In 1925 Pius XI proclaimed the feast of Christ the King as an assertion of the Catholic Church’s protest against the rise of fascism and the growing power of communism.
Pius XI asserted the old Constantinian power of the Church as the only center of allegiance for Roman Catholics. At a considerable cost to liberty and freedom of thought within the Church, he marshalled the Catholic legions against those he perceived as the enemy. This is an old story of one authoritarian system asserting itself against competing, equally authoritarian rivals.
To me, it seems an odd decision to make when the Anglican Communion including the Episcopal Church adopted the Roman designation for the last Sunday before Advent as Christ the King Sunday. Preachers in Episcopal Churches on this Sunday have to weave alternative narratives around the central uncomfortable image of Christ dressed in various trappings of an earthly ruler.
Anglican Tradition, coming out of a political settlement between church and state that placed the monarch in a place of privilege, might be thought to have little difficulty with the concept of Christ and King. Yet, for us it is particularly problematic because we have no precedent for Kingship rooted in religious authority. Unlike Roman Catholicism for which the Pope affords a model for spiritual autocracy, we have no tradition of centralized spiritual power capable of carrying monarchical images. Our bishops, as was the case in the Early Church and remains in those parts of catholic Christianity outside of the Roman jurisdiction, are figures of authority and unity, but possess little direct power.
For Americans, the image of Christ as King is not one that naturally carries the medieval trappings of absolute monarchy. After all, the last time we enjoyed the benefit of a King was 1783. Yet, the human psyche is what it is and there is a space within it for cultural symbols that carry the human need to believe that if we are not in control then God most certainly is. If our need for divine omnipotence is no longer filled for most Americans by Constantinian images of Christ as Roman Emperor, the need remains and so what might fill that need?
Having rejected European style monarchical government, the newly formed American Republic fell back on the cosmetics of the early Roman Republic. It’s religion also returned to earlier models that predate the Medieval picture of the universe as a divinely run human kingdom. The Jewish concept of messiahship has strongly conditioned American images of Christ as King.
Robert Capon in Hunting the Divine Fox confronts us with a contemporary interpretation of Jesus as messiah. He writes:
. . . almost nobody resists the temptation to jazz up the humanity of Christ. The true paradigm of the ordinary American view of Jesus is Superman: “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It’s Superman! Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American Way.” If that isn’t popular Christology, I’ll eat my hat. Jesus gentle, meek, and mild, but with secret, souped-up, more-than‑human insides bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute, struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and, with a single bound, leaps back up to the planet Heaven. It’s got it all — including, just so you shouldn’t miss the lesson, kiddies: he never once touches Lois Lane.
Capon notes that the human race has always been deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah. He notes that we don’t want to be saved in our humanity; we want to be fished out of it. We crucified Jesus, because:
… he claimed to be God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It’s not that we weren’t looking for the Messiah; it’s just that he wasn’t what we were looking for. Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross. He would carry a folding phone booth in his back pocket. He wouldn’t do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying.” [pp. 90-91 of The Romance of the Word: One Man’s Love Affair with Theology]
In John’s Gospel when standing before Pilate, Jesus seems to accede to being described as a King. He asserts that though a king his kingdom is not of this world. Unlike an earthly king, Jesus admits that he has no army to enforce his rule. Jesus is saying that to the extent that he carries authority he could be described as a king, but an unusual one in that he has no power apart from being the herald for the inbreaking of God’s rule. It’s not his kingship which matters. It is the kingdom of God that counts.
This is not only a rebuke to Pilate, more importantly we see in Jesus’ action before Pilate a warning to his disciples and followers that he has no intention of embodying their traditional expectations of him as the Jewish Messiah, i.e a warrior king, first-century Superman, who will deliver them from their experience of vulnerability.
So words like messiah are tricky. What makes matters worse is that Jesus gives such a poor, inarticulate performance before the seat of ultimate earthly power and bears the consequences. We certainly have no intention of emulating Jesus in this particular example.
Jesus’ strength lies in his very vulnerability. This is a nice phrase but what does it mean? It means that God can do nothing with our pretence of strength. Our pretense of strength squeezes God from our frame of reference. Our vulnerability, on the other hand, offers God an invitation to enter into our picture of the world and to partner with us. Jesus’ vulnerability becomes an opportunity for God to act.
Vulnerability is the forbidden word in our present mindset. Attitudes that 10 years ago would have been regarded by the majority as extremist views now hold centre stage among the leaders at the current stage of the Republican presidential nomination race. You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to figure out that this is because as long as we deny our vulnerability, fear makes us easy to exploit.
This week I was listening to someone speaking on the World Service of the BBC. I can’t recall his name now, yet I remember what he said when he noted that the American public believes that America can be sealed off from terrorist attack. He contrasted this attitude with the one in France and Britain where everyone realizes that the next attack is inevitable, it’s only a matter of time and the fallibility of even the most vigilant of security services.
This doesn’t stop the respective governments of Britain and France, and now other Western European nations from mimicking the certainty of American political utterance. Yet, the truth is that in an international world predicated on the freedom of movement of goods, services and people, no nation can seal its borders. It comes down to a matter of when and how we recognise this as a fact.
Our politicians do us poor service when they present themselves as having simple answers to complex problems. Neither isolationism nor interventionism offer a solution. Increasingly draconian measures that erode the very cultural values that make us who we are and pose an even greater threat to us than any enemy we face. The recent vote in the House to effectively halt the trickle of refugees from the Middle East into this country is an example in point.
There are something like 1700 Syrian refugees that have arrived in the US after an arduous two-year vetting process. It has been pointed out that why would ISIS agents pose as refugees and take the torturous two-year vetted route of entry when they can enter immediately on a student visa or with a European Union passport through the visa waiver system. Therefore, singling out refugees is simply a smoke screen for the impossibility of action and a classic scapegoating of those most in need of our help.
That the fear of being vulnerable unleashes a virulent strain of paranoia in any culture, is not a new discovery. We see this coming to the fore as the voices of racial, religious and cultural purity gain ascendancy across the world as otherwise helpless politicians and leaders seek to advantage themselves through the exploitation of fear. Everywhere we see the mounting consequences for populations whose fate is to pose the spectre of the utter helplessness we so desperately try to defend ourselves from recognizing. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us:
We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men [and women]. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?
As Pius XI might have foreseen the increasing resort to authoritarian responses to confront authoritarian assaults leads to a distortion that ultimately makes it hard to distinguish between friend and foe.
The deepest insight of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition is that humanity is made in the image of God. Like all profound insights the implications of this are rather far reaching to contemplate. So instead the Church has always had a tendency to reverse this central insight and to see God as refracted through our image of ourselves.
When God becomes remade in our image the result is that violence, oppression, hatred and fear become divinely sanctioned – Christ dons the trappings of our earthly rulers’ pretence of strength. To realize that we are made in the image of God requires us to embrace vulnerability and be changed by this experience. This impels us to focus on solving problems at source. This is what it means to be agents, not of a worldly rule given the fig leaf of divine sanction, but of the continued inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. As with Jesus, we may discover there is a cost attached.
An anonymous Franciscan blessing goes:
God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships so that we may live deep within our heart. May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace. May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war so that we may reach out our hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world so that we can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen