Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Prosperity Gospel and the Perpetuation of Inequality

The Christian Century and Christianity Today may differ in their theological and political tendencies—the former is “mainline” Protestant and has historically been liberal, while the latter centers on evangelicalism and is more conservative—but their respective stories in July on the growth of the “prosperity gospel” movement in Africa both raise some significant concerns about the movement’s potential to perpetuate political and economic injustice against many of its followers. Paul Gifford contends the following in his article for the Century:

“…in my view the most significant fact about Africa is the dysfunctional political culture that permits an unaccountable elite to appropriate wealth and power at the expense of the people.

“The gospel of success does little to challenge this dysfunctional political structure. For one thing, many preachers openly claim that the political-economic system simply doesn't matter, because a born-again Christian will prosper under any political or economic regime…Indeed, the movement exemplifies the ‘Big Man’ disease that is the curse of Africa. The cars and houses of pastors (acquired through a theology of tithing and seed faith) are purchased at the expense of the people they are theoretically serving, just as the politicians' wealth is gained through ‘service’ of their constituents.”

While Gifford (as well as Christianity Today’s Isaac Phiri and Joe Maxwell) stresses that that prosperity gospel leaders have tailored the movement to develop within uniquely African contexts, those leaders have also largely taken cues from prominent adherents of prosperity theology in America (the source of the movement’s origin), including Houston pastor Joel Osteen, whose 2004 book Your Best Life Now has sold several million copies. As David Van Biema and Jeff Chu note in an article for Time last September, Osteen has garnered intense criticism for his (and other leaders’) willingness to emphasize “American materialism” in a Christian message. Therefore, it is ironically unfortunate that at a time when the American Christian community has increased its awareness of and efforts to counteract African socioeconomic concerns, an American-born message of divine “blessings” threatens to exacerbate those concerns at the same time.

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