Monthly Archives: June 2009


Jesus Raging Against the Machine?

For centuries many people have assumed that Jesus taught only about personal love and private justice, that he did not get involved with the larger injustices of his day, and certainly not with politics. After all, they argue, religion is a private matter that should know its place and not intrude into the public sphere. Such a view is hardly biblical; it is basically Gnostic, separating the spiritual from the material or physical. In fact, the Bible makes no such distinctions. Not that spirit and matter are one and the same, but that our “spirituality” is reflected in everything we do, both publicly and privately, and our love for God determined in how we treat our neighbor.

True, Jesus was “a prophet, and more than a prophet.” He was also the Son of God. Yet any study of Jesus cannot overlook his prophetic ministry as a prophet sent to warn his generation, in the great tradition of the prophets of the Old Testament, who spoke out against the larger issues of corporate or institutional injustice, greed, corruption, oppression, and violence, in addition to issues of personal holiness and true piety. Yet in doing so, Messiah was not simply carrying on a grand old tradition, but manifesting the righteousness and justice of his Father’s kingdom reign.

One interesting case in point is his cleansing of the temple, an episode that appears in both the Synoptic Gospels and John. Like most of Jesus’ “signs,” this prophetic act has multiple layers of significance. First of all, and perhaps most obviously, he fulfills the promise in Malachi 3: “Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple….But who can endure the day of his coming?…For he will be like a refiner’s fire….he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness….”

He also quotes from Isaiah 56:7 and its context, “My house will be a house of prayer for all nations,” reflecting the Father’s heart for the Gentiles and those who had previously been excluded from worship in Israel. In overturning the booths of the moneychangers and the sellers of sacrificial animals, specifically doves, he was not protesting the changing of money or the purchase of sacrifices per se. These transactions were necessary, for temple taxes, tithes and offerings could not be made with the common coinage of the empire, with its blasphemous titles and images (e.g. “Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus”), and worshipers traveling great distances would perforce need to buy their sacrificial animals when they arrived. Instead, Jesus takes issue with where the business is taking place—in the temple court, or Court of the Gentiles, the only place where Gentiles seeking to worship Yahweh could do so. The transaction of these very necessary and highly lucrative businesses, which Caiaphas the high priest had only recently allowed into the temple court, had turned this place of worship into a noisy and filthy bazaar.

Yet there is a third, and indeed a fourth, level of meaning to Jesus’ action, often overlooked by interpreters, but certainly not lost on the temple hierarchy. Jesus concludes his prophetic statement about the Father’s house with “but you have made it a den of robbers.” The quote is from Jeremiah 7: “Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say ‘We are safe’—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.”

In rabbinic teaching a quote from the prophets carried with it not only the meaning of the particular verse, but also the context as well. Here the Lord, through Jeremiah, takes his people to task for their hypocritical worship; they had preserved the outward forms of piety and worship without the inward realities of true godliness and holiness. They permitted oppression, corruption, and violence and yet expected the Lord to receive their sacrifices, as though he were blind and his temple a refuge for ungodliness. But the Lord warns them; they had merely to look to history and what the Lord did in the past when his people strayed so far and so unremittingly from the mark. Was not Shiloh, the place of his tabernacle, wiped clean by the Philistines? So he would do again to his temple in Jerusalem if they did not repent.

In both cleaning out the temple and quoting Jeremiah, Jesus shines divine light on the corrupt practices of the moneychangers and sellers of animals, who were part of an unjust but highly profitable system run by the temple hierarchy. Moneychangers charged a fee for their services (as they do today) and probably an exorbitant one. The Mishnah (a collection of rabbinic writings, or “oral law” spanning six centuries) hints at inflated price-fixing for doves, the traditional offering of the poor, during this period. The Jewish historian Josephus has nothing good to say about the Sadducees, the aristocratic and priestly party, who lived in extreme luxury, and no wonder. 90% of the population were poor farmers and craftsmen; yet they supported the priestly elite, who took 50% of the GNP in tithes, taxes and other extra-biblical surcharges. If this kind of racketeering weren’t enough, the temple hierarchy had their own police gangs, called “men of violence,” who terrorized the populace and ruthlessly cracked down on any hint of rebellion (Stassen, Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, p. 356).

In short, the situation was so ripe for judgment, Jesus would have had to have said something. And indeed, his condemnation of these greedy practices within the context of a prophecy of doom on the temple and its priesthood was not missed by the watchful priests, who saw in Jesus a threat not only to their authority but to their livelihood as well. Not surprisingly, we are told they immediately took counsel together as to how they could kill him (Mk 11:18).

Thus we can justly conclude that Jesus was put to death, not only for the charge of blasphemy (from the perspective of the Jewish law) and insurrection (from the Roman), but also for his clear condemnation of the greed, injustice and oppression of the ruling priestly class. While his indictment of their religious hypocrisy and his “peculiar” interpretation of the law caused him to be hated by the Pharisees, like many a prophet before him, it was his prophetic anger against the aristocracy and their systemic injustice that finally ground him under their heavy millstone. The Pharisees were more numerous and popular with the people, but it was the Sadducees, representing the corrupt ruling class, who wielded the real day-to-day power, in collaboration, of course, with the corrupt Roman authorities, who depended on them for keeping order. Thus, the average Jew of Jesus’ day would have had two iron boots on his neck: Rome and the temple hierarchy. And it might be debated that the latter was the heavier and more ruthless.

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Thermostat Christianity

Honorius, who inherited the empire of Europe, put a stop to the gladiatorial combats which had long been held at Rome. The occasion of his doing so arose from the following circumstance. A certain man of the name of Telemachus had embraced the ascetic life. He had set out from the East and for this reason had repaired to Rome. There, when the abominable spectacle was being exhibited, he went himself into the stadium, and, stepping down into the arena, endeavoured to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against one another. The spectators of the slaughter were indignant, and inspired by the mad fury of the demon who delights in those bloody deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death. When the admirable emperor was informed of this he numbered Telemachus in the array of victorious martyrs, and put an end to that impious spectacle. -–Theodoret, Eccles. Hist., V.xxvi

This story comes down to us through the fifth-century church historian Theodoret. Nothing else is known of this otherwise obscure monk Telemachus, who around the year A.D. 404 felt he had had enough of needless bloodshed in the arena and resolved to do something about it. It was a courageous act, and one that cost him his life. Perhaps if his sacrifice had had no impact on the continuation of gladiatorial combat, his name might not have come down to us. But his death did have an impact, a lasting one.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

St. Ambrose, a contemporary of Telemachus, was not an obscure monk, but bishop of Milan, which was at that time one of the capitals of the Roman empire. He was a powerful, magnetic speaker, under whose preaching the young St. Augustine was converted. Even though he was friend and mentor to the emperor, Ambrose did not use his proximity to power for selfish ends or merely to prop up the status quo. Instead, he used his influence to establish justice and further the kingdom of God. On one occasion the emperor Theodosius I had ordered the slaughter of some 7,000 Thessalonians in reprisal for an uprising. When Theodosius returned in triumph, Ambrose sent him a firm but respectful letter informing him that the bishops were outraged at such unnecessary carnage and that he should not expect to receive the sacrament. Indeed, Ambrose went so far as to say that he could not celebrate mass in the emperor’s presence until Theodosius had repented and sought forgiveness for such a crime. Church history is filled with such stories of courage and martyrdom to inspire us.

As the church, the body of Christ, the earthly representation of our Lord and his ministry, we have a duty to speak up and speak out against injustice, greed, bloodshed, violence and oppression.

At this very moment in the Amazon region of Peru, the lives and lifestyles of tens of thousands of indigenous people are being threatened by the avarice of government officials working hand in hand with developers and multinational (including American) corporations, who wish to plunder this rich tribal land of its resources. In its greed, the Peruvian government failed to consult with tribal leaders before it began selling off the oil and logging rights to these ancestral lands. When they stood up to protest, the indigenous were labeled “savages,” “opponents of progress” who “should be wiped of the face of the earth.” Sound familiar? Now these people are locked in a life and death struggle with police, who are attempting to maintain “order” in the region so that President Garcia and his cronies can make good their agreements with these corporations. Several police and demonstrators have been killed in recent clashes.

In our own country a recent poll shows that the majority of regular churchgoers believe that torture is sometimes or always justified. Corporate greed continues to swallow more and more of the GNP, while the lot of the poor grows more and more dire. The rich are bailed out on the backs of an already overburdened middle class. Despite promises to the contrary, the present administration continues the policy of its predecessor in apprehending and detaining foreign nationals without charges and without trial. I’ve even heard or read some Christians commenting, “We should bomb Iran,” or “Wipe the terrorists off the face of the earth.”

When democracy is threatened and human and civil rights trampled, when avarice goes unchecked, and violence and military force are held up as a first response, where is the church? Where is her voice?

Why the silence? It is a fact of fallen human nature that when we benefit from a system, however unjust it may be, we are disinclined to rock the boat. Though the church of Jesus Christ should be a watchdog of freedom, equality, and human rights, too often in history she has found herself as a lapdog for the rich and powerful. Though she should have led the fight with prophetic voice, she has too frequently found herself on the wrong side of the battle over privilege and the status quo. No wonder Marx held Christianity up as an opiate of the people. But that is not the faith I see when I read Scripture or the history of the early church.

Again, Dr. King:

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

The world is waiting, Christians. But it will not wait forever.

I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one.–Ezekiel 22:30,31

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Socialism for the Rich, Not the Poor

Former Sec’y of Labor Robert Reich recently observed on Moyers Journal that people fear that healthcare reform will lead us into socialism. Actually, he noted, we’ve been living with socialism for decades in all the corporate welfare and subsidies– a kind of corporate socialism– culminating, of course, in the recent bank and automaker bailouts. The only people who have not benefited directly from this brand of socialism are the poor and middle class.

To see the interview or read a transcript, go to
http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/06122009/profile.html

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You Just Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Just when you thought our government couldn’t get more brazenly hypocritical, Secretary of State Clinton issued the following statement to China this week on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Student Uprising:

A China that has made enormous progress economically, and that is emerging to take its rightful place in global leadership, should examine openly the darker events of its past and provide a public accounting of those killed, detained or missing, both to learn and to heal.

Sounds like a good idea to me. Why don’t we do it?

The Chinese must be snickering in their tea cups.

(Thanks to Glenn Greenwald for his recent blog in Salon.com)

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Dear Mr. President:

Thank you for your historic speech today to the Muslim world, which sets a new and courageous course for U.S. policy in the Middle East– a policy of justice, not blindness and favoritism.

Like most Americans I support Israel’s right to exist and value the long friendship that has existed between our two nations since Israel’s inception.

However, it is clear to any rational person that a string of conservative governments in Israel has set a reckless course of empire and manifest destiny that is destructive not only to peace in the region but also to her own security (not to mention ours).

I agree that it is time to stand up and be firm– if we truly consider ourselves friends of Israel. If Israel wishes to continue this dangerous and unjust course, it must do so without the ever increasing cascade of U.S. aid, which makes up 25% of our foreign aid budget, not to mention all the military freebies.

As an American I am disgusted that my tax dollars are spent to support such injustice– and clearly at the risk of our own national security (since Israel’s oppression of Palestinians [with our support] is the #1 recruiting point for terrorism against us).

I hope and pray that you will continue to stand up to AIPAC and the Likudniks in Congress (those who serve not the American people who elected them but their own wallets) and take advantage of this historic moment to build a just and lasting peace in the region. Please continue to demand that Israel cease to occupy and colonize Palestinian land (land given by U.N. mandate). (Interesting– when Iraq was accused of defying U.N. mandates, we invaded. When Israel does it, we give them billions.)

If Congress tries to divert you from this course– as some have chosen to do already– I encourage you to take your case to the American people. AIPAC may have more money, but we have more votes (and ours are not purchased).

Please help put an end to the cycle of hopelessness and violence. The eyes of all Americans and of the world are upon you.

Thank you.

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Fresh Air Instead of Fresh Ire

Working together? Not something ideologues and fanatics on both sides of an issue are best at doing. But wherever you stand on abortion, you have to admit that reducing the number of or need for abortions is a worthwhile goal. That is the premise behind Mr. Obama’s initiative in calling both sides to the conference table.

Over the past four decades, the abortion argument has raged on, pitting members of families and communities as well as religious denominations against one another. There is no question that the harsh rhetoric and bitterness have helped to foster a division in this country that has not been seen since the Civil War.

During the last election Obama took what many regarded as a risky but courageous stand in proposing that pro-life and pro-choice advocates should try to find some “common ground.” It is an idea he continued to outline in his so-called “controversial” commencement speech at Notre Dame two weeks ago:

Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions.

So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.

Understand – I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it – indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory – the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.

Mr. Obama and I may be on opposite sides of the table when it comes to this basic issue, but I find his proposal enlightened and helpful. Sure, there are crazy people on both sides of the issue, but most people are not. Calling both parties to talk and try to work together seems very sane indeed. After all, we need one another. Hurling epithets at each other over a dividing wall has certainly accomplished little.

Now, let me speak as a pastor. As Christians we must resist the tendency to demonize the opposition. We must resist the temptation to remain obdurate, to dominate, and to exclude. These are the characteristics and mindset of fundamentalism, a form of extremism which destroys even the very thing it would build. We do not have to change our belief system in order to negotiate; we do not have to agree with someone to work hand in hand for the common good.

America is a nation growing in diversity. Therefore, we need all the more to listen to, to respect and work with one another if we are going to achieve anything. Instead of waiting zealously for some magic moment in the future when Roe v. Wade is overturned and all our ills are wiped away, let’s go to the table now and hammer out through active charity and compassion just how we can make abortion in this country as rare as possible.

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