The confrontation between the Occupy LSX encampment and the St Paul’s authorities in London over the last couple of weeks has reminded many commentators of Jesus’ shocking display of anti-establishment indignation in the temple. Take Stephen Tomkins, for example:
Major national Churches are often the focus of protest. A homeless man, known to the authorities for his radical activism, once slipped into one with his supporters and wrecked it, overturning tables and lashing out with a homemade whip.
His point was that what should have been a place of prayer for all people had become an institution fleecing the poor. Those were tougher times than now, and he was executed a week later.
Jesus’ point actually went quite a bit further than that as becomes clear when we follow the trail of his teaching on the occasion back to the Old Testament prophets.
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)
First, in an account of Israel’s restoration following judgment Isaiah says that foreigners will “join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants”, and God will bring them to Jerusalem from their distant lands to participate in worship—”for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is. 56:6-7).
Secondly, Jeremiah is told by God to go and stand in the gate of the Lord’s house and tell the “men of Judah” that because they “steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known”—because the temple has become a “den of robbers” in their eyes—Jerusalem will be besieged and the temple destroyed (Jer. 7:1-34).
Jesus wants his audience to understand that his violent action presupposes—and in some measure helps to tell—a story, which runs roughly: the whole sacrificial system has been compromised by the hypocrisy of those who come to worship in Herod’s temple, that as a consequence it will suffer the same fate as Solomon’s temple, and that in the age to come Gentiles will in some manner participate in the the worship Israel’s God. The small symbolic drama prefigures the much bigger crisis that will play out in the coming decades.
Jesus acts forcefully, decisively, with astute biblical intelligence and prophetic foresight. Which is more than can be said for the high priesthood of St Paul’s—with the exception perhaps of the Rev Dr Giles Fraser. The church appears—from a distance, at least—to have vacillated absurdly between no doubt a genuine sympathy for the cause of economic justice and a palpable anxiety to safeguard its traditional place in the national scheme of things. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey wrote in the Telegraph:
One moment the church was reclaiming a valuable role in hosting public protest and scrutiny, the next it was looking in turns like the temple which Jesus cleansed, or the officious risk-averse ’elf ’n safety bureaucracy of urban legend.
I am not suggesting that St Paul’s should align itself uncritically with the motives and objectives of the protesters, but as the church in the west struggles to recover a credible public presence and voice in an inhospitable secular environment, there are perhaps some lessons to be learned.
- The church should be confident enough of its own ethical and prophetic identity to make radical ad hoc alliances of this nature.
- The church in this case could have accepted the opportunity and challenge not only to “host” the protesters but to provide some measure of moral leadership, which by all accounts would not have gone amiss.
- Arguably the church is in a position to provide much more than moral leadership. It certainly has the resources to offer a solid critique of the current economic crisis and its underlying causes, but it requires a distinctive type of leadership to fuse the analysis with conspicuous public action.
- The symbolism of the public event will carry far more weight in the long run than the cautious equivocating statements of the clergy—and probably far more weight in the public mind than the postponed report by the St Paul’s Institute on the attitudes of city workers.
- Jesus’ sparing use of scripture to interpret his actions suggests that there is a fine art to the production of potent symbolic meaning. Of course, the artistry should perhaps be accredited to Mark or to the tradition, but as it stands, the story presents us with a concise but powerful convergence of prophetic opportunism, public theatre and collective memory.
- Whether the church today can replicate that art will depend in part on whether it has a strong enough and clear enough story to tell about the state of the world. For that to happen it needs to work out where it stands.
- Prophetic action is necessarily hyperbolic, iconoclastic and therefore risky. It exposes the prophetic community to material discomfort, misunderstanding, and possibly aggression.
For some years—I don’t know whether it is still the case—the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg has provided shelter for thousands of mainly Zimbabwean refugees. The social, legal, ethical and political problems that this has created for the church have been immense, and the situation may well have proved unsustainable. But in courageously and painfully addressing the issue the church has found a powerful way of saying that God cares for the homeless and destitute. A few verses of scripture would readily serve to interpret it. The contrast between this radical commitment to provide a home for the least in society and St Paul’s reluctance to allow a small-scale protest against corruption and greed to camp out on its pavement is striking.