Thursday, March 13, 2014

Big Money in a Big Church: Thieves Hit Osteen’s Megachurch

Joel Osteen’s “megachurch,” also known as Lakewood Church, adheres to the Prosperity Gospel, which maintains that God rewards true believers with material wealth in addition to heavenly salvation. Implications from this theological perspective put the congregation and the leadership in a sticky position following the theft of $600,000 from the church. In the following essay, I intend to apply Christian principles to Christianity. How well Christianity makes out may give us some indication of the religion’s future, for a house divided cannot stand—at least for long after the inertia has run out.

The Prosperity Gospel is grounded in the Jewish Scriptures, wherein God repeatedly promises wealth to those of the chosen people who keep faith rather than lapse in maintaining the covenant. Yahweh being the “Possessor of heaven and earth,” the world is God’s property.[1] Human possessions are therefore gifts from God. Proverb 10 promises, “The blessing of the LORD brings wealth, without painful toil for it.”[2] Rather than becoming the absolute owner of the gifted property, the Hebrew is meant to act as God’s steward.[3] That is, God retains the basic or foundational ownership right in His property. Moreover, the property relations embody a relation between Israel and God in which the Israelites owe obedience and service as stewards in exchange for a right to Jehovah’s blessings, which include riches.[4] 

Although the notion of stewardship took root in historical Christian thought, the Prosperity Gospel sprung up in the late twentieth century in the theological approach that privileges the Biblical criterion of “literal meaning” as first advocated in Moody’s 1904 Fundamentals of the Christian Faith. One of the fundamentals is a belief in Jesus Christ. The Prosperity Gospel makes this belief the basis of God’s material rewards. Because the Christian with true belief is “saved” whereas a Jew (as well as Israel collectively) can break the covenant, the conditionality of the wealth once bestowed to those having true belief is muted if not applicable. If my interpretation is correct, then the conditionality in the Prosperity Gospel applies only until the person is “saved”; thereafter, the promise of wealth is unhinged at least in part from the notion of responsibility applied to use.

Joel Osteen's megachurch during a weekend service. A substantial amount of money is doubtless collected even just from one such service. 

This rationale may explain Osteen’s reaction on March 10, 2014 to the theft of $600,000 on the previous day from that weekend’s collections. According to a statement, church administrators were “heartbroken to learn . . . that funds were stolen” and relieved that the funds had been fully insured and thus would be replaced.[5] Tellingly, the administrators added that they were working nonetheless to get back the stolen funds. This orientation involves more than a quite understandable desire for justice—albeit public legal justice rather than the sort of justice that Augustine “Christianized” from Plato and Leibniz, the co-inventor of calculus, developed: love as universal benevolence. Whereas the dominant justice in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is in line with Shylock’s banking scales being restored to balance (e.g., an eye for an eye, or a pound of flesh for late repayment of a loan), justice that has love as charity due to everyone (i.e., neighbor-love as justly owed) is in line with Jesus’s new commandment to love one another unconditionally.[vi]

I submit that taking up the Prosperity Gospel points a Christian to the Old Testament notion of justice as well; the promise being extended to earthly wealth implies that those people who are motivated to quality would also be oriented to getting the wealth back rather than losing even more. Such people would tend to concur with the predilection of the administrators at Lakewood Church to get the funds back even though insurance covers the loss.

Every human perspective is limited, given how we are “hard wired.” So a focus on getting stolen money back and seeing that the culprits pay both literally and in suffering the pain of punishment comes not without an opportunity cost (i.e., the benefits of alternative perspectives that are given up for lack of sight in their directions). In the case of the Prosperity Gospel and the related inclination to view justice as its public legal variety, Christians can slight or even violate Jesus’s dicta in Luke 6:28-30 (NIV) without being aware of the hypocrisy.  Let’s unpack the verse as per the Lakewood case.

The preceding verse has Jesus saying, “bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” As a theft mistreats the owner(s) of the stolen goods—at the very least in not respecting the property rights—Jesus can be read here as proclaiming even the thieves of church funds as blessed. From such a basis the justice of loving the culprits (i.e., they being owed love nonetheless) can readily be grasped. Indeed, Jesus sees to it that the love is operational as benevolence even to one’s enemies (including those who steal from one’s property). First, Jesus gives the general principle: “whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also.” Anyone who has had their residence broken into would doubtless agree that discovering the theft can feel like a slap on the face. Once while studying at Yale, I returned from martial-arts (self-defense) training at the gym to find my apartment ransacked. I felt like someone had slapped me on my face. To be sure, the irony of returning from a self-defense class mitigated the sting somewhat.

As though tailor-made for Lakewood’s administrators and ministers, Jesus makes his imperative concrete. Whoever “takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either.” If stealing qualifies as taking away, then the officials at Lakewood Church should have put out a statement offering still more money to the thieves. Lest by some convoluted logic an administrator agree to extend the church’s charity program to the thieves even as he or she tries to get the stolen funds back, Jesus provides no such relieve. “Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back.” While the church officials’ announced intent to get the funds back is strategically in line with keeping insurance premiums down (car owners are doubtless very familiar with this game), it flies in the face of Jesus’s demand not to demand back that which someone has taken away.

Moreover, while the intent is in line with public legal justice, Jesus’s notion of justice as “Give to everyone who asks of you,” or universal benevolence, is quite other. In the seventeenth century, Leibniz labeled the latter theory of justice as caritas naturalis seu benevolentia universalis. Natural love is sublimated from garden-variety lust (eros) to Plato’s love of the eternal moral verities “Christianized” by Augustine as God as the Highest Good, and yet unlike Plato’s intellectual love the human love directed heavenly is expressed as love of one’s neighbor (anyone). Achieving this sort of justice is one of the primary costs of adopting the Prosperity Gospel and (relatedly) Shylock’s notion of public legal justice as akin to demanding a pound of flesh.

1. Charles R. Smith, The Bible Doctrine of Wealth and Work. London (1924): Epworth Press, p. 23; Genesis 14:19,22.
2. Prov. 10:22.
3. Smith, The Bible Doctrine, p. 25.
4. Ibid., pp. 26, 55.
5., “Osteen’s Lakewood Church Suffers Theft of Over $600,000 Shocking Texas Megachurch,” The Huffington Post, March 11, 2014.
6. John 13:34.