Monday, April 2, 2007

The Money Changers

The first thing Jesus did after he arrived in Jerusalem was to go to the temple and overturn the tables of the money changers. “You have made my father’s house a marketplace, a den of robbers,” he said, depending upon which Gospel you happen to be reading. In John’s Gospel he also set all the sacrificial animals free at this time, opening dove cages and driving the sheep and oxen out of the temple precinct. Some say that this was the act that drove the authorities over the edge, the charge upon which he was crucified: public disturbance, desecration of property. I think if Jesus were to turn up on Wall Street and do this in the stock market, he would surely be tried as a terrorist.

“You cannot worship God and money.”

When I was a young person in the 1960's and 1970's, my friends and I thought we could escape the clutches of money. I came of age in the Northern California of hippy communes, homesteaders moving to Alaska to live off the land, radically simple lives in what was then deliciously inexpensive housing. I was not a hippy; my friends and I lived for art, music, literature and theater. Our coherence lay in making beauty and beauty, we believed, could save us. We feasted on macaroni from the Co-op Low Cost Cookbook and debated Russian literature until far in the night. On the dark side, Vietnam cast a very long shadow – I’ll never forget when my dearest, most gentle poet friend had to register at the Draft Board – and the drugs were ubiquitous and insidious, mocking our privilege with their own peculiar horrors.

The political cause that won my heart was the rise of the Earth Movement in the early 1970's. In 1973, the gas crisis reminded us that petroleum was nonrenewable and we dreamed of turning away from dirty machinery to build sustainable, high density communities embraced by open space, where life could be lived in foot and bicycle and neighbors would know each other face to face. Our family got along quite well with one car and public transportation. Environmental laws improved our air, our water, our public lands. The endangered species act raised public compassion for the non human. The ocean blossomed with gray whales, their spouts rising like steam in the clear air of January. Wolves and Grizzlies were no longer hunted from planes. We continued to explore new ethics and morals and asked the question almost daily, “What is the best way to live?” But again, there was much evil. I saw my own quest for beauty conflated into a quest for easy sex, and at the end of the 1970's AIDS was stalking the streets of San Francisco, and Americans were being held hostage in Iran.

I don’t know what really happened next, but here’s how I saw it. At the beginning of the 1980's, a weary nation returned to money as the most rational way of ordering our society. Let the market decide! came the hopeful call. Money, being morally neutral, could shield us from our own worst intentions. Money assigns value apart from the thing itself and would allow us to be more impersonal. A robust market would create security, rationality, exchange. This decision was so completely accepted that both Republicans and Democrats have contributed to its phenomenal success. There’s an estate within walking distance of me that is on the market for 22 million dollars; its monthly payment on a conventional mortgage is more than 200,000, and there are people who have this kind of wealth. We Americans are living longer than ever. There is no rioting in our streets.

But our earth is dying and many of my friends will not hear of my love of Jesus because they think that Jesus is a tool of the Religious Right and that Jesus came to brainwash and enslave. All of these are values apart from the values that Jesus set for himself. Jesus came only to show us the truth. He came only as himself. And his protest cost him his life.

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