Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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This Jesus, Called Back to Duty
Two years ago the tables of the money lenders in our corporate temples were being overturned. A combination of greed, miscalculation, regulatory indifference, misplaced trust, arrogance, and the complicity of large sectors of the public including, often, you and me, left Wall Street looking much as the Temple courtyard in Jerusalem might have looked after Jesus’ very public Palm Sunday assault. The difference, of course, was that our contemporary debacle was caused by the excesses of the money lenders themselves, not by the passion of religious prophets concerned for the plight of the poor, victims of our system before and after the meltdown. Since then we have been carefully setting the tables back up, tidying them up for business more or less as usual. If any of the money lenders seem chastened or threatened, it’s not for any powerful words and actions on the part of most of the religious community. Perhaps we are just too relieved that our pensions have been rescued, our endowments stabilized, our mostly middle to upper middle class constituencies preserved to borrow and spend another day.
Last March a group of German church leaders asked me whether President Obama, with his UCC affiliation, was going to restructure the United States’ economic system in ways that might significantly address the disparities of income and wealth that have grown obscene in the past three decades. I hated to disappoint them, but I said my reading of Obama is that he is a pragmatic, perhaps even cautious reformer, hardly a revolutionary. Nothing since has altered my view, other than the reminder that our current political system so tenaciously guards its own privilege and power, and is so beholden to the corruption of corporate money, that even modest economic reform is hard to come by.
I don’t doubt the good will of many of those who have been trying to return Wall Street to some degree of normalcy for the sake of those who live on Main Street. It may well be that this is the best we can do, given current political realities, and that doing this is far better than doing nothing. But what of those who don’t earn bonuses on Wall Street or make a living on Main Street? What of those who live in Cleveland’s east side neighborhoods or on Chicago’s south side avenues where street after street presents a portrait of devastation, houses boarded up and the corner stores those now vanished neighbors used to support shuttered? Lured by unscrupulous lenders to gamble what little they had, these folk lost not a percentage of their wealth, but everything, and now we offer them little but lottery tickets in the hope that by fleecing them of their last pennies we might avoid tax hikes to address looming state budget deficits. Long after most of us have settled into some kind of recovery, the growing ranks of the poor will continue to endure their economic crucifixion.
At the 50th anniversary General Synod of the United Church of Christ in Hartford in 2007, Bill Moyers delivered a keynote address upstaging the speech later in the day of a young senator from Illinois who happened to be running for President. Moyers surprised many of us with a passion bordering on holy rage as he provided a searing indictment of an economic system that privileges the already wealthy while demonizing, dismissing, and demoralizing the already poor. His text was Jesus and the money lenders in the Temple and he concluded by “calling this Jesus back to duty.”
This new struggle for a just world – it’s not a partisan affair. . . . But to see whose side God is on just go to the record. It’s the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the poor who are blessed in the eyes of God. It is kindness and mercy that prove the power of faith, and it is justice that measures the worth of the state, not empire. Kings are held accountable for how the poor fare under their reign; Presidents, too. Prophets speak to the gap between rich and poor as a reason for God’s judgment. Poverty and justice are religious issues, and Jesus moves among the disinherited. . . . This is the Jesus who drove the money changers out of the temple of Jerusalem, and it is this Jesus called back to duty who will drive the money changers out of the temples of democracy.
It’s too bad Glenn Beck wasn’t there that day getting a graduate theological education on the centrality of justice in the Bible!
But I fear we also need reminding. Our churches prayed for the victims of the war in Iraq, both our soldiers and Iraqi civilians. But for the most part we withheld our wrath over the war until public opinion was so disillusioned that prophetic speech was relatively risk free. Today we pray for those who are unemployed. But the money lenders’ tables seem secure in their temples of finance, rarely assailed or challenged from America’s pulpits of either conservative or progressive stripe. Even the lectionary this year conspires to save the preacher from a potentially awkward wrestling with the angry Jesus on Palm Sunday, cutting off the Gospel reading a few verses before Jesus returns for a reprise of his disruptive duty in the Temple.
Reinhold Niebuhr once reflected that “the real clue to the tameness of a preacher is the difficulty one finds in telling unpleasant truths to people whom one has learned to love.” Fair enough. But is that sufficient excuse? Two years further into his pastorate in rapidly industrializing Detroit, he pushed himself and his colleagues a bit further: “Many good men are naturally cautious. But it does seem that the unique resource of religion ought to give at least a touch of daring to the religious community and the religious leader.” It does indeed.