Given the fact that it is Martin Luther King, Jr. day and injustice toward vulnerable people persists, I thought I might offer a few thoughts about what it means to remain silent in the face of that injustice—and about what it means not to, what it means to be creatively maladjusted. Disclaimer: My analogy with the Civil Rights movement is only meant to be suggestive, not to establish easy equivalences
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those whowere selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:1319).
Following the first miracle at the wedding in Cana, Jesus and his new disciples take a few days off, then head into Jerusalem.
Where do they go? Straight to the temple.
What happens? Jesus makes a whip of cords and starts turning over the tables of the money changers. He’s ranting and raving about how they’re turning God’s house into a marketplace. The folks in charge don’t much care for his attitude and say, “Who are you? What sign can you show us for doing this?” Then, Jesus commits the ultimate Jewish faux pas by saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
What Jesus has done, in effect, after making such a grand splash at the wedding at Cana, is to guarantee that the very people who might have helped promote his ministry are the ones whom he has alienated by his little foray into temple finances. He’s made some pretty influential enemies in his first trip to Jerusalem.
So what? What’s the significance?
Well, think about it. When Jesus cleanses the temple in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it occurs at the very end of Jesus’ ministry—after entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and just before being snatched up and crucified on Good Friday—which, if you think about it, makes more sense. You can see why Jesus would be upset with the religious establishment in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They’ve hounded him for three years, and are plotting to kill him. A little righteous indignation seems appropriate.
But in John, the cleansing of the temple comes right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He’s had nothing but smooth sailing up to this point. Why upset the temple bigwigs right off the bat? It makes much less sense, from a narrative standpoint, to have Jesus challenge the money changers in the temple just as his ministry is taking off. Why does John set up the story this way?
John puts the story of the cleansing of the temple right next to the wedding at Cana on purpose. He’s making some rhetorical hay about the shape and trajectory of Jesus ministry.
What do I mean?
Well, how must the disciples be feeling after seeing Jesus pull a Bobby Knight in the temple? They have to be terribly confused. They thought they were getting a pretty engaging guru, fun to have around at parties, somebody to keep the open bar open—but what they got instead was a loose cannon, an unpredictable guy who knows his way around the business end of a whip. Jesus' impatience with the way things are calls to mind what Martin Luther King wrote in Strength to Love:
“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”
Well, Jesus is nothing if not creatively maladjusted.
Jesus explodes our tame, self-aggrandizing expectations about how joining up with him will be the end of our problems. John wants to show us that just because you follow Jesus doesn’t mean everything magically becomes sweetness and light. In fact, joining up with Jesus may cause you a whole new set of problems you might otherwise have avoided if you’d just stayed home and watched Jeopardy. Sometimes we have to follow Jesus into the temple, where only hostility awaits us.
And that bothers us, doesn’t it? If not, we haven’t been paying attention to what happens to people willing to walk into the teeth of the storm.
In April of 1963, a group of well-meaning (I think) white clergy in Alabama got together and issued a statement calling for the end of demonstrations they considered “unwise and untimely,” by “some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders,” even though this group of white clergy recognized “the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today, responded to these clergy in his, now famous, Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Not surprisingly, Dr. King’s anger at the unjust social systems made bolder through their embodiment in law is present throughout his letter, raising again the Augustinian question about whether unjust laws—laws that degrade “human personality” and “distort the soul”—ought rightfully to be considered laws at all.
Dr. King reserves his biggest disappointment, however, for the church. He rightly criticizes white moderates, whom he considered to be “more devoted to ‘order’ than to ‘justice’; who prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” He speaks candidly in his letter about weeping because of the laxity the church, about how “blemished and scarred” is the body of Christ “through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformist.”
At one point, Dr. King recalls with a certain wistfulness “a time when the church was very powerful.” It’s interesting to note, though, just how he sees the church’s relationship to that power. The church was at its most transformative, he argues,
when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were a ‘colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than humans. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ By their efforts and their example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide, and gladiatorial contests.
It occurs to me that we who have committed ourselves and our communities of faith to seeking justice are the inheritors of that legacy—a legacy that hears the cries of inequity and injustice, and remains incapable of turning a deaf ear.
We are the spiritual offspring of the creatively maladjusted. We cannot stand by and do nothing. We join together across the diversity of theological and denominational lines to take our place in the procession—a procession that, just in this country alone, stretches back through the Civil Rights movement, through women’s suffrage, and through the abolition of slavery.
We are people who cannot abide and will not stomach the excuses offered up by unjust systems that somehow “now is not the time,” or that raising a ruckus only contributes to the problem. We draw together because we’ve been called to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God—not because there is anything necessarily heroic in us, but because we’ve been passed a torch by heroes and saints who’ve gone before us, and who have called us to bear witness that God is not satisfied with either an unjust society or a lazy church “more devoted to ‘order’ than to ‘peace.’”
There's a constituency within the church today urging caution, who think it "unwise and untimely" to press the issue of justice for young African American men who suffer disproportionately at the hands of the legal system, for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people within the church, for a beloved community that includes our Muslim sisters and brothers—even though this constituency recognizes “the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized.” They believe that taking any kind of a stand will be heavy-handed and disruptive, while failing to realize that, if Jesus is our model, heavy-handed disruption of the existing unjust order is sometimes not the thing we wait for the right time to pursue, but the very thing with which we lead, the thing that sets the shape and trajectory of our ministry.
If we are indeed the offspring of the creatively maladjusted, we will never have a better time than the celebration of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to start living like it.