even when our enemies are the ones we love the most, requires great courage. We need the courage to submit to the promises we made – promises that were much easier to make than they are to keep. We need the courage to suffer those we love so that God can have his way with us and shape us into who we need to be.
I will close with a poem that was written by Margaret Stanton that speaks of this kind of courageous loving. It is a poem that was found among the writing of Howard Thurman who was considered the spiritual director of the Civil Rights Movement. It is titled “A Prayer”. So, please listen prayerfully as I read it.
By Margaret Stanton
Give me the courage to live!
Really live – not merely exist.
Daring the truth –
Particularly the truth of myself!
Live resiliently –
Ever changing, ever growing, ever adapting.
Enduring the pain of change
As though ‘twere the travail of birth.
Give me the courage to live,
Give me the strength to be free
And endure the burden of freedom
And the loneliness of those without chains;
Let me not be trapped by success,
Nor by failure, nor pleasure, nor grief,
Nor malice, nor praise, nor remorse!
Give me the courage to go on!
Facing all that waits on the trail –
Going eagerly, joyously on,
And praying my way as I go,
Without anger or fear or regret
Taking what life gives,
Spending myself to the full,
Head high, spirit winged, like a god –
On . . . on . . . till the shadows draw close.
Then even when darkness shuts down,
And I go out alone, as I came,
Naked and blind as I came –
Even then, gracious God, hear my prayer;
Give me the courage to live!