Silence, Compliance and Speaking Wisely in our Time of Protest

Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple by Cecco Caravaggio (1610)

And Jesus told those who sold pigeons, ‘take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” John 2:16–17

Earlier this week, there was a post circulating on social media that had an image of Jesus overturning tables of the moneychangers. Superimposed on the top is a caption that read something like “destroying property to protest is wrong.” The bottom reads, “Jesus be like…”

The post was provocative as it was memorable—exemplary of the best kinds of memes.

Jesus did thrash part of the temple and he did use a whip made of cords. Property was certainly damaged and some folks probably left with welts on their bodies. In all this, as the church confesses that Jesus did not sin. Interestingly, among critical scholars of the New Testament today, this is a favorite episode to malign the character of Christ. Jesus loses his cool, contradicts his own teaching, and explodes in riotous rage, they say.

The Apostle John, however, did not see it this way. The disciples at some point, reflected on this episode and remembered Psalm 69:9For zeal for your house has consumed me” a lament attributed to king David. It seems likely that the disciples may have been unsure or even uneasy about what Jesus had done. No other event like the cleansing of the temple is recorded in the Gospels, and even Jesus’ use of a whip was to remove the merchants, not line them up for scourging.

Jesus became angry at unjust practices done in his Father’s house, namely, profiteering of a sacrificial system that was intended to draw Israel close to their God. In fact, it was exploiting the poorest Jews. Jesus’ use of a whip and desecration of items being sold functioned as literal and figurative judgment on Israel’s religious leaders. We confess that he did not transgress God’s law. We know from abundant passages in the Bible that anger can be righteous. We also know from experience that our anger is usually sinful.

We should note that Jesus’ ministry was not a perpetual “temple cleansing.” There were people who believed that violence on an intensifying scale was the only way to “get things done.” Judas Iscariot likely believed this,  Barabbas certainly did. But anger and rage alone inexorably lead to a zero-sum game where victory demands that your opponents be vanquished. It is a very tempting game because our flesh is allowed to run its sinful course—“hated by others and hating one another”—as Paul wrote in Titus 3:3, for there will always be someone or something to hate.

There has been much anger and frustration in our nation for the last  weeks, and rightly so. You’ve likely experienced personal anguish and may be wondering what to do. If Jesus shows us that righteous anger is possible, you should probably be asking where this anger originates and how it should be directed.

Now, it is worth noting that if your anger over injustice has little or no personal cost, then it is incomplete, misguided or both. An honest and realistic course of action is to recognize how far your sphere of influence extends and invest there. This may be your immediate family, your church, associates at work, even a book club. In any case, most people are convinced by arguments put forth by those they trust. In short, don’t devote inordinate time to bantering on social media—especially with those you don’t know well or haven’t seen since 2003.

If you fall on the other side of the spectrum you should probably be concerned that you lack the righteous zeal of Jesus. Rather than debate and argue over personal responsibility for racial injustice, recognize the corporate nature of sin, and lament that people made in God’s image are mistreated. You may be led to protest.

When you post an article, or reflection, or even a meme, do it prayerfully and judiciously. Ask the deeper question of what you hope to achieve. Sometimes we simply want to vent, or bait folks into “comment wars.” If you have doubts about content, ask the counsel of a close friend.

When and if you choose to make your thoughts public, resist the pressure to do so out of fear. Some of us do not want to be chastised or marginalized, or accused of being “part of the problem.” The danger of caving to such aggressive posturing is its tendency to lead to confessing with our mouths what we do not believe in our hearts.

For those on the sideline, silence may originate not from wisdom or humility, but simply from knowing that speaking out will lead to arguments, accusations, even the loss of friends. Tragically, silence may indicate indifference. Unlike Jesus, we lack righteous passion for justice.

Ecclesiastes 3:7 reminds us that “There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.” The challenge is discerning what to say and when to say it. Your conscience may lead to your speaking out, or it may mean you remain prayerfully silent. In the meantime, take racial injustice seriously, and seek to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Lament, pray, and build relationships. Play the long game, and remember principally that “no creature is hidden from [Christ’s] sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account(Hebrews 4:13).