Structures or People? Talking like Jesus

Sometimes when I find myself in debates about Christian ethics, I realise that the reason is that we are coming from two very different starting points:

It’s hard to sum up these views succinctly but, basically, Bob, and others who prioritise individual ethics, thinks that individual people are the problem, and that people should be made to change. I, and others who prioritise structural ethics, think that structures are the problem, and that structures should be made to change.

Turning Tables

It might be helpful to understand how Bob and I (remember that we are, for the purposes of this exercise, caricatures at the extreme opposite ends of a spectrum) might understand the story about Jesus turning tables that both Matthew and Mark share. Matthew writes that:

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.'”

Mark writes that:

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.'”

Their stories are pretty similar, they add up, but I find Mark’s emphasis on teaching helpful. It’s pretty clear when you read this story that Jesus was angry about what the money lenders and dove-sellers were doing, and that his anger was caused by God’s house of prayer being used to take people’s money through money lending (most likely with high rates of interests) and selling doves (at a profit, to be used for sacrifice).

Bob, reading this, might think that the money lenders and dove-sellers were doing something wrong and that they should stop doing it, say sorry for doing it, and then be forgiven. I, reading this, would think that the systems of money-lending and animal sacrifice (and/or selling indulgences) were hierarchical and corrupt because they directly and indirectly caused the oppression of poor people and resulted in the privilege of rich people.

The Blame Game

Now, you might think that sometimes Bob is right and sometimes I am right. You have every right to think that. But, for me, there are some problems with Bob’s thinking. Bob’s thinking makes individual people the problem and makes them entirely responsible for their actions. This is problematic because it’s a) harmful to the individual, b) harmful to society, c) an ineffective model of change.

Bob’s response may be harmful to individuals. The individual hasn’t, necessarily, intentionally done something wrong. They are simply doing what people do to get by in the structure in which they happen to live. They are being used by the structure for it’s continuation and for the benefit of those at the very top of it. They might gain some benefits from the structure, but it hurts them too. (The story of Zacchaeus meeting Jesus is another great illustration of this.) By blaming them, you might exacerbate their hurt without actually teaching them how to do better.

Society will also be harmed by Bob’s response in the long run. If Bob tells individuals to change without addressing the structural reasons that they are doing a damaging thing, the structural reasons will persist. For every person that Bob persuades to change (which I honestly don’t think would be that many people) another two people will be inducted into the system. And so the cycle of harm continues. If, instead, we consider and address problematic structures, we can bring them down and end the cycle.

Bob’s method might work in the end, but it is slow and ineffective. Bob’s energy would be better spent tackling the system.

Jesus

Was Jesus being a little like Bob when he turned those tables? Perhaps. It is certainly possible to see the story that way if you only hear Matthew’s version. And the table-turning moment was an expression of anger at individuals but look, it happens, I think it’s the structure that Jesus is really angry at, given he loves every person. In Mark, though, we get a hint that Jesus did challenge the structure, not just the individual people. Mark writes that ‘And as he taught them, he said “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.'” He is teaching people to think about the structures that they have been inducted into so that they can bring them down. This takes persuasive skill, not personal attacks, and will be much more effective than simply telling them that they are wrong.

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