by: Timothy Villareal on October 16th, 2013 | 5 Comments »
Today in the Roman Catholic church we celebrate the feast of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a 17th century French nun. Jesus not only appeared and spoke to St. Margaret Mary, a nun of the Visitation order, He let the nun, like St. John the Beloved at the Last Supper, rest her head on His heart. Some outside of the Catholic church mistakenly believe that we Catholics worship the saints. Nothing could be further from the truth: we venerate the saints. Indeed, every Christian, Catholic or not, whose Christian life has been enhanced by devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has great reason to thank St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about St. Margaret Mary today, not only because it’s her feast day, but because I think if the nun lived in the world today, and in this particular money-obsessed country, the poor woman would have had to go on Xanax. The financial exploitation of Jesus Christ not only occurs in every region of the United States of America, it is has become entirely normative.
Equally devastating, American Catholic bishops, who otherwise never hesitate to inject themselves into any number of modern-day events and issues, remain largely mum about the galloping spread of the total lie that is called the “prosperity gospel.” For decades, as televangelists have reinvented, refocused, and altogether sharpened their tool of spiritual destruction known as the prosperity gospel, Catholic bishops have been out to lunch. Perhaps the reluctance to forcefully challenge the purveryors of this naked distortion of Christ’s teaching is rooted in fear: How can Roman Catholic bishops throw stones at prosperity gospel preachers when some of them are living in glass mansions themselves?
Yet I think it is important to emphasize to all spiritual progressives, regardless of faith tradition or no tradition, this particular point: When Roman Catholic clergy, and I would include Mainline Protestant clergy also, keep mum in the face of the spread of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” your lives are undoubtedly impacted as well. For if we, in the name of religious freedom, consent to living in a society where Jesus Christ can be turned into a personal ATM machine without anyone standing firmly against it – or at most just give a roll of our eyes at the practice – don’t be surprised when you find yourself living in a society that is simply brimming with people who are trying to turn you into an ATM machine as well.
One of the most egregious, crass displays of the “prosperity gospel” is now being aired on cable TV’s Oxygen Network in the form of an already-hit prime time reality show called “Preachers of L.A.” Driving Bentleys and living large in their SoCal mansions, the flashiness of these bible thumping preachers on the reality program has even caught the ire of one of the “establishment” prosperity gospel preachers, Bishop T.D. Jakes.
Jakes, along with Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer, have been raking in major dough over the years for their “ministries.” These preachers often like to cite their book sales, speaking engagements and other media endeavors as the source of their personal wealth, not necessarily the churches they administer; churches founded with typical non-profit, tax-exempt legal status. Yet given that their fame and name brand comes from their “ministries” in the first place, such claims are distinctions without a difference: They all attempt to turn Jesus Christ into their sacred cash cow just the same.
In a country that has religious freedom enshrined in its founding document, can anything be done to legally end this raw financial exploitation of Jesus?
No, nor should there be. But that does not mean that those of us who’ve had it up to here with the lies coming from the properity gospel industry can’t find other ways to reshuffle the public deck, and stop living with the total illusion that the tax code alone is a sufficient ally in the effort to stop ruthless people form turning Jesus into an ATM machine. Indeed, several years ago, one U.S. Senator found the profiteering of properity gospel preachers so reprehensible that he launched a congressional investigation.
Unfortunately, no inventive, First Amendment-sound legislation emerged from that congressional investigation, but from November 2007 to January 2011, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa did use his Senate seat to do a lot of personal venting. Grassley had enough of televangelists like Joyce Meyer and Creflo Dollar flashing their flashy lifestyles in everyone’s face. Moreover, rumors that Meyer availed herself of a $23,000 marble commode evidently did not sit well with the plain-spoken, no-nonsense Iowa senator.
In 2007, Grassley sent letters of inquiry to six televangelists concerning their financial practices, raising questions on everything from their ministry salaries, housing, their use of private jets, and yes, the alleged $23,000 marble commode owned by Joyce Meyer Ministries.
After three years of Senator Grassley’s investigation, there were zero legislative reforms. However, we did learn this: Meyer’s marble commode was not a toilet, but in fact a “tall, elegant chest of drawers” that was but one piece in a 68-piece furniture set – a furniture set which cost a total of $261,498.
Here’s the reality: So long as they are law-abiding – and indeed no criminal referrals were ever sent to the Justice Department stemming from Senator Grassley’s investigation of the six televangelists – the First Amendment protects the right of citizens to be as completely and utterly misleading about the teachings of Jesus Christ as they want to be.
After the Jim and Tammy Faye Baker and other televangelist scandals of the 80s and 90s, you can bet that televangelists nowadays have fine attorneys and accountants making sure they abide by the U.S. tax laws, even if they live lifestyles most would consider luxurious, precisely by manipulating the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth; the same Jesus who sent out his twelve disciples to proclaim the reign of God and heal the afflicted. The same Jesus, that is, who told his twelve disciples to “Take nothing for the journey, neither walking staff nor travelling bag; no bread, no money. No one is to have two coats.” (Luke 9: 2-3)
While manipulating the teachings of Jesus is not a crime – at least not in the legal sense – there is a First Amendment-sound reform Congress could enact to ameliorate the situation: namely, Congress could pass a law requiring states to establish state-run commissions that would help to ensure that the faithful have greater opportunities to make financial contributions to their denominations, without enriching those who seek financial compensation for their ministry.
Under such legislation, states would be required to create a state-run Commission on Religious Institution Utility and Non-Domicile Infrastructure Spending. The state commissions would collect donations on behalf of congregants of any state-recognized religious institution that voluntarily creates a spending account with the commission
Here’s how the program would work: The commissions would give participating religious institutions a commission account number for which their congregants could mail their donation checks. The checks would be made out to the commission, but with the name and account number of their religious institution written on the check itself. Religious institutions that take up weekly collections would be permitted to collect checks made out to the commission, again with the religious institution’s proper account number noted on the check. (For example, a check would read: Pay to: Commission on Religious Institutions, St. Anthony Parish, Account #1234.)
The participating religious institutions would then forward their bills to the commission, which would then pay the bills from the funds available in that institution’s spending account. If there was insufficient funds in the account for payment, the bill would simply go unpaid. In other words, unlike a banking system, there would be no overdraft coverages, etc.
Under this program, each clergy member would be responsible for soliciting personal compensation directly from their congregants for their ministry, including their own housing, as well as compensation and housing for any other workers in the religious institutions. In other words, for those religious institutions enrolled in the program, there would be no more comingling of funds to keep the lights on, the air-condition running, building a new church hall, mission etc., with ministerial compensation.
Religious freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment. And yes, that includes the freedom to scream to the very top of your lungs how much you love and adore Jesus Christ, even if your desire for a lavish lifestyle is virtually indistinguishable from people who don’t have the chutzpah to claim they are ministers in Jesus Christ’s name.
There is no panacea here with this reform concept. Indeed, the establishment of such state-based Commissions on Religious Institution Utility and Non-Domicle Infrastructure Spending would not hinder the ability of Jesus profiteers to draw in the vulnerable; those souls so desperate in life because they have already drank the Kool-Aid that their value as human beings is inextricably linked to their wealth and status. It’s a Kool-Aid concocted by secular culture, and then handily commodified by the “prosperity gospel” preachers. In a free society, we have, rightfully, constraints on what we can do about it.
But religious freedom also includes the right not to stand idly by and watch the Jesus profiteering – and the grotesque distortion of the gospel – go unchallenged in our financial structures and culture.
Among the many gifts from the Sacred Heart devotion that came about from St. Margaret Mary Alacoque’s interaction with Jesus is the knowledge that Jesus, though we Christians believe he is consubstantial with the Father, also has a human heart. We need love from Jesus, but Jesus needs our love too.
I implore every Christian reading this to pray about how we can best love Jesus while living in a society that is brimming with people who are content to turn his divine message upside down, and all so they can drive a Mercedes and feel socially dominant over others. I ask our brothers and sisters of other faiths reading this to please pray for us, and yes, to unabashedly connect the dots between what is happening with wholesale dehumanization in the world of commerce, with the common people’s utterly distorted understanding of God.