Originally preached on November 25, 2018 at Holy Family Lutheran Church.
Relevant lectionary readings here.
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Grace and Peace are yours from the Triune God, whose eternal reign outlasts that of any tyrant or King. Amen.
“Are you the King of the Jews?”
In the Gospel reading today, the dialog between Pilate and Jesus takes place during a criminal trial proceeding. This question from Pilate is not a question asked in good faith or out of curiosity. It is part of a series of questions, laid out to trap Jesus. A brutal cross examination, from a bloodthirsty ruthless leader in a hostile court of law.
At this point, Jesus – a brown man in an occupied land – has already been arrested in the middle of the night by police officers, who restrained him, binding his hands. He has already been beaten, and suffered the indignity of police brutality. He has been through the first part of a sham trial, where the religious elite, afraid of losing the position of power that they achieved by colluding with the Roman Empire, brought Jesus in front of a Roman court in order to pursue death by capital punishment. A state sanctioned execution.
This hearing before Pilate is another example of Jesus being railroaded in trial as part of a kangaroo court that is set up to cast him as a criminal for resisting the evils of the Roman Empire. Pilate’s question to Jesus is telling. He does not ask Jesus if he is the messiah. Pilate has little interest in that kind of information. Pilate asks Jesus if he is a King, a threat to the leadership and rule of the Roman Empire.
We know that after this trial, Pilate will hand Jesus over to be crucified- a public execution, a lynching, reserved for protestors and rabble-rousers and insurrectionists to remind other oppressed people of their place.
Public executions, like lynchings and crucifixion are acts of terrorism. They are not only physical violence, but psychological warfare used against oppressed people in order to terrify them and keep them from fighting back in order to maintain what the Roman Empire called Pax Romana – or the Roman Peace. This was not the true, deep peace the kind that only comes with justice. Pax Romana was a kind of peace similar to what Martin Luther King called a “negative peace,” a so called “peace” that is nothing more than repression and the silencing of dissent. In our own time, we hear similar dog whistles with coded language around safety and security like “Law and Order.”
Today is a special day within the liturgical calendar, a day where we commemorate Christ the King Sunday. Christ the King Sunday, sometimes known as Reign of Christ Sunday, is a relatively recent holy day in the church calendar, established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in response to the increasing threat of the rise of fascism in Europe leading up to World War II. At the time, authoritarian leaders of fascist regimes were being lifted up as all powerful demigods, and the Roman Catholic Church created this holy day in an attempt to reclaim power for the church as opposed to the secular nation-state.
Unfortunately, a Christian message of anti-fascism and anti-nationalism continues to be more and more relevant as fascist leaders gain power in many countries around the world. The threat of the rise of fascism is real. There are government officials within our own country with documented ties to White Nationalist Groups, the number of anti-Semitic hate crimes continue to rise, and President Trump proudly says, “I am a nationalist.”
We see today in the Gospel of John the attempts by the religious aristocracy and the local arm of the Roman Empire to categorize Jesus as a criminal in order to justify his execution. Fascism has historically used similar methods to repress those who resist its authoritarian power. Nazi Germany infamously cast the Jewish people and other targets of oppression as criminals and outsiders as a way to justify the atrocities against them, scapegoating them for Germany’s problems. Tragically, ironically, this verse in John and verses like it have been twisted and used to cast blame on the Jewish people for “killing Christ,” a grave misuse of the text since Jesus was a Jewish person himself, and only the Roman Empire, the government, had the authority to crucify people.
White nationalism in our own country operates much in the same way, assigning scape-goats and casting groups of people as criminals.
As seekers of asylum approach our southern border – victims of political instability in their countries caused in large part by the foreign policy of the United States – the dominant narrative put out by our government about this group of asylum seekers is that they are dangerous, a threat. Over and over again this administration warns their base audience of white Americans that these asylum seekers are gang members, drug dealers, rapists, and worse, criminalizing them in the eyes of the public in order to dehumanize them so that our government can justify violence against them.
And again in the United States, white supremacy and racialized capitalism have successfully created what Michelle Alexander calls, “The New Jim Crow,” a criminal underclass made up disproportionately of Black people through the racist processes of racial profiling, unequally applied laws, unequal sentencing, and more in an attempt to make Blackness synonymous in the popular imagination with the word “criminal” so that prisons are justified in enslaving people of color in our prisons for the benefit of corporations and the white elite.
The state, in Jesus’ time and in our own, continues to project the fear of threats of violence onto oppressed people via propaganda while claiming a monopoly on the right do to violence and harm to others in the name of Law and Order.
And so today we remember Christ the King, a criminal on death row, a ruler unlike any other ruler, with power unlike any other power, and a borderless country with no walls keeping anyone out. What does it say, what message does it bring to us today, that the God we worship this Sunday as King was a wooly-haired man of color sentenced to a criminal’s death by Empire?
One thing it tells us is this: Fascism is diametrically opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Kingship of Jesus Christ stands in strong opposition to the death-dealing policies of tyrants and fascists.
While Fascism wins over the mob with propaganda, attacks on the press, and suppression of free speech, Christ the King’s power is rooted not in lies, but in the revealing of everlasting Truth.
While Fascism wields violence and calls it “keeping the peace”, Christ the King, the Prince of Peace, stares down an Empire, resisting it through militant, unrelenting nonviolence.
While Fascism operates through a toxic form of masculinity and the motto of Might Makes Right, Christ the King maintains compassion and a kind of gentle, creative, steadfast strength we see often reflected in women and femmes, a strength that no doubt, Jesus learned sitting on his Mother Mary’s lap, as she sang him lullabies like the Magnificat with lyrics like “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”
While Fascism casts minority groups as enemies of the state to be hunted down and eliminated, Christ the King takes on the flesh of a marginalized person in an occupied land in solidarity with the oppressed.
And while Fascism values quiet compliance, obedience, homogeny, Christ the King elevates subversive liberation for all people.
This Reign of Christ, this King, does not operate like the kings and presidents and dictators of this world. Christ’s reign is a parody of oppressive kingship, shedding light on the limitations of rulers from any political party, and reminding us that while we can work diligently as co-creators with God on building a new Kingdom Come on Earth as it is in Heaven, our hope resides not in earthly leaders but in the God of Love and Liberation and in their eternal kingdom.