The Curious Case of James Fortune and the Rest of Us
James Fortune has won three Stellar awards and has been nominated twice for a Grammy award. In 2004, his hit single “You Survived” was the second most played gospel song in the country; even now, 12 years later, it remains in the top seven of most-played gospel songs.
In 2001, three years before Mr. Fortune lit up the gospel music scene with “You Survived” and other popular tracks, he stripped his then-four-year-old stepson naked, beat him with a switch, ran a tub full of scalding hot water, forced the already-battered child into that tub, and held him there. When speaking to the 911 emergency dispatcher about the incident, he lied, saying the child burned himself by running the water at a too-hot temperature and getting into the tub. He pleaded guilty to the charge of felony injury of a child, but in a statement after the trial, stressed that he was never convicted of any felony charge. His trouble with the law didn’t end there.
On October 24, 2014, Mr. Fortune was arrested for aggravated assault of a family member with a deadly weapon. The family member turned out to be his wife, and the weapon was revealed to have been a bar stool. In 2016, through a plea deal, he pleaded guilty to the aggravated assault charge—a third-degree felony—and received five days in jail plus five years of probation. Other than some irate women commenters on websites that have covered the incidents, the response from the Christian community seems to have been a collective “So what?”
The “so what” factor isn’t entirely surprising but is nonetheless disappointing. A four-year-old child was burned on over 40% of his body and permanently disfigured, and a woman suffered broken bones and internal injuries. Certainly that child and that woman deserved more from the Christian community than they received. In fact, James Fortune in interviews has thanked fans for their love and support during those times, but where was the love and support for his stepson and wife? Don’t their lives matter?
This isn’t the first time a high-profile Black Christian has become entangled with the law or transgressed the law of God. Contemporary Christian music mega-star Israel Houghton admitted to committing adultery and causing the breakup of his 20-year marriage; World Changers Ministries leader Creflo Dollar was investigated for allegedly choking his teenage daughter during a verbal conflict at their home; Bishop Eddie Long was outed for allegedly having multiple sexual relationships with young men; Minister Thomas Weeks stomped then-wife and popular evangelist Juanita Bynum in an Atlanta hotel parking lot.
Because of sin, potential scandal resides within the bosom of every follower of Christ, so the question becomes, “What say we to these things?” because more definitely needs to be said and done.
First, acknowledge that sin is real, and the struggle to overcome it is real. It causes real damage and suffering. Here language makes a difference and often reveals hesitation to call a thing a thing. Too often the “all” in “all have sinned” only includes others, and the “sinned” gets labeled as episodes of misspeaking, misconduct, mistake, and other non-culpable acts.
If sin is named and claimed by the perpetrators, true healing and restoration can begin. Which leads to the second necessary adjustment: change the objective of accountability. The legitimate reasons to hold James Fortune and others in similar positions accountable are to restore them to right fellowship with God and with their fellow believers and to heal the heart of susceptibility toward that sin.
Humiliation, disgrace, and revenge or vindication are not acceptable motives for calling anyone to account for sin. If violence, non-marital sex, lying, manipulation, and such are treated as sin, the connection between the problem and the remedy becomes much more apparent.
Third, restore biblical church discipline. Talk to almost any Black churchgoer, and you’re liable to hear a story of someone in a leadership position being “sat down” for some wrongdoing. But just sitting a person down doesn’t necessarily produce restoration for the guilty party, nor healing for the victims.
Authentic church discipline scares people because it violates two long-held and sacrosanct views of addressing problems and trouble in the Black community—keep it quiet and don’t judge. Moreover, secular ideas of shame have crept into the thinking of many church leaders and congregants alike, resulting in a laissez-faire approach to dealing with sin and its consequences.
Finally, remember the victims. Seeing James Fortune’s plight play out in the media is an opportunity to re-examine compassion and grace but also to reconsider justice and healing. There are many James Fortunes, Cheryl Fortunes, sons, and daughters living through similar circumstances.
They need justice for the sin committed against them and healing for the devastation wrought within them. Their pain needs to be acknowledged and addressed within the context of meaningful accountability and action, and we must be able to depend on Christian leaders to shepherd people through these processes.
Have you witnessed instances of authentic, effective church discipline in your congregation?
Have you ever been part of an accountability group or reconciliation process?
If the church isn’t addressing these issues effectively, what legitimate role does the state play in getting justice for victims?
Sound off below!