By Garrett FitzGerald
December 7, 2011
CNN's Belief Blog is playing host this week to a particularly galling bit of revisionist hermeneutics authored by conservative poster-boy Tony Perkins. Perkins' editorial, titled "My Take: Jesus was a free marketer, not an Occupier," treats the reader to a crash course in the sort of anachronistic proof-texting popular among contemporary conservatives attempting to project their own social and economic values back through time onto the life and teachings of Jesus.
Before we get into the content of the article, let me just take a moment to familiarize you with Tony Perkins. Tony Perkins cut his teeth in Louisiana state politics, where, while serving as a campaign manager for Louisiana state legislator Woody Jenkins, he paid former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke $82,000 for his mailing list and was subsequently fined $3,000 by the Federal Election Commission for attempting to keep the transaction a secret. Perkins later spent time as a state representative authoring such worthwhile legislation as the nation's first covenant marriage law and the American History Preservation Act, which "prevents censorship of America's Christian heritage in Louisiana public schools." Perkins currently serves as the president of the Family Research Council, which was declared a hate group in 2010 by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its "[denigration of] LGBT people in its battles against same-sex marriage, hate crimes laws, anti-bullying programs and the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy."
Nowhere in that sterling résumé is there anything to suggest that you should take Tony Perkins' word on matters of faith or scriptural interpretation. As friend-of-the-site Curtis observes in his response to Perkins' article,
"Tony Perkins is a career politician and now a lobbyist. He is not educated in theology, homiletics, hermeneutics, or any other subject that would help him expound upon what Jesus meant..."
And yet for some reason CNN sought the editorial opinion of this very same Tony Perkins on why Jesus probably would have preferred free market capitalism to...well, to whatever it is that the Occupy movement wants. Perkins doesn't seem all too clear on that point.
Suffice it to say, Perkins' take on Jesus' support of free market capitalism is wrong in pretty much every sense that you can imagine. First and foremost, it is wrong in the literal sense. Perkin's begins his article by explaining "One of the last instructions Jesus gave his disciples was "Occupy till I come."" And while this message might indicate to the uninformed reader that Jesus was indeed more Occupier than free marketer, Perkins quickly sets the record straight. According to Perkins' rendering of the original text, "the Greek term behind the old English translation literally means "be occupied with business,"" and it's business, as we all know, that lies at the heart of free market capitalism.
Now, a quick disclaimer: when you spend a few years at divinity school, you tend to encounter more people familiar with New Testament Greek than you're otherwise likely to meet. And while the inclusion of the word business in Perkins' translation would certainly seem to lend credence to Perkins' claims about Jesus' pro-capitalist message, Perkins' Greek should be taken with a Dead Sea-sized grain of salt. The ancient Greek term in question is πραγματεύσασθε. Now get ready, all you language nerds. When it appears in the Gospel of Luke, πραγματεύσασθε is written in the plural, aorist tense, middle voice, imperative mood - and translates most accurately as "to keep busy," and not necessarily with business, as Perkins would have his reader believe.
But my purpose in responding to Tony Perkins' article is not to quibble over ancient semantics, although given Perkins' past business dealings with David Duke it's certainly plausible that he may harbor some latent anti-semantic attitudes. Questionable though Perkins' rendering of the passage at hand may be, it's the underlying assumptions he brings to the passage and the eventual conclusions he draws from them that demand a response.
For starters, take Perkins' bogus equation of the situation of the servants in the Parable of the Minas to the free market capitalism he champions. I'm willing to overlook the fact that, according to Perkins, Jesus' parable relies directly on an anachronistic appeal to economic principles that won't even be given names for another sixteen centuries. Not too many chapters after the Parable of the Minas, Jesus goes on to conquer death itself, so let's assume that presaging Adam Smith's theories of economics by over a a millennium and a half is not off the table.
However, in support of his explicit claim that "Jesus chose the free market system as the basis for this parable," Perkins characterizes the nature of free market capitalism as follows:
[Each] of us is given the same opportunity to build our lives, and each of us shares the same responsibility to invest our lives for the purpose of bringing a return and leaving a legacy.
At what point in time since the birth and death of Jesus of Nazareth has the world that Tony Perkins envisions in that sentence ever, ever been realized? The rosy, egalitarian social order imagined by Tony Perkins and equated with free market capitalism is a complete fabrication, a conservative trope routinely trundled out to lend moral support to a morally bankrupt economic model. This is the sort of malicious, fictitious, level playing field, equal opportunity, up-by-the-bootstraps, Puritan work ethic nonsense that conservatives routinely rely on to demonize those less fortunate than they for their lot in life. Free market capitalism has always been implicated in the perpetuation of deep-seated social and economic disparities, and as we're about to see, it's precisely that sort of injustice that gets Jesus pretty riled up.
Before launching into his warped interpretation of the Parable of the Minas, Perkins asks his reader a string of rhetorical questions obviously intended to serve as straw man arguments: "But just what does Jesus' order to occupy mean? Does it mean take over and trash public property, as the Occupy movement has?"
Perkins considers the answer to be an obvious 'no' based on his dubious reading of the Parable of the Minas, which is itself based on the dubious connection that Perkins draws between the parable and the utterly fictitious construction of free market capitalism he provides. But if Perkins had read just a bit further in his Bible he might have come away with a different response entirely.
A scant seventeen verses after the conclusion of the Parable of the Minas, Luke relates the incredible scene of the cleansing the Temple. In the scene, Jesus enters the Temple in Jerusalem on Passover, which is about the busiest religious and commercial location you could find in ancient Israel, and proceeds to violently chase the money changers and vendors of sacrificial animals out of the Temple. Later in both Mark and Luke, Jesus further explains his anger at the Temple authorities whose business he so spectacularly disrupted, accusing them of "devouring the houses of widows" in the name of profit.
Although Mark has Jesus and his disciples leaving the city again that night, in Luke's account of the cleansing, which, again, appeared only a handful of verses after the parable cited by Perkins, we can see just what an occupier Jesus truly was:
45 And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, 46saying to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be a house of prayer,' but you have made it a den of robbers."
47 And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, 48but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words.
Although I disagree profoundly with Perkins' reduction of the Occupy movement to "[taking] over and [trashing] property," in the episode of the cleansing of the Temple we are treated to the incredible image of an enraged Jesus doing precisely that. If the image of masked youths setting up makeshift barricades on the streets of Oakland gives conservatives the shivers, what on earth would they make of Jesus walking into the headquarters of Goldman Sachs or Bank of America, flipping over their tables and desks, and then refusing to leave for days on end, all the while preaching a message of justice for the poor and vulnerable?
(Note: for a particularly poignant reading on the similarities between the message and the means of the Occupy movement and Jesus' cleansing of the Temple definitely check out Terry Eagleton's analysis of the temple cleansing in the context of Occupy London's encampment on the grounds of St. Paul's Cathedral.)
And what about the second of Perkins' intended rhetorical straw men? Does Jesus' exhortation to occupy "mean engage in antisocial behavior while denouncing a political and economic system that grants one the right and luxury to choose to be unproductive?"
Ignoring another of Perkins' rosy glosses of free market capitalism and his dig at the productivity of Occupiers, if being well socialized in Perkins' mind means unquestioning acceptance of a social and economic order built upon structural inequality, the clarion call for justice at the heart of Jesus' messages demands that we be antisocial.
What is the good of so-called social behavior when the society which sanctions it is so fundamentally implicated in the perpetuation of social and economic injustice that it makes selling sacrificial pigeons at a mark-up seem about as cutthroat as Ayn Rand running a lemonade stand?
By attempting to embody a more just society, what our author Erik Resly refers to as "rehearsing the reality to which they aspire," Occupiers are actively redefining what it means to be social in a way that intentionally minimizes the sort of inherent oppression wholly ignored in the systems and practices endorsed by well-socialized people like Tony Perkins.
What's more, when the Occupy movement is viewed in the context of the prophetic tradition - which I firmly believe it embodies - its supposedly antisocial behavior finds even more compelling context. You would be hard-pressed to find a more antisocial group of people than the prophets of the Old Testament. We are talking about a group of people who were routinely harassed, threatened, beaten, imprisoned, and even killed for reminding people of how unjust they had allowed their societies to become, for how routinely they mistreated the poor, the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, the stranger. And, lest we forget, Jesus himself was put to death as an enemy of the state for his own tendency toward profoundly anti-social behavior.
I am reminded of a speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Western Michigan University on December 18th, 1963. In the speech, Dr. King reflects on the buzzwords used to dismiss movements for social justice and the people who comprise them as deviations from societal norms. The word on Dr. King's mind in this instance was one such buzzword, the term maladjusted, but in the following powerful passage one can easily imagine substituting Perkins' antisocial:
There are certain technical words within every academic discipline that soon become stereotypes and cliches. Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word in modern psychology. It is the word "maladjusted." This word is the ringing cry to modern child psychology. Certainly, we all want to avoid the maladjusted life. In order to have real adjustment within our personalities, we all want the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurosis, schizophrenic personalities.
But I say to you, my friends, as I move to my conclusion, there are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good-will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self-defeating effects of physical violence.
In other words, I'm about convinced now that there is need for a new organization in our world. The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment--men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos. Who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln who had the vision to see that this nation would not survive half-slave and half-free. As maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery would scratch across the pages of history words lifted to cosmic proportions, "We know these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator certain unalienable rights" that among these are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth who could say to the men and women of his day, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you. Pray for them that despitefully use you." Through such maladjustment, I believe that we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice. My faith is that somehow this problem will be solved.
We should all aspire to be as maladjusted to the injustice of our times as Jesus was to the abuses of his own. We should aspire to be antisocial in a society that places the pursuit of profits over the protection of its most vulnerable. We are not instructed to occupy ourselves in the absence of Jesus, but called to Occupy in his presence. At the heart of the good news is the promise that those who labor for justice will never labor alone.