Palm Sunday — and the search for a political savior

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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The other day, I penned a semi-controversial column for The Week, titled For Christians, a silver lining to losing the culture war?

A few people took umbrage, implying that I was somehow gleeful (or naive) about what is to come. But as the title implied, this was a search for silver linings.

Still, the fact that this was a bit divisive didn’t surprise me. As I wrote, “Christians who are still looking for a political savior may view this trend as bad news. But for Christians focused on something more transcendent — saving souls and winning real converts — there is a silver lining to losing the culture.”

You’ll have to read the whole column to understand the silver linings — but the point I’m making here is that people who wrestle with flesh and blood for a living (or a hobby) will necessarily see things differently than those who are trying to focus solely on spiritual matters.

Yesterday, of course, was Palm Sunday, and this presents a perfect opportunity to expound on this thousands-year-old debate. Here’s the verse (John 12) that I’m guessing nearly every Christian congregation read yesterday:

So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’ And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, ‘Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’

A couple things to note. First, the irony of praising a man they would crucify in mere days goes without saying. Second, that he would fulfill the prophesy by arriving on, shall we say, humble transportation tells you this isn’t someone who is attempting to look like a royal. A King arriving on a donkey would be like President Obama coming to town in a Dodge Aries. It’s just not done. (If you ever wonder what Pope Francis is trying to symbolically say, this is it.)

So what accounts for the dramatic turnaround — the fact that shouts switched from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify Him!” so quickly?  At least part of the explanation, I think, is that they were looking for a political savior — for a powerful and earthly  winner.  It’s important to read the following in the same context that someone looking for a savior to overthrow the Romans would have:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.


I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. [Zechariah 9:9-9:10]

So how does this apply to us today? In the beginning, the religious right, I believe, had noble intentions. But there is a danger in focusing too much on politics, and that danger is that you end up looking for a political savior — that you see the world through the same prism as the Pharisees.

Don’t get me wrong, people of faith have, can, and should make major contributions to politics and culture. William Wilberforce is a prime example. Martin Luther King, Jr. is another. I could go on.

I don’t know who’s right — maybe both sides? This strikes me as a difference based primarily on emphasis. Fighting to preserve religious liberty and moral values seems like a pretty good idea to me, and I suspect, the most apolitical believer would agree. But is it your highest calling?

That’s not for me to judge. What I am saying is that there is an observable schism taking place right now, whereby some politically-minded Christians are greatly lamenting the loss of the culture war, while other, more spiritually minded believers, are joyfully embracing the challenges as their cross to bear. The latter believe we have a shot at a silver lining.

Matt K. Lewis