The riding the donkey incident, parodying Roman triumphalism, was indicative of the non-violent socio-political change strategy of the Jesus movement. Jesus ‘invaded’ Jerusalem with no military mighty, with no armed force, and riding on a hapless beast that made him look ridiculous. That was the point: confronting and ridiculing the all-mighty occupying army by making oneself look like a fool. It’s called topsy-turvy thinking and action.
Jesus was the incarnation of the upside-down of God, or, as Walter Wink said, Jesus was the trickster. Jesus was God’s fool. He wasn’t the powerful winner [like Augustus Caesar], but the powerless loser. He invited re-examination – of social policy, spirituality, and politics - through laughter.
In Matthew’s gospel the community of Jesus said, ‘Instead of submitting to a Roman soldier’s demand to carry his kit for one mile carry it two’. A soldier could impress a civilian to carry his pack one mile only; to force the civilian to go further carried with it severe penalties under military law. In this way Rome tried to limit the anger of the occupied people and still keep its armies on the move.
Jesus did not counsel open revolt. That was the path to a quick death. Rather he suggests seizing the initiative by offering to walk two miles. The solider is thrown off-balance by being deprived of the predictability of your response. Imagine the hilarious situation of a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew, “Aw, come on, please give me back my pack!”
This Jesus strategy of foolish wisdom was trying to initiate a glimmer of self-examination in the heart of the Roman oppressor.
When you do not have military power and don’t desire it, when you do not wish to kill but to bring about a change of heart, when you are seen as foolish ‘losers’ without money or patronage but have no desire to be wealthy, powerful ‘winners’…. then you adopt a different strategy.
Like Tohu and Te Whiti did at Parihaka in 1881 when they greeted the invading armed constabulary of 1600 men with children singing and young girls playing with skipping ropes. ‘Do the expected.’ ‘Try to touch not the body of the oppressor but his heart and mind.’[i]
The fools of God have a vision of a world rebalanced, with goodies and baddies transformed into neighbours, and walls dismantled by hospitality. It’s a vision of a world where everyone has enough, because everyone belongs. The wrong-doers are healed by the willingness of the wronged to forgive.
If in the reading or hearing of James K Baxter’s “The Maori Jesus” one judges it’s ‘accuracy’ or ‘relevance’ by trying to find supportive biblical texts to prove that a disciple threw her TV in the rubbish bin or that another was an alcoholic priest then one will be disappointed. The point of the poem is to take what we think we know so well and turn it upside down. Baxter parodies our culture.
So he makes Jesus not a white man. He makes Jesus not a financially secure, gainfully employed, mentally acceptable white man. He makes Jesus’ disciples not all men; and not all psychologically secure. Rather they are damaged misfits who struggle to find meaning and purpose. Baxter is critical of the panacea called technology; is critical of the definitions of beauty and health promoted by our powerful societal myths; and is critical of our institutions’ ability and desire to fix the misfits.
The poem is a parody of comfortable, successful Christianity and the society it supports. The poem implicitly declares: “Things are not as they seem”. Jesus might not be where or what you think Jesus is. Jesus might be locked up, drugged up, beaten up…
And if you begin to suspect that “things are not as they seem” then that suspicion, as it grows into a conviction, will begin to set you apart. It can arouse the unwanted interest of those who profit from keeping things as they are. It can get you killed. Just as it got that clowning flatulent upside down Maori messiah killed.
I was asked some weeks back to comment upon the theological significance of the series of movies collectively known as “The Matrix” created by Andy and Larry Wachowski. This is Sci-Fi/Action. The fashion look of black T-shirt and close-fitting jeans, topped with a black trench coat and dark sunglasses [worn even indoors], comes from this movie - as does the whole fighting technique of defying gravity.
Matthew Clendineng[ii] says of the movies “[they are a] delicious mix of beauty and wonder [that] inspired a generation to explore the question of what is reality, and, perhaps more importantly, can I know reality?” Greg Garrett says that we “tend to accept that the world as it is either isn't worth changing or can't be changed [and we] tend to accept the beliefs we’re given without challenging them.”[iii]
The movies ask, ‘Is what we call ‘normal’ real, or is it a sophisticated creation by our overlords to keep us compliant?’ If the Romans had the technological capacity to create an artificial world that would keep the conquered passive and servile, while keeping the conquerors rich and in control, they would have used it. In the Matrix the conquerors are simply called ‘the machines’.
In our world of screens, images, and massaged messages masquerading as truth, what is real remains a pertinent question for our times, as is the question of whether we would prefer comforting illusion to uncomfortable truth.
The movies – following the genre of ‘mythic hero journey’ – trace the awakening of a young man, Neo, to the unreality around him. He knows a disquiet on the edge of his consciousness. He begins to act, with encouragement from others on that disquiet. There is a cost with each little decision, although he is unaware of the real cost when starting out.
I’m reminded of a Leunig cartoon called “How to get there”. It reads, ‘Go to the end of the path until you get to the gate. Go through the gate and head straight out toward the horizon. Keep going toward the horizon. Sit down and have a rest every now and then. But keep on going. Just keep on with it. Keep on going as far as you can. That’s how you get there.’ The cartoon never tells you were there is.
At a decisive point in the first movie Neo makes a choice between ‘the red pill or the blue pill’, between comforting illusion or uncomfortable truth. He takes a decision to enter the borderlands where the realities of illusion and truth can both be known. In doing so he experiences a psychic rupture, an ‘un-doing’ to use Robin Meyers language. The effect of this rupture is to ‘wake up’ from the illusion of the machines, to discover his own power and potential, and to cease to play[act] by the rules of the machines.
Although the movies are laced with Christian imagery – a lot of it apocalyptic – I think the search and awakening of Neo has the closest resonance with Christian experience. Much in the movies supports the myth of redemptive violence – which is at odds with the non-violence confrontational strategies of Jesus. Much in the movies supports the myth of the superhuman saviour hero who dies and comes back to life, and who engages in battles with the enemy and emerges victorious – a myth that I think is at odds with the fellowship of friendship and hope that the human, and only human, Jesus created.
The image we have of a foolish Jesus on a donkey parodying Roman power; the unsettling image of a loser Maori Jesus with other losers for disciples; and the Matrix’s questioning of reality and who that reality serves… all point us towards the fundamental questions of Easter, namely: ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’; ‘Where is Jesus Christ?’; and ‘What is Jesus Christ up to today?’
Is Jesus living in our neighbourhood, loving and kind towards individuals, and pretty much lets the government do what it will? Or is Jesus a misfit, who hangs out with other misfits, and regularly runs into trouble? Does Jesus accept our social, economic and political structure as a given? Or does he question their ‘reality’?
As a follower of Jesus I find myself living in this place of tension between the realities I’ve inherited by being born in this land, into this culture, and into the privileges it offers… and the call to live into a different reality. And this tension will never be resolved.
[i] Colonel Messenger later wrote of that invasion of Parihaka: “Their attitude of passive resistance and patient obedience to Te Whiti's orders was extraordinary. There was a line of children across the entrance to the big village, a kind of singing class directed by an old man with a stick. The children sat there unmoving, droning away, and even when a mounted officer galloped up and pulled his horse up so short that the dirt from its forefeet spattered the children they still went on chanting, perfectly oblivious, apparently, to the pakeha, and the old man calmly continued his monotonous drone. I was the first to enter the Maori town with my company. I found my only obstacle was the youthful feminine element. There were skipping-parties of girls on the road. When I came to the first set of girls I asked them to move, but they took no notice. I took hold of one end of the skipping-rope, and the girl at the other end pulled it away so quickly that it burnt my hands. At last, to make a way for my men, I tackled one of the rope-holders. She was a fat, substantial young woman, and it was all I could do to lift her up and carry her to one side of road. She made not the slightest resistance, but I was glad to drop the buxom wench. My men were all grinning at the spectacle of their captain carrying the big girl off. I marched them in at once through the gap and we were in the village. There were six hundred women and children there, and our reception was perfectly peaceful.
[ii] A Theological Analysis of “The Matrix” by Matthew Clendineng
[iii] Greg Garrett is the author—with Chris Seay—of The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in the Matrix.