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

29 Sep

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?


14 Responses to “The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Sex and Power in the Black Church”

  1. ashoncrawley September 29, 2010 at 8:40 AM #


  2. ljones September 29, 2010 at 9:12 AM #

    thank your for your candor and your courage in speaking the truth!

  3. Tiffany September 29, 2010 at 9:52 AM #

    This is post is so convenient! I’m taking this class about religion and African Diaspora and after watching a documentary I asked a question about preachers who get accused of actions like the man above.

    Two of the students said: “The preacher is human, he should not be held accountable” –or something like that.

    It didn’t answer my question though. For someone like myself who does not have an emotional attachment to any religion or God for that matter and feels incredibly uncomfortable when asked to go to church. I’m a lesbian and I am constantly told by many ministers that a part of me is wrong and all these other horrible things.

    How is it okay for them to say that to me on behalf of God but not be accountable for what they do because they are God’s men?

    I know your post says it is not okay but I guess my question is how do you separate the man from what he portrays himself to be?

    Did that make any sense at all? If it didn’t I apologize, I really have no idea how to write what I’m trying to say.

  4. Lea September 29, 2010 at 10:44 PM #

    For me this whole situation is disgusting. That I’m really having a hard time in understanding this whole “blind following” business. Because I too, believe in the power of faith, but not to the point that it clouds common sense and rational thought. The fact that this bishop has still not come out saying that he’s %100 innocent of….and [insert all accusations], has made me believe he’s guilty.

    But can we pls talk about the life styles of some of these Religious figures. I’m sorry a major warning sign for me, is the rolling in diamands, driving 100K cars, living in mansions etc. When your congregation consists of people that are poor, homeless, single mothers, unemployed, can barely pay your rent. Then yes there is a *major* problem with that. I’m not saying that one has to be poor, but how can you honestly relate to your congregation drenched in money, and knowing some member is going to bed hungry. Or being evicted out of their homes.
    What ever happned to living in moderation, not poor but simple.

  5. Rodney Harrison September 30, 2010 at 7:10 AM #

    This article is very interesting and needed to be written. Truth be told, in my opinion, to many people put all of their faith in their Pastor and not enough faith in God. One thing that I know is that Bishop Long has not only managed to make his church look bad but, managed to help make a mockery of Christianity as a whole. This only adds fuel to fire of the Christian pursecution (Spelling?). And most sad thing is that alot of the people of in that congregation are more than ready to go to the bat for him and not really wanting to reach out in a positive and caring way to the victims. That my $.02.

  6. Monica A Coleman September 30, 2010 at 8:28 AM #

    We have been thinking the same thing at the same time. (Maybe it’s a feminist thing.) I’ve blogged about this same issue – as a clergy person and activist against sexual violence. Thank you for putting this perspective out there!’s-not-being-said/

  7. LiLi Sheree September 30, 2010 at 6:50 PM #

    You hit the nail on the head! If the accusations were untrue they would be denied and prayer would be called for the men. That was an eye-opening point. Duly noted.

  8. Jaiza September 30, 2010 at 8:27 PM #

    Thank you for posting this. Silence surrounding issues of sex, sexuality, and abuse within the Black Church (and the Black Community generally) is a major major problem and one that usually ostracizes and demonizes the victims. This incident really hurts my heart for so many of the reasons that you articulated. It’s been time for the Church to address these issues head on and revisit some of the basics–learning to truly love yourself and love others. We need to get over these stigmas and taboos.

  9. teresz October 1, 2010 at 4:02 PM #

    Right. I believe if he was 100% innocent, then his words would be filled with hurt and confusion, not w/ arrogance and being defensive. First heard this story on Telemundo and basically got the gist of it. I just couldnt bring myself to get the full story b/c im thinking ‘more boys getting abuse,…again’ So I just waited until TCFC wrote an article about it, and of course you did. Thanks for writing this.

  10. dantresomi October 1, 2010 at 4:50 PM #

    the thing about Long is that he has always been arrogant and way too powerful. When he supported Bush wholeheartedly in 2004, he refused to answer the detractors (black folks STILL followed him). When he was accused of using church money for personal use, he refuse to show his records and despite evidence to the contrary, his congregation grew even larger.

    His underhandedness has always been evident and when called out on it, he quotes a bible verse or two. A David he is not with all the money and followers.

    Hitchens hit it on the head, if you want to be a leader of black folk just throw a reverend in front of your name. While the black church has been a place of social change and political power in the past, it is now a relic. Folks like Long who preach the prosperty gospel are the tomb raiders and charlatans.

    the sad thing: even if the charges are true, Long will not lose a smidgen of power.


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