~ John 2:13-25 ~
It was a seminal moment in the struggle for racial justice. September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted dynamite with a timer beneath the steps of the church. The resulting explosion killed four young girls attending Sunday School and injured many more. Martin Luther King, Jr called it “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.”
In the years leading up to the bombing, the stringently enforced segregated city of Birmingham had earned the reputation of being quite violent. Bombings at black homes and institutions were a regular occurrence, earning it the nickname, “Bombingham.” Violence permeated the culture of the city.
June 17, 2015, a young white supremacist attended a bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He shot and killed nine attendees including the pastor Clementa C. Pinckney. Founded in 1816 the Mother Emanuel is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South. In 1822 one of the co-founders of the church was suspected of planning a slave rebellion. Thirty-five blacks were hanged and the church was burned down. As a result Mother Emanuel AME Church is an iconic symbol of the struggle for racial justice and equality, which is precisely why Dylan Roof chose it to carry out his violent act.
From the earliest days of our nation to just last summer with the killing of George Floyd, black bodies have been violently maimed, whipped, raped, lynched and murdered. As Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, says: “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.”
Indeed, I have come to realize that it is not just our heritage but is part and partial of our national religion. No, not Christianity for I don’t think that is the religion of America. The real religion of America is White Supremacy. Christianity is merely a tool of this religion in order to give it legitimacy, to justify it. Embedded in this religion is the Myth of Redemptive Violence. The idea is that in the name of a righteous cause violence can be employed, indeed, must be employed to bring order out of chaos. The righteous cause? Maintaining racial order and control. It is uppermost in this ideology. Violence can and must be used to put down even the perceived threat of chaos. Racism and violence are necessarily intertwined. Hence, we just do it. It’s in our national DNA. It’s all we’ve ever known.
I grew up learning violence. I grew up playing army or cowboys and Indians. I amassed huge numbers of plastic army men and staged mock battles in the front lawn. I get a visceral thrill watching a battles in movies, be it a World War II movie or Game of Thrones. I probably have no idea how deeply ingrained my propensity for violence is. I am learning that I have unwittingly allowed myself to be unduly influenced by the myth of redemptive violence. And I’ve come to realize that my “learned” violence is deeply rooted in the structural racism of our culture. However, I am also learning that following Jesus means not buying into this myth but resisting it, deliberately and earnestly.
Which brings us to our gospel lesson for today. Those who defend the use of violence often look to this story for legitimation. It certainly looks like Jesus resorts to violent means to impose his will on the people at the temple on that day. But if we look at it a bit more closely, we might come to a different conclusion.
Often there is the assumption that Jesus is reacting out of anger. But there is nothing in the text (or the other gospels’ accounts of this incident) that says what his emotions are. Indeed, it is more likely that this was a calculated act, one that sends a message. We see Jesus making a whip and driving them all out. But he didn’t use the whip on the people, despite how artists have depicted the scene through the centuries. Even though it isn’t clearly obvious from our English rendition, Jesus uses the whip to drive out the animals not the people. But he does tip over the tables and pour out the coins of the moneychangers. That does seems violent. Now Jesus certainly does act with vigor, if not downright aggression. Overturning the tables, however, did the moneychangers no physical harm. On the whole, Jesus’ action has a quality something like that of a protester who chains himself to a door to prevent people from entering a building. It is obstructive and aggravating, but nobody suffers bodily injury. It is worth noting that this is by far the most violent act attributed to Jesus in the Bible.
Jesus dramatic act was not meant to force people to behave in a certain way but was intended to convey a symbolic message. It was a symbolic protest against the oppressive practices of the temple-based religion. People, mostly poor people, had to purchase animals for sacrifices to cleanse themselves from whatever purity laws they had violated. Jesus sought to undermine these purity laws because of their oppressive nature. Jesus symbolic act was to signal that these temple practices were coming to an end. To that end, Jesus entire approach to his life and his work was one of nonviolence.
Now, I know that we, here, are not a violent people. Yet violence is baked into our national culture and we might not realize how much it affects us, particularly in regard to racism. Is it possible that sometimes, in our minds, we excuse excessive force against people of color because they should have behaved better? Might we be inclined to dismiss the history of violence because that was so long ago and we’re better now? I guess, what I’m saying is that we need to pay attention to this history, to these tendencies, to these excuses for violence. That is not easy; it calls for a disciplined accounting. Indeed, a Lenten-type spiritual discipline of reflection and learning. I, for one, find I continually need to be engaged with the spiritual discipline of being a nonviolent person.
One way of engaging in that learning is to expose ourselves to the history and perspectives of people of color. There are many very good documentaries out there of late. One that I highly recommend is the PBS series of the Louis Gates’ production, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song. While it doesn’t ignore the violent history the black church has experienced, it is an inspirational story of hope. There are many others worth checking out. May we continue the journey towards wholeness and peace. Amen.