As I read dense theology, like the writing of Karl Barth, St. Augustine, and Reinhold Niebuhr, I like to make sure that I have a “light read” to go through on the side. Lately, it’s been Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Salvation on the Small Screen?, which charts her quest to watch 24-hours of Trinity Broadcasting Network. Her wit, sarcasm, and intellect makes this book not only funny, but also enlightening.
Last night, as I was reading her comments on Joel Osteen’s sermon which was, according to “McPreachy” himself (Osteen), not a message about the prosperity gospel. Well, I have news for him–it was. In his sermon, he says, “Be a person of excellence, get to work on time, do 100 percent even when folks aren’t watching, learn to work under God and not under people. When you sow these kinds of seeds, you’re going to come into this overflow anointing” (Bolz-Weber, 110). His “overflow anointing” is prosperity: more money, more cars, more stuff! As a guy who values simple living, I cringe at these words. But then I had thought…
Read the following stories by my brilliant colleague and friend, Joyce Mercer, taken from her chapter in Nurturing Child and Adolescent Spirituality, entitled, “Spiritual Economies of Childhood: Christian Perspectives on Global Market Economies and Young People’s Spirituality”:
“In Payatas, an area on the edge of metropolitan Manila (Philippines),… a small group of children and youth sit in sweltering heat, hand-stitching baseball gloves in a single-room shelter made of concrete blocks. The gloves’ leather bears the imprint of a well-known U.S. sports equipment company, and a young many name Ruben, who looks about twelve years old, tells me that he will be paid eight pesos per glove for his labor. If he works all day, he can complete five or six gloves, earning the equivalent of around one U.S. dollar for his day’s labor. The work is boring, and he would prefer to go to school more regularly, but his work is critical for the support of his famiy. He laughs when I ask him if he owns a baseball glove. ‘Maybe someday, like on TV,’ he says. ‘Anyway, there is not time or space to play baseball here'” (Mercer, 459).
She then goes on to tell a radically different, yet connected story about Austin, a boy in Virginia who wants to buy a new baseball glove, now that he’s into baseball rather than trains. He and his family are redecorating his room to match his new hobby. Austin and dad go to the store to buy a glove for him and they can’t believe how expensive they are these days. They see one on sale for less than $20, but decide to buy a more expensive one so Austin can own a glove with a desirable brand name on it. “Nothing about the glove Austin purchases, including its price, contains any hint of Ruben laboring in a hot concrete room at the enge of a garbage mountain in the Philippines. And yet, Austin’s ability to purchase his baseball glove at a discounted price is tied to the work done by Ruben” (Mercer, 460).
While Joel Osteen is telling people to get more stuff, he’s forgetting where that stuff comes from. Much of items purchased in North America are made, processed, or grown in the two-thirds world; they are produced by the poorest of the poor and in horrific conditions. If Jesus was here today, he’d be sitting with Ruben, not standing on a stage with Joel “McPreachy” Osteen.
But, wait a minute! Let’s go back to Osteen’s advice: “Be a person of excellence, get to work on time, do 100 percent even when folks aren’t watching, learn to work under God and not under people. When you sow these kinds of seeds, you’re going to come into this overflow anointing” (Bolz-Weber, 110). Ruben is a person of excellence; he makes “excellent” products for “excellent” consumers in “excellent” countries. And he gets to work on time–some child labourers actually live at the factories in which they work. So he’s got that base covered (sorry for the pun). He has to give it 100%, even when no one’s looking, for he only gets paid pennies for each glove; the more he can make, the better chance he has to survive. And I’m guessing that someone is always looking… So why isn’t he coming into this “overflow anointing”? Why is he stuck in absolute poverty while we lazy folks–come on, most of us are comparatively lazy to sweat-shop workers who put in 10-18 hour work days, 7 days a week–are continually amassing more possessions? It seems as though Osteen is only considering one side of the prosperity gospel coin: middle to upper-class Americans who can already afford to buy stuff, at least compared to people like Ruben. He’s not taking into account those who work hard, show up on time, and pray hard–probably harder than many of us–and are still stuck in poverty. Where’s their “overflow anointing”? If Osteen presented his message to Ruben, I’m sure the young factory worker would laugh and say “Maybe someday, I’ll get a blessing, like you on TV. Anyway, there is no time to enjoy stuff or space to store it, even if we had it.”
Hey, Osteen: wake up and smell the exploitation!