Saturday, 2 June 2012

A protestant church

A few weeks ago I published a blog post reflecting on catholicism, and its challenging call to a faith which pertains to everything; so in the name of balance and equality, I have also been reflecting on what it means to have a protestant faith.

Familiarity with terminology can breed, if not contempt, at least a certain lack of engagement with their true meaning, but the origin of the word protestant is in little doubt.

Just as I believe all churches are called to seek the inclusivity of being truly catholic, I think we are equally called to be protestant, for to be a Christian is to be a follower of Christ, non-violent protestant extraordinaire.

Jesus lived his whole life as a protest: against the oppressive occupation of the Roman regime which ruled by violence and in which economic inequality prevailed and against religious authorities who tried to limit God’s love to a selected few. Perhaps the moment in his life which we most easily associate with the Christ of protest is drives out the stall holders and over-turns the tables of the money changers in the temple. At other times in the gospel, Jesus shows little support for temple-based religion, yet he still chose to expel the traders form a temple he saw as superfluous to worship of God.

It is a story which appears in all four gospels, with Matthew, Mark and Luke placing it at the beginning of the week of Jesus’ passion, creating a clear link with his ending up on a cross; while John places it at the very beginning of Jesus ministry: it is, along with the miracle at Cana which precedes it, his mission statement and the foundation of all that follows.

The temple was a very public place in which to make a statement against economic injustice and the damaging effects of a trade system which took advantage of the poor to enrich the powerful. Jesus was not only protesting against the location of the market he was protesting against a system where two sets of weights and measures allowed traders to defraud with impunity, and where money changers lined their own pockets leaving the poor and vulnerable with no recourse to justice.

2000 years on, trade rules which favour the rich, allowing the rich to get richer, while others are plunged deeper into poverty still sound very familiar.

The temple was also a place to demonstrate the hypocrisy of a system which used religious texts to exclude, yet refused to live by the justice and jubilee principles of those same books. The traders selling animals for religious rites and sacrifices, and the money changers changed the local currency into the specific coins required to pay the temple tax, were part of a religious system which promoted exclusivity. Furthermore, the traders were almost certainly operating within the outer walls of the temple, in the area reserved for the prayers of those not permitted to enter further into the temple. Already kept out of the holiest places, this was a further barrier denying access to God to the gentiles and “unclean”. In clearing this place, Jesus is making a statement, breaking down barriers which exclude.

2000 years on, the reality for many of the experience of exclusion is also little changed.

Perhaps to be truly protestant, and true followers of Christ, our protest too must be against the systems which oppress and impoverish and against barriers which exclude.

Maybe then, in the world as it is, it is impossible to become more catholic without also choosing to be protestant, and to be protestant involves an aspiration towards catholicity ... which makes me wonder why church unity seems so difficult to achieve...

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