Flipping the Temple tables: how we can listen to the language of the unheard


Like you, I’ve noticed a lot of social media posting that seeks to equally decry the murder of George Floyd as well as the property destruction that has happened in several cities during protests.

And I get it. On the surface, both acts are egregious.

But they are not equal.

And that’s the problem.

We cannot equate violence against property with violence against human beings.

We cannot say that a building or a police car or a city street has as much value as even one of our citizens.

Now, please, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not condoning the destruction of property for any reason.

But don’t say it’s just exchanging one kind of violence for another.

Because it’s not.

The Other America

I spent an emotional day at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta last spring. Immersing myself in the displays. Confronting how my own sense of privilege was being challenged.

And while many have evoked the name of Dr. King in the false equivalency of protesting injustice vs. damaging property, we should remember that King himself saw and named that false equivalency:

Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve. […] But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

“The Other America,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 14, 1967, Stanford University

Read that last line again.

Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

Turning us against ourselves

Of course, not to be missed in all of this is the emerging news that much of the property destruction in some cities has not, in fact, been at the hands of the protesters but by white supremacist instigators.

Instigators who are counting on the fact that moderate white people will condemn the destruction of property on an equal scale of condemnation for the murder of yet another unarmed black man at the hands of a white police officer.

They are banking on the fact that many unaffected white people will condemn the protestors in the same way the protesters condemn Floyd’s death.

That’s their way of silencing the criticism.

Of turning us against ourselves.

Of keeping people “in their place.”

What would Jesus do?

In all four gospels there’s a story about Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple in Jerusalem. (Matthew, Mark, and Luke present the scene just after Jesus’ so-called triumphal entry into the city prior to his crucifixion. John places it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.)

The money changers in these gospel stories were the predatory lenders of their time.

They took advantage of people coming to the temple in Jerusalem for mandatory worship by charging interest on currency exchange so that the worshippers could purchase whatever animals they were required to sacrifice by the religious system.

Naturally, this included poor people who could barely afford the sacrifice itself, let alone the interest.

In other words, the most vulnerable people in the society were being further victimized by a state-sanctioned system that ensured they were kept “in their place.”

A system that benefitted from the oppression of its own citizens.

Sound familiar?

Jesus’ destruction of property was nothing less than an act of political and economic solidarity with the victims of oppression in his society.

We over-spiritualize these passages to align them with Jesus’ divine authority at the risk of missing the very human compassion at the root of Jesus’ actions.

Because ultimately, Jesus’ divinity is inseparable from his humanity.

You can’t love America without loving Americans

In the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) the story of Jesus’ judgment on the temple ends with the political and religious leaders’ indignation. The writers of Mark and Luke state that his actions sparked the leaders to plot to kill him.

Systems that value property over people will always seek to protect their property first.

They will devalue and dehumanize any who dare to demonstrate that lives are more important than power, wealth and commerce.

The misplaced idolatry of the religious leaders of Jesus’ time is no different than that of those today who rally to the dog whistle of patriotism.

To the worship of an America that ignores the plight of a large portion of Americans.

So yes, please, speak out against the inequality that still exists for so many of our citizens.

Speak out at the continued inhumane treatment of black women and men at the hands of white authority figures.

Listen when people of color tell their stories.

Believe them when they talk about their mistreatment, their fear, their frustrations, their anger.

And yes, denounce the destruction of property…and pay attention to who’s instigating it.

But don’t equate property with humans.

The value of one can be measured and recovered.

The value of the other is beyond measure.

And once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.

One thought on “Flipping the Temple tables: how we can listen to the language of the unheard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s