“I wasn’t there, but I’m guessing Jesus caused property damage when he cleared out the corruption atthe temple.” I posted this yesterday almost as soon as the thought gripped me. And as a couple people shared it, I happened to catch some negative feedback from some folks of the white, female, Christian persuasion. I was struck by two in particular. Both said things like “it was his house” and therefore my thought about his causing property destruction had no bearing on what has been happening this week in Minneapolis and other parts of the country. Today new information has emerged that in many cities property damage was started by white mostly male agitators, many of whom then left the scene. Now it does seem that some protestors were still involved at various points, but none of that takes away from the emphasis I see in far too many places from white Christians like these two women who responded to my post.
Jesus in his statement about it being his Father’s house could lead one to make the connection these commenters did, sure it’s his house, however, that is not how his action would have been perceived by the religious leaders of the day. This story appears in all four gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the synoptic gospels), they are trying to tell Jesus’ story chronologically and this event takes place during the same passover time where we later see Jesus crucified. Jesus was never accepted by the religious leaders of his day, and the clearing of the temple can be seen as another catalyst for them to get him crucified as a blasphemer. Of course, Pilate didn’t crucify people for blaspheming the religion of Israel, so they had to have painted him as a political revolutionary to catch Pilate’s attention (cf. Luke 23:2).
These details show us that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day very much saw his actions as a violation of the temple. And as he poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables, I think we can definitely say he cost them money and caused property damage. The idea that it’s all fine because it was “his house” is imputing a theological concept to an action that would never have been perceived that way when it happened.
There’s a danger in missing the context in which Jesus lived and assuming we understand what was happening and how it would have been perceived based on the theological concepts that we’ve been given alone. For example, we’re taught Jesus came to die to save the world, but that’s not what got him killed. Removing these events from their historical context causes us to miss just how transgressive the actions of Jesus were as seen by those who were watching him.
Back to the temple. When the leaders confront him about his actions, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). They are confused and take it literally, but he is talking about his body as the temple and his death and resurrection. Later in the writings of Paul, we have the idea that all of our bodies are temples and therefore it matters what we do with them (1 Cor. 6:19).
In multiple places in the life of Jesus we find examples of shifts from the dominant culture. We find that if we follow his example we should prioritize people over purity (the Samaritan woman at the well), people over public image (the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman), and people over property (body as temple vs. building as temple). All of these actions were highly transgressive in Jesus’ context and they tell us something about how we should engage the world in which we find ourselves. And there’s a lesson, especially for us white Christians, in prioritizing destruction of property over the destruction of the temple that was George Floyd’s body.
Anna Elisabeth Howard writes highly caffeinated takes on shalom as a lens for everything from her front porch in Hendersonville, TN where she lives with her husband and two sons. She is a community organizer and movement chaplain with a background in youth and family ministry and is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. You can find her at @aehowardwrites on Twitter and at aehowardwrites.com