‘Are you the king of the Jews?’
‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders.’
John 18:33, 36
As we come to the end of the year we celebrate the feast of Christ the king. It is almost a tautology. Christ is the Greek word for anointed which was used to translate the Hebrew word for anointed, messiah, in other words the king. The Hebrew understanding of the messiah was multi layered. Notions of a warrior king were still current in the first century. If not a warrior it was assumed the messiah would lead with power and authority. But Jesus rejected these notions of messiah for himself. Remember the temptation stories in Matthew and Luke. Satan promises ‘All these kingdoms I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ I see this as a temptation to embrace violence as a means of gaining power and authority. The early church soon realised that the only notion of Messiah that Jesus resonated with was Isaiah’s notion of the suffering servant.
It seems that during the history of the Church we kept forgetting that Jesus didn’t fit the old models. Individual Christians and the various institutions of the Church started to wield power with as much violence as any of the OT Testament kings. Maybe that began particularly when Emperor Constantine became a Christian and Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Regardless of when it started the Church has always been influenced by the culture of the day. Humanity, like the various cultures that grow up around our communities, has a strong tendency to use violence as the means of solving our problems. The influence of this culture of violence is that we Christians absorb it into our ways of seeing the world and solving problems.
For most of my interpretive life, I’ve read Jesus’ statement as disavowing his connection to this worldly kingdom of which both Pilate and Jesus’ own accusers are a part. Jesus, in this sense, is asserting his independence, that this world and its powers ultimately cannot determine his fate, reminiscent of his words in John 10: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again” (v18).
One of David Lose’s colleagues proposed:
What Jesus might be saying, is that were Jesus and his followers of this world, then naturally they would use the primary tool this world provides for establishing and keeping power: violence. But Jesus is not of this world and so Jesus will not defend himself through violence. Jesus will not establish his claims by violence. Jesus will not usher in God’s kingdom by violence. Jesus will make no followers by violence.
So Lose says:
Rather, Jesus has come to witness to the truth, the truth that God is love (John 3:16), and that because we have not seen God and have such a hard time imagining God (John 1:18), all too often our imaginations are dominated by our experience. So rather than imagining that God is love, we imagine God to be violent because we live in a world of violence. Rather than recognize the cross as a symbol of sacrificial love, we assume it’s the legal mechanism of punishing Jesus in our stead because we have way too much experience with punitive relationships. Rather than believe that God’s grace and acceptance are absolutely unconditional, we assume God offers love, power, and status only on the condition that we fear, obey, and praise God – and despise those who don’t – because so much of our life is quid pro quo.
In Baptism, confirmation and really week by week as we affirm the faith we commit to being followers of Jesus. What does it mean what does it look like to follow the messiah who invites us into a practice of non-violence? And what does it mean to imagine a loving God? (we will come back to this second question later.
Firstly the practice of non-violence.
When I have talked about violence and non-violence in the past people have found it confusing or simply inaccurate. No, I don’t imagine half the congregation goes around murdering or raping and pillaging. On the contrary I imagine most of you are very civil most of the time.
So what is it that makes David Lose have a feeling that for decades he has been interpreting the Scriptures with glasses coloured by violence? I don’t imagine he is especially violent any more than most of us. But with his colleague’s encouragement he began to read the Scriptures with new eyes.
One of my heroes who embraced non-violence as a way of life was the Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero. He had been in many ways a very conservative bishop. The priests working in the poorer parishes in his diocese began to show him the devastating poverty that many lived in. Romero began to realise that the strangle hold Colonial countries had over much of South and Central America was keeping his people in poverty. The corruption and huge wealth divide in the country amplified the poverty. The lack of housing, education, health care and safe working conditions exacerbated the problem. All of these things were a structural rather than individual people physically abusing any one person. When Abp Romero began to preach about these deeply ingrained injustices, someone murdered him right in the middle of a Holy Communion. His commitment to change the systemic violence against millions of people cost him his life. What has this got to do with us? When we go shopping for our chocolates and coffee and fail to look for the half dozen fair trade brands we are colluding with this system that keeps people in poverty. It is a very subtle form of violence. Many of us buy the more expensive milk because we want our Australian Dairy farmers to have a fair income. Let’s make that same commitment to the coffee workers in Columbia.
Another layer of violence comes out in the way we communicate with each other from time to time. It may be when we become angry and ball someone out to their face, over the phone, by text, by email, on Facebook or on Twitter. Sometimes we don’t see this as violence. The person receiving the haranguing often feels they have been abused. I trust that many of you can barely remember the last time you balled someone out. But most of what I call violent language is much more subtle. It could be as subtle as assuming our opinion is the only way of understanding that makes any sense. I suspect we are all prone to this. We may have had a lot of experience and know a lot but humility helps us to hear wisdom even from the mouths of babes. I heard an artist on the radio say, the most ethical thing we can say is “I could be wrong”. Jesus used very provocative stories to give people a chance to process their own interpretation. Many of his stories would have left his audience reflecting for days. This is a gentle way to invite people into a new space. Sometimes they heard his stories as a direct criticism of them and they became angry. Let’s try to find ways even when we are feeling very angry, frustrated, excluded, or whatever, to speak with humility.
Now I said I would look at the other question of seeing God as angry, expecting fear, obedience and worship. In our first reading we heard, “when the king rules in the fear of God, he is like the light of morning…”. The Old Testament has many examples of seeing the fear of the Lord, as the beginning of wisdom. And of course it has plenty of horrible stories of God inflicting suffering from the flood through snakes in the wilderness all the way to casting Israel and Judah into exile for their sin. So it is not surprising that one might live in fear and trembling. But of course as Christians we are presented with a very different image of God. Jesus wants us to know God as Abba, dad. Jesus speaks of the God of love, forgiveness and grace. Sadly even the very early church struggled to hear this message. We are drawn subconsciously by our cultural environment to expect a level of violence ion people of power. Hence we even project that onto God.
So I invite you to pray this week, Lord, help me to see without the darkness of violence, explicit or subtle. Help me to have enough humility to listen carefully to others and to practice non-violence. And most of all, Lord help me to know the one you call Abba, as a wonderful loving parent.