Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Disease of the Gospel of Conspicuous Consumption

It was an odd experience all around. I had just come from a large worship service in Moscow, and my host Sasha Tsoutserov was telling me about this prosperity Gospel preacher in Moscow claiming that Jesus and the disciples were all rich and that God intended for all who had enough faith to be rich. What was especially odd to me about this Gospel is that it is so clearly an American Gospel, one that has been born and nurtured in America where our cultural desires and our religion regularly get confused and fused. It was alarming to see this Gospel being transplanted to Russia in so flagrant a way.

So perhaps a few words about money and lifestyle and the basic of what the Bible says about these matters is in order. In the first place lets deal with historical facts--- it is simply not true that Jesus and most of his followers were well to do. No doubt some were, but they were in the minority and they were expected to provide the houses and hospitality for Jesus' followers so they could meet. To whom more is given, more is expected. And furthermore, there is no subject about which Jesus has more warnings than the dangers of wealth, and Paul is not far behind him.

For example, of course there is the famous story of the rich young man whom Jesus tells to sell everything, give to the poor and come and follow him (Mk. 10.17-31). When the man fails to follow Jesus instructions Jesus then serves up the famous aphorism about how it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. The reason for this is simple--- you cannot serve two masters--- God and money. God alone needs to be lord in the Christian's life whether they are rich or poor.

And in any case the proper place to start a conversation like this is to point out that as the psalmist says "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof". Put bluntly this means that human beings do not own anything, they are only stewards of God's property. There is no such thing as an affirmation of private property in the Bible. Indeed, we are often warned about the dangers of much possessions (see Lk. 12 the parable of the rich fool or Lk. 16 and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus). Jesus even says Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom (Lk. 6.20).

This hardly comports with a Gospel of conspicuous consumption, or even the assumption that if one is wealthy it must necessarily be a blessing of God and proof one has true faith. While sometimes wealth is a gift from God the real issue is what one does with it, and what one does with money reveals a lot about one's character. Paul made clear it was a matter of character and heart when he stressed that the "love of money is a root of all sorts of evil" (1. Tim. 6.10). In that same context Paul stresses that godliness with contentment should be our attitude, not the avaricious desire for more and more.

Since it is the case that Americans make up less than 15% of the world's population and yet we consume over 60% of the world's resources, and having things like obesity and heart disease caused by obesity as leading causes of death, what preachers in our country really ought to be stressing instead of a prosperity Gospel is a Gospel of simplifying one's lifestyle, as Jesus' early followers did, and generous giving to others, taking care of the least, last and the lost. What a country does with its most vulnerable and weakest members of its society most reveals that nation's character.

In my own faith tradition John Wesley took this matter very seriously. I would urge every Christian to read his famous sermon "On the Use of Money". It has three main points: 1) make all you can by moral means (not engaging in non-Christian ways of making money such as gambling, selling harmful products like cigrarettes etc.); 2) save all you can; and 3) give all you can. Wesley says if you do the first two but not the third, you may be a living person but you are a dead Christian. He would be urging us to de-enculturate ourselves from the values of our society when it comes to wealth and conspicuous consumption.

It is hard for me to imagine Jesus encouraging anyone to live in luxury while there are people starving right in our own nation. How is this a good witness to the world? I can't imagine any real Christian rationale for luxury cars, SUVs, luxry houses, luxury clothes etc. The basic Christian principle is simple--- another person's necessities should take priority over my luxuries.

For those looking for a good book that has often helped Christians work through this important issue I would urge reading Ron Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger-- a classic treatment.

15 comments:

BAB said...

Amen Amen!

One question, do you think that it [prosperity gospel proper] is really an American creation/problem? No doubt over-consumption is something Americans do like nobody's business, but it seems like prosperity teaching is something that, while it may have it's place in the American church, has been really spreading and taking root among the world's poor and the 3rd world.

What do you think?

Ben Witherington said...

It is interesting how this message flourishes with the poor, but it really does go back to the so called American dream, and the attempt to amalgamate it with the Gospel. A good example would be Rev. Ike who used to preach "The lack of money is the root of all evil." Of course the get rich quick through faith idea does appeal to some of the poor in various places. You might want to check out Gordon Fee's little tract on "The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospel". He shows how it has plagued blue collar Protestantism, especially of the more charismatic variety.

Blessings,
Ben

ben said...

Good post.
I have found as a young pastor, the most resistance I feel in the pulpit is when I preach on the subject of wealth and the desire for it.
I have also noticed that our churches, whether on purpose or not, encourage in many ways wealth. When churches are getting bigger and bigger, looking more and more like shopping malls rather than churches, I believe it sends the wrong message. We spend our wealth on ourselves rather than, as you put it, "the least, last, and the lost".

Shane Raynor said...

Dr. Witherington,
I agree with your post but my concern is about how we actually go about helping the poor here. I can donate to solid organizations like World Vision or Compassion to help people overseas, but should I only help through organizations here? My problem is, I get frustrated at con-artists and panhandlers out there. Not only that, we live in a country where even many of the poor among us have bought into our consumer culture and insist on having cell phones and premium cable television. Credit cards and payday loans have become predators who only make matters worse for the poor. It's hard to balance generosity with good stewardship. Just a few thoughts.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Shane:

You are so right about the dilemma of how best to deal with this issue. I think that there are four principles to live by: 1) simplify your own lifestyle so you can free up some resources, and be a good example to your flock and family; 2) of course support good organizations that deal with poverty; 3) be prepared to be spontaneuously charitable, leaving the results in God's hands. If you are taken afvantage of, that is between the other person and God, but you at least have erred on the side of compassion; 4) remember that poverty and homelessness are only a symptom of a larger problem, namely we live in a society that rewards selfishness and does not take care of its most vulnerable. The church however should never exhibit these traits.

Blessings,

Ben

John said...

Since it is the case that Americans make up less than 15% of the world's population and yet we consume over 60% of the world's resources, and having things like obesity and heart disease caused by obesity as leading causes of death, what preachers in our country really ought to be stressing instead of a prosperity Gospel is a Gospel of simplifying one's lifestyle, as Jesus' early followers did, and generous giving to others, taking care of the least, last and the lost. What a country does with its most vulnerable and weakest members of its society most reveals that nation's character.

A simple lifestyle is best, and certainly more Christian. But I wonder that if, as a nation, we decided to follow this approach, we might do more harm than good. Yes, we consume 60% of the world's goods. But because we consume those goods, poor people in India, China, and Mexico (among many other nations) can put food on the table. If we stopped buying their products, how will people in developing, exporter nations economically survive? The engine of capitalism (or conspicuous consumption) creates the food, shelter, and other basic necessities of living that poor people need. A $200 pair of shoes from Indonesia means a cup of rice for the shoemaker that otherwise might not be there.

All of which is not to say that we should not live simply. But we should be aware that decisions can have unintended consequences.

J said...

Dr. Witherington, thanks for your words. I needed that thought tonight. Blessings, Jon

J said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
J said...

John, I think the thought is that if we apply this principle universally God will bless "our" ("our" being the universal Church, not American Christians only) obedience. I'll trust God to work the details. Bless God, Jon

si said...

Glad you're raising these issues over there and that you've begun to blog.
In response to Shane, having worked (often indirectly) with some of these large humanitarian organisations, I'm frequently dismayed at how much of the money gets ploughed back into infrastructure. Simpler living in our Christian communities which in turn have a more 360 degree view of the gospel, would eliminate the need for the 'middle man'. But until then, thank God these big machines are doing something!

Kirk Bartha said...

Hi there Ben,

I'm forwarding your post to a friend who just posted something on his blog about his own wrestling with this issue.

His blog is tsbailey.blogspot.com
Mine is theocity.blogspot.com

Nice bumping into you.

Kyle York said...

But because we consume those goods, poor people in India, China, and Mexico (among many other nations) can put food on the table. If we stopped buying their products, how will people in developing, exporter nations economically survive? The engine of capitalism (or conspicuous consumption) creates the food, shelter, and other basic necessities of living that poor people need. A $200 pair of shoes from Indonesia means a cup of rice for the shoemaker that otherwise might not be there.

John,
You make a good point, but I doubt that people in any third world country would agree with you. I have an Indian friend who told me the general worldview toward America is like that of a big lion who struts to and fro, stepping all over small ants. Often his stepping on them is unintentional, but the lion shows little remorse either way. And, ironically, whenever the lion gets a thorn in his paw, he always expects the ants to care!

Whether or not that's completely true, it does hold relevance considering the vast majority of human beings are not Americans.

The truth is, a company like Nike does put a bowl of rice on the table for many people in disadvantaged states, but the amount and quality of that food would likely make any one of us cringe. Why? Because Nike doesn't care about these people. Nike cares only about profit and shareholder wealth. Therefore, Nike knows that they can exploit the horribly low standards of living in another country by paying peanuts for men, women, and children to work 15-hour days. So you have American industry feeding more and more into the American consumption machine, while the little people of the world scrape to get by, most often on about $1 a day.

The truth is, I throw away more food in a day than about 1 billion people actually eat in a day. My dog eats more than about 20% of the world's population (on a side note, almost 75% of American dogs are overweight). Someone in China is working from dawn until dusk just to provide a bowl of rice for his family, while we complain about the value of minimum wage. There's something very wrong about all of this, and capitalism is NOT making things better.

When I purchase my $200 Nikes, I shouldn't pat myself on the back for helping the little guy go to bed only moderately starving. What American capitalism does is keep these people's heads above water just enough so that they can continue to produce at a ridiculously low wage. It's a wonder why these people stay poor...they have no choice. They must rely on a system which keeps them below marginal without any hope of growth or betterment. If taking away our current system proved to be their doom, then it would still be our fault. We are the ones who have made it this way.

If the world truly does belong to God, then how can we justify hogging so much of it for our own pleasures?

J. B. Hood said...

Does anyone know where I can get some good sermons on money, possessions, etc. from modern day Methodists (or others) in the spirit of Wesley? Especially if they're available online, in transcript or audio form.

Thanks.

J B Hood

Toledotastic said...

There's an excellent article on this very subject in the current issue (August 2005) of Harper's Magazine: "The Christian Paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong" by Bill McKibben. You can read an excerpt at this link:

http://harpers.org/ExcerptTheChristianParadox.html

The Creature said...

Hi Ben,

Thanks for your post on "Prosperity Doctrine".

I do work in the African country of Rwanda and am finding that this false teaching is creeping into the, predominantly, pentecostal church infrastructure in this country (I work with a pentecostal church in Kigali).

It is particularly repulsive to me given that the bulk of the population of Rwanda is dirt poor - even the Christians - yet this "gospel" would have them believe that God promises them wealth if their faith and committment is in the right place.

What happens when the gold doesn't fall from the sky and the wealth doesn't poor in? Where will it leave their faith? I think now is the time for the church to act and wherever possible put a stop to the damaging false doctrines being spread by the false prophets of the "health and wealth" movement.

God bless you mate!

Ktisis