ROYAL INTRIGUE: On January 31, the beleaguered Bishop Eddie Long was crowned king in a bizarre "Jewish" ceremony that critics immediately denounced. He later apologized. (Image: YouTube video)
Last week, the scandal-ridden Baptist bishop Eddie Long received a brief moment of good news when a visiting “rabbi” declared Long a Jewish king before the congregation at his Atlanta-area megachurch. A YouTube video of the proceedings quickly went viral, and critics registered disbelief as yet another bizarre chapter was added to the Bishop Long saga.
Long has since apologized for the fiasco, but the sad strangeness of the event lingers.
In the video from the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church service, a previously unidentified Rabbi Ralph Messer outlines the history of what he claims is a Holocaust-era scroll said to be rescued from the Auschwitz and Birkenau extermination camps. “These are only given to cities that need to be released into a new anointing.”
Citing dual citizenship in Israel and presumably the United States, the man “on behalf of the Jewish people, the land of Israel, and the God of Israel” presents Long with the scroll, declaring, “He is a king, God’s blessed him. He’s a humble man but in him is kingship, in him is royalty, in him was the land of Israel.”
A moment later, Bishop Long is raised up in a chair and carried around the pulpit, as Rabbi Messer proclaims:
He now is raised up from a commoner to a kingship. … He ‘s no longer a commoner. He’s not under Earth; he’s raised from Earth into a heavenly realm. He’s raised in a prophetic position. He’s released by God. He’s breaking pagan tradition, breaking areas of God. He’s releasing Atlanta, Georgia. It’s not him, it’s the king in him.
Jewish religious leaders immediately called the display offensive. It “in no way represents any Jewish ritual that I’m familiar with,” Bill Nigut of the Anti-Defamation League told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We do not proclaim individuals to be kings.”
In his apology, Long said it was not “my intent, to participate in any ritual that is offensive in any manner to the Jewish community, or any group.” But he left unanswered questions of how the dubious rabbi wound up at his church in the first place.
While Bishop Long’s situation is extreme, one could argue that grandiose presentations of religious ritual take place every week in many black churches, as all-powerful preachers are afforded the star treatment from their parishioners. However, it is this type of ceremonious display of adoration of pastors and other spiritual leaders that makes it difficult for some to remember that they too are human and subject to the same weaknesses that, without proper accountability and support, can ultimately lead to scandal.
A Long Story
For more than a year, with his wife most recently filing divorce papers, Long found himself at the center of such a scandal where he faced accusations of sexual coercion by four young men. Long settled out of court in May 2011 with a reported $15 million payment to his accusers. Trouble from the case continued throughout the year with lost income to the church, the closing of the church’s private school New Birth Academy, and a lawsuit alleging financial misdealing in investments for a handful of church members.
Known for an extravagant display of wealth, Long was said to have been a purveyor of the oft-criticized “prosperity gospel,” which not only pushed the idea that God’s blessings appeared in the form of expensive cars, clothing, and accessories but also showcased a leader similarly clad and almost worshiped by his or her congregants. National Public Radio reported in 2010 that Long drove a $350,000 Bentley and had purchased a $1.1 million home.
It’s hard to say whether the glitz and the religious superstardom led to Long’s woes. But for one Church of God in Christ pastor, Bishop Roger Jones Sr., that along with unresolved personal issues is exactly what led to his downfall.
Bishop Roger Jones
Jones, now pastor of Greater Holy Temple Ministries in Flint, Michigan, wrote about his experiences with adultery, drug use, isolation, and deceit in his book, When Life Hurts, Dreams Fade, Hope Again. In it, he notes that the clearly immoral behavior he engaged in started with the isolation and built up pride he gained for being highly regarded by those around him.
“The fall I experienced has to do with much of the pomp and splendor and promotions that go along with the politics of power — the franchise, the perks, the accommodations, the limousines, the suites at hotels, the seats you sit in,” he said.
Called to preach at age 18, Jones was a high achiever in ministry and quickly took on the invincibility perpetuated through increasing popularity, continual success, and constant praise. Jones wrote that ministerial success brought financial perks as well.
“I’m wondering how much that affected me, given my humble background as a person who didn’t have much, who then came into a lot of money and power and position and prestige — maybe I allowed all that to push me over the edge. Maybe I was trying to fulfill a sense of insecurity with other things.”
The Pastor’s Split Persona
Dr. Patrick Moon, a psychologist at Cornerstone Counseling Center in Chicago, says that insecurity is likely evident in everyone and that pastors and spiritual leaders are not exempt. According to Moon, who specializes in pastoral counseling and spiritual support, pastors aren’t immune from emulating the group patterns from their families of origin and are often drawn to church organizations that complement those learned behaviors of interaction.
Dysfunctional familial patterns that may have started in a minister’s childhood that haven’t been addressed play a major role in coping with the general isolation and ongoing demands of pastoring.
“A pastor comes from a family system and learns from that family system how to behave,” Moon says. “Sometimes the dysfunction of that family system bleeds over to the church. Unresolved emotions of those family systems transfer to the church.”
It’s for that reason that “pastors and clergy in seminary are recommended to seek their own psychotherapists at times when they’re having trouble.”
When a scandal happens, it’s more than the oft-assumed thought that he or she lacks a moral compass or simply doesn’t believe in the God he or she preaches. There’s definitely more to the story, Moon says.
“A pastor has to create a persona that has to be integrated into the church’s expectations,” and it’s in that integration that the person who emerges publicly may not be who the pastor is. That dichotomy doesn’t necessarily equate to holy vs. spiritual. It could be a matter of mood, Moon says.
“Maybe he wants to have a nice vacation, to go and have a good time, but there’s this wedding on that Saturday, and ‘I have to put up the appearance that I have the energy to do this.’” And unfortunately, “Meeting expectations of the congregation is very difficult, and that leads to isolation.”
It’s in isolation that most people — not just pastors — seek out destructive behaviors. The difference is that the destructive behavior of spiritual leaders can perpetuate the dysfunction and can become detrimental to whole churches and their individual members.
The Pastoral Pedestal
Perhaps what might have started with the biblical standards listed in I Timothy 3 of how a pastor or elder should live — “well thought of, committed to his wife, cool and collected, accessible and hospitable … must handle his own affairs well” (The Message translation) — has become an additional burden of exhibiting perfection. Not only do members expect it, the pastor often believes it, despite the contradiction within his or her own humanity.
Regardless of its origins, being a pastor in most people’s minds means being the holiest person in the room at all times. Already set apart upon installation as pastor, he or she inevitably maintains that social distance throughout his or her pastorate.
And it doesn’t help that, historically, spiritual leaders were advised to avoid close friendships with parishioners to avoid the appearance of favoring some and marginalizing others. A major motivating factor for self-inflicted isolation may be an unwillingness to trust congregants — particularly those who make a point of getting too close too quickly.
This continues the persona of the pastor as king or queen, the person everyone wants to be or be around.
“We grew up in an era with the understanding that the pastor is infallible,” Moon says. “The perception of the pastor is elevated in such a way, he adds, that “a fall may be inevitable.”
Yet despite the responsibility that the congregation may bear in turning their leader into a celebrity, the onus is on the pastor not to believe the hype. Jones said it this way: “If we’re not careful, we become our own little gods — without a capital G — and we expect people to treat us this way.”
But if you’re being hoisted up on a throne Eddie Long-style and literally praised as royalty, how can you not buy in to the idea of being worshiped? How do you go from a sincere desire to serve God and His people to living to serve yourself?
“I think we by and large know what the Christian responsibility is, but it’s the lack of intentionality” that leads to disgrace at the highest level of a church, says the Rev. Kenneth Cole, a minister, theology instructor, and administrator at Washington Bible College in Lanham, Maryland.
Like Moon, Cole acknowledges that pastoring is a difficult job that never stops. And as much as it can build a congregation, it can weaken the minister. “Ministry takes on this burden,” Cole says, “and when you’re a weak man, you’re vulnerable more than ever to temptation.”
But that susceptibility might mask itself in a minister’s successes. Cole calls it flawed thinking to assume invincibility to sin based on ministerial authority. As proof, he cites the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness following God’s approval of His baptism. “After a spiritual high, Christ gives us an example that even when you preach and teach and God uses you in a special way, you are that much more vulnerable.”
Cole observes: “Some of the areas of the temptation lie in the individual areas of vulnerability.”
For example, an individual prone to overeating as a coping mechanism for stress might binge on every food available as a spiritual leader under the weight of several hundred people in a congregation. Of course, it’s usually much more serious than food.
“Demands and stresses would pile up,” Moon says, “and who knows if he uses his spiritual grounding at that moment?”
This time, it could be an extra dessert. Next time, maybe it’s infidelity.
For Jones, it was an affair with a married woman that led to his experimentation with powder cocaine and eventually crack. He writes in his book, “When I began experimenting with drugs in 1987, it was a time in my life when everything seemed to plunge into a downward spiral — an abyss of sin and shame. … I believe I had so many unresolved issues within my personal life that I grew tired of masking them behind a clergyman’s collar and title.”
Alison Gise Johnson
In recognizing the multiple factors at play at the origin of spiritual scandal, we must also weigh what’s considered “good” even among people striving to live holy but subject to the sin of humanity, says Alison Gise Johnson, a Christian ethicist who formerly served at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University.
“All of creation has been designed with potential and promise,” says Gise Johnson, “and that potential is only fulfilled in the context of healthy interdependent relationships. That, therefore, is our plumb line for ‘good.’”
Gise Johnson suggests that the isolation experienced by pastors whose parishioners view them as either “super holy” or “superstars” can work against the good intentions they initially bring to their ministries. Jones, Cole and Moon all acknowledge isolation as a key factor in what leads to a religious leader’s downfall.
“Ministers, like everyone of us,” Gise Johnson says, “will suffer emotional scars that when not addressed pervert one’s potential, causes wounds in others, and compromises the power and peace of being on one accord, whole and holy.”
Lusts of the Flesh
And we’ve seen the perverted potential of religious leaders manifest itself in multiple ways: child molestation, financial fraud, theft, and even tax evasion.
It seems, though, that more often than not, scandals among pastors tend to involve sex. Moon ties this to pastoral isolation, not only with church members but often within the families of pastors and other religious leaders. “First, everyone is a sexual being,” he says. “[Sexual misconduct] is an outward expression of a need and desire to connect.”
Moon says that if a spiritual leader is still working out sexual identity in his or her own mind, those issues are likely to creep up somewhere in that person’s life. Unfortunately, it often comes out in a very public way.
Cole, however, says sexual indiscretion among ministers is sometimes less of a backslide and more of a backflip. “There is a whole lot of immorality in certain circles,” Cole says. “They live a life like it’s okay.”
He says it’s common for younger ministers to see their pastoral idols participate in blatantly sinful activity without consequence. That leads to an idea that similar activities are acceptable. “What’s happened is that they know better, but they’re imitating what they see.”
No one wants to admit that they’re struggling to do right because it feeds the idea of spiritual weakness that contradicts the super-holy image.
According to Bishop Jones, the tragedy is that “there seems to be no place, group, or board that one can go to and be completely honest or transparent; not for leaders in a church.”
Instead, said Jones, the church “often adds to or reiterates the guilt of the problem rather than taking on enough compassion to understand how to provide the comfort and support that is desperately needed.”
Beyond the Super-Pastor
As a society, we’re quick to cast blame, but ultimately who is responsible for pastoring the pastor?
Cole says that despite the culture of some churches, where the pastor is treated as king, spiritual leaders have to be committed to holy living. “We need to be intentional about being pure. We need to get back to church discipline, cleansing, restoration, and repentance.
“I just think by and large that pastors should recognize the roles they play; they’re not superheroes,” Cole says. “All that kind of attention draws people to us and not to Christ.” That realization lies in one’s intention and accountability, he says.
But Gise Johnson says that being accountable on a spiritual leader’s part requires something from the congregation, too. “Often, it is the loss of compassion that makes honesty about one’s struggles difficult,” she says. “Faith communities have to fight unrelentingly to maintain a spirit of compassion and be committed to ‘good.’”
For Moon, it goes beyond simply being good and lies more in being authentic in who they are, in their struggles and in coping with the stress of spiritual leadership. Fortunately, that is already beginning to take place, he says. “From the idea of a ‘super-pastor,’ I think the shift has occurred, particularly with younger clergy, that pastors are trying to be more real.”
Moon says there is hope in pastoral authenticity but that the greater redemption lies in the fabric of all churches. “The church itself has always had the resources within itself to restore people,” he says, noting that handling actual scandal would be best done through a denominational process rather than from within an individual congregation.
What a congregation can do, Gise Johnson says, is forgive. “Without apology and without hesitation, forgiveness has to be offered.”
But Gise Johnson is quick to add that this kind of forgiveness does have conditions.
“It’s the kind of forgiveness that demands that congregations then reorganize themselves to give the offender space away from the responsibilities of leading, so that everyone can begin healing.”
Road to Restoration
With news of his wife’s divorce filing in December, Eddie Long announced that he would take a break from his church to focus on his family, which includes three children. He returned to New Birth a few weeks later and preached the New Year’s Eve service. Now, in the tumultuous wake of his short-lived coronation, it’s unclear whether he’s at the end of troubles or the start of new ones.
Like Gise Johnson, Cole lauds a congregation’s ability to forgive in these kinds of situations. However, he says it can also serve as an Achilles’ heel, allowing spiritual leaders to return with the same structure and attitude that led to immorality in the first place.
While Cole advises a sabbatical from leadership responsibilities to help a pastor and his or her church heal, he’s reluctant to say that’s all that’s necessary. “It may it look like [scandalous behavior] is cool as long as you take a break.”
“We need to see more restoration,” he says, “but I don’t see it happening the way God intended.”
CLOUD OF SPECULATION: Bishop Eddie Long addresses his congregation at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta. (Newscom photo)
After Bishop Eddie Long’s decision to settle lawsuits against him out of court, questions have emerged about his motivations, namely: did he settle because the allegations of sexual misconduct with four young male parishioners of his church were true?
But rather than offering answers to his congregation, Long has announced plans to expand his ministry. The Christian Post reported that Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church is starting a new church in Birmingham, Ala., in addition to other locations in Lithonia, Ga., Charlotte, N.C., Oakland, Calif. and soon Denver. Long asked congregants for $500 to $1,000 donations.
Since the settlement, many Christians around the web have shared their thoughts and feelings. While refraining from calling him guilty or innocent, most denounced Long’s failure to be transparent. Some of the commentators used to attend New Birth. Here’s a sampling of the discussion.
Roland S. Martin, a journalist who used to attend New Birth, wrote an editorial for CNN on Saturday declaring that Long could not be let off so easily.
In it, Martin said he was “one of the committed Christians who poured a seed into [Long’s] ministry.” Martin attended New Birth Missionary Baptist Church for three months in 2000 and continued to support Long’s ministry afterward. He said he has quoted Long’s sermons, donated to his church, bought and read his books and sermon tapes, and written about his outreach to black men in his book.
Martin argued that people who supported Long’s ministry over the years deserve an explanation.
“After his refusal to address the issue publicly, openly and truthfully, I don’t see how any pastor could participate in a conference with Long on the rostrum,” Martin wrote. “I don’t see how any gospel musician could go to his church and stand in the pulpit with him to sell their CDs. As a churchgoing man, there is no way I could sit under the spiritual leadership of any pastor who was unwilling to stand before his congregation and address the issue head on.”
Another former attendee of New Birth, licensed attorney John Richards, shared both legal and spiritual perspectives on Long’s settlement on his Brother Preacher blog.
Richards said he went to New Birth in college more than 10 years ago, writing that the ministry and people there “were very instrumental in my formative years as a young man who had re-dedicated himself to Christ.” Although Richards wrote that he appreciated his experience at New Birth, he said the recent controversy had saddened him.
In his legal analysis, Richards discussed the different reasons why Long might choose to settle out of court, from avoiding negative media attention to protecting the other defendants (New Birth and LongFellows Youth Academy) from liability.
In his spiritual analysis, Richards offered a more personal take.
“I believe there were some very bad decisions made and, to some degree, there was a lack of accountability,” Richards wrote. “This is a sad, sad situation. I’m continuing to pray for all parties involved. In the end, this may have been a blessings (sic), because the trial would have been quite ugly and may have done more harm than good.”
Religion writer the Rev. Dr. Barbara Reynolds told the AFRO the settlement looks like a cover-up to her, although she said there’s no way to know the truth.
“It looks like he did what the Catholic Church has been doing for decades,” she told the AFRO. “I thought that [Long’s initial statements] meant he would go to court and fight in court.”
The writer of The Church Lady Blogs also argued that Long did not keep his promise to fight the allegations.
“He did not act in the same manner by which David did when he was faced with Goliath, not only did he not throw five stones, he did not even pick up and throw one stone!” she wrote.
Scholar Boyce Watkins also criticized Long’s failure to keep his promise on ThyBlackMan.com, a blog that seeks to bring black men together as brothers in Christ.
“Let’s be clear: Settling a case does not imply guilt,” Watkins wrote. “But Bishop Long’s promise to his congregation that the truth would eventually be exposed is contradicted heavily by the fact that he has shared almost nothing.”
In the Florida Courier, guest columnist Morris W. O’Kelly cited Scripture while asking Long a series of questions.
“How will I know when to stop mentally subtitling all of your sermons as ‘Do as God Says … Not as I Do and Have Done?’ ” Mo’Kelly wrote.
Mo’Kelly had previously warned of the consequences a private settlement would have in March: “Being able to ask your spiritual leader about the mysteries of the Bible but not about the realities of the allegations can and will prove problematic for some members.”
Will Long’s lack of transparency hurt his congregation? Can his new churches in Birmingham and Denver succeed in spite of the recent controversy? Share your comments and opinions below.
BEFORE THE STORM: Bishop Eddie Long and Rev. Bernice King. (Newscom)
This week’s news that Reverend Bernice King would leave her leadership post at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta led to immediate speculation about the nature of her departure. But both King and Bishop Eddie Long, New Birth’s senior pastor, denied this week that she resigned as an elder because of the controversy surrounding Long’s and New Birth’s financial settlement with four men who accused Long of sexual coercion. Both said King left because she sensed a calling to start her own ministry.
In a statement published on New Birth’s website, Long said he and King had been in “discussion and prayer” for some time about her decision and that “New Birth is planning a wonderful and fitting farewell tribute in honor of Reverend King.”
The announcement was delayed until after Memorial Day “because we felt it was appropriate to first honor the service men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service of our great Nation,” said Long.
“I heard I resigned. I was a little confused about that, because I’ve never been on staff. I’ve never been an employee of New Birth. I didn’t step down because I didn’t step up,” King told Rhodell Lewis of Atlanta’s Praise 102.5.
“Elder is a title they use in their church as Ebenezer [Baptist Church] would use Reverend. They’re the same, so if you leave a Baptist church, they don’t say you stepped down as reverend,” said King. “I’m just no longer a member of New Birth.”
King, the youngest child of Martin Luther King Jr., said her sole function was to occasionally preach, but she also described herself as a leader in the church and said there is an appropriate way for leaders to leave. She wrestled with the decision for two years, she said, and met with Long in early April to tell him that May 29 would be her last Sunday worshiping at New Birth.
King was “tremendously blessed” by the ministry of Long in the eight years, eight months she attended the church, she said, and thanked him and the congregation for its love and support through several difficult situations she endured.
Those trials included the illness and then death of her mother, Coretta Scott King, the death of her sister Yolanda King, a legal conflict with her brother Dexter King over their parents’ estate, and another with the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, from which she resigned as president in January.
“I know that I have a pastoral calling on my life and I have to accept it,” said King.
“I’m going to launch a ministry. I’m not calling it a church right now because I believe that Christ builds his church. …What God is showing me doesn’t look like what people are accustomed to,” she said. “We must raise up true disciples of the kingdom of God so the kingdoms of this world came become the kingdoms of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. That is my mandate as I go forward.”
Though King has refused to comment on the controversy that has engulfed Bishop Long and New Birth since last fall, others are projecting that her departure will lead to a further implosion at the church.
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.