There’s an old saying that goes, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. Hence it should come as no surprise that since the sex scandal surrounding New Birth pastor Bishop Eddie Long has emerged, there’s a whole lot of questions being raised about the current state of the Black Church. ‘What’s wrong with it?’, ‘Why has it failed?‘ ‘Where is it headed?’ and of course ‘Will it survive this scandal’?
First of all we have to acknowledge that we’ve seen this movie before. These types of questions come on the heels of every scandal and controversy involving a church leader. It’s happening now with Eddie Long. It happened a couple of years ago when President Obama had his falling out with his long time pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright. We asked these questions when iconic figures like Jesse Jackson, Bishop Thomas Weeks III or even gospel singer BeBe Winans found themselves in hot water.
Are these questions fair? Should the misdeeds of one pastor or one church put the totality of Black churches on front street?
Ideally the accusations levied against Bishop Eddie Long should’ve been an aberration. There was a time when talk of a pastor, who is an outspoken ‘strong’ leader in the community seducing young men would’ve been seen as too far-fetched to entertain. But sadly in 2010 Long’s alleged actions aren’t shocking in far too many circles. They seem to fit an over-riding perception that egregious, sexually abusive contradictory behavior in the church is the norm. His actions fit the narrative of Black churches being over indulged in material wealth coupled with ego driven sermons where the pastors come across as prima donna rock stars. That’s disconcerting and should be a wake up call for anyone who sees themselves as part of the Black church.
It’s disconcerting because a whole lot of good work that goes on in the Black church gets overshadowed. This is not to say bad behavior should be ignored or glossed over, but at the same time when we have exposes like the one recently featured in the Atlanta Post that highlights 10 Black Church Leaders who’ve been involved with Scandals it’s easy to forget that in most of our communities the majority of Black churches work tirelessly to fulfil community needs.
There are numerous Black churches that for years have been doing things like; building homes for senior citizens, setting up food, shelter and clothing programs for the homeless, putting together after school programs for youth and tours through Historically Black colleges for young adults. Many Black churches have established well received prison ministries that include parole to work programs. We could go on and on listing examples of where Black churches have stepped up to walk the walk and back up the talk.
With all that being said, those of us who are members of a church still have to grapple with the challenging questions before us; ‘Is there a disconnect between the Black church and its aforementioned good works and the community at large?’ ‘If so how and why is that happening?’ ‘What is fueling these nagging negative perceptions?’ ‘Is it because of biased media coverage or are these off-color actions more widespread than we care to admit?’ ‘Do we not have not enough church folks stepping up and letting their light shine so to speak?’ or Is the Black Church dead? as Princeton religious professor Eddie Glaude Jr brazenly declared in his controversial essay earlier this year.
How did we move from a place where the Black church was considered sacred and its leaders highly respected to a place where it’s routinely lampooned in the mainstream with the Black preacher often depicted as buffoonish ‘Reverend Porkchop’ type caricatures?
When looking at these types of challenges facing pastors like Eddie Long there are several things to keep in mind. To start, his transgressions are going to result in a number of people saying things like; ‘This is why I don’t go to church’, ‘So-called Christianity is a farce’ , There’s a thin line between pimping and preaching and what we saw go down with Eddie Long was pimping’, or ‘the Church has been an opium for Black people in this country that stirs us away from who we really are’. In short, left unchallenged and uncorrected the Black Church becomes an empty space and place that turns people away instead of being an inviting place for those who seek healing and solace.
Second, such commentary should inspire us to step forth and take corrective action and show compassion for those victimized and for those in trouble. It should inspire us to do some serious self examination. This should be the case if you’re a member of a congregation and it should be the case for the entire body. Self examination should be a constant endeavor.
One should always be checking to see if one’s actions are aligned with the teachings in the Gospel. Are we Christ-like in our day-to-day behavior? How are we growing in Christ? If Jesus was to show up next week would he be pleased with the things we are doing? Those should be the driving questions of the day.
The proverbial question of ‘What would Jesus do?‘ should be more than just rhetoric for those of us who believe. Many of us look at Christ and see him as the ultimate personification of love. If so, how is love being manifested in our day-to-day lives? How are we showing love for family, friends and ourselves? How do we show love for our community? How are we growing in love? Do we even have a full understanding of all the definitions of love from Eros to agape to Xenia?
As Christians the goal should be for us to strengthen our spiritual relationship with Christ which comes from fellowship, prayer and constant ‘wrestling’ and studying of the word. We need to take these steps and ask those hard questions whether we have an Eddie Long scandal in our midst or not.
Lastly, we as a members of a church whether it’s a 25 thousand mega-church like New Birth or a church by the side of the road in the rural south with 15 people, should be asking how we are serving our community?
If we come from a tradition where feeding the poor and looking after the down trodden is a guiding tenet, how is our respective church fulfilling this mission? What role are we playing in seeing this happens? Do we volunteer to take those bold and much-needed steps or are we waiting on someone else to do it? Serving our community is a form of love, it’s an everyday thing and its a way in which we serve God.
Being aligned with Christ does not mean playing ‘holier than thou’ games where your beating folks upside the head with a book demanding they see it your way or burn in hell. Nor does it mean pretending to be this flawless person who can do no wrong and showing little compassion for those who are trying to find their way. We’re supposed to be humble and not carry ourselves in such a way that people are hoping for our downfall but instead cheering for our upliftment.
Was It a Wrong Turn to Go from the Prophetic to Prosperity?
When talking with folks about the ‘State of the Black Church‘, many like to point to the hey-days of the Civil Rights Movement and note that the Black church was at its full glory. It was powerful, on point and gave birth to stellar leadership that was rooted in the Black prophetic tradition. Many were praised for fearlessly speaking truth to power and riding hard for social justice causes. As a result the Black church was deemed by many to be the ‘conscience of America‘. It’s leadership was best personified by preachers like Benjamin Mays, Ralph David Abernathy, Wyatt Tee Walker, Fred Shuttlesworth, Gardner C. Taylor and of course Dr Martin Luther King. The Black Church was one of the few, preeminent institutions in the community that we controlled from top to bottom. It was the place where folks gathered, strategized, sought refuge, and drew inspiration for the arduous fights against Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan and other forces of white oppression.
The Black church was seen as a ‘threat’ to many who opposed the upliftment of Black people. This resulted in quite a few churches being burned and its members attacked.
The KKK while espousing Christian values would eventually come to bomb a Black church. Most of us are aware of the tragic situation that took place at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham , Alabama in 1963. Here 4 young girls were killed.
For those who don’t know 16th Street Baptist church was a key meeting place for Black leaders including Dr King and Pastor Fred Shuttlesworth. As horrific as the bombing was the strength of the Black church shined through. Instead of slinking back, the Black Church leaders stepped up their efforts with renewed vigor and determination. Folks became more outspoken in their demands for justice.
Today many feel those days are gone. They look at the rise of mega-Churches, TV evangelists and a marked political shift in many pews to the conservative right with the prophetic social justice, liberation theology teachings taking a backseat to what we now call Prosperity Theology . Here Jesus has been transformed from one who prioritized the poor and downtrodden to someone who now is only about the business of providing material wealth for those he favors.
Initially championed by preachers like Oral Roberts around the time of World War II, we later saw a few vestiges of this prosperity thinking during the Civil Rights era. One keen example was Reverend Ike who was outspoken in his opposition to Dr King especially when he started working on the Poor People’s Campaign. He claimed King was doing Black folks a disservice by associating ‘poor’ with Blackness.
The prosperity themes really hit full stride and grew in popularity throughout the 90s with iconic church figures like embattled Bishop Eddie Long, Creflo Dollar, TD Jakes and Joel Osteen who even though is white has enjoyed a large African-American following.
The fact that Jesus is depicted as one who emphasizes financially rewarding those he favors makes the prosperity teachings seem not to far removed from the God and Country, American Exceptionalism ideology expressed by far right evangelicals.
Such thinking has been best exemplified by preachers like Pat Robertson and his Christian Coalition, the late Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority and in books like the recently published American Patriot’s Bible.
Was this turn to prosperity theology a natural evolution for the church because Jesus was directing folks or was the prosperity teachings a reflection of the current state of affairs both in the African-American community and the larger mainstream society? After all, we are in a day and time where we celebrate opulence and literally worship those who have it.
This was a point author and Spelman college history professor Jelani Cobb made during a recent radio interview where he noted that our desire for obscene riches is reflected in our music, our literature and the way we conduct business. Should we be surprised that its reflected in our churches?
When looking at this switch from the prophetic to prosperity, we should not be dismissive of the deliberate pushes made by sinister outside forces? I’m talking specifically about Cointel-Pro-The Counter Insurgency programs championed by then FBI director J Edgar Hoover.
If the Black church was a major cornerstone for the Civil Rights movements in the 60s would it be safe to assume that was infiltrated, compromised, discredited and ultimately redirected or destroyed via Cointel-Pro operations?
FBI director J Edgar Hoover made it pretty clear that organizations like the Black Panthers, Black Muslims, SNCC, Free Speech and the Anti-War Movements were domestic threats that needed to be contained. We now know through the Freedom of Information Act that Martin Luther King was constantly under surveillance. Hoover’s men went out of their way to employ physiological games including issuing death threats, planting false stories in the media and attempting to play him off other leaders with the intent of causing divisions and tensions with other Civil Rights organizations. At one point FBI agents even tried to get King to take his own life.
It’s hard to imagine that the FBI did not look at the influence of the Black church and try to find ways to cause divisions, soften its impact and ultimately redirect its energies. Malcolm X in his speech ‘Message to the Grassroots talks about how Black leadership was compromised with money and resources on the days leading up to the 1963 March on Washington where King delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech‘.
Many saw Malcolm X’s remarks as what best articulated the violence vs non-violence debates at the time. Others said Malcolm was simply hating on King, but years later when King gave his famous ‘Why I oppose the Vietnam war‘ speech on Aril 30 1967 at Riverside Church in Harlem, he got to really experience hate. Many church leaders at that time stepped away and shunned him. Some feared cuts in their funding and compromised. King points this out in his speech ‘Transforming a Neighborhood into a Brotherhood‘
“There are those who have said to me, ‘Why are you taking a stand against the war? You’re a civil-rights leader. You shouldn’t be on this. You’re out of your field.’
Long before I was a civil-rights speaker, I was a preacher of the Gospel. When I was ordained to the Christian ministry … I took a commission to bring the insights of our Christian heritage to bear on the evils of our day.
He goes on to add
“There are those who go on to say beyond that, ‘Aren’t you going to hurt your leadership?’ Somebody said to me not long ago, “People have respected you, and don’t you feel you’re going to lose that and, in order to maintain that respect, don’t you think you’ll have to start talking more in terms of the policy of our nation in Vietnam?’
“I looked into his eyes and said, ‘Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I don’t determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I don’t determine what is wrong by roaming around taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion.’ …
It was said that after King gave these types of speeches it soured his relationship with then President Lyndon B Johnson who helped usher in important Civil Rights legislation with King at his side. King eventually was cut off and lost access to the White House while being roundly criticized by other leaders who became comfortable with tasting power.
Now contrast King’s willingness to stand up to the Vietnam War and sacrifice his friendship with President Johnson and Black Mega-Church Evangelist Creflo Dollar who reprimanded his congregation for speaking out against George Bush and his call for war.
He demanded that people repent for their criticisms. Professor/ commentator Marc Lamont Hill pointed this out in a October 2006 column title the ‘New Black Church Strikes Again‘ where he shows how he links’ blind patriotism to Christian duty’.Hill points out the letter..
When a nation is on the brink of war, the worst thing its citizens can do is allow themselves to become divided. The Bible says that there is a time for war and a time for peace (Ecclesiastes 3:8). In fact, Jesus said that in the last days there would be wars and rumors of wars (Matthew 24:6). When this country was attacked on September 11, 2001, there was a fierce public outcry. America wanted her enemies to pay. Now, two years later, those same Americans are protesting the war against terrorism.
President Bush is worthy of your prayers and support. He is a man who rises early every morning to seek God and His wisdom through prayer and the study of the Word. This is not the time for Christians to picket, carry protest signs or throw their opinions around. The election is over, and the man in the Oval Office is the one we, as Americans, voted in. Numbers 32:7-13 makes it clear how God feels about a nation divided during a time of war.
This country needs unity, and it begins with the church. It is your responsibility as a believer to pray for the president, others in leadership, this nation, the men and women serving in the Armed Forces and our enemies–whoever they may be. Forget about your political affiliation or preference. You are first and foremost a Christian.
As was mentioned earlier what has taken place over the years is a manipulation and distortion of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Professor Dr Cornel West noted in a recent interview “There’s been a whole lot of creativity and imagining to move Christ from helping the poor to being a wealthy individual who embraces greed and dislike people who are different..’
We don’t really know Christ and his basic teachings anymore because he’s been so distorted. Along with this manipulation comes an unwillingness by many to be empathetic toward people who are suffering and in pain.
West concluded now more than ever we have to step up and keep justice on our hearts and minds. The key word here is JUSTICE. This is especially true for those who profess to be Christians. If we don’t speak up who will?
We all know the famous quotes in Matthews where Jesus said its easier to pass through the eye of a camel than for a rich man to get into heaven. Was he saying folks should be destitute and not have money? Hardly.
Jesus was letting folks know that its easy to get caught up when you have riches. It’s easy to forget some basic things that he was teaching and believe your own hype. It’s easy to have money become your master.
Can we let our material possessions go? I means its hard times right now…so would we let our things go if asked by Jesus? Can we let the money, fame and power go and be without? Is this what happened to Bishop Eddie Long? Have we been getting to caught up? Is this whats been happening in many of our churches? Is this a condition we’re struggling with?
The answer to those questions will require some serious reflection and thought. Our society makes it easy for us to move away off our square or foundation. Lets not get too caught up when we have mouths to feed and hearts to heel.
Something to ponder