Jim Harnish

Palm Sunday Politics


It’s Not Just About Trump.

Did the President do the right thing by ordering missile attacks on a Syrian airbase? Was it Constitutional? Will it make any difference? What happens next?

Those questions need to be seriously debated, but one thing is clear. A lot of people both in the US and around the world liked it. Some even suggested that it made our otherwise immoral, illiterate, and incompetent leader look “Presidential.” It provided a momentary feeling of moral superiority in “doing something” in response to an inhumane attack on innocent people by a brutal dictator.

Palm Sunday Cheers 

The cheering for Trump’s attack on Syria reminded me of the cheering crowds on Palm Sunday in “Jesus Christ, Superstar” .

When they shouted, “Hosanna!” – the imperative verb means, “Save us!” – it was more of a political than a religious acclamation. Even the waving of the palm branches had political implications. The crowds were cheering for a leader they hoped would break the strangle hold of oppressive Roman authority and set them free. It released their anguished hope for Israel to be “great again.” It was their way of announcing, “There’s a new sheriff in town!”

Not that there’s anything new about all this. It goes all the way back to the first time two prehistoric cave men got in a dispute about who was in charge of the cave. When one threw a rock at the other, his opponent went looking for a larger rock. And we’ve been doing it ever since. The rocks just keep getting more dangerous and more expensive. The bible traces our murderous desire for at best, justice, or at worse, revenge, back to Cain and Able.  It’s the way the tragic effects of sin are passed on from one generation to another.

It’s not about Trump.  It’s about all of us.

Palm Sunday Tears 

And what was Jesus doing? Luke records one of the most poignant scenes in the New Testament.

As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it. He said, “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace.”

Through his tears, he predicted the way violence always leads to more violence.

“The time will come when your enemies will build fortifications around you, encircle you, and attack you from all sides.  They will crush you completely, you and the people within you. They won’t leave one stone on top of another within you, because you didn’t recognize the time of your gracious visit from God.” (Luke 19:41-44)

New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, named our addiction to the idea that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right “The Myth of Redemptive Violence.” It is simply not the way of Jesus.

The Jesus Way 

Standing in opposition to Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “What is absolutely aweful and unacceptable in war is that Christians are compelled to forget their Christian faith.” (The Cost of Moral Leadership, p. 102)

I could wish that fellow United Methodists who are passionately demanding that we take a strictly literal approach to what the bible says about human sexuality would be just as passionate about taking Jesus seriously when he said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)

Contemporary Christian writer, Shane Claiborne summarized Jesus’ radical alternative when he wrote:

Jesus teaches a “third way” to interact with evil. We see a Jesus who abhors both passivity and violence and teaches us a new way forward that is neither submission nor assault, neither fight nor flight. He shows us a way to oppose evil without mirroring it, where oppressors can be resisted without being emulated and neutralized without being destroyed.

Christians in every generation have found endlessly creative ways to compromise the message Jesus taught, the way he lived and the way he died.  All too easily, we end up cheering for the wrong kind of deliverer.  If only we were as endlessly creative in searching for nonviolent ways to confront the violence and injustice around us!

Bonhoeffer’s Witness 

One of the painful ironies of Bonhoeffer’s life was that although he was convinced that Jesus’ way of non-violence was central to Christian discipleship, he was hanged 72 years ago today because he participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

“Even when he abandoned his non-violence to join the conspiracy, pacifism always remained his ideal…In no way did Bonhoeffer concede that the violent deeds planned by the conspirators escaped the guilt for what they had to do in attempting to free the world from the sinister, lethal grip of Adolf Hitler.” (The Cost of Moral Leadership, p. 100, 115)

Jesus’ way of nonviolence is not a quick fix for conflicts that have gone on for hundreds of years.  It’s the long-term way of life to which he calls us.  If there are times when, as a totally unavoidable last resort, a community of nations is called to use war to thwart aggression, Jesus’ followers cannot cheer for it, but must confront it with something like Bonhoeffer’s guilt and Jesus’ tears.

In the end, it’s not about Trump. It’s about the way Trump represents our desire for revenge and the longing for something that feels like justice when we see evil but choose the way of evil to attempt to end it.  It was enough to send Jesus to the cross.  It calls us to go there, too.