Wednesday, September 22, 2010 Guest Post: What's Up With Eddie Long?!?

[Very Long Editor's Note: When allegations of sexual impropriety by Atlanta-area megachurch pastor Bishop Eddie Long hit the streets (aka: Black Folks' Twitter) last night, the reaction divided into two camps. There were those (like me) who think this is an extortion attempt by a couple of shady characters to defame a very rich man. And then there were those who automatically assumed Long's guilt, and launched into a tasteless (but still funny) series of #EddieLongSaid tweets which made the pastor a trending topic. As someone very familiar with the Atlanta church scene, my friend The Uppity Negro is uniquely qualified to give his opinion on the topic. Show our guest some love you-know-where.]

Hot off the press from tonight, the latest in news to affect the institutional Black Church, both old and new, has been the lawsuit against Bishop Eddie Long of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church of Lithonia, Georgia.
The prominent pastor of a 25,000-member megachurch outside Atlanta denies allegations in a lawsuit that he coerced two young men from the congregation into a sexual relationship, his attorney said. Lawyers for the men, now 20 and 21, say they filed the lawsuit Tuesday in DeKalb County Court against Bishop Eddie Long.

The men who filed the suit were 17- and 18-year-old members of the church when they say Long abused his spiritual authority to seduce them with cars, money, clothes, jewelry, international trips and access to celebrities. B.J. Bernstein, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said that when the relationships started, the plaintiffs were past the legal age of consent in Georgia, which is 16.

President George W. Bush and three former presidents visited the sprawling New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in the Atlanta suburb of Lithonia for the 2006 funeral of Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Long introduced the speakers and the Rev. Bernice King, the Kings' younger daughter, delivered the eulogy. She is also a pastor there.

Long was appointed pastor of New Birth in 1987. Then, the church had about 150 members. Less than four years later, the church had grown to more than 8,000 members. Athletes and entertainers claim membership at the church.
This seems to be yet another brick chipped away in already bruised and battered institutional Black Church. First Professor Eddie Glaude earlier this year essentially said the Black Church was dead. Then Steve Harvey rallied the black female church crowd with Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man and then Deborrah Cooper came back told black women that the black church was keeping them single. Not to mention the death of gospel legend Walter Hawkins, and the recent death that has shaken the black Pentecostal crowd of Bishop Kenneth Moales. Then this with Eddie Long has cause somewhat of a wall to ” come a’ tumbalin’ down.”

This is the same pastor who was the subject of U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley-R, Iowa and his tax investigation a few years ago. This is the same pastor who was the subject of Jonathan Walton’s Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism the story of black televangelists in this country. This is also the same pastor who in 2004 marched down AuburnStreet in an effort to support George W. Bush and the Defense of Marriage Act and decried homosexuality.

And I found out through Twitter, of course. As I type, both #EddieLong and #EddieLongSaid are high trending topics.

Naturally, if this is true, this brings forth a plethora of issues concerning clergy and the members at churches. And this truly isn’t just a case concerning black churches. From the Earl Paulk situation at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, to Ted Haggard out in Colorado, to the Roman Catholic Church dealing with their priest abuse scandals being a global problem this is a situation that goes across the board. This isn’t even a situation dealing with homosexuality versus heterosexuality, but a case of properly addressing sexuality within the walls of the church.

Without going too deep on sexuality, we need to admit that the church probably could do a lot better with addressing sexuality with its members. It’s still a problem even amongst the most conservative groups for married couples to even talk about sex out in the open; many still act as if it’s something dirty and taboo. Let alone among more liberal groups, the general failure to understand sex between two consenting adults.

But, I guess that would require your average person to understand the difference between sex, sexuality and sexual intercourse.

Even in what our society considers the optimal way of having sex–between a man and a woman who are married–I know married couples who still blanche when they read the biblical passages of Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) and their sexually charged passages. And our churches don’t even want to entertain the idea of young teens having sex, unmarried persons having sex, and many churches still shun gay couples who are in committed relationships. This in the face of many churches being predominantly populated by women who often arrive at church with their children and no husbands or having never been married (because of course the black church is keeping black women single), and God-knows how many other sexual church stereotypes being fulfilled.

And we remain silent in the church.

However, my issue with Eddie Long isn’t a sexuality issue. As far as I’m concerned and information disseminated, I, along with most everyone else aren’t qualified to speak on it. My issue truly is a theological one. As Walton pointed out in his book, Long ascribes to this “kingdom business” (Walton 129-131). While it sounds good, churchy even, as far as I can see it, this theological train of thought is warmed-over ecclesiastical patriarchy straight out of the Roman Catholic church. Well, Walton places it much more within the Victorian era as far as familial and patriarchal values (171).

I think the patriarchal system of theology allows this to happen with clergy and their followers.

When the man is the head, it’s anything goes. Be it in the family or in the church. The man acts as the mouthpiece for God be it good or bad or indifferent. The same way parishioners take their frustrations with God out on figureheads of the church from the Pope, to Bishops, to pastors, to priests or even other lay leaders, is the same way parishioners are able to believe that their clergy can do no wrong. As far as this situation is concerned with Long, the hierarchy allowed Long to get close to these young men. While of course on the surface, this seems normal and maybe even encouraged because no one automatically assumes the worse, but this is when clergy are NOT supposed to take advantage of the situation. Long is well known for having his “spiritual sons” in the ministry with Long as their “spiritual Father.” However, there have been many instances that have been reported that this particular relationship has been exploited for the benefit of Long. Since I don’t dabble in rumors, I’m not here to say that this is verifiably true or not, just merely pointing to the fact that such situations create an atmosphere for nefarious activities to take place.

Warped socio- and politico-religious teaching is also at play surrounding this news about Long. There seems to be three camps at play here: 1) Christians who support Eddie Long, namely his parishioners, fellow inner circle clergy of course, and other random lay people and outside clergy who have been affected by his ministry in one way or the other; 2) Christians who view Eddie Long as a homophobe, a “prosperity gospel” preacher, those who don’t like megachurches in general, and just an overall charlatan pimping his congregation; 3) non-church goers who may or may not fall into the “spiritual, but not religious” category, who generally have an overall disdain for preachers and most church-goers, and this latest incident acts as a catchall for ALL clergy across the board and does nothing more but entrench their beliefs about “those hypocrites” who go to church in the first place.

Those in the first camp are of this idea that in a time like this Christians should be “covering the man of God.” At first, this sounds right, particularly as a soon to be clergy member or at least someone with one foot in parish ministry, but further thought renders it moot. At what level do we need to expose bad behavior? This “touch not my anointed, and do my prophet no harm” mentality gives clergy a carte blanche with the people. And we need to be honest that this line of thinking only extends to certain clergy members. Let’s be honest, this notion of “covering the man of God” barely extended to Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple AME Church and his sexual dalliances with his members and this same section of the neo-Pentecostal black church that is calling for the “covering” of Eddie Long were certainly no where to be found when Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ and his church members were going through the wringer submitting to public protests on the church property, news vans parked outside, metal detectors because of bomb threats and news reporters getting the Sunday bulletin and calling up members on the sick-and-shut-in list trying to conduct interviews.

It seems to me that the black church has attached mega-ministry with spirituality and the evidence of God’s “anointing.” That is to say, it’s easier to support someone in a mega-ministry or who we see on television whom we don’t know, versus the pastor up the street in our community whom we’ve interacted with on occasion–but they don’t have a mega-ministry. Ricky L. Jones in his book What’s Wrong With Obamamania? Black America, Black Leadership and the Death of Political Imagination said:
The black community, maybe more than any other, is affectively linked to churches and their pastors to the degree that criticism of either (no matter how rational) is often viewed as nothing short of an attack on God. Such loyalty may be degenerative as well as generative in that it has opened the door equally wide for the entree of many of the race’s greatest freedom fighters, as well as some of its most infamous demagogues. Unfortunately, black ministers (be that emancipators or collaborators in oppression) are often protected from secular intellectual confrontation by the almost certain ire of their flocks, which is heaped upon any critic who questions their leaders’ decisions and/or motivations.
The second group believes this supports their idea that the biggest homophobes are closet homosexuals. I think that’s bad logic, but that’s just me. Anything short of the alleged pictures and emails that the plaintiffs’ lawyer B.J. Bernstein claims she has, I’m really not ready to go so far as to believe that there was a sexual relationship at play, but again, that’s just me. But this second group also has major aught with Long for where he has come down on the side of social and political issues. These people are full of lay people who are still connected to the traditional denominational churches, on which they pride themselves. Clergy of other churches love to talk bad against Long for his perceived bad theology concerning “kingdom business” and of course they are convinced he’s pimping the people out of their money.

I mean, honestly, I agree with some of that.

I do honestly think it’s unconscionable to own a private jet, live in a multi-million dollar mansion, own Bentley’s and Rolls Royce’s and members of your church are taking public transportation to get to church on Sundays. But that’s just me. And that’s a charge I level with any mega-ministry. I think pastors would do a lot better for the larger community if they took that money and funneled it into church owned businesses that employed members of the church as well as the community from clothing stores, restaurants, and other ventures. I fail to see the future worth in buying up land to erect monuments to ourselves that do nothing but provide more parking for our larger and larger edifices, and provide space to hold various and sundry worship conferences–all creating a traffic jam on Sundays for other persons who don’t go to that church!

The third camp of people are the ones with whom I take what they have to say with a grain of salt. While they are entitled to their opinion, of course, in all fairness, in the back of my head I somehow don’t consider them qualified to speak on such issues. Admittedly it may be my own arrogance at play, but its almost equivalent to discussing the evils of the hip-hop culture in the inner city, but you live in some suburban enclave and you just found out that Black History month was in February just in 2010! *

These are the people who are the outsiders looking in on the situation. Some of them have been hurt by the church in the past and don’t want to have anything to do with it–and I fully understand. Others have just merely grown tired of the church foolishness over the years and slowly backed away–and I fully understand. Then there are those who suffer from the I’m-the-only-enlightened-one syndrome thinking that they’re more evolved because they don’t go to church (anymore). Sorry, but its really hard for me to have a conversation with some of these people, because they look down on me for having a faith system in which I believe. These are the people who have a tendency to stereotype all of the ills of religion on me without giving me a chance to talk.

What really is bothering me, and has been for some time is the level of misinformation and stereotypes that people are interpreting religious information. It seems as if people automatically fail to think critically it’s either “all church folk are hypocrites” or “you aint gonna talk about my pastor and my Jesus” type of people. No one takes the time to understand the nuances of theological rhetoric, the biblical canon, denominational history, or even general church history. Folks act as if mega-ministries are the devil–right along with storefront churches.

It’s just really appalling to me.

As this situation with Eddie Long progresses I encourage all of my readers to keep an open mind and let the facts present themselves; ultimately, to let truth itself be our guide. Understanding truth, and the ethics of truth isn’t an easy task however. The ethics of truth mean understanding the impact of the truth. In this light, we must be fair to Eddie Long and fair to ourselves. Yes, we need to call a spade a spade, but we ought not jump to conclusions either.

Let me be clear, I am not coming out in full support of Bishop Eddie Long through what I’m sure will be a public relations nightmare for both he and his church, nor am I casting aspersion on a situation that we only know about through mainstream media and only from the plaintiffs’ point of view. I am just merely saying that in this case, I’m quite sure the truth will come out, and both parties will be set free.

Question: Do you think people are too quick to pass judgement when stories of this sort arise? If Long is found to be not guilty, how (if at all) can he regain his reputation? Would people be as judgemental had these alleged victims been female?

Atlanta megachurch pastor Long denies sex claims [AP]

* A mixture of two true stories. I was once told by a white suburbanite that hip hop was from the prison culture and my cousin who works for a downtown hospital informed me that one of her Indian co-worker who was born in raised in NW Chicago suburbs didn’t know when Black History month was.

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