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Politics of Scripture

“Christ the King” and the Challenge of Symbols

“Christ the King” on the cross offers a way of exposing systemic injustice by hanging in solidarity with victims of a violent system, but refusing to buy into the same violence that sustains it.

33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 [Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 23:33–43 (NRSV)

In 1925, Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast Day of Christ the King for the Roman Catholic Church. Over time, many Christian communities began to observe it and in the Revised Common Lectionary “Christ the King” Sunday marks the last Sunday of the Christian year. This year the gospel text for that Sunday is part of Luke’s crucifixion story. This strange and paradoxical pairing of a story about the crucifixion with the lofty title of “Christ the King” opens the door for insights both biblical and theological. This portion of Luke’s story is particularly rich in using the terms “Christ” and “King.” The leaders watching Jesus slowly die say, “He saved others, let him save himself, if he is the Christ, the chosen of God” (v. 35). The crucifiers mocked Jesus saying, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself” (v. 37). There is a superscription above Jesus that reads, “This is the king of the Jews” (v. 38). One of the criminals hanging alongside Jesus blasphemes him with the words, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us” (v. 39). The other criminal contradicts the first, then turns to Jesus saying, “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42). It is a story full of claims – genuine or mocking – of messiahship and kingship, all the while describing the humiliation and dying of Jesus. As such, this text provides an excellent opportunity to explore the paradox of looking at the crucified one and calling him “Christ the King.”

The symbols “Christ” and “King” each present challenges for modern audiences. The symbol of “King” seems to be the most obvious challenge, since royalty in general poses a challenge to those who have come to appreciate living in a democratic republic. Americans in the US have a strange fixation on British royals, but it is more of a focus on personalities, gossip, tradition, and pageantry than issues of the common good or international relations. Even in their finest moments of inspiring national unity or demonstrating charity, the actual power held by a modern constitutional monarch is a far cry from the power wielded by Herod the Great – the “King of the Jews” when Jesus was born – who could order mass crucifixions, appropriate lands, or conscript peasants to go to war. While Luke’s original audience may have had plenty of regional kings or imperial Caesars to give depth to the term “King,” modern audiences have to imagine what that must have been like once upon a time. 

The symbol of “Christ” also presents challenges. Commentaries will tell us that the term “Christ” could be applied to persons such as Cyrus, the Persian emperor who liberated the Israelites from Babylonian captivity and is declared God’s “messiah” (Hebrew: mashiah, translated christos in the LXX) in Isaiah 45:1. Lexicons will show that it could be applied to anyone anointed with oil into office, like the “messiah priest” (ho hiereus ho christos in LXX) of Leviticus 4:5. By the first century BCE, the expectation of a “Christ” had taken on a much more particular meaning, a coming individual who would liberate and save. The New Testament uses the term almost exclusively to speak of Jesus, as both a declaration of expectation and a symbol of hope. 

For modern people in the Christian tradition, the title “Christ” feels almost like a last name for Jesus or at least a lofty title that ranks “Jesus the Christ” right up there with “God the Creator” as a transcendent, timeless being. But, as the use of the word “Christ” in Luke’s story shows, the New Testament understands the title to mean that he is supposed to “do something,” to “save” himself or others. It was a symbol that raised expectations of liberating power, particularly in the face of imperial oppression. For modern audiences to hear the term “Christ” powerfully in the phrase “Christ the King,” or to appreciate the taunts of the crowd and criminal in Luke’s crucifixion story, they must reclaim the profound expectations of liberating power that the term “Christ” held for the New Testament church. 

On “Christ the King Sunday” this year in the US, people’s ears are still ringing with the biennial onslaught of political ads, where the attainment of power comes by way of grayscaling one’s opponent and soundbiting one’s intentions. There are genuine fears afoot regarding what effect the recent elections will have on the rights of women, the work of anti-racism, the plight of immigrants, the struggle against climate change, the future of the carceral state, the peril of shifting alliances in international relations, the costs of bread and housing, the possibility of accountability over those in power, and even the survival of democracy itself. When one speaks of the paradoxical relationship between “Christ the King” and the humiliation of Jesus on the cross, one is walking directly into the spider’s web of anxieties that many people are feeling trapped within. In such a dismal context, can one proclaim the Reign of Christ with integrity and power? 

One could present the crucifixion as a test, by which Jesus died and therefore proved himself worthy of being awarded the titles of “Christ” and “King” upon his resurrection. One could present the crucifixion as a sacrifice, whereby Jesus satisfies the just demands of God by taking on the just punishment of humanity. One could also present Jesus as not really suffering, but somehow only appearing to be vulnerable on the cross because all along he was really “Christ the King.” All of these approaches have been suggested in some form or another in Christian history, but – to my mind – a better way of holding this paradox focuses on the two criminals in the story and on the redemptive moment that one of them experiences.

Luke describes the two criminals hanging alongside of Jesus with the word kakourgous, literally “evil-workers.” Like Jesus, they are subject to humiliation and the worst expression of the carceral state. Crucifixion gives a glimpse of the systemic reach and many faces of the Roman Empire’s power. Some faces seem necessary – rulers, rules, and boundaries that would ward off chaos, harshly punishing the actions of the few for the good of the many. Some faces of that system seem neutral – judges washing their hands of guilt or blind justice holding the balanced scales of law and order. Some faces of that system were cruel and harsh – soldiers taunting and torturing while doing the actual work demanded by the necessary and neutral faces. Jesus and the two evil-workers were subject to a public exhibition of dying that demonstrated imperial power by stripping away their power and dignity. In that sense, the crucifixion presents the very opposite of what the phrase “Christ the King” means. Rome, with its leaders and lackeys, seemed to be in charge. 

The two evil-workers had responded to the violence of the Empire by buying into the same assumptions, becoming participants in the violence of the system which now punished them. As Luke tells it, the first evil-worker taunts Jesus to do the same, to employ the power of violence, saving himself and them. It is a real temptation, not far from what Jesus faced in the desert when tempted by the devil and not terribly different from what Jesus faced while praying in the garden before his arrest. Within violent systems, “kings” are expected to exploit violence to exert their power, and “liberators” use violence to liberate. The second evil-worker, however, sees more clearly that while he has been participating in the violence that he now faces, Jesus has not. His claim, “We indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong” (v. 41), is key. It shows that the power of violence is ultimately only able to enslave and not to liberate, because it punishes the innocent as well as the guilty, and cares only that the imperial power itself is preserved. So, he does not ask Jesus to jump in and exercise violent power, not even to save his own life. He simply asks to be remembered when Jesus enters a different kind of reign. And there is the redemptive moment in this story, for Jesus answers, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” 

Following the lead of the second evil-worker, “Christ the King” on the cross offers a way of exposing systemic injustice by hanging in solidarity with victims of a violent system, but refusing to buy into the same violence that sustains it. Jesus did not magically escape his sentence of death. He suffered and died. But in doing so, he redefined the power of a “King” as the power of solidarity with victims of violent systems and the work of a “Christ” as liberation from that self-feeding system. 

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