1 This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he
desireth a good work. 2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of
one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt
to teach; 3 Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre;
but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; 4 One that ruleth well his own
house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; 5 (For if a
man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the
church of God?) 6 Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall
into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover he must have a good
report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the
snare of the devil.
First Epistle of St. Paul to Timothy 3:1
The Atlanta area lost one of its more interesting characters as Bishop Eddie Long of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church died yesterday.
The official cited cause of death was cancer, a diagnosis which many have found to be... humorous.
Eddie Long was a big man. He ran a prosperity gospel megachurch out in Lithonia and one of the "ministries" there was a gym. He posted lots of photos of his rippling biceps in tight shirts and draped his barrel-chested frame in silk suits. Rumor had it he was just as fond of inserting himself into teenage boys as he was posing in tight shirts, and in 2010 the church and Atlanta as a whole was rocked by lawsuits alleging exactly this. They were settled out of court with church money for twenty million dollars - and opinion was divided as to whether they were victims or hustlers.
But Eddie Long "showed off his dramatic new weight loss", as it was announced on the Internet, a year or two ago. It was frightening to see how he had gone from looking like an Atlanta Falcons linebacker to a gaunt, emaciated skeleton - but more specifically how fast. Very rapid weight loss of that magnitude is not caused by the "raw vegan diet" he claimed to be on - giving speeches about how what he used to eat was a function of white slave masters and now he's eating back to nature as Africa intended or whatever the story was. It's caused by an illness, and a serious one. It's caused by some kind of illness, and a serious one at that.
The rumor mill made sinister remarks about "the big A". Clearly, to their mind, if he gay, then he gonna get AIDS - and in a sort of weird circular reasoning it was "well, since he clearly has AIDS he has to be gay" followed by "it has to be he's gay, he's got AIDS." Where there's smoke, there's fire in the minds of a lot of people.
Since the New Missionary Baptist Church was in essence a cult of personality with the very rapid decline of Long - from the sex scandal involving young men groomed for sex and bribed with church money to submit to it and be silent about it to his physical decline - it became a case of church members rallying hard around their pastor, and those who left in disgust and outsiders mocking and taunting from the outside.
Late in 2016 Long was hospitalized to take medication to improve a compromised immune system. They brought him back to some semblance of health, but there were those two words. Immune system. Might he have acquired something that caused this immune deficiency? Some kind of syndrome, perhaps? One transmitted by viral means?
Or, as a sarcastic Facebook commentator noted on an announcement of his death, "boy ass the best diet there is"?
The official cause of death, as announced by the church, was "an aggressive form of cancer".
He was diagnosed with cancer and did have cancer. As to what else was going on I'm not his God nor his doctor, and I don't know. I've no conjecture in this - I'm just reporting on what his death means to Christianity in the metro area. But others most certainly have conjectured as to what caused this cancer and the PR problem with all this is that if it was cancer, why not say at the outset, "I'm Bishop Eddie Long, and I've lost half my bodyweight due to an aggressive form of cancer" as opposed to blaming the white slave owners for his former diet. Why so insular and cagey? He'd have had nothing but support. But with a lack of transparency comes rumor and conjecture and it won't leave his legacy. Ever.
Black Twitter and Facebook was quite abuzz with the death. Many saw in him the classic huckster preacher, rolling up in a fancy car selling your grandma the promise of Heaven while shining his leather shoes with a mink pelt. His "prosperity gospel" and Ponzi scheme transactions made him a wealthy and powerful figure. But there's a classic Christian dilemma at work here - the desire to see perceived sin punished colliding with the theology of boundless grace. "That's why I can't be a Christian - I don't want to share a heaven with someone who did that to little boys" alongside "he who is without sin, cast the first stone - be GLAD that God is all forgiving."
But there's another classic Christian dilemma at work here - with his church members admonishing those conjecturing about his life and death saying in essence, "judge no man" and "if he did do that stuff it's between him and God and God has forgiven him". But in addition to a Prosperity Gospel, Long's ministry style was a cross between Baptist and Pentecostal which tells its members they are "shock troops" "taking Authority" on God's behalf everywhere they go. Which meant, in part, furthering Long's theological patriarchy and homophobia. Long was not one to keep silent on his thoughts about a woman's role in life (he actually wished we could go back to Leave It To Beaver times) and often preached that gays deserve death.
Which makes for a very, very twisted logic here. If you're a happy, well-adjusted gay man in a consensual relationship with another man, well God wants you dead. But if you're rumored to have groomed children desperately needing a father figure and whose mom figured a pastor would be a great role model into accepting gifts and trips in exchange for sexual favors - well, God is all forgiving. It's a twisted kind of logic, that, if it's true in any way justifies people turning away from Christianity. If that's who God is, I want no part of it. Luckily, that's in no way the theology of Christianity.
While I'm on the subject, God isn't a genie who rewards prayer with presents either.
That being said, he was very good at what he did. He ran a megachurch with over a hundred employees and volunteers, ran huge campaigns, and was a charismatic preacher whose skill and influence earned him the coveted spot as sermoner for the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King's widow. There's going to be a huge hole in that community, but more importantly - a power vacuum. I cannot imagine the family infighting and legal nightmares that are going to potentially come out of this. Long's wife separated from him at one point over all the scandal, but returned to remind everyone she'd been dutifully married to him for 27 years. I'll agree with many of his supporters. He did run a church, flawed as though it might have been - and at the end of the day, aren't they all in one way or another? He brought a lot of people to consider God who otherwise would not have. Some lives were most certainly turned around. And I feel for those who went dutifully to church every Sunday in the hopes of bettering the world and believing in actively making it a better place rather than sitting there reading the same dead liturgy over and over - hearing others jeer after their "faggot ass faggot" preacher.
I don't know Eddie Long, I never did. I do not judge him because I can't. I never believed in his particular interpretation of the Gospel, but I have no right to say none of it had any worth. I can take issue with how he lived his life based on the explicit instructions at the top of this write up from St. Paul to NOT be enamored of money, silk suits and Bentleys if you're going to seek the office of Bishop. I can take issue with some of the harm his congregation did in terms of the pain and suffering they inflicted on Atlanta's LGBT community. It seems a sort of karmic retribution that (deserved or not) the legacy of the church is slimed with the homophobia Long preached in life.
Where are these parishioners going to go? Are they going to integrate into other churches and change their gospel message? Like the cancer cells that ravaged Long's body in the last days of his life, will they flood into other churches and try to convince others that if you buy the preacher a new helicopter they'll each get a new Lexus? Will another charismatic figure step in and take over the moribund, waning former juggernaut of a church, or will it collapse in infighting and people looting its corpse? More importantly, will that new preacher preach the same stereotypical, almost racist image of toxic black masculinity - shiny new rims, big muscles and kill gays? Let's hope not - because as Long's experience has taught us hating "the gays" is a good way to get people on your side initially, and a better way to have them mock your cancer when they turn on you later. All it takes is some weight loss and some accusations. True or not.
Only time will tell, but for now the mood in Lithonia, Georgia is somber. There's a funeral to arrange, transition of power to take place and a dying, crumbling church empire to either resurrect or strip for parts. Those wearing black and helping to carry the casket will have that uncertainty and hear jeers and taunts and rumors and hatred, though - and in that moment, those people need our prayers more than ever.