Palm Sunday has historically focused on the Triumphant Entry of Jesus. It has centered the narrative of Jesus’ prophetic critique of the Roman government delivered through an act of political satire that mocked imperialism and its pageantry. Prophetic critique can be defined as a principled public criticism of and opposition to systematic injustice and Jesus ride through the center of town on a lowly donkey surely qualifies this scene (Hendricks 2011). What we rarely talk about is what this moment may have been for those bore witness to the scene. Why would they cheer and celebrate this liberative movement, and yet a week later those same crowds cried out for Jesus to receive the death penalty? What was it about these people that caused them to respond in vastly different ways to the same voice of liberation?
I submit, that the crowds of oppressed people born under Roman occupation, suffered from self-hate and oppression sickness. Oppression sickness is internalized oppression that causes the oppressed to be infected by the sickness of the oppressor (Flunder 2005). It happens when people who are oppressed begin to see themselves in the same way the oppressor sees them and causes the oppressed who long for freedom to reject those who speak of freedom. There is often immense struggle for oppressed or exploited groups to have or maintain a standpoint on which to critique dominant structures because in their own minds the experience of the oppressor confers special jurisdiction over the right to speak about oppression (hooks 1994). That is to say the experience of having no voice teaches people to remain voiceless, and one exceptional voice of liberation is often not enough to sustain a movement toward liberation.
One definition of a prophet is a person who threatens a culture’s power structure by holding up a mirror to its folly and showing where such folly leads. Jesus observed that societies kill those prophets and when the threat of their prophetic voice is gone, they build monuments to the prophets and to watered down, sanitized versions of the teaching of those prophets. They are no longer then cultural critics, rather they become tools of the dominant power structures of those cultures. Jesus obviously intuited this would be his own fate and yet engaged his role in the epoch fiercely (Pearce 2002). Oppressed people struggle to identify the voice of the prophet until they are handed a sanitized version of the prophet, at which time they begin to question the narrative and move toward the potency of the true message. We see this very scenario played out in the lives of Malcolm X, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Creaser Chavez, and Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J.
What the crowd failed to realize is the same thing that oppressed people everywhere must learn. It is only through rejection of oppression – which is always defined as rebellion – that liberation comes. Truly the message of Jesus was love, and the only way to demonstrate true love of self and of the oppressor alike is to rebel against the tyranny of domination. Paradoxical though it may seem love may only be found in the wholesale rejection of the violence of oppression (Freire 2000). Jesus’ act of political resistance was seen by Rome as a threat in that oppressors conditioned by the experience of oppressing others will always see anything other than dominating as a violation of their sovereign rights. The crowd had not moved far enough toward internal freedom and decolonization to recognize the messenger of hope in the moment as signal that true liberation had come.
Jesus engages a pedagogy of the oppressed in this moment as prophetic praxis. The crowd fails to engage this learning movement because the threat of freedom was far greater than they had been conditioned to process and yet the moment is not lost on us as we look back through the privileged lens of history. I wonder how far we have really come as we engage our celebration of Palm Sunday? Do we see this as an opportunity to speak truth to power and call the attention of our congregation to the dominating forces of evil? Are we in danger of repeating the mistake of the crowd in not recognizing how imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy violently marginalizes the masses while the wealthiest one percent have become a ruling class? Will we cry hosanna while doing nothing to support those voices who bear witness to our freedom? Who will we be in this moment?
Non schola, sed vitae,
Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin |Director of Liturgy and Worship| Assistant Clinical Professor
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Flunder, Yvette A. 2005. Where The Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion. Cleveland: The Pilgram Press.
Freire, Paulo. 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Bloomsbury.
Hendricks, Obery. 2011. The Universe Bends Toward Justice . Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.
Pearce, Joseph Chilton. 2002. The Biology of Transcendence: A Blueprint of the Human Spirit. Rochester: Park Street Press.