For those of you who have been anywhere near a church over the last few years, it's more than likely that you've heard of the "Prosperity Gospel". For those of you who haven't, the Prosperity Gospel is basically the teaching that God wishes to bless us with all the good things in this life - health, wealth and happiness. All of these things and more are guaranteed to be ours if only we exercise enough faith. Consequently, sickness, poverty and depression in our lives are all signs that we lack faith. Not surprisingly, this teaching has polarised opinion in the broader Christian community. While some have heralded the Prosperity Gospel as a great scriptural truth and an important corrective to a prevailing "poverty mentality" in Christianity, others have regarded the teaching as a scandalous aberration that manipulates people from prosperity teaching churches into giving money to them.
The first thing to recognise is that the Prosperity Gospel offers commentary on the nature of money. Advocates of this teaching are quick to insist that it is not money itself that is the root of all evil, but that it is the love of money that is the root of all evil, as 1 Timothy 6:10 expresses. Implicit in this assumption is the idea that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with money itself, but rather it is the selfishness of the individual that should be regarded as sinful. Indeed, it is suggested that neither is money morally neutral, because to assert this would be to deny that money is part of God's good creation. Money is instead seen as an intrinsically good entity that can be used to further the Kingdom of God and partake in the blessings that God wishes for us to enjoy. According to this view, money only becomes bad when its inherently good nature is corrupted through sin.
Even if the abovementioned view was considerable to be legitimate, I'd still have to ask the question: "How do you know that you don't love your money?" I must admit that I'm astounded by the confidence of people who tell that while they may be financially secure, they nonetheless have no attachment to their money. When I have bring up the story of the rich young ruler asked by Jesus to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor in Luke:18:18-27, they point out to me that this request applied only to this specific individual. They tell me that if Jesus told to give up all of their worldly possession then they would gladly do so. Conveniently though, he hasn't. I wonder how they are able to speak with such confidence since they apparently haven't crossed this bridge yet? And is it even remotely possible that Jesus has indeed asked them to part with all of their worldly possession but they have found a way to rationalise this direction out of existence to alleviate their consciences?
I believe that Thomas à Kempis expresses a view on money and possessions that really challenges Western Christianity. He suggests that it is absurd to talk about owning possessions without also being attached to them. His is a very radical asceticism, in which he actually suggests that we should seek to "free [ourselves] altogether from worldly desires". Failure of a person to do so indicates that they are "spiritually weak and to some extent still subject to the flesh". I would suggest that I don't know of a single Christian who is not in this state.
If you still believe that you no longer have any love for your worldly possessions, then I have a challenge for you. Invite me over to your house and watch me drag mud over your carpet and start writing my next blog entry in crayon on your walls. I might also start appropriating a few things for myself. If this provokes no reaction, then my blessings will be upon your house. But if you complain that I am ruining your beautiful house and am taking stuff which belongs to you, then I will know that your declaration not to love and desire the things of this world is a mere pretence - a dishonest display of smoke and mirrors.
Reflecting upon this challenge begs the question: "Why do we respond to the theft and damage of our property with such indignation?" I would suggest that just as we are we what eat, what are what we own. Our purchasing decisions say volumes about the type of people we are and what we value most. Furthermore, I would suggest that to the extent that we consider ourselves owners of something, that thing becomes part of us. We become unmistakably bound to that object until such time as we give it up. I vaguely remember the joy in receiving a shiny new toy as a young child and the profound distress I felt when I slightly damaged the toy. Notwithstanding the fact that the toy was still very much usable, it would never be in its original, perfect condition. In a way when that toy became damaged, a part of me became damaged too. This isn't simply childish behaviour - I think that on a deep level we feel personally aggrieved when someone damages or steals something we own because we feel that in a way they have struck out against us and our identity.
Far from being morally neutral, I believe that money and possessions are inherently destructive entities that prevent us from realising spiritual realities. To the extent that we own something, we are also owned by this thing. Indeed, as Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul argues, money is not neutral by very definition because it is a ranking tool that the powers of this world use to determine the worth and value of a person. This reminds me of the scene in "Pretty Woman" where a salesman refuses to serve Julia Roberts' character because she comes into the store dressed as a prostitute, thinking that she must be poor. His attitude changes markedly when he learns that she has money to burn. Money truly does talk - our bank balance determines our status in society. To the extent that we pursue money for whatever reason, we are buying into this discriminatory system. The only way to subvert and destroy the equilibrium of this system, Ellul argues, is to do what was never intended to be done with money - give it away.
I write to you today as a self-confessed hypocrite - I certainly haven't given away all of my worldly possessions at this stage. This said, I'd like to think that I am taking steps to live a more simple existence in which I rely less and less upon the luxuries of this life. I invite you to join me on this journey.