Author: Amos Yong
Category: Poverty and Wealth, Prosperity Gospel
A fifth type of argument for prosperity actually consists of arguments against certain forms and expressions of prosperity. Here I consider the quest for a “balanced” rationale for prosperity, one that at least strives to take into account the entire biblical witness. Much of the thinking along these lines acknowledges a good deal of all four of the preceding types of arguments and grants that the scriptural traditions do not speak with one voice on the topic. So while no one biblical or theological formulation of a theology of prosperity will suffice, there might still be a set of guiding themes from the Bible that would not only inform ideas regarding prosperity but also shape a life of prosperity. Three themes are deserving of explicit.
First, any way of life should take care not to stumble others, especially those who are less mature in the faith. This is a pragmatic maxim about living prosperously: do not flaunt one’s prosperity, but rather live in simplicity. More important is to embody the habits of the Puritan work ethic. The issue here is both to be sensitive to others and to embody a certain set of dispositions and behaviors toward the world and its material blessings and comforts. Prosperity in this framework is neither a set of accumulations nor a mode of consumption. Instead, it is an attitude of gratitude that recognizes that the providential and undeserving character of divine blessings beholdens the prosperous to modesty as a way of life and to responsible stewardship.
One expression of such prosperous stewardship – and this is the second biblical theme – is in philanthropic giving which builds up or edifies others. This is especially the case for those who are more affluent. The motivation here is less “Give, and it will be given unto you…” (Luke 6:38) – which may appeal more to motivate the “have nots” in light of the promise of receiving something even greater in return – than “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). In the minds of many, the combination of a life of simplicity and hard work with charitable generosity and benevolence is the appropriate response for those blessed with plenty.
The issue of “balance” in prosperity suggests to some that prosperous stewardship is a relative notion depending on the context. A community of people who pool their resources in an impoverished region may be considered prosperous, as were the first followers of Jesus the Messiah in Jerusalem, of whom it was said, “There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:35). Such a vision of a shared and communal prosperity, a central apostolic theme, has motivated many experimental projects, one manifestation of which is the now globally diffused Economy of Communion.
The Economy of Communion (EoC) was founded in 1991 by Chiara Lubich (1920-2008), an Italian Catholic activist and foundress of the Focolare Movement. Whereas much of the modern economy is motivated by rational self-interest, the EoC argues that this modality of economic life is only a fairly recent development and that it had been preceded for millennia by other forms of reciprocal and community exchange. Thus EoC engages the poor with a vision of holistic and communal way of life. While embedded in the market economy, EoC is deeply informed by a form of solidarity in which all profits are reinserted back into the community for the common good. Each member of the community gives and receives with equal dignity.
The successes of the EoC may not be that which makes the headlines under the label of the “prosperity gospel,” but its accomplishments are no less noticeable. In the EoC cases, of course, local economic initiatives are engaged in their various cultural, social, and political environments. The welfare of all is a common value so that those more able and capable bear a greater share of the burden for the community’s well being (following the teachings of Christ: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded”; Luke 12:48). On the other hand, all members of the community contribute what they can. The resulting prosperity may not be affluence in the usual sense, but involves the socio-economic lift of the poor.
Within a more capitalist, neo-liberal economic context, the quest for a balanced theology of prosperity has invited emphasis on altruistic sharing. All people can be compassionate and can give benevolently according to their means. Those with more can be more generous. Prosperity in this case is measured less by the bottom line in bank accounts or according to ownership of material goods, than by what is given away. But in the cases of such “balanced” theologies and practices of prosperity, one often gets the sense that we are quite a bit removed from what many at least in the West would understand by the “prosperity gospel.”