March 29, 2015
Palm Sunday: In on a Colt, Out on a Cross
This Jesus of Palm Sunday, is one of my favorite images of Jesus. This Jesus has swagger, chutzpah, he marches into Jerusalem with abandon, like an activist who as nothing left to lose, but his life. He marches to speak truth to power, to confront the Empire that has oppressed people for too long, and his technique this time? He and his rag-tag bunch of disciples stage a carefully planned non-violent, biblically based, street theater protest.
Like a flash mob, you know those people who break out into dance in Grand Central Station, and all the sudden everybody knows the dance moves? Or the professional choir that goes to the mall food court and begins singing the hallelujah chorus, one voice section at a time, flooding the ordinary space with extraordinary beauty, until people are in tears, their hearts gaping open at the beauty and surprise of it all.
Art for social transformation. But Jesus’ flash mob street theater is biblically based too, because of his use of palms and the colt he rode in on. Rev. Tamara Torres McGovern writes, “Palms were a sign of victory and military achievement. Roman authorities used to give palms to the victors of competitions. And emperors gave palms to their subjects following a military conquest. In 1 Maccabees the people waved palm branches to celebrate the newly established independence of Jerusalem and Judea.” And Zechariah 9 says that if the king comes in riding on a donkey rather than a warhorse to signal that he comes in peace.”
Rev. Micah Bucey urges us, “Remember: There were two processions riding into Jerusalem on that Sunday. The major, permitted one was that of Pontius Pilate, a representative not only of imperial power, but also of imperial theology, through which Caesar was not only the ruler of Rome, but was thought to be, literally, the Son of God. Pilate was entering Jerusalem as a divinely-appointed hall monitor.
Bucey continues, “So on the other side of town we’ve got Passion Jesus and his palm-waving circus. Now, sure, Passion Jesus’ donkey show is a seriously-planned protest. But it’s also low comedy, a lampoon, a camp, playfulness at its most foolish. In Mark’s words, Jesus orders his followers to grab him a colt and it’s well worth the chuckle to imagine the ridiculous, theatrical image of a rag-tag crowd bowing in histrionic worship as Jesus, weighing down an annoyed, mangy, Shetland-sized ass, hobbles slowly into the city, a funhouse-mirror reflection of Pilate and his threateningly-majestic stallion. Passion Jesus is a comedian with no respect for the dominating systems of the world and these dominating systems of political oppression, economic exploitation, and religious legitimization of empire.”
I love being involved in public protest. I love theater. I love art for social change, and I really believe in it. I think non-violent displays of protest can be incredibly effective way to urge the powers that be, often the government, or powerful corporations, to recognize ways in which policy is hurting people. To say boldly, this is a violation of justice, and justice is what love looks like in public. To speak truth to power.
I admit though, that I haven’t been part of anything like this since stepping foot in Connecticut. I was actually told, early on by public officials, when I was getting publically involved in conversations around police brutality happening at the local level, that quote, “Middletown isn’t really a place to come bearing torches and axes. We are all on the same side here.” Which is a really complicated thing to say. Because it assumes protest are violent, and it leaves no space for genuine fruitful contrast of views.
So our context, in Middletown, CT, where is the Empire? The Empire is much more pervasive; it doesn’t live anywhere, there is no central temple to march to; it is much more insidious, wrapped in the guise of Democracy, where money actually has the loudest voice, not justice for the people; where power differential seeps into our relationships making us “color-blind,” or “powerless,” or “numb,” to the systemic violence that pervades our everyday life. Where we are sheltered to the realities of colonization and genocide that are perpetuated on our dime, or watch, around the world.
This Palm Sunday, Passion Jesus cares about abuses of power. This Jesus is fed up with positive thinking, and hopeful affirmations, with being a good person in our daily lives, and individual relationship with God. This Jesus would urge, that if we don’t understand the systems of power that we live within, that are much larger than our ability as individuals to think positively, we can’t properly follow Jesus into Jerusalem. This Jesus is willing to risk his life for the oppressed, and invites us to do the same. But as disciples we remember that, although Jesus goes in on a colt, he comes out on a cross. So this Jesus, is a hard one to follow.
If there is any time during the liturgical year to come to terms with, or admit our failings as disciples of Jesus, it is Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday. And we have good company: in the mix in Jerusalem, the disciples of Jesus somehow join the opposite side, and betray Jesus, and under pressure, deny that they even know Jesus. The disciples that followed Jesus, that walked the sacred path, along side of him and behind him; well, they ultimately failed him. With blood on their hands, Jesus forgave them. And we are forgiven too.
Now I am not saying that protest is the only way to follow Jesus, there are a variety of ways to show our Christian witness that are more comfortable and don’t disrupt the homeostasis of our own lives or our community. But we can not deny, that public displays of protest is a biblically based way to follow Jesus on Palm Sunday.
Arundhati Roy, in her piece, Public Power in the Age of Empire, writes, “Colorful demonstrations and weekend marches are vital but alone are not powerful enough to stop wars. Wars will be stopped only when soldiers refuse to fight, when workers refuse to load weapons onto ships and aircraft, when people boycott the economic outposts of Empire that are strung across the globe. ”
This week I became mildly enamored with Indian author Arundhati Roy, who wrote the beautiful novel, The God of Small Things, now uses her gift of writing primarily in the political sphere. I’ve been so moved by a pulsing theme throughout her work, which is to not look away from conflict and injustice. To pay attention. And her way of using her art, her writing, as public protest is through story telling.
She says, “Writers imagine that they call stories from the world. It is actually the other way around. Stories call writers from the world. Stories reveal themselves to us. They colonize us, they commission us, they insist on being told. Fiction and non-fiction are just different techniques of story telling. For reasons that I don’t fully understand fiction dances out of me, and non-fiction is wrenched out, by the aching broken world, I wake up to every morning. The theme of much of what I write is of the relationship between power and powerlessness, and the endless circular conflict there engaged in.
My writing is about power, about the paranoia and ruthlessness of power, about the physics of power. I believe that the accumulation of vast, unfettered power, by a state, or a country, a corporation or an institution, or even an individual. A spouse, a friend, a sibling, power results in (dangerous) excesses.”
I can imagine Arundhati Roy with Jesus before the staged Palm protest, saying this from her piece entitled War Talk,
“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.
The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling – their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.
Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them.
Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
And I can image Arundhati Roy saying this to the disciples of Jesus, who fail over and over again, and to us, at the doorway to Holy Week, “The only dream worth having is to dream that you will live while you are alive, and die only when you are dead. To love, to be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of the life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.” So let us follow the story of Holy Week. The last meal, the suffering and betrayal, the brutal death, the empty tomb, so that we can wring out our souls, and prepare way for the risen Christ, the birth of New Love into the world, that on quiet days, we can hear breathing. Let it be so. Amen.