Provoking the Powers: The Palm Sunday Action

The Canadian journal Adbusters is known for its provocative design. It makes use of a technique known as détournement—literally “derailing” or “turnaround.” The Adbusters artists call what they do “culture jamming.” They take familiar media figures, like Joe Camel, the cartoon promoter of Camel cigarettes, and put him in a hospital bed, redubbing him “Joe Cancer.” The logos and campaigns of Nike, Coca-Cola, and Shell Oil are similarly subverted in ways that highlight those companies’ labor and environmental abuses. Sometimes, the likeness to the actual media campaigns of these corporations are so realistic, viewers are fooled.

That’s the point. Not to fool viewers, but to mimic the propaganda of the powerful and so unmask their motives—is this really an advertisement for pollution and the exploitation of workers?

It was Adbusters that provided the spark that ignited the Occupy Wall Street movement. Last spring, it published a call for protesters to flood lower Manhattan and camp out on Wall Street until a federal investigation of the corporate influence on US politics was begun.

Wall Street is a street in New York City, yet when we say “Wall Street” what we actually mean is: the finance industry, the banks, the stock exchange, the market. The location is highly symbolic. Protesters have taken over Wall Street in the past, of course, and for this very reason. On the 50th anniversary of the stock market crash in 1979, protesters occupied Wall Street, blockading traffic to protest the nuclear industry and arms manufacturing.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, I was involved in an activist group that was famous for its graphic designs and theatrical actions to bring attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the political crisis surrounding it, including the slow governmental response. It was called ACT UP—the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.  It began in New York when playwright Larry Kramer called for direct action to pressure governments and drug companies into acting. The first protest was on Wall Street on March 24, 1987 and was dubbed No More Business As Usual. Activists protested the unholy alliance of the Food and Drug Administration with the pharmaceutical companies producing the only approved HIV treatment at the time and the profiteering of Big Pharmacy.

Certain symbolic actions work in a similar way. Gandhi marching to the seaside to make his own salt. People of different colors sitting together at a lunch counter to be served. Michael Moore escorting youth who were shot during the Columbine massacre, with the bullets still lodged in their bodies, to the corporate headquarters of Kmart, which sold the ammunition to the Columbine killers, in order to give those bullets back. The agitprop gesture itself is speaking to much larger issues in the society—salt tax and empire, segregation and institutionalized racism, gun violence and access to firearms.

Dollar bills, piggy banks, Monopoly playing cards are some of the visual cues that protesters on Wall Street have used, along with costumes—the mask from the graphic novel V is for Vendetta, a banker with bowler hat, monocle and cigar. Without ever being granted an interview by the media, these protesters effectively get their point across. Without ever being granted the ability to explain their demonstration protesters use images with which most people are familiar. This is a form of protest known as guerilla theatre.

Using familiar images, easily recognized characters in costumes and masks, and symbolic actions, guerilla theatre is able to summarize, in a few short visual bytes, an entire political position. In quickly understood symbols and gestures, guerilla theatre summarizes whole economic and social analyses. Through enacting and ritualizing power relations in dramatic forms, the powers that be are provoked, the effects of their power unmasked.

Guerilla theatre, détournement, symbolic actions are practices of those who would protest systems of domination and exploitation. Imaginative and humorous use of images, characters, and stories are practices of those who would bring about a change in awareness, consciousness, who would transform the political, social, cultural and economic landscape to be more just, more peaceful, and more equitable. Satire, parody, irony simultaneously make people laugh and question the powers that be.

The Jewish prophets knew something about guerilla theatre. The visionaries of ancient Israel, they were constantly using attention-grabbing antics to convey God’s displeasure. Hosea marries a prostitute, symbolizing the people’s unfaithfulness to God. Jeremiah burns a linen belt, he smashes a clay jar in front of the priests, to illustrate God’s coming punishment of Judah; he puts on a yoke and parades around with it on, to illustrate living under the oppression of Babylon. Isaiah goes naked and barefoot for three years. Ezekiel lies on his side for 390 days and eats only measured amounts of food, food cooked over human dung. (When Ezekiel protests, God relents and lets him use cow dung, but the message is the same: the people will be restricted and defiled when they are in exile).

Jeremiah stands at the entrance to the Temple in Jerusalem and yells at everybody going in. “Don’t think that you are safe just by being in God’s temple and praying. Only through social justice, not oppressing the marginalized and not shedding innocent blood will you be close to God.” The prophets in general targeted the elites in Jerusalem and their association with the Temple. Since the beginning of the monarchy in ancient Israel, God called upon certain visionaries to proclaim an alternative vision of the social order free from the abuses of hierarchy and domination. The prophets rose up to proclaim the alternative to monarchy. So when we read the prophets, we find Jerusalem and the Temple targets of their wrath as well as hope for the redemption of Jerusalem and the Temple.

By the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was the center not only of Jewish aristocracy, but also of its collaboration with Roman imperial rule. The Romans, in acquiring lands for their empire, generally allowed local customs and religion to continue, as long as tribute was paid annually to the emperor in Rome. The Romans commonly used local wealthy elites to rule on their behalf and collect the tribute. Jerusalem and the Temple, then, had become symbols both of domination by elites and by foreign powers. The people were being increasingly forced into debt, their land confiscated outright or foreclosed upon, all in funding the payments to Rome, and the payouts in land to the Romans and their local collaborators.

What’s more, faithful pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem needed to pay for the animals that were to be sacrificed for them by the priests. They had a store of such sacrificial animals for those traveling from far, which could not be paid for with Roman coins. This secular money had forbidden images on it, and so the money was exchanged in the Temple for Temple currency. And in so doing, the Temple charged a fee. Because the celebration of Passover necessitated the ritual sacrifice of an animal in the Temple at Jerusalem, the faithful multitudes, already overtaxed and indebted, were further gouged.

Passover was a tense and turbulent festival in Jerusalem. It was, after all, a celebration of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery, a fact not lost on either those who wanted to be liberated from Roman rule or on the Romans themselves, who tightened security during the weeklong observance. The city became crowded with pilgrims and large crowds could easily become mobs in rebellion against Rome. This had in fact happened within memory at the time of Jesus’ arrival to the city.

The Roman governor of the region, Pontius Pilate, made sure to come to Jerusalem with reinforcements. Usually stationed on the seaside Roman city of Caesarea Maritima, Pontius Pilate and his soldiers paraded, in a show of force, from the east up to Jerusalem. Banners emblazoned with Roman symbols of empire and might waved as the procession marched along. Legions of professional warriors, helmeted and heavily armed, were surrounded by lightly armed auxiliary forces. Shields, swords, javelins, bows and arrows, slings were all on display as the army made its way on horseback to the Roman fortress on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. People no doubt gathered along the way, watching, in awe, in fear, in resentment.

Jesus, too, paraded into Jerusalem for the Passover feast. In what I suggest to you was an act of guerilla theatre, Jesus and his fellow protesters staged a mock military parade parodying the Roman one. The Roman governor and his army arrived through the east of the city, Jesus and his followers from Bethany and the Mount of Olives, from the west. Jesus did not come riding on a horse, but unarmed and without armor, rode a donkey. Jesus likely entered the city by the Golden Gate, where it was believed the messiah would appear. Protesters waved branches, palms according to John’s gospel, symbols of triumph and victory. They covered the path before Jesus as he went along, a sign of honor and homage.

The donkey added humor and pathos to the parade; the humble, stubborn beast made a mockery of the Romans with their horses. It also harkened back to the messianic visions of the prophet Zechariah, who saw the coming ruler of Israel “triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.” Zechariah continues: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” (Zech. 9:9-10) Banishing weapons and war, this king would usher in peace. Perhaps this is why Jesus chose a donkey; the messianic vision would have resonated with the crowds, a king of peace. Jesus’ followers shouted out that he is the son of David, the heir of the David’s throne, also political and messianic affirmations. The rule of the Romans will end and the messianic era, the rule of God will begin. The kingdom of Caesar will fall and the kingdom of God will be ushered in. And systems of domination will fall as systems of right-relation, justice and righteousness will prevail.

Imagine the laughter and excitement at this demonstration, the astonishment at this act of provocation, this détournement of a military parade. Imagine the underlying sense of awe and hope.

The Romans rode into town from the east. Jesus rode in from the west. One procession represented the force of empire, the rule of military might, the powers of domination. The other represented the force of love, the rule of peace, and the powers of cooperation. One way of life was based on power over others, on exploitation, on the hoarding of resources. The other way of life was based on power within, on equity, and the sharing of resources. One a social order of fear and scarcity, the other a social order of faith and abundance.

Which of these two parades do we, today, find ourselves in?

The next symbolic act of guerilla theatre that Jesus performed, in his campaign to highlight the incoming rule of God, was to target the profiteering of the Temple elites. He came into the place in the Temple where secular money was exchanged for Temple currency, and where animals such as doves were being sold for sacrifice. He drove them out. He upset their tables, scattering their coins as he dumped everything onto the floor. Jesus and his followers then blockaded traffic in that area of the Temple, not allowing anybody to carry anything through. It was a sit-in, this blockade. No more business as usual! Jesus condemned the Temple elite as thieves, robbers who were hiding out in the Temple. Like Jeremiah before him, he decried those hiding in the Temple, thinking they were holy, when in fact they sanctioned injustice, oppressed the marginalized, and turned a profit from people who simply wanted to get close to God.

This event is frequently misrepresented as Jesus “cleansing the Temple,” as if the Temple needed to be pure and this purification meant ridding it of money, filthy lucre. It should be a house of prayer, not a house of commerce. This obfuscation of the gospel spiritualizes this action, and in so doing drains it of its import and power. Jesus was making a point about the power relations of his society, how the Jewish aristocracy had acquiesced to Roman power, allowing the Romans even to appoint and remove chief priests at their will. Jesus targeted the Temple in this way to highlight this situation.

In quickly understood, dramatic, symbolic gestures Jesus summarized his whole economic and social analyses. Using familiar images and easily recognized characterization, Jesus was able encapsulate, in a few short visual bytes, his entire program and mission. A social order based on compassion, forgiveness (including the forgiveness of debts), and peace was at hand. This was to be God’s imperial rule that stood in opposition to Roman imperial rule and all forms of rule that included domination, exploitation and inequity.

Jesus made his message known not just through his words, his stories and parables. He also enacted his message, choosing actions that would convey more than words could. His détournement of Pontius Pilate’s arrival in Jerusalem is a good case in point, using humor and song and parody and symbols that readily conveyed his message that there was a more powerful ruler in the world than Caesar, and this power flowed with grace and humility and peace. Referencing the prophets, using messianic symbols, everybody watching would get the point even if they never heard of Jesus or heard him speak. His interrupting business as usual in the Temple was another case in point, gestures that conveyed his message of judgment against the unfair powers that be.

Crucifixion was a Roman form of punishment reserved for insurgents and those guilty of sedition. It was a gruesome form of public execution meant to quell any further forms of dissent. When I hear the mission and teaching of Jesus characterized by people as: “Jesus taught his followers to be nice to people,” I always laugh. Be nice to each other? You do not get executed by the Roman Empire as a political criminal for walking around telling people to be nice to each other! You get executed by the Romans as a political criminal for antagonizing their interests, for challenging the legitimacy of their rule. You get crucified by the powers that be for suggesting that another world is possible.

I can’t help but think of all of those who have stood on the side of love and paid for it with their lives. Who have told the world that another way is possible—individual lives rooted in the practices of kindness, forgiveness and empathy, a social order rooted in the values of compassion, mercy and mutuality. I can’t help but think of all the other protest movements that have stood on the side of love, on the side of peace, on the side of justice. I can’t help but wonder if the powers that be will always win, if domination and war and wastefulness are the fate of human beings and human communities.

Which procession do we, today, find ourselves in, which parade up to the Passover feast, the celebration of liberation? The military procession of empire or the protest march of freedom?  Are we following the processions of militarism and money or the procession of prophecy and peace? We can stand by the side of the road in fear or jump in to the laughing, dancing throngs that are hailing the news: another world is possible.