(Editor’s note: I have received many messages regarding the striking similarities between this piece, published on January 16, 2017, and a piece published on Ebony’s site on January 17, 2017 entitled “The Complicated Legacy of Bishop Eddie Long” by Shantell Jamison. If you’re looking for a shorter, more simplified version of this piece, I encourage you to read the article included in Ebony Magazine’s digital edition.)
On Sunday, news broke that Bishop Eddie L. Long had succumbed to the aggressive cancer that had ravaged his body, leaving him a former shell of himself physically. I, like many others, looked at his gaunt appearance from Watch Night service and knew that the end was imminent. Still, the news of his passing was a shock for which I was unprepared. It is also forcing me to reconcile the conflict of emotions I have with Long’s ministry, death, and legacy.
The complexity of Long’s legacy is not a secret to most. A few short years ago, the mega pastor became the center of a national sex scandal. He stood accused of molestation of multiple young men who were participants in his mentorship program. The reaction was polarizing to the Black church and the community at large. New Birth, Bishop Long’s ministry, never fully recovered from the fall out. Criminal charges were never pursued and civil settlements were eventually reached.
I came into a relationship with Christ at the age of nine. It was during a Wednesday night bible study when (now Bishop) Jackie McCullough preached and I felt the call. I’d only known church my whole life as my Dad was a preacher and my mom kept me in fellowship. But that night, I felt the call and tug at my heart and decided to seek my own relationship with God. I found God at New Birth. For that reason alone, New Birth will always be significant for me.
Recognizing Conflicting Emotions
Still, Bishop Long’s death exposes a myriad of conflicting personal emotions as well as community hypocrisies. I am saddened at the loss of life because I am cognizant that he was still a father and husband. Four children will have to bury their father after he so valiantly fought against illness. I know that pain and grief all too well, having laid my own preacher Dad to rest at age 47 last year. A wife is now a widow. Especially a wife who chose to stay when all others said leave. To know that they cannot grieve peacefully without being constantly reminded of their loved one’s flawed humanity is an ache that burns deep within me.
My personal pain provides a willingness to see Bishop Long in the totality of his works. However, it doesn’t allow me to exonerate his actions. I am as cognizant of those his actions hurt as I am of those for whom his actions saved. Bishop Long raised a ministry that thrived on homophobia and the oppression of LGBTQIA identities. There are, undoubtedly, countless young queer Christians who were browbeaten by his theology. His fall came at the hands of the very thing he so strongly preached against. It is my firm belief he preached so fervently against it due to his own internal struggle. But as I said, his death exposes community hypocrisy as well.
Homophobic Patriarchy Still Harms Us All
I’ve seen more than my fair share of cruel remarks at the news of his passing. Not to mention, prior to his passing. Kim Burrell even hurled her venom his way, stating that his illness was a result of his choices. While I hesitate to label or hypothesize about his sexuality, Bishop Long became a victim of the very same homophobic patriarchal culture he helped to incubate. Regardless of the truth of the accusations against him, he helped to create an environment that was not conducive to allowing him to be unapologetically authentic.
Homophobic Patriarchy is partially responsible for how quickly people latch on to child abuse accusations of pastors. Bishop Long stood accused, tried, and convicted only in the court of public opinion. While it is important that we take serious the stories of survivors, we must also acknowledge our hypocrisy. Homophobia enables us to believe same-sex abuse with limited proof. Homophobia enables the murmuring that the cause of death for Bishop Long was HIV/AIDS because of the probability of sex with men. Patriarchy allows the justification of abuse by men against women. Homophobic Patriarchy collides to silence sexual abuse in a way that is nearly impossible to surmount.
What if his Accusers were Women?
I can’t help but to imagine that had Long’s accusers been young women, he might have retained the success, support, and dignity of similar men. Homophobic Patriarchy is why despite video footage and repeated violations, R. Kelly is still selling out shows. He is still being denied the apt title of child molester while being defended at every turn. Homophobic Patriarchy is why Cosby’s 50+ accusers have had their survival stories dissected, dismissed, and denied in dominant public opinion. Men berated women for not wanting to support the theatrical production of two accused rapists when “Birth of a Nation” was released. Nate Parker was, despite proof, upheld and exonerated by many of the same tongues wagging in fiery anger towards Eddie Long. I remain wholly unconvinced that gracious defense would remain if even ONE of the victims of the aforementioned had been a man or teen boy.
We Don’t Have to Beatify Eddie Long in Death
To be certain, I think healthy dialogue about the impact of Long’s choices on his survivors, his church, as well as those he harmed is absolutely needed in this time. We needn’t sanctify the dead to be mindful of those who are living and left behind in his legacy. Still, is it forcing us to grapple with how we contribute to the denial of room for pastors to be their authentic self? Are we taking this opportunity for dialogue to make an action plan of how to do better by sexual abuse victims within our church and community? Or is it merely an opportunity to provide damnation to satisfy our intrinsic need for vengeance?
Moreover, I ask do we wish to be extended the mercy of God only by the measure of a fraction of our lives or by the totality of our humanity and the works therein? Because as much as we like to make hierarchy of grievances, we all are subject to judgment by act and not by the fullness of our humanity. I’ve watched people be eaten alive in the wake of this news because they’ve chosen grace over condemnation. Yet, I know for certain that those who are eating today will seek grace when they are starving tomorrow.
An Opportunity to Change Our Engagement
Still I wonder if the hatred is deeper than Eddie Long. Certainly I remain unconvinced that it’s because of who he harmed that vitriol is the poison of choice. How we handle accusations of sexual assault from our public figures and private family members is a testament to that. Is it that we hate the church so much that we LOOK for its demise? The church is often blamed for passivity in the Black community. We blame the church for collective ignorance. We blame the church for community poverty. We blame everything but white supremacy because somewhere inside, even when one leaves religion, Black people are still blamed for their own oppression.
We still act as if we did something to incur the wrath of hegemony. This idea that if people weren’t religious they’d progressive pursue their liberation is bunk. Plenty of non-religious Black folks and we have made little to no traction with full liberation. Because religion is a tool of white supremacy but it is not the source.
Still, the church’s hypocrisy is also exposed. We created a culture of hate and intolerance. We remained far too silent when we knew abuse was taking place at the hands of our church leaders. We inadvertently taught families to protect the abuser and shun the victim. We helped to fan the flame of homophobia in the Black community. We asked people to deny their truth and the fullness of their being. And now we ask for grace in losing one of our own when we often didn’t sow in grace. We must own that.
How Do We Grieve Problematic People?
I’m here neither to defend nor deface his legacy. My only hope is that Bishop Long made right with God whatever heart issues he had before his passing. It is my hope with any and every death. I choose to be mindful with my words because I honor the totality of the impact of his death. My prayers are both with those he loved AND those he hurt.
So how do we grieve problematic people? In the conflict of our personal feelings, we should still choose grace. And in no way, shape, or form does grace mean a denial of truth. I simply choose to accept that Bishop Long was complex, flawed, and human. Because of that, it is okay that we express a range of emotions towards his legacy.
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