USING THEOLOGY TO PROSPER
As in the U.S. women’s battle for the vote, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ‘end’ of apartheid in South Africa, to name a few momentous occasions in recent social history, change of this magnitude requires partners. In each of these instances of striving for justice, significant numbers of allies within the dominant Western cultures had to be enlisted. Men voted to recognize (not give) women’s right to vote; pressure on East Germany and South Africa from other countries seem to have played a substantial role in changes experienced in those areas. Allies, from within the U.S. and European cultures, are likely to be needed, in the long run, to aid in the battle against widespread impoverishment. These allies would need to recognize the truth of the oppressed populations’ claims, and indeed some already do, and either join the skirmish or just step aside and let change happen. If a global liberation theology is going to function in a way that makes allies, however, it will have to dialogue with the pre-existent theologies of the dominant culture. Since, in regard to globalization, the U.S. is the primary instigator and beneficiary, the focus will be on U.S. dominant theology.
Entitlement is a word applied, more often than not disparagingly, to U.S. programs aimed at alleviating conditions for the poor. Interestingly, a better word cannot be found to describe the attitude of dominant U.S. culture towards wealth, consumption and accumulation. There is a distinct attitude among most in the U.S. that individuals are entitled to keep the rewards of their efforts, no matter the cost to anyone else. There is also an innate jealousy towards anyone else who appears materially ‘successful’ – almost as if ‘they have what we should have.’ Since entitle means, “to give an enforceable right to claim something”, it would seem most appropriate to apply the epithet to those who would seek to limit benefits to those most in need and, perhaps, deserving.
While Prosperity Theology, as a particular religious expression, has been widely lambasted by mainline theologians as abhorrent, it seems entirely plausible that the U.S. Christian community is firmly entrenched in a more generic theology of prosperity, perhaps one more correctly described as a theology of entitlement. The high points of the Prosperity Theology were: non-Christian humans have the nature of Satan; by “conversion” they acquire the nature of God like true Christians; true Christians have the right to progress and prosper in all areas of life – non-Christians do not; blockages to prosperity come from the Devil and the demons who are the real reason for diseases, poverty and stagnation; Jesus has delegated all his power to Christians who are obliged to use this authority against all things that seem evil to real Christians; God is bound by spiritual regulations which it is up to Christians to understand and exploit; revealed knowledge is a message from God’s Spirit directly into our spirit, and outsiders (those who not think like we do) do not have revealed knowledge. In short, adherents of this theology are entitled to prosperity, authority and hegemony.
U.S. Pentecostalism, TV evangelism and the Religious Right, who claim to have the ear of the majority of U.S. citizens, speak a language that is eerily similar to Prosperity Theology, albeit without the criticism that has accompanied the formal movements in other nations. The popular U.S. theology of the aforementioned groups is as contextual as any liberation theology. It suits the acquisitive nature of U.S. culture to a ‘tee’, and its appeal is not just limited to the Religious Right.
In the extreme, it is not unusual to hear messages about the evil empire (Islam), capitalism being the Christian way, calamities and catastrophes being caused by unrighteous behaviors of GLBT persons and those condoning abortions, God-given authority to promote U.S. style democracy and capitalism, and a war against an infidel enemy to protect our economic interests being a just war. “If you’re not a supporter of [the war], [globalization], [insert other ideology], you’re unpatriotic,” is not an unusual rallying cry in the U.S. today. However they are described – Fundamental, Conservative, Religious Right, Full Gospel – the churches that reflect the dominant U.S. theology are lined up to promote U.S. global dominance economically, politically and theologically.
When you move to the left, however, the theology of entitlement does not disappear. Certain strains of this theology still resonate: mission is often condescending as if given to someone inferior; secular gifts and wealth are often criteria for serving as elders or church council members; ministers are paid on a sliding scale that somehow reflects their abilities; money, when given to churches, many times remains under the control of the giver through designation; the wealthy are generally more deserving of respect, and their words heard more readily, than the poor; and leadership is given the deference that seems to indicate a special relationship with God. Whether Republican or Democrat, left or right – the candidate who spends the most money in a U.S. election campaign wins the election 94% of the time. Admittedly, the depth of the worship of money, power and the elite may be mitigated somewhat as you move from the right, but the idol is an idol just the same.
Amid this dominant U.S. theology, ‘domestic’ strains of liberating theologies have developed for specific populations – feminist, African-American or black, Hispanic, and Asian-American theologies to name but a few – but these are appreciated by relatively few. Forrest Harris quotes Peter Paris in criticizing black churches for abandoning black theology:
“By affirming the basic theology of white churches, the black churches have failed to see the disservice they have rendered themselves … especially [in] the embodiment of racial justice. Black churches have accepted wholesale the theology of the white churches and used it in the service of fighting racism.”
The various types of U.S. theology seem to suffer a similar problem – they do not, as yet, appeal to the majority of the population that they desire to liberate. Although lacking any empirical evidence, I surmise that there may be two primary reasons.
The first, not unlike Paris’ opinion, is that U.S. liberal or ethnic churches have not divested themselves adequately of the trappings of dominant white, male, Eurocentric, entitlement theology. The U.S. theology of entitlement is generated top-down. Hierarchical leadership structures are obvious in virtually all church and denominational structures – so much so that the majority of people who are central in terms of politics or theology show common traits – silence, apathy and inaction.
The second, I conjecture, may be more significant than the first. The vast majority of the people who would ordinarily be entrusted with delivering these theologies to the general population, and indeed many of the audience themselves, are beneficiaries of the dominant culture. While possibly a gross generalization, most churches are led by an educated clergy and an elite laity – the better educated, wealthier congregants. ‘Professional’ and ‘male’ are characteristics usually favored for boards or councils, while ‘female’ and ‘blue collar’ are generally favored for serving ministries. Working within these structures, however, people tend to find the kind of affirmation that gives them confidence and some modicum of power. There is distinct benefit in acquiescing to the roles. To change would require combating comfort. To address social issues directly, a clergyperson would also have to be willing to undergo painful self-examination with respect to social location and motivation, and then risk loss of job security by attacking the ‘values’ of the church leadership.
Without belaboring the point, most church decisions are made along dominant cultural lines. Churches conduct business where they get the best price – that is, most advantage. During a period of fiscal difficulty, the first expenses cut are usually mission, Christian education and ministry funds. The current crisis for mainline churches is perceived as one of numbers and finances. Solution – ‘outreach’ that resembles a smorgasbord of consumer driven choices; ‘stewardship’ and ‘disciple’ programs that unmistakably aim for more giving; both with full-color, glossy, denominational literature that sells to a consumerist mentality. Given a growing ratio of small congregations, most denominations are favoring an approach using non-seminary educated, licensed, bi-vocational clergy in small and rural churches. The benefit claimed is that they are more in tune with local churches. The tacit benefit is economic – lower or no salary and reduced or non-existent benefits.
To be continued shortly or return to Table of Contents
 The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
 David T. Williams, “The Heresy of Prosperity Teaching”, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, no 61 D 1987, p 33-44.
 Douglas W. Petersen, et al, “House Bill #118 of Year 2005”, House of Representatives, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Art 5.
 Forrest E. Harris, Sr, Ministry for Social Crisis – Theology and Praxis in the Black Church Tradition, (Macon, GA: Mercer Univ Press, 1993), p. 53 – quoting Peter J. Paris, Social Teachings of the Black Churches.