Thoughts for these days
Occasional comments on current events from a Christian perspective
What is Jesus doing about the bankers?
When participants in the “Occupy London” protest pitched their tents in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral on 15th October this year, none of them could anticipate how much confusion it would precipitate in the Church of England. It was not long before someone spotted the advantage to be gained by writing, “What would Jesus do?” on a sheet and hanging it up for the world’s media to photograph. Could the sign-writers predict the conundrum this would pose for the Cathedral hierarchy, caught as they were between earning tourist dollars and trying to stand side by side with those protesting against rampant capitalism as demanded by the liberal theology of many in the Anglican communion?
There can be no doubt though that the majority of campers gave little thought to what Jesus Christ would do in other aspects of their lives. Hoisting the banner aloft was almost certainly the act of opportunists who sought to recruit the memory of Christ to their cause. When interviewed by the BBC one protester declared, “Jesus was a socialist,” and indeed the Internet widely asserts, “Jesus was on the side of social justice”. On the other hand, Margaret Thatcher infamously argued (in what was nicknamed her “Sermon on the Mound”) that Christianity was entirely comfortable with capitalism and the market economy. Perhaps the question which should be asked of both sides is, do they really want to know what Jesus would do if He stood in their place?
Have you ever heard a socialist declare, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand”? Have you ever heard a capitalist warn their followers that they'll have nowhere to lay their head? During His three years of preaching, Jesus upset both sides of the political divide in Israel. He was a thorn in the side of the rich and powerful religious leaders as well as a source of bewilderment to the anti-Roman insurgents who considered themselves to be fighting for freedom against a foreign occupying force. The problem both sides had with Jesus was that He was not the type of Messiah either of them wanted Him to be. With this in mind, perhaps we should ask if Jesus were to stand on the steps of St Paul's today, would anyone applaud His sermon?
The wrong question?
The point missed by those who erected this banner (and most who have commented on it) is that this question was never intended to be asked of others, but was something we should ask ourselves. It was crafted as a moral safeguard to keep our sinful selves in check. The initials WWJD appeared on wristbands and other trinkets designed to remind young people that they should remember to make life choices in line with those a sinless Jesus would make. Yet even this fails to recognise the central truth of Christianity - its founder is not dead and buried, but three days after being unjustly executed, He came back to life! The Gospel tells us not only that Jesus was a good man who died, but also that He was too righteous for death to keep hold of Him. Having been brought back to life by His Father, He has now been given authority over all things and one day will return to bring justice to all.
In the light of this, the wiser question the protesters could ask of church leaders is the one which entitles this piece. “If the Saviour you claim to speak for is committed to righteousness and justice and if He has all authority, what is He doing about the greed of international bankers and Western societies in general?” This is a reasonable question, but why don’t we hear it being asked? The second verse of Fleetwood Mac’s 1969 hit Oh Well reads, “when I talked to God I knew he'd understand”, but ends with God advising, “But don't ask me what I think of you, I might not give the answer that you want me to.” I suggest it is our own unwillingness to hear what our Creator has to say about us which undergirds the reluctance most people have to ask Him what He is doing about others. When our consciences, dull as they are, continue to make us aware that we are not without fault, we find it difficult to ask Him to pass judgement on others. This is why the accusers of a woman caught in the act of adultery slipped quietly away when He gave permission to the person without sin to begin her stoning. Despite all this, the correct question for us to ask would be, What is Jesus doing now? not, What would He do if He were here?
Root out usury?
In considering that issue, we should first recognise that greed and materialism in Western societies are not confined to those who work in financial institutions. From the richest to the poorest there is a overwhelming desire to have more than we need. This is why the National Lottery is such an effective form of taxation - and why those who have least cough up willingly week by week in the hope that they will be turned into the wealthy overnight ! Sub-prime mortgages could not have been inappropriately sold if those who knew they could not afford them had refused to sign up for them in the first place. As we are reminded daily, Britain has an enormous national debt - currently almost £990 billion and rising! (If that figure is hard to comprehend, then £990,000,000,000 averages out at around £15,700 for every adult and child in the UK.) Yet it is not just the government which has spent more than it can pay - individual debt is also out of control. According to Credit Action, a national money education charity, non-mortgage debt here is £209 million (Sep.11), which averages out at approximately £8,000 per household. Can we pay for all this? In April to June this year, UK banks and building societies wrote off £2.06 billion in personal debt. On average that is £22.54 million a day, with just over half being owed on unpaid credit cards. My point? Yes, those who lend this money to nations and individuals are morally irresponsible, but so are those who borrow it!
As I write, there is ongoing worry about the state of the Euro and what the knock-on effect will be in Europe and beyond if it collapses. By the time you read this, world finances may have changed dramatically, or they may be still bumping along with many hoping that things have finally reached rock bottom and can get no worse. These crises are the result of the collective materialism pursued by the West since the end of the Second World War and before.
Another banner seen in front of St Paul’s read, “Root out usury” - usury is a rather old-fashioned word used in the King James Version of the Bible. The Law given through Moses to the people of Israel forbade them to charge the poor usury or interest when they lent them money. (There is no law forbidding charging interest to the rich if they borrow money.) The Hebrew word translated usury has the root “to bite with a sting like a snake” and it is used several times in Numbers 21 where many people died after complaining about how God was taking care of them. A large number of venomous snakes invaded the camp and many people were bitten by them. The word used for bitten is translated in other places as “charged usury/interest”. (I will not discuss the rest of this incident here, nor how Jesus used it to illustrate the salvation His Father provides for those who humble themselves before Him.) Charging interest to the poor, Jesus says through the Old Testament Scriptures, is like a venomous snake bite. Western societies however have chosen to put Him behind their backs and therefore feel free to ignore His righteous standards in this matter as well as in others.
Ignoring our Creator in this way is not of course a new situation. It has happened throughout history. An early example of this in the Bible concerns a group of cities. Their end is well known, but very few recognise the roots of their downfall. The prophet Ezekiel shed light on this as he warned Israel of their need to change their attitude. Of one of these cities he wrote, “she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezk. 16:49) Notice how they had a life which was well supplied and easy, but they still failed to care for the poor. Jesus taught that every individual has a personal responsibility to care for the poor and needy. Ezekiel’s words were not a criticism of the political class alone, but of all who had more than enough to live on, yet ignored the needs of those who did not. Through Ezekiel The LORD continued to warn Israel of what happened to these places when they continued in their selfishness, “Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it.” Jesus did not stand by and do nothing about these societies. We are told that he removed them, but how?
Will we learn from history?
The first city in question is Sodom, which of course is linked in most people’s mind with its close neighbour Gomorrah. These cities are remembered throughout the West today for unrestrained homosexuality at the time of Abraham, and for their destruction when “The LORD rained brimstone and fire” on both cities after rescuing Lot from Sodom. No doubt even the mention of this event will raise the hackles of many secularists, who insist that homosexual practice is on a par with heterosexual marriage. We should note however the build-up in the sin of Sodom as described by Ezekiel: they began with influence amongst their neighbours, all the food they needed and an easy lifestyle; but despite this abundance, failed to have compassion on those who lacked these things. Instead they became arrogant not just towards the poor but towards God Himself, and their immoral conduct spread into their sexual practices. When they failed to repent of their arrogance before The LORD, He could justly destroy them and He did so in a very dramatic way.
I am sure some will protest about me quoting the Bible, arguing that it is not real history. Take a look then instead at what we know from other historical sources. The more wealthy and powerful any empire has become, the more decadence has spread through their cultures. Decadence is not just about sexual immorality, but unrestrained self-indulgence especially by those at the top of a society. The route into an ever-increasing lack of self-control, associated with a lack of concern for the poor, has been observed many times throughout history. Perhaps the best known example is the decline of the Roman empire. It is interesting to see that these attitudes continued even after the institutional conversion of the empire to Christianity under Constantine - a faith whose second greatest commandment is that we should love our neighbours in the same way as we love ourselves. Without a personal encounter with God, even powerful men like the Caesars are unable to escape from the grip of human nature which drives each of us to think of ourselves above everyone else. In a small way this weakness, inherent as it is in human nature, was demonstrated when a number of the Occupy London protesters chose not to stay in their tents overnight.
Until Constantine, Christianity had been marginalised in Roman society. It condemned both the prevailing paganism and the lifestyles of the rich and powerful. It was to Christians living in such a society that the apostle Paul wrote a letter. He began by saying how much he longed to visit them, then he warned about what happens to a society when it chooses to ignore its Creator and focusses on wealth and self-satisfaction. He continued by stating that the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes known the righteousness of God to those who believe and contrasts this with a description of how God’s anger is expressed to those who wilfully choose to ignore Him. This passage seems to fall somewhere between an overview of history and a prophecy of what will happen to any society which blocks its ears to the Word of The LORD. It applied as much in retrospect to events leading up to the destruction of Sodom as it did to what would happen over the following centuries in Rome. It is relevant today because nations once collectively known as Christendom are now eagerly following in the footsteps of societies of years gone by which chose to put the knowledge of God behind them.
Abandoned by God!
This letter from Paul began with a blunt warning not about what societies do to themselves when they choose to steer a secular course, but about how Jesus Christ will hand them over to the folly of their own pride. It warns of a rise in the type of things which are common today. Paul wrote, “although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools.” Futility makes itself known in many ways: opulent lifestyles and endless ‘health and safety' regulations are just two examples of foolishness masquerading as wisdom. Paul then shows how God allows societies to live out the consequences of their choices if they don't humble themselves before Him:
“Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonour their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful;” (Rom. 1:24-31)
Whilst this passage is often cited because of its clear reference to homosexuality, it should also be noted that the list includes many things which we are bemused to find on the increase in our ‘civilised’ Western societies, things which now fill our news bulletins, things which we chose for ourselves over and above loving the One who created us. Twice Paul stressed that this merciful God hands people over to what they desire and when He does that, they discover the depths to which human nature can sink. The take-home message is that when things get this bad, Jesus has already passed judgement on a society, having withdrawn His protection from it.
Paul though has something further to add about the choices societies make, “knowing the righteous judgement of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.” If any Christian wants to understand what is happening in Britain and the West today, that last phrase should make clear what action Jesus Christ is taking in response to the attitudes prevailing in our societies. We now have leaders in all walks of life who persist in approving actions and lifestyles which they instinctively know are wrong. Politicians around the world are going to great lengths to approve homosexuality and to give those who practice it legal precedence over Christians who stand by Biblical values. Any non-Christians who happen to read this should not fool themselves by thinking that Jesus is not interested in the attitudes displayed either by selfish bankers or by those who practice immorality - as in Sodom, a lack of care for the poor leads on to arrogance and abominations, which at the right time bring judgement and destruction upon a society. Because the West has given itself over to the accumulation of personal wealth without remembering benevolence towards those at whose expense that wealth is ultimately accrued, Jesus has allowed us to mislead ourselves into committing even greater foolishness. Consequently we are led by those who profess to be wise and yet are foolish over the things that really matter. When Sodom and Gomorrah reached that point, there was no return.
The Archbishop’s response
On December 5th the Archbishop of Canterbury placed on his web site (here) an article he had written for the Christmas edition of the Radio Times. It appears that he too has been struck by the WWJD question displayed outside St. Paul’s. We are in agreement that this question is not “a nice short cut to the truth”. He makes several other valuable points such as, “And, just to rub it in, there are other places in the Bible where Jesus prods us to ask ourselves about our motives before we embark on grand gestures. Are we doing this for the sake of the real issue - or for an audience?” He continued, “What matters is that he is there - claiming the right to probe our motives and stretch our minds. Faith isn’t about just his teaching or his good example but his whole life, his whole being.” For once I found myself in agreement with many of his statements. I particularly liked his observation that, “The Jesus we meet in the Bible is somebody who constantly asks awkward questions (especially questions addressed to religious people, moral people and rich people – all the sorts of people involved at St Paul’s…) rather than just giving us a model of perfect behaviour.”
Rowan Williams concludes with two points which he considers are the big things that Christmas tells us. I consider one of the Archbishop’s points powerful concerning Christ Himself. He says, “First, what changes things isn’t a formula for getting the right answer but a willingness to stop and let yourself be challenged right to the roots of your being.” On a personal level this could not be more true. Jesus Christ challenges each one of us to face up to what we are really like when we place ourselves in His light. Years before Christ came to earth the prophet Jeremiah, weeping over the decline of Israel, made this appeal “Let us search out and examine our ways, And turn back to The LORD.” Note that the purpose of such self-searching is to turn us back to our Creator. By contrast, the Archbishop’s next conclusion is weak when addressed to a post-modern society which defines love by human emotions, “And second, we can find the courage to let this happen because we are let into the secret that we are in the hands of love, committed, unshakeable love.”
The sacrificial love of Jesus Christ for those He created is indeed committed and unshakable, but it is also righteous and just. Through Nahum He warned, “The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, And the LORD will by no means leave the guilty unpunished... Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the burning of His anger?” Every single one of us would like to think that if there is an all-powerful God, even if we have ignored this deity for most of our lives, should one day we stand before them, he or she will put an arm around us and say “It doesn’t matter what you have been like, I love you.” For a fuller discussion on Christ’s commitment to eternal justice and righteousness, I refer you to a previous post here. For now let me just say that a God who chose to ignore the wrong I have done would be guilty of being unjust towards those whom I have hurt. In the same way, when a society collectively ignores His righteous standards for life, when leaders who are charged with being ministers of His goodness and justice declare evil good and good evil; call darkness light and light darkness; say that bitter is sweet and vice versa, they are foolishly considering themselves wise in their own eyes, prudent in their own sight, but they have no concern for the wisdom which is from above. Such people and the nations they lead cannot rely on a soft sentimental God to turn a blind eye to their iniquities now, nor to acquit them in eternity.
We are reaping what we have sown
Yes, if Jesus were to raise His voice on the steps of St. Paul’s, He would do more than condemn the bankers and politicians who have become rich at the expense of the poor. His actions over the years recorded both in the Bible and in history at large, make it clear that when a society chooses to ignore Him He gives them up, and consequently they descend into widespread foolishness. Of those with an ear to hear what He has to say He will ask very hard questions, but when the majority turn a deaf ear to Him He allows them to reap what they sow. When national leaders agree to encourage people to do what He says is wrong, it is a clear indication that He has already judged their societies and found them wanting. Through the prophet Isaiah He once warned the nation of Israel that they were sick, “From the sole of the foot even to the head,” adding, “there is no soundness in it!” They did not take any notice and He raised up the Babylonian empire to evict them from the land He had given to them. Two and half thousand years later they still have not fully recovered from that judgement. If they are the apple of His eye, what will be the outcome for those societies which have known His blessing in years past but are now waving two fingers at Him?
We might ask, what would you do if you were Jesus and people were treating you in this way? But we are not like Him. We would retaliate for the sake of our pride, but He does not. When Jesus allows a nation to reap what it has sown, it is because He wants them to come to their senses, turn from their arrogance and seek His wisdom in every matter of life. But when societies en masse ignore Him, in His mercy He still offers to rescue any individual who is bold enough to go against the flow and put their trust in Him, turning away from living their lives without reference to Him. Somehow I suspect that is not the answer the Occupy London protesters were looking for.
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© Randall Hardy 2011
This page last edited December 2011