Tribalism is a deeply-ingrained instinct. The tradition of the strong father figure is so deeply ingrained into our cultural DNA that, many of us, many of our churches, routinely disregard scripture and find the least Christlike sonovabitch we can to be our pastor. Arrogance is a cultural job requirement of the imperial black pastorate. I criticize Bishop Eddie Long not for any alleged misconduct but for what I maintain the bishop is indeed guilty of: arrogance and unseemly behavior, questionable doctrine and conduct unbecoming not only a bishop but any follower of Jesus Christ. Whether or not Long is guilty of this specific event, his un-Christlike posture has made this humiliation possible if not altogether undeserved.
Postscript: Balaam’s Coronation
In the run-up to the 2011 Christmas holiday, I was made aware of a church pastor who, after browbeating his congregation to raise $100,000 by December 15th—demanding they forego family travel plans and gifts—instead used the money (less than $30k came in), claimed to have been for a down payment on a building project, to rent a local arena for a glittery Christmas show, complete with the pastor himself dressed as Santa Claus (no, I am not making this up) and tossing cheesy “gifts” to his adoring faithful. The church, struggling with debt, paid the pastor a five-figure Christmas bonus and green-lit the purposeless, over-the-top extravaganza at the arena which starred, yes, the pastor. The pageant opened with the pastor’s voice eking out of darkness as smoke billowed up from the stage, and the pastor being lowered in from the rafters on one of those Michael Jackson cherry pickers as the band struck up the music and the choir began to sing. I remember hearing this account firsthand from persons at this debacle and wondering, how stupid are the people following this man? Thankfully, this pastor’s ridiculous reputation has now been salvaged by “Bishop” Eddie Long, who was actually crowned “King” in May of 2012 to the cheers of his adoring faithful. This event comes roughly a year after Long settled a lawsuit against him, by four male plaintiffs accusing him of sexual misconduct, for a rumored $1.5 million of his followers' hard-earned tithes and offerings. It is a real struggle, for me, to actually believe this stuff is going on. It’s an even greater struggle for me to believe people are gullible and ignorant enough to sit there, cheering like monkeys, while it does. My ire, usually directed at black pastors (after all, I’m not hearing any prominent or even local black pastors denouncing this nonsense), is now targeting Ignorant Church Folk. Write this down someplace: These People Are Not Christians. They do not worship Christ. They worship their pastor. And he allows it, making him a liar and a phony. If you’re in one of these churches, if you see this kind of idolatry going on, and you just sit and hold your peace, you’re just as big an idiot as they are, and you deserve the certain condemnation you will most certainly receive.
Bishop Eddie Long,
in both appearance and comport, is the living embodiment of an African tribal warlord. The kind of merciless, self-serving despots who pile bodies of dead men in mass graves before robbing women and children refugees of food and medical supplies. Africa is overrun by such men, either in political power or roaming the countryside with ragged bands of mechanicals—heavily-armed Road Warrior-style mercenaries in sand-blasted pickups and sports utility vehicles. This is the sad plight of Africa, of Haiti, of most any developing nation of African descent: these strongmen inevitably seek power and attain it by exploiting the ignorance of uneducated masses. The less informed you are, the more you'll fall for anything, including someone coming in Jesus' name who looks and behaves more like Idi Amin. Every month, churches across the country vote in ignorant pit bulls as pastors, men whose cruelty and narcissism are in sharper focus than their humility and gentleness. Quality pastors, anointed men overflowing with love and wisdom, are routinely turned away at the door in favor of the firebrand performer whose sharp rhetoric borders on insult and whose my-way-or-the-highway comport ascribes an iron fist. I've grown up in churches led by Idi Amin, places where the congregation fawns over the pastor, who arrives late, is usually unprepared, and is a blowhard who drones on for hours listening to himself talk. His paycheck is the church's biggest line item, and issues that do not concern, interest or at least entertain him are regulated to the bottom of his inbox. These men are, pardon, assholes. But this is what we are drawn to, this is the guy we want.
This image, this fierce arrogance, has come to be associated and evenly synonymous with leadership. It is what Africans seek in a leader: a lion of pure resolve. But the cycle is sadly obvious: strongmen overturning the previous dictator promising liberation and change, only to bring neither. He is everything, you are nothing. While his early intentions may have been noble, his focus and drive inevitably becomes only about amassing more power and more wealth for himself. We've seen this time and again: King Saul, King Solomon, no different from Charles Taylor, Robert Mugabe, Issayas Afeworki, or any number of thousands of tribal warlords roaming a continent afflicted by poverty and disease, robbing, raping and killing at will.
For all I know, Bishop Long is a sweet and gentle man, full of joy and love and God's Holy Spirit. But there is absolutely nothing about his public posture or many of his public statements that even remotely resonates Jesus Christ. This, ironically, may not be the bishop's fault. I believe pastors like Long are only echoing what they've grown up seeing: the haughty, iron-willed disciplinarian, the Imperial Pastorate of the black church. Steely-eyed, aggressive, intimidating, it's what we're used to. It's part of our culture, embedded in our DNA and likely dating all the way back to tribal times. This is the face of leadership. Not a kind, gentle, fatherly Nelson Mandela spirit as I'd imagine Jesus Christ to have been, but a lion. A harsh voice of cataclysm barking at us. I was once a member of a church led by a Nelson Mandela type. The church forced him to retire when he asked for a pay raise to $30k and brought in a cool, aloof dictator who demanded and received a package in excess of $120k. During the week, I remember visiting with Pastor Mandela, being tutored by him in the ministry, hearing his stories, gleaning his advice. Seeing the new pastor required negotiating a tedious phalanx of subordinates and I needed a really good reason. It also helped to be a member of note, someone with an important position in the community or in business. A literal clock was ticking at such meetings, the pastor's impatience and disinterest writ large on his face. There was no hanging out with this guy, no leisurely lunches or strolls while he spoke passionately about ministry, about Jesus. The new guy was an unknowable PastoraTron—a robotic executive who certainly could preach and attracted more members, but the church eventually became corporate and soulless and calling this man a "pastor" was a real stretch. In the twenty years I've known him, the new guy has never once talked to me about Jesus.
This is the same look I saw on Bernice King's face while she waited to mount the pulpit at her mother's funeral. A Long protégé, Reverend King's eulogy was about as embarrassingly self-serving as such things get. I was sad for her, for her terrible insecurity playing out before our eyes in her disgraceful, bloated, over-long "tribute" to her late mother. Most of America saw this for what it obviously was: Reverend King using her mother's funeral as a platform to launch her to national prominence. Had she left the preaching to Bishop Long, or, frankly anybody else, and delivered instead tasteful, pointed, brief remarks a la President Clinton, she might actually have accomplished her goal. A preacher choosing to take center stage at a loved one's funeral is unwise. It always is. It's like a surgeon operating on his own grandma just to show off his technique. Most preachers who preach their own parents' funeral are desperate for attention. They certainly come off as desperate, as Reverend King did at our beloved Lady Coretta Scott King's homegoing celebration. Most telling, however, were glimpses of Reverend Bernice King's impatience and seeming arrogance, seated next to the bishop awaiting her turn. She had the exact same expression Bishop Long wears in the photo above. It is, of course, wrong to try and judge people by a momentary look on their face. I do not know Bishop Long or Reverend King and cannot say what is in their hearts. But I do believe who we are is often revealed in transitional moments, in fleeting glimpses caught on camera and preserved for all time. And, personally, I cannot imagine Jesus Christ ever having such a haughty look on his face.