“Jesus and the Poor Peoples’ Campaign” Reflections given by The Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on March 4th, 2018 (Readings for the 3rd of Lent(B): Exodus 20:1-7, Psalm 19, I Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22)
I know some of you may be here today, just yearning to find a little comfort, or some healing, or some kindness or encouragement. I hope you find that here today. But though we are often hurting we also need to figure out how we can shake the world, because so often why we are needing comfort, healing, and encouragement is related to what’s going on in our world. So today, partly because it’s the focus of our gospel, I’m going to be talking about the shaking of our world. I hope you will take from it whatever is useful for you, and let the rest be.
One of the complicated things about trying to follow in the way of Jesus, is that Jesus lived in a world in which the political, the economic, the social, and the religious—were inseparable. Thus, most of the time, Jesus’ words and actions were addressed to all the different aspects of this reality at the same time. In contrast, we live in a world where we are constantly trying to distinguish these realities from each other. Thus, Jesus the non-violent revolutionary, who was an amazing political strategist, is made simply into a religious teacher, or Jesus, the amazing religious reformer and spiritual teacher, is made simply into a political activist. But perhaps in our world the political and the economic, the social and the religious are much more inter-related than our intellectual categories would have us believe. If that’s true, perhaps we need to let the gospels speak to us on every level at the same time—as they would have to those who first heard them.
Part of Jesus’ moral genius is the way he understood how to challenge the immoral and symbolic narratives that were being used to justify domination and oppression. Today I’m going to be trying to talk about Jesus’ two campaigns as a way to illuminate and illustrate this and then see what that might tell us about the challenges we are facing today.
In Mark’s gospel we see Jesus’ first campaign was focused on the region of Galilee.
Now the immoral symbolic narrative that was used to justify domination and exploitation in this region at the time had two main focuses—both related to a narrative around debt.
The first focus is pretty simple for us to understand. It focused on financial debt. Most of the people who worked the land were indebted. They owed money to those they had been forced to borrow money from as a way to survive. This indebtedness left them subject to the demands of their lenders so that they would often get less and less good terms in any kind of negotiations around the repayment of their debts. At the time of Jesus, this debt system was destroying the village-based agriculture system that had existed for thousands of years as people were increasingly losing their lands which went into the hands of large landowners. The consequences for those who lost their lands was dramatic. I believe some historians estimate those who were turned off their lands lived an average of something like five years before they died from the hardships of the lives of the uprooted.
The second type of indebtedness people suffered from was cultic debt. This is maybe a little harder, but equally important, for us to understand. This is your indebtedness to the broader society you owed for being an unclean person and the burden that put on the broader community. This cultic debt came out of the imperial temple religion that said that all kinds of people were unclean and all kinds of things could make you unclean. If you were handicapped or disabled you were considered permanently unclean. If you had been rendered unclean for some temporary reason, like coming into contact with seamen or blood or some other source of contamination, then you could pay to have sacrifices offered in the temple that would render you clean again. But the poor often could not afford these sacrifices so they were usually viewed, in the eyes of others, to be unclean.
This whole debt system, in which the majority of people were blamed, considered unworthy, because of having gotten into debt, or were viewed as unclean and impure, was the immoral narrative that was used, in Biblical terms to justify “hiding your face from your own kin,” to disown people, to turn them from subjects into objects by not recognizing their humanity.
In response to this Jesus created a movement and a campaign that:
*called for the forgiveness of financial debts. Though I suspect most of those in the movement were not those holding the debts of others, just to hold up the forgiveness of debts as a Godly virtue challenged the moral equation as suddenly it is not the debtor who is viewed negatively, but rather those who are holding and not forgiving the debts.
*called for the forgiveness of cultic debts. “Forgive us our sins as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us.” A static reality where some are viewed as the pure and others as the impure suddenly changes as there is no longer justification for viewing the impure with hard hearts as you are reminded of your own indebtedness to God. It seems one key way to practice the forgiveness of cultic debts is related to touching and social acceptance. The powers that be said that if you touched an unclean person you became unclean. So how does Jesus heal people and free them from the spirits that are possessing them? He touches them and then he welcomes them back into the community.
*called for the breaking of bread together and the sharing of food. These public feasts become one of the primary means through which to affirm a Godly reality that delegitimized the social/political/religious order. According to the Pharisees and others you were not to break bread with the impure which, not by coincidence, included most poor people. The breaking of bread together across the boundaries of the pure and the impure became first and foremost a way of affirming the new family of God and rejecting a social hierarchy that left some viewed as superior and others inferior, some worthy and others unworthy, some human and others less than human. It became not only a concrete symbolic way of sustaining people, but even more importantly a counter-witness to those who justified their murderous policies by blaming those they declared impure.
Thus, we can see how the campaign in Galilee was simultaneously a matter of political change, religious reform, psychological transformation, and spiritual renewal—aimed at undermining the symbol systems and narratives that justified oppression and pointing toward the creation of a new society, a new kind of political/economic relationships, a new kind of religion, a new kind of spirituality, a new kind of psychology.
Jesus second campaign is the focus of the second half of Mark’s gospel. In this campaign, Jesus takes on the immoral national narratives and symbol systems that justify the same kind of hard hearted, oppressive systems of domination that he was dealing with on the local level in Galilee.
This campaign is short lived, it takes place in less than a week, but its consequence are dramatic. The heart of this campaign is the actions we hear about in John’s gospel today where Jesus goes into the Temple in Jerusalem, the epicenter of political, religious, social and economic power in Israel.
The Temple was the place where taxes were collected both to support the Jewish Temple -State and its sponsors –the Roman Empire. It is where all the animals are taken to be sacrificed, made kosher, according to the law. It was like a huge meat market in which thousands of animals were sacrificed every day. It had deep wide channels to carry thousands of gallons of blood out of the Temple. It’s also where people would come to offer up sacrifices to achieve atonement with God, be made one again with God and the community.
When Jesus comes into the Temple, quoting the prophets, and with a whip in his hand drives out the sheep and the cattle and overturns the tables of the money changers (which were necessary because Roman coins bore the image of Cesar) he was not simply protesting the commercialization of religion, as John’s text might seem to suggest, but according to Mark says “You have made my father’s house into a den of thieves.” That is, the Temple of God, which is supposed to be a place of restoration and wholeness, has become the hideout for those who are robbing the people. What is being stolen, is not only the wages of the poor, but also their inherent dignity, as this system first convinces people they are impure and then sells them purity and reconciliation with God and others.
By critiquing this system and suggesting there is no need for these sacrifices Jesus attacks the foundation on which this domination system is built. The authorities understand this and according to Mark’s gospel immediately move to arrest Jesus. Jesus is then tried and executed as a blasphemer and as one who deserves the death of a revolutionary. Though Jesus is killed, his followers reject the Temple system’s vision of reconciliation with God through offering animal sacrifices. Less than 40 years later, after the temple is destroyed, non-Christian Jews will also move away from this vision of religion.
Now, why are these campaigns so important for us to understand? What is the Spirit saying to us today, here and now, in and through them?
Here, I would like to turn to the words of Martin Luther King, who like Gandhi, helped to shed such light on Jesus’ vision of social and spiritual change.
“There are two Americas. One America is beautiful for (its) situation.
In this America, millions of people have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In this America children grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.
But there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist. In this other America, millions of people are forced to live in vermin-filled, distressing housing conditions where they do not have the privilege of wall-to-wall carpeting, but all too often, they end up with wall-to wall rats and roaches. Almost forty percent of the Negro families of America live in sub-standard housing conditions. In this other America, thousands of young people are deprived of an opportunity to get an adequate education.”* (*From transcription of “The Other America” Speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr. at Grosse Pointe High School on March 14th, 1968)
“This America is the home of the dispossessed, the disinherited, and the disenchanted….. So long as these two Americas exists, there must be a continuing struggle for human rights.”** (**From manuscript of “The Other America” found in the Martin Luther King Archives.)
Like Jesus, King was an amazing political, religious, and moral strategist who understood how to not simply challenge oppressive and neglectful policies, but also how to attack the immoral narrative and symbolic systems that justified them.
The Civil Rights movement, which might be viewed as King’ first campaign, was significantly focused on the system of segregation as it was found in the South. It was a system maintained in and through the rule of terror. King and the Civil Rights movement overthrew that rule of terror by taking up Jesus’ call to “take up your cross and follow me” through doing the very things that had led people to be lynched for over a hundred years throughout the South: speaking up, affirming your dignity, protesting, trying to vote. Doing these actions and facing the violent backlash made people realize they could survive the threats and the violence such they the threat of terror and shame could no longer control them –and when that happened—all sorts of things began to change.***
(*** See essay “Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did,” by Hamden Rice, published in Daily Kos on August 29th, 2011)
Where Jesus focused on the public sharing of food, the Civil Rights movement chose the simple symbolic action of integrating those spaces that were to be for whites only. It was a direct assault on the purity code that was used to justify segregation—the idea that whites were morally superior, more pure.
The segregationists justified segregation by claiming that they were equally concerned about the well-being of people of color as they were for white people. But the non-violent tactics of the Civil Rights movement exposed the reality so the whole country could see the murderous, hard hearted, uncompassionate, immoral reality for what it was. With no moral foundation to rest on—legal segregation crumbled.
Towards the end of that campaign King began to plan a second, even bigger campaign, to take on the domination system in our nation as a whole, to take on the system that justified racism, systemic poverty, and militarization. This campaign was to be called “The Poor Peoples’ Campaign.” The campaign intended to use the tactics the civil rights movement had developed to bring the plight of the poor, their needs and their humanity, before the national conscience through bringing them into the centers of power. King was killed on April 4th 1968, exactly one year after he had begun talking about this new kind of campaign in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, and exactly one week before Maundy Thursday. He never lived to see the campaign he hoped would challenge the way the stigmatizing of poor people was used to justify their exploitation and mistreatment in this country.
Today, we are still living in two Americas, still living in a nation tragically divided between its democratic and human rights ideals and an economic and moral system that justifies the mistreatment of almost half of our population, the 140 million people who live in or near poverty, the vast majority of whom are women and children, and who are trapped in a caste system. If you are poor, this caste system, for most people defines where you can and cannot live. Generally, where you live in turn defines what kinds of schools you can and cannot go to. Generally, what kind of high school you go to defines what kind of higher education you can and cannot get. Generally, what kind of higher education you get, or don’t get, dictates what kind of jobs and salary you can and cannot make. Generally, what kind of salary you make generally defines where you can and cannot live. So, we see people trapped in this vicious cycle of despair and neglect. Thus, as Martin Luther King pointed out, the children of God in this country are divided into two systems—one that promises freedom, economic well-being, and spiritual and physical health and another that promises frustration and works to perpetuate poverty, illness and early death. And Jesus comes to us saying—”Well—what are we going to do about it?”
I don’t believe there is any one correct answer to that question. I think it’s going to take the kind of myriad of approaches that we saw in the Civil Rights’ movement, but it’s also clear that it’s going to require that same kind of sacrifice. But we must be willing to make these sacrifices for continuing as we have been is untenable.
We will never have racial justice in this country unless we confront our economic injustice, but simultaneously we will never have economic justice, a decent life for all, unless we have racial justice, because it has been the creation of systems of privilege based on skin color that have been the major means of dividing poor and working people throughout our history. And we can see how these systems of racial and economic injustice have been so tied into sexism and discrimination against women and vice versa.
We will never have racial justice, economic justice, or gender justice, as long as our society spends so much of our country’s wealth on our military, and we will never be able to challenge the justification for our massive military system until we address the economic and racial injustices that give rise to the conflicts which are used to justify our use of the military.
We may not have much time to address these evils, unless we wake up to the destructin of our environment, but we will also not be able to address what is being done to our environment unless we recognize how the degradation of our environment is connected to systemic economic, racial, and gender inequality and militarism.
Lastly, or perhaps firstly, there is the question of faith. The faith of Jesus was inseparable from the struggle for social and political and religious change. I would suggest that perhaps we are never really going to know the transforming power of the faith of Jesus until we too are willing to wade into these waters, until we too come to the place where we are willing to give our lives in love to see to the reign of love happen here on earth and in our society. But I believe that if we are willing God is able and that if we are a ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen