Monday, November 24, 2008

Christ the King - Fr Edward Dowler

Preached at the Sung Mass of Christ the King in St John the Evangelist, Iffley Road - the church of St Stephen's House - by the Vice-Principal.

The feast of Christ the King prompts us to ask questions about how the kingdom of Christ relates to the kingdoms of this world; about how our citizenship in the one says about our relationship to the other. In order to look at that question, I’d like to explore two different types of people and why I think we need not to be like them.

The first type is the cynic. In my last parish, there was a wonderful children’s drama project that rented an office in the church tower. The two directors of the project gave a group of children from the housing estate an intensive playwriting course over the course of a term. At the end of the course, each child would write a short play which would then be performed by professional actors. The results were often extremely striking and several of them have stuck in my mind. One that did so was about a beautiful woman who unexpectedly falls in love with a boring nerdy man. How did we know he was so boring and nerdy? Well, she knew this because he went to a particular and rather rare type of academic institution, not in case you’re worrying, theological college, but ‘politician school’.

The girl who wrote that play was a youthful example of a particular political type that is more and more evident in this country: the cynic. The person who, for whatever reason, feels that they have very little stake in the political process and very few hopes that any political system is likely to produce positive change. Cynics are inclined to assume, often quite understandably, that mostly politics is about people pursuing their own self-serving interests and aggrandising themselves. In the housing estate that the girl who wrote about the nerd at politician school comes from, only eighteen per cent of the residents voted in the last European election and well under fifty per cent at the last general election. There are a lot of cynics about.

In contrast to the cynic and a sort of mirror image of them is the apparatchik. The person for whom politics is an all-consuming obsession. One might have in mind people political editors of newspapers. Or perhaps some of the senior party spin doctors; people at any rate whose entire existence seems to be caught up in the politics and machinations of the so-called ‘Westminster village’. It’s a theme that’s been written about recently that politicians today tend more and more to be apparatchiks: people who have not had other careers outside politics and seem to have few other interests but are totally consumed by politics and the political process. (There may, of course, be similar people when it comes to the Church but that’s another matter).

The cynic and the apparatchik are both, in their most extreme forms, very frightening people. Cynics are frightening because those who really feel that they hold no stake in politics may eventually try to achieve their aims by other means. The apparatchik because those who think that politics can solve everything are prone to messianic and utopian delusions about what governments can achieve and are sometimes willing, like Stalin or Hitler (apparatchiks par excellence), to sacrifice the lives of many people in trying to realise their all-consuming political dream.

Both cynics and apparatchiks have their counterparts in the Church. Closely related to the cynic is the pietist. The Christian for whom, in words we so often hear, ‘faith is really a very private matter’, who does not think that their faith really has much to do with the mucky and compromised business of how a country is governed and how people live together, who thinks that politics and religion don’t really mix. Who believes in the Kingdom of God as a spiritualised future goal that bears no relation to how the kingdoms of this world rule themselves or arrange their affairs.

If the cynic is related to the pietist, the apparatchik finds a counterpart in the triumphalist: the one who thinks that the Church should join hands with dominant political authority to create a society in which people are moulded so that they conform to the will of Church and state. In the early Church, it is the emperor Constantine who epitomises Christian triumphalism. When we look at the church in 1930s Germany, willing to be co opted by National Socialism, or at countries existing under sharia law, we arrive at some picture of what this rather ugly religious and political position might look like.

What I want to say today is that I believe Christ the King calls us not to fall into either of these positions.

On the one hand, not to be cynics or pietists disowning political processes altogether. For surely, there’s no call in the New Testament for that. Jesus says, ‘render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s’ and St Paul urges those who belong to his churches to be loyal to those in governing authority. Neither are, in any sense, calling their followers simply to detach themselves from society or from politics.

And yet, on the other hand, there’s equally no call in the New Testament to be apparatchiks or triumphalists, attempting to coerce the rest of society into our own vision of how things ought to be, however worthy certain aspects of that vision may be. Jesus says to Pilate that ‘my kingdom is not of this world’. The Kingdom that Christ brings is not a utopian dream but a future reality. We are called not to make the Kingdom happen but rather to the slower and more painstaking work of preparing the way for it, witnessing to God’s promise of it and praying for it to come.

The feast of Christ the King points us then to this view: politics are important but they are of a modest importance. On the one hand, we can’t opt out of them entirely like cynics and pietists and say our faith has nothing to do with them. On the other hand, we can’t, like apparatchiks and triumphalists, allow politics to consume everything. This side of the kingdom, politics have their significance but it is not an ultimate significance because the kingdom of God is coming and with it all the kingdoms of this world will pass away.

But I want to offer that statement with what I think is a vital qualification. And that is that just because our view of the importance of politics is a modest one, that does not mean that our position on political issues always has to be moderate. Just because we don’t think politics can solve everything does not mean to say that our stance on every matter has to be, as it is often is, cautious, timid and mealy-mouthed. When the Church is confronted by National Socialism in 1930s Germany or apartheid in 1950s South Africa or, in our own time, by the international arms trade or environmental devastation or widespread famine in Africa. When we are confronted by these things, just because we think there are limits to what politics can achieve, it does not mean that we always ought to adopt a safe neutral position.

For, as we hear in today’s gospel, to owe allegiance to Christ the King is to belong to one whose judgments are really very clear. Before the Kingdom comes, Jesus will typically come to us not as a powerful ruler or politician, but identifying himself completely with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the prisoner: ‘just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’. The way in which we and the society to which we belong treats these people really does have ultimate significance. Yes indeed the Kingdom of Christ is coming and that kingdom will relativise all earthly kingdoms but no that does not allow us to be complacent in the face of wickedness, injustice and suffering for the judgment of Christ the King on these matters is not moderate and cautious but terrifyingly decisive and clear:

‘…these will go away into eternal punishment,’ he says, ‘but the righteous into eternal life’.