Palm Sunday Performance Protest

Pussy Riot perform “Punk Prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

February 2012

 

Friends,

Palm Sunday was an act of political performance art. The purpose of political performance art is to expose the powers. Exposing the powers to protest the powers. To hold up a mirror to them. To take the micky out of them. It is basically to declare: “The emperor has no clothes”.

Political performance art is all about symbolism and timing and place. Jesus was a whizz at this stuff. He knew how to put his finger on the political nerve of the Roman regime as we will find out again this Palm Sunday. The palm waving parade, complete with a Zechariah inspired donkey ride was political theatre at its best. This was immediately followed by Jesus’ dramatic performance shakedown of the religious powers in showing how to deep clean a state-captured-temple.

Jesus’ performance art would secure his execution for sure. Having peeved off both political and religious big wigs – it was a no brainer that they would come together to vote in favour of his killing. The state would supply the wood and nails and the religious establishment would guarantee divine approval.

It is a dangerous thing to dig up and expose the powerlines of any oppressive regime. Here are a few more recent examples of political performance art. Some explicit. Some more subtle. Some planned long in advance. Some spontaneous. 

 

See Pussy Riot perform “Punk Prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February 2012. For an explanation of the lyrics, see this article.

 

See the beginnings of the #RhodesMustFall student movement,
with Chumani Maxwele who threw poo on the UCT Rhodes Statue.
He describes in detail all the symbolism that informed the
performance protest.

 

 

 

See Pope Francis spontaneously stop and pray at the Apartheid-Israel wall soon after

 

 

 

praying at the Jerusalem’s Western wall.

 

 

 

 

And then finally some protest theatre against State Capture way back on 12 May 2013 wonderfully coinciding with Ascension Day. I officiated at a wedding. The couple have been in love for a long time and finally decided to come out in the open and get married. 

See 2013 State Capture performance protest from civil society organisations in the city of Cape Town.

 

 

 

 

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Economic War

 

Friends,

This week we heard that South Africa’s unemployment rate reached a new record high of 35.3% at the end of 2021. (Compare to other countries.) According to an expanded definition of unemployment that includes those discouraged from seeking work, 46.2% of the labour force was without work in the fourth quarter of 2021. While the youth unemployment rate is at an unbelievable 65.5%.

Behind these figures are suffering and hungry people. It was reported this week that seven children died of starvation in the Eastern Cape where an estimated 72% of the population live below the poverty line. What a horror to be unable to feed one’s family. Without any sign of things changing, people live in a perpetual state of present traumatic stress disorder. All this is only a stone’s throw away from places of extensive wealth, causing despair and desperation to easily couple with anger and rage.

When the Kremlin spokesperson recently said the West was waging “economic war” against Russia, I thought how true this is for the unemployed and destitute of South Africa. To be sanctioned or prevented from economic participation is to be attacked. For Russia it happened instantly and justifiably as a result of their unprovoked attack on Ukraine, but for 60% of South Africans who live below the poverty line it has been brought to the boil slowly and as such it is not recognised as war. Without recognition that 60% of SA are in a war there is little urgency to end the war. What war?

I am always astounded at the ingenuity that accompanies war. All sorts of industries are instantly converted to assist the “war effort” as ploughshares and pruning-hooks are miraculously turned into swords and spears. When the victims of the war are “only the poor”, however, the idea of turning swords and spears into nourishing utilities is impossibly unrealistic according to the untouched powers that be.

When the stones, that are only a stone’s throw away begin to fly, those who throw them will be called violent criminals and dealt with accordingly. Few will see them as a desperate people finally taking up stones in a war they have long suffered. Stones will be met with urgent State action – often violent – until “peace” is restored. For the 60% this “peace” is in reality the continuation of economic war against them. A war that is not recognised as a war. This self-defeating cycle will repeat itself again and again with growing intensity. And in the end protecting a false peace will be far more costly than the establishment of justice and fairness.

It is within this context that populist politics gain traction and authoritarianism takes root. In an economic war the ‘enemy’ is easily hidden, if not invisible, and this energises the search for visible scapegoats. It is therefore not surprising in these times that xenophobic and vigilante organisations rise in search of these scapegoats to blame and beat. Tragically, the scapegoats close at hand are people equally poor and desperate. In SA these often take the human form of vulnerable foreign nationals. As in Bredasdorp where more than 1000 people, mostly from Zimbabwe and Malawi, are now living in municipal halls and a mosque after they were targeted and chased out of their homes. The traumatised traumatising the traumatised.

With all of this in mind we gather today to share in the sacrament of Holy Communion. This is not a private ritual of forgiveness to secure a spot on a heavenly cloud. At this table, Jesus our host, reminds us of his economic dream of equality on earth where all are included and all receive as we have need. To share in Holy Communion is to commit ourselves to an economy of nourishment for all. To share in this sacrament is to commit to the forgiveness of debts that keep people in various forms of systemic slavery. It is to be reminded that it is not God’s will that some are rich and some are poor. Inequality is at odds with God and leads to self-destruction. God is the great lover of justice who longs for a fair balance where those who have much, do not have too much and those who have little, do not have too little.

A sacrament is a sign. Today we share in a sign of Holy Communion with the commitment to work for incarnation of this sign of Holy Communion in the world. The work of justice and equality is Holy Communion work. Wherever this justice work is done, Holy Communion is taking place. Whoever is doing this justice work is administering Holy Communion. Whenever this justice work is being experienced, Holy Communion is being celebrated.

With grace,
Alan

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A few reminders …

 

Friends,

In last Sunday’s reading we heard that Herod wanted to kill Jesus [Luke 13:31-35]. This statement alone should end the denialism regarding the politics of Jesus. If Jesus’ life carried zero political significance, Herod (the head of politics) would have had no need to put out a State sanctioned hit on Jesus. Jesus threatened the systems that underpinned Herod’s power and as such Jesus was a direct threat to Herod. Jesus the Truth exposed the lies upon which Herod’s regime rested and Jesus the Life exposed the death that Herod’s regime reaped. Therefore, according to Herod Jesus had to be eliminated.

This compels us to check ‘our Jesus’. If our Jesus doesn’t grab the threatened attention of those in power by exposing lies and death then we are probably holding onto a fake Jesus. The priority of this fake Jesus is our comfort and convenience rather than the liberating and healing will of God. A benign and sanitised Jesus divorced from his crucifying context. A Christ without crucifixion at direct odds with Paul’s injunction, “… we preach Christ crucified” [1 Cor. 1:23] and in line with Paul’s accusation, “for many live as enemies of the Cross” [Phil 3:18]. And if this fake Jesus does come with a Cross, it is more than likely polished silver or gold, more ornament of decoration than instrument of death.

We jump to Jesus’ response to the news of Herod’s murderous intent…

Jesus responds sharply, “Go tell that fox…” referring to Herod. Jesus points out the cunning and cruel character of Herod. This shatters the false (yet all too prevalent) notion that to be a follower of Jesus in short means: ‘be nice’. And ‘nice’ means that thou shalt not offend. As we can see, Jesus does not buy into this. For Jesus, the truth is never to be sacrificed for the sake of being ‘nice’.

Often this false focus on being nice is reinforced by a misreading of the scripture, “Do not judge…” [Matt. 7:1]. Regularly this is used to silence righteous outrage by throwing a blanket of moral equivalency over every side of every issue. This is done under the noble guise of neutrality. Yet, Archbishop Tutu reminded us, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. We are never to judge ourselves better than others (even the Herods of this world) or to judge another’s state of relationship with their Maker but we most certainly are called to judge whether actions bring life or death. If this were not so we would have no need for the truth-tellers we call prophets and the bible would be half its size.

Jesus went further than calling Herod a fox. Jesus named Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets (truth-tellers) and stones those who are sent to it”. Jesus knew that Herod is not Herod alone. He is a part of a system much larger than himself. A system that enables him to make threats and carry them out. Get away with it and even be rewarded for it. Were Herod to be removed without the entire murderous system being transformed, it would make little difference. Another would take his place. Jesus therefore knew that the fight is not against flesh and blood but principalities and powers that are more than the sum of all the personal parts of a society/system. We have seen this to be true in South Africa multiple times.

Note, Jesus refuses to take orders from Herod. Yes, Jesus does not obey Romans 13 (as commonly quoted). Jesus is accountable to a higher power than Herod and reminds us that we are too. We are all accountable to the Giver of Life and therefore the excuse, “I was only following orders” does not dilute our moral responsibility to act justly and live mercifully.

A final reminder from last week is that Jesus did not call for Herod the fox to be hunted down. To do so is to imitate Herod and then we become Herod’s disciples even as we take his life. Jesus knew that to kill the killer is to resurrect the killer within ourselves. Jesus also knew that if Herod did not change Herod would dig his own grave.

If there is any truth in any of these thoughts may they disturb and direct our living.

With grace,
Alan

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