Way to Calvary, Andrea di Bartolo
In the decades after the end of the World Wars, within the Protestant-Evangelical churches, there was the rise of what was first, only a fringe movement, but later became more mainstream, called the Prosperity Gospel (here). It is still alive today, though it is dying out. This was more a product of the current culture, than it was of orthodox theology. It was really, the dream of individual fulfilment that is very much alive in the West and the US, now translated into theological language. The core message was that God always wanted to bless his children; but this was mostly interpreted in material terms, even before spiritual ones. You can have an abundant life in this world, be prosperous, be healthy and this is your Christian right, because Christ has paid the price on the Cross. Some, though not all, would have gone as far as to say, if you were poor, it was only because you did not know your right to be rich or you did not have enough faith, or both.
It spread rapidly with the advent of the exciting and new satellite television. One of the most prominent of these preachers was the televangelist, Jim Bakker. He had a particular genius in re-imagining how Christianity could be done on television. The new Christian programmes, looked more like talk shows than a Church service. By the mid-70’s, he and his wife, Tammy Faye Bakker had become household names in the USA. Their programmes were seen every day by millions. They looked ‘normal’ and ‘happy’ and their message resonated with people. People were told they could be rich – and one of the ways they could do so was by being generous themselves; particularly to the ministry of the Bakkers. At their peak, they were bringing in more than a million dollars a week – and this was fifty years ago. The Bakkers lived a life of luxury. They had multiple houses, expensive cars and they were the confidants of presidents of the US. They built a massive ‘Christian themed water-park’, rivalling Disneyworld, to which they sold time-shares. People could come here and hear the gospel in luxury.
All of this came crashing down, with a sex scandal involving Bakker. It was explosive. These people were Christian superstars, and the fall was unimaginable. But that was just the beginning. There were further scandals, involving money. Bakker had paid a huge amount of church money to silence his accuser. He had funnelled millions for personal expenses. He had sold more time-shares than he could accommodate people. He was convicted of several counts of fraud and sentenced to prison.
I’m thinking of Bakker and the prosperity gospel today, as we come to this crucial point in Mark’s gospel. It is what is called the first of the three predictions of the Passion. Jesus asks his disciples, who they think he is, and Peter comes up with the right answer – he is the long-expected Messiah, the anointed of God. But barely a moment has passed before Peter could congratulate himself, that Jesus breaks the news that the Messiah will have to suffer and die a brutal death. And those who follow him, will have to take up their own cross and do so.
We might have heard this a hundred times, but it still grates against us. It comes, by design, right at the center of Mark’s gospel. After this, the mood of the gospel will become far darker as Jesus’ trajectory will head straight for his death. We all, instinctively stand on the side of Peter, telling Jesus that this should not happen. Till now, Jesus was seen healing the sick and performing miracles – surely, that is what God must do? That God would destroy suffering would be easy to understand. But a God who suffers? How we receive this, will go towards answering our own questions on the very difficult issue of human suffering. On one hand, we can hear this message of the Cross and decide that the essence of the Christian life is to do with suffering. Many people, even priests, have often bought into this caricature. God then, seems pleased to see you suffer, and the more you can suffer, the more you please God. What kind of image of God does that form in our hearts? Is it really possible to have a relationship of love with someone whom we see as desiring our suffering? It is certainly one of the reasons that we’ve lost so many of the younger generation from the Church; it’s not something they can comprehend.
It is also, in reaction to such caricatures that something like the Prosperity Gospel arose. To the popular view that implied God was cruel and uncaring, Jim Bakker and others said no, God cares – not simply about your soul but also about you, your wellbeing here and now. And they were right. God does care. God takes no delight in our suffering. God does want to bless us. And God wants us to be happy – or rather, joyful, always. How many times do we read about the ‘joy of the Lord’ in the gospels? The gospel is good news. If there is no joy in our lives, we haven’t really heard the gospel.
But what do we make of God and suffering? Suffering exists in this world, because of the abuse of human freedom. God could have given up on humanity after we rebelled; he could have started an entirely new project, destroying the rebels. But God being God, made the very mess we had created the place where we find new life. That is the Cross. The Cross was the ultimate weapon of the Roman empire, their most terrifying instrument of torture. It was the greatest degradation a human being could be subject to, at the time. For a Jew, someone on the Cross had been cursed by God; it was a place of God-forsakenness. And Jesus took that very thing, the worst of man and made it the place of encounter with God, so that there would be no place we could go, however low, however shameful, where God would not be there. We all have suffering in our lives. It comes with living in the world. But those who know Christ, can be free in front of the Cross. That is the ultimate freedom.
Jim Bakker lost his reputation, freedom, dignity and in prison, even his wife. He had a mental breakdown. His faith was shaken. But there, he had an experience of conversion. Ironically, the place his prosperity theology had considered most unfit for a Christian, was the very place he encountered God. He wrote a book later called I was Wrong, detailing his experience.* It was in prison that he had read the Bible fully for the first time. As he studied the Bible more, something he ‘rarely got time to do’ while in ministry, he said, he realised no one, not even prophets led a life without pain. God does not promise a life without suffering – but he ‘does promise that he will never leave us or forsake us, no matter what trial or pain we must go through…whether it be loss of reputation, loss of position or power, financial calamity, addiction, separation, divorce or imprisonment’. All of which of course, he had experienced in a short period of time. But here, is true freedom. One can carry the Cross without running away from it. Here, one is truly blessed.
(*Addendum: While he repented and renounced the prosperity gospel, Jim Bakker went back on TV not too long after prison. Unfortunately, he seems to have exchanged one heretical teaching for another. A new film chronicling the rise and fall of the Bakkers, starring Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield is just being released, called The Eyes of Tammy Faye).