Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Can I Get a Witness?: Who's Really Getting Screwed in the Black Church

Several years back a close black clergy friend of mine was having marital problems. He discovered that his wife was having an affair and was struggling to reconcile the relationship.

In need of spiritual counsel, he sought out the advice of several of his clergy colleagues. To a man, he was advised to seek out the “sexual comfort” of his flock. Take the edge off, so to speak, and even the score with his wife.

Once the deed was done, the thinking went, he would be of a mind to return to his wife and reconcile the marriage. Though my clergy friend was acutely aware of the abuses of patriarchal leadership in the black church, even he was taken aback by the perverse level of male entitlement and sexual exploitation.

I was reminded of this situation when the story broke recently regarding Rev. Eddie Long’s alleged sexual affairs with several young men in his congregation. Long is accused of using his money, power, and station to manipulate these men into sexual encounters. Long has categorically denied the charges, arguing via his attorney that he is the victim of a calculated shake down and that his accusers—most of whom have criminal records—are not to be trusted.

My concern here is not with Long’s case per se. Given the intensified interest of the media, my guess is that we will find out sooner rather than later about what really happened in this case. More pressing for me is what this issues highlights about the predatory nature of many black male clergymen and, more generally, the collusion by the black church at large in covering up and, indeed, enabling their misdeeds.

The truth of the matter is had Long’s accusers been women this story would have quickly lost its legs. At least insofar as the black community is concerned. This is not to say that ALL black churches are guilty of these abuses or condone this behavior. That said, the problem is not so much the individuals abusers as much as the institutionalized patriarchal thinking which inform how many, if not most, of these religious institutions operate.

The clergymen that counseled my friend in crisis clearly felt entitled as men and religious leaders to use the women in the congregation as objects of sexual gratification. Their comfort level in offering this advice was no doubt a reflection of the confidence they had in both the complicity of their sexual targets and that of their congregation, the bulk of whom are women. How can this be? How can women tolerate such treatment.

Scholar Terry Eagleton rightly notes that dominant power is able to stay dominant by getting those it exploits to collude with it. This collusion does not necessarily have to entail incentives or “bribes” of a material nature. The invention of “whiteness” by the elite European classes during the colonial period in the U.S. is a salient case in point. Grossly outnumbered and in need of a servant class to act as bodyguards against “Native American insurgency,” the elites devised a rather brilliant plan. In short, they gave indentured European servants (which, for all intents and purposes, were little more than slaves) the cultural gift of “whiteness” and, by extension, the legal “privilege” of being exempt from slavery and the stigma of blackness.

As we see by the racial tensions and prejudices that persist even to this day, this dastardly strategy of control has worked rather successfully, pitting similar exploited working class groups against each other time and again and, in so doing, assuring that those in power remain in power. Patriarchy is the weapon of choice in the black church power hierarchy. Operating similar to the cultural capital of “whiteness,” it gets black women to collude with it in the name of supporting black men and, by default, the health and survival of black communities at large.

In exchange for their cultural loyalty to black men, black women attain the cultural status of belonging, of being “good black women.” In an atmosphere wherein black women are blamed within and outside black communities for the failures of the black family and black men in particular (check out the notorious “Moynihan Report”), the importance of such a cultural identification becomes clear. The black church—which remains the most influential institution in African American life, especially for black women—relies on this political calculus to maintain the male hierarchy of power.

Granted, as Eddie Long’s controversy is bringing to light, there are boys and, in some cases, men that fall victim to this power equation as well. But the bigger story, the one that rarely makes the headlines, is the pervasive and longstanding pattern of exploiting women sexually in the black church. Can I get a witness? Ya’ll don’t hear me though.


  1. Unfortunately, sexual victimization is not rare in churches. It is fertile ground in the right environment for manipulation, crime and secrets. I am struck by the realities that when both boys and girls come to adults when they are sexually exploited, molested and even raped most of the believers do not "believe". So, the exploitation continues in an enabling environment protecting the criminals.

  2. I completely concur. I think church leaders, and particularly men, (and here I'm not suggesting all men and leaders in the church are inherently corrupt), benefit from male and cultural privilege. Let's face it, the black church is still the premier social institution for black communal identity. So few challenge it, then, because they fear ostracism and stigma.

  3. Wonderful commentary, David. Well said. (as usual)