Monday, August 15, 2011


 E. Ethelbert Miller says: "No one talks about Christian Socialism today. You claim this was King's third and final stage of development. Is it something we should still seek to achieve? Is the Beloved Community defined by Christian Socialism?"

In my writing about Martin Luther King Jr., I do say that his political orientation at the end of his life can be called "Christian Socialism." As early as 1951, King wrote a note to himself, saying, "It is a well-known fact that no social institution can survive when it has outlived its usefulness. This capitalism has done. It has failed to meet the needs of the masses."

Before he was assassinated, King told members of his staff not to be afraid of the word socialism. He was exposed to European socialism when he traveled to Norway to receive his Nobel Peace Prize, and I believe he felt that economic system might work in America, though from what I've read his father, Daddy King, remained at the time a believer in capitalism. But for King, "Christian" must precede "Socialism," because, as a Baptist minister, he simply couldn't embrace the atheism of Karl Marx, and many other communists and socialists.

 Ethelbert is right, I think, when he says no one talks about Christian Socialism much today (except maybe Cornel West, if I understand the contours of his thought and public positions correctly). Nor is there much discussion of the kind of "liberation theology" James H. Cone is known for. I suspect the reason for this, in part, is because activist black churches today, like that of King in the 1960s and the one Rev. Jeremiah Wright led in Chicago, are frequently overshadowed by other churches---some of them "megachurches"---that offer a religious orientation called "the Prosperity Gospel."

 My first exposure to the Prosperity Gospel was in the 1970s when I saw (in a state of complete bafflement) Reverend Ike, "the Success and Prosperity Preacher," on television ("You can't lose with the stuff I use," he said over and over again). Since that time, other black ministers have successfully used his approach, among them Bishop Eddie Long at his megachurch in Atlanta. When the multiple allegations of sexual abuse emerged recently about Bishop Long, DeForest B. Soaries Jr., senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, N.J., published an article entitled "Black Churches and the Prosperity Gospel" in The Wall Street Journal.

Soaries Jr. wrote that, "To their credit some prosperity ministers, like Bishop T.D. Jakes of the Potters House in Dallas and Dr. I.V. Hilliard of the New Light Christian Center in Houston, have motivated many people to avoid the traps of thinking of themselves as permanent victims and to defy conventional stereotypes. The prosperity gospel says that everyone can succeed financially, regardless of race or gender or class. The prosperity movement has effectively changed life expectations for millions of people. However when leaders of this movement assert that God wants everyone to be wealthy and that riches are the automatic outcome for all faithful believers, we should be suspicious...Teaching that desire for more material possessions is a sign of one's religious piety is simply offering a justification for crass consumerism. Prosperity theology elevates greed to a virtue instead of leaving it as one of the seven deadly sins."

Continuing his critique, Soaries Jr., added that:
 "Traditionally, black churches have emphasized spiritual renewal, social justice, educational uplift, community improvement and civic engagement in addition to individual achievement. The fact that the church was the locus for community and personal advancement was what made it such a powerful force for hope and survival...In light of today's weak economy, perhaps the prosperity movement should consider focusing on financial literacy, personal discipline and saving for the long term, rather than emphasizing supernatural possibilities."

He concluded his piece by observing that, "Reasonable people know that faith in God must be accompanied by responsible actions to achieve lasting prosperity. Education, hard work and discipline are key components to any authentic prosperity plan."

 I agree with DeForest B. Soaries Jr's critique. But in light of his assessment, and in acknowledgement of the current popularity of the prosperity gospel, I would tentatively say that anyone who hopes to return our discourse to Christian Socialism as envisioned by M.L. King will probably have to wean parishioners away from the approach to theology offered by the "prosperity movement."

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