I recently had the opportunity to revisit my Evangelical roots by attending a Christmas Eve service at a Nazarene church. Two illustrations from the pastor’s sermon stood out. The first involved a short film that tells the story of Louisa Stead, who found herself and her four-year old daughter impoverished when her husband was pulled under the sea trying to save a drowning boy. According to the film Louisa penned the well-known hymn “’Tis so Sweet to Trust in Jesus” one night after receiving an anonymous gift of food.
The second illustration involved an anecdote about a wealthy man who, whenever he found a coin lying on the ground, would pick it up and stare at it for a considerable amount of time before finally putting it in his pocket. This understandably perplexed those who knew that he had no need for pocket change. When asked about the practice, he answered by saying that he stared at the coin until he felt the peace of God wash over him, then he put the coin in his pocket and went on his way.
I must confess that I am unsure how to reconcile these two illustrations, except perhaps by recourse to the Pauline example to be content in whatever circumstances one finds oneself (Philippians 4:11, to which the pastor did not refer). Taken together they seem to suggest that the poor should just trust in Jesus and the rich should go on accumulating wealth as long as they have the proper attitude about it, that is, as long as they too trust in Jesus. I am no Marxist, but I am reminded of the lyrics to an old U2 song: “The rich stay healthy / the sick stay poor” (from “God Part II”).
Jesus said “you always have the poor with you,” of course (Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8), but he also counseled one well-to-do man to “go, sell what you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21; Matthew 19:21; Luke 18:22). When this proved to be too difficult for the man to accept, Jesus looked around and said, “how difficult it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:23; Matthew 19:23; Luke 18:24). I would like to have seen some interaction with such remarks in a sermon designed for a season focused on giving. Instead we heard an abstractly pietistic message about faith in Jesus.
On the other hand I am not surprised. If Campbell’s theoretical account of Justification is correct, then faith in Jesus is the only valid currency in the economy of salvation. In mere earthly economies the rich can keep on getting richer and the poor can remain impoverished as long as they both trust in Jesus. . . But why Jesus?
Campbell enlists Anselm of Canterbury to answer this question on the premise that “Defenders of Justification would almost certainly turn to a particular reading of Anselm” in order to explain why God did not choose some other form of payment to atone for the sins of the world (pp.49–50). Discussing Anselm’s famous treatise entitled Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), Campbell remarks:
Anselm’s theory seems to demand a transfer of all wrongdoing to an economic plane, so that all sin can be “paid for” in a quite literal sense. And while this view’s appropriateness can be acknowledged in relation to economic matters . . . it simply seems false to allow all instances of wrongdoing to be seen in fundamentally economic terms. In order for this view to hold good, the underlying premise would have to be granted that all human action is essentially economic—that society is at bottom a collocation of property-acquiring individuals concerned with material accumulation and its impediment (p.52).
That last sentence not only fairly accurately describes an important aspect of capitalist economies, it also fairly accurately describes what I call Field of Dreams churches. The ecclesiology of such churches can be summarized by an oft-misquoted line from Kevin Costner’s hit film: “If you build it, they will come.” The church building in which I heard the above illustrations had recently been built on a new property, though I hesitate to place it in the same class as Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. In fact nearly every Evangelical church I have visited in the past ten years has either been preparing for “the next phase” of expansion, constructing a new edifice, or enjoying shiny new facilities. This may say more about my own social circles than the condition of Evangelical churches in general, but in my experience saving more souls often seems to involve buying larger property and building a bigger church.
Can one love God and Mammon too? Could it be that a marriage of Justification theory and capitalist ideology is among the reasons for the continued success of Evangelical Protestantism, especially in the United States? Does such success prove the truth of the gospel, or is the gospel of growth actually a cancer in the body of Christ?
Next post in this series:
Sin, Debt, and the Economy of Salvation