"You Can Do It!"
Two cheers for the prosperity gospel
by Peter L. Berger

There is an almost universal consensus, right across the Christian theological spectrum, to the effect that the so-called prosperity gospel is an aberration. One should always be suspicious when there is a universal consensus about anything; quite often it is wrong. I will momentarily voice some suspicion about this particular consensus. But first one should give credit where credit is due. In other words, the consensus about the prosperity gospel is not completely wrong.

It is certainly a distortion of the Christian message if it is primarily interpreted as a program for the material improvement of the human condition. Where the prosperity gospel does that, it is an aberration—especially so when its proponents suggest, implicitly and often enough explicitly, that giving money to them guarantees that God will bless the donors with success and wealth. Protestants if no one else should recall in this connection that the Reformation began as a protest against the sale of indulgences. Recall JohannTetzel's jingle—"as soon as the coin drops into the collection plate, a soul jumps out of purgatory." Some prosperity-gospel preaching strikes one as an eerie Protestant translation of Tetzel's message.

A number of critics of the prosperity gospel have couched their criticism in an overall anti-capitalist rhetoric: The prosperity gospel is supposed to be part and parcel of a pro-capitalist ideology, seeking to dupe the poor of the global south into accepting the wicked policies of "neoliberalism." It is useful to point out that the materialist distortion of the Christian message is fully shared by the liberation theology of the anti-capitalist left. Only here the material improvement is understood in collective rather than individual terms: put your coin in the collection plate of the revolutionary movement, and the soul of the masses will be freed from the purgatory of capitalist exploitation. Theological suggestion: What is good for the rightist goose is good for the leftist gander.

The core of the Christian message is the proclamation of a tectonic shift in cosmic reality inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This proclamation radically relativizes all the empirical givens of this world, including all human institutions. Any reinterpretation of Christianity in terms of a this-worldly agenda, individual or collective, is a distortion. At the same time, one cannot ink out of the New Testament the fact that Jesus in his earthly ministry showed a special concern for the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. Nor should one put aside the age-old pastoral wisdom that adversity can be an occasion of spiritual growth, that God draws closer to us when we suffer from adversity. But this does not mean that adversity should be celebrated as such. Sickness should be fought by the means medicine puts at our disposal, as marginality should be fought politically (think of the civil rights movement here). But if sickness or marginality should not be accepted passively as God-given circumstances, neither should poverty.

This train of thought, at least for me, leads from theology to sociology. In terms of poverty, one must now ask just what is good for the poor. And, as far as the prosperity gospel is concerned, what one can say about it sociologically is quite different from what one can say theologically. Different Christian traditions will have different ways of coping with this (I think, necessary) dichotomy. For Lutherans this is rather easy, due to the sharp distinction between the "two realms" of Law and Gospel. Sociology has nothing to say about the realm of Gospel. It has quite a lot to say about the realm of Law. Let me try.

The research center which I direct at Boston University, in collaboration with the Centre for Development and Enterprise in Johannesburg, has recently concluded a study of the social impact of the remarkable growth of Pentecostalism in South Africa. Not all Pentecostals adhere to the prosperity gospel; many do, especially in the Pentecostal mega-churches. One of these is Rhema Church, located in a suburb of Johannesburg. On a recent visit to South Africa I attended a Sunday morning service at Rhema. It was a memorable occasion. And it led to the reflections expressed here.

An estimated 7,000 people attended the service (one of four every Sunday), in a vast gigantic auditorium that was packed full. The atmosphere was that of a rock concert, with amplified music from a band on the center stage (the music, I was told, derived from American "Christian rock"). After a long warm-up of singing and clapping (certain to give a splitting headache to anyone not immunized against such a trivial ailment by the "baptism of the Spirit"), a collection was taken (very efficiently, given the size of the congregation). Then came the climax of the event, a long, rousing sermon by the founder of the church and its principal preacher, a white South African with a background in professional body-building (I could not help thinking of him as a born-again Schwarzenegger).

The congregation was about 85 percent black, but the whites seemed perfectly at ease. We arrived by car and had difficulty finding a space in the large parking lot on one side of the church. There was a variety of cars, among them quite a few Mercedes, BMWs, and the like. On the other side of the church sat a long line of buses, which had brought people from the townships. The same class difference was evident in the way people were dressed, some in business suits, some in cheap-looking clothes. Thus the divides of both race and class were bridged, fused together in the fire of the Spirit.

Like mega-churches elsewhere, Rhema has a large number of activities serving the multiple needs of its flock. Most of these, of course, were not in evidence on a Sunday morning, but I was particularly struck by a brochure advertising a business school operated by the church. Clearly, this was not intended to give out MBAs for individuals hoping for a career in a multinational corporation. But the courses listed were evidently suitable for grassroots entrepreneurs: how to keep accounts, plan marketing, pay taxes. One could not tell from the brochure how religion was introduced into this curriculum, but it was described as "bringing Christ into the marketplace."

The message from the preacher had two major themes. One: God does not want you to be poor! And two: You can do it! That is, you can do something about the circumstances of your life. Should one quarrel with this message? I'm inclined to think not.

Is there a theological warrant to propose that God wants us to be poor? Any more than he wants us to be sick? The prosperity gospel contains no sentimentality about the poor. There is no notion here that poverty is somehow ennobling. In that, speaking sociologically, the prosperity gospel is closer to the empirical facts than a romantic idea of the noble poor—a notion reminiscent of another romantic fiction, the noble savage. Such notions, of course, are always held by people who are not poor and who do not consider themselves to be savages. The notions are patronizing. They are implicit in the famous slogan of liberation theology: "a preferential option for the poor." Mind you, not of the poor, but for the poor—pronounced, as it were, from on high.
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