Monday, November 30, 2009

Jesus Christ, Loan Officer

“(W)e love the money in Jesus Christ’s name! Jesus loved money too!”
-Charlottesville faithful, Billy Gonzales, quoted in Hanna Rosin's fascinating article about the recent popularity of the "prosperity gospel", or, as we used to call it, "Satan worship". (Joke!)

According to Rosin, the "prosperity gospel" is a strain of Pentecostal belief in which believers are thought to come upon wealth because God loves them in particular. "God is the “Owner of All the Silver and Gold,” and with enough faith, any believer can access the inheritance. Money is not the dull stuff of hourly wages and bank-account statements, but a magical substance that comes as a gift from above. Even in these hard times, it is discouraged, in such churches, to fall into despair about the things you cannot afford. “Instead of saying ‘I’m poor,’ say ‘I’m rich,’” Garay’s wife, Hazael, told me one day. “The word of God will manifest itself in reality.”" So, basically, The Secret, with a Christian twist.

Admittedly, stating any opinion about religious belief is going to anger somebody, and this will probably be particularly provocative... Nevertheless, this "prosperity theology" idea (as explained by the Wikipedia elder scholars) is sort of amazing because it's both embraced by a number of Christian churches, and in opposition to nearly everything in the Gospels they claim to read. Christ is not ambiguous- believers are rewarded in the next life; not this one. The accumulation of wealth and material possessions is a vice- the precondition of sin- not a reward from God. I'm not even a Christian and I know this, mostly because I've actually read the Bible. But it would be like a Church teaching that adultery is a blessing because it shows that we have great love. It just doesn't follow from the scriptures.

I've been studying the Christian scriptures quite a bit lately, in addition to the Buddhist and Muslim scriptures and a bit of the Dead Sea scrolls.* It helps with the long winter months and I've decided that maybe the universe really does answer back for some people. But, I have to say that, as ambiguous and poetic as the New Testament is, it's pretty clear, at least to me, that Christ's followers abandoned their material possessions. In fact, it's pretty clear that this is what Christ's followers are supposed to do. This isn't to say that the rich are doomed; just that it's much harder for them to be saved than it is for the poor. The main reason- and this is exactly the same in Buddhism- is that focusing on the finite takes one's focus off of the infinite. The more money and nice things you have, the harder it is to think about what lies beyond death. Again, wealth is not so much a sin as the precondition of sin. But, telling people that they're poor because God doesn't love them as much as the wealthy is not only inaccurate- it's apostasy.

Now, let me say that every religion I know of teaches that we're all sinners, more or less. Another way of putting that is that every one of us, including Atheists, live in different little worlds that are always at odds. Such is life; none of us can keep all of our roles, beliefs, interests, and passions from clashing. And what I think really is unique about the Jewish and Christian gospels is they teach that the salvation of the worst sinners among us is actually more valuable to God. Saul/Paul is the model of salvation. The Prodigal Son achieves more than his upright brother. So, let's not say that the rich are in any worse spiritual shape than anyone else. None of us are perfect. And, as a neophyte, if anyone can find a passage in which Christ says that people become materially wealthy as a sign that God loves them, please post it in the comments, because I'd love to hear it.

As a side note, something I noticed when visiting friends and family over American Thanksgiving, which strikes me as different from Canadians, is the emphasis on American exceptionalism. And there are really two strains of that: one is self-aggrandizing and the other is self-lacerating. An example of the former would be those obnoxious emails older relatives send about how, well, those of us here in the heartland might not be "rock stars", but we love our families and freedom in a way that most people "in today's world" just do not; they should come with a smug alert. I heard plenty of that while in the states.

And, on the other hand, you have Americans who think that their culture is somehow uniquely corrupt. Rosin's article hints at that self-lacerating strain; she talks about people who think the US housing crisis was caused by this unique religious culture. In reality, the regulations for home loans were extremely lax in the US and, as a result, people made some stupid decisions, which human beings are wont to do. It's not that unique really. And, in my experience, Americans are not especially corrupt, wicked, greedy, lazy, or any other invective. It could happen elsewhere and has in the past.

But the "prosperity gospels" seem like an example of the self-aggrandizing strain: a need to be told that you are the best and the brightest and God's favorite kiddo. It always seems weird to me that so many religious people can be so self-righteous, given the fact that you can't possibly read any of their scriptures and not come out aware of your own sin. People will cheerily say things like, "God's got my back, yo!" and I think, "really?" Because, honestly, I'm a pretty good person, and it's still pretty impossible for me to imagine actually coming to the pearly gates and not getting sent down the trap door. How could you read those scriptures and come out thinking: "Hey, you know who's without sin? Me!"? Furthermore, how could you make the assumption that wealth production is God's way of giving you an allowance for being such a swell person? By this measure, Paris Hilton is close to sainthood.

Maybe it's a matter of holding conflicting viewpoints, and maybe it's a matter of living in a confusing world, and maybe they really do understand the Scriptures better than the rest of us. But I just don't understand the need some people have to be patted on the head and told, "Why you're as good as you could ever be! Just look at the size of your bank account!"

[*I realize that sentence probably sounds pretentious, or nerdy, or maybe both. But I have.]


Brian Dunbar said...

What they are calling prosperity theology isn't new: the Puritans and other dissenter sects in England were practicing it before Cromwell. When it was transmitted to New England ... why that's where the American middle class work ethic came from.

And the saying 'the Lord helps them what helps themselves'.

I'm summarizing like mad of course.

Rufus said...

Oh, right- the Protestant work ethic. I thought the idea there was that you're supposed to labor because it's healthy and, in return, you'll be able to take care of yourself, so don't worry about money. It's a bit of a stretch though to say that, if you tell God you believe that you have lots of money, he'll give it to you. The "confess it, possess it" idea is that the Lord helps them who He likes, and He does so to a great extent. What bothers me is that we were always told that you're supposed to care for the sick and the poor; not that they're sick and poor because God's pissed at them. (Although I can see where that's already inferred in the Protestant work ethic.) A lot of this stuff reminds me of the televangelists asking Grandma for her social security, and then God will bless her. Indeed, looking around, it looks like the biggest proponents of the "prosperity gospel" are people like Robert Tilton. Also, it sounds like a lot of churches already consider this stuff to be at odds with scripture.

Brian Dunbar said...

It's a bit of a stretch though to say that, if you tell God you believe that you have lots of money, he'll give it to you.

I think this is merely an extension of the Puritan work ethic. Which goes something like 'work hard, pray harder, tithe, and the wealth will pile up as a sign that God thinks your labor and prayer and tithing is swell.'

It's not that we think the poor and downtrodden are cursed by God so much as that maybe they were lazy gits and didn't try hard enough.

Which, if you look around is easy to understand: we all know people who fit the 'poor and downtrodden' model but it's largely because they're not out there busting there ass and working.

But true charity cases will and should be helped: protestant and evangelical churches have all kinds of charities and missions: soup kitchens, prison ministry, habitat for humanity, meals on wheels, etc.

I think the Scotch-Irish Anglo Work Ethic stance on charity was summed up well by T.R. Fehrenbach who wrote 'The quality of mercy (for them) was not strained but it made them uncomfortable'.

Rufus said...

Yeah, I sort of remember my grandfather saying things like that. His view of society was basically populist: there are "good hard-working people" and there are "bums"; in the ideal society, the former shouldn't have to give anything to the latter. He was, indeed, Scotch.

I guess it sort of depends on your own experience. I've definitely known a few genuine bums in my time as well as some dysfunctional people who had no idea they were dysfunctional. Then again, the hardest working man I know is my father, who gets up at 4:30, hauls lobster traps on his boat, works in the off-season as a janitor and in a machine shop, and basically busts his ass; and is usually a few hundred dollars away from poverty. This year was a particularly bad haul and in his situation, if he breaks his leg or gets sick and can't work, he's screwed. So I think my father is who comes to mind when I see the working poor, which makes it hard to be too judgmental.

Actually, I used to work in the largest homeless shelter in the US and, in my experience, some of the people in there were bums, a whole lot were seriously mentally ill, and a scary number had just fallen on a string of bad luck.

And then I went to university with kids who were smart enough to get born into rich families that sent them to Swiss boarding schools and such shit, nearly all of whom were convinced that the reason they will one day be the captains of industry is solely the result of their being smarter than most people.

Also, by a weird coincidence, we're discussing this after I just got an email from a family I know in Virginia who apparently have gone through an incredible string of bad luck: their 125 year old business went under in the recession, the husband had emergency brain surgery that makes it hard to get a new job- he now has no balance and is in his 50s- the grown son has crone's disease- the mother had back surgery, they can't sell their house, and the combination of all of that has drained their savings. If they go on welfare, which they'll have to, I'm sure not going to hold it against them.

But, man, sometimes the shit hits the fan. And, given your opinion of the economic situation in the US and the current plans to improve it, you can likely imagine that lots of the good hardworking people are getting screwed right now, and plenty will be in the future. I'm not optimistic frankly.

My father-in-law, another hard worker, says that when he sees panhandlers he thinks of his daughter, who suffers from mental illness, but who was lucky to have a family who could get her help, and thinks 'there but for the grace of God...'

I think that when I see poor people- and there are plenty of them in this town too- I just feel really lucky. There but for the grace of God.