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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

No king but Caesar

The feast of Christ the King exposes our preoccupation with leadership and power for what it is. What the scripture proposes is the empire of God; what we choose, over and over again, is Caesar. Or Pharaoh. God offers freedom, we want borders. God offers a human brotherhood and sisterhood of equals, we want class, caste, and competition. God offers healing, we want quarantine. God offers love, we want sacrifice.

As I have suggested before, in some ways, it seems to me that language itself is at war with God’s way. That stands to reason, if, as some have posited, civilization has been, for all its apparent advantages for the many, a violent protection racket, organized and maintained by violence either threatened or enforced. So, when we say “Christ the King,” we tend to hear “king” to mean all the things we associate with kings: armies, gold, power, absolute authority, and so on. What we don’t hear is what scripture says about Christ, that he emptied himself, became a servant, a healer, a host at table, a teacher of wisdom. What we have in Christ is a redefinition from scratch of what authority and power are, a redefinition of God that is abstracted from the brutal empiricism of human history. Caesar’s empire is attested to by the crucifixions, the scorched earth, the killing fields, napalm and Nagasaki of human history. The empire of God is a new thing, announced by Jesus in the tradition of Israel’s jubilee and the witness of the prophets: freedom from debt, mercy and not sacrifice, just living as visible sign of the covenant rather than bloodlines or circumcision, redistribution of land so that all share equally in stewarding the divine gift of earth. The words “king” and “kingdom” themselves set up connotative false trails for us; we follow them blindly until the gospel itself has disappeared and we have arrayed the crucified seditionist in the robes of the one who put him to death, and put him on the same judgment seat, holding the same scepter.

When you hear this:
"He saved others, let him save himself 
if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God."

...does it strike you how much that sounds like one of the temptations to which Satan subjected Jesus in the desert? There, in that other hour of trial, Jesus remembers whose he is, and throws back in Satan’s face that he was wrong about what it means to be chosen. For Jesus, being chosen didn’t mean to be special and protected by God from harm, but to be chosen precisely as a human being, vulnerable, subject to death, no advantage over anybody else. And hearing the word “criminals” used to describe the ones with whom Jesus was crucified reminded me that scholarship tells us that crucifixion was reserved by the Roman for crimes against the state. In Mark, the word is translated “bandits,” which Crossan says “is commonly used for guerilla fighters against Rome, who were either ‘terrorists’ or ‘freedom fighters,’ depending upon one’s point of view...Crucifixion was used specifically for people who systematically refused to accept Roman imperial authority. Ordinary criminals were not crucified. Jesus is executed as a rebel against Rome between two other rebels against Rome.” (The Last Week, page 147) As if to put an exclamation point on the death of this pretender, we also have Pilate’s inscription in three languages, so no one would miss the punch line: “Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews.” Being “Christ the King” was no joke to Caesar. Still isn’t.

Most places probably won't hear about any of that Sunday, nor about the papacy’s mistrust of “modernism” (empiricism’s rise over faith as the source of truth) and democracy being one of the forces behind the foundation of the feast in 1925. "We live in a political world," goes the Bob Dylan song, and the forces of nationalism have, if anything, grown stronger. Christ the King could be a corrective, but the feast is more likely to be invoked with pious rhetoric that is markedly apolitical.

A few years ago, we heard the priest say, from the pulpit, “Jesus was the only founder of a religious movement ever who had no political agenda." It seems to me that when you live in a culture where the king controls the priesthood, and the kings (or tetrarchs, as the case may be) are controlled by a dominating foreign power, what you have, when you talk “religion” of any kind, is a political issue. When the emperor is god, religion is a political issue. You may not be a Republican or a Democrat, but you’ve got politics in spades. Well, when profit is god, faith is politics. When the flag, or weapons, or sports is god, faith is politics. Most of us will get along all right, like the Sanhedrin, the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadduccees of the gospel, or like the Romans.

But the one who endures,  the one who wears and redefines the name "king," he's the one hanging with the other criminals—seditionists—on the hill. I want to be like that one. He looks like hell; bestial human cowardice, brutality, and treachery have done their worst. But he, not Tiberius, or Herod, or even Caiaphas the high priest, is the image of the invisible God.