This Saturday, Christians in at least 119 cities across the United States will take to the streets in an annual rite called the March for Jesus.
The parades, typically marked by placards and T-shirts touting Jesus as Lord, emphasize celebration and Christian unity. Marchers come from various denominational and ethnic backgrounds. Evangelicals, charismatics and Pentecostals are usually well represented, along with Baptists, mainline Protestants and even a few Catholics.
“March for Jesus brings Christians of every tradition, age, and color into the streets to celebrate what Jesus has done and to ask God’s blessing on our cities,” according to a description on a national Jesus Day Web site. “March for Jesus is nothing more and nothing less than a joyous celebration of our Lord Jesus Christ. Anyone who loves Jesus is welcome to attend. March for Jesus is a heartfelt praise for Jesus and prayer for cities and nations. It’s just that simple.”
The March for Jesus started in 1987 in England, becoming an annual event held the Saturday before Pentecost. It went global in 1994, when organizers claim about 10 million people in more than 170 nations gathered in streets to praise Jesus and pray.
Three years ago, organizers expanded the event into Jesus Day, joining the public march with acts of service like feeding the hungry.
Jesus Day events in the U.S. are coordinated by a mostly volunteer staff in Richmond, Va., which maintains a Web site offering tips for local planners and products including T-shirts, hats, bumper stickers and music.
March routes can take on a historical significance, like a 1996 march in South Dakota that passed near site of the Wounded Knee massacre, or “prophetic” significance, like past a government building or low-income area. National organizers also offer practical tips, like “visual impact”–a small group will look larger on a narrow street than a major thoroughfare.
While endorsed by figures including international evangelist Luis Palau and Baptist sociologist Tony Campolo, the marches are not without controversy, particularly when they step into the political arena.
A proclamation by then-Texas Gov. and Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush declaring June 10, 2000, Jesus Day in the Lone Star State prompted an outcry from Jewish groups claiming it violated the “spirit and intent” of the First Amendment.
Bush’s proclamation stated that “throughout the world, people of all religions recognize Jesus Christ as an example of love, compassion, sacrifice and service.” It urged Texans to “follow Christ’s message of love and service in thought and deed.”
A spokesman for the National Jewish Democratic Council said the proclamation had the effect of putting “the imprimatur of government literally on one faith,” a charge denied by a campaign spokesman.
Police in Malawi halted last year’s march near a major city, citing security concern amid controversy over President Bakili Muluzi’s effort to seek a third term. A spokesman said the reasons for banning the march were “purely security and not political.”
Some fundamentalists shy away from Jesus Day celebrations on religious grounds out of disdain for ecumenical involvement of any kind. The Fundamental Baptist Information Service criticized organizers of a 1999 march in Salt Lake City for inviting Mormons.
An article said organizers of the march “demonstrate an incredible ignorance of the Word of God.”
“According to the Bible, it obviously is not sufficient that someone merely ‘love Jesus,’ because we are warned that there are false Christs and false gospels,” the article explained.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.