Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


Pray and Get Rich? The Prosperity Gospel and Real-Life Capitalism

Hymns:  #76, 201, 151 (SLT hymnal)

Reading:

This morning we have readings from ancient and modern scripture.  The first reading is from the New Testament’s book The Acts of the Apostles, which tells about the spread of the Christian movement by the disciples of Jesus after his death.  The translation is Eugene Peterson (The Message).
[All the believers were] united as one—one heart, one mind! They didn’t even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, “That’s mine; you can’t have it.” They shared everything. The apostles gave powerful witness to the resurrection of the Master Jesus, and grace was on all of them.

And so it turned out that not a person among them was needy. Those who owned fields or houses sold them and brought the price of the sale to the apostles and made an offering of it. The apostles then distributed it according to each person’s need.

This reading is from the American classic drama Death of a Salesman, written by Arthur Miller in 1949.  The character speaking here is Linda Loman, speaking about her husband, Willie, who is the title character.
I don’t say he’s a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

Sermon

At some time or another in life, most of us need encouragement.  When times are hard, we appreciate affirmations of our worth and our potential. When the mind plays unfair tricks on our self-esteem and confidence, we can use a reality check.  When we lose our sense of purpose, we need comfort as we wait for clarity and take steps toward the future.   When the world falls apart for us, we welcome help in putting the pieces back together.

We seek to be reminded that no matter how painful the disappointment, no matter how bleak things feel, we still are worthy of love, we still have beauty, we still have something to offer.  Such things are priceless:  Encouragement, help, support, affirmation, mentorship, friendship, reassurance.  Priceless gifts:  They can come from individual people and from groups and communities, like this one.  These gifts are part of the wealth of the human family, and we all need them at some time or another.  The gifts are priceless, yet you can put a price tag on them.  They can be bottled and sold as a secret formula, or preached as doctrine.  They can be packaged and marketed as merchandise.

With enough promotion, with enough confident sloganeering, such gifts can become a multi-billion-dollar industry, and they have.  It’s called the motivational industry.   Countless writers and speakers push books on the power of positive thinking, or the law of attraction, or the pillars of prosperity, or getting your best life now.

Many of these writers get five-figure fees to speak at corporate conferences,  where they can sell more of their books.  The books promise to show you ancient secrets, hidden wisdom newly uncovered, a new angle with old origins.  A few years ago a book entitled The Secret topped the best seller lists.  It spawned CDs, videos, conferences, calendars and gift items.  An older book of this kind  is called Secrets of the Millionaire Mind. The paradox about so-called secret formulas is that their profitability depends on their being mass-marketed–anything but hidden.

Many motivational books are crossover products between the bookstore’s business aisle and the religion section.  The book jackets announce:  “God has great plans for you.  Don’t settle for being average!  God wants you to excel.”  Achieving our potential is a worthwhile endeavor, to be sure.  A competitive spirit can help us to grow, improve, excel.  But the truth is… that most people are average.  Most of us will perform around that level at many of the things we do.  That’s what average means.  If we all became above-average, it would just raise the level of average.  By the time baseball’s World Series rolls around next fall, most of the teams will have achieved average or below-average performance, no matter how hard they practice, pray, or positively visualize.  Average is okay.  We’re all average sometimes, at something. Still, we can affirm one another’s particular talents and gifts.

In her book Bright-Sided, writer Barbara Ehrenreich says:  “There are hundreds of self-help books expounding on how positive thinking can ‘attract’ money….  Why has wealth eluded you so far?  Practical problems like low wages, unemployment, and medical bills are mentioned only as potential ‘excuses.’ The real obstacle lies in your mind.”[i] Such books have titles like Think and Grow Rich.  These books use a lot of anecdotes to back up their case that you can visualize your way to whatever you desire.  But I’ve got anecdotes too, plenty of them, to disprove this ideology.  Over a decade ago, a friend put all the money his family had into can’t-lose stock-market investing.  For a long ride on the dot-com, Internet bubble, he didn’t lose.  Positive affirmations and mantras kept him going.  Yellow post-it notes smiled at him from the bathroom mirror.  Yet when dot-com bubble burst, it all fell apart for him.  He told me later that he was now in recovery from what he had come to see was a gambling addiction, a delusion of having control over his life and unbeatable success.

I do love stories of hard working people who realize their dreams, including the dream of starting their own business and doing well at it.  Yet for all of them, there are many more who don’t make it.  They have to cut their losses and close their doors. The stories of life in a dynamic, market-based economy include stories of heartbreak as well as reward.   Promoters of the so-called “law of attraction” tell you to focus your mind and affirm your desires, and you’ll get everything you want.

I’m all for motivation, from whatever source it comes, but this ideology is a slippery slope.  If you take it as gospel, take it as a sure thing, then it means you have no explanation for failure or bad fortune, nothing to blame but yourself.  To those who don’t get what they want—that is, instead of good fortune they get financial ruin, deadly diseases, random assaults or domestic abuse, earthquakes and oil spills, torture, starvation and landmines—to those who don’t get what they want, the implicit answer is that they were not thinking right, not visualizing hard enough, not tuned in to the secret formula.   The motivation industry does not want us to pay attention to the tragic aspects of human life.  That’s for losers, and you want to be a winner!

In my previous career, in the early 1990s, I had a coworker who visualized good things and gave testimony to the worth of this practice. She seemed always to be cheerful, enthusiastic, and confident.  She took gambling vacations at casinos and on cruise ships, and had a great time.  She played the state lottery, and started a lottery pool for a group at our office.  Sure, I put in a dollar a week!  If the group had won without me, I wouldn’t have been able to bear it.  I knew of the great odds against winning, but my dollar was an insurance payment agaist envy and regret. Lottery and casino marketing gives the hope that “you” are special, you can win the jackpot.  Yet the only guaranteed winner in lotteries and casinos is the house.  The house wins.  My colleague won for a while, but then she lost big, and lost and lost.  Her finances were devastated and her marriage ended in divorce.  Then downsizing took her job.

Barbara Ehrenreich writes:  “Between 1981 and 2003, about 30 million full-time American workers lost their jobs” to downsizing.  Many blue collar families were devastated for a generation.  Many white-collar workers found new jobs, “although [the jobs paid them] an average of 17 percent less than they had made before.”  Others ended up in low-wage jobs, or jobs without health-care coverage.   At the same time, corporations looked for ways to boost the performance and productivity of those who were still in their jobs after demoralizing layoffs.

In 1994, one nationwide firm sent its San Francisco-based staff to a motivational event called “Success 1994” on the same day it announced it would lay off 15,000 workers in the coming two years.”  Accoding to Time magazine, the message of the Christian-oriented motivational speaker at that event was:  “It’s your own fault; don’t blame the system; don’t blame the boss—work harder and pray more.”[ii] Now if this ideology, this doctrine, really works, why don’t the corporate leaders follow it?  Why don’t they pray for a way a way to retain their work force and continue to prosper as a company?  Why not affirm that if they work hard enough as leaders, the marketplace will favor their products, and the stock market will reward their motivation?  Instead of downsize, why not visualize?

I can assure you that positive thinking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Take a walk on the negative side.  I have!  In college I’d go into an exam sure that I was not ready for it.  Later I’d walk out of the room dejected about my performance on the test I’d just turned in, only to be surprised later by a good outcome. Saved by grade inflation, perhaps, but not by any good affirmations.  When I am on airline flights, heavy turbulence sets off an anxious mantra in my head:  “I know we’re going down.  I know we’re going down!”  Maybe other passengers are praying us to safety, but they look asleep to me.  When I get a sore throat, I brace myself for the head cold that is sure to come–yet most of the time it doesn’t happen, in spite of my negative thinking.   My late mother once told a friend, “Don’t expect much, and you won’t be disappointed.”  In her honor, I might even write a book, “Mom’s Wisdom:  Expect the Worst, and then Be Pleasantly Surprised!”

In the 1950s, the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale began a positive-thinking ministry aimed at people in business.  His primary customer and congregation member was the traveling salesman, spending nights in a motel room, away from family, unseen by headquarters most of the time.  With empathy, Ehrenreich says:  “However lonely and wounded, the salesman has to be prepared to pick himself up and generate fresh enthuiasm for the next customer, the next city, the next rejection.”[iii] In a consumer-based economy, when the market shifts away from you, a colleague turns against you, or the company no longer needs you,  you’re as good as dead.  Nothing captures this better than the play Death of a Salesman, written in 1949.  The title character, Willie Loman, is near failure after many years of hard, lonely work on the road.  He’s no longer successful, no longer useful to the business.  Loman envies the apparent success of a boastful friend.  He blames his decline in sales on others while assuring his family that better days are on the way.  He has what it takes, because he’s “well-liked.”  It’s not enough to be liked, he says; you have to be well-liked!  The pity is that he is barely noticed.  Willie Loman thrives on denial, pursuing a dream, which becomes a nightmare for the whole family.  He’s a flawed person, but he’s still a human being.  He is worthy of care, worthy of being noticed, just as every one of us is.   As his wife says:  “Attention must be paid.” He may be lost, but he must not be forgotten.   “Attention must be paid.”

The Reverend Creflo Dollar is a megachurch leader in Atlanta, and a preacher of  what’s known as the prosperity gospel.  The language of the prosperity gospel is that of personal goals, self-fulifillment, self-centered demands, getting, and gaining.  For example, Dollar’s book is entitled:  Laying Hold of Your Inheritance:  Getting What’s Rightfully Yours.  In church services, he invites those hard on their luck to anoint their money, bless it and sow it like seeds for blessings to come.  Sow the money not in the literal ground, but in the church, his church.  How convenient for the pastor!

In his alternative reading of the Bible, Dollar says:  Jesus rode in first class, so we can too.  He says:  “The place where they had the Last Supper?  That was a ballroom.  That room was for rent, that wasn’t for free.  You think they gonna let Jesus have a room for free?”[iv] Unfortunately, this image does not fit with a story from the Gospel of John.  On the way back to Jerusalem—just a few days before that Passover Seder in a ballroom, Jesus stops at the Temple. He finds it loaded with merchants and moneychangers.  He gets enranged and makes a whip out of leather to chase them all out.  Tables turn over, coins fall to the ground, sheep and cattle stampede, doves fly away from the Temple.  You merchants, he screams, “you have turned my Father’s house into a shopping mall.”  (John 2: 13-22, The Message, by Eugene Peterson).

The former minister of a Baptist church in the Atlanta suburbs talks about having to tend to people he describes as refugees from the churches of the prosperity gospel.  According to an article in Harper’s Magazine, he “estimates that he helped minister to more than a hundred former members of prosperity churches in Atlanta.”  He says:  “We found a lot of deep disappointment bordering on despair….  People had been taught that if they gave money, they would be rich.  …  When they came to us, they were at the end of their faith.”

Some prosperity preachers promote Jesus as an entrepreneur, an ancient CEO, and the apostles of the early church were the board of directors.  Yet according to the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles, the apostles didn’t run a company, they founded a co-operative!  As the story goes, the believers sell their property, and hold possessions in common.  Nobody is needy.  Yet one couple, while giving to the community trust, tries to hold back part of their wealth –perhaps they’re greedy or just not sure they can trust these guys to really to take care of them.  Yet when the couple is found out and accused in front of the crowd for holding back, they both drop dead.

Of course, over the centuries Jesus has been portrayed as all kinds of characters, the source of conflicting advice.  You probably can find a Bible passage to back up your own ideology, a verse to emblazon on the cover of your book to sell in the airport terminal, supermarket or local book store.  But how do we come to terms with the one in the Gospel of Matthew gives this advice:  If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also (Matthew 5:40).

Around the world today, one billion 20 million people go hungry.  That’s about one-fifth of the population of the world, children and adults, without enough to eat.  I’m can imagine there’s a motivational formula to explain a way out of this. But what did Jesus say?  Give up your shirt, and your coat as well. Much simpler to understand, just not so easy to do.

Barbara Ehrenreich points out that prosperity preaching makes religion about us rather than about God, mystery and transcendence.  It’s Your Time is the title of a recent best seller by Joel Osteen, a megachurch pastor  from Houston.  Such theology reduces the God of scripture to the role of personal assistant—and a very reliable and responsive one at that.  In a parody of the twenty-third Psalm, Ehrenreich writes:  “He fixeth my speeding tickets, he secureth me a good table in the restaurant, he leadeth me to book contracts.  Even in these minor tasks, [she says] the invocation of God seems more of a courtesy than a necessity.”[v]

The focus is always on the individual.

The mantra of the late TV evangelist Oral Roberts was “Something good is going to happen to you.”  If prosperity and well-being are truly our divine inheritance, and we are all part of the human family, why can’t we share in them together?  How might human beings advance together, in a way that the earth’s eco-systems can sustain even as our shared well-being improves?

I’d love to see top selling books have titles like:  “A Whole and Healthy World for All God’s Children.”  How about this for a title: “God Wants Us to Take Care of One Another.”   I’d love to see a megachurch pastor on TV preach this message:  “We’re All in this Together.”

Business writer Tom Peters urges those without a job to turn yourself “into a brand called you…. A brand that shouts distinction, commitment, and passion.”[i] No doubt many folks have to hustle like this to achieve a new job or career.

If that’s capitalism, okay.  But it’s not religion.  Not mine, anyway, not the tradition to which we belong.  Our tradition affirms that a person is not a brand, but a being of dignity.  We strive not to offer a formula for success, but compassion:  a listening presence, a hand of fellowship, words of encouragement.

In good times and bad, we affirm the bottom line of human dignity, kinship and belonging.  Each one of us here today has inherent worth and priceless value.  So does everyone beyond these walls.  We belong to one another.  We are in this together.  So may it be. Amen.


[i] Ehrenreich, p. 115


[i] Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided, Metropolitan Books, 2009, p. 46.  See her interviewed on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

[ii] Ehrenreich, p. 115.

[iii] Ehrenreich, p. 100.

[iv]Mammon from Heaven,” by Benjamin Anastas, Harper’s Magazine, March 2010, p. 55. Click the link to read this excellent article in its entirety.

[v] Ehrenreich, p. 123.

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