October 1st, 2011
10:00 PM ET
By John Blake, CNN
(CNN) – Bishop Harry Jackson is a former college middle linebacker who can still hit hard.
He once described same-sex marriage as a satanic plot to destroy the family, called on Republicans to get “political Viagra” and said African-Americans needed to abandon what he called the Gospel of Victimization.
Jackson is not shy about stirring up controversy, but he stops short when it comes to preaching about greed. The Maryland bishop said he encourages his congregation to get through the Great Recession by saving and sharing. But he doesn’t want to alienate well-off members by talking about what’s behind the nation’s economic woes.
"I've got to watch it," said Jackson, pastor at Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland. "I could get into some big teaching on greed, but the reality is that a lot of that teaching may wind up creating anti-economic-growth and anti-capitalism concepts (in people’s minds). ... I always talk about personal responsibility so we don't get into the blame game."
The Great Recession is more than an economic crisis. It has become a spiritual dilemma for some of the nation’s pastors and their parishioners, religious leaders say.
Three years after an implosion of the nation’s financial system helped push the country into its worst economic nosedive since the Great Depression, pastors are still trying to figure out how to address people’s fears from the pulpit.
But first they have to deal with their own fears, some pastors and scholars say.
Though millions of Americans are angry over the economy, little moral outrage seems to be coming from the nation’s pulpit, they say. Too many pastors opt for offering pulpit platitudes because they are afraid parishioners will stop giving money if they hear teachings against greed, said the Rev. Robin R. Meyers, senior minister of Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City.
“Money is the last taboo in church. It’s much easier to talk about sex than money,” said Meyers, who wrote about greed and the other seven deadly sins in his book, “The Virtue in the Vice.”
The anxiety from the pews has become so palpable for some pastors, though, that they now feel like they have no choice.
Andy Stanley, a prominent evangelical leader, said some in his congregation cheered when he launched a preaching series called “Recovery Road” to talk about politically touchy issues such as personal greed, the federal deficit and the sins of subprime loans.
The senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, north of Atlanta, told his church members they should look in the mirror before they start blaming politicians for the nation’s economic woes.
Any economic recovery “begins with me, not they,” Stanley said.
It continues when pastors ask how such a wealthy country can stumble into such a financial mess, Stanley said.
“Any time the entire country is talking about something, pastors should pause and talk about it,” Stanley said. “We know what Republicans and Democrats think, but what does the Bible and Jesus say?’’
Other ministers say an economic recovery also must involve pointing fingers. They say Jesus calls his followers to struggle against those people and policies that helped lead to the Great Recession.
Charity – feeding the poor, steering people to job fairs – must be accompanied by justice, said Meyers.
“It’s good to pull people out of the river when they’re drowning,” the Oklahoma pastor said, “but it’s also good to go upriver to see who’s throwing them in the river.”
Should pastors speak truth to economic power?
During the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister, inspired others to fight against the economic inequality of the time with the “Social Gospel.”
During the Great Depression, Father John A. Ryan built such a national following condemning the excess of capitalism that he was invited to deliver prayers at a presidential inauguration.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spent the last three years of his life focusing on poverty. When he was assassinated in 1968, he was on the cusp of leading a nonviolent, interracial army of poor people into the nation’s capital to demand a fairer distribution of wealth.
These ministers who took on the big economic issues of the day were inspired by the example of Jesus, who angered the powerful by condemning the economic exploitation of the poor, religious scholars say. His teachings are seen throughout the New Testament in parables such as “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”
“Jesus took sides – he said he didn’t come to bring peace but a sword,” said Vincent Miller, a Catholic theologian and author of “Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in Consumer Culture.”
Miller said pastors who are afraid of angering congregants by talking about touchy economic issues ignore the Gospel.
“You can’t preach the Gospel without alienating people. That’s part of it. You’re not helping people if you’re not alienating them,” said Miller, the Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
The recession divides preachers, not just politicians
That leaves pastors with the challenge of interpreting Jesus’ message for today’s economic woes. On that front, the pulpit is as divided as the nation’s politics.
Consider the cause of the 2008 economic meltdown. Was it primarily the result of Wall Street greed?
Jay W. Richards doesn’t think so. Richards is a senior fellow at the conservative think-tank the Discovery Institute and author of “Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem.”
Greed was a factor in the 2008 financial crisis but not it’s primary cause, Richards said. There were other major factors, including the tendency of Americans to live above their means and policies that encouraged banks to dilute mortgage lending standards. In addition, he said, large financial institutions were encouraged to engage in risky behavior because they knew the federal government would bail them out.
The causes of the 2008 crisis were so complicated that some of the smartest people in the world failed to anticipate it, Richards said.
The first thing pastors should do during tough economic times is “pray for, comfort and encourage” parishioners, he said.
“If a pastor suggests that the financial crisis happened because of a few greedy corporate titans and some Wall Street traders, that’s a sure sign that he doesn’t understand the crisis,” he said.
Neither should Christians condemn the growing gap between rich and poor, Richards said.
“Denouncing a presumed gap between rich and poor is, more often than not, a symptom of economic confusion, not prophetic wisdom,” he said. “It can also mask envy, and is usually invoked just before someone calls for the state to coercively confiscate the wealth of some and give to others.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, income disparity in the United States has increased 40% in the past 30 years. In 2010 the nation’s poverty rate rose to a 17-year high, with more than 46 million people – 15.1% of the population - living in poverty and 49.9 million living without health insurance.
Despite these grim statistics, Richards said he believes people born in America today can still succeed if they work hard and get a good education.
“The American Dream is still alive,” he said. “The fact that millions of people from around the world still want to come here is a sign of that. … If someone works hard in school and develops good financial habits, they’re more likely to do reasonably well financially than most people were for most of human history.”
The Rev. Jim Wallis, a prominent evangelical who has worked with Democrats, has a different perspective. He said it’s clear that greed was a major factor in the economic collapse and that a wide gap between the haves and have-nots is social dynamite.
“History shows that an increasing gap between the rich and the poor is a prime indicator of imminent collapse,” Wallis wrote in his recent book, “Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street.”
Wallis said he hoped his book, written right after the 2008 meltdown, would spark a movement among the nation’s churches to re-examine the country’s economic values. But he said many of the nation’s pastors operate like politicians, afraid to alienate their wealthy donors.
“We said the public is ready for this. The church is ready for this,” a weary Wallis said of his hopes for such a movement.
“Boy was I wrong.”
Where have all the prophets gone?
Joel Osteen is the senior pastor of one of the nation’s largest churches, the 40,000-member Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. His 90-minute services are broadcast nationwide each Sunday, and he’s just come out with a book, “Every Day a Friday,” which encourages people to have a “prosperous, victorious year” and be “dream releasers” by helping others realize their goals.
Osteen said some of his church members have been hit hard by the recession, but he prefers to preach about the cures, not the causes, for the nation’s economic ills.
Part of his message: Live within your means, don’t give away your power, live without crutches and travel light.
“We go through difficult times, and it’s easy to get trapped in the past thinking about what didn’t work out,” he said. “At some point, we gotta move forward. I’m not supposed to just endure my life. I’m supposed to enjoy it.”
Back in Maryland, Jackson said he tells his congregation that the nation’s economic problems are partly God’s way of encouraging the nation to return to a “biblical faith.”
He said there will be a “supernatural economic recovery” if Americans practice generosity.
“If you have a bowl of rice, why not share a quarter of that bowl with someone who is needy?” he said.
Those kinds of sermons annoy Meyers, the Oklahoma pastor. He said too many pastors have reduced Jesus to a “financial adviser, not a prophet.”
He said pastors should also call for justice. He said it’s a crime that no bankers or financial leaders behind the 2008 collapse have gone to jail.
“We’ll send an African-American teenager off to the slammer who robs a 7-Eleven, but we won’t do anything to a banker who helped cause the collapse of the entire banking system,” he said.
But most preachers won’t say that, he said, because much of the church is too captive to greed to address the moral challenges of the nation’s economic problems.
He doesn’t expect politicians or other leaders to step into that void because too many are beholden to the rich and powerful.
“There just aren’t that many prophets left,” he said. “A prophet is someone who is willing to tell us the unpleasant truth about ourselves. If we can’t bring unpopular messages, who will?”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.