Lakewood 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.