A Recession-Proof Gospel?

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The NY Times ran a front page Sunday article recently that is well worth pausing over: “Even in Recession, Believers Invest in the Gospel of Getting Rich.”

Dr. J. Kameron Carter
Associate Professor of Theology and
Black Church Studies
Duke Divinity School

The NY Times ran a front page Sunday article recently that is well worth pausing over: “Even in Recession, Believers Invest in the Gospel of Getting Rich.” It was occasioned by the “Southwest Believers’ Convention” held in the Dallas/Ft. Worth, TX area this summer in August.

The article conveys many of the things already known about the prosperity “gospel of getting rich” as preached by the likes of Kenneth and Gloria Copeland (the focus of the article), Creflo Dollar (who participated in the Convention held in Ft. Worth), and others. It told of the lavish lifestyles of these preachers, their private jets, multiple cars, etc etc etc.

This alone did not give me pause, for it has been much documented and talked about.

What did give me serious pause, however, and what did ultimately prod me to put fingers to keyboard, is the image, the photograph, that appeared on the front page of the Sunday article. For we all know the saying: a picture’s worth a thousand words.

Along with this front page article is a picture of what appears to be an African American, elderly woman. (If she’s not African American, she certainly appears to be a woman of color). She contrasts starkly with the Copelands, whose photos are on the Times website version of the article.

There is not only a racial difference at work, but more noticeable are the class distinctions that are at work. The Copelands have the look of the professional, managerial class; they are polished; they exude Christian leadership. In another photo on the Times website, Copeland walks across the front of the altar, passionately gripping the bible. By contrast, the woman on the frontpage of the photo looks to be from the underclass. Nowhere near as polished looking, her clothes are common. You only see an image from the back; never her face. She is placing perhaps her last “piece of change,” as my momma used to say, on the altar steps at the Convention.

This image struck me, for though I am a Christian theologian teaching at Duke University Divinity School, I’ve not forgotten where I came from. During my early teen years, I first started attending regularly an old Pentecostal church with — you guessed it — my grandmother, a woman at least representationally not unlike the woman in the Times photo. My old church was filled, and still is filled, with “saints” like this.

This brings me to the deeper questions inside of the Times article on what seems to be the recession-proof “gospel of getting rich.”

And that is this: On the other side of the prosperity gospel of getting rich are people I know, people exploited by smooth, silver-tongued Christian leaders. It’s easy to say, Yup, that’s the problem with prosperity preaching. Yup, that’s what can happened when you’re not a seminary-trained minister. You abuse the bible, etc.

But the deeper questions are these: What are the ways that others from the polished, managerial class, even Christian leaders who disavow the get rich gospel, use the gospel and exploit others to get paid and to establish their kingdoms, all in the name, as it were, of doing good?

Inside of the Times article is a frightening truth that Christians of all stripes — seminarians, pastors, teachers; all of us — must face: There’s more than one way to be a smooth talker and to use the gospel as a vehicle to get paid, and to hide the fact that this is what’s happening right inside of our Christian talk.

But here’s the last question: What does it mean that disproportionately it’s people like the black woman pictured on the front page of the NY Times who are the hidden, voiceless ones on the other side of the get-rich gospel? Yeah, as the saying goes, everybody’s trying to paid; to which I would add that, for some folks, the Gospel is their cash cow.

But what does it mean that the exploitation to get paid “in Jesus’ name” falls disproportionately on non-white, female bodies? Why is she the sign of exploitation?

Comments

This image is startling. It is an uncanny reference to so many photos I have seen of black women slaves reaching down to pick cotton in the South ... we could literally lift her out of the picture and place her in a very different scene, in the exact same position. I don't know what to do with that.

I agree there is a contrast in the images, the polished professionals in opposition to the not so polished working class. I recognize that in this NYT article a white clergy couple was used in contrast to a working class woman of color, but I don' understand the need to play the race card here. The issue is larger than the happenstance of the race of those pictured. It is a preying on of the poor by so-called clergy, so-called clergy of pale skin and darker skin. Maybe there is truth that "the the exploitation to get paid "in Jesus' name" falls disproportionately on non-white, female bodies", but who is doing the exploiting. It is easy to take the photographs mentioned and lay the blame at the feet of pale skinned clergy, but all to often the sin is committed by predators of all colors. Everyday the gospel is exploited to benefit someone. For some it is money, for others power and/or prestige. Wether we are Christian theologians, Christian clergy, or Christian laity, we all need to assess our motives. It seems today that everyone can justify their "payment". The Theologian justifies hers in the name of scholarship, the clergy justifies his in the name of more effective ministry, and activist laity in the name of equality and justice. The problem is that some of us have an agenda , and we are willing to use whoever we can to accomplish our goals. It doesn't matter is we take a poor woman's last coin, if it pays for our "mission trip" to the Bahamas. We don't care if we cause a racial divide within the church, as long as our article is published. We don't care if we tear apart Christianity, as long as our political agenda is reached! All of this is done on the backs of those who have little or no voice, who have little or no influence, and who are people of all colors, races and nationalities.
The victims in the NY Times story are all the people who are seeking to serve the risen Savior, who faithfully give of their time, talent, and treasure, only to be conned by smooth talking clergy, intellectuals and activists! There is more than one way to get paid, and more than one coin by which we are paid.
Tony Moreau

I have to agree with Tony. This issue goes beyond race. Look at the Black church's history of exploitation of Black women. We are patronized as being the "backbone" of the church as if that is something to be celebrated. I have come to realize that means the weight of the church falls on our shoulders but we will not get the credit we deserve unless we stand up and demand it but we keep quiet for the sake of the "appearance" of racial unity, thus helping our Black men acheive great heights (i.e. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Obama) while we lag behind in promotion though we have come a long way too, but there are some who have been left behind as is evident in that picture of that lady at the altar. How many people know about Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, or Shirley Chisholm?

I think the way the NY Times framed the article is to project a certain trajectory of a kind of new-age slavery in order to provoke a sense of outrage; a 21st century "40 acres and a mule" if you will. It is evident it got the response that it wanted. But I think the real question is how are we all linked to the exploitation of any people. Yes this woman's image is jarring to us in the USA, but there are plenty of churches like the Copeland's overseas doing the same thing to their own people. I am not trying to excuse the Copelands but I think it is easy to make them the scapegoat for a wordly issue of sin. At the end of the day exploitation is exploitation is exploitation. It goes beyond race, gender, and class.

On another note, while it is good that we don't forget where we come from no matter what we achieve let us also not forget who had to sacrfice to get us where we are. I think that is what is so jarring about that picture of that woman at the altar. I think there is a sense of guilt about a woman that reminds us of grandma scrubbing floors, seamstressing(sp), etc so that we can have better and we wouldn't have to do the same things she had to. We have come a long way but who have we left behind?

How are we all implicit in this web of exploitation?

Consider the Reverend Henry J. Lyons to understand this issue goes beyond simple racialism.

As I have lived as a participant-observer in African-American pentecostal churches for several years, I have noticed that, while it is the women who raise and give the most money, it is the men who make the decisions and give salaries to each other. Isn't this also a type of slavery?

Peter Warns us of those who will "With feigned words make merchandise of you".  The problem is not a social one at the core.  It is a spiritual issue with social implications. Much like Israel in the prophecy of Amos; backsliding from truth, selfishness, and the entertaining of false prophecy led to the abuse of the underprivaledged. God's solution wasn't just to fix the social issue, but "Seek me and you will live" (Amos 5:4). The root of any corruption is a departure from Christ.  In 1Kings 22 Micaiah sees a vision in heaven of the Lord asking "Who will persuade Ahab that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?" Micaiah said that a spirit came before the Lord and said that he would decieve Ahab by being a "Lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets."  A few scriptures previous, those false prophets' message was founded upon one statement: "Go up and prosper."

 Ahab's rebellion led to his deception toward the "prosperity gosple", ending with his death. As the King of Israel, God's people, Ahab was to exibit the true God to the world, lead the carnal to the holy.  Instead he fell into idoletry and selfish pursiut.  Thus this gosple of slaughter was a curse caused by Ahab's neglect of Elohime.

 The only way one may expose the counterfit is by contrast with and exibition of the real.  If the church (true body of Christ) would repent, become what it was intended to be, exposition of the fake would be immediate.  Since Pentecost, God's means of dealing with Humanity has been by His Son Christ, expressed through the chosen vessel of the Church. The Church must bring Christ to the world to bring the world to Christ.

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