Benediction Online

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Standing Up Against Exploitation

I wonder if God would give us the same Ten Commandments today?
It seems to me that there are at least two major issues in contemporary society that aren’t clearly mentioned in the commandments. Perhaps they didn’t exist in the simple nomadic life of the Hebrews but I think it is more likely that they were so much part of the fabric of life they were not even considered sinful.

For example, there is no commandment against slavery. If these commandments were being written today we would consider slavery as unthinkable as murder. Did God leave it out intentionally? Does it mean that God didn’t notice slavery then but does now? Or that God has changed God’s mind?

If we consider Scripture to be the revelation of God to the people of the time recorded to their best ability, it perhaps isn’t surprising that there seem to be some blind spots in the basic moral code of 4,000 years ago. But Scripture is not just written in stone; scripture is written in our hearts and lives and interpreted by the Holy Spirit who is constantly making all things new. So we find ourselves informed by Scripture on things that were not even possible to consider when it was first written.

Slavery is a form of exploitation. The prophets of the 8th century BCE were very clear about the sin of exploitation. Amos proclaimed that true religious devotion was ending exploitation, not keeping fasts and offering sacrifices. But the Ten Commandments don’t mention exploitation, just as they don’t mention hate. I am sure that hate is not a uniquely modern sin, but hatred of other tribes was taken for granted. Today our understanding of God has changed to a God who embraces all beings including members of other tribes.

Hatred and exploitation are foundational in contemporary society. Our capitalist market system is based on exploitation – on the few becoming wealthy at the expense of other people, other creatures and the planet. Over the past few years we have seen the gap between rich and poor grow larger and larger. In a global recession it is the poor who suffer most. Our political systems are stoked and sustained by hatred, by preferring Us over Them and attacking Them. Here in Los Osos we are especially aware of how Us and Them quickly develops into hatred even when we can’t keep track of who exactly we are meant to be hating at any given time.

In today’s Gospel reading we see Jesus in an uncharacteristic rampage through the temple market. Was this a spontaneous temper tantrum? Was it a pre-planned act of civil disobedience? If we see Jesus as the model of divine-human to which we aspire, what does this example of destruction mean to us?

I have to say immediately that I don’t think it provides justification for temper or for violence. Jesus was acting against those who were exploiting the needs of people to serve their God through ritual sacrifice. He was objecting to the use of the temple of God as a way for merchants to get rich. We can be pretty sure that doves cost more in the temple precinct than if you were able to bring them from home, but if you had to walk several days journey you weren’t going to try taking live birds with you. The merchants and the moneychangers were making a handsome profit.

So the example Jesus gives us is one of standing up to exploitation. An example of Jesus, who tells us to turn the other cheek when we are being persecuted, saying ‘No’. It is important for us to be prepared to say ‘No’. Our baptismal covenant calls us to ‘strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being’. Sometimes there seems to be an inconsistency in that pledge. Respecting the dignity of every human being and striving for justice sometimes seem to fly in the face of striving for peace.

The overarching witness of Scripture and tradition is that our God expects us to stand up and be counted when we see others being hurt, exploited or victimized. The Bible has been used over the centuries to justify abuse, hatred and exploitation. The Church has also been implicated in actively supporting oppressive regimes, standing for empire and oppression, aiding in violence and war. But this is a distortion of the Gospel which calls us to stand against the values of secular society, to stand against the oppressor. Throughout Biblical history God has stood with the victim, including Jesus the ultimate victim.

That is our place. Not just binding up the wounds but standing up to the status quo and saying ‘No’. No to domestic violence, no to homelessness, no to discrimination against gay people, no to exploiting immigrant workers, no to using natural resources without regard to their effect on the planet, not to waging war.

That may result in conflict. As followers of Christ we are called to engage in conflict in a different way. The New Testament lesson reminds us that God’s great work on the cross appeared to be a great loss. What appears to be weakness in the normal way of things is actually great strength. We are called to stand up against exploitation but without indulging in hate, without forgetting that the people whose actions we oppose are also the beloved children of God. We are called to stand up against exploitation and hate without ourselves

If we are really serious about accepting God’s invitation to be restored and to take our place as the daughters and sons of God, we can expect conflict in our lives because we will be living values which are different from those around us. But even when we are in the midst of external conflict, the peace of God is always available in our hearts. It is that peace which has enabled Christians to bear martyrdom, has supported those like Bonheoffer and King who have been imprisoned, and has helped innumerable ordinary Christians to continue to stand up for justice.

This week marks the fifth year of the start of the Iraq war. The beginning of the sixth year that we have been supporting ongoing violence in the Middle East. This is not a good use of our national resources, it is not a good use of the world’s natural resources. We don’t hear statistics about the effect of war on the environment but explosions, destruction and burning must put tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Even as there is hope of winding down American operations in Iraq, there are plans to increase our activities in Afghanistan, a country notoriously difficult to govern, a country which has defeated foreign armies again and again. There has been little public opposition to these wars. There has been no clear voice proclaiming an alternative but small groups of citizens around the country have continued to call for a different way.

I invite you to gather at Mission Plaza on Thursday at 5:30 with others calling for an end to this ongoing militarism.

It won’t make any difference. At least that’s the way it seems. The church doesn’t make any difference in the big issues of the world. At least that’s the way it seems. But Paul reminds us that God has chosen the weak and the insignificant to confound the powerful and prominent. I doubt that Jesus’ actions had much effect on the temple market – it was probably back in business within a few hours.

But what is important is that as the sons and daughters of God we obey God’s call to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being. As we show our love by our obedience God magnifies our actions in ways we cannot know. We demonstrate our love for God by speaking up against exploitation and refusing to get caught into the dynamics of hatred. Even hatred of those who are exploiting and hurting others.

God’s astonishing and extravagant love embraces all beings however distorted we have become. There is never a place for hating those whom God has made and whom God loves. When we join together in the Confession this morning let us be especially mindful of those times when through fear or social pressure, we have allowed ourselves to indulge in hatred.


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