Palm/Passion Sunday, Year C
Readings: Liturgy of Palms: Luke 19:28–40; (Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29); Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50:4–9a; (Psalm 31:9–16); Philippians 2:5–11; Luke 23:1–49
The old philosophical puzzle: irresistible force meets immovable object. What happens? Listen to Azza Hilal Suleiman, a forty-nine year old woman from Egypt who became involved in the Tahrir Square uprising there. Hardly a revolutionary beginning, though–her father, two uncles and two brothers are all army generals. Clare Fermont from Amnesty International interviewed her recently at her home in Cairo.[i]
“I was so innocent,” says Ms. Suleiman. “I went to the Day of Anger demonstration on 28 January 2011 by bus. I saw the demonstration, so asked the driver to stop. As we walked, our numbers kept growing. I was very happy.”
She didn’t stay happy. She saw security forces gunning people down and beating them. She was overwhelmed by the fog of tear gas.
“But we all had great courage,” she said. “I kept pushing past the riot police, who seemed smaller than me. I tried to save a young boy carrying his shopping who had been grabbed by the riot police.” She came away from that experience feeling fearless and angry, things that have stayed with her.
She joined another protest eleven months later in December 2011, near Cairo’s Cabinet Offices. That’s when she saw troops assaulting the young woman, exposing her underwear. She threw herself over the woman to protect her. Then, she was attacked by soldiers, and her ruthless beating was captured on video.
The next thing Azza remembers is waking up in hospital. She had a fractured skull and her swollen face left her barely recognizable. She had been in a coma for a week and doctors told her family to prepare for the worst.
“At the beginning, the pain was so bad that I would wake up screaming, and I fainted a lot. But lots of friends and relatives helped me.”
One of those friends was a man who soon became her fiancé. “He really supported me, and we held the same views on the revolution and justice,” she smiled, “so I melted with love for him.”
On 2 May 2012 he was shot dead at a sit‑in at the Ministry of Defence in Abbaseya, Cairo, by “thugs” she says the army used “to do its dirty work”. “It was this that made me take up the battle for justice for the many crimes committed by the military,” she said, “much more than my own case”.
She submitted a complaint about her assault to the public prosecution, but nothing happened. Like other women activists Fermont interviewed in Cairo, Azza was far more interested in talking about getting justice for others, rather than for herself. She wants justice for the Coptic Christians, for instance, killed in Cairo, on 9 October 2011. And for all those killed and injured during the uprising – and since then. She is determined to get justice, and vows to take her case before international bodies if necessary.
What about her mood? Does she remain optimistic, Clare Fermont asked her. “Of course,” she said. “It was depressing before the revolution. There was so much injustice and so many things imposed on you. I used to despair and think there was no escape. Now I am full of hope.”
Her words still resonate: “Don’t give up on your rights. You only have rights if you fight for them. And the more we support each other, the stronger we are and the more we will achieve.”
“I used to despair and think there was no hope.” So many of the people’s revolutions of the last fifty years have been started by young people. One person does one thing that somehow catches the attention and interest of other people, exposing injustice for what it is, inspiring resistance. Believing that the immovable object can somehow, some time, be moved.
“Don’t give up on your rights. You only have rights if you fight for them. And the more we support each other, the stronger we are and the more we will achieve.” Azza Suleiman was connected. She didn’t have to throw her body in the way of batons and boots. Today we stop to honour that irresistible force that makes people hope, work and sacrifice for justice. And we celebrate that force particularly in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The story of the end of his life is sometimes called the passion narrative. From the Latin word for a strong feeling, patior.
He spent several years hearing and seeing what people were experiencing in Galilee and the rest of Palestine. This drove him deeper and deeper into what we sometimes call the heart of God. We don’t worship this man, Jesus. We don’t worship this woman, Azza. Our hearts are stirred by something deeper. We give it different names–Christ, God, Spirit, Love. Our hearts are stirred, or are they? This is the question of Lent and Easter.
In Jesus’ story, the irresistible force of resistance to oppressive, abusive power meets opposition, brutal opposition. It’s not much of a contest. Jesus doesn’t try to run away, hide, lawyer up. He chooses a different approach. In Azza’s story, the irresistible force of resistance meets a similarly brutal opposition. It costs some people their life, people such as her fiancé. For Azza, it seems to be a stand off at the moment. The rule of law has come a ways since the first century, but not far enough. And people pledged to uphold the law sometimes exceed their authority even in our own city.
Sometimes the irresistible force of radical love meets...apathy, yawns, a changing of the channel. Sometimes the irresistible force can be resisted! Occupy came and went. Now Idle No More has sprung up to confront an insidious use of state power. What will it take to challenge the perversion of human society that occurs when power is concentrated in too few hands? The call to do power and love and justice differently, to treat them all as sacred, never ends. People are hearing it all over the world. The church is at its best when it is walking with those who can’t even stand, if that makes any sense.
For some, the call to do power, love and justice differently is personal: the abuse, the suffering, the terrible frustration of not getting some kind of reconciliation are things they feel in their bodies, their minds, their spirits. They may feel squashed by the immovable object, helpless, with little or no force with which to resist anything.
For others, the call is to be in solidarity with those who suffer. Jesus falls into this category, until the end of his life, when suddenly he encounters the willingness of others to whip and mock and beat and stab and kill. He has seen the effects of cruel policies in the countryside where the poor were becoming poorer, but now he feels the cruelty in his person.
The passion of Jesus, the passion of Azza, of all the others whose hope of budging that immovable object, speak to us in this holy week. We tend to play up the details of the suffering too much at the cost of the bigger picture. Jesus wasn’t doing the suffering God needs so we don’t have to. God doesn’t need us to suffer, or make us suffer. We can do that to one another just fine, thank you very much. Our bodies come with flaws, physical or mental that lead to pain and distress.
Jesus was just not willing to cave before fellow humans who thought they could get whatever they wanted through violence or the threat of violence. He was a one person Occupier movement, a solitary Idle No More marcher. Except that he wasn’t alone. He started a movement. It seems to have faltered badly, but then it recovered somehow. But that’s for another sermon. Let’s meet again next week to take up that part of the story. For now, get busy being irresistible.