Thursday, August 18, 2011

Obstructing Commerce and Exorcising Cash Registers

I've just begun reading The Reverend Billy Project, by Savitri D and Bill Talen, published this year by the University of Michigan Press. The Reverend Billy is a performance-art character, invented by co-author Talen in the 1990s to satirize American consumerism. I hadn't heard of him before; my attention was mainly caught by the name of the editor, the critic Alisa Solomon, who also contributes an interview with the authors to the book. There's a Reverend Billy website, a documentary, and you can see him in action on Youtube -- with Glenn Beck, for example. (It's mildly entertaining to watch Beck, of all people, questioning Billy's theological qualifications and bona fides.)

The book opens with an account of Reverend Billy's attempted exorcism of a Starbucks north of Los Angeles in 2004, which led to his arrest, conviction, and three days' incarceration for sexually harassing a cash register.
The original charges against Billy included a restraining order that enjoined Billy to refrain from harassing, confronting, or sexually intimidating the Starbucks cash register [30].
As the prosecuting attorney summed it up in closing arguments, "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, he intentionally interfered with business, he did interfere with business and this was beyond, beyond any right any of us have to go in and have a skit, have a play, have any actions, because there is a sacredness, there are places that people can't go grabbing registers and disturbing the flow of business. That's just beyond" (33).

"Sacredness"! My goodness. Of course this brought to mind Jesus' cleansing of the Jerusalem Temple Court, reported in all four canonical gospels. Here's Mark's version, in the New Revised Standard Version:
15Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple,* and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.”
18And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
It's often said that if Jesus were to come again today, he'd get in just as much trouble as he did the first time. He certainly impeded lawful business in the Temple Court; the author of Mark misleads us a bit, because the moneychangers and vendors did not set up shop "in the temple," but in the outer court, known as the Court of the Gentiles. Their work was, if not absolutely necessary, at least a convenience for pilgrims who'd come long distances to worship in Jerusalem and could hardly have brought sacrificial animals with them, and who needed to make cash offerings in forms without idolatrous images of foreign gods or kings stamped on the coins. It's hard to see how such services constituted "robbery", unless Jesus thought that the Temple personnel should have supplied them free of charge -- not a bad idea, but Jesus himself accepted financial and other support from his followers. If he objected to the offering of animal sacrifices in the Temple according to strict specifications, he needed to take it up with Yahweh and Moses, the authors of Scripture, who'd set those specifications.

A story like this should be borne in mind when people are talking about literalism. What would it mean to take the cleansing of the temple court literally? If that means believing that it actually happened, then one would still have to figure out what it means. Should Christians imitate Jesus by attacking, say, Christian gift shops that sell chi-chi statuettes of Jesus and wooden plaques that say "Jesus Loves You So Much It Hurts"? Would this apply to all the Christian writers who make money by explicating the gospel for modern people? How about Hollywood blockbusters which retell the life and suffering of Christ?

I've read some scholars, not the most radical by any means, who've argued that the story is a legend, that the historical Jesus didn't actually invade the Temple courts. There are reasons to doubt it: during major festivals like Passover, when Jesus staged his intervention, the Roman troops who occupied Jerusalem in those days kept a sharp eye open for troublemakers, and would probably have intervened rather forcefully if some wild-eyed fanatic pulled out a whip made of cords and began overturning tables in the Court of the Gentiles. I admit I enjoy the mental image of Jesus protesting as he was dragged off by Roman soldiers, "But you don't understand! I didn't mean it literally! It was an acted parable! It was a metaphor for the Day of Judgment!"

Heck, maybe that should have been Reverend Billy's defense.

*The New International Version has "temple court" instead of "temple" here, probably an apologetic addition. "Court" isn't in the Greek original.