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Palm Sunday: Satire and Civil Disobedience

I tend, on occasion, to get bored with Christianity. And I wonder sometimes whether Christianity really, after all, has any relevance to the unfolding of social history, with all its violence and hostility.

Then Palm Sunday rolls around.

Let me ask you to think that Palm Sunday exhibits two “disciplines” too seldom considered as fundamental to being human in the world:

satire |ˈsaˌtīr| noun

the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize stupidity, particularly in the context of politics

civil disobedience |ˈsɪvɪl ˈˌdɪsəˈbidiəns| noun

the refusal to comply with certain laws or to pay taxes and fines, as a peaceful form of political protest

The context for Jesus’ so-called “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem, remembered on Palm Sunday, was the celebration of the Passover. Jesus and his disciples were preparing to participate in this annual feast, and this annual feast was a sort of paradigmatic anti-imperialist celebration: to again become a people who had seen the horse and rider of Pharaoh cast down, his warriors thrown into the sea, and themselves delivered from the bondage of slavery.

And by Jesus’ day, of course, Pharaoh had been replaced with Caesar. There is always another pretentious power quick to fill the vacuum left when the most recent one bites the dust. So now it was Rome. And the natives in Jerusalem would often get restless at Passover time, ready for this God who had promised deliverance to act again in a great display of magnificent power to overthrow the powers. And this Jesus seemed to be a good candidate as the newly anointed one to accomplish such a deed.

And so he prepared for his great entry into the city. But such a moment entails a great challenge: how can one who insisted upon love of enemies nonetheless put on display the social stupidity that fosters violence and hostility? How to make light of the overweening seriousness of the pomposity of military might and imperialist conceit?

By riding an ass. Or as Luke says it, a colt on which no one had ever ridden. Imagine the silliness of this untrained beast of burden in a celebratory parade, bucking and kicking, and the king of peace sitting astride his untrained ride.

We know what it means for a great power to put on a military parade: it says, “don’t mess with us, don’t screw with us, we’ve got big guns, big buttons on our desk, and we will take you down.”

In contrast, Jesus puts on street theater, puts on a satire, and gets people in the streets.

As Luke 19 tells the story, he will enter Jerusalem and weep over the city. Jerusalem would not receive the counsels of peace, the ways that would make for peace, and Jesus weeps, foreseeing the destruction and demise of the city—apparently the historical destruction of the city in A.D. 70 by the Romans. His way of making peace, of effecting social change, would be rejected, and Jerusalem would pay the price.

The next story is just as charged: Jesus makes a scene in the Temple.

Those who make light of Jesus’ non-violence like this story: Jesus seems to go postal, makes a whip, overturns the tables, drives out the cattle and animals. “See,” crusading Christians like to say, “Jesus was no passive, cowardly by-stander. He was a bad-ass.”

Well, that’s true. But the immense social significance of the cleansing of the Temple seems overlooked. We don’t have anything like the Temple in the western world today. To imagine the level of offense caused by Jesus’ civil disobedience, we must consider that the Temple had socio-cultural import something like Bank of America, the Vatican, and the Lincoln Memorial, rolled all into one.

It was one of the centers of the records of debt; the center of sacrifice and the symbolic presence of God; and the central architectural edifice for ethno-national identity.

To get a sense of the moral indignation effected by Jesus making a scene in the Temple, we should try to imagine someone flipping communion tables and running us out of church; while also being Colin Kaepernick; while also being a better organized Occupy Wall Street—all in one.

Such satire and civil disobedience invites us to see the stupidity of warring and greed, the silliness of our pretense and pomposity, and more, to point us to new possibilities beyond the entrenched status quo.

Such an approach reminds me of the brave Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. In the midst of a grotesque Civil War in 2003, they finally grew weary of their men’s incompetence to effect peace. They grew weary of the deaths of their children. So they decided to hold a public ceremony to “curse the devil back to hell,” and then made a portentous announcement to their husbands: no more sex for you, until this changes.

And what do you know: things changed.

Or I’m reminded of the children who marched in Birmingham, who skipped and danced down the streets, also skipping school, flaunting the pretense of the stupidity of the powers of the City. Their freedom brought forth the police dogs and the fire-hoses—and the news cameras. And with the six o’clock news that day, the old began to crumble in the face of the new.

Or I’m reminded of Mohandas Gandhi, that little man and his loin cloth, weary of the bombastic, overbearing British Empire. He thought it insane that some 100,000 British troops could control untold millions of Indians, and he thought it foolish to respond to their violence with violence, and thus called forth a different kind of bravery. The British forbade Indians making their own salt, because the tax on salt was a primary means of British imperial revenue. So this little man began a long march to the sea, and slowly some thousands began to follow. Finally at the sea-side, he made his way into the sea, and made salt. This little act of disobedience—not ignored, mind you, by the Imperialist powers—cracked the foundation of the Mighty Empire, and its end was near.

And: I’m reminded of all the thousands of young people who marched on this Palm Sunday weekend, weary of the stupidity and ineptitude of adults to address the stupid violence that is racking our land: and hopeful that the young shall lead the old again, in finding some new way forward.

This Holy Week I challenge you to find your own voice of courage, to practice your own art of satire, and to consider the possibilities of the need to disobey illicit authority. 

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