A Colt Not Yet Ridden: A Palm Sunday Reflection

The March 29 fire at the Highlander Research and Education Center, where I serve as Co-Executive Director, compels me to send a word directly to my white Christian kin, especially on this morning of Palm Sunday, which ushers in Holy Week, the final days of Lent.

In this season of repentance, fasting, and preparation for the celebration of God’s promised gift of resurrection life, we pay attention to God’s calls to remember that we are followers of a resurrected Christ, a prince of Peace who, before his execution by the state, entered a Roman-occupied Jerusalem on a colt (sometimes translated as “donkey”). Read again (aloud, if you’d like) the story of Jesus’ entry into the city, as told to us by the Gospel attributed to Luke (Chapter 19, verses 29–40):

When [Jesus] had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.

As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

The latter days of Holy Week grow more somber as we celebrate the Last Supper and Jesus’ betrayal on Thursday, his final hours of humiliation and suffering and death on Friday, and then, of course, Saturday’s uneasy quiet, which is when we ask: will the tomb be empty tomorrow?

But Palm Sunday? Not so somber. Quite the opposite. It’s the day to amplify Zechariah’s prophecy: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion, shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey,” and so we give thanks for the Jewish traditions into whose narrative streams we wade. It’s the day to sing the Psalms to God for having signaled another promise of liberation, and so we sing. It’s the day to remember that Jesus told two disciples, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here,” and so we go ahead and find it, because “the Lord needs it.”

I want to be clear: although progressive and radical Christians have influenced Highlander from our founding in 1932 up to today, Highlander is not a Christian organization. People who sift through our library and archives will find in the deep contours of Highlander’s past and present evidence of work with practicing Christian communities all over the South and the world, but they will also discover a treasure trove of work with people from a range of spiritual traditions, ways of knowing, and ways of expanding and sometimes resisting the often problematic notions of “belief.”

Certainly, while many of Highlander’s staff are (or were) practicing Christians, many are of other or no traditions, and just as many have endured the trauma of the Church’s rejection of and assault on their lives and identities. At Highlander, we work to practice the complexity of living in a both/and world, where someone’s source of oppression may also be a lens through which they imagine and live into their liberation. At our best, Highlander is a radically pluralistic organization, meaning we work as hard as we can — although never perfectly — to embrace and uplift cultural practices, which include the faith and spiritual traditions of the staff who work here and the people we serve.

My own calling to Christian ministry is one that places me at the intersection of the institutional Church and movements for social change. I try to move with intention to speak and act as a white Christian accomplice in efforts to dismantle what my dear friends at Soulforce brilliantly identify as centuries-long movements for (White) Christian Supremacy.

Through that lens, part of our work here at Highlander is to support leaders like Jesus & his disciples as they search for the colt “that has never been ridden.” Our mission is to be a movement catalyst, facilitating people to teach one another about the fragmentation in their lives, to build understandings of the root causes of their struggles, and to bridge gaps in relationships so that people can build whole, life-giving movements to collectively dismantle what we’ve inherited and to collectively build a liberated world we’ve never experienced.

Highlander’s work is dangerous. The movements that Highlander supports rattle the powers of the status quo. In any given week, our staff is accompanying queer, trans, black, brown, indigenous, immigrants, refugees, working class/cash-poor white, rural, urban, disabled, youth, students, elderly, PhDs, school children, currently and formerly incarcerated people, and most anyone else from across the Appalachian mountains to the rest of the South and beyond who yearn to expand economic and social democracy and resist white supremacy. And we invite them to sing together. And eat together. And we listen to them, because they are us.

Highlander’s work is dangerous because it both catalyzes and gives structure to chaos. It walks with the two disciples to find a colt not yet ridden to prepare the movement’s leadership to enter the heart of the Empire. And it is dangerous not because it seeks violence, but because it laughs at the thought that violence will destroy our relentless pursuit of freedom.

Highlander’s work is dangerous because it helps people remember. Similar to German theologian Johann Baptist Metz’s description of “dangerous memory,” Highlander’s educational work creates opportunities for people to name and understand what’s oppressing them while also reminding them of the cultural, spiritual, faith, economic, and political traditions that promise us all something more. As one of our founders, Myles Horton, used to say, two basic groups of people gather at Highlander: those with a lot of anger and those with a lot of hope. Together, they are beautifully disruptive.

Out of all the reasons Highlander is dangerous, it’s our work with memory that stands out to me in light of March 29th’s fire. When I saw the spray-painted symbol of the Iron Guard on our office’s parking lot, I didn’t have as much knowledge of the symbol’s history as I do now. Journalists have drawn connections between the symbol’s roots in the white European fascist movements of the early 20th century and the white power movements that are terrorizing and murdering people across the world, in the mountains of Tennessee, and, now, the people and place my calling has led me to serve.

I am not naive. I grew up aware of the long Euro-American colonial project to legally codify whiteness and enact genocide against indigenous people and enslaved African people. On both sides of my family, I am a descendant of those who fought for and defended the planter slavocracy and its Confederate insurgency in the 19th century. I encountered the Klan throughout high school. I organized in a neighborhood where rural white youth had to make a decision to either do their homework or run drugs for an all white gang. I have seen police brutality up close. I live in the US and in the South under the current regimes. I was in Morristown, Tennessee, last year after ICE’s workplace raid. I kept a close eye on the results of Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign. I saw yesterday’s news about the sitting president’s most recent attack on Rep. Ilhan Omar. And I have long known about the various architects of white supremacy and their disdain for Highlander and the movements we support.

But it was the day after the fire when it first hit me, as I was trying to establish some sense of order for myself by re-creating a list of Highlander projects that once hung in my former office. The list began:

I stepped back from the list and said to myself, “They want to erase us.”

They want to erase us. They know Highlander is led by a black queer Christian woman and that I am pastor. They know this staff is black and brown and white and queer and poor and young and old. We are anathema to them, which is why there is no better framing of this situation than the recent assessment of the fire offered by Robin D.G. Kelley and Makani Themba. Indeed, as Kelley and Themba write, “it’s an act of war.”

What happened at Highlander on March 29 was a White Christian Supremacist attack on the memories of rural Southern people. It was an intentional assault on the memories of a region that has long sought to tell the world that rural struggle is both possible and very real in the South. The culprits — wittingly or not — have joined a broader right wing strategy to politically and spiritually manipulate and exploit the nuanced lives of my biological family and my movement kin, especially those in the mountains. And this act attack has placed an exclamation point on the liberal establishment’s divestment of resources from rural communities and the coastal media’s profoundly condescending portrayals of our people.

As for my white Christian kin, what happened is also an act of war against those of us who would claim to be Easter people, and it’s critical to wake up to that. This was not just a fire and some spray paint. This was not just “mean people.” Although the investigation will reveal whatever it does over time, the appropriation of Christian symbols and the names of the Saints, the distortion of Scripture to justify the elimination of God’s Creation — all of this is a particular expression of a broader White Christian Supremacist war against the plurality of Christian thought, traditions, and ecumenical and inter-religious relationships.

The call to white Christian people in this moment, then, is to refuse to concede the Jesus movement to the Empire. Now is past time to learn more about the rise of global fascism and its relationship to Christianity in a 21st century context. Learn more from folks who have been tracking these groups for some time. Bring up these conversations in your congregations. Ground the conversations in the historical context of your families and communities. Make sure you’re talking to the young people in your life.

And on this Palm Sunday, enter Jerusalem with Jesus as the disciples do — singing loudly, almost foolishly, and make the choice to up-end the status quo by following a rural miracle worker. Mock the state’s desire to control and monitor you. Be wary of any portrayal of a Jesus who enters Jerusalem and deals death. That is not a Jesus who asks for “a colt that has never been ridden.” Rather, it is a Jesus who rides on the broken steeds of Empire. Your heart can tell the difference.

Like the Pharisees in the crowd, the community establishment will want you to stop singing. Please don’t stop. But even if you can sing no longer, the rubble left behind here at Highlander will, like Jesus says, “shout out” the truth that needs telling.


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