The temptation to turn Jesus Christ into the poster child for one's political agenda and ideological dreamscape is an ancient and perennial one. Recall that Jesus, on several occasions, had to correct misunderstandings among both his disciples and the crowds that followed about the nature of his Kingdom and the means by which he was bringing into being. After feeding the five thousand, for example, Jesus had to depart from the scene of that great miracle in order to avoid coercive attempts to make him a political figurehead: "Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself" (Jn 6:15).
The same coersive desires are alive in our own time, across the political spectrum. But while there are plenty of wild-eyed warnings about a puritanical Christian theocratic movement threatening the personal freedoms and television-viewing habits of all Americans, less attention is paid to how casually and constantly the name of Jesus is used by progressive clergy to promote political movements whose actual relationship to the teachings of Jesus are problematic, to put it mildly. For example, the Rev. Chuck Currie, a United Church of Christ minister in Portland, Oregon, recently penned an opinion piece for The Oregonian, stating:
We are in a moment of crisis. Our economy is broken, families are suffering and the political system is unable to provide the responses we need. So far only the Occupy Wall Street movement, many of them young people, has provided the leadership to inspire our nation to actually deal with our difficulties.
Jesus went and occupied Jerusalem. Martin Luther King Jr. went and occupied Memphis. I am convinced that today the Christian spirit rests with those who occupy sites across the United States, including Occupy Portland.
Another pastor, a self-described Baptist in Alaska, wrote last week:
This week religious people are feeling proud of giving turkeys to the poor, when they should be joining in the protests against the haughty rich. I maintain that Jesus would be a part of the actions in Portland, Denver and New York. The issue of “what would Jesus do?” is in fact crucial. ... Christians should thank the current Occupy Wall Street protesters. They are doing our justice work for us. The current crop of national bank leaders are being shown to be just as corrupt as were the temple bankers of Jesus’ day. If Jesus was walking 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 money and banking system. When Jesus pursued the corruption of his own day, they killed him.
Not long after St. Paul's Cathedral, the seat of the Anglican bishop of London, was occupied by occupiers of the Occupy movement, Frank Furedi wrote a piece, "Why church officials worship these protesters", in which he argued that, "No attempt to depict Occupy London as a Second Coming of angry Jesuses can disguise the fact that it remains a shallow moral gesture." He related how the Occupy movement at the cathedral sought to co-opt both the name of Jesus and the language of Christian moral teaching for its own murky ends:
One of the most conspicuous practitioners of this bad faith is the Church of England. The response of St Paul’s Cathedral, and particularly of its former canon Giles Fraser, to the occupiers on its doorstep offers a sad example of theological and moral confusion. Fraser’s sacralisation of the protest outside his church reduces some of the most profound moments in the New Testament to the Biblical equivalent of today’s gesture-driven protesting. Fraser talks about Occupy London as if it were some kind of Second Coming. ‘I mean, if you looked around and you tried to recreate where Jesus would be born – for me, I could imagine Jesus being born in the camp’, he noted.
Fraser’s fantasies about the messianic potential of the protest are shared by other clerics, too, who believe these occupiers are emulating Jesus’ denunciation of the moneylenders defiling the temple. This sad attempt to recast a very banal secular gesture as a vindication of the legacy of the Son of God can be seen as a desperate attempt to make the church relevant to the lives of young people. More worryingly still, it can also be seen as an opportunistic attempt by the church to harness the moral status enjoyed by these protesters in order to enhance the authority of their waning institution. What Fraser and some of his colleagues fail to appreciate, however, is that their sacralisation of confusion is more likely to diminish the moral authority of their church.
For their part, the protesters seem keen to depict themselves as the true disciples. In a gesture that matches the opportunism and bad faith of their clerical sponsors, the protesters have self-consciously adopted a religious style of communication. So last Saturday, they announced that they would hold a ‘Sermon on the Steps’ of St Paul’s. Their press release promised that the sermon would include ‘readings and reflection, prayer and short speeches by representatives of different faiths, and no faith, all with the theme of Love, Peace and Unity’.
Such remarks about Jesus cleansing the temple being connected to the Occupy protests (many of which have become violent and destructive) caught my attention because Pope Benedict XVI, in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection, spent several pages discussing misinterpretations of this key incident (pages 11-23). He notes there are three "principal lines of interpretation":
1. The thesis that the cleaning of the Temple was an attack on the misuse of the Temple, not on the Temple itself. Thus, Jesus was acting as a "mere reformer defending Jewish precepts of holiness" (Eduard Schweizer).
2. The "poltical, revolutionary interpretation of the incident", which presents Jesus as a poltical agitator. Benedict notes that this "vision" became very popular amid the "intellectual and political climate" of the 1960s. This understanding not only celebrated the violence of Jesus' action, but saw this revolutionary violence as absolutely necessary in today's world in order to bring about justice, equality, solidarity, etc.
But Benedict says, "Violence does not build up the kingdom of God, the kingdom of humanity. On the contrary, it is a favorite instrument of the Antichrist, however idealistic its religious motivation may be. It serves, not humanity, but inhumanity" (p 15). So, what to make of Jesus' actions?
3. Jesus, argues Benedict, was never interested in political revolution or in violent, revolutionary action. This is seen, for instance, in his entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey, "the animal of the poor" and served to "express an entirely different image of kingship." It is even more powerfully demonstrated in "the vision of the slain shepherd, who saves by his death..." and "in the vision of the Suffering Servant..."
Benedict further observes that Jesus, after cleansing the Temple, said, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers" (Mk 11:17). In this way Jesus pointed to the universalist vision of Isaiah (Isa 56:7) of a time when all people will worship God in one holy house. He also pointed to "this fundamental purpose [that] lies behind the cleansing of the Temple: to remove whatever obstacles there may be to the common recognition and worship of God—and thereby to open up a space for common worship" (p 18).
Yet there is more, and it is important: Benedict points out (in refering to connections between Jesus' actions and the words in Jeremiah 7) that the prophet Jeremiah "fights against a politicization of the faith that would see God's constant protection of the Temple as something guaranteed, for the sake of maintaining the cult." Jesus took up this same fight, but neither he or Jeremiah were responsible for destroying the Temple: "both, through their passion, indicate who and what it is that truly destroys the Temple." Ultimately, this leads to Jesus' prophecy (as recounted by his accusors): "I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands'" (Mk 14:58). But it is not Jesus who destroys the Temple—Jesus said, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (Jn 2:19)—but those who turn it into a den of robbers and thus abandon its true use and therefore abandon it to destruction.
And just as the Temple in Jerusalem was rejected, so too was Jesus, the new Temple, rejected and crucified. This, Benedict writes, reveals a most essential truth: "The era of the Temple is over. A new worship is being introduced, in a Temple not built by human hands. This Temple is his body, the Risen One, who gathers the peoples and unites them in the sacrament of his body and blood" (pp 21-2). Jesus came, then, to bring redemption and healing, and this "is the true cleansing of the Temple. Jesus did not come as a destroyer. He does not come bearing the sword of the revolutionary" (p 23).
So, what does this all mean when it comes to the Occupy Movement? To the degree that the Occupy Movement actually brings attention to corruption (including, but not limited to, "crony capitalism"), I say more power to it. But—and it's a very big "but"—I think that that degree is not only small, but is being completely drowned out and destroyed by the anarchic, destructive, infantile, self-absorbed, intellectually shallow, and spiritually aimless nature of the movement. As David Mills wrote almost a month ago:
The problem, I think, is that the nearly everyone has accepted the Occupiers’ anger as validating their movement, but an anger so general has no political value. It gets you nowhere. It offers no critique of, no challenge nor any alternative to the vague abstract thing at which you are angry. “We are the 99 percent” angry at the remaining 1% doesn’t tell anyone who the 1 percent are, and what they’ve done wrong, and what they should have done, and how the system itself encouraged them to do some things and not others, and what the nation should do now.
Little has changed in recent weeks, except for the worst. The point of the movement now appears simply to spread chaos and headaches (or worse). Any pretense to the movement somehow being about "cleansing the temple", even if we grant an incredibly large leeway with such metaphors and allusions, is entirely fatuous. This is not to impune the motives of each and every participant, but the Occupy Movement, far from being a voice of conscience and a call to authentic solidarity, has simply turned into an excuse for shrill neo-socialistic sloganeering, random acts of looting, and not-so-random acts of violence and intimidation. Besides, if folks are going to equate banks to the Temple, they might want to further ponder (soberly and without giving themselves over to conspiracy theories and such) who are the high priests who, in the end, control the banks and the economy (hint: it has something to do with Washington, D.C.).
The Son of God came into the world to occupy the hearts and minds of men—not by force or coercion, but through self-gift, sacrifice, and perfect love. He became man so that he could dwell among us and establish the new Temple—himself!—and form a house of God that is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. The cleansing of the Temple can only be properly understood in that larger and far more glorious and eternally significant context.