I’m Black and American, and I have a vested interest in the actions related to the Black Lives Matter movement that popped off in the late spring of this year. So let’s talk about rioting and property destruction, and its Christlike potential. Many other articles, videos, tweets, etc. have circulated arguing that police brutality against human beings is drastically more alarming than community rage overflowing onto storefronts. This meme has also seen the rounds:
It’s funny and gets the point across, but there’s a deep level of connection between Christ’s cleansing of the temple and our current situation that I want to further explore.
In all 4 Gospels, Jesus destructively clears out the temple in Jerusalem at Passover. There are distinctions in the stories–this potentially even happened multiple times, as John records a clearing 3 years before the other accounts (before Jesus is even baptized), while Matthew, Mark, and Luke record a clearing after his triumphal entry (mere days before his crucifixion). Despite the potential timeline discrepancy, the gist is the same:
Jesus forcibly drove out the moneychangers, traders, and merchants. He flipped over their tables and scattered their coins. He told them to get their livestock and leave, because they were degrading God’s house. In some accounts, he goes as far to refer to the merchants as robbers and thieves, citing Jeremiah 7. At one point Jesus made an improvised whip, and there is debate as to whether he used it on the merchants themselves or just the livestock. This was wanton destruction of property and complete disruption of an established market.
Why were people selling livestock in the temple anyway??
Passover was and is an opportunity for communal worship and celebration (a bit more on the holiday itself in the Postscript). In Exodus and Deuteronomy, all males are required to “appear before the Lord” in the Temple three times each year, including during Passover, and it’s specified that no participant should appear without an offering. Fast-forwarding to Jesus’ time (the time of the Second Temple), when the Jewish diaspora had spread through the Roman Empire, there seems to have been a societal relaxation around that command. According to Professor and Rabbi Shmuel Safrai, pilgrims might’ve made the journey to the Second Temple only once per year (as seemed to be the case for Jesus when he was growing up), or even once in their lives. This was, therefore, an incredibly important opportunity to offer sacrifice, since sacrifice could only be offered at the Temple, and traveling with a living sacrifice wasn’t easy. That’s where the Temple merchants that Jesus accosted come in. For their richer clients, they had bulls, calves, etc., while poor folks were able to purchase doves for sacrifice.
Then in-temple livestock sales sound very convenient. What’s wrong about selling the creatures necessary for sacrifice?
The likely/most obvious answer is that the moneychangers & merchants were using this as an opportunity to turn a profit. (Hence the label of “robbers and thieves.”) By overcharging for sacrifices, they both defied Levitical law and desecrated the sanctuary’s purpose. They were exploiting the necessity of sacrifices (an important means to atone for sin, thank God, and lead a life in accordance with law). They turned an opportunity for worship/community support into a means for gain at the literal expense of those who most needed their services. The corruption even potentially extended to the ranks of Temple officiants, religious leaders, and worshippers, as the Jeremiah quote that Jesus references speaks more generally about people who feel secure in their prosperity while exploiting the most vulnerable among them.
Jesus took issue with the exploitation of God’s house to exploit God’s people–these two forms of evil were always one in the same to him. I remember a pastor teaching my childhood congregation that Jesus was disgusted with the commotion and filth caused by hosting animals in the courtyard… but that perspective doesn’t really compel me considering Christ’s specific focus on the transactional/theft element. Sacrifices were affairs filled with blood and entrails, so I have a hard time believing that Jesus was just violently grossed out by the stink and noise of living animals in what would otherwise be a bustling courtyard filled with sweaty pilgrims and ritually impure gentiles that he had no problem with.
Which leads us to Christ’s purpose: Union with the Divine.
Upon Jesus’ death, the veil separating the most holy place (where no one except the high priest was allowed to go once per year) from the rest of the temple (including the cleared outer courtyard where people of varying status–including goyim–could enter) tore in 2 from top to bottom. Symbolically, this represents how Christ’s sacrifice was the ultimate sacrifice, and because of it we have direct access to God. There is nothing separating us anymore. God/Divinity/Source lives in us, making us Their/His/Her/Its temple. To murder, brutalize, or otherwise exploit another human being is to desecrate God’s temple and disrespect a Creator that expresses Themself through us.
Referring to our bodies as temples often functioned as an admonishment to not get tattoos, eat too much sugar, or have premarital sex in the conservative Christian education I received growing up. But I think it’s more important to consider it in regards to our treatment of each other. George Floyd’s body was a temple of the Most High. The bodies of my ancestors that somehow survived the brutal subjugation and complete exploitation (of physical and reproductive labor especially) that was American slavery were homes of the Divine. God *lived* within and through Breonna Taylor. And daily, hourly, minutely we desecrate these temples by exploiting them for financial and egotistic gain. I say we because while I have never ground someone’s face into the pavement, listening to their cries for help as I felt the life seep out of them, I’m a human who has exploited others’ kindness, naivety, insecurity, and trust. I’ve desecrated temples of the God I worship, as I try to be a home for that same Divine force! All this while knowing what it’s like to have my own home/temple be exploited and used. I don’t know about you, but there are moments where I’ve wished that there was someone willing to riot against the misuse of my body, my time, my self.
Jesus’ objection to the financial aspect of exploitation is particularly relevant here. American slavery in its original form and modern incarnation in the prison system are perfect examples of desecrating people/temples for financial gain. The Trump administration’s willingness to financially exploit desperate people by not offering nearly enough aid in a pandemic that *did not* have to result in the death of over 200,000 people/homes for the Divine is another deep correlation.
If you’re more focused on condemning oppressed people for not prioritizing property than you are on condemning the exploitation of the oppressed, and if you’re of the Christian persuasion… maybe try imagining individual human beings as temples for God. If property destruction and theft enrages you more than the death of a Black person, try to remember that Christ didn’t die to save Walmart, small businesses, or (since COVID is still killing massive numbers of people) “the economy” at large.
Concerning the Issue of Property Destruction
I do not think that smashing shop windows is a “cleansing,” but I honestly see it as a moral neutral. Certain institutions *do* need to be physically and systemically destroyed, and the expression of rage that comes in the form of destructive protest is legitimate, in my opinion. However, it’s not the most effective channelling of that rage, a fact which the general non-activist public has woken up to, and is taking action towards. (This includes me, I’m 100% not condescending to anyone here.)
How do we “Cleanse the Temple,” then?
To me, Cleansing the Temple in American society involves prison abolition, for its inextricable link to financial exploitation. I’m involved with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, an organization that’s been around since 1995 advocating for prison abolition while supporting incarcerated individuals on a personal level. MPD 150 has some wonderful resources for explaining to others the importance of police abolition, which is linked to prison abolition. If you have other resources that you think could tie in here, please comment on this post or email/message me so that I can add them to this post!
On a personal level, I think cleansing the temple involves passionate defense of your sacred self. If someone’s/something’s trying to extract gain from you to your detriment, get yo whip. If you find yourself trying to exploit another person for self-serving benefit, flip your own table, right? Make sure your dealings and interactions with other people are honest, fair, and in honor of each other’s sanctity. Hold others to that same standard in their treatment of you. If you’re a Christian who finds it easy to value possessions over human wellbeing, remember that our lives are the possessions of God. (Yes 1 Cor 6:12-20 is about sexual sin, yes I will be writing about that later on, no I’m not advocating for purity culture. For now, check out Col. 2:20-23.) You are the Holiest of Holies, and so is that person you just made that snide comment about, so check yourself, you know?
Aftermath of the Cleansing
In Luke and Mark, Jesus’ clearing of the temple is named as the action which incites community religious leaders to plan his death. In John and Matthew, it’s followed by open disdain from the same leaders, who ask him what authority he has to act like that, and to be called God. This wasn’t a polite, uncontroversial action. This was a passionate, immediate, violent defense of that which Christ considered sacred: human life and our capacity to connect with God. And it got him killed. But that’s the irony of consistently/brazenly prioritizing human life and wellbeing over pure material gain–you will 100% be faced with discomfort, feelings of unwellness, and at most extreme, bodily harm and even death. But like… what else are we here for? The fking stock market?? Are we here to extract as much wealth and glory from our surroundings as possible? Did God make us in the pattern of divinity to defend Walmart and die for the economy??? No, so let’s act accordingly.
Interestingly, Passover itself (the festival setting the stage for the Temple cleansing) draws a correlation here.
Passover celebrates what is IMO a complicated event in Jewish tradition. The short version of the story: For centuries, Jewish people were enslaved and violently oppressed by Egyptians. God charged Moses, a Jewish man raised in Pharaoh’s palace, with asking Egypt’s ruler to release the Jews. Pharaoh said “no, in fact Imma make life worse for them.” Then God sent a series of plagues targeting the Egyptians. The last plague was the death of the Firstborn, whereupon every firstborn being (human or animal) would die unless the household marked their doorframe with the blood from a sacrificed lamb.
After this incredible devastation and the personal loss of his son, Pharaoh released the Jews.
Through deep grief, Pharaoh came to learn that human life was more important than his ego, than his dominance, than the labor and wealth he was able to forcibly extract from his Jewish citizens.
Black people & all other overtly oppressed people around the world already know this. The economy, buildings, material gain is worth nothing of true value. Our lives are. Our lives are what matters.
It is worth noting that, in this story, Egyptians were not automatically targeted, and Jews were not automatically saved. The choice to be saved was personal/familial–each household chose to mark their door. The information was given by Moses to the Jews, but Egyptians were not excluded from the practice. Symbolically speaking, even from the first sacrifice of the lamb, God didn’t exclude goyim. The Bible makes no mention of Egyptians that marked their doorways, (and in fact specifies that there was not a household that hadn’t lost someone) but let’s play with that possibility. Were there any Egyptian households brave enough to step out of a comforting sense of superiority and listen to their Jewish neighbors? Which Egyptians went out of their way to support their Jewish friends before it was a matter of life and death? Did any Egyptians flee with the Jews, joining the ranks of God’s chosen? Did they see the warnings of a failing system, recognize the brutality of enslavement, and abandon their status to stand in solidarity with the oppressed? I’d like to think some did, and that they survived and grew because of it.
Jesus’ quoting of Jeremiah 7 in referring to merchants as robbers & thieves provides a similar insight. During the existence of the First Temple, rampant corruption and exploitation existed alongside prideful celebration of prosperity. Since the people were unwilling to address their misuse of the Temple and their mistreatment of each other, Jeremiah prophesied the Temple’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar II, which shortly followed. This is a worthwhile reminder that identifying as the good guy isn’t the same thing as doing good. That material prosperity is not a sign of moral purity. That sometimes the oppression is coming from inside the house–that all “us” vs “them” is constructed and in no way inherent.
We are all God’s people. In the words of Gwendolyn Brooks, “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” The oppression of one group is the detriment of all of us, and that lesson will be learned even when we are in deep denial of it.
My hope for us as individuals and a species is that in so many ways, we take the survivable warnings of our lives seriously. That we don’t learn only when it’s too late to save what is truly important.
Cuz when God says “let my people go,” the “or else” is implied.