…On an impulse I reached for the Bible in the pew in front of me. It fell open to the Gospel of Matthew where the life of Jesus unfolds chapter by chapter. Glancing at the headings I was reminded of the central events of that brief but intense life and of the great themes of his ministry: There was Jesus being baptized; Jesus tempted in the Wilderness; Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount; speaking in parables; healing the leper, the blind, the cripple; feeding the hungry; choosing his disciples; turning his face to Jerusalem to be greeted by a cheering multitude. And then—in the 21st chapter—a change. Something I had missed in my many early readings of this story, even in my seminary studies. Jesus becomes angry. We are told that he “went into the temple and drove out all who were buying and selling in the temple precincts; he upset the tables of the money-changers…and said to them, ‘Scripture says—My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.’”
I sat there, thinking about this change in the narrative’s tone, in the manner of the man himself: Jesus the healer; Jesus the teacher; Jesus the preacher of forgiveness and love—angry.
I realized: There is a place for anger in this world. It is important to be reminded that some things are worth getting angry about.
Here’s one: On March 10, 2004, the New York Times reported that tuition in the city’s elite private schools would hit $26,000 for the coming school year—for kindergarten as well as high school. On the same page, under a two-column headline, Michael Winerup wrote about a school in nearby Mount Vernon, the first stop out of the Bronx, with a student body that is 97 percent black. It is the poorest school in the town: nine out of ten children qualify for free lunches; one out of ten lives in a homeless shelter. During Black History month this past February, a sixth grader wanted to write a report on Langston Hughes. There were no books on Langston Hughes in the library—no books about the great poet, nor any of his poems. There is only one book in the library on Frederick Douglass. None on Rosa Parks, Josephine Baker, Leontyne Price, or other giants like them in the modern era. In fact, except for a few Newberry Award books the librarian bought with her own money, the library is mostly old books—largely from the 1950s and 60s when the school was all white. A 1960 child’s primer on work begins with a youngster learning how to be a telegraph delivery boy. All the jobs in the book—the dry cleaner, the deliveryman, the cleaning lady—are white. There’s a 1967 book about telephones which says: “when you phone you usually dial the number. But on some new phones you can push buttons.” The newest encyclopedia dates from 1991, with two volumes—“b” and “r”—missing. There is no card catalog in the library—no index cards or computer.
Something to get mad about.
Here’s something else: Caroline Payne’s face and gums are distorted because her Medicaid-financed dentures don’t fit. Because they don’t fit, she is continuously turned down for jobs on account of her appearance. Caroline Payne is one of the people in David Shipler’s new book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America. She was born poor, although she once owned her own home and earned a two-year college degree. Caroline Payne has bounced from one poverty-wage job to another all her life, equipped with the will to move up, but not the resources to deal with unexpected and overlapping problems like a mentally handicapped daughter, a broken marriage, a sudden layoff crisis that forced her to sell her few assets, pull up roots and move on. “In the house of the poor,” Shipler writes, “the walls are thin and fragile and troubles seep into one another.”
Over the past few years, as the poor got poorer, the health care crisis worsened, wealth and media became more and more concentrated, and our political system was bought out from under us, prophetic faith lost its voice. The religious right drowned everyone else out.
And they hijacked Jesus. The very Jesus who stood in Nazareth and proclaimed, “The Lord has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor.” The very Jesus who told 5000 hungry people that all of you will be fed, not just some of you. The very Jesus who challenged the religious orthodoxy of the day by feeding the hungry on the Sabbath, who offered kindness to the prostitute and hospitality to the outcast, who said the kingdom of heaven belongs to little children, raised the status of women, and treated even the tax collector like a child of God. The very Jesus who drove the money changers from the temple. This Jesus has been hijacked and turned from a champion of the disposed into a guardian of the privileged. Hijacked, he was made over into a militarist, hedonist, and lobbyist…sent prowling the halls of Congress in Guccis, seeking tax breaks and loopholes for the powerful, costly new weapon systems that don’t work, and punitive public policies.
Let’s get Jesus back.
The Jesus who inspired a Methodist ship-caulker named Edward Rogers to crusade across New England for an eight-hour workday. Let’s get back the Jesus who caused Frances William to rise up against the sweatshop. The Jesus who called a young priest named John Ryan to champion child labor laws, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and decent housing for the poor—ten years before the New Deal. The Jesus in whose name Dorothy Day challenged the Church to march alongside auto workers in Michigan, fishermen and textile workers in Massachusetts, brewery workers in New York, and marble cutters in Vermont. The Jesus in whose name E.B. McKinney and Owen Whitfield challenged a Mississippi system that kept sharecroppers in servitude and debt. The Jesus in whose name a Presbyterian minister named Eugene Carson Blake was arrested for protesting racial injustice in Baltimore. The Jesus who led Martin Luther King to Memphis to join sanitation workers in their struggle for a decent wage.
Our times call out for a new spiritual revolution. Our times cry out for a new politics of justice. This is no partisan issue. It doesn’t matter if you’re a liberal or a conservative—God is neither. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican—God is neither.
To see whose side God is on go to Deuteronomy to read: “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor…Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do.” Go to the Psalms and read: “For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy…From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.” Throughout our sacred text it is the widow and the orphan, the poor and the stranger who are blessed in the eyes of the Lord; it is kindness, relief and mercy that prove the power of faith, and justice that measures the worth of state. Poverty and justice are religious issues. Kings are judged on how the poor fare under their rule; prophets speak to the gap between the rich and the poor as a reason for God’s judgment.
And Jesus moves among the disinherited. In one of the greatest sermons ever preached we hear from his own lips: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.”
Let’s get Jesus back. Let’s recover the faith that takes on the corruption of power. A faith that challenges complacency at both parties. If you’re a Democrat, you’re called to shake them up. If you’re a Republican, you’re called to shame them. Jesus drove the money changers from the temple of Jerusalem. We must drive them from the temples of democracy.
But let’s do it in love.
I know it can sound banal and facile to say this. The word “love” gets thrown around too casually these days. “Don’t you just love this?” “I loved that movie.” “I’d love to get away for the weekend.” And brute reality can mock the whole idea of loving one another. We’re still living in the shadow of Dachau and Buchenwald. The smoke still rises above Kosovo and Rwanda, Chechnya and East Timor. The walls of Abu Ghraib still shriek of pain. “What has love done?” you ask. “Where is there any real milk of human kindness?” But the love I mean is the love described by Reinhold Niebuhr in his book of essays, Justice and Mercy, where he writes: “When we talk about love we have to become mature or we will become sentimental. Basically love means…being responsible, responsibility to our family, toward our civilization, and now by the pressures of history, toward the universe of humankind.”
So let us love our country. But let us remember the words of G.K. Chesterton: “To say my country, right or wrong, is something no patriot would say except in dire emergency; it is like saying, ‘my mother, drunk or sober.’”
Let us love our neighbor, but let’s not allow him to poison our well—from ignorance or intent. Let us love our enemy, even as we resist his aggression. We cannot defeat the terrorists if we become like them. We cannot stand up to the religious right if we imitate them.
What I’m talking about will be hard, devoid of sentiment and practical as nails. But love is practice, not piety. I have heard it asked: who gave us the authority to change the meaning of the Church? How did we let creed override compassion? Drive through any city and you’ll pass so many churches. You pass the Presbyterian Church and say: “They’re Calvinists. They believe in predestination.” You drive past the Methodist church and say, “They accept infant baptism.” You drive past the Catholic Church and say, “They believe in papal infallibility.”
And it’s true—theological formulations give shape to our beliefs. Doctrine provides a foundation to our faith. But when the church was young and fair, and people passed by her doors, they did not comment on the difference or the doctrines. Those stern and taciturn pagans said of the first Christians: “How they love one another!” It started soon after the death of Jesus. His disciple Peter said to the first churches, “Above all things, have unfailing love toward one another.”
“None are good but all are sacred.” I want to think this is what the founders meant when they included the not-so-self-evident assertion that “all men are created equal.” They were probing toward that spiritual truth that is the heart of our hope for this country. They saw America as a great promise—and it is. But America is a broken promise, and is it our calling to do what we can to fix it—to get America back on the track. St. Augustine shows us how: “One loving soul sets another on fire.”
Excerpted from an address by Bill Moyers at Riverside Church, New York City, October 4, 2004.