The Cleansing: A Lenten Reflection
I took a stand once.
It was a boycott of Burger King.
I know what you're thinking...
You're thinking "Man, that's pretty admirable of you to boycott Burger King, considering the way that their parent corporation treats migrant workers who pick the tomatoes that grace the Whopper."
Yeah, that would be admirable of me. But the stand I took was not because Burger King oppresses people. I took a stand against Burger King because one of their restaurants in West Palm Beach didn't live up to the price of their Big Kids meal that was posted on the drive thru marquee.
On the marquee it distinctly read, "Big Kids Meal, $1.99." I had four dollars on me, and wanted a $1 Whopper, Jr and a Big Kids Meal for my three year old kid. I ordered precisely that, and when I got to the window they wanted to charge me nearly five bucks. I inquired as to why. The young girl at the drive thru responded that the price for the Big Kids Meal was $2.99. I responded back by asking why the hell they left up the sign advertising it for $1.99 when it was $2.99. The girl responded by shrugging and saying, "Do you still want it?" I told her where they could put the Big Kids Meal (this was before I was a pastor, mind you... Seriously)--in a painful and out of the way place, and drove off in a huff.
That started a three year ban on Burger King for anyone in my immediate family--which was not that hard to enforce, really. I came home and made the decree, and my wife concurred. The shabby treatment I had been given was definitely grounds for such drastic action.
I think she was secretly laughing at me behind my back, but I couldn't be certain. She seemed sincere about her support and that was what mattered.
Throughout the three years that we upheld the boycott I noticed that Burger King really didn't seem to be hurting without my business. Whoppers got sold. The sickly fries they serve there, too. Things seemed to point up for BK when they started those creepy King commercials.
The boycott seemed sort of fruitless, to be honest. In the end, we broke it because we were driving down the Florida Turnpike one day, and were starving. We stopped at one of the rest stops on the way, and the only place to eat within it was---you guessed it---a Burger King. I ate a double Whopper with cheese that day, but I took no pleasure in it.
I suppose there are things that I have been courageous about from time to time.
The fact that I can't recall one, defining moment where I took a serious stand that meant something is sort of troubling to me, though.
There's a lot of little things: There was a kid I stuck up for in one my youth groups when I was a church student pastor. All of the other kids' parents wanted me to get rid of him, but I sort of listened and ignored them, and everything worked out in the end.
Oh, and I did send a somewhat positional blog entry about certain votes on certain ordination issues to my denominational news service, and got some hate mail, but it wasn't even really good hate mail. My life wasn't threatened, I wasn't called names, the senders used proper English and were sort of polite. In retrospect it wasn't really hate mail at all. It was disagreement mail, which really just happens to people who are sort of moderate like me.
I find myself dreaming of being different, though.
In June of 1989 there was a protest in Tiananmen Square in China that ended in a massacre of many of the protesters, most of them students. The iconic photograph above was taken at that protest. It's one of the great photographs of all time. The lone student--ordinary, small and frail--standing in front of a line of tanks.
Now that's taking a stand.
One of my favorite stories of all time from the life of Jesus is when he threw the money changers out of the Temple. That's a good story of someone taking a stand. The fact that the "someone" in question is Jesus doesn't hurt.
When Jesus arrived at Herod's Temple in Jerusalem for Passover he was met with a sorry sight. During Passover the population in Jerusalem would swell from 30,000 people to nearly 120,000. 18,000 lambs would be slaughtered as sacrifices. People would travel from all over the known world to fulfill a requirement that all Jewish males be present in Jerusalem for the occasion.
Because of the huge influx of people, many of whom who arrived with no animals to sacrifice, there was a booming business of sacrificial animal sales in and around the city. There was also a half-shekel Temple tax that was imposed on all Jewish men by the priests and religious leaders. Half a shekel equaled about 6 pennies--the daily wage for a day laborer was only 4 pennies, so it was fairly substantial. On top of that, the tax could only be paid in Tyrinian shekels, which were only available (yes, you guessed it) through money changers, who would charge a "fee" to change all foreign money into the appropriate coinage.
As if that wasn't enough, there were animal inspectors who had to inspect all of the animals that were brought to be sacrificed. If the animals you brought to sacrifice were deemed unworthy, you had to go buy "approved" animals at a premium (5-6 times higher than normal) price. Incidentally, the only really approved place to purchase Temple-approved livestock was from a group referred to as the Sons of Annas.
Annas happened to be the high priest.
The Temple functioned as a bank, which made loans, exacted interest, foreclosed on property, you name it. Under Roman rule, high taxes and runaway interest rates were the order of the day. The fact that it participated in the process and held hands with the Empire made the Temple part of an oppressive system that benefited a very small wealthy class and caused the poor to struggle and suffer.
And if you had a problem with the way things were done within the Jewish religious order, you could take it up with the Sanhedrin--a court made up of landed Jewish gentry, who had a vested interest in staying landed and gentry. Since they owed their favor and position to the Romans, they did whatever they could to maintain the status quo.
Honestly, it doesn't sound all that different than our own society. Funny how things don't really change in over two thousand years. And when I say "funny" I mean "deplorable."
When Jesus stood on the front porch of the Temple in what was known as the Court of Gentiles (as far as foreigners were allowed to go into the Temple), he was standing alone at the very place where the most complicity, the most trafficking between the Empire and the Jewish religious establishment were taking place.
Beyond the Court of the Gentiles, separated by a wall was the Court of Women, the farthest point that Jewish women could travel into the Temple. Another wall separated the Court of Women from the Court of Israel, and another wall separated the Court of Israel from the Court of Priests, then the Holy Place, and then the Most Holy Place.
Lots of walls, right? Lots of barriers between the Court of Gentiles and the Most Holy Place where the Jews believed God would enter to be with his people.
Some of them anyway.
So Jesus chose the porch of the Temple to make his stand. And he claimed that ground--the farthest spot from the Most Holy Place as part of God's House, and he cleaned it out by beating the crap out of people and turning over tables and making a scene. The author of John's Gospel even quotes one of the ancient prophets who predicted the Messiah, the Christ, the One who would save God's people from oppression and restore Israel to prominence would act up just like Jesus did. "Zeal for my Father's house consumes me," the quote reads. So for a lot of people (probably not the money-changers and animal inspectors) Jesus' actions would have been sort of welcomed, and then would have also given them a hint that he was more than he seemed to be.
So they ask him, "What gives you the authority to do these things?" Sort of a nice way of asking the obvious: "Hey, you literally just tossed people all over the place, money is rolling on the floor, sheep are running amok, and you're whipping people like a man possessed. Who the [insert expletive] do you think you are?" Then they ask, "What miraculous sign do you have to show your authority?"
I have realized something over the years. People want something to believe in, something noble, something beautiful, something true and right. Our culture is starving for something to believe. A recent poll that has been passed around the internet about the decline of "religious" people in America. The number of people who classify themselves as "religious" dropped from 86 percent to 76 percent since 1990--a huge decline. The Barna Group conducted surveys recently that were used in David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons' book unChristian that describes in detail why so many people in the 16-29 year old age bracket have such a poor opinion of Christianity. One telling statistic stated that 70% of young Americans in the aforementioned age bracket believe that faith is "out of touch with reality."
And yet, young Americans volunteered in record numbers for Barack Obama's presidential campaign, blitzing neighborhoods, canvassing the internet and then actually showing up to vote, which is something young people have not done consistently in the past. Huge numbers of young Americans are volunteering their time and their talent for causes as diverse as aid for Darfur to soup kitchens in their own neighborhood.
Not just young Americans, all kinds of Americans who believe in a better world and have faith that tomorrow can be brighter---even if they don't have much stomach for the "faith" that accompanies religion.
Here's the rub... When those of us in the Christian "world" finally get their attention---these would-be believers---all we can offer them is a watered down version of Christianity that is trapped in institutions, complicit with the oppression of the poor and downtrodden, desperate for power to effect political change that suits it, and consumed with it's own self preservation.
Despite the incessant mewling and fearful, hateful rhetoric of the so-called Christian leaders, who dominate the airwaves and front pages of newspapers, we know that our culture hasn't given up on faith. It's just given up on faith in something that's not worth believing.
And everyone knows that anything worth believing is also worth the risk it takes to believe. There is no risk involved in the shallow, rules-centered "religiosity" that has become equated with Christianity and most Christians. That's safe, and tame and exclusive and based on a fortress mentality.
Following Jesus---really following Jesus is all about risk. It's about the theology of the cross, which is a theology based on self-sacrificing redemptive acts. It's about breaking down walls and barriers that have sheltered the few but repelled the many. It's about crazy, messed-up grace that doesn't make any sense, landing on the most unlikely of people and creating a beautiful Bride out of oddities, paupers, lepers and thieves.
When Jesus stood on the front porch of Herod's temple, and made his stand he knew what it would bring. He knew that the cross loomed over him as a result of his actions. He was spitting in the face of power that was corrupt and that oppressed the poor. If you take a gander through nearly all of the prophetic books in the Hebrew Scriptures, you will find pretty quickly that God takes a pretty damn dim view of those who oppress the poor. The fact that the religious and political powers had gotten into bed with one another (sound familiar?), and were both given a black eye by Jesus' actions didn't bode well for him.
But it needed to be done. The corruption needed to be called out, and the barriers needed to be broken down, and Jesus made his stand--despite the cost, and despite the fact that the risk of the cross hung over him all the while.
And this is what the Church, what those who call themselves Christians must begin to understand:
The risk of the cross hangs over Jesus' whole life and teaching, and if we want to call ourselves followers of Christ, it hangs over ours as well. The Church must stand against consumerism and the marginalization of the poor. The Church must not be co-opted and used to serve the purposes of those in political power at their whim---regardless of the political party in question. The Church must speak the truth about the cost of discipleship. The Church must tear down the barriers that has separated brothers and sisters in Christ from one another because of fear, misunderstanding and hate. The Church must stand in the gaps created when governments and human institutions fail, and never falter, never back down.
Now that's taking a stand.