Rioting in our Temples

Preface to a Memoir

This is an essay intended to be about the social circumstances surrounding the murder of George Floyd, but it exists amidst my long-standing intention to write a memoir entitled “The Third Servant” which is a reference to the Biblical story known as “The Parable of the Talents” (Matthew 25:14-30). Exegesis about that story will follow in the memoir. After two months of babysitting, the baby is in daycare again. I thought I would write a bit each day, but now I’ve decided to set aside Fridays for the task, and hope to begin soon. It is an entirely selfish and self-centered task that seeks to solve no one’s problems but mine. It is a therapeutic task. It is a diagnostic task, seeking the source of both infections and strengths. Its goal is to establish a stable reference point from which a map can be oriented to guide my path as father and elder. I now remain with less than half my time on this life’s journey, and cannot even calculate how far I am from the intended destination that I have now accepted that I will never reach.

For now, suffice to say, I write as the person (the speaking subject) who is to be documented in that memoir, and I write about circumstances that I cannot fully grasp as the person who is author of that unwritten memoir. That person cannot grasp the experience of ongoing witness to the pattern of repeated and regular murder of African Americans in particular at the hands of police. These killer cops are, without out doubt, “bad apples” who do this, but when the bad apples come so regularly and consistently, then there is a bad branch, and it causes us to ask whether we need to cut down the whole tree.

[Jesus said] “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” (Luke 13: 6-9)

The gardener asks for one more year. How many more years do we give to this tree that produces so many bad apples?

A society is not a machine of so many component parts. A bad apple is not a bad transistor or spark plug that can be easily replaced. A bad apple is the product of the tree itself, not some factory in Mexico or Malaysia or Michigan. The tree is a living thing whose produce results from its own life processes: its consumption of water and nutrients, its absorption of sunlight, its cultivation by external forces (namely people) whose habits it cannot control. And the tree itself is simply an evolutionary product of competing organisms that have come into certain forms and organizational patterns as a result of their own life processes, and their habits are not always helpful to the tree. Pruning by that gardener, that external agent, that is to say the cutting away of bad branches, redundant branches, and bad fruit often helps the tree grow stronger and survive longer. Yet, it bears fruit for the sake of its own reproduction, and extension of its genetic legacy, and that fruit is appropriated by that external agent, that gardener who eats the fruit and shits out the seeds into a lightless latrine where they rot and die. The tree becomes utterly dependent on the gardener, it has no life without that gardener who wields an axe of life or death.

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” (Mark 11:12-21)

How do we wield an axe? How do we wield a curse?

The parable of the gardener who wants to give the tree a second chance, and thereby begs for himself a second chance, has an element of mercy and patience that we usually associate with Jesus. But that is just a parable, a story told by Jesus. The curse of the fig tree is not a parable, but a story about Jesus, a story told in what is normally considered the most reliable of gospels. It is the act of a fickle tyrant, something we would associate with the mad king of a fairy tale.

With nothing more than a withering gaze, Jesus cut down the tree. Had the year passed so quickly?

He told the parable of the merciful gardener sometime after the Transfiguration, as he began his slow journey to Jerusalem, preaching in villages across Israel. He killed the fig tree in a village just outside Jerusalem, and the next day he went to the temple and threw his most famous temper tantrum.

Rembrandt: Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple (via Alamy Stock Photo)

Jesus instigates a one-man riot in the courtyard of the most sacred place in Israel. The temple is that tree, and its demise was not to be so faithful. An occupying force of Roman soldiers destroyed the temple a generation later. The historian Flavius Josephus described the atrocity:

As the legions charged in, neither persuasion nor threat could check their impetuosity: passion alone was in command. Crowded together around the entrances many were trampled by their friends, many fell among the still hot and smoking ruins of the colonnades and died as miserably as the defeated. As they neared the Sanctuary they pretended not even to hear Caesar’s commands and urged the men in front to throw in more firebrands. The partisans were no longer in a position to help; everywhere was slaughter and flight. Most of the victims were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, butchered wherever they were caught. Round the Altar the heaps of corpses grew higher and higher, while down the Sanctuary steps poured a river of blood and the bodies of those killed at the top slithered to the bottom. (Josephus, The Jewish War , Book 6)

Are we to understand in the parallel between Jesus’ curse of the fig tree and curse of the temple, that Jesus brought this destruction upon his own people?

Jesus is most human at emotional, impetuous moments like these, as when Mary wiped fragrant oil from his feet with her hair, and the day that Lazarus died. That humanity is essential to the entire Christian theology. Jesus’ dual nature as human and divine brings a miracle into everything he does. The emotional messiness, passion, and violence of human life are made sacred in Jesus’ life on earth. We are forgiven for sins committed in this mess, but not all that we do is sinful, and much of the time we don’t even know. God’s story unfolds over the course of millennia. God’s story, as told in the history of that mammalian species that bears a divine spiritual likeness, is the story of a species, not individuals. The rotten tree must wither and burn, lest its bad seeds infect the whole species.

Yet, we are not Jesus, we are not God. We sinful people, given that power of destruction, given the power to kill with a glance, let alone a knee to the neck or a baton the throat, we sinful people will commit genocide if told to kill the bad seeds. Jesus acts the tyrant only with a dying fig tree, just a fig tree, that was no longer producing fruit. When he entered the temple he did not kill, he only overthrew the tables of money changers, a clear and deliberately symbolic act, linked in his own words to older prophetic voices. It was not him, but the collaborationist king Herod who sent out word to kill all the babies in Bethlehem for fear that the seed of his destruction had been born among them. That is what we sinful people do. But to riot like Jesus for a righteous cause is to take a step towards the divine.

Should we be surprised that our rioters attack and loot the temples of our consumer culture? Jesus did not then stop to gather up all the coins in the skirts of his robes, so we shall not call him a looter. Looting is ugly. Destruction is ugly as well, but few will mourn the loss of commercial real estate. It will be rebuilt as ugly as it was before. Jesus sanctified the temple in his action, and left it to stand as a public place and holy monument. But it did not stand for long.

As humans prone to mistakes and sinful selfishness, we should be reminded here that Jesus’ riot will turn him into a martyr to be tortured and humiliated and never know the impact of his preaching in his lifetime. His followers were humiliated with him and run into hiding. The Zealots, among whom Judas Iscariot (Sikarii the men of the knives) counted himself, ached to launch a revolution against the Romans. And with great righteousness in their cause, they did. And they brought down imperial wrath upon Jerusalem. We cannot blame the Zealots for the destruction of Israel. The Roman oppressors did that. But destruction gives birth to destruction. This is war.

We tear down the system without heed to what will follow. What then is a righteous act? In Jesus, in his initiatory riot, we can trust that attacking a greedy system, at least in his hands, is a holy act. But it meant a millennium of humiliation, of a scattering and loss of a homeland, of sacrificial spectacles…and for what? For the establishment of a church and a Christian society full of war and atrocity?

Did not Christians enslave and commit genocide? Did not Christians annihilate two cities in Japan? Do not Christians put knees and knives to each other’s throats and kill while a grown man begs for mercy?

We cannot trust people. We cannot trust each other. Even in revolution. Do not allow yourself the fantasy that racism will not find a home in the hearts of the Antifa Zealots. What if that mass of moderate black voter impedes their revolution? Do not allow yourself the fantasy that the gun-toting poses of some new Black Panthers do not bear the same infections that also inhabit the bad apples in blue. Allow yourself to inhale the tragic requirement that we must specify that “Black Lives Matter.” Despite the tragedy of what is unspoken in that phrase, it is a hopeful prophecy. It is the other side of a coin that reads on its obverse, “I Can’t Breathe.” Given this reality, we must start with the reassurance that Black Lives Matter. In our particular culture this is to acknowledge that Divine Lives Matter, precisely because black lives came to constitute what Gwendolyn Brooks called “quasi, contraband.”

Racism infects systems to be sure, but that is not where it ultimately resides. It lurks below that level. It lurks in culture itself. Systems at best treat cultural infections. Maybe, just maybe, a good system can cure the infection. But the system is a construct of the culture. A healthy culture might have an opportunity to construct a good system. More often an infected culture constructs and infected system. And then Jesus glares at it, and it withers away and dies. It is thrown into a fire and burnt. And the cattle of conquerors trample its ashes into the dust.

After Jesus rioted in the temple and killed the fig tree, he told his amazed disciples to wield their faith carefully. He tells them that when they pray for the petty things people pray for, they should simply believe that they have received it, and trust that it will come in God’s time. If they pray for the Pharisees and Herodians to be removed from their judgmental thrones, trust that God will give the Romans passage. God never gives the answer you imagined, he gives an answer to your prayer. Jesus told them as they gazed fearfully upon that withered fig tree, the greatest power that fallible people should wield is that of forgiveness, because sometimes we need forgiveness for the very things we prayed for.

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

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