CHRIST THE KING -- ARE WE JOKING?
Twice in recent weeks we've noticed outrageous claims made about Christ's power. It began with St. Paul's outrageous description in Ephesians of Christ's power as "far above all rule and authority and power and dominion." His waxing poetic about that power recalls the greatest conquerors of all time, people like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. So why is St. Paul's description so outrageous? Because he's making this claim of ultimate power for a poor carpenter's son who was ignominiously executed on the Cross in shame and powerlessness. And so we said that, either this is absolutely daft and crazy nonsense, or else God is trying to show us that what counts for power to God is completely different than what counts for power to us.
Well, this week we have all of that outrageousness thrown right back in our face and made explicit. Christ the King Sunday, we call it. And if the joke isn't obvious yet, our Gospel Lesson makes it as plain as can be. Pilate makes a joke by posting a sign of "King of the Jews" above Jesus' head. He no doubt regarded the Jewish people as a joke and thought he'd mock them a bit. This puts everyone in a mocking mood, of course, so as Jesus hangs on the cross he is made to be the butt of everyone's jokes:
"He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" (Luke 23:35-38, 39)Christ the King! What a joke!
On Easter morning, of course, it was God who had the last laugh. Or perhaps it was God's first laugh. For Easter was finally the beginning of a new creation, one where God can begin to mix in a few laughs with the tears of watching us play such terrible, deadly jokes on one another. The Resurrection of our Lord is the beginning of a renewed reign of God's power of life, a reign that will finally win out someday over our reigns of death. Christ Jesus is the true King of Creation, a Lord who will someday crown all of Creation with his eternal, never-ending source of life.
In the meantime, it is a reign that seems a joke to us and our usual way of looking at things. We need to be honest about this. Our usual schemes of power are on the side Pilate's joke, a sign of "King of the Jews" hanging above an executed criminal. If we are ever to see how the joke is on Pilate, and on us, we need to begin to see with the eyes of faith what it is that God is trying to show us with the cross. Why is it that the true king of all creation must die horribly, and with shame, as the butt of everyone's joke?
We can only begin to see this if we, in repentance, begin to see the depth of our sin, the depth of the flaw in what counts for power to us. Let me repeat one more time: either this is absolutely daft and crazy nonsense, or else God is trying to show us that what counts for power to God is completely different than what counts for power to us. We must understand the dark reality that the cross reveals to us about ourselves and the way we do things.
This, again, is where the work of René Girard -- his "anthropology of the cross" -- is so vital to us. It helps us to see in the revelation of the cross what we need to see: namely, that all of human culture, that all our human kingdoms, are founded around a collective violence of an "us" against "them" variety. Originally, at the points of our human origins, the collective violence was more of an "us" against him or her, the scapegoated one, the one who gets an aura of supernaturalism about him or her, because he or she has both the blame laid on and then the credit for the peace. Human origins are also the origins of religion. The interpretation of our distant ancestors of their own collective violence against a scapegoat is that they were visited by the gods who first sowed chaos and then brought societal order. You can see this pattern behind all early myths about the gods and the rituals of collective violence known as blood sacrifice, killing some poor creature on an altar to appease the gods and to thus keep the peace. The Cross is but a more sophisticated form of sacrificial ritual; that's why we also call Christ the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."
But today is Christ the King Sunday, so let's take a moment to see these anthropological insights into our nature through a quick look at kingship. Girard says that kings originally grew out of the same sacrificial violence. Remember, the victim gets both blame and credit, as we interpret them religiously, in the contexts of gods. So Girard says that the king is the victim who takes advantage of the credit part, the positive part, enough to put off being a victim. In short, the king is the sacrificial victim with an extended sentence.
Let me share with you an example from a 19th century anthropological study of tribal kingship in Africa. I think you find this interesting and helpful. A study of an installation ritual among the Bambara tribe illustrates clearly how the king was the sacrificial victim with an extended sentence:
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." (1)Isn't that incredible? They would actually begin a collective murder, let the victim determine how long he could live, worship him as king for that many years, and then finally finish the job of killing him.
Here's an account describing the selection of a new king in Gaboon and the installation ritual that followed. First, the new king was selected in secret by the tribal elders. And then, see if this sounds familiar to the Gospel story:
As [the one secretly chosen as king] was walking on the shore on the morning of the seventh day [of the elders' deliberations] he was suddenly set upon by the entire populace, who proceeded to a ceremony which is preliminary to the crowning, and which must deter any but the most ambitious men from aspiring to the crown. They surround him in a dense crowd, and then began to heap upon him every manner of abuse that the worst of mobs could imagine. Some spat in his face; some beat him with their fists; some kicked him; others threw disgusting objects at him; while those unlucky ones who stood on the outside, and could reach the poor fellow only with their voices, assiduously cursed him . . . . Then all became silent; and the elders of the people rose and said, solemnly (the people repeating after them), "Now we choose you for our king; we engage to listen to you and obey you ...." He was then dressed in a red gown, and received the greatest marks of respect from all who had just now abused him. (2)As all rituals are, this is a ritual reenactment. The question is: What is it reenacting? Can there be any doubt that it is reenacting a mob murder? I think not. "The insults and blows he is subjected to before entering on his office are an intimation of what awaits him in the end," concludes Canetti. "As he submits to them, he will submit to his ultimate fate." (3)
Extemporize around the following points:
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, November 25, 2001
1. Monteil, Les Bambara du Segou (Paris, 1924), 305, quoted in Canetti, Crowds and Power, 418.
2. P Du Chaillu, Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa (London, 1861), 18ff, quoted in Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), 411-12.
3. Canetti, Crowds and Power, 418.