By Tamura Lomax
Originally posted at The Feminist Wire on June 10, 2011
In September 2010 Bishop Eddie Long, prominent Atlanta pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, was accused of sexual improprieties with four young men—Anthony Flagg, Spencer LeGrande, Jamal Parris and Maurice Robinson. According to the suits, Long, an internationally known televangelist who had previously campaigned against gay and lesbian marriage, used his position, extravagant trips, including overseas, and lavish gifts such as housing, clothes, jewelry and cars, to coerce the young men into having sex while they were teenagers. Initially, the powerful megachurch leader denied all charges. However, as time progressed and more and more evidence was revealed, Long agreed to settle out of court for an alleged $25 million.
Obviously, this story has garnered quite a bit of media, academic, social network and water cooler attention. The reasons are many. For years Long, who once boasted about having more than 25,000 members, running an international corporation, pastoring a multimillion dollar congregation and “dealing with the White House,” functioned more like a towering rock-star CEO than a church pastor. If driving through Atlanta or simply flipping through television stations, you were sure to catch a glimpse of his chiseled physique and dramatic form fitting flair. Almost always flanked by secret service like bodyguards and draped in a display of his riches, Long seemed infallible. He was indeed a [preacher] man’s [preacher] man in a significantly paternalistic culture. Thus, the world seemed to sit in attention at his feet for a while—well, at least 25,000 world citizens.
When Longs’ story of sexual impropriety first broke, many excitedly rushed to find a locale for judgment. Surely, someone was to blame. Some thought wrongdoing rested squarely on the shoulders of Long. Others vexingly believed the young men (and their mothers) were to blame—because they obviously “wanted it” (and because real—heterosexual—men wouldn’t allow same sex encounters). However, what many failed to realize is that contemporary Black Church culture, which serves as a significant site of history, community, spirituality, hope and transcendent possibilities for many including myself, creates a context for unchecked phallocentric lordship, which often sanctions rampant sexual violence, to include but not limited to physical, emotional, psychological, linguistic and representational. (Yes, sexual violence is more than the physical act of rape, and yes I am naming what happened between Long and the teenagers as violent. Sacred trust between an adult pastor (and others) and teenaged parishioners was broken.) Thus, there is plenty of blame to go around, for it was New Birth members who gave Long the kind of totalitarian authority that he had. Nevertheless, while sexual violence is communally ratified, the onus lies primarily with Long himself.
To be sure, Long is neither the first nor the last alleged assailant, and Flagg, LeGrande, Parris and Robinson are not the first victims. Black male preachers, in particular, have a long closeted history of harmfully blurring the lines between spiritual leader, father, lover—and sexual abuser. However, all too often, the victims are unsung black women and girls. Unfortunately, this reality is neither sexy enough to garner local outrage nor sensational enough for national headlines. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the sexing of black female congregants is quite trite in some ecclesial circles, often serving as a fraternal gold card of sorts. To be fair, these liaisons are not always one way. Sometimes women initiate them, and on occasion these trysts are mutual. However, too often sexual encounters between black male preachers and female congregants are stained with uneven power dynamics, and frequently licensed by bad theology, blind loyalty and death-dealing silence.
What makes Flagg, LeGrande, Parris and Robinson’s narrative so interesting is the verbosity of both the victims and the social chorus. All of a sudden, almost everyone has something to say—and they should [have been talking]. The sanctioning of sexual violence in the Black Church is a sleeping giant that must be awakened, called out and put in check quickly—however, not because we fear that we are losing ground in terms of heteronormative privilege, the gays are taking over, or because Longs’ fetish for teenaged boys disorients our accepted ideas of the black macho. The sleeping giant must be awakened and confronted because sexual and other forms of violence highjack opportunities for wholistic koinonia and healthy self-love. Period. So, regardless of what you may think of them, at least Flagg, LeGrande, Parris and Robinson seem to be on that journey. Speaking one’s story with boldness, conviction and in truth is the first step toward recovering self within community.
Their stories (and others), and the ways that sexual violence completely disorients individuals and their respective communities, need to be told, not silenced—as is traditionally the case when it comes to black women and girls. My hope is that Flagg, LeGrande, Parris and Robinson have set the stage for a new era. However, I’ve been a part of the Black Church long enough to know not to get my hopes up too high, too soon. For those who may not know, there is a no snitching[on the pastor and other prominent male leaders] rule that remains in full effect (and thus, no accountability). Of course, black male preachers are not homogeneous. I happen to know a few that are complex in their own right, yet principled bastions of human justice no less. Nevertheless, for every noble preacher, there is another that unapologetically bathes his/her congregation in a sea of schismatic intolerance, male dominance and sexual contusion, week after week—with little to no recourse.
This troubling reality happens not because black women and men are mindless or because the Black Church serves as some sort of opiate for the oppressed. There is little to no recourse because the bigotries that enable sexual (and other forms of) violence, to include but not limited to the moratorium on snitching, are often structural and thus either overlooked or dismissed. That is, deeply sedimented ideas regarding gender and familial relations, often found in sermonic (and other) representations, procure injurious theological alibis for sexual violence by justifying and normalizing phallocentric superiority and entitlement, and by reinforcing cultural stereotypes about black female sexuality being both pursuant and accessible. Homoerotic sexual violence within the Black Church is both nurtured and silenced within this context.
Just recently, a Youtube video surfaced (which has mysteriously been removed from the web in “violation of Youtube’s policy against spam, scams, and commercially deceptive content”) of a fellow megachurch leader located in Atlanta, Creflo Dollar. In the video, Dollar, pastor and founder of World Changers International Church, can be heard censuring his congregants (and visitors) for failing to support Long during his time of need. He posits,
I don’t know what it is with the church…when you have a wreck you expect for God to forgive you and everybody else…don’t let the preacher have a wreck, then you become self-righteous and you become judgmental.
After being met by an arousing applause, Dollar turns his critique toward his visitors, assumedly displaced members of New Birth. (I quote at length here so that readers may sit with Dollars’ actual words, which, in my opinion, are both theologically irresponsible and violent.Update: The video has been removed. Below you will find a verbatim. Nevertheless, the power of Dollars’ words, which only visual aesthetics can provide, is missing. Hopefully, the video will be restored, although it’s not likely.)
And you gone leave the preacher for his wreck when you done had more wrecks. That preacher still anointed to do what he was called to do. The blood will take care of his issues just like they will take care of yours. And I just can’t believe that people would leave their preacher because he had a wreck, instead of praying for him. I pray I never have a wreck that you’ll leave me because I’ll get up in your face…and tell you about yourself! That pastor, he’s loved them and he’s taken care of them, and he’s given to ‘em, and he’s done that…okay so he had a wreck! You had some wrecks. I’m thinking “man the mercy God showed on you but you couldn’t show it to the preacher…and then the gossip that’s in the body of Christ over a preacher that had a wreck…here’s the good news, he had insurance! If I have a wreck, I’m still gone go to heaven. Now you might mess some stuff up based on how you treat me. See the preacher in the city here, he still gone go to heaven. He’s cleansed, he’s alright. And if you from that church…trying to join here, I don’t want you to join here, you need to join where you supposed to be…that is my friend…my brother in the lord. And if you came from there you get on back over there where you supposed to be and do what you supposed to be doing…because he got insurance and Jesus paid the premium! His insurance is paid up! He STILL gone go to heaven. He STILL gone be anointed to do what he’s called to do. And if you don’t sit in the seat God will send somebody else to take your place. Look at how you handle it. That’s the hypocrisy of the whole thing…like you was flawless. That man took them people, raised them up, taught them how to tie they tennis shoes, all that kind of stuff…who do we think we are?
(Additional update: I’m not sure how long it will be up, nonetheless I’ve located a functional version of the video.)
Dollars’ forgive and forget [what the preacher does] theology isn’t new. It is part and parcel of the no snitching regime, and it is foundational to pervasive notions of gender and family life, particularly where the preacher is male and/or operates like a pastor/father. In these instances, silence, loyalty and forgiveness outweigh justice—even when sexual abuse and misuses of power are involved. To be sure, Dollars’ arrogance is as troubling as his misreading of sexual violence. His interpretation of the latter as a simplistic “wreck” that is not only protected by “the blood” [of Jesus who died for sins like these], but also a hefty insurance policy (not to mention audience response), speaks volumes. It says that sexual violence when perpetrated by your “daddy” may sometimes be part of the course, particularly when he has taken care of you. And, if you’re worried about his soul, don’t be—because through his position “he’s cleansed.” Your job is to be mindful of how your daddy has taken care of you—and be a faithful servant by “letting it go.”
For many, Dollars’ diatribe seems absurd. However, for others who depend fully on the promises of new mercies and the potential for divine possibilities that the Black Church aims to provide in a world that marginalizes black, brown and gendered folk, it serves as not only a twisted truth, but a means for survival. Yet and still, there is another way. Forgiving and forgetting, particularly without just accountability, is death dealing however you cut it. It (re)opens the door for a multitude of unchecked abuses of power, and aids in further sanctioning varying forms of violence. That being said, it’s time those of us who care about justice start snitching. We’ve been silent far too long. Not only that, bad theology has run its course.
Tamura A. Lomax holds a Ph.D. in History and Critical Theories of Religion from Vanderbilt University. Her scholarship explores the many ways that gender, race, sex, and sexuality get re-presented in religious and pop cultural media. She is a co-founder of The Feminist Wire.