The media, the temple, and learning to turn the tables

By Keith Hebden
23 Mar 2013

As politicians fret about the Leveson inquiry and struggle to square the circle of defending a media free from state interference that some argue needs to be better protected by the state from unethical corporate politicking and domination, there is great value in us returning to examine Jesus’ engagement with the a major medium of communication in his day: the temple.

Across the chasm of the centuries, lessons in confronting power and 'domination systems' are there to be learned if we pay proper attention.

The temple was the primary channel through which all debates must symbolically pass. For Jesus’ contemporaries, the place of the temple in their culture and geographical world must have been total in its normalcy.

The temple was a symbol of national pride. It was a sign of the people’s defiance of Rome and their cultural independence. Rome allowed the customs of the temple to continue, mostly, with minimal interference, and any attempt to profane it was challenged courageously. It was the people’s temple and their fortress against aggressive imperial forces.

You might wonder then, why Jesus seemed so ambivalent, occasionally hostile, towards the temple. Jesus both worshipped at the temple and protested there. He called it God’s house but also a den of thieves. If Jesus were looking to start a popular revolution against global corporate power this would seem an odd way to go about it.

Yet Jesus saw something in the temple that his companions had not yet understood. It might project itself as the ultimate opposition to empire, but it was nothing more than the empire’s agent. Its presence was dependent entirely on Roman largesse and peasant blood, sweat, and tears.

Like the mainstream media today, claiming to be our trustworthy impartial truth-teller, defending us against the conspiracies of the powerful, the temple was beholden to four mechanisms that managed the message it sent out.

The mechanisms of the media were: ownership; income; expertise and censorship. Each are described briefly below.

Ownership

The patron of the temple was Herod the Great who was known more for his cruelty, ambition and – above all – Roman patronage. He was only able to renovate the temple on the backs of labour and did so in order to ingratiate himself with the masses. Jesus understood that the temple’s brand-message was compromised by the means of becoming and being.

Our mainstream media has its patrons too. Here are some of the biggest owners of western liberal media companies: General Electric (NBC, The History Channel), Westinghouse (CBS), Time Warner (CNN, 150 magazines), Disney (ABC News), and of course News Corporation (The Sun, The Times).

General Electric makes most of its money from war and nuclear power. Westinghouse also makes huge profits from nuclear power. Disney’s backers have an appalling human rights record, and profits rely on our dependence on fossil fuels.

Jesus sought an alternative media to the temple. These alternatives are agents of change rather than channels of the mystique of the powerful. Jesus claimed that he – a human being – was greater than the temple. Like the Pharisees he encouraged people to think for themselves, to take religion into their own home, to be empowered beyond the expensive cultic faith of Jerusalem.

For compassionate activists, finding ways to encourage and generate local independent media is an important way to divest the systems of some of their power locally. By looking beyond the headlines to the power-players behind the media, we can more clearly understand what the overall message is and whether it is helpful or not.

Income

People say Las Vegas wasn’t built on winners; well, nor was the Jerusalem temple. It was built on the tithing of the people and the costs they bore for practicing religion. The temple also made huge profits from the religious observances of the people.

The money spent buying a newspaper does not cover the cost of its production. That cost is met by advertising. In order to make money, news agencies must attract advertising. In order to attract advertising, they must be careful not to annoy the corporations. Because it is the advertisers and not the readers who make news journalism a going concern, it is they who matter most. The readers become important only in their ability to attract advertisers.

Our media, politics, and education system all reflect the language of the powerful. One of the reasons literacy is so low amongst low-income households is that there is very little incentive to read. They are barely visible in the media and are patronised in fiction. So the media does not act as their voice in opposition to power.

Publishing ideas is expensive and the greater the cost is, the more likely it is to be corrupted by the values of the powerful. Local worship, storytelling, live music events, and ‘zines are all ways to re-invigorate the local media. The parish magazine used to serve this purpose in much of Britain. As the Church declined in importance most churches have not partnered with others to re-widen their understanding of the word ‘parish’.

Expertise

The temple authorities were in charge of how reality was described; they faithfully guarded and nurtured the traditions, stories, and rites of the people. They were the experts on whom the grand narrative of society relied for its reinforcement.

If Jesus had set himself up as another expert he could be easily dismissed, but he chose instead to unleash the expertise found in authentic community. One cannot so easily dismiss 99 per cent of the population.

Censorship

Our final mechanism for managing the message of the institutional structures is censorship. Censorship can be either open punishment or implicit harassment. Among the more obvious forms of censorship of ideas were imprisonment, torture, and crucifixion. Crucifixion was a favorite among the Roman rulers because it offered a gruesome public punishment for dissent.

Jesus’ detractors accused him of blasphemy and of being in league with demons. They often tried to trap him with their questions into taking an ideological position that they could deal with: Should we pay taxes to Caesar? (Are you a collaborator?) Should we heal on the holy day? (Are you a heretic)? Should we stone this adulterer? (Are you a nationalist?). Jesus turned each challenge around on the accusers in order to show how far they had gone from their ethical heritage.

Labels like these serve to dehumanise opposition. Labeling others is often a form of violence against their personhood and legitimate needs.

Agents of Change

In Jesus’ Palestine the agents of national pride were, in reality, covert messengers of the Roman ‘globalisation’. It remains true that the institutions and organisations that we trust to challenge the powerful rely often on the same systemic worldview as those they seek to challenge. This renders the opposition incapable of affecting seismic change.

Real change never has its origins at the centre of power but always at the edges. This is why national news agencies can rarely move the debate beyond narrow parameters. Those who wish to be agents of change must begin by changing themselves. Or as Gandhi put it, "Be the change you want to see in the world."

All this resistance to the domination system begins and ends with listening to and supporting local change. If you have read the gospels through, you may have noticed that Jesus listens to and stands alongside a whole spectrum of people: whether tax collector, beggar, army officer, or imperial ruler, Jesus engages with each individual and starts with where that person is, not where he wishes they were.

* More on Leveson from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/leveson

* Media, faith and state post-Leveson: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18186

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© Keith Hebden is an Affirming Catholic Anglican pioneer minister and Seeking Justice deanery adviser in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, where he chairs the Diocesan Greener Churches Group. He teaches and writes on Dalit theology, Christian anarchism, green spirituality, and spiritual activism. His latest book, Seeking Justice: The radical compassion of Jesus plots experiments in faith based community organising and direct action. Some of his workshop material and other resources can be found at Compassionistas.

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