Mainstream Churches Fail to Condemn Greed
While Inequality and Homelessness Mushroom
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
Inexcusable! Our nation is being savaged by economic hard times, but many pastors are afraid to talk about its causes, lest they offend anyone and risk losing members who pay their ‘tithes’. In light of this I would like to present some comments of my own, since I am not the least bit shy about stirring up controversy. It has been my observation that too many preachers and teachers of the Gospel stop short these days when it comes to preaching about the evils of greed. Instead, they encourage their congregations to get through their financial woes by making larger financial contributions. “If you have a need”, one famous TV preacher once said, “you must plant a seed”. Unfortunately greed, like charity, begins at home. Apparently they don’t want to alienate the most well-off members of their congregations by talking about what’s really behind the nation’s economic woes. I can sum it up in one sentence: “I’ve got mine and I’m doing well, how about you?” An alternate sentence could read, “I’ve already got mine, too bad for you!”
The reality is that certain people may wind up creating anti-economic-growth and anti-capitalism concepts in their minds. Greed and our capitalist economic system fears anything that even remotely resembles first century communism or socialism (see the book of Acts chapter 2, verses 44-47; chapter 4 verses 32-36, and 2nd Corinthians chapter 8, verses 13-15). The very idea of sharing anything, or of equal economic distribution in any form, makes these “Christians” furious! Never mind that caring and sharing are two fundamental concepts of true Christianity: “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew chapter 6, verses 2-4, NIV). The continuing aftermath of the Great Recession is far more than just an economic crisis. It has become a spiritual dilemma for some of the nation’s pastors and their parishioners. Nearly eight years after an implosion of the US financial system helped push the country into its worst economic nosedive since the Great Depression, many pastors are still trying to figure out how to address people’s fears from the pulpit. But first they have to deal with their own fears, and in some cases their own greed.
Though millions of Americans are justifiably angry over the new minimalist economy (meaning, nobody can afford much of anything anymore), little moral outrage seems to be coming from mainstream religious denominations, and ditto for many unaffiliated nondenominational churches. Too many pastors opt for offering platitudes from the pulpit or from TV studios because they are afraid their ‘partners’ will stop giving money if they hear teachings against greed. Money, and the acquisition thereof, is one of the last taboos in church (not counting preaching against the extreme immorality of waging warfare, which ranks number one in my mind). The economic anxiety from the pews has become so palpable for some pastors, though, that they now feel like they have no other choice.
The Rev. Andy Stanley, a prominent evangelical leader, said some in his congregation cheered when he launched a preaching series called “Recovery Road” to talk about politically touchy issues such as personal greed, the unsustainable federal deficit, and the sins of sub-prime home loans and predatory student loans. Rev. Stanley says he took a risk preaching about greed to his suburban Atlanta congregation, but it has paid off. The senior pastor has told his church members they should look in the mirror before they start blaming politicians for the nation’s economic woes. Any economic recovery “begins with me, not they,” Stanley said. It continues when pastors ask how such a wealthy country can stumble into such a financial mess. “Any time the entire country is talking about something, pastors should pause and talk about it,” Rev. Stanley said. “We know what Republicans and Democrats think, but what does the Bible and Jesus say?’’ Other ministers say an economic recovery also must involve pointing fingers. They say Jesus calls his followers to struggle against those people and policies that helped lead to the Great Recession and overwhelming economic inequality.
It’s good to pull a bunch of people out of the river when they’re drowning, but it’s also smart to go upriver to see who’s been throwing them in the water in the first place. Should pastors speak truth to economic power? Absolutely – they’d be cowards not to! There was a time when American pastors routinely took stands on the big economic issues of the day. During the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister, inspired others to fight against the economic inequality of the time with the “Social Gospel.” Social Gospel ministers helped inspire President Theodore Roosevelt to break up business monopolies and abolish child labor. I personally wear such a mantle upon my own shoulders, and I wear it proudly.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spent the last three years of his life focusing on poverty. When he was assassinated in 1968, he was on the cusp of leading a nonviolent, interracial army of poor people into the nation’s capital to demand a fairer distribution of wealth. Rev. Dr. King and others like him took on the big economic issues of the day, and they were inspired by the example of Jesus, who angered the powerful by condemning the economic exploitation of the poor. Jesus took sides – he said he “didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword.” The hard truth is that pastors who are afraid of angering congregants by talking about touchy economic issues like greed ignore the Gospel. You can’t preach the Gospel without alienating people. That’s part of the job. You’re not helping helpless people if you’re not alienating the greedy. Economic hard times and its accompanying low wage jobless recovery divides preachers as well as politicians.
Preaching what Jesus would say about the Great Recession is controversial by nature. The Bible doesn’t record any instance where someone asked Jesus about the morality of a sub-prime loan, or of waging undeclared, unofficial wars overseas, or the best way to reduce the federal deficit (all that has to be done is to nationalize the Federal Reserve!). That leaves pastors with the challenge of interpreting Jesus’ message for today’s economic woes and other related problems. On that front, the pulpit is as divided as the nation’s politics. Consider the cause of the 2008 economic meltdown. Was it primarily the result of Wall Street greed? Greed was a factor in the 2008 financial crisis, but not it’s primary cause. There were other major factors, including the tendency of Americans to live above their means and policies that encouraged banks to relax mortgage lending standards. In addition, large financial institutions were encouraged to engage in risky behavior because they knew the federal government would bail them out. The causes of the 2008 crisis was so complicated that some of the smartest people in the world either failed to anticipate it, or they looked the other way so they would not see.
Why don’t more Christians condemn the growing gap between rich and poor? Denouncing a presumed (and enforced by the police) gap between rich and poor is a moral imperative, not to mention prophetic wisdom, in today’s Church. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, income disparity in the United States has increased 40% in the past 30 years. In 2010 the nation’s poverty rate rose to a 17-year high, with more than 46 million people – 15.1% of the population – living in poverty and 49.9 million living without health insurance (this was before so-called ‘Obamacare’). These grim statistics point to the hard truth that people born in America today can no longer “succeed” like their parents and grandparents did. Working hard and getting a good education are no longer enough. Higher education is currently only for the well-to-do and the creditworthy, and working hard, long hours only guarantee jobs for as long as it takes any given employer to find and hire someone else who is willing to work for $1.00 per hour cheaper than those they replace. In short, the American Dream is dead on arrival. It has devolved into a lie. The fact that millions of people want jobs and can’t find them is a sign of that capitalism is dying of old age, and the profit motive is doomed to die with it because there is way too much money in the hands of far too few people while everyone else gets (literally) left out in the cold.
It’s very clear to me that greed was a major factor in the 2008 economic collapse, and that the widening gap between the have’s and have-not’s is social and political dynamite. Quite frankly, economic inequality is a recipe for revolution, and it is a revolution that is long overdue. Henry Ford once said, “If the American people knew how their banking system worked, there would be a revolution by tomorrow morning”. This statement was uttered roughly 80 years prior to the birth of social media! History shows that an increasing gap between the rich and the poor is a prime indicator of imminent spiritual, financial and cultural collapse. What is sorely needed today is a movement among the nation’s churches to re-examine the country’s economic values. Unfortunately, many of the nation’s pastors and TV evangelists operate like politicians, afraid to alienate their wealthy donors. Their sermons sound more like rehearsed sales pitches than they do Spiritual messages. Shame on them all!
Where have all the prophets gone? If pastors choose not to preach about the causes of economic calamity, they can still talk about the issue through the standpoint of personal behavior. Some church members have been hit hard by bad economic times. But instead, they hear about the cures and not the causes for the nation’s economic ills. It has been my observation that too many pastors have reduced Jesus to a financial adviser or life coach rather than the Son of God who was a prophet and teacher, and who saved us all from death by the free gift of eternal life for all those who truly believe, and who back up their beliefs with charitable acts and much faith.
Pastors should also call for equality and justice as a part of this message. In point of fact, it’s a crime that no bankers or financial leaders behind the 2008 collapse have gone to jail, and it is indicative of culpability and complicity on the part of our nations “leaders”. We’ll send an African-American teenager off to the slammer who robs a 7-Eleven, and ditto for smoking an innocuous substance like marijuana, but people won’t do one stinking thing to any banker who helped cause the collapse of the entire banking system. There are tens of thousands of once-robust working Americans who are now homeless and living on the streets because of the gross irresponsibility and criminal activity of Wall St. bankers. But most preachers won’t dare say that, because much of the church is too captive to greed to address the moral challenges of the nation’s economic problems. In my opinion, this is due in no small part to the “prosperity gospel” that is being “taught” in many churches today. In other words, it’s OK to be greedy, so long as one is doing so for the sake of Christ. They are forgetting that Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”, and again when He said, “You cannot have both fresh and salt water flowing from the same spring. You either love one master and detest the other, or you will cling to the other and despise the former. You cannot worship both God and money”.
We can’t expect politicians, pastors, teachers, evangelists or other business and political leaders to stand up to apostasy within the Church because too many are beholden to the rich and powerful who keep their houses of worship operating in the black! A prophet is someone who is willing to tell us the unpleasant truth about ourselves. That’s what Jesus did, and that’s why he was crucified by the Roman Empire. If we can’t bring unpopular messages, who will do so in our place? It’s all up to us, and anyone who willingly does not do so is ignoring at best, or willfully bastardizing at worst, the true and timeless Gospel of Jesus Christ.