Friday, October 1, 2010

Faith and Failure in Context

Like many of you, I've been troubled by the recent charges of sexual abuse made against Bishop Eddie Long.

I don't know Long. I've watched his television broadcast on rare occasions, but I'm not a view of religious T.V. programming on any regular basis. My sense in which I am troubled, is that sense in which I'm always bothered by such accusations against clergy. I'm bothered by what it does to the integrity of ministry in the minds of believers and unbelievers alike. I'm worried about what, if the allegations are true, what this has done to the victims. I am troubled that any congregation has to go through anything like this. I'm troubled for the pastor and his family, especially if the allegations are untrue.

The controversy about Bishop Long, his lavish lifestyle, the prosperity gospel he preaches and the deep spiritual vacuum in this country, cries for context. It is a context for which I have searched - a search in which I have personally come up empty. In other words, how do you address the larger issues associated with this scandal, without condemning someone who, at least currently, is only accused of this type of wrongdoing, while at the same time addressing the fact that Bishop Long and his ilk represent still another version of 'Americanized' Christianity which defies the authentic nature of the faith? Certainly every expression of the Christian faith is subject to cultural expressions and some level of political influence. And certainly we all look to understand what we believe in light of our personal experiences and backgrounds.

But the crass leveling of what many of us accept as Truth, that reduces Scripture to the point where we sanction greed, materialism, self aggrandizement and personal ambition, is just as bad - if not worse - than the nationalistic "My Country Right-or Wrong" that has cast the U.S. in the role of a contemporary 'chosen nation' and 'Promised Land'. How can one address that?

I think my friend Alan Bean, whose organizations 'Friends of Justice' works primarily for the reform of the criminal justice system, has, I think, found the context for this tragic episode that has eluded me. Alan is a white Baptist preacher, who hails from Canada and is now a citizen in this country and whose objective perspective on America and its challenges in culture, politics and social justice is both refreshing and heartwarming. And his take on the Long imbroglio resonates with me...

"American religion shapes and reflects the prevailing social consensus. If the culture is driven by greed and fear, preachers must find ways to bless consumerism while identifying and castigating the enemy. Churches grow to the extent they reflect this tendency. During the progressive era stretching from Roosevelt’s New Deal to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, mainline Protestant churches grew like topsy. In an age of trickle-down economics, mass incarceration and a steadily expanding gap between the rich and the poor, churches affiliated with the Religious Right have been in the ascendency."

"Eddie Long tries to have it both ways; cultivating relationships with civil rights icons like Correta Scott King while aligning himself with the policies of the Bush administration."

"Here’s the problem: the religion of Jesus has no natural constituency. You can’t fill a church talking about compassion for the poor and the upside-down ethics and economics of the Kingdom of God. Jesus didn’t leave his followers a viable model for church growth. Jesus is scratchin’ where we ain’t itchin’."

"But what if there is a God? And what if this God has plans and dreams out of sync with the rhythms of American consumerism and the national security state? And what if Jesus is right about the least and the lost? In that case, we’re in big trouble and our religion, for all its vigor, is part of the problem."

"There is something pathetic about an anti-gay crusader manipulating young men into sexual encounters. But I suspect the civil suits recently filed against the Baptist Bishop are symptomatic of a much deeper problem. Eddie Long probably doesn’t realize that he has inverted the teaching of Jesus, exchanging foul for fair and fair for foul. He simply figured that a religious formula that worked for others would work for him."

"He was right. In the hands of a charismatic preacher, the prosperity gospel is a proven money machine. It doesn’t work for everyone. The preacher is the product. If you sound loud, proud and confident, walk with a sanctified swagger and look like the American dream, you too can be a prosperity preacher. Unfortunately, it’s all a marketing gimmick. God doesn’t send us magic money from heaven."

"Prosperity preachers like Eddie Long are simply the most egregious example of a general spiritual collapse."

Bean goes on to say...

"“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus proclaimed, “because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the Jubilee day of the Lord” (when all the slaves go free). Can such a message be institutionalized? Can American preachers grow rich speaking this way? Can they even survive?"

"These are the real questions raised by the Eddie Long controversy. The big deal isn’t that a successful pastor may be disgraced; it’s that American pastors must twist themselves into ethical, intellectual and emotional knots if they hope to be truly successful. The closer our religion gets to reality, the harder it becomes to institutionalize. The more successful our religion becomes, the further it strays from the spirit of Jesus."


You can read the rest of his post here.

The issue with Long is, I'm finding out, one in a string of personal and ministerial 'defeats' of high profile 'prosperity gospel' preachers over the past couple of years. Alan Bean's take on this rings true, for me and helps me better locate the context in which I think the church at large should probably examine and explain this problem. We certainly can't accept it as the norm. Those of us who are ministers must not glory or gloat about this apparent failure, or fall, if that's what it is.
This is, among other things, a time for deep self examination and reflection, of not only our ministries and messages, but our motives also.

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