“Hosanna!” “Crucify him!” – Palm Sunday to Good Friday.

‘A week is a long time in politics,’ so Harold Wilson is supposed to have said in the run up to winning the 1964 General Election. Wilson was accepting that much can change in politics in a week and so it was also in the politics of 1st century Palestine. According to the Christian story, on what we call Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey to the welcoming shouts of the crowd. “Hosanna,” cried the jubilant crowd, laying palm branches before him.

But a week is a long time in politics (and this is politics not mere religion as we shall see shortly) and by what we call Good Friday the shouts had turned from jubilant to threatening, the crowd from welcoming to rejecting. Instead of “hosanna”, it is “Crucify him!”

This familiar Christian story raises for me images of polarisation and protest echoed in our present-day experience.

Polarisation: Hosanna to Crucify.

Trump narrowly wins the US presidential vote but loses the popular vote. The country seems more divided than ever before in my memory. Pew’s research between 1994 and 2017 appears to bear out my view,[1]  while another piece of Pew research shows how this works out in our personal lives in its suggestion that some liberals say they would have trouble even being friends with Trump voters.[2] No doubt, the reverse is true.

The UK goes to the polls over its membership of the EU and decides to leave by the narrowest of margins. We appear more divided politically than ever in my lifetime. According to the Washington Post: “The center (sic) in British politics has all but disappeared, leaving the country as polarized as the U.S.” [3] The Week said of the 2017 General Election, “Whatever happens on Thursday, one thing is certain – this election will remembered for the polarisation of UK politics.”[4]

 

This phenomenon is not confined to the UK and USA. According to Mohamed A. El-Erian, Chairman, President Barack Obama’s Global Development Council in a 2015 article for the World Economic Forum “the political fragmentation and polarization evident in Western democracies. Fringe movements, some operating within established political structures, and others seeking to create new ones, are placing pressure on traditional parties, making it difficult for them to mobilize their supporters, and, in some cases, causing them real damage. Desperate not to appear weak, long-established parties have become wary of cooperating across the aisle.

The resulting refusal to work together on the major issues of the day has had a dramatic impact on economic policies. Once formulated through negotiations conducted at the political center (sic), where Western democracies have long been anchored, policymaking is increasingly shaped by stubborn forces on the extreme left and right.”

While accepting that this polarisation yielded the occasional breakthrough – sometimes good, sometimes bad” he wrote that “the overall result has been policy paralysis, with even the most basic elements of economic governance (such as actively passing a budget in the United States) suffering as a result.”[5]

If this polarisation has these effects in our economic decision making it also has an impact on social and political discourse, an effect seen very clearly on social media. There, with the President of the USA a prime example, the impression is of people sitting in impregnable bunkers hurling opinion grenades at each other. The no man’s land between is a truly desolate and deserted place, populated only by the ghosts of those who once though that an honest and open exchange of opinions might lead to greater mutual understanding even if not agreement. Asked Pilate in the Easter story: “What is truth?” The polarisation of views and the absence of reasoned debate, coupled with the “fake news” phenomenon seems destined to ensure that unless there is a major change in the way we do politics there is likely to be increasing polarisation, and an even more tenuous grasp on what truth might be. That cannot be good for the wellbeing of our communities or for the world.

As a Christian minister, I ought to acknowledge here that the religious field is also often polarised, and we see examples of the extremes of religious opinion across faith stories and across the world, sometimes, too often, with deadly consequences. For my part, I agree with a friend and colleague who wrote in a recent issue of Progressive Voices (the magazine of the Progressive Christianity Network) that the church must be “open to the idea of an evolving truth and truths, and have an appreciation that our theology has always changed in line with new insights, and always should.”

I am more interested in wrestling with life’s big questions than in pretending that any tradition of faith or philosophy can possibly possess all the answers. What I have discovered is that sharing openly, honestly and humbly with others can enrich our thinking and our lives in very profound ways. Would that that were possible across the field of human relationships so that together we might discover the answers to Pilate’s question: “What is truth”

Protest: “Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

“Jesus comes to Jerusalem as king!” So, the New International Version titles the passage (John 12) which tells the Palm Sunday story. I want to scream: “No, he doesn’t! Not like any king we’d recognise, anyway.” That’s the whole point of this ridiculous image of a man riding a donkey. Have you ever seen a man riding a donkey? Unless it’s a pretty big donkey and a pretty small man, his feet trail in the dust. It looks like the man is carrying the donkey between his legs as much as the donkey is carrying the man. It is a ridiculous sight. It’s like me riding a child’s bicycle and carries about the same degree of dignity.

And kings. What comes to your mind when you think of kings? Power. Wealth. Servants and courtiers. Pomp and circumstance. King Richard III might have been dug up from a car park, but his life wouldn’t have been lived with the common herd. And when they eventually reburied him it was in a cathedral and not a cave! The first image I could find of a mounted Richard showed him on a big white horse, sword in hand, and his enemies – on brown and black horses – falling before his power.[6]

If they don’t ride big white horses what do kings, or even queens, ride around in today? A fancy state carriage! A stretch limousine! A Royal Yacht. A Lear Jet! Queen Elizabeth likes to ride, for pleasure and at state occasions, and she rode with Ronald Reagan when he was US president, but that was on a couple of fine black horses, not on donkeys. Kings, queens and even presidents don’t ride donkeys.

What would a king in those days of Jesus have ridden? In statues and paintings, the Roman emperors are variously depicted on horseback, or with horses, or in chariots hauled by horses. A ruler in the days of Jesus would have ridden the biggest darn horse he could find – not a donkey, for goodness sake. People riding donkeys look ridiculous. Kings have to look grand; you can’t have people laughing at their kings. The whole edifice would collapse. Kings must be up there, untouchable, powerful not donkey riders, that’s no better than circus clowns. And who wants a circus clown for a king?

Why is this important? Well, let’s first of all deal with the Old Testament image echoed in this act of Jesus. Zechariah sees the coming of Zion’s king like this (9:9ff): “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! … See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle-bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

Your king, Jerusalem, is not like any other king; his power is not that of military might and his mode of transport echoes that. He comes on a donkey, no, not even a donkey, but on a colt, the foal of a donkey. How much more ridiculous can this get? It’s as well the king picks the animal up and carries it over his shoulder! No, Jerusalem, your king is not like the other kings you know. His way is different. His presence among you is different; indeed, he is among you and not over you.

The victorious kings you know would come riding in splendour with all the trappings of wealth and power. A victorious entry for the godly king would see him come in righteousness – that is surrounded by the marks of justice – and lowly, that is with and not over.

The image that the New Testament paints of Jesus is that of the lowly king of Zechariah, not just another in the long line of power-hungry, wealth acquiring, murderous rulers of the day. Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem is a protest march. Jesus is acting out how power is to be used, and in so doing showing how it should not be: “Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” (John 19:12)

One of the first acclamations of Jesus’ disciples was this: “Jesus is Lord.” I would hazard a guess that most of us today hear that as a religious title. We’d be wrong. So familiar are Christians with the term and yet so distant from the circumstances in which that great claim was made that we don’t hear it for what it is. This isn’t so much a religious statement as a political one.

It might be political and religious in the sense that the two could not be pulled apart but it’s certainly more than a mere spiritual formula having little or nothing to do with people’s everyday living.

This claim represented oppressed people making a rather rude gesture to Caesar and their Roman overlords: “Jesus is Lord.” What does that mean? Well, it’s a simple as this: if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar isn’t!

Again, we’re not just replacing one power-hungry despot with another; we’re looking to a very different sort of Lord. What sort of Lord was Caesar? Well, we’re back with our image of kings. The Caesar-type lord is a white horse riding, military conqueror, backed by armed legions, kept in power by the state terror that left hundreds upon thousands to die on crosses, not just Jesus and the couple alongside him. When Jesus’ followers say he is Lord they are not only rejecting Caesar but also, and more importantly, the way of Caesar.

Now the first thing I want to say here us that the church has not always, or even often, got this right.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus makes it blindingly obvious that his way is different: He said to his disciples, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; ….  But you are not to be like that.” No, we are to be like the Jesus who is among us as one who serves. Unfortunately, the church has too often fallen for the power trip, lording it over people rather than serving alongside them. The church has taken influence and power to protect and promote itself when our call to service is quite clear in taking us in another direction. There is need for repentance here.

There have been consistently throughout the life of the church those who have called it back from the misuse of power, warned it against getting so close to political power that while it protected its status it lost its edge and purpose.

But, it was not the church that came to my mind this year as I thought of that protest march entering Jerusalem. Fresh in my mind as I listened to the story on Palm Sunday were the very recent protests in America and across the world organised originally by #NeverAgain, a group of survivors of a school shooting, an event all too common in America.

On February 14, 2018, seventeen people were killed and seventeen more wounded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Emma Gonzalez remembered her deceased school mates in this video. [7]

Survivors of that shooting were not willing just to accept the platitudes, the “thoughts and prayers” of national and state leaders. They were determined to challenge the narrative that had allowed this sort of horror to become routine, an acceptable price to pay to preserve the right of Americans to carry guns, even the sort of military style gun used in the Parkland shooting.

In Washington DC, one of something like 800 worldwide actions, tens of thousands gathered to protest under the banner of “March for Our Lives”. Doubtless, as this Washington Post article suggests, there were mixed motives, mixed aims in the crowd but one thing united them: opposition to Caesar (even if Caesar took a variety of forms for them).[8]

Caesar today is represented by those who have power and influence over people’s lives. For the students of that Florida school and their supporters Caesar was a President who vacillated over gun control, and eventually offered very little; the politicians who offered those thoughts and prayers and drew from the students the response “We call BS!”; the National Rifle Association (NRA) whose funding of politicians ensured their views took precedence over those of the students speaking for their dead classmates.

And across the world, Caesar takes many forms, and protest is often the only way to challenge the misuse or abuse of power that Caesar so often exhibits.

Paradox

Here we have the paradox in my thinking: I call for dialogue while at the same time promoting protest. Hypocritical? Perhaps. But there are times when the debate cannot even begin because the issue is not allowed to be aired, or because “what is” is too familiar and seemingly unchangeable. Throughout history, great movements of social change have required protest, sacrifice, speaking out and speaking up. I suspect that will remain the same.

Perhaps it is a vain hope that I have, that protest can bring the important issues of the day into our collective consciousness and that there can be sufficient humility among the powerful to engage with those who seek another way, and that from dialogue change can come. Vain perhaps, but hope I must.

New Life

I’m writing this on Easter Sunday, for the first time in 30 plus years not leading a service on this most important day in my faith tradition, and not well enough to be in church with others. Easter Sunday:  the day of resurrection. There is my hope.

The NRA and its supporters are holding onto a way of life which they value; they do not want to see it die. Those who hold on to male dominance don’t want to see their familiar ways die. Those who oppose LGBT rights, those who oppose immigration may well feel their familiar ways threatened.

But Easter tells me this, out of death comes life. We see it in the turning of the seasons, changes over which we have no control.

We can also see it in those who through faith or the love and support of others have found new life, new ways of living, perhaps letting go of self-destructive or negative ways. Such change often requires great courage in letting go of the past to embrace the future.

It is my faith, my belief that as we see old systems fall, as Caesar is challenged and new ways of being together in our global community are promoted, we can see new life, life more abundant for all.

Jesus’ protest can be said to have failed, snuffed out with his crucifixion and burial. But that was not the end, his words and works live on in those who like him speak for justice, who love the unloved and unloveable, who challenge those who abuse their power, who feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger. And where those things are done, new life appears. Hallelujah!

A task for Christians alone? No. This is one to be shared by those of all faiths or none, those people of good will who abound in our world and see the new life beyond the darkness.

Just days from the 50th anniversary of the murder of Dr Martin Luther King, we remember those who dare to dream that tomorrow may be different; who dare to dream that “justice (can) roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; who dare to dream that that light can come from darkness, and life from death.

On this Easter Sunday, may I invite you to dream the dream and to work together to make it real.

 

[1] http://www.people-press.org/interactives/political-polarization-1994-2017/

 

[2] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/27/16553698/pew-political-typology-polarization

 

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/the-center-in-british-politics-has-all-but-disappeared-leaving-the-country-as-polarized-as-the-us/2017/06/07/045b0554-4afa-11e7-987c-42ab5745db2e_story.html?utm_term=.91254bf7be28

 

[4] http://www.theweek.co.uk/general-election-2017/85345/britains-return-to-two-party-politics

 

[5] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/05/how-political-polarisation-is-crippling-western-democracies/

 

[6] http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2013/08/16/article-2395784-1A2F587B000005DC-267_634x446.jpg

 

[7] https://wapo.st/2pEwi7A

 

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/03/28/heres-who-actually-attended-the-march-for-our-lives-no-it-wasnt-mostly-young-people/?utm_term=.d66f06fc2910

 

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