Wendy heard an interesting interview with a horse racing jockey a few weeks ago… the jockey made the comment that racing horses are quite aware of what is going on… they know they’re in a race and they can be quite competitive about it. They actually want to win. These are not just dumb unintelligent animals. It is quite interesting to recognize that qualities and even emotions that we normally think of as reserved for human beings are also to be found in animals.
Horses are built for running. There is something about the uprightness of their posture, the strength in their legs and the sleekness of their build that suggests that they were made for running. There is indeed something quite majestic and noble about horses.
In the advertising industry, when a company wishes to capture a sense of majestic beauty, swiftness, strength and nobility, they will often choose the symbol of a running horse.
In South Africa, AllanGray, one of the really well-to-do and elite investment companies has a running horse as its symbol and emblem. Here in the UK, Lloyd’s Bank uses the symbol of a horse to project the image of being an upper class bank. The message is, if you want to be on the competitive edge of investment banking, bank with us. We will give you the competitive edge over others.
Not so with donkeys. You probably won’t find a bank using a donkey as its emblem. Donkeys are generally not associated with competitiveness, or with giving you the leading edge against your competitors. By contrast, donkeys give off an air of acceptance, laid-back-ness, ordinariness and slowness. They may be good pack animals, even if they are at times a little stubborn, but they are not going to give you the edge over your competitors. If anything, the image of someone riding on a donkey is more an image of vulnerability than competitiveness and strength.
We’ll come back to horses and donkeys in a moment, after all, this is Palm Sunday where Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. But before we do that, I would like to briefly look at Vladimir Putin’s childhood.
When the war in Ukraine broke out, within the first week or so, some of the TV channels began re-airing documentaries about Vladimir Putin. I managed to watch one of them in which they explored briefly his childhood. It was interesting to see that although Putin for the past few decades has been one of the world’s most powerful men, his beginnings were in fact very humble. His father was a factory worker. His grandfather a cook, his great grandfather, a serf / peasant from the provinces. Putin himself grew up in a communal apartment shared by several families because they could not afford their own separate apartment. The communal apartment he grew up in was in very bad shape. Drafty in winter and numerous leaks in the roof and ceiling that were constantly dripping into buckets on the floor.
The neighbourhood was rough, and being smaller and scrawnier than most of the other boys, he very soon learned that he needed to be hard and aggressive if he was to survive. Growing up in a rough neighbourhood taught him that if you are not tough and aggressive you will get stomped on by others. He learned that being vulnerable was not an option. And so it was in this rough and poor neighbourhood where the young Vladimir Putin really learned about life. To survive in this environment, Russian publicist Andrei Piontkovsky writes that he had to be cunning and brutal, to appear strong and never experience moral doubts and suffering.'
These conditions appear to have played an enormous role in shaping his personality and ultimately his politics. Underneath the cool and calm exterior, is still the street-fighter who believes in attacking first in order to ensure you come out on top. It seems that everything Putin learned about life, he learned on the streets of Leningrad in the poor neighbourhood in which he grew up.
What Vladimir Putin’s childhood taught him, living by the laws of the jungle in the neighbourhood in which he grew up, is that vulnerability is bad and strength and aggression are good.
In some way, this could be a definition of what some people refer to when they speak of toxic masculinity. The phrase toxic masculinity is not meant to say that all men are toxic. Rather, it is describing a particular unbalanced and one-sided expression of masculinity that is wide-spread enough to be a problem. It describes what happens when the important and valuable masculine qualities of strength and competitiveness are left unbalanced by an ability to also be open, soft and vulnerable. Vladimir Putin could be said to be an example of toxic masculinity. His masculinity is unbalanced, one-sided, only values strength and competitiveness, as no room for sensitivity and vulnerability, and therefore unable to truly empathise.
And that brings us back to horses and donkeys.
The image of the Saviour riding into Jerusalem on a donkey is a powerful antidote to a one-sided emphasis on strength and competitiveness at all costs. The problem with a one-sided emphasis on strength and power is that it undermines the ability to love. One could say that Putin’s law of the jungle childhood has left him seriously emotionally and psychologically handicapped. When all you know is strength and power and aggression, then the ability to love is almost completely undermined.
To truly be able to love others, requires the ability to be vulnerable, to let your guard down, to show your weakness. Love requires being open to the softness of life.
And that is why the symbol of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey is such an important religious symbol in the world. Jesus can be said to be the Saviour of the World, because, in a world where strength, power and competitiveness are the supreme values, there is little or no room for love. Love is only possible where strength is balanced by vulnerability.
Just as Truth needs to be clothed in Grace, so strength needs to be balanced by vulnerability. It is not that strength needs to be undermined completely. It takes courage to love and courage requires strength. There is nothing in the Gospels that suggests that Jesus was weak. There is a strength and a dignity that shines from Jesus in every page of the Gospels. But his strength was not one-sided or unbalanced. The strength of Jesus was balanced by a deep vulnerability and softness. And it is only this combination of strength and vulnerability that can enable us to truly love.
The world in which Jesus grew up, was also a world were strength and competitiveness ruled supreme. The Roman Empire ruled with strength and power. They stomped on their opponents. They did not become the top-dogs of the ancient world by their gentleness and compassion. But when you sacrifice gentleness, compassion and vulnerability you end up sacrificing the ability to love and be tender. To save a lopsided emphasis on strength, which prevents us from touching the true depths of what it means to be human, you need the counter-balance of a Saviour who can teach us to open ourselves up a little bit to softness and tenderness.
And so it is, that as Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he does so, not by riding with strength and power on the back of a horse into Jerusalem. If he had done so, he would simply have been reinforcing the idea that might is right, reinforcing the idea that strength is good and vulnerability is bad. Instead, with strength and dignity, he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and as he does so, he invites us to learn the to balance the way of strength with the way of vulnerability and softness, and ability to be tender and to weep with empathy at the suffering of others.
It is not insignificant that in Luke’s version of the story, as Jesus rides into Jerusalem, not on a majestic horse, but rather on a slow and vulnerable donkey, he weeps publicly over the city of Jerusalem, because he knows the suffering that is to come upon them because they did not know the way that leads to peace.
Vladimir Putin’s childhood experiences seem to have caused him to so repress his soft and vulnerable side, that he is unable to empathise with the humanity of others, otherwise he would not be able to do what he is doing in Ukraine today.
And so, on this Palm Sunday, may Jesus, the One who rides into Jerusalem on donkey, become the one who saves us from an unhealthy and unbalanced emphasis on strength, that balancing strength with tenderness, softness and vulnerability, we may be ever more deeply opened to his Way of Love. Amen.