More Money More Jesus?

March 27, 2015


So occasionally I see things like the above meme. Or similar ones with sarcastic slogans like “Jesus died so Joel Osteen could buy a multimillion dollar home in the suburbs”. Recently Christian wealth-adviser Dave Ramsey himself responded to criticisms over the cost and value of his own home clarifying that he lives by his principles of having no debt and giving back huge amounts through church and charity. Ramsey has always held the viewpoint of “how can the poor help the poor?” In his recent defense of ownership of said home he positioned his abode as a nexus for service– a place for other wealthy Christians to gather and donate to support church and charity.

Conservatives are hardly the only folks who preach service to the poor while simultaneously generating wealth. Weathy liberals abound. And honestly, could Bill Gates do the work he is doing through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation without his massive resources and personal wealth? No. Yet there is a difference between someone like Gates who made his money from business and someone like Osteen or Mr. Dollar whose “business” is that of Christian ministry. Protestant Ministers have never been asked to take a vow of poverty of course, but the sheer extravagance and amount of remuneration these high profile celebrity preachers earn has long irked not only cynical secularists but also many of the religious as well. Now Mr. Ramsey, of course, is not a pastor and hasn’t made his money from sermons–he’s made the bulk of it from financial advising. Of course that financial advice is, according to Ramsey, Christian-based. He advocates wealth generation as positive for his fellow Christians.Therefore his message and his money is worth consideration in this present discussion.
Ramsey echoes a sentiment that folks as varied as Jay-Z have also made with his “I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them” sentiment. Of course that is true to some degree. Yet the question is: is that Christian?

I do not ask this as an attack but as a genuine consideration. Earning wealth for oneself and one’s family is not at its face value an evil or a social ill unless one earns that money through destructive means and/or uses that money for destructive ends. I’m not here to claim a wealthy person is by default a “bad” person. But can a very wealthy person be a Christian? Can a very wealthy person be a Christian pastor? Conservative Christians will likely take this question as more of an insult than I intend it. I once again stress as I have in many recent articles that I am not trying to ask this question from the inside–that is, I ‘m not inside of the Christian tent pointing fingers and asking if those “others” belong in here with me. I am outside of that tent looking in and here is what I think–some of the people inside of that tent may be better suited and more honest with themselves and their neighbors if they exit that tent by their own accord and find something else to identify as because the label just doesn’t fit without stretching so far that it is unrecognizable. I’m not saying your “immortal soul” is in danger or that you are not “saved” but I am saying that if you are closing in on having a billion dollars in personal assets and you aren’t using 98% of it to make this world a better place you are kidding yourself with the Christian label.

There simply exist far fewer “Christians” in the world, particularly in America, than  people who identify as Christian. It’s most often a superficial label signifying one’s birth to Christian parents not that far removed from how most of the world considers their own identification as Jews, Muslims or Buddhists. Most Christians in America are participants in the civil religion of American culture that meshes patriotism, national foundational documents, capitalism, and common social mores. If generating, maintaining, and then sharing some of a great amount of wealth is your interest you may very well be a good person but you’re not a Christian in the traditional sense. Jesus was pretty clear about what his followers had to do to follow him. Jesus was not a financial adviser. Following Jesus through the teachings and example he provided (as best as we can objectively understand it 2000+ years after the fact) will not lead to a 401k or a vacation home. The original Christian community as established by Jesus’ brother James did not encourage its members to hoard their goods. The diaspora Christian churches as established by St. Paul practiced communal pooling of wealth and resources to care for the poor members of the community.

Now, you can: (a) follow these examples and some still do; or (b) not. They are pretty central to the original basis of Christianity, so if you claim Christianity and do (b) you are at most a Christian-influenced person. You may be (c) and not care about fitting into either category.  I don’t claim that a, b, or c is a “better” choice. It’s totally up to the individual and should be influenced by more than anything written here and it should really be based on more than financial issues as well.  I certainly wouldn’t claim that those who follow (a) will lead stable, happy lives and I wouldn’t even go so far as to claim those in the (a) camp are in any way “better” than those in the (b) camp just that they are more honest in their self-identification. You can be a good or a bad person in a, b, or c. Those in the banner at the top of this article are in a category of all their own, however. They are (d) those who misuse, misunderstand,and misrepresent a religion for personal gain (whether intentional or unintentional) and their seemingly sole (or at least majority) way of “giving back” is limited to their “ministry” which is simply a recurring cycle of misuse, misrepresentation, and often the spreading of false hope and blame to people who will never have that type of wealth.

I don’t think I’m done with this topic yet. But I’m done for now.

[Disclaimer–the views here are my own and do not reflect those of any organization I am affiliated with. In the academic world I never felt the need to  stress this but I want to clarify that I write and wrestle with these issues as an individual and am not the mouthpiece for any church, ideology, or group in my writing. I welcome thoughtful discussion in the comment thread.]
My commentary here is not to drive anyone to a “progressive” church. I’ve recently written about unexpected turns in my spiritual development and though I once held to that “progressive Christian” standpoint with conviction–as many of my friends and colleagues still do and do so authentically–I no longer personally  identify with any religious group. However, I remain a proponent of inter-religious dialogue, action, and understanding. Lately I’ve been wrestling with secular humanism in my writing–wondering if it can inspire the good (without the bad) of the strongest religious convictions in the past and my verdict remains reserved at this point. I just know that I am a doubter and I am trying to be comfortable with that.
That being said, my mind boggles at so much of what I hear from religious people. I don’t even mean the positions themselves–e.g. I completely understand why a fundamentalist Christian views homosexuality as a sin. I obviously disagree with them–I disagreed with them long before I parted ways with the church too. I have worked with far too many denominations, pastors, and studied religion and the Bible intensely from within a church context, seminary context, and secular university context. I truly think it is more in-line with the spirit of Christianity to celebrate gay unions than it is to be homophobic. But I completely understand why a Christian with an inerrant view of scripture literally cannot understand how this can be so. That’s because this battle has been fought over many issues before in much the same way–scripture as the basis for both the pro and anti slavery positions and for both the pro and anti ordination of female clergy debate. It is,though,  a bit odd that those who are aware of those debates are perplexed about this “latest” debate (in quotations because this debate is more than 60 years old in most mainline protestant circles). There are more verses in the Bible that can be used to justify slavery and to oppose the ordination of female clergy than there are that even deal with homosexuality, but anti-gay churches that have moved past both of those issues seem unwilling to connect the dots. Connecting the dots reveals that the debate over the ordination of and marrying of LGBT couples from a Christian perspective is not really about sex at all–it’s about hermeneutics, interpretation, and the role of scripture (or the philosophy of scripture).
Now, what is perplexing to me is that there still exist so many pockets of American Christendom where it is actually unknown that a Christian denomination can be welcome and affirming. That is what gets me–I see where one can disagree but how can one be completely unaware of the many Christian bodies moving well beyond this issue and embracing their LGBT family? As the Presbyterian (USA) Church becomes the latest notable group to make their pro LGBT position official, more than half of mainline Christianity is now welcome and/or affirming on some level. So when I run into people–in VA, KY, TN–who bring up this topic often out of the blue who are unaware that their opinion is but one opinion and that there are mainstream counterparts to that opinion I am a bit flabbergasted. Perhaps Mark Twain was right and news just reaches us 20 years later in this part of the country. Because I have noticed that in the rural and suburban south “welcoming” is finally trickling in to even many fundamentalist churches–which is where mainline protestant churches stood 20 years ago. The problem is that at that time there was at least some excuse for the hesitation  to adapt to the issue. In 2015–science, psychology, history, and sociology all unequivocally prove that sexual orientation is not a “lifestyle choice” but a healthy, natural variation occurring across humanity and species–that it is a part of a person’s identity in much the same way as eye color. Of course, as notable geneticists contrarily point out, there is no singular “gay gene” because it is much more complex than such a simplification and of course there are outliers to everything in that of course some people may actively choose to participate in a same-sex relationship but one cannot simply choose to fully change one’s orientation.
Anyway, what I am getting at is this: in 2015 to just now be getting on the “welcoming” bandwagon but to avoid the “affirming” addendum is simply ridiculous. At least the screeching hate speech from those who refuse to tone down their rhetoric against the “gay agenda” or the “homosexual lifestyle” are consistent across a swath of issues. More importantly, at least those churches let people know loud and clear where they stand so that a LGBT person can avoid those churches. But churches who grin and smile and “welcome” the LGBT person but only in part–excluding a core part of the LGBT person’s very identity–are much more insidious and damaging. Because the LGBT person can never be fully actualized and welcome, they can never be loved for who they are in the welcoming but non-affirming church. To welcome someone into your community but to exclude a core part of their identity is in many ways worse than to completely shun them. Furthermore, to call that core part of their identity a “sin”–to label it as a defect, a bad choice, or a consequence of poor moral character is insulting and damaging and runs in contrast to every logical development in science, psychology, and theology made in the past 100 years.
You simply cannot “love the sinner and hate the sin” vis-a-vis this issue as I have heard all of my life in the south. Not when the “sin” is a natural component of a person’s identity. If Christians believe in a “Creator” they must accept that if sexual orientation is a (a) a natural and (b) healthy occurrence that would be harmful and damaging (and impossible) to “repair”, then they must accept that LGBT persons are as they were “created.” To call that a sin is insulting and abusive.
[Ending disclaimer– I do not claim that all who hold the “welcome but non-affirming” position are “bad” people and if you are of that camp I am not personally attacking you. I argue that holding that position is dangerous and hurtful in ways you likely do not realize. I argue that it is theologically, psychologically, and scientifically unsound to hold such a position. Yet I recognize that this such a position is cultivated, taught, and held onto for a variety of reasons that run very deep.]