By the Rev. Howard Bess, November 26, 2011
When the Martin Luther King Jr. monument was dedicated recently in Washington DC, I was reminded that the civil rights movement in America was led not by a politician fulfilling campaign promises, nor by a popular evangelist bent on saving souls, but by a highly trained theologian who put his religious teachings into practice with a demand for justice for those who had suffered at the hands of the rich and the powerful.
The Rev. King was a Baptist preacher who took his religion into the arena of racism, economics and social disparity. However, hatred caught up with him, and he was killed.
Now, nearly a half century later, there is another broad-based protest that is gaining momentum. The Occupy Wall Street protests echo some of King’s complaints about economic inequality and social injustice – and the message can no longer be ignored.
The significance of this latest public protest movement, erupting all over the country, may eventually rival the impact of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, yet when comparing the two movements, there is one glaring difference: priests, pastors and clergy of every stripe are rarely in the forefront of Occupy protests.
Instead, secular young people are doing the very work that Jesus from Nazareth would urge us to do. Just as Jesus condemned the injustices of his own day – and overturned the money-changing tables at the Temple – the Occupy protesters are challenging how Wall Street bankers and today’s rich and powerful are harming the masses of people.
This week, religious people have felt proud of giving turkeys to the poor, but they should be joining the protests against the haughty rich. I maintain that Jesus would be a part of the actions in Portland, Denver, New York and many other cities. For Christians, the crucial issue should be “what would Jesus do”?
Today, Christian theologians and Bible scholars agree that the Jesus trip to Jerusalem at the end of his life is essential to understand what Jesus was about. Yet, Christian tradition has brainwashed followers of Jesus about the realities of his trip south to Jerusalem. We have all been exposed to the worship services in which children march waving palm branches and singing “Hosanna.”
Traditionally we have called the event “the triumphal entry.” However, put into the political and social context of Jerusalem in the early first century BCE, Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey was probably more like a protest march that mocked every leader in the city.
Political and religious “leaders” of the day probably would have ridden into town on a prancing horse, certainly not a humble donkey. So, Jesus’s choice of transportation was more street theatre than triumphal entry. It triggered a week of confrontations and arguments with the leaders of state and Temple.
The key event of the week was the incident in the Temple. Once again church tradition has given us a special name for the incident, “the cleansing of the Temple.” But It was more likely another piece of street theatre that became a bit physical.
To better understand the Temple incident, we need to understand its context. The Temple had become a lot more than a religious temple. It had become a tax collection agency and a bank. The Temple held large sums of money accumulated by collecting tithes from the faithful.
In reality, the tithe was a tax, not a freely given gift to God. In addition, fees were charged for participation in the Temple’s religious exercises. So, the Temple collected lots of money.
With that fat treasury, the Temple had entered the banking business and regularly made loans, primarily to poor people. Poor people were the victims not only of a flat tax, but also high-interest loans. So, the gap between the haves and the have-nots was growing rapidly. The poor were getting poorer, and the rich were getting richer.
Yet, equity was a key concept in the Israelite tradition. Torah (the law) had very specific rules demanding systematic redistribution of wealth. But those who controlled the Temple operation completely ignored their own religious teachings. The banking operation that had developed was very good to those who controlled the system.
Christians believe that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the whole world. However, from the perspective of history, Jesus died because he challenged a banking system that passed itself off as being righteous.
Today, bank buildings are the temples of America and the financial industry is a key pillar of an increasingly inequitable economic system. Although banks and their controlling officers claim to be upholders of orderly American life, a growing number of people know better.
Recent surveys have asked people “who in the banking business do you trust?” Credit unions came out on top, followed by locally controlled banks. Then, came regional banks. Large national banks came in dead last.
Christians should thank the current Occupy Wall Street protesters for their message and their activism. They are doing our justice work for us. The current crop of national bank leaders are being shown to be just as corrupt as the Temple bankers were in Jesus’s day.
If Jesus were present among us today, he would be moving from Portland, to Los Angeles, to Kansas City, to Dallas, up to Chicago and on to Wall Street in New York City. He would join the protest in every city. He would be demanding an overhaul of our financial and banking system. He would be standing with the poor and their allies — and against the rich and their protectors.
When Jesus pursued the corruption of his own day, the representatives of the religious and political status quo killed him. And Jesus said to his followers “take up your cross and follow me.”
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.