A Holy Protest

Palm Sunday is often seen as a service of opposites – a liturgy that begins with triumph and ends with death, one that begins with hosannas and ends with grief, one that begins with Jesus surrounded by adoring throngs and ends with him hanging alone on the cross.

It is a service where we begin joyfully, then leave subdued and mournful as we head into Holy Week.

Scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have given me a different understanding of this day that begins Christianity’s holiest of weeks.

From them I learned that in Mark’s gospel Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem was not a parade of triumph, but a political farce, mocking the Roman empire which controlled that part of the world.

During the week of Passover, thousands of Jews from throughout the region poured into the holy city of Jerusalem to celebrate God’s liberation of their ancestors from slavery and oppression, a celebration which made rulers of the present-day empire very nervous.

To remind the Jews who was in charge, Roman governor Pontius Pilate set up camp in Jerusalem that week, arriving in town in a military procession that Crossan describes as “a visual panoply of imperial power: Calvary on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.

“There was the sound of marching feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.”

Like dictators and bullies throughout history, Pilate uses the military parade to boost his own ego and to remind those around him who holds power and who does not.

Across town on the same day was Jesus’ procession – led by a Jewish peasant riding on a borrowed donkey with cloaks for a saddle, accompanied by other peasants waving palm fronds, shouting, “Hosanna,” which means “Lord, save us now.”

In essence, Jesus is proclaiming that the emperor has no clothes.

While Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world, Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, that of the kingdom of God.

This contrast and tension between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar is central to Jesus’ life, and particularly to this last week of his life.

We can be assured that even in the days before Facebook and Twitter and 24-hour cable news networks that word of Jesus’ mockery quickly reached the ears of those in power.

So did his actions the very next day – entering the sacred Temple and going on a rampage, turning over tables, chasing people out.

That, too, was a political protest, an act of outrage that the leaders of the Temple, considered by Jews to be the very dwelling place of God, had become collaborators with Rome, collecting Roman taxes and working to keep their Jewish subjects under control.

The last week of Jesus’ life is a week of protest, of demands for justice and the end of oppression, of calls for the establishment of God’s kingdom rather than the emperor’s kingdom.

Episcopal priest David Henson suggests that if we really want to follow Jesus this week, then we too must publicly stand against oppression, “even when and especially when it comes from our own government.”

A true Palm Sunday observance, he suggests, would be to “protest the imperial powers of our day that exploit the poor, the earth and our humanity. Protest the imperial powers that would strip us of our rights, of our dignity, of our voice. Laugh in the face of those who seriously think they can own humanity’s future.”

In Washington DC and across our nation yesterday thousands of people did just that, protesting the grip that the love of guns and the gun lobby has on this nation and our leaders.

The organizers of the March for Our Lives were teenagers, tired of seeing their classrooms turned into killing fields and fed up with politicians who do nothing about it.

Like the Jewish peasants surrounding Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, these teenagers and the thousands who marched with them, including 30,000 here in Atlanta, are offering an alternative vision of society, a vision of the kingdom of God, a place where no innocent people die from gun violence, where classrooms and churches and movie theaters and concerts and streets are safe.

Today is the anniversary of another such march, the Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery. Fifty-three years ago today, that five-day, 54-mile march ended on the Alabama State Capitol steps.

That march, too, was the kind of protest in which Jesus would have been involved, or I believe, was involved. It, too, embodied an alternative vision, one of the kingdom of God, a kingdom where all of God’s children, no matter the color of their skin, are treated equally.

It took three tries before the Selma to Montgomery march could be completed. In the first attempt, a procession of 600 people, many in their dress shoes and Sunday best, first gathered in church to pray, then walked peacefully two by two on the sidewalk of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they met the full force of the violent empire.

Crossan’s description of Pontius Pilate’s procession could apply equally to what the peaceful protesters met in Selma – “a visual panoply of imperial power: Calvary on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons.”

The ensuing violence by those who were sworn to uphold the law and protect the citizenry was one of the most shameful episodes in this country’s history.

Film of that violent Bloody Sunday shocked the nation, and when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King issued a call to people of faith to come to Selma to aid in the protest, thousands responded.

One of those who answered the call was a 39-year-old woman from Detroit, Viola Liuzzo, already known as a civil rights activist in her own community.  She left her husband and five children and drove to Selma in the family station wagon, where she was put to work organizing and providing support for the ultimately successful five-day march.

On March 25, 1965,  Liuzzo was among the 25,000 people who crowded the streets of Montgomery, listening as King spoke from a flat-bed truck in front of the capitol steps.

After the crowds dispersed, Liuzzo went back to work, ferrying people back and forth between Montgomery and Selma in her Oldsmobile. She planned to begin driving to Michigan as soon as her work was finished.

As evening fell she was traveling on Highway 80 in Lowndes County, Alabama. A car with four Klansmen pursued her on the darkened road. As they overtook her, three of the men fired guns, hitting Liuzzo twice in the head. She was killed instantly.

Viola Liuzzo died on March 25. This year March 25 is Palm Sunday. On the church calendar it is also the Feast of the Annunciation, the day that the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her that she will bear a son who will be the savior of the world.

Mary responds to the angel’s startling announcement with song. Although she is a mere teenager, younger than the organizers of yesterday’s March for Our Lives, she instantly understands what the birth of this child will mean, the kind of world her son will usher in.

“God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,” she sings. “He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”

In other words, her son has come to usher in the kingdom of God, a kingdom of peace and justice for all of God’s people.

Empires are inevitably threatened by that vision of peace and justice. Jesus sacrificed his life for God’s kingdom. So did Viola Liuzzo.

Both were martyrs for the kingdom of God.

The word martyr in Greek means “witness.”

We are all called to be witnesses for God’s kingdom. That does not mean we are all called to be martyrs as we have come to understand that word, not that we are called to die for our beliefs.

But we are called to be witnesses, to live and give our lives on behalf of God’s kingdom, to be witnesses to God’s love and mercy, to protest against injustice and oppression in ways large and small.

Hosanna!  Hosanna in the highest!

Blessed are all who march for the kingdom of God!

Amen.

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