May it be a year of dignity, vigorous compassion, and robust declarations of God’s inclusionary vision. You may have your own desires for this new year.
So far, no one has wished me a “prosperous New Year.” To be honest, I’m glad for it.
Two years ago, my stack of Christmas cards included two that wished me prosperity for the new year, in hand-written notes scrawled by the senders under warm tidings for Christmas happiness, peace, and joy.
It was no wonder the word “prosperous” made it into my 2016 Christmas cards. Over that year, the word had elbowed its way to the top of the national lexicon, as we, as a nation, elected to the presidency a wealthy man whose rhetoric included a lot of prosperity talk. We (at least some of us) were told that as Americans, prosperity was our birthright. In fact, God wanted us to be prosperous; if we weren’t, we were doing something wrong.
As a word, “prosperity” is no slouch, with so many syllables and conceptually bespeaking so many layers: vigor, talent, luck, intelligence, good taste, financial success, social popularity, economic favor. Besides, “prosperous” is just fun to say. It’s effervescence bubbles melodically in the mouth.
The New Year is the perfect time to wish somebody prosperity. Wishing somebody a “prosperous Christmas” sounds a little crass. We’re supposed to be thinking of homely shepherds and a poor swaddled baby in a trough. Christmas words are supposed to be short and soft: hope, faith, love, peace.
But with the New Year, we get to Epiphany — another zingy word that’s fun to say. And, as luck would have it, tradition has taken those scholarly Zoroastrian seekers, those magi bearing poignant religious symbols, and has transformed them into “Three Kings.”
Out with the lowly, dung-caked shepherds! In with turbaned royalty bearing Faberge-style casks! It’s a New Year and time to feel good about life again, and what better way than to think prosperity.
Back in 2016, amid warm wishes for seasonal peace and joy, “prosperity” resounded in my soul like a victory whoop at a funeral. To be honest, it still does. A second migrant Guatemalan child has died in U.S. custody near the Mexico border, and the government is partially shut down over the issue of building a wall on that same border. The costs of health insurance and health care are sinful and shameful, and our younger populations are suffering epidemics of drug addiction and suicide. You probably have your own list of laments.
Yet, the radio says the most significant numbers indicate a buoyant national economy, and some people say I will benefit personally. A Gallup poll headline declares “Americans Have Higher Hopes for Prosperity than Peace in 2019.”
Perhaps, for me, there’s the rub. I don’t have anything against prosperity, as long as it doesn’t come at another’s expense. The problem is, it so often does.
All the layers that the word “prosperity” bespeaks — success, vigor, economic favor, etc. — imply “doing better” than the average guy. The dictionary uses the terms “well-off” and “well-to-do” and “favorable.” That’s better than average, or at least better than some. In this way, “prosperous” implies standing out from the crowd, even above the crowd. In this way, “prosperous” implies separation from the rest of humankind.
As human beings, we are all in it together, equally, no exceptions. The worldview from which the word “prosperous” is so often proclaimed holds that there is only so much goodie to be had. There are only so many jobs, opportunities, desirable neighborhoods and so forth. If there’s only so much goodie to go around, we must compete for it with other human beings. That means my prosperity hinges on denying you your prosperity.
When it is framed to induce fear, this version of “prosperity” tells us that immigrants steal jobs from native-born Americans, women steal positions of influence from men, ethnic minorities get the best spots in the best colleges, and so forth, assigning hidden benefits and advantages to being part of a marginalized or minority group.
Of course that’s not God’s lens. God envisions all of us being prosperous together because there is plenty to go around for everybody to have more than enough. The Godly view is that there’s always more to be had — more and better in every way than we can even conceive in our human imaginations — and none of it will harm any other creature or part of God’s creation. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jer. 29:11 NIV)
That kind of prosperity — that kind of epiphany —and all those other words that pop and sparkle — rely upon some other words and ring solid in the mouth. Words like justice, righteousness, compassion, solidarity. And those words hinge on those short, soft Christmas words: faith, hope, love, peace.
The thing is, those Christmas words don’t have to be so soft, and we don’t have to put them away on Dec. 26.
If “hope” sounds too wimpy to support God’s brand of prosperity, let’s say it in Spanish. Esperanza! Now there’s a fun and powerful word, with it’s Zorro-like flourish.
Let’s say “faith” in German: Glaube! Sounds a little like “global” doesn’t it?
And for “peace?” The Hebrew “shalom” is one of my favorite words because it starts with a suggestion to be quiet, and ends with a suggestion to meditate. (Shhh … shall we “ohm?”) And the word isn’t just about absence of war, it’s about renewed wholeness, making up for what’s been wrongfully taken away.
What about love? Maybe the Swahili upendo. Isn’t that what love is? Up-ending the world the way it is so that it might be all it can be?
Minister, Mattapoisett Congregational Church