Over the last few weeks the world has been mesmerised by the toppling of dictators in the Middle East and North Africa, as people, longing for freedom, have protested and pressured their rulers to make way for democracy. Perhaps the most disturbing of these uprisings has been in Libya where an armed, but untrained, ragtag group of protesters has been attacked by the highly trained and equipped army of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan dictator of forty years. If ever there was a parable of how the power of dominance and control can turn evil and destructive, this is it. But, perhaps what’s most disturbing and frightening about this scenario is that few of the commentators I have heard or read, and few of the people I have spoken to, are surprised. What we are witnessing is not an anomaly. It is a pattern that has been played out many times in the history of human power struggles. This is what the human system of dominance looks like.
At the time of Jesus such images of power and control were rather commonplace. The crosses that dotted the countryside were a parable of the fierce and decisive response that could be expected should anyone question or challenge the dominance of the Roman Empire. Power was won through conflict and through the humiliation of opponents. Power was retained through violence and through the humiliation of opponents. The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in response to the zealot uprisings in the 60s AD is a reminder of this pattern.
But it is not only in the political arena that such violent “power-over” is practiced. In business, competitors are often treated as ‘enemies’ and no mercy is shown in seeking to drive others out of business in order to reach the top of the heap. In sport, the language of war is often used, and opponents feel little of inflicting serious injury on one another in the quest for glory. Winning is everything, and the losers must be humiliated. Perhaps the one place where we would expect this pattern to be conspicuous by its absence is in the area of religion. However, even here, human history has witnessed the same violence, dominance and power struggles between different religious sects, even, at times, within a single religion. Human beings, it seems, have yet to fully understand the destructive and corrupting influence of power.
Into this scenario rides a strange figure. An itinerant preacher who had already gained enough influence to disturb the authorities of his day; a teacher who had been identified as a prophet by many of the poor folk who followed him; a man who, his followers were beginning to suspect, was more than just a man. Into a world of power struggles, violence and dominance, rides Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus begins by preaching the famous “Sermon on the Mount” a manifesto of what he calls “the Kingdom of Heaven”. What is striking is the absence of violence and dominance. The God who invites all people into God’s reign welcomes not so much the powerful, the victorious or the dominant. Rather, God’s invitation is offered to the grieving, the poor, the meek, the peace-makers, the persecuted. The very ones that the world would shun as ‘losers’, God celebrates and blesses. This heart of Jesus’ message was that the human system is not working, but there is an alternative – a Jubilee-Kingdom of grace, equality, compassion, sacrifice and mutual service. A realm in which power is not grasped and asserted over others, but is given away and shared through mutual submission.
Now, as we remember Palm Sunday, it’s as if Jesus takes his Sermon and enacts it. It’s like he realises that it’s easy to speak about these things in this way, but if we are truly to hear what he is trying to teach us, he must show us. And so he rides into Jerusalem on a humble donkey, with the bewildered foal following alongside. He rides not to overthrow the powers that be, but to reveal them in all their destructive horror by submitting to their evil machinations, and hanging on their cross. He rides not to create a new dictatorship, but to show the emptiness, the poverty, the hidden vulnerability of all dictators by choosing a different way, a way of love and grace and peace that those who cling to power can never understand or stamp out. He rides not to humiliate his opponents, but to forgive them, and to invite even them into a different way of being. He rides, knowing that many will fail to hear the message, that many will see his quest as a failure, that many will be so addicted to their power that they will be unable to decipher the creative, gracious alternative he offers. He rides, giving up everything, so that, for those who have ears to hear, an alternative pattern can begin to emerge in the midst of the noise of power and violence. He rides, inviting us to step out of the marching line of power-by-dominance and join the dance of true freedom.
Then, as now, the crowds ask who this is. Then as now the answer lies not in the frameworks of power and dominance, but in the mysterious, gentle influence of meekness and love – which, in the end, is what the powerful fear the most, because they cannot control it. If only the zealots could have heard this message. If only the Gaddafis of this world and the Libyan protesters could hear it. If only the coalition forces which have stepped in could hear it. And, if only we could hear it, too.