I am rich
I am prosperous
I am blessed
How would you feel if these lyrics came up in a song you were singing in church? That was our experience at church this week.
The first question is how you read them I guess. Are they describing a situation that already exists? Are they aspirational, stating what you wish was true or what you are praying would come true? Are they perlocutionary, speaking reality into being? For those of us who are interested in what prosperity means in Tanzania, it matters a great deal.
I’m the salt of the earth
I carry the flavor of God
I season the earth
Jesus himself said, “You are the salt of the earth,” so this part is pretty uncontroversial. The rich and prosperous bit comes directly after another one of Jesus’ sayings:
I’m a city built high on a hill
Like the yeast, I influence the world
I am rich, I am prosperous, I am blessed
At first glance, this song has radically misunderstood these teachings of Jesus. His people do not influence the world by being powerful (Christendom aside) but, like their Master, they follow a more subversive path. Jesus is King after all, as he is executed by the powerful and despised by the masses. His kingdom is for the little ones.
But there’s some context.
The church we were at is a for “young professionals who are committed to excellence.” There are lots of university graduates among them, well presented and on their way up in Tanzania. They drive cars and send their kids to private schools. They are, in many ways, Tanzania’s elite.
But if you speak to them, they do not identify as the wealthy. Their lives are still tenuous. For a start, they’re young. In Tanzania, youth is almost synonymous with powerlessness. Many of them have also come from poverty and they are well aware that one mis-step, one whim of a boss, or one false rumour that reaches the wrong ears could see them join the ranks of the country’s young, urban, educated unemployed, or worse. Often their family members are insensitive to this: they are pressured to earn more money in order to contribute to others’ welfare.
The contrast with our lives is stark. There are the day to day things: we spend on groceries in a week what some of them earn in a month, and the (heavily discounted) fees at the school our children go to is three times what they earn in a year. But the big thing is the security. We come from a country where the level of education is astronomically higher and largely free. Same with healthcare. Centrelink is unthinkable to them. And of course, there’s the privileges that come with being white.
So when these guys sing, “I am rich,” they’re probably not referring to the fact that they are among Tanzania’s elite. Actually, the song carries with it this sense of how precarious their situation is.
I live to dominate, surely there is no enchantment against me
No divination against me
I am covered
You only sing these lyrics if you are concerned that magic or some other power will come against you. You only need assure yourself of your security, if at some level, you feel endangered or insecure.
It dawned on me that as young professional Tanzanians sing these lyrics, they may be in some sense singing the Beatitudes. These are the low and the powerless and the despised declaring that in the kingdom of God, they are those things no longer. In the kingdom of God, they can say:
I am highly favoured
They are describing a reality that does not exist yet, except for those with the eyes of faith. It’s a profound theological statement. And remember, the Beatitudes and the salt, city, yeast images all come from the Sermon on the Mount.
The preacher concluded his sermon (in Swahili) with words that roughly translate as, “You may not receive honour, you may have no hope in your life, yet with Jesus, you are able.” He was making explicit what I suspect is assumed or unsaid in the lyrics of this song. Perhaps they ought to be read as something more like:
Though I am insignificant, I am the salt of the earth.
Though I am poor, I am rich.
Though I lack security, I am prosperous.
Though I am under attack, I am safe.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.