There’s a joke here and an underlying message. Occasionally you and I—when really pressed by foolish people—can justify throwing fits, losing our tempers and potentially thumping those in the wrong because Jesus was a fit-throwing, temper losing, whip wielding combatant dedicated to truth, justice and the severe beatings of foolish people.
Among others who could be cited, Jeffrey K. Mann, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Susquehanna University, referenced Jesus’ use of the whip to expose what he called the “Myth of a Non-Violent Jesus”.
“According to all four gospels [sic, Gospels, SMcK],” said Mann, “Jesus entered the temple courtyard and found the events of his day to be sub-par. He made a whip out of cords and drove out all the people and their animals, turning over their tables in the process. That, quite frankly, does not sound like the behavior of someone committed to nonviolence. It seems unlikely that he was cracking a whip over the heads of the people to frighten them out; he did not fashion a lion-tamer’s whip. A simple reading of the text clearly has Jesus acting violently toward people who disrespected God’s temple. This wasn’t even self-defense!”
Such arguments suggests that at the climax of his ministry, in the central worship space of his day, Jesus flagellated strangers to achieve the will of God—and if we follow Jesus we ought to be prepared to follow suit. Perhaps this is why “Christians” in our country are more likely to support the use of violent force to solve problems than “non-Christians.”
Of course, “a simple reading” of John 2 displays something overlooked in our b-line toward a violent Jesus. John wrote, “Jesus made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle” (2:15).
Notice, whips are not designed to move human beings. If Jesus wanted to move a crowd there are wiser ways, for a whipped human will fall to the ground to protect herself (see the picture above). Given his parables, Jesus knew a great deal about agriculture, so we shouldn’t be surprised that he could move lots of large farm animals at once with the most common tool for the job.
The “sheep and cattle” detail is important to John, who never wastes words. John’s whole book showcases how Jesus supplanted the temple—the Shekinah light, the bread of the presence, the forgiveness, the tabernacling companionship of God and—here—the sacrifices. Indeed, if we assume a chiastic structure to John’s story, the removal of the animal sacrifices in chapter 2 are replaced at the end of the Gospel by Jesus himself on a cross.Here’s where things get ridiculous.
Evangelicals in particular love highlighting passages that elevate the [penal] substitutionary atonement—a reality rarely displayed in the Gospels. But upfront, John hands us a bold portrait of this truth through the first three chapters: the sacrifices commanded by Moses are driven away by Jesus who has come to give himself as the final sacrifice—for he is “the Lamb of God” (1.29) whom God gives out of deep love for the world (3.16). Beautiful! Yet the only times I have heard Christians speak about Jesus use of the whip—a symbol of God’s overturning of the Old Covenant as Jesus overturned the tables—is to justify their own outbursts, military policy or philosophy of self-defense. Which invites a question:
Why do we prefer the violent Jesus over one of our favorite theological truths? Why hold fast to a picture of savagery when a picture of grace is available?
There are real causalities involved here. Make no mistake, our view of a violent Jesus allows us to affirm all kinds of world altering policies personally and politically. For example, if the 78.4% of Americans who call themselves “Christians” uniformly decried the recent results of warfare—the number of children killed by drones, the high suicide rate of soldiers and veterans, the 200,000+ civilians murdered in the war on terror, the displacements, destroyed families, and overall suffering America’s global actions continue to promote—our nation’s trajectory would change almost immediately.
Given our numbers, one could argue American Christians collectively have been responsible (actively or passively) for large swaths of human misery over the last two decades. If Jesus is the bringer of the whip, perhaps “Christianity” would affirm widespread violence, but if Jesus is the one pictured picking up a cross—and inviting others to follow personally and collectively—then it is time for us to repent.
Jeff Cook lectures on philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado. He is the author of Seven: The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes (Zondervan 2008) and Everything New: One Philosopher’s Search for a God Worth Believing in (Subversive 2012). You can see his work at www.everythingnew.org