For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
1 Timothy 6:10
One verse most fundagelicals know well is 1 Timothy 6:10: the line about how the love of money is the root of all evil. But I don’t think that’s true. I think, rather, that love of power is their religion’s big problem (money is simply one of the lubricants on the gears of power). Moreover, love of power is an endemic problem that renders the religion completely toxic to anybody who isn’t part of its authoritarian power structure–and renders impotent all attempts by members to repair it.
Some stories going around lately illustrate exactly that point.
She’s Very Anointed, Y’all
Charisse Gibert was a co-pastor at Detroit World Outreach (DWO) church for years with her husband, Ben Gibert. When he died, she apparently assumed that now she’d be the church’s sole leader and began making steps to dissolve the church’s authority structure to appoint one that would then select her to be the church’s sole pastor.
Her church elders had other ideas about who would lead them moving forward. But she showed up at DWO last Sunday fully expecting to lead a service after apparently verbally agreeing not to do that, forcing the elders to call the police to report that she was trespassing. Ms. Gibert ended up getting arrested.
The video is really shocking in its way: she was arrested right on the pulpit. It’s not a great video, but she’s the heavy-set older woman in glasses standing behind the pulpit lectern onstage in front of the choir’s steps, surrounded by really uncomfortable police officers.
The second video is even harder to make out clearly, but if you want it, it’s here. In it, Charisse Gibert is seen raising her hands, moving around and singing, and trying to ignore the police officers surrounding her, who are trying to herd her out peacefully. Eventually they lose patience with the situation and handcuff her, at which point she finally leaves with them. The choir does not stop singing the entire time and very few people there seem all that upset about the sight of her getting surrounded and arrested. It kinda looks like one lady is arguing with the police toward the end of that second video, but that doesn’t last long.
Ms. Gibert is of course is painting herself as the cosmic victim in the whole situation, and apparently there are some big squabbles going on between her and the elders in social media. In interviews, she declares that she’s done absolutely nothing wrong and that the villains in the story are the elders who didn’t agree with her about still being in power at DWO. Some of her parishioners have declared support for her, saying that she’s “very anointed.” The ex-pastor herself still refers to the church as the “assignment that God has given [her]”and says she won’t give up trying to regain her power.
DWO is a tongues-talking Pentecostal-ish-sounding church, and it’s not hard to guess that like most churches of that type that it has a very authoritarian style of administration–and man, did I ever call that one or what, according to the church’s critical Yelp reviews. Charisse Gibert had gotten a taste of power when she and her husband came to rule that church, and she did not like the idea of losing it once he died. From the sound of those reviews, the two of them were making a tidy sum of money there and enjoying quite a lush lifestyle thanks to their congregation’s generosity (and misplaced trust in the Prosperity Gospel that these two pushed hard).
But in that church the elders consider their authority to be above that of the pastor, and they were not willing to cede their power to their deceased pastor’s widow when she made her ill-advised power grab. They stood together and refused to give way. Reading between the lines, I get the impression that they were relieved to come to a good excuse to part ways with those two and happy to have an opportunity to pick a better leader this time around.
In the final showdown between the two, Charisse Gibert was the one who fell.
Daring to Demand.
Larry Haney found himself in handcuffs as well as few years ago. Once a faithful, observant member of St. Stephen Missionary Baptist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he became increasingly concerned about how their new pastor, James Cook, handled the church’s money.
James Cook had arrived to the position in 2007, but in only a few short years he’d managed to anger his congregation about how he led the church. One pervasive rumor went that he’d given himself a big raise without approval from his followers, but he not only refused to debunk that rumor but also refused to tell his congregation–who, remember, paid his salary in the first place, how much they were paying him exactly.
Along with a group of other concerned men (including some of the church’s deacons), Mr. Haney began agitating for greater transparency in church accounting. They wanted not only detailed lists of assets and salary records, but also an accounting of the church’s various legal expenses. They ended up filing a lawsuit about the matter, but the limited information that Mr. Cook finally provided as a result of mediation didn’t settle the conflict by any stretch. A year later the dispute flared up again.
In response to the growing agitation within his flock, the pastor expelled the loudest dissenters from the church entirely. In response, with a one-sided unilateral flexing of power, the pastor banned Mr. Haney from the church.
Mr. Haney went to the next Sunday morning service despite having been explicitly told that the pastor didn’t want him or his pals around anymore. The pastor called the cops, who arrested Larry Haney. The case got thrown out a month later by an exasperated-sounding judge, but certainly the lesson was learned.
Larry Haney had dared to demand accountability in his leaders. But accountability invites criticism. Someone who is accountable can’t run a church like a private fiefdom. So the people daring to make that demand had to go.
Sympathy for a Predator.
Bill O’Reilly’s sudden tumble from power at Fox News was quite a surprise. I thought the guy would last until he decided to retire. But he was toppled by a succession of increasingly-alarming allegations of sexual harassment amid ongoing revelations of a deeply misogynistic culture at the cable network itself. Though the head honchos at Fox might have been content to let him stay and paw at women indefinitely, and the viewers certainly wouldn’t recognize or care about harassment, advertisers eventually got freaked out by it all and started pulling their all-important dollars from the predator’s timeslot. That exodus, far more than anything else, spelled the end of his career with Fox, which eventually fired him.
On cue, conservative Christians began lining up to express how saaaaaaaaaad they were that Bill O’Reilly had lost his show (generally unspoken was their fury at the women who had brought forward the many accusations against him, but certainly that anger was implicitly understood). He had a very large following among that crowd–one that was nearly fanatical in their support of him.
Naturally, there’s been far less sympathy expressed for his many victims. According to one critical conservative writer, Julie Roys, many conservatives actually think there’s some kind of massive liberal-authored conspiracy afoot to topple right-wing Christians in positions of power, and they think this scandal is simply part of that conspiracy.
In writing about the incident at The New York Times, Katelyn Beaty insists that the big problem with right-wing Christianity is that its leaders epitomize the flaws in the concept of “cheap grace,” meaning quick and easy forgiveness of sins (h/t to our awesome Ficino for the link!). She thinks that if they adopted Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s doctrine of “costly grace” instead, that would fix the whole problem:
An application of costly grace would mean showing perpetrators that their actions have real consequences. It would also ensure that victims are heard and given tools for healing long before there is any talk of restoring their abusers.
Talk about reckoning without one’s host! There’s no way whatsoever that she can actually force any leaders in her religion to take on her ideas, and they already think they’re doing everything the proper TRUE CHRISTIAN™ way–which makes her a dangerous heretic who can be easily and effortlessly ignored.
Shouting Into the Wind.
Yolanda Pierce is a minister who holds a doctorate from Cornell University and teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she is also the Director of Black Church Studies. She is also a black woman who feels that her special burden is to teach white evangelicals about their system’s endemic biases. She gives lectures, interviews, and seminars, writes on the topic, does workshops, and does everything else she can think of to try to awaken white Christians to the damage their sexism, bigotry against LGBTQ people, racism, and classism is doing to their religion and themselves.
In November 2016, she came face-to-face with the horrific reality of her religious bedmates’ attitudes. She wrote, “I watched as 81 percent of White evangelicals and born-again Christians voted for someone who admitted to sexually assaulting women and gleefully affirming that he would face no consequences for doing so.”
After the election, she wrote a heartbreaking post about how she’d finally awakened to the futility of her quest to reform evangelicalism. She tweeted, “White evangelicals:you’ve decisively proven that you love your whiteness more than you love your black & brown brothers & sisters in Christ.” She felt that she was “left with a crisis.”
But the crisis existed in her mind only because she had refused to allow herself to clearly see her fellow Christians. The poet Maya Angelou instructs us clearly: “When someone shows you who they are believe them.” And she further amends that instruction to tell us to believe them the first time they tell us that all-important truth about themselves.
Just as Rachel Held Evans did not long ago, Yolanda Pierce came smashing head-first into her own inability to acknowledge and take into account evangelicals’ inability to change their broken system. RHE left evangelicalism entirely rather than stick around and continue to bash her head against that wall. Time will tell if Ms. Pierce learns the same lesson.
White evangelicals are part of one of the most deeply racist systems in the world. They benefit from that racism in many ways. Dismantling their system’s racism would require some very big changes to their social system and culture that would not benefit them personally much at all (beyond the happy glow of having done the right thing, which would hardly be a universal feeling in that group).
Appeals coming from someone who is not part of the group’s power structure are not going to go very far. The person making that appeal will very likely be resented and even retaliated against for daring to go so far. The system itself is built to withstand those kinds of external criticisms, and so dissenters have all the power of a gnat nibbling on an elephant’s leg. They simply don’t have the authority needed to make the changes that would be necessary to fix evangelicalism’s problems, and they aren’t going to be able to convince enough of the people who do have that authority that such a change is necessary.
And so Yolanda Pierce’s beautiful, heartfelt cry was simply a shout against the wind, as Lambchop put it so well, as far as the people who needed to hear it most were concerned:
This [entrenched, endemic racism] is why you are shouting into the wind, in other words. You are fascinating entertainment, a side show, whose fervent plea will inevitably be understood as a misperception of reality, you poor dear.
At least, she’ll be viewed with that kind of paternalistic benevolent indulgence unless and until she begins to pose a serious threat to Christian leaders’ power–at which point they have a variety of means at their disposal with which to suppress her completely. I saw that reining-in process myself many times when I was Christian, and I saw it happen on every level from personal relationships (husbands reining in wives; parents reining in children) to bigger groups (pastors reining in problematic members).
The Principles of Power.
These stories all illustrate the principles of power.
1. Those in power seek more power, and they don’t like to share.
2. Power is the meta-religion that undergirds and transcends labels.
3. People who love power have one overriding and overarching goal: to protect their power.
That’s why I don’t view money as the root of all evil. Money’s nothing but the manifestation of power and one of the ways that power is expressed. People who seem to love money actually love what money provides to them. (And that’s a good thing. The idea of loving money itself is pretty ickie!)
One of the biggest perks to having a lot of money in authoritarian groups like toxic Christianity is that to people in those groups, money often represents power. Fundagelicals in particular generally consider wealth to be a visible sign of divine approval and encouragement, while poverty in turn is seen as a visible sign of the opposite: a punishment from their god and a sign that the poverty-stricken person is doing something horribly wrong. Since Christians who believe this teaching think that their god actually wants them to be wealthy, anyone who is not wealthy is obviously not following their god’s instructions and performing his will–since doing so would make that person wealthy!
Even in churches that appear to eschew prosperity gospel, this notion of success meaning divine approval can infect members’ thinking. It’s not hard to see that the wealthiest people in a church often end up controlling its internal politics–with church leaders also being forced to “court” these wealthy congregants by offering them perks and input that nobody else gets in order to induce them to donate generously at some point or to leave their estates to the church after they die. (A while ago in comments an ex-Christian who’d been a church leader actually revealed this especially-unsavory aspect of the church sausage-making operation–it was very eye-opening!) Within denominations and church milieus, as well, wealthier churches tend to do the talking for the rest of their sister churches.
The Have-Nots, Jockeying.
The key really is power itself. In broken systems, people lacking power are at the mercy of everyone above them in the system’s hierarchy of power. The only way to escape abuse and predation is to gain more power somehow. Wealth represents the easiest way to get power, but there are certainly others. The further up the hierarchy someone goes, the more power they have and the fewer people can command (and therefore potentially abuse) that person.
And that’s why it’s not just the leaders who perpetuate the broken system.
The less-powerful people within that system will aim only to break into the upper echelons so they can hold power themselves and escape the poor treatment that rains upon those lacking power–so they can in turn rain down poor treatment upon those beneath them in the power structure. Because they hope to one day wield power in their own right, very few of them will hear the calls for reform issued by the religion’s growing number of dissenters. Some of them have worked for decades to win at the broken system; they’re not going to happily quit playing the game entirely.
That, unfortunately, is what it’s going to take.
Without dismantling Christianity’s power structures to the last standing stones and discarding its entire notion of top-down unilateral power held by a select privileged group that is immune to oversight or criticism, there is no way the religion can be overhauled. But the only people who can make those changes are the people in that select privileged group–and there is nothing about such a project that leads to their benefit. They would only lose power in such a scenario.
The resulting system would be much more fair, just, and compassionate. It would be far less predatory and far more merciful to those who do end up victimized. It would be focusing far less effort on hiding its flaws and punishing dissenters, leaving more energy for the social justice, recruitment, and self-improvement programs that the religion’s leaders say they want to put in motion.
But that system concentrates far less power in the hands of that select group. They would no longer enjoy a life of ease and luxury, unquestioning obedience from people too afraid to resist or question their orders, guaranteed immunity from criticism, and near-immunity from any offenses they commit against others. They would be fully accountable to their followers–both financially and personally–and would face removal if those followers didn’t like the answers they were getting to their questions.
And fundagelicals have shown us very clearly that they would rather go down with their sinking ship than endure those changes.