Monday, 15 November 2010

THE BISHOP AND THE TRIBE


Put yourself, for a moment, in the position where Bishop Eddie Long--that sharp-dressing, jewelry-flashing, Rolls-driving Servant of de Lawd who presides over New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, an Atlanta, Georgia Black megachurch--claims to find himself.

You're a pastor of a church body with a massive congregation, one very influential in your community. You are respected, admired, even in many cases idolized, as a true man of God. But you did not enter your life's calling for the adulation; you are in fact completely sincere in your piety. The last thing you'd ever want to do is cause scandal for your flock. If any indiscretion on your part were discovered, the resultant damage to your own reputation would concern you significantly less than the disillusionment it might create among your parishioners.

Now imagine that several troubled teenage boys, to whom you had been giving counsel, have suddenly accused you of sexual improprieties. The claims are totally fabricated, part of a malicious plot cooked up against you by your enemies. You know you are innocent, but then clearing your own name is of far less import to you than ensuring that no Christian is led away from his faith by these scurrilous charges.

So, you show up and immediately and forthrightly DENY the charges, right?

You tell your congregation, in no uncertain terms, that it's all a pack of lies invented by some desperate people for appalling, base, vile reasons. Yet, being a man of God and a believer in compassion and forgiveness, you express pity for this gang that has arisen against you to slander your good name. They know not what they do, you insist; they are bearing false witness, and God knows what's in our hearts, they have certainly incurred his wrath, and need our prayers most of all...

Putting myself in Long's place, I, for one, would undoubtedly say these things, given that I were, indeed, an innocent man, sincere in his religious convictions. But then, as anyone could confirm, I am not Bishop Eddie Long. And he did not respond in accordance with any of my above recommendations when accused of just such improprieties two months ago.

Of course, I can't speak with any surety regarding the allegations against the "good" Bishop (I wasn't there when the alleged perverted events took place, thank God), nor about how seriously the man takes his faith--all of his indulgences in the spurious "prosperity gospel" notwithstanding--but I can certainly report that this pimped-out man of the cloth had no such message for his flock when he addressed them on September 26. Instead, Long's congregation got a liberal earful of defiance, defensiveness, and pastorly trash talk on that day.

While owning that the allegations have led to a "painful situation" for the church, Long resolutely declined to address the specificity of the charges themslves, under advice, he said, from his legal counsel. That is to say, Long wouldn't go on record DENYING that he seduced various wayward teenage boys under his spiritual charge.

Yet without dwelling too long on this announced strategy, perhaps mindful of the reasonable questions it might provoke from inquiring minds--like "Why would a man who hasn't molested children feel it was in his best interest to refrain from denying that he molested children?"--Long quickly launched into an impassioned proclamation that, whatever the truth may be about all that unfortunate child-molestation business, he certainly planned to kick some hiney and take some names in the coming weeks and months, to fight like a Biblical hero in his own defense.

"I'm not a perfect man," he admitted from the pulpit of his stadium-like chapel. "But I am not the man being portrayed on the television... That's not me, that's not me." (So what are you saying, preacher-man? How much less than "perfect" is it permissible for you to be, when it comes to an alleged predilection for young boys? How much latitude are you asking for here? You aren't Episcopalian, you know...) And here, the alleged pederast playa-priest really got rolling, rhetorically-speaking. "I've been accused... I'm under attack!" he declared. "I feel like David against Goliath, but I've got five rocks, and I haven't thrown one yet!"

Long then abruptly set his microphone down and determinedly stalked off of the stage, in the manner of a man setting off to do battle. And his congregation ate it up; they cheered wildly, and gave him a standing ovation.

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In fact, Long's entire speech--weak, lame, puzzling, and altogether unconvincing as it was--drew numerous peals of thunderous applause at various points. And this, indeed, is the most notable aspect of the entire sordid spectacle of "Bishop-gate." Sinnin' men of the cloth are, after all, a dime a dozen, but not many can so easily motivate their flock to rally behind them and close ranks against the outside world... all the while not in the least denying ("I'm not a perfect man") that they're guilty of acts of disgusting betrayal and perversion! Even fat-faced Jimmy Swaggart had to weep, sob, shake his jowls and blubber, "I have sinned against you!" before he could get his congregants to support him following his notable fall from grace back in the naughty eighties.

Proud Eddie Long, by contrast, will have nothing of contrition or repentance. True, he may not be "perfect," but he's still David, and his accusers are Goliath, and he's still got some rocks to throw before all's said and done... Take that, haters!

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It has been a month and a half since Bishop Long's accusers filed their charges, and in that time there don't appear to have been any significant defections among the New Birth flock. With only a few exceptions aside, the pastor's congregation seems to be squarely behind him, even as potentially humiliating legal proceedings loom in the near future. Certainly this must partly be due to Long's thoroughgoing self-assured charisma; his ability to remain unruffled and to appear unshaken is impressive, indeed. But the explanation for Long's unwavering support among his parishoners is only partly attributable to Long's electrifying and commanding personality as a spiritual leader.

In fact, "Bishopgate" is yet another manifestation of the Black community's tendency to think tribally when a prominent member of their own race is threatened with public disgrace.

We witnessed this type of response most markedly at the end of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, when black throngs hooted and hollered with joy at the annoucement of an incredible "not guilty" verdict. There was a similar feeling of solidarity with Michael Vick a few years ago during his travails following revelations that he'd tortured, abused, and killed dozens of dogs. Many, if not most, of the Blacks who stood up for Simpson and Vick surely knew that both men were guilty as sin, yet their support for each of them came as automatically, as spontaneously, and as unconditionally as their immediate, unquestioning assumption that the so-called "Jena Six" in Mississippi were denied justice, or their knee-jerk support for figures like Minister Louis Farakhan, Jessie Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Barack Obama.

Privately, between themselves, of course, Black Americans are commonly merciless with one another; black comedians and entertainers make fun of "Ebonics"-speakers all the time, and they are not in the least afraid to mock Jessie's infedelities, Al's grandstanding and silly hair, Farakhan's pretentious speech patterns, or Barack's numerous glances at the teleprompter whilst speechifying.

It's not that Black Americans can't admit their own faults, or laugh at their own kind, it's just that those damn honkies, or anyone else for that matter, better not laugh at them or highlight those same faults. A perceived attack from without, in fact, leads to a reflexive circling of the wagons, anger, defensiveness, bitter vituperation, and the drafting of wild conspiracy theories.

This mindset applies both to cases in which there is a perception that one of their own is being menaced or threatened by "the (White) Man," as with Simpson and Vick, but also in a case like that of Bishop Eddie Long, whose accusers are all young Black boys. This is harder to comprehend unless we see the matter thusly: Bishop Long, warts and all, is a visible member of “the community”; he represents "Blackness" to the world. Therefore, he must be defended, even if his accusers are telling the truth, because for Long to take a tumble would mean a diminishment of the credibility of prominent "Blackness" in the world. Public Black figures are thus privileged over their private Black victims.

This is not so unusual in itself; tribalists commonly turn on their own in order to further their tribe's perceived interests. Here we have one of the many pitfalls of tribalism, generally speaking. It is what made left-leaning socialist-sympathizing folk support Stalin's show trials and other murderous depredations in the 1930s, as well as Mao's reign of terror during the Cultural Revolution in the ‘60s; conversely, it's the kind of thinking that led right-leaning anti-Communists support or defend the lethal, criminal policies of dictators like Hilter, Mussolini, Franco, and others.

Tribalism is all about perception, not final justice. It concerns itself not so much over what's right or wrong as it does about whether one's chosen cause--be it Black nationalism, White nationalism, Communism, Fascism, or other--is ultimately strengthened or weakened in the process.

In the case of Bishop Eddie Long and his alleged victims, I do hope that justice ultimately prevails over tribalism. But I've got to add: I'm not holding my breath in anticipation of such an outcome. After all, the Bishop's got five rocks, and he hasn't thrown any of them yet.

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