Last revised: December 11, 2022
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CHRIST THE KING SUNDAY — YEAR C
RCL: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
RoCa: 2 Samuel 5:1-3; Colossians 1:12-20; Luke 23:35-43
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
In 2022 I used dialogue from The Crown, Season 5 (Episode 4), as a jumping off point to explore the anthropological and historical dynamics of authoritarianism. What does power consist of for most human communities? How different is that power from that of God in Jesus Christ? The difference in how we experience power makes for a sermon entitled “A Different Kind of King.”
In general, how do we understand the rise in authoritarianism? How do we understand the figure of Donald Trump as a person both vilified and worshiped? Can America survive the threat to democracy posed by the rise in authoritarianism? In 2019 and beyond, these are the existential questions of the moment.
In his recent book (2019) Christ in Crisis (which I recommend), Jim Wallis poses such questions for followers of Jesus, most poignantly for Christ the King Sunday, in Chapter 5, “The Power Question.” He opens by placing the Crucified King in context with two “Last Supper” passages: Luke’s placement of the synoptic servant leadership passage (“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. . .”; Mark 10:45) on the night of his betrayal (Luke 22:25-27); and John’s portral of Jesus washing his disciples feet (John 13:1-17). Christ the King subverts normal views of power and leadership into self-sacrificing service. Wallis writes,
The contrasts between Jesus’s ethic of leadership and what we now see every day out of the White House are overwhelming. When power becomes the goal over service, self-interest over public interest, conflicts of interest over the common good, winning and losing over mutuality and compromise, and personal narcissism over shared benefit, we are headed for deep trouble. Autocratic behavior becomes more acceptable and even admired by people who are already subject to anxiety and anger. And before long, the road to authoritarian rule is a threat to freedom.
I find it very interesting and significant that Jesus literally washes his disciples’ feet and invites his followers to follow in his steps — again, not only for their good but also for the common good of other people and the places in which they live. Service vs. tyranny is the moral fight over the nature of leadership in our time, in which we will have to recognize and make the right choices. (pp. 122-23)
But there is a double threat of tyranny: the tyranny of the right might simply be replaced with a tyranny of the left. How do we steer the narrow road that opens up into true democratic service? That is the immense challenge of the next President, Joe Biden.
I also offer Mimetic Theory as providing a deeper anthropological answer to these existential questions we’ve raised. In the explanation and resources of “A Girardian Perspective on Kingship” (immediately below), for example, we can understand how in a flash-point figure like Trump, who invites treatment like a king, both vilification and worship are invoked. It goes back to the king as arising out of the sacrificial system, where the prospective sacrificial victims have a “bi-valence” experienced in terms of a supernatural good and evil.
But the larger, structural questions of authoritarianism vs. democracy can be understood within the anthropological context of human culture beginning as founded in ritual sacrifice and seeking to move beyond it, with the next major step being law-based societies that represent some improvements but still retain a sacrificial structure and logic. Christ the King represents the true subversion of both, for which sacrifice is subverted to self-sacrificing service and law is fulfilled in love.
One final reflection on our questions: sandwiched between two of the Gospel “Synoptic Apocalypses” — Luke 21:5-19 last week (Proper 28C) and Matthew 24:36-44 next week (Advent 1A) — we can understand the challenges of living in the “end times” of seeking to move towards Jesus’s servant leadership in a democracy, while at times of upheaval the old ways of sacrifice remain alluring. Donald Trump and the rise of authoritarianism represent the allure of the old sacrifice, the “good ol’ time religion.” We pray that resistance to him provides the opportunity to move more decisively towards a servant-oriented democracy, though the danger remains that a violent, polarized resistance to him simply yields a ‘leftist’ version of authoritarianism. Can disciples of Jesus help keep the movement centered in love and a spirit of service?
A Girardian Perspective on Kingship
According to Mimetic Theory, the sacrificial victim gets both a negative and positive valence — i.e., demonized and divinized. He or she is blamed for the superhuman turmoil and unrest but then also gets credit for the peace that ensues (which also is experienced as superhuman), often even before the sacrifice is made since the sacrificial institution anticipates the outcome. It seems strange to us, but it truly helps to interpret the anthropological data. (If the reader has doubts about the positive valence — that the scapegoat would also be divinized — read this story about Sati in 1987 India. Sati is a practice of throwing a young widow on her dead husband’s funeral pyre; people in the village of this 1987 instance were praying to their victim as a goddess within days. Mimetic Theory is the only anthropological hypothesis I know of that easily explains such data.)
One can see this same bi-valence, for instance, in the polytheistic pantheons of gods. Some are trouble-makers who sow chaos; some are bringers and keepers of societal order; and some are both.
Girard theorizes that the role of priest/king arose in ancient cultures out of the positive valence attached to the sacrificial victims. A prospective sacrificial victim could use the prestige to garnish an office of continuing to supply the sacrificial institution with victims. The priest/king role slowly evolves, then, as the presiders over the institutions of sacrifice themselves. One has to remember that these things developed over millennia, beginning in very primitive ritual settings. But, again, the thesis truly helps to synthesize the wide ranging data, from the practice of indigenous African tribes to the fall of the monarchy to democracy; see the Gil Bailie examples below.
Resources on Kingship from a Girardian Perspective
1. René Girard, The Girard Reader (p. ix) cites pp. 104-10 of Violence and the Sacred; ch. 3 of The Scapegoat; and pp. 51-57 of Things Hidden. There is also a good discussion of it on pp. 269-72 of the Reader itself, an explanation of his thesis that primitive kingship began as the king basically being a sacrificial victim with an extended sentence. On page 107 of Violence and the Sacred, for example, Girard writes,
The king reigns only by virtue of his future death; he is no more and no less than a victim awaiting sacrifice, a condemned man about to be executed.
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 123ff., his section “The Victim with an Extended Sentence,” including some wonderful examples from Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. An incredible piece from the latter on African Sacral Kingship is:
Sometimes the length of [the new king’s] reign is fixed from the start: the kings of Jukun . . . originally ruled for seven years. Among the Bambara the newly elected king traditionally determined the length of his own reign. “A strip of cotton was put round his neck and two men pulled the ends in opposite directions whilst he himself took out of a calabash as many pebbles as he could grasp in his hand. These indicated the number of years he would reign, on the expiration of which he would be strangled.”
One of Gil Bailie’s other favorite references when it comes to kingship is this description of the guillotine gone wild following the beheading of King Louis XIV of France. It is from H. G. Wells, The Outline of History (Garden City, N.Y: Garden City Books, 1961), 2:725:
The Revolutionary Tribunal went to work, and a steady slaughtering began. . . . The invention of the guillotine was opportune to this mood. The queen was guillotined, and most of Robespierre’s antagonists were guillotined; atheists who argued that there was no Supreme Being were guillotined; Danton was guillotined because he thought there was too much guillotine; day by day, week by week, this infernal new machine chopped off heads and more heads and more. The reign of Robespierre lived, it seemed, on blood, and needed more and more, as an opium-taker needs more and more opium.
3. S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, pages 48ff. I continue to highly recommend Heim’s book as one of the best applications of Mimetic Theory to Christian theology. His explication of MT is excellent — witnessed by the following explanation of the bi-valence of sacred violence and how kingship issues from it:
The sacrificed subject is the object of both condemnation and honor. This contradictory situation makes sense in Girard’s view. The sacrificial mechanism produces this polarity, since the victim is viewed as powerful and holy, because capable of producing such benevolent results, but also eminently deserving of death for having transgressed the most profound commandments. One will search in vain for a consistent list of features inherent to the entities classified in the category of “the sacred,” even though the category itself exists in all cultures. Girard claims to see the explanation for both the differences and the commonality. Persons are not chosen to be killed because they are sacred, because they belong to some special if elusive class. They are “sacred” because they are chosen to be killed. It is designation for sacrifice, by whatever formula, that constitutes something as sacred. Designated victims are holy because their death has a supernatural, reconciling power.
The great anthropologists catalogued innumerable variations on this process. In some cases it is a king or a priest who ritually transgresses the most awful taboos as a preliminary to being sacrificed (literally or figuratively) to renew the people. In other cases it is a prisoner of war, an outcast, or a common criminal who is elevated to a place of honor and rendered all manner of service prior to sacrifice. This model is well known from the Aztec example. What prisoners of war from outside a society and kings who rule in it have in common is that they can easily be isolated, the one by their strangeness and the other by their eminence (kings belong to a class that by definition has only one member). Ideal sacrificial victims must be without ties or supporters that would stand in the way of their execution, but their identification with the community must be sufficient so as to embody the evil, the polluting crime to be purged with their destruction. The cause of the sacrificial crisis is to be found somewhere within the community itself, but in someone whose supposed offense removes any possible ties or sympathy. The contrary treatments of the criminal and the king thus point in the same ultimate direction, meeting the requirements of the sacred. The king, who is a consummate insider, must be dramatically separated and condemned, while the prisoner of war, who already bears the onus of a criminal or enemy, must be adopted in such a manner as to have a veneer of identity with his captors.
The disorienting inconsistency in the condemnation and honor extended to the victim is understandable in light of those two essential if paradoxical qualities of the sacred: the transgressions that rightly merit sacrifice and the honor due one whose death saves society. Girard suggests that only such an insight can make sense of data like an African investiture hymn for a king that contains the following formula.
You are a turd,
You are a heap of refuse,
You have come to kill us,
You have come to save us. (pp. 48-49)
4. For more on the sacrifice of kings as the founding event for democracy, see Robert Hamerton-Kelly‘s “The King and the Crowd: Divine Right and Popular Sovereignty in the French Revolution” (Contagion, Spring 1996, pp. 67-84). If the American Revolution seems a more civilized affair than the French one, consider that in America the king’s army was sacrificed as a substitute for the king to give birth to democracy. Was the madness of the guillotine worse than the slaughter of many innocent British soldiers in substitution for the king?
5. James G. Williams, “King as Servant, Sacrifice as Service: Gospel Transformations,” in Violence Renounced, pp. 178-199; see also his chapter on kingship and prophecy in The Bible, Violence & the Sacred.
6. Sermon on Jesus’ transformation of kingship entitled “A King Who Makes His Home with the Homeless.”
7. Wolfgang Palaver, René Girard’s Mimetic Theory, a section entitled “Sacred Kingship as the Origin of Political Power,” pp. 276-283. Here is his compact explanation:
Girard claims that all institutions are rooted in the controlled repetition of the scapegoat mechanism. In ritual, the scapegoat mechanism is consciously repeated to restore and consolidate peace among the members of the community on a continual basis. This ritual repetition is characterized by the same misapprehension of the actual violence — on the part of the community — observed in the original scapegoat mechanism. Just as the mob’s violence and the innocence of the victim remain hidden, the truth of the rite is disguised by the sacred in religious sacrifice. The sacrificial victim, as we saw above, is marked by the double transference; it is viewed initially as absolutely evil, that is, as responsible for the plight that has descended on the given society, and retroactively as absolutely benevolent, i.e., as a harbinger of peace that has rescued the community from its plight. It is impossible, however, for ritual to reproduce these intrinsically paradoxical moments in their full two-sidedness [tr. Janusköpfigkeit]; this would merely result in the spread of confusion and instability within the community and thus contradict what it set out to achieve, namely, the establishment of clear order, strict differences, and social harmony. For this reason, one of the two moments of the double transference is always emphasized more strongly than the other. The other moment, initially neglected and relegated to the fringe of the rite, is eventually eradicated completely in order to enable the unfolding of an institution free of contradiction. From one culture to another, this process can manifest itself in many different ways, with each individual community focusing on either moment in its own way. In the end, the two moments — at first part of the same double process — are severed from one another and appear, free of contradiction, as absolutely separate and completely unrelated. (pp. 276-77)
The extension of these institutional beginnings becomes more complicated as human institutions evolve. And we can glimpse them differently at times of “sacrificial crisis.” For example, at the time of the French Revolution the two-sidedness of the “double transcendence” becomes visible once more. A portion of the French population continues to see Louis XIV as the good representative of the sacred monarchy while the other portion sees both him and the monarchy as evil and to be eliminated — scapegoated.
What does the bifocal view of Donald Trump represent in our time? Jim Wallis (above) poses this moment as the choice between service and tyranny. But there is a double threat of tyranny: the tyranny of the right might simply be replaced with a tyranny of the left. How do we steer the narrow road that opens up into true democratic service? That is the immense challenge of the next President (assuming we don’t lose our democracy).
8. N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. This book, along with Surprised by Hope, I consider the two most important books by Wright. How God Became King, to me, makes his most direct and compelling case as to what Jesus and the Gospel is all about: the fulfillment of Israel’s story, God’s faithfulness to Israel and the Creation, through the coming of the Messiah in Jesus of Nazareth. God has become king through Jesus and established the divine reign as the power of renewal and transformation that is bringing Creation to fulfillment. On this Christ the King Sunday, I find his thesis to be immensely important. Here are some of Wright’s own words in introducing his thesis:
It has been slowly dawning on me over many years that there is a fundamental problem deep at the heart of Christian faith and practice as I have known them. This problem can be summarized quite easily: we have all forgotten what the four gospels are about. Yes, they’re about Jesus, but what exactly are they saying about Jesus? Yes, they’re about God, but what precisely are they saying about God? Yes, they’re about the beginnings of what later became known as Christianity, but what are they saying about that strange new movement, and how do they resource it for its life and work?
As I have both studied and written about Jesus and the gospels, and as I have tried to lead and teach Christian communities that were doing their best to follow Jesus and order their lives by the gospels, I have had the increasing impression, over many years now, that most of the Western Christian tradition has simply forgotten what the gospels are really all about. Despite centuries of intense and heavy industry expended on the study of all sorts of features of the gospels, we have often managed to miss the main thing that they, all four of them, are most eager to tell us. I have therefore come to the conclusion that what we need is not just a bit of fine-tuning, an adjustment here and there. We need a fundamental rethink about what the gospels are trying to say, and hence about how best we should read them, together and individually. And — not least — about how we then might order our life and work in accordance with them.
. . .The question, then, is not only: Can we learn to read the gospels better, more in tune with what their original writers intended? It is also: Can we discover, by doing this, a new vision for God’s mission in the world, in and through Jesus, and then — now! — in and through his followers? And, in doing so, can we grow closer together in mission and life, in faith and hope, and even in love? Might a fresh reading of the gospels, in other words, clear the way for renewed efforts in mission and unity? Is that what it would look like if we really believed that the living God was king on earth as in heaven?
That, after all, is the story all four gospels tell. I am aware, of course, that there are other documents that have been called “gospels,” and I shall say something about them in passing. But I am here dealing with the four that were recognized, from very early on, as part of the church’s “rule of life,” that is, part of the “canon”: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And the story that the four evangelists tell is the story, as in my title, of “how God became king.”
This, I discover, comes as a surprise to most people, and an unwelcome shock to some. It appears, as we say today, counterintuitive; that is, the claim that God has become king doesn’t seem to square with the world as we know it. “If God is really king, why is there still cancer? Why are there still tsunamis? Why are there still tyranny, genocide, child abuse, and massive economic corruption?” What’s more, as we shall see, some people, not least some Christians, appear allergic to the very idea of God becoming, or being, “king.” “Isn’t God as king triumphalist? Doesn’t that lead us toward that dreaded word “theocracy”? And isn’t that one of the problems of our day, not one of the solutions?”
Questions like that are important. But even if the gospel writers had heard us asking them, they would not have backed off from the claim they were making. To discover why not and to see what they might have said in reply to such comments, we have to take a deep breath and go back to the beginning. (pp. ix-xi)
To the questions about theocracy, Wright’s primary answer is that God in Jesus is a completely different kind of king than the other human kings we have come to know in history. God redefines kingship, leadership, and power through Jesus the Messiah. In Girardian terms, God has launched the process of redeeming our institutions from the Satanic powers. Wright actually makes understanding the Satanic powers crucial to his thesis, too; unfortunately, he does come up short on a more in-depth anthropological understanding of those powers.
1. See James Alison below under gospel lesson. This passage is behind the several gospel texts which lament God’s people wandering lost without a Good Shepherd. Alison links this image with the first word from the cross (Lk 23:34) from the day’s gospel lesson.
1. The sermon I preached in 1995 used the prophetic critique of kingship as a jumping off point to make some Girardian reflections on leadership. It ended up being a Girard 101, entitled “Understanding the Gravity of Our Situation.”
1. James Alison. In both of his major books, Raising Abel and The Joy of Being Wrong, Alison develops the idea of creation in Christ as one of the early points of revelation for the apostles in the aftermath of the resurrection. This passage from Colossians is a primary example. In RA the section on creation in Christ (link) is found on pp. 49-56; in JBW on pp. 94-102. Here is a crucial part of his argument in JBW:
It seems to me that in the light of the elaboration of the intelligence of the victim which I have been attempting, it does become possible to see why the presence to the apostolic group of the crucified-and-risen victim should have recast their understanding of creation. I will attempt, in what I am aware is a highly tentative and experimental way, to set out what seems to me to be an internal coherence between the intelligence of the victim and the recasting of creation.The reader will remember the Girardian generative scene: the scene which gives birth to representation. It will also be remembered that for Girard this is probably a scene repeated very frequently over many centuries or millennia as the conditions of hominization (the development of mimetic desire and the forging of cultural controls) are brought about, before the actual time of hominization and the birth of properly human culture. The scene involves a group in which growing mimetic rivalry leads to the collapse of differences, and the resolution of the resulting violent chaos in an aleatory and unanimous act of victimization. This victim, having been expelled, is held to have produced the resulting peace, whereas in fact it is the unanimity against the arbitrary victim that is the reestablishement of peace. Thus a certain sort of misunderstanding, the illusion of the persecutors, of what has been going on is vital for the production and maintenance of the peace: the victim must be held to be truly guilty, but also, because it has produced the peace, to enjoy a divine quality. Where before there was violence and chaos, now, thanks to the departing divinity, peace and order has been established. So, in the development of the myth and the rituals that flow from this, we have a two-faced divinity, both disturbing and pacifying, who produces order out of chaos.
It is this that is important for the understanding of the re-casting of the perception of creation that followed the resurrection. We start, in pre-Jewish (and abundantly, in extra-Jewish) mythology with an understanding of creation that is intrinsically related to the divine production of order out of chaos. It is this same extra-Jewish material that is reworked, in the light of the Covenant, in the first chapter of genesis. It is interesting that the reworking is not complete: the account of creation is not entirely recast in the light of the Covenant, and there are signs of the remains of a creation-out-of-chaos myth in the description, as the words tohu wabohu (Gen 1:2) attest. Particularly the Jahwist editor(s) have undertaken a re-reading of the origins of the world in the light of Israel’s experience of salvation – the true “direction” of everything is known from its finality, the revelation of God at Sinai and the election of Israel. It is this re-reading in the light of an experience of salvation which led to a subversion of pagan cosmovisions, and permits an understanding of creation which accords with a single and a benevolent God.
However, this subversion in the light of the experience of salvation is still only partial in Genesis: we still have elements of a story of creation by the suppression of pre-existent chaos. What I would like to suggest is that the partiality of the subversion is related to the still partial subversion of the mythology which covers over the founding victimization at the basis of human culture. Very close to the story of the creation, we have also the story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve by God from Paradise, a story in which there is still an involvement of God in victimizing, on the way towards the understanding that expulsion is a purely human mechanism, and that God is its victim rather than its instigator (Jn 1:1-18). Then we have the story of the foundational assassination, where it is revealed that what we have is simply a sordid murder, in which God is not an accomplice. Yet, in his posterior treatment of Cain, God is seen as involved in the setting up of the (ultimately fatally flawed) cultural mechanisms by which humans protect themselves from the spiral of internecine violence: the beginnings of the link between God and the Law whose caducity will be so forcibly argued by St Paul.
We have then, a partial intelligence of the victim at work: the founding murder is revealed as a sordid crime, and creation is the beneficent work of a single God, but there remain some elements proper to the vision produced by the founding murder, the persecutory illusion. My suggestion is that these two work in tandem: the re-vealing of the real sense of creation, and the complete setting free from the illusion produced by the founding murder are part of the same process. The Old Testament itself seems to point to this. To the degree in which the arbitrary nature of victimization or persecution becomes apparent in the Old Testament, so it becomes possible to tell the story of a foundation or creation which does not involve a god in the suppression of chaos. It became possible to give a non-mythological account of creation, because it became possible to see that God is anterior to any human violence, and thus anterior to chaos. Thus it becomes possible to understand creation as ex nihilo. It seems to me to be enormously important to indicate the huge cultural process of discovery, of the overcoming of the victimary illusion, which made possible what appears to be an abstract piece of philosophical reasoning.
[After showing the development in intertestamental sources he concludes:]
What I am suggesting is that the development of the understanding of the resurrection of the dead and that of the creation is a simultaneous development, and that it is the intelligence of the victim that makes it possible. This is a vital part of the praeparatio evangelica, for it provides the clue to the way in which the resurrection of Christ, by completely revealing the mechanism of foundational victimage, also completely revealed the understanding of creation. I am speaking of a simultaneous recasting of the two understandings: that of the resurrection of the dead, and that of creation, in the light of the same understanding: the intelligence of the victim. Thus, in the resurrection accounts of Jesus there has disappeared the element of a divine vindication of Jesus over against his enemies. Jesus’ resurrection is not revealed as an eschatological revenge, but as an eschatological pardon. It happens not to confound the persecutors, but to bring about a reconciliation. God is revealed as not partisan, not interested in vindicating any particular group over against its enemies. Rather God is revealed as the self-giving victim of the remaining victimizing tendency of even the chosen people, thus permitting the definitive demythologization of God. God, completely outside human reciprocity, is the human victim. The Father is the origin of the self-giving of the human victim. Thus, far from creation having anything to do with the establishment of an order, what is revealed is that the gratuitous self-giving of the victim is identical with, and the heretofore hidden center and culmination of, the gratuitous giving that is the creation. (The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 95-97, 98)
2. Brian McLaren, “The Historical Jesus: What You Focus on Determines What You Miss,” a presentation at a conference hosted by Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation, and available on DVD titled Emerging Church: Christians Creating and New World Together (see the CAC store for more info). Focusing primarily on Matthew 16, he concludes with reflections on Col. 1:15-20. Here are my notes:
- “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation”; Remember all the images of Saddam Hussein everywhere in Iraq. It was the same in the first century — images of Caesar everywhere. Firstborn: that’s how the next king comes about.
- “. . .for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him.” Paul is saying, “Our faith in the way of Jesus isn’t a tiny religion in the Roman Empire; the whole Empire is a dirty little neighborhood within the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
- “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” We don’t know what we’re saying when we sing about the cross. But in the first century they did. What was the secret to Caesar’s success in the first century? A new torture technology, the technology of the cross. They only crucified rebels, insurrectionists, political revolutionaries, who dared challenge the authority of Lord Caesar. Imagine the power of a naked body hanging there for days, saying, “Who has the power now, Mr. Rebel?” Caesar used that to put the fear of the God Caesar into them. That’s how he achieved the Pax Romana, the Roman peace.
- Can we catch the power of this last line of the song? He makes peace, but not by shedding someone else’s blood. He makes peace by hanging naked on the cross, offering himself, and saying, “The way of the Kingdom of God is not by domination and revolution and scapegoating. The way of the cross is the way of a man, bearing the fullness of God, suffering and forgiving in the midst of the pain, not pledging revenge.” It’s amazing. We don’t sing songs like this anymore. But maybe we will. Songs like this can change the world. A message like this can change the world.
3. Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. This is a brilliant reading of Paul’s letter in a postmodern context. In conversation with both our contemporary culture and Paul’s first century Jewish experience of Roman imperialist culture, they provide targum readings of three portions of the text: 1:1-14, 1:15-20, and 2:8-3:4. This book is quite simply one of my favorite monographs on a book of the Bible. Here, for example, is the beginning of their targum on Col. 1:15-20:
In an image-saturated world,
a world of ubiquitous corporate logos
permeating your consciousness
a world of dehydrated and captive imaginations
in which we are too numbed, satiated and co-opted
to be able to dream of life otherwise
a world in which the empire of global economic affluence
has achieved the monopoly of our imaginations
in this world
Christ is the image of the invisible God
in this world
driven by images with a vengeance
Christ is the image par excellence
the image above all other images
the image that is not a facade
the image that is not trying to sell you anything
the image that refuses to co-opt you
Christ is the image of the invisible God
the image of God
in time and history
with joys and sorrows
image of who God is
1. René Girard, several places he cites Luke’s first word from the cross as Jesus’ acknowledgment of the human ignorance to our own sacred violence. The first place is in The Scapegoat, fittingly in the chapter on the Passion. It anchors the chapter; I give you the last several paragraphs therein:
Without using our terminology, yet omitting none of the knowledge necessary to protect us from its insidious effects, the Gospels reveal the scapegoat mechanism everywhere, even within us. If I am right in this, then we should be able to trace in the Gospels everything that we have identified about the mechanism in the preceding pages, especially its unconscious nature. The persecutors would not allow themselves to be restricted to their accounts of persecution were it not for this unconsciousness which is identical with their sincere belief in the culpability of their victim. It is a prison whose walls cannot be seen, a servitude the more complete because it assumes freedom, a blindness that believes its perceptiveness.
Does the idea of the unconscious belong to the Gospels? The word does not appear, but modern readers will recognize it immediately if their minds are not paralyzed when confronted with the text and bound by the traditional Lilliputian threads of piety and antipiety. The sentence that defines the unconscious persecutor lies at the very heart of the Passion story in the Gospel of Luke: “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34). Christians insist here on the goodness of Jesus. This would be fine were it not that their insistence eclipses the sentence’s real meaning, which is scarcely ever recognized. The commentary on this sentence implies that the desire to forgive unpardonable executors forces Jesus to invent a somewhat trifling excuse for them that hardly conforms to the reality of the Passion.
Commentators who refuse to believe what this sentence says can only feel faint admiration for it, and their devotion imbues the text with the taint of their own hypocrisy. The most terrible distortion of the Gospels is our ability to project our own hypocrisy on them. In reality the Gospels never seek lame excuses; they never speak for the sake of speaking; sentimental verbiage has no place in them.
If we are to restore to this sentence its true savor we must recognize its almost technical role in the revelation of the scapegoat mechanism. It says something precise about the men gathered together by their scapegoat. They do not know what they are doing. That is why they must be pardoned. This is not dictated by a persecution complex or by the desire to remove from our sight the horror of real violence. In this passage we are given the first definition of the unconscious in human history, that from which all the others originate and develop in weaker form: the Freudians will push the dimension of persecution into the background and the Jungians will eliminate it altogether.
The Acts of the Apostles put the same idea into the mouth of Peter when he is addressing the crowds in Jerusalem, the same people that witnessed the Passion: “Now I know, brothers, that neither you nor your leaders had any idea what you were really doing.” [Acts 3:17] The considerable interest of this sentence lies in the fact that it once more draws our attention to the two categories of forces, the crowd and the leaders, both of whom are equally unconscious. It is an implicit rejection of the falsely Christian idea that made the Passion a unique event because of its evil dimension since its uniqueness lies in its dimension of revelation. If we accept the first idea we are making a fetish of violence and reverting to a variation of mythological paganism. (110-11)
Girard follows up in the very next chapter on Caiaphas’ stated scapegoat principle “that only one man should die”:
For the sentence to be truly revealing it must be understood not in the political sense but in the evangelic sense, in the context of everything I have identified and everything that can be identified. Then we can recognize the brilliant definition of the mechanism revealed in the Passion story, in all the Gospels, and in the entire Bible. The scapegoat that takes shape under our eyes is the same as at the origin of Judaic sacrifices. Caiaphas is the perfect sacrificer who puts victims to death to save those who live. By reminding us of this John emphasizes that every real cultural decision has a sacrificial character (decidere, remember, is to cut the victim’s throat) that refers back to an unrevealed effect of the scapegoat, the sacred type of representation of persecution.
The High Priest’s decision provides the definitive revelation of sacrifice and its origin. It is expressed without either the speaker or the listeners being aware. Not only do Caiaphas and his listeners not know what they are doing, they do not know what they are saying. They must therefore be forgiven. It is all the more necessary because our political realities are usually more sordid than theirs; only our language is more hypocritical. We avoid speaking like Caiaphas because we have a clearer, though still imperfect, understanding of the meaning of his words. This is proof that revelation is making its way among us. (113-14)
Finally, in The Scapegoat, Girard mentions that the early Christian martyrs followed Jesus in praying for their persecutors (p. 199).
The next book to look at from Girard is I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. In commenting on the compact anthropology contained in John 8:42-44, he cites Luke 23:34:
If the models that humans choose do not orient them in the right direction, one without conflict through Christ as intermediary, they expose themselves eventually to violent loss of differences and identity and thus to the single victim mechanism. And it is just here that we find the devil in the text of John. The sons of the devil are those who let themselves be taken into the circle of rivalistic desire and who, unknowingly, become the playthings of mimetic violence. Like all the victims of this process, “they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
If we do not imitate Jesus, our models become the living obstacles that we also become for them. We descend together on the infernal spiral that leads to generalized mimetic crises and, ultimately, to the mimetic state of all against one. (40)
Later in the same book, in the chapter on “The Uniqueness of the Gospels,” we once again encounter an expansive explication around “They know not what they do.” This is perhaps the best explanation of this verse in the context of Girard’s writings. Here’s several paragraphs from that section:
The resurrection of Christ crowns and finishes both the subversion and the unmasking of mythology, of archaic ritual, of everything that insures the foundation and perpetuation of human cultures. The Gospels reveal everything that human beings need to understand their moral responsibility with regard to the whole spectrum of violence in human history and to all the false religions.
In order for the single victim mechanism to work, as we have seen, their own contagious escalation and the battle of all against one must not be understood by the participants. The mythic process is based on a certain ignorance or even a persecutory unconscious that the myths never identify since it possesses them. The Gospels disclose this unconscious not only in the Gospel of John’s portrayal of a humanity trapped in the lies of the devil but in several explicit definitions of the persecutory unconscious. The most important of these we find in the Gospel of Luke, the famous prayer of Jesus during the Crucifixion: “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing” (23:34).
Here, as with all the sayings of Jesus, it is crucial to avoid emptying what he says of its basic sense by reducing it to a rhetorical formula, to a kind of sentimental exaggeration, for example. We should always take Jesus at his word. He expresses the powerlessness of those caught up in the mimetic snowballing process to see what moves and compels them. Persecutors think they are doing good, the right thing; they believe they are working for justice and truth; they believe they are saving their community.
We find the same theme in the Acts of the Apostles, also the work of the author of Luke, but in a less striking style. Peter, speaking to those involved in the crucifixion of Jesus, grants them the benefit of extenuating circumstances by virtue of what he calls their ignorance:
“Now I know, brothers, that you acted out of ignorance, just as your leaders did.” (Acts 3:17)
What is true of the collective mechanism also holds for mimetic occurrences between individuals. Scandals are above all a kind of inability to see, an insurmountable blindness. The First Epistle of John defines them by the darkness that spreads about them:
Whoever says he is in the light,
yet hates his brother,
is still in the darkness.
Whoever loves his brother remains in the light,
and there is no scandal in him. (1 John 2:9-10)
Duping oneself is what characterizes the entire satanic process, and that is why one of the titles of the devil, as I have already mentioned, is “prince of darkness.” In revealing the self-deception of those who engage in violence, the New Testament dispels the lie at the heart of their violence. It spells out everything we need to reject our own mythic view of ourselves, our belief in our own innocence. (125-27)
In his book When These Things Happen: Conversations with Michel Treguer, they have the following conversation:
MT: We can’t condemn sacrifice, because it is unconscious, but we cannot recommend it because, as we were saying earlier, if we carry it out knowingly, it becomes Nazism.
RG: Making sacrifice into an ideology leads to awful things.
MT: On the other hand, what happens before the emergence of Christianity isn’t “evil.” It’s just human history, no?
RG: It’s human history. But the Bible is better, it resists the scapegoat phenomenon. Prior religions are completely submerged in the sacrificial universe, subject to its mechanisms, but with a certain innocence. Actually, the word innocence is dangerous and excessive; in the Acts of the Apostles, there’s an extraordinary text that speaks of ignorance. Peter walks toward the crowd in Jerusalem and says: “You don’t realize what you have done, you’ve killed the son of God, and you didn’t know it, you didn’t understand, even your leaders were unaware.” That is to say that he grants even to the cynical politicians, to Caiaphas and Pilate, the benefit of unconsciousness: their little schemes didn’t touch upon the essential.
MT: That also makes me think of Jesus’s “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And yet, doesn’t Christ also speak of violence?
RG: “I didn’t come to bring peace but war, I came to separate the son from the father, the daughter from the mother, and so on” doesn’t mean, “I’ve come to bring violence,” but rather, “I’ve come to bring a kind of peace that is so utterly free of victims that it surpasses what you are capable of and eventually you’ll have to come to a reckoning with your victimary phenomena.” (34)
In Evolution and Conversion (pp. 81-88), there is an extended conversation about Girard’s use of méconnaissance, usually translated as “misrecognition” in English. Girard’s interlocutors ask him why he doesn’t use the word “unconscious.” Girard’s answer:
Because, in the reader’s mind, the word ‘unconscious’ would have the Freudian connotation. I used méconnaissance because there is no doubt that one must define the scapegoat mechanism as a form of misrecognition of its injustice, without ignoring who has been killed. Now, I think that the unconscious nature of sacrificial violence is revealed in the New Testament, particularly in Luke: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23.34). That sentence has to be taken literally, and the proof of it is a parallel statement in the Acts of the Apostles. Peter, addressing the crowd who had been present at the crucifixion, says ‘you acted in ignorance’ (Acts 3.17). The word ‘ignorance’ is really the Greek word for ‘not knowing.’ But in our contemporary language one has to say ‘unconscious.’ However, I do not want to say the unconscious with the definite article because it implies a form of ontological essentialism that I distrust. However, there is definitely a lack of consciousness in scapegoating, and this lack of consciousness is as essential as the unconscious is in Freud. However, it isn’t the same thing and it is collective rather than individual. (86)
In Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith, the book opens with the central question (in this book) of the relationship between Christianity and modern secularization. Girard’s initial answer to the question provides a wonderful summary of Mimetic Theory, with the importance of Luke 23:34 embedded in the middle of the answer. I find it worthwhile to share the lengthy three paragraphs of his answer:
To articulate the reasons for this from my point of view, we have to start from an anthropological and historico-evolutionary perspective. I link secularization and Christianity essentially because Christianity caused a break in the cultural history of mankind, in particular the history of mankind’s religions, which for tens of thousands of years had allowed primitive communities to avoid self-destructing. Human beings are often violent, in fact, more violent than animals. But this violence has to be clearly understood. When I speak of violence, I don’t mean aggression; violence is something I consider inherent in social dynamics, where it occurs in the form of reprisal, vendetta, the urge to take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The reason is that human beings are inherently competitive and, as I call them, “mimetic”: they always desire the same things others do, and they tend toward a type of conflict that is internal, reciprocal, and potentially never ending, giving rise to vicious circles of violence that, prior to the institution of judicial systems, only religion, with its norms, rituals, and taboos, had the capacity to confine. Myths, especially myths of origin, always begin by recounting a crisis in human relations, which often takes the guise of an “affliction” or “plague.” This crisis is normally resolved through a dramatic alteration in the mimetic unanimity: the violence of the community, collective violence, all devolves onto a single victim, a victim chosen for arbitrary reasons. The killing of this victim reestablishes the social order. So precious and fruitful is the latter that the community is led to invest the very victim it has expelled with sacral power, divinizing it. “To sacrifice” in fact means “to make sacred.” In broad outline, this is the mythical structure of the primitive cultures and religions, the foundational act of which is the lynching or the expulsion, real at first, and later symbolic, of an innocent victim.
What Christianity does is to depart from this primitive mindset — because, contrary to what anthropologists have often maintained, Christianity is not a myth like all the others — by completely reversing the perspective. In myth, the standpoint is always that of the violent community that discharges its violence onto a victim it sees as guilty and whom it expels as a means of reestablishing the social order. In the mythic account the victim is always guilty, and is represented as such. Think of Oedipus, who commits parricide and incest and for that is expelled from the city. Freud takes this myth at face value, believing that what it represents is true, whereas Christianity helps us to understand the hidden and repressed truth. Myth in the natural religions stages a masquerade of sorts, and the crowds, gripped by the mimetic paroxysm, believe in it; they remain “ignorant” precisely because, as the gospel says, “they know not what they do” when they are subject to the mimetic frenzy. From the sociological and anthropological point of view, Christianity denies this mythic order, this mythical interpretation, because it recounts the same scene, but from the point of view of the victim, who is always innocent. Hence Christianity is destructive of the type of religion that brings people together, joining them into a coalition against some arbitrary victim, as all the natural religions have always done, except for the biblical ones.
Christianity reverses this situation, demonstrating that the victim is not guilty and that the unanimous crowd knows not what it does when it unjustly accuses this victim. Examples can already be found in the Old Testament, prior to Christ’s Passion, which for me represents the revelatory culmination of the innocence of the victim sacrificed by an unjust and violent community. Take the case of Isaiah 52-53, where it is evident that the victim is innocent but is condemned just the same by the crowd in the grip of the mimetic contagion, in other words, in the unanimous conviction that it has detected the one guilty of having caused all its own internal crises. In these circumstances we do not have individual behavior or conscience, only the unanimous logic of the crowd. Even Peter gives in to this temptation during the Passion, when he finds himself in the midst of the mob accusing Christ and denies him. With the gospel and the Passion of Jesus, this anthropological truth about humanity is revealed, put on display in its entirety: we, in our history as cultural animals, have always sought scapegoats in order to resolve our crises, and we have killed and then divinized them without knowing what we were doing. Christ’s Passion shows us what we were doing and does so in stark terms: Jesus is an innocent victim sacrificed by a crowd that turns unanimously against him after having exalted him only a few days before — and for no particular reason. Awareness of this kind causes the mechanism of misrecognition and cognitive concealment that underlay the mythical schema to fracture. Henceforth we can no longer pretend not to know that the social order is built upon the blood of innocent victims. Christianity deprives us of the mechanism that formed the basis of the archaic social and religious order, ushering in a new phase in the history of mankind that we may legitimately call “modern.” All the conquests of modernity begin there, as far as I am concerned, from that acquisition of awareness within Christianity. (23-26)
In chapter 3 of Sacrifice, Girard has a brief section actually titled “They Know Not What They Do”:
The proof that the Gospels see what myths do not — the unconscious dimension of scapegoat phenomena — is their attitude vis-à-vis the murderers of Jesus, which is without vengeance, contrary to what we are told today. Far from mercilessly stigmatizing these unfortunates, the Gospels see in them men like others; they did what men have always done and still do today under analogous circumstances.
The crucifixion is unique in its theological aspect, but terribly banal from an anthropological point of view. The essential phrase here is that of Jesus during the crucifixion: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In Acts, Peter makes plain in his discourse to the crowd at Jerusalem that we are to take these words literally. He explains to these men that neither they nor their leaders — who are even more culpable — need despair at the extent of their crime. There is no question here of effacing the guilt of the murderers but of affirming it as a consequence of a properly universal ignorance (Acts 3:17). The fact that the victim is the only son of God does not make the murderers more culpable than other men. Not to see this is to miss the essence of the Christian revelation. (82-83)
Finally, in one last reference to Luke 23:34, there is a quite different context. In Reading the Bible with René Girard, he is talking about the Derridean deconstruction of language as an “unconsicious” process happening in modernity under the influence of the Gospel:
Ultimately, Derrida and the deconstructive philosophers will tell you that language is ultimately gratuitous, that it goes its own way, and that contact with reality . . . well, you don’t have to worry about it because it’s so insignificant. There’s no truth, and to play with texts or interpret texts always refers to other texts, never to any reality. Now the exegesis I try to practice relating to scapegoating is very different from that. There are real victims behind the text. That’s the important thing. There are real victims. You might understand how it happens that they are victimized. It’s just not true that no general lesson can be drawn from the parable of the vineyard, because this lesson is always the lesson of the whole Bible; it’s a lesson of scapegoating. So we’re deliberately putting our fingers in our ears. The assault against language is ultimately an assault against the biblical truth. I’m not incriminating people who practice this type of exegesis. I say, “Forgive them all, Lord; they do not know what they are doing.” That they don’t know what they are doing means it’s unconscious. They are fulfilling the truth, but in an unconscious way, so they aren’t as guilty as we might think, because even though we may have a little bit more of the truth in words, that doesn’t mean we act in accordance with that truth in our relations with our neighbor. The ultimate test is not the interpretation of texts, of course, but how you behave with your neighbor. That’s a real example that you provide in the flesh, that’s going to convert people, and you’re lucky if your language and your actions coincide. But if your actions don’t coincide with your language, your language will have very little influence. People will sense this, even if they don’t fully understand it. (136-37)
3. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 187-188. He quotes the first word from the cross in reflections that also bring in the shepherd imagery from the day’s first lesson:
I’m trying to sketch out something much more interesting: in the measure that we learn unconcern about our reputation, in that measure the Father can produce in us the same love which he has for his Son, and the same love which he and his Son have for the human race. Here is where we have to make an imaginative effort, or at least I do. That love is in no way marked by any desire for vindication, for restoring besmirched reputations, for turning the tables of this world, and all that might seem to us to be just and proper, given the horror of the violence of our world. That love loves all that! It loves the persecutors, the scandalized, it loves the depressives and the traitors and the finger pointers. That love doesn’t seek a fulminating revelation of what has really been going on as a final vengeance for all the violence, even though we may fear that it will be so. That love is utterly removed from being party to any final settling of accounts. That love, the love which was the inner dynamic of the coming of the Son to the world, of Jesus’ historical living out, seeks desperately and insatiably that good and evil may participate in a wedding banquet.This means that it is the mind fixed on the things that are above which allows the heart to be re-formed in the image of the Father’s love, forgiving the traitors, the executioners, the persecutors, the weak, those gone astray, not on account of some ethical demand, or so as to obey some commandment, but quite simply because they are loved, they are delighted in. When Luke has Jesus on the Cross say, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34), he was not only depicting a Jesus who was effectively revealing the mechanism of death, which includes the blindness of its participants as to what they are doing, nor was it an ethical imperative that Jesus should forgive them so that he might go to his Father ‘clean’; rather it was just that, in truth, and without any remorse or sadomasochism, Jesus loved his slayers.
This means that when we are able to stand loose from our reputation, and because of that, from our need to insist on a day of reckoning, the eschatological imagination, the mind fixed on the things that are above, begins to give us the capacity to love human beings without any sort of discrimination, in imitation of that love, quite without rivalry, which the Father has for us. Another way of saying this is to say that there begins to be formed within us something of a shepherd’s heart which is deeply moved by humans and human waywardness. Please notice that “heart of a shepherd” means being able to look at wolves in their sheepliness. It is not a question of us fearing that there are many people dressed as sheep who are, in fact, wolves, but, on the contrary, of being able creatively to imagine wolves as, in some, more or less well-hidden part of their lives, in fact, sheep, and to love them as such. Various times in the Gospel the word splangchnidzomai crops up, which we usually translate as ‘moved with compassion’. Jesus was moved with compassion by this or that person or situation, or that the multitudes should be like sheep having no shepherd (Mt 9:36). However the word is rather strong, and means a deep commotion of the entrails, a visceral commotion. This is what is so hard to imagine: as we become unhooked from our partisan loves, our searches, our clinging to reputation, with these formed in reaction to this situation or that, there begins to be formed in us that absolutely gratuitous visceral commotion, born outside all reaction, which the ancients called agape, and which is nothing other than the inexplicable love which God has for us in our violence and our scandals. We begin to be able not only to know ourselves loved as human beings, but to be able to love other humans, to love the human race and condition. (Raising Abel, pp. 187-188)
4. David Froemming, Salvation Story, the chapter on Luke 23, pp. 90-95. Froemming begins by explicitly linking this passage to kingship, moves to Herod and Pilate becoming friends, and lands on his theme of “Salvation Story” by contrasting Anselmian atonement with the actual historical drama of human violence as God’s vehicle of Godly peace. He writes,
Anselm’s interpretation of the death of Jesus essentially reads scripture through the lens of mythology, thus restoring the violent gods of ancient battle myths. Anselm’s rendering of the death of Jesus masks the violent mimetic scapegoating of humans. Anselm’s reading of Jesus’ death is at the root of why so many Americans who call themselves Christian cannot see their complicity in the power of violence at work within themselves, their churches, and their culture: they see that payment for their sin has been made instead of seeing violent mimetic rivalry at work and turning from sin to new life in Jesus Christ.
5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from November 25, 2007 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
6. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2013, titled “A Strange Act of Communication“; a sermon in 2016, “Christ Our King!“
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2013, I began with the emphasis that Luke places on the necessity of the Messiah’s suffering. He is the only one to have the Risen Jesus emphasize this to two groups of disciples on Easter (Luke 24:26, 46). God, in short, works transformation and healing by going through the suffering.
A lighter way of conveying this wisdom has come to me in my reading of the children’s classic We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. It’s a story of facing obstacles on a journey: tall grass, a river, mud, a forest, a snowstorm, and finally a cave. In each instance the refrain is,
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!
It has been meaningful to me to use this book in expressing the wisdom of God bringing healing and transformation to the world, both personal and transpersonal (cultural), through suffering. Thus, the sermon “‘We’re Going on a King Hunt.’”
2. I have made the connection between the thief on the cross who receives a promise of Paradise and the Parable of the Rich Fool (Proper 13), who receives quite different consequences. Both are at the moment of death, but they have quite different dialogue partners. The rich fool basically has had himself as his only dialogue partner throughout the parable, until God intervenes with a word about his consequences for trying to be in charge of his own life. The thief on the cross receives a promise of Paradise for coming into dialogue with Jesus and giving his life over to him. I also roll in the story about Paradise lost from Gen. 2-3.
3. A general reflection on “Christ the King” Sunday: We don’t often think in terms of kings or kingdoms anymore. The PC way of talking about it is to talk about a “Reign of Christ.” But I’m not sure that catches it, either. In this democratic, capitalist age we don’t talk about either kingdoms or reigns. Even “nation” is becoming less of an issue. What is it that we talk about the most these days when it comes to social constructs? Isn’t it “culture”? Everything these days is about “culture,” isn’t it? So how about the “Culture of Christ” Sunday?
And then Girard’s cultural anthropology, which is both generative and evangelical, promises tremendous insight. The generative aspect is quite unique. I get sick to death, frankly, of going to seminar after seminar in which there is so much babble about culture that amounts to little more than a cataloguing of characteristics. I am not aware of any other theories about culture that actually suggests how culture is generated, how it comes into being. That kind of depth of understanding about culture has been sorely and ironically lacking in this culture of ours which talks ad nauseam about culture.
And Girard’s cultural anthropology is evangelical in that he puts the Cross of Christ exactly at the center of what reveals to us the generation of culture as founded in murder — which is exactly what this Sunday can be about. In the cross of Christ we see both the revelation of how we found our culture and how God founds the divine culture offered to us in Christ. The latter is founded in Christ’s giving himself up to the murder which founds our culture, at the same time that he forgives us for it.
4. How different are these cultures, human and divine? Perhaps a pertinent example is the ongoing crisis against terroism. Our culture can conceive of no other option than to meet a violent force with another violent force. We make peace by threatening violence. We truly can’t imagine another option for the President, can we? How could we possibly found the affairs of State on something like the Cross? What would that look like? We can’t even imagine it. But God could. And God has, in fact, founded a new culture, a new reign, on the opposite of murder and vengeance, i.e., on being murdered and forgiveness.
5. In 2001, my sermon took up these themes, using the quotes from Canetti, “Christ the King — Are We Joking?” (manuscript unfinished).