THERE IS SO MUCH which passes unnoticed in our society. So much greed and exploitation: not only in factories, shops and offices, where we are accustomed to finding it; but also in the supposed sanctuaries of ordinary workers’ private lives.
There are bosses who wring fat profits out of their employees’ poorly paid labour. But these are not the worst exploiters. That title belongs to those who prey upon the individual’s need for solace and affection in a heartless world.
The fat little pastors who strip their already poor congregations of what little spare cash is left to them and slip it to their own pockets. The petty tyrants who swathe their followers in ignorance and poison them with prejudice. The high-living preachers who rail against every manifestation of human happiness and pleasure. The ruthless commissars of a cruel and unforgiving dictator god.
They describe themselves, and the money-making rackets they dignify with the name of church, “Christian”, but these ravening wolves are no such thing. The essence of the Christian faith is the giving of love – not the taking of money. It is about opening oneself to the world and all its contradictions – not about imprisoning beaten-down individuals in narrow-minded sects. Most importantly, it is about allowing Love and Truth to set people free.
We learned today, from the Minister of Health, Chris Hipkins, that the congregation of the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship Church numbers 332. From the NZ Herald’s veteran journalist, Simon Collins, we also learned that the collective contribution of these church members, many of them low-wage workers, for the year ended March 2019, was a “phenomenal” $1.8 million. Out of this sum, reported Collins, citing figures made available to him by former Massey University religious historian, Peter Lineham, an equally phenomenal $862,000 was distributed among the church’s two “key management personnel” and six “close family member employees of board members”.
Information of this kind and detail is new to most New Zealanders. To most Americans, however, there is nothing new or shocking about such a close relationship between religion and money-making. Indeed, in the United States, evangelical Christianity is a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s “mega churches” – able to seat thousands of worshippers – are often located in economically devastated communities. The very same communities, in many instances, from which President Donald Trump’s most vociferous white, gun-toting, working-class followers are drawn.
Of course, it is not just among poor white Americans that these religious entrepreneurs rattle their collection plates. In the poverty-stricken African-American communities, also, the ruthless exploitation of desperation and despair is similarly rife. So called “store-front churches” are a common sight on the streets of the black ghettoes of America.
Like their white equivalents, the pastors of these African-American churches preach an ultra-orthodox version of Christianity – laying particular emphasis on the need to abjure the sinful ways of “secular-humanist” America. “Traditional family values”, by which they mean the unforgiving patriarchal values found in the books of the Old Testament, are promoted as a way of fencing-off oneself and one’s family from the very real dangers of crime, violence and addiction by which America’s decaying urban communities are beset.
Almost always absent from these money-making religious ventures is the radically progressive Christian theology exemplified by Dr Martin Luther King and manifested in the black civil rights movement he led during the 1950s and 60s. The life-affirming, justice-seeking, emancipatory New Testament messages of Jesus – most especially his rejection of material gain in favour of love-giving and truth-seeking – are essentially incompatible with the religious entrepreneurs’ business model.
It is not only in the secular world that the naked capitalist values of the neoliberal order have triumphed – putting to flight the “applied Christianity” of democratic socialism. In New Zealand’s churches, too, Mammon has triumphed over God. There are holdouts, still, of course: St Matthew’s in the City; brave officers of the Salvation Army; Pope Francis’s disciples in the Catholic Church. But, more and more congregations have turned inward: gnawing morosely at the dry bones of Leviticus; endlessly parsing the homophobic epistles of St Paul. Fundamentalist Christianity has gone into its closet to pray – and locked the door behind it.
It should not have taken the Covid-19 Pandemic to expose the tremendous danger posed to New Zealand society by this authoritarian, anti-science, anti-social and reclusive mutation of Christianity. The Left, especially, has been remiss in not assailing its gross exploitation of Maori and Pasifika believers.
No more objectionable legacy of colonialism exists than the alien repressiveness imposed upon the indigenous peoples of the Pacific by Western Imperialism’s missionary scouts. The social conservatism which missionary Christianity has entrenched, along with the political quietism and ruinously competitive piety it has encouraged, have stood, unrebuked by left-wing activists for far too long.
When Simon Collins asked a member of the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship Trust (which runs the church) if he had anything to say in response to Health Minister Hipkins’ comment that members of his church “don’t accept, or haven’t previously accepted, the science involved here”, the trustee replied: “What would Trump say?” It is hard to imagine a more startling indication of just how deeply the deranged ideas of American far-right evangelism have penetrated the desperate communities of South, West and Central Auckland.
The Left has for too long accepted the argument that any Pakeha criticism of the reactionary versions of Christianity (and Islam) embedded in immigrant communities is ipso facto racist. For the members of the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship Church who have tested positive for Covid-19, and for the broader Auckland community put at risk by the dangerous, American-sourced, misinformation spread by reactionary Christians, the Left’s self-imposed ideological reticence has been singularly unhelpful.
Progressive New Zealanders of every hue should not hesitate to become missionaries for Love, Truth and Freedom – the emancipatory cause to which both genuine Christianity, and genuine Democratic Socialism, have always been committed.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 11 September 2020.