The festival of Passover was a threat to the Roman authorities of Jesus’ day. After all, this was the week when the Jewish people remembered their liberation by God with feasting and with storytelling. It was the week when the Jewish people celebrated a God who led them out of slavery and bondage. It is a recollection of God’s triumph over the greatest superpower of the day, Egypt. The revolutionary runs through the whole event. Not something the Roman leadership would want the people they had conquered and were subjugating to remember. Things might get out of hand. People might notice that they are once again in chains and decide to do something about it.
So, Pilate, the governor of the Roman province of Judea, who did not live in Jerusalem but on the coast in the much newer city, Caesarea, would enter Jerusalem with his soldiers to remind everyone who was in charge. Their parade exuded power and might. It was a kingly procession filled with gleaming armor and weapons. The governor and his soldiers rode high atop beautiful and enormous white stallions. The message was clear: do not forget who is in charge and what will happen to you if you try to change the order of things. Caesar is the Son of God, and you better not forget that.
One particular year, at around the same time another procession made its way into Jerusalem. A very different procession. The man who led this one was not dressed in expensive imperial clothing. He wore a simple knee-length tunic, the dress of the every-day person. He did ride an animal, but it was not a great stallion, it was a humble donkey. There were no soldiers or weapons. His followers did cry out, just as those watching Pilate’s parade cried out, but in this parade the religious leadership tried to silence the disciples of the leader. No one tried to silence those crying out words of praise to Pilate. No one would dare.
In this humble procession, Jesus was sending a very intentional and deliberate message to his followers and to those in religious and political power in his land: Jesus is king, but not in the way worldly kings are kings. Jesus, God incarnate, is not here to rule over, but to return the world to wholeness and health. This king, God’s king, comes to bring peace not war. This king, God’s king, is here to protest the systems of domination that have been legitimized by the religious leadership. And the ruling and religious leadership quite naturally want to silence him, but they can’t. Jesus says to them, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
This is for me perhaps the most comforting passage from all of scripture: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” The stones would shout out. I have spent a lot of time in prayer and study over the past few years trying to understand where and how God is working in the church, in particular the Episcopal Church. The studies done by social scientists would suggest that Christianity, all forms of Christianity both mainline and non-denominational, liberal, and conservative, is on a downward slope to death in our country. For someone whose entire working life has been spent as a leader in the church and for whom my faith is central to my identity and my life, this is pretty depressing news. I have been a part of every movement over the past 20 years to try to reinvigorate the church, and every movement has failed. What are we to do? Throw up our hands and give the church hospice care until it dies? Maybe yes. Maybe no. How’s that for a non-answer?
My time of prayer and study have made it increasingly clear to me that what is dying is not Jesus’ message and Jesus’ way, but the many ways that Christianity has gone completely off course since Christianity became the religion of the Empire in the fourth century. Ever since that fateful time, official Christianity has become indistinguishable from Empire and a source of domination and violence throughout the world. European colonization of much of the non-Western world and the enslavement of African people happened because the church sanctioned it and said it was God’s will. The church did this because it was indistinguishable from the secular rulers. They were one in the same.
In the 15th century a number of papal bulls were put forth that changed the course of history forever. Together these make up the Doctrine of Discovery. Here is a quote from one of these bulls issued in 1455. It authorized monarchs of Christian countries to:
invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.
The Doctrine of Discovery provided spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization, seizure of land and the enslavement of non-Christian indigenous peoples. It is the reason the first European settlers of this country had no problem displacing and killing (whether by disease or violence) millions of indigenous people. To them the land was empty because there were no Christians here. This is why Christian descendants of these European settlers had no problem with enslaving millions of Africans and their descendants. They weren’t Christian, therefore they were less than human. After all, the church said it was so.
In 1823 the Supreme Court of the United States of America in a unanimous decision stated that the Doctrine of Discovery gave European Nations absolute right to New World lands. And thus, the genocide of indigenous Americans accelerated to a horrific pace. How on earth did Christianity go from being a movement that followed a prophet who preached of a kingdom without violence, domination, and oppression to a religion that was the primary legitimizer of violence, domination, and oppression? How on earth did Christianity leave Jesus’ Palm Sunday procession and join Pilate’s military parade?
Well, the answer is pretty obvious. Jesus’ message was revolutionary. He held up a world in which power was based on love. He held up a world in which no one is on the margins, and everyone is a beloved child of God. A world in which God has “filled the hungry with good things,” “lifted up the lowly,” “cast down the mighty from their thrones,” and “the rich he has sent away empty.” A world in which everyone matters not just those at the top of the pyramid.
This is a threatening message to the worldly powers. While you know and I know that a world in which everyone matters is actually a better world for everyone, this is not how those who have the most (be it power, material goods, or status) see things. For being at the top seems to distort your vision. Those with all the power, material goods or status start to feel as though giving up some of what they have will mean that others will have power over them. They become afraid that if they lose a little, they will lose it all.
The powers of the world tried to put an end to Jesus’ message by murdering him on a cross. It didn’t work. His movement just grew stronger. What to do now? Well, if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em. If you can’t snuff out a revolutionary movement then you just have to subvert it, and that is exactly what happened. In many very important and crucial ways Jesus’ message was silenced when Christianity became the religion of the Empire. And this has held true up to this very day. In the words of Stephanie Spellers in her book, The Church Cracked Open, “dominant American Christian churches are by and large designed to shape cooperative, peaceful, and kind residents and consumers” (page 85). This was not at all Jesus’ aim.
And yet, Jesus’ message, his way, hasn’t been completely lost. Why is that? Well as Jesus said, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been people, many of whom we today call saints, who have held up Jesus’ vision, God’s dream for the world. The church and the world often tried to silence them, but they couldn’t be silenced. I’ll give you a few examples.
In a time when explorers like Christopher Columbus were seizing indigenous people’s land and raping, murdering, and enslaving them by the thousands, Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican priest, woke up to the horrors around him, and began lobbying for new laws in Spain to prevent the brutal exploitation of indigenous Americans. He believed Spaniards and indigenous peoples could build a new civilization in America together.
Then there is Bishop Wulfstan, the only English born bishop after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. At this time the Norman conquerors were capturing and selling English men and women into slavery in Ireland. Wulfstan was strongly opposed to this practice and was mainly responsible for ending this trade in human beings. Every Sunday he would go to the slave trading headquarters in Bristol and preach to the traders. Sunday after Sunday he would talk to them about the sanctity of life and the right of every human being to be free. His preaching wore them down and convinced King William to outlaw the practice.
Or perhaps we would like to remember John Jay II, grandson of the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, lawyer, and devout Episcopalian. He was such a passionate champion of black people that his fellow Episcopalians publicly distained his “negrophilism,” and he was scorned by most of his peers.
I could go on for days, remembering faithful followers of the way of Jesus from the past 2000 years, remembering stones that continued to cry out. Try as they might, the powers of the world just can’t silence Jesus. And this is why this passage from Luke gives me such great hope. It is true that the church of Empire is on the decline in our country right now, but it is not true that the way of Jesus is dying. God is working with us to provide hospice care to the dying Empire-entwined church, because this was never God’s dream for the world. But God is not working with us to provide hospice care to the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus can never be silenced.
As Jesus was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Amen.