Read through enough Facebook comment threads involving Christians, and you will likely run across it: An angry post-writer using the story of Jesus’ cleansing the temple as an excuse for their unnecessarily strong language.
This guy’s comment usually references a whip-wielding Jesus, flipping over tables, forcibly removing money changers, employing a righteous anger to correct injustice.
Often, this story becomes a non-apology for getting angry and posting biting commentary on a divisive political issue, theological controversy or discussion on some polarizing social issue.
Sorry, if this comment about [fill in the blank] doesn’t sound “nice.” Jesus wasn’t exactly nice either when He kicked people out of the temple and threw around tables, the comment will say.
The story of Jesus kicking out the money changers appears several times in the Gospels, including a detailed account in John 2:
In the temple courts [Jesus] found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So He made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves He said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”
It’s a jarring image: A violent Jesus, physically casting away people abusing the Church He loves and protects.
People are not wrong in saying that Jesus was unapologetically displaying a righteous anger to prevent people from being taken advantage of in the name of God. In the story, Jesus is fired up and clearly irate.
But the reason the imagery is so powerful is the exact same reason it shouldn’t be a default excuse for every angry online rant: It was seemingly out of character for Jesus.
The Gospels paint a picture of a Jesus who is complex but also consistent, practicing the kind of behavior He preached. He told followers to love their enemies and their neighbors as themselves. In the Sermon on the Mount, He praised the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the merciful and the meek.
The Apostle Paul distilled the fruit of the Spirit that Jesus taught into: “Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” and followed it with this line, “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”
Jesus grabbing a whip and throwing people out of the temple who were using it for profit is a powerful story, because Jesus preached peace-making, not fighting. He preached patience and gentleness, not anger and violence. If He was getting that angry, it was clear that an extremely grave offense was being committed. The kind of behavior Jesus displayed in the temple that afternoon isn’t by any means forbidden, but it wasn’t exactly a daily part of Jesus’ life, either.
The story remains powerful because it is an example of how we should reserve this type of action for rare occurrences of extreme injustice, not make it part of our regular lives. It should be so exceptional when we display this kind of righteous anger that people take notice.
Getting defensive—or simply overly divisive and ungracious—on social media all of the time isn’t Christlike, even if you use the story of Jesus at the temple as an excuse. Jesus’ ministry involved relatively little whipping and table-turning. And the reason the tactic was effective was because it was reserved for an extreme situation.
Facebook has allowed people to engage in ways no one could have predicted. And for all of its ability for good, connecting the world and maintaining relationships, it also carries with it very specific risks: Digitizing interactions—and distilling them into typed words with no face-to-face consequences—can strip the humanity out of communication if we let it.
All of the sudden, confrontation stops being uncomfortable and starts being entertaining. Provoking a strong reaction stops becoming a rare occurrence for rare situations and starts becoming a standard part of dialogue. “Loving” your online neighbors and enemies stops looking so loving. Taking out a whip and flipping tables becomes the norm.
We stop being known for our love and start being known for our anger. And that’s not how we’re instructed to live.
The message of salvation Jesus taught shapes the life of Christians, and so should His life itself. Jesus was the Word made flesh. That’s why taking a single story out of context to excuse our own bad behavior is so dangerous—it risks distorting the message Christ was actually teaching.
Our lives shouldn’t be defined by our anger, no matter how righteous it is.
Yes, the story of Jesus cleansing the temple does show that we are allowed to be angry, but the life of Jesus teaches us that anger is the exception, because peace is the standard.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the fall of 2015.