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Monday, 22 November 2010

Feast of Christ the King - subverting our ideas about Kingship

Simon Barrow in his column The subversive feast of Christ the King comments that:

After days of wall-to-wall media coverage about royalty, churches across Britain have today celebrated Jesus Christ as the true king. This is a truly subversive claim.

A carpenter's son executed as a political troublemaker by an oppressive regime does not conform to our understandings of monarchy; even less so when he teaches that the first will be last and the last first. The man who announced his engagement last week appears to be a far more suitable candidate for the position. 

The claim that Christ is king not only subverts common expectations about the nature of power. It is also a reminder that no-one can serve two kings. If Christ is king, then no other person or institution can demand our total loyalty – whether William Windsor, the British state, the free market or even the Church. 

Many early Christians attracted extra persecution by refusing to declare that “Caesar is Lord”. If Christ is Lord, they reasoned, then Caesar cannot be. After the coming of Christendom – when the Church became allied with the forces of power and wealth – this claim was softened. In order to get round the problem, earthly monarchs were presented as representatives of Christ. 

But if we no longer accept the notion that monarchs are anointed by God, why are we prepared to acknowledge anyone other than Christ as our king? It may well be argued that the British monarch has no real power. This claim is an exaggeration, but there is a lot of truth in it. However, the very use of words such as “king”, “queen” and “lord” reinforces the values of hierarchy and privilege whose emptiness is exposed by Jesus' radical message of the Kingdom of God.
Curiously enough there is support for the subversion of commonly accepted cultural ideas of kingship extends back beyond the New Testament accounts of Jesus that go back deep into the history of Israel. One of the more unexpected of these surfaces in the Old Testament reading for the Feast of Christ the King, in of all places the book of Deuteronomy. The account of kingship offered in Deuteronomy 17 attaches some requirements that qualify the support for the people of Israel having a king so drastically as to redefine the nature of kingship.

The king is not to:
  • have "too many horses" particularly from Egypt - limiting his military power severely
  • have too many wives - limiting the options for building alliances 
  • try to get huge amounts of silver and gold - again limiting the basis for dynastic power
  • not think of himself as better than anyone else - that is he is not to consider himself superior to his fellow Israelites - like them he is under God
The king must: 
  •  write out a copy of God's laws under the supervision of the priests
  • must read and obey these laws
  • learn to worship the Lord with fear and trembling
Given that the kings of the ancient near east saw themselves as having unquestioned and unlimited power and authority the limits placed on kingship in Deuteronomy fundamentally redefine the role of kingship. The authors of Deuteronomy are contributing to an ongoing argument in Israel about the desirability of kingship and its character and provide an account which cuts against the grain of their time and place.

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