The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Palm Sunday Power
As Christians prepare to celebrate Palm Sunday, the regime of Saddam Hussein is falling in Iraq.
We bounce back and forth between two stories where cheering crowds mark a triumphal entry into a capital city. Aside from that superficial similarity in the stories, though, it seems that the two accounts are worlds apart.
The Gospel accounts of Palm Sunday tell of Jesus riding into the capitol city on a donkey. The carefully selected symbolism of his act is a blatant affront to the powers that be, a challenge to their authority in the city. The threat of regime change was all too evident to the rulers in Jerusalem. And so, just five days later, they reclaimed control, and had Jesus put to death as a common criminal.
The US and British forces making their dramatic entry into Baghdad are not making a symbolic statement. They are coming into a city that has been pummeled by weeks of intense bombing. They come with tanks and artillery and rifles, and they come into a city where the power structure has been destroyed. There is no government left to fight back.
But there are important echoes between the two stories. This week, too, the most telling moment was symbolic.
The news-making visual for this week was the toppling of a huge statue of Saddam Hussein in the heart of Baghdad. Celebrating Iraqi citizens had started the process -- tying a rope to the statue and trying to pull it over -- but they could not break the sculpture loose from its base. US soldiers provided a heavy cable and the vehicles to finish the job. That picture has filled the newspapers and TV screens.
A newspaper columnist has fleshed out some critical details of what happened in that Baghdad plaza. As the cable was being attached, the crowd cheered in anticipation. Caught up in the spirit of the moment, one of the soldiers draped a US flag over the head of the statue. At that moment, the crowd went silent. Quickly, the US flag was removed, an Iraqi flag was put over Saddam's head, and the cheering resumed.
In Jerusalem and Baghdad, it is important to pay attention when the cheering stops.
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The broad lesson of Palm Sunday has to do with the appropriate exercise of power.
Jesus came into Jerusalem on a donkey, not a war horse. In the geo-political language of this week, his conscious choice of symbolism had to do with the distinction between liberating and occupying a city.
Liberation empowers the people; occupation oppresses them. Liberation spreads power around; occupation concentrates power.
At the culminating point of his ministry, Jesus chose to define himself as a liberator, as one who would challenge the oppressive power structures. Alongside his divine authority (which not all recognized), he claimed the populist power of acclamation -- if the people were silent, even the stones would cry out.
The power of God to transform the world, to bring reconciliation, to bring shalom, is a liberating power. The power of God is spread through the entire creation, where it may be accepted and claimed. The power that flows from God is never imposed or coerced.
In our families, in our neighborhoods, in international relationships, and in the relationships between humanity and the rest of creation, theological ethics must always look carefully at power dynamics. Oppressive power, power over the other, should be critiqued. Liberating power, where power is shared among all, should be affirmed.
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As regime change takes place in Iraq, the people of that country will exercise their judgement of what is happening. They will decide if their land is being liberated or occupied. That populist judgement will determine the legitimacy of what happens next.
If the US government installs a puppet regime, reaps corporate profits for its friends, marginalizes the international community, and stifles the diverse cultures of Iraq, then the rule of Saddam has only been replaced with a different type of oppression. If that happens, it is almost certain that anger and resentment will continue to boil in Iraq, and violence will spread throughout the region.
If, however, some way is found to pull off the difficult transition to a new government -- one that is representative of the mix of peoples and beliefs, one that is recognized as legitimate by both the Iraqi citizens and the international community, one that genuinely serves the people of Iraq -- then liberation will have taken place.
As citizens of the world and as people of faith, we are always called upon to express moral judgement about such events. We are called to stand against power that is concentrated, oppressive, exploitative and abusing. And we are called to join with the liberating power which brings peace, justice and harmony to all of creation.
This Palm Sunday, and in the months to come, may we who follow the Christ seek to embody God's loving and liberating power -- in our personal lives, in the foreign policy of our governments, and in our relationships with all of creation.
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