[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Increasingly in liturgical circles it is becoming politically incorrect to talk about the “kingship” of Christ. Such a term now brings with it all the baggage of patriarchal interpretations of the biblical text. It calls to mind the exploitation brought about by colonial powers, abuses of power at the hands of politicians, and perhaps every abuse of power—abuses which represent heinous tragedy and sin. However, while we lament such abuse it is important to remember that power, in political terms, is itself neutral. It is a gift given by God in creation, which when wielded in the hands of human beings can be used for either selfish or selfless purposes (usually with correspondingly negative or positive results). Unfortunately, too often we as human beings struggle to monopolize power for our own sakes and consequently abuses occur.
Even at our best, no nation—representing a consolidation of political power—is immune to some such abuse. In the wake of this month’s elections in the US, whatever side of the political aisle one sits on, the opportunity for lament at power struggles and broken systems is ripe. Today’s readings remind us that these problems are far from new. Daniel, in his court of judgment, envisions the defeat of beasts who represent the scandal and abuses of his time and place. In Revelation, John of Patmos sees a vision of Christ coming to defeat the powers that threaten and monopolize in his time and place. As such, the politics of these texts are foregrounded in a manner that is not always so obvious. In a very real way, Daniel and John are challenging the empires whose abuse of power dominated in their respective contexts.
However, today, many Christians see in this being to whom all dominion has been given (Daniel 7:11) the same Christ who is “the faithful witness…the ruler of the kings” in Revelation (1:4). For the preacher, however, these representations need not be mutually exclusive—one may simply be more appropriate for a particular group of people in a particular time and place. Likewise, the fact that the beasts of Daniel meant one thing for one group of people does not preclude them from taking on the character of our own beasts—our own experiences of chaos, loss of control, and abuse of power. And, while they may live, and in a very real way dominate the earthly political scene, at the same time Daniel proclaims to us the abiding good news that their eternal dominion has been taken away (7:12).
So too in Revelation John uncovers for us, not just a prediction of the end of the world, but most significantly, the power and love of God in Christ Jesus. Standing before the throne of God, John proclaims “glory and dominion forever and every” to “him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood” (1:6). God has dominion. God is in control. All that is evil, all that can threaten or oppress us, has lost its power at the feet of God. Sin, and thus judgment, are washed away by the blood of Christ. This is what it looks like to live in the reign of God.
It is an amazing and powerful image—one that people could rally around. Indeed, this idea of reigndom, of God’s perfect justice and sovereignty lived out on earth is precisely what the disciples were willing to rally behind. It is why in John’s gospel Peter wields a sword and cuts off Malchus’ ear (18:10). But Jesus insists his “kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). And such insistence is why he submits to arrest and heals Malchus’ ear. But why? If Jesus truly is “the ruler of the kings of earth” (1:5) the natural question is why doesn’t he act like it? Why doesn’t he establish his kingdom on earth?
We all have our own answers to these questions – if you feel moved, I invite you to share yours in the comments below. For me, these texts reveal a Reign (Kingdom) established by Jesus in the here and now of this earth, but unlike any other ever known on this earth. Jesus’ kingdom does not belong in a judgment room. It is not won with swords or armies or gavels. Instead, these readings invite us to imagine the contexts in which Christ’s reign is alive and well—instantiated by the love that he showed for us on the cross. Today’s readings point us to the ones who “testify to the truth” (John 18:37), the ones who “serve” the almighty (Daniel 7:14), to those who live empowered as freed children of God—the Sovereign of the universe (Revelation 1:5).
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes, “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a fellow in theology and practice at Vanderbilt University in the area of New Testament and early Christianity. She and her family reside in Franklin, Tennessee where they attend the Lutheran Church of St. Andrew.