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Picture this: You are at the gates of one of the most magnificent palaces in the world. You are waiting at the end of a private road. You can feel beneath your feet the rumbling of a procession: the pounding of horses’ hooves, soldiers marching in time with the drum, plates of armour slicing back and forth. In your hand you hold a pamphlet advertising the parade that’s about to arrive. They’re calling it “a visual panoply of imperial power.”* 

Just as the parade is coming into view—sun glinting on metal and gold—another procession is rounding the corner, making its way in from a slip road to the east. There is not so much a pounding of horses’ hooves as there is a shuffle of feet. In fact, there isn’t a horse in sight, only a donkey and her colt—kicking up dust in its path. There are women in this parade. They are laying down their cloaks—preparing for a kind of make-shift royal entry.  

Amongst the onlookers, some are facing west, kneeling towards the horses and the drums. A number are turning instead to the east. You must choose—the donkey’s procession or the visual panoply of imperial power? 

Now, imagine this scene isn’t taking place in some far away land. See yourself waiting at the traffic lights outside Lynn Valley Mall. One procession is coming in from the West, past the luxury condo builds, past the billboards boasting “affordable” living at just shy of a million dollars per 700 square feet. 

Coming in from the east, the other parade has crossed over the Second Narrows Bridge from Main and East Hastings. Residents living out of tents and single-room-occupancies look out from their soon-to-be evicted homes. The people making up this procession are said to be living in some of the poorest areas in Vancouver. With each passing street, their number swells. 

Back where you're standing, some people are crossing over from the mall, hoping to avoid the crowd coming in from the East. You hesitate, transferring your weight from one foot to the other, considering if you, too, will run away, or stay and be swept up with the poor. You look out with curiosity and fear. You must choose—will you stay or will you go? 

Palm Sunday is all about two entries into one of the most magnificent cities in the world, two parades about to meet in a collision of wealth and poverty, of power and the one who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. Is one modern equivalent to the back road Jesus takes into Jerusalem a parade making its way in from East Hastings? Is the road Pontius Pilate would have taken into Jerusalem the equivalent of driving in from West Vancouver? I wonder.

The two parades in our Palm Sunday reading illustrate the collision of ideals at the heart of Holy Week. One procession is armed, its members prominent in government and church leadership. The other procession is meagre, inadequately housed, lacking political or religious status. 

When we consider Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, we might wonder: where are his weapons? Where is his mayoral campaign? Where is his priesthood or episcopacy, his clerical collar or his bishop’s hat? How on earth does Jesus intend to win this fight?

When I think about Jesus riding in on a donkey, first, I always take a moment to laugh, because it's supposed to be funny. And then, I think about how Jesus seems to know something of what poet Audre Lorde once wrote, that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”**

Jesus uses tools throughout his ministry to dismantle the role that many are expecting him to play—particularly in that final week when he makes his way to the Cross. To beat the powers that be at their own game, Jesus doesn't meet violence with more violence, or money with more money, which is to say, Jesus doesn't use what's available in the master’s house. Instead he uses a tool of spiritual resistance, one of the few that can bring about genuine change: he forgives. Over and over again, as Jesus makes his way from the glory of the palms to the tenderness of the last supper, the denial of Peter to the deceit of Judas, Jesus forgives.

Writing about the ongoing gun violence and loss of young life in America, the Reverend Otis Moss III recounts the horrible day when a young white man walked into Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where the pastor was leading Bible study. The man was welcomed into the Bible study and given a place to sit among the congregants. As the pastor bowed his head to pray, the man opened the zipper on his backpack, took out a loaded handgun with “hollow-core bullets designed to do maximum harm” and shot and killed nine people. Afterwards, the man would say that his goal was to “provoke all African Americans to violence . . . to start a race war.”***

Sadly, this kind of violence is not an anomaly for our neighbours to the south. Increasingly, the United States is seen as one of the most dangerous places for young people to go to school and for African Americans to go to church. I think of the rise in gun violence as a procession, quickly picking up steam, and as it makes its way into schools and churches—lockdowns and lockdown drills becoming more and more a reality—I can't help wondering: why isn’t there a procession of equal arms, equal violence forming in return?

Pastor Moss goes on to tell the story of what happened two days after the shooting in Mother Emmanuel Church, when at the bond hearing for the young man, some of the survivors and the families of those who were killed showed up. 

“Far from screaming out their hate and pain, several grieving mothers, fathers and children of the murdered offered forgiveness to the murderer.”

“Mercy and grace are part of the African American church tradition,” he says, “but even so, some prominent African American writers objected. Was it right to forgive a crime so terrible? In what way, commentators asked, did a cold-blooded killer who dreamed of war between the races deserve a pardon?”

Quoting the great civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., Pastor Moss continues:

[T]here is a practical limit to what violent retribution can do for us. ‘Through violence you may murder a murderer . . . but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence.’ . . . . What can stop that endless war? A grace that victims offer themselves, to break the chains that bind them to the ones who did them harm. In offering forgiveness, we say: Enough! I am so much more than the harm you did. The Creation is more than the evil you do. Your violence took a piece of my soul, but I won’t give you the rest. . . . We forgive not as a gift of absolution for the victimizer but as resistance against the spiritual infections of despair, vengeance and chaos. We still seek accountability for evil acts, but we forgive in our hearts. Then we may discover that we can forgive not by diminishing ourselves, not by giving in, but by being true to our divine nature. This bold act of spiritual resistance is the simple refusal to be an actor or a prop in a script written by an alleged ‘oppressor’ who thinks they have all the power.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge that in some respects, I have no business preaching about forgiveness from the perspective of African Americans, nor from the perspective of Jesus in his time and place, while people in the Holy Land continue to this day to be oppressed. I, we, must look instead for where our stories intersect with these stories, where we find ourselves swept up into the procession from the east with its poverty and humility, or where we have chosen to jump headlong into the procession of greed and power coming in from the other side.  

For example, I do not know what it is to be black and a victim of gun violence; I do know what it is to be gay and a woman, and to have church and government legislation written and repealed, written and repealed on account of the women and LGBTQ people who insist on staying visible in society, who persist in remaining leaders in church and government. I do not know what it is to be a Palestinian Christian or an Israeli Jew; I do know what it’s like to feel the allure of power that comes with wearing a clerical collar; to have given into it and to have caused harm because of it, and to have been forgiven when I have not been deserving of pardon. 

When I think about Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem, I notice all of the ways that Jesus’ procession was different. I see Jesus saying to the violence, greed, and thirst for power, “Enough! We are so much more than the harm you have done and will do.” 

This Palm Sunday, may we refuse to be an actor or a prop in a script written by an alleged oppressor. This Holy Week, may we remain with Jesus on the side of the street where the poor and the suffering come pouring in. Let us seek out accountability for evil acts. Let us pray for the ability to forgive in our hearts. Finally, this Holy Week, faced with a decision to stay or to go, may we choose to stay.

Works referenced

*Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus' Last Days in Jerusalem, San Francisco: Harper, 2006.

**Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, delivered as a speech in 1984, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110-114. 2007. Available online here.

***Otis Moss III, “Practicing Prophetic Grief” in Religion News Service accessed online on 31 March 2023.