Sunday, April 5, 2009
Triumphal Entry or Political Parody?: a sermon for Palm Sunday by Leo Hartshorn
On Palm Sunday in 2005 a group of Palestinians, internationals, and children rode on donkeys from Bethlehem toward Jerusalem. The idea for the procession came from some Palestinian children from Bethlehem, who were fascinated by the biblical story of a Bethlehem man who rode a donkey into Jerusalem. They wondered, “Why can’t we ride donkeys into Jerusalem?” It was a simple, but profound political question.
George Rishmawi, a Palestinian peacemaker and leader in nonviolent resistance against the occupation of Palestine, helped organize the Palm Sunday event. John Stoner, a local Mennonite peacemaker, recruited 16 Americans to be a part of this symbolic trek toward Jerusalem. One of those Americans was a friend of mine, Dick Davis, Minister of Urban Ministries for Mennonite Mission Network from Dallas, Texas, a former army chaplain, who I went to seminary with as a Southern Baptist. He was in that procession that was stopped at the Bethlehem checkpoint.
The children left the procession before they reached the checkpoint. When the donkeys were stopped by the military with their rifles, they engaged in nonviolent resistance by kneeling to pray at the checkpoint. This kind of procession is always risky business in that it is an act of resistance which challenges the political and military systems. This procession toward Jerusalem was intentionally symbolic and a political act of nonviolent resistance.
The church’s retelling of the story of Jesus’ “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem has been far less political and much more domesticated. On Palm Sunday in the U.S. Christians will gather today outside of church buildings and process in with palm branches waving. Well, at least some of the branches will be waving. Quite a few will waved with a lot less exuberance than the American flag is waved on the 4th of July. Youth will drag their feet. Children will be noisy and rambunctious. Songs meant to be sung with gusto will be sung with a half-hearted “hosannas” And the people will process into heated and air-conditioned church buildings rather than through the gates of Jerusalem.
If we follow the people into one of these churches we can sit on one of the padded pews in the back row. Then, the first thing we will do is to try and figure out what to do with that useless piece of vegetation, the palm branch. We fumble with our bulletin, trying to see what comes next. Wouldn’t want to be caught not knowing where we are in the printed order of service, you know. Now, that’s risky business for white Christians!
Sitting in the pew we hear a call for the children to come to the front for the children’s story. A lot of adults who love bumpersticker theology are thinking, “You know what. This is the best part of the service. If I don’t remember anything else, I’ll remember the children’s story!” Someone with a Mr. Rogers’ smile and that O so sweet, child-like voice tells the story about how “the little children waved palm branches and shouted ‘hosanna’ when Jesus came into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday so long, long ago.” We might even get a spiritual-lesson-in-a-nutshell, something like, “Now, children, we too can welcome Jesus into our hearts.” And the children go skipping off to children’s church not knowing what the heck any of that really means.
Then, there’s a bunch of hymns about praising God played with all the stops out on the organ or a lot of piano banging. The noise wakes up ol’ John Miller snoozing there on the back pew, who throws a dollar in the offering plate as it passes. A soprano, who can’t quite make the high notes, sings a nasal rendition of Jesus Christ Superstar’s “Hey-sanna, Ho-sanna.” And after a smattering of hand claps, the preacher makes his way to an imposing wood pulpit and gazes down on the congregation. He begins by retelling the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
Jesus went to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday because it was God’s will that he be crucified and die for our sins on Good Friday and rise from the dead on Easter Sunday. Hallelujah! God had this all planned out and told the prophet Zechariah all about it centuries aforetime. A future King will ride into Jerusalem triumphantly on a jack aaa…, I mean a donkey. The people gathered at the gates of Jerusalem praised Jesus as their true King, whether they knowed it or not! Praise Gaawd that Jesus, our King, went to Jerusalem to die for our sins, so that we could have eternal life and go to heaven. Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Laard!
After another song and a benediction everyone files out shaking the preacher’s hand saying, “Nice sermon, preacher.” Everyone drives off to their suburban homes in an SUV with “God bless America” and “Support our troops” bumperstickers……..while in a distant land a pack of donkeys come to a halt at a Bethlehem checkpoint.
What is Palm Sunday all about a anyway? Is it simply a story about King Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to be crucified for you and me? Well, there is a different way to read the Palm Sunday story. Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem to confront the religious elite and the temple system that propped them up. His entry into Jerusalem was immediately followed by a prophetic act of overturning the tables of the moneychangers. This act was not about getting commerce out of the worship space. That was normal activity. It was rather a symbolic act, a public challenge to a larger systemic issue regarding an exclusive religious institution that was economically exploiting the people and had become, in Jesus’ words, a “hideout for bandits.” After that, Jesus cursed a barren fig tree as a symbol of the fruitlessness of the corrupt religious system.
If that is not enough to make us reconsider the meaning of Palm Sunday, let’s remember that Jesus was not the first person to enter Jerusalem as a kingly figure. Simon Maccabaeus, a revolutionary Jewish leader, processed into Jerusalem “with praise and palm branches and with hymns and songs” (1 Macabbees 13:51). Menahem, a leader of urban daggermen, political assassins known as Sicarri, led a kingly procession into Jerusalem in 66 A.D. during the years of the Jewish revolt. The streets buzzed with popular expectations of a kingly ruler, a Son of David, who would come and end the reign of foreign rulers and liberate Jerusalem from injustice and oppression.
A number of royal pretenders and messianic figures did come and lead armed revolts against the Romans and their upper-class Jewish collaborators. Not only were the people’s hearts filled with these kinds of expectations, but the location of where Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem was to begin had symbolic undertones. According to the prophet Zechariah, the Mount of Olives was to be the place where the Israel would engage in a final battle against her enemies (Zechariah 14:1-4). So, you see, in that politically-charged atmosphere Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem was loaded with military and nationalistic symbolism.
Jesus was well aware of this symbolism. It appears that Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem on a donkey was not simply happenstance, but something that he deliberately planned and choreographed. Over half of the Matthew narrative concerning Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is about his preparation for the procession. Instead of procuring a war-horse, like those military leaders who processed into Jerusalem triumphantly, Jesus had his disciples get him a lowly donkey. He would ride in to Jerusalem not as a military conqueror, but as a ruler of peace. Jesus is intentionally playing off popular Jewish expectations of a triumphant military ruler who was expected to come and violently overthrow their Roman oppressors.
Jesus was engaging in “political street theatre,” like those who carried flag draped coffins through the streets of Lancaster one year against the Iraq war. Think of it as dramatized political satire. The procession into Jerusalem on a donkey was symbolic street drama, a parody of the popular expectation of a triumphant military liberator. You can hear this expectation in the tone of the people’s voices as they cry, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Jesus parodies those expectations by acting out a prophetic tradition. Jesus subverts the popular expectation of the coming of a military messiah by acting out images from the prophet Zecharaiah.
In Zechariah we find images of a kingly ruler that conflict with popular militaristic expectations. According to Zechariah, the king who processes into Jerusalem on a donkey “will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, the war horse and the battle bow from Jerusalem, and will command peace to the nations” (Zechariah 9:9-10). In other words, this ruler will wipe out the nuclear arsenal, ban assault weapons, and demand peace negotiations! And those who welcome peace and justice will shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is this one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Jesus came into Jerusalem as a King of Peace! He flipped the popular militaristic image of the messiah on its head. The gospel of Luke makes it very clear that Jesus came not as some military messiah, but was rather seeking the peace of Jerusalem. After Jesus entered Jerusalem he wept for the city. With glassy eyes he cried, “If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”
If only we could recognize the things that make for peace. Like Jesus’ act of nonviolent resistance in his noisy procession into Jerusalem. It was a symbolic street theater, a political procession. If only we could recognize it as an act of peacemaking. If only the New Orleans police and the new residents in the Tremé neighborhood would recognize the things that make for peace. Musicians in a procession would not have to have been handcuffed and arrested.
I was in New Orleans this past weekend for peace and justice meetings and heard the story of some musicians who were arrested for a jazz funeral procession in the historic Tremé neighborhood. Tremé is probably the oldest black neighborhood in the US. It didn’t receive much flooding during Katrina, so new people want to move in. Tremé has been a place of political resistance for some 300 years.
The arrested musicians were playing at a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral procession for Kerwin James, a tuba player with the New Birth Brass Band who had passed away. The police told the musicians, 'If we hear one more note, we'll arrest the whole band.'" "Well, we did stop playing," said trombonist Glenn Andrews. "We were singing, lifting our voices to God. You gonna tell me that's wrong too?" Drummer Ellis Joseph of the Free Agents Brass band, who was also in the procession, said, "They came in a swarm, like we had AK-47s. But we only had instruments." When does a simple procession become a political act?
The New Orleans police claimed they were just acting upon complaints from some of the new residents in the neighborhood and because they did not have a permit. But, funeral or “second line” processions, more upbeat jazz played in celebration on the way back from the cemetery, are a time-honored African-American tradition in New Orleans. So, it would appear that those new residents who are “blowing the whistle” on those blowing the horns were the ones disturbing the peace more than the musicians were!
"I've been parading in the Tremé for more than 25 years, and I've never had to deal with anything like this," said tuba player Phil Frazier, who leads the popular Rebirth Brass Band. He's brother to James, who died of complications of a stroke at 34. "I told the cops it was my brother we were playing for, and they just didn't seem to care. He's a musician and he contributed a lot to this city in his short life." The procession did not stop. They resisted the police and the complainers. The instruments may have been silenced but they just kept on singing praise to God! Hallelujah! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Second line processions are one of the cultural events that help create a sense of normalcy and momentary peace after Katrina and the levee breaks. These processions usually emerge spontaneously without permits. That’s well known. So, when does a simple procession become a political act?
Some say this incident with the second line procession is just a sign of a greater political reality, as well as being an attack on the cultural history of this old black neighborhood by wealthier newcomers. These newcomers are attracted to Tremé by the very history they seem to threaten with their complaints. I believe the response to these processions is symbolic of a larger social and political climate that seeks to reduce and remove the communities of poor, black folk in New Orleans.
On my trip to New Orleans I saw acts of systemic violence that some would probably not recognize as acts of violence. But they were. I walked down about four or five blocks where once stood about 5,000 units of public housing for poor, blacks that had been bulldozed clean, except for 700 units that were restored. This indicated to any thinking person that the other public housing units could have been restored as well.
Where those units once stood is now prime land available for developers of hotels and condos near downtown. And this act of mass destruction occurred even though the water only reached up to the foundation of these public housing units, while private homes surrounding those empty blocks, which could not be bulldozed, still stood there as a silent witness against the racism and injustice.
I saw another section of public housing near downtown, prime property that remained standing, only because some residents came back after Katrina and found running water and re-occupied their homes. They wouldn’t dare bulldoze public housing that was occupied. It would be too obvious that they wanted to confiscate the land. I saw this kind of thing happening all over the city.
“That can’t be happening in the U.S.,” someone might say, “Maybe land is taken in places like Israel/Palestine under the rubric of disaster or terrorism, but not here.” Naomi Klein, in her book Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Captialism proposes that this kind of thing happens all around the world, including New Orleans. Disasters are used as opportunities to gain capital. While people are in shock, leaders push through legislation, policies, and actions which benefit the wealthy, developers, and large corporations as they privatize the public sector.
Just listen to the blasphemy in two voices from New Orleans. "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did," says Republican Congressman Richard Baker to a group of lobbyists. "I think we have a clean sheet to start again. And with that clean sheet we have some very big opportunities" says Joseph Canizaro, one of New Orleans' wealthiest developers. Shocking, isn’t it? Makes some of us want to march in the streets to protest this injustice, doesn’t it?
So, the seemingly innocent jazz procession in the Tremé neighborhood was really an act of nonviolent resistance that reflected a larger resistance movement toward the racist and violent system of economic exploitation and racial injustice operative in New Orleans and in the U.S. that is still going on post Katrina.
But, thank God for all the signs of resistance. Signs spray painted on dilapidated homes “Don’t bulldoze!” Protestors facing police tasers and pepper spray at city hall. A protest camp set up outside boarded houses. Local residents fighting to keep their public schools open. Willie Maes Scotch House, famous fried chicken mecca where I ate last Saturday, resurrected after the levees broke with help and support from the community. Organizations, like Churches Supporting Churches, which helps congregations repair, restart, and rebuild their churches and communities. There are signs of resistance in churches, like Christian Unity Baptist Church where I attended last Sunday, keeping faith against all odds and resisting hopelessness. This faith and resistance was symbolized last Sunday for me when a nine year old boy stood up in front of the church and sang with bold confidence “I can ride a hurricane!”
The procession through Tremé neighborhood was a political act of nonviolent resistance symbolizing an a larger movement of resistance to racial and economic injustice in New Orleans and the U.S. In a similar way Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem was a microcosm of his larger resistance to a violent system of economic exploitation and injustice operative within Roman occupied Israel/Palestine.
These are the kinds of processions we should celebrate on Palm Sunday and follow in our lives. As Jesus hops on the donkey before processing into Jerusalem I can almost see him turning around and saying, “Come, follow me.”
On this Palm Sunday following in the way of Jesus will mean processing, walking alongside, living in solidarity with those who ridicule and resist systemic violence, racial and economic injustice. Following Jesus could mean joining the “race against racism,” confessing racism in our predominantly white congregations, dismantling racism within our church institutions. Following Jesus might mean participating in political acts that call on our leaders to stop privatizing the public sector to the benefit of corporations and the wealthy. Following the Jesus who processed into Jerusalem on a donkey may mean creatively lampooning our own society’s glorification of military power and redemptive violence through drama, art, sculpture, video, humor or creative writing. Like Jesus procession, we need to be more creative and imaginative in our resistance to destructive, dehumanizing cultural ideologies.
Then, then, raising our palm branches on Palm Sunday will make real and substantial connection to Jesus’ own political parody. Then, and only then, those who welcome justice and peace in our cities will shout, “Hosanna! Hallelujah! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”