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I heard that Donald Trump wants a massive military parade.

I preached a sermon once, for Palm Sunday, about a military parade. I’d had my mind blown by reading some history of the military culture of the place where Jesus lived, and it breathed new meaning into what Jesus might have been doing in his humble little march into Jerusalem: mimicking, and undermining, the empire.

This helped me understand Jesus. And it helped me understand what it meant for me to claim to follow this Jesus.

In the Roman empire, there was a custom that was followed when a general was victorious in battle — if he had killed thousands of enemy soldiers, if he had been able to acquire more land and wealth and expand the boundaries of the empire. He would return, and there would be a public celebration. Later, it became celebration for the emperor himself. He would ride a chariot through the streets, slowly making his way toward the capitol city; he would show off the slaves he had captured, maybe show off the enemy king he had defeated. The crowds would gather around, brandishing their weapons and cheering for the hero.

So when we refer to Jesus’s journey into Jerusalem as the “triumphal entry,” we are using a specific, technical term that was used in Rome to refer to the parade-like celebration of military might. The triumphal military parade was a statement of privilege, of colonization, of wealth and conquest and power and winning, no matter the cost. It was about Rome First. It was about the “bigger button.”   

For the citizens of the empire, the triumph was a celebration of the hope of the Roman empire: the empire which kept them safe, which ensured they were #1, which they expected would last forever.

Of course the Washington Post beat me to it, and has already articulated the parallels between the aspirations of the Donald and the Roman Triumph. But in the piece, the author pointed out a detail I didn’t know: “In the Roman triumph, a slave would ride with the general in his chariot and repeatedly whisper into his ear, ‘Memento mori’: Remember, you are mortal.”

This Wednesday, many of us will kneel before our pastor to receive ashes on our forehead, and we will hear these words of truth and of hope: “From dust you came, to dust you will return.” It is this somber story that grounds us, that binds us together, that fixes our faith. We are not our own. Our might will not save. The way to glory is through suffering. The last shall be first. Hope incarnate, the Refugee, from shit-hole Nazareth, unarmed and unafraid, rode a donkey to Jerusalem to be executed by the state. And the weapon of the empire’s death sentence became our sign of a God who lives.

As we watch and await a new American Triumph, let’s remember our story. From dust we came. To dust we will return. Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.


Kate Kooyman

Rev. Kate Kooyman is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  • Jill Fenske says:

    Thoughtful , provocative and timely. Preach it Sister.

  • James Schaap says:

    Stunning. Thanks.

  • Lee Collins says:

    “From dust you came; to dust you will return.” Thanks for reminding us that military might is fleeting, no matter how many parades we plan.

  • Emily Brink says:

    History speaks, when we are shown how often history is repeated. Powerful, Kate. Thanks!

  • John says:

    Right on, Kate. Thanks for illuminating the contrast between Jesus’ triumph and Empire’s. JRK

  • Lou Roossien says:

    Your perspective on Jesus’ “humble little march” on Palm Sunday, instead of a victory parade, reminds me of his “coming down from Glory… to the cross… and ascending to Glory”, a most humble journey for The King.

  • Sara S Tolsma says:

    LOVE this! Thank you!

  • Marge Vander Wagen says:

    I will put the phrase “Memento mori’ on my desk. When I am frazzled, over-extended, it is good to “remember you are mortal.” God is in control.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    Of course poking fun of President Trump is like shooting fish in a barrel, and is always sure to get a good chorus of “attagirl!” I wonder sometimes why some Christians are so affected by day-to-day political happenings, as if their lives and outlooks move with every ebb and flow. I wonder: is even Donald Trump occasionally worthy of being considered an image bearer, a governing official ordained to his position by God and worthy of some level of honor? Is there grace for Donald Trump, or only for those of us who are worthy (contra-definitional, don’t you think)? Is it ever worth looking at and interpreting the words and actions of President Trump in a gracious light? I don’t see much, if any, of such an outlook on this site. I don’t think that speaks well of the editor or authors here.
    There is more than one way to look at a military parade than that of celebration of military conquest. It can just as easily be considered a celebration of the service, sacrifice, and peace (yes, I said peace) exhibited and promoted by members of the U.S. military. Consider the following:
    1. President Trump was reportedly inspired to make such a proposal by a military parade in (of all places) France. Yes, France, that 21st century global colonial empire. When was the last time France prevailed in a military engagement?
    2. The idea of military parade in honor of the women and men of the military is not a Trump original. As recently as 2014, Chuck Schumer proposed (and Bill de Blasio publically supported) the idea of a grand military parade in honor of those who serve.
    3. Military parades are not new to U.S. history, and are not necessarily indicative of any conquest. President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural parade featured “Sixteen thousand members of the US armed forces…with displays of modern weaponry like the Minuteman missile and the supersonic B-70 bomber.”
    4. The U.S. military does much more than wage war. For instance, the U.S. military responds to natural disasters domestically and internationally. Example: Following the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, the U.S. military immediately responded with aid, including 24,000 U.S. servicemembers, 189 aircraft, and 24 naval ships. Examples can be multiplied both domestically and internationally. No empire in the history of the world has had as broad of a military reach and used it for so much beneficial non-military action as the U.S.
    5. The U.S. military advances peace throughout the world. With over 800 military bases and installations of various sizes worldwide, the U.S. military provides for peace and stability in a world filled with enmity and tension. The number of acts of aggression and conquest that have been avoided and stifled by the presence and alliances of the U.S. military can never be calculated, but are undoubtedly many. Any notion that peace can be maintained without military strength is historically ignorant and fails to account for the nature of human depravity.
    6. The U.S. military advances a type of empire that is unlike any other in the history of the world. Never before has the world known a dominant military power that has acted with the benevolence and restraint of the U.S. Rome sought to crush her opponents and dominate them. The U.S. empire has done more to advance the wellbeing of other countries than any other empire in the history of the world. Following victory in WWII, the U.S. did not seek slaves and territory, but rather sought the peace, prosperity, and sovereignty of countries throughout the world where troops had been engaged. Rather than seek tribute following military victory, the U.S. sends aid. Why does Canada not fear the U.S.? Would Rome have engaged in the same peaceful coexistence? Why not simply conquer Mexico and enslave her people, as would have been done by almost every other dominant world empire in the history of the world?
    7. Jesus’ death on the cross was a rebuke of empire, but not primarily of earthly empire, but the empire of Satan.
    8. God ordains earthly empire, to the extent that God ordains governing authorities and arms them with the sword. Who will the governing authorities govern, if not the empire under their charge, no matter the size? Governing authorities are to use the sword to execute justice and protect the innocent. Every governing authority will err and sin in this role, but this fact does not negate both the necessity and divinely ordained role of earthly empire until such time as God’s Kingdom comes in completion and all empires but one are abolished.
    9. Christian believers with a bit of sophistication who chose not to view all matters with a political axe to grind do not find it hard to simultaneously understand all the implications of Christ’s life, death, and rule and also take joy in God’s providential care provided through earthly empire. They may even celebrate Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day and Independence Day. They may even be servants of the empire. They may get chills during military fly-overs. They may even revel in the idea of a parade honoring the military. In my little town, the Fourth of July parade always ends with a military color guard – and no one has visions of Rome.

    • Kate Kooyman says:

      Eric, I’m grateful that you took the time to share your reaction and your perspective. We see this differently, but I’m convinced we need each other. Thanks for taking the time to share your honest reaction.

      • Eric Van Dyken says:

        Hi Kate. That we need each other cannot be doubted, lest we deny each other as brother and sister in Christ. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!”

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