The Palm Sunday Peace March: Some history

The Palm Sunday Peace March: Some history

The Palm Sunday peace march is an annual ecumenical event that draws people from many faith backgrounds to march for nonviolent approaches to contentious public policies. The event has a rich history.

While the rallies themselves have focused on different issues over time, shifting as different issues arise over time, the Palm Sunday peace march has been a constant over several decades.

Much like the Uniting Church, Australia’s Palm Sunday Peace March dates back several decades but has an older legacy. The event is based on the account of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem. Recorded in all four gospels, the narrative sees Jesus enter the city on a donkey, an action that several theologians view as being political in intent. According to Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, the procession was a piece of anti-imperial political theatre, demonstration designed to mock the obscene pomp of the Roman empire.

Christians commemorate the event with the movable feast Palm Sunday.

Energised by the anti-nuclear movement of the day, the event drew large numbers during the 1980s. The 1983 Palm Sunday rally saw more than 150,000 people attend. This included 60,000 people in Sydney, 70,000 in Melbourne, 15,000 in Perth and 10,000 in Adelaide. One of the major issues brought up at the rally was US President Ronald Reagan’s announced ‘Star Wars’ defence plan, a policy that defied the 1972 anti-ballistic treaty with Soviet Russia.

The 1985 Palm Sunday rally two years later saw 170, 000 people march through the streets of Sydney, bringing the city to a standstill (some 300,000 people marched Australia-wide, eclipsing the prior year’s figure of 250,000). Museums Victoria holds an archival photo of the Melbourne leg of the 1985 rally. The picture prominently shows the Uniting Church banner along with members of Broadmeadows Uniting Church.

Judy Archer, who donated a copy of the picture to the archives, stands third from the right. At the time the photo was taken she was studying to be a minister.

Invitation to the Palm Sunday Rally 2020.

“Every Palm Sunday in Melbourne for several years there were huge ecumenical peace marches and services,” she recalled.

“The Peace Services were held in either St Paul’s or St Peter’s and were so packed you would have to sit on the floor.” 

The concern about Australia’s nuclear policy continued to be a focal point of the rallies into the 1990s. East Timor’s plight was another concern from this time period.

In 2003
, the backdrop of the controversial war in Iraq saw 10,000 people peacefully march through Sydney. The event heard from whistleblower (and future Member for Dennison) Andrew Wilke, who said that the war was based on “dishonest” reasoning that placed Australia’s security at risk. The Brisbane leg of the event saw then-Australian Democrats leader Andrew Bartlett reflect on the meaning of the event in view of the issues of the day.

“Palm Sunday has been a regular event for decades now and it highlights the fact that people who are calling on peaceful approaches aren’t just about the current events, it’s about taking a different approach and that’s more important than ever now,” Senator Bartlett said.

In the 2010s, Palm Sunday rallies focused on Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.

In a statement released before the 2017 rally, then-Uniting Church president Stuart McMillan called for members to attend their local rally.

“The Uniting Church in Australia has since its inception spoken out about justice and the rights of refugees and people seeking asylum,” he said. “Palm Sunday is time to walk that talk.”

“It is a time when Christians can march alongside people of all faiths and no faith with the common purpose of compassion for others and passion for justice.”

The 2020 Sydney Palm Sunday Peace March takes place on Sunday, 5 April from 2 to 4pm. The rally meets at Belmore Park near Central Station. Register here.

For more information, including public transport details, visit the NSW ACT Synod guide here.

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