Yes, you read that title correctly. And no, that’s not a typo. I’m about to dive so deep into the Bible that you’ll need a scuba tank to come along with me.
Last weekend, I came upon a cardboard cutout of Jesus at the Charlotte Pride Parade. In a speech bubble, someone had written, “Guys, I meant to say I hate figs.”
That joke is obviously a clever play on one of Westboro Baptist’s vile slogans. But as it turns out, the Bible includes a story of Jesus cursing a fig tree. Believe it or not, this story can help us understand the problem with the Nashville Statement, a document produced by Evangelical Christians to condemn all who embrace LGBTQ identities and relationships.
The story I’m talking about is found in Mark 11. This passage tells a story of Jesus and his disciples walking to the Temple at the center of Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus stops by a fig tree to grab a snack. But when it turns out to have no fruit (Mark tells us that it was out of season), Jesus curses the tree. But when the disciples pass the same spot 24 hours later, “they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.”
In Mark, the fig tree story appears in two separate halves. After Mark tells us the first half (Jesus finds and curses the tree), Mark cuts to a story of Jesus criticizing the Temple for being exclusive and hypocritical. Only then does the narrative return to the fig tree, informing us that it is now destroyed.
For Mark’s original audience, the connection between the two stories probably would’ve been obvious. Mark was written roughly 40 years after Jesus’ death, around the time that Rome’s army reduced the Temple to a heap of rubble. Just like the fig tree, the Temple had “withered away to its roots” after Jesus pointed out its flaws.
Now we know why Jesus cursed the fig tree, but what was his problem with the Temple? Mark’s Gospel gives us three reasons, and each of them highlights a problem with the Nashville Statement.
#1 – the Temple was exclusive
Non-Jews could visit the massive Temple complex, but they could only come in so far. Jews could come in a bit further, low ranking priests had a bit more access, … you get the picture. The Temple divided people up according to status in God’s house.
But whereas the Temple split people up when they entered the building, the Nashville attempts to separate people for a lifetime. Although Evangelicals try to make LGBTQ issues all about sex, blocking gay marriage isolates LGBTQ folks. Mandating celibacy and eternal singleness for these people not only bars them from sexual intimacy; it also implicitly tells the gay or lesbian individual: You can never raise a family. You will never parent children. You must never commit your life and love to a spouse.
Jesus broke down boundaries and brought individuals from isolation into relationship. Not only did Jesus hang out with people across established boundaries – Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, faithful teachers and blatant sinners; more importantly, Jesus brought these people into community with each other over shared meals. When individuals came to Jesus with diseases and “unclean spirits” that kept them separated from society, Jesus healed them into community.
We shouldn’t be surprised to find that Jesus entered the Temple and got in the way. In Mark’s story, Jesus overturns tables, drives people out, and blocks people from carrying things around. In the midst of this disruption, Jesus quotes from Isaiah, giving a vision of what the Temple should be but was not: “[God’s] house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” Jesus opposed false divides between people in God’s house – the sort of divides that the Nashville Statement protects.
#2 – the Temple was mixed up in bad politics
Many of Jesus’ contemporaries criticized the Temple for its hypocrisy. On one hand, the Temple was the image of a pure, divinely-granted Jewish identity. It was supposed to be the place where God dwelt among God’s chosen people. Going to the Temple, paying the Temple tax, participating in sacrifices there, and obeying the Temple authorities’ rules about circumcision and food was supposed to protect and proclaim Jews’ special identity as God’s chosen people.
But in reality, the Temple leaders were in league with the Roman Empire that occupied the land. Rome was brutal and violent. It kept the poor poor by transferring the fruit of their labor to the Empire and its local representatives. (Sound familiar?) If Jewish identity was so pure, and if the Temple was the pure house of God, why were its leaders working with these outside oppressors?
A similar failure faces Evangelicalism today. Like the Temple, the Nashville Statement pretends to have moral high ground. It pretends as though it’s defending a divinely-revealed identity from the corruption of outsiders. This is the purpose of the Nashville Statement: to rally insiders and stir up fear of those who disagree. Article 10 of the document states that all who affirm LGBT folks depart from “Christian faithfulness and witness.”
But as with the Temple, the political actions of Evangelicals undermine their claims to purity. Without the support of white Evangelicals, a man who bragged about sexual assault couldn’t have won the Republican primary. Without white Evangelicals, a man who discarded multiple wives and said he never asked God for forgiveness couldn’t have become the President. If Evangelical identity is so pure, if they have the moral high ground from which to lecture us on “God’s design,” then why did they elect Donald Trump?
The hypocrisy and shady politics of the Temple were likely what Jesus was referencing when, in Mark 11:17, Jesus states that the Temple staff “have made [God’s house] a den of robbers.” The same could be said of today’s Evangelicalism.
#3 – the Temple was headed for destruction
The Temple’s exclusivity and shady politics were a recipe for disaster. Groups addicted to power and convinced of their own superiority will inevitably fall. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.
Mark’s story sandwich, which uses the fig tree story to frame Jesus’ criticism of the Temple, makes this point: Like the tree that withered because no good fruit could be found on it, the Temple’s message and hypocrisy put it on a track headed towards disaster. Several decades after Jesus, the Temple was caught with a Jewish uprising against the Romans. Rome reacted predictably and without mercy.
We can see the same thing in today’s Evangelicalism. Its exclusive identity and political sins will inevitably bring about destruction. Already, we can see that this is the case: The Nashville Statement has provoked more condemnation than the similar statements that Evangelicals made before the election. Public approval of Evangelicals and Trump continue to plummet. Supporters continue to bail.
Why should we be surprised? Movements which champion exclusive, narrow identity and hypocritical, oppressive politics will inevitably fail. Evangelicals must change course from the Nashville Statement, or they will wither to the root.
Credit where credit is due: for insight into Mark 11, I consulted Elizabeth Struthers Malbon’s book Mark’s Jesus, Marcus Borg’s Conversations with Scripture – The Gospel of Mark, and N.T. Wright’s Mark for Everyone and The New Testament and the People of God.