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The whip is held high in Christ’s hand, and a man in a loose yellow robe braces for the blow. Other merchants cower or scramble to gather their possessions. Their bodies are contorted, their clothes bright, their faces full of fear. Nearby, Pharisees debate the coming violence, but Christ himself looks calm, serene, without a trace of anger in his face. We don’t see the blow land. And so we must imagine exactly how hard he strikes, since the moment El Greco depicts in Purification of the Temple is itself bloodless. No bruises, no scars, no bleeding flesh. We picture the righteous rage that lifted the whip, not the aftermath.
As a young man standing before this painting in the Frick Museum during the winter of 2006, I found it comforting. I was on leave visiting family, about to head to Iraq with the Marine Corps. I imagined that this painting, and the story from the gospels behind it, allowed my decision to serve in the military to sit comfortably with my faith. Here was Christ, “turn the other cheek,” “blessed are the peacemakers” Christ, doing violence.
It seemed to open the door to other kinds of violence. And though my particular job in the Marine Corps would likely be a safe, nonviolent one, the same could not be said for the enterprise to which I’d be contributing. Justification was required, both for the specific enterprise and for the thrill and fascination it held for me.
Violence was something I’d always enjoyed. The aestheticized violence of action movies, of course, but also the controlled violence of sport. I was a boxer and a rugby player. Those sports offered me ample opportunity to give and receive both pain and (usually) minor injury. Once, on a rugby tour in Canada, we engaged in a scrum with the opposing team and managed to push the Canadians back with enough force that they started backpedaling until one of the opposing players got caught in an odd position. We pressed forward; he began screaming in pain. We delightedly pushed harder. Fun. And boxing, of course, delivered such visceral satisfactions much more regularly (alongside humiliations, like the only fight my now-wife ever attended, about which you can guess the outcome).
The violence in Iraq was considerably more serious, the stakes higher, hence my desire for an image of righteous violence untroubled by horror. The text itself, though, from John 2, doesn’t have much horror. It is a rather restrained depiction of supposed violence.
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
The passage doesn’t describe a single blow. We never see the injured, need not imagine a man living with the scars from Christ’s whip. There is no aftermath.
I went to Iraq and, because I was a Public Affairs Officer, doing my mostly safe job in a mostly safe part of a very dangerous place, that aftermath was my only experience of violence—the injured civilians (civilians always suffer the most in wars) alongside Marines and enemy combatants treated by my unit’s surgical platoon. There is no thrill in seeing such things. The horribly injured body of your enemy looks like any other human body, their pain no more pleasant to observe.
Our unit also contained the Mortuary Affairs unit, Marines whose job was to prepare the bodies of the dead to be sent home, a task that involves carefully preparing not simply the body (or body parts), but also the personal effects, the things that a Marine brought with him to war and that often spoke in a soft voice of his specific humanity outside of the uniform—whether it was through a sonogram kept in a pocket, or a prodigious stack of porn kept in a trunk. Someone in Mortuary Affairs told my sergeant a story of a Marine whose Humvee had caught fire after an IED strike. This Marine had made it outside the vehicle only to die in flames on the side of the road, and when his body came in, his two fists were tightly clutched around something, they didn’t know what.
The Mortuary Affairs Marine went to work, carefully prying the burned fingers back, trying not to snap them off. What was the dead man holding? What, in his last hour, was the thing he clutched onto? A cross, perhaps? A good luck charm sent by a loved one? No, it was just some rocks. The Marine, in flames, had fallen to the desert and clutched in agony at whatever he could, clutched so hard that the points of the rocks that had been lying there were embedded in his flesh. They were a testament to nothing more than human agony.
For the great Church Father Origen, the story doesn’t add up. First off, he’s pretty sure that if Jesus tried to drive out a group of merchants with a whip, he probably would have been the one getting whupped. “And who that received a blow from the scourge of small cords…would not have attacked him and raised a cry and avenged himself with his own hand, especially when there was such a multitude present who might all feel themselves insulted by Jesus in the same way?”