In the light of the direct non-violent action of Wellington Archdiocesan vicar-general Fr Gerard Burns in confronting the Israeli war on Gaza, many may ask, ‘did he go too far? Is destruction of property ever justified?’ The gospels help provide an answer.
Those who teach the non-violent Jesus are inevitably confronted by sceptics who say, ‘what about Jesus when he overturned the tables in the temple and drove the money changers out? Surely this is an act of justifiable violence?’ On the surface, it seems a fair question.
But there is another way of looking at this episode that is more consistent with the rest of his teachings. Seen as an act of civil/religious disobedience, similar to that conducted by Te Whiti and Tohu, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Ploughshares activists centuries later, it makes much more sense.
All of these people acted from religious outrage and disrupted civil processes, similar to the way Jesus acted. All are recognised internationally as leaders of non-violent direct action and role models of non-violent living. So should Jesus be.
The context in the money changers’ episode is crucial. The temple in Jerusalem had become the centre not just of official worship but of commerce. It was the heart of the Jewish nation and the symbol of their religion. It was supposed to be the most holy of all Jewish sites, outranking others in the way Mecca outranks other Muslim sites today. It was the place where the community’s offerings and gifts were brought.
However, at the time of Jesus, much of the meaning of the temple as a holy sanctuary had been lost because of the greed of traders and the ruling caste running its affairs. Corruption and the lust for power had taken hold. The temple had become fundamentally an economic institution. Racketeering was rife.
In other words, God was not being worshipped properly in this most holy of all places. To Jesus, this was an affront, a huge scandal. He was incensed.
Worse even than that, it was the poor who were being exploited through the sale of sacrificial doves and other animals which by law they were obliged to buy. Those getting the payoff included the high priest and his entourage.
In addition to any profits accrued, they received taxes from vendors and money changers. It was lucrative stuff. Jesus knew this. What should one who cares about justice and the love of God do? Take up a petition? Write a letter to the high priest complaining? Jesus chose to act.
Each of the four gospel writers records what happened. Although they differ in the details, all agree Jesus certainly got angry and overthrew the money changers’ tables (Mk 11:15, Mt 21:12, Lk 19:45, Jn 2:14).
It’s not hard to see why. One can see Jesus arriving at the temple after a hot day’s walk and finding it busy and noisy. Rather than preparations for worship and prayer, the outer courts were dominated by commerce like a typical marketplace. Overcome with anger at what he saw, Jesus acts. He either grabs a cord from somewhere handy or, more likely, takes it from around his own waist and wades in, overturning the tables and sending the money and merchandise flying in all directions. ‘Stop turning my father’s house into a marketplace,’ he roars.
This is a highly symbolic move, enacted right at the heart of Jewish power, the temple. This was no ordinary building and Jesus knew it. The temple was where civil and religious power became one.
The question is, confronted by the enormity of the corruption, did he exercise violence in a way that ‘Just War’ apologists and modern war makers sometimes use to justify their actions? Or was his action a disruption to ‘business as usual’, an act of civil/religious disobedience to the prevailing practice?
The rest of the gospel provides the answer. Jesus lived under one of the most violent regimes ever, the Roman Empire, where crucifixion was the norm for dissenters. Even a cursory reading of the scriptures shows that Jesus taught a revolutionary new, non-violent way of people relating to each other. One has only to read how love and respect sit at the heart of his Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5) to understand that violence was anathema to Jesus. Note how gentle he was with his miracle works, his meetings with the poor and disaffected—his methods are gentle, respectful, non-violent.
So what can we make of this episode? Was it an aberration into violence, never to be repeated? That would make no sense to gospel writers later seeking to present Jesus as the new temple and the radical teacher of a new way of being, of a new covenant based on relationships and respect and of a raft of new teachings—love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, walk the extra mile, share your bread with the hungry, shelter the homeless, turn the other cheek, forgive 70 times seven. These are the cornerstones of a truly revolutionary non-violent ethic.
Confronted by temple power and corruption, the action of Jesus is consistent with these teachings. His anger is justified. The poor are exploited. The temple, God’s house, is being abused. Jesus takes direct, symbolic, non-violent action. No one is hurt. Money and property are scattered—that’s all. But the voice of a prophet is heard right in the inner sanctum of authority.
We are left with an obvious conclusion. This was an act of civil/religious disobedience conducted at the very heart of power. It formed a critical part of his strategy of promoting the ‘new creation’, the radical ethic of non-violent relationships he was teaching.
Fr Burn’s action follows in this non-violent tradition.