Today, I am featuring a guest blog post on Bishop Eddie Long by L. Lamar Wilson, a scholar and poet. Wilson, an English PhD student at UNC-Chapel Hill, has published nonfiction essays in The Washington Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Post No Ills and other publications and has poetry in Rattle, Crab Orchard Review, Obsidian, and the forthcoming 100 Best African-American Poems, edited by Nikki Giovanni. His poetry manuscript, Sacrilegion, also engages some of the issues with which this piece grapples.
Bishop Eddie Long: A Call for Humility
…….“It is the attitude of condescension, of arrogance, the ‘holier than thou’ manifestation, much of .…….which I have experienced in missions and observed in the mission field. It says, I am better than ……..you, poor devil, I am really a very different order of being and out of my plenty, out of my ……..advantage over you, I deign to come to your rescue. You ought to be grateful to me. In fact your ……..gratitude must have in it a certain abjectness in order that my position and ego may be rendered ……..even more immune to attacks of unity. … Humility cannot be acquired this way.”
……………………..–Howard Thurman, “Mysticism and Social Change” (1939)
In addressing his congregation Sept. 26, Eddie Long likened himself to the biblical David fighting Goliath, an analogy that’s no less ironic, troubling and illuminating as this case unfolds. The irony lies in the analogy’s anachronistic nature: Although he’s not a seminarian, Long is no novice in his ministry. He’s about as far from a lowly shepherd boy not yet fully aware of his destiny as Goliath was when he met David in battle. The four who have filed suit against Long and those youths who have spoken out so passionately in support of him, however, easily fit David’s profile. The rallying cry at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and in the larger conservative Christian community in this fortnight underscores this contradiction even more. Long is, no doubt, the Goliath in this war of words, a giant cryptically touting “five rocks” he’s poised to throw, dismissing the artfully flung ones now assailing him and the empire he’s defending about the head. His alleged victims’ stones – possibly tossed with a prayer to a God who Long and his followers say is decidedly on their side – have landed well in calling into question years of homophobic messages from a man more than a little obsessed with material wealth and a hypermasculine, hip-hop-inspired persona marked by muscle shirts and ill-fitted toupees that expose what some could call a Peter Pan syndrome.
Sunday, Long softened his tone, but only slightly, saying he won’t be pulled into a “street fight,” aligning himself with another Old Testament hero of suffering and triumph, Job. Extremely wealthy and influential man. Check. Huge family. Check. Beset, with God’s permission, by attacks from Satan such that he loses everything he has. … Wait. Am I missing something?
In fleshing out to this latest analogy, Long quoted one of Job’s so-called friends, Bildad, whose words, intended to console, actually mocked Job. The verse he read, Job 8:22, punctuates the beginning of what would become a verbal assault that exposed Bildad’s limited understanding of God’s purpose in allowing Job to be humbled. “Those who hate you will be clothed with shame, and the tent of the wicked will be no more,” Long said, chuckling as he noted that that verse was not the one he’d intended to read but that the “Holy Ghost” had intervened.
This Job analogy, too, is problematic. The Bible characterizes Job as a “perfect and upright man” who shunned evil. Long’s desire to align himself with Job, then, is clear. Like Job, he says, he feels “under attack.” On Sept. 26, though, he told New Birth and the listening world: “I am not a perfect man.” Surely, Long has to see that, in this battle of semantics in which he wants to be so careful about what he will and won’t say publicly about these allegations, he must choose more wisely among those, like himself, who often take the Bible so literally. Long has not denied that he brought impressionable, hormonal teens on trips to exotic locales without their parents. That choice alone gives pause to this listener who is by no means a literal reader of the Bible but who can’t exactly settle on how, in do so, Long was shunning the potential for his supposed good intentions being spoken evil of, to paraphrase one of Paul’s New Testament charges.
Herein lies my ongoing struggle with Long, his persona and his theology. I don’t understand how, in a city like Atlanta, Long can at once opt for literal exegesis of Scripture on some issues – namely same-gender love and marriage – and not see how his own strategies and ministry practices could entrap him. I urge those clinging to a religious tradition that ignores or is too eager to forgive and forget accusations of sexual impropriety to reconsider the troubling analogies Long has put forth. Watching young people of faith regurgitate notions of Long as an exalted “prophet” beyond reproach in conversation with CNN’s Don Lemon makes a closer examination all the more paramount. Especially as it relates to his public comments on David.
Neither Long nor his faithful followers seem to have considered the less celebrated part of David’s story, that part in which David becomes a great ruler – a ruler on par with Long’s “bishop” status at New Birth and in the larger conservative Christian community. At this juncture in his life, David, drunk on his own power, has his way with and impregnates the hapless wife of another man, Bathsheba. Once his initial plan to cover up his indiscretions fails, David accomplishes the feat by positioning Uriah to be killed on the battlefield. He then coerces Bathsheba into a marriage covenant rooted in deceit. This union yields sons who die horrible deaths: one at birth, another trying to kill his father. The specter of David’s abuse of power even haunts Solomon, a son who lives to see his own sexual appetite undermine years of wise rule.
Whether these accusations against Long prove true, I cannot ignore that young Bathsheba harkens the fatherless boys Long has guided on his academy’s proclaimed “masculine journey.” How long, then, will he and his zealots choose to ignore these chapters of David’s narrative and legacy, which plumb the depths of his humanity and capacity for inhumane acts? How many more people who speak out about sexual abuse in our churches and our communities will be vilified while the Goliaths they face add insult to injury with their arrogance and ambivalence?
What redeems David in history is his leadership of the Jews through great trial, his poetry, his songs. What makes him a revered “man after God’s own heart,” especially for liberation theology celebrants, is his humility, even as a child warrior and especially in his private and public penitence once the consequences of his hubris manifest. This humility before God and man is what endears us ultimately to Job as well.
But I’ve seen no sackclothes these past two weeks – just Long in his Sunday best holding court before his legion of worshipers. “Humble” and “penitent” have never come to mind when I think of Long, not before these young men filed suit and especially not now. As I watch Long, Thurman’s words about humility echo so powerfully.
But, Bishop Long, if these allegations prove true and when you fully exhibit the humility of the biblical heroes whose names you call, I will be with those who embrace you and extend to you the acceptance you’ve denied so many of us – possibly yourself – for so long.