For Palm Sunday, I am with my family in Las Vegas. Sin City is not exactly a top pilgrimage destination for Christians, although I am sure a lot of praying goes on at the blackjack tables. I am in town for my mother’s birthday. She retired here, and this is a milestone birthday. I am not allowed to say which milestone.
My sister lives with my mother and teaches at a middle school in North Las Vegas. Most of her students are black and come from struggling, single-parent families. A lot are being raised by their grandparents. She told me that last year they were out of control. “Hell” is how she described it. However, this year is different. They are calmer, focused, and more respectful. What happened? “I talked to them about their souls,” she said.
Respect is probably the greatest value in these students’ lives. They fight for it everyday and are sensitive to the least slight, which could end in a hallway brawl. Their code of honor involves showing respect verbally and physically. When lines are crossed, one must defend one’s honor, which means forcing people to treat you with respect. This is achieved with fists and threats. It is “other” based.
My sister showed them a different way, one that is “inner” based. The force is applied not to others but to oneself. Your strength comes from within, she explained to them. It involves your soul and is a spiritual exercise. What, exactly, is being exercised? Virtue.
Virtue is a hard sell in an environment wired for what Aristotle called “bovine existence.” If you’re fighting for survival, virtue is perceived as a disadvantage. But my sister explained that it is not a matter of turning the other cheek but of lifting oneself out of hallway justice to love. And the basis of love is courage. It is not for wimps.
I have always found Holy Week interesting from this perspective. It starts with Palm Sunday and leads directly to Christ’s passion. Yet, how could the same people who welcomed him as a conquering hero to Jerusalem turn around a few days later and denounce him before the Sanhedrin and Pilate? There is a lesson here of not deriving your sense of worth and self-respect from others. The hypocrites who welcomed him acted out of fear, which is the opposite of love.
There is also a lesson to be learned about the rarity of real respect, love, and courage. Those are virtues not easily attained, yet if we do not attempt them we have chosen for ourselves the role of the rabble, not Christ. And we have to choose them in the reality of our own experiences, which includes everything from Wall Street to a middle school in Las Vegas.
Maybe that’s the greatest lesson my sister has taught them. And the most important insight from Palm Sunday.