Jesus and the Capitol Hill mob

I’ve just listened to my friend Michael Cooper talking on the Ephesiology Podcast about the events in Washington last week and the lamentable state of American evangelicalism. He and his co-hosts have some sensible things to say, but I found myself in disagreement over one matter. I think they overstated the contradiction between the behaviour of the Capitol Hill mob and the methodology of the early Jesus movement—indeed, of Jesus himself.

They highlighted the depressing fact that there were people among the rioters carrying crosses and waving placards saying “Jesus saves.” Jesus would have been appalled by what was happening. Could we imagine Paul on the steps waving the flag that Jesus saves? Paul would not have led “a riot of Christians to instigate some type of insurrection against the political system.”

That seems obvious, doesn’t it? It is obvious. But then again….

From a safe distance, through the polarising filters of the media, the “crisis at the Capitol” looked to many people more like protest than insurrection, more a pantomime than a putsch. In the words of Andrew Sullivan: “It was sedition as some form of cosplay. It was deadly, but also performative. It was as if the storming of the Bastille ended with selfies.”

Of course, it was a protest that got seriously out of hand, and maybe some agitators always intended that it would. Five people died, including a police officer, considerable damage was done, and a certain amount of terror was struck. But the violent intrusion into the heart of government, into this great neoclassical temple of federal power with its pantheon of secular deities, was precisely the symbolic point for a group of people who, for all sorts of good and bad reasons, felt themselves to be excluded from the political process. The only way to get the message across was to shake an establishment whose heart was grown dull, whose eyes were blind, whose ears were deaf.

Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this….

A rag tag army of deplorables from the back of beyond marches on the capital, waving palm branches and shouting inflammatory royalist slogans. They are led by a populist demagogue, a wonder worker, a shaman, who stages a visually startling and deeply subversive entry into the city. The next day he makes for the great Herodian temple, the seat of Sadducean power, to denounce the self-serving hypocrisy of the governing elite and take back the nation.

Jesus’ action in the temple is an act of violence and is interpreted as such. In the Synoptic Gospels, he drives out the money-changers and pigeon-sellers, overturns the tables, and declares that they have made the place a “den of robbers” (Matt. 21:12-13; Mk. 11:15-17; Lk. 19:45-46). That is, he reminds his audience, many of whom were no doubt outraged by his behaviour, that the last time the temple was turned into a “den of robbers,” God destroyed it (Jer. 7:11-15).

In John’s version of the story, Jesus makes a phragellion out of cords—a makeshift replica of the Roman flagellum—in order to act out the dreadful “scourging” that would before long come upon the corrupt temple system.

The chaotic theatre on Capitol Hill may prefigure much more serious and concerted violence against the state. Jesus’s dramatic action in the temple certainly prefigured the destruction that would fall upon Jerusalem within a generation.

It was not for him or for his followers to take up arms against the régime—for penitent Israel the age to come lay down a long narrow path of suffering, as they followed in the footsteps of their Lord. But history would see to it.

Bless your persecutors, attend to the needs of your enemies, Paul would later write to the church in Rome (Rom. 12:14-21). Never avenge yourselves, leave it to the wrath of God. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” That’s what the protest in the temple was all about.

Jesus’ shocking behaviour and his patent contempt for those in power provoked a backlash. He was seen as a political liability, a clear and present danger, and there was a frantic rush to engineer his downfall. He was betrayed, arrested, abandoned by his followers. Trumped up charges were brought against him. Normal judicial processes were foreshortened. He had to be silenced. Expunged from history. Denied any chance of making a comeback.

Well, this was a challenging read, so I thank you for it.  It upset me at first, I think just by the raw act of comparing the protestors and their ad hoc leaders (like the QAnon shaman) to Jesus and his followers, but as I thought more carefully about the facets in which you were making the comparison, I settled down and, overall, I think the two narratives are mutually informative in certain ways.

It also made me consider who the “God” figure is in the contemporary situation with the Capitol building, who the “prophets” are and have been, etc.

We would probably disagree on whether or not the crowd at the Capitol has any “good” reasons for feeling disenfranchised, unless you just phrased it that way in the interests of keeping a judgmental skew out of your analysis, but I don’t think that impacts the quality of the points that you’re making.

the two narratives are mutually informative in certain ways.

That’s exactly the point. The trick is to work out what those certain ways are and what they are not. Thank you for persevering. I like the “raw act of comparing” phrase!

Paul McGuire | Thu, 01/14/2021 - 17:34 | Permalink

The thing is, the main impetus of the protestors was in response to a lie, that the election had been stolen.  A foundational pillar of our democracy is fair and true elections, and that is what was being attacked by the rioters.  I consider Trump a liar and a father of lies, and it means to world to me to see him leave office.

What I’m saying is Jesus and his followers were not motivated by blatant lies but were responding to genuine injustices and corruption.  Yes, some in the capitol mob may have some legitimate gripes, but an unfair, stolen election is not a legitimate gripe, and that was their prime motivation.

Well, a couple of points in response to that, Paul.

First, it raises a question about who decides what is good and right. Why do we side with the moral majority in Washington against the political-religious elites in Jerusalem? It seems a good idea to examine our presumption of rightness from time to time.

Secondly, and more importantly, the point of the analogy was not that the Washington mob and Jesus and his followers are morally equivalent. It is that their actions as symbolic actions are functionally equivalent. God is not morally equivalent to the unrighteous judge in the parable, but there is enough of a functional analogy to make it meaningful.

Andrew, I’m sure you have something there, and I really like your website, the narrative/historical approach, and your books; they’ve all been very helpful to me.  What happened last week at the Capitol, on top of the entire election cycle and its aftermath, was such a gut-punch and affront, that I’m still processing it, and waiting to see how it plays out in the coming weeks. 

Jesus entered Jerusalem as if he were Israel’s king. The political and religious elite surely considered this a lie. Herod was duly appointed king, not Jesus. 

Jon Hallewell | Fri, 01/15/2021 - 13:25 | Permalink

I’m not sure why but I imagine you especially enjoyed writing the last paragraph — certainly very challenging. I tend to consider Trump as a statement of judgement — a revealer. I’ve been thinking of the phrase “appointed for the fall and rising of many … and for a sign that is opposed.” [Luke 2:34] I had a dream that Trump was elected before he was a serious candidate, but resisted him as I could never support much of what he says.

One of the main impacts of reading your work aside from how I look at the biblical narrative, is the perspective that this is how God acts in history. Therefore I tend to believe we are in a season of the day of the Lord, or approaching such a day. I do think this past few months has hinted at how easily America could fall, or that it is falling, and the Capitol being stormed was a prophetic exclamation of this point. It was disheartening to see very little contrition from those participating in the impeachment debate, in terms of their rhetoric towards each other which I believe is one of the main dynamics driving them over the cliff edge. If it does fall suddenly rather than gradually, I imagine there could be a global knock-on — a western spring.

Samuel Conner | Sun, 01/17/2021 - 14:26 | Permalink

I see radical contrasts.

For three years, Jesus “wound up” Israel, manifesting the power of YHWH and providing a significant portion of the people of Israel opportunity to project their hopes for national redemption onto him. Then he allowed himself to be captured and executed without a struggle, and there was peace for generation.

For four years, the American president has been “winding up” a significant segment of the US populace, providing people opportunity to project their hopes for national revival onto him. Now he is leaving with the claim that his departure is the result of a crime perpetrated on the people by an illegitimate ruling class, and there will be political unrest and, quite possibly, violence for years to come.

The superficial resemblences IMO mask a much deeper difference in political method.