a guest post by Harry Samuels
The intersection of environmental ethics with prosperity theology is certainly an interesting one & it represents a chance for that which has traditionally been deemed secular to inform that which is theological. To be clear, the Prosperity Gospel (PG) ( that I’m referring to in this post) is the notion in certain ( essentially contemporary) schools of Christian thought that God, through Christ, enables one to enter the life of tremendous wealth ( especially), health, and material possessions. The PG , thus, has tremendous appeal to those who are socioeconomically disenfranchised and racial groups who have historically been so. It’s commonplace , then, to see that the majority of many televangelist &prosperity teachers; ( as they’re so called by some) have a predominantly black crowd. This fact, especially when viewed in light of Christ as a liberator and giving true life (liberation theology) must be taken into consideration when attempting to critique the PG. Because of my perspective as a black person, I am going to be emphasizing black interactions with PG.
It is commonplace amongst Calvinistas over at The Gospel Coalition or certain reformed rappers (won’t name names hehe..) to unleash these massive attacks on the PG and its adherents with various accusations as “not wanting to live for His glory; and arguments that are essentially about the same. This, of course, is exacerbated by the cruciformity crowd who believes that to embrace the PG is to lay ruin to the true gospel of suffering and &giving your life for Christ. As Rod stated in his post on White Supremacy & Christian Atheism, such arguments are ultimately oppressive to people who are ALREADY suffering! The PG does seem to offer the life of abundance ( if even a short-sighted view of abundance) that Christ would offer if He is truly be a liberator. The simple act of faith and giving out of one’s capacity to give as key towards accessing these bountiful blessings , especially when metaphorically told alongside passages in the OT about tithing , offer a simple solution to the woes of many financially burdened folk. Although the PG ultimately often blames the poor for their problems and & not having enough faith; many folk don’t mind simply because part of them would like to believe that the answer as to their sufferring is as simple as their lack of faith- it can be easily reversed, then, by placing faith in a God of such overflow who has forgiven them of their sins- the sins they believeto have been destroying their lives and contributing to the vicious cycle of poverty.
Now that the air has been cleared a bit as to why many adherents of PG aren’t as evil and ill-willed as some might have us to believe, a critique of the PG is a conversation that needs to be had. Especially from the perspective of what I’ve come to call “EcoTheodicy”: essentially theodicy from an ecological perspective- fun! The PG has tremendous ecological implications. The biggest issue I see with the PG and one’s tendency towards it , is the notion that one of my good friends once told me -“it is such a shame how sometimes all the oppressed seeks to do is imitate their oppressor;”. The PG reminds me of this- oftentime this isn’t what they realize or even set out to do initially, but at the very least, the PG can be interpreted as such. For all too many, to PG ends up being about a God who is willing to collude with all members of the willing oppressed group so that they may become one of the elite. Spiritual growth is monetary growth. Growth of the bank account. All of such is proof of one’s closeness to God and having been truly liberated and living a life of abundance. No one however, stops to question that this might be having an effect on things beyond themselves. For many blacks, in particular, the acquisition of wealth and fancy cars , as shallow as it may seem, marks a triumph in some ways over the economically oppressive forces that have gripped them for so long. I was riding with a relative on the 4th of July in her BMW while her son was driving a Mercedes and her brother a Jaguar. Both she and her brother were born in the early 60s- so just on the edge of the Civil rights era and were raised by those in the thick of it. She said to me “You know, when I look at what I’m driving and my brother and my son- what they’re driving, it really just makes me almost wanna cry. Who would have thought a black family would have ever gotten this?”; I nodded my head and said nothing. But it made me think: THIS is the reason for why as angry as the PG makes me sometimes, I catch myself. For many black people, acquistion of wealth and the narrative therein is almost likened to the chronicles of Israel, with the notion of God having brought them a mighty long way&. The Book of Exodus is particularly relevant. In a society that had told them that they’re nothing, their BMW, expansive homes and other things are irrefutable proof that God thinks much of them.
Now for the EcoTheodicy. For all who may not realize it, the imminence of climate change is a serious threat and its impact is to be tremendous. We’re at a point where reversing the threat is no longer an option – we can only mitigate the impact. CO2 levels reached a monumental 400 ppm – a level not seen in 4 million years of Earth’ history, scientists have said, . Simply denying the climate’s changing is no longer an intelligble option- the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change attests to this through its myriad volumes of scientific literature on the matter, all of which are CONSERVATIVE estimates/projections – no matter how politically inconvenient it may be to the good ol’ boys of the political right or anyone else. Like many environmental issues, climate change outlines the truth that we are all connected. This sounds very kum-by-ah, but it’s true. America is leading the world in CO2 emissions (17.83 metric tons per capita as of 2009!!), yet it’s not America that will feel the most threatening impacts the quickest – such as sea level rise (in response to the warming of oceans- fluids expand in response to heat). Island nations such as the Maldives and tropical latitudes will feel the effects quickest – and this is all just an estimate- it could be having more impacts on more nations than we realize. But the point is- we are all connected. Your choice to purchase a Jaguar or any other vehicle because you believe it to be a blessing from God to be able to purchase such an item, without regard for its fuel economy/ emissions, is causing a progressive hell on this planet and for those who globally (who also, tend to be poor – climate change effects the poor the most!) don’t have the means to mitigate the impact. Would God’s blessing really be environmentally destructive? Why does the proof of Spiritual growth have to be the model, make, and year of an automobile you use simply to get from A to B; the fatness of your bank account, the square footage of your home? Unfortunately, I believe the following graphic describes what too many blacks have done to themselves in their relentless pursuit of the PG:
The PG presents an issue very similar to the enlightenment era/ scientific revolution – it forges false notions of progress. Only, with PG, it’s supposed to be some spiritual form of progress. Where square footage is spiritual growth and the rich are the saints. Unlike the aforementioned folk who feel like the solution is that God isn’t about prosperity; I submit that He [sic]* IS ( Jesus came that we might have life!) but, the solution is all in how we DEFINE prosperity. How can we forge a concept of prosperity that isn’t environmentally destructive, that doesn’t broaden the wealth gaps, or does’t blame the poor who are too downtrodden to muster up the faith?As a symptom of modernity (which I am ALWAYS complaining about) we have come to define prosperity by means that are quantifiable & net worth, etc. But is this what true prosperity really is? Why don’t we define prosperity as having a group of friends and family who love and support, unconditionally?*why don’t we define prosperity as being free from oppressive social constructs that prevent us from being comfortable withourselves and our interests?* Why can’t prosperity be in terms of humanity living peaceably with one another and seeing our ownselves grow in love and compassion for each other? Why isn’t prosperity defined as tearing down the walls of tribalism? Why isn’t prosperity about being so freed as to notice the natural wonders all around us , day in and day out, that occur while we’re all hustling and bustling ? Why can’t proseprity be about living an ecologically harmonious life on this magnificent gem of a planet? It is beneficial to remember Christ’s call to simplicity and reminding ourselves the nature of His Kingdom, and what prosperity truly looks like. Christ’s prosperity must be good news for the world.
*Editors notes: sic included for inclusive language
*stressed by the editor.