Occupy the idols

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By guest blogger Michael J. Sanem

"If you truly amend your ways and doings, if you truly act justly with one another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place. Has this house... become a den of robbers in your sight?"    - Jeremiah 7:5-7a, 11

New York University Professor of Economics Nouriel Roubini, who predicted the current economic crisis four year ago, recently wrote that one of the primary reasons for the Occupy Wall Street protests is the steady redistribution of wealth from the middle and working classes to the very rich, via "financial liberalization" and unsustainable economic policies that favor the wealthy.  According to Roubini, the protests "express in different ways the serious concerns of the world's working and middle classes about their prospects in the face of the growing concentration of power among economic, financial, and political elites."

An economic and political system that marginalizes the majority of its citizens is not unique to our time, or our country. In first century Palestine, the Roman Empire occupied Judea, installed a king they approved of, and collaborated with a small group of Jewish elites, called the Saduccees, to rule via the office of high priest and the Temple in Jerusalem, where God was believed to dwell. The Temple and its elite were supported by a tax paid by all Jews. Through this sacred building, pious believers sought forgiveness through animal sacrifice, celebrated festivals, and were able to fulfill the obligations of their covenant with God.

There was no safety net. A bad year for crops meant that a family would have to take out a loan. If the loan was not repaid by the next year, then the family would lose their land and would have to enter indentured servitude, quickly learn a new trade, or be forced to turn to crime or prostitution to survive. Moreover, in addition to the Temple tax, Jews had to pay Roman taxes and a tax to King Herod. The triple taxation of the common people coupled with harsh lending practices led to a growing under-class and an elite of wealthy landowners who continued to benefit from Roman occupation.

Four days before he was crucified, Jesus entered the courtyard of the Temple, overturned the moneychangers tables, and drove out everyone who was buying or selling anything. He "would not allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple" He then taught the people, quoting the prophet Jeremiah and saying, "You have made [the Temple] a den of robbers." (Mark 11:15-17).

Professor of Religion Marcus Borg asserts that Jesus wasn't protesting the presence of money near the Temple, nor the practice of animal sacrifice.  Instead, it was a planned indictment of the system of exploitation that left the rich fat and happy, and the poor on the edges of survival. Those who made money off the devout faith of pious Jews were collaborating with political, economic, and social elites, who themselves collaborated with the violent and oppressive Roman Empire. In effect, Jesus pointed out that the house of God was becoming a house of greed, where exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, via this “den of robbers,” was justifying itself in the name of God.

The Occupy Wall Street protestors in America and abroad are quite a bit different from Jesus and his disciples, and the financial centers they protest have little in common with the Jewish Temple of first century Jerusalem. But the itinerant atheist fighting for social and economic justice today, standing in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, and challenging all of us to re-assess what we value more, people or money, has more in common with table-turning, prophetic Jesus of the first century than the Christian who exploits the poor, oppresses the alien, and puts the idols of wealth, status, and security in place of the true God.

Whether you agree with the OWS protestors or not, the uncomfortable truth they have revealed to us is this: in America, nothing is more sacred than the almighty dollar. Nothing promises liberation, power, and security more alluringly than financial success, than the dream of striking it rich, being our own boss, and finally getting the lifestyle we believe we deserve. But the pursuit of wealth for the sake of wealth is an idol and an empty promise that we serve to our own hurt.

Every system of human creation has its own method of internal justification, a glib answer for every criticism. But every human system is ultimately subject to divine judgment, especially when people are suffering in service to it. Unregulated capitalism, like socialism and all other forms in between, is a human system that is broken and harmful if we forget that is justified only insofar as it supports and promotes human dignity. As Professor Roubini accurately concludes at the end of his analysis, “Any economic model that does not properly address inequality will eventually face a crisis of legitimacy.”

Such a crisis has arrived.


Michael J. Sanem teaches theology at a Catholic high school in Kansas City, Missouri. He was a Bernardin Scholar at Chicago Theological Union.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.