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?