Palm Sunday: No Hope Here

Palm Sunday: No Hope Here

Luke 23:1-49

By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell

If you’re looking for ways to spin the narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion and death as the story of salvation, read no further, because that’s not what I’m going to offer here. In fact, I’d like to suggest that the crucifixion itself is not a story of hope and salvation, that it was never meant to be, and that trying to pretend like it is will always do more damage than good, leading us inevitably into moral and theological error.

And yes, I do still consider myself a theologically orthodox Christian.

A great deal has been written over the past century on the subject of atonement theology, and far more qualified theologians than I have already done the work of deconstructing the heresies associated with the idea of “substitutionary atonement” –the idea that Jesus “had to die” on the cross in order to pay the price for human sin by satisfying God’s wrath against all humanity for disobeying him in the Garden of Eden. It’s unnecessary for me to repeat all the criticisms of this theology here, but I highly commend Elizabeth Johnson’s excellent new book Creation and the Cross, along with Brock & Parker’s lengthy but thorough historical analysis in Saving Paradise.

 Suffice to say, while many people in the U.S.—Christians and non-Christians alike –still believe substitutionary atonement to be a core tenet of the Christian faith, most people with even the slightest bit of theological education or awareness of Western history know that the idea was not part of the Christian faith until Anselm of Canterbury proposed the doctrine in the 11th century, which was right around the same time that we find the earliest images of the crucifixion showing up in Christian art.

In other words, for the first 1,000 years of Christianity, there were no images of Jesus dying on the cross, and no references to Jesus’ death or the crucifixion event itself as being constitutive of salvation. Apparently, crucifixion is not necessarily the core of Christian faith.

Many mainline clergy and theologians have long since rejected Anselm’s child-like notions of the need to appease the abusive wrath of a parental deity with a blood sacrifice. But most still attempt to re-frame the crucifixion in “positive” terms, spiritualizing it as a metaphor for “kenosis,” self-sacrifice, or non-violent resistance. They attempt to reject Anselm’s doctrine while still retaining a framework that places Jesus’ death at the center of the faith. And yet, we still end up with a theology that is built around—and dependent upon—violence. This is a theology that teaches that the ends can justify the means—a theology which can only perpetuate and enable cycles of abuse and oppression by glorifying suffering and victimhood in such a way that encourages people to stay in abusive and oppressive relationships.

While Christians of the first millennium seemed to reframe everything in the context of life—incarnation, resurrection, and the redemption of the world—the crucifixion-based theologies of the second millennium dealt only in death, shifting the focus to the next world while giving up on this one. At the end of the day, this is a theology of despair, and has accordingly encouraged and contributed to the despair and death of far too many women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others who have found themselves defenseless on the wrong side of a power dynamic. Rather than experiencing God as one who calls us out of patterns of human violence and into new and redeemed life in Christ, many victims of violence believe that God is pleased by their suffering, demanding the erasure of selfhood for the sake of redeeming oppressors.

This is not the Gospel. It is nothing more than codependency writ large, and then reframed as a religion. This does not point the way to salvation. It is simply a defense mechanism that makes suffering more bearable by spiritualizing it and reframing it as altruistic.

I am convinced that no matter how you spin it, there is no way to frame the crucifixion narrative as positive or necessary without falling into this morally and theologically debased trap. I am also convinced that we do not need to frame the crucifixion as positive or necessary in order to be grounded in the Gospel Truth.

The story of the incarnation constitutes our hope and salvation. The story of the resurrection constitutes our hope and salvation. But the story of the crucifixion is a tragedy nothing more. It is the tragic story of a pattern that plays out in our world every single day, over and over again—in workplaces, in courtrooms, in classrooms, in churches, in living rooms, in bedrooms –a pattern in which the people most responsible for harm are the ones most shielded from having to take responsibility for it. A pattern in which oppressors look like victims, and innocents are framed as villains. A pattern in which those with power can wash their hands of blame, while the masses find easy scapegoats that can satisfy the desire for “justice” in ways that avoid addressing underlying power dynamics and allow us to return to the safety of the status quo. It is a pattern in which victims are left with no recourse but to accept whatever blame is foisted upon them, knowing that if they try to defend themselves, they will only invite more blame, and more suffering.

This is what makes the story of the crucifixion matter. And this is why it is important to tell it in all its vivid, excruciating detail. Not because it is a story that constitutes our redemption, but because it provides us with the recognizable context that makes resurrection matter. This is the hell that we are saved from – a hell that the poor and the oppressed know well, and will immediately recognize. It is a hell that must be named, because so many people are in the midst of it right now. We see crucifixion in abusive relationships. We see crucifixion in the structural racism that is built into our criminal justice system. We see crucifixion in the religiously-motivated dehumanization of LGBTQ people. We see crucifixion in bizarre stories like the one recently reported by the NY Times in which an innocent kid with codependency issues became the scapegoat for the tragic death of his friends, while the landlords and the city officials responsible for ensuring the building’s safety washed their hands of it.

The crucifixion is a story that needs to be told so that the people who find themselves living in this hell can understand that even though this is what happens, this is not God’s will, and they are not alone, and no matter what happens or how they are made to suffer, this is not the end. The crucifixion only has meaning through the lens of resurrection, and that this is the only way in which we can frame it through a lens of hope.

On Palm Sunday (and Good Friday) we must resist the urge to skip ahead to Easter by giving the crucifixion narrative a happy spin, or trying to frame it within a theology where violence is part of God’s plan, and realize that we tell the story of crucifixion so that we can name the truth about who we are as human beings, and the kinds of insanity that we are saved from, through a faith that would never call us into this kind of death, but always calls us into new life beyond death.

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Kristen Leigh Mitchell

Kristen Leigh Mitchell, M.Div. is a freelance writer, theologian, and indie-folk singer-songwriter based in Asheboro, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, the Rev. Joe Mitchell, and their dog Casey. Kristen graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2014, where she focused on theology and the arts. Kristen leads classes, retreats, and workshops, and regularly performs music at venues across central North Carolina.

 

 

Palm Sunday (A): What is Palm Sunday?

What is Palm Sunday?

Matthew 26:14-27:66

By Mashaun D. Simon

For the longest time, Palm Sunday was simply the Sunday before Easter for me. Yes, there were rituals we performed at church before and during that Sunday’s worship service. And yes, those rituals included acquiring and laying palms throughout the sanctuary.

Over time, I became more and more aware of the reasons we were doing what we were doing: the palms, their significance, and what they represented. But I cannot say with confidence what the moment meant for the church, and what the significance was of the palms.

I came to understand that we were doing it because Palm Sunday represented the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem, complete with the celebrations surrounding this moment. But I did not fully understand why it was such a big deal and why there seemed to be the need to mark this moment in the calendar year.

Today, I possess this conclusion in my mind that Palm Sunday is, in many ways, about preparation and it is through this idea of preparation that I engage this year’s gospel text for Palm Sunday, which can be found in the 14th chapter of Matthew.

The themes of preparation are prevalent throughout. Here in the story we have Judas receiving currency for his betrayal, the disciples making preparation for the Passover meal, Jesus’ declaration that he will be betrayed, Jesus’ declaration that he will be denied thrice, and Jesus’ grieving and agitation.

Each of these scenarios have, in one way or another, some level of connection to preparation. Judas’ actions are the prequel to Jesus’ persecution—and we are being prepared for the full weight of it. The disciples seeking a place for the Passover meal is preparation for a moment of fellowship and covenant. Jesus’ two declarations—one of betrayal and the other of denial—provide preparation for lessons as well as bracing for what is to come. And Jesus going away to grieve ahead of the ultimate sacrifice is a signal of the realities of doubt and fear.

Throughout the story, we are being prepared for what’s next and being given a glimpse into the realities of human nature. I can’t help but see this theme of preparation throughout these verses and wonder what the overall takeaway should be at this time in this season as we await Easter.

Preparation is defined as the act of making ready or being made ready. We live in a society rooted in preparation.

Whether in school or on a job, we are all working towards a level of readiness. Being or feeling prepared is human nature. When we aren’t ready for what’s coming, we are often uncomfortable, uneasy, stressed even.

But what does being prepared mean for us in this text? What does being prepared mean for us in the seasons of Lent and Easter? Why must we prepare? And what are we preparing for? What are the benefits of being prepared?

I have friends who call me a control freak. They are convinced that I spend entirely too much energy on knowing what is coming or what is next and they consider that to be a form of needing or wanting to be in control. But for the most part, what they miss is that it is not always about being in control; rather, it is about being at my best.

Maybe that is what the theme of preparation is about in this text: Jesus being at his best and wanting the disciples to be at their best.

Jesus knew what was coming and wanted the disciples to be as prepared as possible for what they would need to do next. Here Jesus was about to make the ultimate sacrifice, and he wanted to give them time to understand not only what was happening, but an opportunity to be at their best once it happened.

Granted we are supposed to have an idea of how things panned out after Jesus’ persecution, and Jesus knew how things would work out, but his disciples didn’t. And so, Jesus wanted to prepare them for what was to come, and for the part that they would be made to play.

But more than a biopic of the life of the disciples during Jesus’ last days, Palm Sunday reminds us that we all have a part to play. God has a plan for us, yes, but that does not mean that we are to sit idly by, come what may. We are being called to do our part.

Maybe, just maybe, this is what we are supposed to take from this day, this theme, and this season.

This season, think about what is before you. Think about what you are anticipating. Think about your call, and the ways you have committed (or not committed) to answer it, bracing yourself for what is to come.

Pay attention to the signs being provided; ready yourself for what is to come. Be mindful that regardless of what is coming, God is with you, equipping you for what is on the other side.

And then give God the praise for what God has done, is doing, and will do in the lives of God’s people.

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Mashaun D. Simon

Mashaun D. Simon is a preacher, a teacher, a writer and a scholar in his native, Atlanta, Georgia. He holds a Master of Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology with a triple focus in preaching, faith and formation, and race and religion, and double certificates in Black Church Studies and religious education. He contributes his thoughts and perspectives to online and print mediums, and serves at House of Mercy Everlasting (HOME) church in College Park, Georgia. Much of his research focuses on race, sexuality, identity and faith.