A weaponless, army-less liberator rides into the violent polis on a colt. Is he crazy?
WATCH CLOSELY NOW. It is not likely you have ever before heard this take on Palm Sunday. Here it is: in theological and anthropological terms, I imagine Palm Sunday to be as much about ushering in nonviolence as anything.
NAIVE SOCIAL MOMENT? Palm Sunday is at once an outwardly naïve social moment and at the same time an inwardly authentic signal of a new way of living and leading. It is not that Jesus has not thoroughly exemplified nonviolence before now. It is that he is now allowing himself to be publicly declared Messiah in the heart of the polis and the stakes are ever so much higher. Watch him ever so closely now. Strain to observe as he faces his foes and darkest hours having completely renounced violence inside and out.
SIGNAL AND CONFIRMATION. His disarming and symbolic procession into the city on a colt amid shouts of "Hosanna!" isn't just a stunt. Renunciation of violence is heard in Jesus' voice and seen in his actions throughout his last week. The profound shift Palm Sunday signals is confirmed in what we call Holy Week. The nonviolent way of living and leadership Jesus has taught in the towns and rural areas is manifested in the city center and in the crucible of power. Even Jesus' effort to drive religious profiteers (mere pawns of a corrupt system) out of the temple should be taken as a near comical expression of the futility of violence. What does it accomplish?
STRENGTH TO LOVE. But never mistake nonviolence for weakness. Jesus is not at all powerless as he enters Jerusalem. It becomes clear as the week advances, even as the cross is planted and the tomb is sealed, that Jesus is the controlling enigma. His chosen response to intimidation, pressure, accusations, betrayal, desertion, condemnation, suffering, violence, and even death is a nonviolent nonresistance based on love. It is not about giving in to fate or conceding anything. Instead, it is about exercising power that is nothing more or less than faith and trust in a loving God to bring meaning and life to one's existence, journey and mission.
ON AN EXCEPTIONAL PEDESTAL? When it comes to thinking of nonviolence as a way of life, it is a mistake to set Jesus on a heroic pedestal. It is a mistake to think of his actions as exemplary, exceptional, unique, and unrepeatable. It is a mistake to surmise that Jesus' pattern is not intended for our own lives or social and political behaviors. It is a mistake to sentimentally accept Jesus as personal savior and Lord, but immediately bracket and set aside the very core of his witness and pattern. It is erroneous to think of Jesus' nonviolence as limited to--and intended only for--his redemptive acts on our behalf. How can it be that we want his forgiveness and laud his sacrificial life, but are not willing to live nonviolently, nonresistantly, lovingly, trustingly, powerfully ourselves? Is this not, in the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer's phrase, "cheap grace?"
SAYING ONE THING, LIVING ANOTHER. For all our words, worship, songs, and altruistic actions, when it comes to the most powerful aspects of Jesus' witness, do we imitate Jesus? We say we trust God, but do we make a mockery of faith in God's name before the world? We act as if we are certain the future of the world is best left in our self-defending hands and in our calculating control--better yet, in the hands of self-serving politicians and power brokers who give lip service to Christianity but live and act by the same power sources as did the Pharisees, Herod, and Pilate. And we bless them.
CHOOSE YOUR POWER SOURCES CAREFULLY. In Jesus, particularly in his so-called triumphal entry scenario, we are challenged to continuously renounce our violence every day in every encounter. We are given opportunity to renounce the subtlest uses of threats, intimidation, controlling, fear, and shaming. We are invited to let go of the impulse to be self defensive or to coerce others for the sake of keeping the peace or promoting just causes. Whether the arena is our household or the global stage, the opportunity is the same. We are shown how to live from a different place in our soul when it comes to making decisions, facing violence, and exercising power. It is a place of strength, the strength to love. So, choose your sources of power carefully.
A ROAD LESS TRAVELED. Nonviolence is not easy. Folks try hard to be nonviolent. It takes more energy and determination than going with the flow of violence that defines our culture. It is a road less traveled. It is marching to a different drumbeat. Sometimes we can be quite militant in our vigilant commitment to nonviolence, to the point of taking on a violent spirit. I am convinced that a commitment to and actions for nonviolence are not enough. Renunciation is pointless if not for a surpassing love that transcends violence and endues us with a higher power, a life-giving source.
AN EMBRACED TRANSCENDENT LOVE. Nonviolence apart from an embraced transcendent love remains mere idealism. It is right, but only partly so. Renouncing violence is unsustainable personally and socially in merely humanistic terms. Without a spiritually inward transformation, I am not sure that as a social agenda it will work. It seems to me that nonviolence can only lead to shalom if violence is supplanted by agape love.
LOVE AND VIOLENCE. But why is it that many who claim the name and love of God never renounce violence? Why do we not include personal and institutional violence when we declare, in the great confession, that "we renounce Satan and all his works?" Why do we continue to live in reflection of a violent god? Why is the spirit and example of Jesus on Palm Sunday and Holy Week not incorporated into the pattern and practice of our lives--personally and collectively? This remains an open question for me. It puzzles me. It keeps me looking forward.
John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA