On Palm Sunday many will hear the Gospel of Luke’s perspective surrounding Jesus’ celebrated entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:28-40). In hearing this well-known portion of the New Testament, we are often led to wonder how the same crowds that so graciously and enthusiastically welcomed Jesus would passionately and viciously call for his death just a few days later. In trying to comprehend the sudden and significant shift in public opinion, we recognize that the crowds did not swing their support independently, but rather, they were acting under the influential push of propaganda.
As Luke’s Gospel reminds us, in between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the calls for his crucifixion, the “chief priests and the scribes” plotted to put Jesus to death (22:2). As these powerful elites were “afraid of the people”, they conspired in a power-protecting push to have Jesus humiliated, tortured, and brutally killed. And so, while Luke’s Gospel does not provide exact details into the strategies of the chief priests and scribes, their motivations appear to be clear, as they, and others within the ruling class, perceived Jesus as a risk and thus needed to ensure his quick and clear elimination. As a result, due to the influential influx of propaganda, combined with an overly complicit public, just a short time after Jesus was welcomed as a king he was sentenced to death as a criminal.
While Luke’s Gospel provides countless lessons through the Palm Sunday narrative, one aspect that is worthy of further exploration is the ways in which the powerful elites were able to manipulate the masses through the push of propaganda. In other words, the powers of Jesus’ day and age used their authority to control the flows of public discourse, and in doing so the voice of Jesus — and his message of liberation (Luke 4:18-19) — was suppressed, and the minority elite retained its control over the mass majority. While the fears of Jesus’ disciples and general public anxieties of retribution played a significant role, one can argue that the primary reason for the massive shift in Jesus’ public approval was the prevailing propaganda of the ruling powers.
In light of the propaganda that followed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we are given a striking and sobering lesson into our own resistance to mass manipulation. More specifically, such insights surrounding misinformation and misdirection at the hands of the powerful are especially relevant as we recognize the ten year anniversary of the “shock and awe” campaign at the onset of war in Iraq, for the passing of a decade has shown that the information we were given was not as accurate as first reported. As stated by Sojourners’ CEO Jim Wallis, our war in Iraq “…was fought on false pretenses, with false information, and for false purposes.”
Saddam Hussein and Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks on 9/11, as was falsely implied, and had no weapons of mass destruction, as was falsely claimed and endlessly repeated. The intelligence on Iraq was manipulated and distorted to justify going to war. This was clearly a war of choice and a war that was painfully unnecessary. We were misled into war and, so far, nobody has been held accountable for it.
The war was sold to the American public with the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Many believed it at the time, and an invasion was mounted on what turned out to be false information. A decade of sanctions and United Nations inspections had already undermined the allegations. And in the ten years since the war began, not a single WMD has been found in Iraq.
As the post-Palm Sunday crowds rejected Jesus’ message of liberation and love in favor of the fear and violence offered by the chief priests and scribes, the same can be said when we bought into the deception of our national leadership ten years ago. Instead of non-violence and diplomacy we indulged in the offerings of division and hatred that was poured upon us. Instead of seeing the value, dignity, and sacredness of all human life, we allowed the propaganda of the powerful to seduce us into thinking that some lives are somehow more valuable than others, and that sacrificing some for the sake of others is somehow justifiable. All together, far too many of us passively accepted the prevailing information about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction without thoughtful critique and sustained investigation, and such social submissiveness led to the obstruction of our common good and tragic loss of countless lives.
As we prepare to celebrate Palm Sunday and the Holy Week that follows, may we remember how the masses that surrounded Jesus in Jerusalem were manipulated, and in doing so, may we also consider the calculated manipulation that led to the massive loss of life during our war in Iraq. As we reflect upon and learn from both events, may we as “the crowds” of this day and age no longer apathetically accept the most dominant voices that surround us, but instead stand for the principles of our Prince of Peace who was nailed to a cross but rose from the dead.
Instead of allowing ourselves to be manipulated by those with political influence, and rather than permitting those in power to profit off of our passivity, may we wake up, speak up, and act out with boldness and humility as resurrected people in service for the sake of our world. Instead of rejecting the various voices of our day and age that seek to set us free, may we allow God to loosen us from the chains, respond as a people reborn, and come together as communities of hope and light. The time is upon us to learn from the mistakes of the past, resist the manipulative forces that continually seek to suppress, and by God’s grace, reclaim the vision of peace and restoration that Jesus continues to lay out before us.
Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, Wis.), and is a PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).