by Ken Sehested
The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, commonly referred to as Christ the King Sunday (aka Reign of Christ Sunday) is among the newer observances in the church’s lectionary calendar. It was promulgated by Roman Catholic Pope Pius XI in 1925, as a reaction to the perceived growth of secularism, escalating nationalism, and surging anti-clericalism. As it now stands, it is the final Sunday in the lectionary calendar, ushering in a new “year” beginning with Advent.
Numerous other denominations, which follow the Revised Common Lectionary, also observe the day as the culmination of the annual narrative of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection.
As is the case with most every liturgical observance, this Sunday’s focus has both redemptive and reactionary overtones and implications.
Obviously, all kingly and lordly language is problematic because of inherent misogyny, upholding the historic subjugation of and indignity toward women. In addition, such language upholds the legitimacy of feudal rule in human affairs. The absolute rule of kings and assorted other potentates is said to be divinely patterned and codified according to heavenly precedent.
As in heaven, so on earth. By implication, the notion that “outside the church there is no salvation” became sanction for the church’s exclusive, domineering authority.
This intertwining of heavenly and earthly rule is explicitly asserted by Scottish-English King James I when, in responding to dissident pastor Thomas Helwys’ rejection of the royal religious authority, the king responded “It would be only half a king who controlled his subjects’ bodies but not their souls.”
It would take many generations of discrimination, oppression, exile, torture, and martyrdom to bring about a democratizing of access to the Holy.
Nevertheless, Pius XI’s stipulation of a “Christ the King” observance can also be interpreted in a way that bolsters, rather than hinders, resistance to monarchal privilege and virulent nationalisms of every kind. We can rightfully say that Jesus’ “lordship” undermines and destabilizes every form of lording. And the nature of such lordship highlights the Gospel of nonviolent resistance to all oligarchic pretenders.
In her recent article in Sojourners magazine, T. Denise Anderson reminds that in 1925, Adolf Hitler published the first volume of his manifesto, Mein Kampf, where he lays the foundation of his racially supremacist views. Also in 1925, 40,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan marched in Washington, DC. Thought at that time to be the largest fraternal organization in the country, they were already using their “America First” slogan.
In this same period Benito Mussolini assumed power as the fascist dictator of Italy. Joseph Stalin had succeeded Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution in the Soviet Union. Francisco Franco was rising through the ranks of the Spanish military, on his way to establishing his militaristic dictatorship.
Nationalism was contagious, and authoritarian leadership was in epidemic, prompted in part by the chaos and industrialized belligerence of World War I.
In John’s Gospel, when Pilate asks him about his kingship, Jesus replies “My kingdom is not of this world” (18:36). The “world” to which he referred was not the earth. Rather, the world is that complex web of relationships built on exploitation, jealousy, fraud, and violence. Adding, if it were (based on this world order), “my followers would fight” and violently resist arrest.
A few verses prior, Jesus rebukes Peter’s act of violent resistance. In Matthew’s telling of Peter’s impulsive reaction and Jesus’ rebuke, Jesus says he could, if he chose, easily mobilize 12 legions of angels to assure his rescue.
The rejection of every myth of redemptive violence is already underscored in this Sunday’s lectionary reading from Psalms, including the claim that God breaks bows, shatters spears, and makes wars to cease,(46); and in Luke’s testimony, redemption comes by way of mercy rather than martial prowess, to “guide our feet into the path of peace” (1:77-79).
“In him,” the author of Colossians insists, “all things hold together” (1:17). Only under the Way of Jesus/Sway of Christ and its beatific vision of a Beloved Community can the grisly rule of imperial power and dynastic reign be rescinded and displaced. Such is our eschatological confession over the coherence of all creation: no sovereign but the Abba of Jesus.
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