Q: Some of my Christian friends have been supporting violent protests over racial justice. They cite Jesus’ cleansing of the temple as justification. Do you agree?
In 1975, I was a young delegate at the World Council of Churches in Nairobi. One of the big issues was agreeing a policy to combat racism, particularly aimed at the old regime in South Africa. They tried to make it clear that this was supposed to be nonviolent, but one very learned African speaker stood up and said: “We have to be careful about insisting on nonviolence, because God himself used violence in the New Testament.” He cited Jesus’ actions in the temple, and then in going to the cross, in support of his point.
I remember being very uncomfortable about that but, after talking with friends, I realised how it looks when comfortable white people say to oppressed black people: “We don’t want any violence. Just walk up and down the street with placards.” They’ve been doing that kind of thing for generations and they’re still being beaten up and put in jail.
Christians should always lead the way on matters of justice. The Black Lives Matter movement shouldn’t have been necessary, because the Church ought to have been witnessing to the fact that in Christ, God has made a multicoloured, multi-ethnic, multi-everything people. Secular multiculturalism has tried to get the results of the Christian gospel without the gospel.
If the churches haven’t been noticing, it’s no surprise that other people take to the streets to make their protest. Just like in Jesus’ day, as he commented: “The Kingdom of God is breaking in and the men of violence are trying to break in on the act” (Matthew 11:12, NTE). It’s a very confused situation, but part of the problem has been the failure of the Church to bear witness to wise, multi-ethnic community. And sometimes we find ourselves saying: “I’m basically with these people, even though I wouldn’t necessarily share all of their methods.”
However, I believe that Martin Luther King’s model of nonviolence was absolutely right. And he paid the price for it. The more extreme Black Power leaders said after his death: ‘He had it coming to him, his approach was too soft.’ But violent revolution only breeds more violence. And if you fight fire with fire, fire always wins.
Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was a very specific thing. It wasn’t saying: “There are times when we have to have a riot.” It was a specific prophetic action, which anyone at the time would have seen as being like Jeremiah smashing his pot (Jeremiah 19). All Jesus did was to stop the regular flow of daily sacrifices for a short time. But that was enough to say prophetically that actually, this whole system – which is about the regular daily worship of God – is under God’s judgement. And that goes with what Jesus subsequently did in the upper room when he identified himself with the sacrificial lamb. It was the positive half of the same thing.
It wasn’t a justification for violence – it was a prophetic sign at that moment. And we shouldn’t generalise out of that into other possibilities. Ultimately, the example of Jesus is of one to whom violence was done. We need to soak ourselves again in the Sermon on the Mount, which is the way forward in all of these things.
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