Would Jesus Occupy Wall Street? | Sojourners

Would Jesus Occupy Wall Street?

Protests in Ferguson, rallies in Hong Kong, and the Occupy Movement: People challenging systems and structures clamber for my attention. But faithful followers of Jesus shouldn’t get involved in these political and economic wrangling, should they? Sure, we ought to pay our taxes and vote; you know, give to Caesar and all that. But Christians should only be concerned about the spiritual transformation of individuals, not gallivanting around to rail against political and economic systems. After all, Jesus never protested political or economic policies did he? If we transform enough people, won’t the rest of the systemic issues work themselves out?

I have heard this challenge to Christian involvement in social movements numerous times, and it holds a certain appeal for someone like me who is allergic to politics. I’m the no-bumper-sticker, no-yard-sign guy who would just as soon steer a discussion away from upcoming elections than face the discussion of large-scale political or economic issues. I’d much rather focus on individual spirituality. After all, Jesus never did march on Rome or speak out against Caesar’s cruel dictatorship. He doesn’t mean for us to get mixed up in social, political or economic activism.

Or does he? I am learning to re-examine the cultural lenses by which I encounter Christ in scriptures.

Jesus is not the political agnostic I have made him out to be.

The word “secular” did not appear until the 1300s. This is because the separation of the spiritual from other aspects of life did not exist until then. The political, economic, spiritual, and social spheres wove together a unified garment. They had not been disassembled in the ways that we today separate the powers. Teachers of the law, the Sanhedrin, Herod … were all understood as religious, political and social leaders. Even Caesar was considered a religious deity. When Jesus confronts teachers of the law, Pharisees, or when he stands before the Sanhedrin, he does not confront the spiritual without also addressing the political and economic.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when Jesus occupied the first century version of Wall Street.

As Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, he was hailed with palm branches as the new political/economic/religious leader. It was a rally which announced the coming of a new administration in opposition to the ruling elite. The rally so threatened the power holders that the chief priests and teachers of the law began to look for a way to arrest and execute Jesus.

Temples in the first century Roman Empire were banks, and the temple bank in Jerusalem housed more than $3 million, much of it held by the high priestly families.[1] Jesus’ confrontation in the temple marketplace was a frontal assault on wealthy ruling families, not just a worship corrective. Jesus did not restore the temple to its Solomonic glory because he knew that the temple would be soon destroyed. No, the clearing of the temple was not just a religious cleansing. It was also a protest against the lucrative profiteering that was occurring in the temple. Josephus claims the temple at that time was being “ruined by greed,” and the high priest at the time, Ananias, was known as “the great procurer of money.” [2]

Immediately after Jesus interrupted the money-generating machine for the wealthy, Matthew tells us that, “the blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them” (Matt 21:14). Essentially, Jesus cleared the privileged 1 percent and invited the excluded 99 percent to join him.

There most certainly is a worship corrective that occurred in the temple that day, “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it ‘a den of robbers” (Matt. 21:13). But we often focus on the corrective to the “house of prayer” and ignore the systemic economic corrective to the “den of robbers.” As many people of faith are at the forefront of the Hong Kong rallies or confront racism in our own country, so Jesus had led a rally confronting systemic economic injustice which leapt from a vision of the kingdom he was bringing.

Also in Scripture, John the Baptist protested Herod’s illegal marriage and decried “all the evil things that Herod had done,” (Luke 3:19), no doubt confronting a variety of Herod’s many political/economic/religious injustices; Mary sang out that God had “filled the hungry with good things,” but had “sent the rich away empty.” Jesus was called before the elite power holders — Sanhedrin, Herod and Pilate — because he had threatened their power. The crowds that followed Jesus in the first century, hailing him has king, were something akin to the people of faith are invested in protest rallies today.

When we hear the word “kingdom” today we think of some sacralized, churchy realm. But for Christ and his hearers, it was a highly provocative political, economic, and religious word. This means that Jesus taught more about politics and economics, faith and service, truth and justice, than he did about any other topic. When people of faith invest themselves in protests today, they embody cries for a new kingdom that cares about those on the margins and advocates for what is right and just and true and fair.

Scott Bessenecker is Associate Director of Mission for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Each year he helps to mobilize thousands of students to domestic and international mission. He is author of various books including his new release Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian-Industrial Complex.

[1] Neill Q. Hamilton, “Temple Cleansing and Temple Bank,” Journal of Biblical Literature 83, no. 4 (December 1964): 370-71

[2] I present more information on this in the prologue of my book, Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian Industrial Complex

Image: Stained glass window depiction of Palm Sunday in the cathedral of Brussels, jorisvo / Shutterstock.com