El Salvador gangs, loyalist paramilitaries and the allure of prosperity-lite

I saw this video on the Guardian about a week ago. It talks about the violent MS-13 gang from El Salvador and how many of its members are finding Christ both inside and outside of prison.

It is a fascinating video. Three things struck me about it.

First, and perhaps most obviously, is how the grace of God can reach anybody. The Lord has been in the habit of saving murderers stretching right back to Moses and including the likes of King David and Saul of Tarsus (the apostle Paul). God’s grace can even extend to murderous sinners such as these.

The video put me in mind of Loyalist Paramilitarism in Northern Ireland. It was interesting to see the parallel in the statement that, ‘the only way out is through Jesus’. Though no Loyalist paramilitary group would ever say so – it was usually stated that the only way out was in a box – finding Christ has generally been a legitimate means of backing out of Loyalist activity.

Still, much like the gangs in El Salvador, this wasn’t a cast iron guarantee. As one former paramilitary man, who served time in prison for murder and terrorist activities put it to me for my Master’s thesis:

If the conversion is genuine it was generally accepted that God (in spite of the UVF motto) and paramilitary activity don’t mix. So Christians were not forced to stay in the ranks. Obviously some thought they could use Christianity as a “ticket out” but it’s hard to be a phoney and if the paramilitaries saw double standards the person was told “either behave like a Christian or lose your knees”.

In answer to another question on similar lines, I was told:

Faith doesn’t provide protection as such. Faith and trust in a Sovereign God provides strength to stand up and say “no” in the face of extreme pressure. Coming to Faith heightened the danger… you soon learn Christianity isn’t an easy ticket out.

This feeds into the second thing that stood out to me. When trapped in such gang warfare – similarly if seeking to disentangle oneself from paramilitarism – there is a clear a present danger for false conversion stories. This is problematic whenever involvement in a church and a commitment to Christ would carry obvious worldly benefits.

This is an issue that we must be aware of in our own church. We praise God that he is saving people from across the world, particularly from Iran, in our midst. But we are also painfully aware that there is a prize to be won that many think can be obtained by converting to Christianity; namely, refugee status and the right to remain in the UK.

It was interesting to see the prison in which every gang member had converted to Christ. I don’t know the people involved nor what gospel they have heard. I certainly do not deny that the Lord can move in exactly this sort of way. But I must admit to a slightly cynical part of me thinking, ‘Really?! Not one person rejected Christ?’ When conversion is seen as the only safe way out of gang life, there is a great draw to ‘come to faith’ that is not centred in any way upon Christ himself. I hope my cynicism is misplaced and I see all those guys in glory, truly. But we have to be so careful, especially when there is such an obvious reason other than Christ to convert.

Third, I was struck by the subtle (and not so subtle) way in which prosperity gospel teaching can creep in, particularly in these sort of settings. I am all for doing good. I am all for reaching the poor, deprived, marginalised and ostracised. I am delighted there are people going into prisons and sharing the gospel with gang members and others. We have even supported and been involved in those endeavours here in the UK. So, to be clear, I am not saying we shouldn’t do these things – quite the opposite – I really think we should.

However, the tendency when faced with such people is to offer a prosperity-lite gospel, if not a full-blown prosperity gospel. In the case of prisoners and gang members, it doesn’t usually centre on money. Rather, it centres on Jesus as the fixer of your problems. Come to Christ and he will restore your honour. Trust in Jesus and he will lead you out of the gang violence. Put your faith in the Lord and he will take away your drug problems. Jesus is the fixer. He is the genie who magically makes all the nasty, yucky stuff go away. Jesus is there to solve your problems and to give you release from them.

The problem with this mode of thinking is made painfully clear at the end of the video. One of the former gang members was shot to death shortly after the making of the film. Did Jesus not work for him? Was Christ not powerful enough or did the guy not have enough faith that Jesus would keep him safe? Maybe, just maybe, Jesus never actually promises us those things.

This same tendency exists among some in deprived communities. Some want to tell folk that if they come to Jesus their drug habit will be kicked. If they trust in Christ their debt problems will disappear. If we believe in Jesus our social problems will melt away. It is hocus bunk and it is deeply damaging. Sure, some will come to Christ on that basis but if and when those false promises fail to materialise they will quickly fall away and, worse, won’t give anybody bringing the true gospel of grace a hearing because their hearts will be harder to Jesus than they were before. ‘I tried Jesus and it didn’t work!’

If our lives are replete with these sorts of issues, the Lord will no doubt give us a new perspective on them – an eternal perspective – but nowhere does he promise to zap our problems away. Jesus said, ‘if any would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16:24). There is no promise of an easy ride here.

Likewise, if our trust is not in Christ, just in the stuff that we can get from him, then we don’t really love him at all. That was essentially the problem of both brothers in the story of the prodigal son – neither loved the Father, they just wanted his stuff. Only one came back and realised how wrong he had been.

The Lord Jesus said the greatest commandment was to, ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ (Matthew 22:37). Is it loving Christ to follow him just because he gives you something? If I only love my parents because of the inheritance they’ll give me, is that legitimately called love? Elsewhere, Jesus says, ‘anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10:37). Taken together with the previous verse, if we only love Jesus for the stuff he will give us, do we love him at all?

This is what makes prosperity teaching – even prosperity-lite teaching – so pernicious. It renders Christ valuable only inasmuch as he gives us stuff. If he doesn’t give us what we want, he isn’t valuable to us. John 14:23f tells us if we really love Jesus, then the Father also loves us. The inverse implication of that is that if we don’t really love Jesus then the Father doesn’t love us and so, according to the scriptures, we remain under his wrath. If we have been told that Jesus is only lovely because he gives us stuff, is that love? If it’s not, then that attitude means the Father doesn’t really love us in that way – we are told he will only do so when we love Christ.

The answer to all of this is to teach the gospel as it really is. It is to go to the poor, deprived, marginalised and ostracised and make clear that Jesus doesn’t promise to release them from all their earthly problems. What he does promise is the gift of the Holy Spirit and eternal life in his name. He promises to give us peace that passes understanding and a deep contentment in him despite the fact that – in his sovereign wisdom – he may permit those problems to remain. The joy he offers us is centred on Christ himself, not our changing a fleeting circumstances.

We can, therefore, give thanks to God – even if we are embroiled in the most appalling hardships and situations – because having gone through those things we found Christ, the greatest treasure imaginable. That means we can view even the hardest of circumstances as a great mercy from God because through them we found Christ and continuing to endure them our eyes are set all the more firmly on him.