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Palm Sunday Outrage

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It is Palm Sunday, that one Sunday a year when the kids march into service waving palm fronds and we all sing just a little bit louder than usual.  We think we are singing praises to Jesus, and we are, but we are also celebrating one of the seminal events that lead to Jesus’ crucifixion just a few days later.  When a guy rides into town and everybody declares Him king, the local authorities get a little nervous – outraged even.

The authorities really were outraged by Jesus.  He was a pretty outrageous guy.  He challenged those authorities severely but not in ways they were equipped to deal with.  He did not challenge them for their actual authority; He challenged their character and the use of the authority they had.  Palm Sunday is a very visible demonstration of that challenge.

There is a quote from Theodore Dalrymple, written this December just past, that has been circulating with increasing intensity since that time. This week it came to my attention:

Outrage is a substitute for religion: It convinces us that our existence has some kind of meaning or significance beyond itself, that is to say beyond the paltry flux of day-to-day existence, especially when that existence is a securely comfortable one. Therefore we go looking for things to be outraged about as anteaters look for ants. Of all emotions, outrage is not only one of the most pleasurable but also one of the most reliable.

If you think about it, that quote summarizes exactly the challenge Jesus presented on the original “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem.  That entry asked those authorities what they valued more – their authority or their God.  For the Roman authorities the answer was easy, and it should have been – the demonstrations of that day did present a challenge to the civic order.  The outrage of the religious authorities of the time, people who that question challenged at the deepest levels, was intense and without it these events would have likely passed into history without note.  Anger passes, outrage has been known to make martyrs.

The Palm Sunday attacks of Coptic Christian churches in Egypt present similar challenges.  They challenge civil order, bombs should not be going off in churches anywhere under any circumstances.  But they also indicate that the local religious authorities feel threatened by the power of Christ and His church.

It should be noted that outrage is something very different than anger.  Outrage is never righteous, but anger most certainly can be.  Jesus Himself demonstrated righteous anger not long after his entry (at least according to the narrative of some of the gospel writers) by violently driving the vendors out of the Temple courtyard – another event directly tied to His crucifixion.

The difference between anger and outrage lies in the source.  Outrage comes from personal affront, anger comes from a violation of externally established order – especially if that order is dictated by God.  The authorities were outraged because Jesus challenged their authority; Jesus was angry because people were outside the order and spirit God established for His worship. Outrage is about the self; anger is about standards.

Thus, taking Dalrymple’s quote at face value, outrage really is a false religion – it is making an idol of self-interest.  It is placing our own interests ahead of God’s – wasting emotions on self that should be expended only on God’s behalf.

There is a lot of anger and outrage circulating in America today, on both sides of the political aisle.  The Holy Week that begins today gives us powerful stories illustrating both anger and outrage.  My prayer for the nation and the world in the week to come is that we would learn the difference between the two and sort them one from the other.  As always, I must look for the answer to such a prayer first in myself, and I hope that everyone else will do the same.  We could use a little anger, rightly expressed and properly channeled, but we can have no room for outrage.


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