The Hermeneutics of the Temple Action: Jesus, Empire and Othering Violence

In yesterday's post I made an observation regarding the hermeneutics of Jesus's temple action. Specifically, in the debates about pacifism within the Christian tradition Jesus's temple action is often used to justify violence toward people, even killing people.

The observation I made yesterday was that many of the Christians who make these sorts of arguments--that Jesus's temple action provides a warrant for violence against people, even killing people--often decry the destruction of property as a part of protests against economic or political oppression. And yet, Jesus's actions--violence toward property as a part of a protest against exploitation and oppression--fits this situation better than using his actions as a warrant for killing people, because Jesus didn't kill anyone during the temple action.

Again, my point in making this observation isn't to provide a warrant for violence toward property during protests. Jesus's temple action was a symbolic and dramatic enactment taking place within the overarching narrative of Israel's relationship with YHWH. I'd argue that Jesus was telling a story more than he was engaging in a form of political activism.

People can debate me about that. Regardless, my purposes in drawing attention to Jesus's temple action is how it illuminates background assumptions that regulate our hermeneutical choices, why some readings of a text are deemed legitimate or illegitimate.

Specifically, in conservative, evangelical circles why is the temple action often used to justify violence toward people--even killing people--but never used to justify violence toward property in protests against exploitation and oppression?

I think a key here is where the violence is being directed, the othering nature of violence.

Specifically, when the temple action is used in debates about justified violence toward people--even killing people--the person being aggressed against or killed in these debated scenarios is an Other--the enemy, for example, in a just war. The violence is being directed at Them rather than at Us.

By contrast, violence toward property in protests against exploitation and oppression is a violence directed against Us.

Consequently, the purposes of these two forms of violence are different. In killing the enemy the goal is to preserve our country, violence to protect Us, violence to protect our empire.

In contrast, the goal of violence directed toward property in protests is to call us and our empire to repentance for systemic oppression and exploitation.

This contrast again highlights the puzzle I noted yesterday and above. Specifically, which situation best fits what Jesus was doing in his temple action? Was Jesus killing enemies of a foreign nation in a war to protect his country or protecting his family from a violent intruder?

Or was Jesus using violence toward property in a protest to call his nation to collective repentance for its systemic oppression?

Again, my point here isn't to justify violence against property. As I said above, I think Jesus's actions were a singularity, a theatrical enactment taking place at a critical time and place in Israel's overarching story. My point is to draw attention to how more plausible readings of Scripture are deemed illegitimate while less plausible readings are deemed legitimate.

In the case of the temple action notice how a pro-Empire reading is, by default, deemed moral, rational and legitimate whereas an anti-Empire reading is deemed immoral, irrational and illegitimate. When the violence is directed toward Others the reading is legitimate but when the violence is directed at Us, even violence of a much milder sort, it's illegitimate.

I'm interested in the hermeneutics of the temple action because it reveals how our readings of the biblical text are betrayed by our self-interest, personal and national, how Jesus becomes aligned with Us against Them.

Especially when we'd like to kill Them.

Part Three

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6 thoughts on “The Hermeneutics of the Temple Action: Jesus, Empire and Othering Violence”

  1. You touched on this toward the end of your post when mentioning the violent intruder, but the OTHER is also the "criminal" that is sentenced to death, which the state is given permission to do, for the most part by believers. Whereas the poor who look to the state for protection and can become angry when denied, are told that their protest must be respectful of the very ones who do not see them.

    As you said, violence against property is not warranted. However, the justifications for war and capital punishment are to protect US from the OTHERS, while we attribute their powerlessness to their own laziness and lack of determination. Then once they become determined in the only way they now how, making us pay attention, we sound the trumpet, and maybe even quote scripture, that it is time to kill again.

  2. For some time I've intended to review philosophical literature critiquing inference to the best explanation. (If anyone knows of a good first read on the subject, I'd appreciate the tip.) The reason for the interest is that rationalizations to reinforce our individual and corporate points of view comprise--in my opinion--the very firmament of human psychology. They're the memes that structure our micro and macro cultures.

    I note this to make a point: To forego this cultural firmament without a way to transcend it is near to suicide. (If my sensibility about this is close to reality.) Stated otherwise, the kingdom of heaven had better be in our midst, or woe to she or he who foregoes self-interested memes. To me the Gospel According to Mark reads like an extended observation of Jesus forcing this choice for transcendence on the world, in the words attributed to him in John, "My kingdom does not belong to this world." (18:36)


  4. See the ton of biblical texts about about "welcoming the stranger" -- and the "Fuck-off!" xenophobic responses to migrants and asylum-seekers, especially here in "Christian" Europe, where in attempting to escape destitution or persecution and reach safe shores, thousands are drowning by shipwreck, but also in "Christian" Australia and "Christian" America. And the ultimate demonic irony: that it is ruthless neo-colonial exploitation and insane military interventions that have helped to create and exacerbate the very conditions from which these wretched-of-the-earth are fleeing.

  5. I cannot help believing that the Lord, who repudiated violence entirely, when he drove the money changers away from the temple, was behaving like the prophets of old, like those who were made to marry prostitutes, flee their homes through holes in he walls... they 'mimed' what would happen to Israel, for want of a better word. In driving the treasures of the temple away, maybe Christ foretold the temple's fall. This he had done by word many times before. The interpretation'd fit with what you wrote about praeterism a few days ago and has the merit of exonerating the passage of real violence.

  6. Jesus can stand in his temple inside of me, in the courtyard where the same antics regularly occur. The effect upon me is as one having violence committed against them.

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