Last Sunday afternoon I sat around the table in the Stearns Room in the first of this year’s confirmation preparation classes with five people, three adults, and two teens, asking the question -who or what is God? Our discussion evolved over the course of our time together towards the hypothesis that the deepest insight of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition is that humanity is made in the image of God.
If we are made in the image of an unseen God, then we can come to learn something about God through taking a good hard look at ourselves. The tricky question then is, which image of humanity is God reflected in?
Like a double-edged sword, the mirroring of divine and human images cuts both ways. We can hypothesize that God is loving, relational, and collaborative because we also possess these qualities. Yet, we can equally propose that God is jealous, angry with a propensity for violence in pursuit of the ends of power and control because these are very typical human characteristics. The Bible records an image of God, shifting and changing as the projections like a pendulum swing back and forth between our conflicting images of ourselves.
Christ the King Sunday presents us with two images, likewise in tension. The more usual image is of Christ the King robed in the trappings of political culture, the paramount operative in the zero-sum-equation of dominion with domination. The other image is of Christ reigning not from a throne but nailed to a tree. One is an image of power, the other an image of vulnerability. One of our human propensities is to too easily equate displays of power with images of strength, while we mistake displays of vulnerability with helplessness and weakness.
I will return to the equation of power with strength and vulnerability with weakness because it takes us to the heart of the meaning of Christ as King.
What an interesting moment in history we are currently living through. Our culture rocks and reels as the tectonic plates shift unpredictably. Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that counteracting forces always come in pairs. You have to be blind not to see in the #Me Too a response of resistance to the trends in our current political culture.
The flaunting of a shameless culture of male power and domination has paradoxically shone a spotlight on sexual predation as a mechanism for the abuse of power. The shuttered doors kept locked by the threat of legal and personal retaliation have burst open to reveal the astonishing pervasiveness of men’s sexual predation of young women and in fewer instances younger men.
On the film set, in the boardroom, and especially in the corridors of political power, where sexual predation has been deliberately concealed, hidden at taxpayer expense, women’s vulnerability is finding a new voice of protest in the #Me Too.
The brazen displays of male dominance now begin to trigger a reaction principally among women and men who have experienced sexual and other forms of victimization. But more widely, we are experiencing first hand the phenomenon called a tipping point. We are witnessing a rising protest from among the silent majority of folk who have simply had enough of the debasement of our political and civic culture.
There are instances of the gross abuses of power for which the criminal law is the appropriate forum for redress. What we are witnessing is a deep resistance to the pervasive culture of male narcissism that sees women as objects. Groping is not the same as rape, distinctions need to be made, but both are expressions for the enacting upon women of men’s unresolved adolescent desires.
Empowered by one of the more positive effects of social media, the intensity of female-led resistance finds a potent channel for a protest that has the power to bridge across the fractured texture of our civic life, bringing disparate individuals together in a wave movement for change.
That, men in powerful positions sexually prey upon women made vulnerable within a system of entrenched power imbalance, is nothing new. What seems to have catalyzed a new potency for protest is that it had come to seem that there was no longer a sense of shame in getting caught. This shift in our values reflects a new callousness in sections of public opinion. In the pursuance of political aims and objectives, the attitude of many has come to be- who cares, so what? As a section of the electorate revels in the displays of phallic showmanship, the evangelical right abandons traditional moral principles, making the cynical calculation that this is a price worth paying in pursuit of the creation of a Supreme Court through which to impose their vision of the theocratic state upon the fabric of the Republic.
Is this not a moment in time when we might hear again Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s call to resistance?
We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learned the arts of equivocation and pretense; 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?
In 1925 Pius XI proclaimed the feast of Christ the King as an assertion of the Catholic Church’s protest against the rise of authoritarianism, asserting the equally authoritarian 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 marshaled the Catholic legions against those he perceived as the enemy.
The historical context for the origins of the commemoration of Christ the King sounds a tone today that is both timely yet also problematic. As an old story of one authoritarian system asserting itself against competing, equally authoritarian rivals, for those of us who do not subscribe to the notion of an authoritarian church or even an authoritarian state, Christ the King is a very necessary reminder of the dangers in mistaking power for strength and vulnerability for weakness.
Matthew in his parable of the sheep and the goats challenges us to break the all too easy equation of power with strength and vulnerability with weakness. In Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, Matthew presents a picture of what social empathy looks like in the context of community life. For some weeks we have all puzzled at the way Matthew in particular, concludes each of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom with a proclamation of serious punishment for those who will be cast into outer darkness where there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth. My suggestion is that putting hyperbole aside, like the drumbeat of the heart pulsing through Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus’ mantra: there is no charity without justice. – there is no charity without justice.
We embrace the image of Christ the King because at the heart of the gospels stands the iconic image of Jesus, not robed in kingly power, but nailed to a tree. It is not to Christ arrayed in worldly displays of sumptuous, designer splendor reeking of privilege and power, but to the crucified one that we must look. At its base, three huge stones wedge the cross in place: service, reconciliation, and resistance.
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 hearts. 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