I recently saw Hidden Figures, about the three African-American women who were crucial in the development of NASA. The movie was smart, entertaining, and touching, without ever veering into manipulative sentimentality. Taraji P. Henson should get a special Oscar for running in high heels, and the soundtrack from (mostly) Pharrell Williams is off-the-hook.
One of the strongest themes of the film is that social change often occurs at the personal level. The characters played by Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons in particular represent the brand of racism that disguises itself as forbearance — and only through repeated day-to-day exposure working with real black women do they realize they have perhaps been more part of the problem than the solution. I found it an ironic touch that Parsons, an openly gay actor, would be a stand-in for the other hidden figures at NASA — the homosexual men and women who had to actively conceal who they were in order to work there.
The three main characters would doubtfully have ever thought much about the gay people in their midst, particularly in the African-American community. As dedicated churchgoers, they would have internalized the attitudes of their time, no doubt. But in the context of the present time, one can certainly be taken aback to hear the comments about gays made by Kim Burrell, who sings the film’s rousing anthem, “I See a Victory.”
You’ve read this kind of stuff before; the difference between what might have been said in the past and what is said now can be seen in her patronizing disclaimer, insisting that she has never discriminated against gays and lesbians. “I love you and God loves you,” she says. “But God hates the sin.”
Who says “God hates the sin?” The Bible? This Bible? “Then I heard the LORD say to the other men, ‘Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked. Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all — old and young, girls and women and little children … Fill its courtyards with the bodies of those you kill! Go!’ So they went throughout the city and did as they were told.” (Ezekiel 9:5–7) The Bible that also says this: “But if this charge is true and evidence of the girl’s virginity is not found, they shall bring the girl to the entrance of her father’s house and there her townsman shall stone her to death, because she committed a crime against Israel by her unchasteness in her father’s house. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 22:20–21)
Clearly if you believe Leviticus condemns homosexuality, then you should also believe also unmarried pregnant women should be stoned. (This could be a little problematic in the Bible Belt itself, where teenage pregnancy rates in the U.S. are highest). But Kim Burrell doesn’t believe this, because, like most of her co-religionists, she cherry-picks the Bible. Well, that goes both ways: “When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.” (1 Samuel 18:1–4)
Kim Burrell, who is a preacher herself, might insist that there is no proof that the intense friendship between David and Jonathan was sexual. She’s right. There is no proof that their love was sexual. The only thing that is crystal clear is that their love was committed. This is the relationship the Bible is blessing. Two consenting adults declaring that they shall “forsake all others.” There is actually no indication that what might happen horizontally between the men has any bearing on the value of what occurs between them vertically.
The Bible can be used to justify or de-legitimize almost anything — including slavery, an institution it challenges very selectively (the Jews in Egypt), but generally accepts as a morally unobjectionable given. Certainly Southern plantation owners, who considered themselves very God-fearing religious people — just like Kim Burrell considers herself — evidently didn’t feel very compelled by the Good Book to free their slaves. They preferred to imagine that Ham’s supposedly dark coloring meant they could treat other human beings as abusable property.
The sad truth about oppression is that the attitudes that underlie it tend to get passed on to whomever is perceived to be lower on the societal ladder. I saw this all too close up in California Institute for Men at Chino, where racism, misogyny and homophobia converged to guarantee that trans black women were always at the bottom of the prison hierarchy. (Props to Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black, but incarcerated trans women who retain their male equipment are still housed in men’s prisons.)
When you preached in Houston, Kim Burrell, I guarantee you there was a man in your gospel choir who heard you call him a pervert, and felt just as diminished as Katherine Johnson did having to cross the grounds of NASA to find a Colored Ladies’ bathroom. I promise you there was someone in those pews who was struggling with issues of gender identity–- and you made them feel like shit. That’s not praising Jesus, it’s shaming the very marginalized he championed. You’re the one who should be ashamed.
Hidden Figures extolls the power of the human brain to transcend ordinary thinking. Letting the Bible do your thinking for you is choosing to not think at all. I would suggest you listen to the words you sang a little more carefully.
So I tallied all my losses/ And I turned them into lessons/ And what seemed to be less/ I turned them into blessings/ See, I’m not trying to lose you/ But the Spirit is relentless/ And when you let go, let Him use you/ Then you can be a witness
Let go, let it be/ No matter how deep/ I swear just believe/ You’ll find victory (find your victory)