When I was a kid, I was afraid of my dad. I don’t mean that he was mean to me, really. He didn’t have to be. He was a Dad. When he got mad, I could feel myself growing smaller and smaller—like I might just disappear. I hated that feeling. The fear of anger made a lasting impression on me.
I remember one time when I was eight or nine, and my brother and I were outside playing with Jamie from across the street. We were taking turns trying to hit a football with my Dad’s old MacGregor driver.
We weren’t supposed to play with my dad’s golf clubs, but that football had been acting up all day, begging to be hit. And we were just the pack of boys to do it.
When it was my turn, I lined up my shot, and took a full back swing. Unfortunately, Jamie’s parents had obviously taught him nothing about golf etiquette, and how you’re not supposed to stand in the path of someone’s backswing. It’s just not good form. Not especially considerate, if you ask me.
I caught Jamie on the left side of his forehead, opening up a bloody wound, and eliciting unholy shrieks.
My mom heard Jamie’s howling, and bowled out the front door. She took a quick survey of the scene, seeing Jamie holding his bloody head, and me holding my dad’s driver. And she shook her head, turned around, and went back inside.
Pretty soon, she walked out with a towel, wrapped it around Jamie’s head, which was a mess by this time. Then she led him across the street to his mom.
Jamie had to the go the emergency room and get stitches—which though I was sympathetic, seemed only just, given the fact that he’d ruined perfectly good swing with his head.
When she came back, my mom said, “You’re going to have to tell your dad.”
“I have to tell him? I don’t want to tell him. Why don’t you tell him?”
And with her customary clarity, my mom said, “I didn’t split Jamie’s head open with his golf club. You did. You tell him.”
I dragged myself to the door of my dad’s study, and I stood there. I couldn’t go in. Fear’s icy fingers wrapped themselves around my gut and squeezed. I couldn’t do it. I knew he’d be furious.
So, I went back out to my mom. She said, “What did he say?”
“Nothing. I couldn’t go in there. I was too scared.”
“Oh stop. Just go in there, and tell him what you did.”
“Yeah, but see, I don’t want to.”
“I don’t care if you want to or not. You were messing around and hurt the neighbor boy. You have to tell him. Now, go on.”
Once again, I creeped up to the door. I could hear him typing.
I went back into the kitchen, and my mom said, “That was too fast. What are you doing back out here?”
“Dad’s typing. He’s writing his sermon. And you know how I’m not supposed to disturb him while he’s writing his sermon.” (I was a considerate child, always thinking of others—unlike Jamie, whose inability to keep his skull out of the path of my backswing was quickly complicating my life.)
“Well, if he says anything about it, tell him I told you to disturb him. And since when did you ever worry about disturbing anyone? You make more noise than a drunk monkey with drum and a slide trombone. Now, go!”
“How do you know what a drunk monkey with a drum and a slide trombone sounds like.” I was genuinely curious.
She just gave me a flat stare, the kind they say Ted Bundy had, or Hannibal Lector.”
“Fine.” So, I went. But when it came time to announce my presence, I noticed that my dad was deep in thought. And again, I couldn’t quite work up the nerve. I slunk back out to the kitchen where my mom was putting the finishing touches on some tater tots. She heard me. And without looking around, she put her hands on her hips and said, “Don’t make me have to tell you again.”
“But, Mom, I’m scared.”
“Because Dad’s going to be mad at me.”
“Look, your father gets mad at me all the time. It’s not that big a deal. You’ll survive.”
“Fine.” I turned around and tip-toed down the hall. This time my dad saw me. “What do you keep walking around outside my door?”
So, I told him. “Daren and Jamie and I were playing hit the football with the golf club, and I accidentally hit Jamie with the golf club, and he had to go to the hospital to get stitches.”
“You hit the neighbor kid with a golf club?”
“Mmm-hmm.” My stomach felt like somebody with golf spikes was running around inside it—somebody enormous and clumsy.
“I told you never to play with my golf clubs. Did you break it?”
“No,” I said, still holding out hope that he’d let Jamie’s cracked skull be a lesson to me. But alas . . .
“I hit Jamie by accident.”
“Yeah, but you played with my golf clubs on purpose.” When he said it, my father had murder in his eyes. Well, maybe not murder, but it felt like it to me.
I don’t know about you, but I grew up being afraid of anger. Not just anger directed at me—but anger in general. I got anxious when I heard my parents fighting, or when one of my siblings got in trouble.
Whether anybody ever intended to teach me, I learned from very early on that anger was a sin—something to be avoided.
Now that I’m older, I know it’s possible to be afraid not only of the anger of others, but of my own anger. Anger can be a fearsome thing to witness in others, but, perhaps even more, to feel it burn with inside yourself.
That’s why the whole cleansing of the Temple thing was a difficult story for me to understand growing up. If anger is a bad thing, then how do we explain Jesus kicking over the tables of the money changers, Indiana Jones style—with a whip and everything? He was obviously furious.
But that can’t be right, can it? Jesus was all serene, and loving, and looking-earnestly-into-people’s-souls, wasn’t he? How can Jesus be angry?
We should probably explore that a bit.
As a Galilean, Jesus grew up in an environment of increasing political tension between Caesar’s man in Galilee, Herod Antipas, and the peasants. Among the causes for this were Antipas’s desire to rule over a more cosmopolitan territory, which prompted him to undertake the construction of two urban centers, the cities of Tiberias and Sepphoris. To fund these expansion projects, Antipas levied extraordinarily harsh taxes on peasant farmers and fishermen. Taxation to make Herod look like a bigshot, as you might imagine, met with great resentment among the peasantry.
Moreover, Herod’s officers, wanting to pad their own pockets, offered loans to family farmers who were struggling to make ends meet, while at the same time trying to satisfy the demands of the king. As economic pressure grew, more and more of the loans were foreclosed on. “Peasants knew very well,” according to Richard Horsley, “that many of their number were being transformed from freeholders farming their own ancestral lands into tenants of the wealthy rulers and their officers who had taken effective control (ownership?) of those lands” (Jesus and Empire, Kindle ed.).
This model of economic oppression through indebtedness wasn’t just a Galilean phenomenon; it had taken hold among its cousins in Judea as well. However, in Judea the problem was compounded by the complicity of the Temple high priests, who also took their share of the spoils in the form of Temple taxes.
Because the Temple system was headed up by Roman collaborators who owed their power and status to Caesar, when Jesus storms in as a fire-breathing prophet, he’s engaging in a demonstration meant to condemn a system that claims God’s sovereignty in theory, but in practice behaves as though Caesar is boss. Indeed, the system participates in the exploitation of the very people it’s supposed protect and serve.
In going to the Temple to stage his protest, Jesus calls into question both Roman imperial rule and the religious system of the Jewish high muckity-muck collaborators that enables it. All of this is made more grievous inasmuch as both political and religious forces flourish on the backs of the most vulnerable, all but stripping them of their dignity—and because of the Temple, doing so with the apparent endorsement of God.
Consequently, by the time Jesus shows up with a “whip of cords,” there’s a great deal of bitterness directed at the King and his collaborators, the Temple high priesthood. And Jesus is ready to channel that rage.
So, knowing that the people who are the most vulnerable are the ones getting fleeced by the folks in power, maybe the question shouldn’t be “How can Jesus be angry?” but “How could he not?”
I used to think that Jesus’ love means not only a light at the end of a sometimes dark tunnel, but that Jesus’ love is the light that makes everything shine in the tunnel—which is to say, I used to think Jesus’ love was a gift that always makes you feel better. Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize, that what I believed in was a love that affirmed my own middle class white existence. It meant that my faith didn’t require much of me—at least as far as everybody else was concerned. It was a love that allowed me to focus on myself and the happiness of those closest to me, without ever prompting me to think too heavily about the non-middle class white existence of others.
Jesus’ love, I thought for many years was my ticket to the party. The fact that I didn’t deserve that ticket was the practical limit of my understanding of divine love. Other people were just going to have to claim their own ticket. I’d help as much as I could. But when it came down to it, you have your salvation, and I have mine.
But then I started reading the bible more thoroughly, and I saw a theme emerging: Jesus actually cares about the people who weren’t born with all the advantages I enjoy. And no, I don’t mean Jesus cares for everybody, so of course Jesus cares for the disadvantaged. I mean, as I began to read scripture, it became increasingly clear that Jesus holds a special place in his heart for those who are abused by everyone else. The poor, the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, the weak, the outcast, the prisoner, the sick and despairing. Jesus cares about them all in really intense ways; so much so, for example, that his fury with injustice is the primary reason Jesus goes into the temple and starts kicking over tables.
That anger, anger at injustice, is not only not a sin, sometimes it’s the most faithful response. There are people who need to hear about Jesus’ fury with a world in which terrified refugees are turned away, an anger that burns hot against those who would mistreat women and minorities, a wrath unafraid of the rulers of this world who abuse the poor, who lead cheers of hatred against Muslims and the undocumented.
There are all kinds of people who need to hear about Jesus raising an arm against injustice, against bigotry, against a world in which African America parents lie awake at night in fear of what might happen to their children on the way home from school.
If you happen to be one of the people kicked to the curb by the folks in charge, Jesus’ anger down at the Temple may just be what love sounds like.
In the movie Wonder Woman, Steve Trevor, a downed American pilot and spy, tells Wonder Woman that he needs to leave the island of the Amazons and head back to World War I. When she asks him why he wants to return to something so dangerous, Trevor says, “My father told me once, he said, ‘If you see something wrong happening in the world, you can either do nothing, or you can do something. And I already tried nothing.’”
Growing up fearing anger as sinful, I think I could say the same thing: “If you see something wrong happening in the world, you can either do nothing, or you can do something. And I already tried nothing.”
And the Jesus who marched into the Temple full of righteous fury, I think he would like that. That’s a messiah I can get behind.
After all, who wants a messiah unwilling to kick over some tables every now and again?