It is Palm Sunday today, when Christians remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as his supporters waved palm leaves. In a clear parody of a royal procession, Jesus challenged the Roman imperial rulers and the religious leaders who colluded with them.
The message of Jesus continues to pose a challenge to the power structures of the world. Jesus called for loyalty to the kingdom of God, an upside-down community in which the first are last and the last are first, unlike any kingdom in the normal sense of the word.
Jesus thus challenges us all to consider our priorities. That is why I find Palm Sunday both inspiring and disturbing.
Since the fourth century in particular, the powers of this world have found ingenious and innumerable ways to domesticate the radical message of Jesus. Palm Sunday serves as an example of this.
Many churches – outside of lockdown times – literally bring a donkey into church to mark the occasion. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this in itself: riding on a donkey was a way in which Jesus fulfilled a messianic prophecy and also satirised a military procession. But reducing Palm Sunday to a day on which you have the excitement of a donkey in church risks turning this revolutionary and disturbing event into a fluffy and comfortable story.
Any Tory MPs marking Palm Sunday today have, I dare say, found a way to reconcile their celebrations with their support for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – nicknamed the Police Crackdown Bill – which will impose severe long-term restrictions on peaceful protests. Amongst other undemocratic measures it will allow the police to impose limits on the start times, end times and noise levels of static protests as well as marches. In recent days, some of those same Tory MPs (and some others too) have been falling over each other in their rush to express their support for the police violently attacking peaceful protesters in Bristol and Manchester.
Had the Tories and and their allies been there on the original Palm Sunday, I dare say that the Daily Mail would have reported that Jesus’ supporters were violent thugs who had attacked law-abiding Roman soldiers with the sharpened branches of palm trees.
However, Palm Sunday is a challenge to all of us, not just to those with power. I, like most Christians, like to believe that had I been around then I would have supported Jesus to the end. But some of his most famous followers failed to do this. How many of us would have waved palm leaves as Jesus rode into Jerusalem but joined the crowds shouting “crucify him!” a few days later?
So let’s allow ourselves to be challenged on Palm Sunday. But also, let us recognise the challenge that the original Palm Sunday posed in particular to political and religious leaders, and to the unjust structures that sustained them. If a Palm Sunday celebration does not involve a political challenge, then I have to say that I’m really not sure that it’s worth participating in.