“Charity saved the day… [but] charity isn’t enough”: Kate Bowler on This New Era

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Kaleidoscope, a podcast featuring conversations on religion with the people often left out of conversations on religion and politics hosted by Deborah Jian Lee. As each new episode is released, Religion Dispatches will be featuring special remarks from the show’s guests. 

Kate Bowler is a Duke Divinity professor, prosperity gospel scholar and author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.

She wrestled with the prosperity gospel’s promise of wealth and health after receiving a stage four cancer diagnosis at age 35. In episode five of Kaleidoscope, Kate opens up about how this crisis changed everything—faith, friendship, romance—and about how surprising beauty can blossom from terrible times. (You can subscribe and listen to the entire interview on Apple Podcasts, RadioPublic or wherever you listen to podcasts.)

Kate was asked the same question posed to all of Kaleidoscope’s guests (read the other responses here.)

What is one of the biggest transformations that has occurred for you in this new era?

My stage four cancer diagnosis came at the same time as this election. Everyone I knew was experiencing a lot of hopelessness. The lack of hope almost has an apocalyptic quality to it, and I thought a lot about that because I’m just trying to figure out the nature of hope for me if it doesn’t mean certainty.

In this season of intense hopelessness, our personal connection is more important than ever.

I’m from very lefty circles where we pride ourselves on our very sophisticated opinions and correctness—instead, what I’m more grateful for is people’s acts of intense humanity.

When I was really sick I noticed that people who I wouldn’t have been friends with volunteered to pick me up to take me to the airport to fly to my treatments. People I never would have had long conversations with were there for me at 3:30 a.m. shuttling me from one place to another or offering me a place to sleep.

It feels like this is an era in which everyone has really high standards for what counts as correct thought—and I am one of them—but my insane dependence meant that I couldn’t be very picky about applying a litmus test for everyone’s thoughts, which is what everyone is doing around me. And that ended up being such a gift to me. I think it’s harder to see people’s humanity right now, (but my circumstances) meant that all I could see was people’s humanity.

People’s intense charity saved the day, but what it also reinforces for me is that charity isn’t enough because not everyone is going to get what I got. That breaks my heart. As a foreigner—I’m Canadian—I didn’t qualify for most forms of charity care, so the injustice of the healthcare system is something I think a lot more about.

So my experience makes me see both the incredible humanity of others and also the need for justice and structural change that affords more resources to everybody. I just become more and more Canadian as I grow older.