Speaking of Christ … as King … or Not
David R. Weiss – December 2, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #52 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
Okay, enough on sin. Of course, it’s far more complicated than the past couple essays could fully discuss. There are legitimate challenges to distinguish between those earth-wounding actions and attitudes in which we are entangled almost against our will … and those with which we acquiesce out of habit or selfish convenience … and those which we embrace with spiteful disregard for the ones who will be impacted. Likewise, there are real differences between choices at the individual/ community level and those at the corporate/government level.
I don’t underestimate the nuance needed to actually have thoughtful conversations in which we speak of sin as the rending of creation’s fabric. But whether these tears in nature’s web are outright spiteful or “merely” structural doesn’t really matter if they doom our collective future. There is no solace in making a time capsule marked “Open in case of climate emergency” that holds the message, “Sorry, mates, we didn’t mean it. We really hoped our actions wouldn’t lead to this. Oops.” Which is why it’s exquisitely important that we take our lives—and other lives across the globe, and other species, and lives not yet here—seriously enough to start speaking of sin in ecological earnest. Now.
But the conversation can’t stop there. That conversation gets us to the start of Transition. But the inward and outward transformation that is Transition will require something more than just repentance (more than simply “turning back”) from the dire not-rightness of our … whole way of life. Indeed, it will require such a thorough transformation, one might even say we’ll need to be reborn. That’s why I think religious language—in my case, Christian language—is not just helpful, it’s uncannily accurate and evocative. It may prove crucial in closing the gap between nagging/depressed awareness and committed/active responsiveness in regards to climate. And if it does, that won’t be a curious side-effect of a tradition supposedly focused on another realm. It will reveal the truth of Christianity all along: that God so loved this world as to risk everything to show us how to be at home here on Earth.
I started this year-long venture the first week of Advent 2018. Fifty-two weeks later, the last Sunday of the church year is the Festival of Christ the King. So I’ll close this blog with some ecologically provocative reflections on Christ … as king.
The festival of Christ the King was added to the church year by Pope Pius XI in 1925. It was intended specifically to counter the rising ideologies that were seeking to assert their totalitarian reign in the world: communism in Russia, fascism in Italy and Spain (which soon after shape-shifted into Nazism in Germany)—as well as secularism in the West, which allowed capitalism to grow unfettered, in effect colonizing the minds of consumers and re-colonizing much of the world through the globalization of market forces. The impulse was perhaps noble—each of those ideologies has wrought havoc on humanity and the planet—but the messaging was also off the mark.
Even when invoked as a way to challenge other dangerous regimes, the church’s notion of Christ’s kingship has been deeply problematic on its own terms—shaped far more by the church’s own authoritarian aspirations than by Jesus’ actual life. The church has rarely had a problem with top-down or absolute power; it’s just preferred to have a monopoly on it. But Jesus’ own teachings and his lived practice stand in stark contrast to that preference.
Most biblical scholars agree that Jesus talked—a lot—about “the kingdom of God.” It’s recorded as the lead-in to quite a few of his parables and shows up elsewhere in his discourse. He never sets himself up as king, but setting that aside, it does seem that he imagines God as king—only big, better, more powerful than any earthly king. And if the church later saw fit to transfer that crown on to Jesus, that’s maybe legitimate. EXCEPT. To the extent we allow Jesus to reveal God through what he says and does, Jesus seems to be so severely critiquing the worldly notion of kingship as to announce that, when it comes to kings, the world has it ALL wrong.
Jesus’ focus on compassion, inclusion, humility, nonviolence, and radical transformative love as the manifestation of God’s kingdom suggests that earthly kings—almost to a person—are mere tyrants. They traffic in the sort of power rejected by heaven: power that belittles, exploits, excludes, others those who are different, and in general operates as though disconnected from all else. Omnipotence is NOT a trait of God; it is cosmic heresy (it flies in the face of everything the universe reveals about the nature of inter-related reality). It’s rather the sinful desire of humans who project it onto divinity and then think they have permission to image it themselves.
This archetype of kingship became the ideal for every person in their own sphere (even as the spheres were themselves misshapen by gender, racial, ethnic, sexual biases). Under the influence of this notion of kingship whole peoples have been colonized, Christianized, and decimated. The toll on other creatures and ecosystems has been no less devastating. Even when the church makes Jesus “King” for the “best” reasons, it betrays the message he brought—and it compromises the transformative power he sought to share.
When Jesus employed the phrase “kingdom of God” the way he filled those words with meaning exorcised them of all their royalty. The phrase is, in a sense, declared meaningless. From God’s perspective there is NO SUCH THING AS A KING. It’s a parasitic expression of humanity; a way of being that rejects the human vocation to image God … whose image IS compassionate liberating relationship.
I often shift the phrase “kingdom of God” into “kin-dom of God.” Jesus’ parables, healings, and perhaps most of all his boundary-breaking table fellowship (eating with folks that the social-religious rules of his day dictated he ought not even acknowledge) all work so hard against the notion of kingship, that he seems rhetorically bent on remaking the meaning of the word into something entirely else: choreographing kingship AS kinship. In the world God created there are no kings, only kin. Every corner related to every other corner, from microbes to mountains, from humus to human beings, and everything else as well.
We don’t need a festival for some Imperial Christ who only seems to challenge earthly rulers but ends up ultimately reflecting their own worldly dynamic made divine. No. Just as we don’t need (and the world can’t afford!) a merely reformed capitalism, we don’t need (and the world can’t afford!) a Christ who is King. Luckily, Jesus didn’t offer us that. He offered us a Christ who is Kin. A Christ who chose to be in relationship with all he encountered—because how else to embody the wisdom of God who wove the cosmos as one seamless garment? Let Christ be Kin—and let us follow his lead.
The Transition Movement is working hard to imagine, to experiment, to discover what it would look like to live from an awareness of radical kinship. It’s time for the church to join that work as its holy work. In truth, it always has been our work. Jesus didn’t come to save us. He came to heal us. (It’s the same verb for “save” and “heal.”) The difference is that we’ve assumed his goal was to save us to another life in another place. But I’m persuaded that his real hope, like most other great religious teachers, was to heal us so that we might dwell well (pursuing meaning, joy, and justice) as kin in this holy place. Earth. Our home. The place where all our relations are. May it be so. Amen.
PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.
 Frank Senn, an eminent Lutheran liturgical theologian, offers a concise helpful history of the feast here: www.lutheranforum.com/blog/2017/11/11/the-not-so-ancient-origins-of-christ-the-king-sunday