Where there’s smoke, find out who’s trying to blow it into your eyes

I’ve had some comments percolating inside me since Sunday regarding the Pastor Mac Hammond story in the StarTribune and the subsequent follow-up articles, but a crises at work (I’m losing a valued employee) and a crisis at home (the illness and departure of our cat) have distracted me from giving this the attention required. Meanwhile, others have also been weighing in (good posts here and here).

My thoughts are the religious angle is but a common and convenient smokescreen to the real issue.

First, let’s deal with the smoke.

You know you’re not supposed to pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel, right? Run afoul of the media’s sensitivities or business interests (especially locally) — say, if you happen to own a piece of land that the city covets for a ball park development and you brazenly hold out for market price — and you can expect to be denounced in boldface type in stories and by communists columnists. If you’re a church that’s guilty of offending the media (I’ll get to that offense in a minute), and don’t fit into the mainstream, reliably liberal denominational mode they’ll try to make you look like Fred Phelps or Jim Bakker, depending on which fits the template or best serves the purpose.

In this case, since Pastor Hammond (interestingly enough, the Strib never refers to him as Pastor, Reverend or any other religious title in its story) of Living Word Christian Center is flamboyant and possesses many material goods that come with a high standard of living and preaches on prosperity then the angle of attack is that Mac Hammond = Jim Bakker, in much the same way that Iraq = Viet Nam, regardless of any fundamental differences there might be. Living Word is described as a “name it and claim it” church, though there’s nothing in the church’s statement of doctrine, or in the list of books written by Hammond’s wife, Lynne that suggests this is the main focus of the ministry.*

While it’s always interesting to see whether the Sunday School drop-outs in the media can out-do their clerical targets in taking scriptures out of context, it is a disingenous argument. First, there is nothing inherently noble about being either rich or poor, even though our society idolizes and gawks at the rich (while supposedly hating them) while merely giving lip service to the poor. In fact, all people are inherently sinful (yes, even the good people) and need to be saved and ministered to. Neither the rich or the poor are saved or condemned by their financial status, but by the state of their hearts, and all will be judged by their fruits.

Everyone is ruled by money, but in different ways, and money is a hard master. Far better to make it a servant, which is part of the so-called “name it and claim it” doctrine. Money is a powerful thing, however, and I’m reminded – not of scripture – but of the poem about the Lady and the Tiger. The snares are there and they are both subtle and profound for those who preach prosperity — just as they are for those who preach the holiness of poverty. Pastor Hammond may take his interpretation to the extreme; if so he’ll be judged – as will those who preach to the opposite extreme.

For what it’s worth, my wife and daughter have committed themselves to spending a year helping a young single mom develop the life-skills she needs to get out of poverty. This includes sharing the same spiritual principles that we’ve used ourselves. While the mother wants and enjoys the material things that have come to her so far as a result of this outreach, she is completely uninterested in the spiritual (at least for now). This doesn’t make her any worse than others we’ve helped or tried to help in the past, perhaps just more honest.

I’m not concerned with media criticism of Pastor Hammond or his ministry. For one, persecution is promised to believers and if he’s sincere in doing God’s work he’ll be fine even if he is not perfect. (For all the wealth he’s supposedly extracted for himself, the church does appear to have done and built some tremendous things.) Second, if he is in error, the consequences are certain and out of the hands of the media and others. It is interesting, though, how money becomes the focus of the media. Apparently the thought that 10,000 people voluntarily go to something they enjoy and give out large chunks of money to do so is suspicious, though I’d say members of Living Word show better judgment than Timberwolves season ticket holders.

As I said at the beginning, the religious criticism is just a smokescreen and a handy club to try and beat Hammond and Living Word into submission. The real issue is politics and power, and in short the media and the government doesn’t like competition in telling people how to think and act and especially what to do with your money. They are the modern day Pharisees and Sadducees, focused on making others conform to man-made interpretations and doctrines that keep them in power while missing the Spirit that inspired those.

The media has no problem with religious leaders getting involved with issues — as long as they’re on the “right” side: AME churches hosting one-sided candidate forums for Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, Buddhist temple fund-raisers for Al Gore, or Cardinal Flynn speaking out on global warming, etc. Use your pulpit otherwise, however, and watch out. My thinking is that this latest “expose” grows out of Living Word hosting Michelle Bachman during the last campaign and Pastor Hammond’s hearty endorsement of her candidacy. Since then they’ve allowed a little time to do some research and find some disgruntled former church members (have you ever known a church — whether of 10 people or 10,000 — that didn’t have disgruntled former members?) and let some legal eagles see if they can find some plausible-sounding charges; whether true or not the charges get attention and serve as supressing fire to get the church or similar communities to duck their heads.

Now, just a few months after the campaign, you’ve got a “watchdog group” in Washington, D.C. filing charges and demanding an investigation into the Living Word’s tax-exempt status. In this case the watchdog is Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). That sounds very noble, but whenever I see a group being called a “watchdog” I always look to see who is holding the leash. With a little poking I think we can find out who the major contributors or founders of CREW are, but their own statements on their website are pretty unabashed as they indicate they were created to fill a niche opposite of conservative watchdog groups such as Judicial Watch, The Rutherford Institute and the National Legal and Policy Center.

Conservative groups such as these have no real parallel in the progressive arena. There are a number of non-partisan groups that address government honesty, including Common Cause, Public Citizen, the Center for Public Integrity, and Democracy 21. While we applaud their efforts, we have noted that these groups focus principally on research and legislation. They do not use litigation to target outrageous conduct, nor do they bring the message of injustice to the people the way their conservative counterparts do. Because these public interest organizations focus mostly on policy issues and not on obstacles faced by ordinary citizens, these groups have not mobilized a shift in public opinion on the issue of government honesty. CREW fills that niche.

This isn’t about religious doctrine, though doctrine can be ginned up to discredit your opponent. Instead it is about free speech, about who gets to speak and who gets shouted down (or sued).

[*Full disclosure: I am not now, and have never been, a member of Mac Hammond’s church, Living Word, nor have I ever met Mac or, to my knowledge, anyone on his pastoral staff. I think I have a good understanding of the doctrines that are said to be taught at Living Word, but I’ve never seen or heard a sermon myself. I have known several people over the years who are, or have been, members and found them to be very grounded and focused on helping others.]

4 thoughts on “Where there’s smoke, find out who’s trying to blow it into your eyes

  1. Let me throw this out, people can decide for themselves how appropriate they find it regarding compensation for a pastor. When we went there, this is what Mac Hammond told us: his compensation was determined by a consulting firm that comes in and compares the entire ministry operation and the church to a private company that employs the same # of people and worth the same amount of money. They determine what the going compensation is for a CEO of a comparable company, and that’s what they recommend for him. I think it makes fairly good sense to me. He is a gifted teacher of the Word of God; but he’s equally gifted as a business man. The Lord says give, and it will be given unto you. I think he has alot because he’s given an awful lot; not because he’s been a cheat and done things under the table.

  2. I’m sorry, but my heart was grieved by the materialism there, when I was attending.They were constantly grinding out a message on giving, so the miraculous “blessing” of prosperity is not so miraculous is it? It is a formula – get up on TV and pound it in – “give give give” and that will bring in dollars. That’s a business. It was not edifying. You cannot focus so much on the material aspect of life and also focus on the spiritual. Jesus denounces such an idea. We merely need to read him.

  3. Are you saying the end justifies the means? That because Mac and the church have done good things we should look the other way? That it’s not anyone’s business if they’re lining their pockets by fleecing willing congregants who think every dollar gets them closer to the Kingdom of Heaven? In the Strib article, Hammond says, “It’s impossible to bless someone else or be a blessing if you have nothing to bless them with.” So better to have a jet than a schoolbus. Better to have a Lexus than a 1998 Taurus. Better to have a $500,000 retreat than some housekeeping cabins. It’s like Steve Martin in “The Jerk” . . . this is all I need. These condos in Florida, this Porsche, my kids on the payroll and so on. You seem to shrug and let him off the hook by saying if he is up to no good, he’ll be judged. If he is indeed running some kind of pseudo-religious Ponzi scheme, shouldn’t his actions be exposed to the light of day sooner than later, even if you disagree with the media outlet that’s holding the lantern?

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