By Jim Perkinson, a Palm Sunday sermon for St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit, MI (04.02.2023)
And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Beth′phage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If any one says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
5 “Tell the daughter of Zion,
Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on an ass,
and on a colt, the foal of an ass.”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon. 8 Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, “Who is this?” 11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.”
So, begins the most profound communication in the public career of Jesus of Nazareth. At the apex of his popularity, bringing his own movement “posse” from their home turf in the outback of Galilee to the central city in Occupied Palestine for an ultimate showdown in the Temple-State shrine, he confesses “lack.” He “needs.” And what he needs is a burro. Or ass. Or donkey—they are all words for the same animal (but not a mule, as we shall see, and not a horse).
And thus emerges a deep question for us today 2000 years out from this unremarkable event in a tiny “Third World” polity on the edge of an ancient empire: given that our society still marks that moment with fairly prominent celebration as the Sunday of Palms: what is it we are trying to remember? Given that the memory is preserved almost exclusively as a bit of written report, the gist of that question is actually “how do we read?” Indeed, the gist and central thrust of everything I teach in the classroom and indeed of everything I try to understand about my own responsibility in this hour we find ourselves confronted with, when so many chickens are coming home to roost!
An hour of apocalypse—likely signaling the ending of the world as we know it, given climate change blowback on 5,000 years of human disregard and abuse of the more-than-human world, compounded by Christian arrogance in genocidally killing off Native folk to the tune of more than 60 million since 1492, enslaving Africans and causing the early deaths of another 40-50 million folk in the process, all the rapes of women, the “American Exceptionalist” violation and pillage of sovereign nations around the globe more than 553 times in the last 2/12 centuries, and now the collapse of everything from water infrastructure and accessibility to the banking system itself, supply chain availability to food supply affordability, with rampant social unrest brewing up almost everywhere—Haiti and Nigeria, Chile and Sri Lanka, Israel and Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo and France and Greece, not to mention the utter devastations of wars in Yemen and Ukraine in the mix.
How do you read? The text (!) in the face of the reality (!)?
The story asserts, Jesus needs. We could just gloss over that on our way to our favorite pet fascinations with what we think we already know about the Nazareth Prophet as the supposed Christ-figure of ancient expectation—filtered through 2,000 years of imperial conscription, making Rabbi Yeshua the Patron Saint of Roman aggression and then of Euro-colonial world-domination, and then of white supremacist color-codification of the oppression, and then of the U.S. Air Force-bombing of Muslims all over the mid-east and central Asia in the name of claiming the world’s oil for profligate disposal in God-ordained SUVs produced by Ford, all the way up today’s certainty that all of the non-human world is simply a ripe plum for capitalist picking and commodification and plastic packaging and finally discard-as-so much-waste destined to the nearest landfill or river bottom.
How do you read? How deep into the word “need” dare we go? I want to suggest it is a rabbit hole winding all the way back to pre-kingdom-of-David-attempts by early Israel to re-invent its lifeway as independent of either Egyptian imperial reliance on slave labor or Canaanite city-state concentrations of power in the hands of kings . . . that nonetheless Israel will eventually mimic precisely by choosing monarchy over the loose-knit and fiercely interdependent tribal alliance she convened for her first 200 years of existence, trying to re-learn how to live off the land in a manner that was both just and sustainable.
It is telling here that Jesus approaching the Jerusalem-Temple-State complex for a high noon show-down with the Powers-that-Be, dabbles in and then displaces, the expectations of the crowds. In the gospels, Jesus never invokes David as a model except during the time when the latter was not yet anointed king and still living hand-to-mouth as a herder-shepherd, on the run from king Saul, as the head of a band of disenfranchised poor folk living in the outback of Judea. And there is much here—layer upon layer, really—that will have to be left shrouded in hint and inuendo, to make just a couple of basic points.
The text says Jesus needs a donkey. But what do you need in this desperate hour? What do I?
I confess to being entrapped by history and sapped of savvy. I do not offer such an admission to be bleak and dour—confronting us with our complicity so we can one more time revert back to cowering in barely-held-at-bay fear and seeking solace and entertainment in March Madness outcomes or (for me) K-drama depictions of a world half-a-globe away. No. I want us to face how deep our loss of basic human skill and beauty goes, and then embrace the grief and wake to the wonder anyway! I may only be able to change my life incrementally in response to the crisis—but I can at least wonder!
So, thus: What do I need? What do you? Jesus was interdependent with an ass. What am I interdependent with? In a word, in our day, electricity. We are frankly electricity-slaves today. What do I mean? Say someone—Chinese or Russian or even white nationalist terrorist such as we see continually shooting up our schools—manages to mobilize what is called an EMP (electromagnetic pulse weapon)—that one night explodes 20 miles overhead, does not harm a single hair on the head of single living being (would that I still had a few that would go thus unharmed!), but fries all of the electronics across the country. You would not even know it had happened except all the power would be gone when you got up that morning. And given the extent of the damage that power would not again be available for years on end given the extent of the repair necessary. The ultimate electric grid shutdown—that will take place someday even if not by way of an EMP (and already is happening in the Global South).
What would happen? You would have no cellphone, no car working, no stove, no refrigerator, no waters pumping up to water faucets, no lights, no heat, no aircon, no security alarm. The average city has about 3 days-worth of food in its stores for the population numbers living there. That would quickly be raided and emptied. Then you would have roving bands of armed desperados on the hunt for canned food or anything else useful in the short term. Within a month or two, more than 90 percent of the country would likely be dead. Within a year—more like 95-99 percent. Why? Because very, very few of us know how to live right where we are, within a 10 to 20-mile walking-radius of our domicile.
We don’t know the plants and animals and soils and seasons and cycles of weather and waters and possible wild provisions that the local ecology used to provide (and to some degree still does). Some Native folk do still know this and have the skills to make their own clothes and shelter, hunt and gather their food, make fire without a lighter, etc., all without having to reach for anything beyond the 20-mile radius. All of us come from family trees that back there somewhere did know such in relationship to a given local ecology where they dwelled. But no longer!
What do I need? Electricity.
I am utterly dependent on a now global apparatus that gobbles up resources across an entire planet and rearranges them so that some of us get to live comfortably for the moment at the expense of everything and everyone else. I need that global apparatus. I am dependent on the enslavement of plants and animals and fossil fuels and metals and waters and people all around the globe. I am devoid of the skill to live otherwise.
Indeed, scholars are now tracking the loss of real-life-skills compared to how we used to live long ago as hunting-and-gathering folk (maybe combined with a little bit of small-scale horticulture and herding). Over the last 10,000 years since the advent of agriculture (which in the bible is named “fall” not progress), not only have we gradually been de-skilled in what really matters, but our brain-sizes have actually shrunk by somewhere between 11-17 percent (Gowdy, 2020).
We are less skilled, less capable, less free than we used to be and typically utterly astonished when I talk this way, because we’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of so-called “civilization” about our way of life being “advanced” and embraced all the conceits and brainwashing our modern society offers us unremittingly to the effect that we represent the apex of evolution and that everything before now and before “us” was lamentably “backward” and not worth paying attention to. Forget your deep ancestry! Just grab up your “cellfie-phone” (it is not named an “I” phone for nothing) and stare into the screen! Fine! But good luck eating it!
I am a slave of electricity who thinks he is a master! What do I need? Fossil fuel! Nuclear power plants! Hoover Dam! Mountain-top-removal for the sake of coal! Fracking for the sake of gas! Mined-up lithium and chromium and platinum for the wind-mill and solar-paneled “green-washed” dwelling I aspire to. Rare earth minerals for my phone and computer! I need! And politically I will decree such is my human right! No matter it destroys the entire planet! And finally me with it!
The gospel says Jesus needed an ass. And the tableau is telling. He chooses very carefully how to stage himself for this momentous and ominous confrontation. He is invoking the scenario laid out by Zechariah of old: “Behold, your king is coming to you mounted on an ass and the foal of an ass.” The imagery seems to project royalty. And in consequence the Passover parade goes wild! This is not a MAGA-crowd but a wowed MIGA-crowd: Make Israel Great Again the feet are saying! Jesus seems to step right into it. But the “seems to” is sleight-of-hand!
He has so far been styling himself not as king but as prophet, very clearly recruiting and teaching and healing not in the city-centers of Galilee, but the outback, the mountain-height, the lake-shore, the wilderness-floor of canyons and cliffs. He has gone up into the urban-core only to throw down a roar of challenge and then retreat again.
His disciples have tried to pin the title “Christ”—“Anointed One”—on him mid-way through his brief public career when he asks for intel on what people are saying about him (Mk 8: 27-33). But he then immediately shushes them, and offers an expectation not of stepping into royal powers (what “anointed one” means), but of continued prophetic confrontation, followed by arrest, defamation, demise and, only after sharing the horrendous destiny of so many of the folk he has championed, “rising again.”
The donkey-choice at the gates of Jerusalem will not lead to a Zechariah-envisioned triumph and assumption of the kingly-throne, but to naming the entire game of city-state-domination and Temple-ostentation as “thug central,” the quintessential operation of plunder serving Roman imperial occupation, yielding elite Jewish compensation along the way, and putting much of the rest of the population into arrears and early graves.
But the deep point I am trying to make here is heralded by this simple word, “need.” He needs a donkey. And there is much going on in the scenario. At the exact moment he will then parade down the Mount of Olives and into Jerusalem from the east on an ass, Pilate is actually coming forth from the maritime coast to the west on a horse with a contingent of Roman cavalry, flashing swords and imperial pomp. From a bird’s eye view, two traditions parlay the space of the city into very different invocations: War-horse culture stepping its pride and regalia, strutting Roman might, on one hand; on the other, Hebrew burro-epiphany, complete with Psalmic-chant, clothing-carpet, and palm-branch-salutation of a hero, echoing . . . what?
And here is one more hint to be lifted up before summing up the event in a conclusion. Not only is Jesus subtly contesting Roman horse-militancy in a “street theater dance of opposition” (even though the gospels mention only one side of the do-si-do). In choosing a donkey, he is not choosing a mule. Mules were hybrids—the result of coupling a horse and an ass. Such cross-breeding was strictly forbidden for Israelites—an action absolutely tabooed. But they were not forbidden from purchasing such from outside traders, if they could afford it.
For the peoples surrounding Israel, mules were considered to be worth as much as three times a chariot-horse—and were the preeminent sign of royal status for the Hittites of Anatolia and the dwellers in Mari in Mesopotamia. And under David, in Israel as well, mules became the royal vehicle-of-choice, a kind of kingly-monopoly, signifying wealth and power unaffordable to and untouchable by ordinary folk (I Kg 1:32-34).
In his choice, Jesus is thus not only contesting Roman sensibility. But he is hearkening back behind Israel’s betrayal of its own counter-imperial calling when, to the utter horror of prophet Samuel, it opted to set up its own polity as a monarchy (I Sam 8:4-22; 11:12-19). For anyone knowing the culture, Jesus is dancing at the edge of the crowd’s desire to reassert violent Israelite royal power against Rome in the name of King David, but then he is pushing back behind it to something else. And that “something else” is not really “humility” as imperial Christianity likes to soft-pedal it. This is not Milquetoast Jesus, humbly cantering into his fate. No. It is rather a defiant political assertion of clarity! What has actually worked in human history? And what finally is a true-to-life image of how divinity shows up in reality?
And here I can indeed only sum.
Donkeys played a crucial role all over the ancient near east—and not least in Israel (Way, 2011). Renowned as friend of the poor, highly valued beast of burden aiding in plowing, transport, and riding, able to endure harsh desert travel with little sleep or food (Ex 19:17), icon of wild independence throughout the biblical text (Job 39:5-8), a number of times juxtaposed to city-pride and state-oppression as its opposite and successor (Is 32:14; 19-20), talked about as stubbornly resisting heavy-handed domestication, likely to go feral, intelligent and feisty, given unique honor in ceremony as a symbiotic partner of humanity in a rugged environment historically (Gen 49: 10-11; Ex 13:13; Jg 5:10-11)! For humans in Palestine, a species both kin and effectively keystone.
And in the Balaam-stories from the time of desert-wandering before Israel entered Canaan, we even have the she-ass (or “jenny”) upon which he is riding depicted as “angel-seeing and deferring”—spotting, shying, then side-stepping and finally even “standing against” a Divine Spirit-Messenger sent to stand against Balaam and execute him! In folk parlance and memory: a donkey able to defy even divine decree and change God’s mind in the mix! An ass as the independent animal-agent that saves Balaam’s ass (Num 22: 21-35)!
But not only that!
If we read the hint carefully—in the process this Balaam-burro-companion could also be said to have spoken the great I AM voice (Num 22: 28-30) that Jacob heard from a rock he was dreaming on (Gen 28:15), Moses heard from a bush he saw burning (Ex 3:6, 13-14), and Jesus hears from a bird and cloudburst at his baptism (Mk 1:11)! Having her mouth opened by YHWH and so upbraiding Balaam for beating her—the donkey remonstrates, “Am I not your ass that you have ridden lifelong up to today?” How deeply do we want to read such?
In this story of a foreign seer-diviner sent to speak prophecy upon pastoral-nomad Israel in the wilderness, it is actually the burro who is the real diviner-prophet, seeing into the Spirit-World and responding, and doing so not on the basis of some miracle, but as recounted, completely naturally. Balaam’s eyes have to be opened by YHWH, as does the burro’s tongue—but not the burro’s eyes. She just sees clairvoyantly as if spiritual reality is simply self-evident. Interestingly, ass-eyesight is only a couple degrees short of 360-degrees, the most comprehensively-sighted mammal on the planet. (In Canada today, donkeys are even used as “watch-dogs” for animal herds; they see trouble coming and bray the alarm long before anyone else!)
Jesus needed an ass.
And the final hint. As writer Sophie Strand underscores, in our earliest human artistic depictions found on cave walls or rock-art engravings, the animals were usually shown with remarkable attention to detail, muscles rippling, legs stretched out in running, nostrils flared, alongside which “we” humans were displayed in mere stick-figure form—as if human “being” was not centered on itself, but on the animals that in fact made human life possible.
Hunting Scene 1 https://chrisjohnwatson.co.uk/collections/cave-art Neolithic hunting scene with Woolly Rhino, Bison and Elk. Mounted on high-quality metallic blue base. H 30cm X W 30cm X D 13cm – 3.2kg. © 2023 Christopher John Watson
And then as early as 40,000 years ago, what shows in emblematic wood-carvings and rock-paintings alike, are what are called “theriomorphs”—hybrid human-animal figurines, most famously displayed perhaps in the French cave Trois-Freires depiction from 13,000 BCE: a theriomorphic-combination, at once horse and bear, human and deer, bison and owl-eye in creolization: a “being” eco-systemic in true-to-form composition, not yet self-isolating in the delusion and solipsism of civilization and its aftermath. In deepest fact, we have never been simply ourselves, but utterly dependent on symbiotic-reciprocity with animal-kin and plant-cousins.
As Einstein once supposedly said, once the bees go, humans may last only a few years. But for sure—get rid of all the trees, or all the grasses, or all the bacteria, or all the beetles, or all the whales and beaver and clams and etc., and soon enough—we are gone! Doesn’t matter how strong the cellphone tower signal is or whether you have the latest generation of AI technology!
And then when we turn to the question of divinity—for most of our time on the planet, Spirit was a Wind-Air-Breath rush of constant motion and Deity a Human-Animal-Plant-Soil composite, never abstracted out of the amazingly entangled mix that remains our real condition and inheritance and future. “God-incarnate” is a multi-creature character. And slowly becoming a bit reacquainted with this understanding as I am, I have to admit, I am awe-struck.
The most effective anti-depressant for all of the doom I am aware is rolling our way for me has been . . . the red bird out my window who has reciprocated my attentions over the last two years, as I’ve talked about in a previous sermon. That relationship won’t save the world. And it won’t save me. But it is saving my sense of gratitude and wonder.
And that finally is our real vocation—not remaking the planet in the image of the Borg of Star trek fame! Not trying to insure we dominate every square inch of the planet or use science to resplice our DNA to try to avoid ever having to die! But rather kindling the ability to be swept-away with wonder at the “holiness” and mysteriousness of what “is” naturally—as tiny as a peacock spider in the face of Australian wild fires or a night-canopy of stars stretching across ten trillion galaxies no matter how thickly we pollute the skies with electric light.
So, there it is in ever-so-brief tease. Behold the “God-Man” compound as Anselm scribed in the high Middle Ages. He had the “compound” quality right, but theologian-scholar that he was, he was captive to elite-appeasing abstraction. God is a hybrid—trinitarian and counting, and not just in heaven but on earth! Incarnation has never been limited to an individual body, human or otherwise, but is necessarily and irreducibly prolix and promiscuous and eco-systemic, intertwined across species and biomes, roots and fungi, waters and air, plants and animals, and even metals and stone. And yes—and in the mid-east especially—asses and their partners!
And thus, the text today: like a living Six-Legged Riddle—two-legged human riding on a blanket on the back of a four-legged burro—here is God-in-the-flesh! The Donkey-Human rides again! Welcome to the real contestation of Roman might and royal pretension and civilizational oppression. It is a picture going back behind all of our compromises with coercive power and pretensions of independence, an invocation of an entire local ecosystem full of spirit and life, beginning—for a Palestinian crowd of oppressed people looking for hope and help in a situation of desperation—with a human on a burro!
In this late hour of our own desperation, what might the equivalent be for us today at a strait called Detroit?
Gowdy, John. 2020. “Our hunter-gatherer future: Climate change, agriculture and uncivilization,” Futures 115 (2020), https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S0016328719303507?token=FDFB083C4BEF2A6239256BB51E3A894D1D0B13A674942CC75A68800DF0627265E24CF55449FB5BAE2D4D0507BF17446A&originRegion=us-east-1&originCreation=20230403161255
Our hunter-gatherer future_ Climate change, agriculture and uncivilization | Elsevier Enhanced Reader
Our hunter-gatherer future_ Climate change, agriculture and uncivilization | Elsevier Enhanced Reader
Way, Kenneth C. 2011. Donkeys in the Biblical World: Ceremonies and Symbols. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.
James W. Perkinson has lived for 35 years as a white settler on Three Fires land in inner city Detroit, currently teaching as Professor of Social Ethics at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary and lecturing in Intercultural Communication Studies at the University of Oakland (Michigan). He holds a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Chicago, is the author of five books including Political Spirituality for a Century of Water Wars: The Angel of the Jordan Meets the Trickster of Detroit; Shamanism, Racism, and Hip-Hop Culture: Essays on White Supremacy and Black Subversion; and White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity. He is an artist on the spoken-word poetry scene and an activist in the struggle against water shutoffs. Preferred pronouns are he, him.