If I could be like Ike…

Reverend Ike is dead at 74.

If the only Ike you’ve heard of is that bald guy from the ’50s — or, perhaps, a certain adopted baby who lives in South Park, Colorado — consider adding this new one to your memory bank.  Based out of the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, Rev. Ike was one of the nation’s first popular televangelists.  His message was “health and wealth” — also known as the Prosperity Gospel.

The first I ever heard of this theological perspective was at a Rainbow-Push conference.  Speakers were railing against the idea prevalent among some black preachers (and others) that Christianity is more about seeking wealth for ourselves than about pursuing social justice for our community.  In this scheme, God rewards good Christians with material riches.  And if you’re not rich, you must not be a good Christian — or, put more delicately, there must be some sin standing between you and God.

The Prosperity Gospel represents a particular strain of evangelicalism now espoused by the likes of Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long, and T.D. Jakes.  Perhaps the most famous proponent today is Joel Osteen.  And this theology sure has millions of adherents.  Still, it does seem rather, um, counter-intuitive for those who’ve read the New Testament.  God’s oft-stated preference for the poor doesn’t seem to factor into this framework.

Consider this doozy of an assertion from Rev. Ike.  Referring to the Jesus’s famous contention that it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, Ike said this: “If it’s that difficult for a rich man to get into heaven, think how terrible it must be for a poor man to get in. He doesn’t even have a bribe for the gatekeeper.”  An amusing quip.  A startling theology.  And Ike literally sold this theology to millions across the country — soliciting donations from poor people to finance his famously lavish lifestyle.

Nice work if you can get it.  And Ike got it.

Jesse Lava also blogs at jesselava.com.

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