The Hermeneutics of the Temple Action: The Theological Scars of Empire

This will be the last of three posts regarding the hermeneutics of Jesus's temple action (Part 1 here and Part 2 here).

As I mentioned yesterday, my interest in the hermeneutics of the temple action--how the story is interpreted--is that this story can be used to unmask the background assumptions regulating how we read the biblical texts, the unspoken worldview that tells us which readings of the text are legitimate versus illegitimate.

Here is the analysis I have been giving.

In debates about justified violence and just war Jesus's temple action is often used as a warrant for using violence against people, even to the point of killing people.

A different reading of the temple action could argue that Jesus's violence in the temple action was violence directed at property, rather than at people, as a protest against economic and political exploitation.

As I mentioned in the last post, I don't think Jesus's actions can be used to justify violence of either sort--toward people or property. Just war apologists and militant activists who make appeals to Jesus's actions in the temple are free to disagree with me about that. My point has been, rather, that a wildly implausible reading--using the temple action to justify violence against people--has frequently been deemed moral and legitimate while an equally if not more plausible reading--violence toward property to protest exploitation--is generally deemed immoral and illegitimate.

Why the different attitudes about those two readings?

The suggestion I made yesterday was that when the reading is used to support the violence of Empire that reading is deemed moral, theologically reasonable and legitimate. But when a reading supports violence protesting or interrupting Empire, and milder forms of violence at that, that reading is generally deemed immoral, theologically unreasonable and illegitimate.

What I'm trying to draw attention to is how Empire regulates our reading of Scripture, how Empire unconsciously sets up the boundaries of what is moral versus immoral, reasonable versus unreasonable, legitimate versus illegitimate.

So let me, to end this series of posts, make this point clear.

Imagine I go to a Christian blog or forum and there I see Christians debating whether or not killing is ever justified. We've all seen or participated in these debates, say, between pacifists and just war apologists. And while many of us have strong opinions about this topic most simply feel torn. We see the good points being made by both sides. So the debates roll on.

Here's the point I want to make: Christians find these debates about killing people perfectly normal.

Can a Christian kill people? Ho hum.

Ponder that. This is how deeply Empire has scarred our theological imaginations. It's completely normal for Christians to debate killing people online, coolly listing out criteria about when killing is or is not acceptable.

Now imagine you stumble upon a different sort of debate today on the Internet.

Imagine you come across some Christian activists debating online about when it is or is not acceptable to use violence against property as a part of a protest against economic and political oppression. Using biblical texts like Jesus's temple action these activists are setting out criteria for when it is justifiable to destroy property as a part of a protest. These activists discuss things like "last resort" criteria just like the "last resort" criteria used for just war: Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical. It may be clear that the other side is using negotiations as a delaying tactic and will not make meaningful concessions.

If we came across a debate like that online we'd freak out. We'd log in to say, "Hey, destroying property is never, never okay!"

Ponder, here, our reactions to those two debates, Christians debating justifiable violence toward people versus justifiable violence toward property.

My point, again, isn't that either sort of violence is justified but that when Christians debate killing people no one finds this conversation weird or problematic as a conversation.

Listing out criteria for killing people? That's totally normal behavior for Christians. 

But listing out criteria for the justified destruction of property? That's totally beyond the pale--radical, crazed, immoral and insane.

Once again, I don't think either sort of violence is justified. What I'm trying to point out is how our notions of sanity, morality and radicality have been twisted in ways we barely notice or register. Violence toward property in a protest? That's the height of immorality and irresponsibility. It's anti-Christian to the core. But few if any Christians are shocked by a debate about killing human beings. We think killing is a legitimate debate to be had, worthy of reasoned conversation and consideration.

Killing people? That's on the table of options. It's a very Christian conversation.

Think about that.

That is how deeply our theological imaginations have been scarred by Empire

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40 thoughts on “The Hermeneutics of the Temple Action: The Theological Scars of Empire ”

  1. Brilliantly observed. There is, however, on exception: the Lord's property. Debate about geocide is perfectly permissible, its denial often de rigueur.

  2. Have our theological imaginations been scared by Empire or by the idea that God is justified in killing and burning forever those He deems unfit? We become the god we worship so if we believe that God is a particular way we have no problem with being that way ourselves. Anne Lamont said that we knew that we had created a god in our own image when he hated the same people we did.

  3. There are ugly forces at work, here. Have you read Langdon Gilkey's "Shantung Compound"? A fascinating exploration of what people are REALLY like, written by a guy who was forced into a Japanese internment camp in China during WWII, and I think you might find it an interesting case study in this context.

    Personally, I'm growing a lot more cynical/hopeless about the possibility of actually discussing issues like this when someone's being "driven by Empire," as you might say. Until there's a softening of heart (and how/why does that happen?), people seem only to be using their intellect as a tool to protect their lizard-brain intentions.

    I once had a long, very painful email exchange with a friend who'd been an Apache pilot over in the Mid-East conflict, and had (gleefully?) posted a video to Facebook from his helicopter of himself blowing up a moving truck. After enough of our mutual friends had posted comments about how awesome this was, I privately messaged him with my concerns regarding the treatment of the death of fellow human beings as entertainment. You can imagine the emotional stake he had in failing to see my point. To his credit, he did (eventually) agree to remove the video from such a public forum. But only in deference to our relationship - not because he could begin to fathom what I was saying. And this was a fellow missionary kid, who went on to become a missionary himself.

    Sometimes it's very, very hard to do the whole Teilhard de Chardin thing and "trust in the slow work of God."

  4. Sounds like a perfect example of the Kingdom coming against the Empire in a peaceful way. Well done!

  5. Great point of how the empire regulates the interpretation of scripture. From interpreting Romans 13 as locking society into the death penalty, to viewing the master/slave passages as inferring that slavery, if forced upon a society either by war or other upheavals, does not necessarily have to be an evil, these conclusions come mostly from the ones who are the majority or holding power.

    The sad part of all this is that the thing many Christians seem to fear losing most, is the power over life and death. And the irony is how they rationalize that people of color who disagree with them regarding the master/slave passages are too emotionally tied to the past to make a clear interpretation of those passages, and that the ones who disagree with them regarding death penalty do not hold to the authority of scripture to begin with. But, when I look into the gospels, Jesus said "YES" to life, "YES" to the worth of the person, "YES" to the hope of redemption, something that seems to be erased from its pages when power uses the Bible as shackle and sword.

  6. When I got to the part in this post about how "normal" it is for Christians debate when it's OK to kill people, the depth of realization felt like a ton of bricks in my stomach. This is very insightful in peeling back the layers of how much the western church I am familiar with has been married to and formed by the power & control narrative. It makes me see all the more our desperate, desperate need for the different kind of kingdom that Jesus came to inagurate

  7. Another powerfully thought-provoking series, Richard. I follow Walter Wink and Walter Brueggemann, among many others, who basically analogize Free Market Capitalism/Empire as the idolatry of the present age. If that is true, then surely for those who bend the knee in that direction, violence against property is the equivalent of the "sin against the Holy Spirit" that Jesus told us about.

  8. Hmmm. Well, my reason for approaching him privately was probably more pragmatic than anything. I'd just assumed he would not respond well to a direct, public challenge to his position (because who would?). But now you've got me wondering if my purpose in sharing this story was illustrative... or merely another example of my-own-horn-tooting.

    Ah, the endless cycle of self-examining-doubt (to which my pride responds... "Ah, but the fact that you HAVE these doubts shows you're a jolly good chap," to which my Richard-Beck-educated self replies, "You WOULD say that, wouldn't you, you self-aggrandizing dorknuvian?" :-)

  9. My mother survived 18 months in a similar camp in Shanghai, China, and I think that's why she was always standing up for the poor and dispossessed in our society.

  10. I would say that it was not you at all, but Christ in you who advanced His Kingdom. You are simply the vessel He used.

    Stay in One Peace

  11. This short series was profound and provided a really helpful framework to think through these things. Thank you!

  12. Thank you Nimblewill. Perfectly articulated. Once Christians guzzle the non-negotiable doctrinal kool-aid of God (Himself) consigning billions of His creation to an eternity of fiery conscious torment, what's the big deal for us men on Earth to "other", separate, and kill. If God finds most humans disposable, why shouldn't we? It's very creepy seeing veteran Christians (some I've known over 20 years and involved in very high ranks of "ministry") not even twitch at the thought of literal hell for most others. The theology appears to have built "Empire".

  13. John 16:2 They will ban you from the synagogue; in fact, the time will come when anyone who kills you will think he is serving God!

  14. Beautifully and brilliantly done--"scarred by Empire," indeed. When you get a chance, there's the title for your next book...

  15. I wonder if this is partly because we don't think of property as being guilty of anything, so therefore destroying it is sort of like hurting the innocent. But at the same time we don't flinch about destroying defective property that no longer serves its intended purpose. Or is it that we actually see property as an integral part of a person, so by hurting a person's property you are harming them well, so we think of property damage like harming innocent bystanders in a fight.

    It could also be more about the divide we face when dealing with the rights of corporations, governments and religious systems then the debate over property itself since by attacking property you are essentially attacking the image or physical presence of these groups. So in that light we could see Jesus's attack on the temple property more as a challenge to the power in the perceived image of the system. Anarchists get a bad reputation for wanting to destroy a flawed system, but in some ways that is what Jesus was advocating. A system which gives us stability and protection is probably something we would kill or destroy for much easier then if we were forced to justify it on our own. We don't even think of patriotism as a bad thing, obedience to an entity made of property can have a glorious heroic hue.

  16. How do you define "the Lord's property"? For me that's all of Creation. Maybe you mean a church???

  17. On this very same question of whether Jesus's actions model or justify violence (and killing), there's a great answer from Tripp York, invited to Rachel Held Evans's blog:

    It’s a well-known fact that, as a carpenter’s son, Jesus never could get over his animosity toward wood. He hated tables. Resented them. His version of teenage rebellion was donning a whip and turning them over whenever he could. Apparently, he never outgrew it.

    You know, this is one of those really interesting questions if only because I hear it so often. To be honest, I have never understood the conceptual leap that leads some people to envision Jesus’ actions toward the moneychangers as translating so easily into killing people, but, apparently it does. I therefore concede that I am clearly missing something, so let’s give it a shot (bad pun . . . sorry).

    First of all, as King once said, let’s not deprive ourselves of a little righteous anger. Now that guy was an interventionist! Last year I offered extra credit to any students willing to overturn the tables in their churches where the selling of so-called goods was occurring. Can you imagine that sort of movement? Talk about the need for a good trend, let’s do this! We have completely rendered Christianity ridiculous with our banal and mawkish commodifying of this subversive homeless guy who angered every single religious and political zealot that crossed his path. And now we are those same religious-politicos. But we’re worse, because we sell it! We wear gold diamond encrusted crosses, we place fish ornaments on our $20-$50,000 cars, we sport some of the most embarrassing Christian t-shirts that any self-respecting capuchin would be ashamed to wear and where are all of our table turners? Where are they? This is a significant issue. I want to see some table-turning. How do we make this happen? Because Christian participation in this marketing nonsense is the real threat to Christianity, not the so-called “New Atheists.” I don’t blame the Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harrises of the world for making fun of us. Somebody needs to do it. As a whole, we’re quite laughable. I find it difficult to take any of this seriously (including myself).

    Ah, back to your question: I guess the issue would revolve around whether or not such an action (the overturning of tables while pulling an Indiana Jones) would be considered violent. And, apparently, if it were determined to be violent then that would mean I could kill my enemies and still consider myself a follower of Christ. As you can see, there’s a radical disconnect in that last line.

  18. I feel like your point is a bit of a stretch - war destroys a lot of property in addition to killing people. So embedded in any debate about justification for war would be justification for both destruction of property and killing people. The reason the debate centers on killing is because it is clearly to more problematic of the two. I would be more troubled if people did debate the justification for destroying property in war rather than the killing. If we could somehow engage in a war without killing people, then the debate might take a different position. In the cyber-age this may become a reality - it will be interesting to see where these discussions go.

    With that said, I am now thinking of the response to the destruction of certain historical sites by ISIS. There certainly seemed to be a lot of hand wringing over property while thousands of people were being slaughtered. So perhaps

  19. disconnect? well I should recon! I think the denial mechanism is running this kind of dog and pony show & more can be known abt that. Spec how to uderstand why. I'm asking the holy spirit these days why denial has such a hol on addicts of all kinds. I think it is a massive prob of core identity deficit. Violence changes things quicker than prayer and puts one in control. Killing ememies is soooo much easier than loving them & doing them good yeah?

  20. got a word fr the holy spirit thru one of my fave commenters: 'batshittery'!

  21. This is not so hard to explain. Property per se poses no threat, so destroying it is gratuitous. People, however, do occasionally pose a [mortal] threat to others, and that threat sometimes can be mitigated only by taking life. What am I missing?

  22. Not to get off point, But I don't think turning over some tables and chairs is a real big deal and maybe no property was actually destroyed. If there was any destruction I think it would of been about destroying the business/trade that was happening. If you take Matthew's gospel, the very next verse says that the blind and the lame came to him and He healed them. So even the point of this was about man's business getting in the way of what God intended- a house of prayer. And in Luke's gospel it is called a house of prayer for all the nations. I have read that the particular part of the temple where this happened was where Gentiles were permitted to go and pray. So I believe this is about Jesus dismantling the things of man and empire such as the "us and them" mentality and restoring the things of God and His kingdom.

    And I agree with Richard Beck, that it's problematic (and even saddening) that the piece of scripture being discussed is used to justify violence toward people.

  23. This made me think of Philip Berrigan, who said "The church is a major bureaucracy, and major bureaucracies are disobedient to the gospel." He and his brother Daniel were both Catholic priests, and between burning draft cards, and pouring blood on and hammering on nuclear weapons, I think they were both okay with a bit of property damage in the name of protest. (They also stole files from draft boards and an FBI office as a way of making their activities public.)

    (BTW, the answer to the question of "What happens if you do violence against property as a means of protest against oppression?" is "you get arrested a lot and spend a fair bit of time in jail.") I'm sure many people would disagree with their methods, but both brothers were incredibly committed to peace activism and willing to pay the price for it. Neither was terribly popular with the Catholic hierarchy.

  24. I think 'empire' is either working for one or has stopped working rather like drugs & alcohol affect those addicted. If one has been excluded from participating in empire systems either bc one is not invested in ways empire useses ppl or is no longer able to participate bc of ageing, disability, poverty etc some of empires rules no longer apply & one must find creative ways to survive. I think those of us who have been marginal for a number of years have valuable lifetme experiences to share w the newly marginali

  25. Yes, "all of Creation" for sure (Psalm 24:1), from quarks to quasars, but as the term "geocide" suggests, I'm thinking particularly of the earth, animate and inanimate but minus homo sapiens [sic], which some $-led people think, on an imperial reading of Genesis 1:26, is, like property. at our unconditional disposal.

  26. Ahhh, "nuance." The last refuge of...

    I deal with nuance all the time. But if a particular model cannot fit or explain first-order phenomena that are plainly there for all to see, second-order phenomena (what you are calling "nuance") are just so much fantasy. So it appears here.

  27. *rolling eyes*

    There's the game, laid bare for all to see: the "geosphere" is MINUS homo sapiens [sic].

  28. The "minus homo sapiens [sic]" was a concession to humans not treating other humans as "property", but, yes (*rolling eyes*), how stupid of me.

  29. Property per se poses no threat ...

    Of course, that all depends on the nature of the property. Handguns, for instance.

    ... so destroying it is gratuitous.

    Not if the property is symbolically freighted (draft cards, for example).

    People, however, do occasionally pose a [mortal] threat to others...

    They sure do -- especially people with lots and lots of property.

  30. Good grief. Handguns weren't being vandalized in e. g. Baltimore; cars and shops were. Given that cars are themselves commonly owned even by America's poor (as contrasted, say, with the REST OF THE WORLD'S POOR), perhaps I could be forgiven for suggesting that any symbolic freight attributed to car ownership is itself gratuitous, a post hoc rationalization.

    Your great learning is driving you mad, Kim.

  31. The more I think about your reply, Kim, the more preposterous it seems. Forgive me for saying so, but you seem so enamored of and invested in the "brilliance" of the original post that you have to THIS?

    Hell, if you own your own car or business (or draft card, for that matter), and you want to destroy it, knock yourself out. But that's not what we're talking about, and I think you know that. We're talking about violence against _someone else's_ property.

    Any handgun that poses a threat has been placed in that condition by a person. The handgun does not load itself, and it does not put a cartridge in its own chamber. That is not a threat _per se_; it is not an intrinsic threat. Any threat it poses is derived from a person. That goes for property generally. Thus, generalized violence against property as such is, as we now no doubt agree, gratuitous.

    Mercy. For a smart guy...

  32. I think you are a bitter man my beloved. It would be good for you to watch the red baloon AGAIN rather than be a bully! need I quote t.s. Eliot?

  33. I guess it would be too nuanced for you to get the idea that a draft card, symbolically freighted, is precisely someone else's property, viz. Uncle Sam's. Or that to speak of the violence in Baltimore as "gratuitous" is staggeringly smugly foxed up. But this "smart guy" with "great learning" (ah shucks) thanks you for the reproach, a certain kind of which the mad William Blake once referred to as a "kingly title".

  34. Late in the game here, but, I think this is a great insight into human nature and how it impacts our reading. As the old saying goes, it's all about whose ox is getting gored. We do tend to self-justify. Further, many Christians associate themselves with 'America' (Empire, as you note it). So when 'America' (or more broadly it might incorporate the 'West' - esp. England, and then to a lesser degree France/Germany) is under attack (in any sort of violence, from without or within) that is 'evil.'

    I do think that - in line with what you hint at about Jesus and story - this action is symbolic and ultimately connected with the national judgment Israel will experience and the Temple destruction (as in the parable of the landowner sending servants and then his son) - as N.T. Wright and others have indicated. And when he says, "you've made my father's house a den of robbers" - a robbers den was not where they did the stealing, but where they hid for refuge after they engaged in their thievery. So the Temple became like a hideout - "well, I can do as I please in life and mistreat others and go to the Temple for security." - Which is right in line with the prophets (esp. Jeremiah - "do not say, the temple of the Lord, temple of the Lord, temple of the Lord ...").

  35. Wowza! That is great insight. I think these patterns of executive crimes & justifying crime have always been w us. Living in this century one can now access exquisite research to identify common denominators. I think the recovery process is also identifiable.

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