Faith Column: When Christ occupied Wall Street
by James Wilt
Protesting against corporate rule, unfair taxation and rampant poverty seems awfully justified.
I would typically be the first in line to sign up for such an event, but the Occupy Wall Street movement — which is now hitting its first month of protests — appears to be missing an essential element for pushing change: demands.
Rants and debates have already proliferated the Internet about the lack of demands, but little attention — if any — has ever been given to Jesus Christ’s protesting style when he cleansed the temple.
In spite of that, Christ’s life definitely has something to say about Occupy Wall Street.
Each of the four gospels carries the account of the cleansing of the Temple; the location was more-or-less the Wall Street of the times. The story goes that Christ entered Jerusalem for the Passover and kicked out the dozens of merchants who were selling animals for sacrifice and ripping off buyers. In some accounts, he even overturned tables, scattered money and made a whip out of cords.
If the story began and ended there, it would sound a lot like the Occupy Wall Street movement. The modern-day demonstrations obviously don’t involve cattle and doves, but the idea of publicly raging against injustice is certainly present. Police barricades have been rushed and people have been pepper sprayed. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested over the weeks, and more are sure to follow.
The interesting thing about Christ is that he didn’t just occupy his Wall Street. He revolutionized it. But it wasn’t the act itself that changed it. Both before and after the incident his life and words set a clear precedent for what he was demanding and what he offered to the world. He didn’t just yell and scream until the Pharisees and merchants stopped being jerks. Obviously, that’s oversimplifying the actions of the modern protesters, but Hank Paulson and Alan Greenspan aren’t exactly being praised at Occupy Wall Street protests.
The cleansing of the Temple wasn’t an anomaly in Christ’s life. People knew what his demands and offers were. The “protest” was simply a continuation of what he had started in the synagogue at Nazareth when he gave his mission statement that he was sent to “proclaim freedom” and “release the oppressed” (Luke 3:18).
Following that reading in the synagogue, Christ offered up the vision of his new kingdom by healing the crippled and diseased, exorcising the possessed and commissioning both the poor and wealthy to follow him. Justice for the marginalized was at the heart of his three-year-long ministry and the demands of that were clear by the time he flipped the tables. Disciples and critics alike knew Christ’s call to a new world was contingent upon well-defined (and revolutionary) principles such as giving generously to the poor (Luke 18:22), loving one’s enemies (Luke 6:27) and communing with “sinners” (Luke 7:36). Although the records of Christ’s occupation of the Temple didn’t include much narrative, it’s assumed that people knew what his demands were.
On the other hand, no one really knows what the Occupy Wall Street movement wants. Student loan relief, health care reform and the prosecution of Wall Streets are suspected demands, but there’s been no official declaration thus far.
Christ offers a fairly glaring example of what it means to protest against a culture effectively: ensure people know what you want. When he triumphantly did that, and was crucified as a result, he changed the world forever.