A Christian skeptic examines our politics

By Derek Olsen

Well, we’re pulling into the home-stretch now. There are less than 30 days to the presidential election and the campaign rhetoric has become a full-out assault on the senses. I’m doing my best to keep up, I really am. As an Undecided voter, I’ve been dutifully watching debates and comparing platforms, pondering and praying about the decisions before us both national and local. How hopelessly out of touch I remain, however, was brought home to me one early Monday morning a few weeks ago.

I was at the Y, headphones blaring, German Industrial egging me on to the insane pace I’d set for myself on the treadmill; CNN anchors were mouthing words at me as the ticker at the bottom of the screen updated the world on where various important people had been over the week. To my chagrin I realized that I had absolutely no idea where McCain, Obama, Palin, or Biden had been or what they had said, but the moment Pope Benedict’s name started going across I knew what country and city he’d been in—and had already seen some analyses of the liturgies he’d celebrated…

Politics and religion: two forces that, in my life, share an uneasy tension that probably explains why I’m still Undecided. Politics and religion always have been and always will be intertwined—make no mistake about that—but their connection is far more ambiguous and complicated than pundits on either side want to suggest in this election season. There is no one way that politics and religion interrelate. It’s a many-sided relationship, sometimes mutually supporting, sometimes contradictory, never simple. And this time of year, I’m reminded that whatever politics thinks of organized religion, there’s always been a strand of our religious heritage that has been deeply skeptical of organized politics.

A foundational text for this strand is the words of Samuel to the people when they ask him to anoint a king:

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your menservants and maidservants, and the best of your cattle and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.” (1 Samuel 8:11-18)

Sounds to me like the proleptic cry of a crotchety conservative against both radical change and big government, but something much deeper and far more important is going on. As the last verse makes painfully clear, there are religious implications to this form of government—and these implications are all bad.

Let’s dig a little deeper here, though, because it’s complicated. On one hand is the political side of things: The Children of Israel had entered the Promised Land and had settled there. As tribes of nomadic herders, their links to one another had been tenuous, occasional, and temporary. When faced with invasion or oppression, nomadic herders pick up and move. As they grew more tightly tied to the land, as they put down roots—both metaphorical and literal—and began shifting towards a more agrarian society, their political reality changed. Their wealth, their livelihood, was no longer mobile. You collect a harvest, you store it somewhere, it’s not easy to just up and move it all. And with harvests come invaders, looking for easy prey. The Children of Israel are tired of yearly raids, of their small hastily-armed clan units being overwhelmed by dedicated bodies of seasoned warriors—herdsman and farmers with sticks and stones against professionals with bronze armor and swords. Sure, “judges” called by God would occasionally appear to unite the clans and strike against this year’s invaders—but is this a way to stabilize a land? (Imagine of we waited for a “judge” to arise and deal with the Wall Street mess!) In the face of these difficulties, the people plead for Samuel to give them a king: a single stable ruler with a standing army to protect their homes, children, and crops.

On the other hand, though, is the religious side of things: the people already had a king, God. As God reveals to Samuel a few verses earlier: “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you [as a judge], but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7). The call for a king was a rejection of the kingship of God. Furthermore, the choice of words given to Samuel are eerily reminiscent of both Deuteronomy 17:14-20 and 1 Kings 10:26-11:10 which inveigh against the aggressive foreign and economic policies which, for all of Solomon’s wisdom, drove the kingdom into idolatry and split the Promised Land into two rival kingdoms: Israel and Judah. The king brought idolatry, economic distress, and ultimately disunity.

While it’s present in the histories, this strand questioning and challenging political regimes has had a firm foundation in our liturgical traditions from the beginning. There’s a distinct group of psalms known as the Enthronement Psalms (Pss 47, 93, 96-99) which proclaim with boldness, “YHWH has become king!”—the typical shout of acclamation and accompanies it with the blast of the shofar, the ram’s horn, also a component of a king’s coronation. God is king—and not the man on Israel or Judah’s throne. Rather, they serve as a steward on behalf of the true King whose rule is marked by justice and equity for all. As modern Americans, I think we may miss the full significance of this. In the world of early monarchical politics, justice and mercy were ideals and rarely realities. A king’s primary task was ensuring that the warlords under him were too weak and disunified to make an effort to topple him. Justice and mercy took second place to balancing factions against one another, securing allies, and dissuading would-be usurpers—usually with “favors” which were miscarriages of justice themselves. These psalms present a strong word of condemnation to the established political powers: “You, mortal, are not the true king; you exercise power at the pleasure of the true King. His standards are justice, equity, and mercy—not based in venial calculation; be afraid lest he sweep you aside.”

It’s no accident that many Scriptural visions of God occur in a celestial throne room. We get moments like the throne-room vision of 1 Kings 22:19-22 in a number of place, but the grand-daddy of them all is at the end of our Bible in the Book of Revelation. Chapters 4 and 5 are an extended sequence occurring in the divine throne-room where John of Patmos literally redraws the cosmos, centering it all around the throne, envisioning and describing concentric circles of living creatures, of apostles, patriarchs, prophets, martyrs, of the whole created order bowing down, casting crowns, and acclaiming God as the one true Emperor of the entire inhabited cosmos. In a world that defined itself around Rome and Roman might, John redraws all the boundaries. There is a center. There is an emperor. And all that is really real participates in praise of the true Emperor—the one seated upon the throne, the Lamb standing as if it had been slain.

We Christians not only regularly pray these psalms and chant these hymns from Revelation, but moments like these pop up in our own liturgies as well. As a seminarian in a plainchant class, I was entranced by a set of prayers coming from an 11th century manuscript from Autun, in modern-day France. After a set of petitions by a cantor, the full schola would thunder the repetitive refrain “Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat!”—Christ conquers! Christ reigns! Christ is emperor! According to certain clues in the liturgy, it seemed that Easter was when the court of the king would have been in Autun: the king would have been in the congregation as another king was acclaimed in full voice and power in his presence. The prayers were not just words to God—they were words to the king as well, reminding, qualifying, even challenging. There is a standard against which government is judged—and it ain’t you…

In our current liturgical round following the Revised Common Lectionary, the last Sunday of Ordinary Time is kept as the Feast of Christ the King. Some think this language outdated and passé. Me—I like it. Precisely because it is outdated. Precisely because it flies in the face of our current political and cultural realities. Precisely because it speaks a word of challenge and judgment against our regimes no matter what side of the aisle they come from. If we stumble at the title, the stumbling reveals a teachable moment to consider competing values and competing visions of what’s really real. The Gospel confronts us with a vision of the world as it can be—as it ought to be. It’s not a vision that lines up neatly with either American party’s ideology despite what some would like you to believe. Interestingly, this feast’s traditional placement—before Vatican II and the RCL came along—was the last Sunday of October which means that some years it was the Sunday just previous to our election; songs of Christ’s kingship would still be ringing in voters’ ears come November 4th.

As we head to the polls, we have painful political and social realities that we have to face. We have a lot of struggles to overcome: economic issues, military quandaries, energy problems, social confusions, and more that intertwine and defy easy answers and sound-bites. I’ll make myself listen, I’ll make a decision, and I’ll make my way to the polls. But no matter who stands triumphant on Inauguration Day in January, I’ll be the one in the background singing: Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat!

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