Archive for the ‘Of Gospel and Heresies’ Category

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt. 5, conclusion)

August 25, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything, pt. 5

 

James seems to ask, if you are not stealing from your workers, how did you get so rich? And if you are not too much in love with your money and your luxuries, why are you so rich? But is this what he’s doing? Is this an indictment of the wealthy as a whole? Is it a call to repentance, a reminder that they need to be honest and to love God more than money? Paul reminds his readers that “not many of you were of noble birth,” not to condemn those who were but only to remind them all not to think too much of themselves (1 Cor 1:26-29). Therefore he tells his readers in Corinth that those who have should live as if they did not have, those who buy should not live as if they could hold their possessions forever, and that those who live in the world should not love it too much (1 Cor 7:29-31). When you have a lot of money, James and Paul are both saying, you are tempted to love your money and your goodies more than you love your Lord and what is good. Money indeed can change everything: your relationship to God, to your neighbor, even how you see yourself.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In the Torah, those who have and those who need are tied together in God’s covenant; the rich are called to lend to the poor and to give generously. James writes, “Faith without works is dead;” it is in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked that our faith comes alive. Without a hungry person to feed, the rich person’s faith could not come alive. And without a rich person living out his or her faith, the hungry person might not live at all. Both need each other, one to live and the other to live spiritually. Both can live in community, by the grace of God since our own human instincts are not sufficient, giving joyfully and lovingly and receiving joyfully and gratefully. We all get our turn to give and to receive, and everything we give and everything we receive comes from God, belongs to God and should serve God. Money changes everything. It changes us, it changes our relationships to others, and it changes our relationship to God. It can become a force that divides us, rich versus poor, proud versus humble, self-righteous versus repentant. Or, it can become a means of building up the body of Christ, as each person does what he or she can to build up God’s Kingdom using whatever resources God has given. Do what God commands you this day, that there should be no poor among you.

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Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything, pt. 4

August 17, 2017

For Christians, the Hebrew Scriptures are the first covenant, which we humans broke through our injustices and sins. Even as this sin bore its fruit in the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian Exile, God promised through the prophets that there would be a new covenant, one not written on stone tablets but in the hearts of all of God’s people. We don’t believe that God simply replaced the old covenant; God fulfilled it and continues to fulfill it today, because even if all of us prove false, God is always faithful to us and to the promises (Romans 3:3-4). And as before God called slaves out of bondage in Egypt to be God’s own free people, so we believe that through Jesus God called out people from slavery to sin and to the corruption of this world, to live as free children of God together. The apostles and evangelists who wrote to the early Church saw themselves as joining in Christ’s work to start a new sort of kingdom of Heaven, a society of people living on Earth but living by God’s rules. And just as Moses had warned the people not to be led astray by the wealth and pomp of this world, they wrote to the early churches to warn them that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (I Timothy 6:10). None wrote more forcefully against the corrupting idolatry of wealth than did James. It isn’t that having money is in itself a sin. Some philosophies and religions teach that all attachments to this world or enjoyment of any sort are spiritual faults, but that is not the teaching of the Bible. What James says is troublesome about wealth is its power to turn us against each other. We all are naturally attracted to rich, successful-looking people. Psychologists and anthropologists say it’s an instinctual human trait, part of our being social animals. We are all drawn towards the Alpha, either to follow or to try to raise our own status by association. The church is made up of humans, and shares this same tendency. A billionaire or celebrity is seen as a role model by some, as a natural leader by others. To still others the rich person may just be a mark of distinction, something to brag about or to quietly pat oneself on the back about. “Did you see who was sitting right in front of me in church today?” Once the prominent families in churches had their own pews where everyone could see them, with their names written on metal plates. Today, the super-rich and super-famous don’t feel the need to show up or show off in church, so we get fewer chances for that sort of “American Idol” worship. But we don’t have to look just at the church itself; as we move through the world on the other six days of the week, we know how often we give reflexive, uncritical deference to the rich and famous, and how often we despise the poor. Wealth divides us from one another, not by itself but by our allowing it to play on our love of social hierarchies. James reminds us that while we may think the rich are better people who deserve our deference, in fact they are often no better than anyone else, maybe even worse, maybe even enemies of us and of God. Are they not the ones who drag you into court? James asks.

We who aren’t rich are divided from one another because of our tendency to idolize wealth. And the rich are also divided from others for this same reason. Just as it is human nature for the rest of us to bow before wealth and celebrity, it is human nature for wealth and celebrity to expect the rest of us to bow down. That does not mean it is inevitable. It does mean that when it does not happen, it is by the grace of God. And too often, it is the churches that get in the way of this grace, by flattering the rich and endorsing their sense of superiority. One of the founders of the Prosperity Gospel, Norman Vincent Peale, used to lace his sermons with examples of rich people held up as role models. The millionaires who came to his sermons were far more likely to hear themselves praised as paragons of virtue than they were to hear about some old prophet in a hair shirt eating locusts and wild honey. They were rich because they were good, and the proof they were good was that they were rich. They had harnessed the power of positive thinking; and what is faith, if not expecting good things?

James had a rather different view of the wealthy. He writes:

 

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure[a] for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)

 

“The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out!” Who would do such a thing? Who would refuse to pay someone who has done work for him or her? Our president, for one.[1] But he is just one of many; in fact, rich corporations not paying their bills to smaller family businesses, or paying late or paying a fraction, is so common that it is often defended in court as “standard business practices.”[2] And managers forcing employees to work “off the clock,” refusing to pay for overtime or simply refusing to pay workers at all is shockingly common.[3] The Prosperity Gospel tells all of us that the rich are to be praised and imitated, because their success shows that they are not only better than the rest of us, but they are also blessed by God. James seems to think their wealth is an indictment, and they have to show that they are not in fact guilty of sins against God and their neighbors.

[1] Steve Reilly, USA Today Exclusive: Hundreds Allege Donald Trump Doesn’t Pay His Bills;” USA Today, (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/06/09/donald-trump-unpaid-bills-republican-president-laswuits/85297274/) also Emily Flitter, “Special Report: Trump’s Art of the Deal—Dispute Your Bills;” Reuters November 13, 2015 (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-trump-bills-specialrepor-idUSKCN0T214Q20151113)

[2] Stephanie Storm, “Big Corporations Pay Later, Squeezing Their Suppliers;” The New York Times April 6, 2015 (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/07/business/big-companies-pay-later-squeezing-their-suppliers.html) as one example.

[3] “Wage Theft Costing Low-Income Workers Billions;” NBC News September 28, 2014 (http://www.nbcnews.com/business/economy/wage-theft-costing-low-income-workers-billions-n212406)

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt. 3)

August 15, 2017

Is there a way to resolve this? Observation tells us that both reflect reality. The Torah tells God’s people how they should live, and promises that if they do there will be no poor; it does not, however, seem to be saying that no one would ever be even temporarily in need. Rather, its provisions, such as the year of jubilee and freedom for slaves, allows that those who have fallen into crushing debt should not be permanently impoverished; eventually they, or their families would be reinstated as free people and property owners, able to contribute to the economic life of the nation. The Prophets tell us that all too often human beings ignore God’s law and its call to give opportunity to the poor; when this happens, God judges the nation that has sided with the rich and powerful oppressors and destroys it. Those books such as Psalms and Proverbs, known collectively at The Writings, depict both what is and what God wants to be. These were composed on a long period of time, from the days of David until the return from the Babylonian Exile, and reflect the people’s evolving understanding of how God works among us. As Calvin says, God “condescends.” To our ears that sounds snooty, but the literal meaning of the word is joyful; God comes down to us to be with us on our level. God gives us God’s truth as far as we are able to understand it, and may reveal more to us tomorrow than we were able to handle yesterday. When people needed to know what being a godly people could mean and should mean, the Torah laid out an ideal vision of social harmony. When people needed to know how to live their personal lives to be the best they could be, writings such as Proverbs taught personal standards to follow, including both lessons on avoiding laziness and on practicing generosity towards the poor. And when people needed to know that their society had gone astray, that the rich were using the promises of the Torah to justify their own oppressive greed, and what God was going to do about that, God sent the Prophets with words of judgment and promises of redemption.

To be continued.  Next:  New Testament perspectives.

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt 2)

August 7, 2017

The prophets testify that the people did not, in fact, obey, and that there were poor in the land and often they were terribly oppressed. We read that, despite what they were commanded, merchants kept dishonest scales that would read light when weighing the grain they bought from the farmers, but heavy when selling the same grain later. The rich felt no guilt sleeping in cloaks seized from poor persons as collateral on a debt, or seizing the children of debtors as slaves and not releasing them when the jubilee year came. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others announce God’s judgment on those who oppresses the poor; but most relentless is Amos. The book of Amos starts out like it must have been a well-received sermon. He follows a pattern, “For three transgressions of _______, and for four, I will not withhold punishment, says the LORD:….” Again and again he calls out the sins of Israel’s hated enemies, the neighboring kingdoms of Moab, Philistine, Gaza and so on. His audience must have been cheering him on. “Preach it, brother! Tell it! Give’em hell, Amos!” And then he gets to his own nation, Israel: does he say, “We will crush those wicked people, because we’re the good guys”? No, he does not!  Amos preaches:

 

 

 Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.  (Amos 2:6-8)

 

Amos warns the Israelites that God is angry with them, angrier than at the Philistines or the Edomites for their war crimes, or at Judah for its religious failures; God is angry at the Israelites, because they have oppressed the poor, their own neighbors and kin, and grown rich and happy off their injustice. No matter how righteous they may be in their own eyes, no matter how bad their enemies are, they will be punished because they have gotten rich by impoverishing their countrymen.

If we stopped with Deuteronomy, we might think that every rich person is being rewarded by God and every poor person punished. If we stopped with the Prophets, we might assume that every rich person was someone who hadn’t been punished by God yet, but would be. John Calvin taught that when we read Scripture, we need to read it entire, and bring the unclear passages in conversation with the clear ones. In saying this, he recognized that there would be points like this that were unclear, either because they contradicted our expectations or seemed to contradict each other. Even in a single book, like Proverbs, we see this sort of tension. Proverbs 13:23 says, “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice;” while Proverbs 20:13 states, “Do not love sleep, or else you will come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread.” So Proverbs tells us that poverty is caused by the laziness of the poor person, but elsewhere says it is because of oppression and injustice. We sin if we ignore either possibility, since both are the word of God.

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt. 1)

August 1, 2017

 

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything

 

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in,  and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,”  have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?  Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.  Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?  Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

                   You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors

—–James 2:1-9

 

I read on the internet that nostalgia for the 1980s is stronger than ever; and if it’s on the internet it must be true. (I’m still waiting for that miracle hair tonic I bought to work, but the Nigerian prince I’ve been chatting with assures me that it will.) I am never one to question a trend, so I would like to take a moment to remember Cyndi Lauper, a singer whose vocal range was only matched by her far-ranging hairstyles. You may remember that she, like all girls, just wanna have fun, but I always preferred the song “Money Changes Everything.” It’s a bouncy tune, but the first verse tells an old, sad tale: we said we would love each other forever, but I’m leaving you because I found someone new. We loved each other once, but money changes everything.

I said it was an old tale, because it is as old as the Bible. When Moses led a group of escaping slaves into the desert, no one had very much. Each had what they could carry, if that. And God led them forty years in the wilderness, and they lived day to day on the manna they gathered, which would not last and could not be hoarded but had to be received from God a day at a time, so that they could learn that one does not live by bread alone, but by relying solely on every word that comes from the mouth of God. They were equal in their need of God’s faithfulness. But the Torah warns the people not to become complacent when they enter into the land of milk and honey and become comfortable or even rich, not to become self-assured and to think that their own intelligence and industriousness has brought them all this wealth and that they deserve it, when really it is a pure gift to be received with gratitude as a gift.[1]

A good parent prepares and educates the children before they come into their own money, so that when they do they will know how to handle it and not waste it on things that are harmful, or use it to hurt others. In the same way God gave the people laws that would guide their business lives when they settled into towns and became farmers and traders. In Leviticus 19:35-36 we read that God’s people are to be honest in business, and not to cheat each other by having fixed scales to use when they were weighing out grain and produce to be traded. In 19:9-10 he tells them to leave a little something in the fields when they harvest, so that the poor and the immigrant can gather food for themselves. (Imagine that: treating foreigners the same way they were to treat their own citizens! But that’s another sermon.) Every seven years, creditors were to forgive all debts owed to fellow Hebrews (Deut. 15).  There are strict rules for lending to protect the rights and the dignity of the poor person, limiting what the rich lender can take as collateral and what measures the lender can take to collect on the debt (Deut. 24). In Deuteronomy Moses promises, “There need be no poor among you, for God will richly bless you if only you obey;” but later he says, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” Why did God say “there need be no poor among you,” and then “There will always be poor people”? Is it because God knew the people would not obey?

To be continued.  Next:  the prophets.

[1] Deuteronomy 8

Of Gospel and Heresies: Those Ain’t Your Friends

July 15, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies: Those Ain’t Your Friends

A reading from the book of Job, chapter 42, verses seven to nine.

After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.” So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.

 

 

One of the first things I learned in college was that I could save a lot of time in the morning if I stopped shaving. Another thing I learned was that Caymanians hate beards. When I started meeting my Caymanian relatives after I grew my beard, I heard many complaints. My grandmother said to my sister that seeing me with a beard was the greatest tragedy of her life. She was a widow. I’ll let that sit there a bit.

My great-uncle Dillon was more direct. He told me directly that I should shave. I told him that many of my friends at school thought it looked good. He replied, “Those ain’t your friends, they’re your enemies!”

Now, Dillon was a bit of a jerk, and despite what my Caymanian relatives thought or think, I saw several of my friends trying to grow beards after I grew mine so I still think I was onto something. But what I want to focus on today is not my choice of facial styling. I’m interested in that saying. Dillon was PROBABLY not saying that those people who I thought were my friends were really wishing me harm. What he meant was that they were giving me bad advice, they were misinformed, and they were harming me when they tried to help.

Our scripture for today is about three of the best-meaning, least-helpful friends in the whole Bible. We should pay attention to this, both in what they do and what they fail to do. I believe this book has much to teach us today, because we humans are slow and still haven’t learned all the lessons of the book of Job.

First, let’s be clear that they really were good friends. Job 2:11-13 says that they each heard that Job had suffered many calamities, and met together to comfort him. When they saw him, he was so sick and so miserable, having lost his wealth, his children and finally his health, that he was unrecognizable. “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” I can barely manage a few words of consolation at a funeral; they sat with their friend seven days! They didn’t just say they were sorry he was sick; they stayed and shared his pain with him. They didn’t speak until they were spoken too. The writer wants us to understand both the depths of Job’s suffering, and the depths of his friends’ suffering for him. It’s important both for providing us with the emotional background to feel the story, and the information to interpret what happens next.

Finally, Job breaks the silence and curses the day he was born. It is an expression of despair and anguish, an expression of Job’s feeling that his life is miserable, and meaningless. In death, he says, the rich and the poor, the prisoner and the taskmaster, the wicked and the good are all together, and whatever happened before no longer matters. Suffering is bad enough, but meaningless suffering is worse; we need a sense of meaning or a goal to help us keep going through the rough times. Job says he sees no meaning in his life, or in life at all. Perhaps that is why Job’s friends thought a little theology would help. The bulk of the book is a series of admonitions from the friends, and replies from Job. Initially, the eldest friend, Eliphaz, seems to have thought that he was comforting Job. He assured him that life does indeed have meaning. If one is suffering, it is because one has done something wrong. No one suffers meaninglessly or unjustly; God would not be so callous. Therefore, Job need only repent of his sin, and his prosperity will return. Job insists that he has done nothing to deserve misery and suffering; it has just happened to him, and there is no reason why. Later speeches by the friends become more insistent; not only do they seem determined to reveal Job’s supposed guilt for his own good so he can repent, but they begin to get a little angry at him because he seems to be finding fault with God. Their intentions seem to drift from comforting their friend, to analyzing his situation and instructing him, to rebuking him and defending God. What they are saying was, in fact, a common theology of the time. As stated in the book of Deuteronomy, God punishes sin. If Israel lost a battle or was oppressed by an enemy, it was because the nation had sinned. If an individual was sick, that person had sinned, or maybe someone close—God was said to visit the sins of the fathers on their children. And likewise, if someone was well-off, it was because that person was blessed by God, and thus was both virtuous and pious. We see claims like Proverbs 13:4: “A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.” We see this sort of reasoning even in the Gospel of John, the last of the gospels to be written down, when Jesus encounters a man born blind and his disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)

It is an idea that is as old as the earliest written Scriptures and carried through even until today.   Today we call this thinking “the Prosperity Gospel,” and it has been particularly well-suited to the American character. There is certainly Biblical justification for this idea, although many of today’s Prosperity preachers don’t make much use of Scripture. And in some ways, it can be a very comforting idea. If I am feeling miserable, I can do something about it; I can work harder, I can pray more, I can tithe and show my faith and faithfulness, and then God will reward me with wealth, health and happiness. And if I am feeling great, then I can feel even better because the Prosperity Gospel tells me that my good fortune shows that I am not merely lucky or merely blessed, but smarter, more industrious, more virtuous, more devout, more worthy than other people. It is no wonder that Prosperity preachers, from Norman Vincent Peale to Paula White, have been so popular with the rich and powerful, and why they in turn have been so enamored of those worldly celebrities. Unfortunately, as Job’s friends show us, this theology has a dark side: it is very easy to move from “if I obey God, God will bless me” to “God has cursed you, you are miserable, therefore you must have done something wrong; you deserve to be miserable, because God would not allow undeserved suffering.” Often today we take it a step further than Job’s friends did, moving from “you deserve to suffer” to “I need not care about you, because you deserve to suffer.” The great evangelist Jonathan Edwards, preaching nearly three hundred years ago when this country was still a group of British colonies, opened this door a crack when he said that after the Last Judgment the righteous in Heaven would look upon the suffering of the wicked in Hell, and rejoice at seeing justice done. Edwards did not, however, say that we should love our living neighbors any less, even if they are wicked, for they are still loved by God and forgiven sinners like us, and Christ died that they too might repent and be saved.[1] But too often today we get ahead of ourselves and are quick to turn away from those who have done wrong in our eyes. And Edwards knew that not all who suffer in this world are sinners, and not all who are at ease are righteous. He did not say we should cease to love our neighbor who was sick, or whose crops had failed, or who otherwise was suffering. But too often today, Christians do say such things. We are so obsessed with stopping the unworthy from getting a “handout” that we are willing to deny many more whose need is genuine and undeserved. And we are quick to assume that everyone who is rich has worked hard and done well and must be smarter and better and more worthy than the rest of us, when our only reason to believe this is the fact that they are rich. There’s much less interest in requiring the undeserving rich to help the deserving poor than there is in requiring the poor to contribute to the welfare of the rich. It gives us comfort to believe this, because the alternative is to admit that we don’t control our own lives, that God alone rules and rules in ways we might not understand, and that we can’t assure ourselves of wealth and health simply by tithing and working. And it gives us comfort to think that we deserve what we have and that those who lack have no claim on us because they deserve to suffer.

The writer of the book of Job wanted us to see the problems with that sort of easy equation of material comfort with spiritual worth. Even decent, well-meaning and godly men like Job’s friends, people who I think might have otherwise been better men than I am, were led astray by this idea that worldly suffering is always deserved. Their theology conflicts with their sympathy. And furthermore, they begin to rebuke Job for insisting that his suffering is not deserved, and that therefore God owes him an explanation. Job says he has searched his heart and can find no sin; he has not neglected to sacrifice and show his devotion to God, nor has he failed to show kindness and to give aid to the poor and unfortunate when he had abundance. His friends say that his current state is all the proof they need that Job has failed somehow, and that to believe otherwise is to disrespect God. No evidence that the other side can give will convince any of them. Only God’s appearance can answer the unanswerable questions raised by inexplicable sufferings. God speaks first to Job, and in fact God’s answer to Job seems a little strange. He never tells Job why he has suffered, that it was all a test to prove that Satan’s charges against Job were false. Job seems satisfied simply to realize that God is so much more than he had realized before, and that even his suffering has a place in God’s plan; he doesn’t demand to know what that place was, but humbly acknowledges his ignorance. But God is much more direct to Job’s friends, saying to Eliphaz “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” It is only when Job prays to God for his friends that they are forgiven, and it is only after Job forgives his friends and asks God to forgive them that his good fortune is restored.

The book of Job was written both to comfort the suffering, and to discomfort the well-off. Things happen for reasons we cannot understand from our human perspective. Because of this, we are all together, both the rich and the poor. Job comforted the suffering when he was prosperous; when his world fell apart, he found comfort from his friends, but also judgment. The attitude of the Hebrew Scriptures towards wealth and poverty is, as we have seen, mixed. If it were not, we would not need the book of Job, because there would be no unexplained or undeserved suffering. Instead, we find again and again through the ages that we do need Job, both to give voice to our mourning when we are in distress, and to remind us of our place when we are the ones who are well-off and witness the suffering of others.

[1] http://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/contemplated.htm

Of Gospel and Heresies: Prophets and Profits

June 23, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies: Prophets and Profits

 

 

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

—– ”Mercedes Benz,” by Bob Neuwirth, Janis Joplin, Michael Mcclure 

 

 

When I was a child, “mainline” churches like the Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans, as well as moderate Baptists, were all growing denominations, growing even faster than the population. It is not hard to imagine why. Catholicism was still often seen as an “immigrant” religion; it wasn’t until JFK that anyone seriously thought a Catholic could be President, or that the United States of America would survive if one did. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Native American religions and other faith groups were all small and, for the most part, either fringe faiths or dominant only in small, ethnically-defined communities. In short, there were some very this-worldly reasons to join the “mainline.” While the “no Irish welcome here” signs were largely gone, it was also a fact that the business community of the 20th Century was often a “good old boys network,” and if you wanted full access to the movers and shakers, you were probably better off joining their churches, or their country clubs (that often had “no Jews” policies, for example), or their fraternities. If you wanted your children to attend public schools, you had to accept that Protestants would be writing the prayers your children would be required to recite every day; otherwise you could pay taxes to support schools you didn’t use, and keep your children out of the mainstream American culture in parish schools, or yeshivas, etc. It was simply easier, and even more profitable to simply go along with the mainstream. Mainline Protestantism was always pretty business-friendly, since so many of the larger churches in any town depended on tithes from the well-off businessmen; in exchange, the churches gave the businessmen who wanted it some moral guidance, and the others could at least gain some moral respectability and gratitude from those who appreciated their contributions and didn’t know too much about where the personal ethics of the contributor.

This was not always so in the early days of Christianity. When Christianity broke off from Judaism some 2000 years ago, it was a persecuted and largely underground faith. Rome was actually very religiously tolerant; as long as a group was willing to burn incense to worship and strengthen the Emperor’s family spirit and the Imperial cult, Rome accepted them. To refuse to worship the Emperor was like refusing to pay taxes today: an unpatriotic betrayal, a declaration that your allegiance to yourself and your group was in conflict with the health and strength of the community. Christians were, in fact, willing to obey most laws, generally, but not to contribute to the spiritual warfare against the barbarians by worshiping the Imperial cult along with Jesus. They were thus enemies of the State and, depending on attitudes of local governors or Imperial edicts, subject to enslavement, torture and death. When the persecution ended in the Fourth Century, people flocked to join Christianity; once the Emperor started supporting it, it became a way to greater economic and social security. As a result of this wealth and power, the real devotion of individual Christians seems not as, well, devoted. In reaction, those believers who wished to experience real spiritual focus began to withdraw from society, first as hermits and later as monks and nuns living in isolated communities. This pattern held through the Middle Ages: the majority lived their lives while worshipping God as the Church told them to, while the spiritual elite, the monks and nuns, rejected full involvement in the world of money and business and power so that they could focus on prayer, meditation and study. Even Popes, who often combined wealth, power and religious authority, could be cowed by the connection to God of a monk or nun known for spiritual discipline and mystical spirituality. And among the people as a whole, it was simply a given that a monk or nun was more spiritual than anyone else, even more than the village priest who still had to live with the rest of us sinners.

That changed with the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other Reformers argued that monasticism was in fact “works-righteousness,” an attempt to curry favor with God instead of trusting God’s love and power alone. Anyone who thinks they can earn and deserve God’s favor did not really love God; God should be seen as a loving parent, not a demanding employer, and we are God’s children who cannot and need not earn what God gives us. Therefore, they said, to love and trust God is not to hide away from the world, but to live and work in community with all your neighbors, to hold a job and do your best, to earn your living rather than relying on the tithes and charity of those who work. Luther asserted “the priesthood of all believers:” that is, the idea that all Christians are equally close to God and can pray directly to God, without the aid of a priest or monk. Calvin went even further, modernizing Christian theology to better suit an economy moving away from medieval agrarianism and towards a society based on commerce and manufacture (such as loosening medieval prohibitions on lending money at interest, which allowed Christians to be bankers).

As Christianity was going through these changes, Europeans were exploring and colonizing America. Catholic lands continued to follow the religious and social patterns of the Medieval Church. Monks and nuns were the religious elite, the missionaries and teachers; nobles were the rich landowners and political leaders; and the majority were farmers laboring to support the Church and the nobles, without any expectation of being anything else. In English and Dutch lands, by contrast, Protestant theology reconciled spiritual devotion with mercantile ambition, so that merchants, traders and investors strove to become wealthy while also being considered godly. In fact, their hard work was seen as a sign of spiritual devotion, and their growing wealth seen as a sign of God’s blessing; at the same time, conspicuous consumption and waste was seen as arrogant and also poor stewardship of God’s blessings. This is the beginning of the so-called “Protestant Work Ethic.” Protestants were encouraged to work at their jobs as vigorously as monks and nuns worked at praying and fasting, and to prize comfortable lives as signs of God’s favor the way a monk or nun would prize mystical visions or inner peace; naturally, the “Yankee trader” who followed this direction became rich, even if he lived in a community with legal restrictions on wasteful spending. As a result, the money could just pile up.

The third-generation Puritans may have lived lives of material success undreamt of by their Pilgrim forbearers, but they still remembered that spiritual devotion and material comfort were not always linked. Their settler ancestors had suffered greatly, and many had died, despite and because of their faith. “Being good” did not always mean “doing well,” and “doing well” was not always a sign that one was good and blessed by God. This was part of the trigger for the Great Awakening, where the descendants of these early religious refugees and now children of their successful grandchildren sought to revive that earlier religious fervor in themselves.

The 19th and 20th Centuries are when the growing material comforts of the United States prompted the Protestant Work Ethic to metastasize into the Prosperity Gospel. The Industrial Revolution created new opportunities for wealth and comfort for some, with poverty and dehumanizing drudgery for others. This divide grew greater, and took on spiritual dimensions, as the country recovered from the Civil War. The U.S. would not have recovered so well, perhaps not at all, without the so-called “robber barons,” the tycoons, industrialists and financiers who remade the nation and the world economic system while enriching themselves. Some, particularly Rockefeller and Carnegie, were strongly religious men of strict personal morality, and they tried to promote good religion and good lifestyles among their workers and in the world. Most famously, Carnegie said that the first half of a man’s life should be devoted to making money, the second to giving it away; he and Rockefeller competed to see who could make the most when they were young, and who could give away the most before they died. They certainly did not think they were choosing between being good men and good businessmen.

In the 1930s the age of the robber baron gave way to the Great Depression, but the mixing of religion and business only increased. The Christian Business Men’s Committee began in 1930 as businessmen gathered to pray for spiritual revival in Chicago; the movement grew and spread. Now not only were a few millionaires bringing religion into their business (and vice versa); average businessmen across the nation were gathering to seek ways to do so. In all this, there were definite continuations of the Colonial and early national Protestant work ethic: God wants you to strive to be successful, and then to use what you make to help others. The tycoons and less amazingly successful capitalists tended to attribute their success to their own daring, ability and (often) good, godly lives; those who were poor, particularly if they seemed to resent the rich or complain of bad fortune, were simply lazy and jealous. There’s a bit more of a notion that poverty says something about the poor character or poor spirituality of the person, since obvious sorts of “acts of God” like plagues, famine and so on were rapidly becoming things of the past.

At this point past becomes prologue, as President Donald Trump’s favorite preacher, Norman Vincent Peale, began his ministry in New York.[1] Peale did not rely much on Scripture or on traditional Calvinist theology, despite being a Presbyterian pastor. He drew mostly from the therapeutic theories of French psychologist Émile Coué to develop his own theory, outlined in his book The Power of Positive Thinking. If you believe that you will be successful, you can tap God’s power to achieve all manner of success, including wealth and health. Peale did not talk about sin, grace, or salvation; he preached more often about the great examples we could see in the lives of rich, successful businessmen. While guilt and repentance had little part in Peale’s preaching, there is a definite moral implication; if you are not personally successful, it is because you are doing something wrong. Perhaps your faith or your self-confidence is lacking, or perhaps you are just not a good, industrious person, so God’s blessing cannot flow through your life to give you material success. This is the beginning of what we would recognize as “The Prosperity Gospel” in full flower. Not only is material success seen as a gift from God; the lack of success is seen as a sign of one’s spiritual or moral failure.

Peale may be an early proponent of the Prosperity Gospel, but he was not an Evangelical. Peale was a Presbyterian pastor, part of the “mainline Church.” Business leaders were most likely to be moderate, denominational Protestants. In the 1930s it was perfectly legal to refuse to hire someone because of his religion; if you wanted to be a full participant in the business world, you needed to be part of the Protestant culture. Evangelicalism was not part of the mainstream culture; having been badly humiliated during the anti-evolution fights of the 1920s, Evangelicals spent most of the 1930s through the 1970s turning their backs on “the world” with its debauchery, its science, and its materialism. The Protestantism a successful businessman would embrace would be one that his community, potential customers and partners, also embraced: the mainline Protestant churches.

This started to shift in the 1970s but really became a force in the 1980s, when Evangelicals jumped back into politics to back Reagan. They also jumped on modern mass media more successfully than any mainline religion, first through Billy Graham’s radio broadcasts and then, when television took off, through televised revivals, then UHF religious networks, and finally through the Christian Broadcasting Network and Trinity Broadcasting Network, and other cable religious networks. The “TV Preacher” was born, with glitzy broadcasts and lavish lifestyles.

Jim Bakker was an early leader. An Assemblies of God pastor, he early dropped his denomination’s emphasis on personal simplicity. Pentecostalism grew out of the Holiness movement, which is a style of Evangelicalism that stresses a strict, simple lifestyle, such as avoiding drinking, dancing, make-up or jewelry or fancy clothes. Preachers like Bakker dropped the Holiness emphasis on voluntary poverty. His PTL Club promoted conspicuous consumption and even luxury for Christians, claiming that if believers had enough faith (“faith” being demonstrated in willingness to tithe to the ministry, not through acts of charity for the poor or personal self-denial) then God would pour wealth down upon them. Self-examination, contrition, guilt, and repentance were gone. There is no need to wait for treasures in Heaven; if you tithe, God will pay you off in this world.

The Prosperity Gospel obviously helped reconcile Evangelicalism and capitalist consumerism. This is a religion that the capitalist can understand; faith is a financial investment, and God always pays off eventually. And the Evangelical’s suspicion of “the world” and of wealth is replaced by not just acceptance, but even veneration for the wealthy; those who have a lot must be the ones who love God the most and thus have been blessed the most. And contrariwise, since wealth comes from having faith and doing one’s job, if one is not wealthy one is impious and lazy.

[1] Tom Gjelten, “How Positive Thinking, Prosperity Gospel Define Donald Trump’s Faith Outlook;” All Things Considered August 3, 2016 (http://www.npr.org/2016/08/03/488513585/how-positive-thinking-prosperity-gospel-define-donald-trumps-faith-outlook) NPR

Of Gospel and Heresies

June 7, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies; or, How the Religion of Peace, Love and Justice Led to This Mess

 

And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

—-Luke 18:8

 

In the days of Moses, the people grew impatient. Sure, he had led them out of slavery and put them on the road that would, eventually, lead them to a land of milk and honey; but it was taking too long. So they chose to throw aside Moses and the LORD, and follow a golden calf (Exodus 32). This god was to be powerful and strong, and to lead them back to the lands they had left, the lands of Egypt, which had brought them such misery and poverty but now, for some reason, they thought would be their salvation.

In the days of Barak, the people grew impatient. Sure, he had led them out of the greatest economic disaster that most had seen in their lifetimes, and put them on the road that would, eventually, lead them to 5% unemployment, a record-breaking stock market and the admiration of the nations; but it was taking too long. So they chose —- well, not golden, exactly, but an orangey bronze—- and not a calf, exactly, more like a bull, given what he produced whenever he spoke. He was to be a strong leader, the only one who could save them, and he would lead them back to the lands of the GOP, who had caused them such misery and poverty in the Great Recession of 2007 but now, for some reason, they thought would be their salvation.

Many people, looking on, were perplexed. Why would self-proclaimed godly people, mostly Christians who followed a Messiah who loved the humble and the poor and who taught that even lawful divorce was wrong, embrace a thrice-married self-proclaimed philanderer, who boasted of his skills in dishonesty, and who had left a seemingly endless stream of unpaid bills, unpaid employees, and defrauded customers in his wake? Why would self-proclaimed patriots embrace a man who boasted that he didn’t need to borrow from American banks because he got so much of his money from Russia? Onlookers observed Jesus, poor, humble, weak, afraid to lean on a bent reed lest it break, friend to tax-collectors and beggars and sinners, and they looked at Donald J. Trump, born to riches, boastful, swaggering, bullying, shoving everyone out of his way, world-renowned, more like the description of the Antichrist; and they wondered how so many who said they followed the Suffering Servant had turned for protection to the one they called The Strong Man.

In fact, the answer was always obvious. “Christian values voters” embraced a leader who reflected neither the Christian religion nor its values in his life because they themselves are not, in fact, Christian themselves. Christianity has been supplanted; the Abomination of Desolation has been set up in the Holy of Holies; other gospels have been proclaimed (2 Cor. 11:4).

How did this happen? To answer this, we must go back to the beginning of the Religious Right—- not the myth they have concocted for themselves, but the actual historical truth of their beginning. Christianity is polarized today, but this is not the first time in our history that this has been true. In the 1770s, the 1860s and the 1960s the churches reflected the divisions in their society. People had disagreements about what was right or wrong, and what to do about the ills they saw; the churches, like other social institutions, were made up of people who disagreed and hence reflected those disagreements. Since the late 1970s, by contrast, Christian churches and leaders have actively worked to create divisions and cause conflicts. For example, abortion and birth control used to be a bipartisan issue. Barry Goldwater, one of the most conservative mainstream political candidates of the second half of the 20th Century, was an early supporter of Planned Parenthood. Dr. W. A. Criswell, one of the leaders of the fundamentalist movement that took over the Southern Baptist Convention, himself said that he never thought a fetus was a full person until birth, following Biblical statements that equated life with breath.[1] But later, purely to gain a “wedge issue” to help energize their political efforts following unsuccessful attempts to block desegregation, the leaders of the emerging Religious Right decided to manufacture a controversy about abortion, to stir up their congregations about this great sin (which many had not considered a sin at all until they chose to do so), and to divide the nation and their congregations in order to wield greater political power.[2] The question of abortion was turned from being a legal and metaphysical question to be reasoned out into an emotional holy crusade incapable of rational solution, which could only be “solved” by the religious cultural warriors beating everyone else into submission. Without this cynical maneuvering, we might have long ago settled on ways to keep abortion safe and limited, respecting the legitimate interests of all interested parties, including those who wish the State to protect potential life. At the very least, without the activities of these holy warriors, we might have been spared multiple acts of anti-abortion terrorism and murder.

The pattern set in the abortion debate has been repeated again and again. Jesus taught his disciples that true religion was about self-reform. You must take up your own cross and follow. You must take the plank out of your own eye before you can help another remove the speck of sawdust from his or hers. You must not, under any circumstances, bind huge burdens on the shoulders of others, which you yourself will not lift a finger to bear. That may be a good way to win the Kingdom, but it won’t win any votes.

Instead, the Religious Right has embraced heresies. A heresy is not, usually, an utter lie; rather, it takes a religious truth, pushes it beyond its original bounds, ignores other religious teachings that might limit it, and proclaims that pared-down, simplified message as the absolute truth. Four heresies in particular are embraced by the Religious Right today: premillenialism, dominionism, capitalist libertarianism and the Prosperity Gospel.   Together, they add up to one central message: the task of the Christian is to punish and suppress sin in others, so that the good and faithful punishers can be rewarded with wealth, ease and power in this world and eternally. All the xenophobia, militarism, sexism and despising of the poor that we see in Evangelicalism, and which is so confusing to those who look from Jesus to his disciples and expect some sort of conformity, flows from some mixture of these influences. Each heresy sees the Scriptures through its own tinted lens, making some parts brighter and larger than they would be otherwise, while rendering other parts invisible. And it is a seductive vision, promising everything Christ promised to his faithful followers, without all that servile, suffering humility that humans find so difficult.

My goal in these next essays is to make visible what has been obscured by these heresies, so that all may be seen in its true light. There is some truth in heresy too, and I hope not to reject any truth no matter its source; but truth is one and truth is whole and must be accepted whole (John 14:6). As long as there is only one God the Creator, there can be only one reality created by God, and therefore only one truth; while it may be that no one of us has all the pieces, they must all fit together into one truth, even if it is knowable by God alone. There are either pieces of truth, that fit together even if it would take eternity to assemble them all, or there are lies, that do not fit at all. But if anyone should say he or she has “alternative truths,” as if reality meant nothing and there were no God and every individual were free to make up his or her own truths and impose them by force or trickery, then let that person be anathema!

 

[1] Randall Balmer, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” Politico May 27, 2014 (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133#.U4d_e_ldW2E)

[2] Randall Balmer, “The True Origins of the Religious Right,” lecture given at Emory University (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Gf4jN1xoSo) uploaded May 11, 2009