Sabbath Day Thoughts “The Cross or the Gun?” Matthew 21:1-11
We heard news this week of yet another school shooting. On Monday, a former student shot out the glass doors of The Covenant School in Nashville. Armed with two assault rifles and a handgun, they began shooting indiscriminately. Police, tipped off about the attack, were on the scene in eleven minutes. The shooter was dead at fourteen minutes. In the aftermath, we learned that three nine-year-old students and three staff members had been killed.
It’s the latest incident in a long series of school shootings that have prompted our thoughts, prayers, and tears. There have been 456 shootings at schools since the attack on Columbine High School in 1999. It’s part of a larger epidemic of gun violence that has infected our nation. There have been 134 mass shootings in America so far this year, taking the lives of 196 people and wounding a further 470. The growing violence and mounting death toll are an intolerable fact of life in this country, a fact that we have grown hardened to. There seems to be a lack of political will to bring real change, perhaps most clearly demonstrated by Tennessee Congressman Andy Ogles, who represents the district of The Covenant School. He offered his thoughts and prayers for the families of victims this week while defending his controversial Christmas card showing him and his family posing with assault rifles in front of their Christmas tree.
Today in Nashville, there is a small shrine that has taken shape outside The Covenant School with flowers, balloons, stuffed animals, and messages of remembrance and love. Flags are flying at half-staff as an expression of mourning. Families are grieving and planning funerals. Palm Sunday worship is underway. Worshippers wave palms and sing “Hosanna” in the Palm Sunday parade. Today in Nashville and all across our country gun violence is the leading cause of death for our children.
That first Palm Sunday parade was a peaceful protest against the violent occupation of Israel. New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan teaches that there were two parades that Passover week in Jerusalem. One parade approached the city from the east. There Pontius Pilate and the Roman Army rode into the Holy City from Caesarea Maritima. At Passover, when the Jewish people remembered the deliverance of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, it was always prudent to beef up the security in the Holy City, just in case anyone had Messianic pretentions. Pilate’s parade waved the imperial standard of the Roman Empire. Pilate and his officers were mounted on splendid war horses. Foot soldiers marched in cadence, armed with swords and knives, spears and javelins. A twenty-first century version of Pilate’s parade would have those soldiers brandishing M4s and driving Bradley armored fighting vehicles with TOW missile launchers and twenty-five-mm chain guns that can fire 100 rounds per minute.
Jesus’s parade was carefully staged to be the antithesis of Pilate’s. Instead of riding a war horse, Jesus rode a donkey, just like the Prince of Peace that the Prophet Zechariah had promised would one day come to break the battle bow and put an end to war (Zech. 9). Jesus’s “soldiers” spread their cloaks on the ground, like the generals who once hailed Jehu their king. They brandished palms, like the jubilant crowds that welcomed Judas Maccabeus after he defeated the Greeks. Instead of marching songs, the pilgrims sang hosanna and blessing. This was no violent insurrection, it was a peaceful revolution that anticipated the Kingdom where love for God and neighbor would be the rule of the land, where God’s people would beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Anyone who has ever gone out early to claim your favorite sidewalk spot for the Winter Carnival Parade can testify that parades need people. We look on and clap, smile, sing, wave, and get swept up in the grand celebration. Jesus’s parade would have had enthusiastic onlookers and participants, those who knew him, had heard him teach, had experienced his miracles, and those who asked, “Who is this?” Pilate’s parade would have had its own audience, a crowd that turned out to watch the pomp and welcome the procurator. Some may have been collaborators. Some may have profited from the occupation. Most probably turned out because we all love parades, and we grow numb to everyday injustice. Some days, any excuse is a good one if it will appease the powerful and make the best of a bad situation.
A great irony of Holy Week is the great shifting of allegiance. Those who danced in Jesus’ parade would abandon the ranks. They traded their songs of hosanna for shouts of “Crucify him!” The Prince of Peace would meet a violent end—beaten, scourged, mocked, crucified. On Good Friday, as Jesus was marched to the cross, it would feel as if Pilate’s parade had prevailed.
On Palm Sunday, we are caught between the two parades. We know the Way of Jesus. We can quote, “Blessed are the peacemakers! Turn the other cheek! Love your neighbor!” There is no question about what Jesus expects of those who will march with him.
Yet we live in a culture that is addicted to violence. We see it in the cop shows that dominate prime time tv and the video games that preoccupy our kids. We see it in our national obsession with guns. The United States is the only nation in the world where civilian guns outnumber people. There are 120 guns in private ownership for every 100 Americans. The annual number of US deaths from gun violence is eighteen times the average rate in other developed countries. With numbers like that, it should be no surprise that no other developed nation has mass shootings at the same scale or frequency as we do.
On Palm Sunday in America, we are caught between parades: one leads to love and life and the other has been a source of immeasurable heartbreak and death.
Shane Claiborne is an author and founder of The Simple Way, a new monastic community in Philadelphia. He’s one of the best spokespeople I know in describing the tension between life as we know it and life as Jesus calls us to live. In his book Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence, Shane argues that we have a gun problem and a heart problem in this country. With artist and blacksmith Michael Moore, he dramatizes the biblical call to beat our swords into ploughshares by turning guns into garden implements. In gun-blighted communities, they invite mothers who have lost their children to guns to come and weep and beat AR-15’s into rakes and shovels. It’s a carefully staged antithesis to our national love affair with the gun. It’s a little like Jesus’s carefully staged peaceful ride into the Holy City, a ride that invited—and still invites—the world to turn from death to life.
In response to the shooting at The Covenant School this week, Shane wrote, “As a devoted Christian, I am convinced that the gun and the cross give us two very different versions of power. One is about being ready to die. The other is about being ready to kill. There comes a point where we cannot serve two masters. We cannot love our enemies as Christ commands, and simultaneously prepare to kill them.” I know that there are people who feel that they are devout Christians who will argue with Shane. They will say that guns are the best way to keep America safe. They will insist that we should arm teachers in classrooms—even though there were teachers who had guns at The Covenant School. They will feel great sorrow at mass shootings. They will think about it. They will pray. They will quote Jesus and send out Christmas cards with their nine-year-olds brandishing assault weapons. But when all is said and done, the choice is really quite simple. Will we choose the gun or will we choose the cross? Will we march with Pilate or will we follow Jesus?
There was a parade on Thursday in Nashville. More than 1,000 people—children, teens, parents—turned out. They entered the capitol building and lined the hallways. They chanted simple slogans like, “Save our children,” “Never again,” and “Not one more.” They filled the gallery of the legislative chamber, holding signs that said, “I’m nine years old” and “Gun Reform Now.” Some carried pictures of the victims of Monday’s shooting. There are more protests planned for the coming days in Tennessee, including a student-led march on the capitol scheduled for tomorrow. I’m sure it will be quite a parade. I’m sure Jesus will be there.
Adam Tambourin. “Large crowds gather in protest at the Capitol” in Axios, March 31, 2023. Accessed online at https://www.axios.com/local/nashville/2023/03/31/large-crowds-gather-in-protest-at-the-capitol
Jonathan Mattise, Travis Loller, and Holly Meyer. “Nashville shooter who killed 6 drew maps, surveilled school.” AP News, March 28, 2023. Accessed online at https://apnews.com/article/nashville-school-shooting-covenant-school-5da45b469ccb6c9533bbddf20c1bfe16
Ariana Baio. “Tennessee lawmaker defends 2021 Christmas card of children brandishing guns in wake of Nashville shooting.” The Independent, March 29, 2023. Accessed online at https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/crime/tennessee-lawmaker-defends-2021-christmas-card-of-children-brandishing-guns-in-wake-of-nashville-shooting/ar-AA19bISA
Kara Fox, Krystina Shveda, Natalie Croker, and Marco Chacon. “How US gun culture stacks up with the world,” CNN News, March 28, 2023. Accessed online at https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/26/world/us-gun-culture-world-comparison-intl-cmd/index.html
Shane Claiborne. “Christ, Not Guns: A Reflection on the Nashville Shooting” in Red Letter Christians, March 31, 2023. Accessed online at https://www.redletterchristians.org/christ-not-guns-a-reflection-on-the-nashville-shooting/
Veronice Miles. “Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 21:1-11” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Andrew Prior. “Tell the Story” in One Man’s Web: Becoming Human in Australia, April 13, 2014. Accessed online at https://onemansweb.org/tell-the-story-matthew-21-1-11.html
David Ewart. “Matthew 21:1-11” in Holy Textures Year A, 2011. Accessed online at https://www.holytextures.com/2011/03/matthew-21-1-11-year-a-lent-6-palms-palm-sunday-sermon.html
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Image credit: Alexis Marshall WPLN News. Accessed online at https://wpln.org/post/episodes/community-responds-to-the-covenant-school-shooting/