Before we get into the meat of things, I think we have to define “Holy Disruption.” For most things, especially anti-racism and anti-oppression work, using the dictionary definition of a term is generally a bad idea. Most dictionaries were written by white powerful men and many times racism, sexism, and other nasty -isms imbue the language used to give words meaning. But, I found the dictionary definitions of “holy”and “disruption” somewhat useful.
Holy: set apart; exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness; divine; devoted entirely to the deity or the work of the deity
Disrupt: to break apart; to interrupt the normal course or unity of; to cause to be unable to continue in the normal way; to throw into disorder
So, a holy disruption is something divine that throws things into disorder, something exalted that causes things to be unable to operate as normal. It is God upsetting the status quo. That seems to me to be pretty aligned with the person of Christ: God breaking apart the usual order of things by stepping down into the muck with us. I also want to note that this disruption is pregnant–it’s creative. Its purpose is not to kill or destroy or just to break things up– the purpose if disruption is to birth change.
The gospels are full of Jesus disrupting, but we’ll confine ourselves to two ways in which Jesus embodied holy disruption—Jesus clearing the temple and the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus Clears the Temple This story appears in all of the gospels, but John’s telling is much more vivid and detailed. John 2:12-17:
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he 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!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
I like to think of this story when some Christians decry the Movement for Black lives as too angry or when some argue that expressing anger in the face of injustice is not Christ like. This story helps to reassure me that sometimes anger is quite Christ like. But, I point out this story not just because it is an example of Jesus being angry in his act of holy disruption. But to point out a few other things.
Jesus strikes out against corrupt business and financial interests. Other Gospel accounts mention that it is at this point when the religious leaders begin to plot to take his life. You see, Jesus probably messed with their money. I bet those upset priests and religious leaders were getting a cut of the sales taking place in the temple. Those doves were probably over priced as well–you know for the convenience of buying your sacrifice right at the temple. And money changers were notorious for ripping off the poor and powerless pilgrims with crazy exchange rates. This telling has Jesus accuse them of turning his father’s house into a market. Others have Jesus saying that they turned the temple into a den of thieves. Jesus is striking out against economic injustice–both the low level players and the powers that be which enable them and profit off of their crimes.
Jesus riots against property and not people. John describes Jesus rioting in the temple courtyard. He is upsetting a probably legal market system sanctioned by the religious leaders by wrecking stuff. But then, we know that just because something is sanctioned by leadership doesn’t make it right. When leadership is corrupt, legality has little to do with rightness.
He flips tables, sending coins scattering. (And I bet you there were people happily scooping up some of those loose coins.) He drives off the cattle and upset cages setting the doves free. He wrecks property, but he doesn’t hurt people.
Now, some may think my use of riot here is strong. Technically, a riot requires three or more people, but here I find the dictionary handy again. According to Merriam Webster, a riot is a “violent public disorder.” This was violent as we’ve come to understand violence, things were damaged—but not people. This was public–in the temple courtyard. And it was disorderly–a disruption of the status quo. Other definitions say that a riot has to include three or more people. However, if Jesus is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then perhaps he fits the definition. Bad church joke aside, maybe “riot” is an apt term. Sometimes you got to flip some tables to change things or get someone’s attention.
In the spring of 2015, the Coalition for Racial Economic and Legal Justice organized a march in solidarity with the protesters in Baltimore demanding justice for Freddie Gray. About 5 of us scrambled over a couple of days to organize what we thought would be a march of maybe a hundred or so. Well over 1000 people came out.
The day after the march, we were approached by a local news station for an interview. The reporter congratulated our group on staging a peaceful march and said we were an example to other cities and to Baltimore about “how to do it right.” She was later flummoxed when we dismissed her praise and refused to condemn rioting. Smashed cars and burnt stores are insured and can be replaced, we told her. Freddie Gray is dead. We don’t mourn broken windows, we mourn broken necks.
To refresh your memory, Freddie Gray was a young man pulled off his bike by Baltimore Police for possibly selling weed and was arrested for having a switch blade on him. Police roughed him up, so much so that they had to lift him into the van, and then they took him for a rough ride on the scenic route to the hospital. Freddie was shackled and unsecured while the van speed around the city, breaking frequently and slamming Freddie around the van. By the time they arrived at their destination, Freddie was in a coma and his spinal cord was nearly severed. He died days later.
Tired of decades of police abuse and killings, Baltimore responded. After days of peaceful protests in the streets, a few people–remember it only takes three–began to riot. Everyone remembers the widely used footage of the burning drugstore. But cameras didn’t show people leaving the store with food and packs of diapers. A few police cars were also smashed up.
With other members of Up Against the Law Legal Collective, I went down to Baltimore to assist with legal observing–watching and documenting the police and National Guard. We walked past the drugstore to a large group of demonstrators pledging to defy the illegal curfew set by the mayor. Now, what the news cameras didn’t show was that the previously new drugstore was an aberration in a neighborhood that had been historically disinvested and ignored for decades. The only violence we saw that night was the violence of the police using clubs, pepper spray, and sonic weapons to disperse and arrest the crowd marching down North Avenue.
But, the sad thing is that the media and the public never spoke about police violence against protesters. They barely mentioned the original act of violence that was the murder of Freddie Gray. The reporter who interviewed me after our Philly is Baltimore couldn’t remember Freddie Gray’s name, but she knew all about that chain drugstore that had been burnt in protest.
The Sermon on the Mount. Now the example of Jesus as a Holy Disruption that I really wanted to dig into can be found in Matthew 5: 38-41:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
Theologian Walter Wink presents a compelling way to read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that I think shows Jesus at the height of disruption, even more so that the classic temple clearance. Now, what’s so disruptive about turning the other cheek? According to Walter Wink, if we read the Sermon on the Mount in the way that the crowd likely heard it–couched in their particular culture and circumstance–the text is revolutionized. I found myself sharing Walter Wink’s take on the Sermon on the Mount several times this past year with Christians in and outside of the movement as well as fellow organizers who judged the church irrelevant or even harmful to liberation movements because of the traditional reading of these verses.
Christians and non-Christians alike often see Jesus’ exhortation to turn the other cheek as a command to be meek, servile, and not just nonviolent, but nonconfrontational. So to the Christian who was critical of the movement, Black Lives Matter was at odds with the gospel because protesters were refusing to turn the other cheek and submit. And to some Christians in the movement and many of those done with the church, it was much the same–Jesus teaches to suffer silently and submit to oppression, to take blows without complaint. However, as Wink points out, Jesus is teaching not just the opposite–violent reprisal–but a new third way.
Turning the Other Cheek (resisting state violence): “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
Now, Jesus is not saying that when someone hits you you should offer them up the other cheek with a “Please, sir, another.” The crowd listening to him was mostly poor people living in an inequitable society under occupation where they may have been slaves or poor workers at the mercy of rich landowners and wealthy interests. They would know that when someone who considers themselves to be your better slaps you, they aren’t slapping you like they are challenging you to a duel, they are backhanding you. It is a forceful blow meant to humiliate and subdue a person. It was reserved for slaves and servant. So, when backhanded, Jesus instructs the crowd to present the other side of their face for striking. Now, he doesn’t say to hit them back nor does he say that one should cower in fear and submit. Jesus says to turn the other cheek. The crowd would have known this to be a challenging and courageous act, because it would be forcing the person oppressing you to do one of two things, either of which would undercut the point of their act of aggression.
The person would be forced to backhand you with their left hand or risk injury. Now this would be a taboo act. Your left hand was considered unclean in their culture–you used your left hand for unclean tasks like wiping yourself after using the toilet. If you are seen touching someone in public with your left hand, you are committing a sin and are subject to punishment. Or, they strike you with their right hand clenched into a fist. This is the way you strike someone you consider an equal.
Jesus gives instruction for how to nonviolently confront oppression by forcing the oppressor into a catch-22 where they bring shame or censure upon themselves through their act of oppression. Jesus gives instructions for how to assert one’s humanity and dignity in the face of oppression.
The same can be said of Jesus’ other two examples.
Surrendering the Cloak (resisting the 1% and economic oppression): “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give them your coat also.”
At this time only a few families controlled most of the land and wealth in Palestine and it was not uncommon for people to be in debt to them and for their circumstances to be so reduced that they only had the clothes on their back. So, if someone was suing for your shirt, they were really going for the jugular. According to Hebrew law, a creditor could sue you in court for everything but your coat. The outer garment was all that protected a severely impoverished person from the elements at night when it gets quite chilly in the desert. So, according to the law, your shirt was fair game.
Jesus instructs that if they are suing for the very clothes on your back, hand over your outer garment too. Basically, strip down naked in court. In their culture, being naked brought shame on the beholder–not the naked person. So, you’ve shamed the person fleecing you in court and all the witnesses of this injustice. You’re shining a light on a common economic injustice.
Walking the Extra Mile (resisting tyranny and occupation): “If anyone forces you to walk a mile, go with him two.”
Again, Jesus was talking to people who lived in an occupied land–Israel was under Roman rule and occupied by Rome’s military. The Romans were fastidious about order and measurement and set up mile markers along their roads. Under Roman law, a soldier could force any occupied resident to carry their packs for a mile, but no more, or the soldier would face punishment.
So, here Jesus is instructing people to resist the occupation by outwitting the occupier at their own game–happily carry their bags for a mile and keep walking past the marker. The soldier will get reprimanded for his abuse. Maybe if a bunch of Jews routinely get Roman soldiers in trouble by carrying their things, the abuses would stop.
Jesus is giving specific instructions for how the people can be holy disruptions: still be people set apart while totally disrupting the status quo.
Candace McKinley has been active in social justice movements for several years. She is a former member of Shalom House, a Christian intentional community dedicated to peacemaking. She is an active member of DecarceratePA, an organization dedicated to fighting mass incarceration in Pennsylvania. She is also a member of Up Against the Law Legal Collective, a collective that provides Know Your Rights Trainings, training for activists ahead of actions, and legal observing and support during and after protests. Candace served on the Steering Committee of the Philadelphia Coalition for Racial, Economic, and Legal Justice, a coalition formed in late 2014 to organize against police brutality and for economic, racial and legal justice. Candace currently works with the Philadelphia chapter of Black Lives Matter and leads the Circle of Hope church team, Circle Mobilizing Because Black Lives Matter. Candace is also the Executive Director of Roots of Justice, a non-profit dedicated to anti-oppression training.