Friday, February 3, 2012

Eddie Long, Torah, and Religious Freedom

This little bit of strangeness worked its way to me yesterday, forwarded by a friend who has an eye for the absurd in the faith.   The video depicts the "coronation" of Eddie Long by New Birth Missionary Baptist church, his Atlanta-area megachurch, and honestly, it's difficult for me to watch.  It's hard to even look at it.

It's hard because Eddie Long is, well, a charlatan.  He's a strong proponent of the prosperity gospel, making him of those pastors who manage to skip over Jesus telling us about the spiritual dangers of wealth and head straight for a million-dollar-a-year compensation package, up to and including a church-funded Bentley.  He's clearly a person who has trouble reining in his appetite for acquiring things, but no trouble whatsoever in making other people think that his appetites are nothing to worry about.

It's hard because such displays of ego and the worship of a single personality are utterly antithetical to the call to be a pastor.  The pastoral call is to be the servus servorum dei, the servant of the servants of God.  If we understand the teachings of our Rabbi, Christian leaders realize that our task is the giving of ourselves and the humbling of ourselves, even to the point of cleaning the dirt off of the feet of others.  Self-promotion is not part of that.  It just ain't.

It's hard because Eddie is a serial sexual predator, whose preaching against "the gays" didn't prevent him from indulging his other appetites, which included a string of young men in the church.  Unlike a congregation where the pastor is beholden to a denomination or at least an empowered lay leadership team, New Birth exists because of Long.  He is the brand.  Faced with charges, he knew he could ride them out.  So he just stood his ground, claimed "human weakness," and paid off accusers.  This ceremony is part of his humble reclaiming of the mantle of ministry after that little mess.  

But mostly, it's hard because as a pastor with a Jewish wife and kids, it's hard to watch someone who claims to be Christian misusing and desecrating a Torah.  

As part of the ceremony of coronation, the master of ceremonies for the event brings out a Torah scroll, which he insisted had survived the Nazi depredations at Auschwitz and "Birkendahl."  After spewing some highly dubious information about the connection between Hebrew and genetic codes, the guy leading the event then led the stage hands through the process of wrapping Eddie in the scroll.  "He's covered in the word," crowed the Emcee, as the crowd shrieked with glee at the sight of their Eddie, wrapped up in a Torah like a sweaty, well-oiled burrito.

Then, of course, they slap a prayer shawl on him, lift him up on a throne and parade His Nibs around the stage.  It reminded me of a Bar Mitzvah party in hell, only without Gilbert Gottfried singing Hava Nagila.

Touching a Torah scroll, as anyone with more than twelve seconds of exposure to synagogue worship knows, is viewed by observant Jews as a serious no no.  When reading from Torah you take care not to be in contact with the text itself, out of concern for damaging it and out of respect for the holiness of the text.  When my older son was reading Torah during his mitzvah last year, he tracked his position in the Hebrew with a yad, a silver finger at the end of a short wand.  This object exists for the sole purpose of preventing contact with the text.  If it happens, it happens, but it is something you don't do intentionally.

For Long's congregation, those twelve seconds are entirely lacking, of course.  There's no exposure to anything other than the "teachings" of their Eddie.  They know what they've been taught, and what they've been taught is to give their money and their faith to Eddie.  They are oblivious to the fact that for some observant Jews, this is the equivalent of watching a Koran burning for a Muslim, the equivalent of an Army mom watching Westboro Baptist protest a soldier's funeral.

And yet, within the boundaries of our hard won religious freedom, this is their right.  

Sure, it bothers the sane and the ethical and the aware.  It's maddening.  It's tempting to want such things banned, to be able to storm in with the Homeland Theology Department's SWAT team, rescue the scroll, tase the fool, extradite him, and deposit him in a neighborhood of Haredim.  That could make for an entertaining Youtube.

But...and here I knowingly depart from Calvin...the role of the state cannot be to police belief.  The most difficult thing about freedom is our propensity to misuse it.  If we want to organize our lives around a charming, utterly self-confident idiot, we may do so.  We are free to give our worldly possessions to a manipulative egomaniacal predator if we so choose.  We are free to give our lives over to cults.  We are free to organize our lives around demonizing other faiths, or insulting and belittling and misrepresenting the beliefs of others.  

And if we weren't, then we wouldn't be free.