Trampling the Flag on Palm Sunday: A Word to the Irrelevant “Powers-” Freedom Is Coming

HT to this site for this Palm Sunday art by Bill Hemmerling

I woke up primed for Holy Week, which begins today with Palm Sunday and the remembrance of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. The crowds were ready to anoint him king in their hope that he was the Messiah, the one who would violently overthrow Rome’s occupying power and “make Israel great again.” Of course, once they realized that his “kingdom” was simultaneously “upon us” but also “not of this world-” and that therefore he would not overthrow the Roman occupiers violently- the crowd quickly turned on Jesus and would soon join in encouraging that same foreign occupying power and the complicit religious leaders of Israel in their plan to execute Jesus. Usually we rich would-be “Christians” of European descent spiritualize all this, taking it to mean that the kingdom Jesus inaugurated, the love revolution he began, is a strictly a matter for the heart in the present age as we await the age to come “in the sweet by and by.” But as with so many things, this is more of a “both/and” than an “either/or.” We cannot take the inauguration of Jesus’ kingdom- symbolized in the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry as he announced the fulfillment of “good news to the poor,” the proclamation of “freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,” the setting free of “the oppressed,” and the proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor”- to mean simply that God wants to save us from personal immorality so that we can enjoy a heavenly retirement plan. Nor, on the other hand, can we take it to mean that God has nothing to say about spiritual realities and our own broken spirits.

Surely Jesus wants to save us from the “sin that so easily entangles” so that we can “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” This “salvation” is very “personal,” indeed. Likewise, it is very communal, and very, very political. This is the tension we must always keep before us, and it was with that tension in mind that I read Circle of Hope‘s daily prayer this morning, which focuses, rightly, on Jesus’ “triumphal entry” to Jerusalem that we remember on Palm Sunday. The post is good enough to join the featured poet, Malcolm Guite, in envisioning the…”final leg of the journey of Lent” and reminding us “that Holy Week is both about the Lord’s outward, visible, historical entry into Jerusalem for Passover Week and what he did there; but it is also is about his entry into the city in each of us where God claims his residence and what he will do there.” The post…

…lets the outer story of Palm Sunday present some questions to our inner lives. Will I welcome Jesus to be the King in my heart? Is my inner city occupied and governed by a foreign power? Are inoffensive rituals practiced in my temple that do not offend the rulers? Has buying and selling colonized the space where there should be prayer? Are there crowds in me who are swayed this way and that by whoever seems most compelling or powerful? Can I welcome Jesus into all of that?

Something powerful is happening here. The tension I spoke of above is held and allowed to speak to us all the more powerfully because it is maintained. Yes, we must welcome Jesus to be “King” in our “heart,” but to do so requires us to wonder if our “inner city” is “occupied and governed by a foreign power,” if “inoffensive rituals” practiced in our temple “do not offend the rulers,” and if “buying and selling” has “colonized the space where there should be prayer.” These are terribly communal, political realities.

Then, of course, the post ended by reminding us that it’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer day over at the Transhistorical Body of Christ blog that Circle of Hope maintains. Being a Bonhoeffer “fan” and appreciating the witness of the “great cloud of witnesses” that Circle reminds us of through this blog, I clicked over to read about Bonhoeffer, again. Guess what the “Bible reading and excerpt” that most of these Circle of Hope devotional posts start with was? I can’t make this stuff up; it was:

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Matthew 5:38-42

Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

If you’ve been reading this blog for the past few months, you’ll know that I can’t turn around these days without bumping into this passage. It forms the basis of probably the most memorable part, for me, from God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, in which Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove said:

Whatever our political persuasion, we’re always tempted to blame our political enemies for the troubles in the world and think that real change will happen when the policies we endorse are put into practice. But whatever good we might effect on a national or global scale, we can be sure that it will come with unintended negative consequences. Not so with relational generosity, however. Jesus doesn’t teach us to practice relational generosity because it will “fix” the poor. He invites us to give to whoever asks so we might be children of our Father in heaven. Yes, God’s love transforms lives. We know this from our own experience and from the testimony of others. But God doesn’t ask us to change people- God asks us to love people. When we share with one who asks, we are changed. Little by little, we grow into the love of our Father, whose love is perfect.

Here’s Jonathan talking about this, in a little video about, of all things, Lent:

Jonathan’s good to remind us that the passage from Matthew in which Jesus tells us to give to the one who asks comes in the midst of Jesus talking about enemy love. He says this is a “cue” to those of us who have money that in some way the poor are our enemies. I have felt this to be true in my own life, to my great shame. I may not want to think of the poor as enemies, but because like the rich young ruler I have so much (worldly wealth) to lose, I see the poor and am afraid, afraid that they may in some way take what I have (illicitly) gotten. Sharing with those in need invites me to have my imagination renewed and my mind transformed so that I can see that I have something to learn, to see that I am in my own way just as impoverished as those who lack the basic resources I so readily take for granted. I like the quote Jonathan speaks of in the video above as well, that “People come to Christian community because they want to help the poor; they stay in Christian community because they realize that they are the poor.” We are, indeed.

Similarly, as my Lenten journey has been about, in part, learning better to follow “that preacher of peace” so that I may be discipled in the ways of nonviolence and peacemaking, I’ve found that there is an inextricable connection between peacemaking/enemy love and the call to participate in God’s economy that so much of the Sermon on the Mount deals with. This has come up over and over again in the books I’ve been reading for Lent: A Farewell to Mars and Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace and now as I’ve started The Politics of Jesus. It came up in Circle of Hope’s Transhistorical Body of Christ post about Bonhoeffer today too. They note that we remember Bonhoeffer today because he “was executed on this day in 1945, two weeks before US soldiers liberated his prison camp.  He is largely considered a martyr for the faith, for peace, and as a Nazi resister.  Among two of his most influential works are Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship.” This takes a little teasing out, but bear with me. The post also says the following in speaking of Bonhoeffer’s response to the rise of the Nazi party:

Bonhoeffer was overtly critical of the regime and a resister from the beginning.  While Hitler and the Nazis infiltrated and found a stronghold in the German church, Bonhoeffer was building something new in Germany through the Confessing Church.  After only a few months under Nazi control, Bonhoeffer moved to London to work on international ecumenical work, highly frustrated with the state of the German church.

Two years later, rather than going to study non-violent civil disobedience under Ghandi he returned to Germany at the repeated pleading and demanding of Swiss theologian…Karl Barth.  The Confessing Church was under fire by the Nazis.  Barth was sent back to Switzerland. Bonhoeffer soon lost his credentials to teach because he was a “pacifist and enemy of the state.”   He began underground seminaries and further resisted the state.

Bonhoeffer became more involved in direct resistance and was arrested in 1943.  He was part of a group that was responsible both for attempts at liberating Jews and attempting to assassinate Hitler. His pacifism has been widely written about, especially in light of this glaring contradiction.

Bonhoeffer’s whole life was pointed in the direction of nonviolent resistance to state power, precisely because of the way in which Jesus had “saved” him. Obviously, there was a notable exception to this direction in which his life pointed, and responding to that is beyond the scope of this particular post. But I do want to highlight the link between Bonhoeffer’s life of peacemaking/enemy love, and the “life together” which is a necessary component of it. As the Transhistorical Body of Christ post from Circle of Hope noted, Bonhoeffer’s short and powerful book Life Together is one of the two that he is most known for, and I suspect that Christian community was so important to him because Bonhoeffer knew, as I keep saying, that we just can’t do this alone. Following Jesus means continuing to resist “the powers” that he has already defeated. To do so without resorting to “cheap grace” quite simply “takes a village.” As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove reminded us in the quote he spoke of in the clip above, “we stay in Christian community” when we realize that “we are the poor.” Participating in God’s economy requires us to pass on the many good gifts God has given us, and as Miroslav Volf reminds us, this is a communal act. And it is an act that is as hard for we rich as peacemaking and enemy love are for we who have been brought up in a culture as violent as the U.S.’ Isn’t it clear that we need a Savior?

The writer(s) of the “Transhistorical” post about Bonhoeffer end it with the following “suggestions for action:”

Bonhoeffer applied himself to unmasking the lies of his culture and the ideologies that took God’s place. It was not easy, since the church was generally in line with them. In spite of state threat and lack of support from the church, he took risks to teach the truth, even moving back to Germany when it was not safe and he would have been safer elsewhere.

That kind of courage is demonstrated in the Bible repeatedly by people whose loves (lives?) are trained on God. What threat do you feel from those you know and from the great “other” of the powers that be when it comes to expressing your faith in word and deed? Pray for courage.

All these thoughts were again swimming in my head as I did a little more reading and research about Palm Sunday this morning. While doing so, I came across this amazing post, “Palm Sunday is the Most Political Sunday,” from Trip Fuller’s blog. It’s short and worth a read, in fact so short and so worth the read that I give you most of it here, in which the author, Bo Sanders, begins by discussing the “politics of Palm Sunday:”

The Jewish people were under occupation. Roman occupation was especially repressive and brutal.IMG_0332.JPG (2)

The last time that the Jewish people had been free and self-governed also meant that they had their own currency. On their big coin, a palm branch was prominently displayed.

Laying down palm branches ahead of a man riding a colt/donkey was an act of defiance and an aggressive political statement…

(like saying)… “We want to be free. This guy is going to change things and restore what was lost.”

 

Having children wave palm branches in the equivalent to teaching a child to stick up her middle finger in anger… only more political. kid_soccer_fan

 

I am troubled by the lack of context regarding the palms of Palm Sunday. It reeks of both willful ignorance and religious disconnect.

In so many ways we have sanitized, sterilized and compartmentalized the teaching of scriptures. We proudly and loudly defend the Bible – all the while neglecting the actual reality talked about in that Bible.

We complain that Christmas and Easter have been commercialized and secularized all the while partaking of the consumerism and cultural complacency that those two celebrations are meant to challenge!

Palm Sunday might be the most flagrant example of this ignorance and misappropriation. Palm Sunday is call for revolution against the powers of oppression, the systems and institutions that occupy foreign lands and repress its citizens with unjust practices and economic policies.

 

Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday of the year – but in our more therapeutic approach that assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones, the meaning is lost.

This is not just symbolic but emblematic of our watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity.

We do this with everything. Cornell West and Tavis Smiley are talking about how we will do it with the Dr. King celebrations this coming year. They are calling it the Santa-Clause-ification of MLK. He will be a man with dream but little else … and his politics will be lost in the focus on children not being judged by the color of their skin but on the content of their character.

Just think about this: what would it take for us next year, to teach our children to drop the palm-branches and lift their middle fingers? What would we have to believe about oppression and empire to reclaim the original intent of the palms on Palm Sunday?

I’m not saying that we should do that – I am trying to utilize it to get at how much we have assumed, conceded and ignored about the political realities that we find ourselves caught up in.

What conversations would we have to have with our kids about:

  • foreign occupation
  • injustice
  • politics of empire
  • economic policies

in order to explain why they were laying down palm branches or raising their middle fingers to the powers that be?

There seems to be a theme here, doesn’t there, in the all these Palm Sunday musings? Do you want to continue participating in a “watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity” that “assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones?” I, for one, can’t and won’t, and so was compelled to share on Facebook (again, God help me for even being on FB again at all) that post from Trip Fuller’s blog and say about it:

Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday. If only the palms our kids will wave were understood to be middle fingers waved at the powers-that-be…Of course, it bears noting that the U.S. is an occupying force not just in countries around the world, but in North “America.” To really understand the political implications of Palm Sunday, we’d have to imagine a charismatic Indigenous leader processing into Washington, D.C. over trampled U.S. flags, or something like it. This might help us understand what was expected of Jesus, and how he defied those expectations with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent.

As Kirsten and I discussed this on the way to Mill City Church‘s worship gathering, I noted that whether the power in question is Rome or “America,” Jesus has defeated them through the inauguration of his kingdom and especially through his death on the cross and resurrection which we look forward to in the coming Holy Week. Their reign is at an end. Jesus is Lord; Caesar/Obama/Clinton/Trump/Wells Fargo/Google are not. Jesus is “one like a son of God;” Caesar/the U.S. are not.  Again as I said above, Jesus defied the expectations of those who hoped during the triumphal entry that he would violently overthrow Rome with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent. In fact, because it is non-violent it is all the more powerful. If you live by or secure your “power” by the sword, you can die by it and lose your “power” in the same way. But if you are a citizen of God’s kingdom, a subject of the one true King and so have been “freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you” and so are “a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us,” then “the powers” have suffered a fate worse than military defeat. They have been made irrelevant.

Those who have been so freed will indeed have the courage of Bonhoeffer, or a MLK, Jr., etc. They will have the courage to “get small” because “solidarity requires proximity” as I and my family have been learning. They will have the courage to give to whomever asks and see the poor as their teachers and friends because those so freed have been so faithfully sharing what God gives them that they don’t have so many material goods to “lose” anyway. They will have the courage to see that capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from (like socialism and all the others you might name). If the Son has set them free, they will be free indeed. It’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about this old song from the Circle of Hope community that they were good enough to put online. Give it a listen, will you? Freedom is coming. Thanks be to God.

 

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