My post on Bishop Eddie Long has been raising eyebrows. Many readers agree with my critique of the “prosperity gospel”; others find it offensive. One reader, who asked to be taken off my distribution list, was horrified by my perceived willingness to throw Bishop Eddie to the wolves before he has his day in court.
A few words of clarification are in order.
Eddie Long’s guilt or innocence is not my primary concern. The state of Georgia has filed no charges against the Bishop; this is a civil case. When the weak find themselves on a collision course with the strong, my sympathies are with the weak (the strong can take care of themselves). Eddie Long has always been the man with all the power. Having transformed himself into an authority figure of superhuman stature, the pastor assumed the mantle of responsibility.
Pastor Long has compared to himself as David up against Goliath. That image should be reversed. Yesterday, thirty-two pastors came to Long’s church to commiserate with him and show their support. Goliath received that kind of encouragement from the Philistines; David was on his own.
Frankly, I find the accusations advanced by the young men more convincing than the Bishop’s denials. They report being groomed by Rev. Long when they were as young as fourteen; yet no one has accused Long of sexual molestation while they were still minors. If the accusers were out to damage the man’s reputation, they could have accused him of a crime. Since the alleged offences occurred after the young men were of legal age, this isn’t a criminal case.
Listen to the young men explaining why they felt it necessary to tell the world about the dark side of their relationship with Eddie Long. There is more pain than anger in their voices. They grew up without biological fathers. Their pastor filled a great aching void in their lives and they clearly loved him for that.
Remember also that these young men grew up believing that homosexual behavior is both sinful and unmanly. They have now admitted that they engaged in sexually intimate acts with the most prominent male figure in their social universe. Not only are they taking on a religious demi-god; they are exposing themselves as sinners and sissies.
I am willing to reserve judgment until all the facts are in, but even if the guilt-innocence issue is decided in Mr. Long’s favor, he will still be a symptom of everything wrong with American religion.
Guilty or innocent, Bishop Eddie Long bears all the earmarks of a narcissist. A Baptist bishop is an anomaly. Methodist, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic and Pentecostal bishops are set apart by the larger body of believers to oversee a significant number of churches. Baptist churches are fully autonomous. Baptists have area ministers or area missionaries (depending on the denomination) but these men and women don’t serve individual congregations. If a Baptist pastor calls himself a bishop, he is hopping onto a pedestal that is alien to Baptist polity. Baptists don’t ordain bishops.
Eddie Long prides himself on his impressive physique and uses it as implicit evidence of his blessed state. I have nothing against preachers lifting weights. I pump a little iron myself; we middle aged men need to maintain our strength. We men are all vain (or envious) to a certain degree. Like most men, I would like to add a few inches to my height, delete a few inches from my waistline and add a little hair here and there. But Bishop Long dresses to accentuate his powerful upper body. He uses his imposing physique to intimidate and impress. The effect is over-the-top, unseemly and more than a little embarrassing.
Some have suggested that Bishop Long is under attack because he is a prominent black male. As a prominent black pastor, Eddie Long had a wonderful opportunity to advance the cause of civil rights, to speak as an advocate for the poor and to call attention to the madness of mass incarceration. Unfortunately, like all the other black prosperity preachers, Long has fumbled the civil rights ball.
And here’s why this poignant story concerns me. Martin Luther King served a God of love; a God with a passionate desire to heal the sick, bind up the broken hearted, and liberate the oppressed. In Dr. King’s theology, Jesus came into the world to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.
This is the Jesus we encounter in the Bible. Consider this excerpt from the Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s Gospel:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Eddie Long preaches a different God, a different gospel and a different Jesus. That’s his right, of course. In America, we can say whatever we wish when we stand in the pulpit. But when a man claims to speak for Jesus certain standards apply.
Rendered in the cadences of Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, prosperity doctrine sounds something like this:
Blessed are you who are rich, for yours is the kingdom of God,
Blessed are you who are full now, your ‘seed faith’ has been rewarded.
Blessed are you who laugh now, you get the joke.
Blessed are you when people love you, when they hire and promote you, give you raises and expense accounts and invite you to White House receptions. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy; for you stand are in the royal lineage of the wealthy, the wise and the blessed.
But woe to you who are poor; your faith has been weighed in the scales and found wanting.
Woe to you who are hungry now; you have slammed the door on God’s blessings.
Woe to you who weep now; you have only yourselves to blame.
Woe to you who are unemployed or homeless or incarcerated; you had it coming.
Is this a crude caricature of prosperity teaching? Listen to Eddie Long or Creflo Dollar sometime and see for yourself if this isn’t the upshot of their teaching. They don’t put it so crudely, of course; but the implication is always there.
Please understand, my intention is not to malign Bishop Eddie Long. He is the victim of a graceless theology; the precise antithesis of everything Jesus taught. If you believe that Jesus was a wealthy man who shares his prosperity secrets, you’re reading the wrong Bible.
If guys like Eddie Long and Creflo Dollar stood on the margins of black religion, I wouldn’t pay them any mind. Unfortunately, their religion has gone mainstream.
The civil rights movement was rooted in the life of the black church. True, the churches at the forefront of the movement were always in the minority. Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy would have remained in the National Baptist Convention had they received nominal support for their non-violent opposition to Jim Crow. The big problem isn’t that so many black preachers are trifling with prosperity dogma; it’s that so few are embracing Jesus’ liberating vision of the Kingdom of God.
If we are serious about ending mass incarceration, we cannot ignore the religious community. Movements need the spiritual sustenance that only faith communities can provide.
I realize there is something offensive about a white preacher telling black preachers what to preach. But I am not speaking primarily as a white preacher. The spirituality of the civil rights movement may not be the only authentic manifestation of the Christian gospel in the 20th century, but it is the only slice of twentieth century American religion that ever spoke to me. In this, I am not alone. I know there are plenty of progressive black preachers keeping the justice flame alive; but they are swimming against the tide, even in their own communities. If we want to see a justice movement in America we must rediscover the radical message of Jesus.
This has been an in-house discussion. I don’t mean to imply that only Christians have a role to play in the justice movement. But if America’s dominant religion can’t get on board, our chances for success are dismal. I’m not expecting most Christians to rally to the justice flag (I’m not naïve), and I welcome the participation of non-Christians. But there is a spiritual dimension to the fight we’re in. If we limit ourselves to graphs, statistics and discursive argument, we can’t make more than a dent in the problem. The ramparts defending mass incarceration are thick and high, seemingly impregnable. It will take a combination of good argument and good religion to bend the arc of the moral universe in the direction of justice.