This article is part of the series, the Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and contemporary literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In his philosophical exposition of Marxian thought called Karl Marx, Allen Wood asks, “Is capitalism destined to be the permanent economic form of society forever? (Is history really at an end?)” He responds by saying, “Is another world possible? Of course it is. We all know it is. . .The question is only how long it will take historical conditions to present human beings with an alternative, and what alternatives there eventually will be.”
I’m not sure I agree with Wood that we all know that another economic system can replace the ascendance of global capitalism, for it really does seem as if history is at its end. Capitalism’s relentless march to prominence has leveled the boundaries separating nations, leading to global cooperation through the creation of institutions that, while supervising the invention of new technology and the seamless continuation of international trade, also subjugate billions of people within the most inhuman conditions of deprivation and suffering. In spite of its failures to account for human suffering—or arguably, because of these failures—capitalism seems invincible.
With that being said, this post is not a plea for the displacement of capitalism itself, because I have not thought through the issue sufficiently enough to offer a cogent and compelling argument for what would replace it. However, the text for this week provides hope in regard to all redoubtable institutions of injustice that militate against God’s mandate to care for the least of these.
John offers the temple story at the beginning of his gospel although the other Synoptics place it at the end. Why might this be so? In my view, John wants to introduce us to the portrait of a “radical” Jesus whose revelatory message supercedes and fulfills the tenets of Judaic law, even to the point that it abolishes aspects of this law, a theme that will continue throughout the rest of his gospel.
Jesus replaced the Jewish system of animal sacrifice as offered in the temple since he himself would become the perfect lamb sacrificed for all sin throughout the entire expanse of time. However, this is not why Jesus chases out the moneychangers in the temple. Very simply, Jesus experienced a visceral disdain for the injustice that was taking place in his father’s house. His father’s house was ordained for worship, but it had been debased by becoming a house of commerce. Fundamentally, Jesus reacted against the loss of telos that the temple suffered. It had become distorted beyond recognition such that Jesus sought to purify it by ridding it of its pernicious element—the commerce itself.
What we cannot miss is the correlation of this act of Jesus and the ensuing dialogue between he and the religious leaders. In verses 18 through 20, John writes, “Then the Jews demanded of him, ‘What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ The Jews replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’” Notice the incredulity of the Jewish leaders at the prospect of their cherished temple being demolished and rebuilt within three days. A thousand priests had been trained as stone cutters and architects to ensure the purity of the temple, and a total of approximately 18,000 men worked on the temple until it was built in A.D. 64. If any institution seemed impervious to destruction, it was Herod’s temple.
Jesus illustrates for us that no instantiation of injustice is impervious to his power and might, and that ultimately, systems and institutions can be created anew. While the temple was not destroyed because of the commerce taking place therein, this commodification of the sacred exemplifies the type of injustice and sin that Jesus came to overcome. He represents the fulfillment of justice, love, and peace against the injustice, hate, and war that is constantly perpetuated by the governments of this world. While Christian hope has traditionally rested most of its weight on eschatological events, ruptures in history demonstrate that Christ’s victory resonates in the “here and now.” The success of the church based civil rights movement and the concomitant annihilation of Jim Crow segregation provide recent evidence for this claim. Even more recently, the Women for Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement led by Nobel Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee demonstrates the power of prayer in destroying injustice. Through their peaceful protests and prayer vigils, these women helped end the brutal reign of Charles Taylor and brought an end to fourteen years of civil war. Their exploits, documented in the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, have received international recognition.
Wood informs us that “Marx’s claims that the downfall of capitalism is inevitable must always be understood as inferred from his more basic thesis that nothing in human affairs is eternal or unalterable. If there is anything at all that is certain in human affairs, it is that nothing is permanent.” And thankfully, no human injustice can stand permanently against the power and love of Jesus Christ.