Part Four – Politics in the Pulpit
White scholars, preachers, and pew sitters squirm as we consider the Temple Incident. The squirming becomes sweating when we begin to discuss Christian civil disobedience. No, that’s not right. The sweating begins when we consider “politics in the pulpit.”
The general rule in white, mainline congregations on that one is quite simple. Don’t do it. When pastoral leaders engage in something that resembles Christian civil disobedience, such as participating in a peaceful public demonstration for Black Lives Matter, the response from some parishioners is somewhere between panic and outrage. So, this text requires us to dig deeper into such responses and look ourselves in our (white supremacist) faces.
The fact that this is even an issue betrays our privileged, colonial position in the culture. If we resist Jesus’ actions, we are reading the text from the perspective of the religious, economic, and political establishment, not from the perspective of the oppressed and exploited people Jesus represents. That perspective is largely the viewpoint of white male supremacy that dictates the terms of power and the pace of “change.”
I think of the words of Ijeoma Oluo in this regard. She’s worth quoting at length (as is often the case).
“How often have you heard the argument that we have to slowly implement gender and racial equality in order to not ‘shock’ society? Who is the ‘society’ that people are talking about? I can guarantee that women would be able to handle equal pay or a harassment-free work environment right now, with no ramp-up. I’m certain that people of color would be able to deal with equal political representation and economic opportunity if they were made available today. So for whose benefit do we need to go so slowly? How can white men be our born leaders and at the same time so fragile that they cannot handle social progress?” (Mediocre, pages 7-8).
Oluo’s words could be transposed quite easily into the Temple Incident. Who was resistant to changes in the Temple system of wealth extraction? It certainly wasn’t the people who had to decide between getting groceries and buying a pair of doves for the required sacrifice. It certainly wasn’t the people who had to decide between a visit from their friendly Roman legionnaires and having enough money to clothe their children. The people who reacted negatively to Jesus’ Temple intervention were those who benefitted from the system of exploitation.
With whom do we identify? And what is the place of “political witness” in the life of Christian congregations? Here we privileged, powerful, and positioned white people can learn a great deal from the experience and expertise of our sisters and brothers in Black congregations. I deeply appreciate the writing and witness of Dr. Esau McCauley in his book, Reading While Black. I want to quote extensively from that work here.
We white folks have a long history of treating Black Christian political witness as bothersome (at least) and far too extreme (most of the time). McCauley rehearses the criticism of Dr. Martin Luther King’s actions in the Birmingham bus boycott from eight white mainline religious leaders. We Lutherans have our own tales of shame as when, for example, James Forman was summarily rejected by Lutheran authorities when he presented them with a plan for reparations from the church. McCauley describes the pushback as a question. “Was [King’s] public and consistent criticism of the political power structure of his day an element of his pastoral ministry or a distraction from it?” (page 49).
In most of our white mainline congregations, the honest answer would be obvious. Pastors do spiritual things, not political things. White people generally thought that Dr. King should stay in his lane and tend to his flock. Of course, as McCauley points out, such a binary approach was not an option and would not be considered in most Black congregations. The privilege of separating religion and politics is a mark of white supremacy and not a mark of biblical Christianity. The Temple Incident is a case in point.
I can imagine some of the critiques applied to Jesus during and after the Temple Incident, especially by those in power. What does that stupid rabbi think he’s doing? He may know the Bible, but he knows nothing about the real world. Why doesn’t he mind his own business and help people deal with their problems? We liked him a lot better when he was healing people and handing out bread.
But now that damned fool has gone from preaching to meddling. Doesn’t he know the Romans are watching? What if they decide to strike back? And doesn’t he understand that the whole Temple system depends on that money? How will we keep the doors open if people stop buying the animals and using the Temple banking services? He’s going to have to be dealt with, one way or another.
McCauley then works through the “quietist” texts in Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2. He suggests that Romans 13 cannot be used to justify violent revolt. But there’s a lot of distance between armed insurrection and doing nothing. “Submission and acquiescence,” he writes, “are two different things” (page 51). Indeed, we are called to pray for the welfare of government officials. But that is also not an invitation to inaction. “Prayer for leaders and criticism of their practices are not mutually exclusive ideas,” McCauley says (page 53). “Both have biblical warrant in the same letter” (1 Timothy).
McCauley discusses the inherently political and politically explosive nature of Jesus’ ministry. This was not Jesus’ innovation but rather a fulfillment of the trajectory in the Jewish scriptures to challenge and upset the rulers of this world, beginning with the Egyptian Pharaoh. “It was precisely inasmuch as Jesus was obedient to his Father and rooted in the hopes and dreams of Israel,” McCauley writes, “that Jesus revealed himself to be a great danger to the rulers of his day” (page 55). The Temple Incident is a clear illustration of this revelation.
McCauley reminds us that “those Christians who have called out injustice are following in the footsteps of Jesus” (page 57). This means, of course, that those of us who remain silent are not following in the footsteps of Jesus. That’s not something I’ve preached very often, nor have I heard it with much frequency in our pulpits until recently. John 2 presents an opportunity to at least point this out.
“Protest is not unbiblical,” McCauley concludes, “it is a manifestation of our analysis of the human condition in light of God’s own word and vision for the future. His vision may await an appointed time,” he continues, “but it is coming” (page 62). Analysis of the human condition in most of our mainline pulpits is limited to individual consolation and comfort. In order to avoid the political and social justice conversation, we retreat into individualized “spiritual disciplines” that may offer us personal serenity but do little to inform our social consciousness or energize our public witness. I know that in some cases such disciplines do in fact inform and energize. But my observation is that such connections are exceptional.
I come now to some real dynamite in McCauley’s chapter. I will quote the paragraph fully.
“The question that ought to keep Christians up at night is not the political activism of Black Christians. The question should be how 1 Timothy 2:1-4 came to dominate the conversation about the Christian’s responsibility to the state. How did we manage to ignore the clearly political implications of Paul’s casual remarks about the evil age in Galatians and his wider reflections on the links between evil powers and politicians? How did John’s condemnation of Rome in Revelation fall from view? Why did Jesus’ public rebuke of Herod get lost to history?”
We might add, how did Jesus’ act of civil disobedience fail to motivate white, privileged, mainline Christians to embrace such public and prophetic actions as normal for us? “It may have been,” McCauley continues, “because it was in the best interest of those in power to silence Black voices. But if our voices are silenced,” he declares, “the Scriptures still speak” (page 64).
It is not the case that radical liberal political crazy people have cherry-picked Scripture for a few proof texts to underwrite their causes. It is the case that our positions determine our reading. If we read without analyzing our social positions, we will read inaccurately and narrowly. It is not that Blacks carved an anti-slavery position out of a pro-slavery Bible. It is the case that slaveholders whittled their Bible down until the anti-slavery ammunition was removed.
McCauley’s work can help us to see that white mainline Christians do that more broadly. It is not that individual conversion is in the Bible and social justice is not. It is the case that privileged, powerful, and positioned people prefer a Bible that contains the former but not the latter. Such a pared down text then allows us to stay where we are. But if we stay where we are, we will not follow Jesus where he goes.
References and Resources
Croy, N. Clayton. “The Messianic Whippersnapper: Did Jesus Use a Whip on People in the Temple (John 2:15)?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 128, no. 3, 2009, pp. 555–568. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25610203?seq=1. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.
Domeris, William. The ‘enigma of Jesus” temple intervention: Four essential keys. http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222015000200038.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.
Malina, Bruce J., and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.
McCauley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2020.
Witherington, Ben. “Jesus and the Temple Tantrum (A Study of John 2:13-17).” https://www.seedbed.com/jesus-and-the-temple-tantrum-a-study-of-john-213-17/.