Palm Sunday: A Political Protest
I read Harvey Cox’s book, The Future of Faith, awhile back when I still had a size 30 waistline. I can’t recall much of that book, but I do remember one thing he pointed out. He described Jesus’ ministry as both anti-kingdom and counter-kingdom. It was anti-kingdom in that Christ’s teaching went against the empires and institutions that wielded their oppressive power through exploitation and the threat of violence. But it was also counter-kingdom insofar as Christ inaugurated a better way, a better kingdom — one of peace and forgiveness.
We see this anti-/counter-kingdom on display in the Triumphal Entry. All four Gospels recount how Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey as the week of Passover began, while large groups of people laid down palm branches before him singing, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
The scene can be viewed as a kind of political protest against the powers that be. Palm branches, for instance, had been a nationalistic symbol of Judea since the days of the Maccabees, and were often used to celebrate liberation. Here, Jesus is greeted with palm branches to highlight him as one who brings freedom from oppression.
Christ, however, doesn’t achieve this freedom as a militaristic hero riding on a horse into battle — something they would have expected — but as a humble, non-violent peacemaker on a donkey (an animal symbolizing peace). The image echoes a passage from the prophet Zechariah:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
Righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
On a colt, the foal of a donkey. (9:9)
The passage continues: “I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations” (9:10).
The brunt of this event becomes that more powerful when one realizes a lesser known historical fact. While all this was going on, the Roman Imperial procession was also entering Jerusalem for Passover from the other side of the city. Every year, the Roman governor, Pilate, made himself present in the city, along with his cavalcade of soldiers, to reinforce imperial rule. The goal was not just to prevent rioting during this politically charged Jewish festival, it was also a show of power. Rome was essentially saying, “Have your little party, but do not fuck with us!”
When we compare Pilate’s procession with Christ’s, the contrast is stark, offering two visions of what this world can and should look like: the empires and institutions we’re already familiar with, or the kingdom of God. The former employs violence to achieve dominance, the latter is about seeking justice through non-violent peace making.
Palm Sunday, then, signals the need for justice in light of a corrupt system — the same kind of system that executed our Lord — through a radical display of non-violent action. But in a culture like ours that assumes empire as the norm, this might prove more difficult than we think. We might want to start by reflecting on the ways we’ve conformed to the accepted norms of our world, and work our way from there.
Happy Palm Sunday citizens of planet earth, and have a great Holy Week!