Now That We Have Criticized Joel Osteen, We Must Do These Three Things

This piece originally appeared on the Rabbis Without Borders blog, a follow-up to my previous piece following Hurricane Harvey:

Much has happened since Hurricane Harvey reached landfall and devastated Houston. President Trump rescinded DACA, another hurricane has hit Caribbean Islands and threatens Florida, and here in the Northwest forest fires are decimating the beloved Columbia River Gorge.

In recognition of those developments, I still wanted to circle back around to the controversy surrounding Joel Osteen and his response (or lack thereof) to Hurricane Harvey. The mega-church pastor drew much criticism following the disaster in Houston, and last week I wrote a post on the Rabbis Without Borders blogsomewhat in defense of Osteen, but also raising larger issues. It drew a lot of conversation and comments.

Now that we—from religiously identified to religiously hostile—folks have weighed in, I wished to offer a follow-up. All criticism and comment is well taken, but we should be looking at how we can move forward. Here are what I see as three takeaways from the criticism that we must address:

Examine Your Own Theology: Osteen has come under great criticism for the prosperity gospel which he preaches, that a pious life and belief in Jesus will bring one material wealth and success. In light of the hurricane, this has come under fire both for its theological difficulties and for how it may have played into the initial tepid response to hurricane victims.

But in addition to pointing fingers at a theology not our own, we must take the opportunity to examine our own problematic theologies and how they impact our views of the world. Mainstream Protestant theologies still carry elements of anti-Judaism that, even in a spirit of embrace, tend to negate the historical and textual development of Judaism as a separate religion. How many in the liberal Jewish community still recite the traditional Aleinu prayer, with its words of distinctiveness and superiority, and how has that affected—either implicitly or explicitly—our views of our engagement with other peoples, at home, and in Israel?

The prosperity gospel might be an easy target, but we all carry problematic theologies that warrant criticism.

Do Emergency Preparedness and Assessment Now: All faith communities should engage in assessments as to their capacities in the wake of a natural disaster or major event. We know that communities and government agencies look to faith communities to partner with and provide resources at times of communal need, but faith communities may not know their capacity when disaster strikes. Providing shelter is more than opening doors—it requires proper sanitation, volunteer mobilization, food, and water, etc. These plans should be made prior to an event; faith communities can be in touch with the Red Cross or their local law enforcement or government preparedness agencies to seek out how they can be most helpful at times of need.

Support Your Local Faith Communities: If you value the work that clergy and local churches and synagogues and mosques are doing in the community, even if you do not identify with a faith community yourself, and especially if you expect faith communities to step up at times of natural disaster or other crises, then make a donation. Support these communities financially. Osteen’s $10 million home is an easy target, but many faith communities struggle with budgets, are challenged in keeping their buildings running and operational and paying their clergy. If you see faith communities as public assets that should provide support, shelter, and aid during times of natural disaster, make commitments of support and do not just level criticism when a faith community comes up short. Despite our moral and spiritual mission, faith communities need material resources to do good in this world.

There is much to do in this world, including providing compassion and care to those in need, either those affected by natural disaster and in general. Criticism is good and healthy, and we also need to take our criticism to grow and learn, and especially how we can avoid the criticism that we level at others.

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