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On June 27th, 2015, ten days after a white supremacist I won’t name gunned down nine African Americans at Bible study in a Charleston church, activist Bree Newsome approached the flag pole of the South Carolina statehouse. At the top of that thirty-foot pole flew a Confederate battle flag.

Bree scaled the pole, reciting Psalm 27 and the Lord’s prayer, and snatched the flag from it. A photograph taken that day shows her about a foot from the top, with the offending flag flowing from her hand.

When police shouted for her to come down, she shouted back, “You come against me with hatred, oppression, and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.”

Asked in an interview with Vox how it felt to hold that flag in her hand, Bree said,

“The only word that can come to mind for me is triumph. …[A]t that moment I really did symbolize the struggle. Like it wasn't just Bree Newsome scaling the flagpole.”

Bree was then arrested, charged with defacing monuments on capital grounds, and imprisoned for about seven hours. In the same interview she said, 

“By the time we had been processed we'd already gotten word that the flag was back up and so at that point I was like, ‘Well, I don't know how much of an impact it will make that we took this flag down but we took the flag down.’ In jail they had the TV on but they didn't have the news on so we didn't have any way to know what was going on. It really didn't occur to me how much of an impact it had had until word started trickling through the guard.”

The photo and the story had gone viral.

Bree is one face in a sea of saints and prophets who engaged in direct action, civil disobedience, and performance art to call oppressors to account. None of us can deny the power of an image. Bree on a flag pole. Amanda on her knees before police with an eagle feather in her hand. Rosa on a bus seat. Jesus on a donkey.

Today, we celebrate Palm Sunday. It’s a strange story. I mean, a lot of the stories we tell about Jesus are strange, but this one is particularly odd. He gives instructions to his disciples, so he clearly planned this in advance. For what purpose? Why did people spread their cloaks on the road? Why did they recite Psalm 118? Why do the Pharisees tell Jesus to stop?

If it was just an ordinary day in Jerusalem, why did Jesus do this?

Well, it wasn’t.

It wasn’t the only grand entry into Jerusalem that day. From the western side of the city, a different entourage was processing: the governor, Pontius Pilate, and his imperial troops. Governors always came to Jerusalem during Jewish festivals like the upcoming Passover, just in case there was “trouble.”

This was not just a political affair – it had theological implications as well. Roman emperors during the time of Jesus were viewed as living gods. Inscriptions from the time imparted familiar titles to the emperors: “Lord,” “Saviour,” even “Son of God.”

So, Jesus knew what he was doing. He had a co-conspirator in the city who let him take the colt. It had to be a colt, because of the prophet Zechariah: a king would come to Jerusalem riding the foal of a donkey. And that king would “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.”

Sometimes the Scriptures seem to suggest that the prophets predicted things that happened in the Jesus story. But this robs Jesus not just of his Jewishness but his agency. He did this to make a point.

And the people picked up what he was laying down. They spread their cloaks on the road, as they would for a king, and waved palm branches, symbols of royalty and victory.

And they sing passages from Psalm 118, which my Jewish Study Bible calls a victory song “possibly reformulated to celebrate the return from exile and the rebuilding of the Temple,” a song where only the righteous may enter the Temple, a song which contains a reversal of expectations: the stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

Bree on a flagpole. Amanda on her knees with the eagle feather. Rosa on a bus seat. Jesus on a donkey.

The Jewish playwright David Mamet says that the human creature injects drama into everything, even things as impersonal as the weather, to make sense of the world. What we find especially alluring are stories with a three-act structure which throws the hero into struggle from which they emerge victorious. This allows us to feel the thrill of anxiety, romance, even anger, within a safe space. They also allow us to feel a sense of superiority – even godhood – for knowing what’s going to happen. But melodrama, romance, and even smarter issue-driven works discussing themes do not ultimately satisfy us, because we know, even unconsciously, that we are not superior. In fact, we are flawed and anxious creatures. We may tremendously enjoy those stories, but they don’t stick with us long-term, and they often breed resentment, because even subconsciously we know we’re being manipulated.

In his book Three Uses of the Knife, Mamet writes,

“Myth, religion, and tragedy approach our insecurity somewhat differently. They awaken awe. They do not deny our powerlessness, but through its avowal they free us of the burden of its repression.”

Bree, Amanda, and Rosa did not do what they did imagining they would achieve personal glory. Bree knew the power of the image, so she said yes. Rosa was an activist for years before the bus incident, and yet it’s what we remember her for. With Amanda, I had to look up her name, because the image of her, which was taken from behind, was all I knew. The power came from that image being made into art across the world, and she’s actually fine with people not knowing it's her.

The task of the writer, Mamet says, is to craft narratives that do not conform to satisfactory conclusions; that waste no time in trying to convince us that we are gods. This is the only way to be respectful of one’s audience.He then broadens this to apply to leaders of all kinds. A leader, he says, resists.

Rather than claiming the end justifies the means, a true leader says,

“There is no end and even though it may cost me…I’m not going to give them what they want if what they want is a lie.”

Jesus offers a counter-narrative in his entrance to Jerusalem, knowing that despite his best efforts, his people will still want him to conform to the old narrative: The Messiah dashing the Romans with a mighty arm and liberating through violence. But that’s just another version of Rome. Jesus knew that narrative was a lie.

This is we celebrate Palm Sunday this way, by waving branches, and reading the account of Jesus’s betrayal, arrest, and death, as though we are there with him, active in his betrayal and lynching. It seems odd to mark it with this sense of festivity, considering what we know is to come. Are we having a party at the foot of the gallows? But Jesus knew that true freedom comes from embracing powerlessness, whatever that looks like.

From Mamet again, 

“Tragedy is a celebration not of our eventual triumph but of the truth – it is not a victory but a resignation. Much of its calamative power comes, again, from that operation described by Shakespeare: when remedy is exhausted, so is grief.”

That Shakespeare reference is to a line from his play Othello. Only a few verses later in that monologue, we get:   

“The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief.”

And so, we wave our branches, we sing our songs, we celebrate, and we even openly admit our complicity in corrupt systems, because we, like Jesus, are free.

Free to be daring, free to be human, free like Bree, like Amanda, like Rosa, to come against Empire in the name of God.