Rage, violence and Jesus – the cleansing of the Temple

So we’re approaching Good Friday and Easter again. Does the story of Christ’s ‘Passion’ fill you with joy or dread, neither, maybe both?

The Passion story is undeniably a bloody and violent one. I’m no great fan of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ for all sorts of reasons, theological and otherwise. I think that amidst the relentless, excessive bloody gore and horror it misses the heart and point of the story. But I suppose it does at least underline that, whatever else the cross of Christ was and meant, it was a brutal and bloody act of execution and sacrifice.

So over the next few posts I’d like to look at ideas of violence and anger in relation to the Christian story. We live in a violent world and we have violent tendencies without ourselves, often unacknowledged or pushed aside. And the messages we get from the church and the Bible are very mixed. Is God violent and vengeful or a God of peace and love? Should we fight terrorists or forgive them? What do we as Christians do with all our angers and hates and frustrations?

The cleansing of the temple – a violent Jesus?

I’ve said that the Passion story is violent, and most of the violence is of course enacted upon Jesus. But rather oddly, the opening act of violence in the story seems to come from Jesus himself. What are we to make of the so-called ‘cleansing of the Temple’, in which Jesus forcefully overturns moneylenders’ tables and drives out the sellers and buyers? What’s going on in this odd and rather jarring scene?

This incident seems to be the only occasion where Jesus ever used physical force or violence in any way. At first sight it seems out of character with the rest of what we see of Jesus in the gospels. Doesn’t it give the lie to Jesus’ non-violence? How do we square it with his injunctions elsewhere against outbursts of rage? Has he just temporarily lost the plot? It certainly looks that way, but I think there are other ways to read what’s happening.

No violence to people

Assuming for now that the gospel accounts are broadly accurate here (despite John placing the incident at the start of Jesus’ ministry rather than the end), there are a few things we can say.

First and importantly, Jesus harmed no-one during this action. True, he did reportedly fashion a makeshift whip, but appears only to have used this to drive the cattle and sheep out of the temple courts. And yes, he turned over tables, perhaps with considerable force, but he used no violence on any person.

I don’t know if Jesus was (and is) utterly ideologically opposed to all acts of physical force on humans in all contexts – for example, I don’t know what his position on smacking children would be. But it’s a relief to me to see that he used no actual violence on any person here, or indeed anywhere else.

And even with the animals, Jesus only used the whip to drive them out – to liberate them if you like, to free them at least for a while from being slaughtered as sacrificial beasts. You could see it as part of the whole arc of the Easter redemption story: Jesus could be saying ‘Stop killing innocent animals to cover your sins – if you want a blood sacrifice, here I am, take me’. More on that next time perhaps…

Spiritual authority and civil disobedience

Second and crucially, this was not an act of war, uprising or terrorism. It was rather an act simultaneously both of spiritual authority and of civil disobedience. Armed with only the force of his personality and voice, Jesus single-handedly took on a bunch of rich and powerful businessmen and drove them out of God’s sacred temple which they were misusing for their corrupt and exploitative ends.

It was an act of spiritual authority because Jesus was coming into his true home, his Father’s temple, the place of true worship where heaven and earth were meant to meet, the place of the divine presence, and he found it tragically infested with greed, corruption and mistreatment of the poor. Spiritually speaking, the buyers, sellers and moneylenders had no right to be there, doing what they were doing. As the ‘son’ or representative of the God worshipped here Jesus had every right to clear out the corruption and restore the temple to its rightful purpose.

And we see not only Jesus’ concern for true worship here, but also (as an inherent part of that) his compassionate concern for the poor and oppressed, the marginalised and exploited. The ‘cleansing’ is as much an act of support for the underdog as it is an act of religious zeal. For Jesus, it seems the two are one and the same. I think there’s more going on here than just this, but surely not less.

And within the world system of Jesus’ culture it was of course a clear and provocative act of civil disobedience. However much spiritual right he had to do it, he had no recognised legal authority or civil right within the temple or wider society.

So is it possible that this act above all others provided the authorities with the justification they needed to execute him just a few days later (in the synoptic gospels if not John)? I’ve looked at other reasons why Jesus ended up on the cross, but this certainly seems like a strong contender. And if so, is it a deliberate act of provocation on Jesus’ part, to bring about the end he has foreseen?

And it’s a lovely divine paradox that an act of spiritual authority can also be one of disobedience to worldly powers-that-be. God is not (as we sometimes imagine) a God of the establishment and the status quo, but a subversive, even rebellious deity who opposes the oppressive ruling powers – and pays the price for doing so.

Jesus and anger

Finally, was Jesus angry in this episode? Yes, surely. ‘Zeal for his Father’s house consumed him’, as John’s gospel puts it (quoting Psalms). It sounds as though a brief flame of righteous anger overwhelmed Jesus. You could almost say he was, in a sense, out of control – ‘berserk’ in the old original sense of divine battle-madness. I don’t know.

Yet throughout, he committed no physical violence on people nor inflicted any real harm. We cannot base a theology of holy war, physical punishment or violent civil disobedience (such as bombing abortion clinics or offices of satirical magazine) upon this episode.

I’ll come back to ideas of anger, hate, war and violence in later posts, arguing that anger can be a positive force but that violence is never a Christlike use of anger.

So how about you – what do you think about this odd incident of the ‘cleansing of the temple’ and what it means?

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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9 Responses to Rage, violence and Jesus – the cleansing of the Temple

  1. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    You have gotten me all excited now, Evan! I firmly believe that God is not a violent, vengeful God, but a God of peace and love. I look forward eagerly to what you have to say on violence related issues.

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  2. Interesting post, Harvey. Also interesting that I’ve recently posted on the “cleansing” incident on my blog and on issues of nonviolence. Deciphering what may have really happened is similar in this case to many others within the Gospels… probably an historical core or general basis but details remain fuzzy.

    In terms of John placing such an incident at the BEGINNING of Jesus’ ministry, I don’t think there is any harmonizing possible. Some such an incident seems to have actually happened and it almost certainly was right before his arrest (two widely separated ones are unlikely). And likely it was the specific provocation for the arrest. I say “some such” an incident because Mark (15) reads quite differently than Matt., Luke on some points.

    As I point out, but only briefly in my post(s) – (actually two which are linked), the Mark passage indicates a holding of the Temple area where all commerce was done… a vast area in the larger outer courtyard. It was, according to Mark, not just a quick symbolic demonstration but must have involved quite a few people — a major disruption which would surely have brought out the Roman soldiers who constantly monitored the Temple area from the high fortress above it. That’s not to say Jesus or his followers necessarily injured anyone, but it had to have been a very forceful action, and prolonged. Otherwise Mark is just wrong (which is possible, but the general pattern is his version is earliest/rawest and then Matt. and Luke tone down any extremes and some of the potential confusion and fit things to THEIR story lines).

    But THEN… as my two articles detail a bit, Mark also gives an unusual glimpse into the state of near-revolt even this far from the great turmoil of the late 50s into the 60s and beginning of the war in 66. He refers to “the insurrection” in which Barabbas and others were captured, having committed at least two killings (by inference), quite possibly more. Whether or not Barabbas was part of the Temple incident of Jesus is beyond knowing from the NT or any other texts. But what IS interesting is that either Mark is just fictionalizing or there was at least a small “uprising” (per some translations) or “insurrection” that must have been right around the same time… there was no purpose or advantage to hold prisoners long. Swift and cruel punishment was the main deterrent against further insurrection. So what are we to make of this?

    The incomplete info from Mark, plus the other texts, seems to at least leave the door open that Jesus’ action was a sizable and forceful one… one in which perhaps violence did erupt, even if not by Jesus’ design or instruction. I do think we can validly still see Jesus’ way as one of nonviolence but also should acknowledge that he was presenting a forceful challenge to the status quo which WAS corrupt and oppressive of the common citizen. Both the Jewish leaders/puppets and their Roman masters. And Barabbas (if he existed, as is often questioned) and the others crucified with Jesus were NOT “common criminals” but insurrectionists or aggressive rebels. This fits well with the history as we know it, mainly via Josephus (a Jew), with some other Roman sources.

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    • Hi Howard,
      Thanks – fascinating stuff. I clearly need to look into all this further, and I’ll also read your posts on the subject as I’ve been meaning to! I wasn’t aware that the Mark account was so different, nor that the incident might have involved a larger-scale action which may have turned violent/forceful in parts.

      There’s also the odd line in Luke (I think, need to check!) where Jesus seems to tell his followers at the Last Supper that they need swords… not sure what to make of that one.

      My impression is still that Jesus was committedly non-violent, and the ‘cleansing’ incident is slightly problematic, seemingly anomalous. And of course we can’t tell exactly how historical the accounts are, though I’m inclined to broadly accept them unless there are strong reasons not to. Still, I do think that the incident makes sense within Jesus’ self-view (as I see it) as the chosen prophet-priest-king who had come to complete or fulfil Israel’s role and that of the Temple itself.

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      • Yes, the passage you mention re. swords (some say for personal self-defense it may have been common, but it doesn’t read like that to me) and the story that Peter (named in one text) used one to swing seriously at the high priest’s servant seems to give pretty strong indication of at least some self-defense mentality… It doesn’t appear Jesus took seriously that his little band could stand against hundreds of Roman soldiers (John says a “detatchment” — around 600, but many, regardless of historical accuracy). However, it seems to fit the apocalyptic movements of the times as well as Jewish beliefs via their Scriptures, that Jesus may well have been “forcing the end”… doing just enough, like Joshua stepping into the Jordan (if I recall rightly), to prompt God’s intervention. I don’t recall if this is exactly how Schweitzer frames it, but I think approximately so….

        His much later book (written 1951, published 1967) than the “Quest…” one is excellent on all this, and Jesus’ self-conception: “The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity”… reviewed on my blog. It’s unfortunate that this more mature work of his has been so heavily overshadowed by his earlier work. It is also MUCH more readable than “Quest”.
        The “forcing the end” phrase, which I like, is via Joel Carmichael, tho he may not have originally coined it.

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        • Thanks Howard – sorry for slow reply (I’ve been away on holiday and mostly offline for the last week).

          Reading the Mark ‘cleansing of the temple’ passage, I can see your basis for thinking that it may be more organised and possibly forceful, but I’d be cautious about reading too much into a few words. It seems to me that it requires quite a bit of reading between the lines to derive a violent insurrection from this passage – for me, I’d leave it as an interesting possibility. And given the non-violent nature of the rest of Jesus’ ministry, I certainly don’t think that he himself was intending any kind of armed clash with the authorities (not that you’re suggesting he was!).

          I’m also not entirely convinced about the theory that Jesus was trying to ‘force the end’ or attempting to prompt God’s intervention, though again it’s an interesting possibility and I couldn’t say that it’s definitely not the case. It’s another one I need to read more about before I can comment fully!

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  3. Jenny Rayner says:

    I love this sentence: “God is not (as we sometimes imagine) a God of the establishment and the status quo, but a subversive, even rebellious deity who opposes the oppressive ruling powers – and pays the price for doing so”. I was called a “subversive influence” by one of my teachers in school, and I always had it held up to me as a bad trait, a totally negative thing. And yet, I have an almost ridiculous eagerness to please those in authority, up until the time I come across something manifestly unfair either to me or someone else. I also have what I believe is a God-given tendency to be able to see alternative ways of doing things. This has got me into trouble many times as a foster carer, fighting against social workers over some of the decisions made about children in our care, and forming friendships with the birth parents in order to promote family unity and help those struggling to parent well. Even now, working with vulnerable adults, I struggle with some of the artificial boundaries that are put in place “to keep yourself safe”. Fortunately, I work for someone who has very much the same attitude, but nevertheless, I still come across those who are not happy with the way I go about things. Whilst recognising I have my own and my organisation’s reputation at stake, fighting for the rights of the vulnerable people I support is far more important to me than reputation. So once again I find your blog vindicating, confirming and empowering. Thank you. Jenny.

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    • Hi Jenny, sorry for not getting back to you sooner!

      I can very much identify with your dilemma – I too have a ridiculous eagerness to please those in authority, yet also a troublesome rebellious anti-authoritarian streak. I want the parents, teachers, vicars and police to approve of me, but I also don’t like being told how to do things or what to think!

      And I think we probably need both sides. A lot of the time, authorities are fine and useful and help keep things running, but other times we need to challenge them when their methods or priorities are wrong or unhelpful.

      Clearly Jesus challenged the Status Quo and the Powers that Be, often head on, so I think we’re fine too as well… but of course he did end up crucified for it. It’s always a challenge (which I still haven’t cracked!) to know which battles to fight and which to leave, when to stand up and make a fuss and when to keep your head down… or maybe just to subvert systems quietly from within without the authorities noticing, which is my preferred approach! 😉

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