Sunday, March 3, 2024

Righteous Indignation: From Temple Cleansing to Social Change

"Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” His disciples recalled the words of scripture, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” At this the Jews answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they came to believe the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken. While he was in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, many began to believe in his name when they saw the signs he was doing. But Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all, and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well." (John 2:13-25 NABRE)

There's an episode of The Simpsons where disaster befalls the First Church of Springfield. The building is destroyed, and the insurance won't cover it. In desperation, the church accepts a devil's bargain from Mr. Burns. He underwrites the rebuilding, but has advertising rights. The church becomes, for the episode at least, a temple of consumerism and capitalism. Lisa Simpson, for her part, becomes disillusioned and converts to Buddhism. Her righteous indignation led her to change her perspective. 

If you want to find righteous indignation, you need go no further than social media. There people, including myself at times, speak up, rant, and otherwise get their voices out into the cacophony of other opinions. Sometimes we even get some "likes" as a result. But does this go anywhere. Is anyone's perspective changed?

When Jesus cast the money changers and merchants out of the temple, he was condemning the temple of God being made into a marketplace. There was no reverence, and if the stories are true the exchange rate and price of animals was not favorable to arriving worshipers. I wonder what his disciples thought of him doing this, assuming it happened approximately as described. Perhaps they imagined that they were finally seeing the conquering messiah for whom they had been waiting, the beginning of Jesus' work as an over turner of not only tables but even nations. 

Righteous indignation, which can also be described as "zeal," can be powerful. It is also dangerous. Plenty of people feel righteous indignation over what they see happening in the world today, but their righteousness is actually unrighteous. As I write this, yet another LGBTQ+ youth has died as the result, directly or indirectly, of bullying. We hear conservative politicians, thought leaders, and angry old uncle Joe sounding an alarm about the "gay agenda," which only serves to stir up hatred and increase the othering of innocent people just trying to live their lives. Such conservative activists think that what they feel is righteous, when it is unholy and anti-human. 

Zeal can change minds, for good or ill. It can change us, making us more passionate or more angry. It isn't enough to feel righteous indignation, it must be grounded in solid ethical thought, and tempered in community. Instead of hate, it can lead to changes lives and more open hearts. 

A few years ago I saw a video online about a man who came out to support LGBTQ+ folks. His daughter had come out to him as a lesbian, and he rejected her for it. She ended her life, and now he lives every day of his life filled with regret and sorrow for what he did and what he and the world lost. It shouldn't have to come to that. No one should have to die to wake us up. In fact, it seems as though even death won't be enough to turn some back from the path they have chosen. And still we must try, with empathy providing fuel for the fire of commitment, we may have to turn over some tables and turn out to speak, keep vigil, protest, march, and vote.