Sterling K Brown in a still from Honk for Jesus Save Your Soul. He's holding a megaphone in front of a statue of Black Jesus

Honk for Jesus is the Mirror the Black Church Deserves

From looking at the advertisement, it is hard to tell if Honk For Jesus: Save Your Soul is a biting satire of the glaring contradictions and hypocrisies that plague Christian mega-church prosperity Gospel culture, but the fact that it is a product of horror genre Monkey Pay Productions lends me to consider it almost a scary movie that holds a mirror to the transmogrified and disfigured facade of Black church culture and all the evils it has wrought.

And that might seem an odd assessment coming from me, a professed follower of Jesus Christ and an Afrikan revolutionary. But I am also well aware of how white supremacy and capitalism have bastardized the teachings and example of Christ, and well aware of how imperialism and tacit support of and obedience to the state is reflected in the Bible and too few of us who love Jesus and what He means have never been allowed to question that blatant patriarchal authoritarianism that is the ideological opposite of what Jesus taught.

Watching Honk For Jesus (available on the streaming service Peacock) brought those hypocrisies and glaring contradictions to life, and it is horrible to see. I recognize the scriptwriters may have been aiming for comedy with some of the dialogue, but having experienced personally or having seen so much of the dysfunction, abuse, and oppression depicted in the movie play out for real in so many Black churches and in so many Black lives, the movie is less funny than it was probably intended to be, and I think that is a very good thing.

It’s hard to know where to start with critiquing the movie. The story line of the movie is similar to the real-life scandal of late Georgia megachurch pastor Bishop Eddie Long, who died in 2017. The filmmaker, as well as writer and director of the movie, Adamma Ebo, does model the disgraced pastor Lee-Curtis Childs in her movie after Long and his public humiliation, which we were all privy to when it all came out. But Ebo goes further in crafting an entire anatomy of the internal workings of such a scandal on an institution as influential as the Black megachurch by providing mockumentary footage of fictional wife Trinitie Childs throughout the scandal, as well as exposing through the same fake documentary style the entire ecosystem of abuse that persists in these storied institutions in our communities. Ecosystems of abuse that continue to exist on gross misinterpretations of scripture and almost a Stockholm syndrome-like adherence to authoritarianism that no one questions. Ecosystems of abuse that create that kind of scandal the movie satirizes, but happens far too often to be really funny.

It is impossible not to see the glaring, hateful hypocrisy of a man obviously unwilling to confront with honesty his own attraction to men – to the point that he sexually manipulated young men in his own church (hence the scandal) – preaching from the pulpit about the gay agenda that is coming to threaten the marriages of heterosexual congregants. This would be funny if it weren’t played out in many Black churches – prosperity-gospel preaching or not – every Sunday in real life. 

A few scriptures that are taken out of context and misconstrued to be biblical condemnations of homosexuality have become the basis for a large part of the modern doctrine of Christianity. The idealization of marriage is used as an excuse to condemn the very existence of gay and gender-non binary/non-conforming people as a threat against it. This of course pits people invested in the church against their own family members who are gay in real life, and we see the pained co-existence of trying to uphold this “hate the sinner not the sin” ideology in the horrifically dishonest sex life of Lee-Curtis and Trinitie. It could be beautiful if everyone were honest about who they truly are, but the lie of the sin of homosexuality has to be upheld, even if a sham marriage is built to defend that lie.

And it is impossible to miss that the stories of the actual victims of Pastor Childs’ sexual abuses are not highlighted in this satire, because that is exactly how it goes in real life when these anti-gay crusaders in the pulpit are found to be gay outside of it. The victims of their manipulations and power abuses that they use to fulfill their sexual desires that they just preached were sinful and abominations unto God are pushed to the shadows, dismissed as liars or agents of Satan to tempt the man of God, while the harm they endured is never addressed. There are no lawsuit settlements that can rectify this wrong, and one scene in the movie involving one of the victims who refused the settlement is representative of the lasting damage, the human damage these abusers cause, and the righteous anger and bitterness carried by so many toward what amounts almost to royalty in many Black communities. Royalty that the subjects do not question when allegations of abuses are whispered in the mega-church sanctuaries, and who are rarely denounced in support of their victims when the allegations are proven to be true. There is usually more sympathy for the adulterous pastor’s wife than for his sexual victims, and that is accurately and painfully reflected in the movie.

From that painful and tragic early bedroom scene in the movie, it would be easy to feel sorry for Trinitie, the archetype of the Black church first lady, suffering with public dignity, a constant forced smile, and that saccharine sweet church lady laugh and demeanor. But you know all that sugar is bad for you and her, as she proves to be complicit in covering for her husband’s sexual misconduct, even as she is also a victim of it. For women in the church, herein lies the conundrum: male leadership is unquestioned, women are absolutely held to a subservient role in leadership and church function in many traditional Christian denominations (although there are plenty of churches and entire denominations that do not follow suit), and women in the church are very often the victims of abuse by male leadership.

At the same time, it would be irresponsible not to point out that it is the willingness of women in church leadership – whatever their position may be – or as members of the church in general who stay silent in the face of the abuses of men in the church that allows the abuse to continue. This is not blaming the victim. In the context of the character Trinitie Childs, it is the acknowledgment that for some women in the church – particularly those in leadership positions and probably especially “First Ladies,” maintaining their position and status is more important than protecting the vulnerable in their church from predators. Even if the predator is their own husband, and especially if he is the pastor.

What do we do with this truth? It is rarely one I hear discussed among the faithful when these kinds of sexual scandals involving married church men arise. But watching the way fictional Trinitie was willing to contort and even debase herself to defend not necessarily her husband, but the IDEA of “the sanctity of marriage,” as well as her material interests in that marriage that are more important to her than the harm her husband has done to his victims. Is she a victim? Yes, of his infidelity for sure, and it is not a worse infidelity because the sexual conduct was with men). But she is also complicit in denying those victims justice by upholding the façade of a happy marriage because, as she says in a pivotal scene late in the movie, “All this is mine.” And she doesn’t think she should have to lose “all this” – the money, the designer clothes, the expensive cars – because of her husband’s “weakness” or “temptation.”

And of this idea of the sanctity of marriage…the generations-old instruction from church women to stand by their men regardless of their behavior is highlighted in an appallingly distasteful scene in which Trinitie’s mother invalidates her own daughter’s feelings using the same patriarchal, authoritarian misreading of whatever it is they claim is in the Bible that tells them that wives should put up with their husband’s shit forever because God said so. They have been taught to take scriptures that condemn divorce except in the case of sexual infidelity and abandonment as the only justifications for divorce to an extreme that condemns the woman for being made an adulterer if she divorces her husband for even those reasons. Rather than give reasonable thought to the very logical question of Would the God that commands us to love one another as we love ourselves want us to stay in a relationship with someone who harms us, and would actually punish us if we do not, they swear that God told them to stay with their lying, cheating, abusing husbands and that they will be blessed for their long-suffering.

And too often, this idea of the long-suffering woman, particularly for Black women, is almost like a sick badge of honor that we carry around, sitting in our prayer circles and bible study groups almost bragging about, nearly reveling in how holy we are because we have endured 20 years of abuse from the horrible human being of a husband we believe God is going to bless us for staying with. But what if the blessing comes when we release ourselves from that abuse? Why do we believe that God can only bless us AFTER we’ve taken a beating, and for many of us only AFTER we’ve left this life? Or, as the mother in Honk For Jesus points out, after the horrible husband leaves this life. Why do we believe that God who is supposed to love us wants us to live in misery instead?

How do we believe that the only role we women have in the Christian community is Bible teachers, worship leaders, First Ladies and the like, but not pastors and Bible scholars and deacons, when the person whose name we adopt as our spiritual identity saw women as whole human beings worthy of dignity and agency time and time again in a society in which women were seen as and given neither. He respected the Samaritan woman at the well, practically making her the first preacher. He refused to condemn the woman who committed adultery before a crowd of men who dragged her out into the street, but not the man she committed adultery with. After his death, it was women who bravely went to the tomb to clean his body, found his body gone, then went to the room where his disciples – the men – were hiding in fear of Roman authorities who might still be looking to crucify more of Jesus’ followers. Women were pivotal throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, but somehow we Christian women today believe that our only role in the kingdom is to marry and bear children and be the cup-bearers for “Godly men,” and this strikes me as utter heresy in light of the actual role of women in the actual scriptures of Christ.

But watching the scenes with the mother and daughter, we see how the heritage of hopelessness is passed down through generations in the bad advice that older women give younger women in the church, and how that creates another generation of women who – like Trinitie – defend, stand by, and cover for abusive men, and in doing so reduce themselves to shrinking shadows with no voice except to lead in worship or admonish other women to be chaste and pure and not “worldly,” all hiding the pain of a human being with no identity other than the lie of “submissive womanhood” that men have crafted for their benefit. 

The other married Christian couple in the film is the fictional co-pastor duo of Shakura and Keon Sumpter, former members of Child’s church but now leaders of their own. They are in direct competition if you will with the Childs, and represent that new generation of Christians who might outwardly show a modicum of respect to their elders, but ain’t fittna kowtow to their old fashioned ways. This is probably best reflected in the fact that Shakura, Keon’s wife, IS co-pastor of their church, holding a position of equal leadership with her husband rather than being the First Lady with no real authority. In their strained interactions with the Childses, it is Shakura who is the most vocal and stalwart, opposing First Lady Trinitie’s volleys in the argument. The couple seems to be more down-to-earth and relatable than the Childs, who clearly operated in a stratosphere above and out of reach of the congregants who funded their otherworldly lavish lifestyle. There are also more churches like this emerging in Black communities (as well as others), without the patriarchy, hierarchy, and wealth-obsession, and in many of these younger church communities, the sin of the condemnation of homosexuality is being confronted and denounced, and women are not treated as second-class kingdom citizens.

Of course, it would be irresponsible not to address the way that capitalism had completely captured the Childs. Oh, they wrap their economic excess up in the lie that they are blessed by God – that’s what they sell to the congregants, telling them that if they are obedient and (here’s the catch) are faithful with their giving, they too can have those things. Lee-Curtis actually says something akin to this in one of the early sermons in the movie, and I have definitely heard the likes of Long, Creflo Dollar, Fred Price, and far too many to name mega preachers say something close to the same thing to their sanctuaries filled to capacity with Black congregants.

But here’s the thing – the congregants will never acquire the trappings of capitalist success that these prosperity gospel pimps flaunt because they didn’t receive those things from God, they got them from those people in the pews. Because capitalists make their money by taking it from someone else, and these prosperity gospel pimps like the late real-life Eddie Long and his fictionalized representation Lee-Curtis Childs are the Christian equivalent of capitalists, meaning that they are capitalists probably in the purest form that exists. They don’t even pretend to offer people a job to steal their wages from, they just tell people that it is their spiritual obligation as Christians to give them money, and people do it. They are the slickest thieves and con-men around, and that’s what capitalists are, really. These people just do it with the Christian cross as a backdrop.

None of this is biblical, by the way, but because so many people in the pew in these churches never read what Jesus Christ actually did and said, they don’t know this. I have not quite figured out how people can get 1 Timothy 6:10 wrong both ways, by saying that money itself is the root of all evil (that’s not what the scripture says), or by saying that it’s OK to love money. But if people who call themselves Christian never actually read the Bible, of course they don’t know that it is the LOVE OF MONEY that is the root of all evil, and if they’d know this, they would condemn the clear idolatry of money that goes on in these prosperity gospel pulpits.

There’s also Matthew 6:24, Proverbs 11:28, and plenty of scriptures in the Bible condemning the lustful pursuit of wealth. But my favorite (aside from 1 Timothy 6:10 that is,) is the story of Jesus telling the rich man that he had to sell all his belongings and give the proceeds to the poor to gain eternal life. The rich man went away sad – even though he said he had followed all the old commandments (do not steal, do not kill, honor your parents, etc.) – because that was apparently a bridge too far for him. Fuck eternal life and them poor people, the rich man was keeping his loot. Jesus’ response as recorded in the Gospel of Mark was, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is[b] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

The only way I can see that people who sit in church and listen to any pastor brag about their Bugatti car and Prada suits and private jets and luxury lifestyle that they claim was given to them by God and is evidence of their being blessed is that they don’t actually read the Bible they claim to live by. Especially when the people sitting in those pews listening to this garbage are very often living in or near poverty themselves. Hoping for a financial blessing that’s just a fraction of what the pastor is getting, not understanding that their pastor is a capitalist bloodsucker, not unlike the hated tax collectors for Roman empire in Jesus’s day, and exactly like the capitalist bloodsuckers Malcolm X warned us about. Only they ain’t collecting for anybody but themselves.

Honk for Jesus: Save Your Soul is a movie exposing hypocrisies and contradictions in the Black Christian church that we all knew were there. It just tries to make it entertaining. But it is difficult to make the reality of the abuses that are rife in these real-life institutions funny, even if we can laugh at the ridiculous and over-the top antics of Lee-Curtis and Trinitie Childs.

Interestingly, I just happen to be reading Howard Thurmon’s “Jesus and the Disinherited” in which he discusses the religion of Jesus, as opposed to Christianity and its contradictions in the support of the state, patriarchy and authoritarianism, particularly in the Pauline letters. Thurmon explains that Paul was a Jew like Jesus, and therefore a member of a marginalized, abused, and oppressed minority in the Greco-Roman era. But unlike Jesus, Paul was also a Roman citizen with all the benefits that come with it. So while Paul had some insightful things to say on some spiritual matters as he was influenced by the life of Christ and his teachings, Paul’s allegiance to the same state that oppressed the Jewish people and ultimately crucified Christ at the prodding of the Jewish religious establishment that was also more interested in keeping order so they could maintain their status within the Jewish community is clear in the way he advocates for order over gender equality, obedience over justice, long-suffering over rebellion in too many of his scriptures.

Jesus, on the other hand, lived among the people whose backs were against the wall of Roman and Jewish religious establishment oppression. Lived it, was undoubtedly himself a victim of it (are we to believe that every other Jew was abused by these forces except Jesus in his lifetime), and through it all showed those in that pressure cooker of state repression and class abuses how to live as whole human beings in the face of it, how to love one another in spite of the hatred shown to them, how to maintain ones whole humanity and how to uphold each others humanity while living in the thick of ceaseless inhumanity, while always having your back forced against the wall, how to hold one another up so none of us crumble under that weight, so we can collectively endure and be strengthened for the struggle for freedom and justice for all oppressed people. How we can express that the kingdom of God is not some mythical city paved with gold and mansions we see when we die after a life of meaningless suffering, but that we create the kingdom of God on earth because it is within us.

That’s the Jesus I follow. That is the religion I adhere to. What is satirized in Honk for Jesus: Save Your Soul is the Christianity of imperialism, of patriarchy, of homophobia, of white supremacy, and as funny as some of the moments in the movie are, the real-life bastardization of the religion of Jesus Christ that it reflects is not only not funny, but it one of the most destructive issues within our communities that we face today.