Tuesday, March 27, 2018

March for our lives

Mark 11: 1-11
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
March 25, 2018 – Palm Sunday

(I started writing this on Friday and finished Saturday evening after I returned from the march.)


         Tomorrow is the March for Our Lives, and I have to admit I’m a little scared. I don’t like big crowds. I’ve been to First Night in Boston and to a Junkanoo parade on New Year’s in the Bahamas, both occasions for celebrating and I hated both. I couldn’t escape from being pressed up against people. I’m 5’2” so most people are taller than me. It felt almost suffocating. I even had my butt grabbed and had to walk with my fist behind me, ready to punch any other would-be grabbers. At Barack Obama’s first inauguration, which was an entirely different kind of crowd altogether, I just wanted some space.

          So why am I going to Washington DC when I could’ve marched in Wilmington? Why am I going the day after a Rainbow Chorale performance, the day before Palm Sunday? Because this march is the civil rights March on Washington of our time. Because this march is the 21st century march against empire and violence.

         When Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time, it was a 1st century protest march against empire and violence. Like any other observant Jew, he was there for the festival of Passover. On that same day, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, would have also entered Jerusalem, not to observe Passover, but to quell any kind of disturbance that might result. Remember that Passover is a festival of liberation from captivity and slavery at the hands of another empire.

          So more than likely there were two processions that day, from the east and the west, entering the holy city of Jerusalem, the city of peace. Pilate would have entered on his horse, a stallion, a symbol of strength. Jesus entered on a colt, a young one since it had never been ridden before. Pilate entered as a show of imperial force, accompanied by soldiers both on horseback and on foot, a military parade. Jesus entered with his disciples, his friends who were peasants and fishermen.

          We don’t know what the crowds would have shouted as Pilate came into the city but they definitely didn’t say what they said for Jesus: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”


         ‘Hosanna’ means “save us”, and normally the people would shout this to the one who had the power to save them, the one who held their very lives in their hands, namely their lord and master, the emperor. In fact, beginning with Emperor Augustus, the Roman emperor was referred to as the Son of God, having been conceived by the god Apollo, and thus was to be worshiped as such. There are inscriptions that refer to him as “lord” and “savior”.

          So for the crowds to shout “Save us” to Jesus and call him “Lord” and “Savior”, to even go so far as to look to Jesus to inaugurate a new government—blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David—this is what makes this parade a protest march and also seals Jesus’ fate of execution.


         Some biblical texts refer to what we call Palm Sunday as Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. And maybe it was in the sense that the crowds acknowledged him as lord and savior rather than Pilate or the emperor. But it is those same crowds who will call for his execution by the end of the week. True and lasting change hardly happens in a week. It takes a very long time.

         Earlier this week I was reflecting on our rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights: the right to assemble, the right to free speech, the right to peaceably protest our government. People revolt and resort to violence when they do not have these rights and change is desperately needed. And yet the men who wrote these documents were for the most part rich landowners, many of whom owned slaves themselves. And so under what biblical scholars call a hermeneutic of suspicion—which is just a fancy of way of saying some things don’t always mean what we think they mean—I wondered if perhaps these rights came from a desire to prevent revolution. After all, it’s bloody and deadly and costly, especially to those who have the most to lose. But revolution also comes from the bottom up, from those who have no rights, no voice, no agency, no legitimacy.

          So let there be the ability to change government, to protest against its powers but allow the change to come about slowly, peacefully, nonviolently. Maybe it takes longer for those with too much power to be divested of it, but at least we don’t replace one bully with another. We don’t become the very thing we’re trying to change.

The March from space.  We're PURPLE.

         And so my fears were blessedly unfounded yesterday at the March for Our Lives. Yes, there were big crowds. The permit for the march applied for a crowd of 500,000 but it was estimated at about 800,000. But it was a peaceful, nonviolent crowd, with families and small children in strollers and on shoulders, busloads of high school students, teachers and principals, and grandparents who probably protested the Vietnam War. We were all colors, all ages, all sizes and abilities. We were there to bear witness to one another and to those who have died and to the power of being together.


         David, Andrea, and I got separated from the group of students we came with. We couldn’t get near Pennsylvania Avenue, let alone of the large screens that were displayed in some areas. We finally got a view of one in front of the National Archives. We could hear the crowd roar from the other side. We stood with thousands of other people as Emma Gonzalez led us through a protracted silence to show us just how long and how short a time it takes for 17 human lives to end. Some in the crowd couldn’t take the silence and started to shout “Never again!” over and over.

This photo came up in the slide show
just as I got to this paragraph.
Passions were high as evidenced by some of the sassy signs we saw, some of which were rated PG-13, most of them pointed and unequivocal in their message. One chant, “Hey, hey NRA, how many kids did you kill today?” was reminiscent of a Vietnam protest chant, “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” One of the most poignant, truthtelling signs I saw held by a student read: “I don’t know anyone who isn’t afraid of getting shot at school”.


         People marched in all kinds of weather from California to Florida sun to rain in Kentucky to snow in Indiana and Iowa. There were more than 800 other protests planned around the nation and the globe. Just to name a few: Poughkeepsie, NY; Athens, GA; Denver, CO; South Bend, IN; Dubuque, IA; Killeen, TX, home of Ft. Hood; Chattanooga, TN; Montpelier, VT; Charleston, WV; Concord, NH; Oxford, MS; Cleveland, OH; Hartford, CT; Bowling Green, KY; Birmingham, AL; Anchorage, AK; Las Vegas, NV; Bogota, Columbia; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Paris, France; Berlin, Germany; Sydney, Australia; London, UK; Geneva, Switzerland. In New York the crowd numbered about 175,000; Paul McCartney was one of the protesters because, as he put it, he lost a very dear friend to gun violence. Early estimates say that the March for Our Lives could be the biggest single-day protest in DC’s history.

Art by Pia Guerra
And the message is the same as it was twenty centuries ago: we are not only tired of living in a violent culture but we are dying as a result of it and we can stand it no more. Every march that has ever been is about the right to exist safely in public space, to breathe the same air without fear for our lives; to have life and liberty and be able to pursue happiness like anyone else. We are indeed marching for our very lives, for the life of future generations, for the future of the human race. As Emma said yesterday, fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job.

         As I have said before, not only here but around the world we are crucifying our children on the cross we were supposed to take up. These children and young adults remind us again and again that they have grown up in the shadow of 9/11, in a nation that conducts endless war, and who have witnessed 10 of the deadliest shootings since 1999. We can no longer be surprised by their prophetic witness, their righteous anger. We must now not only celebrate them and encourage them, but get out of their way.

          Hosanna! Save us! The human race does indeed need saving, but we’re the only ones who can do it. The question is, will we? After yesterday, I’m beginning to think we will. Amen.

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