Faith’s Real Riches

By Michael Gerson (THE WASHINGTON POST, 06/08/08):

In a recent investigative profile, the Associated Press tells the depressingly familiar story of televangelist Kenneth Copeland. His ministry’s private jet and lakeside mansion. The complex web of ranching, oil and media interests that benefits his extended family. In this case, there is no taint of hypocrisy. Copeland practices what he preaches — a doctrine that God wants his followers to prosper in very material ways.

This prosperity gospel combines two of the most powerful forces on Earth: the profit motive and the power of positive thinking. At its best, it inspires hard work, generosity and the avoidance of life-destroying vices. At its worst, it is religiously infantile.

“I believe God wants to give us nice things,” says evangelist Joyce Meyer.

“I think God wants us to be prosperous,” pastor Joel Osteen assures us. “I think He wants us to be happy.”

Whatever ethical problems such leaders may or may not have, they face a large theological challenge. A religious system that promises happiness and “nice things” is difficult to reconcile with the faith whose founder had “no place to lay his head,” urged his followers not to store up “treasures on earth,” and called on them to deny themselves and take up a cross of suffering.

This has never made the best marketing message: What company would adopt the electric chair or the hangman’s noose as its logo? Christianity has always dealt in hard truths — that God is not a means to our own ends, and that suffering is unavoidable in lives bounded by mortality and often wrecked by failure.

Suffering for the sake of suffering is useless; it is merely masochism. But when suffering cannot be escaped as the health-and-wealth preachers promise — or even nobly endured as the Stoics promise — it may perhaps be transformed. “If you and I can share our pain,” said the late theologian Henri Nouwen, “suddenly we find grace and joy coming in. In your tears and anguish and struggle, you suddenly discover community, you suddenly discover friendship, you suddenly discover affection, you suddenly discover forgiveness, you suddenly discover healing. All these things come through vulnerability.”

And in this odd faith where the poor in spirit are blessed, the highest ideal is suffering for others — though most of us do precious little of it. This model of spiritual leadership has nothing to do with conventional measures of success and influence. It is found in the medical missionary who buries his or her life in the forgotten relief of forgotten suffering. In the dying pope who speaks for the vulnerable by exposing his own shocking vulnerability.

One of the most vivid literary pictures of this leadership comes from a strange source — a self-loathing, self-described “Catholic agnostic,” prone to prostitutes, opium and suicide attempts. In Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory,” set in the 1930s, Mexico’s authorities destroy churches and hunt down priests for execution. An unnamed whiskey priest — disguised and constantly moving — doggedly performs his sacramental duties while knowing he is a spiritual failure. He has a mistress, a child and a problem with alcohol. But stripped of dignity, respect and possessions, he discovers an identification with the poor around him. “When you visualized a man or woman carefully,” he observes, “you could always begin to feel pity — that was a quality God’s image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”

Having reached safety in a neighboring state, the whiskey priest returns, knowing he will be captured and killed, to deliver the last rites to a murderer. The priest is driven by suffering and sin down to the level of his fellow men, until he is worthy to die for them. During this hard descent into sainthood, he finds that God’s love is often different from what we expect. “It would be enough to scare us — God’s love. It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark. Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around.”

With the health-and-wealth gospel advancing from America to Brazil to Nigeria, it is worth considering the vast spiritual distance between Copeland and the whiskey priest, and the possibility that success is not the only or best measure of influence.