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.
In the “old days” of my youth in the American South there were tent revivals, even tales from my mother of “brush arbor revivals”, and other examples of evangelical fervor run amok. I received a mailer last week regarding the modern day equivalent of this type of event which will be held in the comfort of a local motel on the north end of the main street in Taos, NM where I now live. The flyer (fortunately addressed impersonally to “boxholder) announces—THE BIBLE…AMERICA…WHAT’S NEXT? Inside the flyer, some of the topics to be addressed are: How near is His return?; The Signs of His Coming; Will the United Nations Rule the World? The Power Behind the Beast & the Anti-Christ.
This is a glossy, full color, four page-flyer and it will bring the crowds in along with their hard-earned money. The evangelist will leave town 11 days later with his coffers fattened and the desperate souls will leave with the fears heightened and their desperate ideologically-based faith intensified.
In my youth, I loved it when these guys would come to town, though I was born late enough that brush arbors and tent revivals were almost a thing of the past and I never got to participate in one. But evangelists would hold us in awe, driving up in their expensive cars, wearing their handsome suits, and trotting out all of those impressive diagrams and charts which offered positive proof that the end-times were near and that Jesus was coming back to bring his children home and wreak havoc on all those left behind.
Yes, part of me is snickering at this scene that will unfold in this lovely community and part of me would like to attend a night or two and gawk. But I’m pleased that I’m now mature enough that the snickering is overshadowed my a profound sadness, especially for the children who will be mortally wounded with the terror of the atmosphere and many will “come to Christ” out of a fear of hell and will spend the rest of their life under the tyranny of ideological Christianity. And I don’t think the evangelist is necessarily a shyster. He probably is caught up himself in this institutionalized hysteria and is merely playing his role…as we all tend to do in life…in a collective mindset that has him at its beck-and-call, his life being merely the “toy of some great pain.” (Ranier Rilke)
In the “short version of ‘my story'” I described the context of my “call to preach.” The blame issue is certainly apropos here and thus merits discussion. But I’m now to the point that I see beyond “blaming” and see the wisdom of accepting responsibility for choices that I made, even “choices” when I was a mere “babe” and not really capable of making any “choice.” We are all born in a context and are shaped by that context and can never fully escape that it. But most of us can get to the point where we have some awareness of that context, and of its impact on our life, and can then make better choices than if we had not gained that awareness.
Blaming accomplishes nothing. It is a ruse that we use to pretend that we are not making choices so that we can perpetuate maladaptive thought-patterns, emotions, and behaviors which long-since needed to be discarded. We have to realize that we hang on to them…hang onto the pain…because of the fear that what we would find in their absence would be greater than the pain we have when they are present. Or, as Shakespeare so pithily put it, “We cling to these ills that we have rather than fly to others that we know not of.” We prefer to cling to discomfort, and even misery, with which we are accustomed than to risk a fate that we “know not of.”
A dear friend of mine once alluded to a very painful situation in his family life and noted a point of acceptance when he allowed “the pain to swim over me.” That image of engulfment has stayed with me for two or more decades as I’ve sought the courage to accept my own “pain body”, using Eckhart Tolle’s term. We hate pain and the core of our being is predicated on avoiding it, even though if we could manage to accept the pain we could live more fully than we have when trying ferociously to avoid it.
This brings me to the image of The Cross and the story of Jesus and the Crucifixion. The teachings of Carl Jung offer a richer interpretation of this story, suggesting to the Crucifixion is a call to the death of the ego, to the surrendering of our pain body and embracing the pain rather than denying it, discovering in the process that we can survive and, even, we find “Resurrection.” It is much simpler to take the story literally and to do so allows the ego to continue to direct our lives and allow us to live in the pious certainty, the tyranny of “the way things are.” We then continue to remain ensconced in the time-space continuum and completely avoid the spiritual realm, even though we may take great pride in “preaching Christ and him crucified” and other hackneyed bromides.