Saturday, September 25, 2010

When Christian Leaders Break Public Confidence

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

A Commentary:

There are always a great deal of really important news stories developing not only on a daily basis, but on an hourly basis in our country and around the globe. The cumulative effect can be quite depressing when one considers the human suffering involved from either "natural disasters," unforseen accidents, or the murderous aggression of human beings toward one another, on both the personal and collective levels. Wars, terrorist attacks, ethnic and social tensions that break out into violence; political parties and ideologies endlessly clashing; "human rights" violations, or the abuse and suffering of poor and defenseless persons, including innocent children. It all seems rather endless. At the other end of the spectrum of noteworthy news, there is always the "soap opera" world of Lady Gaga wearing a dress made out of meat at a public event; or Paris Hilton's or Lindsey Lohan's latest drug bust and rehab meltdown. (Some people are famous ... for being famous). The entertainment world provides us with almost "comic relief," or at least some meaningless distractions that allow us to catch our breath before the next hard-hittiing story breaks into our lives. Of course, we also suffer from "disaster fatigue," that can leave us desensitized to that very human suffering that occurs on a daily basis.

Somewhere in between those two drastically-distant poles of the tragic and the farcical, we find some news stories that have a resonance beyond the actual "facts," because they raise other significant issues that influence our perception of either prominent individuals and/or established institutions. The sordid affairs of a multi-millionaire golfer who betrayed his wife are not socially significant in and of themselves - and perhaps "none of our business" - but the issues of "role models" for younger children and adolescents; of the moral delusions of "entitlement" for the "rich and the famous;" and even the media madness surrounding such a story have some importance, for example. So, I place the latest sex scandal involving a prominent Christian minister into this middle category of noteworthy news, less for its intrinsic interest - just more sordid details that may leave one morally nauseous upon reading about them - than for its repurcussions on how the American public perceives "organized religion" and its key representatives.

If you haven't heard or read of it yet, one of the most well-known Christian figures on the contemporary American religious landscape is the Atlanta pastor, "Bishop" Eddie Long. Megachurch Christianity is not on my interior radar screen, so I admit to being ignorant of "Bishop" Long's status, though I do recall being vaguely familiar with his name. He is the pastor of a 25,000 member church in Atlanta! (I understand that he was the "officiating pastor" at Coretta King's funeral, and this should give us some indication of his high-level status). Since this megachurch claims to be Baptist, I am surprised that he carries the title of "bishop," for Baptists have never accepted the office of bishop. Be that as it may, Pastor Long, a vociferous opponent of homosexuality, is being sued by three young men who have accused him of basically paying for their sexual services while they were in their late teens by an ongoing avalanche of gifts and privileges. The suit claims that Pastor Long turned these "spiritual sons" into sex servants (who were "of age" at the time).

As a recent commentator on the radio said: When high-level public personas - especially politicians, entertainers, sports figures and, alas, popular religious figures - are engaged in a battle with sexual temptation, sex always wins. As of today, Pastor Long has asked for "patience" as he prepares to refute these "ugly charges." Since initial denial is the invariable response these days to allegations of sexual misconduct, such denial is often met with skepticism. Perhaps if he publicly said: "There is no sex" he may be able to gain some precious time as he prepares his defense (and as we re-open the debate on the meaning of "is.") However, before we once again proclaim: "How the mighty have fallen," we need to hear from Pastor Long himself and take a careful and dispassionate look at the allegations.

As we await the unfolding of this case, it does raise the issue of how the American public perceives religious figures placed high on a public pedestal, or how it perceives what we call "organized religion." Clearly, there is a huge demographic group - skeptics, agnostics, atheists, anti-Christians - that gleefully anticipate the deflation of such figures, and who rejoice proportionally according to the ugliness of the story. The cries of "hypocrisy," and the indictment of organized religion as the cover for unsavory manipulation of persons and the cynical accumulation of money will now circulate as long as this story has any staying power. That is to be expected, and as long as these stories are true, such comments are deserved, though made with more delight than genuine concern for all involved - including the victims. Another group will collectively shrug its shoulders and wink with an "I told you so" attitude, that also asks: "What did you expect?" or "You aren't actually surprised, are you?" There may be some who spend time on this story and are genuinely concerned precisely about the public perception of Christianity and religion in general. Such sordid scandals erode public confidence in religious leaders and their trustworthiness. This is "bad news" for all Christians at some level. For many, it justifies their reluctance to enter into a Christian community; or even further it raises questions about the very reliability of the Gospel message. Why join up with all of those sanctimonious, judgemental hypocrites, since all religion claims are bogus?

From my perspective, I do not understand how sexual temptation and sexual scandals in any way touch on the question of whether or not Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah and Son of God! These sad incidents offer a commentary on fallen human nature and the power of temptation, but should not in any manner undermine the integrity of the Gospel. That may just remain an excuse for lazy, indifferent and careless thinkers to avoid the deeper questions of life and its meaning posed by the Gospel, or not to engage in that haunting question from the Gospels, asked by Jesus Himself: "Who do people say that I am?" Fallen Christians do not mean that the Gospel is somehow untrue. At the end of history, perhaps only a "little flock" in the wilderness will remain loyal to Christ, but that does not mean that He is no longer the Lord of history and the cosmos.

Yet, these same sad incidents reveal just how much responsibility Christian leaders have to maintain public confidence in the over-all integrity of the Christian faith. How many of the "little ones" from within the Church can be hurt or disappointed by the scandalous behavior of their leaders, even driving them away from their communities in despair. Think for a moment of the unending turmoil within the Roman Catholic Church due to the many sex-abuse cases that have become public knowledge. This is just as true for our own Orthodox Church which is not exempt from such scandal. The Apostle Paul understood and anticipated this when he spoke to those who "aspired to the office of bishop;"

Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his own household well ... morever he must be well thought of by outsiders, or he may fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (I TIM. 3:1-4, 7)

If "Bishop" Long is indeed guilty as charged, then he obviously lost sight of the Apostle Paul's exhortation to potential leaders in the Church. Now those on the "outside" can mock and deride to their hearts content. Again, this effects more than the responsible, fallen person. A sense of betrayal and scandal can overcome an entire community and lead to embarrassment, anger or discouragement. The "weaker" members may fall away. There is no sense in hoping that Pastor Long is guilty or not guilty. What is, is, and it will be disclosed in the end. If guilty, then there is one more blow to the public integrity of Christian leaders, and perhaps to the perception of the integrity of the Christian Faith, and the consequences are what we all have to live with.


Fr. Steven

1 comment:

  1. Dear Fr Steven,

    Well said. This reminds me of the Gandhi saying that many people relate to: "I like your Christ, but not your Christians." These sex scandal stories can be pretty discouraging, but they are a solemn reminder for me of how easy it is for anyone to fall into temptation and sin.

    Like you said, what we as people do does not undermine Jesus' identity as Savior and Lord in any way. For me, it just highlights His sinless life and how He was tempted in all the same ways we are but never gave in. Like the Church says, His was a "passionless Passion."

    On an unrelated note...the 1 Timothy verse about bishops made me think of a question. Why aren't bishops allowed to be married now? Was that always the case in the Church or was a specific point where that became the rule?

    Thanks for writing these blog posts. They are always very informative and encouraging whenever I read them.

    Kristin Philip (the OSU student who visited your parish a couple times this summer) :)

    My email address is kphils910@gmail.com, if you would prefer to answer my question over email rather than through a comment.

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