Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong? – James 2:5-7
It may just be a personal belief, but it’s my sincere opinion that the worst thing that’s ever happened to the gospel is the prosperity doctrine. And I’m definitely not the only person that thinks this. From the prayer of Jabez to the simple idea that salvation means God gives us what we ask for, people look to God like a vending machine; an answer to their problems in the same way people call a new car a “godsend,” or a basketball court an “answer to prayer.” Steven Prothero says this is more popular in the global south, where people look to God as an answer to poverty and think that deliverance comes through essential needs and goods that the rest of us take for granted. That may be true, but I see it here in the states all the time; from Joel Osteen’s 43,000 member Lakewood church, T.D. Jakes’s 30,000 member Potter’s House church, or any of the other hugely popular mega-churches that preach why not gain the whole world plus your soul? America’s material culture has met it’s Christian traditions, and ironically for a belief that has a foothold in the Biblically conservative, this union happened by the work of extrabiblical thinkers. Wheras some Christians leave aside all the social gospel stuff because what’s really important is getting to heaven, prosperity preachers go past salvation to what they know people really want to hear – “how can I make this work for me?” It’s interesting how the politicizing of Christianity by the religious right has, in it’s own way, united materialism with spirituality and faithfulness, and all the extra little bits of reasoning that go along with it. For years, conservatives and reactionaries have the notion that taxing the rich is equivalent to punishing their success. It’s a clever way to re-frame what statists call social responsibility, and what anarchists and libertarians would call theft. But if taxing the rich is punishing their success, can’t we form the equally biased and polemic argument that not taxing the rich rewards selfishness? Society doesn’t work like that; the idea of rewarding selflessness is a spiritual concept, but humanity has survived for thousands of years because the strong have rode the backs of the weak and made the most of it. People need to transition to a progress-driven society, rather than a profit-driven one, where we are more concerned with addressing needs rather than creating them to sell services and labor. However the relative wealth of others in this world matters little from a Christian perspective; Matthew 6:33 gives us a priority to find real meaning in our life beyond getting “stuff,” Matthew 19:24 is the most well-known warning on how wealth will make your spiritual progress difficult, and James 2 cites the problems believers have with the rich. Romans 2 reminds us that glory, honor and peace is to everyone who does good, regardless of who they are; we are not saved by those works (Eph 2:8-9), so those people cannot boast about all the good they have done compared to others, because it is how much of ourselves we give, not the measure of the giving itself (Luke 21).
Materialism matters very little – wait, no, it matters A LOT, isn’t that obvious? We make too much of it; we measure success by it, we measure personal worth by the possessions we have, and we spend our lives toiling and exerting ourselves meaninglessly, like Sisyphus. I’m not saying give all your stuff away (like Jesus may have said), that’s another post. But men like Bill Gates spend vast fortunes trying to absolve themselves, to “buy” moral virtue by paying someone else to do good, but their nature remains the same; they just budget the cost of love and make generosity a tax-deduction. In fact, even with billionaires pledging to give half their money away, it’s unlikely that anyone would personally know kindness on their behalf, and unless giving money away can do the same good actually interacting and showing love to someone else does for a person, they’re still just budgeting their problems. If Christ commands you to love your neighbor, don’t just write them a check. And if you want to get deeper in your faith, deep pockets aren’t a sign of success.