Category: Pondering Peace

Two Processionals, Two Ways

In churches across the country, Palm Sunday was celebrated with a processional of children and adults waving palm branches and singing songs of “Hosanna!”  This annual ritual beginning Holy Week reenacts the gospel narrative of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with a multitude of followers waving branches, praising God, and lauding Jesus as the king who comes in the name of the Lord.

It was a prophetic symbolic action reminding those who saw it of a victorious king, who after having conquered the enemy, now is coming home to reenter the city he rules.  However, Jesus was not riding a war horse.  He was riding a donkey.  The meaning of this action becomes clearer if we read further in the text that Matthew quotes: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey… He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations” (Zechariah 9:9-10).  The whole event was deliberately nonviolent, proclaiming God’s reign of peace.

When they approached the summit of a hill, they could look over the city of Jerusalem with its magnificent temple gleaming in the sun. It should have been a wonderful moment of joy and celebration.  Instead Jesus was filled with grief and wept. He grieved at the destruction that would overtake the city.  He wept at the suffering that would come to the people because they were not choosing the way of peace. Through tears he said, “If you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” (Luke 19:41-42).

In The Last Week, New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan write that quite likely around the very same time another processional was occurring on the opposite side of the city.  Mounted on war horses and brandishing weapons of war, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and his soldiers were also entering Jerusalem.  It was a display of military strength intended to convey the message to these subjugated people that acts of rebellion and public unrest would not be tolerated and that order would be maintained during the Passover. Normally, Pilate spent his time at the more pleasant coastal city of Caesarea, but during the Passover, he needed to be in Jerusalem to make sure things did not get out of hand.

Passover celebrated the people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt many years earlier.  It stirred their longings for liberation now from the injustice, oppression, and impoverishment forced upon them by their Roman occupiers and the collaborating ruling class religious leaders. The people were desperate and restless such that their gathering in Jerusalem could create a tinderbox for violent uprising.  Somehow Jesus felt he must go to Jerusalem at this volatile time, even though he foresaw the dangers and realized it could mean his death.

These two processionals on opposite sides of the city starkly symbolize two different ways. The Roman military procession exemplified the way of violence.  The “counterprocession” of Jesus and his followers announced the way of peace. Roman imperial power and wealth was attained by brutal violence and ruthless oppression.  Jesus taught love not only of God and neighbor, but also for one’s enemy.  He gathered a growing community of followers and taught them to be peacemakers and justice-seekers, to care for those in need, and to live simply, trusting in God’s provision.  He broke down the walls that divided people and welcomed in those on the fringes of society.  He showed that the reign of God was one of compassion, grace, love, and nonviolence.

This Holy Week once again places before us the contrast between the world’s way of violence and Jesus’ way of peace. It invites us to soberly reflect on which way we actually believe in, support, and live.  At first thought, it may seem obvious that as Christians we are followers of Jesus’ way of peace.  I hope so, but we live in a nation that believes in the way of violence.

Like ancient Rome, American global dominance is built on and supported by military might and a willingness to use violence to benefit American interests.  The United States allots almost half of its discretionary spending to an annual defense budget of over $800 billion. This is more than the next nine countries combined, which includes Russia and China.  It operates around 750 U.S. military bases overseas in 80 countries and territories.  This is at least three times that of all other nations combined.  American citizens also appear to believe that the use of violence can be justified.  With just 4% of the world’s population, Americans own 46% of the world’s civilian-owned guns.  This country is awash in firearms – 120 guns for every 100 people.  And despite over 48,830 deaths by gun violence a year, a significant proportion of the population and leadership stand in the way of gun regulations.

We’ve had another recent heartbreaking school shooting in which innocent children and adults were killed. Once more the pall of violence has been felt acutely across this nation.  If all of those who call themselves by the name of Christian and claim to follow Jesus were to reject guns, work together, and follow Jesus’ way of peace, could it not make a difference on this intractable issue?

Jesus spent Holy Week teaching a growing crowd in the temple.  We have only a sampling of those teachings, but I would imagine he continued to teach the ways of peace, justice, compassion, and love, as he had throughout his ministry.  We do read of his provocative actions and words that prophetically challenged ruling religious leaders to change.  Instead, viewing him as a growing threat, they chose the way of violence and set Jesus up for crucifixion.

This story of humanity is heartbreaking.  It’s a story of rejecting and killing the One within whom lived the presence of God most perfectly, who embodied a life of love and compassion, and who taught the way of peace. As Jesus lived through the events we remember this Holy Week, he never swerved from the way of peace.  He rejected violent defense on his behalf and healed the one injured by it.  When reviled and mocked, no violent words came from his mouth.  Hanging on the cross, he forgave those who were killing him. No matter how people act today who claim the identity of Christian, the events of Holy Week make clear that Jesus was a man of nonviolence and peace. And he believed that ultimately the power of love would bring the new life of God’s reign.

Rev. Ruth Rosell, Ph.D.
Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence
Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology Emerita
Central Seminary, Shawnee, KS


Photo by Brady Leavell on Unsplash