Published with the permission of Reverend William Alberts and Professor Mel King, and our thanks. Originally published in the January 16th issue of CounterPunch.
Religion is not worshipping what the prophets did, but doing what the prophets worshipped
From Worship to Wall Street
by MEL KING AND WILLIAM ALBERTS
When a controversial protest movement arises, Christians often ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?” Thus today the repeated question, “Would Jesus join the Occupy Wall Street Movement?”
Certain Christians say Jesus would not be involved in Occupy Wall Street protests against capitalistic America’s widening economic and political gulf between rich and poor persons. Tony Perkins, president of the influential conservative Christian Family Research Council, writes that Jesus actually valued the individual initiative ethic propelling the free market system. In a piece appearing on CNN on Dec. 6, 2011, Perkins says that a parable Jesus told his disciples (Luke 19: 12-27, KJV; NRSV) reveals that the real meaning of “occupy” involves using their time wisely while waiting for his kingdom to come on earth. The parable concerns a rich nobleman, about to take a journey “into a far country to receive . . . a kingdom,” who gave ten pounds to his ten servants and said, “Occupy till I come,” i.e. do business until he returned. Upon returning, the nobleman rewarded the servants who made a profit, but condemned to poverty the servant who safeguarded the money but failed to put it “in the bank” so that the nobleman “could have collected it with interest.” (“Jesus: Occupy Wall Street,” Family Research Council)
Tony Perkins’ “spiritual” spin on Jesus’ parable is that “occupy” until he returns does not mean for the disciples to “take over and trash public property, as the Occupy movement has,” nor “engage in anti-social behavior while denouncing a political and economic system that grants one the right and luxury to choose to be unproductive.” Perkins states that the money the nobleman gave to his servants “represents the opportunity of life,” that “each of us is given the same opportunity to build our lives, and each of us shares the same responsibility to invest our lives for the purpose of bringing a return and leaving a legacy.” (Ibid)
“Each of us is given the same opportunity to build our lives.” Spoken like a man who has had an invisible means into the mainstream of America’s white-controlled hierarchy of access to economic and political and religious power. Spoken like a man mourning the loss of the pre-affirmative action good old days when being “color blind” enabled one to remain blind to the historic institutionalized racism that does not give black and Hispanic persons “the same opportunity to build [their] lives.” Nor the same opportunity to economically and politically limited white persons to build their lives.
“Each of us is given the same opportunity to build our lives.” Spoken like a man who has not occupied himself wisely with knowledge about the reality of the 99%. Knowledge like the July 11, 2011 US Department of Labor report that showed black unemployment (16.0%) almost double that of white unemployment (8.7%), with Hispanic unemployment at 12.5%. Knowledge like the National Urban League’s 2009 State of Black America report that found “the ravages of the recession are impacting minorities much worse than the rest of the nation,” and that black and Hispanic families were more than three times as likely as whites to live below the poverty line.” The State of Black America | National Urban League. And knowledge such as the Pew Research Center’s report that “the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households,” (“Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics,” By Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry and Paul Taylor, Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends, July 26, 2011)
“Each of us is given the same opportunity to build our lives.” Spoken like a chaplain of the status quo, who accommodates, and even cheerleads, an endless “war on terrorism.” A bogus war manufactured by profit-motivated and power-maintaining corporate and political leaders, on whose imperialistic altar of power and greed is sacrificed the opportunities of countless diverse Americans and their designated “Islamic militant” enemies.
“The “Occupy movement [is] denouncing a political and economic system that grants one the right and luxury to choose to be unproductive?” Such ideological violence in the face of the widespread and deepening poverty of the 99% of Americans, whose “luxury” of working to provide a roof over their heads and food on their tables and health care at their bedsides is being undermined by the 1 percent.
A head-in-the-sand-parable-interpreting Tony Perkins would have better occupied his time reading the peacefully demonstrating Occupy D.C. protesters’ consensus-created Declaration, which includes the following clear analysis of America’s “principles of business and the free market”:
We have been captives of corrupt economic and political systems for far too long. The concentration of wealth and the purchase of political power stifle the voices of the increasingly disenfranchised 99 percent. It is absurd that the 1 percent has taken 40 percent of the nation’s wealth through exploiting labor, outsourcing jobs, and maintaining the tax code to their benefit through special capital tax rates and loopholes. The system is rigged in their favor, yet they cry foul when anyone even dares to question their relentless class warfare.
“The right and luxury to choose to be unproductive?” Another Occupy D.C. statement exposes the luxury of denial of such thinking.
The U.S. government engages in drawn-out, costly conflicts abroad. Numerous acts of conquest have been, and continue to be, pursued to control resources, overthrow foreign governments, and install subservient regimes. These wars destroy the lives of innocent civilians and American soldiers, many of whom suffer adverse effects throughout their lives. These operations are a blank check to divert money from domestic priorities.
Any evangelical carpetbagger for the 1% would do well to ponder the bottom line of the Occupy D.C. Declaration:
Leaders are trading our access to basic needs in exchange for handouts to the ultra-wealthy. Our rights to healthcare, education, food, water, and housing are sacrificed to profit-driven market forces. They are attacking unemployment insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, creating an uncertain future for us all.
What would Jesus do? Jesus provides a powerful model for the Occupy Wall Street movement. He is recorded as riding into Jerusalem on a donkey on Passover, the Jewish observance of national liberation from bondage in Egypt. (Matthew 21: 1-8) In Jesus’ day, the Jews were seeking liberation again, this time from the Roman Empire’s occupation and brutal oppression. In that political context, Jesus obviously saw himself as a liberator of his Jewish people, teaching in synagogues about his mission: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor and to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” Luke 4: 14-21, RSV) Jesus was an insurgent!
Thus Jesus’ reported entrance into Jerusalem on Passover on a donkey was enthusiastically welcomed by “a very large crowd,” one might even say the 99%. They “spread their cloaks” and “branches from trees” on his pathway. And, as recorded, “The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” And “the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’” And “the crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’” (Matthew 21: 8-11)
Upon entering Jerusalem, Jesus’ first reported act was to occupy the temple, which involved his driving out all the money changers “who were selling and buying in the temple.” He must have been very angry about the “for profit” goings on at the expense of the 99%, because “he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.” (Ibid, 12)– a different kind of spiritual spin on “tak[ing] over and trash[ing] public property.”
Jesus was just getting started. He is quoted as saying to the money changers, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.’” (Ibid, 13)
“A house of prayer.” The kind of prayer Jesus taught would not go over well today in certain religious circles, where most presidential candidates work hard at appearing religious, and militaristic enough for the evangelistic Christian voter in-crowd. As recorded, he warned his disciples against wearing their piety on their sleeve when praying. He taught them a non-exceptionalism prayer, about their Father’s will being done and His kingdom coming on earth, and about receiving one’s daily bread, and recognizing that being forgiven for one’s trespasses depends on one forgiving others for their trespasses—a Golden Rule of prayer. (Matthew 6: 1-15) “A house of prayer” to Jesus, was about human needs being met and people living together equitably in peace.
Jesus not only occupied the temple; he was joined by many of the 99%. Matthew’s gospel states that “the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.” No one was recorded as being turned away for being unable to pay, as Jesus did not charge for treating and healing people. Even children could be heard “crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.’” (21: 14, 15) And Luke’s gospel states that, “Every day as he was teaching in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people,” who might be called representatives of the 1%, “kept looking for a ways to kill him,” but were prevented because “all the people” who occupied the temple with him “were spellbound by what they heard.” (19: 47, 48)
Children, who especially represent the 99%, could be heard in the temple because they were very precious to Jesus. Matthew’s gospel tells of Jesus’ disciples trying to stop mothers and fathers from bringing their children to him “in order that he might lay his hands upon them and pray.” But Jesus told his disciples, “Let the children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs. And he laid his hands upon them.” (19: 13-15)
On another occasion, when his disciples were arguing among themselves about “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” as Matthew’s gospel reports, Jesus put a child in their midst and told them that they needed to become humble like children to be “the greatest.” He also spoke of the judgment that would come to anyone who “puts a stumbling block” in the way of children. (Matthew 18: 1-6) Such great affirmation of children was radical for Jesus’ day, as they were seen as being the lowest of the low, with no rights.
Jesus’ words should lead one to ask, what would Jesus say and do about all the Iraqi and Afghan and Yemeni and other children and young people killed and maimed and orphaned by US bomber and drone strikes in an endless war of terror– and all those widows as well in Iraq and Afghanistan? What would Jesus want those who profess his name to say and do?
The timeless Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel comes to mind. It states that “when Jesus saw the crowds,” he “went up the mountain,” and spoke to them about the very values driving the Occupy Wall Street movement. Being blessed is about being a blessing—not about being entitled and exceptional and dominant. It is about being humble and comforting and justice-seeking and merciful and transparent and peacemakers.
Women were included in the patriarchal space that Jesus occupied. The depth of his acceptance of women is suggested by the fact that it was three women, “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome” who were recorded as the first to occupy the tomb to anoint his body after his crucifixion by Rome. (Mark 16: 1-8)
What would Jesus do? He would have led the protests against America’s criminal wars of choice against Afghanistan and Iraq—and would confront the Republican and Democratic warmongers threatening Iran. Unlike many mainstream Christian denominational leaders, his protests would not have been carefully scripted to give the impression of living up to the Sermon on the Mount, while avoiding presenting any real moral threat to the executive power of an “I pray for peace daily” United Methodist president—or that of his “Jesus died for my sins”-successor. Rather than praying with and for these two presidents, as certain Christian leaders have done, Jesus would have confronted them with their hypocrisy, as he did certain religious leaders after he entered Jerusalem: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Matthew 23:23) Obviously, Jesus and his donkey and disciples and the crowds around him would have been assassinated by a C.I.A-operated drone before he had a chance to ride into Washington.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. reveals the risk involved in confronting the 1% ruling class of America’s status quo. On August 28, 1963, he led a massive “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” that confronted America’s power structure with its neglect of “the weightier matters of the law .” In his timeless “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King spoke prophetic truth to power:
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
Dr. King’s next statement seizes upon Tony Perkins’ words, “Each of us is given the same opportunity to build our lives”:
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great bank of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
American Rhetoric: Martin Luther King, Jr. - I Have a Dream
Dr. King became too much to tolerate when, in his 1967 “Southern Christian Leadership Conference Presidential Address,” he dared to ask, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” He continued, “When you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. He called for “divine dissatisfaction until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.” (From “The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” edited by James Melvin Washington, published under the title, “Where Do We Go From Here,” pages 245-252, Martin Luther King, Jr., On racism, poverty, capitalism, and other big questions
The civil rights leader’s unpardonable sin was that of urging people to “see that the problem of racism, exploitation, and war are all tied together.” He called for the elimination of poverty, stating that renowned economist John Kenneth Galbraith “said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year.” King then made the dangerous connection between an immoral war and poverty: “And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own feet right here on earth.” (Ibid)
The “I have a dream” prophet sealed his fate in connecting the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. At an April 4, 1967 Clergy and Laity Concerned peace rally in New York City’s Riverside Church, he said words that need to be repeated by religious leaders today: “I knew that I could never raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.” (“Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”)
Dr. King’s model was the Jesus of the 99%, about whom he wrote, “A voice out of Bethlehem two thousand years ago said that all men are created equal. . . . Jesus of Nazareth wrote no books; he owned no property to endow him with influence. He had no friends in the courts of the powerful. But he changed the course of mankind with only the poor and the despised.” (“Martin Luther King, Jr., Democratic Socialist.”)
Ironically, Dr. King was “gravely disappointed” with the very Christians whose own voices remained silent in response to the prophetic “voice out of Bethlehem,” Arrested and sitting in a Birmingham jail, following a nonviolent civil disobedience action, King wrote a letter to his “fellow clergymen,” who had criticized his action as “unwise” and “untimely.” Calling Birmingham “possibly the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States,” King wrote that, with “some notable exceptions . . . so often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church,” he continued, “the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often vocal—sanction of things as they are.” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.])
What would Jesus do? From Bethlehem to Harlan County, Kentucky to Birmingham to Wall Street the real question becomes, “Which side are you on?” Today the shoe is on the other foot for Jesus’ followers. Once Christians were no longer persecuted and Christianity became recognized as the religion of the Roman state under Emperor Constantine the Great, Christian militants morphed into money changers, and then used their power to participate in the oppression of Jews and other non-Christians. And Christianity’s current history, with some notable exceptions, is often characterized by state-favored churches accommodating imperialistic political power structures and their corporate benefactors. So many Christians in so many pulpits and pews and denominational headquarters blessing the state with their Invocations and Benedictions. Here the prophet of Nazareth’s risky model of “love your neighbor as yourself” is neutralized by Christians’ vicarious identification with his dangerous ethic. The movement is turned into a monument and worshipped. Stature is found in the statue. The right is remembered in the rite. His life is observed as a memory and avoided as a model. The Christian militant becomes a money changer.
Which side are you on? Religion is about the very caring for poor and oppressed persons and strangers embodied in the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Prophet from Nazareth was very specific in saying, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25: 31-46, NRSV)
In a like manner, Jewish prophet Isaiah spoke these words for his god, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (58: 6-7, NRSV)
A bottom line of religion in Islam is also about prophetic caring: “Righteousness is not turning your faces towards the east or the west. Righteous are those who believe in GOD, the Last Day, the angels, the scripture, and the prophets; and they give the money, cheerfully, to the relatives, the orphans, the needy, the traveling alien, the beggars, and to free the slaves; and they observe the Contact Prayers (Salat) and give the obligatory charity (Zakat) and they keep their word whenever they make a promise; and they steadfastly persevere in the face of persecution, hardship, and war. These are the truthful; these are the righteous.” (Verses from the Koran, 2:177)
Religion is not worshipping what the prophets did but doing what the prophets worshipped.
Would Jesus join the Occupy Wall Street movement? In a heartbeat! From worship to Wall Street. Which side are you on?
Mel King is a long-time Boston community activist and organizer, who, in 1968, led the occupation of a city-owned South End parking lot that resulted in the building of affordable housing on the site, called Tent City. A State Representative for nearly 10 years, and founder of Boston’s Rainbow Coalition, he was the first black candidate to made it to the finals in Boston’s 1983 mayoral campaign. He created the Community Fellows program at MIT where he taught for 25 years, and has since established the South End Technology Center to provide young people with access to technology. He is author of Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development, South End Press, 1981, co-editor with James Jennings, of From Access to Power: Black Politics in Boston, Schenkman Books, 1986, and author of Streets, a Poem Book published by Hugs Press, Boston, 2006. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.