…since the Protestant reformation, a Puritan ethic has virtually sanctified hard work and savings, while deferring gratification and treating pleasure with suspicion. Now, in an age where consumer goods are available in abundance, the challenge may be to see these as gifts of God not to be refused but to be used well, to be shared and at times, to find ways of protesting, as did Francis of Assisi against their being given a higher place in human life and striving than they deserve. And that perhaps is the real problem with the Prosperity Gospel.
Advent 2009 – A World In Waiting
Week Three – Happiness, A New Morality
Day Three – The Prosperity Gospel
‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say,
‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The
Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in
everything by prayer and supplication with
thanksgiving let your requests be made known to
God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all
understanding, will guard your hearts and your
minds in Christ Jesus.’ Philippians 4:4-7
Does the promotion of a gospel of prosperity represent a betrayal of Jesus’ proclamation of good news to the poor? Is the good news simply that the poor can be rich, too, if they would only obey God’s commands? Or is the good news that the rich will be deprived of their unjustly gained wealth? Perhaps, rather than trading Biblical texts to prove one or other side of the argument, it might be better to look at the pattern of life of Jesus himself – how does that square with the promotion of the quest for material prosperity?
Towards the end of the last century, Christians became so troubled by the scandalous gap between rich and poor that they were rallying – with greater or lesser enthusiasm – behind church leaders’ calls for a ‘bias to the poor’ and even for ‘the Church of the Poor’. Whole Christian communities embraced a theology of liberation which inspired Christians to commit themselves to bringing to an end the structures and cultures of domination which kept people in poverty. Yet at the very same time, in stark contrast, the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ movement was taking hold, especially amongst Pentecostal Christians and especially in the United States. ‘Prosperity’ according to that gospel includes not just riches, but good health, happy marriages and success in whatever endeavor. This was the period when the extravagant life-style of its pastors – paid for by donations from largely poor congregations – was actually being held up as a proof that the Gospel worked: Luke 6:38 – ‘Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, will be poured onto your lap. For whatever measure you deal out to others will be dealt to you in return.’ As the financial and sexual scandals associated with some of its most highprofile preachers came to light, that gospel’s appeal, understandably, tended to diminish. However, that was not the end of the story. In the boom years of the 1990s and the early 20s the Prosperity Gospel made a comeback. This time it was not so much about corrupt pastors as about encouraging people to take advantage of the opportunities that indeed were there to buy a home, become rich and have one’s dream fulfilled: ‘I tell you, whatsoever you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive them and they will be yours’ (Mark 11:24) and ‘I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it in all its fullness’ (John 10:10).
In September 2006 the challenge was blazoned on the cover of Time Magazine: ‘Does God Want You to Be Rich?’ That helped spark off a heated debate which became even more heated once the credit crunch began themselves were divided. Some were even accused of having helped contribute to the credit crunch by having encouraged their congregations to take out sub-prime mortgages. On this eastern side of the Atlantic, some years before the Time article, the churches were also taking a close look at prosperity, but by no means in the same way as the Prosperity Gospel. Here the new emphasis on wealth as a positive good stressed the need to handle wealth responsibly and with a concern for social justice and the sustainability of the environment. To that end, in 2001 Churches Together in Britain and Ireland commissioned a consultation which concluded with a report in 2005, Prosperity with a Purpose (ironically the same title as that of the Conservative Party platform for the October 1964 election). Within two years, however, the world was thrown into recession.
So where does all this leave us? It should come as no surprise that people who are poor might resist hearing a Gospel that seems to glorify poverty in favor of one which points the way out of poverty. They might understandably resent it when well-to-do people proclaim ‘the Good News to the Poor’ while refusing to let go of their own power and privileges. Nor is it surprising that some of those who are comfortably off would not be at all displeased to see the spread of a ‘Prosperity Gospel’ which would assuage any feelings of middle-class guilt. A cynic might be forgiven for concluding that the answer is to proclaim the Prosperity Gospel to the poor and save the ‘Good News to the Poor’ for the well-to do. But clearly that would not do. There is one Gospel for one people, saved by one Lord, bound in one covenant as citizens of one heavenly kingdom. Why not begin with the covenant? Its promise of prosperity was conditional on the pursuit of justice. The oppression of the poor, whether by individuals or by unjust structures, is abhorrent in the sight of God and is the path to ruin for all.
These are not abstractions. The economic injustices of our times are real and so must our response be real. The sharper the divisions between rich and poor the more pressing the question: where and with whom do we stand. But if the question of covenantal justice is our starting point, what is the end point? Is prosperity a goal to be aimed at in its own right or is it the by-product and a constituent part of a wider and nobler goal – the goal of a good life and a good society? The task is not to embrace austerity and renounce prosperity. It is to enjoy a richer, fuller prosperity and to get it into focus. With that, however, some of us may have a problem. For Christianity has at certain periods appeared to cultivate a quasi-monastic spirituality and seemed to turn its back on material prosperity. Furthermore, since the Protestant reformation, a Puritan ethic has virtually sanctified hard work and savings, while deferring gratification and treating pleasure with suspicion. Now, in an age where consumer goods are available in abundance, the challenge may be to see these as gifts of God not to be refused but to be used well, to be shared and at times, to find ways of protesting, as did Francis of Assisi against their being given a higher place in human life and striving than they deserve. And that perhaps is the real problem with the Prosperity Gospel. First, that it plays down that need for material goods to be shared in accordance with the demands of justice, and even more fundamentally, that it encourages the possessing and displaying of such goods to be valued as proof of personal worth, status and success. The question, in short, is about the meaning of prosperity itself – whether it is possible to develop a more moral economy with a purpose – an ‘economics of happiness’.
This means that it is not enough simply to hope for an end to the recession. This period of waiting – and suffering – may be an opportunity to think again what we as a people, in covenant with each other and with our God, need to hope for.