Something for Nothing: the Greed at the Heart of Christianity

Something for Nothing: the Greed at the Heart of Christianity April 25, 2015
This isn't going to end well for anybody but the cat. (Credit: Freshita Maluven, Flickr, CC-NoDeriv license.)
This isn’t going to end well for anybody but the cat. (Credit: Freshita Maluven, Flickr, CC-NoDeriv license.)

Last time, we talked about fear. Today, we’ll talk about greed and how it figures prominently in the worldview of modern Christianity.

A story ricocheting around the news lately concerns the prosperity gospel preacher Creflo Dollar, who recently asked his followers to give him a USD$65 million dollar plane because that is what he thought he needed to spread the gospel (how did people manage before private planes?). In the wake of considerable pushback and criticism, he removed the grifting request, but he’s back and more belligerent than ever and blaming Satan for all the backlash.

So basically it was just another day in Prosperity Gospel Land.

It’s astonishing to me that, given a Bible filled with criticism of what wealth does to people and admonitions about how corrupting money is, and a “Savior” who not only had not one single good thing to say about the having or pursuing of wealth but who also seemed to have a major hard-on for poverty, self-denial, and charity, modern Christianity is filled to the brim with people who genuinely see nothing wrong with wealth and have dozens of self-serving rationalizations for why it’s totally okay for them to pursue the acquisition of obscene amounts of money and stuff. It’s nauseating. Not for nothing was prosperity gospel named one of the worst ideas of the last decade! In a country where income inequality is getting so ridiculously out of hand and at a time when middle- and lower-class people’s finances have never been more precarious, this has got to be the worst and most egregious outpourings of toxic Christianity there is!

Where did all this greed come from? Was it always there, or did something in our culture let it happen?

Christianity in theory turned those old ideas about “might makes right” upside down. But in practice, it perpetuated them just fine, and I suspect that it started doing so very soon after the books of the New Testament got penned and edited by their almost-entirely-unknown authors. Subsequently, Christianity’s emissaries have a long history of playing into local customs of those they seek to convert and encouraging believers to see Christianity’s own supernatural entities in terms of what they offer adherents in strength and power. In The Last Apocalypse, a popular history about European history at 1000CE, we see this exchange between Bishop Thangbrand and an Icelandic chieftain he wanted to convert (p.39):

“What power does this angel [Michael] have?” the chief asked.
“Great power,” replied the bishop. “He weighs everything you do, both good and evil, and he is so merciful that the good weighs more heavily with him than the evil.”
“I would like to have him as my friend,” the chief replied.
. . . Through Thangbrand’s ministrations, Christ was presented as a friend. He was a friend you could trust. But he was also a warrior-king. Jesus Christ was conquering all of Europe. . . [he] had befriended and strengthened and protected the mighty King Olaf Trygvesson.

Though Catholicism always technically considered poverty a virtue, they used material wealth to dazzle the flocks and to bring about and reinforce belief. Did you ever wonder why those massive cathedrals were so fancy and why the Renaissance and medieval Church seemed so in love with flaunting material wealth? There is not much difference between the people in charge of a medieval basilica like St. Peter’s and those in charge of any megachurch in the modern world. But while their own priests and nuns were supposed to take vows of poverty, those vows were largely a perfunctory show of piety; woe betide the Pope who tried to interfere with a priest’s attempt to give a bastard his due inheritance. When tragedy struck, like happened in the Sack of Rome, Jacopo Sadoleto wasn’t alone at the time in asserting that the vicious attack on the Mother City had been not a frenzied political move that’d gotten way out of hand, but rather a divine judgment. “If we’re good, we get rewarded, but if we’re bad, we get punished” is a sentiment that does not leap forth fully-formed from the modern age. When Christian pastors assert that this or that disaster (or imagined future disaster) is some punishment, they’re getting it from long, long tradition.

In America, that thinking may have existed from the get-go, thanks to Protestants being in large part the ones settling here originally. Martin Luther might have taken a vow of poverty when he first got started as a monk in the Catholic church, but once he started demanding reformation he quickly unveiled a new attitude toward wealth: that it was meant as a blessing from “God” and given to those who’d use it to the religion’s best advantage. The Puritans continued that thinking, reasoning that if “God” allowed someone to be very wealthy and that person refused that wealth, then that person was sinful because he or she had refused to be a “steward” of that money. So if someone had something nice, then it was because that person’s god bestowed it upon that person because he or she was worthy of having it. They weren’t strictly speaking into prosperity gospel, not quite yet, because they hadn’t quite made the connection between poverty and unworthiness, only between wealth and worthiness, but don’t worry, it was coming. The Second Great Awakening in the mid-1800s all but obsessed itself with enshrining what we’d today call the Protestant work ethic into an understanding of godliness and virtue.

By World War II, Oral Roberts was preaching what would be a recognizable form of the doctrine, though he called it something slightly different. Preachers discovered that newly-prosperous, newly-upwardly-mobile Christians liked hearing that it was okay to be wealthy and okay to pursue material wealth, and they played to that desire. They discovered in turn that poorer Christians liked hearing that people who deserved to be rich would eventually become so, and that there was a definite, foolproof angle that poor people could use to get rich: obedience to Jesus’ demands.

Think about what it must be like to be poor and to aspire to wealth. If people want wealth but don’t have the skills or opportunities needed to become wealthy, then prosperity gospel’s simple, easy-to-understand instructions must seem downright irresistible! Preachers tell their flocks that they deserve nice houses and SUVs, and that people who deserve wealth always get it while those who do not, get passed over for blessings; little wonder that link asserts that this exact kind of preaching may have had a hand in the American housing crisis a few years ago. The kind of preaching these conjobs use may seem painfully obvious to people aware of these tactics, but it works on those who are desperate or those whose reach far exceeds their grasp; that same author mentions a Pew survey that discovered that 73% of religious Latinos believed that faith is rewarded with wealth, as well as other surveys that indicate that roughly half of their respondents would agree as well.

Seductive, though, isn’t it?

“You deserve your level of wealth.”

“If you want it enough and obey Jesus’ commandments well enough, you’ll get whatever you desire.”

“If you do X and Y and Z, you will absolutely get filthy, filthy rich.”

“If you’re not doing X and Y and Z, you deserve to be poor.”

“Everybody gets exactly what they deserve.”

There’s little wonder to me that right-wing Christians are flocking to pseudo-libertarian teachings like those exemplified by the hypocrite Ayn Rand. There’s a real “screw all y’all–I’ma get mine” mentality to both prosperity gospel and her drivel. You see, these blessings are coming only to the people who are working the angle here–not to those who do not. This wealth, these possessions, this supposed fabulous luck, it all comes to “God’s children,” not to the starving atheists in China or the brown Catholics in South America or the terrified Muslims in war-torn Africa or the Near East. This god ignores totally those other, far more pressing needs so that a middle-aged car salesman can have ponies for his homeschooled kids and a pond for the three-bedroom McMansion he fully expected Jesus to provide funds for him to buy Any Day Now™ in a Houston suburb. I’ve personally heard Christians jabber about being “blessed” by discovering extra funds in their bank account and promotions at work, and all I can even think about is all the people suffering from cancer and facing threats to their lives every single day–many of those people Christians.

A mind controlled by prosperity gospel is mind-blowingly narcissistic, unthinkably selfish and self-centered, even cruel to those passed over–when the mere existence of such poor souls is even remembered. If this god were real and really showering his already-privileged followers and pastors with wealth while ignoring everybody else who needs help, I’d question that being’s sanity, intelligence, justice, grace, and mercy–but those who buy into prosperity gospel see none of these shortcomings. Who cares about kids with leukemia or people facing rape or LGBTQ kids being bullied to death? Who cares about warzones and innocent prisoners sitting on Death Row? George Adams sold an expensive penis extension pickup truck within four days of hitting the sales floor instead of the two weeks it normally takes new salespeople. PRAISE JESUS!

Every time a Christian talks like that, I am just stunned.

Not satisfied with how effectively they’ve corrupted Christianity at home, the largely-American purveyors of this pernicious filth are spreading it elsewhere now in a wretched sort of imperialist dominionism, especially in countries wracked by income inequality issues whose Christians envy what they see as the wealth and ease of American Christians–and who see prosperity gospel as a way of improving their chances of getting a bigger piece of the pie. Some of those countries, like Nigeria, might have a culture or a strong tradition of client-patron relationships. Some of these foreign Christians maybe don’t realize just how disreputable most of these evangelists are even to their peers back home–or are desperate enough to overlook the flaws in such preaching.

It’s not that Christians themselves aren’t speaking out against this kind of get-rich-quick scamming. But they don’t seem to have a unified way to talk about the problem. Jonathan Merritt lashed out against how Christians’ misunderstandings of the Bible lead them to pervert and distort its actual teachings, calling verses like Philippians 4:13 “talismans” that Christians wield to turn a being they consider the most powerful in the whole universe into a “divine sugar daddy” who’ll give them their every single whim and desire–while still insisting that “Jesus” gives people all the strength they need to get through dark times, which will doubtless come as a surprise to the Christians who give in to their pain every year. I guess it works, as long as it works, except when it doesn’t work.

Another pastor rails against Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen’s unbridled greed and money-lust but still can’t bring himself to confront the elephant in the room–wealth. It’s downright sad and hilarious to me that he writes, without even one hint of irony or self-awareness, “There is nothing wrong with being wealthy. I love it when Christians are rich. That should mean more money to fund the mission.”

And if a Christian doesn’t get whatever was demanded or expected? Well, then the fault lies with the Christian, not with the message itself. I’ve heard plenty of Christians agonize about exactly this fear when their prayers weren’t answered: they must have done something wrong. The Christian who didn’t get the plane or the mansion or the gorgeous girl/guy must have prayed wrong, or had some sin blocking the blessing to come, or wasn’t quite confident enough. The message must be faultless. Because if the message is not faultless, then that might mean that Christians are not guaranteed wealth and joy in life simply because they followed “this one stupid trick.”

I’m so glad to be out of that mess. I can see prosperity gospel for what it is: a bunch of preachers taking advantage of gullible, desperate people whose hope outweighs their common sense.

And I can see this doctrine for the black mark that it is against Christianity.

As a non-Christian, I don’t care if someone is rich or poor. I do however notice when Christians use wealth as a barometer of obedience or holiness in direct contradiction to the Bible they claim to idolize, and when Christians’ love of wealth leads them to weird rationalizations around pursuing it and showing it off. I notice when Christians distort their own ignorance of the financial world or some math mistake they made in their checkbook ledgers into a “miracle” to be trotted out around their dazzled friends as PROOF YES PROOF that the Christian god exists and likes them best.

And yes, I notice very much when Christians waste a lot of money on stuff that is totally unrelated to what they say they value. When I hear about Joyce Meyer’s private jet and expensive vacation houses, I think about how many people she could have helped. On the smaller scale, when I hear about Christians gloating about just how exactly how much money they found or were given by whatever means as if it’s some massive miracle, I wonder why their god couldn’t have helped one of the many other folks–Christians included–who need help desperately, or why their god is so careful to only give them exactly as much as they need to not get evicted or to buy the day’s groceries. This god is supposed to be omnipotent and made an entire universe full of stuff that humans may well never see, much less understand, but he’s penny-wise and pound-foolish, as well as a remarkably poor judge of priorities.

As with their relabeling of Christian hate as love, though, Christians have ready answers for such criticisms–“it’s the love of money that’s the problem, not money itself!” and the like. None of those answers are persuasive or compelling to those who don’t already buy into prosperity gospel’s ideas. I can see why. Just as evangelists discovered over a thousand years ago, having a god who’s only helpful after death isn’t nearly as good a selling point as one who is helpful in this life as well as the next. For all its claims of a “light yoke” and “easy burden,” Christianity makes a lot of demands of its followers. I can definitely understand someone wanting a little more return on the investment–and a return that is ever-so-slightly easier to perceive.

And therein lies the doctrine’s really big problem: it doesn’t actually work.

Prosperity gospel is awful all the way around, but maybe it’s for the best that it’s total bollocks. Christians put their faith into these heavenly confidence games without having the faintest idea if the scheme actually works. At least multi-level marketing scams ask adherents to buy sell physical products to customers to avoid prosecution! But these preachers promise followers huge returns on investments without even that little real-world assurance of legitimacy. No studies have ever demonstrated that prosperity gospel works; it is 100% wishful thinking. Any return that believers ever see is explainable through luck, their own ignorance or effort, and more than a little false pattern recognition and confirmation bias.

That means that all these Christians talking about prosperity gospel are alienating non-believers, destroying the faith of their own believers, and making themselves look like greedy little grabby toddlers for absolutely nothing.

That has got to just suck.

Thankfully, it’s not my life anymore.

If being Christian to assuage one’s fears is nothing more than loss avoidance, as one of our commenters so brilliantly put it recently, then surely I could add that being Christian to get tons of free stuff is nothing more than opportunism.

I don’t get why any supernatural being powerful enough to merit being considered a god would fall for people joining the faith with those motivations. Maybe Jesus should look into a prenup before he heads off for his marriage feast–this just doesn’t sound like a marriage made in heaven to me, though I’m sure the spouses involved would be quick to say they love him for his humanity.


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