Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend and fellow Christian about Jesus and anger. It stemmed from my new t-shirt designed by David Hayward, depicting Jesus turning over the tables in the temple (Matthew 21:12-13 and Mark 11:15-18). My friend was recalling the movement in the late 90s to wear WWJD wristbands, to remind us to always check ‘What Would Jesus Do’ – I remember as a teenager sporting mine at school with pride. He commented that the general expectation was we would chose the peaceful route to address any situation. However, although of course Jesus taught non-violent resistance, there are times when only anger will do.
Paul recognises anger is a normal and natural human reaction when he writes “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” (Ephesians 4:27-27, NRSV). His advice is around managing your actions stemming from that anger. I don’t know about you, but when I get angry I just want to tear everything down around me, smash things, scream and shout, immediately deal with whatever it is that has caused the anger and not be calmed. Of course, I have learned strategies over time to ensure I don’t actually act on those impulses (or at least minimise my impulsive responses). I’ve also learned nothing can ever be resolved when the red mist is down, brought home to me especially while parenting my toddlers!
So anger in and of itself is not wrong, or bad, indeed there is a lot of evidence that trying to suppress emotions that are deemed to be undesirable causes lasting physical and mental consequences. But the actions stemming from anger may be. Like turning tables?
Some commentators argue Jesus wasn’t angry in this event, just making a point. It is worth noting that the text doesn’t actually comment on Jesus’ emotional state when he turned the tables, just his action – although we get more insight into this in Luke’s version where, despite no mention of tables being turned, just the comment ‘and he said “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” ‘ (Luke 19:46, NRSV). John 2:13-16 tells a whole other story where Jesus drives the traders out of the den with a handmade whip, although this is placed at an earlier point in the timeline than the other Gospels so whether it’s the same incident or not is unknown. We identify with these situations as responses of the emotion anger, therefore we interpret Jesus’ emotional state as angry. We will never know for certain, as we weren’t there and we aren’t explicitly told.
Jesus is recorded as saying, in John 8:29, “And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.” (NRSV). This is used as evidence of Jesus’ sinlessness and applies to many different interpretations of what sin is. Therefore we can relatively safely apply this to mean turning tables in the temple was pleasing to God. If we have applied our contextual understanding of anger to Jesus’ recorded behaviour and see this as an example of him acting out of anger, then this also must in some way be pleasing to God.
Righteous anger is a term that is often used to describe this sort of anger which is pleasing to God because it is coming from a morally good place. This does not cover the actions resulting from the anger, however. We still must be careful of how we act even when our fury is quite understandable following an injustice, a discriminatory government policy being passed or an arms fair being freely held in our capital city (UK people, every other year in September, see here). It is not okay to riot with the intent to wound and maim with weaponry. But turning over some tables in the middle of a public exhibition hall containing weaponry and propaganda, yeah, I can see how God would be smiling and nodding at that.
So I will wear my t-shirt with a smile on my face as I continue turning tables in my little corner of the internet. And who knows, when restrictions are lifted and I can return to a world of social gatherings, I’ll even wear it to my Church too…
Peace be with you.