Jesus: Disruptive, Peaceful, Protestor

The current civil unrest has resulted in many significant and peaceful protests across the country. There have also been escalations that have turned violent and destructive. I’ve written that the underlying causes of these protests have merit and truly do call for action. I do, however, want to share my thoughts on the right and wrong way to protest. What I want to say arises directly from a Bible story. Ironically, it is a Bible story that is sometimes misunderstood and used in support of the kinds of actions that I oppose.

It is the story of Jesus taking action against injustice he saw in the temple.  All four Gospels share the story but John gives the most details.  Furthermore, John is the only one that mentions a whip, an important part of the misunderstanding.  For those reasons, I’m sharing John’s telling of the story. It’s found in John 2:14-16: :

“In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!””

Biblical and ancient world scholars shed a good deal of light on what was really going on. The Israelites came to the temple to worship, make sacrifices and also to pay the temple tax.  There were rules about the sacrifices that had to be made.  Someone who needed to sacrifice a sheep might wait until he got there then buy one.  Scholars tell us they did so at unfair prices.  Others might bring a sheep with them only to be told it wasn’t a good enough sheep.  Again with unfair prices, they could trade it up for a better, qualified sheep.  Later the sheep that had been rejected earlier would be resold to a different worshiper as a qualified sheep! It was quite the scam.  Then there were the money changers.  The temple tax had to paid with a particular coin. Worshipers could exchange their currency for the right coins, again at unfair rates of exchange.  That is why, as recorded in the other writers’ version of the story, Jesus declared, “you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

The temple was supposed to be a house of prayer but it had become a place of greed and exploitation. Worshipers were being exploited and abused.   That is why Jesus got angry!  And that’s when he lost his temper and turned violent and destructive.  Or did he?  While I’ve heard this story referenced to say that sometimes violence is called for, I think a careful review reveals a different perspective. Let’s look.

First it says, “So he made a whip out of cords…”  Think about it.  He made a whip out of cords.  That requires braiding.  Can you imagine someone “losing their temper” then braiding? That is not the action of someone who has lost their temper. Yes, Jesus was angry, but he was in control and he began working a plan.

The rest of that sentence says, “[he] drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle.”  Grammar tells us, if you analyze the sentence, that the clause, “both sheep and cattle,” modifies the earlier word, “all.”  So according to this, he made a whip and used it for stock animals, not for people.  Secondly, a word about using a whip to drive animals:  I looked it up.  When driving stock animals, whips are a tool, not a weapon.  They have one main purpose; to make noise.  Cracking a whip to move animals is not being violent.

The Scripture then says, “He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.”  This was certainly aggressive, but the action was aimed at inanimate objects, not people, so it wasn’t violent.  Having the coins scattered and tables overturned would have been very disruptive, but not destructive.   Jesus didn’t break and burn things.

Lastly, the story says, “To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’”  This was direct and firm, but not violent.  He used words, not force, to remove the offending parties from the temple courts.

Jesus saw injustice and protested it with aggressive action.  But not with violent or destructive action.  While firm and direct, he remained a peaceful protestor. 

If I had my way, everyone would follow Jesus’ model (be Christlike).  When injustice is seen, we would aggressively spring into action with firm protests. We would work to right the wrong.  We might even be loud and disruptive; Jesus was.  However, also like Jesus, we would stop short of becoming violent or destructive.  We wouldn’t hurt anyone or destroy anything. 

Condemnation of violent and destructive protests brings with it a grave responsibility: We have to pay attention to peaceful protests. We have to truly listen and work to solve the underlying problems that are precipitating the protests. When a hurting, frustrated minority rises up in protest, it behooves us listen. Dismissing the protests, denying the underlying problem, or even counter-protesting will always escalate the situation. When that happens, it doesn’t justify violence and destruction but it makes it inevitable.

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