by Andrew Brown
London pastor Matthew Ashimolowo was ordered to repay £200,000 after it emerged he used church assets to buy a £13,000 Florida timeshare and spent £120,000 on his birthday celebrations, including £80,000 on a car.
There is a very good programme on the “prosperity gospel” available on the Radio 4 website right now. Two things need saying about it. The first is that it proves, if anything could, the difficulty of defining religions in terms of their doctrine. Prosperity gospellers pretend to be Christian, but their teaching seems to me absolutely antithetical to everything that makes Christianity worth considering.
What they teach is that God loves and rewards his faithful servants with earthly goods. In practice, the way to do this is to shun the company of losers and hand over 10% of your earnings to the pastor. The riches he accumulates are then a sign that God has blessed him, which means that he is capable of passing on these mighty blessings to you.
The crass horror of these people and their exploitation of the poor and miserable hardly needs stressing. The Charity Commission investigated the church of one of the most successful practitioners in England, Matthew Ashimolowo, after his congregation bought him a timeshare apartment and a Mercedes for one birthday – or at least found that this was what their offerings had been spent on. The American versions are even richer and more repulsive.
Oddly enough, I don’t think Jesus would have been too worried by tithing. It was a duty laid on the pharisees of his period and his objection there was that they were hypocrites, and thought that money and scrupulous showy observance could substitute for inner devotion to God, not that they tithed at all. But the idea that you should only mix with successful people, or that success itself is a mark of divine favour, goes completely against his actions as well as his teachings.
Ever since the dawn of monotheism these things have been known to be untrue. Robert Bellah records a fragment, at least 3,000 years old, known as the Babylonian theodicy: “Those who do not seek the God go the way of prosperity, while those who pray to the Goddess become destitute and impoverished.”
The whole of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, can be read as a record of people coming to terms with failure. In part this was done by the invention of a heroic past, in the empire of Solomon’s time, something that may have been one of the truly great mistakes of history. But it is also directly addressed, in numerous psalms, in Ecclesiastes, and above all in the Book of Job.
Jesus himself took on the mantle of the suffering servant, and was seen by his followers as the fulfilment of that prophecy.
For all those reasons, it is impossible for me to regard the prosperity gospel as Christian. But who is to decide what counts as Christian, or as Muslim for that matter? These are inevitably judgments of value about matters of interpretation. They can’t be settled by reference to the scriptures involved and if you look for easy answers there you will find far too many.
Whether or not the prosperity gospel is Christian, the other question to arise is whether it’s harmful. The congregations are almost entirely made up of black people in this country, especially west Africans, and poor people in the US, where there is an extraordinary swamp of such teachings. In any case it’s an easily observed paradox that those most in need of wealth are least likely to be able to afford tithes.
But at the same time, you might ask what else they might spend the money on. The services themselves are a tremendous rush of energy and fun, like a drug that leaves no hangover and is not even very addictive. While the music lasts, you can dance and sing and forget all your troubles. And there is this to be said for religion as a sort of opium: it doesn’t destroy your health. It may be a much less damaging escape from the world. In the BBC programme, the pastor made the point that these churches encourage optimism and that need not always be cruel. Of course, this is little consolation if you are in fact old, unemployable, ill, or the kind of disgusting loser that Jesus might have hung out with. But those people aren’t the target market at all.
For young, healthy, anxious strivers who need reinforcement in the face of discouragement, the prosperity gospel is a much less harmful way of escaping the world than either drugs or gambling, and will not make them nearly as poor as those do, even if it never makes them rich.
But no matter how I argue that these rites may be largely harmless when practised by consenting adults, I still find them disgusting. It matters that they aren’t a form of real Christianity, which shows how hard it is to rid myself of the nagging suspicion that Jesus was telling the truth.