When the first Harry Potter novel came out in 1997, I was already an adult. I got Potter fever just like everyone else I knew, and tore through the books and then the movies. However, as the series got darker and more dangerous, especially when it culminated in a massive battle between Voldemort’s army of Death Eaters, Snatchers, and Dementors, and a group of high school students, there was one thing that bothered me a bit:
Where were the adults?
Yes, there were a few professors and the members of the Order of the Phoenix, but for the most part, teenagers were left to defend themselves against the greatest force of evil in the wizarding world. Teenagers led the charge, some of them brilliant like Hermione Granger, most of them completely average, good at some things, not so good at other things, confused, hormonal, figuring it all out teenagers. And ultimately – I’m assuming I don’t need to give a spoiler alert for this – it’s a teenager who realizes that the way to overthrow evil is not to play its game.
Voldemort is obsessed with his own immortality, so intent on holding power forever that he preserves himself by putting parts of his soul into other objects. It’s Harry who figures out that he has to turn Voldemort’s rules upside down in order to defeat him. Harry Potter, backed by a herd of teenagers who can’t wait any longer for the adults to protect them. It’s time for them to save the world.
I was thinking of Harry Potter and that last battle scene yesterday as I watched teenagers around the country march and speak up for their own lives. There were adults backing them up – some of you were there, marching to support them – but make no mistake about it, this is a movement led by teenagers who won’t wait any longer for the adults to protect them. It’s time for them to save the world.
The particular teenagers leading the movement to end gun violence have faced all manner of accusations. They are paid actors, or pawns in the agendas of adults. A whole lot of people seem to think they’re too young to speak at all. They’re just kids, average kids, like the teenagers we all know and the teenagers most of us have been.
But I’m not the first one to make the connection that these kids weren’t even born when the first Harry Potter book was published, that they grew up on these books and movies, with parents measuring out when they were old enough to handle the later volumes with their scarier themes. Harry Potter didn’t put them in this situation of having to defend their own lives, but it’s not a bad blueprint if you have to do so. And these kids are changing the world Potter-style. They’re doing it together, and they’re turning the rules upside down.
Whether it’s Harry Potter or Emma Gonzalez, adults have a habit of underestimating teenagers. We expect them to behave much as we felt as teenagers, awkward and erratic, not quite fully formed. After twenty years of youth ministry, I can verify that they are all those things. But perhaps that is exactly what fuels their movements. They’re not part of the power structure. No one expects them to influence it. They’re young, they’re only in high school, they’re not fully educated or well connected, most of them can’t even vote yet – which is part of why their resolve, poise, and momentum are striking. Paradoxically, their weakness is their power.
This story of Jesus coming into Jerusalem seems to us to be a strange sort of parade: a king who’s not any kind of king we’d recognize riding on a donkey, while people throw down branches and coats to cover the road. There are suggestions that the people really are treating him as royalty; it would have been customary to bring a donkey out of the city for an honored guest to ride in on. But it’s also a notably humble procession, just word of mouth and whatever people have on hand to throw down on the road, the cloaks they’re wearing or branches hurriedly cut from the nearby fields. And they’re shouting “Hosanna,” which means “Save us” – “Hey, you, change the world!”
A couple of years ago, I visited Budapest and Prague, both amazingly beautiful cities with uneasy histories. The histories go back a long time, but the stories that we heard everywhere we went were from the not so distant past, around the end of WWII. Budapest and Prague were both occupied by the Nazis, and had experienced growing oppression, first small things targeted only at Jews that didn’t draw much attention from anyone else, then increasing controls over Jews and spreading into other minority populations. All of this grew over time into a culture permeated by fear, that you would be the next one to go, if you talked to the wrong person or failed to say the right thing at the right time. So then they were liberated by the Allies, which to us sounds great, and which I’m sure to some of them sounded great. No more Nazis! Hosanna! Woo, save us! But the truth is that they didn’t understand what kind of salvation they were getting. The Allied force that liberated them was Russia, which quickly enforced rigid Stalinist governments that were often just as harsh as the Nazis they replaced, and the effects of those oppressive regimes are still visible now.
This is a massive oversimplification of how world politics shift, but it struck me that part of what happened is that people were looking for someone to save them – first the Nazis, and then the Communists, and in case you’re tempted to blame it on obviously problematic systems, then they tried a more democratic approach, which is still yielding a lot of poverty and struggle. But this isn’t just about them; it points toward a larger human tendency to look toward power to save us, especially military power. We accomplish most cultural transformation by violently forcing each other into various situations. So when the people in Jerusalem saw Jesus coming, they were the oppressed people in their society, and they assumed that he was going to take an army and overthrow the government and replace the king and let them be the ones in power for a while.
But Jesus was just totally not that kind of king.
Most of the time, we know what we want to be saved from. We can name a hundred things that need to be fixed about our lives and about the world. But we tend to look to public figures to fix things for us. But I think this story that we celebrate at Palm Sunday prods at us to pay close attention to who we look to for salvation. While our leaders and dignitaries parade their strengths, it might be helpful to stop for a moment and remember that Jesus didn’t enter Jerusalem with an army or a fancy planned procession or a campaign manager. And he wasn’t playing by anyone else’s rules. Only a few days later, he would do exactly the opposite of what they expected and go to his death without ever raising a hand in his own defense. But that was the point. Jesus’ power was his weakness.
Which makes me wonder, what might have happened if, instead of just laying down their cloaks and watching Jesus go by, some of those people had actually followed him into Jerusalem and joined him in changing the rules? What might happen if we did?
When we follow the appearances of power, we may find ourselves shouting Hosanna one minute and Crucify Him the next, hardly knowing what we’re asking. But when we follow Jesus, we follow a different kind of procession, a humble procession, that yes, might lead to death – but that also ultimately leads to real life, for us and for all of creation.
We began this Lenten season with this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. about maladjustment: “…there are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good‐will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self‐defeating effects of physical violence…In other words, I’m about convinced now that there is need for…men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos. Who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
I once heard the senior minister at Middle Collegiate Church, Jacqui Lewis, comment that history arcs toward justice, but it doesn’t just arc on its own; sometimes you have to step on it. When I picture Jesus riding into Jerusalem to risk himself for the salvation of the world, I imagine that donkey stepping on the arc of history, bending its trajectory just a little more toward that world in which justice rolls like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. It seems like our collective weight might be able to bend that arc a little more, a little faster. The procession starts here. Are you coming?