Palm Branches, Politics and Parades
A Politically Religious Protest
A group of people gathered around the apartment building of their Hungarian born pastor, László Tőkés, on December 15, 1989. They did not look very imposing. They did not chat threatening slogans against the government. They did not deliver political speeches. They sang the psalms and recited prayers. They were not radical militants. Few would have suspected them of being subversives. Many of them were women and children and members of the Hungarian Reformed Church in Timişoara, Romania. They only gathered to protect their pastor from being evicted from his apartment and pulpit, but their initial stand would directly lead to the toppling of the 22 year reign of Nicolea Ceauşescu's reign as the Communist dictator of Romania.1
How could that be? How could a religious vigil have political consequences? Are we suppose to keep religion and politics separate? Ironically, throughout Biblical history religion always had political consequences. Even Jesus' short unassuming ride into the city of Jerusalem was a political statement that we often set aside in favor of a moralized religious interpretation of the events. However, from a review of the details of that ride, we can only conclude that Jesus intended to make a political and religious statement that morning.
The festival of Passover began as a political-religious festival. The celebration marked the deliverance of the Jewish people from 400 years of bondage. Throughout its history, whenever Israel encountered times of national crisis, its leaders would remind the people of their past irreverence's to instill hope. Jesus' participation in the religious feast was required by the Law but it would have its political implications.
Jesus amplified the political implications of his attendance by the method of his grand entrance. This is a very deliberate and possibly planned event. Notice the instruction to his disciples, “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden.“ We too, quickly assume that his divine intuition allowed him to predict future events. But I wonder if he knew because he had prearranged with someone to post the colt. Knowing that he would again return to Jerusalem, could he have made arrangements with a farmer to tie a colt to a railing at least six days before Passover. Jesus would have known the prophecy from Zechariah
Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of
The code language that Luke includes reinforces this idea. The disciples are told that if anyone should question this they are to say, “the Lord needs it.” The response does not make any sense unless the owner of the colt understood the meaning of the phrase. Either he recognized the men or he understood the meaning of their word. In either case, it suggests that Jesus exercised a great deal of attention to ensure that the details of his entrance into Jerusalem was exactly how he intended. Details that can only be understood as having great political consequences.
Jesus's triumphal entry into the clogged streets of Jerusalem ...was thus a highly symbolic and provocative act, an enacted parable, or street theater that dramatized his subversive mission. He didn't ride a donkey because he was too tired to walk or because he wanted a good view of the crowds. The Oxford scholar George Caird once characterized Jesus's triumphal entry as more of a "planned political demonstration" than the religious celebration that we sentimentalize today. 2
Politics are too Political
I believe that preachers tend to moralize their lessons from Scripture because morals are usually a safer subject than politics, especially in today's highly charged climate. But if Biblical events had political implications, we cannot be faithful to our calling unless we attempt to apply them to the political events of today. At his trial, Jesus was accused of subverting the nation. The religious leaders told Pilate that he was causing civic turmoil.
People today argue about who's "subverting our nation." A friend in Florida forwarded me an email that blamed Muslims in America for our problems. Others attack evangelicals as "Christian fascists." For a long time now others have taken aim at "secular humanists" and liberal Democrats. On his nationally televised program Jerry Falwell blamed the wickedness of pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the ACLU, and People for the American Way for the 9-11 disaster, which he construed as God's judgment. Pat Robertson, a guest on the show, nodded in agreement, “well, I totally concur.” The greed of corporate executives and the sleaze of Hollywood movies also make easy targets..3
I wonder if the church is ever accused of subverting the nation because it has become so enmeshed with the culture that it cannot be separated. The two have become one and that is not a good thing. Lines of distinction can no longer be drawn between the secular and the religious community. The religious community is just as likely to be influenced by the secular as it is to influence. Often our discussions in the church on social and political matters are not any different from the discussions in a high school or college civics class. We have forgotten how to think with a theo-political mind. We have disengaged from the practice of using our Biblical reflections to guide our political beliefs. The Biblical view of the land has been transplanted by a Roman value of individual property rights. The admonition and its rationale to protect the stranger and sojourner is seldom considered in our discussion of immigration laws. The fundamental principles for the year of Jubilee that would discourage the mass accumulation of wealth never entered into our conversations over a change in the inheritance tax. Our responsibility for being stewards of creation is seldom included in our conversations on energy policy.
In an article on Passover, two Jewish authors wrote,
Each generation is commanded to understand the story of Passover in its own language based on the pressing issues of its own communal life. In recent times, the vision of the Exodus served as a living metaphor for leaders from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Abraham Joshua Heschel in their quest to deliver America from racism and grant equality in the 1950s and ‘60s. The same story offered spiritual power to the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1970s and ‘80s. I– 4
The Christian is not limited to just the Passover story. The apostle Paul wrote to his protegé Timothy, “ All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, (2 Timothy 3:16)” Righteousness has more than just personal standards of holiness. It includes our attitudes and actions in the political world. Jesus was a religious teacher whose life and teachings threatened the political rulers of his day. Why is it so far a stretch to say that as his fully devoted followers, our lifestyle threatens the political rulers of our day?
1The idea for this came from Chuck Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict and verified using several articles in Wikipedia.
2Dan Clendenin , journeywithjesus.net, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070326JJ.shtml
4Yosef Israel Abramowitz and Stephen Hazan Arnoff, "Four Questions, Five Answers: On Passover, Peoplehood, and Policy," Zeek, April 7, 2007, http://www.zeek.net/704seder/
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