Two weeks ago I visited the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. Interspersed among the timelines and photographs, the center includes vintage television sets that loop old broadcast interviews with George Wallace, Bull Connor, and others, all of whom say that (in the vernacular of the era) the Negro is an inherent threat to the white man and must be segregated from white society. The voices imply violence and fan fear. As one moves through the exhibit, the sounds of these voices are never quite silenced. They haunt; they distract; they needle their way into consciousness.
Today’s Old Testament reading reveals to us the final, benedictory words of King David, the ideal king of Israel. They reveal one side of the great king, the spiritual side that cleaves to God and serves as God’s oracle. At the beginning of the Bible’s next book, however, we receive the very last image of David, and it reminds us of David’s other, worldly side. 1 Kings tells us that “King David was old and advanced in years, and although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm.” That’s a starkly realistic and even pitiful image. The man who once slew Goliath, who defeated armies, who built Jerusalem, is now so diminished that he can’t even beat back the cold.
And for those who know the story of David in full, we are reminded at this point that this ideal king is also an entirely and sometimes viciously human one. He is the potentate who forced himself upon Bathsheba, who intentionally sent her husband Uriah to his death, who went to any length to accomplish whatever he desired. We remember the David who, in order to get what he wanted, knew when to stoke his nation’s patriotism and when to fan his people’s fears, who sometimes entered into alliances with other kings, availing himself of their protection, while at other times vilified his neighbors as something less than his own people.
But now this king, who has for so long molded the world into his image, embodies the image of one who is diminished, and in pain, and cold, and about to die. Because that is what happens to the kings of this world, all of them, whether they wear crowns, or suits, or desert tunics; whether they sit in Jerusalem or Washington, D.C., Austin or Fallujah; whether they call themselves Highness or President or Governor or Caliph. They, like all of us, are but dust, and to dust they will return. And the worlds they build? The petty empires? Scripture has something to say about those, too. The author of Ecclesiastes begins his wise treatise by saying, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
Why does this matter on this particular day? Because today is the last Sunday of our liturgical year. Next Sunday we enter Advent, in which we assume the posture of expectation and anticipation. But today we pause to assume a different posture, one of kneeling subjects, and the king to whom we kneel is not David or any earthly king, whatever title he may bear. Today is the day we declare Christ the King.
In John’s Gospel today, another of those worldly kings, the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, questions Jesus. On the face of it, in this encounter Pilate has absolute power, and Jesus has absolutely none. Pilate explains that others are calling Jesus king. Pilate knows what kings do. He knows how kings act. And so he asks Jesus, “What have you done? What are the tell-tale signs of your kingship? How will you fight back, or where will you circle the wagons?”
Jesus’ response, refracted through the Gospel he has preached and lived, is to say, “My kingdom is not one among others. My kingdom operates by completely different rules—rules not of this world—rules that don’t derive from your binary calculus of winners and losers, of us against them, of might makes right, of power preying on the powerless.”
Pilate shrugs and scoffs, and he sends Jesus off to the cross. That’s what kings with worldly power do to the powerless. And Jesus dies, but his death is not like the irrevocable diminishment and decay of David, or of Pilate for that matter, or of all worldly kings. Jesus’ death is a testament to love, which will not raise a hand in violence and will not exclude any from its embrace. Jesus’ death is revealed to be the first step in resurrection. While all other kings ultimately lie irrelevant in the grave, Jesus the King lives eternally on, and his reign still increases whenever and wherever souls kneel to Christ the King by resisting those haunting voices that needle in our ears, fomenting violence and fanning fear, instead choosing to act not according to ways of the world, but according to law of love.
As we all know, a little over a week ago, the voice of a worldly self-declared king named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi fanned his ISIS followers to launch coordinated terrorist attacks throughout Paris, killing one hundred thirty people and wounding hundreds more. It was not, by the way, the only day of terror that week. The day before, ISIS killed forty-three people in Beirut.
What rules of worldly kingdoms would lead to such attacks? To understand this, we must back up and acknowledge what has happened in the twelve months prior to last week. As the result of civil war compounded by the horrific brutality of ISIS toward anyone who won’t subscribe to its specific version of Islam, Syria is emptying. Think about that. It is unprecedented in modern history, and it represents the largest mass migration of people since World War II.[i] Hundreds of thousands of refugees, fleeing for their lives and the lives of their families, have reached Europe, where nations including France and Germany have opened their doors and granted sanctuary. Women, children, and families have been extended grace, care, and safety. Make no mistake: where this has happened, we have seen a striking and hopeful geo-political glimpse of God’s kingdom on earth.
And that, as Paul Goldsmith has astutely observed, is exactly why last week’s attacks in Paris occurred.[ii] Al-Baghdadi has stated publicly that ISIS wishes to eliminate any sense that it is possible for Muslims and non-Muslims to co-exist, because where they do co-exist, the dualistic ISIS worldview of black and white, believer and infidel, breaks down. The very intention behind the ISIS attacks was to sow seeds of fear, to pit the West against those seeking safety for their families. As Paul Goldsmith says, “ISIS realized they had to do something to stop us taking in refugees. They had to do something to remind us that Muslims are supposed to be our enemies. They had to do something to make us fear these strangers in our midst.”
And now, we are faced with how to respond, both to ISIS and to those refugees seeking lives of safety. How to confront the menace of ISIS itself I leave to others much more versed on the subject and capable of response. It must be a strong and unequivocal response; that much I know. But what, today, of those hundreds of thousands of refugees still fleeing, still desperately seeking sanctuary in some new home, including the United States?
The voices of fear in our own country, responding exactly as al-Baghdadi hoped, grow louder. They haunt; they distract; they needle their way into our consciousness. They are powerful voices, the voices of the kings of our society.But we, here in this place, first and foremost, are Christian people. We are not Republicans or Democrats. We’re not conservatives or liberals. We are not even Americans, not first. We are Christians. We are those who submit our very lives to the Gospel law of love. We are those who kneel before Christ the King. And our first question to ourselves must always be, “How would our King have us respond?”
“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked Jesus. And Jesus told him a story of two people–a Jew and a Samaritan–from opposing religious traditions and cultures wary and suspicious of one another. Jesus chose as the emblematic picture of the Gospel of love one such person setting aside his own fears and needs to save the life of the other.[iii]
Of the Syrian refugees being referred by the United Nations for settlement, more than half are children under the age of eighteen. It is worth mentioning, as we will be reminded during Advent, Jesus was himself once a child refugee seeking asylum from deadly violence across national boundaries. And the screening process for admitting refugees to the United States is rigorous, with the safety of United States citizens as top priority. It takes an average of eighteen to twenty-four months. Kathleen Newland, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute says, “The refugee resettlement program is the least likely way for a terrorist to infiltrate the United States.”[iv]
The kings of this world—Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Francois Hollande, Barak Obama, Greg Abbott, take your pick—like David they are but dust. They will pass; this crisis will pass; this era will pass. And someday there will be an exhibit somewhere in which our response to these events is chronicled. There will be photos and timelines. There may be vintage television sets looping interviews with the very voices crowding the news today. And as with all later generations reflecting upon their priors, those who come after us will be, one way or the other, mystified by how we responded. It is my hope that they will be mystified—and inspired—by our willingness to love, to take absolutely seriously our role as subjects of Jesus our King.
Christ’s kingdom does not decay. It is eternal, and we choose in every decision—personal and corporate—to whom we are subject. We are not called to be foolhardy. We are not called to be rash. But we are called, always and every time, to side with Christ the King and his love.
[iii] Luke 10:25-37
[iv] This paragraph comes from the pastors’ op-ed for The Houston Chronicle, drafted by my colleague the Rev. Tommy Williams, Sr. Pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Houston.