Money, Power, Respect

I vividly recall a song from my early 20s, before Christ, entitled "Money, Power, Respect."[1] In it the rappers contend that these ideological constructs indeed collectively represent the key to life, which is to say, if you possess them (money, power, and respect) you have made it. You are self-sufficient, the master of your own universe. You can pass go and collect $200. You have achieved material success. Classic suburban representations of this, the quintessential American Dream, might be illustrated by the picture perfect spouse, booming career, robust retirement portfolio, 2.5 kids, loving dog (Lassie comes to mind), and a charming residential oasis whose garage is filled to the brim with "needless" stuff.

Senior Pastor and author, John Ortberg rightly weighs in: "For the stuff in our lives is only temporary. The day is coming when all our 401(k)s and our bank statements will be irrelevant. The titles on our resumes will no longer impress anyone. GPAs and SAT scores and college acceptances will be long-forgotten. No one will know what clothes hung in our closets or what cars sat in our garages. All that will be left is love. That which was done out of love for God will last. Every human being you see is a cleverly disguised receptacle of eternity. You can take the love with you. The object of life is to be rich toward God."[2]

Unfortunately, many Christians have adopted a spiritualized narcissism wrapped in Christian veneer, which has allowed the prosperity gospel to flourish. This doctrine's basic premise is that God desires his children to be financially prosperous, that he sacrificed his son Jesus so that Christians could live quasi-spiritually and materially abundant lives.[3] It is what noted Princeton philosopher Cornel West described as "Constantinian Christianity."[4] One becomes addicted to the idea of entitlement. If one spiritually and materially pulls themselves up by their bootstraps, then they indeed must be a genuine servant of God in whom he is well pleased, or so goes the thinking. A growing, attractive heresy, the prosperity gospel is sweeping through American Christianity. Building upon the Protestant work ethic, it easily turns opportunist, overzealous ministers into pimps, and obedient parishioners into prostitutes. Far too often this sickness is glorified by Christian leaders. Take, for example, the following disturbing remarks of Atlanta pastor Eddie Long from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

We're not just a church, we're an international corporation. We're not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can't talk and all we're doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. I deal with Tony Blair. I deal with the presidents around this world. I pastor a multimillion-dollar congregation. You got to put me on a different scale than the little black preacher sitting over there that's supposed to be just getting by because the people are suffering.[5]

Another example might be, preacher and pastor, C.L. Franklin, who also was the father of the "Queen of Soul," Aretha Franklin. What many people don't know, however, is that he was famous himself long before Aretha became a household fixture in the R&B musical genre. C.L. was a "successful" pastor with a booming megachurch before megachurches were commonplace. He amassed wealth and notoriety not only as one of the best and brightest preachers the African American tradition, but also as a pioneer in the recording and selling of his sermons as records or LPs. Additionally, his worship services were broadcasted on the radio, and he routinely toured with prominent gospel groups around the nation as part singer, part evangelist. An opportunist for sure, it is, arguably, an understatement to depict him as a pastoral renaissance man. Conservative estimates suggest that upwards of 10,000 people attended his funeral.[6]

The not so endearing part (and less widely known) of the story, however, is that while in having built a large, influential church, and gained national recognition for his preaching ability, C.L. Franklin failed miserably as a husband and father, as a servant-leader in that respect. He was unfaithful to his first wife on numerous occasions, and while he provided an excess of coveted material trinkets for himself and his children (e.g., fur coats, private school education, expensive automobiles), his consistent physical and spiritual absence from them didn't occur without harmful consequences. Seemingly, he was unable or unwilling to admit how his poor, sharecropping upbringing, compounded by other experiences, established and fed a sinful craving for women, fame, and fortune. Denise Levertov's poem "Adam's Complaint" describes this human flaw well:

Some people,

no matter what you give them,

still want the moon.

The bread,

the salt,

white meat and dark

still hungry.

The marriage bed

and the cradle,

still empty arms.

You give them land,

their own earth under their feet,

still they take to the roads.

And water: dig them the deepest well,

still it's not deep enough

to drink the moon from.[7]

Surely money in itself is neither good nor bad. It is merely a resource, like anything else, that God entrusts to us, and expects us to manage responsibly, which for believers inherently means doing so according to biblical, countercultural values. It is the love of money that is evil.[8] Sharing one of his grandmother's favorite mantras, Cornel West said, "Peacocks only strut because they can't fly."[9]

We must learn anew that strutting is overrated. It takes too much energy and only leads to death. No life can be found in the prosperity gospel...

[1] The LOX, Money, Power & Respect (New York: Bad Boy, 1998), CD.

[2] John Ortberg, When the Game Is Over It All Goes Back In the Box (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 32.

[3] For a debate about where Jesus was rich or not see John Blake, "Was Jesus Rich?", Atlanta Journal-Constitution (October 22, 2006). See also Stephanie Y. Mitchem, Name It and Claim It?: Prosperity Preaching in the Black Church (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 2007).

[4] Paula L. McGee, "Pastor of CEO?: The New Black Church Leaders," The National Baptist Voice (Summer 2006), 64.

[5] John Blake, "Bishop's Charity Generous to Bishop," Atlanta Journal-Constitution (August 28, 2005).

[6] Nick Salvatore, Singing in a Strange Land (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005), 312.

[7] Denise Levertov, Denise Levertov: Poems 1968-1972 (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1987), 52.

[8] 1 Timothy 6:10.

[9] Tavis Smiley, STAND: What Do You STAND For?, DVD (Memphis, TN: Sivat Productions, 2009).