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Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Life of Brian means user-pays salvation

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Brian Tamaki. Photo / Martin Sykes
Brian Tamaki. Photo / Martin Sykes

Brian Tamaki seems genuinely perplexed by the media's "bent perception" of him. Why all the ruckus, he asks, with the injured air of someone who has been misunderstood and unfairly persecuted.

So what if there are eftpos machines in his churches, or if automatic payment forms are routinely handed to new worshippers?

So what if the faithful had to hand over $300 for covenant rings with their saviour's name on it (Brian's, that is, not Jesus').

So what if his predominantly poor Polynesian congregation tithe a tenth of their income to Destiny's coffers. (They aren't coerced, he insists; simply reminded that those who don't tithe are thieves who are robbing God of what is rightfully his.)

So what if he enjoys the perks of a CEO - the six-figure salary, the million-dollar-plus home, the $75,000 car, the Harley-Davidson and the flash suits?

Why shouldn't "God's chosen man" be richly rewarded? Why shouldn't he "live in a decent house, have a decent vehicle and have a salary that's commensurate with the work that I do", he told Close Up last week, implying he deserved his salary more than Telecom head Paul Reynolds, who earned three to four times what he gets: "How many lives is he changing?"

It seems churlish to point out that what he regards as "decent" would be considered unimaginably opulent by the poorest of his flock.

We may not like Tamaki's style, but he insists that he's doing God's work.

Thanks to him, thousands of lives have been transformed. Men have been made better husbands and fathers, he says. Is it wrong for Tamaki to profit from his good works?

As he pointed out in a letter to the Sunday Star-Times last year: "One example of transformation is in a South Auckland family, once the backbone of the Otahuhu Black Power. The father and adult sons held power positions in the gang and were responsible for all manner of criminal activities.

"Three generations of this family have been in Destiny for the best part of eight years - free from alcohol, drugs, violence and crime. They're legitimately employed and paying their taxes.

"According to their testimony, it was only through my influence and that of Destiny Church that their offspring aren't destined to repeat the destructive cycle. From a social and economic perspective, how would you measure the cost of this kind of turnaround? And for that matter, where should I send the invoice?"

We know where the invoice is sent: to Tamaki's congregation. This is user-pays salvation.

The fact that many of Destiny's children may be struggling doesn't matter. Tamaki doesn't insult them by presuming that they are too poor to give.

"I encourage people that wherever you are, you are not poor enough to begin your prosperity and do better in life."

As Tamaki's right-hand man Richard Lewis says: "The gospel that Destiny brings, and that our bishop has a gift to bring, is one that uplifts people and moves you forward as opposed to living in a condition that's seen as lack and poverty-stricken."

It ought to be said, of course, that other churches have transformed lives too. They are boring, mainstream churches with long traditions of helping society's neediest, funded by their faithful, and staffed by people who tend not to demand superstar salaries and lavish lifestyles.

Tamaki may have some special abilities as a pastor - though clearly not as a prophet, given his failed prediction that Destiny would be "ruling the nation" by its 10th birthday - but his appeal is more likely because of the kind of theology he preaches.

He calls it a theology of life, but it more closely resembles the American-inspired prosperity theology, also known as the Name It and Claim It or Health and Wealth Gospel.

It combines an unashamed materialism with New Age positivism. Give your money to God, it promises, and God will bless you with even more money. God wants his followers to be rich.

It's not hard to see why it would be more appealing to the poor and desperate than the theology of suffering preached by mainstream churches. Who wouldn't want God to give them a bigger house, or a better car?

Critics charge that it contradicts Christ's teaching on money, and makes God seem like a kind of celestial ATM, but most prosperity preachers have been too busy counting the money to notice.

Fallen 1980s televangelist Jimmy Bakker, jailed for fraud and conspiracy for stealing US$3.7 million from his flock to fund his extravagant lifestyle - which included six mansions, a theme park, a Rolls-Royce and salary of nearly US$2 million - was one of prosperity's most faithful adherents.

In his book I Was Wrong, Bakker recalls how fervently he'd embraced the prosperity gospel.

"Look at all the rich saints in the Old Testament," he'd point out. "And the New Testament clearly says that above all, God wants us to prosper even as our souls prosper. If your soul is prospering, you should be prospering materially as well."

But forced to study the Bible more closely in jail, he came to the conclusion that Jesus "did not have one good thing to say about money. Most of Jesus' statements about riches, wealth and material gain were in a negative context.

"Not only was I wrong, but I was teaching the opposite of what Jesus had said. That is what broke my heart; when I came to the awareness that I had actually been contradicting Christ, I was horrified."

Megachurch pastor Rick Warren is equally damning. "This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy?" he told Time magazine. "There is a word for that: baloney.

"It's creating a false idol. You don't measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn't everyone in the church a millionaire?"

- NZ Herald

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