The innocent victim of a political attack, Shirley Sherrod recently filed a lawsuit against those who twisted her gesture of racial reconciliation into a charge of racial discrimination and caused her to lose her job. Had her accusers done their homework, they would’ve realized that trying to nail a “reverse racism” label on a woman of Sherrod’s history was not wise.
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 onabout 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.
In the meantime, we must wait for the truth.
Our nation’s political divisions, economic struggles, and violent communities should remind us that symbolism without substance is a dead-end street.
We focus too much on symbolism. For example, the debate over whether a mosque should be built near Ground Zero is largely about what the 9/11 tragedy symbolizes. What about focusing on the substance that led up to it and where do we go from here? The dueling rallies (the Rev. Al Sharpton vs. Glenn Beck) in Washington, on the day commemorating the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was mostly about what the civil rights movement symbolizes and who should proclaim the dream the Rev. Martin Luther King articulated. Meanwhile, unemployment is nearly 10 percent (double for blacks) and black incarceration rates are double and triple their percentage of the population in many states.
This past Sept. 11, I attendedfor yet another Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, this one in Newport News, Virginia. As I watched King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, at the podium, I thought of how our emphasis on MLK symbolism often overshadows the substance of his message; a message of peace and justice that is as relevant today as it was on Sept. 11, 2001, and Aug. 28, 1963.
Oddly, I thought of comedian Chris Rock.
Rock, in his 1996 HBO special, Bring the Pain, said:
Martin Luther King stood for nonviolence. Now what’s Martin Luther King? A street. And I don’t give a (bleep) where you live in America, if you’re on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there’s some violence going down.
There are more than 800 streets, drives and boulevards, often with large monuments on them, across the country and world that honor King. Many of them are in neighborhoods that are plagued by high unemployment, disenfranchisement, poverty, and crime. It’s ills in neighborhoods like this section of Newport News’ East End that King died trying to eradicate.
As Newport News Mayor McKinley Price remarked that the memorial would be more than a plaza but “embody a man who was about a movement,” I doubted that King, a man of God, would want to be honored with a structure made of stone. Didn’t he say in his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, two months before his assassination on April 4, 1968, not to idolize him?
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” he said. “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter …”
The people who have the power to erect monuments could best honor King by focusing those resources on substance — eradicating the ills he died for. For example, empower poor people with good-paying jobs, set and enforce policies that close the education gap, eliminate out-in-the-open illegal drug sales that make streets unsafe, and fix the root causes of why blacks are incarcerated at rates that are double and triple their percentage of the population. Surely the people most likely to sit in a King memorial plaza in the ‘hood would have a better chance of fulfilling his dream in their lives.
Bernice King, who was only 5 in 1968 when her father was assassinated, honored his legacy in a way I believe he would’ve loved. She barely mentioned his name.
She began with a poem that mentioned him and her mother, Coretta Scott King.
“I was born a King,” she recited. “I might as well be a king…”
She assigned the family name to the crowd, and urged them to live as royalty.
“To be strong communities, we must have the mentality of kings,” she said. “Kings raise the standard and lead the way. Kings don’t follow the crowd. Kings don’t hang out with subjects — folks who are ‘subject to negativity.’ Kings don’t wait for others to do something; they take responsibility.”
She challenged them to focus on healing their families, which leads to healthy communities.
“Get back to the dining table … Sit around the table with your family and dialogue about how to make communities better.”
She used the symbolic occasion to deliver substance.
As she was escorted to a car to catch her return flight to Atlanta, I walked with Bernice King and asked whether she felt, as Chris Rock implied, that monuments to her father might actually detract from focusing on fixing the problems he died for.
“As you know, monuments are about status and can become idols,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. We have to do both. Like the D.C. memorial [planned on the National Mall between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials], people — especially those who were not alive then — will come from all over and be inspired. But we have to inspire people to action, to make a difference. That’s what Daddy wanted and died for.”
Symbolism has its value, but substance is more important.
The Shirley Sherrod story has been characterized as another example of America’s complex struggle with racism. But despite its explosive nature, it’s actually a more basic tale of human selfishness.
The Hampton University Ministers’ Conference is one of the most influential gatherings of black church leaders. And HU chaplain Debra Haggins O’Bryant is the event’s driving force.