Palm Sunday Sermon, Passion, Protest, Poetry, and Possibility
Last night I was in Seattle at the Husayniah Conference. This was a conference sponsored by the Husayniah Islamic Society of Seattle. I was a panelist. We showed the mini-documentary, “For Love of Hussain (a.s.)” about Josh’s and my trip to Iraq for Arbaeen. It was well-received. They were very kind, giving us a standing ovation. Many talked to me about it in person after the showing.
In addition to the film, there was a panel discussion. The topic was “Sacrifice and Giving in Faith Traditions.” On the panel was a Jewish rabbi, a Buddhist, a Muslim Sheikh, a personal development leader, and me, a Christian pastor. We were each asked to spend five minutes on a figure who exemplified sacrifice and giving from our own religious tradition.
I chose Thomas Merton. I have been using reflections from his 1966 book, Raids on the Unspeakable, for worship during Lent. I talked about Merton, the author of 70 books, countless essays and letters, as an interfaith leader who engaged with the Dalai Lama, and who was a passionate advocate for peace. He was the first American religious leader to speak out forcefully against the Vietnam War. He was a mentor to the Berrigan Brothers who burned draft cards. The FBI had files on the Berrigans and the CIA had a file on Merton, even intercepting his mail.
Merton died on December 10th, 1968 in Bangkok, Thailand while at a conference. He was giving a series of lectures. The popular lore that has been repeated again and again by his many biographers was that he died accidentally while coming out of the shower and touching a fan that electrocuted him. I spoke about a recent investigation by Hugh Turley and David Martin as well as the position of Matthew Fox that this accidental death narrative is a fiction. Evidence, for those who care to examine it, shows that his death was not accidental, but a murder set up to look like an accident. The investigators, Turley and Martin, and Matthew Fox are convinced that Merton was murdered by the CIA because of Merton’s popularity as an anti-war leader.
I went on to say that in 1968 Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were also assassinated. Those who have courageously and diligently researched their deaths (Lisa Pease in Robert F. Kennedy’s case and William Pepper in Martin Luther King’s case) have shown that those deaths were not by lone gunmen but were the result of forces within our own government. This goes as well for President John F. Kennedy. The consciousness of Americans is awakening to the reality of these murders.
I continued last night by saying that this is the world in which we live. We live in a nation with 800 military bases around the world, that spends a trillion dollars a year on military endeavors even as we are not threatened by any enemy. Those who resisted this military madness, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton, end up dead, and the accounts of their deaths are turned into fictions to protect the guilty. And the wars rage on. It is all perfectly normal, isn’t it?
Merton and these others exemplify sacrifice because they gave their lives for peace, martyrs for peace, even as the stories of their deaths do not recognize this sacrifice. I concluded my speech by sharing a reading from Merton’s Raids on the Unspeakable about sanity and insanity. Merton wrote in 1966:
“It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared. What makes us so sure, after all, that the danger comes from a psychotic getting into position to fire the first shot in a nuclear war? Psychotics will be suspect. The sane ones will keep them far from the button. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command. And because of their sanity they will have no qualms at all. When the missiles take off, then, it will be no mistake.
We can no longer assume that because a man is “sane” he is therefore in his “right mind.” The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless. A man can be “sane” in the limited sense that he is not impeded by his disordered emotions from acting in a cool, orderly manner, according to the needs and dictates of the social situation in which he finds himself. He can be perfectly “adjusted.” God knows, perhaps such people can be perfectly adjusted even in hell itself.
And so I ask myself: what is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons to apprehend their pain as one’s own? …
Those who have invented and developed atomic bombs, thermonuclear bombs, missiles; who have planned the strategy of the next war; who have evaluated the various possibilities of using bacterial and chemical agents: these are not the crazy people, they are the sane people. The ones who coolly estimate how many millions of victims can be considered expendable in a nuclear war….on the other hand you will probably find that the pacifists and the ban-the-bomb people are, quite seriously, just as we read in Time [magazine], a little crazy.
I am beginning to realize that “sanity” is no longer a value or an end in itself. The “sanity” of modern man is about as useful to him as the huge bulk and muscles of the dinosaur. If he were a little less sane, a little more doubtful, a little more aware of his absurdities and contradictions, perhaps there might be a possibility of his survival. But if he is sane, too sane…perhaps we must say that in a society like ours the worst insanity is to be totally without anxiety, totally “sane.”
During the Q & A one person asked our thoughts on the appropriateness of bringing politics into interfaith gatherings. Since it was likely that I was the most overtly “political” of the presenters, I made a response.
That response was basically this. Politics is an artificial category. It is used to wall off a topic of discussion from critique. In reality, there is nothing that exists that is outside the realm of God, however we understand God, and therefore outside of evaluation from reason, morality, intelligence, imagination, and love. In my experience those who don’t want politics with their religion simply have bad politics. They don’t want their politics examined by the light of God.
That is the jist of my portion of the panel discussion. I bring it up here, in part, because I brought it up there. For the past 27 years of my ministry I have been accused of mixing politics with religion and I am happy to accept that accusation. The only thing I would say is that I don’t do it nearly enough. I often lack the courage of my convictions and need the reminder of the martyrs, King, Merton, the Kennedys, others, who were killed for mixing morality and politics. Our example, Jesus, did it every day.
Palm Sunday is arguably the most political Sunday on the church calendar. Palm Sunday, with Jesus riding publicly into town on a donkey was a counter-demonstration to the Roman parade that was happening that same week at Passover. Passover, the Jewish celebration of a very political act, the escape from oppression under Pharoah, was an intense time in the city. The Roman military was present with their war horses and weapons.
Jesus, on the other hand, if we follow the rest of his story in the gospels, advocated a message and a way of life counter to the way of life that stripped the poor of their livelihood and their dignity. Jesus was on the side of justice. That justice is political justice. Jesus criticized the Jewish institution, the Temple, that had become corrupt by collaborating with Roman oppression. Not unlike the church throughout history that has often sided with authoritarian regimes and became the priests of war rather than prophets of resistance on behalf of the oppressed and the dying.
How has the church done that? By artificially walling off divine critique of the politics of greed and war as something not appropriate for church. If we are going to be a church that has anything to do with Jesus, we will not allow an artificial wall called “politics” prevent the divine light from shining into our darkness.
Jesus sacrificed his life for what he believed. He had the courage of his convictions to demonstrate against the most powerful military in the known world and religious puppets in the Temple. He said, “No way. Not on my watch are you going to get away with trampling the poor without being called out on it.” He had a following. That is why he was arrested, by stealth, in the night, in the Garden of Gethsemane, given a kangaroo court trial and executed quickly. But even that wasn’t the end of him. As we celebrate next week, Easter, the resurrection of the executed that continues in those who bravely mix politics and religion.
Again, today. The military-industrial-financial-intelligence-media complex has a stranglehold on the planet. It makes no difference what political party is elected, the wars continue, the militarism continues, because every congressperson is owned by it. Every congressperson votes for insane military budgets because in their own backyards are jobs created by this military complex. They are worthless. The president is worthless. The media are worthless. It is all passed off upon us as perfectly sane. As Thomas Merton reminded us fifty years ago,
“It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared.”
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have now put the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight, the closest it has been since 1953 due to the probability of nuclear war and climate catastrophe.
Now is the time to speak up.
Now is the time to awaken.
Now is the time to call out the madness for what it is.
Now is the time to write your poems.
Now is the time to sing your songs.
Now is the time to tell your truth.
Now is the time to get in trouble.
Now is the time to be “inappropriate.”
Now is the time discover the courage of your conviction.
Now is the time to follow Jesus.
The promise is this.
If we fail at this, God will not fail.
As Jesus said, “If the people are quiet, even the stones themselves will shout.”
I hope we won’t wait to speak until there is nothing left on Earth but stones.