Would Jesus kick protesters off St Paul's ground?

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
28 Oct 2011

A storm of publicity is currently surrounding St Paul's Cathedral, following the resignation of Canon Giles Fraser over the threat of a forcible eviction of the Occupy London Stock Exchange protesters.

Much attention has been paid to the alleged inconvenience caused by the camp, with the Cathedral's status as a tourist attraction cited among the factors mentioned.

But the Christian Church does not exist for the purpose of maintaining tourist attractions, as if Jesus intended his followers to be a branch of the heritage industry.

Christianity is based dynamically on the message of a man whose protest disrupted trade in a major religious building nearly 2,000 years ago. The cathedral's dean and chapter closed the building last week, asking "Is it now time for the protest camp to leave?"

The implication was that they wanted to say yes. This was clearly the view of the anonymous staff member quoted in the Evening Standard newspaper. The dean and chapter now have a choice to make. Will they stand in solidarity with people resisting economic injustice? Or will they call in the police to forcibly remove nonviolent campaigners, while the cathedral's clerics pass by on the other side?

The protesters have co-operated with cathedral staff. They have agreed not to hold meetings on the steps and to move tents further from entrances. They were delighted that the canon chancellor, Giles Fraser, initially defended their right to protest and they have been highly sympathetic over his resignation.

St Paul's Cathedral does good work and employs a number of people. I do not want to see it disrupted for the sake of it. There is also a danger that the protest inconveniences cathedral staff more than it challenges the stock exchange. This is more likely to be avoided if the cathedral clergy add their voice to criticisms of a financial system so rotten that it has triggered occupations of financial centres all over the world.

It is easy to scoff at protesters' aims. Certain commentators, including Christians, have dismissed them as unrealistic. The financial system crashed after the fantasy of endless money turned out to be impossible to sustain. Its supporters are in no position to accuse anyone of being unrealistic. Let's not forget that Christianity began as a grassroots protest movement. It was only later that Christian collusion with wealth and power put officially sanctioned churches at the centre of society.

The churches' centrality has declined in a multifaith and secular society. Christians have struggled to cope with this situation, and two particularly unhelpful responses have emerged. On the one hand, there are those Christians who want to cling on to the vestiges of power, such as opt-outs for faith schools and the presence of bishops in the House of Lords. On the other, Christianity has become associated with the preservation of old buildings and cultural traditions.

The alternative is to return to the subversive teachings of Christ. Jesus showed little patience with religious institutions. He was mostly concerned with people outside them. One of the central events of his life was a famous piece of direct action in the Jerusalem Temple, where he "overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold doves".

Virtually all historians accept that Jesus existed and was crucified by the Romans. They differ on the accuracy of various claims about Jesus's life, but the Temple protest is seen as one of the most historically likely incidents mentioned in the gospels. Doves were the cheapest animals that could be bought for sacrifices. The traders played on religious hypocrisy by selling them at high prices to people who could ill afford them. The moneychangers profited by the interest on swapping Roman money for Temple money. Jesus angrily made clear that God values love, compassion and economic justice far more than religious observance.

Where would Jesus be in all this? Would he be camping outside in this freezing weather, speaking out against inequality, or inside the religious building, worrying about the revenue from tourists?

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© Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from one he wrote for the Guardian last week.

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