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?