Saturday, November 20, 2010

Reign of Christ

A couple of months ago the world was stunned – and the governments of the United States, Great Britain and Australia among others infuriated – by the release on the Internet of almost 400,000 separate classified documents and images detailing the conduct of coalition forces in the war in Iraq.  The documents were released by the whistle-blower Internet media organisation Wikileaks, which somehow manages to operate beyond the reach of the governments it is criticising and has previously broken explosive stories on climate change, government corruption religious cults and espionage.  In the introduction to the mass of material on its website, Wikileaks comments that the material it is making available detail over 109,000 separate deaths in Iraq which include the deaths of over 66,000 civilians, or 31 non-combatant men, women and children every single day for six years, many at the hands of coalition forces including Australian troops.  The Wikileaks material documents in excruciating and horrifying detail the flagrant disregard of accepted international legal standards, and documents instance after instances of overwhelming force being used against civilian targets by coalition forces who apparently operated most of the time under a ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ policy.  Also documented are allegations of coalition forces involvement in torture, summary executions and other war crimes.  The project’s organisers comment that they felt morally obliged to publish the material “knowing that we all stand under the judgement of God”.

Interestingly the response from coalition governments including our own has not been to dispute the truthfulness of the material released by Wikileaks but to complain that the release of the material puts coalition forces in greater danger, and to attack Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

The point, of course, is that if the Wikileaks material is genuine – and so far there is no argument about that – then its publication in defiance of the Pentagon, of the British and Australian governments is an act of moral courage, and a commitment to the liberating power of truth.  And – it seems to me – an appropriate introduction to our reflection on the kingship of Christ.  At first glance, you might not think the connection is very obvious – but today’s liturgical theme, the reign of Christ, is a newcomer to the Church calendar, having been instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, in the aftermath of the war to end all wars and the looming shadow of the even darker war that began a half-century of violent aftershocks, in the context of the wave of destabilising European nationalist movements in the 1920s – and Pope Pius asserted in his encyclical that the Feast of Christ the King would call to mind for all earthly powers and authorities that their actions and their use of power is called into question and ultimately judged by the one whose reign is founded in the refusal to accept any limitation to the power of forgiveness and love.

And so we listen to Luke’s Gospel for an idea of what Jesus tells us God’s reign is all about.  And in our passage today we can hardly miss the note of irony that points uncomfortably to the contradictions in our own world and in ourselves.

Jesus, who has spent three years proclaiming and demonstrating God's reign, who has specialised in the telling of parables – pointed little stories - to tell men and women about the scandalous grace and the universal welcome of God's reign, in today’s passage is mocked on the cross as a false king – as a pretender and an impostor. He is mocked by the religious leaders, by the soldiers, and by the sign above his head that describes this dying 'criminal' as king of the Jews - when he clearly isn't. And the mockery follows the same theme through the whole episode - if Jesus is a king, then he should save himself, and he should also save others. For one of the brigands crucified alongside Jesus it gets even more personal - if there is any saving going to be done, he wants to be a beneficiary, and be released from the consequences of his own actions.

And this is the irony that Luke the Gospel writer is spreading on thick: that right while Jesus is being mocked for his inability to save himself and others, for being a false king – is right when he is doing exactly what is being asked of him, and right when he is doing what any true king or political leader should do.  For everybody gathered at the foot of Jesus’ cross there is real saving going on – words of forgiveness spoken even as they mock; the promise of life for the repentant brigand; the recognition by the Roman Centurion a few verses further on of Jesus' true identity.  For Jesus himself?  The decision to die consistently with how he lived and what he taught and promised, to be a leader who lays down his life for those around him, for those who love him and for those who hate him.  And the vindication of Jesus’ topsy turvy policy of repaying hate and betrayal with forgiveness and love as first Jesus’ closest disciples, then gradually Jews and Gentiles and the whole of the known world begin to experience the shamed and crucified criminal as the risen one, the Word of God that unravels the mystery of our own lives by placing God’s priority of vulnerable love in contradiction to our practice of power and violence.

In short, on the cross, Jesus heals and saves those around him, and demonstrates the power of his kingship that ultimately calls all human institutions and all human pretences at power into question.

If we follow the logic of Jesus on the cross, then everything that we are accustomed to associating with kingship and power in human terms is not what the reign of Christ or the kingdom of God is about.  Actually we shouldn’t be surprised, because that after all is what Jesus taught in his parables and in the way he lived.  God’s reign, Jesus says, is surprising and humble and vulnerable, and it creeps in when you are not watching, and it is found in the smallest and the least valued of human experiences, and – as the Song of Mary claims – reverses our human priorities, our human love of wealth and power and makes worthless everything we thought was valuable and valuable what we thought was worthless.  Or as St Paul tells us – the power of God is what in human terms would be considered weakness and ridiculousness and yet – the folly and vulnerability of God makes relative and worthless all human claims to power.

Sometimes we read claims like these as saying just that God has got more power even in his little finger than all the nuclear arsenals of the world combined – even when he isn’t trying, even when he has one hand tied behind his back God is still way stronger than any sort of human strength – but that, I think, is not it at all.  Rather, I think, what is being said is quite literally – that the weakness of God, the vulnerability and powerless of God that we see in Jesus on the cross – is what challenges and relativises and erodes our human exercise of power.  German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer looked around himself during World War 2 as his Jewish countrymen and women were being rounded up for deportation and claimed that only a God who is powerless to prevent human evil made sense.  The only God left for us, Bonhoeffer claimed, was the God who allowed himself, over and over, to be pushed aside onto the cross.  The only God that any longer made sense was the God who opposed human evil with nothing more than suffering love.  And this is the kingship of Christ, the reign of God that continues even into our present day to call into question and to critique human evil and to stand in solidarity with human suffering.

Today’s feast, the Reign of Christ, is not a feel-good, triumphalistic and over-spiritualised celebration of the risen Christ seated in heaven at the right hand of God, or even of the Christ of personal devotion elevated as king in the recesses of our hearts.  According to Pope Pius XI, according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to St Paul and to the Gospel writer to assert the Reign of Christ is first and foremost an act of political defiance, a claim that God, not human power, gets the last word – and an undertaking to live by the reversed set of values that the crucified Jesus demonstrates.

To oppose murder and betrayal with suffering love and forgiveness.  To oppose meanness of spirit with inclusive love and generosity.  To oppose selfishness and greed with trusting love and self-sacrifice.  To oppose the fear and timidity of our own hearts with the vulnerability and transforming love of the crucified Jesus.

We are actually not very good at this.  We fall back, all the time, into patterns of defensive living and selfishness and mistrust of those who are different from us, different in appearance or class or ethnicity or religion.  We use our own faith as a way of affirming our own value and ignoring the truth of others.  We claim to follow the way of love but practice competitiveness and ungenerosity of spirit.  We are not very good at recognising or at living the reign of Christ.

The one thing, in fact, that stands between us and despair - is the vulnerability and weakness of the crucified and risen Christ himself who without condemnation calls all human practices of power to account, including our own.  Thank God for that.