On 18th August our church held a “pop-up” event to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre. It was inspired by an earlier celebration at Manchester Cathedral which had pointed out that committed Christians had been involved on both sides of the political divide at Peterloo. Many non-conformist Christians had been helped organsie the protest but there were prominent clergymen amongst the group of magistrates who ordered the troops to disperse the crowd. We thus had a session to explore whether and how individual Christians and the church as an institution should engage in political protest today. This started hearing from two Quakers who are involved in protests against the arms trade, a representative of Extinction Rebellion and a Methodist minister involved in opposing expressions of hate against minorities. After this we had a time of open discussion of the issues followed by an act of worship.
During the worship we read Luke 19:37-48, the story of Jesus entry into Jerusalem and Palm Sunday and leading to him turning the table of the money-lenders in the courtyard of the temple which led into this sermon.
Should Christians engage in political protest?
We’re so used to thinking of Jesus as a preacher and religious teacher that we often ignore his role as a prophet and political agitator. We sometimes consider him other-worldly, but much of his teaching reveals a very shrewd understanding of human nature and how the world works. He knew that the common people that he had grown up with were oppressed. The most obvious oppression was that coming from the Roman occupying forces, but Jesus also knew that within the local population the poor were oppressed by the rich. He was particularly saddened to see the many pharisees supporting this oppression either implicitly or explicitly. Much of his teaching, particularly through his parables, and many of his actions, make as much sense as political theory as they do as theology.
Let’s look at the story of Palm Sunday. We’ve heard this told so often in church services accompanied by children’s processions, the waving of palm branches and the singing of upbeat worship songs that we assume that this was originally a religious event. Jesus leads a procession into the city of Jerusalem from the east. It certainly had religious overtones, but it was also highly political. The only other person who would process through the city gates into Jerusalem was the Roman Governor accompanied by his troops.
It’s quite likely that the Governor, Pontius Pilate, was processing into the city from the west on that very day. Jerusalem always filled up with people at Passover. The crowds were generally peaceful but, just as the Magistrates at Peterloo considered it expedient to have over a thousand troops available just in case, so Pilate wanted troops who could disperse the crowd if necessary. In the lead up to the festival each year he would lead them into the city to remind the people who was in control. By staging an alternative procession into Jerusalem, Jesus was promoting himself as an alternative to Roman authority. His procession was no accident, Jesus had made elaborate plans (Luke 19:30) to ensure that a colt is available and that the demonstration would have maximum effective.
“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38) sounds like a religious chant but it is first and foremost a political claim. If this is the King, then what authority does the Roman Governor or even Caesar himself have?
It’s for this reason perhaps that the pharisees rebuke Jesus (Luke 19:39). There was an uneasy coalition between the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities. If the Jewish leaders ensured that the people were peaceful and paid their taxes, then the Romans allowed them to continue in positions of power and influence. The Pharisees are trying to hush Jesus and his followers up. “Keep quiet”, they are saying, “don’t you realise what trouble you could get into, and get us into”.
Jesus reply? ”I tell you if we keep quiet the very stones will shout out” (Luke 19:40). The signs of oppression and injustice are so clear that it doesn’t really matter whether we draw attention to them or not. This recognition drives him to tears (Luke 19:41). He weeps for a society that cannot even see the way to peace through justice and is destined for destruction as predicted by prophets like Amos (e.g. Amos 8:1-8).
Following his entry into the city he proceeds further to the Temple. He’s been there before. He knows what to expect. Although the Jewish authorities know that the Temple should be a house of prayer, he knows that they tolerate the money lenders as long as they are given a share of the profits. His actions are not an impulsive outrage at a surprising finding, they are pre-planned to create maximum effect in a response to a situation he knows he is going to encounter.
Although the procession appears to be in defiance of the Roman authorities and the turned tables were those of the money lenders, both protests are effectively against the Jewish authorities and their complicity with power (the Romans) and money (the money lenders). The Romans and money lenders didn’t, or couldn’t, know better but the Jewish authorities, so well versed in the Torah and words of the prophets, were guilty of ignoring both.
Jesus realised that imposing a solution with force could never work. The Romans imposed peace, and did it very effectively, but that imposed peace had a huge human and financial cost and could only last for as long as the force was there to impose it. Jesus advocated God’s peace, a peace that would last forever. That is only possible if it arises out of the people’s desire for justice.
Jesus’ chose particular actions not because they were likely to be effective in themselves. He knew that a small group of unarmed Galileans led by a man sitting on a donkey was no match for the might of Rome. He knew that upturned tables could be replaced almost immediately. Instead he wanted the people who saw what he was doing to start questioning what they regarded as inevitable and unchangeable. He wanted them to be incensed by the injustice of what was being imposed on them by the forces of power and wealth. He wanted them to first glimpse, then desire and then work for the peace that comes through justice rather than the sword.
So if you ask me, “Should Christians become involved in political protest”, I will answer with an unequivocal “yes”. Jesus planned and executed political protests himself, he showed us how to do it, he wrote the rule book. If we are called to follow Jesus then we should be following both his political agitation as well as his religious teachings. The question for me is not so much “if?” but “how?” and “when?”. It’s this that we’ve been tussling with earlier in the afternoon and that I hope we’ll pray about in the rest of the service.