The spirit of Tetzel and Evangelical basilicas

The Beatles famously sang, ‘I don’t care too much for money, for money can’t buy me love.’ And, indeed, it can’t. But money can buy a lot of convenience. It can also buy a lot of choice. And perhaps most alluringly of all, it can buy comfort. Not just physical comfort but the comfort of a conscience eased.

In a world where there is no absolute morality, we must subjectively set ourselves apart to feel good. For this reason, we find raging campaigns waged against wrongthink because we can assert our supreme virtues, and thus feel good about ourselves, merely by opposing those we deem inferior. But, of course, only those with the money and influence to wage such campaigns can ever get enough traction to make such things stick.

But it seems that among the highest goods in modern western societies is charitable giving. It almost doesn’t matter what the charity is to which you give, giving is deemed of itself good. That, too, is the fruit of a society that has done its utmost to advance the belief that there is no such thing as absolute morality. If there is no absolute right and wrong, I must make myself feel subjectively good compared to my neighbour. One of the quickest and fastest ways to do that is to give out of the excess I have amassed for myself in an apparently selfless act of charitable giving. That way, I can feel good and altruistic, without too much impact on myself, whilst doing my best to set myself apart from my peers.

But one head of an independent grammar school had this to say in the 1930s:

You see, this head saw what was going on. Whilst the rich give to set themselves apart from their fellow man, they are really giving to absolve themselves of their other sins. If I can’t be good, I shall buy my way into goodness instead. Instead of alleviating that real problem, they write a few cheques to absolve themselves of any further responsibilities.

The real problem was the gap between the rich and poor that had been created by the rich themselves. They had then amassed such great wealth, left behind swathes of people, then wrote cheques to assuage their guilt. What was really needed was systemic change whereby the rich gave up their privilege for the benefit of the poor. But few were willing to do that and instead contented themselves to give out of their excess so that they could continue to ignore the wider problem of which they were a part.

Consider the Evangelical church nearly 100 years on. We wouldn’t be so crass would we? But is there still a yawning gulf betwixt church and church? We wouldn’t be at all happy with wealthy churches hoarding resources in affluent regions of the country and the posher parts of our metropolitan city regions, would we? And as the cry goes up for personal interest and personal service and personal affection between rich and poor, are we happy discharging our gospel obligation by the mere writing of cheques?

I remember talking to a friend a while ago. They reckoned that it was far easier to get people’s money than it was to get their time. We have certainly found it much easier to get people to give financially than it is to get people to move to deprived communities. But that is when we can get folk to give. In truth, many Evangelicals content themselves neither to come nor to give but to insist that they will pray. Whilst many do so sincerely and would give if they had anything to offer, it often feels as though this is the Evangelical equivalent of an indulgence, only in line with our theology, we make sure it doesn’t cost us anything.

Are we withholding ourselves from serving Christ in needy areas and then assuaging our guilt with a cheque and a prayer? Ask yourself why the South East is replete with churches and yet the North East so sparse. Consider why churches near tube stops find it easier to attract workers than churches near poorly served bus stops in deprived towns. Ask why there are so few professionals in churches in deprived communities even though they are only a short commute into the professional areas of their city regions. Ask whether the decision to extend your building was reached quicker than the decision to send a few hundred quid to a needy church.

Tetzel sold indulgences for the purposes of building St Peter’s Basilica. Evangelicals offer prayer so that they can assuage their guilt in keeping their own money to fit in ten more seats in their own basilicas. Just as a piece of paper off purgatory bore no currency in God’s sight, so the prayers of those whose hearts have not been moved enough to reach their pocket – let alone go themselves – carry similar weight. As John said, ‘let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth’ (1 Jn 3:18). If your own prayer doesn’t move you to act when you are able, why do you presume the Lord will be moved to action any more than you?