Idle No More. Occupy. A topless protestor invading the legislature. An 84 year old nun arrested and sentenced to 3 years in prison for breaking into a nuclear facility. Anti-pipeline protests. Reconciliation walks. Anti-racism protests in Ferguson. Muslim anti-ISIS protests in Edmonton. Canada-wide protests against the Bill C-51 anti-terrorism bill. A group of Innu blocking corporate truck traffic to a new hydroelectric project in Quebec that threatens their traditional lands. The “I am Charlie” demonstrations world-wide. Men in Turkey and Azerbaijan posting pictures of themselves in miniskirts to protest the stabbing death of a woman who was trying to fend off rape. The Sisters in Spirit campaign: to bring awareness to missing and murdered aboriginal women. Stand up for Science rallies.
All of these and more have made the news in the last year. What they all have in common is a concerted effort to bring the attention of the community to a particular issue, using public action. Such things are increasingly common in our media-saturated world. Everyone is vying for the stunt or the massive event that will get them their 30 seconds of time on the evening news. More than that, they are trying to catch the attention of the public – to call them to action and to change, to influence their behaviour, and their voting. There are so many such activities now that they have lost much of their power – which is probably why groups like Femen use tactics like topless protests to stand out from the crowd.
The more outlandish the act, the more likely it is to get attention. The prophets of Israel knew this. Various prophets who preceded Jesus smashed pottery in the public square, walked around Jerusalem naked, gave their children bizarre names to signify both judgement and hope, wore a wooden yoke across their shoulders wherever they went, bought land in a field about to be overrun by foreign armies, married a prostitute, and more. Compared to their actions, Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem is relatively tame – or at least, it was, until he went into the temple and started turning over tables.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt (or a donkey, depending on the Gospel.) The people line the streets, waving branches – and crying, “Hosanna; blessed is the coming of David’s kingdom!”: in other words, “Save us, and bring Jewish rule back to Judea!” Not so tame after all, is it? About the same time – perhaps even the same day – the Roman governor of Palestine, Pontius Pilate, rode into the city, surrounded by Roman legions. He would not be pleased to hear of another parade, however small or simple, where the people are declaring a backcountry carpenter to be the inheritor of David’s throne! This is another protest – like tents on Wall Street in 2011 or Tiananmen Square in 1989 or the walk though Selma, Alabama in 1965. It is meant to contrast with the pomp and political domination of the Roman system. In effect, the Jesus movement is saying, “the emperor has no clothes”: despite the willingness of many to pretend everything is OK, even to benefit from the oppressive system in place in Palestine, Jesus’ actions help the people claim the truth that it is God’s rule, not Caesar’s rule, under which they should live.
Seen in that light, the events of Good Friday are not terribly surprising. It’s perhaps more surprising that Jesus wasn’t arrested then and there. But Mark tells us in story after story of this Holy Week that the authorities were afraid of what the people might do. That’s an interesting point, for me. When people band together in a common cause, their oppressors hesitate to act. It is only when Jesus is betrayed by one of his own disciples, that the Roman and Jewish leaders act together to arrest and imprison him. What would have happened if that crowd had continued to support him, or if his disciples had not turned away from him? The Romans could be absolutely brutal when their dominance was threatened, just as absolute rulers today are prone to terrible violence in order to preserve their power. But underhanded tactics are easier, turning people against each other, dividing and conquering – far more effective and less risky for those who govern.
This is a common tactic today: governments and organizations find scapegoats to blame for economic or political woes. They teach people to distrust one another: people of other faiths, people of other backgrounds, people who hold different values. Those who want jobs are divided against those who want to protect the environment – as if both are not possible. Those who want to preserve and uphold the dignity of women are set up as male-bashers or men-haters or worse. Those who want to help the poor are told they’re aiding and abetting laziness and dependence. Those of faith are pitted against those of a scientific mind as if they cannot coexist in the same person! The faltering middle class is pitted against the wealthy at one end or the poor at the other. Seniors are pitted against young people in debates over health care and taxes. Divide and conquer, divide and rule, divide and make people feel powerless, divide and destroy people’s faith in their neighbour, and in their own ability to make change. Divide the people, and soon their “Hosannas” will change to shouts of “Crucify!” Convince them that their Saviour is their enemy, and the present system will survive.
Jesus’ Palm Sunday procession was an act of defiance, a prophetic protest in which Jesus got right in the face of the tyrants and hypocrites who ran his country and said, “Do your worse. I am not afraid of you, because I know who I am, and in whose service I live my life – and yes, I know in whose service I will give my life as well.”
Jesus knew what the end of that procession would most likely be – and yet he went his way, joyfully, purposefully, willing to stand up publicly and be counted in the service of God. What would happen if people of good will all stood up together and refused to be divided? What if we chose to reason together, to act together, to listen to one another, for the sake of the common good, for the commonwealth of God! What if?
Today, I ask you this: how will you stand up and be counted? How will you place yourself in the service of God? How will you publicly witness against evil and in the cause of justice? How will you live the life Christ has called you to? And with whom will you do all this? Amen.