Friday, January 15, 2021

What Would Jesus Coup?

Last week's insurrection at the US Capitol has brought American ambivalence about political violence to the forefront in all its quivering glory.  This meme is several years old, but that makes it all the more interesting, because it was spread around by liberals and leftists -- many of the same people who are furiously indignant now that the "sacred" space of the Capitol, the People's House, was defiled by dirty rioters.

There has been a lot of disagreement about the meaning of Jesus' cleansing the Temple Court, and I'm not going to resolve the question, because it can't be resolved.  There's something to be learned, however, from the issues it raises.

As with most episodes in Jesus' story, if you've read or heard only one explanation of the cleansing of the Temple Court, you need to know that there are many others, and no one knows which one is correct.  To start with the easiest one, if Jesus didn't exist, he didn't act up in the Temple court either; but that wouldn't explain why his inventors made up this story, so we should examine its implications as story.

The next possibility is to take the story at face value: that the uproar took place as the gospels describe it.  (The gospels disagree hopelessly as to when in Jesus' career it happened, but I'll come back to that later.)  The gospels agree that Jesus was in Jerusalem for Passover, a time of year when the city was packed with pilgrims.  The Roman occupiers were nervous about the possibilities of mob violence, even an uprising, so they stationed plenty of soldiers overlooking the Temple court to watch for signs of trouble.  If, as the gospels say, Jesus blocked access to the area, it would have been hard to miss, and it was exactly the kind of thing the guards were watching for. The gospels don't mention this, only that the Jewish authorities were afraid to arrest Jesus then because of the crowds; but the Romans would have been interested in this troublemaker too.  Would all the crowds in the court have been on Jesus' side when he wouldn't let them get through to worship?  I doubt that too.  How would he have stopped them, by the force of his personality?  The evangelists don't seem to be aware of the difficulty.  Modern scholars are aware of it, and have tried to explain it.

One popular explanation is that the action was an "acted parable," intended to illustrate something or other.  Maybe, but no one told the Roman soldiers that.  I always imagine one of them saying, "Hey, Fred, look at what that guy is doing down there!  Should we move in on him?"  His buddy looks, then replies, "Not to worry, Al, it's obviously an acted parable, with no political significance whatsoever."  Even if it were an acted parable, the Temple was sacred both as a place of worship and as a national symbol; Jesus' action had an inescapable political dimension.  The rhetoric surrounding the Capitol today shows the same thing: it's both sacred to American civil religion, and a secular symbol of American Democracy, which is also sacred.  Anyway, the distinction between religion and politics is anachronistic: it didn't exist in Jesus' day or for hundreds of years afterward.  What you have here is apologetic invention, in which a scholar or preacher gets rid of a troublesome part of the Bible by making something up.

So is another claim, which comes from conservative scholars, surprisingly enough.  It takes the "acted parable" move further, by asserting that the cleansing of the Temple never happened.  It was a parable invented by the evangelists, perhaps to literalize something Jesus said that everybody misunderstood.  This has the advantage that it's impossible to disprove, but it's an odd tactic for scholars who assume the historical reliability of the gospels (except for troublesome parts like this one).

Remember that according to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), one of the main charges at Jesus' trial was that he had threatened to destroy the Temple.  Maybe "threatened" isn't the right word, because he also promised to raise it miraculously up again, a Temple not made by human hands.  Mark claims that "false witnesses" made the accusation, but even though they'd been suborned by the Jerusalem authorities, their testimony didn't agree.  John says that when Jesus cleansed the Temple, he was challenged as to his right to do it.  "Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up again," Jesus replied (John 2:19).  "But he spoke of the Temple of his body," the evangelist explains.  None of this makes much sense: what did disrupting the Temple court have to do with his resurrection?  

John's version is all the more confusing because his Jesus cleanses the Temple and then waltzes off scot-free, two or three years before his arrest and execution; the other gospels put the event a week before his death, implying that it led to his arrest.  The other three gospels also have various Jewish teachers asking Jesus by what authority he disrupted the Temple, and Jesus asks them a trick question: what was John the Baptist's authority.  They decline to answer for fear of the mob; but why would Jesus refuse to answer them?  It isn't as if he was afraid of them: he was in Jerusalem to be arrested and executed for the sins of the world.

Now, the gospels are not reliable historical sources: they almost certainly weren't written by Jesus' original followers, and there's no way to know if any of these events happened.  My aim here is to investigate why they're so confused. I think their inventions were constrained by the need, first, to establish Jesus as a holy and innocent man who was executed by wicked, illicit authorities; and second, to show him demonstrating his power and authority by stomping on their institutions and teaching.  But Jesus agreed with them that those institutions and teachings were instituted by Yahweh. Much of the authority claimed by the early Christians depended on the validity of the Torah and the Prophets, which they appropriated for themselves at the same time they attacked it.  (The apostle Paul, for example, called the Ten Commandments "the ministry of death" [2 Corinthians 3:7] but also insisted that the Torah was holy and good.)  Similarly, there was no doubt that the Romans had executed Jesus as a criminal, an insurgent against Rome: hence the label "King of the Jews" on his cross.  So Jesus had to be simultaneously innocent and a criminal, which helps to explain the evasive way he responded to Pilate's interrogation.  The evangelists probably had no reliable information about the scene, so they had to wing it.  Jesus, like any hero, could have proven his innocence to Pilate with one hand tied behind his back, but then he wouldn't have been crucified, and he had to be crucified for historical and theological reasons.

Christians maintained this conflict ever after, as they clashed with authority both secular and religious,  though remember again that the distinction didn't exist for over a thousand years into the Christian era: the Emperor of Rome was not just a political leader but a priest serving the Roman Gods, and a god in his own person.  After Rome was Christianized (or Christianity romanized), the emperors continued to have religious roles.  Christians obeyed or disobeyed imperial authority as it suited them, merrily terrorizing "pagans" and their temples, Jews and their synagogues, and each other.  (See Michael Gaddis's There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire [California, 2005].)  While these Christian terrorists were a minority among Christians, the Church regarded them highly and made saints of quite a few of them.  Eventually the Church schismed into Western and Eastern factions, and of course into Catholic and Protestant.  

Which brings me to the January 6 attack on the Capitol.  The insurrectionists rejected some authority (Congress, the electoral process, the courts) while adhering to others (Trump, Trump, and Trump).  They extolled the police until the latter blocked them, so Blue Lives Matter was tossed aside.  Mike Pence had been a good Christian man until he failed to do Trump's bidding, and then they were ready to hang him.  Like Jesus, they flipped from open defiance of the law to insisting they had done nothing wrong or illegal, even as they smashed windows, broke down doors, and clubbed police officers with flagpoles still attached to Old Glory.  The only thing that mattered was that they were servants of the Truth, and therefore innocent no matter what they did.  If only Jesus had had access to smartphone video recordings and social media, so we could know what he thought he was doing!

Remember that the Temple court, and Jerusalem generally, was packed with pilgrim tourists for Passover.  For Jesus to stage a disruption in a crowded space, with nervous soldiers looking on, meant he was ready to put other people's lives in danger from a panicked melee and a violent response to it.  That the evangelists don't mention such an outcome is one reason why some scholars deny that the Cleansing of the Temple happened at all, though it's also possible that it did, and that was what led to Jesus' arrest, and to the arrest of the two men who were crucified with him.  But the people who celebrate Jesus' action in memes like the one above believe that Jesus did do it, and they like it as long as they can fantasize that he would be on their side.

Some of the insurrectionists pointed out that the United States was founded in insurrection, and they had a valid point there.  Much of their moral incoherence echoed that of the Left, and some of them were aware of it.  Aren't riots the language of the unheard?  Is it all right to denounce and even attack the police?  The rioters erected a gallows outside the Capitol.  Leftists had mostly confined themselves to posting memes of guillotines, but they pretended they were in earnest.  And who can forget the journalist Reza Aslan's bold declaration after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg?

That aged well, didn't it?  Aslan was ruthlessly mocked for the tweet as Amy Coney Barrett was quickly confirmed without anything being burned down, and he never responded to the criticism as far as I know, but that tweet is still there.  Sometimes I think of it as an acted parable, though its true interpretation escapes me.

I've been moving toward something like pacifism for some time now, as my dissatisfaction with Left rhetoric about killing fascists has grown. (I also have reservations about the effectiveness of nonviolent action, however.)  If I do ultimately adopt the label, it won't be for religious reasons (obviously, I hope), or for any kind of "higher" principles (there aren't any), but because the burden of argument lies on the person who advocates the use of violence.  Will it achieve its ends, and how do they know that?  Who will direct it?  How do I know that the advocate of violence isn't a police or FBI agent provocateur?  The bar of proof should be high, which advocates of violence hate, and I think that discredits them.  Whether they're on the left or the right, they're the spiritual descendants of Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, who incited the burning down of synagogues, preferably with congregants inside, so that there would be no place where Christ was denied. 

How, then, should people of good will resist the forces of Trump?  I admit I don't have a good answer, but the first thing to bear in mind is that But we've got to do something! is not an argument and should simply be dismissed out of hand.  It has corollaries, like Oh, I suppose you think we should just let literal Nazis run wild, then; this also should be dismissed with contempt.  (What pushes me close to despair is that so many people who are nominally on my side are just as irrational, and almost as malignant, as their right-wing counterparts.)  Nor do I believe that the Trumpian hordes can be persuaded by sweet reason, nor can they be "deprogrammed" (a popular proposal on liberal Twitter), nor will Love turn aside their wrath.  I'm not aware of any good ideas about this, certainly no simple ones.

I think we should be aware of what we're up against.  There seems to me good reason to believe that a hard core of people on the Right -- about 25 percent of the adult population -- are intransigent, who will not be persuaded by evidence. I'm hostile to Mitt Romney, but he was absolutely right to say that this hard core will not accept that Trump lost the election fairly, no matter how many audits or recounts are done.  It doesn't look like they are a majority of citizens or voters, so they have no democratic claim on getting their way, but that doesn't faze them.  (What we're seeing isn't new.  I remember that many such people refused to believe that Barack Obama really won in 2008 or 2012, and they demanded that Obama govern as they wanted him to, because Democrats were not allowed to win elections. I also remember some young College Republicans throwing similar tantrums about Bill Clinton in 1996: when I asked one if he really thought the victory should go to the candidate who got the least votes, he said of course not, he was just venting.  I don't think he was telling the truth about that.  But what he surely did mean was that his candidate should win no matter what.)

There's much more to say on this subject, and I'll return to it.  I am sure, though, that posting more guillotine memes will not be effective at all.