There’s a burgeoning religious movement targeting the poor: believe, it says, and God will give you money… provided, of course, that you pay a small fee first.
Remote control in hand, sleep not completely wiped from my eyes… The comfort and warmth of a Sunday morning lie-in was broken by the thunderous voice that bellowed from my TV. At first I did not pay much attention to it, but within five minutes I found myself enthralled by the man, dressed in an expensive suit, with a large Rolex dangling from his wrist and a wedding ring that would rival jewellery by Mr T.
He, of course, was one of many pastors giving televised, soulful, religious guidance on a Sunday morning. His television short was a collage of interlaced scenes of him preaching to vast audiences, young and old, who were either nodding contentedly or hurling themselves to the floor as his words evoked grand inspiration. Additional literature and DVDs were on offer at a nominal price, and could be obtained by calling an easy-to-remember number and offering your credit card digits.
But the products weren’t what you’d expect. It was their theme that finally jerked me out of my slumber.
Ironically, despite the orator being a purported evangelist and Christian leader, none of the books or other media on offer dealt with themes like the gospel, being a better person or connecting with one’s deity or his son. Instead it sounded more like an offering from an expensive, established business school. Personal finances, business success and other secular, capitalistic themes dominated the messaging of his supplemental literature.
I paid closer attention to his abridged sermon snippets, and again very little mention was made of the tenets that are supposedly central to Christianity – or any other religion, for that matter. Instead he kept on talking about how “our Saviour” sacrificed himself and lived a life of poverty so that we would not have to be poor. Poverty is as a result of a belief system, he claimed, going on to say that he had made a choice never to accept anything beneath his standards. As a result, his life apparently improved, and he now realises that poverty is caused by people’s willingness to accept low standards for themselves.
According to this enlightened guru of all that is sacred and good, poverty should be seen as some sort of punishment; God’s divine judgement being exacted on the unfaithful, while riches are the rewards that loyal servants receive.
“Interesting!” I thought. “What am I still doing in bed? I need to get my butt to church now, and sleepless nights over bills will disappear!”
Levity, however, soon returned, and in an attempt to appeal to both my religious and logical sensibilities, I let a few questions arise. Unlike my Sunday morning companion, I am no theologian, and I will not purport to be an expert on all that is Biblical or religious. But like most people that believe in the existence of a higher being, I do believe that I have, at the minimum, a rudimentary understanding of what religion’s fundamental teachings are. As far as I understand it, you need to be a good guy, as far as possible, and money is the last measure of your success when it comes to Divine approval.
If I am so wrong, then one would assume that someone who has accumulated vast wealth through corruption, theft, or the peddling of illicit drugs gets to be welcomed through the pearly gates by St. Peter, whereas some poor sod who has given his life in service to his family, community and everyone else will die a pauper, going directly to be roasted at the end of Beelzebub’s trident.
If I misunderstood this holy man’s message, then forgive me. But how else am I to interpret what has been touted as prosperity evangelism? If the basic definition of religion is the worship of a deity, then this is no religion. A dogma stating that the faithful will be rewarded with riches and that the not-so-faithful will be rewarded with poverty has nothing to do with gods of any description – it places its focus on money.
Also, how just is a god that allows children to be born to parents that have been punished with poverty, to be punished along with their sinful parents? Unless, of course, this is the meaning of being born with original sin.
If I accept that a higher power wishes to punish us with poverty and reward us with wealth, then we Christians sure have been betting on the wrong guy. The foundation of Christianity is supposed to be that believers follow the life of Jesus, but if that’s the case, then boy, did God provide a poor template. The person who, in Christian theology, is purported to have started the world’s largest religious movement and is believed to be the son of God himself was the (adopted) son of a carpenter, who – according to religious texts – spent the last three or so years of his life wandering from one dusty Middle Eastern town to the next. He rode into Jerusalem on an ass – a donkey, for the less religiously inclined – and generally lived off the goodwill of those he visited.
A deity that is said to bless his followers with wealth surely would not have let his only son ride around on donkeys and sleep in stables. It would have been a rather more effective message to send as an example a bloke who walked the earth in fancy robes and soft leather sandals, with a purebred steed thrown in for good measure – the equivalent of today’s most luxurious Maybach.
Either way, somebody – either God or the pastor – has obviously made some mistake. But surely Christians who believe in a flawless god would bet on him rather than my early morning companion, with his inventive plan for boosting book and DVD sales.
My gripe is not with this pastor alone, but a burgeoning movement that uses religion to vilify the poor. The problem is that the poor do not want to be poor forever. They, too, want to receive bountiful blessings through their bank accounts and unfortunately, they will latch onto anything with the remote promise of alleviating their plight. Some are so desperate that they will use funds that should go toward their children’s education, the monthly rent, the grocery bill or transport money for work, to buy the pastor’s finance books and DVD series. In most instances, they will tithe exorbitantly at the numerous new “churches” mushrooming across the tops of so many CBD shops across the land.
Poverty breeds desperation, and inevitably this leads to desperate measures. The susceptibility of people can be exploited easily, and this susceptibility is what empowered historical bad guys like Charlie Manson and Jim Jones to convince their followers to kill themselves and others to attain redemption. Today we gasp in wonderment that one man convinced 909 people to take their own lives, and those of their children, at Jonestown in 1978; we forget that those people followed him there with the promise of enlightenment, and a godly utopia for all.
Maybe the pastors of these new churches will not inspire mass suicide, but the danger of their messages is just as severe. Religion has often been used to justify horrible actions in history, but now it is being used to enrich a few silver-tongued, expensive suit-wearing, greasy-haired elites. Their message is convincing to many. It might seem harmless, but it enriches the pastors, whilst their congregations grow poorer as they continue to tithe and pray.
Sometimes logic can and should be applied to issues of faith, and blind faith has historically taught us that things can go horribly wrong.
But if you do choose blind faith, and opt to pray your way out of poverty – for goodness’ sake, lay off the Kool-Aid. DM
Gushwell F. Brooks is an LLB graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand. He did not go on to become an attorney, but much rather entered the corporate rat race. After slaving away for years, he found his new life as a talk show host for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk.
"Sometimes the best way to help someone is just to be near them." ~ Veronica Roth
"Men are good in one way, but bad in many" ~ Aristotle