Jesus & Insurrection, and Why Some Christians Struggle with Right & Wrong

Martyr, or Insurrectionist?

I know Christian conservatives right now who cannot, at least for the moment, seem to find the right side of the Capitol riot that occurred on January 6th. One relative has posted a video lionizing the woman who was shot and killed, painting her as a martyr — an unarmed protestor, slain without cause. It is not hard to find information about the victim, or to discover what she did or why she was doing it. Her Twitter feed made her motives clear:

Less than a day before she joined the Trump loyalist protest, Babbitt, an avowed and public Trump supporter as well as a subscriber to a number of alt-right conspiracy theories, had vowed the insurrectionist movement could never be halted. “Nothing will stop us … they can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours … dark to light!” she wrote on Twitter.

~ The Guardian

The circumstances of her death have also been reported upon (same article):

Babbitt, 35, was reportedly shot as she and other rioters tried to break through a barricaded door in the building where Capitol police officers were armed on the other side.

A video of the incident is here.

No doubt we will find more details emerging over time, but at present, this woman does not appear to be a good candidate for sainthood. She was killed while taking part in a violent insurrection, which is the most serious of criminal acts.

So, how does this person wind up being hailed as a martyr? By an ardent believer who considers faith paramount? Shouldn’t Christians, of all people, find insurrection to be entirely unacceptable?

There are a range of reasons anchored in the present right-wing media ecosystem, and those are clearly causal factors. However, I would like to draw attention to a far more ancient, deeper reason why Christians struggle to see right and wrong clearly on the subject of insurrection. Jesus had a history of violence, and Christians have been taught that it is a tale of virtue.

Temple & Money Changers

Let us recall the tale of the temple and the money changers:

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.

Matthew 21:12-13

And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables…

John 2:13-16

Those who have spent time studying the historical Jesus will understand the overall context of the account of the temple and money changers. Devotional readers of the Bible may not, however, understand the context so well.

First, it is important to point out that historians debate how much of the gospel accounts are true. For our purposes, however, what is important is to understand what Christians think the story says, and how that has left an imprint upon Christian thought, and upon derivative American thought. Most Christians believe the gospels give an accurate account of the life and doings of Jesus, and that the events described at the temple really happened.

Next, a basic summary, for which I will cite Bart Ehrman:

The Temple was the focal point of all Jewish worship, as established in the Jewish Scripture. In Jesus’ day, Jews from around the world would come to Jerusalem to perform the animal sacrifices prescribed by the law, which had to be done in the Temple, nowhere else. Of course, people coming from long distances would not be able to bring sacrificial animals with them; these had to be purchased on site. But they could not be purchased with normal Roman currency: Roman coins were stamped with an image of the emperor, who in parts of the empire was thought to be a divine being. For Jews there was only one God, and so they were not inclined to bring the image of Caesar into the holy Temple. In addition, the law proscribed the use of any “graven images,” another reason that Roman coins could not be used. Some other kind of money had to be made available, and so there had to be a kind of currency exchange, where Roman coinage could be traded for Temple currency, which did not bear the image of Caesar. The Temple currency could then be used to purchase the necessary animals.

There were money changers who made these currency exchanges. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem he saw all the exchange of money and the selling of animals, and evidently he found it scandalous: he overturned some money changers’ tables and drove the animal sellers out of the Temple…

…It is also hard to know what, exactly, Jesus was objecting to. God’s law required sacrifice; Jews had to have sacrificial animals; and they certainly couldn’t use Roman currency for the exchange. Was Jesus simply put off by the idea that some people were profiting from the worship of God? It is at least possible, and that’s how the Gospel writers themselves interpret the event…

It is now a standard opinion among critical scholars that Jesus was performing a symbolic act—a kind of enacted parable, if you will. By overthrowing tables Jesus was symbolizing in a small way what was going to happen soon in a big way when the Son of Man arrived in judgment. God’s enemies would be destroyed. And like many of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Jesus thought that among God’s enemies were the Jewish leaders themselves, in charge of the Temple, who had become corrupt and powerful. But a day of reckoning was at hand.

~ Ehrman, Bart D.. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them)

Let’s boil this down in very simple terms.

  • Jesus crafted a weapon before commission of the crime (premeditation).
  • He attacked unarmed people, who were going about their daily jobs, in a public and sacred place.
  • His victims were not committing acts of violence, nor were they endangering anyone.
  • He vandalized their property, overturning tables, spilling and confusing ownership of the coinage present.
  • The justification he gave was that they were violating his personal religious belief about the proper use of the temple.
  • He had been granted no legal authority by either the Jewish or Roman authorities for doing this; he assumed authority for himself based upon his own sincere beliefs.

For those that might object, please consult the Biblical text. I have not misrepresented what the text states. The Bible states that Jesus did these things, in this context, and with these justifications.

Christian Endorsement, and its Meaning

Christians are not taught that Jesus was in the wrong. Because it was Jesus doing it, they are taught it must (by definition) have been right. But Christian claims generally go further. Jesus was not merely in the right — his actions were a model of moral uprightness. Thus, it can be considered acceptable to violate the law, commit violence, and attack unarmed people — if your cause (per your beliefs) is just.

This example does not stand alone. Christians are likewise taught that Old-Testament Abraham was just and righteous for being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac on an altar. Because the voices in his head (god) told him to. This ghastly tale has been heralded by Jews and Christians as the very embodiment of faith. Abraham was blessed with many offspring for his fealty, and he thereby fathered the entire nation of Israel. To this day, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are referred to as the “Abrahamic religions”. Thus, the ghastly was transmuted into the exemplary.

As a test, ask any Christian to condemn what Jesus did at the temple. They will probably refuse. Reason them through the preceding information, and they may come to a legitimate place of cognitive dissonance. Re-write the story by changing out the nouns — have someone with a “black hat” do the whipping. It should not constitute a difficult test of moral logic; Jesus was flatly wrong and flatly criminal in his actions. But because it is Jesus, Christians cannot follow through to the obvious conclusion. Attempting to square the moral circle can cause a mental fuse or two to smolder. This dysfunction in moral circuitry is the problem of interest.

Contributing Factors to Jesus’ Execution

Many have speculated on the real reasons why Jesus was executed. In a nutshell, however, the Romans were used to men with messianic delusions. They appeared with a certain frequency, tried to proclaim themselves king, and were summarily executed for insurrection. Messianic delusions tended to arise in connection with both the city of Jerusalem generally and the temple specifically. The Jewish holiday of Passover tended to be a tense time within the city, such that Romans often called in more troops to deter trouble-makers.

It was in that very city, in that very place, and during that very week, that Jesus committed his unprovoked attack upon unarmed people who were going about their daily routines. This alone would have been enough to flag Jesus as fitting the well-worn profile of insurrectionist. But per the gospels, Jesus was also alleged to have made messianic claims about himself to his followers. He did not deny them when questioned. And that proved to be enough.

Thus, Jesus had checked the required boxes to earn a Roman execution. He had made the classic insurrectionist claims about himself being Messiah. And he erased any doubts by instigating a violent attack on temple grounds, in Jerusalem, during Passover week. Whatever Jesus may have been, he was not innocent, and therefore he was not a martyr.

Bart Ehrman summarizes:

And who was Jesus? A little-known itinerant preacher who got on the wrong side of the law and was crucified for insurrection against the state.

Jujitsu and the Art of Martyr Making

In summary, the Jesus story of the gospels trains the mind of believers to use two sets of moral books:

  • Moral Book #1: the default set for daily life; law and order; right and wrong.
  • Moral Book #2: an alternate set which can be invoked for “righteous cause.”

Further, the Jesus story teaches believers that wrongdoers can be lionized as martyrs. Without missing a beat, one can ignore the misdeeds committed when operating on Moral Book #2, pretend they are innocent of wrongdoing, and hail them as martyrs when their violence fails to achieve its objective.

By such means, Jesus was recast as the archetypical innocent, executed not for his own misdeeds, but as having sacrificed himself for ours.

Nonsense. Yet this is the moral operating system that religion yields.

Insurrection at the Capitol

Most of the insurrectionists on January 6th were not operating from an organized and systematic theology. But they were operating with a culturally informed moral compass. That instrument has, in many cases, blurry azimuth markers and serves only as a very approximate guide. But that compass does contain the provision that unilateral violence can actually be justified — if god is on your side. Jesus and Abraham and a variety of cultural norms are deeply embedded in American culture, in evangelical Christians, in Catholics, etc. My observation is that those norms flow from Biblical stories, and they allow for the suspension of right-and-wrong, provided the other people can be considered “bad” and the believers’ cause can be considered “good”.

That is what happened at the Capitol, as “law and order” advocates (per their flags) committed mass insurrection, physical attacks on the police, vandalism, the attempted abrogation of democratic process, and so on. We need to recognize that such behavior, technically speaking, is all permissible on Jesus’ example. Our elected representatives were counting ballots, which is legal, and non-violent, and according to normal cultural practice. But if the democratic process doesn’t jibe with sincerely held belief, and if god is on one’s side, all things are justifiable. And indeed, many rioters seem to view things in just that way. Applying this story template resonates with an already-embedded, albeit convoluted, moral framework.

And that is one path by which American zealots could come to lionize Ms. Babbitt as a martyr.

~

Brief post script:

Keeping one set of moral books should allow us to condemn:

  • Capitol Riot (treads on the Trumper loyalties of some)
  • Summer 2020 Riots (treads on wokeness loyalties of some)
  • Boston Tea Party (treads on the American patriotism of some)
  • Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple (treads on the religious attachments of some)

If you cannot condemn all of these, I would suggest that tribal loyalty may be affecting your ability to apply consistent moral logic.

Comments

  1. You’ve given a very thorough analysis and I don’t mean to dispute it but I also think there may be an even simpler explanation. Religious texts are filled with contradictions. Believers pick and choose passages in whatever way suits their desired narrative of the moment. One of their favorite tropes is that they, as believers, are favored in God’s eyes. Add to that the idea that evidence and logic have no particular importance and you need only point to a fable to justify your actions, no matter what you do.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Dear Carol,
      Like Matt, I also concur with you. And I would like to add that people who are more highly educated are more likely to initiate and succeed in deconversion. Other triggers can include certain personal crisis, major event(s), trauma(s) and/or encountering some person(s) or organization(s), plus pertinent clusters of sociodemographic factors. There are and should be some research data out there showing these trends or correlations.

      Dear Matt,
      I would like to commend you highly for your courage and resolve to cast away your former spiritual/intellectual cocoon and overcome your epistemological impasse, thereby emerging anew as a butterfly to become a born-again atheist and freethinker.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Carol, I agree 100%. Being taught to accept contradictions damages people deeply. Jesus himself was a maze of contradictory behavior too. It reminds me of the Sam Harris quote:

    “If we take Jesus in half his moods, we can easily justify the actions of St. Francis of Assisi or Martin Luther King, Jr. Taking the other half, we can justify the Inquisition. Anyone who believes that the Bible offers the best guidance we have on questions of morality has some very strange ideas about either guidance or morality.”

    ~ Harris, Sam. Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 14). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

    But a bit further, I tend to subscribe to the notion that truth propositions gain some purchase on the human mind, but at a far deeper level, the construct of narrative really controls and lenses how people see the world and themselves. Parables and stories and tales – true or false, I think – form the interpretation circuits of the brain.

    I think it breaks something fundamental in the mind to make someone accept tales of wrongdoing as tales of virtue. The story of Abraham & Isaac, of Noah’s flood, of Lot’s wife, of Jesus and the fig tree, of Jesus and the money changers, of Hell and Tribulation and the Lake of Fire — these and others are stories of patently wicked actions. Teaching people to regard these tales as virtuous and just, I propose, splits the mind where moral clarity is concerned.

    And when people do whatever it is they do, they often recount their doings in the template of some other story. The self made man. The heroic martyr. The lone genius. These are all templates. People channel story templates to organize all the data coming in. And when they have such conflicting moral templates, it makes some wild swings possible.

    In any case, for myself, I’ve found the imprint of my fundamentalist upbringing most difficult to recover from in the area of narratives. It was the hardest point of inner conflict for me as I emerged from the kaleidoscopic faith realm. And it triggered, at the time, the most acute dissonance and disillusionment.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. That’s an interesting connection that I hadn’t considered. Perhaps it does play a role in the bewildering evangelical support for Trump and the continued insistance by some to support his actions, but there are many pieces to the puzzle, many of which predate Trump. I distinctly recall feeling an unspoken pressure to vote only for Republicans when I reached voting age 24 years ago. The interweaving of the religious and political identities has only strengthened over the years, and it seems that for many the political aspects have overwhelmed the religious. And those of us who have deconverted know very well how difficult and painful it is to sever the ties that bind us. I think that tribalism continues to be the biggest piece of the puzzle.

    That said, I’ll throw out another potential puzzle piece. Out of curiosity I went and took a peak at Franklin Graham’s twitter feed to see how he was responding, and then browsed the responses to his call for prayer for Biden and Harris. It is filled with ardent refusals and claims that this is tantamount to praying for satan. The dualist nature of Christian thought – sheep and goats, heaven and hell, God and satan – makes it very difficult to change. There’s no gradual slope to ascend. Only a gigantic wall that separates good and evil. Matthew 12:30 – Whoever is not with me is against me… But reality is seldom dichotomous, so that this mindset only serves to create an artificial wall which blocks minds from ever considering perspectives which lie beyond.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Very true, all that you say.

    I’ve also noted for the past 5 years — as the religious right has folded on every principle they hold dear — that Jesus was pretty nasty to people who weren’t on his side. He called names. He condemned. He called down the darkest thunder. Jesus wasn’t really a nice person and admitted of no peers… He had subordinates and followers, to whom he showed love and tenderness (mainly). He had prospective followers, which he enjoyed in large gatherings. And he had enemies, who enjoyed unparalleled scorn and condemnation.

    Familiar. Those stories all reside in the heads of believers, whether they realize it or not. And the establish for them *what is permissible* in the leaders they follow.

    Liked by 3 people

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