Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Jesus the terrorist

I went to round table with Megan at University Presbyterian Church this last Thursday morning, with my strep and everything. I will say in my own defense I didn't know at the time that the thing with which I had already been suffering for 2 days *was* strep.

They read John 2:12-23. This is the story where Jesus makes a whip and chases merchants and loan sharks out of the temple in Jerusalem.

When the Passover Feast, celebrated each spring by the Jews, was about to take place, Jesus traveled up to Jerusalem. He found the Temple teeming with people selling cattle and sheep and doves. The loan sharks were also there in full strength.
Jesus put together a whip out of strips of leather and chased them out of the Temple, stampeding the sheep and cattle, upending the tables of the loan sharks, spilling coins left and right. He told the dove merchants, "Get your things out of here! Stop turning my Father's house into a shopping mall!" That's when his disciples remembered the Scripture, "Zeal for your house consumes me."

But the Jews were upset. They asked, "What credentials can you present to justify this?" Jesus answered, "Tear down this Temple and in three days I'll put it back together."

They were indignant: "It took forty-six years to build this Temple, and you're going to rebuild it in three days?" But Jesus was talking about his body as the Temple. Later, after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered he had said this. They then put two and two together and believed both what was written in Scripture and what Jesus had said.

During the time he was in Jerusalem, those days of the Passover Feast, many people noticed the signs he was displaying and, seeing they pointed straight to God, entrusted their lives to him. But Jesus didn't entrust his life to them. He knew them inside and out, knew how untrustworthy they were. He didn't need any help in seeing right through them.

A good friend of mine, Renee, in the process of defending Jesus against my accusations that he was a nut-case, said that it was about economic justice--about standing up for the poor in the face of the overwhelming cultural and institutional power of the rich who would make them pay in order to worship (Or something like that).

This made me wonder to what extent Jesus' actions here could be called terrorism? Of course the word has now become to some extent useless. Even if it's not useless, I'm no doubt performing some rather aggregious eisogesis. I just remember Brian McClaren talking about how from one perspective the "terrorists" have chosen an astoundingly effective modus operandi. For instance, how much did Bin Laden and co spend on planning, orchestrating, and carrying out the 9-11 attacks? To what extent has our Trillion Dollar + military response led directly to our current economic difficulties? Put another way--aren't the actions of "terrorists" like Hamas (for instance) to some extent the actions of the worlds poorest striking out against the world's richest?

It's easy to try to to frame these actions of Jesus in such a way that he's *not* a nut case. But honestly, if anyone did such a thing now, they'd at *best* end up involuntarily in a mental hospital. It *was* violence. He was turning over tables and causing people's livestock to stampede. Definite danger in such a situation of people getting badly hurt or killed. He paused (thoughtfully?) at the beginning to hand make a *whip*, for use in his ... rampage.

I'm trying to think of what in American life amounts to something similar to the temple at Jerusalem--a sort of profoundly significant religious, cultural and historical *center* of the nation. The national Cathedral? What if someone came into the national cathedral and starting creating such mayhem with a whip and an attitude? Exactly--multiple people would pull out their cell phones and call 911. Then the perpetrator would go to jail to await trial. That is if someone didn't just pull out a gun and shoot him.

Is it called for? Does Jesus accomplish anything with such behavior? Was it unthought out--an act of passion? My friend Katie said clearly not. He stops at the beginning to take the time to find and put together the pieces of what became his whip.

Is this the only act of violence Jesus ever does? If so, taken in the overall story of his life, what does it teach us about violence? We must only ever be perpetrators of violence *once* in our lifetime, so make it count? Against whom is Jesus directing the violence? Certainly not against foreigners--these are other Israelites. It's "internecine" violence.

Is it unreasonable to see a link between Jesus' use of violence against the Israeli power brokers in this story and their use, three years later, of violence in Jesus' own death? Jesus himself makes this connection.

Ultimately, to me, it's just gross and ugly. I can't see any justification for it. I wonder if Jesus later regretted it. I'm still not convinced that violence ultimately moves us toward any of the goals toward which we really want to move. BICBW.


stephy said...

And now everyone who was at the meeting can mull this over while they lie in bed with strep for the next week.

Benjamin Ady said...

Indeed. In fact, I tried to cough and sneeze and slobber and shake every one's hands as much as possible, to that end. I was trying to carry out the Christian ethos of "better to give than receive". =)

Not really. I haven't heard that any of them have gotten it, and it's been a week. And I have stayed carefully quarantined since I learned what it was. Although I *have* thought about going to some of the mini casinos around here and sitting and playing blackjack and trying to give this away to some of the meaner dealers and patrons. I would never actually *do* that (or would I?)

Joe said...

First, I think it is important to judge history according to its own times. Given the violence inherent in the Roman occupation, getting a bit angry in the Temple hardly registers.

But I agree it is hard to see how it achieved much.

Regarding terrorism, the shocking thing is how close religious excuses for mass violence are to our religious expressions. Our only defence appears to be that the terrorists believe in the 'wrong God'.

byron smith said...

The "violence" is towards the corrupt Temple-system, not the people. Driving animals with a whip was how you got them to move. People would have moved out of the way. It was a sight they were used to seeing. Overturning tables might give someone a sore back turning them all back up again, but is also not dangerous. Jesus is not being violent (though he is being highly dramatic). The effect of his actions was not just random chaos, but the specific outcome of stopping the temple sacrifices, at least temporarily. It is a highly symbolic act of protest.

Perhaps it is not too far distant from heading down to the stock-exchange and taking a sledgehammer to the computer systems that make it run. They will be fixed, but it is the symbolism that counts. Would you be stopped? Yes. Jesus only gets away with it because his action is so popular with the crowds. And he doesn't get away with it for long. Although in John this event is put upfront as one of Jesus' first actions, in the synoptics, it is the proximate cause of his arrest, trial and execution. I take it that John has shifted the chronology for his own symbolism: this (along with the wedding at Cana) are placed up front in order to highlight them for various reasons. I don't think Jesus did this twice.

The question that is worth pondering further is *why* Jesus was so opposed to the temple-system. Historian N. T. Wright argues a strong case that Jesus was actually opposing the violence of the zealots who used the temple as a nationalist symbol and HQ for their plots against the Romans. Jesus consistently opposed the zealot solution to Roman occupation (those who take up the sword will die by the sword). When Jesus (quoting Jeremiah) says that the temple has been made into a "den of robbers", the word for robbers (lestes) is also the word for brigand or revolutionary, that is, an outlaw for either financial or political reasons (or both). The temple has become the centre of Jewish nationalist plots to violently throw off Roman rule (such plots were actually put into practice within a few decades of Jesus, and were brutally crushed and the temple destroyed as a result. Jesus also predicted this).

Jesus, at this stage immensely popular and quite capable of leading a popular uprising himself (he's just been acclaimed king by the crowds as he entered Jerusalem) is deliberately distancing himself from this agenda, in order to clear the space necessary for his compatriots to understand how they were to pursue the kingdom of God.