Originally preached at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Logan Square.
Relevant lectionary texts here.
Grace and Peace are yours from the Triune God, whose eternal reign outlasts that of any tyrant or king. Amen.
I watched the Democratic Debates Wednesday. Did anyone else? I always go into these debates excited, full of hope and anticipation, ready to engage with our democracy. And then… by the time they are finished I end up frustrated and disappointed. I’m like, “I just spent all of that time listening to ten people posture and avoid answering direct questions. I want my two hours back.”
I also found myself irritated or honestly, offended, by the fact that this debate was scheduled on a holy day, the Trans Day of Remembrance, and that not one candidate on the stage that night had anything to say about the massacre of over 300 transgender people this year, killed by anti-trans violence. It says a lot, honestly, about who this political theater is really for.
Don’t get me wrong, I am still going to vote, as I always do as a method of harm reduction, mostly, but none of these people are the saviors they want us to believe that they are.
They obviously didn’t consult the liturgical calendar, either, not that I’d want them to or expect them to. But they really set themselves up here by having this debate only days before the feast day where we decry earthly powers and denounce the idea that our ultimate loyalty should be placed in human rulers or political parties.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, sometimes also known as the Reign of Christ. And while the upending of political power by spiritual resistance is as old as scripture, this holiday itself has relatively recent roots. Christ the King Sunday was established by Pope Pius the 11th 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 godless nation-state.
The history of today is inherently antifa, anti-fascist. And unfortunately, that makes its necessity frighteningly ever-green. We don’t have to look far to see the re-emergence of fascism gaining steam all over the globe. From startling elections over the past few years in places like Brazil and coups in places like Bolivia, to growing far-right nativist sentiments all over Europe with major referendums passing – like Brexit in the UK – plenty of analysts have been ringing the warning bells about anti-immigrant, anti-semetic, authoritarianism on the rise.
And of course this is not an outside threat. The past few years in the United States have seen white nationalists gain power, here, where white nationalists are given seats of power under an administration that got elected on campaign slogans made of racist dog whistles, and a United States’ president who called the literal Nazis at Charlottesville “fine people.” The White House continues to back Stephen Miller despite even more evidence recently of white nationalist ties. Multiple killings on US soil have been committed in the last few years by avowed white nationalists to the point that it has become part of the official “profile” for mass killers; Tree of Life, the Kroger in Kentucky, the Poway synagogue, El Paso, Oak Creek, Portland, and Mother Emmanuel in Charleston, perpetrated by Dylann Roof, the child of an ELCA congregation.
Fascism is not dead. Its rhetoric has infiltrated major powers and political parties. It’s leaders are on the evening news. And we must resist normalizing it. These are the wicked shepherds that Jeremiah warned about in our first reading today. These are the leaders who destroy and scatter.
But Jesus? Christ the King? He is not that kind of ruler. Quite the opposite, actually.
Growing up I was always asking my poor Sunday School teachers why Jesus was killed. They kept telling me it was because Jesus told us to love everyone, but to me, I was left with questions because that still didn’t really get at the heart of WHY they would kill him. No one broke down the power analysis for me of WHY radical love is so threatening to people in power. But here’s the thing, love is reflected in action. When we love people, we care about their conditions. And when their conditions are deteriorating because of Empire? Real love? Means resisting and overthrowing that Empire.
In ancient Rome there were a lot of ways to get killed by the state. A feature of Empires, and a feature of modern-day fascism, is the supremacy of the military and an obsession with what is often called “national security” or “law and order.” Under the guise of words like “safety” or “peace,” totalitarian regimes suppress dissent through violent repression of artists, academics, activists, and more.
So while there were a lot of kinds of punishment under the Roman Empire, crucifixion was special.
Only certain kinds of people were crucified. Death by crucifixion was reserved only for people who were not citizens of Rome. Death by crucifixion was reserved for rabble rousers and insurrectionists – enemies of the state. It was a public, humiliating death, not unlike a lynching, meant to inspire terror, meant to send a message to any oppressed person considering rising up,
“Know your place. Or die.”
That’s why Jesus died. He was killed – by the Empire – because he refused to know his place as a poor, Brown, Jewish man in occupied Palestine.
And that’s how he earned his name, Christ the King. As a joke, for someone too big for their britches. Through the mocking sneers of the cops that killed him. “You think you’re the Chosen One, your Majesty? Why don’t you just come up off that cross, then?”
This weekend was the 5 year anniversary of the murder of Tamir Rice by the Cleveland cops. Tamir was the same age as my two daughters. He was 12. He was Black. Tamir Rice is why my kids don’t even get to play with neon green squirt guns, because I am terrified.
But his death wasn’t really about his toy gun.
To the cops, to the system in charge of the violent enforcement of our own fascist tendencies? His Blackness was more than enough to be a deadly threat. They shot him before the wheels on their cop car had even come to a complete stop, they cuffed his hysterical sister when she tried to run to his aid, they refused to let his mama ride in the back of the ambulance with him as he bled on the way to the hospital where he died.
And that family had to listen to months of the public argue about why the cops, the state are inherently good, are heroes, and why that baby boy deserved to die.
But the fact is, Jesus had more in common with Tamir and all persecuted people than he ever did with the agents of the state that we reify. Christ the King is among us but we don’t recognize him. We thought he would look like all those other blood thirsty, trigger happy kings, but in reality? He looks more like people in our communities who are still crucified today. Instead of living in a palace? Christ the King had no place to rest his head. Instead of a crown of jewels, Christ the King wears a crown of thorns. Instead of throne of comfort, he is enthroned on an instrument of torture, the cross. Instead of tightly controlled propaganda promoting him, Christ the King is a missing kid whose face is on a milk carton, or a mugshot on a wanted poster. Instead of words of adoration and accolades and state holidays, Christ the King gets misgendered in his obituary.
That’s who Christ the King is. But like all revolutionaries, the very powers that Jesus organized against have attempted to claim and tame Jesus by quite literally white-washing him and watering down his movement. Although Christ stands in direct opposition to fascists, fascism and Christianity have become so intertwined that we have a name for it – Christo fascism. And in fact, one of the hallmark signs of fascism according to sociologists is a government that is enmeshed with religion. Political scientist Dr. Lawrence Britt said it this way, “Government in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government’s policies or actions.”
Recently this has looked like the US-backed coup in Bolivia, where one of the coup leaders, Añez, was sworn in brandishing a giant leather Bible after writing tweets threatening to exile indigenous people and calling indigenous spirituality, “satanic rituals.” And another Bolivian coup leader, Camacho, also holding a Bible prayed, “Pachamama [the indigenous Andean spirit of the earth] will never return to the palace. Bolivia belongs to Christ.”
The cross has been co-opted, too, with Italy’s far right Matteo Salvini wielding a crucifix and hate groups like the KKK burning crosses to inspire fear. And it was Sinclair Lewis said, “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” What these appropriative forces are trying to do is shield their bigoted power grabs in God language, to say that God is on their side.
When we hear the term Christ the King, though, it is supposed to sound ridiculous to our ears. As ridiculolus as the slur, “King of the Jews” did to the Romans. Because Christ the King is a parody of kingship. And the question of whose side God is on has ALREADY BEEN DECIDED. Jesus has already made his party platform well known as an anti-colonial, anti-empire, anti-King.
This is good news for the poor and a warning to all of us who exploit God’s children.
Because in Christ’s Party Platform?
Basic needs are not commodified. Everyone who comes hungry is fed, all who are thirsty have clean water to drink. And, free, unpolluted water is good news to people like the Black and Brown children of Flint or Chicago who suffer from water infected with lead. But it’s threatening to the Kings of Corporations like Nestle who make their wealth by stealing land with fresh springs from indigenous people and bottling it in single use plastic to sell for billions all around the world.
In the party platform of Christ the King? Health and wholeness are prioritized. Jesus says, “Freely you have received medical care, now freely give.” And to the weary workers who toil, whose labor is exploited, Jesus says, “I will give you rest.” There is endless time in Christ’s kingdom for leisure and art and beauty and play. This is good news for people with crushing medical debt, for the disabled, for the worker. But it is threatening to the CEO Kings of HMOs and the system of capitalism that profits off the lie that we are worth only what we produce.
In Christ’s party platform? Everyone gets a second chance. And a third. And a fourth. And more. There is justice and accountability and it centers victims and community and it does not look punitive and there are no people in cages. That is good news to people who have been criminalized, not unlike our criminal king. But it is threatening to Kings of Prisons who make money off of slave labor under the New Jim Crow.
In Christ’s kingdom there are no ironically named “peacekeeping forces” with riot gear or tear gas or fighter jets or nuclear bombs. In Christ’s kingdom, there is only militant, unrelenting nonviolence.
Christ the King’s cabinet, isn’t put together by cronyism or nepotism. Christ’s holy court is a multi-racial rainbow coalition full of women and queers and nonbinary people. And children. In all kinds of roles that we adults can’t even imagine. In Christ’s cabinet children have first vote and final say.
Under the reign of Christ, strangers are welcomed, not scapegoated, and definitely not deported because in this Kingdom there are no borders and there are no walls.
You can see how this platform might have gotten him killed.
But you can trust these promises, because Christ’s campaign is all Truth, no spin.
Unlike politicians of all parties whose promises and appointments are quid pro quo, Christ the King doesn’t require anything of you, but freely gives even himself, even his own body, his own blood up for the people.
So why pledge our allegiance to anything else?