Andrew Sullivan and poverty theology

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Newsweek’s Andrew Sullivan has penned a thought-provoking, if controversial, column this Holy week, focused on Jesus Christ. Sullivan and I agree on much, including his concern that political involvement can corrupt the faithful (the problem, I would argue, is putting politics first.)

But we don’t agree on everything, and it is, perhaps, a testament to Sullivan’s writing that it has evoked so much debate and discussion. I’ll leave it to smarter people than I to critique the entirety of Sullivan’s column, but I thought it might be fun to examine one central aspect — his disdain for what he derisively refers to as the “gospel of prosperity.”

First, a few caveats. It’s important to define “prosperity.” If one defines it as living a lavish, imprudent lifestyle, he will view this debate quite differently than if one sees prosperity as simply having the resources required to complete God’s instructions. In a sense, this could be an argument over semantics. Second, Sullivan and I, no doubt, agree there have been charlatans who have sought to preach prosperity — in order to line their own pockets.

Another caveat: There is clearly a strong tradition of asceticism and even martyrdom in the Christian theology. I am in no way seeking to denigrate or in any way deny that tradition, but instead, to point out that things are much more messy, nuanced, and, even paradoxical, than the simplistic view Sullivan presents.

Those who criticize the prosperity gospel tend to do so dismissively, as if the preachers who teach it have fabricated it whole cloth. One may disagree with their conclusions, but just as Sullivan can cite scripture and tradition, advocates of the prosperity gospel can likewise cite scripture making their case.Theirs is not an absurd or “fringe” interpretation.

To bolster his argument, Sullivan also advances some questionable facts. He says Jesus was “a homeless person, as were his closest followers.” This is frequently brought up around Christmastime by people who cite that he was born in a stable and slept in a manger (they forget this was because there was no room at the inn.) And while there is little doubt that the ministry of Jesus was itinerant, he clearly had money; Judas was the treasurer. What is more, when Jesus said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, his disciples “were greatly astonished” and asked, “Who then can be saved?” (This does not sound like the response of someone who is poor.)

Ultimately, in the great debate over the prosperity gospel versus poverty theology, Sullivan lands on the extreme side of the latter. The problem is than an extreme adherence to either position can ultimately lead to the same sin — materialistic idolatry. Just as the economic socialist is more class conscious than the capitalist, the Christian who fetishizes the absence of things is still, at the end of the day, obsessed by things.

Matt K. Lewis