Part 6 of the series, “A Dystopian Lent”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
March 20, 2016—Palm Sunday
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Luke 23:32-43
Isaiah 50:4–9a • The LORD God gave me an educated tongue to know how to respond to the weary with a word that will awaken them in the morning. God awakens my ear in the morning to listen, as educated people do. The LORD God opened my ear; I didn’t rebel; I didn’t turn my back. Instead, I gave my body to attackers, and my cheeks to beard pluckers. I didn’t hide my face from insults and spitting. The LORD God will help me; therefore, I haven’t been insulted. Therefore, I set my face like flint, and knew I wouldn’t be ashamed. The one who will declare me innocent is near. Who will argue with me? Let’s stand up together. Who will bring judgment against me? Let him approach me. Look! The LORD God will help me. Who will condemn me? Look, they will wear out like clothing; the moth will eat them.
Luke 23:32–43 • They also led two other criminals to be executed with Jesus. When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing.
The people were standing around watching, but the leaders sneered at him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he really is the Christ sent from God, the chosen one.”
The soldiers also mocked him. They came up to him, offering him sour wine and saying, “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” Above his head was a notice of the formal charge against him. It read “This is the king of the Jews.”
One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”
There are some dates, some years, that evoke powerful reactions because of associations they have with significant events that took place, usually some kind of revolution or war: 1066, 1517, 1776, 1789, 1812, 1917, 1939, 1948, 1967, 1968. These dates all have a symbolic power to them that go beyond merely chronicling the time that a given historical event took place. They have in some cases become synonymous with the effect that that event had upon the world.
So it is curious that one of the most powerful of such date-symbols is not attached to any real historical event but to a novel: 1984. The title of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel is derived from inverting the final two digits of the year in which it was written—1948. Having said that, as probably the only person in this chapel who read 1984 prior to 1984, there was a kind of future-dread associated with that year. It was a dread that Apple Computer famously exploited in one of the most famous ads of all time, depicting a solitary female runner throwing a hammer through a giant telescreen with a Big Brother like figure on it as crowds of proletarian drones looked on. The voiceover intoned: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’” The implications were not lost on anyone: the centralized control of information, the policing of thought, the mass conformity could all be resisted with the power of human individuality and creativity. And with an expensive computer with a graphic user interface.
1984 was not the first dystopian work of fiction—that was probably We by Soviet author Evgeny Zamyatin—but it is probably the granddaddy of them all. The Mother of all Dystopias. The world it presents is terrifying and instantly became a cautionary tale for a world that was facing threats to human freedom as never before.
Written in the shadow of a war that saw a fascist totalitarian state attempt to conquer Europe at the cost of millions of lives, notably, lives of millions of citizens of another totalitarian state, Orwell’s book presents a bleak vision of the future of humanity living under the absolute power of the state. The world in 1984 has been divided between three super-states—Oceania, which comprises the Americas, Southern Africa, Australia, and the British Isles; Eurasia, comprising continental Europe and the territory of the USSR; and East Asia, comprising China and the portions of Asia east of Iran. The three super-states are perpetually at war over northern Africa and the Middle East. This global state of affairs seems to have arisen as the result of a nuclear war after which China, the USSR, and the United States established their separate spheres of influence as totalitarian states.
The action takes place in London, the capital city of what is now refered to as “Airstrip One”—the Great Britain. There, as everywhere, citizens live under constant surveillance. The government ministries all bear names that obscure their true purpose: the Ministry of Peace is the war department, the Ministry of Truth is the propaganda ministry, the Ministry of Plenty rations supplies that are perpetually in short supply, the Ministry of Love is responsible for monitoring, arresting, and torturing dissidents. (So iconic has this usage become that all such governmental attempts to obscure truth through language are referred to as “Orwellian.”)
Dissident thoughts and actions are punished as “thoughtcrimes” against “Ingsoc” or “English Socialism” as it is referred to in “Newspeak,” the new language being fashioned by the government to so limit expression that dissident thoughts would no longer even be thinkable. Those who are guilty of “thoughtcrimes” are tortured, taken to “Room 101,” where they are confronted with their worst fears.
It is revealed that the war being waged against the other superstates is not meant to be won, it is meant to drain off any surplus in wealth or goods so that the citizenry will never attain a higher standard of living. The people are kept poor and uneducated so as to minimize the chances of their rebellion against the state. The world is bleak, poor, filthy, and decaying. The mass of “proles” and Outer Party members are kept in squalor or minimal standards of living (unlike the Inner Party members who live in a separate quarter in clean and comfortable apartments). There is no resistance movement. There is no liberating army on the way. There is no hope. As one character says in the novel, describing the Party’s vision of the future, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
This is the mother of all dystopian visions. The most chilling and the most terrifying. For years, this vision of absolute control dominated our nightmares and informed our anxieties. Along with the threat of nuclear war, totalitarianism, either from the Soviets or from ourselves caving in to our own fears of the Soviets, were the great fears that we shared.
II. THE TOTALITARIAN DREAD
Some have argued, that as far as predictors of the future go, Nineteen Eighty-four did not turn out to be the most prescient. Some have pointed out that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which portrayed a world governed by genetics and drugs was closer to the mark. Or others pointed to the cyberpunk novels that describe our slavery to technology or the risks of artificial intelligence as the more credible threat.
But 1984 is not meant to be predictive. It wasn’t actually claiming that these things would take place in 1984, as much as my eighth grade historical reading class in 1982 might have feared that to be the case. What 1984 was doing was giving voice to a great fear: the loss of individual freedom in the great collective. The oppression of the individual by systems to great to oppose, systems that manipulate the structures of power and the channels of information such that there is no opportunity to resist. No chance of escape. We don’t need to live in Oceania or Eurasia or East Asia for that fear to have meaning.
There are plenty of people who fear that kind of oppression—and they’re not all conspiracy nuts or lunatics wearing tinfoil hats. There are all kinds of people who are feeling steamrolled by a system that seems indifferent at best and hostile at worst. Those who feel caught up in the machinery of an unfeeling economy, who feel alienated and alone, without support. Longing for some kind of deliverance. All you have to do is pay attention to the election to see that dynamic at work. The systems we’re talking about aren’t the same ministries that they have in Oceania, but they can feel oppressive nonetheless.
And the fear of being crushed by the system, whether governmental, societal, or economic, is an enduring and very real fear. In an age of metadata collection, sales of consumer transaction histories, hacking of private data, and constant government surveillance in the name of national security, these fears can resurface in new ways. (It’s curious that in the current fight over privacy of information, Apple has once again pitted itself against the state—all they need is an athletic heroine to hurl her hammer at the NSA.)
The fear that 1984 evokes in us is not limited to our fears of totalitarian systems with thought police and two-way TV monitors. It applies to our fears of being lost in a system that pays us no heed as it seeks to satisfy its own desires for power, wealth, and control.
III. THE INSCRIPTION
And so we come to the gospel lesson for tonight that speaks to that fear.
Tonight we observe Palm/Passion Sunday, the Sunday in which we commemorate both Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the first day of the week before the Passover, and the passion and betrayal that he would later undergo that same week. We do this primarily because we can no longer count on our parishioners to attend the other Holy Week services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, so lest they go from Hosanna to Alleluia directly, Palm/Passion Sunday is meant to ensure that we all take that journey with Jesus through the cross of Calvary.
But on another level, the story of Palm Sunday is unintelligible without the story of what happens later in the week. As I noted last week, the gospel narratives are written with the ending in mind. We hear them not unaware of what is coming and so even in this moment of seeming triumph, with palm waving and shouts of hosanna, we know that the cross looms in the background.
And what we learn about the passion speaks directly to the dystopian fear we are talking about tonight. Jesus comes into Jerusalem to the acclamation of the crowds who see him as one who will bring them freedom—they shout “Hosanna!” meaning “Save us!” to the one they see as their deliverer. He is criticized by the religious leadership because of the enthusiasm of his followers. When he entered the temple and threw out the money changers, the leadership began to look for a way to kill him.
By the time we reach Good Friday, Jesus has been condemned by the temple leadership, he has been interrogated by the military occupation, brought before the local client-king, and finally brought back before the governor and condemned. He is rejected by the crowd, mocked by onlookers, and even mocked by one of his fellow condemned prisoners. Above his head reads the formal charge: “This is the king of the Jews.” A charge identifying his crime as sedition and treason against the Empire. Everyone is against him. He is alone. Condemned without hope. Cast aside by the system. The innocent one, persecuted wrongly, who suffers injustice and oppression. In his crucifixion, Christ is crushed by the system.
IV. ALWAYS ON THE SIDE OF THE OPPRESSED
It is insteresting to note that in John’s gospel’s version of this story, we are told that the sign hung over Jesus is written in Hebrew (probably Aramaic), Latin, and Greek. This means that the condemnation of Jesus comes from the religious, political, and cultural realms. He is condemned simultaneously by the great institutions of faith, government, and culture. He is oppressed not just by cynical religious authority, trying to maintain its relative power. He is oppressed not just by cultural authority claiming its own relevance over his message. He is oppressed not just by the political authority, maintaining its hegemonic power over far-flung provinces in a vast empire. He is oppressed by all three. He is oppressed by the entire system in all its forms.
Jesus is the Oppressed One. In Christ is the experience of everyone living under oppression. The Christian condemned to die by the Roman official. The reformer burned at the stake as a heretic by the Church. The African captured and put into slavery by the white slavemaster. The Jew forced to live in the ghettos or packed into the railcars headed for the concentration camp. The El Salvadoran killed by the death squads. The Black South African living under Apartheid. The Keren Christians persecuted under the Burmese military junta. The Cherokee driven from their land, their children sent to boarding schools and robbed of their heritage, language, and culture. The Yazidi and the Christian and the Shi’ite murdered by the death worshiping cult of ISIL/Daesh. The Palestinian child burned alive by fanatical settlers. The Black teen whose life is tragically cut short by a system stacked against him. The child born into poverty who will suffer from poor nutrition and be kept from opportunity by a cruel and indifferent system.
Christ is all these and more.
It is telling to see just how often the powers that be claim Jesus as one of their own. They claim Christ as warrant for maintaining the status quo, for stability and good order. For faithful obedience to duly constituted authority. The white slavemasters tried that. They shared Christianity with their slaves under the theory that its emphasis on forgiveness and a reward in the hereafter would make the slave populations more docile, more accepting of their fate. The slaves would understand that Jesus wanted them to behave.
But the African slaves heard the Gospel in spite of their masters’ efforts. They understood that Jesus was the oppressed one, not the oppressor. They understood that God was a God of liberation for the oppressed. The same God that had led the Hebrew children out of Egypt to the Promised Land was the same God that raised Jesus from the dead. And the same God who would come again in victory at the end of all things to establish peace. To establish justice. The Gospel makes this clear. Jesus is the righteous innocent, oppressed by the great systems of the world, who suffers and dies, and yet, who is raised to new life, victorious.
They had been given one version of the story; but they read it for themselves and saw what it was really about.
The systems that hold sway over us are terrifying. Whether they are the systems of an all-powerful government. Or of corporate hegemony that is reducing us to consumer profiles in an attempt to make us obedient and reliable customers. Or of an economic system designed to maximize the advantage for some at the expense of the many. Or a global market that is changing the nature of labor and removing jobs to locations far away. We can all feel runover by the wheels of the system. That may be our story, but it need not end that way.
There is a little-known fact about the ending of the novel that actually gives a measure of hope. Oh, the ending of the narrative of the novel is bleak enough, but there is a coda following the narrative. An academic essay about “Newspeak,” the state constructed minimalist language that was meant to eradicate all dissident thought, is appended to the novel. The essay is written in standard English and refers to Newspeak, the Party, and Ingsoc all in the past tense (“Relative to our own, the Newspeak vocabulary was tiny, and new ways of reducing it were constantly being devised”). Some critics have seen in this a hopeful sign that for the writer of the essay, all of these things are in the past. That world is no longer.
It is the same with Jesus’ story. On Palm/Passion Sunday, Jesus’ story looks bleak. Christ came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the praise of the crowd and by Good Friday had been betrayed by that crowd, by the religious leadership, the political leadership, and the cultural leadership. The great institutions of the ancient world sought to tread Jesus underfoot and grind him down. The same systems that we fear—sought to oppress, dominate, and marginalize Jesus. But we know the ending to the story and the ending to the story does not leave us in oppression. We know that Jesus’ story ends in victory.
And so when we are feeling overwhelmed by the system, we know that we do not do so alone. There, too, is God. There, too, do we find our hope. Knowing that in the midst of oppression, we are in relationship with a God of liberation, a God of victory. The fears we have cannot match the power of the Gospel. For it is a gospel that stands with the oppressed. A gospel that brings hope in the midst of our fear, freedom in the midst of our oppression. Such that even at the darkest hour, even as we hang upon the cross of our own oppression, mocked and scorned by the systems of the world, taken to our own “Room 101,” we hear the voice of our master saying, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
 That is, the Norman Conquest, the Protestant Reformation, the Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution, The War of 1812, the Russian Revolution, the Beginning of World War II, the founding of the State of Israel, the Six Day War, the assassinations of MLK and Bobby Kennedy.