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Follow the Jackass

I never thought much about donkeys growing up. I mean, why would I? It’s not like I saw many—or any—in the western suburbs of Chicago. But I did think a lot about horses; they were in all my storybooks about heroes and adventures. Horses seemed quite obviously more noble than donkeys.

There are some cultural reasons for these biases: Donkeys are usually the butt of jokes, they provide a convenient stand-in for the outsider, or the underachiever, or simply the useful nuisance we keep around to do the stuff we don’t want to do ourselves.

Let’s not forget the MTV Television series called “Jackass” and the ridiculous movie spinoffs it generated (I may have seen one). Those movies were about stupid humans, but the film’s title betrays the deeper human disdain toward the lowly donkey—the jackass.

Today there are roughly 40 million donkeys in the world and the vast majority of them—more than 90%—are found in rural societies and serve as pack animals, for transportation, and in roles of agricultural labor. Working donkeys are most often associated with those living in poverty, rarely ever with the wealthy or the powerful.

Every year on Palm Sunday we celebrate a “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem as if a hero had mounted a white horse to ride into our lives and save the day. But that is not the story that launches us into the Christian Holy Week.

“Entry into the City,” John August Swanson

The donkey, all on his own, makes perfectly clear that Jesus is not a military commander, nor a rival of the Roman Emperor or even the provincial Governor. So why were the crowds cheering his arrival? Let’s be clear: they were not mocking him but cheering him.

It has taken a very long time for me to let go of the “triumph” of Palm Sunday and appreciate what the donkey teaches (I wish so desperately to know that dear creature’s name). Here’s the lesson I need to learn: Jesus on a donkey is an image of God’s deep solidarity—with the laboring classes, with the downtrodden and forgotten, with those oppressed by Empire.

More specifically for our own day, that image signals God’s solidarity with migrant farmworkers; with women of color who are single mothers working two full-time jobs; with the indigenous people of this land who are still unable to find justice with our own government.

Those are the ones lining the streets of Jerusalem and cheering the arrival of Jesus on a donkey. Perhaps, they think, just maybe, God has not forgotten them, maybe (hope beyond hope) God is standing with them.

But there’s still more to say about this story: God is also in solidarity with the donkey. After all, this beast of burden plays a starring role in this opening chapter of what we Christians call the holiest of weeks.

A donkey leads us into Holy Week!

So after we shout our “Hosannas!” it’s time to follow the Jackass into new life.

What might that look like?

Let’s start modestly. Let’s remember that this so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem features a city whose holiness is shared by at least three of the world’s great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The calendar this year all but begs reflection on those religious intersections. Even as Christians enter Holy Week, Muslims have already begun observing the holy month of Ramadan, and Passover begins this Friday—Good Friday.

While religious folks pray for peace in the world—and rightly so, and especially right now for Ukraine—religious folks have our own peace to make with each other. We need to work for peace with other Christians, with our Jewish neighbors, and with Muslims all around the world.

It matters that Jesus entered Jerusalem, that Holy City, not on a warhorse or as a general leading armies or in the garments of victory, but on the back of a donkey.

It’s long past time for us Christians to stop referring to this moment as “The Triumphal Entry”; this story should be called the “Parade of Solidarity.”

Poet Sylvia Sands writes so beautifully about this, about Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. All over the world, she writes, donkeys are beaten, starved, tortured, and worked until they drop.

And Jesus chooses that creature to accompany him on his entry into Jerusalem, to lead the “Parade of Solidarity.”

This is how our Christian holy week begins, not in triumph, not even with a whispered hint of domination or any kind of “victory” but rather with the lowly, humble, usually disdained little donkey plodding his path into an ancient city.

The Church has mostly forgotten this but queerly retains it in our lectionary texts and calendar images: the holiest of weeks marks a path of new life for us, if only we would follow the jackass.

Another poet, Steve Garnaas-Holmes, prays in precisely that direction: “O God, give me courage to follow the Foolish way, / to go the way the world discourages, / the way of love.

“May Jesus,” he writes, “riding into a set-up / on his little donkey, lead me.”

The donkey is leading Jesus where we must follow if we wish to live. It’s where God desires to be in communion with us, where God is always already in solidarity with us and with the whole of God’s creation.

Those are lofty ideas and rather far removed from how most of us live day-to-day—but not so for the donkey.

Sylvia Sands poetically imagines that one, first-century donkey being so grateful for that one man’s gentle touch on his reins; and for that one man’s sweet voice on the road; and for that one man’s improbable invitation to join him in the work of redeeming love.

We are invited to that same work of love, to travel along that same road, and to take our lead from a donkey.

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Good Friday and Creaturely Lament

The death-dealing imperial machine of ancient Rome killed Jesus. The same machine is killing planet Earth, though that machine now appears under different names: global capitalism; single-use plastic; neo-liberal nationalism; the tyranny of convenience among the well-intentioned.

There is much to grieve in a world of violence and destruction, but such a world calls also for lament. As Walter Brueggemann so frequently reminds us, lamentation is not just sadness; to lament is to insist on transformation, to resist any notion that the world cannot change. Lament can create communities of transformation, bonding us together, by God’s grace, in shared efforts to dismantle the imperial dynamics of domination and death.

We humans, I’m increasingly convinced, are not alone in our grief, nor in our lamentations. Other animals, other creatures of the same God (to borrow Andrew Linzey’s felicitous phrase), mourn the loss of habitats, the spoiling of ecosystems, the runaway disaster of fossil fuels and oceans brimming with plastics. I have more recently become persuaded that all these other animals not only mourn but also engage in something like lament, perhaps even with something like hope. Or as the poet Sylvia Sands supposes, the mourning generates a new kind of song for a different kind of dawn.

On this Good Friday, let us grieve; let us also lament, which is the only way I can see to make this particular Friday “good.” Other animals can help us in this, as Sylvia Sands so poignantly suggests…

Song of the Bird

He loved us,
birds of the air.
Listen to his stories
of ravens and eagles –
and even sparrows:
two sold for a farthing,
and not one falls to the ground
without the Father knowing.

Here I am,
perched on his cross
eyeing those thorns
burrowing blackly and blindly
burrowing secretly, searingly
into his brow.

Tell me,
where is that damned dreamy
dove of peace now?
His beak is longer and stronger than mine.

Look, I’ve tried
I’ve flown into,
under his sweat-soaked,
blood-drenched,
once beautiful hair.

I’ve tried to wrench out
one, just one, of those thorns.
I’ve beaten – nearly broken – my wings
against his face;
and all I’ve done is
to draw more blood.
Fierce are those thorns
force-driven into his head.

With what strength I have left
I am flying,
flying away from my failure,
flying away lest I forget
the music trapped in my breast
for sunset and dawn:
flight and music –
his gifts.

As I fly
a hoard of young sparrows
come twittering and taunting,
laughing and crying after me:
Red breast! Red breast!
Who ever saw a red breast before?

I glance down as I fly
and see my breast flame crimson
against the gathering dusk.

The fellowship of his sufferings:
in my heart, as if to break it
creep sunset and dawnbreak,
and in my soul a new song is born
with which to greet them.red_breasted_grosbeak_1