On Christianity and Capitalism: Classism and Honoring the Rich / A.J. Hendry

“We keep a list of the most generous givers, at the end of the year I personally invite them all to dinner and thank them for their service to God and this House.”

The words were Peter Morlock’s, Senior Pastor and founder of City Impact Church one of Aotearoa’s largest mega churches. We were in a small, exclusive gathering of men, where Peter was teaching about financial success, and how to nurture the “spirit of generosity” within the Church. This exclusive talk was part of a special breakout session attached to City Impact’s, Global Impact conference that they used to run back in their hay-day. I can’t remember the exact title and topic of the session, but I remember this part of the conversation specifically.

Mostly, because as a teen wrestling with the scriptures, I was increasingly struggling to make the dissonance between the Jesus of the Gospels, and the display of wealth and affluence of my home church fit.

I remember most clearly my reaction to this part of the conversation. I was shocked. Perplexed. Confused. I was surrounded by men, many pastors, and Christian leaders from various church communities, all nodding their heads in admiration and agreement. And yet, I struggled to see how what Peter was saying fit with the teachings of Jesus.  Acknowledging and affording special honour and respect to those who had the most wealth, well it just seemed so contrary to the message of the Gospel. How did this fit with the whole last shall be first thing? Or what about the bro James’ warnings against showing favouritism? I mean, literally in the book of James, he critiques this form of class division, naming those who acted like this as blasphemers of the name of Christ.

And yet, despite the clear teachings within Christian Scriptures rebuking and critiquing classism, here we were being taught that those with wealth were not only to be honoured, but also raised above the rest. Adding to my confusion was how out of step this teaching was even with the church’s own theology.

One of the central stories that was often drawn on as a core text to encourage giving is that of the poor widow who gave her last, literally giving everything, she had left to the Temple (in this interpretation the temple was the house of God aka the local church). In that story Jesus acknowledges her sacrifice, naming her worthy of more honour than the rich and powerful who give only a fraction from their excess. It is the heart that matters, it is giving what we have to give.

I read this story slightly differently now (we’ll come back to this), but at the time, even with this telling, what Peter was sharing didn’t seem to fit. As a young man whose family was struggling to keep food on the table, who had just been lucky to scrap a few coins together to get to church that day, I wondered how those who were poor fit into this? About what this said about the value and worth of those who had so little to give? Of how what this reflected the values and priorities of the leadership of this community?

I didn’t have all my questions answers back then, but it was a pivotal moment for me. It moved me forward on my journey. And since, I’ve come to see more clearly what I’d begun to sense and was wrestling with even back then.

The reality that Jesus is on the side of the poor. That the Gospel was never about getting to heaven after you die or ensuring wealth and prosperity here on earth. That the message and mission of Christ was not just to break down Class division, but to annihilate it. Social class, and other such hierarchies were done away with as the rich and the powerful were invited to lay down their positions of privilege, selling what they had, and joining in solidarity with the poor.

This is what it means to follow Jesus from a position of power and privilege.

And yet, a popular question in Western, largely pākehā dominated, Christian circles, is did Jesus really mean that?

I mean when he said to the Rich Young Man, sell what you have and follow me surely, he didn’t actually mean that we do just that. No, we tell ourselves. Greed and money was his sin, that doesn’t mean it is ours. The Rich Man is framed as an example of our need to discover our individual, personal sin, that thing that is preventing us from following Jesus, and when it’s all said and done, that sin is rarely our love of wealth and our pursuit of affluence.

Western Christianity has so long sided with Capitalism that we struggle to read our own scriptures without seeing within them the Neoliberal Capitalist gospel of expansion, competition and growth we’ve overlaid them.

And yet, the context behind the story of the Rich Young Man paints a very different story. When Jesus walked the earth, the people were under the thumb of the Roman Empire. Those Jews who were wealthy, who held positions of power and privilege within society, did so at the will of Rome. They had both colluded with Rome and participated in the exploitation and oppression of the poor. Jesus was no middle-class, comfortable, progressive. He was one of the poor. One of the exploited class. One of the oppressed. And so, when the Rich Man comes before Jesus and asks how he can participate in the Divine Dream, Jesus tells this man “Sell what you have and give to the poor”. Jesus’ response is to challenge the young man to give up his power and privilege, to let go of his status, and to join into solidarity with the poor.

As Jesus says to the rich young man, he says to all of us who hold positions of power and privilege. Come, follow me.

Similarly, with the story of the widow who gave her last. It has been read as example of “giving till it hurts”, and held up as an example of tithing even in the midst of poverty. And yet, again when we look at the context of the passage (check out Luke 20:45-21:4), we see something else. We see a critique of those who, being in positions of power and privilege, who hold responsibility for caring for the poor and vulnerable within their community, applaud their own giving from abundance earned through the exploitation of the poor. When Jesus stands to draw attention to the poor widow in this story, I do not read a celebration of this woman’s willingness to starve as a result of her commitment to give to the house of god. I read a rebuke of those religious leaders who demand such a “gift” from her, while enjoying praise for their own display of wealth and opulence. Wealth gained through the exploitation of the poor and the manipulation of the vulnerable.

In light of recent conversations highlighting the wealth of several Christian mega church pastors, these scriptures strike a sobering tone. When a faith community elevates the rich, raising the wealthy above the rest, and aligning the strength of one’s faith to the size of their giving, they step out of solidarity with Christ.  When they put pressure on the poor to give what they do not have, while rejoicing in their own ill-gained prosperity, they reject the Gospel.

The scriptures offer a radical critique of classism and capitalism. Due to our own historical relationship with capitalism many western pākehā Christians often miss this. That instead of championing the pursuit of wealth, competition and growth, Jesus’ criticizes and condemns those who play that game. That instead of honoring the wealthy for their wealth, Jesus calls them to repent, to lay down their positions of power and privilege, to join in solidarity with the poor.

For the rich, for the powerful, for the strong, this is the challenge of the Gospel. Not a metaphorical “giving up” of one’s worldly possessions, but a literal stepping into deep solidarity with the poor. Of deep solidarity with Christ.

A.J. Hendry is a Laidlaw College graduate, and now a Youth Development Worker and housing advocate, working in the Youth Housing and Homelessness space. He leads a service supporting rangatahi experiencing homelessness and is also an advocate working collectively to end youth homelessness in Aotearoa. He is also the curator and creator of When Lambs Are Silent.

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4 thoughts on “On Christianity and Capitalism: Classism and Honoring the Rich / A.J. Hendry

  1. Ive never heard of this in many churches but suspected this may be happening 🤔 must greive Father Gods heart #1lostsheep is the message of the gospel.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Fat Beggars School of Prophets and commented:
    Here’s a blog writer who reads the Bible. It gets challenging to finish this post. Get a helmet and a seatbelt. You’ll need it.


  3. Hi A.J.


    Just want to say how much I appreciate your work and your voice.


    I acknowledge that in a blog I’ve just written … https://davidcollinsweb.wordpress.com/2022/06/06/the-way-the-world-should-be/





    Sent: Sunday, June 05, 2022 at 7:34 AM

    Liked by 1 person

    1. whenlambsaresilent 06/06/2022 — 9:35 am

      Thank you my friend, and a good read, thank you for sharing ❤

      Liked by 1 person

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