Psalm 72 opens with these words:
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy and crush the oppressor.
Like any person reading Scripture, I bring my own interpretive lenses to the text – equal parts my own experience, education and, frankly, the ideas and ways that I understand my own personal faith. So when this text fell in the course of my recent reading, I was encouraged to find yet another passage where Scripture affirms the poor, the orphan, the oppressed, the alien in our midst. I caught myself nodding at the computer screen in hearty agreement – and then I read the third verse.
“May the mountains yield prosperity for the people.” The word is there in plain-old New Revised Standard English. Prosperity.
Perhaps it’s all the fuss about people feeling “blessed by God,” whether it’s Rick Warren’s exuberance over his congregation’s overwhelming response to a budget shortfall or The Atlantic magazine blaming the prosperity gospel for the housing crisis. Maybe it’s the fact that by most research 50 out of the largest 260 churches in America – almost 20 percent – preach some variation of the prosperity gospel.
It’s kind of easy to rail against the prosperity gospel from the suburbs. It’s like a politician saying they’ll be tough on crime: It rallies the troops and is good material to find a quick “amen corner.” Perhaps the better question isn’t what’s wrong with the prosperity gospel movement but whether church leadership bears some responsibility for its success.
The prosperity gospel tends to thrive among lower-income communities and minorities. This seems logical; the people who would gravitate most to an understanding of God as benevolent in real tangible ways would be a group of people who have less access to resources and affluence than the middle and upper class. The psalmist calls out for prosperity for the people – specifically for the poor and the needy, if read contextually – and that the oppressor might be crushed.
When I read those words, I am left wondering if the death of the prophetic gospel in the suburbs and the hills implicitly birthed a heretical prosperity gospel among the inner city and the slums. Amos decried the affluence of the upper class because they had neglected the poor. He warned that the result of their oppression would be the loss of their material wealth and resources, even though he spoke in a time of no real crisis.
Could it be that the success of the prosperity gospel (and the church’s responsibility to proclaim the gospel of Jesus, the homeless Messiah) was a product of our own making? It was Walter Rauschenbusch, the father of the social gospel, who said “the Church is to be the incarnation of the Christ-spirit on Earth, the organized conscience of Christendom. It should be swiftest to awake to every undeserved suffering, bravest to speak against every wrong, and strongest to rally the moral forces against everything that threatens the better life among men.” To put it more clearly, for any of us to have our “best life now,” everyone in the community – Christian or not, religious or not, moral or not – ought to have the same opportunity for growth and empowerment.
The lust for prosperity is strongest among those who have been marginalized and deprived both socioeconomically and institutionally. I do not mean to suggest that this in any way legitimates the prosperity gospel, rather that it may well be the inheritance of an insular church that neglected the cause of the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien in our midst. Perhaps instead of bellowing our resistance to it, we ought to set ourselves about the task of seeking the purest form of prosperity – equal opportunity for all.
Trey Lyon is associate pastor for faith development at Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Ga.