After Hurricane Irma devastated the Caribbean en route to Florida’s east coast, it surprised many, climbing the west side of the state with destruction that fell short of the extreme forecasts. Nevertheless, the rising water that surged through Jacksonville caused the displacement of numerous residents from their homes, along with countless power outages.
Amidst the present chaos, the Southeast is still catching its breath from the disaster that barreled into the Texas Gulf Coast only two weeks prior. Harvey made landfall near the city of Rockport as a Category 4 Hurricane with winds close to 130 mph. With close to 50 inches of rainfall, the storm broke all-time continental U.S. tropical cyclone rain records. Even a week after Harvey hit, desperate Texans remained stranded without food and water due to the intensity of unanticipated flooding. Meanwhile, authorities and officials continued searching for survivors as the death toll from Harvey rose. Full recovery remains far from sight.
In wake of the destruction, masses of homeless Texans sought refuge from the storm that engulfed their homes. As places of worship are typically converted to shelters during times of crisis, those in the Houston area flocked to Lakewood Church, home to one of the nation’s largest congregations. However, televangelist pastor Joel Osteen kept the 16,800-seat mega church doors closed, claiming inaccessibility due to "flooding." Determined journalists proved otherwise, exposing the building’s dry floors all over social media. After commentators slammed Osteen for his lack of initiative, he finally opened the church to the public days later. When asked about the delay, Osteen justified that “the city didn’t ask us to become a shelter.” He could have announced that evacuees were welcome to take shelter in Lakewood Church when Hurricane Harvey made landfall. Instead he comforted his followers with empty Twitter promises, like “God’s got this.”
Many critics of Osteen link his actions to the controversial brand of Christianity known as prosperity theology, the belief that there is a link between Christian faith and financial success. Joel Osteen, who has made tens of millions of dollars from book sales and arena-sized audiences, has told congregants that God wants them to prosper financially. In this system of belief, faith brings rewards not only in the afterlife, but also in one’s time on earth. Such ideology has been categorized as the theological equivalent to the American Dream. This concept coincides with President Donald Trump’s mantra of making America great again, which emphasizes American exceptionalism and his own personal wealth.
Following the devastating results of Harvey, Joel Osteen and Donald Trump were clearly the two most scrutinized public figures, Trump receiving flack for not addressing victims during an initial visit to Texas, which he rectified on a later second visit. Both men are motivated by success, not social service. Believers in prosperity gospel favor the fortunate; natural disasters do not provide the appealing narratives necessary to keep audiences loyal to that gospel ideology. This explains why both leaders failed to empathize during these desolating events: they lack compassion for people who are not prosperous and who do not worship for the sake of social and financial gain. Both men also claim to be victims of "misinformation," as a defense against widespread criticism.
As Boston College students encouraged to be "men and women for others," we are constantly active in the realm of social service. But why do we volunteer? Why do we reject this idea of self-prosperity and put others before ourselves? As students in a Jesuit institution built on the philosophy of Saint Ignatius, we thrive in the denial of a self-prosperous mindset. Through the relationships we form and the experiences we have, we grow culturally, socially, and politically. We demonstrate our humanity by finding strengths in these relationships, improving them, and giving something back.
The ideals and actions of Joel Osteen—or rather inaction—and others who live by prosperity theology, while theological by name, differ largely from our own theology. As men and women for others, we are not able to fully indulge in our experiences without appreciating the lives intertwined with our own. Saint Ignatius ends his Spiritual Exercises with an application of love in social service. Love shows itself more by deeds than by words. Action is what counts, not talk and promises.