What does the Bible say about violent protest?
It has been my mantra of sorts since I came to be pastor here at JMPC that what we are all called to do is “live the Jesus way”.
In my last two sermons the messages were that part of living the Jesus way means to recognize that racism is a sin and that protesting injustice is appropriate.
If you think about it, that is, in part, kind of how Jesus lived his life.
Jesus stood up for the oppressed and protested against powers that demeaned and discriminated against people.
But I read this week that some folks are arguing that the violence and property destruction; something that has been a small part of the recent protests against racism and police brutality; is somehow justified based on Jesus’ actions when he overturned some tables in the Jerusalem Temple.
That story about Jesus’ Temple “cleansing” appears in all four Gospels.
That made me think.
Do the actions of Jesus in the Temple somehow endorse a violent or destructive response to racism and injustice?
Would living the Jesus way ever include violence?
I don’t think so.
We need to really look at the story.
The story is pretty brief in all the Gospels.
Today we look at Matthew’s account.
Matthew 21: 12-13
12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13He said to them, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer”;
but you are making it a den of robbers.’
Well, you have to admit, this sounds a bit violent, doesn’t it?
Jesus seems pretty angry, doesn’t he?
Jesus’ protest against the abuse in the Temple seems pretty aggressive, right?
Knock a few tables over.
Knock a few chairs over.
Chase some folks out of the Temple.
So, can we use this vignette as a way to justify violence as part of protest?
To make it part of the Jesus way, even if rarely appropriate?
Again, I don’t read it that way – for a couple of reasons.
First, I challenge the interpretation that Jesus is acting “violently”.
Let’s take a look at the context.
Jesus has just arrived in Jerusalem.
It is unlikely that this is his first time there.
He knows that the commerce around the Temple allows people to exchange Roman currency to Temple currency so the people can buy sacrificial animals and pay the Temple tax with kosher coins.
All that happens in the Court of the Gentiles; the only place non-Jews are allowed to come to pray.
Jesus has likely seen it before, and apparently done nothing.
But this time, Jesus seems a little irritated.
Matthew has him chasing out the buyers and sellers, overturning the money exchange tables, and knocking over the chairs of those who are selling doves.
To be fair, Mark includes Jesus blocking the way of those who jaywalk in the Temple while John says Jesus made a whip to herd the sheep and cattle out.
Luke only has Jesus driving out the “sellers”.
So, what is really going on here?
First, Jesus’ actions are really a pretty small thing.
The Court of the Gentiles was pretty big, and no doubt crowded when Jesus got there.
It was Passover, right?
Lots of folks making the annual pilgrimage.
No doubt plenty of Temple commerce going on.
Jesus’ actions would have been a brief, temporary and minor disturbance.
Looking what Jesus actually did, it was pretty tame.
And almost immediately, he leaves for the day.
No doubt the money changers gathered up their coins and start up the currency exchange.
The dove sellers set up their tables again and start selling sacrificial doves.
The buyers and sellers all likely returned.
The jaywalkers probably resumed their jaywalking.
The sheep and cattle were doubtless herded back in.
That’s a far cry from demolishing police cars on fire, smashing windows of businesses, looting stores and setting buildings on fire, right?
So, what was Jesus’ point?
Jesus got the attention of the chief priests and scribes.
Jesus also got the attention of the crowds that had come from all over Judea for Passover.
Those who saw it undoubtedly got their tongues wagging and word spread.
Today we might think of Jesus “going viral” with this little demonstration in front of those who saw it.
Jesus, in creating this commotion, let the Temple authorities know he was there and had now come to challenge their power.
No more business as usual, folks!
The old way was done.
A new way had come.
The Jesus way.
And make no mistake, Jesus was capable of much more than turning over a few tables, right?
Jesus could have called down “legions of angels”, right?
Jesus could have even destroyed the Temple entirely – and didn’t.
Jesus was restrained.
Jesus made his point and left it at that.
And there’s a lesson for us in that, too.
When you protest, make your point.
Keep it up until things change.
But hurting people or property will not accomplish it.
And that brings me to the second reason I don’t think what Jesus did approves of violent protest.
Simply put, that is not Jesus!
Jesus spent his ministry preaching peace and non-violence.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Why are peacemakers called children of God?
Because they are acting like Jesus!
Let’s be clear here.
Jesus is not saying that people who are peacemakers cannot protest.
Jesus himself was a protester.
He came to protest against our rejection of God.
Jesus wanted us to change and be reconciled to God and to each other.
His message was that we are to love God and love each other.
That’s living the Jesus way.
So, when we see injustice, unrighteousness, rejection of God and neighbor, we can protest against it.
And seek to change it – peacefully.
But that’s hard.
That’s really hard.
When we feel disrespected, demeaned, bullied or oppressed, human nature encourages us to react angrily.
And if we are disrespected, demeaned, bullied or oppressed long enough we become more and more angered.
The anger builds until something happens that sends us into a rage, and we lash out.
We often get violent.
We throw things.
It does not make it right, but it is what we do.
That is the way of things in our broken world.
It always has been.
From the beginning.
Cain killed Abel because God rejected Cain’s offering accepted Abel’s.
Cain was humiliated and spurned.
Cain was hurt and so lashed out in anger against his what he believed was the source of his rejection.
And we have continued to do the same throughout history.
We think that to strike down our competition, physically, economically, emotionally or verbally will make changes peacefully.
Jesus says that violence and hate beget more violence and hate.
How did Jesus say it?
I will use his words from Matthew 5.
21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Martin Luther King understood that.
He said this:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction … The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.
Listen to those words again.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
That is grace.
That is what God has given us.
That is what we are called to give others.
It might be hard, but if you can’t help but desire a bit bite to your peacefulness then there is this from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
A quote from Proverbs, which I find… well … delightful.
Proverbs 25: 21-22
21 If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;
22 for you will heap coals of fire on their heads,
and the Lord will reward you.
And we need to hear one more thing from Jesus sermon.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
This is what binds peacemaking and grace to protest.
Because Jesus does not equate peace with passivism.
We are not called to be doormats for ourselves or for our neighbors.
We are not called to avert our eyes from obvious injustice or oppression or prejudice.
We are called to stand up for righteousness.
We are just supposed to do it in a peaceful way.
The way Jesus did it … for us.
On the cross.
So if we can agree that it is appropriate to protest against racism and police brutality, and I think we can, we need to do it the Jesus way.
What does the Bible say about violent protest?
It’s not the Jesus way.