The Hermeneutics of the Temple Action: Jesus and Violence Toward People or Property?

In the debates about pacifism within the Christian tradition many Christians have justified the use of violence and killing by making an appeal to Jesus's temple action, the time when Jesus flipped the tables of the moneychangers and dove sellers and drove people from the temple courts with a whip.

I agree with the many other Christians who think that this is a horrible argument. It's quite a stretch to go from Jesus's temple action to killing people. Of course if Jesus, say, stabbed somebody to death in the temple then we might have something to talk about. But that's not what happened. To be sure, the word "violence" could be used to describe Jesus's actions, but that's a far cry from giving us a warrant to kill.

And yet, there is something much less talked about and debated regarding Jesus's temple action.

Specifically, many months ago I was reading a book by David Graeber, anarchist activist and one of the intellectual leaders of the Occupy Movement. In the book Graeber was describing how one the questions most hotly contested in activist communities is if it is ever okay to break a window during a protest. And if so, when?

A strict non-violent approach to activism would argue that it's never okay to break a window, for both practical and ethical reasons. But more militant strands of activism would say that while we should never hurt human beings there are times when it's justifiable to destroy property. That is, when we talk about the use of violence a distinction can be made between property and people.

In recent months this distinction--violence toward property or people--has also come up in the wake of property destruction associated with the protests against police brutality in cities like Baltimore. For example, in their recent "Cost of Freedom" conversation at Biola University Cornel West and Robert George talk about the property/people distinction in relation to the protests in Baltimore (pick up at the 1:35 mark).

I bring this up to make two observations.

The first observation is that while I don't think the violence of Jesus's temple action can be used as a warrant for violence against people the situation is murkier when it comes to violence toward property. The temple action was a symbolic, public and visible act of protest against economic and political corruption that involved some violence toward property. Jesus left the moneychangers and dove sellers with a bill.

Now, to be very clear, I think it's hard to draw ethical implications from Jesus's temple action.

For example, it's hard to tell if Jesus was trying to change the system or trying to provoke the system into a violent response, picking a lethal fight to shame the Powers That Be. Either way, Jesus's temple action wasn't politically effective, unless you consider execution by the state a mark of success. Basically, it's hard to get a sense of what Jesus was trying to accomplish in the temple action.

In addition, if Jesus did destroy property during the temple action he took full public responsibility for it. Jesus wasn't an anonymous anarchist wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. What we see in Jesus's action, if we believe that he destroyed property, is more akin to acts of civil disobedience where property is destroyed and those engaging in the action do not flee but stay to be publicly identified and arrested. An example of this would the Catonsville Nine.

So again, it's hard to know exactly what, if any, lessons we should take away from Jesus's temple action. Which brings me to the second point I'd like to make, a point that is more about the hermeneutics of the temple action than about the ethics.

Specifically, many of the Christians who use the violence of the temple action to justify killing or violence toward people are very often the same people who decry violence toward property during protests.

Which is very strange if you think about it.

Specifically, hermeneutically speaking it's a real stretch to use the temple action as a warrant for killing because, as we know, Jesus didn't kill anyone during the action.

However, a coherent hermeneutical case could be made that Jesus did engage in violence toward property as a part of a protest against economic and political exploitation. I'm not saying such a case should be made or that it's justified, simply that a stronger case could be made for violence toward property as opposed to killing.

And yet, many of the Christians who use the violence of the temple action to justify killing or violence toward people are often appalled by the violence toward property in protests against economic and political oppression.

Part Two

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17 thoughts on “The Hermeneutics of the Temple Action: Jesus and Violence Toward People or Property? ”

  1. I wonder how many would believe it OK to destroy a church or synagogue if they believed religious institutions were corrupt. Jesus turned over a table he didn't burn the temple down.

  2. “In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the
    passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized
    the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders.
    How terrific was His fight for the world.” — Adolf Hitler.
    I happened on an article today listing quotes from famous people about Jesus.

  3. In keeping with the idea of people vs property, you could also say that instead of acting against an religious institution (as Nimblewill mentions) or working on behalf of a construct or location (the temple), Jesus was instead acting on behalf of a community (either the community of worshipers that had come to Jerusalem for the Passover, or perhaps more specifically worshiping gentiles since they would not have had access to inner courts that were not ‘defiled’); reclaiming co-opted space for learning and worship.

    And all the Gospels except John have Jesus returning to the temple in subsequent days, teaching in the space that was previously used for commerce. That definitely gives his actions a restorative flavor that isn't present in a lot of what people try to use those actions to justify.

  4. Great points. Which is one of the reasons why I think we need better theological reflection upon Jesus's actions. What exactly was he doing? And what, if any, lessons do we take away from him?

    What I think is totally illegitimate is using Jesus's "violence" in the temple as warrant for killing, which is often how it's used in the debates about pacifism.

  5. The Temple "cleansing" by Jesus was directed at the Temple authorities who were making it a market place. The vendors were just agents/authorized by the Temple authorities; money changers provided a service to worshippers by converting foreign coins into acceptable coinage for Temple offerings; however, they charged an excessive/immoral commission for their service. The sacrificial animal dealers including the dove sellers also provided a service for worshippers; however, they too were over-charging the worshippers. So, Jesus' action was an indirect assault on the Temple authorities and the Temple system seen as corrupt by many, and hopelessly corrupt by the Essenes. Combine this action with the destruction of the Temple predictions, Jesus will become the new Temple (God's non violent, saving presence). Jesus' actions while dramatic were not violent, but predictive of the end of the Temple system.

  6. I was kind of raised to think that Jesus was always very much in control of the situation but this made me pause and wonder if Jesus was human enough to be as angry and irrational as I have been on occasion. Maybe this just means that what he saw there that day just made him very angry and pushing over a table was his way of expressing it. I think we infer that God blesses certain actions because they are found in the Bible but really it is hard to say more then, yes that really happened and we are not alone in some of the weird, depraved, and just strange things we end up doing.

  7. In taking note of the corruption of the temple "business" and of Jesus' response, I wonder how this translates to the business of health care; and this is from one who works on the local of level of health care finance.

    I can assure you that those of us in local facilities feel the weight of the business, the anger of the patients and their families, as well as our own anger from being caught between a top heavy business and families who suddenly find themselves caught in the web of the system and deeply in debt. We, too, find ourselves saying to one another, "Something has to be done". But by whom, and by what means? We are well aware in our own way of the truth that was penned by Abraham J. Heschel:

    "Few are guilty; all are responsible".

  8. Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has written some excellent things on this people/property distinction with a specific interest in your last point: it seems as though seem people care a lot more about property than they do about people. Her argument is that their ethical system--which is to say, a widespread and popular ethical system--basis its sense of value in property.

  9. In our culture, destroying property is the easiest way to get attention because of the ascribed value attached to it. In some other cultures, dousing gasoline on their body and burning themselves in public is the best way. This doesn't work here! If a person did this in public to call attention to some injustice, the reaction would be, "What a foolish thing to do!" When property is destroyed, people say, "Okay, we've got to do something about this; can't have property loss. What do we have to do to get this stopped?"

  10. Mark - Richard - Steve,
    Completely agree with your take on this. And as Mark just pointed out, that area according to some historians was definitely a space that had been previously reserved for visiting Gentile worshipers who were simply pushed aside, dismissed as unimportant and then replaced with extortionate venders. I can see why Jesus was mega-pissed off at this! In one regard, the incident is about "access" and "exclusion", as much as it is about the abuses of the commercialization of worship.

  11. 5 observations:.

    (1) The Cleansing of the Temple was a prophetic symbolic action, often nicely compared street theatre. The property was a -- prop.

    (2) Jesus was not only making a religious point about radical inclusiveness -- the action took place in the Court of the Gentiles; he was also making a political and economic point about the commercial exploitation -- indeed the robbery, theft (Mark 12:17) -- of the poor by ruling and wealthy elites (see also the story of the Widow's Mite in the following chapter, Mark 12:41ff.). In fact, the whole religious/political-economic distinction is contextually anachronistic. The Temple was intrinsically a banking institution as well as a site for sacrifice.

    (3) Was Jesus simply encouraging "better practice"? Rather, his actions indicate a nonviolent attack on the Temple as such, and therefore on "religion" as such (as in the ancient world "religion" without sacrifice would be like the Lord's Supper without bread and wine).

    (4) Jesus' dramatic gesture -- it was therefore a synecdoche for the ultimate destruction of Temple. No need to start a fire: that (as Jesus correctly anticipated) the Romans would be shortly doing.

    (5) For another crime against "property", this time imperial rather than Jewish, check out Mark 12:13ff.: the Question about Taxes. The old two-kingdoms idea that Jesus was advising the people to be good citizens and pay their taxes (for, a better infrastructure -- or an efficient modern army) is, thankfully, seldom entertained by contemporary exegetes (unless they are apologists for the neoliberal state). Rather Jesus is saying: "If you use Caesar's coin, you're obviously in his debt so pay him what you owe him. On the other hand, if you happen to repudiate Caesar's authority, as some foolish folk do, well, carefully place the coin where the sun don't shine." Or words to that effect.

  12. I think Jesus was in a unique position when it comes to what He did in the temple. It was, after all, for all intents and purposes, HIS temple. Therefore He could be justified (had authority) to do whatever He wished to. It was built for the Father, to worship and glorify Him. In it's current state, it was not effective in it's given purpose, therefore Jesus was justified to take action to rectify that issue.

    The same could hardly be said of any of us in a "civil disobedience" or protest type situation. We do NOT have authority or ownership of vandalized/destroyed property.. I suppose to make a point, you could destroy your OWN property, but that seems unlikely to occur.

  13. I'm not sure about that. The concern about property loss is generally met with greater police force. Creating more apprehension. Not solving the underlying issues.

    If you had dozens, hundreds of people burning themselves in the streets here....I'm pretty sure we'd see a drastically different response.

  14. Good thoughts I hadn't thought of much before.

    Although I would say the weakness would be that, as other commentators have mentioned, he was protecting the Temple (among other things it seems) from misuse. Folks destroying property out of anger aren't protecting anything? Especially if it's their own community (which, I realize people come in from other areas and destroy things).

    Either way, worth a share!

  15. Your statement about value of life vs property is great food for thought! Thanks.

    I read an interesting theory about what the prophetic action that Jesus took there in the temple meant. I believe it was Michael Hardin or James Alison but I can't remember the reference, sorry. The idea is that Jesus was disrupting and thereby critiquing the sacrificial system. If you can't buy a pure sacrifice then the sacrifices have to end, at least for a while. I think that his critique could also have been of the treatment of the poor as well (the system was corrupt besides continuing the conception of God as needing sacrifice to be appeased). So maybe Jesus was killing two birds with one stone😀.

    That being said, according to the prophetic tradition Jesus was following when taking this action, my question is: what does wrecking things in a poor neighborhood say prophetically to the powers that be? Are there more constructive and effective ways of expressing what needs to be expressed?

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