Saturday, March 7, 2015

Personal Piety as a Bedrock of Oppression

Exodus 20:1-17
John 2:13-22


Those who forget history are destined to repeat it.

There is a trend in the church, in the last one hundred years or so, to focus on one's personal relationship with God, to memorizes verses of scripture, and to take single phrases or sentences or promises completely out of context.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. If memorizing Jeremiah 29:11 ("For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper and not to harm you....") is of comfort and gets someone through a rough patch in life, it's a lovely thing. Faith should be a source of strength. Faith should carry us through the hard times.

But if that's the farthest faith takes us, there's a problem.

The issue of divorcing scriptures from their context prevents us from understanding the wider social issues the scriptures were intended to address when they were written, and in so doing, can prevent us from understanding how those same scriptures can address wider social issues today.

The reality is that everyone subscribes to a method of biblical interpretation - a particular lens through which they read the bible. I'll be honest about mine - I read the bible, by and large, through a lens focused on social justice. This is in part because social justice is generally important to me and in part because it's an overriding theme of the text, whether you approach it with this view in mind or not.

A funny thing happens when we approach the lectionary texts for today from a social justice perspective - these two seemingly unrelated texts begin to make sense as a pair. Furthermore, the issues inherent in personalizing texts out of context become clear.

When we read the Ten Commandments as personal mandates, a couple of interesting things begin to happen:

First, we divorce the entire list from the context in which it was given - an entire people group, a nation, a whole culture has been delivered from slavery and oppression and is given a new way to live in the world, as a collective, as a group who are going to be held accountable to these laws.

While it is certainly a good thing to be mindful of our personal idols - the things we love more than we as individuals love God and God's people - and while I would certainly never suggest that honoring one's parents isn't, generally speaking, a wise course of action, the simple fact is that this is profoundly different from and has gravely difference consequences than reading this text as a collective - being mindful as a culture of what our community loves more than God and God's people, forgetting where our ancestors came from and how God delivered them from slavery in Egypt.

There is a world of difference between actively seeking as individual not to covet your neighbor's wife or servant or ox or donkey and actively seeking as a community not to covet the systems of oppression rampant in the neighboring nation that allows them to amass grotesque wealth at the expense of the poor, which subjugates women and makes them property of men, which enslaves people for the purpose of benefiting the few in power.

Reading the Ten Commandments as mores for the collective, rather than rules for the individual, allows us to keep them in the context of a nation that was just delivered from those same oppressive and abusive systems of injustice. God delivered the Israelite people from that system and then tells them "Yes, change is hard, but don't go getting nostalgic for the very injustice I just delivered you from."

Those who forget history are destined to repeat it.

Second, reading the Ten Commandments as personal rather than political allows us to focus on the letter of the law rather than spirit or heart of the law and in doing so, we begin to engage in the process of "othering." In taking the commands as personal dictates, we begin to compare ourselves to our friends and neighbors, setting ourselves apart as better than, and creating in groups and out groups.

What starts as a small matter of personal pride can quickly devolve into systemic injustice and oppression of entire groups of people as an in group seeks to gain or maintain wealth and power at the expense of the out group(s). The law, rather unifying a group, instead drives a wedge between them. Rather than bringing a community closer to God, creates roadblocks for the least of these, and even separates those in power from God as well.

The problem with systems of oppression and injustice is that while the view might look good from the top of the pile, in dehumanizing others so that we can justify our acts of oppression, we inherently dehumanize ourselves in the process.

Divorcing the scriptures from their context, holding to the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the, creating in groups and out groups, using the law to solidify unjust systems of oppression is a perpetual reality.

We see this time and time and time again.

We see this when Jesus comes on the scene in John 2. Jesus shows up at the Temple during Passover, a time when the Jews celebrate their delivery from slavery in Egypt, a time when Jews remember and honor the sacrifice of their ancestors, a time when the recall the faithfulness of God in delivering their community from an unjust system of oppression.

What Jesus finds when he arrives at the Temple is the very definition of irony.

Jesus found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. The Temple system, which had been intended to keep the culture accountable, to protect the weak, the widow, the orphan and the poor, and to aid the culture in maintaining their relationship with God and with each other, has been turned into a system of oppression.

The Temple became a system in which the “haves” ruled over and against the “have nots.” The wealthy and powerful used their position as the in group to penalize the weak and poor. In othering the least, the in group found new ways to oppress and enslave the out group.

Part of Temple worship included animal sacrifice. The rules for sacrifice were laid out in the Hebrew bible. Animals set aside for sacrifice had to meet certain standards in order to be acceptable. This goes back to notion of giving God your best - choosing the most perfect cow, sheep or dove as the offering to God.

Those who had wealth and power in the Temple, however, began inspecting these sacrificial offerings and over time began insisting that the animals brought on long journeys were not fit for sacrifice. This put them in a position of demanding that more fit animals be purchased from them, at a premium of course.

For their part, the money changers had determined that coins bearing the visage of Caesar was tantamount to making an idol. They declared that these could not be used to purchase the animals required for sacrifice. Instead, they insisted that worshipers exchange such currency for Temple gold, at an exorbitant rate of exchange.

Is it any wonder that Jesus responded with anger and violence when he saw that many of the priests and pharisees appeared to see some worshipers, especially those who live in the predominantly poor outlying areas, less as faithful congregants to be protected and aided in worship than as potential sinners and sources of revenue?

There is much to be lost when we treat faith as a personal issue only and fail to consider the wider social implications inherent in texts written to a community for the purpose of building and maintaining a more just community. Treating faith as a personal issue only, without also engaging in faith within community, leads to an in-group/out-group, us/them mentality in which we seek to elevate ourselves above others, which in turn allows us to be blind to our own privileges and societal sin. This kind of thinking has always and will always lead to dehumanizing and oppressing entire people groups for the sake of maintaining the status quo.

Those who forget history are destined to repeat it.

Where are we, collectively, forgetting history today? And how are we repeating it?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Mary, for sharing this message at Journey Church!