Why Evangelist Joel Osteen’s anti-gay view is especially hypocritical
October 7, 2011 | 3:14 pm
(Updated: October 10, 2011 | 1:06 pm)
Once, Christianity was a religion of the poor. And by “once” I mean when it started. Before it was hashed out by philosophers, before it was mediated and re-articulated by theocratic medieval governments and the church – when the Gospels were actually being written – Christianity was by and for oppressed people.
The words of Jesus, inasmuch as we can actually see them through the Bible, condemn the wealthy. Luke 16:19-25 is about a man who goes to hell apparently just for being rich while others are poor (seriously!). In fact, any time Jesus ever links spiritual condemnation to a specific sin in the Bible, that sin is related to wealth or social status: it’s material selfishness and a sense of superiority over sinners and outcasts.
The Gospels contain no parables depicting a person punished in the afterlife for specific sins like adultery, fornication or theft – Jesus never condones any of that; he tells them to not repeat what he forgives them for – but throughout scripture he’s going around forgiving people for those behavioral sins while condemning those who judge them. Jesus even asks for forgiveness for the people who crucify him, as they are doing it. But when it comes to rich people, he says they’d better give it all away if they want even a shadow of hope of attaining the Kingdom of God.
That was then. This is now; Twenty-First Century America. This is here, a nation that is wealthy, powerful and pretty comfortable compared to some other parts of the world. Remember also that in the American South, where the modern-day Evangelical movement largely originated, there were hundreds of years when the pious white Christians actually bought and sold other Christians as slaves. So unless Southern Protestants want to say “the people who carried our faith forward for centuries are actually in hell” – hell being a concept they take quite literally - there’s significant incentive to de-emphasize the Biblical teachings about privilege or oppression, and instead play up the stuff about sex.
That brings us to Joel Osteen. Osteen disagrees with all the Biblical comments about money and wealth. He preaches what’s called the “Prosperity Gospel,” explaining Jesus wants you to be rich, rewards you for goodness by making you rich, and promises that you’ll actually get rich if you become a good Christian believer and give to the church. A believer might even assume that rich people are favored by God while poor people are meant to be poor. It’s an extension of a broader privilege-tolerant view that permeates American churches, but it’s so explicit and predominant in Osteen’s style of preaching that even other conservative Evangelicals (many of whom are quite wealthy) say Osteen takes it way too far.
When Jesus explicitly says – three times in three different gospels - it’s easier to get a camel through a needle’s eye than a rich man into heaven? Oh, that’s a metaphor. But that verse in Leviticus that says “do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman,” in which you have to accept “to lie with” as a euphemism even to apply it to homosexuality… well, Osteen suddenly doesn’t want to argue with the text, ya’ know, it says what it says.
One of the messages that the New Testament teaches is delayed gratification. No, not delayed in that you invest your money and get rewarded after it grows, and not delayed as in you go to college and work hard for a promise of a better life. It’s delayed in that life will inevitably involve suffering, and you should welcome that suffering and sacrifice everything to help others, because you will be rewarded after you die. That’s the timeframe we’re dealing with; one that you have to be believer even to understand. Christians, even today, almost universally agree that faith is not about this world.
That’s how a lot of them explain how it is that they continue to condemn same-sex relationships even if they accept scientific understanding that same-sex attraction is not a “choice.” Maybe you can’t control being gay, they concede, and maybe it will never change, but in that case you ought to be celibate; this life is meant to be difficult, and your sights should be on the next one. That is the Roman Catholic teaching on same-sex relationships, and some protestant groups have also moved away from the “it’s a choice” argument, while remaining clear: it doesn’t affect the conclusion about same-sex couples.
Osteen and his prosperity gospel don’t have that single-minded focus on the next world. Instead, Osteen’s gospel says a big part of Christianity’s reward system begins this lifetime.
It says Jesus really wants you to have that Cadillac Escalade. Jesus will give you a Cadillac Escalade if you pray, raise your kids right and do a little evangelizing on his behalf. Osteen shouts from the rooftops in celebration that the Kingdom of God is right now, and right now is a Cadillac Escalade.
But not for lesbians and gays. Somehow the rest of the world gets to enjoy the fruits of their faith this very moment, but lesbian and gay people must wait. They’ve gotta stick it out and stuffer through, single and celibate. Then maybe in heaven they’ll get to be heterosexual, or maybe sex doesn’t even matter then. Who knows? No explanation of what LGBT people are in it for; just, the Bible says what it says on the matter.
Except that in everything else Osteen preaches, that’s not the case.