Black America paid close attention last fall when New Birth Missionary Baptist Church pastor Bishop Eddie Long was accused of sexual impropriety and misconduct. Four young men were launching a civil case against Long for misconduct during their teenage years under the tutelage of Long as members of New Birth. Suddenly picture text messages surfaced that Long had allegedly sent to these young men, and sordid stories of Long financially supporting one of these young men, and then cutting them off began to surface. Long stood defiantly in his pulpit the next Sunday after the civil suit was filed and said that he was going to fight to the end; he compared himself to David fighting Goliath that he had “five rocks, and [hadn't] thrown one yet.”
He was preparing for a fight, and from all accounts his congregation was with him.
For almost two days,
black Twitter was all abuzz with Eddie Long puns, lampooning his hairpieces and his trademark muscle shirts. People automatically considered him guilty to saying that we should “cover” him. I did a blog piece back then about the various categories persons seemed to fall in with regards to how they felt toward Long. The point was, however, that everyone had an opinion. But who didn’t? It was a story that was covered by CNN leading to news anchor Don Lemon admitting on air his previous sexual abuse as a child, and it, yet again, propelled the mysterious and labyrinthian institution that is the Black Church into America’s living room.
And that’s when things got murky.
The last time America had been treated to seeing a black preacher hailing from a megachurch battling a national image, it was Jeremiah Wright’s homiletical treatises that famously included “goddamn America” and other strategically spliced soundbytes from previous sermons. Not to mention Wright gave a full out press conference that mainstream media pounced on like a pack of rabid wolves after live prey. Nonetheless, America’s image of the black preacher, the black church as individual churches and as a institutional behemoth, and more importantly for the purposes of this article, the image of black megachurches, was all put on display and America gave a failing grade for all categories.
Not only did America give our formerly esteemed institutions a failing grade, so did we, in the black community.
In an odd admixture of Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers, in the black community, they have contributed to this post-Soul, post Hip-hop pluralistic concept of “spiritual, but not religious” section of the black community. These persons, reject “church” and “churchiness” in most forms. This 35 and younger crowd, predominantly, very much enjoys engaging in the postmodern and post-critical thought that our pluralistic society offers. This generation questions foundations, allows truth to be relative often times in the hope of searching out new truths.
I too, am a part of this culture.
This generation claims spirituality over religion in an attempt to seek the purity of the divine without the logical contradictions that organized religion offers. This generation holds dear to them the quote from Mahatma Gandhi that “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians” as a pinnacle of their belief in spirituality over religion. However, as this article attempts to argue, what boggles my mind is relatively traditional and often times inaccurate image that this generation has towards the Black Church and black churches.
I recently rediscovered Kelefah Sanneh’s article that originally was published in The New Yorker back in 2008 entitles “Project Trinity: The Perilous Mission of Obama’s Church.” Just from his telling of his experience at a Good Friday Seven Last Words service, he writes about it as a novel experience and as an outsider. While one is entitled to one’s opinion, as I offer mine, it seems as though Sanneh’s ignorance of the black church religious experience was sorely lacking. Contextualizing his background of being born in Birmingham, England (not Alabama) and being raised in New England, and being the son of mixed racial heritage, his view point certainly offers a unique spin on the topic.
A unique spin, however, does not make up for ignorance. While I certainly am appreciative of Sanneh for his literary offering, I think his piece though intellectual it is, is indicative of the multifaceted problem we face when it comes to the black religious community. There are commoners offering up an opinion based on misconceptions and willful ignorance and persons who know better and have exhibited higher levels of cognitive processing and still fall into the same trap of being willfully ignorant.
It doesn’t surprise me though. The image of the black preacher has been caricatured for an entire generation. This post-______ generation who does not have a cultural and collective memory of a tangible civil rights struggle, neither boasts of having an image of the Black Church nor the black preacher venerated. Sure those venerations were probably uncalled for in specific instances, but from Arsenio Hall’s image of Reverend Brown in “Coming to America”; Bernie Mac’s image of the preacher in “Friday”; James Brown in “The Blues Brothers” complete with the ubiquitous “church scene” to boot and even to the image of Rev. Rollo Goodlove in “Boondocks” there are more mainstream images of the black preacher as coon, buffoon, bamboozled, a black male Buck who’s a womanizer, a charlatan, a pimp and a myriad of other negative images. These images are what we think of black male stereotypes that we project onto our black male preachers.
There is a segment of those in the black community who have allowed their preconceived notions and perceptions of the Black Church and black churches to automatically dictate their response to anything having to do with black people and religious life in this country. Granted I have had the privilege of going to seminary and going to a seminary that allowed me to purposely intermingle with different denominations stemming from different religious reformations, most people are ignorant of other denominations and I dare say ignorant of their own! This ignorance has turned into arrogance with some when they speak vehemently about topics that they think they know something about and don’t.
Less than 24 hours prior to the publishing of this post, a YouTube profile posted a recent clip of Pastor Creflo Dollar alluding to Long’s settlement and members in a Sunday, June 5, 2011 worship service. The clip is below.
[the clip was removed drat!]
Aside from the YouTuber’s commentary in the pop-up bubbles on the screen, I stumbled upon a Twitter feed that completely and unapologetically castigated megachurches. Just in general. No qualifiers. She now has a public problem with all megachurches.
Just like that.
Now yes, Eddie Long and Creflo Dollar do not help the image of black preachers, black churches nor black megachurches, but I still have to ask, to what level of critical thinking are we using here to have this discussion? Let me first be transparent and say that when I posted that clip on my Facebook profile page that I publicly compared an imaginary demise of Creflo Dollar to the murder of Osama bin Laden; the ending of life is never pleasant, particularly in cases of murder, but I would not shed a tear over the riddance of their rhetoric. Granted on a spectrum bin Laden’s rhetoric was not just hateful and vengeful, but injurious to the body as well. However, Dollar’s rhetoric is injurious to the collective consciousness of black America’s psyche. As cooler heads prevail, I’m sure what I had to say wasn’t the most constructive, but my own bombastic rhetoric was only checked by one of nine separate commenters. Which let me know that out of persons willing to comment, only one felt strongly enough to disagree with what I had to say. Therefore, others shared in my, what was then, righteous indignation.
What I saw on social networking sites and what I observe and listen to when I tune into mainstream media when it comes to issues concerning the black religious community is a lack of depth and a willing ignorance of most topics. The perception of black churches falls neatly into the traditional church of one’s grandparent or a megachurch where the pastor is taking all the money from mindless bots who sit in the pews every week. Again, as with the caricatured image of the black preacher being prevalent, it’s no wonder that the image of the black church is shaped by what one sees on television.
If one turns on the Word Network, that channel that tends to carry more black preachers with predominantly black congregations, you’d see pastors, preachers and churches that present a somewhat monolithic image to the untrained eye. For the most part these are congregations that qualify as megachurches (scientifically designated as having more than 2,000 members on a role) and their worship style and doctrinal beliefs fall into the neo-Pentecostal tradition. These are mostly men. Many of whom are attractive men at that. Many of whom sport designer clothes from suits to lavish robes and some wear jewelry meant to appear expensive whether it is or not.
The average black religious viewer irrespective of income strata or educational accumulation wouldn’t be able to tell the doctrinal and worship difference between seeing Jamal-Harrison Bryant who is AME over that of Apostle R.D. Henton and his Holiness beliefs. They might see generational differences and other functional differences, but certainly not begin to parse the differences that certainly exist. The average viewer is merely listening to certain catchphrases and a rather basic and non-intellectual theology that requires a basic fourth-grade level of cognitive skills.
The sad thing is that now when we speak of the “black church” and make reference to a black preacher, we conjure up an image in our heads as though every black church is properly and appropriately situated in a megachurch setting. [Usually I take that moment in a conversation with my peers to point out that the average church in America is between 150-200 persons and this number includes Joel Olsteen's Lakewood Church and St. Matthew's AME Chapel in Nowheresville, Georgia with three persons on the role.] This meta-narrative of the this image is so dominant that most people don’t challenge it in the midst of conversation; it’s as though it’s a given.
I watched Obery Hendricks, author of The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted, attempt to discuss Black Liberation Theology and Rev. Timothy MacDonald, a local Atlanta pastor and friend of Jeremiah Wright both attempt and fail miserably at discussing the nuanced nature of the Black Church on “The O’Reilly Factor” back in 2008. Of course I understood what they were talking about, but the rest of America didn’t and apparently neither did a sizeable portion of the black community–both religious and non religious.
Simply put, we cannot afford to be ignorant of the things that directly affect our community.
Seeing as how blacks are a demographic in this country that associates themselves overwhelmingly with the Christian faith tradition, let’s do ourselves and our sisters and brothers a favor and actually take the time out to be aware of what we’re talking about. Just because a preacher is found in a YouTube clip spouting all types of foolishness that you do not understand, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are preaching. If we learned nothing else from the Jeremiah Wright situation, we should learn that we ought not jump to conclusions with soundbytes from preachers.
While I am an unashamed apologist for the institutional Black Church and the many other newer traditions that the institutional Black Church has birthed from the neo-Pentecostal tradition to other forms of emergent worship that have become subsumed under the idea of the Black Church, please believe am not an apologist for Dollar’s comments. Even in their entirety, such statements are homiletically irresponsibly and morally reprehensible as far as I’m concerned. If Jesus was quoted as saying that “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea,” then I don’t think I’m too far off in being repulsed by the emetic and wretched sentiments that Dollar was putting forth.
In an appeal to black intelligentsia (yes, the same one that I eulogized some weeks back), and certainly with an emphasis on a black intellectual religious community, I appeal to logic and an inner sense to hold one’s self intellectually accountable for the thoughts and rhetoric that we utter. When we publish tweets, write blogs, leave comments after an article, write a book and certainly when one speaks from the pulpit, you are influencing the consciousness of the listener! I cannot stress enough how imperative it is that we do a better job. Seriously, members of the black religious community feel that they have the trump card to any and all discussions and argument by saying “My preacher said…” as though that effectively should end any further discussion. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Although many feel that by uttering “The Bible says…” should seal the deal, neither statement does anything to foster intellectual thinking.
As members of a post-_________ (fill in the blank) generation that has owned the concept of being “spiritual, but not religious” that feels free to question any and all things and dare declare the death of God, how have we failed to question our own perceptions of religion and ask is it truly a fair perception. If we fail to be fair to others in the human struggle, are we not crippling ourselves? Being a self avowed Christian Universalist with humanist leanings, I do myself no good if I castigate my atheist brother and sister. Religious Christianity would say we’re ultimately connected through Christ, but I say we’re connected through our humanity. If we don’t expect better from ourselves, what good does it do to complain and expect better from others?
Sad to say, I’m somewhat regarding some clergy as lost causes when it comes to expecting better. Today Creflo Dollar joined that group.
Keep it uppity and truthfully radical, JLL