Capitalism and the Cross
Follow the dollars
Last time, I told you about my inner journey from being a youth pastor to winding up outside the walls of organized religion.
It really stuck with me.
It feels rather presumptuous when you write something and you find yourself taken with it. When your own words resonate with you as though they were written by someone else. It feels wrong. Somehow selfish.
If I am being honest, I do not think I wrote anything particularly profound or original. So, the more I think about it, the less convinced I am that it was anything I said that has me stuck. I think I have just cracked a door open to something inside that I have yet to deal with.
Some people who have left religion have come to understand that they had experienced genuine abuse at the hands of their former faith, whether that be physical or emotional. Spiritual abuse is real. And it can cause actual trauma. I never had any of those sorts of experiences. I do not believe that I wound up where I am today due to anything that anyone said or did to me that has left deep, unhealing scars. I was never personally abused by my pastors. I have friends who were taken advantage of. I would be lying if I said that has not had a profound effect on me.
But I do not think it is any sort of unaddressed trauma that I am finding myself working through. Rather, I think I am beginning to realize some of the cognitive dissonances that I experienced during my religious days that I just suppressed.
Because in a lot of ways, at least within Christianity, we are taught not to question it. We are encouraged to accept some of those contradictions or outright falsehoods as mysteries.
Case in point: celebrity pastors.
A couple of weeks ago, big news broke out of the Southern Baptist Convention. Saddleback Church, one of the largest churches in the denomonation, was kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention due to the ordination of female clergy. The name of the church might sound familiar to you even if you are not religious. If so, it is the church pastored by Rick Warren, bestselling author of the 2002 book The Purpose Driven Life.
For Rick Warren, this book and his other endeavors have given him a net worth of over 25 million dollars.
That is a lot of money.
He is a celebrity within the Evangelical community. His book was read by nearly everyone I knew. When this book came out, I was just starting to get into the Reformed Christian message board culture I talked about last time. The book was condemned as outright heretical.
But even within that particular closed-minded branch of Christianity, the fact that the book was making Pastor Warren wealthy was not viewed with any suspicion. It was just accepted.
In fact, within Christianity, accumulating wealth is not something that is condemned in any kind of meaningful way. Christians do love to talk about how the “love of money is the root of all evil”, but even then it seems to be treated in a way that makes it not seem that serious. Just something that you need to be careful about. You need to make sure your love for money is pure.
The Scripture is twisted in much the same way I once heard someone preach on the story of Jesus turning water into wine so as to say that drinking was a sin.
It is not treated with honesty.
I think this is something that bothered me a lot when I was younger. Something that I am sure I spoke out against from time to time. This affinity for the celebrity pastor. This seeking of celebrity status by pastors.
It is not uncommon to this day for someone to be working at a church and say they feel like God is calling them to move to a different church. And almost without fail, God’s voice coincided with a bigger paycheck. That was always fascinating to me. Because when Jesus was walking and teaching, he would call people and they would have to give everything up. They would have to sell everything and give the money to the poor.
Rich Mullins would call this out in the words of one of his songs by saying that “the fate of the whole world rests on the shoulders of a homeless man.”
This brings me to Capitalism.
I hope you have stuck with me. Because there is a point.
When I was a youth pastor, something I was implicitly taught was that there were a lot of things competing for young people’s attention. Movies. Music. Video games. And Jesus was another of those things. So we had to sell them Jesus as the thing most deserving of their attention.
We had to treat religion as the best option among many.
In treating salvation as a commodity, though, it is stripped of all its luster and actual value. Not only that, but the world around religion was progressing while Christianity just…well…sat there.
And because the culture was leaving Christianity behind, and by this point has, in a lot of ways, continued to widen the gap, it began to fall into irrelevancy. It became harder and harder to sell.
Selling religion was like trying to convince someone to buy a calligraphy pen rather than a ballpoint pen. It’s a lot fancier, but isn’t particularly practical.
But that has not stopped the church from seeking to turn the cross into a commodity. It has not stopped the church from trying to sell salvation as a product. At one time in history, the church sold indulgences to the poorest people in order to raise money for an elaborate temple. Christians were then, and still are, doing exactly that.
This was the very thing Jesus was seeking to eradicate in a show of protest as he turned over the tables of the vendors outside the temple that one time. Religion was not something that was supposed to exist to turn a profit. And yet here in America, we have turned it into exactly that.
Back then, as a youth pastor, I saw it. I called it out. But the words fell on deaf ears. And I think that caused some disillusionment. The Bible was calling for something different, something for everyone. A group that was not made up of celebrities and bigots and backward notions of who is in and who is out.
I saw Jesus as undermining that whole structure, but instead we had created a structure that undermined Jesus.
Judas betrayed Jesus for a few dollars. American Christians have done the same. We just do not feel guilty about it. But we should.
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)