Bishop Eddie Long, a well-known mega-church pastor died last month after a long battle with “an aggressive form of cancer” and even more aggressive forms of financial and sexual scandals in recent years. This story in Huffington Post is a very sad report of a life wasted under the ruse of religion, a wastage which devastated many other lives as well. (http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/03/us/bishop-eddie-long-i-knew/index.html) When “men of the cloth” get caught in compromising positions, i.e. “get caught with their pants down,” I don’t always giggle with delight. I used to but I’ve grown up now and am more accepting of human foibles even in the arena of Hamlet’s “country matters.” But the story of Reverend Long goes far beyond the pale of “indiscretion” and reflects characterological depravity.
Having set out to be a “man of the cloth” in my youth, I can report first hand I was very much a mortal though I very much pretended not to be. In my fundamentalist Christian culture, the ministry I took a stab at was usually performance art and, I now see, the Christian experience itself was largely “performance art” though that is not to dismiss it completely. Life is “performance art” after all. (See poem at end.) But Bishop Long demonstrated the human cost of this duplicity, not just to himself but to those he victimized. This is not to minimize the heinous nature of what he did but merely to recognize his primary flaw was in being guilty of being “human.” Suffering from that malady always leaves one living a life of pretense to some degree and the more that the “pretense” is required by one’s social context to remain hidden, the greater the risk to the individual and to those around him. And often the Christian culture fosters pretense over open human-ness which always involves being frail, flawed, and broken at times. This is true for the laity but equally so for the clergy though the standards are often beyond the pale for the clergy.
Pretense in the area of faith is often a tragedy. Spiritual teachers have always tried to tell us that spirituality is not about show but about authenticity and to be an authentic human being is to occasionally wallow in dimensions of human experience that we would rather not let others know about. And most of the time we don’t have to. Most of the time this ugliness can be addressed either privately or in the intimacy of close relationship, including therapeutic relationships. But too often organized religions teach us to ignore this ugliness leading to the tragedy of Bishop Long. This makes religion appear to some as complete escapism. And often it is, and we certainly need escape for “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” (T.S. Eliot) But the “escape” of religion can be salvivic if we deign to address the ego’s grip on the whole of our life, including our religion.
(From a W. H. Auden poem)
I wish you first a sense of theater.
Only those who learn illusion
And love it will go far.
Otherwise we spend our life
In confusion about who and what we really are.