Palm Sunday - betraying Jesus at the grand clearance sale of neoliberalism
Today, Palm Sunday, is when we remember Jesus' entry into the city of Jerusalem where he is welcomed by cheering and, apparently, supportive crowds. As we know this welcome and support lasted but a very short time and, when the time for real support came, the members of that same crowd were nowhere to be found. Today I want to pull together the themes from my previous two addresses (here and here) given on this day.
Sermons given today will often concentrate upon our own betrayals of Jesus and his programme. These betrayals are generally seen as being either of practical import, i.e. betrayals of the social and political message of Christianity or of metaphysical import, i.e. the failure to bear personal public witness to Jesus as Lord, Saviour or Messiah (Christ). Within Christian thought these two are, of course, intimately connected but, although the latter question still concerns me it is the former, the betrayal of the social gospel of Christianity, that I have tended to stress in my own preaching and I'll do so again today. On this matter at least I follow Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) who said: 'The ideal of the Kingdom of God is not identified with any special social theory. It means justice, freedom, fraternity, labour, joy. Let each social system and movement show us what it can contribute, and we will weigh its claims' (The Social Principles of Jesus, Ch. 5).
To help us today both to weigh the claims of our own present social system, namely neo-liberalism, (see also this link) and to highlight a particular difficulty that we face which wasn't present to our forebears I want to begin with an observation I made a couple of years ago which is that, when placed before the name Jesus, the word 'betraying' can be understood either verbally or adjectivally. Verbally, of course, it relates to the crowd, the disciples and us, i.e. we who are actively betraying Jesus. But I also pointed out that, adjectivally, it can speak of Jesus himself. The question I posed myself was where would it lead if I were to think about him for a while as a 'betraying Jesus' - Jesus the betrayer?
It is clear that for many members of his own faith - especially the Temple authorities in Jerusalem - Jesus' understanding of in what consisted true religion was a betrayal of a tradition which, it was believed, stretched back to the creation of the world itself. To them it would have seemed as if Jesus was seeking nothing less than to overturn the divine and fixed order of things. It is no surprise that it seems some of them became involved in the arrest, trial and eventual execution of Jesus.
In the wider Roman political sphere - though here too, of course, religion was always present - it seems likely that the authorities felt something similar because if Jesus were allowed to continue to preach his message of the kingdom of God (over and against the authority of the divine Emperor) it was possible to imagine the overturning things far more substantial than a few money changers' tables in the temple - indeed, the authority and ultimate stability of the Roman Empire may, itself, have been at stake. It is no surprise that they, too, acted to forestall that possibility.
But the story of Palm Sunday doesn't only concern what the religious or political authorities thought about Jesus' teachings and acts. It also concerns, and perhaps more importantly, what the wider population thought - the crowds. As is often the case the Monty Python team in "The Life of Brian" pointed brilliantly to some of the dark ambiguities of this latter matter. In this case I refer to Scene Nine when, during a rant against the Romans, Reg (played by John Cleese) asks the assembled members of the People's Front of Judea: "What have the Romans ever done for us?" I'm sure you remember the replies: well the aqueduct, sanitation, roads. Reg responds: "Well, yeah. Obviously the roads. I mean, the roads go without saying, don't they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct, and the roads . . ." The replies continue to come: irrigation, medicine, education, wine, baths, safety in the streets. Reg, exasperated says: "All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?" Do you recall the final reply? It was the startling "Brought peace?"
To many of your average first-century Joes and Josephines living in first-century Roman Palestine were Jesus left to continue his self-proclaimed mission he could seriously threaten the peace and stability they felt had been brought by Roman rule. OK, maybe things were at times a little tough and unfair under the Romans but let's not forget the sanitation, the medicine, education etc. . . Don't get me wrong, such things are important considerations and we kid ourselves when we try to ignore them but film points to the dark underlying truth that for most people then, as now, their own many material comforts and securities continually trump any ongoing desire to pursue truth and freedom and justice for all.
Anyway, it should be clear to us all that even a rotten, corrupt and dysfunctional system can still make a lot of people 'happy' a lot of the time and, in giving us, and people who we are taught to believe 'are like us', great personal comfort such a system can very effective at blinding us to the true levels of injustice that exists and which is a direct result of this same system.
In such circumstances, in first-century Palestine as today, the young and fearless prophet (and perhaps even some of us older and somewhat more timid prophets) who choose to say that things have to change are inevitably not going to be liked because it is clear that the kind change that would really better things for everybody is not only going to have a profound effect upon our own material comfort and security but will also radically disturb our internal belief that we are living in a basically good society that really doesn't need to change - except in very small ways every now and then.
So it was always hard to be a prophet but uttering such challenging words in our own neo-liberal system, which has for so long achieved a high levels of comfort and superficial stability for many in the West and North America, is going to face a profound problem that Jesus never had to face. For, when Jesus, his disciples and the early Christian communities acted the threat they posed the established order was genuinely felt by everyone to be real - to matter - and so this threat was clearly responded to and often violently. The early Christians knew they were a threat but they could also use the violence of the establishment's response to remind them they were justified in their actions and to encourage them to continue to protest. So, for example the author of 2 Thessalonians could say: 'This is evidence of the righteous judgement of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering' (1:5). (To some extent we are seeing something similar occurring in North Africa at the moment).
But we who live in the heart of neo-liberalism find that our internal challenge to the patent injustices of our present system - and for me, despite my metaphysical disbelief, it remains a Christian challenge - this challenge is dealt with far more effectively and efficiently than did the Romans. Although today it appears we are given the freedom to protest against the system and openly to express our views and to get out our palm fronds or placards (a secular equivalent?) we find that, in truth, our protest groups are really simply given a lease on single retail unit in the huge shopping-mall of ideas and lifestyles that constitutes the neo-liberal system. The only course of action available to us in our little retail unit is to persuade passing customers to buy our wares rather than those on offer in the other shops along the mall. On our shelves we have on offer the key traditional wares of the Christian faith, namely the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, restraint or temperance, and courage or fortitude, and then the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love or charity. These virtues, when taken seriously, can only encourage in those who live by them a life of voluntary simplicity - the kind of life that is surely necessary in this age when we are facing dwindling natural resources and a potential ecological disaster. But what chance do have we to sell such wares when we find that neo-liberalism places us alongside other shops which are selling very different, sexy, exciting and, it has to be admitted, highly tempting lifestyle choices that not only often consume huge quantities of natural resources but which also rely upon sweatshop, even slave, labour?
We, in our little (Christian) retail unit, may be deeply committed to our 'goods' (the virtues) and the lifestyle they promote - indeed we are allowed, even encouraged to be so committed - but so, too, are the those in other retail units. The underlying logic of the neo-liberal game is, of course, not really anything to do with the various deeply held commitments of those in each retail unit but simply to keep the consumption up and to keep the capital flowing to ensure the success of the über-Mall and its owners. As James C. Edwards notes, shop-keepers and shoppers in this über-Mall (über-Mall is my coinage - I can't blame Edwards for that) are, indeed must be, left with:
'no intellectually respectable way to dismiss the disconcerting thought that other, and radically different, forms of life have just the same claim on some sacred ground as does ours; namely no such claim at all. Our 'highest values' compete with the 'highest values' of others on what is looked at philosophically, a perfectly level field of battle' (James C. Edwards, Plain Sense of Things p. 47).
You will remember that Kierkegaard saw all this coming and imagined all these different sets of values on sale together and he believed our culture had been busily putting on a "ein wirklicher Ausverkauf" - a real clearance sale. Edwards comments on this by saying:
'Prices have been cut to the bone. Crowds move through the market hall of European intellectual history, fingering the bargains displayed there. Yet the goods - [that is to say] the 'highest values' of European civilisation - are strangely slow to move. "Everything can be had at such a bargain price that it becomes a question of whether there is anyone who will make a bid" (Fear & Trembling). Why should anyone live or (more sharply) die for something that is, after all, only a value, only a structure of interpretation posited by some passing form of life?' (James C. Edwards, Plain Sense of Things p. 59-60).
And here we have the hard, hard question we must ask of ourselves today, right now on *this* Palm Sunday: 'why should anyone live or (more sharply) die for something that is, after all, only a value, only a structure of interpretation posited by some passing form of life?'
But a world of infinite lifestyle choices such as we are today being encouraged to buy into (dark pun intended) is not a just world at all - it is in fact a world which is committed to hiding injustice (so we are not disturbed during our days of consumption) and it is one which we find has devalued even our own highest goods and greatest virtues.
So, at the beginning of Holy Week, I leave you with a difficult question. What will persuade us to betray the unjust neo-liberal system we live in so that we do not betray the form of life Jesus envisioned two millennia ago, a life based on radical commitment to justice for all? As Cliff Reed wrote in his Palm Sunday prayer we used earlier today:
Where traffic thunders in the city streets,
Where people crowd and swirl in ceaseless busyness,
Can we still hear the sound of a donkey's hooves?
Can we still hear the echo of 'Hosanna!' cries?
How long ago that was, how far we seemed to have come
- and yet the players are still here,
with only the costumes changed.
The drama has not ended - the time is now
for us to choose our part.