Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Apolitical King: A Sunday Rumination

“My kingdom is not of this world.” – Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and Redeemer of Mankind, as reported in the Gospel According to John, 18:36

The last Sunday before Advent is the Feast of Christ the King, which concludes the liturgical year. Kingship – the proper role and conduct of royalty in a society that supports it – is inherently bound to political conceptions: i.e., the proper role of coercive power and whence the authority arises for its use. This makes the conception of Jesus as King of Kings a seemingly paradoxical one, for He claimed no temporal powers. Indeed, as I noted above, He explicitly said that His kingdom is not a temporal realm.

That politics – public policy, public obligations, and the political affiliations of Christians – should color our conceptions of His New Covenant goes beyond absurdity into blasphemy.

Some years ago, I wrote:

We of the Twenty-First Century are largely unaware of the obligations which lay upon the kings of old. They were not, until the waning years of monarchy, sedentary creatures whose lives were a round of indulgences and propitiations. They were expected not merely to judge and pass sentence, but also to lead the armies of the realm when war was upon it. The king was expected to put himself at risk before any of his subjects. Among the reasons was this one: the loss of the king in battle was traditionally grounds for surrender, after which the enemy was forbidden by age-old custom to strike further blows.

The king, in this conception, was both the leader of his legions and a sacrifice for the safety of his subjects, should the need arise. He was expected to embrace the role wholeheartedly, and to lead from the front in full recognition of the worst of the possibilities. Not to do so was an admission that he was unfit for his throne:

     "We have talked," he said, "about all the strategies known to man for dealing with an armed enemy. We have talked about every aspect of deadly conflict. Every moment of every discussion we've had to date has been backlit by the consciousness of objectives and costs: attaining the one and constraining the other. And one of the first things we talked about was the importance of insuring that you don't overpay for what you seek."
     She kept silent and listened.
     "What if you can't, Christine? What if your objective can't be bought at an acceptable price?"
     She pressed her lips together, then said, "You abandon it."
     He smirked. "It's hard even to say it, I know. But reality is sometimes insensitive to a general's desires. On those occasions, you must learn how to walk away. And that, my dear, is an art form of its own."
     He straightened up. "Combat occurs within an envelope of conditions. A general doesn't control all those conditions. If he did, he'd never have to fight. Sometimes, those conditions are so stiff that he's compelled to fight whether he thinks it wise, or not."
     "What conditions can do that to you?"
     His mouth quirked. "Yes, what conditions indeed?"
     Oops. Here we go again. "Weather could do it."
     "By cutting off your lines of retreat in the face of an invasion."
     "Good. Another."
     "Economics. Once the economy of your country's been militarized, it runs at a net loss, so you might be forced to fight from an inferior position because you're running out of resources."
     "Excellent. One more."
     She thought hard. "Superior generalship on the other side?"
     He clucked in disapproval. "Does the opponent ever want you to fight?"
     "No, sorry. Let me think."
     He waited.
     Conditions. Conditions you can't control. Conditions that...control you.
     "Politics. The political leadership won't accept retreat or surrender until you've been so badly mangled that it's obvious even to an idiot."
     The man Louis Redmond had named the greatest warrior in history began to shudder. It took him some time to quell.
     "It's the general's worst nightmare," he whispered. "Kings used to lead their own armies. They used to lead the cavalry's charge. For a king to send an army to war and remain behind to warm his throne was simply not done. Those that tried it lost their thrones, and some lost their heads -- to their own people. It was a useful check on political and military rashness.
     "It hasn't been that way for a long time. Today armies go into the field exclusively at the orders of politicians who remain at home. And politicians are bred to believe that reality is entirely plastic to their wills."

[From On Broken Wings.]

But the King of Kings, intrinsically above all other authorities, would obviously be aware of this obligation. More, His sacrifice of Himself must perforce be for the salvation of the whole of the world -- indeed, the whole of the universe and every sentient creature in it. Nothing less could possibly justify it.

That He surrendered Himself to death by torture ought to have provided our comprehension of His role with all the clarity it requires. Yet there are a fair number of persons who, confronted by some political proposition, will reply that “you can’t be a Christian if you think that.”

The wound to Christianity is more than superficial.

There could hardly be anything more blasphemous than for a priest of Christ to state, from the pulpit, that Christians are under an obligation to support certain political parties or public policies. Yet we hear this sort of thing from far too many pulpits...and from far too many persons whose conception of Christ’s New Covenant is shallow, to say the least.

Consider the current foofaurauw over America’s illegal alien population. The proposition that Americans owe persons who were not legally entitled to enter or remain in this country the right to legal residence, plus perhaps other privileges of citizenship, has many persons in a lather, myself among them. My sentiments are on record, nor have they changed at all since I first penned that essay. But above all other things, the issue is a political one, that touches upon the nature of a polity with a government largely conceded to be legitimate. And politics is always about the use of force.

Christ’s sole use of force while on Earth was to drive the moneychangers and sellers of sacrificial animals from the vestibule of the Temple of Jerusalem: “My house is a house of prayer, but ye have made it a den of thieves.” [Luke 19:46] That episode cannot be used to sanction or condemn the use of political power for any reason. Neither did He ever make a pronouncement on public policy, or on the proper attitude of the Jews toward the Rome-dominated State. His artful evasion of the matter – “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” [Luke 20:25] – is an all-time classic, and a perfect lesson to pastors tempted to insert their own politics into their Sunday homilies.

It should be clear that Christians, whatever their denominations, are under no religious obligation to vote this way or argue that way about any political subject. If there’s an exception, it would apply to officeholders who presume to advocate policies that would result in slaughter, oppression, or injustice...but even here, there’s a legitimate argument about the relative weight of intentions and the gulf between meaning well and doing well.

If your parish is blighted by a political priest, as is mine, and you find that nothing you say or do can induce him to keep his politics out of his preaching, at the very least you may rest assured that your conscience remains your guide in such matters. You have no political obligations arising from your faith. Your sole responsibility toward others is summed up by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” [Luke 6:31] Together with Leo Tolstoy’s dictum that we should act with love toward those whom God has placed in our path, it provides all the ethical guidance we need.

The King of Kings has said it. That’s good enough for me.

May God bless and keep you all.


Adrienne said...

Francis - you need to find a new parish.

Francis W. Porretto said...

He's one priest out of four, A. At any rate, he needs to be counter-weighted, which is one of the reasons I stick around.

Adrienne said...

I got tired of being a counter-weight, particularly since I was out-weighed by the complete lack of catechisis.

After leaving Church every Sunday ticked off about one thing or another, we realized that it was damaging our faith.

We escaped to a FSSP parish.

I wonder what my old parish is going to do when the openly homosexual 10:30 band director (who specializes in playing the "Sanctuary Song" during communion -ugh) and his live in lover who is also part of the band get "married" this spring.

Should be interesting...