September 24, 2010

The Garden of Love.

Update: Bishop Eddie Long to stop preaching, for now.

Bishop Eddie Long, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta, Georgia’s largest Baptist congregation, is in some serious legal trouble. Bishop Long is a vociferous homophobe and disparager of same-sex marriage.

I’ll give you one guess as to what he’s being accused of.

Click here to see if you guessed correctly.

Like so many confused, drunk-with-power, self-loathing closet-cases before him, Bishop Long has used his bully pulpit to decry the sins of proud homosexuality and lambast gays and lesbians for demanding equal rights and access to legal marriage…all the while allegedly practicing the love that dare not speak its name himself.

Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.*

Bishop Long is no stranger to controversy. In 2005, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Bishop Long received compensation of $3 million in salary, benefits and property use from one of many nonprofit, tax-exempt charities he established for the poor, including the use of a $350,000 Bentley.

On November 6, 2007, United States senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa announced an investigation of Long’s ministry by the United States Senate Committee on Finance. Grassley asked for the ministry to divulge financial information to the committee to determine if Long had profited personally from financial donations. The investigation also scrutinized five other televangelists: Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Paula White, Joyce Meyer, and Creflo Dollar.

That’s right. The man’s last name is Dollar.

In 2006, Long was invited to speak at Atlanta’s Interdenominational Theological Center’s graduation, stirring up all kinds of controversy. Students discussed a boycott of the graduation, and Long’s invitation prompted black liberation theologian, James Cone — who was scheduled to receive an honorary degree — to boycott the ceremony. (Read more about Liberation Theology here). Thirty-three graduating seniors wrote to the seminary’s president expressing distaste for Long as their commencement speaker and questioning his theological and ethical integrity. It appears that for many ITC students the study of ethics was still fresh enough in their young minds that they openly criticized Long’s belief that that God can “deliver” homosexuals and that Jesus blesses believers with riches.

You can find out more about homosexual conversion therapy here and you can gain an understanding of Christian Prosperity Theology by starting here.

Bishop Long is accused of seducing and coercing three young men into sexual relationships by putting them on the church payroll, buying them cars and other gifts, and taking them separately on trips to destinations like New Zealand and Trinidad. Long says these trips were part of a mentoring program called Longfellows, a ministry for teen boys.

A peek at the blogosphere shows mild support for Bishop Long, mainly from his parishioners. For the most part, the shorthand version of this support reads like this: “I pray for everyone involved in this. I pray to God it’s not true.”

Of course Bishop Long (through his lawyer spokesman) vehemently denies these allegations.

The fox condemns the trap, not himself.*

It’s not pleasant to admit, but I want to blame, shame and ridicule Bishop Long. I want to ignite my righteous indignation and scream from the mountaintops about this guy’s hypocrisy. But I’m not going to.

First of all, we don’t yet know (and may never know) if the man is guilty of these accusations. But looking at the man’s public image as presented in the media, an assumption of guilt is an easy thing.

Second, for whatever it’s worth, all the young men accusing Long were above the age of sixteen, the age of legal consent in Georgia, when the alleged incidents took place.

But lastly…I’m tired, people. I’m plain old wore out beat down drag ass tired.

I’m renouncing my holy war against religious men and politicians who pander to their bases in order to stay in power. I’m retiring from the project of highlighting the hypocrisy of those guys who throw red meat to their mobs as a means of bolstering their own false images.

Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.*

Let’s assume Bishop Long is guilty of what he’s accused of. When a man is willing to advocate for the denial of equal rights, for the continued persecution of a group of marginalized citizens when he is, in fact, a member of that marginalized group himself, I can see that this man suffers beyond what I can imagine. This is particularly poignant when that man is black.

I know what it’s like to live with secrets and shame. It tears you up and eats you from the inside like a cancer.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.*

It’s interesting to realize that I’m most capable of compassion when I’m exhausted, when it’s easiest for me to let go of my own anger. To paraphrase Rumi, sometimes my heart is hammered to the point that its right, resonant ringing can be heard for a change.

I was raised as a Christian in a number of different denominations, including the Southern Baptist. I’ve spent many years of my life trying to make sense of the hypocrisy I saw in those places. Church-going people I knew, all of them upstanding, often respected members of the community, were rabid and vocal racists and homophobes. They judged poor people. They formed in-groups comprised of God’s chosen ones who harassed other non-members even within their own congregations. They took advantage of the weak and those without a voice. They engaged in activities condemned by doctrine and dogma (drinking, drugs, sex, even gay sex), then judged others for doing the same when they were with members of their unholy cliques.

I never understood how people could behave this way when I was younger, but I do today. And the only reason I understand it is because I have acknowledged my own penchant for the same kind of behavior.

In high school and college I used to gay bash when I was with my straight friends. We were civilized enough not to physically harm anyone, but we talked trash all the time and outwardly took pleasure when gay boys were physically harmed by others.

The Venerable Robina Courtin often speaks of Buddhism as a means of becoming one’s own therapist. I know what she means. It’s no exaggeration to say that, over the last 20 years, the Dharma has saved my life.

The practice of maitri toward oneself and its logical extension, Tonglen practice, have afforded me the insight to recognize deep, sometimes unspeakable pain in my own heart and mind as the roots of this kind of hurtful, hypocritical behavior.

I say Buddhism has saved my life because, until I discovered the teachings, I was headed down a path of self-destruction and protracted suicide. I had so much hatred for myself stored up in my body and mind. I engaged in many incredibly damaging patterns of behavior and I projected my self-hatred onto everyone around me while assuming everyone around me saw me as a good guy. I hurt many people and sowed my share of negative karmic seeds.

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

All these destructive patterns culminated with my unmitigated and (thankfully) unsuccessful attempt at self-destruction in the summer of 1998.

Delusion is a bitch while you’re in it. So much pain. So much sadness.

It is true, in my experience, that those least assured of their own persuasions are the first to condemn others for theirs. It’s also sad that there’s a rash of this kind of thing happening among politicians and Christians lately. More and more it appears corruption at all levels is being outed and exposed for what it is. Maybe this is the uniquely American caustic therapy for ridding our society of a cancer.

I’ve waited many years to see these changes occur. The young man in me takes great pleasure in seeing powerful figures publicly shamed and brought to their knees for their lies and hypocrisy. But the more mature man in me sees their experience through different lenses. He understands their pain, their self-delusion and the suffering it causes all around them. The mature man in me knows how it feels to be absolutely certain that he’s a good, decent person, then wake up to the reality that he has caused much suffering in the world.

That’s a nasty dream to wake up from. Afterwards, the realizations can be a nightmare.

But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.*

There’s so much shame in the world. For me, in all honesty, it came through a traditional Christian reading of the Bible. Folks meant no harm; they were just doing things as they had been taught. But harm was done.

After a lifetime steeped in that kind of hurt it’s easy to inflict it on others. After all, if I had to hurt and feel shame upon shame, then by God, so will you. That’s just the way it’s done. We all have different ideas of what it means to serve the Lord.

Bishop Long, if guilty, is at a crossroads. One way leads to a caustic therapy that will scour him clean enough that he might actually be able to lead a congregation. The other leads to hell.

The French poet Arthur Rimbaud said, “The only unbearable thing is that nothing is unbearable.” I think there’s never been a truer word said.

I went to the Garden of Love
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green
And the gates of the Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joy and desires.
– William Blake (1757-1827)

*from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake
**from Augeries of Innocence by William Blake

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