This Fenced Off Narrow Space

I grew up in a conservative evangelical home. Evangelical is kind of a dirty word these days, but for good or ill, growing up evangelical shaped my spirituality. It imparted to me a love for the Bible, for God’s mission of redemption and a stubborn Christocentrism. These are real gifts to me. But with gifts came also limitations and blind spots and unhealthy emphases.

Our beliefs about end-times were our scare-tactic-evangelism strategy. We took the book of Revelations(sic) and described that the world was evil, that Jesus was coming back, and on the¬†great and terrible Day of the Lord, Jesus would destroy everything, and burn it up! Bound up with our proclamation was a belief that an evil leader would seduce the nations into a false unity, uniting the world under his leadership, forcing citizens who participate in the economy to receive his mark: 6‚ÄĒ6‚ÄĒ6.
The moon would turn to blood. And there would be pestilence and war, disease, and darkness. 

Of course, Christians would get a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card, raptured before the days of cataclysmic devastation. 

There is a lot wrong with this eschatology, but one problem was we struggled to make the return of Christ sound like good news, even to ourselves.¬†Jesus is Coming and he’s going to destroy everything you care about!¬† Yes! There was the promise of heaven, but our imagination was stoked more by the suffering of the¬†world. All of this will burn! The good news was, for us, just a way to circumvent our personal experience of destruction. The world would burn but we don’t have to. Come, Lord Jesus. We ripped¬†Revelation¬†away from John of Patmos and the second-century persecution of the Church. Our blind spot was our social location as modern white middle-class evangelicals.

It took me a long time to understand that the best way to read the Bible was from the underside‚ÄĒwith the oppressed, the marginalized, the persecuted, the discriminated against, and the outcasts.¬† When you do, even the scary bits of Revelation start to feel like good news.

Langston Hughes (1901-1967) was one of the best-known authors of the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry describes the African-American experience‚ÄĒtheir exclusion from the American dream, and the suffering they endured because of racism and white oppression.¬† In his poem,¬†I Look at the World, he illustrates the ways society has placed him and his people in a ‘fenced-off narrow space’:

I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face‚ÄĒ
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space   
Assigned to me.

I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face‚ÄĒ
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!

I look at my own body   
With eyes no longer blind‚ÄĒ
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.

The poem is ultimately hopeful, showing how Hughes and like-minded comrades can remake the world, but he also names the way oppression has been a fence and a wall, something which constricts movement and imprisons.

When we consider this season of Advent we would do well to listen and look with Hughes. Jesus is coming! When you take in the news from the center, the only good news is that Jesus will give us a bailout before everything gets really bad. When you read Revelation from the underside, you hear the good news that the Oppressor‚ÄĒ the one who enslaves, imprisons, deports, turns a blind eye to the suffering of the marginalized‚ÄĒwill be deposed. Peace will reign. The dehumanizing institutions will be overhauled. Systemic justice will be our new reality:

I look at my own body   
With eyes no longer blind‚ÄĒ
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.

Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee: a book review

People are moving and people are being displaced. There are immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers all wishing to leave there country of origin, for a variety of reasons poverty, environmental catastrophes, terrorism, nations destabilized by war and revolution, and the promise of a better life¬†somewhere else.¬†“There are about 60 million people on the move . . . . 1 out of every 122 people on the planet today is out of there natural home” (15). “The world has literally come to our doorstep. Will we open the door?” (back cover).

4535In¬† Serving God in the Migrant Crisis,¬†Patrick Johnstone and Dean Merrill teamed up to examine the causes of today’s refugee crisis and the global displacement, explore the¬† Christian response towards immigrants and aliens, and describe actional steps that individuals, churches, non-profits and the global body of Christ can do to respond to immigrants, refugees and vulnerable strangers in crisis. Johnstone is the original author of Operation World (a global prayer guide for Christians), and a number of other Operation World resources. He served on the leadership team for¬†Worldwide Evangelisation for Christ¬†(WEC International) for 32 years and has been active in writing, in advocating for and ministering to refugees in his home, Derby, England.¬† [Merrill is the author or coauthor of more than 40 books, but the ‘I’ voice throughout the book, is Johnstone’s].

The book divides into three sections. In part one, Johnstone examines¬†what’s going on.¬†Chapter 1, describes the scope of the global migrant crisis. Chapter 2 explores our attitudes toward immigrants. Notably, Johnstone speaks to several fears people have about migrants. Against the charge that immigrants will take advantage of us and be drain on resources, Johnstone posits that once migrants start working, their payroll tax contributes toward social funding (25-26). He also challenges the notion that immigrants have ill will in their hearts (or maybe secret terrorists). Certainly, there is a risk, which government officials are aware of and work to neutralize,¬† but the vast majority of immigrants are more likely to be victims of crime then they are to be perpetrators. Johnstone quotes Michael Collyer of the University of Sussex:

Where rapid urbanization coincides with a significant rise in urban violence migrants are often blamed. However, newcomers are over-represtened amongst poor and marginalized groups who typically suffer the most serious consequences of violence‚ÄĒthey are much more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators (26).

Against the idea that helping people will only increase the flood of immigrants into our country, Johnstone allows that while may be true and that there are complicated issues around who immigrates and how (e.g. no one has argued for completely open borders),¬† he reminds us that as Christians we ought to continue to treat immigrants as Divine image bearers (27).¬† In chapter 3, Johnstone argues that with continued political unrest‚ÄĒfailed states, and states which are on ‘shaky ground‚ÄĒas well as other factors, there seems to be no end in sight to global migration.

In part two, Johnstone describes what we should know as we seek to respond to the migrant crisis. Chapter 4 describes why people run‚ÄĒthe things that push refugees out of their homelands, and the things that pull them to seek asylum in the West (e.g. security, hope and the promise of a better life). Chapter 5 provides a brief overview of immigrants in the biblical story (e.g. Jesus, Moses, the people of Israel, etc). Chapter 6 exhorts us to behave compassionately towards immigrants and refugees and to challenge the policies that are harmful toward them. Often government policies in the developing world, leave refugees languishing and at-risk in their countries of origin:

Whatever our nationality, citizens who care about justice for the “alien and stranger” need to work to reform these polices and practices. After all, 99 percent of the world’s refugees are not being savely restelled whether inside the borders of their own country, in a nearby country, or accross the ocean. Instead, they are waiting, waiting, waiting, often in squalid conditions as months and years tick by” (63-64).

Johnstone challenges us further, to not let fear or politics get in the way of helping the stranger:

Let it never be said that we “would have liked to” help today’s refugees, but the policy environment was not conducive, and so we turned to other activities. “Of course we want to keep terrorists out of the country,”¬† says Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (United States) “but let’s not punish the victims of ISIS for the sins of ISIS.

His collegue Matthew Soerens, United States director of church mobilization for WOlrd Relief, adds, “With governemetn doing its job of screening and vertting, our role can’t be to ask, “Is it safe?” We have to ask, “Who is my neighbor?”

The need for real people‚ÄĒGod’s highest creation‚ÄĒmust always trump poitical arguements and personal fear. (68).

Chapter 7 argues that the contributions of immigrants to society will both re-energize a complacent society, and a complacent faith (i.e. often refugees fleeing primarily Muslim countries, are Christians).

In part three, Johnstone explores what we can do. Chapter 8 describes where we start. First, as an evangelical Christian committed to mission, Johnstone argues that we ought to appreciate the strategic opportunity of the world knocking on our door (82). Second, Johnstone argues that we need to admit and acknowledge our past mistakes, namely how Christian enmeshment with empire and colonialism is a driven a good deal of the current migrant crisis (86-89). Third, we need to become more sensitive toward other cultures (88-90). Fourth, we need to believe that God really cares about migrants (90). Johnstone points to a number of examples from the Bible that demonstrate God’s care for the immigrant (cf. Leviticus 19:33-34, Leviticus 24:22. Deut. 10:18-19, Deut 24:14-15, Deut. 27:19, 1 Kings 8:41-43, Psalm 146:9, Ezekiel 47:21-23, Zechariah 7:8-10, Hebrews 13:2).

The remainder of the book, (chapters 9-12) describe what individuals, churches, organizations and the world church can do to minister to migrants.

This is a short book, and certainly, Johnstone does not untangle all the issues. However, there are several aspects of this book I really appreciated. First, this book is certainly non-partisan. Johnstone is an old school evangelical but from a British, not American context. Many of the issues he describes were already pertinent before our current U.S. President took office. The current political rhetoric in this country makes it sound like Democrats care about helping people and Republicans lack compassion. The truth is that Republicans and Democrats have both been bad about carrying for immigrants. Second, I appreciate how much Johnstone sees the migrant crisis as an opportunity to care for others, to share our faith and to bless the world.

Johnstone is more of a practitioner than a scholar and this is a popular level book (134 pages. I read it on a plane ride). Certainly what is said here can be nuanced but if you are looking at the world and wondering how as a Christian you ought to respond to the millions of displaced peoples, this is a good place to start. I give this four stars. ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

Graves’ Life After Death Row: a book review

On August 18, 1992, in Somerville, Texas, a man named Robert Carter entered a trailer home and killed 6 people in cold blood, including his son. Then he set the trailer on fire to hide the evidence. 5 days later, at the funeral, he was noticed with burns and bandages on his hands. He was picked up by the police and because of the physical evidence(the burns) and inconsistencies of his story, they questioned him, he confessed and they charged him with murder. During the interrogation, he named Anthony Graves as his accomplice.

978-080706252-4Graves was the second cousin of Carter’s wife, but the two men didn’t know each other.¬† Despite no physical evidence tying him to the crime and an alibi, Graves was charged, tried and convicted. Graves would spend 18 years in jail, 12 of them on death row, before he was exonerated and went home a free man.¬†Infinite Hope: How Wrongful Confinement and 12 years on Death Row Failed to Kill My Soul is Graves story, in his own words of how he got where he was and how he was able to hold out hope against hope that Justice would prevail.

When Graves was first arrested, he naively assumed, ‘the truth would set him free.’ Unfortunately, the Rangers and prosecutor working on his case didn’t seem to be on a mission to uncover the truth or check into Graves’s story. They sought instead to look for ways to trap him, get a confession, or find incriminating evidence. Thinking that he was helping himself, Graves went into interrogations and before a grand jury without a lawyer, assuming that if he was innocent, he didn’t really need a lawyer to protect him.¬† Unfortunately, a couple of careless answers were used to try to discredit his testimony at trial. When he was in his early 20s, Graves was arrested on a Marijuana possession charge but he was convinced by his lawyer at the time, to accept the prosecutors’ plea bargain (a guilty plea for dealing cocaine, in exchange for 18 months probation). The same prosecutor, Charles Sebesta was now trying to prosecute Graves for murder.

Then he did get a lawyer. A family friend arranged for him to have one of the best trial lawyers in Texas, Dick DeGuerin. DeGuerin believed in Graves’s innocence. But his fee was steep, and with no means for Graves or his family to pay him, DeGuerin abandoned Graves’s case shortly after he was indicted. The lawyer that took Graves to trial, Calvin Garvin, was sincere but inexperienced.

Later, it was uncovered that Sebesta, the prosecutor, suppressed exculpatory evidence in Graves’s trial (e.g. Carter had said to Sebesta the day before that Graves was not an accomplice and Sebesta pressured him to testify anyway without informing the defense), and intimidated Graves’s alibi witness with a threat that he would charge her for murder too. When a special prosecutor reviewed Graves case (18 years later), she recommended the charges be dropped. And a couple of years after that, Sebesta was disbarred for ethics violations relating to Graves case.

Infinite Hope recounts the story of Graves arrest, trial, sentence, eventual exoneration and his current activism. Graves was buoyed through the hard times by family and friendships near and far‚ÄĒpen pals and visitors, who followed his case‚ÄĒand faith in a ‘God who was good all the time.’

This is a hopeful story and it is a sad story. It is hopeful because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bent towards justice, even in a Texas capital case. It is a sad story because I want to believe that criminal investigators and DAs care more about justice than they do about getting a conviction. While the circumstances of Graves’s case are certainly unique and represent an egregious miscarriage of justice, it is unfortunate justice is not as fair and blind as we would like to think. Confessions get coerced, and people get railroaded by the system (often people of color).

This book is a personal story. There are other books deal with prison reform and capital punishment from an ideological or sociological perspective. Graves says at one point that he hadn’t really thought through his positions on the death penalty until he found himself on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. That made the issue far less abstract. I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via librarything.com. In exchange for my honest review.
Continue reading Graves’ Life After Death Row: a book review

Why Would You Give Up Something For Lent?

This is a question I ask myself every year, and if you are among those of us who give something up, the why may be the most important part of your Lenten fast. Do you give something up because your faith community does, and because you always have? Is it a way to jump-start your new diet? Are you trying to quit smoking, overeating or drinking until you blackout? Is there some other habit you want to break and you love the support of a Lent practicing community?? Do you want to undertake some heroic discipline to prove your devotion to God? Do you think if you don’t eat chocolate God loves you more?

The answer to that last question, when we put it so baldly, is an obvious no. God will not love us more if we spend less time on Facebook, don’t eat chocolate or candy, or give up (for the next six weeks) eating green eggs and ham in a box, with a fox, in house, with a mouse, here or there or anywhere.¬†And yet, sometimes our participation in fasts or religious practices feel like it is just us trying to prove our worth to God.

The prophet Samuel’s words to Saul offer us a corrective, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22). To obey is better than sacrifice.¬†Unfortunately, us post-modern pilgrims find neither obedience or sacrifice appealing and sometimes miss the wisdom in the prophet’s words. Sacrifice was a ritual designed to appease a god. When done right, it reminded the person sacrificing of their own brokenness and the way they wound themselves, others, and God. When done poorly, as Saul did in 1 Sam. 15, it was a way to honor God without submitting to God’s desire for our¬†lives. We don’t sacrifice rams, but our Lenten fast can be a similar religious pretending. We may fast before God when our heart is somewhere else.¬†

movie-poster-joy-luck-clubBut obedience is a hard thing for us too. We tend to think of obedience in legalistic terms. A slavish following of rules and a harsh authority structure.¬† One of my favorite movies is the adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel,¬†The Joy Luck Club (1993). There is one scene where Suyuan, an immigrant from China, and little girl June clash over her not wanting to take piano lessons, and Suyuan shouts, “Only two kinds of daughter. Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind. Only one kind of daughter lives in this house. Obedient kind!” As a father of girls, I quote this to my daughters all the time. And they both ignore me every single time I say it.

The word¬†obey¬†in Hebrew was¬†shema.¬†It means hearing, listening, attending to. The obedient life is the listening life. It is a lifestyle mindful of God’s presence in our lives. To obey is to pay attention to God and God’s desires for us. This is the first and best reason to give up something for Lent: to train our ears and hearts to hear God and listen to him in all of life.¬†If we give something up, it is because we recognize it as a thing that numbs our sense of the Divine. We eschew distraction in order to be more mindful and to listen well.

‚úě

The second reason we fast in Lent, is because we believe spiritual transformation is possible. It is why I do it. I recognize I am not who I want to be, and I am not who I pretend to be most of the time. I earnestly wish I was more compassionate, braver, more prayerful, and less petty, shallow, and wounded. I believe in spiritual transformation, that as we give our heart to God, he makes us new. I give something up, I fast, I cast off distractions because I hope it will change me.

But our¬†spiritual transformation is not just about personal change. It is about welcoming the Kingdom of God into our neighborhoods, cities, our nation. One of the reasons we don’t see a greater change in our lives is because of our participation in systems and structures which mitigate against God’s coming kingdom.

For example, we all agree racism is pretty awful. People should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. But we do not live in a post-race society. Our culture still bears the mark of centuries of slavery, a hundred years of Jim Crow, historic redlining and discriminatory policies, mass incarceration of African American males (when white American’s guilty of similar crimes get lighter or no sentence), violence against the Black community, etc.¬† As a white privileged person, I am part of a system that has benefited me, even in ways I’m not particularly aware, and hurt other people. Our belief in spiritual transformation challenges these systemic realities. It can’t be only about private devotion. Spiritual transformation means welcoming the system overhaul of the Kingdom of God.

The Bible passage that best informs every Lenten fast (or any other kind of fast) is Isaiah 58.  Isaiah  58:6-9 reads:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
¬†¬†¬†¬†and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter‚ÄĒ
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

When we make fasting and Lent about ourselves and solely about our relationship with God, we are doing it wrong. Yes, it is good to break some bad personal habits, but how can our Lenten Fast participate in God’s justice? Are the oppressed set free because we gave up Scotch (but not other single malts)?

1024px-fast_dayI try to think about Justice with my Lenten fast. For several years, I have given up, to various degrees, eating meat during Lent. But as I’ve done this, I have also tried to faithfully cross-examine my economic participation in America’s industrial food complex. Issues come up like our cruelty to animals, economic oppression of rural farmers, exploitation of immigrants for cheap labor, environmental stewardship, etc. Taking a step back from my consumption of certain things has given me space to examine my lifestyle and choices. I am not vegan (except seasonly, during Lent), but because of trying to practice Lent conscientiously, I have changed some of my buying practices the rest of the time too.

If you give up chocolate, God doesn’t love you more. But when we recognize that the harvesting of cocoa beans in West Africa exploits child labor and slaves and that our conspicuous consumption (not to mention the demand for cheap chocolate) contributes to untold suffering, we begin to make changes. Our fast unties the yoke of injustice.

‚úě

So give something up for Lent. Use your fast as a way to cast off patterns of life that distract you. Attend to God’s presence in your life. Believe that spiritual transformation is possible and look for ways to participate in God’s justice.

Two Recent Poems

These two poems are reflections on recent news and the paltry response to sexual violence in the church. If this topic is an open wound and a trigger, please skip reading this. As a follower of Jesus and a man, I want to have a compassionate response toward the #metoo movement and the stories women are telling. Too often, Christian men have failed to really listen and we have also failed to call victimizers to account. 


You see God, but do You hear?

El Roi‚ÄĒthe God who sees.
Well, God,
we all see too much.
Open your ears
and hear the
cries of the broken,
scattered mass
crying ‘me too.’
We don’t want,
anymore,
the mercy
which papers over
the sins of victimizers
demanding we forgive
the things that
they’ve
never owned.

Hear us.
Hear us.
Times up,
enough.


Spring, 1998

¬†[warning: graphic content, press the link above to read Jules Woodson’s story]

That was Savage there,
at the end of
the dirt road,
taking by force
what was yours alone
to give and then,
quaking with chagrin
pleading with you
to pledge
to him your
everlasting
silences.

Later that savage
told a flock of
horny teens:
True Love Waits‚ÄĒ
Take the long view!
your future wife
is a Jewel that 
ought to be
 treasured!

Did you feel treasured, Jules?
When he unzipped his pants
and demanded of you: Suck it?
Or when he had you
unbutton your blouse
and jumped from
the driver seat,
aware in
that moment
of the damage
this would do
to (no, not you)
his career?

You were crying in
the church office,
the senior pastor,
conspicuously absent.
He saw your tears,
but Larry,
Cotton in his ears,
wouldn’t hear.
‚ÄúSo you are saying you participated?‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúWe‚Äôll handle it.‚ÄĚ

 
Twenty years later,
The rich man fatted
with lamb,
No prophet Nathan
came to stand
before the man
and demand
justice
For what
he took.

But you stood‚ÄĒ
yourself‚ÄĒ
for you
(but not just you),
for the others,
so no more
Cotton men
could
refuse
to hear.

Singing Songs in a Strange Land

Last night, for Holocaust Memorial Day, I attended a remembrance service at¬†Havurah Shir Hadash, a Reconstructionist Synagogue in nearby Ashland. ¬†I had noted the service was happening when I posted a recent review for Rabbi David Zaslow’s¬†Exodus¬†(he leads the congregation). The service was jointly held with Temple Emek Shalom, the other Jewish congregation in town. ¬†I knew that Rabbi Zaslow wouldn’t be there. He marked the day in a different way,¬†spending the day at Auschwitz on a trip with thousands of youth.

5116a2dd8cff4_71360bThe theme for the service was the ‘righteous Gentiles’‚ÄĒthose who hid Jews and¬†aided their escape from the Shoah.¬†I don’t know what age to introduce the horrors of holocaust to children, but ¬†my girls recently read a book of notable biographies of ‘girls who changed the world,’ and one of the women profiled was Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian survivor of the Holocaust, who’s family was active in helping Jews escape. ¬†Both girls were interested, so the plan was to take my daughters, ages seven and nine with me. Unfortunately, my older daughter was running a fever, so it was just me and my seven-year-old. She was by far the youngest person there.

It was a solemn service, recounting dark days, though not without hope. Some teenage girls lit candles remembering the names of victims that were assigned to them as part of their¬†mitzvah project, children whose¬†life was cut short by the¬†Shoah.¬†A few brief sentences recounted their names and ages. These were children as young as four, and a couple of them were seven-year-olds. I wondered how my own seven-year-old was processing this, but we¬†still haven’t talked together about that part of the service.

After this, a sole holocaust survivor lit a candle remembering the fallen. and we were all invited to do the same. My little girl burnt her finger on the match while trying to get the candle lit. She later recalled that burning her finger was the part of the service she didn’t like.

Throughout the evening we sang Hebrew songs, and listened to chants,¬†and prayed along with the Mourners’ Kaddish,¬†but most of the evening was about hearing the stories of gentiles, some of whom sacrificed their lives to rescue Jews. ¬†Several people read or shared accounts. A strange and unplanned confluence was that the first gentile profiled, Irena Sendler‚ÄĒa woman who had saved 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto‚ÄĒwas responsible for rescuing the sole survivor who was with us last night. Some of the stories shared were of famous people. Other stories came from personal recollections and family stories of righteous Gentiles, names that are not well known beyond small circles.

The systematic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis, as well as the death of five million sympathizers, Slavs, LGBT folk, and the disabled, is a vivid reminder of our human capacity for evil. Against those who would deny the Holocaust, or minimize its significance, remembering is important. ¬†I am a Christian, not Jewish. Attending a synagogue on a day like yesterday¬†feels a bit like singing the Lord’s song in a strange land, but the chorus and the cadence call us to compassion and solidarity.

It is over seventy years later and there is still so much hate in the world.  If it happened again would we be among the righteous? I want to say yes, but I am humbled when I consider that many European Christians participated in the Shoah and few who resisted cited faith as a determining factor in giving aid.

U is for Upending (an alphabet for penitents)

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. ‚ÄúIt is written,‚ÄĚ he said to them, ‚Äú¬†‚ÄėMy house will be called a house of prayer,‚Äô but you are making it ‚Äėa den of robbers.‚Äô‚ÄĚ -Matthew 21:12-13

Until Jesus entered the temple courts he was hailed as Israel’s Messianic hope‚ÄĒthe Anointed¬†One who would return to save people from their oppression. ¬†His first act after to riding into town, shouts of Hosanna still ringing in his ears, was to fashion a makeshift whip, overturn the tables of money changers in the temple courts.

The Passion Conference and Maranatha weren’t the first to turn worship into big business. In the 1st century, worshippers came to the temple and sacrificed animals to God. The offering of the poor was a dove. Doves were available to them if they would just pay a fee plus a surplus tax. Money changers exchanged the coins of diaspora Jews for the temple coin, the¬†Tyrian shekel (a coin without a graven image on it). This exchange was not in their favor.

Temple economics were the antithesis of care for the poor, widowed, orphaned and foreigners (Zechariah 7:10). It was a system of exploitation and it made a mockery out of the worship of God that was supposed to be happening there. A den of robbers, not a house of prayer.

Overturning the tables (or destruction of property during a protest) did not and does not bring about immediate change. However, this wasn’t just a one-time thing. Jesus entire ministry involved upending¬†our expectations and socio-political systems. In¬†The Upside-Down Kingdom (Herald Press, Updated Edition, 2011), Donald Kraybill writes, “From beginning to end, from start to finish, the thread of inversion and irony weaves its ways through the gospel”(211). ¬†He began his public ministry reading these words from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord‚Äôs favor.‚ÄĚ (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Isaiah 61:1,2).

All throughout his ministry, Jesus challenged systems of oppression, spiritual elitism, gender roles, structures, and Empire. By the necessity, the Kingdom of God upends¬†all other contenders to the throne and welcomes a new way of life where the poor, the prisoners, the blind and lame find love and welcome. ¬†Yet it was Jesus’ symbolic act, upending¬†of¬†tables in the temple courts, which very well be the act which got him killed.

If you follow the story through, you know the¬†upending¬†was not done. Jesus would take a cross, the symbol of Roman dominance over any would-be revolutionary, and turned it into a symbol of how far God would go to welcome us home. The first witnesses to his resurrection (women) defied cultural expectations. And Jesus’ surprising upending still happens whenever people choose to live by the values of¬†upside-down¬†kingdom instead of the American dream.

A decade ago, a craze hit the Christian world‚ÄĒrubber bracelets stamped with the letters “WWJD?” There was other Kitsch as well: t-shirts, necklaces, hats, temporary tattoos, pencils, travel mugs, etc. The letters stood for “What Would Jesus Do?” and were drawn from the ninteenth¬†century novel by Charles Sheldon,¬†In His Steps.¬†The idea behind the slogan (and the novel) was that as we go about our daily life, in whatever sphere we find ourselves, we ask “what would Jesus do right now if he were in our shoes?” My sarcastic reply whenever I saw WWJD bling on the wrist of a friend was, “Jesus wouldn’t buy that.” And it’s true because he already would know what he’d do.

We live in a world where the rich profit off the poor, “a livable wage” is fodder for political debate, bombing another country is framed as humanitarian relief, and refugees and immigrants are regarded with suspicion, minorities still suffer discrimination. I think it is ¬†now¬†time for us to stand with Jesus in the temple courts, fashion our makeshift whips and ask, “What Would Jesus Upend?”