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Politics of Scripture

Christ, the (Subversive) King

If Christ is King, he takes on that role in order to subvert dominant understandings of power and its exercise. Christ turns power and kingship upside down and uses them for new and much more creative and life-giving purposes.

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

John 18:33–38a (NRSV)

The Feast of Christ the King arose in the aftermath of WWI, when the Roman Catholic church was losing its institutional importance and waking up to the reality of dictatorships and unchecked political power. In this context Pope Pius XI introduced the Feast of Christ the King in 1925, as an attempt to remind Christians across the Roman Catholic church of Christ’s supreme, universal and ultimate authority over earthly powers and rulers, building on a prevalent early Christian practice captured in John’s gospel. Subsequently, this feast was embraced across various denominations, including Anglican and reformed traditions. History also teaches how Christian emperors and empires across the centuries have abused this belief to inflict pain and misery on others. 

The image of Christ the King is one of great comfort as well as one of challenge. Some Christians take pride in the biblical imagery of Jesus Christ as the King of Kings, coming in glory with the angels and sitting upon his throne. Here is Christ the King as the rightful and just judge of all, who brings an end to earthly powers and their abuses. Now this is a marketable image of Christ far more appealing than the helpless, innocent infant soon to grace Christmas cards and carols, rather than the bloodied, tortured broken body of Jesus on the cross in the fullness of his passion. Christ the King Sunday should not be about Christian superiority or seen as associating with earthly political and economic figures, but must stand in contrast to them and question the very notion of power itself. 

In order to do this, the image of Christ as King must be dissociated from historical and current expressions of power, from those who abuse and misuse their status, who neglect the poor, ignore the marginalised, destroy the environment and favour protective, inward-looking nationalisms and economic interests.

The gospel narratives convey the idea of the Kingdom of God and Jesus Christ’s own kingship. The institutional church across denominational divides still struggles with this image because it directly deals with power, authority, and triumphalism. The phrase ‘Christ the king’ may conjure up imagery of opulence, splendour, and magnificence, but how did Jesus engage with such manifestations of power and kingship?

The 18th chapter of John’s gospel is almost too dramatic, too action-packed. It begins with Judas betraying Jesus, who is then arrested, an ear is severed, Simon Peter denies Jesus three times, the cock crows, Jesus is bound and taken to the High Priest, he is slapped, and then he is delivered to Pilate. Pilate interrogates Jesus further in a remarkable exchange, following which, Pilate condemns Jesus to death after declaring a ‘not guilty’ verdict. The narrative around Jesus’ arrest and death sentence is that of a criminal, not a king. This depiction of Jesus is very different from the opulence and majesty of ‘Christ the King’ imagery.  Instead, John portrays Jesus standing in front of Pilate, seemingly powerless, being mocked, ridiculed, and ultimately crucified alongside criminals.

Pilate represents the power of the Roman Empire, which in our modern context has become deeply embedded in Christianity as an imperial religion. At first, Pilate tries to renege on his responsibility of being both judge and jury, until he is forced to do so by the religious authorities. Later when sentencing Jesus, Pilate asks, ‘Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ Power. Pilate exercises his power reluctantly, hesitantly, but with a (seemingly) tragic finality. Pilate is deluded by imperial power. By asking Jesus, ‘are you the king of Jews?’, Pilate instantly politicised Jesus’ work, pitting him against the Roman empire. Colonial history teaches that deluded power can be the most ferocious enemy of justice, violently perpetuating injustice and exploiting people and the environment.

Following this passage is one of the most haunting lines in Scripture. Pilate responds to Jesus’ assertion that he ‘came into the world, to testify to the truth’ and that ‘everyone who belongs to the truth listens to [his] voice’ by posing a question of his own: ‘What is Truth?’ This is a question that rings down through the ages; lingering hauntingly behind fake news, misleading information, biased social media platforms, and competing truth claims from lobbyists, politicians, family, and friends. Truth, when twisted and abused, perpetuates ignorance, and (as in the case of Jesus before Pilate) can even end in violence and death.

When the Johannine Jesus speaks of truth, he does not do so in a vague, abstract, rhetorical manner like Pilate – Jesus identifies himself as the truth, to which he came to testify. In asking ‘what is truth’, Pilate asks the wrong question. The question is not, ‘what is truth’ but ‘who is truth?’ Pilate, for all of his wealth, status, and power, fails to hear, to really encounter and listen to the man standing before him. Pilate fails to ask himself who Jesus is. In fact, the question of who Jesus is dominates all of Chapter 18. Jesus is asked to identify himself, to give an account of himself to Judas and the soldiers who arrest him, officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and to Pilate. He identifies himself as: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, a king who came into the world to ‘testify to the truth.’ It is about birthplace, ethnicity, religion, and social status (even if that status is mocked and misunderstood). Just listen to Jesus’ exchange with Pilate again: ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ According to John, Pilate narrows in on the concept of truth, rather than on truth itself, embodied, incarnate, in Jesus standing before him. Pilate hears Jesus but does not listen to what he says; Pilate does not belong to the truth or the power to which Jesus testifies.

In few weeks’ time, on Christmas Eve, many churches throughout the world will hear the opening lines of John’s Gospel and the timeless words: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….’ This profession of the Incarnation includes a confession of sorts: ‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become the children of God…’ Power, according to John, is underpinned by inclusion and freedom. People are given the power to become the children of God. Jesus through his oneness with God gives the power to all, so that they can claim inheritance from God. Jesus’ exercise of power is oppositional to the way Pilate operated. 

Unlike the kings and powerful leaders of this world, Jesus offered himself on the cross and radically redefined and transformed the concept of kingship into love incarnate. Jesus’ death and resurrection was as revolutionary as his life. He subverted the image of kingship in his birth, death, and resurrection, and invites us to be born again in him and to be raised to new life in him. This context of Jesus’ passion is essential for those who wish to celebrate the Feast of Christ the King.

Those obsessed with power easily ignore the God revealed in the embarrassment of the incarnation in a poor cowshed. Likewise, they overlook the instances of Christ’s passion: his ridicule, humiliation, and crucifixion. The selective memorialisation of resurrection and ascension in popular Christian imagination only underlines God’s glorious statement of power returned.

How did such a subversive notion of kingship become lost? Jesus, the long awaited messiah, is not a king or an emperor but a powerless and despised human being. Humility personified. Even standing helplessly before Pilate, Jesus speaks of truth and in so doing, questions the limits of Pilate’s power. The events leading up to crucifixion are also a subversion of ‘messainic’ perceptions of Christ, the King. Christ, the King, is to be found in Jesus, the victim of violence, the condemned, despised, and rejected. Christ, the King, is to be found among the victims of sexual and domestic violence, sufferers of racial and caste hatred, forsaken migrants, refugees, victims of climate change, and those limited by misogyny and homophobia. Today the task of proclaiming the subversive kingdom of God is no less important. The need to confess a belief in Christ the King, in Jesus who came to proclaim the ‘truth’ of God’s unconditional love, not the authoritative, triumphalist, powerful, and often violent and oppressive judgement, is paramount. The Johannine Jesus subverts the Cross as a symbol of shame, oppression, and death, and makes it a symbol of glory, transforming suffering from perceived weakness into strength and life.

And when Jesus meets violence, hatred, injustice, mockery, and the gross abuse of his body (just like millions of children, women and men, throughout history and in the present moment), he responds with the words ‘Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.’ It is as if in

John’s vision, he is able to absorb in himself all this sin and violence and hatred, and turn it into something that promises hope and redemption. He bears it and takes the full force of it, in order to disarm it, neutralise it, and open new possibilities of forgiveness. Christians are called to emulate this sacrificial, revolutionary Christ the King of forgiveness and mercy as an antidote to the trappings of earthly power.

If Christ is King, he takes on that role in order to subvert dominant understandings of power and its exercise. Christ turns power and kingship upside down and uses them for new and much more creative and life-giving purposes. He uses the image of himself as sitting on the throne of glory not for his self-aggrandisement but to be the servant of all. If he is King, it is only to better satisfy those who hunger and thirst for justice, to welcome strangers, to clothe those in need, to take care of the sick, and to visit the lonely. For John, when Jesus’ disciples imitate him in his service to others, they serve and honour him. In Christ, his disciples are called to live meaningful, thoughtful, and generous lives. The Johannine passage is not a threat, but a promise. Christians, in their personal lives, may betray Jesus countless times—like Judas, like Peter—but as John frames in this narrative, there is a choice: turn away from Christ, deny Christ, or embody Christ as King and live as the body of Christ in this world. According to John, the extravagant hospitality revealed in Jesus is that as the children of God, whatever one’s status, gender, race, caste, or ethnicity, all are made in the image of God. If Christ is King, it is only because he counter-intuitively challenges and rejects popular perceptions of kingship and power.

In a world obsessed and deluded with power, greed and selfishness, the Feast of Christ the King offers millions of Christians an opportunity to challenge dominant perceptions of power and truth. Rather than memorialising a powerful monarch, or an institutional figurehead, Christians remember the one who was subjected to Pilate’s authority, hung on a cross, and who shared in our broken humanity. John challenges his readers to see and hear the incarnate God, born into the world to testify to the truth, then crucified and resurrected, subverting the very notion of sovereignty and power. The Feast of Christ the King is perhaps best realised in confrontation with and in opposition to earthly powers, as Christ himself does before Pilate, testifying, “My kingdom is not from this world”. 

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