By Rev. Kathryn Ray
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” -Revelation 7:9-10
There was a time in my early twenties when I worshipped at a little Moravian church. At the very front of the sanctuary in this little church appeared the Moravian seal, which features a lamb trotting along confidently, carrying a banner. The words wrapping around the outside of the seal read: “Our lamb has conquered. Let us follow him.”
When I first saw the seal, I was unsettled. I was familiar with the symbolic language of Jesus as the lamb, and I was familiar with the idea of Jesus conquering the forces of death, but I wasn’t terribly comfortable with either one.
I was coming into this church after having spent a good deal of time under the influence of the Baptist peace tradition, represented most notably by the Baptist Peace Fellowship. Within this tradition, there is a lot of critical examination of the ways in which Christian imagery reinforces violence. I am thus unsettled by the image of the conquering Jesus, which lent justification to the Crusades. I am afflicted by the image of Jesus the obedient victim, which has been used to tell innocent victims who are experiencing violence that if they can just endure, their suffering will redeem them, or even redeem those who are abusing them.
Sitting in that Moravian church for the year and a half I attended there, I was given ample time to contemplate this conquering Lamb. As the year wore on, I found myself increasingly struck by the paradox, the absurdity even, of that line “Our lamb has conquered.”
Lambs don’t conquer. Lambs are victims. Lambs are sacrificed.
I struggled with the idea of Jesus as conqueror, and I struggle with the idea of Jesus as a lamb, as a sacrificial victim. But when you put the two images together, there’s something compelling in the resulting dissonance.
In the story from which Palm Sunday takes its name, the exultant crowd crying “Hosanna” sees Jesus only as the conquering king, as the song said. They cry, “Save us, save us! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father, David.”
They are imagining an actual, earthly kingdom that they hope fervently that Jesus will restore. They want him to gather an army and establish the political sovereignty of the people currently living as subjects under the Roman Empire.
In other words, they get Jesus wrong. They get Jesus wrong because they see the conqueror, but not the lamb.
Our world is filled with lambs. Lambs are the victims that get sacrificed to maintain order and stability, to maintain a sense of rightness. Lambs are the Karen, Rohingya, and other ethnic minorities being killed and driven out of Burma to establish the dominance of an elite group of Burmese Buddhists. Lambs are the students being bullied in our schools because they speak with a different accent. Lambs can even be the pieces of our lives and our hearts, the gifts and the truths, that we sacrifice in order to get along with those around us.
When the crowd decided Jesus was not a conqueror, they cast him as the lamb. Jesus became the unseen one, the victim driven out. It’s ironic, because crucifixion is such a public act. Lambs are often very visible figures, batted around in the media and in political debates. But for all that visibility, they remain unseen. They are not acknowledged as people, much less as precious children of God.
Each of us has a deep need to be seen and acknowledged for the gifts that we bring to the table. We need our truth to be heard, and have it be recognized as such.
The marchers that took to the streets last weekend demanded to be seen and heard. They were the voices and the faces of students from Parkland, FL to the south side of Chicago, saying our friends are being murdered in front of you, don’t you see? One of the central organizers here in Chicago was an 8th grade student named Cora Haworth, "I am passionate about helping to end gun violence affecting urban areas every day — ending lives of human beings like they mean nothing."
Can’t you see us?
Jesus was humiliated publicly by a community who rejected him. He was left unprotected by authorities who valued their own power more than they valued his life. He was killed by a political rule that saw him as the enemy.
In looking upon Jesus as divine, one is forced to recognize that in that moment, God has been declared the enemy. God, the ultimate insider, that which is most precious and true and sacred, has been desecrated.
In his death, Jesus exposes the lie that making lambs of people is something divinely sanctioned. When we drive out another, God is with the one being driven out. When we fail to see their humanity, we fail to see God.
Yet Jesus does not remain a lamb. Jesus returns from his unjust execution, not to exact vengeance but to establish a reign of grace in which we do not need to drive one another out to be at peace and in accord with one another. We build peace when we see one another and call each other by name. This is Jesus’ way of his conquering- by transforming. To follow Jesus is to be more than a conqueror, it is to be a transformer.
This is what the multitude of Revelation 7 understood, that the crowds in Jerusalem did not. That the rule of Jesus does not come from crushing your enemies, but by standing with the victims.