What about this for a new year’s thought – prosperity gospel? Yes, preaching to people so that they can be rich. I don’t mean the usual exhortations by politicians at political rallies.
Those are uninspiring. Nor do I mean the EDPRS, although I know that this readily drops from the lips of some people in certain positions of leadership as proof that they are in the fight to banish poverty.
I mean the Christian gospel, preached from the pulpit. Yes, it is not a sin to want to be rich, according to some preachers. Actually, it is their moral and pastoral duty to encourage their flock to aspire to be rich.
This may sound unusual and even be a subversive approach to the gospel by the more traditional churches. But there are people in this world who actually practice it. The Atlantic Monthly magazine carried an article in its December 2009 issue precisely about this.
The author of the article, Hanna Rosin, reports her visit to a church in Virginia, USA, where she experienced first-hand a prosperity gospel sermon and observed its impact on the congregation.
The pastor, Fernando Garay, preaches mostly about money, wealth and prosperity.
On the day she was there, Hanna Rosin heard him preach with fervour: “Fight the attack of the devil on my finances! Fight him! We declare financial blessings! Financial blessings this week, NOW, NOW, NOW. More work! Better work! The best finances!”
You can see Pator Garay shouting and punching the air and swinging his arms in a motion to indicate getting rid of the devil. You can see his captivated audience in rapt attention and hear them shout “alleluia” and “amen”, content that the Good Lord will bless their endeavours.
It does not come as a surprise when one of his parishioners enthuses, “We love the money in Jesus Christ’s name. Jesus loved money, too.” His enthusiasm is explained by the comparison of his experience with religion in Mexico where they were taught about Jesus and heaven and being good, and his encounter with Garay who teaches them about jobs and houses and making good money.
Traditional and mainstream churches may dismiss pastors such as Garay as charlatans. But, it is also easy to understand why prosperity gospel is attractive.
It is positive. It taps into people’s desire to climb out of poverty. Instead of whining about poverty, as many people are accustomed to, they go out to look for money so as to fashion their path to success and achieve some measure of affluence.
This positive attitude is best expressed by Joel Osteen, owner of one of America’s mega churches. He is quoted in The Atlantic article as urging his followers to, “cast out anything negative, any thoughts that bring fear, worry, doubt, or unbelief.”
He advises against people saying that they are poor, or broke or stuck in a dead-end job because this invites negativity in their lives. Instead, people should program their minds for success.
The central tenet of the prosperity gospel is that divine providence combines with positive thinking, personal initiative and hard work to pull believers out of the poverty hole and lead them to success and wealth.
In Africa, prosperity gospel is not new. It has been around for a while, but has been restricted to the pastors, especially in the non-denominational churches.
The pastors encourage, sometimes force or even intimidate their flocks to give to the church most of what they have because this is giving to God, and only those who give will be blessed.
The faithful duly oblige, so strong is the desire for divine blessing. In little time the pastors who start off as men of normal size turn plump and portly, wear expensive designer suits, drive flashy cars and live in up-market neighbourhoods.
They generally display obscene opulence.
Meanwhile their congregations are warned not to hunger for worldly things, for in that lies the road to perdition.
They are fed on the Beatitudes (that section of the gospel according to Matthew which lists blessings to the poor, the weak and meek and so on) as the most desirable forms of Christian conduct.
It does not come as a surprise that those who take this form of spiritual injunction to heart eventually succumb to defeat, descend into despair and resign themselves to poverty, and blame it on fate.
Not all churches are like this, of course. There are churches where pastors are not swindlers. They do not dwell on the virtues of poverty and other related negative values. Membership of these churches is a status symbol, a statement that they have “arrived”.
To become a member, it is obvious that a person must be of a certain class, must have attained a certain level of affluence. The congregation is rather like members of an exclusive club.
That’s not a bad thing. Membership of the church exerts a pull which means that aspiring members must work hard to attain the required status for membership. In that sense those churches contribute to prosperity.
It may be worthwhile for Rwandans to give serious thought to the prosperity gospel and if they can, adopt it – if not its theology, certainly its spirit.
Happy New Year to you all!