Sunday, March 20, 2016

Help My Unbelief: Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday is a joyous occasion on the Christian liturgical calendar, marking the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. But Palm Sunday is also the beginning of an ending. It immediately precedes the most sorrowful occasion of the Christian calendar: the betrayal and death of Christ. Palm Sunday always reminds me of this contradiction: there were some who shouted "Hosanna in the Highest" on one day, who a few scant days later would also shout "Crucify Him." There were some who greeted Christ as the promised king on one day, who would later mock him and brand him a traitor a few days later. Palm Sunday is a reminder of how quickly public opinion shifts, depending on the whims of the powerful and mighty.

You hear the public shouts for "more money for mental health" when mass murderers from seemingly stable, middle and upper-middle class homes have committed unspeakable acts. But the lynch mob never fails to cry "kill him," when violence erupts among the urban poor, and among black and brown people. Criminals from inner cities are portrayed as animals and thugs, who should be locked in jail with no chance for parole, while murderers from the suburbs are worthy of diagnosis, treatment, and perhaps even rehabilitation. How quickly public opinion shifts...

When the drug crisis rages in urban communities, exacerbated by the lack of jobs and educational opportunities, newspapers detail the moral and ethical failings of the drug-addicted. The crowd exclaims that these black and brown drug addicts are “morally weak,” “out of control,” and offenders whose addictions should be treated as criminal acts. The crowd cries: “build more prisons.” But when the heroin epidemic hits white suburbs, the conversation takes a sympathetic twist for those in the “heartland.” And the crowd shouts for more access to drug rehabilitation centers; the decriminalization of drug offenses; and the treatment of addiction as a disease and not a criminal act. How quickly public opinion shifts…

When the weed dealer is on the corner in the Bronx or in Baltimore, he faces criminal charges that will most likely forever remove him from participating in the “legitimate” economy. “Send him to jail,” says the crowd.  But when the weed dealers are working in Colorado, making millions in marijuana dispensaries, they are labeled creative entrepreneurs for their profits in the drug trade. “Celebrate American ingenuity,” the crowd exclaims. How quickly public opinion shifts…

To truly understand Palm Sunday, you have to acknowledge the rest of the story that occurs later: the shifting of public opinion about the ministry of Jesus; the upcoming betrayal by a friend; a mockery of a trial; and a criminal execution by the state. To truly understand Palm Sunday is to recognize how quickly we can move from praise and affirmation to bloodthirstiness and calls for execution. And our public exclamations of praise or condemnation truly matter; they condemn some to death and offer life to others.

Are our songs of praise and adoration only for the rich and the powerful? Is our respect and admiration only for the well-connected? Are offers of rehabilitation and restoration only for the affluent and comfortable? Or are we willing to sing songs of freedom for those who have no material wealth; those who are the most vulnerable; those who lack the symbolic and tangible goods of prosperity? What do our praises of “Hosanna” mean if we fail to acknowledge the Christ who rides into town on a donkey, with only a carpet of cloaks and small branches for his “royal” procession, deliberately identifying himself with the poor and marginalized? Do we only love “Christ the King” or is there room in our theology for the love of Christ, the tried and executed criminal?

During these final Lenten days, may our cries be of affirmation for our mutual humanity, our mutual brokenness, and our mutual need for salvation. May we recognize the humanity and spark of divinity of those who often find themselves on the losing side of both history and public opinion.

© Yolanda Pierce 

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