Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Not so prosperous, after all

This intriguing article from “The Atlantic” considers the possibility that Christians, specifically the subset of evangelicals who follow the so-called prosperity gospel, are partly to blame for the economic meltdown. There’s definitely some merit to the argument. When the real estate crash first happened, I remember having discussions about American entitlement issues, especially the idea that it was practically a constitutional right for all people to own a home. And by home, they meant one which had separate bedrooms for all members of the family, two or more bays in the garage (and cars to go with them) as well as the requisite modern furnishings. It seemed as though people couldn’t grasp the difference between need and excess. Or just didn’t want to.

Looking at the situation as this author does, it makes perfect sense. Rather than being just a byproduct of greed and keeping up with the Joneses, we can actually see the practical consequence of the prosperity gospel being lived out.

Imagine the progression: “Take the risky path, God will bless you. God wants you to have a bigger house. Taking on more debt than you can handle is a good thing. So you can’t afford it right now? Have a little faith. If you don’t trust that God is going to raise your salary so you can pay your mortgage, if you don’t step out in faith, then God can’t bless you. And he does want you to have that 5 bedroom in the nicer neighborhood, so what are you waiting for?”

Of course, there is a reason it's a so-called gospel. It's not really all that good of news, as most people aren't going to reach millionaire status, leave drudgery behind for bon-bons and European vacations, or have insta-upgrades in their quality of life. And it certainly isn't good news for our neighbor, not with every blessing getting shoved under their nose as proof that God loves us more. It's also explicitly anti-Biblical, being mostly the inverse of what Christ actually preached and lived. More than a few Biblical passages don’t sit well with the wealthy. Which is not to say that God hates the rich. But there's definitely no preferential option for them. (I mean, us. I know I certainly qualify, as I'm typing this on a fairly new netbook, using high speed internet, from an apartment a half block from the beach. Don't hate me.)

Here are some of the verses that don't get a whole lot of pulpit time:

Isaiah 5:8-9
“Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. The LORD Almighty has declared in my hearing: "Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants.”

Amos 3:15
"'I will tear down the winter house along with the summer house; the houses adorned with ivory will be destroyed and the mansions will be demolished,' declares the LORD."

James 5:1-6
“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.”

Luke 6: 20, 24-26
"Looking at his disciples, he said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied...But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, or you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.”


Predatory lenders aside*, this is an interesting angle and window into the collective psyche of a section of our population. I wonder how the prosperity people react now to Jesus’ statement that, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Perhaps they’d see this as a heretical addition to the text? That Jesus is only theoretically homeless because he’s holed up in the Ritz awaiting completion of his newer, bigger pad? Or could it be he’s offering them a consolation post-meltdown, reminding them that Christ followers were promised lots of things (including persecution) on this earth, but never wealth. The big house? That’s for the afterlife…and it’ll be a bit more like a dormitory than a gated mansion. (John 14:2-3)

*I should clarify that this post is in no way trying to blame or shame those whose homes were foreclosed on, merely to explore the idea of the prosperity gospel being a potential factor in the tragedy.


anne said...

Wow. Awesome post. Couldn't agree w/you more, about the un-biblical-ness of the whole "God provides STUFF" if you have enough faith, etc, and it'll all be EXPENSIVE stuff, too!, just to show you favor....that wasn't what I got out of reading the bible....

and compared to most of the world, the USA's "meek" are way wealthy.
How is it, living "up the hill" now, as compared to at the bottom, as you did before? Don't feel guilty; Share your good-fortune in some useful way.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jenna! Love the blog! (I was directed to it through your facebook status update.)

You say:

[The prosperity gospel is] explicitly anti-Biblical, being mostly the inverse of what Christ actually preached and lived.

The trouble with this is that the Christians who believe in this theology believe wholeheartedly that their beliefs are Biblical (see here). It may be non-Evangelical, but can it be truly argued that it's non-Biblical? The prosperity theologians use Bible verses to defend their theology just as most mainstream Evangelicals do. They might emphasize certain verses over others, but how does one determine which verses to emphasize and de-emphasize?


--jenna said...

Lucho - I'd say that exclusive emphasis is the issue. If we only use verses that make us feel good, then we're not getting the gospel, and we're being anti-Biblical by forcing the text to only say what we're willing to accept. God's word should always make us uncomfortable!

Anne - It's kind of weird, honestly! :)