Many of our Aussie partners would be familiar with our friend Pastor John and his family because Arthur mentioned them in his deputation sermon. This past weekend they visited us in Dar es Salaam for a few days and Pastor John asked me, “How was your time in Australia? Were people pleased to hear of the work you are doing here?” One of the things I said to him in reply was that we see one of our key roles as bringing Tanzanian theology and Christian understanding to Australia, that it might enrich and mature Australian Christians as well.
As we were talking, I mentioned Tanzanian Christians’ strong interest in the wisdom tradition, and how Australians naturally, wrongly, and unhelpfully conflate this with the prosperity gospel. John was shocked that someone could see these two things as one and the same, so I asked him, “How would you combat the prosperity gospel?” His reply was fascinating.
He said, it’s not a problem to pray for wealth, and you ought to expect that God wants to give you good things. There are some rare cases where God says, ‘No’, like Paul and the thorn in his flesh, but more likely is ‘Yes’, or ‘Wait a bit’. This is astounding to me, because when I look at the world, with so many people in poverty, it does not seem to me like ‘Yes’ is the more common reply. One of the reasons I find the prosperity gospel so abhorrent is because it holds out empty promises of wealth. This was not John’s perspective at all, and he wondered about my faith, not in an accusatory sense, but simply asking, “Well, when you pray, do you expect anything to happen?” It’s a good question, and one I think we Aussie evangelicals find hard to answer.
The prosperity gospel promises wealth if you have faith, and while John would moderate how strongly the promise is given, that in itself wasn’t his primary concern. His concern was that it fosters a heart of selfishness in people. It’s the idea that you individually can attain wealth for yourself from God. Yet, God gives that we might share with others. God is the ultimate benefactor, who bestows his blessings on people, not so they can keep it for themselves, but so they can be like him, and give it away. Pray for God to make you rich by all means, but he makes you rich so that you can share with others. John saw the way to combat the prosperity gospel was not by hitting at the idea of prosperity, but by asking what you would do with that prosperity. Would it benefit you alone, or would it benefit your whole community, and others in need?
When we were thinking about animism before we came to Australia, I wrote about moving people from ego-centrism to theo-centrism, that is, from concern for themselves to trust in God, from fear to faith. John’s theology added nuance to this, providing others-centrism as different language to theo-centrism. John sees others-centrism as fundamentally theo-centric, because God is others-centred, and calls us to be, so as we love others, we are obeying God and being like him. However, it takes the discussion beyond the individual and their relationship with God (where we westerners prefer to have the conversation), and gives it a community dimension.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.