We have been arguing that westerners tend to see anything that mentions ‘prosperity’ as part of the ‘prosperity gospel’, a teaching that manipulates people into giving their money in order to receive God’s blessing, often preying on the poorest and most vulnerable, and contributing to a toxic view of God as like ‘all the other gods’ who must be manipulated in order to receive blessing.
However, we believe that not all teaching about prosperity in Tanzania is in fact ‘prosperity gospel’. We make a distinction between two uses of the word prosperity: the first draws on the Bible’s rich wisdom tradition, teaching about how to live life well in God’s world (we call this prosperity teaching); the second imagines that we can manipulate God into blessing us and often ends up blaming vulnerable people for their lot (we call this prosperity gospel).
One of the issues that continues to perplex us is why our Tanzanian colleagues who also make this distinction continue to listen to western teachers who speak as if any talk of prosperity could be a dangerous ‘prosperity gospel’. We see these westerners as demeaning to Tanzanians because they fail to take Tanzanian theologies on their own terms, falsely accusing these theologies of being dangerous when in fact they may be highly sophisticated, properly contextualised, and life-giving.
Then the other day, Arthur was running our hypothesis about the two types of prosperity teaching past a colleague. This is a regular practice of ours, as a way of checking and receiving critique on our perspective. Our colleague affirmed the two types of prosperity teaching theory. She said, “Yes, I myself have benefited from prosperity teaching, but I stand firmly again this manipulative prosperity gospel.” She appreciated that Arthur was able to articulate both types, but what came out in their discussion was that she had no idea that some western theologies have been unable to make this distinction.
When she reads or hears westerners talk about prosperity teaching, she can say a hearty ‘Amen’ because she reads them as only speaking about the second type, the manipulative prosperity gospel. And she continues teaching about prosperity, not realising that it is even her teaching which the westerner has been condemning.
Both groups think they are fighting ‘prosperity gospel’, but they have very different definitions of what that is, and who teaches it. What we realised is that not only may westerners be talking past Tanzanians when they speak of prosperity gospel, but Tanzanians may be receiving it completely differently from its intention.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.