Friday, November 27, 2009

Reign of Christ

One of the most significant circumstances of a person’s life is what country you are a citizen of.  If “home”, according to the famous definition, is “the place where when you go there they can’t throw you out”, then that’s even more true of the country you call home.  Citizenship gives you both rights and obligations, the protection of a legal code, a certain basic set of entitlements – and clearly your life chances are hugely affected by which country you have the citizenship of.  Being an Australian citizen – whether by accident of birth, or by deliberate choice – brings with it all the advantages of being at home in a country with a stable system of government, a high standard of living, good basic medical care and education.  A country where freedom of movement and freedom of speech are taken for granted, where federal, state and local government provide a huge range of services to protect our health and well-being.  Some of us, of course, have dual citizenship – we may be at home in more than one country and so we have different rights and obligations in each.  Interestingly, until 2002, Australian citizenship was held to be incompatible with the adoption of citizenship anywhere else – Rupert Murdoch, for example, had to relinquish his Australian citizenship in order to further his business interests as an American.  Citizenship affects every aspect of our lives, imposing responsibilities and obligations as well as conferring entitlements – for example we have to vote, to participate in some way in the public debate –being a good citizen means being informed, participating in community life, respecting the institutions of our country.  Being a good citizen also means reflecting on the decisions and the actions taken in your name. 

Today, the last Sunday of the Church year, however, as Christians we need to ask ourselves a fundamental question about citizenship.  Are we citizens of Australia, or citizens of the kingdom of God?  Can we hold dual citizenship?  Or does our citizenship of God’s kingdom call our national allegiance to account?

The very name we give to this Sunday – “Christ the King”, or “The reign of Christ” – tips us off that we are in explicitly political territory, the this-worldly arena of compromise and conflicting loyalties.  So does our reading from St John’s Gospel, which describes the confrontation between Jesus and the Roman procurator, Pilate, in the most politically charged language.  Here Pilate three times finds Jesus innocent, but passes the death sentence anyway in order to pacify the mob, mock the Jewish leaders and protect his own job.  John's gospel makes it crystal clear that the arrest of Jesus and the trial before Pilate were not religious but political crises.  Jesus' trial and execution by the Roman authorities are a clash between two kings and two kingdoms – and they pose an active challenge to us, two thousand years later.

Historian Jaroslav Pelikan points out what the obscure provincial governor Pilate himself, if only he could have known about it, might have found a maddening paradox – of all the famous Romans, none of them, not even Julius Caesar or Cleopatra’s ill-fated lover Marc Antony are as universally known and recognised as Pontius Pilate, whose name is read aloud every time Christians recite the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed – and who shares this distinction only with Mary, the mother of our Lord, and with Jesus himself.

According to Luke’s Gospel, the birth of Jesus is greeted in overtly political language by his mother, who exults that through him God would “bring down the tyrants from their thrones”.  In Mark’s Gospel, the very first words Jesus speaks are to announce that “the kingdom of God is at hand”.  In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus announces, “blessed are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is for you!”  In contemporary Aussie, the nearest equivalent might be for Jesus to say “blessed are you asylum seekers, because you’re the Australians of the future!”  Today’s reading takes us to Jesus’ trial and execution, and the consequences of this sort of political rabble-rousing are made utterly plain.  Jesus is dragged to the Roman governor's palace for three reasons, all of them political: "We found this fellow subverting the nation, opposing payment of taxes to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a King" (Luke 23:1–2). In short, he is being arrested as a political criminal.

Inside the praetorium, Pilate interrogates Jesus to find out what sort of threat, if any, he poses. “Well?”, he demands, “are you what they say?  Are you really the King of the Jews?” Jesus sort of explains, sort of evades the question: “my kingdom isn’t of this world”.  “So you are a king then?” – you can just about hear the scorn – but at the same time, Pilate is still probing.  Jesus is clearly a religious fruitcake, Palestine produces this sort with monotonous regularity.  Boring, no doubt – but is he dangerous?  “Yes”, says Jesus.  “You’re right”.  According to the Gospel-writer, Pilate does his best to treat Jesus as a harmless crank, roughing him up a bit and quietly letting him go, but the Jewish leaders have whipped up the crowd into such a frenzy that Pilate begins to fear for his job, even his life – and so gives in to their demands.  Modern Biblical scholars aren’t so sure - pointing out that Pilate was a ruthless, pragmatic Roman military leader who thought nothing of mass crucifixions to discourage peasant uprisings, and suggesting the Gospel writers find it convenient to let Pilate off the hook and blame Jesus death on the Jewish religious leaders.  In one sense, it hardly matters.  Jesus’ alternative vision of how life should be has come smack up against the brutal realities of the ancient patronage society, where maybe two thirds of the land and wealth are enjoyed by one percent of the population.

When Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, he doesn’t mean that it is just spiritual, he doesn’t mean it’s just about the life after this one, about heaven, not earth.  He means it challenges the legitimacy of the kingdoms of this world precisely because it offers an alternative vision of what this world should look like.  The Gospel account makes it perfectly plain that Jesus’ enemies understand this all too well.  If Jesus is a king, if the kingdom of God is the way Jesus describes it, then he is absolutely clashing head-on with Caesar as Lord.  The two kingdoms are incompatible.  The sort of Christianity that spiritualises that away is missing the point.  Jesus’ agenda really is dangerous and subversive.  Pilate is right to do away with him.

In its simplest terms, the kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world weren’t. If God was in charge, and not Rudd or Turnbull, not the Taliban or Al-Qaida, not even Barack Obama.   Absolutely nothing would be like it is now, every single aspect of life would be turned upside down.  Total disruption. If God was in charge, the economy wouldn’t work, for a start, because instead of an economy that guaranteed the best of everything for those who could afford it, we’d have one in which the basic needs of all people came first, in which the welfare of all and the flourishing of the planet itself came first.  Instead of normal war and business-as-usual ethnic cleansing we’d be plagued with endless peace-making, pointless outbreaks of people being able to see one another’s point of view, mercy instead of revenge, generosity instead of greed, asylum seekers would be greeted with compassion and hospitality instead of being shunted out of sight and locked up in an Indonesian prison, public housing and support for the most vulnerable would come ahead of tax breaks for the wealthy, care for the environment would come ahead of playing party politics.  The Hebrew Bible has a marvellous word for this subversive view of reality, shalom, or human well-being.

The most subversive, most provocative political act you can carry out, is to pray the prayer that Jesus taught his followers: ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’.  People who pray this prayer, and who live the same way they pray, have an agenda that says the way things are is not how they should be.  An agenda that says: “God sees things differently, and so do I.  I beg to differ.”

It’s a dangerous prayer – nothing short of an oath of allegiance for prospective immigrants to the kingdom of God.  And if you pray it you’re claiming citizenship of a kingdom that critiques all the other affiliations and loyalties of your life.  Yes, you can hold dual citizenship, in fact, citizenship of God’s kingdom makes you a better citizen of Australia because, every now and then a good citizen needs to say, very clearly, “I beg to differ”.