Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Clearing the Temple Was Not a "Peaceful Protest"

Protesters in Durham, NC kick a Confederate statue after tearing it down. Image source.
This week we're looking at Matthew 21:12-17. Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem and drives out the vendors who are selling there. Later, the religious leaders get all upset about children saying "Hosanna to the Son of David" and Jesus quotes a bible verse that says "From the lips of children and infants, you, Lord, have called forth your praise."

I'd like to look at Jesus clearing the temple as a protest. In the past, when I read this story, I always thought of it as Jesus getting really mad and kicking out all these sellers- as if it was just an emotionally-driven interpersonal conflict between Jesus and the sellers. As if they were breaking the biblical rules and then Jesus enforced the rules and fixed the problem. But what if it was Jesus making a statement? He drives them out, but really they're just going to be back the next day. The situation doesn't really change- but he sends a message to the public. Other people may be inspired when they see Jesus taking a stand, and this can lead to change in the long run, even if those same sellers were back in the temple the next day.

Maybe it wasn't "Jesus happened to be walking through the temple and just got really angry." Maybe it was planned. Maybe it was calculated and intentional, to send a certain message. (It doesn't really help that this is the go-to example when Christians are like "it's okay to be angry, Jesus got angry too.")

So what message was Jesus trying to send? What was he protesting? There are a few different explanations I've heard:

1. By selling animals in the temple, they weren't respecting God. God's house is supposed to be a place of worship, not greed and money. I used to go to a church that built a coffee shop next to the lobby, and apparently at the time there was debate about it because "the bible says you're not supposed to sell things at church." People making that kind of argument would be the people who believe Jesus' protest was over the idea that business shouldn't be anywhere near a place of worship.

2. The sellers were telling people "you have to buy these specific animals for the sacrifice", claiming that other animals weren't good enough. And the money-changers were saying that because the Old Testament law specified certain ancient units of money, worshipers are required to change their money into those units before they can buy anything. Sort of creating a monopoly on the sacrifice system, and thereby ripping people off. Excluding people from worshiping God based on their ability to pay. People who interpret the passage in this way can be further categorized into two groups:
a.) This is bad because ripping people off is bad.
b.) This is bad because they were interpreting the Old Testament rules about sacrifices all wrong.

3. The selling was happening in the outer court of the temple- the only place that Gentiles were allowed. Gentiles couldn't go into the inner part. So by having all those animals and crowd noise in the outer part of the temple, they were taking up space that was supposed to be for Gentiles to worship God. (Note that in Mark's version, Jesus says "my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.")

So there are interpretations all along the spectrum from "these sellers were breaking God's rules, which we must follow because God said so, and these rules may or may not be arbitrary or have any relation to how we should treat people" to "these sellers were being cruel and taking advantage of marginalized people, restricting them from access to the temple." Y'all won't be surprised to hear that I'm at the "Jesus defending poor people's and Gentiles' right to worship" end.

So if we think of this as a protest, what kind of modern protest might it be equivalent to? First of all, it wasn't a "peaceful protest." Jesus drove them out through intimidation and threats of violence. In John's account, it even says that Jesus "made a whip out of cords", and then talked about destroying the temple. (Which, by "the temple" he meant his body, but he pretty obviously intended it to be misunderstood.) He knocked over tables and scattered coins.

Was it like when Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole at the South Carolina Capitol building in 2015, and removed the Confederate flag? Note that her protest was carefully planned, not something she just ran out and did, driven by uncontrollable emotions. (I believe Jesus' was too.) She had climbing gear and a helmet. She quoted verses from Psalms as she climbed down. She knew she would be arrested. She had a group of supporters with her, who recorded a video and posted it on social media. A new Confederate flag was put up immediately after she was arrested, but her purpose wasn't to just take it down and naively believe it would stay down, as if she could just go and singlehandedly solve the problem in one day. Her purpose was to make a statement and have people see it.

But Jesus' protest wasn't like that. He was much more confrontational and destructive.

Bree Newsome climbing down the flagpole with a Confederate flag. Image text: "You come against me with hatred, repression, and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today. Bree Newsome" Image source.

Was it like when a group of protesters tore down and destroyed a Confederate monument in Durham, NC? No, not really like that, because they destroyed a thing, but Jesus actually threatened people and forced them out.

Well what was it like then?

Here's the best analogy I can come up with: It's like going into a payday loan office and knocking all their stuff down while screaming at the employees to GET OUT. Because the whole idea behind the payday loans industry is lending money at immorally high interest rates to people who are desperate. It's making money off of people who are going through a financial crisis. You could reason that the whole business is immoral and shouldn't exist, and drive them out for that reason. Just like the business of selling animals in the temple shouldn't exist.

But now I've suddenly thought of a lot of problems with such a payday-loans protest- which apply to Jesus' protest too. Maybe the employees who work there aren't bad people, they just couldn't find a job anywhere else. (Maybe the people selling animals at the temple weren't bad people, they were also poor and needed the money to survive.) You're attacking the customer-facing employees, when it's the higher-up managers who are the ones really driving the whole immoral business. (Jesus attacked the people who were physically there handling the money, but were they the real masterminds behind it?) What about the customers who really are desperate enough that they needed to get the loan- now the office is closed, what will they do? The whole system is broken; if you just destroy one part it doesn't actually fix things. (What about the customers who came intending to buy animals? It's not like suddenly everybody's going to say "oh Jesus says we don't actually need to buy them" and everything is fine. More likely, people will be barred from worshiping because they weren't able to buy the right animals. Because Jesus forced that business to close.)

I'm a little freaked out by the idea of Jesus doing something like that. I personally don't really think it's a good idea.

And here is where we debate the ethics of protesting. Some would say that in order to be noticed and make an impact, your protest has to inconvenience other people. But it's poor people who are more likely to be inconvenienced. People with money and privilege have ways to isolate themselves so they're not directly affected. You protest some injustice, but the people who have to deal with the consequences of your protest and clean up the mess aren't the ones who actually caused the injustice.

Who picked up the tables that Jesus overturned? Who chased down all the animals and brought them back? Probably not the people who were responsible for the decision to operate businesses in the temple.

Any criticism of a protest should also take into account how bad the thing being protested is- if it truly is awful, then it may be valid to cause a big inconvenience to others in order to get them to notice and care and right the wrong. (On the other hand, it can also be argued that if you inconvenience others because of something that isn't even their fault, they will feel wronged and be less sympathetic to your cause.) The decision about how "peaceful" your protest should be, and to what extent it will inconvenience other people, is based on your specific goals, and it's reasonable for people to disagree about this. (I want to be clear, though, that it's a real problem when white people are like "I agree with your position but not with your methods"- this is usually said by someone who "prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice" according to Martin Luther King Jr. They theoretically agree that the thing being protested is bad, but they think it would be too much trouble to actually change the system so the thing didn't happen.)

When Jesus cleared the temple, it wasn't a "peaceful protest." Notice, though, later in the passage, there are children saying, "Hosanna to the Son of David," which can also be considered a protest. Even though the children's protest was peaceful, the chief priests still didn't like it.

Anyway. For the Christians who believe that everything Jesus did was automatically right and good- this passage means you can't also believe that the only acceptable kind of protest is a "peaceful protest." As for me, I don't believe that everything Jesus did was automatically right and good; I think we should use our own brains and our own consciences to judge him and judge the bible. We can talk about his reasons and goals in clearing the temple, and how it ended up affecting other people. And we can talk about other protests in those terms too.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew. 

Previous post: Either Matthew Was Dishonest, Or He Wasn't Writing an Apologetics Book (Matthew 21:1-11)

Next Post: That Time Jesus Got Hangry (Matthew 21:18-22)

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