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.