The Prosperity Gospel, Christo-Fascism and the War in Ukraine

The Struggle for Justice

My interest in liberation theology came about in my mid-thirties. I describe my journey in Pedagogy of Insurrection as a journey that

has taken me from Buddhist temples in Thailand, to Taoist temples in China, to Shinto temples in Japan, to Christian churches throughout Europe, to the Vatican, to Maori whare whakairo in New Zealand, to Santeria ceremonies in Havana, to Umbanda and Candomblé terreiros in Bahia, Brazil, to Hare Krishna temples, to an abbey in Ireland, to the Self-Realization Fellowship temple of Paramahansa Yogananda and to evangelical churches in the US where the Lord is praised in whoops and hollers. This sojourner thirsting for salvation and social justice has taken off his thirsty boots in decrepit hostels in Mexico, rested his feet on the mini-bars of luxury hotels in Spain and boarded for the night in rooming houses in Caracas while supporting the Bolivarian revolution. Over the years, I have joined groups of religious pilgrims on a spiritual path. This has been as important to me as my scholarship and political activism. To me, they go hand-in-hand. Together, we have tried to break through all the barriers that constrain us from realizing the Kingdom of God, not realizing that it is already upon us. We have tried to make our own consciousness the object of our thought. We have tried to bolster our potential to think about thought itself. We have tried to blast open the continuum of history in order to arrive at Benjamin’s messianic ‘now-time,’ at Leary’s ‘white light,’ at Suzuki’s satori, seeking our ‘profane illumination’ as we smashed our fists through the prison doors of homogeneous, empty time, searching for that flashpoint moment where the temporal-ontological distance between the past, present and future vanishes, and we are engulfed by an orgasm of history. We have been crazy fools and holy fools both. Some of us have found in revolutionary critical pedagogy an opportunity to bring together our spiritual and political struggles. Forces busy at work disabling our quest are neither apparent nor easily discerned, and critical educators have managed to appropriate many different languages with which to navigate the terrain of current educational reform.

Liberation theology is one such language. And, no, I am not attempting to proselytize.

Ukraine is no longer a country known mainly in the West through fairy tales. Fairy tales are sweet, but the language most needed to help us to understand what is occurring throughout America and much of the world today is the language that comes from the critique of political economy. Sometimes I feel that I have descanted much too long on the topic of anti-capitalist critique, turning with increasing vehemence against the inchoate ravings of the MAGA crowd with their tourist’s concern with facts, a jingle jangle of insentient Bible-thumpers, seemingly whitewashed of any hope to once again join the human race. Their untroubled decline into the gravesite of their own banalities would be risible if it were not so damningly dangerous. While I do not profess to know their quiddities, parts of their autochthonous makeup that trifles with counterfeit ideas about racial purity and feeds their ethnonationalist drug habit is descended from pure Nazi ideological stock dating back to the German nationalist, anti-communist, racist and populist Freikorps paramilitary culture of post-World War I Germany. The Trumpists had the good fortune to branch forth at the very point of democratic decline illustrated by Obama’s presidency, which championed imagery over substance. Obama’s reign raised so much hope among progressives but ended up purged of its storied magniloquence and was left languishing on the tattered sofa of desultory political reruns. The modus operandi of the Republican regime was a pompous brutality that engulfed America in a night-world of callowness where intelligence does not need to be imposed upon the mind and where bragging about one’s own capacity for hate and inflicting pain and embarrassment upon ‘woke’ liberal opponents could get you a seat at the grand banquet, assuming your critical repute was high enough. And if you could display such a hideously malevolent rictus as, say, Jim Jordan, while going off nonstop on the libs without needing to catch one’s breath, then you became part of the club.

To be Rich is to be Blessed

We all know that Trump is rich. Very very rich. He is healthy for his age and has good-looking children. He is married to a beautiful fashion model. His homes rival the lavish eccentricity of the palaces of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. As Bruce Feirstein comments,

Since the beginning of time, the rich, the powerful, and the megalomaniacal have all built shrines to their own self-importance. Think the pyramids. The Palace of Versailles. Any investment banker’s home in the Hamptons. But if we’re talking about the apotheosis of opulence – a world where ‘too much is never enough,’ where rivers of marble meet acres of chintz, where crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling like guillotines, and where taste (bad taste, that is) seems to have been applied with a trowel, we couldn’t help but notice a striking similarity in the decorating palate of two demagogues: Donald Trump, the putative Republican nominee for president of the United States, and the late Saddam Hussein, the former president, prime minister, and chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council of the Republic of Iraq.

Look at all that opulent chintz! Look at that family, so healthy and hearty! Trump must be favored by God, right? Well, just take a look at what happened to presidents Hussein and Gaddafi. Not so much favoured by God, as it turns out.

But the prosperity gospel offers more than riches, it offers hope to its faithful followers. Kate Bowler writes that

[t]he prosperity gospel is a theodicy, an explanation for the problem of evil. It is an answer to the questions that take our lives apart: Why do some people get healed and some people don’t? Why do some people leap and land on their feet while others tumble all the way down? Why do some babies die in their cribs and some bitter souls live to see their great-grandchildren? The prosperity gospel looks at the world as it is and promises a solution. It guarantees that faith will always make a way. If you believe, and you leap, you will land on your feet. If you believe, you will be healed … What gives the prosperity movement breadth and depth for many is its thorough accounting for the pain of life and the longing we have for restoration. For those trapped in failing bodies or broken relationships or the painful possibility that their lives might never be made whole, Americans turn to this message of hope. If life is a game, one with rules for success that anyone can use, then maybe they can win.

But it is the exquisitely absurd quackery that enjoins us to Trumpworld Megachurch Inc., that has so picturesquely and damningly whacked us out. Here we come face-to-face with an evangelising moment that has managed to turn common sense into a tortuous and interminable path of hypocrisy, low-rent theology and, to put it bluntly, iniquitousness. The generative nucleus of the prosperity gospel is greed, acquisitiveness plain and simple. The ‘prosperity gospel’ preached by the Trumpists gained traction with the rise of Pentecostalism and as televangelism became very financially lucrative. Jerry Falwell Jr., son of one of America’s most prominent televangelists, Joel Osteen, America’s best-known preacher of prosperity through Jesus, Paula White, senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Centre in Florida, preacher Mike Murdock, 69, a Texas-based televangelist of The Wisdom Centre and an Oral Roberts mentee, all joined together, in support of Trump since he seemed to share their ‘prosperity’ values.

Supreme in their grotesqueness, these preachers dilate at the sight of dollar bills, and they rage against any interpretation of the Gospel of Jesus that would claim a counternarrative or rehandle the typical, mainstream plot. Many of them preach that the 2020 presidential election was ‘stolen’ by Joe Biden, and some of them even support QAnon fantasies. It is a religious enterprise endangered by obviousness, yet is persistent in its ignorance of other, more defendable, biblical interpretations and basic Christian tenets. The prosperity gospel’s almost comic preoccupation with its own virtue can only become blurred in the memory of the faithful the longer that they allow themselves to be accommodated to the very immoral context against which Christianity has been designed to rail.

We can get you whatever you want through prayer, no matter how over-the-top kitsch it might be! Want a golden toilet? Trump was a serially bankrupt casino operator – and now he is the Chosen One! Can we ever forget Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker? Today’s so-called lovers of peace and prosperity spend more time preaching in the Pulpit of Profits, talking about the promise of earthly rewards, than teaching about the forgiveness of sins; their deep-pocketed interests lead them to courting offshore crypto billionaire mega-donors to help pay for Trump’s rallies and campaign events, bigfooting open primaries, and dumping cash into multiple political races as well as diversifying among their regular donor segments. Politics and religion – ‘it is what it is.’ I cringe a little when I hear that term (yes, I know it can indicate both an acceptance of complexity and defeat) and the ever popular saying, ‘everything happens for a reason’ (yes, colloquialising the notion that there is a cause to every effect is fine, but it often seems like there is some supernatural being pulling our strings and even bad things that happen to you is for the ultimate good). But, in the world of the prosperity gospel, if you can’t pay your rent or your lousy insurance policy can’t cover your kids’ hospital stay, then you really are not in good spiritual shape. Yes, unfortunately, it is what it is. (Did I really say that?)

Some of these evangelists are having a difficult time leaving aside one of their former idols, Vladimir Putin, since ‘[a] significant subset of the US evangelical community, particularly white conservatives, has been developing a political and emotional alliance with Russia for almost 20 years. Those American believers, including prominent figures such as Graham and Jay Sekulow of the American Centre for Law and Justice, see Russia, Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church as protectors of the faith, standing against attacks on ‘traditional’ and ‘family’ values. At the centre is Russia’s spate of anti-LGBTQ laws, which have become a model for some anti-trans and anti-gay legislation in the US.

An article in The Conversation illuminates the tenacity with which some prominent evangelicals have been standing with Putin:

Putin’s war against Chechen militants in the 1990s, and his more recent intervention on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, made him popular with Christian conservatives. Putin claimed to be protecting Christians while waging war against Islamic terrorism.

Meanwhile, Putin’s policies of cracking down on evangelism do not seem to overly bother some of his conservative evangelical allies. When Putin signed a Russian law in June 2016 that outlawed any sharing of one’s faith in homes, online or anywhere else but recognized church buildings, some evangelicals were outraged, but others looked away.

This is in part because American evangelicals in the 2010s continued to see Putin as being willing to openly support Christians in what they saw as a global war on their faith. But the more immediately salient issue was Putin’s opposition to LGBTQ+ rights and nontraditional views of the family.

Franklin Graham is the son of the most famous American evangelist ever to praise the Lord in stadiums after stadiums across the country and the world – Billy Graham. As a young teenage evangelical Christian (for several years), I would read everything I could from Graham’s pen. He didn’t talk much about politics. However, the son, Franklin Graham, ‘was among those who waxed enthusiastically about Russia’s so-called gay propaganda law, which limits public material about ‘nontraditional’ relationships. Others, such as the World Congress of Families and the Alliance Defending Freedom, have long been cultivating ties with Russian politicians as well as the Russian Orthodox Church…. In the 21st century, then, the most conservative wing of evangelicals was not promoting its agenda by touting the number of Bibles transported across state lines, but rather on another kind of border crossing: the power of Putin’s reputation as a leader in the resurgent global right.’

Apparently, last I checked, Graham does not support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, unlike Patriarch Krill in his open support for a war that is targeting old men, women and children. What hasn’t changed are the exegetical antics and pedagogical histrionics of the prosperity evangelists who don’t see themselves as Christo-fascists, despite how much this belies their fanatic support for their Chosen One. My comments about the prosperity gospel are both brisk and imprecise, but I hope they will begin to start a conversation with those who have a penchant for throwing a hailstorm of Bible verses during any discussion of politics. Consider these pages from the Bible with commentary by Jose Porfirio Miranda, the late Jesuit liberation theologian. Something to consider in our ongoing dialogue with our prosperity preaching Trump-o-files and those who worship at their feet:

Student: Aren’t the poor always going to be with us? Isn’t this an argument against socialism, against the c-word, you know, ‘communism’?

According to Miranda, ‘It is often thought that Jesus taught that poverty is something that can never be eradicated, and that the poor will always be a natural part of social life. But Jesus did not say that the poor will always be with us; he said that the poor are with us all the time.’ Miranda cites numerous translation sources attesting that this statement should be translated as ‘The poor you have with you at all moments [or continuously]. And you can do them good when you wish; on the other hand, you do not have me at all moments [Mark 14:7]’ (2004, p. 59). According to Miranda, Jesus didn’t say, ‘My kingdom is not of this world,’ he said, ‘My kingdom does not come forth from this world’ or ‘My kingdom is not from this world’ since we can retain the original meaning only if we consider the preposition ek- in the original Greek as meaning ‘from,’ signifying place of origin or provenance.

Student: Didn’t Jesus tell us to pay our taxes … you know, to render under Cesar?

Well, this saying is decidedly ironic and not a capitulation to Roman authority, according to Miranda.

Student: Okay, well, what about the prosperity preachers who tell their coteries of followers to gain material riches, that God wants them to prosper? Heck, who doesn’t want nice things? I sure do.

To get rich is definitely not a customary apologetic argument in the Bible but popular with America’s evangelical entertainers. There is no observed liturgical architectonic that exhorts us to live in a 20 million dollar mansion as a way of coping with the bleak panorama of today’s civilization. But that’s not the impression you get hearing words spoken from between the divine teeth of Joel Osteen, who himself seems to come pretty close to mirroring the smile of God. My favourite televangelist was Robert Tilton until he went off the air after being exposed as a fraud during a television special and is now ridiculed as The Farting Preacher. He was the best at speaking in tongues, even surpassing Laura White, who famously called for ‘angelic enforcement’ to elect Donald Trump through the power of a homophobic pastor in Ghana. Lily Wakefield reports:

She began by claiming: ‘We have spiritual intelligence, natural intelligence, in saying to you that God’s decision has been made. The church must enforce some things in the realm of the Earth.

‘We must take authority over every demonic spirit… I’m not going to play around with things here; I’m just going to go directly into what we know.

‘Prophet Gideon called, and he said that there was a sudden breath of life breathed into this campaign on the other side.’

Prophet Gideon Danso is a Ghanaian pastor with whom White has spoken with several times before and who claims to be one of ‘God’s end-time prophets.’

But if it started bizarre, it soon got even weirder.

In a clip circulating on Twitter, the homophobic pastor is seen calling for God to ‘strike and strike and strike and strike and strike and strike and strike and strike and strike and strike until you have victory,’ complete with Psycho-esque hand motions.

She goes on to say in a monotone voice: ‘You will give us victory. I hear a sound of abundance of rain. I hear a sound of victory. I hear a sound of shouting and singing. I hear a sound of victory. I hear a sound of abundance of rain. I hear a sound of victory. I hear a sound of abundance of rain. I hear a sound of victory.

‘The Lord says it is done. The Lord says it is done. The Lord says it is done. For I hear victory, victory, victory, victory. In the corners of heaven. In the corners of heaven. Victory, victory, victory, victory, victory, victory.’

Unexpectedly, she suddenly starts speaking in tongues, before continuing: ‘For angels have even dispatched from Africa right now, Africa right now, Africa right now. From Africa right now.

‘They’re coming here. They’re coming here. In the name of Jesus. From South America, they’re coming here, they’re coming here, they’re coming here, they’re coming here, they’re coming here.

‘From Africa. From South America. Angelic forces. Angelic reinforcement. Angelic reinforcement. Angelic reinforcement. Angelic reinforcement.’

Her bizarre and rhythmic chanting was begging for a remix, and in a situation in which we have to either laugh or cry, Twitter has delivered.

Student: Capitalism is supported by the Bible. That is for sure. 

I would ask you to consider the following quotation cited by Miranda concerning economic transactions found in the Bible: ‘For the sake of profit, many have sinned; the one who tries to grow rich, turns away his gaze. Stuck tight between two stones, between sale and purchase, sin is wedged [Eccles. 27:1–2].’

Student: Okay, what about interest rates? The Fed is raising them. Inflation is right around the corner because of this damn war in Ukraine. Sorry, don’t tell my pastor I used the word ‘damn,’ okay?

Here is what Miranda said of the meaning of ‘interest’ as it appears in the Bible, taken directly from Pedagogy of Insurrection:

Miranda notes that biblical scripture condemns the term ‘interest’ (the Hebrew word is ‘neshet’) numerous times: Exodus 22:24; Leviticus 25:36, 37; Deuteronomy 23:19 (three times); Ezekiel 18:8, 13, 17, 22:12; Psalms 15:5; Proverbs 28:8. And, numerous times, profit-making through commerce, loans at interest and productive activity itself (the process of production) are condemned (production likely here referring to agriculture). Does not James condemn the acquisition of wealth by agricultural entrepreneurs (see James 5:1–6)? And does he not, in fact, attack all the rich (James 1:10–11)? In James 2:6, does he not say: ‘Is it not the rich who oppress you and who hail you before the tribunals?’ Does he not also say: ‘See, what you have whittled away from the pay of the workers who reap your fields cries out, and the anguish of the harvesters has come to the ears of the Lord of Armies’ (James 5:4)? Does it now surprise us that Jesus would call money ‘money of iniquity’ (Luke 16:9, 11)? On this issue, Miranda writes: What this verse is doing is explaining the origin of wealth. Its intention is not to refer to some particularly perverse rich people who have committed knaveries which other rich people do not commit. The letter’s attack is against all the rich. This is the biblical reprobation of differentiating wealth as Luke vituperates those who have defrauded workers and impugns all the rich. According to Miranda (2004, p. 53), profit ‘is considered to be the source of (differentiating) wealth.’ Miranda continues: For James, differentiating wealth can be acquired only by means of expropriation of the produce of the workers’ labour. Therefore, following Jesus Christ and the Old Testament, James condemns differentiating wealth without vacillation or compromise. Profit made in the very process of production is thus specifically imprecated (2004, p. 55). Miranda (2004, p. 73) explains further what this implies: ‘Where there is no differentiating wealth, where economic activity is directly for the purpose of the satisfaction of needs and not for trade or the operations of buying and selling for profit, government becomes unnecessary.’ The Bible attacks not only acquired wealth but the means by which such wealth is accumulated, which is the taking of profit or what could be considered a form of systemic or legalized exploitation or robbery. Even the prophets such as Micha and Amos understood that ‘no differentiating wealth can be acquired without spoliation and fraud’ (Miranda, 2004, p. 40).

Communism in the Bible?

Student: So, is it fair – heretical even – to call the Bible communist?

Miranda offers a direct response: ‘If we want to know ‘Why communism?’ the response is unequivocal: because any other system consists of the exploitation of some persons over others.’ In his book, Communism in the Bible, Miranda expounds on the idea of wealth in the Bible: ‘The numerous prophetical descriptions of wealth are, all of them, condemnatory. Not all of them explicitly assert (as the ones mentioned do, along with Mic. 3:9-11, Amos 2:6-8, etc.) that wealth is acquired by spoliation and fraud and injustice, but all of them condemn wealth. And this implies that they consider it ill-gained, without exception and on principle. They have no need to investigate the rich person’s biography in every case. They have no need to examine the history of the concrete fortune in question. They know that no differentiating wealth can be acquired without spoliation and fraud.’

Later, Miranda writes: ‘The condemnation of differentiating wealth is the most solid and inescapable documentary datum in the Bible. This is why Jesus of Nazareth calls money the ‘money of iniquity’ (Luke l 6:9, I!), adopting the expression of the Jewish Book of Henoch 63: I 0, which is a faithful continuation of the Old Testament tradition. Saint Jerome comments, ‘And wisely he said with unjust money,” for all riches derive from injustice, and unless one loses, the other cannot gain. Therefore it is clear to me that the familiar proverb is eminently true: “The rich are either unjust, or heir of one unjust”’ (PL 22:984). It should not be thought that we are inventing a new interpretation of the Bible here. Before the church associated itself for all future centuries with the exploiters, all the fathers of the church understood the Bible as we have. To confirm this, very briefly and in passing, we might take note of a literary fact which theology is at pains to pass over, and which confirms what we have just said. As can be seen from Tobit 4:7 (‘Turn not your gaze from anyone poor’), Tobit 4:10 (‘Alms indeed preserve one from death’) and Tobit 12:9, ‘Alms indeed preserve one from death,’ late Judaism arrived at the notion that giving money to the poor preserves a person from death. But the brutal fact that theology refuses to look at is that the original Hebrew Bible calls that act of giving money to the poor not ‘almsgiving,’ but ‘justice’ (sedaqah). Proverbs 10:2: ‘Justice delivers from death.’

Any exegesis which avoids these facts makes an understanding of the Gospels difficult, if not impossible. The entelechies of our struggle against capitalism are what we achieve on the picket lines, in our fights against all forms of domination, extortion, exploitation, alienation – justice!

In satisfaction of an appetite, and taken in its true proportions, we struggle to dismiss the evangelical core around Trump, for the sake of our own sanity, if nothing else. But nobody can deny the appeal of the cliché-ridden proclamations of \conservative evangelical preachers to Trump’s base. We do not have to be believing Christians to appreciate the ineffable richness of Miranda’s theology of liberation and his lapidary insights on justice (but it doesn’t mean we have to agree with him). Nevertheless, it does help to know a bit of scripture if we are to make headway in convincing raving, fanatical Trumpists that the Jesus they worship had more in common with communists and socialists than they think. No, I am not referring to the communists of the ex-Soviet Union and the former police states of the Eastern Bloc; I am talking about the attitude early Christians had about sharing goods, and their aversion to practices such as interest rates and their disabling attitudes to differentiating wealth – what I would call their disdain for the soul of capitalism.

Parable of the Talents

In my 2015 debate with Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith (economics), a libertarian professor at Chapman University, we differed greatly on the Biblical Parable of the Talents:

SMITH: But Jesus would importune the rich to help and assist the poor as in the example He set. He would never support Caesar’s confiscation of what is rightfully another’s. Inequality reduction is mostly a matter of increasing the productivity of the poor  –  like you and I did  –  (This is why I like Acton Institute) and partly being generous with your earnings. Jesus understood that wealth first has to be created by human effort and ingenuity before it can be given in service to the disadvantaged. You have to give in order to receive in all acts of trade and production, and I support property rights rules that make that plain. Here is what I have written on the parable of the talents as we find it in Matthew 25:14-29, along with my interpretation relating the narrative to the role of investment in growing the economic pie and illustrating how economics is not a zero-sum game as most people tend to think (including Clinton and Trump!):

For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. Note that the man is surely rich, for he has property. We do not know why he is rich, but he is rich enough to have servants. The fact that he entrusted them with his money implies a close relationship – then as now, good business depends importantly on mutual trust and trustworthiness. To one, he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.

Now it seems evident that the man is sensitive to managerial differences among his servants and believes in making rewards that recognize differences in ability and giving ‘to each according to his ability.’ Jesus is showing recognition of a fundamental tenet of good business. (a talent was a significant sum of money, easily comparable to the value of a small business today.) He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. The parable is now enriched with human diversity. The man is further testing the chosen three, all of whom have been distinguished in accordance with their ability based on the man’s observation and judgment. Now, after a long time, the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ The test revealed that the servant thought by the master to have lower ability was the equivalent of the servant thought to have higher ability; each had achieved a 100 per cent return on the master’s capital investment entrusted to them. The master then updates his assessment of them, giving each the same opportunity to excel further by awarding them management over many, whereas they had demonstrated only being ‘faithful over a little.’ Jesus’ master exhibits a key feature found by modern economists to be the secret underlying the success of market capitalism  –  decentralization as opposed to centralization of control. Decentralization gives greater authority and responsibility to those able to deploy it to the best advantage. The master is skilled at empathizing with these servants, and he asks them to empathize with him and enter ‘into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and, at my coming, I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.’

The climactic lesson proclaimed in verse 29 is rich with implications. By now, we have come to see why the master is rich. He most emphatically does not reap where he does not sow. He may indeed sow neither barley nor peas, but he specializes as a tradesman in knowing who are the different sowers, what they want that they cannot grow themselves, exchanging that which the sower wants for the surplus that he has reaped, and carrying that product to where it commands a higher value in exchange. The master is rich because he knows that, in trade, you have to give in order to receive and that you cannot sustainably benefit from trade unless you benefit others. This is exactly what economics and economic historian have discovered to be the sources of human betterment. Freedom under law is what has made that possible. (Adam Smith said that every man’s earnings should depend as much as possible on merit and as little as possible on privilege. That is not the way der Staat works.) Thanks, as I see it, Jesus said it better than I have been trying to say it to you! Thank you for the questions.

McLAREN: Vernon, thanks for your response. I agree with you that a rich man is in a position to help those who are poor. The Bible does not attack profits per se, but how those profits are made. And I appreciated your take on The Parable of Talents. It is often used to defend the notion that Jesus approved of capitalism. My take on the Parable of the Talents is very different from the dominant interpretation, and I would like to share it with you. You could call it an alternative reading in the spirit of Paulo Freire, or Marx, for that matter. In my understanding of Jesus’ teachings, if Jesus were to comment on our current historical moment, he would never want to put people at the mercy of the free market, especially the deregulated market of today’s gangster capitalism. Nor would he have wanted the economy to be controlled entirely by the state, as in the state capitalism of the former Soviet Union or the former Eastern Bloc countries. Both were forms of capitalism: one state centralized capitalism, and the other, free-market capitalism.

There is one way to object to the position that Jesus does not adopt the Old Testament condemnation of profit, and that is the Parable of the Talents. And that appears to be your position. One objection to your interpretation is that a parable is a literary device, and the interpretation could be that we are all obliged to contribute our creative capacities for the realization of the kingdom of God. But I don’t take this position. My position is of a very different type.

Clearly, in both the Lucan version (Luke 19:11-27) and the version found in Matthew (Matt. 25:14-30), the Parable of the Talents is a condemnation of the exploitation of the peasants by the master, and an attack on profit-making in general (although the differences between the two versions do have theological implications but let’s not focus on that). Let me make my case. I believe that it is an error to identify the ‘Master’ with God. First of all, let’s look at several contexts, the Old Testament and the agrarian economy during the time of Jesus. First, throughout the Old Testament, profit-making is inexorably condemned, and the evidence is overwhelming. The Torah condemns profit-making through commerce, loans at interest, and the process of production itself. But there is another context: the manner in which business was done in an agrarian economy in Jesus’ time and how the hearer of Jesus’ words would have reacted to the Parable of the Talents. Jesus was teaching communism, and it’s crystal clear, even in the Parable of the Talents. The early Christian communities were communist and shared everything. See Acts 2:44-45: ‘All the believers together had everything in common; they sold their possessions and their goods, and distributed them among all in accordance with each one’s needs.’ Let’s not confuse this with Soviet communism or the communism of the Eastern Bloc during the 20th century, which were state capitalist and totalitarian dictatorships. But let’s get back to the Parable of the Talents. My interpretation that follows is based on a Freirean reading of The Parable of the Talents by William R. Herzog and is paraphrased from his work, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (and the subtitle reflects the famous work of my mentor, Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Herzog attempts to show Jesus as a critical pedagogue. First, we need to see the parable in the context of peasant values in early Mediterranean societies, which contained the notion of ‘limited good’ and the preference for ‘use value’ over ‘exchange value.’ The agrarian economy in Jesus’ time was undergoing changes caused by commercialization. There was an antipathy among the peasants towards the growing exchange economy in Jesus’ time. In addition, during Jesus’ preaching in Galilee and Judea, the rural population was being subjected to the Roman and the Temple forms of tribute. The servants or retainers in the Parable of the Talents are not state officials, but their wealth depended on the same population that was being exploited by Jerusalem and Rome, and the peasants understood what was happening, and how they were being additionally exploited by the master and his household servants (these servants were more like the master’s own trusted inner circle). The third servant’s characterization of the master is key to the Parable of the Talents – he speaks the truth to the master, and exposes his true function in the society, and is punished for doing so. After all, the master is akin to an absentee landlord, bent on increasing his wealth through his absence in the household by dividing it among his trusted household staff and charging them to invest it in order to return a yield. Peasants during the war with the US-backed Contras in Nicaragua, when asked to interpret The Parable of the Talents, saw the master in this light – as an exploitative capitalist. But I want to take this interpretation much further. In Jesus’s time, the basic social, economic, cultural and political unit was not the peasant household, but the oikos, the great household of the elite, aristocratic families, which were basically trading houses, export-import businesses, where wealth was concentrated, often obscenely concentrated. The elites used their wealth to make loans to peasant farmers. This enabled the farmers to plant the crops. Interest rates were, researchers conclude, from 60 per cent up to 200 per cent. The masters of the great households were not so much interested in profit, but wanted to acquire land as collateral. The elites would foreclose on their loans during hard times when the crops were failing due to drought or disease, and could not cover their incurred indebtedness. The elites, like the master in the parable, and their servants were adapting to the growing effects of commercialization on the agrarian economy and were more interested in the control of land, not just the control of the peasants who lived on them. There were efforts in Jesus’ time to displace peasants from their patrimonial lands and to reduce their status to dependent labourers. Children were forced to become day labourers. The sick and those with injuries or disabilities were left to die. The dynamics of debt that impacted peasant households in Jesus’ time was horrific. Who set the policies for controlling peasant holdings and labour? The answer: the servants, who served as retainers for the master. In Jesus’s time, the servants, or the retainers, were viewed with suspicion and caution, and dread. At the same time, there were small manufacturing operations specializing in luxury goods, and the only markets were the urban elites. The three servants could have partnered with these operations. Again, according to Herzog, they could have also combined trade with the normal export and import of goods produced in the household. The servants (retainers) certainly had the means to increase their wealth.

This was not a test by the master for the servants as the servants had already passed many tests, and if the master wanted to test them, it would make more sense to test them while the master was around to curtail any disaster. Even one talent was a considerable sum in those days. The gold talent-measure reportedly weighed roughly the same as a person. Besides, there was too much riding on the accumulation of wealth for this to be a test.

In Jesus’s agrarian society, the ruling class controlled roughly 2 per cent of the wealth. When the rulers managed to acquire the peasant lands through the default of loans given to the peasants, the elites could shift the types of crops being produced to maximize the crop yields. Or it was possible to monetize land usage by converting the land to vineyards or orchards. Often the traditional use of the land by the peasants prevented the land from maximum exploitation by the rulers. The term, ‘reaping where he had not sown and gathering where he had not spread seed’ suggests that the master was participating in extortion to enhance his wealth.

The distribution of talents was a means to consolidate wealth, to make the powerful become more powerful. The servants are ranked ‘each according to his ability’ in Matthew, but the translation could also mean, ‘each according to his rank or power.’ The profit of 100 per cent was the minimum according to the laws of Hammurabi, and if it were less, it would have been considered a default. Two of the servants doubled their entrusted wealth, so this means that they met their minimum profit or perhaps even exceeded it, given the master’s commendations. So the game of ‘honest graft’ being played here is this: After the servants secure their master’s initial investment, they double it, and this guarantees that the servants will make a profit. The servants are doing the dirty work for the master – and the peasants in Jesus’ time knew how the game was played. In fact, the servants took much of the heat from the peasants in lieu of the master. The third servant represents the view of the peasant who opposes the master. The praise heaped on the first two servants mystifies the ugly value augmentation role of the economy. They are praised for being good exploiters of the peasants. But at the same time, they become even more dependent upon the master, as they are treated as clients and put in charge of greater aspects of the household, and constantly reminded who constitutes the source of their patronage. To ‘enter into the joy of your master’ is a mystification of the cycle of oppression, as well as a call to celebrate differentiating wealth (inequality), their abundance in the midst of the deprivation of others. This is a mockery of the Old Testament which stipulated that the wealthy make interest free loans to the poor. What follows the Parable of the Talents is the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. Jesus, as our shepherd who looks after us, is shown separating the nations of the earth like a shepherd who in his daily life separates the sheep from the goats. The goats are placed on the left hand of Jesus, while the sheep are on his right.

In Matthew 25:34-36, Jesus says to the sheep, ‘Come you, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, I was a stranger, and you took me in, I was naked, and you clothed me, I was sick, and you visited me, I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Now how should masters – or anyone for that matter – treat others? We find this in Ezekiel 18:7-9: ‘But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right … and hath not oppressed any, but hath restored to the debtor his pledge, hath spoiled none by violence, hath given his bread to the hungry, and hath covered the naked with a garment; he that hath not given forth upon usury, neither hath taken any increase, that hath withdrawn his hand from iniquity, hath executed true judgment between man and man, hath walked in my statutes, and hath kept my judgments, to deal truly; he is just, he shall surely live, saith the Lord God.’ Do we not detect a condemnation of what today we could call monopoly capitalism but in biblical times would refer to larger enterprises (houses joining with other houses) to acquire the smaller and more vulnerable businesses, in the words of Isaiah 5:8: ’ Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth’? Capitalism is a system that takes what should be shared in common, natural resources, or the wealth of nations, and redistributes them to the wealthy, increasing their power and their ability to exploit further. And this could also lead to practices of imperialism since, in the time of Jesus, the wealthy houses (the paterfamilias or the oikodespotes) were a reflection of the city, actually, according to Herzog, a microcosm of the city. The households governed the cities, in fact. The servants in the household were not slaves but, at the same time, were completely dependent on their patron-master. The kingdom was the most powerful level of society in Jesus’s time and was a collection of cities. If the kingdom operated as did the master in The Parable of Talents, this could indeed lead to imperialist conquests of other kingdoms–and in fact, this is what happened, and what happens, even up to the present day. The parables of Jesus have this transhistorical sense about them.

The third servant is punished, the result of telling the truth, of speaking truth to power. Jesus spoke truth to power and was crucified. As Herzog notes, correctly in my view, by burying the talent, the servant took it out of economic circulation. By being buried, it could not be used to dispossess more peasants from their lands through the form of usurious loans. He is the hero of The Parable of the Talents who cuts through all the phony praise by the master and the peasants listening to Jesus tell The Parable of the Talents would have understood this. The third servant was a whistle-blower – an early Daniel Ellsberg or Edward Snowden. The third servant denied the self he was becoming – an exploiter, part of the system of economic exploitation. He spoke truth to power and was forced to bear the cross of exile into the world of poverty.

The Parable of Talents reinforces Jesus’s message of condemning differentiating wealth. Does not James 5:1-6 condemn the acquisition of wealth by the agricultural entrepreneurs? The rich are condemned in the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:24) ‘Because you have received you comfort.’ As Miranda notes, James uncovers the origin of wealth when he says (James 5:4): ‘See, what you have whittled away from the pay of the workers who reap your fields cries out, and the anguish of the harvesters has come to the ears of the Lord of Armies.’ This ‘whittling away’ is not an illegal act on the part of the masters – these vile masters of mankind. It is systematic exploitation, or what theologians would call structural sin. It is the expropriation of the produce of the workers’ labour. Read in light of today’s unfettered, unregulated capitalism, The Parable of the Talents is an implicit call for an alternative to social relations of exploitation, not an affirmation of capitalism. At least, that’s my take on it, thanks to research done by Miranda and Herzog.

Yes, this parable can be interpreted in a wide range of ways.

God Bless America – and No Place Else!

Frankin Graham is an evangelical preacher who raises a lot of spiritual eyebrows. He famously exhorted his followers to pray for Vladimir Putin, even as his army was poised to engage in a slaughter in Ukraine. It is noteworthy that, at the same time as he prayed for Putin, he did not solicit any prayers for Ukraine. It reminds me of the omnipresent bumper sticker: God Bless America. What that seems to me to be saying is: God Bless America, and No Place Else! (a line made famous in the film Head of State).

There must be some principles that we can adhere to unequivocally as we watch Putin’s invading army relentlessly shell apartment buildings, factories, hospitals and villages. What seems to me to be a truism is that to be fully human, we need to be attentive to moral criteria and the moral imperatives we set for ourselves as human beings, categorical as opposed to conditioned imperatives, that is, moral imperatives which do not make the precept’s obliging force depend on any need of the person obliged. (Yes, President Zelenskyy, we will send you money for arms and equipment so long as you send me dirt on Hunter Biden). That is something Miranda underscores. Miranda reminds us that we must not permit our imperatives to be conditioned by our own self-interest. They follow from our obligation to treat others as ends and not means. Yes, we recognise ourselves as spiritual beings, but this does not mean we reject appeals to rationality. We may admire the development of democratic government, but we do not allow ourselves to be shoehorned by procedural ethics imposed by our commitment to democracy. We act in accordance with the criteria and content that bring dignity to those who suffer and are oppressed. That is the ‘preferential obligation to the poor’ that guides liberation theology. Which is inescapably tied to the language of political economy and its critique. Miranda writes that

The true revolutionary abjures reformist palliatives because these divert the efforts of the people most capable of fomenting rebellion against the bourgeois system into rejuvenating and refurbishing it; such palliatives thus constitute the system’s best defence. By the same token, the revolutionary must find any change in the socio-economic system to be a priori inadequate if that change does not involve a radical revolution in people’s attitudes towards each other. If exchange-value (that ‘imaginary entity’) and the desire for personal gain continue to exist, they will inevitably create other oppressive and exploitative economic systems.

Share this article on Social Media

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.