As I travel, I continue to be impressed with the global reach of television evangelists based in the U.S. propounding the gospel of wealth. I also reflect upon the cultural context in which these evangelists bring their messages. More often than not the message and the context are totally out of sync. The places I’m in are vastly different from the U.S. context and its economic realities, even considering the extreme stress the U.S. economy is presently experiencing.
The occasion for this reflection came when I turned on the television while in Geneva and up came a program by a televangelist in the U.S. He was mining the New Testament with a mix of behavioral psychology and scriptural explication that connected the sacred text to support for creating individual wealth. When I hear this it is so far removed from my understanding of scripture and faithfulness to it that I think I live in a parallel universe to the televangelist.
When I’m in Africa, the distance seems even greater. The culture of a televangelist in the U.S speaking about the gospel of wealth to African audiences living in grinding poverty, for example, is strikingly fantastic. It presumes that by individual initiative alone an individual can overcome the systemic chains that keep people locked in economic inequity and drag down, if not prevent, upward economic mobility. It places upon people who are already burdened with huge disadvantages yet another weight, that of individual responsibility for what are clearly social and systemic constraints.
Hope and optimism are precious motivators and one should not deny either to those who yearn for a better life. To do so would be cruel. At the same time, to hold people individually responsible for circumstances that are structural and systemic is also cruel.
For example, to achieve successful participation in an economic system an individual must have access to the system itself. This requires a system open to individual initiative. Many systems around the world are not open. They are based on patronage and cronyism. They require capital and knowledge that an individual may not possess.
Meaningful participation occurs when people have access to training, capitalization to allow them to be competitive, market information, marketing and accounting skills and a host of other tools, including access to credit and fair trade policies and pricing. (Mohammad Yunus lays out a blueprint in Creating a World Without Poverty that puts the challenge and the incredible potential into focus. His proposal leaves the gospel of wealth in the dust as it puts structure and system to work on behalf of individual entrepreneurs.)
Thus, it seems to me narrow and short-sighted to advance a gospel of wealth theory based on individual initiative rooted in Western entrepreneurialism resting on the claim that this is the Christian gospel. The hope raised by the gospel of wealth preachers is just that convoluted and circuitous, it seems to me.
If it is not rooted on scriptural authority, it’s reasonable to ask what gives authority to the claim? The televangelist will most certainly object to the critique that his theory is not scriptural. But that claim is only possible by ignoring the historical tradition of Christian theology and the accumulated body of scholarship that defines the gospel as a call to discipleship and servanthood, a far cry from market capitalism and behavioral psychology. It is a tradition that recalls the graciousness of a loving God manifested in human form, a God who, according to the apostle Paul, emptied God’s own self and took upon the fragility and pain of human life in order to offer healing, wholeness and meaning.
This is a far cry, I think, from the pleas of a televangelist for funds to sustain a television broadcast that enriches the broadcaster and offers an ephemeral hope to the audience.
If authority does not rest in scripture, the next best thing I see is the legitimating role implied by being on television, and by the support base of a local congregation who believe the claims being made by the preacher. This isn’t much. It’s a pretty thin reed, but in the world of global media and uncritical theological reflection, it’s enough for him.