For Christians, today is Palm Sunday. It marks the beginning of Holy Week, the day on which millions ritually recreate Jesus’s palm-waving parade into Jerusalem shortly before his execution. This is the most important week of the Christian year as it moves from triumphal entry to crucifixion and death to empty tomb.
To be honest, Palm Sunday has always seemed odd to me — a long, long service cobbling together disparate parts of biblical tradition in preparation for the holy days ahead. It made little sense and I often skipped it. That was until 2006, when I read a then-new book The Last Week by New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.
The Last Week begins, “Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30….one was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession” (p. 2).
What? TWO? I had never heard this in church, seminary, or graduate school.
Borg and Crossan describe how two processions met in Jerusalem: “from the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers…his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class.”
At the same time, “on the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor…entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers.”
And thus the dramatic tension of this week:
Jesus’s procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’s crucifixion. (p.2)
That conflict was both political and theological. Pilate’s parade of the military might and vast wealth of Rome, an empire ruled by Caesar, he who was Lord and Savior of the world. (In 30 C.E., Tiberius bore this title, having inherited it from his stepfather, Augustus.) Jesus’s “counter-procession” was a protest of planned mockery of Pilate’s — whose direct appropriation of biblical prophecy and symbolism makes the point that only God is “Caesar” and the real king extends a reign of peace.
And thus, Borg and Crossan lay out the central point of this week in Christian sacred history:
Jesus’s protest, Borg and Crossan insist, “was against a domination system legitimated in the name of God, a domination system radically different from…the coming kingdom of God, the dream of God.”
Thus stated, Palm Sunday made sense to me for the very first time.
Now, I see Palm Sunday everywhere.
We live in a world of two processions. We inhabit a long history of Caesars —establishing empires of their own power and economic exploitation all while claiming God’s blessing — to be challenged by those oppressed and their alternative proclamations of peace and justice. The way of worldly power. And that different way.
“Two processions entered Jerusalem on that day.” Long ago, yes. But, as Borg and Crossan claim, “The same question, the same alternative, faces those who would be faithful to Jesus today. Which procession are we in? Which procession do we want to be in?” Not just on Palm Sunday. Not only in Holy Week. But everywhere the procession shows up. No matter the week, the year, or the city.
Two days ago, these two tweets showed up back-to-back on my Twitter timeline.
The first tweet, sent out by Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and director of the King Center, reacts to legislation signed by Georgia governor Brian Kemp that restricts voting rights. The image shows Governor Kemp surrounded by a small group of white men, notably in front of a painting of a notorious Georgia slave-plantation, signing a bill designed to limit the rights of black people and poor people, while giving the state legislature power over local elections boards and state election results.
The second tweet is a story about Evanston, Illinois, the first city to offer direct payment reparations — financial benefits designed to redress slavery and subsequent policies of racial discrimination — to some of its black residents. Evanston is the first city to join a handful of colleges and universities — including Georgetown University and Virginia Theological Seminary — now offering reparations to descendants of those wronged by slavery.
Borg and Crossan’s questions jumped to mind:
Which procession are we in? Which procession do we want to be in?
The choice here is clear — although some, no doubt, will challenge me on that. But the Georgia bill is designed (even with the most egregious elements removed) to target access of people of color to the ballot. It is an expression of the most powerful — those white men who have so long controlled politics in Georgia — consolidating their grip on a political system at the expense of those whom they have oppressed. It was a parade of trite defenses: “we’re not racists” and “this bill is only about fairness in elections.” Ultimately, however, Kemp’s show put old Georgia plantation power on full display, as the Caesars who have long ruled the state reminded the underclass who the master really is.
To prove the point, the lone black legislator who dared to show up to witness the ceremony was arrested for the crime of knocking on the governor’s and was hauled off to jail.
All very Holy Week, don’t you think? I’m pretty sure had Jesus shown up at the Roman governor Pilate’s parade, the authorities would not have waited a week to arrest him. They’d have done it that very moment.
And yet, at the very same time, the good people of Evanston have started to walk a different way. Some critics suggest it is far too little. But it shows they — at the very least — want to go a new way, figure out how to overcome a politics of oppression and redirect public goods toward forgiveness and reconciliation. They’ve begun a journey. The first steps on a historic procession that many hope will lead toward a new American morning of justice and peace.
To many white people reparations seem frightening, radical. Full access to the ballot for the poor, for black and brown people, for those kept from using their voice — that has long threatened the contented citizens of Caesar’s empire.
I wonder: What did that alternative procession seem like in Jerusalem so many years ago to those who liked Roman rule? This Jewish rabbi and his pitiful followers mocking their Imperial Lord, with that ridiculous donkey and their palm fronds? Who was that rabble to challenge the power of Empire, the glory that was rightfully Rome?
The Gospel of Luke records this moment on the first Palm Sunday:
As Jesus came near and saw Jerusalem, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.’
As I read the text today, I thought instead:
As Jesus came near and saw Atlanta, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.’
Not only Atlanta, of course. Phoenix. Lansing. Washington, D.C. London. Wherever the delusions of Rome hold sway.
Those in Caesar’s procession, dazzled by their own power and wealth, are blinded to the possibility of a world of peace: They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and the spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:4). In that place, they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid (Micah 4:4).
Palm Sunday is a day to choose: Which procession are we on? Which procession are you in?
There is life in the path of righteousness, but another path leads to death.
— Proverbs 12:28
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
— Robert Frost
Now to the gate of my Jerusalem,
The seething holy city of my heart,
The saviour comes. But will I welcome him?
Oh crowds of easy feelings make a start;
They raise their hands, get caught up in the singing,
And think the battle won. Too soon they’ll find
The challenge, the reversal he is bringing
Changes their tune. I know what lies behind
The surface flourish that so quickly fades;
Self-interest, and fearful guardedness,
The hardness of the heart, its barricades,
And at the core, the dreadful emptiness
Of a perverted temple. Jesus come
Break my resistance and make me your home.
— Malcolm Guite
We need to undomesticate Palm Sunday in our churches. Jesus was staging a kind of counter-demonstration. While Pilate rode into the city on a military stallion, Jesus entered on a borrowed donkey, symbolized sovereignty—but also Zechariah’s promise that Yahweh would one day banish the war horse forever! The procurator claimed the Pax Romana, the Nazarene a “Pax Christi.” Pretty subversive stuff—and our churches have the habit of recreating that “demonstration” in our Palm Sunday liturgies. But to really represent this gospel story in our world, we need to re-contextualize its symbols into our political moment, and re-place our witness back into public space.
— Ched Myers
Without the voices from the edges publicly demanding, wailing, and protesting, institutions and systems that engage in exclusionary, oppressive, or marginalizing practices continue to operate with apathy or impunity. Destructive systems do not change themselves, and those working for change within these systems can’t do it alone.
― Bruce Reyes-Chow
Protest is telling the truth in public. Sometimes protest is telling the truth to a public that isn’t quite ready to hear it. Protest is, in its own way, a storytelling. We use our bodies, our words, our art, and our sounds both to tell the truth about the pain that we endure and to demand the justice that we know is possible.
― DeRay Mckesson
BOOK RELEASE DAY: MARCH 30
FREEING JESUS comes out on MARCH 30! It combines spiritual memoir, history, the Bible, and cultural observations into a genre I call “memoir theology” to unpack who Jesus is — and can be — in our lives.
For more information and pre-ordering options, please click here. Also, don’t forget to check with your favorite local bookseller!