Behaving in Public

Mark Bratton
Sunday 13th April, 2014

Palm Sunday A - Matthew 21: 1-11

Every year, on Good Friday, there is a gathering of members of the churches in Berkswell and Balsall Common – not just the Church of England, but also the Methodists and the Roman Catholics. We gather to take part in an ‘ecumenical walk of witness’ which involves one of us carrying a large wooden cross and the rest of us walking behind it, stopping of at designated points in Balsall Common to read scripture, sing and pray. I always find it a deeply moving occasion and am struck at the general indifference with which the general population regard the straggling band of local Christians. Above all, the walk of witness reminds me that Christianity is a ‘public’ religion. As someone once pointed out, most of the key biblical events happen ‘out of doors’.

‘Public religion’ is an idea that many modern western people find hard to handle. Our religious, spiritual or moral viewpoints are regarded as matters we should keep private – something we are free to express in the privacy of our own homes or own churches, but not, as it were, in the ‘public square’, which many of a secular disposition would like to keep as a religion-free zone. Something of this cultural attitude was captured in Alastair Campbell’s famous utterance, when he was Prime Minister Tony Blair’s press secretary, ‘we don’t do God!’ It is also finding expression in law. In a number of recent and well-publicised legal cases the courts have decided not to uphold the claims of Christian claimants that they were being discriminated against.

The Supreme Court judge Baroness Hale gets to the nub of the matter when in a recent lecture she said that England is a ‘paradoxical’ country when it comes to religion. We have the Queen as the head of an established Church. We have Anglican bishops in the House of Lords. Until recently we had a blasphemy law that only protected the Anglican faith. But at the same time we have declining Christian religious observance and, as I said, a political culture that shies away from public expressions of religiosity. Another paradox is inherent in another lecture delivered by the first Sikh member of the High Court Bench, Mr Justice Rabinder Singh. He considers the values that underlie the English legal system and identifies four chief ones: equality, democracy, fairness and the rule of law. It’s paradoxical because while these values, as the judge himself acknowledges, have their source in the Gospel and the teachings of Christianity, they now actually operate in certain circumstances to prevent explicitly Christian convictions from trumping the requirements of equality and diversity. It’s almost as if Christianity has worked itself out of a job.

Is this actually the case?

I don’t think so.

Firstly, I don’t think that we have to keep our religious convictions concealed in a modern liberal democracy. They certainly don’t in India – the world’s largest democracy – where religion is a central topic of conversation. And our own minority communities from the Indian subcontinent are certainly not going to keep quiet about their religious convictions in order to honour the naked public square. Baroness Hale conjectures that one of the reasons of the popular indifference to C of E Christianity is that it is a spectacularly undemanding church – no food laws dress codes, or days of obligation to keep people on their toes.
They also don’t in the USA, one of the most religious countries in the world. The influence of religious voices in American politics is well-known even though there is strict constitutional separation between church and state.

If you force people to conceal their religious convictions then you supress the prime motivating force behind the drive to the public good. You also prevent religious views and moral opinions from beings exposed to the air of public criticism.

Secondly, religion often undergirds the courage to speak truth to power. And this is precisely what I believe is going on Palm Sunday. The Church has sentimentalised Palm Sunday into a family ‘fun day out’, donkey ride and all. In truth, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a carefully-staged political rally pregnant with religious significance. And the fact that it is stage-managed accounts for the curious negotiation between Jesus’ disciples and the owners of the jenny and her foal. Jesus has made preparations beforehand.

Many bibles head this section of the Gospel as the Triumphal Entry as if Jesus was the Eric Pickles of Passover-tide Jerusalem. Jesus’ entry is anything but triumphal. It was a counter-procession to one that was at about that time taking place to the west of the city headed by governor of Judea, Samaria and Idumea, Pontius Pilate. Very sensibly, Roman governors had sea-side headquarters 60 miles away in Caesarea Maritima, Caesarea-by-the-sea. But for every major Jewish festival, the governor would lead extra cohorts of auxiliary troops to reinforce the permanent garrison stationed in the Fortress Antonia in Jerusalem overlooking the Temple Mount. This wasn’t an act of sensitivity toward Jewish religious scruples on the eve of a major festival but a Putin-like rapid-response arrangement should local resentment at the Roman occupation of Israel spill over. We need to remember that Passover was a ritual re-enactment of Israel’s liberation from a former oppressor.

The imperial procession – with all the accoutrements of stately pomp – cavalry, foot soldiers, armour, helmets weapons, banners, golden eagles held aloft, magnificent war horses – would make its way into Jerusalem from the west. The Roman procession was not only an expression of Roman imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology which dictated that the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God. From the time of Caesar Augustus onwards, Roman emperors were honoured not as mere, albeit mighty, mortals, but as divine beings with titles to match: “Son of God”, “lord”, “saviour” guaranteeing “peace on earth”.

The force and meaning of Jesus’ counter-procession becomes clearer. He approaches Jerusalem with a train of peasant followers from the East down the Mount of Olives through ‘The Beautiful Gate’ (also known as ‘the Golden Gate’ – now walled up). This is gate through which, according to Jewish belief, the Messiah was expected to enter. In fact, Jesus uses the symbolism of Zechariah which prophesied a king coming to Jerusalem. How? Matthew makes the Zechariah connection explicit: “humble and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey” And what will this king do? “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.”

This rival procession has a rival theology. On this theology, “Son of God”, “lord”, “saviour”, “peace on earth” mean very different things. . For the Romans, peace was the triumph of power, glory and empire: as Tacitus said “The Romans make a desert and call it peace”. For Jesus, peace was shalom, wholeness, creation restored, and evil conquered to its very roots in the human soul, and fibres in the cosmic fabric. “Hosanna”. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”. “Hosanna in the highest”.

The story of Holy Week, which begins today, is about the confrontation of these two rival visions of the Kingdom, between the Pax Romana on the one hand and the Pax Christi on the other.

For this reason, Christianity must always remain public. How can it do other? It testifies not to a private, tutelary God, but the God who created and framed the Universe. It witnesses not to the deification of a mere man, but to a God who though being God did not consider equality with God something to be snatched at but took the form of a servant, so that he might be exalted to the highest place. It attests not to a divinity restricted to the interiority of our religious feelings, but to a God who through his son came to bring life and life in all its fullness, in whom, all humankind might be free indeed, a freedom reflected in our social and moral arrangements and political structures.

To those who suggest that faith can be divorced from politics, and religion from the public square, I have only one word in response: preposterous!!


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