Eddie Long 'crowning': Why do black churches often put pastors on a pedestal?

african kings

There is a lot to process in this 14-minute clip of a recent service held at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta. In it, special invited guest, Rabbi Ralph Messer, performs an elaborate, supposedly sacred Hebrew ceremony that ends with the anointing of Bishop Eddie Long, the church’s leader who last year faced charges of sexual misconduct with young male members of his church, as king. Yes, king. The first thing to come to mind was Curtis Mayfield singing, “Eddie you should know better…brother you know you’re wrong.”

I am no theologian, and have no religious affiliation of my own, but it doesn’t take a month of Sunday school to know there is something deeply, intrinsically wrong with this entire ceremony, not the least of which is that the look on Long’s face suggests he actually believes he has become a king.

That this “ceremony” has zero basis in any religious tradition and the man performing this coronation “on behalf of the Jewish people” may not even be Jewish is enough to warrant scorn and derision, particularly among those who take their faith seriously. Beyond that, beyond the reference to the Torah covering as a foreskin, beyond the indecipherable Hebrew, beyond even Long’s odd and wayward haircut, there is something truly disturbing on display in this video: no one in the room objects.

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Not only do they not object, the entire congregation devoutly watches and cheers, with unquestioning deference. Long isn’t the only one there that wholeheartedly bought into the idea of his coronation as king. The thousands in attendance did as well, and that is the scariest part of all.

It would be cause for concern even if Long had not faced charges of sexual misconduct last year, but the addition of that little factoid makes it that much more disconcerting. It is highly troubling that in the minds of the congregation the infallibility of God has been conferred upon the man supposed to be serving as a messenger. The feverish rush to protect this man in the face of these heinous accusations was almost cult-like, and this video does little to dispel the idea that this church has become a cult and its members brainwashed.

As difficult as it is to watch this spectacle it’s almost unsurprising. Preachers in the amorphous black church have always enjoyed a certain level of cultural reverence. They have served as community and political leaders, in addition to their roles as spiritual counselors. It wouldn’t be any different than any other form of hero worship practiced on the likes of entertainers and ball players, except preachers get a special, personal place in people’s lives as an assumed servant of God. Their connection to a higher power, their role as interpreter of the holy texts and messenger for God, bestows upon them not only great responsibility but sometimes blind trust and power.

Too often for comfort, as in the case of Long, this trust and power is abused and corrupted. These leaders use their influence to push social agendas that run contrary to their religious doctrine, or that do little to benefit those who have chosen to follow them. And while they preach from the pulpit messages intended to be heeded by the letter, their own lives are lived in direct opposition to their words. To avoid responsibility, they cloak themselves in religious dogma and draw wild comparisons to the prosecution of Jesus.

But absolute power corrupts absolutely, so this is sadly to be expected. What one would hope is that a congregation seeking a relationship with God, seeking to live right according to their particular beliefs, would not allow one man (it is always a man, leading a largely female congregant, which is even more disturbing) to exercise such hypocrisy and abuse of trust. But not only are they not held accountable, these preachers are enabled in their twisting of the word of God, supported emotionally and financially, to the spiritual detriment of the church members.

That they don’t see it as such is of great concern, and I’m not sure what can be done to help them see otherwise.

It should be noted that this isn’t the case of every black church. They are not all anointing their leaders “king” in a trumped up and dubiously Jewish ceremony. Not every preacher wields the sort of influence Long has established. But the potential is there if the preacher is deified by his congregation, especially to the point they are able to overlook accusations of potentially criminal sexual misconduct with young boys and allow him to continue to lead them in their spiritual quest. When that potential boils over, preachers like Long flourish. And those who follow them are the ones who suffer.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental health advocate. Visit his official website or follow him on Twitter.