Saturday, December 12, 2015

mr. miracle the blueprint, the foundationstone, the embodiment of the paradigm...,

jhu |  Hustle's most revelatory chapter focuses on black churches. And it's illuminating precisely for how Spence connects the content of "prosperity gospel," a variant of evangelical Christianity, to the political imaginations of churchgoers. Rarely do academics—or journalists for that matter—look at what is presented in churches as political content, outside of how churchgoers impact elections. (For example, the emergence of the Christian right as a voting block in the 1970s.) Spence argues that what is said in church from the pulpit represents a neoliberalization of the black church.
The chapter opens with a brief discussion of two New York Times articles from the Detroit area following the 2008 economic crash that hit the automotive industry and the region hard. One, "Detroit Churches Pray for 'God's Bailout,'" was a report from the Greater Grace Temple, one of Detroit's many churches that, at the time, held special services to help its congregations through a difficult time. Spence notes that in the photo that ran with the article, three white luxury SUVs shared the stage with the church's leader, Bishop Charles H. Ellis III. The article reported that the vehicles were on loan from local dealerships and that Bishop Ellis, "urged worshipers to combat the region's woes by mixing hope with faith in God." Spence sees the vehicles as having two symbolic values. For those who worked in the automotive industry, it was a symbol of what they depended on to survive. For those who didn't work making automobiles, the SUVs were status symbols, reminders of what they could have if they would only hustle harder.
The following year, another Times reporter visited Pontiac, about 30 miles outside Detroit, to write about the automotive industry's role in creating a black middle class in that area, and how the industry's collapse was decimating those families. Titled "GM, Detroit, and the Fall of the Black Middle Class," the article told its story through a profile of Marvin Powell, a longtime autoworker, one of the 600 who still worked making trucks at General Motors' Pontiac Assembly Center. Powell worked the only shift the plant maintained after getting rid of nearly two-thirds of its workforce through buyouts, early retirement, and layoffs.
Prosperity gospel frames the problem of poor people as a problem of those who do not improve their human capital, not as something wrong with the system in which they must live.
During the reporting of the story, Powell learned that GM was planning on shutting down all of its factories for 10 weeks, which would leave him without his $900-per-week paycheck for that period. Powell said he might use the freed-up time to try and become a chef and start a catering company, adding that he had never intended to be a "GM lifer."
He attributed his positive outlook in trying circumstances to being a Greater Grace congregant, where he led a Sunday school class and was one of the church's armor bearers, an honorary position. His leadership role in Greater Grace had made him an esteemed figure at the auto plant, and his co-workers had encouraged him to run for a union leadership role. He demurred from that, but they sought him out for advice, nevertheless. What was he going to do when the plant closed? Powell told them that he couldn't control the plant's closing, so he didn't worry about it. He also said, "I tell them that God provides for his own, and I am one of his own."
That leapt out at Spence. Born and raised in Detroit as the son of a Ford autoworker, he was struck by Powell's resilience in the face of so much economic upheaval. But he was also taken aback by the way Powell conceptualized the situation. The autoworker didn't consider a union leadership position as providing him with an opportunity to fight for his and his co-workers' jobs. Instead, as Spence writes, "in Powell's opinion those who choose God will be saved from the worst of the economic crisis while those who don't, won't." Spence identifies this idea as part of the message spread by prosperity gospel, a doctrine that started in white churches in the 1950s and sprang to national attention through 1980s televangelism. It has taken strong root in black megachurches over the past two decades. Spence visited a black church in Baltimore County led by a charismatic prosperity gospel preacher who argued that everything associated with the economic crisis—debt, poverty, unemployment—was caused by a "poverty mindset." The minister reasoned that this mindset causes people to spend their money instead of saving it, causes "them to lay around when they should be hustling." And this mindset was the direct result of somebody having a bad relationship with God.
Spence writes: "Note the logic here. People are materially poor because they don't think right. Their inability to think right makes it impossible to receive God's blessings"—which can come in the form of spiritual or material reward. And the only way to right that bad personal relationship with God is for a person to change how he or she thinks—to improve their human capital through spiritual pursuits. These spiritual pursuits, it should be noted, often take the form of sermons and books that congregants can buy and workshops they can pay to attend, in addition to supporting the church by tithing.
For Spence, prosperity gospel, through prolific and celebrated pastors such as Creflo Dollar, founder of the mammoth World Changers Church International in Georgia, transforms "the Christian Bible into an economic self-help guide people can use to develop their human capital." It's a way to make questions about who lives comfortably and who lives in poverty a matter of which one spiritually deserves to do so. This notion, Spence writes, represents a neoliberalization of the black church—not only because the prosperity gospel frames the problem of poor people as a problem of those who do not improve their human capital (not as something wrong with the system in which they must live), but also in how the increasingly multi-millionaire leaders of black megachurches compete for their congregants' tithes and spiritual consumerism. Such a practice not only creates vast economic disparities between ministers and congregants—Spence notes an news website article that named eight black preachers who make more than 200 times what their churchgoers do—but it shapes parishioners' political imagination.
Fighting poverty, debt, and whatever economic adversity a congregant faces thus becomes only a spiritual matter for the individual, not the collective concern of a political organization. And getting people to see the political content in a church service is something Spence hopes readers will take away from the book. "What I want is for people to read it and see their world through new eyes," he says, adding that he hopes that by pointing out how prosperity gospel reproduces neoliberalism's disparities, readers might begin to seek other solutions to dealing with it.
There are possibilities for finding ways out of the neoliberal situation other than simply buying into the hustle, Spence says. Throughout the book, he offsets his charting of how neoliberalism seeped into black politics by citing contemporary instances of grassroots activism and political organizing to combat neoliberal advances. They may be modest, they may be temporary victories, but the examples he cites—the Urban Debate League that cultivates policy debate among city high school students; the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement that organizes communities to develop more equitable public policies; the Baltimore Algebra Project and Leaders of the Beautiful Struggle that in 2008 blocked Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley's attempt to spend $108 million in taxpayer money to build a new prison to house juveniles charged as adults—actively oppose the neoliberal turn in public policies.