Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Sex and Power in the Black Church


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Last night, I watched the interview of  Jamaal Parris,  one of four young men who has come forward accusing Atlanta mega church pastor Eddie Long of sexual abuse and coercion. When the story of Long's alleged sexual abuse of these young men hit news outlets last week, I was shocked and reluctant to comment. You see I'm a committed Christian, a weekly churchgoer, and the (step)daughter of a pastor. I attended grad school in Atlanta, where I also regularly attended a mega-church, led a ministry team, and heard Bishop Long preach on more than one occasion. He's my pastor's pastor.  And my deeply spiritual and religious parents reared me that we do NOT speak against pastors (God's anointed). All these things swirled in my head as this story broke. But alas, "it's time to put away childish things" and have some grown folk discourse about sex and power in the church.  Ironically, that verse appears at the end of 1 Corinthians 13, the oft-quoted passage on love, because it is a reminder that real love is grown folks business. It cannot be undertaken and sustained by the childish, the immature, and the faint of heart.

If we are committed to a revolutionary love ethic, we have to be honest even when it hurts. And what's honest is that there is something undeniably real when you listen to this young man's testimony. Given the parochial and limiting narratives of Black sexuality and Black masculinity propagated by the church and the unchecked power given to preachers particularly in mega-church pulpits, this man has everything to lose and nothing to gain if his accusations are untrue.  He admitted to a same-sex encounter with a married preacher. Because of our rampant homophobia and blind love for our pastors, this young man has been subject to much ridicule I'm sure.

When I looked into Jamal's eyes, I was reminded of more than a few Black men with whom I've come into contact who have admitted being abused as children. Can we get real about the dirty little secret of sexual abuse in our communities? If we're honest, part of the reason that Tyler Perry and T.D. Jakes have been able to build the empires they have is because they actually will name this issue. The success of their films at least confirms that while much, very much is to be desired, we at least have some kind of discourse about the abuse of Black girls and women. But we are virtually silent on the abuse of young men, even though it is too common to be uncommon.  Because of our homophobia, insularity, and mentality of closing ranks, we'd rather not deal. And so we leave countless Jamal Parris' to be abused, with no outlet other than legal to address  and redress their concerns. And just like we know that prior sexual abuse is a major cause of low self-esteem and other emotional ills among Black women, perhaps we should consider that much of the violent, self-hating behavior that we see among young Black men is due at least in part to unnamed and unacknowledged sexual abuse.

But let's also be clear. What Long has been accused of doing isn't about sex. It's about power, as sexual abuse generally is.  And as my friend Theresa has written, we need to seriously rethink our stance on giving pastors all the power. At my church in Atlanta, a few years back, we voted as a congregation to take away all voting power from ourselves and to give virtually all decision-making power to the pastor. Back then, the decision made sense. I understood my pastor to be one who heard from God about God's vision for our church, and I understand that that vision was not supposed to be left to the whim and fancy of the people. When I was confronted with the reality of these four young men, I realized the fallacy of that thinking. Everybody has to be accountable to somebody, and in a community of faith, if God tells it to you, surely God will confirm with a substantial number of one's congregants. Otherwise it's suspect, no matter how good it sounds.

But as I reflect back on that time, I am amazed at the degree to which I bought in to all I was taught, the degree to which I was afraid to question, question though I did. The penalty for challenging church authority is steep, and I've definitely paid some tolls on that highway. And my mode of challenging can't hold a candle to the courageous acts of these young men. So I know the price is inordinately high for them.

Yet, it amazes me that we can't speak about sex given that book of erotica dropped right in the middle of the Bible. Song of Solomon is not just a Toni Morrison novel, in case you were wondering.   Ifvthe very preachers who continue to espouse this theology fail over and over again to live it out, perhaps the problem is not one of human frailty and sin as we are so wont to conclude. Perhaps our sexual theology needs revisiting and rethinking. And this for both straight and queer folks.

On Sunday morning, I watched the live coverage of New Birth's early service.  Long is a powerful preacher, and his mini-sermon on how to handle tough situations, reflected the best of Black Baptist homiletic traditions. After mocking the crowd ["we're here every Sunday,"] with raucous applause from the New Birth family, and standing ovations after every comment, Bishop Long got down to what everyone "came for." He said that though he was not "a perfect man," he "is not the man the television is portraying him to be." He indicated that he was "gonna fight this thing." And in a most arrogant twist, he put his accusers on notice, "I feel like David fighting Goliath. I've got five stones and I ain't thrown one yet."  <Drops Mic>

"Love is not arrogant or rude. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth."

On Sunday, I didn't see any Jesus in Eddie Long. He did not one time express concern for his accusers and it stands to reason that if these are totally trumped up charges, a pastor who admittedly claimed to love these boys would be troubled, would ask his congregation to pray for their well-being,  would indicate his own hurt, bewilderment, and confusion at this situatin. But no. None of that. Just an arrogant pronouncement that he was gonna come for (no pun intended) his accusers.

The question to be asked about Sunday's shenanigans is a simple one: "Where is the Love?"

"If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers…but I have not love I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and give up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing."

For all those folks who think Long's good works serve as an apologia for his abuse,  they don't. You can't love someone and violate them, abuse their body, coerce them, emotionally manipulate them, and then lie on them and subtly threaten them when they speak out against you. Abuse is not love.

If faith is the "evidence of things unseen," what is evident to me are four hurting young men, an arrogant preacher, and a Black Church largely unwilling or unable to get real about sex, even though there's a whole lot of it going on from the pulpit to the pews.  With that much evidence, what more do you need to see?


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