The Eddie Long Case and What’s Not Being Said
I apologize in advance to those who normally follow my blog, Beautiful Mind Blog. I usually focus the blog on the intersection of depression and faith with a new entry at least once a week. Nevertheless, the firestorm around the allegations of sexual misconduct by Atlanta pastor Bishop Eddie Long compel me to break the silence I’ve kept in the last week.
In short, Bishop Eddie Long, leader of the 25,0000 member Atlanta-based church, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, is being sued in civil court by four different young men (in their early twenties) who are (former) members of his church. They accuse him of coercing them into having sexual relations with them when they were around 17 years old.
There are so many issues at work here. Many friends and colleagues have posted amazing blogs and commentaries about some of the issues surrounding what is now being called “The Eddie Long case.” Dr. Yolanda Pierce of Princeton Theological Seminary reminds us that pastors are servants, not kings. She also highlights the poverty of a prosperity theology. Dr. Jonathan Walton of Harvard Divinity School talks about what happens when churches conform to the motifs of wider celebrity culture. Dr. Shayne Lee of Tulane University brings his expertise on megachurches and market forces to bear on the kinds of issues that Long now faces. In light of Long’s history of virulent homophobia and the gender of the accusers, Dr. Anthea Butler of the University of Pennsylvania reminds us that homophobia in black churches must be addressed. Saida Grundy and Atlanta activist Craig Washington indicate that Eddie Long may now be having to bear the consequences of his dangerous rhetoric about homosexuality. Dr. Kathi Martin of Interactive Faith Café says that the time is ripe for Long and others in church communities to choose love and justice over exclusion and condemnation. Years ago, I wrote about Long’s (mis)use of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy in the fifth chapter of my book, Making a Way Out of No Way. Many of us say these things out of a deep love for and years of scholarship on African American religious culture. We also mention these issues while acknowledging, as Ted Haggard does, that we do not know what happened and that Long deserves a fair trial.
These are all poignant responses, and I agree with many of them. It’s difficult not to comment on the challenges – even problematic nature – of black church homophobia, possible hypocrisy, prosperity theology, and the corporate and celebrity culture of churches. I’m adding my voice to the commentary because of what I have not heard addressed.
I have not heard enough people talk about what I see at the heart of this matter:
the possibility of clergy sexual misconduct
With my colleagues, I cannot say whether or not Eddie Long is guilty of the allegations. I can say that the Eddie Long Case has the opportunity to raise all of our consciousnesses about clergy sexual misconduct. When we remember this, the charges against Long are less about homosexuality, the defensiveness of his congregation, the theology he espouses, or the age and gender of the accusers. The case is about the possible abuse of clerical power.
As a clergy person, I well understand the power people often afford to ministers and priests. Most clergy I know are doing their best to live out God’s callings in their local communities and spheres of influence. At some point, we realize that because we address one of the most intimate, fragile and resilient aspects of people lives – their faith – people ascribe great power to us. They listen to what we say. They ask our opinions on all types of matters. They believe we know something holier than the average person. Most clergy I know are frightened by this power, as we try to handle it as responsibly as we can.
As a public theologian and professor of theology, I know that what we think about God matters in the kind of existence we live out. I know that many churched people learn about God almost exclusively at the hands of their pastors and preachers. The average Christian has not read the entire Bible, nor is she aware of the diversity of theological beliefs that have always existed within Christianity. Many Christians understand a questioning of religious matters and religious leaders to be an attack on one’s faith. While I lament that individuals tend to place so much stock in one person, it also calls clergy to a higher level of accountability in their theologies and in their lives.
As someone who has publicly spoken out against sexual violence for the last 14 years, I know that sexual abuse is always about power. The combination of clergy power and authority mean that clergy are in positions where people trust us deeply. When clergy engage in sexual relations – no matter how voluntary – with people with less power than us, it is an abuse of power.
To put it another way: Laity are often in a vulnerable position in relationship to clergy. Lay people come to clergy with their deepest needs, in times of crisis, and/or when they are emotionally insecure. The emotional and spiritual power is not parallel, and thus the person with less power cannot give “meaningful consent” to a sexual relationship. Such sexual contact is a violation of professional ethics (the same kind often found between a therapist and client).
It doesn’t matter how old they are, what gender they are, if either individual is married or not. It may or may not be illegal, but it is immoral. The fact that Eddie Long’s accusers are male, young, and indicate a pattern of seduction only makes it all more egregious, but it’s not the core issue.
The core issue is this: there are few areas for greater vulnerability and beauty than an individual’s sexuality. When this area is encountered in any way that is forcible, or with less than relatively equal power relations, it’s abuse.
What would actually make this situation better?
It’s hard to say. I’ve worked with pioneers like Marie Fortune, Tamar’s Voice and The Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute who have been speaking out against clergy sexual misconduct for years. From my knowledge of these people and their work and my own experiences, I can name at least two things.
Accountability. I was thoroughly impressed with Rev. Carlton Pearson’s compassionate response to Eddie Long. At one point in his interview, he says that he wished the accusers had dealt with their accusations differently. He wishes they had not taken a legal route, but had perhaps called a community of apostle elders together to seek guidance. What I hear Pearson saying is that he wishes there were a trusted system of accountability to which both church members and clergy could go to take their challenges and grieves. Me too! Few churches – even those with hierarchical structure, let alone those with a more congregational style – have systems of accountability that a victim can trust. There is no one to whom one can go and believe that one’s charge will not be ignored, covered up, vilified or moved to another district. People often sue because they see it as the only way to get the attention of church leaders. As a clergy person, I understand the need for accountability. We all need someone we can talk to about the things that weigh heavily on our hearts, the things we are supposed to keep in confidence, the challenges and the joys of the journey we have chosen. Their role is not primarily to punish us when we are human and fallible, but to respond to us and encourage us to be all that God calls us to be. Few of us have such individuals in our lives. Even fewer of us have structures of accountability.
Responsibility. If Eddie Long is not guilty, he should fight the charges. He should do so as lovingly as possible, since he clearly knows the accusers and has a pastoral relationship to them. But if he is guilty, he needs to take responsibility. This is not a legal matter, but a relatively simple moral one. Let me give a personal example. I know of a church that was torn apart by clergy sexual misconduct. It was a far more typical case – heterosexual relationship, married pastor, very adult people, the victim was demonized by the wider congregation, most people in positions of authority ignored it and then moved the situation to another location. It was then that I understood how clergy sexual misconduct hurts everyone. It hurts those who are most intimately involved – spouses, pastors, families. But it hurts the entire congregation who felt betrayed and ignored and used. To make matters worse, no one – not even the new pastor – acknowledged what had happened to this church. Many people left the church; many people left Christianity altogether. Extreme responses, yes. But I also know that no one – even the new pastor who made no offense – ever said: “I am so sorry about what has happened to you as a church. I apologize on behalf of all clergy that your trust has been betrayed. I will do all I can to listen to you and be someone worthy of your trust.” Three sentences.
Three sentences would have healed a world of harm.
Because it would have meant that someone had acknowledged what happened.
I hope that this case and its media attention continue to raise awareness about the issues that are at play surrounding the accusation alone.
I hope that in our fervor for progressive theological values, we don’t forget that there are individuals indicating that they have experienced deep pain from a place where they should be spiritually – and physically – safe.
I hope that we take this opportunity to discuss the clergy sexual abuse/ misconduct and how accountability and responsibility really can make a positive difference in our shared journeys of faith.