Occupy and reading the Bible after Christendom

By Lloyd Pietersen
5 Jan 2012
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“What would Jesus do?” —pictures of the banner at the Occupy London camp outside St Paul’s cathedral have gone all around the world.

While the statement has been dismissed as hermeneutically naïve in theological circles (after all how do we know how a first-century Jewish peasant would act when confronted with contemporary Western society?), nevertheless, it does raise a profound question. If Christians claim to be followers of Jesus then our actions today should surely, in some way, be seen to be in continuity with his in the first century.

The major resource we have for the words and deeds of Jesus is, of course, the gospels contained in the Christian Bible. So the question demands reading these gospels and reflecting on Jesus’ words and actions as presented there.

Some, at least, in the Occupy movement consider these texts to be relevant to their concerns! The action of Jesus that has resonated most with the movement is that of driving out those who were buying and selling and overturning the tables of the money changers in the Temple precinct in Jerusalem (Mark 11:15-17). Many instinctively believe that Jesus’ actions in the Temple suggest he would act in a corresponding way towards the bankers and those responsible for our current economic situation today. Suddenly, the socio-economic dimensions, not only of the gospels, but of the whole Bible, are being re-discovered.

Commentators within the Occupy movement refer to sayings of Jesus such as “You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13)”, or “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed” (Luke 14:12-14a), or “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15), or “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). Such sayings of Jesus could be multiplied; but it is not only in the gospels that such sentiments can be found.

Jesus builds on statements found throughout the Old Testament, particularly articulated by Old Testament prophets. For example, Isaiah 58 warns against religious piety which fails to express itself in social justice and powerfully argues that what God wants is “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke … to share your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your house” (Isaiah 58:6-7).

But this fresh turn to the Bible is ironically only possible at a time when this text has become a relative stranger in our culture. For centuries Christianity has been the dominant religion in the West and the alliance between Church and State, known as Christendom, meant that the Bible was generally read through the lens of the rich and powerful. In this situation the message of Jesus in the gospels was interpreted as one of private salvation guaranteeing entry to heaven after death and Jesus was perceived as the heavenly king to be worshipped and certainly not the radical Human One (his favourite title) to be emulated! The radical statements of Jesus concerning possessions were reinterpreted in terms of giving tithes to the church (thus increasing its wealth). But now, as we have seen above, our changing context has opened the way for the Bible to be read afresh in ways which resonate with our contemporary condition.

In Reading the Bible after Christendom I suggest three moves that have to be made in connection with the Bible. The first is to treat long-established readings of the Bible with suspicion. The second is to employ fresh angles of vision with which to approach biblical texts. The third is to retrieve those texts in ways which resonate with our changing context.

* You can hear Lloyd Pietersen talk more about this, and his book Reading the Bible After Christendom, at a special event in Bristol on 21 January 2012. More details here: http://www.menno.org.uk/DisorganisedReligion

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© Lloyd Pietersen is Senior Lecturer and Research Coordinator in New Testament Studies at the University of Gloucestershire and serves on the national Steering Group of the Anabaptist Network. His latest book is Reading the Bible After Christendom

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