Prophets, politics and Palm Sunday

March 14th, 2016

Pope Francis and politics

“When Pope Francis stands at the U.S.-Mexico border on Wednesday, he will bring a clarion message from the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The biblical imperative to welcome the stranger and protect the refugee is an ancient commandment,” wrote John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, in a mid-February edition of The Washington Post.

Gehring’s comments came the week after Donald Trump called the Pope “a very political person” and, according to Gehring, “implied Francis was being used by the Mexican government.” Gehring continued, “A pope who travels to the margins as a witness to God’s solidarity with the poor and vulnerable isn’t playing politics. He is following the Gospel.” However, Gehring did say, “In the best sense of the word, Pope Francis is political.” The Pope has stated that “a good Catholic meddles in politics”; and to Gehring, that’s “a pithy summation that reflects centuries of Catholic teaching that views the common good and human dignity as the ultimate aim of politics.”

Palm Sunday provides an opportunity to contrast the message of Jesus and the prophets with the political situation of the Roman Empire and thus to ask what meaning Christians find in the intersection of the prophetic tradition and the politics of a nation. It provides a good time to remember that the Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition names injustice, calls for justice, and holds up God’s vision of shalom for the world.

Jesus and the prophetic tradition

“Prophecy is not future telling, but articulating moral truth. The prophets diagnose the present and point the way to a just solution,” writes Jim Wallis in God’s Politics. The Old Testament prophets — for example, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah — spoke “in the name of the Lord” to kings, rulers, landlords, property owners, judges, the wealthy and religious leaders. Their subjects were most often secular and political — social justice, war and peace, economic inequality, land, labor, wages, debt, fairness, immigration, courts and prisons. They spoke on behalf of the poor, the homeless, the hungry, widows, orphans and the dispossessed.

There was a future dimension of the prophets’ message that’s expressed in the word shalom and describes God’s vision for humanity. A definition of shalom entails many words: well-being, peace, harmony, salvation, justice, righteousness, blessing, truth, and wholeness. Ezekiel 34:25-29a speaks of God’s covenant of shalom with the people of Israel — that they shall live in security and without fear. Isaiah gives a similar picture of shalom — wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, calf and lion and fatling together, all led by a little child (Isaiah 11:6-9a). Isaiah says that where righteousness and justice abound, there is also shalom (32:16-17).

At the beginning of his public ministry, as described in Luke 4:16-19, Jesus stood in his hometown synagogue and read a passage from Isaiah 61 that placed him firmly in the prophetic tradition:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

The “year of the Lord’s favor” refers to the Jubilee year, happening every 50 years, when all Israelites would be restored to their ancestral land (Leviticus 25:10). Like the prophets before him, Jesus in word and deed stood with the poor, the vulnerable and the people at the margins of society.

Palm Sunday

What did Jesus intend his journey to Jerusalem to be? Scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, authors of The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, say this: “Jesus went to the capital city of his people to confront Roman imperial power and religious collaboration with it. He did so … in the name of the kingdom of God as God’s passion for this earth.”

Borg and Crossan point out that there were two processions into Jerusalem at the start of the week of Passover, a time when the Jewish people, while still living under the rule of the Roman Empire, were celebrating their exodus from the Egyptian empire. Out of fear of rioting, each year at Passover, Pilate, the Roman governor, came up to Jerusalem from Caesarea, the imperial capital to the west of the city. He was accompanied by part of the imperial cavalry and soldiers to strengthen the Roman garrison in Jerusalem.

Jesus entered the city from the east in what Borg and Crossan call a “counterprocession.” The two processions were starkly different — Pilate on a warhorse, Jesus on a donkey. Borg and Crossan say, “Jesus’s procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’s crucifixion.”

Not that kind of politics

In “The Politics of Palm Sunday” article in Sojourners magazine, Adam Ericksen asserts that Jesus and the gospel are political. He explains that politics refers to “the affairs of the city” and “influencing other people on a civic or individual level.” He says that Jesus “influences people to live into the Kingdom of Heaven … Heaven is a way of life to be lived right here, right now.” We know this because of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, NASB).

The Roman Empire conquered and ruled with the politics of coercion and violence. Jesus proclaimed a different kind of kingdom. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, his entrance was a visual sign that the kingdom of God, the reign of God, is in total contrast to the reign of Rome. The gospel that Jesus proclaimed through word and deed was the politics of service, humility, forgiveness and nonviolent love.

Ericksen says, “This is not just a call to a personal ethic; this is a political ethic. Indeed, the politics of Jesus seeks to influence our personal lives, but it also seeks to influence our political lives. Wherever personal or political systems use violence, power, and coercion to be triumphant and victorious, Jesus beckons us to follow him into a different kind of politics — into the Kingdom of God that lives and dies by love, service, and forgiveness.”

The prophetic tradition today

Once we see the contrast between the politics of the empire and the message of Jesus and the prophets, what difference does that make? What role does the prophetic tradition play in shaping the public policy of our nation?

A major prophetic voice in the 1960’s and 1970’s was the Reverend William Sloane Coffin Jr., a civil rights activist, Yale University chaplain, and senior minister at Riverside Church in New York City. He believed strongly that prophetic voices are needed in shaping public policy and that the church needs to supply some prophetic voices. He wrote that his main wish for the churches of America “would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice, a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation. Especially I would hope that Christians would see that the compassion that moved the Good Samaritan to act charitably — that same compassion prompted biblical prophets to confront injustice, to speak truth to power, as did Jesus, who, though more than a prophet, was certainly nothing less.”

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