Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ephesus Comes to Wall Street

The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. (Acts 19:32)

The story is told in the book of Acts of a riot that erupted when the Apostle Paul began preaching the Gospel in the city of Ephesus. Indeed, wherever Paul went he stirred up controversy, and Ephesus was no exception. His Gospel message was apparently persuading many people, even in the midst of fierce opposition, partly because God was confirming his message with miraculous signs, but also because of Paul’s ability to persuade with calm logic and reason:

Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God…. [He also] had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord. (Acts 19:8-10)
Mass conversions to Christianity were obviously viewed as a threat to the status quo, particularly in a land dominated by idol worship. This was especially problematic in the city of Ephesus, which was the guardian of the great temple of Artemis. The temple supported a great deal of local commerce; for example, there were many silversmiths whose trade was to make and sell figurines for the Artemis devotees who came from near and far. A silversmith named Demetrius, recognizing the threat to his livelihood, gathered together his colleagues, stirred them into a frenzy and started a riot. A mob began to gather in a local theatre, shouting in unison at the top of their lungs: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

Initially, Paul was foolhardy enough to want to venture into the theatre and reason with the mob, but his friends persuaded him to think better of it. Eventually, the city clerk went in and quieted the crowd, reasoning with them that if they had a complaint against Paul and his companions, the courts were open and they should press charges. But rioting would not be tolerated.

Why this brief foray into biblical history? I was reminded of it in the last week or two as the “Occupy Wall Street” movement started getting attention. I know I will be denounced by handwringers accusing me of mixing religion and politics, but the parallels are striking:

  • Like the shouting rioters in Ephesus, much of the OWS crowd does not seem to know why it is there. Theirs is a potpourri of disjointed gripes and agendas: Some want their student loans forgiven. Others want free health care. They are all against “the wealthy” (whoever they are) and believe that corporations should be less “greedy” and fork over their money. (Forgetting that corporations are owned by shareholders, who happen to represent the vast majority of the American people, whose individual savings and retirement accounts include stock in corporations.)
  • The OWS movement is an unruly mob that has been stirred up by people and interests who, like the Ephesian silversmiths, see a threat to their comfortable status quo. Today’s status quo is represented by a bloated bureaucracy, runaway deficit spending, crony capitalism, unholy alliances between politicians and public sector unions, and class warfare. Because this unhappy set of circumstances suits some people just fine, they view conservatives and the “tea party” as a threat. If it takes a mob to stop them, so be it.
  • By contrast, the much derided tea-partiers have not been known for rioting. Their gatherings have been orderly and peaceful. Like Paul in the lecture hall of Tyrannus, they gather together, have their say, leave the site cleaner than they found it, and then quietly get back to their jobs and businesses. Most importantly, they have effected change through the ballot box, not by trampling on people’s private property in a menacing manner.
  • If the rioters had a legitimate grievance against “the wealthy” or “big banks” or “evil corporations” or “the 1%”, they would go to a court of law and prevail. But having no legitimate grievance that would pass muster according to law, the rioters simply clamor loudly that other people should simply  fork over their stuff. Because they cannot possibly prevail by means of law in a civil society, only a riot will do.
The most disturbing parallel between the rioters in Ephesus and the OWS crowd is actually a conspicuous non-parallel. Unlike the situation in Ephesus, there is no city clerk at Wall Street or at any of the other OWS gatherings urging calm and reasoned discourse via the institutions of a civil society. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg has so far lacked the courage to clear the OWS mob from the privately owned property it is occupying. Worse still, the President of the United States and the Democratic Party are egging the mob on and identifying with its cause. This is unconscionable and dangerous.

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