We have more in common with other animals, such as the chimpanzee since we have about 98% of our DNA in common.
But that is not the point. The point is that the donkey is a humble creature among the many strong, beautiful, colourful animals of the world. It cannot compete with the sleek power of a horse, the nimbleness of a deer, the majesty of a lion or the intelligence of a dolphin.
GK Chesterton summed this up well in his poem titled The Donkey:
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will:
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Yet it was on the donkey that the Lord Jesus chose to enter Jerusalem before his arrest, torture and crucifixion – an event we recalled in our churches at the beginning of Holy Week, on Palm Sunday.
Perhaps the donkey is not the sort of animal one would expect or consider fit for a king or for the Messiah, but it is rooted in the Old Testament, going as far back as Abraham who “saddled his donkey” (Genesis 22:3). In those times the horse was considered a vehicle of war and even oppression (cf. Jeremiah 6:23).
Jesus, arriving on a donkey, conveys that he is a person of peace. What are some of the values we can learn from this “absurd” creature, the donkey?
Peace is the first. We have had a tumultuous three weeks in our country, with dramatic events unfolding one after the other. From the visuals on TV and the rhetoric spoken on occasion, the divisions and polarisation in our country have been brought into sharp focus. There are certainly many dangers that face us and we could spiral down into conflict and violence.
We should never deceive ourselves that this “can’t happen to us”. Most, if not all, countries in the world have those who believe that violence is a valid way of imposing one’s point of view on others and for getting their own way.
The vehicle of peace, the humble donkey, becomes a symbol of peace, reminding us that as we face the uncertainty of the future – in common with many other places – we should commit ourselves to peace. We need to reject violence outright as a means of getting our point across. In a democracy we should be able to deal with issues and not resort to force.
Violence is not only about drawing blood, it is also about insulting and emotive language, demonising people, or holding oneself superior while regarding others as ignorant.
Respect is what we need as it is an integral part of a commitment to peace.
We are an angry, divided nation. There is often the temptation to meet anger with anger, or violence with violence.
Anger can only subside when it is met with gentleness, openness and an ability to “stand in the others’ shoes”, to see from their perspectives.
The humble donkey, a beast of burden, also reminds us that we are servants of each other. Life is not only about my own happiness, advancement or comfort. We are born into families and communities, we have a responsibility to play our part, to sacrifice for the good of others – especially those on the margins, the poor and vulnerable.
A country encompasses all its people and destiny has thrown us together. The thought of extreme poverty and extreme wealth side by side is contradictory to the very notion of “community” and it is counteractive to peace.
Andrew Carnegie, the American tycoon, said an interesting thing: “to die rich, is to die disgraced”. As true servants we all have a part to play in ending inequity and lack of opportunity. That means making the necessary sacrifices – bearing the burdens of each other.
We also need servant leaders and the assurance that leaders – political, business, church, trade unions and others – do not only serve their particular constituencies but the good of all, the common good.
We are all called to give leadership in certain spheres of life, whether it is a father or mother of a family, a school teacher, and so on.
Leadership is not about the enforcement of raw power, abusing the position for one’s own advancement or to divide people in order to entrench oneself in power. It is a responsibility given us. It is a relationship of trust that should not be betrayed or abused.
Finally, the humble donkey, unsightly to some who admire the beauty and ability of other animals, challenges us on how we view other people. There is a strong tendency, compounded by the images we see in soap operas and advertisements that are in our face daily, to focus on outward beauty, strength and wealth. The worth of a person can never be measured by these outward representations.
The physically or mentally challenged, the elderly, the sick, the beggar on the street, are all people made in the image of God and have every right to have their human dignity respected and to be treated as human beings with human needs. They are not a burden on society and they should not be hidden from sight because they may be disfigured, mentally feeble, smell from their diseases or because they have no power or influence.
As we celebrate life and hope this Easter, let’s also take a moment to learn from the donkey, the beast of burden and probably the most humble of God’s creatures.
We face many challenges and dangers in our country and we all have a role in facing these and finding solutions. We will make no real contribution unless we can learn some humility, respect and gentleness.
May the Lord bless you and your families at this holy time. May He give you happiness and peace.
* Archbishop Stephen Brislin is the president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.