By Bert Newton, Pasadena Mennonite Church
This year in Pasadena, Calif., we will hold our 14th annual Palm Sunday Peace Parade. Every year has a different theme. This year our theme is “Peace without Borders; Welcoming the Refugee.” Last year we called attention to the ecological crisis as well as to police shootings of unarmed black people. The year before that we addressed economic injustice and consumerism that drives war. We created a 12 foot Lady Wisdom puppet and a smaller Mammon puppet who rode a coach called “The Excess Express.” You can watch the struggle between Lady Wisdom and Mammon here.
The parade arose out of our study of the Gospel. Here is the story of how it began:
While we originally were going to call it “The People’s Palm Sunday March,” we now call it the “Palm Sunday Peace Parade” not only because this name has the advantage of alliteration but also because it reflects the context in which the march actually began. We began the Palm Sunday Peace Parade in Pasadena in 2003 at the outbreak of the war with Iraq, so it was a peace march. Even though the context was war and the death that war brings, we made our event joyful and celebratory, much like the original Palm Sunday event; the gospels tell that Jesus marched toward his death and yet entered Jerusalem in celebration of his victory over the forces of death. So we designed our event likewise to be festive and celebratory, a peace parade.
The idea was originally conceived several years earlier in a Bible study in which we were studying the first Palm Sunday. We realized that the story of Palm Sunday was that of people coming from the margins of their society to the center of it in Jerusalem. These people, Galileans coming to Jerusalem for the Passover, waved Jesus into Jerusalem as their chosen king, a popular king.
Passover celebrated the Israelites’ deliverance and liberation from the Egyptian empire. At the time of Jesus, Israel was under the thumb of the Roman Empire. Naturally, Passover celebrations lit the hopes and dreams of the people for their liberation from Rome. Rome understood this tradition well and sent extra troops to Jerusalem at Passover in the event that they might have to put down a rebellion.
To wave Jesus into Jerusalem as “king of Israel” with praise and palm branches (recalling the entrance into Jerusalem of the triumphant rebel leader Simon Maccabeus, who liberated Israel from the Seleucid Empire in 142 BCE, see 1 Macc 13:51) at such a time constituted a brazen act of symbolic resistance.
The resistance was both against Rome and its puppet government that ruled from the temple mount. That is why, upon entering Jerusalem, the capital city, Jesus went to the temple, cleared it of the money changers who worked for the temple establishment, reclaimed that space for the people, and began teaching there about the new society that he called the Kingdom of God. In this society, he proclaimed, the outcasts are included as full members in good standing, wealth is redistributed so that everyone has enough, and the rulers wash everyone else’s feet. In this society, peace and justice are established.
When we came to this understanding of the Palm Sunday story, we began dreaming of a people’s march, the people marching to the center of town, proclaiming justice for the poor and inclusion of the outcast, a fully egalitarian society.
We decided that our march would be fully political as well as fully spiritual, but not political in the establishment sense. Establishment politics reflects establishment interests. In the U.S. that results in a two party system in which both parties are bought by the large corporations and act largely on their behalf; the people play a minor role.
We decided that our politics would be the politics of Jesus, which is the politics of the people. Jesus built his political power among the people, sitting with them, healing them, teaching them about the new society, empowering them with the authority to heal and forgive each other. Only after laying this foundation did he engage the established political class, and he did so with scathing critiques and nonviolent direct action (the reclaiming of the temple).
With the Palm Sunday Peace Parade, we attempt to lay the same kind of foundation that Jesus laid. We do not practice establishment politics. The primary role of the parade is not to lobby city hall for justice or Congress for peace. This parade is a people’s march. The primary role of the Palm Sunday Peace Parade is to get the people out in the streets together, putting one foot in front of the other, feeling their own spiritual and political power. Having built this collective confidence, they begin talking to each other, begin networking to build grassroots power.
It is important to us that we practice the egalitarian society that we want to see emerge. For example, we try to maintain a balance of men and women in up front leadership roles; we do not give a privileged place to established political leaders; and we emphasize lay leadership (although, since we are organizing primarily through churches, we sometimes have pastors say the opening and closing prayers).
The Palm Sunday Peace Parade has spread to Elkhart, IN, Harrisonburg, VA, and State College PA. We hope that this movement continues to spread across North America and the world as a Gospel-based people’s movement for peace and justice.