Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Palm Sunday: Anti-Imperial Street Theatre

In their popular work, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, Jesus scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan talk about the contrast between Jesus’ entry into the East Gate of Jerusalem with Pilate’s military/imperialist entry into the West Gate of Jerusalem on the same day.  They state the simultaneous nature of these events with a little more certainty than is historically warranted, but we do know that Pilate did not normally reside in Jerusalem, but arrived with extra troops every year to keep the crowds from revolting Rome’s rule during Passover.  After all, Passover celebrates the Exodus, God’s liberating of His people from another oppressive empire long ago.  Discontent in the Jewish crowds would be strongest during Passover.

So, Pilate comes from the West with extra troops on war horses in a military display to cow the masses.  By contrast, Jesus arrives from the East in a carefully staged (getting the colt/foal of a donkey) counter-demonstration.  Drawing from Zechariah (not lost on the crowds), he presents a salvation from imperial rule that is not based on greater firepower, but on peace and meekness.

When we celebrate Palm Sunday, we don’t just remember the fickle crowds (so soon to desert Jesus, along with the 12) and their brief recognition/celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry. We also remember that Jesus presents us with a deliberate choice:  Following His Way of meekness, humility, and peace or the Way of Empire and military might.  There is no Way to follow Jesus that does NOT break from the military option.

April 5, 2009 - Posted by | Bible, Christian calendar, Christianity


  1. One of the biggest problems I see with Borg and the rest of the “Jesus Seminar” (apart from their unbelievable unscientific and illogical way of determining which words of Jesus were authentic and which were not) is that they constantly frame Jesus in a political light, when almost nothing about Jesus was political, as evidenced by the Early Church who sought to be apolitical for the most part (until, of course the Edict of Milan).

    So, while this contrast in entry may or may not be an historical reality, and doesn’t sound like something that Jesus cared to make a point about (and the original audience of the Gospels surely wouldn’t have picked up on), I think it’s certainly not legitimate basis for making theological applications to the text (though the idea of meekness and humility is most definitely there, in keeping with Philippians 2:6-8).

    Comment by D.R. Randle | April 5, 2009

  2. On the contrary, D.R., I think the original readers/hearers of the Gospels would have found the anti-imperial message hard to miss. After all, not only is much of the OT anti-imperial (and shaping the sensibilities of Jewish-Christians), but the early pre-Constantinian church was persecuted intermittantly by the Roman Empire–as nearly every strand of the NT itself testifies. It’s not until after the Constantinian coopting of the church into the militaristic empire that the church forgets its own subversive nature.

    Far too much of American Christianity is wedded to American Empire–no matter what party they hope runs the empire.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 5, 2009

  3. DR said:

    So, while this contrast in entry may or may not be an historical reality, and doesn’t sound like something that Jesus cared to make a point about (and the original audience of the Gospels surely wouldn’t have picked up on)

    Says who? I agree with Michael. I would think the political messages/implications would be hard to miss. But then, of course, I wasn’t there.

    Still, can you imagine if today, Jesus were to plan an action – an entry into Washington, DC, for instance – on the same day and on the other side of town that a president was staging a big military shindig? And where the military processional celebrated large, expensive, deadly WMDs and MMDs (Methods of Mass Destruction), Jesus’ processional was simple and peaceful? Do you think that people would miss the contrast?

    To paraphrase the song, Would they love him at the Pentagon today?

    I wouldn’t want to presume to foist my modern interpretation upon the Bible story, but neither would I want to presume DR’s modern interpretation. I simply think that the contrast must have been quite obvious at the time and see no reason to presume a modern understanding that says it wouldn’t have.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | April 7, 2009

  4. Michael, I disagree heartily with your statement, “the original readers/hearers of the Gospels would have found the anti-imperial message hard to miss.” Especially in the letters of Paul, it’s clear that the emphasis is on the spiritual, not on the political.

    Two passages come to mind clearly here.

    1) Ephesians 6:12 – For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

    Clearly here, Paul is pointing away from any conflict with earthly rules and pointing toward the greater problem, which is the demonic underpinnings.

    2) Romans 13:1-7

    I am not going to post all of this, but it’s clear here that again, Paul is anti-political here. The earthly authorities are not his enemy – they are to be obeyed since God has placed them in their authority for His purposes (and as Jesus points out to Pilate, they have no authority they haven’t been given by God, Himself.)

    Now, when you combine that with Jesus’ very a-political teachings concerning paying taxes, the Messianic Secret passages in Mark (where clearly He does not want to establish an earthly realm and He is not coming for an earthly kingship – see esp. Peter’s Confession in Mark 8), Jesus’ clear rebuke of the political aspirations for the Messiah in Jewish folklore, and Jesus statement to Pilate in John 19:11 (Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin”), it becomes clear that He was not at all concerned with condeming the Roman Empire.

    In fact, the Roman Empire was the tool used by God to bring judgement upon the Jews in 70 A.D. and again in 135 A.D. (just as were the Assyrians and Babylonians – and others – in the Old Testament).

    Jesus seems much more concerned about the Pharisees and the Jewish establishment. In fact, that seems to be the center fo His teaching – not the evils of the Roman Empire. For example, where does He ever explicitly indict the government for anything?

    So, when Crossen and the Jesus Seminar “speculate” about an event they have no real proof for (and no testimony from the Early Church about), then it’s just that – speculation. And we shouldn’t base theological teachings on speculation.

    Two more comments –

    1) Where do you see anti-imperialism in the Old Testament?

    2) Where do you see anti-imperialistic speech in the NT or even the Early Church Fathers, especially in light of Ephesians 6:12?

    Comment by D.R. Randle | April 7, 2009

  5. Actually, Ephesians is a very anti-imperialistic text. You have just proved to me how bad the education at SBTS is now that the fundamentalists have taken over. I’m sorry you were not properly informed. But the Eph. passages is part of the Pauline concept of “principalities and powers,” in which the outward political and social (and religious) structures are seen as supported by invisible spiritual forces. Paul (or the Pauline disciple who wrote Ephesians) isn’t telling Christians at Ephesus that politics doesn’t matter. He’s reminding them that the particular people they encounter are not the real enemy, that spiritual forces work through them. Martin Luther King warned his followers the same way so that they didn’t demonize Bull Conner, etc.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood the Nazi regime in Germany to only be a mask for the satanic powers that undergirded it. I suggest you read Walter Wink’s trilogy (building on 50 years of biblical scholarship that began with the likes of Oscar Cullmann or Hendrikus Berkhof) on The Powers: Vol. 1, Naming the Powers, 2, Unmasking the Powers, 3, Engaging the Powers.

    I can’t believe that you got through seminary without exposure to this concept.

    There has also been a large amount of NT work on the way Paul’s churches kept undermining the Roman empire. It’s why the Paul of Acts kept having to escape cities.

    I’m sorry you paid good money to be miseducated, but you did.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 7, 2009

  6. D. R., while I think that Michael’s harsh tone towards you is counterproductive, I do agree with Michael’s point. To appreciate the political nature of Jesus’ ministry, one does not need to turn to the Jesus Seminar (which was not based on sound scholarship). One needs only to turn to the Jesus Seminar’s most articulate and sophisticated critic: N. T. Wright. N. T. Wright is not a liberal like Borg or Crossan. N. T. Wright is an evangelical with a very high view of Scripture. Check out his book, Jesus and the Victory of God. In it (and other books by N. T. Wright) you will see that a high view of Scripture will help us appreciate the political nature of Jesus’ life and ministry.

    Michael, are you familiar with Marva Dawn’s critique of Walter Wink’s work on the powers?

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | April 7, 2009

  7. Jonathan, Maybe my harsh tone with D.R. was counterproductive. Because he graduated from my alma mater after the fundamentalists destroyed its educational value, he tends to get on my nerves. There is much I disagree with Borg and Crossan on. I have made fun of the Jesus Seminar. And, as you know, I have a high–but not uncritical–view of Bishop N.T. Wright’s work. Others who could be cited from across a wide spectrum of approaches, I listed here:
    https://levellers.wordpress.com/2009/04/03/bibliographies-on-christian-peacemaking-i-biblical-studies/ .

    I don’t think I have to agree with Borg and Crossan on everything to appreciate the point they were making about Jesus’ triumphal entry on Palm Sunday.

    As for “high” or “low” views of Scripture, I hold a very Barthian view. I have no problem affirming that the Scriptures of the First and Second Testaments (Protestant canon) are uniquely inspired and convey to us the very Word of God. But I dislike having to make such affirmations before I can say something about a passage’s interpretation. I also don’t think a biblical scholar’s view on the nature of Scripture (a theological affirmation) should be interrogated before one agrees or disagrees with her or his interpretation of a particular passage. If the late evangelical NT scholar F.F. Bruce could cite a Rudolf Bultmann or Hans Conzelmann positively in a particular passage without first giving a lecture about how he disagreed with Bultmann’s demythologizing program, then I don’t see why I would be required to state my disagreement with the Jesus Seminar or even many of the presuppositions of Borg or Crossan before citing them when I think they are RIGHT.

    As for Marva Dawn, I have read some of her work and like it. (She was a student of Yoder and is an expert in the theology of Jacques Ellul and she works to raise the level of biblical literacy among laity—all things which raise her high in my esteem.) But although I know she has written on the Powers (as have many back to Cullmann and Hendrikus Berkhof–and Yoder first translated Berkhof from Dutch to English), I am not familiar with her particular criticisms of Walter Wink. No one is beyond criticism.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 8, 2009

  8. Michael, I agree with everything you said in comment 7.

    I was speaking to D. R. in my first paragraph of comment 6. I wasn’t trying to criticize you, Michael; I was just reaching out to D. R.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | April 8, 2009

  9. Michael,

    First, your attacks on my education are inappropriate and show me that while you say much about loving others and being Christlike, as soon as your positions get critiqued (and even respectfully I might add), you turn to rude and demonizing tactics (the same tactics mind you that you constantly critique Conservative Christians for). That’s called hypocrisy.

    Now, I don’t have time right now to offer a critique of your position, but I can after I finish teaching on the Parables tonight (I have to finish Blomberg’s book today and write up my powerpoint presentation), but let me finish with this:


    I took 2 classes at Southern in preparation to do a Th.M, followed by a Ph.D, but I stopped when I met my wife and we got married. I thought that was more important, and besides I wanted to be in ministry and didn’t specifically need a Ph.D. So you criticism is unfounded anyway.

    And besides, I have held my own here, particularly in the arena of logic (where I have pointed out fallacies in your argumentation on a number of occasions), despite my “inferior” education.

    I think you should refrain from the personal attacks from now on Michael, it would be more beneficial to your readers and to the Kingdom of God.

    Comment by D.R. Randle | April 8, 2009

  10. D.R.,
    I apologize for my tone. And for my misunderstanding of your background. I am far from a perfect disciple.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 8, 2009

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