That Time When Jesus Started A Riot

The murder of young Michael Brown has grieved and enraged an entire community. Many of them took to the streets in response. Peaceful prayer vigils and protests were met with armed policemen, tanks, and tear gas. Violence broke out. The response has only gotten worse.

As Christians, we are often urged to denounce such demonstrations. This is due to Jesus’ admonition to “turn the other cheek.” Jesus is presented as meek and mild, friendly and full of compassion. And while this is not inaccurate, a vital Gospel account brings this notion concerning Jesus into question. Near the end of his life, Jesus enters into the sacred Temple in Jerusalem.[1] He proceeds to chase people out, block anyone else from bringing anything else into the temple, and flipped over the moneychangers’[2] tables. According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus cites scripture to explain his actions. He declares that the Temple is supposed to be a place of prayer, but instead, it is a “den of robbers.” In John’s gospel, the author places this event near the beginning of Jesus’ career (which is the reason why scholars place Jesus’ ministry activity within a one to three year range). John’s Gospel even depicts, Jesus making a whip.

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This took place during the Passover, which was a tense time in the ancient city. Roman troops were on high alert, and any hint of an uprising was promptly extinguished. Herod’s palace was attached directly to the Temple, meaning all the vital aspects of the Jewish faith took place under the watchful eye of Roman rule. That, along with thousands of Jews who sojourned there to celebrate the Passover every year, created some volatile situations.

Many scholars debate this account. The discussion is not about whether or not it happened; it is one of the few events that takes place in all four Gospels. This story is problematic because it depicts Jesus as an aggressor. Also debated is exactly why Jesus did this in the first place. Surely he would have known that doing such a thing would have put him and his followers in grave danger. Were Jesus’ actions in the Temple heavenly mandates, political protests, or a little of both? Two scholars, NT Wright and Obery Hendricks serve as a good balance to get the gist of where scholars tend to fall.

NT Wright views Jesus’ assault on the temple as an act of judgment. For him, Jesus interrupting the temple proceedings was an act that demonstrated two things. First, it was an act that proclaimed Jesus’ royalty. Wright notes that it is often missed that it was the kings of the Jews, legitimate or not, that had the chief role in the handling of the temple.[3] In declaring its operations corrupt, Jesus was simultaneously declaring that he had the right to manage the Temple as its kingly manager.

The second thing that Jesus’ act accomplished, was establishing that God was interacting with earth in a new way. For Wright, Jesus served as the nexus of God’s activity while he was on earth, and the literal place where heaven and earth intersected. Prior, this heaven/earth intersection was thought to be in the Most Holy Place found in the Temple. If Jesus is now the center of attention for the meeting of Heaven and Earth, what use is the temple?[4] In Wright’s view, Jesus’ existence renders the temple obsolete.

Obery Hendricks agrees with Wright’s account of Jesus’ temple assault as judgment, but he focuses on the political realities. Hendricks notes “the priests who administered [the temple sacrifices and declarations] had become inextricably intertwined with systematic appropriation of the goods and resources of ‘the least of these.’”[5] That is, the priests were taking advantage of the poor. Jewish scripture required numerous sacrifices and pronouncements for the events in people’s lives, all of which required payment. In times past and during this present time, the temple elites abused their standing. This only became worse when the temple priests became a puppet for the Roman Empire.

For Hendricks, Jesus’ actions in the temple were not a random show of emotion. Noting that the account follows the cursing of the fig tree and the triumphant procession, “Jesus’ protest was well planned.”[6] It also was not merely spiritual. “Jesus was not committing a purely religious act by attacking the money changers and dove sellers…the Jerusalem Temple was not a purely religious institution.”[7] He goes on to explain how the temple was the center of Jerusalem’s economy. It served as a bank. Priests gave out predatory loans with the intention of default so they could forcefully claim people’s property. Jesus was standing up to a system that actively worked to oppress people who had no way to defend themselves.

The question remains: was this a violent act? There’s no evidence of Jesus hitting anyone, but how does one non-violently chase large amounts of people out of the Temple? How do you non-violently brandish a weapon? Also, given the Temple’s size, Jesus’ presumably had help from his disciples. The Temple was a supermarket, a town square, and a bank rolled all into one. Mix that with Roman soldiers and you have to wonder how a person could peacefully shut a place like this down without help and planning. And if you have tables stacked with money being flipped over in the midst of chaos, is it too much of a stretch to believe that the poor people pocketed some of that change? The popular sentiment at the time was that the temple priests cared nothing about the people’s welfare. Looting, contrary to popular belief, is often strategic and a reversal of the status quo. Most scholars believe that it was Jesus’ attack on the temple that led to his eventual arrest and execution. Someone who is politely making a little noise does not often elicit such a response. Nor are they crucified, for that heinous act was reserved for the most dangerous enemies of Roman rule.

If anything, the temple account in the gospels should teach the reader that aggression and direct action is not something that God frowns on. At the very least, Jesus staged a massive demonstration to critique and disrupt the unfair systems harming people that God loves. God is not afraid of anger, and sometimes the only way to create an environment for change is to shut everything down and declare, “enough is enough.” Smiles and hugs do not affect people who hold no regard for others. Many times, messing with someone’s money and flipping their tables is the only option.

Violence and massive disruption should never be a primary option. But one has to ask, what other ways are there for people who have been brutally and systematically deprived of rights for so long? The proper channels and due process do not exist for people in Ferguson, just like they did not exist for Jesus and the people that suffered under the Romans. Destroying property is violent; so is ignoring the injustice inflicted upon those that cannot defend themselves. Asking them to not be violent, without working to produce radical justice for them, is violent. In many ways, the people of Ferguson are “the least of these.” Jesus would be there with them, not in our posh sanctuaries. He would also flip over tables for them.

For whom would our churches and organizations flip over tables for?

Jesus Temple

Copyright Brendan Powell Smith http://thebrickbible.com

People are uncomfortable with this Gospel account for the same reason they are uncomfortable with what is taking place in Ferguson. It is not the violence itself, but who is conducting it. Black bodies are already seen as deviant and prone to violence. The “least of these” are not supposed to attack. Empire only approves of violence when it can be used to further its goals. This is also true for the Church. Violence is endorsed every day when wars are sanctioned and harmful rhetoric is preached. Non-violence is bigger than simply not throwing a punch; it is respect and care for life in all ways. The Church may not go around breaking windows today, but she is far from non-violent. She has not been peaceful for centuries.

Racial tensions, economic disparities, and police brutality have gone on in Ferguson for years. The Jews were suffering economically, being occupied by a foreign force, and enduring the brutality of the Roman troops. In both situations, people who had no other recourse took matters into their own hands. Is rioting unpalatable? Yes. Is it respectable? No. But the loss of innocent life and other forms of violence are far less respectable than broken windows and stolen televisions. Is it worth laying aside peace, even for a second, in the interest of justice and freedom?

Jesus seemed to think so.

[1] Mark 11:15-19, Matthew 21:12-17, Luke 19:45-48, John 2:13-16.

[2] In order to buy temple-approved sacrifices from the temple, you could only use temple-approved money. Money stamped with images Caesar or other deities was not accepted.

[3] Simply Jesus 2011

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Politics of Jesus 2008

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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Black Jesus, Boycotts, Blunts

It is a tradition in Black culture to use humor to highlight issues and view situations from different perspectives. Richard Pryor is legendary for this, and comedians such as Paul Mooney and Chris Rock still do it today. While often crass and jarring, the jokes often expose the realities of life for what they are, and offer new ways of embracing timeless truths.

The show Black Jesus follows in the comedic footsteps on this tradition. Created by Boondocks originator Aaron McGruder, the show debuted on Cartoon Network this past Thursday. The show revolves around Jesus and his adventures with the people in his urban community. The version of Jesus, however, is not the stately one that is seen in popular representations. He also is not white. This version of the man from Nazareth is drinking 40s, smoking with his friends, and delivering words of wisdom mixed with flagrant profanity. Some love him; others don’t know what to make of him. Others think he’s a bit annoying and heavy handed with his preaching.

Many people don’t simply find Black Jesus annoying, but downright blasphemous. Many in the Black Church community expressed anger at this portrayal of Jesus, to the point of pushing for a boycott of the show before it aired. This isn’t surprising. Christianity in general, and Black Christian tradition in particular, is known to hold very conservative views. However, it is puzzling, as well as jarring, that Black Christians are protesting one of the few representations of Jesus with a darker hue.

black jesus 40s

Anthony Pollard, moderator of the Boycott Black Jesus Facebook page, addresses the race issue. He writes that the boycott attempt, “has nothing to do with color or ethnicity, the historical Jesus was a Hebrew. This TV show is an insult to the beliefs, traditions, values, and most dearly held truths of the Christian faith. It paints a totally unbiblical, unrealistic caricature of Jesus of Nazareth.” If one conducts a Twitter of Facebook search of the hashtag #blackjesus, you’ll see Pollard’s sentiments are shared by many. The outcry will do very little to halt the show. In fact, the negative buzz probably contributed to the show dominating the rating for in its 11pm timeslot.

It is historical fact that Jesus was not an African American man roaming the streets of California. Black Jesus is intended to be a comedy with a side of public commentary. The usage of history poses a problem, however, for those who want claim a sanitized, whitewashed (literally and figuratively) Jesus. History also reveals that Jesus, the real Jesus of the Bible, more closely resembled a homeboy on the corner in Compton than a Victorian model of morality and speaker of perfect British English.

Black Jesus gives the viewer a gritty savior that fails the tests of respectability and class. Truth is, the actual Jesus of Nazareth would have failed these tests as well. While scholars today still argue about the debatable aspects of his life and teaching, one aspect is almost unanimously agreed upon: Jesus was a poor, marginalized Jew under the shadow of an oppressive Roman occupation. This reality would’ve dictated many of the aspects of Jesus’ life growing up. Poverty tends of have these deterministic effects on those suffering under it. Figuring out ways to survive on paltry means and navigating odd jobs around the neighborhood to make ends meet would’ve been his norm. Seeing strange characters doing unsavory activities, as well as living with people crushed by the vicious systems around him would be commonplace. There’s a good chance that Jesus did some of those same things.

black_jesus_stillStill, reality is hard for people to swallow, given that most Christians view Jesus as a spiritual, all encompassing being instead of a blue-collar worker. That it is so difficult to embrace this truth about Jesus, especially amongst churches that hold Bible study in such high regard, demonstrates the vast disconnect. This controversy won’t push more people away from Church; it reveals how much the Church is already removed from society in terms of influence. Those who are up in arms over this presentation of Jesus need to ask themselves why seeing a normal, human, poor, scruffy, foul-mouthed, and yes, Black Jesus is so jarring to their senses. If that question is answered, they’ll have a clue as to why people don’t hold Church in high regard any longer.

Love it or hate it, the response concerning Black Jesus shows is that people are still excited to talk about the man from Galilee. Even if this version of Jesus has a bit of a potty mouth.

What I learned in Seminary: Introduction

For many, theological centers of learning are an enigma. No one knows what goes on inside those sacred walls, yet they feel compelled to know what takes place inside. If someone feels a distinct “call” or urging to work in pastoral ministry, the idea of learning the Bible in a more detailed way often comes up before long.

The decision to attend seminary[1] is a personal journey. As such, everyone’s story is different. The beginning of my journey toward theological learning is centered in my unique call story. The sensation of feeling “called” to preach, along with the drive to seek training in order to do it, were linked. For some, attending seminary is a lifelong goal that they set aside for the time when the kids are out of the house. For others, it is a second career. Everyone has a unique situation that leads them there.

Those unique call stories do not lessen the impact of some serious factors when attending seminary. Seminary is not for everyone, dare I say, it is not for most. When people ask me, “Should I go to seminary,” I tend to get into a polite, but serious mindset. One thing that many people fail to realize about seminary is this: it is graduate school. A Master of Divinity program, which is the standard degree for ordination in most denominations, takes about three years to complete. And completion is in three years is only if someone attends full time, with a couple of summer classes here and there. The financial commitment is immense. Most seminary graduates graduate with crippling debt[2]. And since the vast majority of seminary graduates seek pastoral positions—which are shrinking in number and pay—the effort is effectively dooming them to a life of poverty.

Perhaps Jesus wouldn’t mind that, but most of us would.

I also strive to inform the asker that attending seminary is an intellectual enterprise. As stated above, I was more certain of my intellectual call before I figured out what church to align with. That is, I pursued the call to learn before I pursued the call to preach. However, that is not the case for most. The majority of seminary students pick up theological education as a requirement for ordination. This in and of itself is not a problem. Unfortunately, it can cause seminary to only be an event to check off on the list, not one to actively engage. In this case, seminary becomes merely a requirement to check off the list. Because the academic life of the mind and the practice of faith are seen as antithetical to so many, there is often no cross pollination of the ideas learned in the classroom into what comes over the pulpit.

There are a number of reasons for this. Theological reflection takes effort, and most don’t like their deeply held assumptions challenged. Also, many denominations still require certain beliefs to be affirmed for ordination. So while the important may be great to discuss in class, students will still toe the line in regards to denominational rules.

After that, I inform the person of the work involved. You’ll have to read a lot. You’ll have to write a lot. Your writing and method of thinking and believing will be critiqued harshly. If you don’t like to write (and don’t want to learn to write better), if you don’t like to read, if you don’t like to engage and interrogate your own ideas, than you probably shouldn’t go to seminary. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say this: unless you are in a denomination that requires seminary education for ordination, or you desire to pursue doctoral level work in religion, then you shouldn’t go to seminary.[3]

There are many other ways to become theologically knowledgeable that don’t involve thousands of dollars and hours. I recommend those to people first. They still require effort and critical thinking, but they aren’t as taxing or expensive as navigating through a seminary program. Even if you don’t officially attend, seminaries are a great resource. Search the profiles of professors that work at various seminaries and see what books or articles they’ve written. Go to your local bookstore (or public library) and peruse the religion section. Search for them on the Internet. As you read, pay attention to the sources that the authors use.

If reading is not your thing, there’s yet another way. Take those same names you found while searching for books, books that you don’t want to read. Type their names in YouTube. You’ll be surprised at how many give talks that are frequently uploaded. Maybe reading 300 pages is daunting to you, but listening to a 20 minute talk should serve just fine. Also, many are converting their books into audiobooks or even on iTunes University. You’ll find some gems if you look for a while.

If that information doesn’t deter one from going to seminary, then I get into the big question. That is, “Where will I go to pursue theological education?” That is a vital question, and must be considered with prayerful research and consideration. I’ll address it in the next post.

[1] I use “seminary” as a blanket term for ease of understanding. There are actually several types of places that one could pursue theological education. They’ll be discussed in a future post.

[2] http://www.christianpost.com/news/seminary-graduates-in-record-debt-study-finds-117676/

[3] There are other degrees that you can obtain at a seminary, such as a Master of Theological Study. I’ll discuss other options in another post.