Disney’s The Lion King is sort of Hamlet with a lot more music and a little less angst. Which is to say, that like so many stories told for as long as humans have told stories and organized themselves into tribes and states, The Lion King is a tale about the conflict over who is properly to be in charge of earthly affairs. Simba, the cub who would be king, has it a lot better off than some kings.
The Fisher King, a central figure in the Arthurian Legend and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” is tied to the fertility of the land, his wounded-groin infertility everyone’s infertility, as crops fail, nothing falls from the sky, all is stillborn. Indeed, in some primitive cultures, the king himself would be sacrificed, his blood drained into the soil to appease the gods and insure a return of fertility. Only then, only with the blood of the king, spoke the thunder.
In other cultures we might consider civilized, or at least on the road to civilization, earthly rulers were divine, half-breed demigods and those elevated to the pantheon. Take the Caesars, that Julio-Claudian Dynasty that ruled from the Thames to the Tigris at the time of Jesus. W.H. Auden writes “Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.” The poet goes on in his Christmas Oratorio, “For the Time Being,”:
When he says, You are happy, we laugh;
When he says, You are wretched, we cry;
When he says, It is true, everyone believes it;
When he says, It is false, no one believes it;
When he says, This is good, this is loved;
When he says, That is bad, that is hated.
On his death, the dynast would be declared a God, as would his adopted son, called Augustus, and the wife of Augustus, the wicked Livia made known to so many of us in the fiction “I, Claudius.” With Livia elevated, her son Tiberius, ruler when Jesus was crucified, could rightly be called the son of a god.
If the powerful ruler was not a god or a demigod or a god in waiting, then god was some object, some clay figure or golden calf, not unlike the idolatrous bull at the heart of New York’s Financial District.
So it was a religious innovation when the ancient Hebrews declared that idols were forbidden, that the only true king for the Twelve Tribes was Yahweh, their eternal god that could not be carved in stone, could not be killed, who had no blood to spill.
When pressure from neighboring tribes, especially the Philistines, forced the Hebrews to organize under a warlord named Saul, to have an earthly king, is set in motion a narrative that unfolds across 1st and 2nd Samuel, 1st and 2nd Kings, for no human king could ever be good enough, for God was the rightful king. Even the propaganda of the Davidic Monarchy could not erase this tension.
Only Yahweh was king, only Yahweh was God. You might control the Hebrew people for a time, might beat them down with your might, your swords and chariots, but their faith was so strong that they would rather die than turn their back on God.
When Jesus rode his donkey into Jerusalem in an act of defiance, a protest march against the Roman Occupation, his followers would understand him as both the heir to David, that flawed earthly ruler, and as greater than David, as an incarnation of God.
It was a political act when early Christians created the formula “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God,” for those were all titles that belonged to Caesar. It was an act of treason when they refused to offer sacrifice to the divinized Augustus, for they knew there was only one God, a God they had come to understand as universal and as a loving creator that had walked with us, feeling what we feel and showing us how to live in, the person of Jesus.
Even in this early age, before a full articulated Trinitarian theology, they understood that Jesus was God with us, and so must share in the traits of God. Just as the early Hebrew faith had made Yahweh one god among many, but the chief of all the gods, so the anonymous author of 1st Timothy proclaims Jesus to be “king of kings and lord of lords.”
In 1925, as the smell of death still hung about Europe, the Roman pontiff Pius XI issued an encyclical emphasizing the non-violent nature of Christ’s rule and affirming the Feast of Christ the King.
It is odd, then, that this theme, so embraced by the old monarchies of Europe, by the religious monarchy of the Roman church, would find its way into the calendar of so many Protestants, would be the topic of today’s lectionary readings. Odder still that this feast should be celebrated in America, where we reject the idea of a divine right to rule. Thank goodness for George Washington, for when the cult of personality was at its height, he rejected the crown that Alexander Hamilton would have gladly given.
But lest we get too smug in our rejection of kings, we should remember that the king’s head was not the only one that came off during Robespierre’s republic, that it was a democracy that produced Hitler, that we have sins enough of our own, Manzanar and Flint.
And we have our own sins when it comes to mixing the divine and earthly power. It was in 1954, at the height of power for Senator Joseph McCarthy, with his Red Scare targeting Commies and his Lavender Scare targeting homosexuals, two groups targeted just twenty years before by the Nazis, it was only then that the words “under God” were added to the oath every American is expected to take. And we have turned a bit of cloth into an idol, a sacred object.
Yet, in spite of all of this, in spite of propaganda and sin and idolatry, the truth is still that we belong to God, we belong to Christ, and that is a higher call than that of any earthly power. Jesus is the final answer, every single time, does not belong to a government or a party or a church. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And Jesus is our Word.
This is what has given Christians courage generation after generation, in the Coliseum, in Auschwitz, in San Salvador. We belong to God, and God does not belong to any one nation. We are not the new Israel.
It is the Great Commandment that makes love the order of the day, love for God, love for neighbor, and even love for self. Not love of self followed by love of nation, as so many would have it, not obedience to some harsh hateful God, the false idol worshiped by Kim Davis and countless others who create a God who hates who they hate. Love. God is love. God who teaches us through Jesus to forgive if we want to be forgiven, the splinter in the other’s eye when we have a beam in our own.
Christ is our king because we have no other word for the sense in which we belong wholly to that divine mystery whence we came, that we name as God, and that we believe humankind experienced in the person of Jesus, that man who showed courage in the face of brutality, who forgave even as he was dying, who had so much love that death could not bind him.
This is the Christ we confess, like the Confessing Church in Germany almost a century ago. God is love made known in the loving person of Jesus who consorted with sinners and riff-raff. The king walks the streets with the common people, like King Christian X of Denmark, who went about his business in Nazi-occupied Denmark without guards, who is reported to have threatened to wear the yellow Star of David if it was forced on Danish Jews. And so the star was never forced on his people, and he personally funded the transport of countless Danish Jews to unoccupied Sweden.
I wonder, as the rising powers of hate speak of a Muslim registry, even hinting at internment camps, if we will be as brave as King Christian. I know that I will register as a Muslim if such a thing were to come to pass.
We are under Christ’s rule. Earthly powers may try to bind and judge, but we have only one king, and he did not die for fertility. He died because he called humans to a way of being that was beyond the petty power and judgment of small-minded men. Then, when they though they had crushed this community organizer, he rose again. And we’re still talking about him, almost two thousand years later, still following his rule. Because while earthly kings and rulers often try to grind down those that threaten their power, because earthly kings and kingdoms and presidents and republics always fail in the end, God is becoming, God cannot be defeated. God loves and commands love.
We belong to Christ, and Christ commands love. Love the world. How will you courageously carry God’s love into the world this week? How will I courageously carry God’s love into the world this week?
In their 2004 book “Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire,” Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat offer this targum or paraphrase of today’s reading. I close with their words:
In an image-saturated world,
a world of ubiquitous corporate logos
permeating your consciousness
a world of dehydrated and captive imaginations
in which we are too numbed, satiated and co-opted
to be able to dream of life otherwise
a world in which the empire of global economic affluence
has achieved the monopoly of our imaginations
in this world
Christ is the image of the invisible God
in this world
driven by images with a vengeance
Christ is the image par excellence
the image above all other images
the image that is not a facade
the image that is not trying to sell you anything
the image that refuses to co-opt you