catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 10 :: 2009.05.08 — 2009.05.22


Abundance for all

An economy of abundance

A decade ago Walter Brueggemann put his finger on the pulse of God’s economy as a liturgy of abundance rather than a logic of scarcity.  God’s economy assumes the plenitude of creation and so refuses the miserly hoarding and competition yielded by the myth of scarcity.  It’s Pharoah’s logic, he suggested, that generates an economy of fear: “There’s not enough.  Let’s get everything.” In contrast, Jesus came to demonstrate an extravagant, wonder-working economy that makes wine out of water.  In this economy of abundance, not only is there enough fish and bread to go around, there are baskets and baskets left over (John 6:11-13).  God’s profligate creating and re-creating almost borders on being wasteful.

Not surprisingly, then, some have seized upon John 10:10 as central to the Gospel, when Jesus announces: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”


From abundance to prosperity

Unfortunately, this promise of abundant life is often taken up by those we identify with the “prosperity gospel,” a gospel of “health and wealth” associated with folks like Kenneth Hagin and Oral Roberts, or more recently, Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar.  You know its scurrilous slogans, plucked from Scripture:

  • “You have not because you ask not”  (James 4:2).
  • “Ask and you will receive” (John 16:24).
  • Jesus came “that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”

This emphasis seems to resonate with creation’s economy of abundance.  Wouldn’t an economy of abundance be one that generates prosperity

And yet I’m guessing most of us would squirm (or scream) if we had to watch the TBN network for any extended amount of time.  Many of us would cringe to see Creflo Dollar positioning the Cadillac Escalade beside his pulpit as “evidence” of the anointing.  And I suspect most of us would be uncomfortable with the picture of Joel Osteen asking for donations on a remote broadcast from his yacht.  Indeed, it’s easy to detest name-it-and-claim-it as sanctified greed. We are rightly suspicious that this is just the wolf of consumerism in sheep’s clothing. 

But how many of us are still quite comfortable with more “low grade” (or “soft sell”) versions of a prosperity gospel?  For instance, how many of us buy into a logic that assumes if a Christian is wealthy, he or she has been “blessed” by God — as if material prosperity was a kind of magic, rather than the product of often unjust systems?  While many of us might be quick to loudly denounce the “heresy” of the prosperity gospel, we’re quite comfortable with affirming the good of affluence.  But isn’t that just a prosperity gospel without the glam? 


What’s right with prosperity?

So maybe it’s fair for us to ask: What’s right with the prosperity gospel?   One of the reasons this question is important is the explosion of world Christianity.  As you know, world Christianity is basically charismatic Christianity, and the prosperity gospel often attends pentecostal and charismatic spirituality. 

But here’s my question: Does the prosperity gospel mean something different in rural Nigeria than suburban Dallas? Is the promise of material and economic abundance received differently by those who live on less than $2 a day?  The prosperity gospel (for all its failures) might be an unwitting testimony to the holism of pentecostal spirituality.  In a curious way, the prosperity gospel is a testament to the very “worldliness” of pentecostal theology.  It is one of the most un-Gnostic moments of pentecostalism, refusing to spiritualize the promise that the Gospel is “good news for the poor.”  In this sense, we might suggest that the implicit theological intuition that informs pentecostal renditions of the prosperity gospel are not very far from Catholic social teaching or liberation theology.  They are evidence of a core affirmation that God cares about our bellies and bodies.  Granted, this means something very different in the comfort of an air-conditioned megachurch in suburban Atlanta (where “prosperity” signals an idolatrous, consumerist accumulation of luxury) as opposed to what “prosperity” promises in famished refugee camps in Rwanda.  The former deserves our criticism; the latter, I think, requires careful listening.


Two cheers for prosperity

God’s economy of abundance has no room for some romantic celebration of poverty and lack.  Even if we’re rightly concerned about the prosperity gospel, that shouldn’t translate into any simplistic, Manichaean demonization of abundance or even prosperity.  Indeed, this reminds me of the lyrics of an old Everclear song, “I Will Buy You a New Life:”

I hate those people who love to tell you,

“Money is the root of all that kills.”

They have never been poor,

They have never had the joy of a welfare Christmas.

I want to suggest that implicit in the prosperity gospel — and buried under all its perversions and distortions — is a lingering testament that God is concerned with the material conditions of the poor.  And God’s economy does not just envision some “bare minimum” survival, but a flourishing, thriving abundance.  The New Jerusalem is not some Spartan, frugal space but rather a city teeming with downright luxury — a luxury enjoyed by all.  In a similar way, the marriage supper of the Lamb doesn’t have to observe the frugality of a downsized corporate lunch policy!  Creation’s abundance is mirrored and expanded in the new creation.  Prosperity has a biblical ring to it.

However, we are still waiting for the New Jerusalem.  And I think we can rightly be concerned that the “prosperity gospel” is often inattentive to this.  Instead, the prosperity gospel seems to be a kind of realized eschatology.  It fails to recognize that such prosperity is still to come.  And in the meantime, it misses the structural injustices that yield abundance for only a few.  In other words, the prosperity gospel fails to discern how wealth is often generated by systems of exploitation and oppression.

So how can we respond?  On the one hand, the biblical narrative paints a picture of abundance, plenitude and overflowing generosity as part of the warp and woof of God’s creation.  On the other hand, in our fallen, broken world, the prophets consistently denounce those economic systems that concentrate wealth and abundance in the hands of the few, and often at the expense of the many.  So are we called to be present-day ascetics who are just waiting for an abundance to come?  Doesn’t that seem like we’d be spurning the gifts of God’s creational abundance? 


Fasting and feasting

The answer, I suggest, revolves around how we inhabit time.  An intentional asceticism-a kind of Christian bohemianism — attests to the persistent injustice of current economic systems, expressing solidarity with the poor and refusing the idolatry of materialism.  But such can run the risk of spurning God’s abundance and can unwittingly fall prey to a logic of scarcity.  On the other hand, an unmitigated enjoyment of abundance in the present almost inevitably lives off the exploitation of others and is prone to idolatry.   Recall Paul’s connection of idolatry and greed (Col. 3:5).  So it seems we’re faced with two problematic options.

But it’s not either/or if we think about this dynamically with respect to time — which is exactly the idea behind ancient and medieval practices of “fasting and feasting.”  The rhythm of fasting and feasting calls the people of God to bear witness to both of these realities at different times and in different seasons: we rightly celebrate and enjoy God’s abundance, but we also rightly lament and resist injustice and poverty.  During days or seasons of fasting — which, in a way, should be the “default” habit of the church’s sojourn — we say “no” to abundance as a witness to the fact that so many lack not only abundance but what’s needed just to survive.  But during days and seasons of feasting, we enjoy a foretaste of the plenitude of the coming kingdom. 

As we are preparing to enter the season of growth and harvest, at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere, consider how you can practice a rhythm of fasting and feasting, as a way of making you hungry for the abundant life.  For Jesus is Lord of life abundant:  he had nowhere to lay his head, yet his wonder-working power brought abundance to the wedding feast at Cana.  May we be a people who both identify with Christ’s suffering and receive God’s abundance.

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