In a strange twist of events over the last 6,000 or so odd years (assuming you believe in the genealogy of the Bible), humans have developed a tendency to foster relationships on an hierarchical scale. There is hierarchy granted by nature: mother-son, mother-daughter, uncle-nephew, father-son, grandfather, etc.
Then there’s hierarchy based on social skills and needs. A doctor holds certain power because he/she knows information the patient doesn’t. A dentist is powerful because many of us don’t have the interest or ability to master the cleaning and vetting of our own teeth. A schoolteacher is a schoolteacher because children need to learn in a mass setting, and there’s a system to facilitate that process. A pastor is a pastor because enough people have been convinced that he/she has divine knowledge that eludes the majority of the congregation.
When power is enforced under this criteria, potential for abuse and disillusionment is present. The scandals of malpractice, negligence, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, you name it, has run rampant as long as these relationships have been around.
This seems like an unavoidable evil: You need hierarchical relationships to survive, yet by embracing them, you open yourself up to exploitation.
The key to checking these abuses is awareness and a healthy ownership of skepticism. In institutions that are based on the barter system (money for service), this is easier to maintain. After all, when we pay currency for what we get, we expect to get it.
But in institutions based on emotional appeal and personal salvation, accountability takes on a different meaning. Display skepticism toward a church and its operations and the common rebuttal from those within the religious centers is often: Ye of little faith. Rational debate between church members and the “doubters” will always have a tendency to be scarce simply because Christianity isn’t built on rationality.
It’s built on faith. Believing in the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
The sexual charges against renowned pastor and evangelist Bishop Eddie Long has exposed a possible extreme abuse of a hierarchical relationship. The outside world—those not of the New Birth community—read the news, saw the photos, the interviews on CNN, B.J. Bernstein’s (the lawyer for the four accusers) allegations, and indulged in every conversation under the sun about Long’s innocence or guilt.
The inside world sees it differently. It’s spiritual warfare. The devil trying to tear down the righteous. In fact, Long used such a scripture in his first appearance since the charges came out. During his sermon Sunday, he said, “Psalms 34:19 says many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of all of them.”
The charges against Long have unprecedented ramifications. Long is the first Black pastor of this caliber to be accused of sexual charges. Not just any charges, but on multiple counts of homosexuality and abuse of authority. Black protectionism has already reared its head, with many claiming that Ted Haggard went through the same thing but received far less attention. I even had a barber tell me that we “shouldn’t come down so hard on Eddie ’cause it’s hard for a Black man to get to the top. We should support him.”
On Friday, CNN anchor Don Lemon talked to three New Birth members on television about the charges. Then he dropped the bomb that he was a victim of pedophilia.
While Lemon didn’t implicate Long as guilty, it’s obvious that he takes the charges against Long seriously. The members, true to form in a culture that embraces faith in moments of crisis, stood behind Long and were less inclined to appear anything but loyal to their pastor.
For millions, Long is the face of God. He brought them into Christ. He is larger than life and immensely respected, which not only confuses the subconscious (which operates through emotion and repetition), but, in an ecclesiastical setting, is dangerous. For this reason, the hierarchical relationship between a pastor and the congregation usurps one of a business relationship or academic relationship.
If these sexual allegations turn out to be true, then throngs will have to undergo intense soul searching. They would have to embrace an actualization of betrayal, similar to how Malcolm X was crushed under the news of Elijah Muhammad’s duplicity.
There will be many more in the church who will stick by their pastor, citing the fallibility of biblical characters and stating that Long’s good deeds far exceed his bad deeds. Some may even turn their anger on the accusers. As we know, many people attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance at all costs.
Regardless, this ordeal isn’t just about a beleaguered, possibly hypocritical pastor of a megachurch. Kenneth Samuel, former pastor of New Birth right before Long, stated such plainly.
“Whether it’s true or not, the church has an issue of duplicity, hypocrisy and denial in terms of human sexuality that the church has to deal with,” he said. “Unfortunately, I think Bishop Long is emblematic of a culture . . . that causes pastors and parishioners to preach and testify one thing and practice something else.”
But the issue is even larger than that. Human sexuality and financial exploitation are rapidly becoming the staples—or stigmas—of contemporary church culture. Long’s quote in the New York Times is particularly revealing:
“We’re not just a church, we’re an international corporation,” he told the newspaper in justifying his compensation. “We’re not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can’t talk and all we’re doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. I deal with Tony Blair. I deal with presidents around this world. I pastor a multimillion-dollar congregation.”
People who choose to leave their spiritual salvation to pastors who view them as an asset (or within the context of a corporation) are becoming too common. Yet, the congregation seems slow to return the favor, responding with faith and blind support. In this climate, accountability will be feeble and abuse will reign.
Corruption and power struggle doesn’t stop at the altar. Whether these charges are true or not, this is a portal to the larger discussions of repressed sexuality, entitlement, and mendacity unabated in churches and positions of leadership. An acquittal is not a reason to turn our heads away from massive malfeasance in the Black church.
This should be the beginning of an epic discussion.