Everything. One of the reasons why prosperity theology is a distortion of the Scriptures is because it makes God look like a benevolent and flash Father, who lavishes on His children when His children say the right thing, do the right thing at the right time. This means the generosity of God – according to those who propel this theology – is primarily determined by the worshipper’s ability to give. The greater the financial gift, the greater the blessing. But where does this leave those who don’t have the required resources to give to God? The answer is pretty clear: their financial blessings can be curtailed. Such an outcome not only portrays God as formulaic and discriminatory, but also controlled and manipulated by the prayers and bank balances of His children.
Even though I find this theology distasteful, appreciating some of the reasons why millions and millions of people have brought into it, finding it compelling and empowering, is important.
I am not one who believes that all African and Caribbean dysfunctionality should be attributed to our enslavement, though recently I have been reflecting on the possible correlation between the two as factors, alongside others, that might have contributed to the rise of prosperity theology.
Allow me to explain. Just when Black people thought enslavement was coming to an end, it was replaced by apprenticeship. Just when Black people thought apprenticeship was drawing to an end and Black humanity on the cusp of being endowed with a semblance of dignity, apprenticeship was replaced with lynching – legalised by the Jim Crow laws, while running in parallel with the absence of Black voting rights in parts of America. With the movement of time, these violent systems of control have been diluted by other systems and processes and, though biased towards particular types of people, they express their discriminatory practices with much more sophistication and subtlety. The term used to define this less explicit and less ubiquitous expression of systematic and structural violence is Neo-colonialism – the practice of using capitalism, globalisation and cultural imperialism to influence in lieu of direct military control (imperialism) or indirect political control (hegemony).
Among the many things that these systems do is to create cultures of dependency. And so when a preacher declares: “This is your moment. To receive a blessing from God, all you need to do is to give a couple of hundred pounds now and God, who loves a generous giver, will not only give you back your money but He will add to it two, three or even fourfold”, it is not surprising that the giver, controlled by both macro (like those mentioned already) and micro forces, feels that independence, autonomy, alongside the ability to control one’s own destiny – instead of having it controlled by global and more local forces – is strongly compelled to give substantive amounts of their earnings in exchange for choice. I am sure the absence of choice forces many to give disproportionately, in the vain hope that their God will see fit to give them access to choice, which could so easily be followed by leverage and privilege – the opposite of their lived experience.
Despite my concerns about prosperity theology, I do get why it has a following. OK, not all those who buy into this dogma are poor. But the disproportionate numbers of struggling people looking for a hand-up – and hoping that their God will hear their concerns and lift them from their bondage – is worrying. Here is the irony. I have come across too many Christians who are worse off because of their commitment to this theology. In the hope that they will one day win the jackpot, they pile much of their earnings into the offering, in the vain hope that they will be financially honoured by God. This is what you call misplaced hope.
During a recent discussion about prosperity theology, I came home feeling dissatisfied, concerned the criticism of the theology was not equal to its analysis which, in my opinion, was lacking. To bemoan the theology is understandable, but should be done through the prism of context – a social, economic and political one. As I said to those who I was discussing this with, if I were living in a different country where the only choice I had was to sleep and rise from my slumber, with no choices in between, and a preacher offered greater choices and options for an increase in my weekly offerings, I am sure I would do anything to provide my family with the power of choice.
Christians should cease from the blame game and work assiduously to address the global and local push-and-pull factors that make this theology so attractive, so compelling, that seduction becomes an inevitability for many. Only then will we see the diminishing of this idea and praxis.