Jesus with a whip and his enlightening anger issues

Not only critics of Christianity but conscientious Christians themselves have shown concern over the story of Jesus clearing the temple of money changers and vendors. Jesus fashions a makeshift whip and walks through the temple beating people who have compromised their religious principles, attempting to restore the functions of the temple back to the status quo ante. He uses force to restore the temple and exhibits anger and violence. Should not the Son of God, who calls for a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth and the concept of a spiritual rebirth, have been able to control his own rage?

The concept of rebirth would mean that one has awareness of and insight into his/her flawed emotional responses and motives and can rise above those commonplace and harmful responses most people are satisfied with. You chuck out the old and bring in the new. You now feel love for your enemies, forgiveness for revenge, toleration for anger, compassion for callousness, joy for despair. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus calls for others to question how they feel and respond to others and to make better choices for their actions than the choices folks usually make without thinking or reflecting. He basically says, if you are going to act and respond the way the Pharisees and others respond, you have not risen above them and are not Kingdom of Heaven material.

Rebirth means realizing that in the first stage of our lives we developed according to arbitrary expectations and were molded by aspects of our environment, but now a new and richer life is possible by understanding and overcoming what was put inside of us by imperfect people and circumstances. Rebirth is like clearing all the junk out of our inner lives and replacing it with new and better stuff. In fact, clearing the temple might be a good metaphor for each of us of clearing the junk out of our emotional lives and beginning new lives that will be of immense and joyous benefit to ourselves and others. Unfortunately, this temple story does not seem to be a metaphor and, even if it is, it promotes the use of violence to achieve a religious end.

A guy promoting inner change should show that he has engaged in it himself. Instead, Jesus flies off the handle. He justifies violence for a religious end, which, ultimately, becomes a big problem for the Catholic Church as it launches Crusades and terror campaigns to clean its own temples of what it considers to be heretics, infidels and the impure. A cynic could say that the religious wars and acts of persecution committed by the Christian religion have a solid precedent in the story of Jesus resorting to violence to clear the temple. Furthermore, is a temple cleaned and maintained through the use of violence a temple worth worshipping in? Looking at Jesus’s anger we might want to ask ourselves: if we are interested in our own self-development, do we need to expunge our anger completely, or might we need anger but need to control it a bit better than the character of Jesus in the Gospels did?

Our repertoire of emotions evolved just as our fingers and thumbs evolved. Each of our emotions developed and was selected by our social environment to provide something useful for our survival. In the case of anger, this emotion serves the function of helping us rise up to threats against us by bad guys. It is also an emotion that arises during situations of frustration so that we gain an extra boost to fight through obstacles. It also seems that anger follows from physical or emotional pain – it gives us an aggressive edge to rebound if we are hurt in some type of conflict.

The important thing to realize, and the important thing in trying to understand and deal with our own anger, is that anger is a secondary. Anger always arises out of some other response. So if you feel anger due to a threat, or due to frustration or due to pain, the key is not to focus on the anger but on the initial trigger. If we can realize why we are becoming angry, or why we carry anger with us, this might give us the foot in the door we need to suppress or mitigate harmful angry responses.

The question actually becomes: when, if ever, is anger appropriate? If we want to be good actors in the world, and become the peace we’d like to see in the world, can we allow anger to exist? How do we know when anger is ok and how much anger is ok? Shouldn’t we be looking at our anger much more closely?

Let me tell you of a significant but obscure experiment done by Leonard Berkowitz at the University of Wisconsin at Madison many years ago. He believed that physical pain generated anger and anger generated physical aggression. He had two groups of students he was going to test. Individuals from each group would come into his office and there would be a bowl of water on his desk. First, the water was room temperature. This was for the control group. He would say to a student, “Hey, do me a favor. Dip your finger into that container of water and tell me whether it is room temperature yet.” The student would do so and report that, yes, the water was luke-warm. Berkowitz would then thank the student and pose a question involving whether another student should be punished for some type of academic infraction, e.g. “Oh, by the way I called you in here to ask you a question…” For the second group, the container of water was uncomfortably hot. A student would stick his/her finger in and experience pain. Berkowitz would apologize and then ask these students the same question he had asked the control group.

The group which had experienced pain advocated for more severe punishments than the control group. Indeed, many students in the control group even asked for mercy and forgiveness; this was rare in the experimental group. Berkowitz seemed to have proved that pain leads to anger and then aggression. So we can even see a three-part process in the harmful effects of anger. There is an initial trigger, anger pops up secondarily and it can often lead to outright physical aggression. You bump your knee on the table, you feel pain, you get angry and you kick the table. You meet with some type of frustration, you become angry and the possibility now exists that you can strike out verbally or physically at another person. You drop by a temple to pray, see moneychangers have taken it over, get angry, make a whip, then you go to town beating the interlopers.

I wish an experiment had been designed such that a person already understands that pain or frustration leads to anger and aggression. Then the person could be subjected to pain or frustration, and we would see how much this awareness might mitigate or eliminate anger and aggression. That’s the important thing. How much can we control it? Is awareness of causes enough to control anger-based violent outbursts?

In my own life I am trying not to let frustration or pain, either emotional or physical, push me to anger or aggression. I tend to feel that I should be wary of all anger. But what about the frustration and then anger one feels over something like political corruption? Or racism? What about a political candidate who seems to encourage a coup to take over the Congress after he loses an election? Or what about Chicago, for instance, which is one of the most racially segregated cities in the USA? White people live 30 years longer than Black people there. White families tend to live in comfort and wealth while Black families suffer. Shouldn’t this make me angry? Well, all of the previously mentioned things do make me angry. But my anger over this can be a motivating factor for me to speak up about these situations and to demand change or justice. I think we are seeing in our culture, however, how we are transgressing anger as a motivating force and allowing it to become a force for destruction.

This is what the character of Jesus does in the Gospels. He does not allow his anger to motivate him to problem-solve and fix something wrong, he allows his anger to push him to an extreme where he resorts to violence. Clearly the Son of God screwed up in this story. But that’s OK, because we know the Gospels are stories meant to enlighten and help us rise to higher levels of behavior. Perhaps a Jesus never even did craft a whip and go to town, it was just included in the Jesus narrative for whatever reason. The important thing is that we use this story to realize this: anger is ok as a motivator, it is not OK when it harms others physically or emotionally. It does not matter whether you think you have a good excuse like cleaning out a temple of money grubbers. There is no moral justification for violent behavior deriving from anger. This was a message made clear by, among others, Martin Luther King Jr. It is a message we have largely forgotten.


Daniel Gauss is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University. He has been published on numerous platforms dealing with art and culture and has been working in the field of education for over 20 years. He currently teaches in Shenzhen, China.

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