The Prosperity Gospel and the Vengeful God Meet Hurricane Harvey

1Lakewood Church in Houston is the nation’s largest.  Occupying a former basketball arena, it can seat 16,000 people.  And, apparently, on most Sunday mornings, it does just that.  In the midst of the tragedy of Hurricane Harvey unfolding in Houston and East Texas, a lot of people noticed one thing about Lakewood Church:  it wasn’t open.  There has been something of an internet firestorm swirling around Lakewood’s famous pastor, Joel Osteen, who according to some reports has a net worth of about $50 million and lives in a mansion worth about $10.5 million.  Like most pastors.  It seems that, eventually, Lakewood’s pastor and its leadership felt the pressure of their critics and finally decided that they would make the church’s massive facility available as a shelter.  But much of the outrage centers on the fact that opening the church as a shelter was not Lakewood’s first instinct.

That firestorm was followed by another, this one swirling around the controversial and outspoken figure of Ann Coulter.  Ms. Coulter tweeted, “I don’t believe Hurricane Harvey is God’s punishment for Houston electing a lesbian mayor.  But that is more credible than ‘climate change.'”   Many wondered why Ms. Coulter would bother to be so specific about her not believing that the hurricane was the act of a vengeful God — or even to mention it at all — if she wasn’t actually entertaining the notion.  And, to be sure, there are those who are quite happy to believe that Hurricane Harvey is a manifestation of some sort of divine wrath.   It is a well-worn piece of “theology” that always seems to emerge in the aftermath of tragedy.

Lakewood’s initial reluctance to open its doors (when many other faith communities were doing so) and Coulter’s offer of publicity to the idea that the hurricane is related to God’s vengeance are both signs of the way in which so many people have become utterly alienated from the authentic expressions of their own religious traditions, twisting them into faiths that confirm their own tribal sensibilities and give them permission to abandon those who are vulnerable.

In Lakewood’s case, their reluctance is rooted in the theology Mr. Osteen espouses.  He is perhaps the foremost preacher of the “Prosperity Gospel” in the United States, if not the world.   It is an interpretation of the gospel that is hard to reconcile with most of what Jesus actually says and does, and relies heavily on a particular thread of the Judeo-Christian tradition that says that if one is prosperous, it is because God has blessed you.  Which means, of course, that the opposite is also true:  if you please God, God will bless you with prosperity.  I once heard a portion of a sermon Mr. Osteen gave, in which he said you could always tell people who went to Lakewood, because they were just a certain kind of person — the clear implication being that they were somehow better.

The theology that Mr. Osteen and his church espouse is not really Christian in any recognizable way — not when you take the history of the Christian tradition into account. But, beyond that, it is a theology that encourages people to think that if you have pleased God, prosperity will be yours, and bad things will not happen to you.  Hurricane Harvey upsets that fine theological balance.  A number of people of Mr. Osteen’s own very wealthy neighborhood had to be rescued from flood waters.  The hurricane did not discriminate between the prosperous and the poor.  I suspect that part of the reason Lakewood was slow to think about how it could help people was because, according to its theology, such a thing should not have happened.  And the dawning reality of it has, I suspect, created a kind of theological paralysis.   Mr. Osteen’s challenge now will be to somehow reconcile his Prosperity Gospel with recent events.

One can only hope that he does not retreat into the Vengeful God paradigm that Ms. Coulter took the time to advertise in wishing to say she did not believe it.  Drawing again on a particular thread of the biblical tradition, people who are not as generous as Ms. Coulter in denying that they might believe such a thing imagine that any tragedy is the result of divine disfavor.  Their image of God is one in which God freely rains down disaster on those who displease Him.   And they point to any number of passages from the Hebrew Bible that they believe affirm this, and a few from the New Testament.   Though, again, such a view can hardly be reconciled with most of what Jesus says and does.  But perhaps it is more comfortable to tell one’s self that God is punishing your community for the things that you don’t like about it than to admit that perhaps bad things do, indeed, happen to good people.  Sometimes very bad things.

For Christians, it should be clear that we are meant to process the events of the world around us through the lens of the life and teaching of Jesus.  It is that same Jesus who works so hard, as the gospels tell us, to reframe some of the older beliefs that belonged to his tradition and can be found in parts of the Bible.  Jesus was very clear that God does not afflict people.  Jesus was very clear that God does not make people vulnerable, but rather seeks to be near those who are vulnerable and to support them.   Jesus makes it clear that wealth is, in no way, an indication of whether God likes you or not.  If you find that difficult to believe, then I suggest you read the gospels.  Try Mark — it’s short.

Jesus also makes it clear that our human ways of thinking about these things often lead us into trouble.  When our God becomes too much like us — exulting in prosperity and confirming our prejudices by punishing those we don’t like — then we have wandered far from the God who is, and have fallen on our knees before an idol of our own making.  Which is, perhaps, the greatest danger to which people of faith are subject.

So donate to support the people of Houston and East Texas — and stop trying to come up with a theology that will neatly explain why it happened by scapegoating other people.    Science can tell us why it happened.  Theology is meant to teach us how to respond to it, and to break open our hearts (and our doors) to our own vulnerability, and that of others.

Giving Birth to God

mother-of-God-the-sign

Today is set aside in the church’s calendar to celebrate Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  The title by which she is most well-known in the Western world is as the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that has tended to lead to a preoccupation with Mary’s virginal status.  The Roman Catholic tradition followed this road to an interesting set of conclusions unique to that tradition and not shared by the rest of the Christian world:  the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which maintained that Mary was born “without sin”, thereby setting her apart from the rest of humanity, and the doctrine of the Assumption, which says that upon Mary’s death, her body was taken up or “assumed” into heaven.  All of these factors, at least two of which have to do with a desire to maintain Mary is some set of purity, have, I think, obscured what this feast day really calls us to reflect upon:  the courage required to give birth to God in the world.

In the Eastern Christian world, the most well-known title for Mary is the Greek word “theotokos”, which means God-bearer.  It is a title that does not emphasize Mary as a virgin, and the Eastern church deeply disagrees with the Roman Catholic idea of immaculate conception that separates Mary from the rest of the human race.  The title God-bearer emphasizes, instead, what Mary did:  she was the bearer of God incarnate in Christ into the world.   And, in a very real sense, her courage to do so is a model for the courage that all followers of Jesus are called to have, the courage to allow Christ to be born in us, and the courage to be bearers of the Christ into the pain and brokenness of the world.

To me, this seems like a particularly urgent calling in today’s world.  Across the country and around the world there is a rising tide of fear, hatred, prejudice, violence, nationalism, homophobia, and misogyny.   We stand facing environmental crises that are so overwhelming that many people are tempted to deny their existence.  It seems that a world we had thought to have made progress toward a more enlightened way of living is slipping back into darkness.   And, sadly, too many people are using religion as a justification for that slipping backward, and in doing so, are twisting our religious traditions out of shape.

So on this day when we remember the courage of Mary is saying “Yes” to becoming a bearer of God’s light into the world, let us also remember that this same invitation is given to us.  May we, too, have the courage to say yes.  May we have the courage that shines through in every word of Mary’s song:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

The Rotten Myth at the Heart of America

John-Birch-Society-American-Flag-hero-EIn the wake of the hatred, bigotry, and violence on display this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the wide perception that the President of the United States was slow to clearly condemn the white supremacist movement that lay behind it, the African American CEO of Merck Pharmaceuticals, Kenneth Frazier, resigned from a presidential advisory board related to American industry.  His conscience would not allow him to remain a member, and I respect him deeply for his decision.

In his statement, he included the following:  “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry, and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal (emphasis added).”

While I agree with the point Mr. Frazier is making, and while I fully endorse the idea that all people are created equal, I’m afraid that Mr. Frazier’s statement makes a critical error by saying that this notion that all people are created equal is an American ideal.  The sad truth, I’m afraid, is that it is not, and it really never has been.

Mr. Frazier is not the only one to make such statements in the aftermath of this weekend’s violence.  There have been many invocations from all sorts of different people extolling the American ideal of equality and its betrayal by the white supremacist movement.  But I think it is important that we not distort our own history, which is closely tied to our current reality.

If one were to ask where this alleged American ideal of universal equality is to be found, most people would point to the Declaration of Independence, which reads, in part, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights….”    At first glance, this statement would seem to support the alleged American ideal of universal equality.  Until one stops to consider what the signers of the Declaration understood the words “all men” to refer to.  First in their definition would have come white men.  And then, perhaps, white women — although, they did not see women as possessing the same rights as men.  For example, when the new republic was set up, women were not given the right to vote.  Their definition of “all men” did not include black men or women — and, indeed, some of the signers of the Declaration were slave owners, who did not see their slaves as really being fully human.

All of this points to one clear truth:   that the men who were most intimately involved in establishing the ideological and philosophical foundations of the American Revolution and of the republic which was born out of it did not believe in universal equality.  They did not believe that all human beings regardless of sex or color were all the same.  And realizing this should cause our mental image of early America as a light to the nations to flicker more than a little.

I do not wish to imply that the founders were not visionaries in their own way.  They imagined a form of government that had never existed before in our world, and they expanded the boundaries of democracy, self-governance, and opportunity further than they had ever been pushed before.  But they did not push them as far as they could have. For all their genius, for all their vision, they stopped short of enshrining any notion of universal human equality into our foundational documents.  And as the American project got underway, the notion that there were those who were not entitled to full equality lingered in American society.

The impact of the limits of human equality in American life erupted in the Civil War, whose conclusion was indeed the elimination of slavery, but not the abolition of the idea that African Americans were somehow less than white Americans. The result of the Civil War was, perhaps, that African Americans began to be seen more as human beings and less as property, but they were certainly seen as second-class human beings.  This legacy erupted again in the Civil Rights movement, whose conclusion convinced many white, liberal Americans that the problem of racism in America had been definitively dealt with — though I suspect non-white Americans could have told us that wasn’t true, and probably tried to do so, though most of us were no longer listening.

Now, in 2017, we see another eruption of the myth of American equality:  that there continue to be, in the heart of our nation, people who do not accept the idea that all people are created equal, and are prepared to loudly proclaim their belief that Native Americans, African Americans, Jews, Mexicans, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and others who do not look or act like themselves have no place among us.  They were not born with these beliefs.  They have been taught to believe these things, and that teaching follows a lineage that moves all the way back to the founding of the country, and of the failure of the American project to truly embrace the full equality of all.

So let us not say that universal equality is an American ideal.  It is not, and it never has been.  But that is not to say that we should not seek to make it an American ideal.  Just as there are many in this country who do not believe all people are equal, there are many who do.   Many more than lived in this country when it was founded.  But this will not be an easy goal to reach.  We must come to terms with our true legacy, which is one of exclusion.  We must come to terms with the limits of the vision on which America was founded.  We must learn to take from that vision what is true and lasting, and reject what needs to be cast aside.  We must begin the American project again, and dedicate ourselves to a proposition that is entirely absent from our founding documents:  that all people are truly created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.