The unresolved drama surrounding Bishop Eddie Long and his alleged misconduct with four young men in his congregation raises serious questions about clergy abuse and matters of sexuality in the Black church. But are we ready to be honest? Three scholars respond.
One of the top religion stories of 2010 was the controversy involving Bishop Eddie Long, in which four young men filed civil suits against the Atlanta megachurch pastor accusing him of sexual misconduct and manipulation. When the story broke last September, it generated a variety of responses, but two recurring themes were the issue of clergy sexual abuse and the unofficial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy toward homosexuality within the African American church, which was heightened by Long’s outspoken preaching against same-sex relationships.
As UrbanFaith columnist Wil LaVeist remarked last year, Bishop Long is innocent until proven otherwise, and it is not UrbanFaith’s intention to pass judgment one way or the other. The case is scheduled to move into mediation next month. In the meantime, however, we asked three leading Christian scholars to share their perspectives on the larger themes that this scandal has raised for the Christian community, and especially the Black church. Their remarks reflect their own opinions and do not necessarily represent the views of UrbanFaith.
CHERYL J. SANDERS: We Must Confront Clergy Abuse
Because I have not heard of any clear statement from Bishop Eddie Long admitting or denying that he committed the sexual acts alleged by his four young accusers, I can assert neither his guilt nor innocence with any degree of certainty. However, I am convinced that religious leaders and congregations can learn some lessons from the crisis that has arisen as a result of the highly publicized charges against him.
The first lesson is to be aware that clergy sexual abuse can occur in any congregation. Awareness empowers us to be proactive about creating and maintaining safe sacred spaces for children and adults to worship and grow spiritually. It includes offering age-appropriate instruction to our children and teens about how to identify and report inappropriate sexual acts.
Second is the importance of setting boundaries. We cannot assume that everyone who participates in a faith community is automatically equipped and motivated to maintain proper boundaries. How many of our congregations have developed and published guidelines and policies to safeguard interactions between adults and children during church activities and trips? When it comes to sexual harassment and misconduct, it is essential to show everyone where “the line” is before anyone crosses the line.
The third lesson is that our congregations must exercise vigilant stewardship of the physical well-being, mental health, and spiritual potential of our young people. This requires a commitment to do everything in our power to prevent sexual molestation. If it does occur, we have an inescapable obligation to administer discipline to the offender and offer healing to the victim. The issue here is not homosexuality per se, and this scandal brings neither “homophobia” nor hypocrisy to an end in the black churches. Can we develop viable structures of accountability to check those pastors, teachers, counselors and mentors who would gratify their own sexual desires by preying upon the vulnerable young people entrusted to their care? If not, then we would do better by our children to shut our churches down rather than to support and defend their abusers in complicity with crimes against God and humanity.
Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders is Professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University and the senior pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C.
HAROLD DEAN TRULEAR: Sex in Its Proper Context
Sexual immorality is dirty.
I offer this as a social scientist who, with Margaret Mead, argues that “dirt” is “matter out of place.” Our yards and parks consist of dirt, but they are not “dirty.” Rather the soil is in place, therefore we pronounce them clean. But if a discarded newspaper covers the soil, the area is “dirty,” not because of dirt, but because of the presence of the paper strewn about. Sex is not dirty, but sex away from its proper context is.
Sexual immorality is sinful.
Much of our revulsion to practices like adultery and homosexuality, and hence the silence of the Black church, reflects our sense of dirt, not sin. The emotional energy exerted toward reviling the “dirty” points to a desire to avoid the “out of place.” Sexual sin is dirty because it is sex out of place, whether fornication or adultery. But the incongruity is even more pronounced when two persons of the same gender engage in sexual activity, because one of the two is “out of place.” Hence, as with all repulsive reactions, we either rail against the dirt or turn our heads.
Sexuality is fragmentary.
One’s sexual behavior never fully defines one’s personhood, therefore to call someone a “homosexual” can only identify a portion of who they are. And, likewise, male heterosexuality can never fully define someone as a “real man.” True manhood and womanhood flow from the Imago Dei, and not from sexual practice. Persons can never be fully defined by, and personhood can never be fully achieved by, any type of sexual behavior.
Jesus transforms dirt to medicine — redeeming that which is out of place.
Jesus sets us free from sin — the sin which separates us from God.
Jesus makes people whole — sending His Spirit into every aspect of an individual life.
Jesus does not throw away or suffer revulsion from dirt; He transforms it. Jesus does not couch sin in terms of cognitive development; He names it and heals it. Jesus does not lift sexuality and sexual behavior to definitive status; He, as part of the Trinity at creation, blessed humanity with it to express union in a manner consistent with His union with the church.
Harold Dean Trulear, Ph.D., is an ordained American Baptist minister and an Associate Professor of Applied Theology at the Howard University School of Divinity.
RANDAL JELKS: The Black Church Needs to Be Honest About Sexuality
Black Christians must fess up and acknowledge that human beings are sexual. Sexual intercourse is a reality. Intercourse is a biological mechanism for procreation and a
pleasurable desire. Like all things, sex can become deviant. By deviant I do not mean same-sex relations, I mean sex can be used to satisfy needs for power, control, and status. By not having frank discussions and theological reflection with Black congregants, biological urges and sexual desires take on a greater place in the imagination of Black Christians than is healthy.
Here’s the problem. Historically, sex was used against Black people. Let’s just think about it for a moment. Slave owners could sexually abuse and rape a slave woman without recourse to the law. The justification for this use of power was the notion that slave women had uncontrollable libidos, proverbial “hot mommas.” After the Civil War, Black people sought to legalize their relationships through marriage, a civil benefit that slavery did not permit. These new marriages attempted to give Black women legal protections that they did not have against powerful and abusive men. Following the war, sex was used in post-emancipation America to justify lynching. A chief justification for lynching was the rapacious nature of Black men, even though a question of property ownership underlined most lynching. Sex and sexuality justified abuse of both black women and men. As a result, many Black men and women tried to suppress their sexuality. They hid their sexual behaviors behind middle-class mores, lest there be another justification to subjugate Black lives.
This attitude should also be placed in another historical context of evangelical Christianity. The evangelicalism that Black Americans adopted and transformed served to give a conflicting outlook about sex, sexuality, and sexual expression. This theology, while promoting fidelity, also promoted a level of prudery about sex that most rural people never had. Attitudes about sex as Black people became urban were supposed to be restrained and only acceptable among married couples. Sexual desire was chastened by calls for “purity,” especially among young women, but purity did stop people from cavorting. The rates of sexually transmitted diseases were terribly high in Black communities long before the advent of the civil rights movement. The evangelicalism that Black people used as a tool of middle-class respectability could not hide the fact that churchgoing people had desires and were acting upon them then as they do today.
Sex or sexuality is not mechanically or psychologically pure. We know this from psychology, anthropology, and biology. Therefore, it seems incumbent on Black Christians to discuss sexuality that happens inside and outside churches in a more thoughtful theological way.
The angry preachments that condemn same-sex relationships are the same ones that are completely silent about the disastrous rates of HIV/AIDS killing Black communities today. This is quite ironic, because the mythic Black church — the liberating Black church — was suppose to be a community where all Black people could find loving freedom and equality as children of God.
Randal Jelks, Ph.D., M.Div., is an Associate Professor of American Studies with a joint appointment in African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He is also an ordained clergy person in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and a founder and co-editor of the blog TheBlackBottom.com.
Atlanta pastor Eddie Long is innocent until proven otherwise. But the sordid details surrounding accusations against him, as well as earlier scandals involving other Christian leaders, have opened the floodgates of popular opinion — and it’s not good.
I’m only speculating, but imagine if Monday’s lead news story reads something like this:
Calling himself a “deceiver and a liar” who had “given in to his dark side,” the pastor, standing in his pulpit, confessed to sexual immorality during the Sunday-morning service at his crowded megachurch.
“Not all the accusations are true, but I take responsibility for the entire problem. There’s a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life,” he said.
The popular minister, known for anti-gay sermons, had found himself drowning under the threat of being outed. So he stood before his congregation, came clean, and asked for mercy …
The imaginary news report above is based on actual reports about the confession of Rev. Ted Haggard, the former pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs. In 2006 he was forced to step down following revelations that he had been involved in a relationship with a male prostitute. I’m guessing that at least some folks among the 25,000-member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church near Atlanta are wondering whether they should brace for a similar confession from their pastor, Bishop Eddie L. Long.
Three men in their twenties went public this week with civil lawsuits against Long, accusing the pastor of using his power to force them into sexual relationships with him. The story is the buzz in the Atlanta area and among Christians across the nation. (And as this story goes to press, at least one other young man has filed a suit.)
People must not forget that Long is innocent unless proven otherwise. He deserves a fair hearing to respond to the charges, especially since, if found innocent, sexual abuse charges remain a very difficult stain to cleanse from one’s reputation. It’s also worth noting that Long’s accusers filed civil — not criminal — lawsuits against him, and civil suits are usually always about money. And, as we all know, money can complicate the telling of truth. Hopefully Bishop Long is innocent, but as of now, we’ve only heard one side of the story.
Long has been slow to speak out publicly and denounce the charges himself. He canceled a press conference and a highly anticipated radio interview on the popular Tom Joyner Morning Show, choosing instead to deny the charges through his lawyer.
And though Bishop Long deserves a fair hearing in the court of law, the court of popular opinion is already running in overdrive. And it’s not looking good, which of course it never does when the press gets a hold of any story involving complaints against a religious or political leader. No matter how tempting it may be to gawk and judge and convict a person before all the facts are in, it never does us any good as Christians to revel in the misfortune of another human being, no matter how easy of a target he becomes.
Bishop Long is renowned for an extravagant lifestyle (drives a Bentley, drew $1 million in salary from his charity, has a nine-bathroom mansion) that had already come under investigation by the federal government. And his politics have made him a prominent target as well. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others, has referred to Long as “anti-gay” for his stance against same-sex partnerships.
Unfortunately, the shadow hanging over Bishop Long’s presumption of innocence is one cast by the scandals of a number of other high-profile leaders. How often has it come to light that the person who is publicly against a particular controversial issue is struggling personally with that very same issue? Remember fire-and-brimstone preachers Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, who were caught in sexual scandals, financial corruption, and lies? How about vocal anti-gay rights politicians like former Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, caught allegedly soliciting male sex in an airport bathroom, and Sen. Roy Ashburn of California, arrested for drunk driving after leaving a gay bar?
What we’ve learned from those previous scandals is that we need our leaders to be honest and compassionate promoters of justice and truth. We don’t need them crusading against issues primarily as a cover for their own personal sins, and often at our public expense. The media lives to expose hypocrisy, and Bishop Long’s situation must look like low-hanging fruit to them right now.
A side-note question raised by this latest scandal is, have Christians been placing too much emphasis on the homosexuality issue? There are ongoing theological debates regarding homosexuality and where it ranks among various sins. For me, the Bible seems to indicate that homosexuality is no worse than any other sexual transgression (1 Cor. 6:9-11,18-20). They’re all lumped together. Sin is sin. All of us have committed our share (I know I have) and remain susceptible. It’s when you believe you’re too powerful and untouchable that deception seeps in and eventually drowns you.
I hope this isn’t the case with Bishop Long. I hope his name doesn’t become just one more Wikipedia entry in the annals of religious scandals. Hopefully, he will be cleared. Hopefully, his young accusers will get the healing and deliverance they need. Hopefully, these events will help New Birth Missionary Baptist Church become a more honest, compassionate, and effective God-fearing church. Let’s hope that God uses this.
I was one of those people who couldn’t quite believe that rapper Mason Betha (a.k.a. Murda Ma$e) might be a serious Christian minister. Then I visited his church.
Yes, I spent a Sunday with Mase. But it wasn’t listening to his greatest hits album in the comforts of my home or attending a concert where he performed any of said greatest hits. No, I went to church with Mase — his church, El Elyon International in Atlanta, Georgia, to be exact. Now I am going to ask you to un-furrow your brow. Yes, I know it is furrowed because there is no one who I have told about going to El Elyon that didn’t have a furrowed brow. The reactions varied from, “Really?” to “So you didn’t get any God today?” To tell the truth, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I approached the opportunity to attend El Elyon with some hesitancy.
I was a fan of Mase’s music back in the days when he and Diddy were wearing matching shiny suits and singing about being bad boys. I remember when I heard about him leaving the rap game to go into ministry. I remember when he left ministry to go back into the rap game as Murda Ma$e. And I remember when he left the rap game again to go back to ministry. It is that schizophrenia that leads most people to stay away from his ministry and his music. But, the more I thought about it I realized that Mase is no different from any of us who keep on backsliding into the world — save for the fact that our backslides are not caught on camera for the world to see.
Bad Boy Days: Mase with Diddy (then Puff Daddy) in the 1997 video for Biggie Smalls' posthumously released song "Mo Money, Mo Problems."
So I figured I’d give Mase … I mean, Pastor Mason Betha of El Elyon … a chance.
I went into my El Elyon experience with many different expectations. I expected the church to be huge, like a standard Atlanta megachurch, which looks more like a college campus than it does a sanctuary. El Elyon is no megachurch. It’s located on a non-descript street in the midst of warehouses. In fact, it is in a warehouse. It is a humble space. I expected that the majority of the cars parked in front of the church were going to be of the “Beamer, Benz or Bentley” variety. There were barely any Beamers, Benzes or Bentleys in front of El Elyon. It was more like a “Nissan, Honda, Chevy” affair. With each opening door of these domestic cars came young African American adults, some middle-aged families, and the occasional white man or woman.
As I was getting over some of my misconceptions about the external trappings of the church, I walked inside to be met by not one but several greeters who sensed my newness but didn’t treat me like I was new. I explained to them I’d be meeting some friends who hadn’t arrived yet, and they showed me to a seat in the lobby. Many who walked passed me as I sat there waiting treated me like an old friend. One of the members of the ministerial staff even greeted me in earnest, asking for my name, expressing his gratitude that I could join them for worship, and directing me to the sanctuary. In all honesty that last encounter was a little jarring because I had become use to seeing ministers decked out in full apparel who would only speak to the ones they knew and offer a weak smile and lukewarm greeting to those they didn’t. For a church I had only been in for about 15 minutes, I felt as if I’d been there 15 years.
I missed the praise-and-worship portion of the service waiting for my friends, but I could hear the spirited music — a lot of Israel Houghton and other urban praise tunes — from my spot in the lobby. I finally entered the service just as Pastor Mason Betha stepped onstage to deliver his sermon. It was a sparsely decorated sanctuary with a pulpit at the center of an elevated stage. The space held about 300 people and it was easily filled to capacity. The seats weren’t pews but high-backed chairs like you’d find in a banquet hall. When the ushers accompanied us to our seats, they encouraged us to squeeze in as close together as possible to make room for other late-arriving churchgoers.
Pastor Betha’s sermon was titled “Stay at His Feet.” He began by petitioning his members to start a purity fast so that they can abstain from anything that isn’t edifying. He used the analogy of dirt and water in a jar to describe why this purity fast is so desperately needed, remarking that as Christians we read the Bible or hear a sermon then we get into our cars and turn on secular music, watch movies about vampires, or participate in other sordid activities. In Pastor Betha’s view, the secular music, the vampires, and other things are the dirt that clouds up the water that is supposed to purify our lives. He surmises that cutting those things out will help us to become more accessible to God and powerful for the kingdom. All of this before his actual sermon went forth and my preconceived notions were already being blown out of the water.
So, let’s talk about my expectations of Pastor Mason Betha. What can I say? Yes, I wondered what a former “Bad Boy for Life” could say behind a sacred podium. I wondered if he would preach with the same slow drawl that made him famous as a rapper. I wondered what, if anything, he said was going to touch me. I had the words of many in my mind — the people who were shocked that I would go to his church; the people, who similar to Nathaniel asking if anything good could come out of Nazareth, asked if anything good could come out of a seemingly confused rapper whose relapse into the secular world wasn’t too long ago. Well, the answer to the question is plenty good can come out of him once we stop defining him by who he was and look at who God is shaping him to be.
For 90 minutes I listened to Pastor Mason Betha teach the word of God in what I believe was a pretty sound manner. He didn’t tell many stories — though he cracked a few jokes — he just let the Word of God speak. Though it was only the 10:00 service and there was yet one more for him to preach at noon, he was not constrained by time. He preached long and hard, making sure that we had as many scriptures as he could possibly give us so that we would be motivated to continue the study on our own.
By the end of that sermon — actually I’d prefer to call it a study — I had seven pages of notes and a new respect for Mason Betha. All because I took the time to step past what I thought I knew.
As a young seminarian, I’ve been told that most of my ministry will be in my interruptions. Interestingly enough, my interrupting my preconceived notions of a man and his ministry was when I was ministered to, and I suspect that the interruption of the rapper Mase led to the ministry of Pastor Mason Betha. And that’s an interruption I’m praying many will benefit from.
Over the years, there have been rumors about Pastor Betha and whether he’s really walking with God — that he never fully broke off from the rap business. Musically speaking, with the exception of a few guest spots here and there, he’s been silent since his 2004 album due to contractual issues with Diddy’s Bad Boy label. But the latest buzz suggests another full-fledged comeback may be imminent. We’ll have to wait and see if it’s true.
If Mase does return to rap music, I hope he remembers his analogy of dirt and water in a jar.