A Sermon during Lent called Donkey Politics by Trevor Bechtel
Donkey Politics have a long history in this country. Beginning when Andrew Jackson chose to take the “jackass” epithet hurled at him by his opponents as a badge of honor and weave it into his campaign, and then etched into our national life by Thomas Nast whose political cartoons made the donkey the symbol of the Democratic Party, politics in the United States have been about donkeys and what they symbolize. But donkey politics aren’t about belonging to the Democratic Party even in this moment when it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a Christian to remain Republican.
The most famous donkey in the world is probably Perry. Perry has lived at Barron Park in Palo Alto, a century old sanctuary for donkeys, since 1997. Perry’s job before 1997 was to calm thoroughbred horses in Woodside, California. In 2001 Pacific Data Images came to Barron Park to photograph and learn about donkeys especially how they moved for a movie they were working on called Shrek. Humans that know Perry recognize his gait and idiosyncrasies in the animated, unnamed Donkey from that movie. Perry is a Jerusalem donkey, so named because of a dark cross formed by a link of dark hair running down his back and across his shoulders.
Pacific Data Images donated $75 dollars to Barron Park in gratitude for Perry’s image and likeness, and did not credit him in the film. The Shrek series has grossed more than 4 billions dollars since then. Perry is a calm, personable donkey, who seems to enjoy visitors, and regularly has newspaper articles written about him. He even appeared on Oprah in 2002.
Perry is a symbol of many things. Like most donkeys he is known for his calmness and good relationship to others, both horse and human. He probably should be very wealthy having supplied creative inspiration worth millions, but he retains a good attitude towards humans; he is a longsuffering donkey. His story is also somewhat hidden; how many of you knew about Perry before today?
He joins a long line of donkeys who have both deserved and undeserved reputations as symbols in human society including the donkey we are thinking about this morning, another donkey associated with Jerusalem, who bore Jesus into the city.
Before we learn a bit more about this donkey let’s remember where we are in the story coming into this Palm Sunday. Jesus has raised Lazarus form the dead, and a large crowd has gathered to see Lazarus. The crowd has attracted the attention of the religious authorities who see how popular Jesus is becoming. The authorities are probably feeling their political power threatened and the text names their interest in killing both Jesus and Lazarus. This crowd learns that Jesus is headed towards Jerusalem and are eager to meet him. They collect palm branches and shout,
“Hosanna, blessed is the one coming in the name of God, Blessed is the ruler of Israel.”
This is an overtly political situation.
There is a large crowd who are believing in Jesus because of the miracle of resurrecting Lazarus. Their use of palm branches evokes the Maccabean revolt in which the Jews sought to retake control of the area around Jerusalem beginning about 150 years before Jesus. They were more or less successful achieving significant autonomy for the Jews until Herod the Great took control 40 years before Jesus. Palm branches are a nationalist symbol and this is intensified by calling Jesus the ruler of Israel. This crowd sees Jesus as a national liberator, and their coming to meet him is the action taken towards a ruler and they name Jesus as that ruler.
Jesus responds to this expectation by finding a donkey and riding forward on the donkey as in the image on the cover of your bulletin. In the Ancient Near East, donkeys were symbols of peace, while horses were symbols of war. Rulers could symbolize their intentions or enact treaties by riding on, or exchanging, a donkey. The donkey was simultaneously a symbol of peace and humility, and also of royalty. John remembers the prophecy from Zechariah that the Messiah will ride on a donkey,
“Fear not, O people of Zion! Your ruler comes to you sitting on a donkey’s colt”
Actually this is an imperfect remembering of Zechariah 9.9 which reads,
“Rejoice in heart and soul, daughter of Zion!
Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem!
Look! Your ruler comes to you:
victorious and triumphant,
humble, riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
John downplays the humility of Jesus and emphasizes Jesus authority, but also shifts from rejoicing to not fearing.
The meaning of this event becomes especially clear as told in the Gospel of John. The people expect Jesus to lead, they expect Jesus to liberate them. And fear not, Jesus will. Jesus responds to their expectation with a symbol appropriate to a ruler. But Jesus leadership is not going to be accomplished by a military victory, Jesus comes, victorious and triumphant, on a donkey’s colt, as a peaceful ruler. This is a specific response that Jesus makes by finding a donkey to ride in on.
It is no stretch at all to see this story as a protest story. In Matthew, Jesus riding into Jerusalem is immediately followed by the cleansing of the temple, the second scripture passage we’ve read today. In John these are separated now, but the last verse of our passage might show that they were once connected since there is a very similar statement in John 2 where that story is now told. Perhaps a later editor separated them and copied the statement about the recalling what had happened earlier. The version from Matthew also tells of children shouting
“Hosanna to the Heir to the House of David.”
In these two stories–riding a donkey in respond to the crowd meeting him, and throwing the money changers out of the temple–Jesus shows us two forms of protest. In the first the action is symbolic. Riding a donkey is a symbol of peace. In the second the action is concrete. Throwing the moneychangers out of the temple is a symbol of throwing the moneychangers out of the temple. In both cases understanding follows after the fact, as often happens with protest movements.
We are now almost three years on from the murder of George Floyd and the protests which followed that event. People called for police reform, for defunding the police, for abolition. There were large protests and significant calls, even form inside city councils to take steps to try and ensure that something like the murder of George Floyd wouldn’t happen again.
This week I went to East Lansing to testify at a hearing on police reform. The hearing was hosted at the Michigan State College of Law by the East Lansing Independent Police Oversight Commission. Over the last three years one of the projects I’ve been involved in my work at the University is to review studies on police reform. We learned that we know very little about what reform policies cause reductions in police violence. For all the talk of chokehold bans or the duty to intervene or not shooting at moving vehicles we could only find three things that showed a causal effect on police violence: Body Cameras, Diversity, and Gun Control. Women and Black officers are less likely to use force against civilians especially against black civilians. Body Cameras decrease police use of force and civilian complaints when officers don’t have discretion about when to turn the cameras off. Finally, there are so many guns in this country, more guns than cellphones or cars, and there is a movement to allow concealed carry without permits. Places with less restrictive laws regulating guns show an increase in police shootings. This makes sense; if the police expect a gun could be involved in any encounter they have to behave differently. Conversations about gun control typically follow school shootings like the one we had again this week, but our research shows that these conversation are also relevant for police reform. In my work at the university I am an honorary social scientist. So I speak in that context very much constrained by what the data allows me to say. But also on the panel I was a part of was Pastor Sean Holland of One Love Global and Black Lives Matter in Lansing. He did not speak with the detachment of a social scientist. He gave impassioned testimony about the history of police being rooted in the slave patrols of the south or the night patrols of the north; both institutions formed with the explicit purpose of policing black people. He talked about his own experience as a black person who encounters the police. He recounted the history since George Floyd which has seen an increase in police violence in the years following his murder. More black people were killed by the police in 2022 than in any year since 2015. It was interesting for me, also a pastor, to listen to him given the detachment I was about to employ.
Both Pastor Holland and Dr. Bechtel were fulfilling important roles though that night. The understanding that comes from lived experience and the understanding from knowing what policies can cause a change are both important. When they are employed together they become even more effective.
Donkey Politics are about working together just as Perry the donkey worked to calm thoroughbred horses. Donkey Politics are about bringing together good data and impassioned testimony. Donkey Politics are about learning to understand our symbols, and learning what symbols to stand under. Donkey Politics are about knowing who we want to lead us, and learning how to lead. Donkey Politics are about both symbolic and concrete action, and about seeking to understand what our action has accomplished. Donkey politics are about transforming overtly political situations not to make them less political but about making them about peace and less violence.