It was exactly seven years last night – March 19, 2009 - the eve of the 7th anniversary of the Iraq War – that I marched in a protest against that war with a toilet seat on my head. There were a few others with toilet seats on their heads, too. There were lots of signs. Many carried toilet plungers as if they were signs. Or effigies.
Our point was that six years of war with no end in sight was causing precious and considerable American resources – material and human – to go down the toilet. We needed to plumb for peace.
We decided on this angle for our protest because after six years the war had become status quo and most people had lost interest in condemning it. Something different would raise awareness. Something clever and funny – parodying a typical protest march while retaining its message -- would really get everyone’s attention.
And it did! We made it to the front page of the San Luis Obispo Tribune (the local paper of the town where I was currently living) as well as the lead story of the local tv news that night. I, and my particular toilet seat, were front and center.
This didn’t sit well, as it were, with several of my parishioners. Not surprising. It was in many ways not appropriate for their pastor to be behaving in this fashion. I don’t think some ever really got over it, no matter what else in my pastorate with them they appreciated. But that’s okay. If you’re not making some people mad, you’re probably not really doing social justice.
What I mostly remember of that night, is how energizing and powerful it was to be proclaiming an important message with goofiness. To mock worldly power in a clever, really “out-there” way. I remember as we were about to begin how excited marchers were to be carrying their plungers and other plumbing products and how we all prayed for peace and for our march with a smile on our faces.
While that may seem strange, it propelled us vigorously into the Farmers Market crowd to proclaim our crazy, noteworthy message. While I may have been a little afraid of what opponents might think or even do in response to our protest, knowing I was being funny and undeniably funny-looking served as a sort of armor, a very special armor since I knew it wasn’t armor but "porcelain." (Not even that – plastic! I purchased Home Depot’s cheapest toiiet seat, which totally did the trick.)
There is real power in parody. Not only in the noteworthiness of the burlesque message you send, but also in what it does to the burlesquer. If you are nervous about making a stink (again, as it were!), even a stink you truly believe in, take it over the top. (And over the lid!)
I think about that parade and my experience of it as we come into Palm Sunday today.
It is a given in many academic circles that what Jesus was up to when he rode a donkey into the capital city and his followers lay their cloaks before him waving palm branches was a mock military victory parade. According to John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, in their book, The Last Week (HarperOne 2007), it was directly parodying what Pontius Pilate was putting on on the other side of town as part of the annual “Don’t forget who’s really in charge here” message Rome shoved down the locals’ throats during Passover. Apparently it featured Pilate on a giant white steed and “cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold….”
While others, perhaps, protested Rome’s presence and purposes with torches and effigies and angry taunts (or at least wished to), Jesus and Co. took a different route. Sure it was also the route commanded of the Messiah by Old Testament prophets – riding into town on a humble ass – and/but even so, it was a wise idea on several counts.
By conducting a most atypical parade that was ridiculously humble, peaceful and joyful, an undeniably memorable message was sent to all who witnessed it about who was really in charge. It really woke people up who may have been complacent about the inevitability of Rome’s presence and dominion.
In addition, because of the boldness in concept and execution of its outrageously lowliness, an additional startling message about how the one who is really in charge can be accessed.
And because it’s all such a clever parody, and the Lord of All is allowing himself to look so silly – legs probably scraping along the ground as he bumps up and down on a wild and perhaps unhappy little colt who has never had to carry cargo before! – I can’t help but think it helped steel Jesus as he plopped down the road to really take in and claim his week’s mission of peace and passion in the midst of endless fear and fury. The humor (while also probably accelerating fury amongst some because it was spot on) became his armor not only for the parade but for what would transpire beyond. It wouldn’t be Jesus’ only tool, but a certainly important one, often overlooked and underestimated.
I think that might be a very helpful thing – tool – for us to remember, too, as we proceed – and parade – in Jesus stead, not just today but in the months ahead. It would seem that many a protest is on its way, especially in this presidential election cycle. We will have the opportunity to condemn the oppressive (and untrue) messages of the worldly powers in any number of ways. In so doing we will put ourselves out there risking fierce criticism and worse. And, of course, it will be important to take these risks as our conscience deems and the Spirit moves.
I think it will be also very helpful to take a page out of the Bible’s playbook (actually it’s more than one page!) and choose a ridiculous, humorous approach.
There is tremendous power in parody.