My spouse has been watching a four-part documentary entitled LuLaRich. The series details the meteoric rise of the multi-level marketing company (MLM), LuLaRoe. The company was founded by DeAnne and Mark Stidham in 2013 and was based on products first sold out of the trunk of a car by two enterprising grandmothers. In the span of a little over a year, the company went from seventy million dollars in sales to over a billion dollars in sales.
The company, mostly in the personas and personalities of the Stidhams, promised what might have been called in the first century “salvation” or even “eternal life.” The money, of course, was reported to be fabulous. But the attraction went far deeper. There was the promise of authentic community, of self-sufficiency, of security and status, and even the chance to make life better for family, friends, and community.
LuLaRoe promised its “consultants” that they could have it all. And they could have it all while doing “part-time work for full time money” and being good moms and spouses, staying at home and working when it worked. This vision was tailor-made for suburban white women who were lonely, lost, and needing a lift. Ultimately, the vision captured sixty-thousand such women in the system.
There was just one problem, according to the documentary. LuLaRoe was a scam, a Ponzi scheme, a pyramid fraud. The company qualifies as a “legal” MLM company because products are actually bought and sold. But the real money was made through recruiting new consultants and sucking that money upward into ever fewer pockets.
The recruits, known at the entry level as “consultants,” have lost marriages, homes, friends, family relationships, and life savings in the scheme. When challenged about such realities, those still in the system observe that such losses must be due to bad sales and business practices. They describe the system as a pure meritocracy where everyone gets exactly what they deserve.
If, in fact, the allegations of fraud are true, then it is a system in which no one gets what they deserve, good or bad.
According to the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission, a Ponzi or pyramid scheme takes money from new investors and gives it to existing investors. The earlier one gets into the system, the more money one accumulates. The name comes from Charles Ponzi who, in the 1920’s promised investors a fifty percent return in a matter of months. The system collapsed fairly quickly.
In fact, in such a scheme it doesn’t take long for the number of investors necessary to sustain the system to exceed the number of galaxies in the observable universe. Huh, what could go wrong with that?
The documentary reminded me of my multiple encounters decades ago with another MLM, Amway. I want to say immediately that the Amway products I have purchased and used have been of uniformly good quality, even when over-priced. The Amway business model has matured significantly from the real Ponzi-like qualities of a generation ago into something much more like a genuine business today.
That being said, I thought about my experiences. A friend or colleague would approach me in a conspiratorial whisper. “Would you like to get in on a way to make a lot of money selling a great product?” they would ask. “Of course, I would,” I replied. “What’s the product?” Things began to get “hinky” (as one might say) at that point.
“Oh, I don’t want to share that just yet,” would be the reply. “Instead, let me show you first how this system works.” In those years, what followed was a series of sketches on yellow legal pads. The first two times the sketches included actual pyramids in the presentation, although I noticed that such drawing went away later.
The numbers attached to the drawings had more and more zeroes behind them. Ultimately, I would also end up retiring somewhere in my forties if I played my cards right. I was, by the way, in my twenties when I had these conversations.
But the money wasn’t the main attraction, my boss-to-be would point out. That was, of course, part of the deal – that I would become part of this person’s network of salespeople. I would join the revenue stream flowing upward from my pocket into theirs. There were also the benefits of personal and financial independence, of a community of like-minded people, of pushing a great product, of learning new skills, and knowing I did it all on my own.
Only then did the name of the company come out. “Of course,” they would say, “I’m talking about Amway. I’m sure you’ve heard some things about Amway that aren’t so good. But none of that is true. Those are just complaints from people who didn’t work hard enough and didn’t want the dream badly enough. Don’t believe those sour-grapes pickers.”
I never got into it. Not for lack of interest or desire, mind you. I just couldn’t come up with the cash needed to get started. Often my miserly tendencies create difficulties for me. But being a tightwad convinced of dollar scarcity saved me from the potential heartache of this particular journey.
It was only in seminary that I really began to think deeply about these American MLM’s and what they mean. I was studying American Civil Religion with Dr. Norma Everist, and we got to talking about Amway. Norma helped me to see that MLM’s always sell a vision of salvation rather than a system of finance.
Just think about the promises LuLaRoe made to potential consultants. It had, and has, all the elements of the “American dream.” It’s no accident that Amway has its name –“American” way, right? Wealth paves the path to salvation in such a vision. The Kingdom of God, according to such views, is built in the shape of a pyramid.
Jesus tells the rich man to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and come to follow Jesus. Then he will have treasure securely held in heaven. But the rich man found these words quite depressing and went away grieved “for he was having many possessions”.
You’d think the Markan composer might want to stop for a few moments and let that sink in. But we have to consider the makeup of the audience. The composer’s listeners were not, by and large, rich people. Mark’s audience would have, perhaps, taken some pleasure in the comeuppance of another snotty rich guy. But they also knew that there was a real problem.
That problem necessitated a rushing “and” to begin verse twenty-three. Jesus amplifies the difficulty those with many possessions will have in entering the Kin(g)dom of God. The disciples are flabbergasted by these words and can hardly believe their ears. So, Jesus doubles down on the problem. It’s just plain hard for anyone to enter the Kin(g)dom. But it’s really, really hard for rich people to get in.
The disciples are astonished, perplexed, shocked, stunned – pick your word. If rich people, so obviously blessed by God with material rewards, can’t get in, “then who is able to be saved?” The disciples and the rich man share the same value system. God’s reign is a meritocracy, and the real Golden Rule is that the one who has the gold rules. If that’s not the system, then how in the world can anyone figure out the rules?
Jesus responds with an epigram. “For human beings, impossible, but not for God; for all things are possible for God.” When Jesus speaks such sentences, according to Shiner, they simply rest on his authority and require no proof (page 157). Such statements were “ideal applause lines” and marked pauses in the flow of a narrative – both to accommodate potential applause and to mark an important conclusion (notice that Mark 10:28 doesn’t begin with an “and”).
Human schemes cannot deliver what the Stidham’s promised to their prospective consultants: money, authentic community, self-sufficiency, security and status, and the chance to make life better for family, friends, and community. No human scheme, no matter how structured, allows us to “have it all.” For human beings, it’s impossible.
That’s not an empirical economic statement. It’s a theological statement. But it certainly has lots of empirical evidence to support the theology. Yet, there are lots of theologies out there, some claiming to be Christian, that promise precisely that. We live in a “golden age” of the Prosperity Gospel, both in America and around the world. That false gospel has infected every dimension of American life and perverts politics, education, ethics, and (of course) business.
I’m not surprised that the Stidham’s come from a Mormon theological background. I would not draw a causal inference from that. But there is certainly a triumphalist strain in Mormon thinking that finds MLM’s congenial. I’ve not done a study on this, but my impression is that folks of Mormon backgrounds are statistically over-represented in the formation of MLM’s and among the victims of such systems (we dour Lutherans are, I suspect, under-represented).
Jesus is clear. We can’t eat each other and expect to flourish. But that’s the promise of meritocracy in general and MLM’s in particular. Jesus offers a different vision of human flourishing in community. That’s what the last paragraph of our reading addresses.
References and Resources
DiAngelo, Robin J. “Why Can’t We All Just Be Individuals?: Countering the Discourse of Individualism in Antiracist Education.” Permalink https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5fm4h8wm. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 6(1) Publication Date 2010-01-25 DOI 10.5070/D461000670.
Horton, Adrian. “’It’s very culty’: the bizarre billion-dollar downfall of fashion company LuLaRoe.” https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/sep/15/lularich-lularoe-amazon-docuseries.
Jones, Robert P. “The Unmaking of the White Christian Worldview.” https://robertpjones.substack.com/p/the-unmaking-of-the-white-christian?r=m09x3&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&utm_source=&fbclid=IwAR3x1ubbXwm1HMXPxmG76O4uCUErS_SYSex5RA5zFXHl_7YncBDr0QaJsVs.
Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.
Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.
Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-2/commentary-on-mark-1017-31-4.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.