Christ the King Sunday -- In churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary (an agreed-upon schedule of Bible readings for Sunday worship), the last Sunday before Advent is the Feast of Christ the King. This feast was established by the Catholic Pope Pius XI in 1925. It was a response to rising secularism after World War I, and an attempt to address the growing fascist movement in Italy under Benito Mussolini. Faithful Christians who claim Christ as King are not supposed to let themselves fall under the domination of secular rulers. In current worship practices, this day serves to remind the faithful that Christ's death and resurrection has set him at the right hand of God, where he reigns over heaven and earth, and from whence, in time, he will judge the world. In principle, I have no issue with this theology, although in practice it leads to the deeper theological question of:
Theodicy -- The philosophical and theological issue of evil in a world purportedly ruled by God. How can a just, all-loving, all-powerful God allow evil into the world?
Christus Rex -- For the first thousand years of Christianity, the image portrayed of Christ on the cross was of a living, raised, and ascended Christ, not a broken, human, mortal Jesus. For the first half of Christianity, it was important to show that the crucifixion was not the end of the story, but that the cross was the vehicle for Christ's triumph over sin and death.
Gero Crucifix -- I first read about the Gero Crucifix in Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker. This book describes a shift in Christian understanding. Brock and Parker show that the primary image of Christianity was paradise. That paradise was accomplished in Christ's resurrection, and Christians enter paradise in baptism. They demonstrate through a review of Christian art, that early Christians believed that paradise (or the Kingdom of God) is always breaking into this world, and that we touch paradise most closely in worship. The authors use the Gero Crucifix to demonstrate how this idea shifted in Christianity around the year 1000, when Christ's violent death became the focus of the Christian understanding of salvation.
Substitutionary Atonement -- Around the year 1100, the monk Anselm of Canterbury wrote a treatise, Cur Deus Homo, in which he developed a theology of the cross that has endured for almost 1,000 years. Anselm's theory is NOT the only theory of what happened when Christ died on the cross, but it has had tremendous staying power. It says, in essence, this: because humans sinned, they offended the honor of God. So God's honor must be restored, and in feudal times, honor could be restored by conquering or eliminating the offender. But because God wants to save humanity, not condemn it, there has to be another means of restoring God's honor, besides wiping out all of humanity. So God sent Jesus to take our punishment upon him, thereby restoring God's honor and making it possible for humans not to be condemned to hell, if they believe in Jesus.
I have real problems with this theology. While you can look at humanity as a whole and say humans are capable of tremendous evil, most individual humans are not so evil that they deserve an eternity of punishment. While corporate, "capital-S-Sin" has tremendous power in this world, corrupting and destroying God's people and God's world, the individual, "small-s-sins" many people commit don't deserve the divine and eternal smack down that this theology claims we have earned. Yet, the question of theodicy remains. Why is there evil in the world, and what does the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have to do with resolving that problem of evil? Because Anselm's theology of substitutionary atonement doesn't work for me, I have turned instead to other theologies that express a different understanding of the purpose of Christ's death on the cross.
Solidarity Theology and Liberation Theology -- Theologies developed in the latter part of the 20th Century by Latino, African-American, Feminist, Womanist and other theologians emphasized the gospel's "preferential option for the poor" as liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, described it. The purpose of Christ's life and death was to demonstrate God's love for the poor and the oppressed, and God's desire that they be liberated from their oppression. Christ's death on the cross thus becomes an act of profound solidarity with the oppressed. God cares enough about the suffering of humanity to submit God's self to that suffering, and the resurrection shows God's intention that suffering will not win, and that all people should work for the liberation, freedom, and healing of the poor, marginalized and the oppressed. James Cone, a Black theologian, compares the cross to the lynching tree, and he writes: "The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst." While not a liberation theologian per se, Pope Francis, who came out of Latin American Catholicism, has promoted the idea of the gospel's preferential concern for the poor, without some of the violent ideology that some liberation theologians uphold. Because liberation theologians believe God desires all oppressed people to be liberated, some subsets of liberation theologians condone violent overthrow of the powerful to achieve that end.
Girardian Theory -- The theory of mimesis described by French anthropologist and literary critic Rene Girard, is more specifically non-violent than liberation theology. Girard observed that humanity is always competing, and competition -- for women, for money, for property, for power -- leads to violence. He describes a scapegoating mechanism as a way cultures learn to avoid this violence. They find an external object to become the scapegoat, and unite, instead of competing, to sacrifice the scapegoat. Some cultures enshrined this method in ritual, sacred sacrifice of animals or even people. By appeasing an angry god with a sacrifice, God's punishment can be averted, or God's favor can be earned. Girard explains the death of Christ on the cross as the way the scapegoating mechanism is exposed as useless. The "angry God" is the scapegoat, the one being sacrificed. And the non-violence response of this God, the willing death of God as an innocent victim, eliminates the need for any future violence, scapegoats, or sacrifices.
Loving Your Enemies in a World of Violence -- While these theories demonstrate Christ's solidarity with a suffering humanity, and the truth of God's will for the world to be one of peace and love, specifically non-violent and non-retaliatory love, this world still doesn't look very peaceful. After the Paris attacks, the Episcopal bishop in Europe wrote a letter struggling with this question, "In Paris, Do We Have to Love Our Enemies?" Bishop Whalon calls for us to take a clear-eyed view of violence, while working actively to wage peace.
Concluding Thoughts -- I continue to wrestle with and develop my own theology of Christ the King, because I believe that the Reign of Christ must be one of peace. Some of these newer theologies of solidarity and liberation, combined with Girardian mimetic theory, have helped me to do that. I offer these annotations as kind of a road map of my own thinking and struggle, and as a way to open up much of the thinking and reading and contemplation that underlies this one sermon. This is sort of a "backstage tour" of what goes into the writing and preparation of a sermon. Week after week, I'm back here, behind the words, toiling and reading and praying and thinking, as I listen for God's voice and pray to speak God's words to my people.