Of Kings, and Light, and Love

Today, it is 30 days since the Presidential Inauguration. We have endured over a year of fraught and divisive campaigning for the primaries and the general election. In its aftermath, controversy has not stopped, but has continued. Our election results were disputed more harshly than any in memory, including a record split between the electoral and popular votes.

This has all occurred after another election, eight years ago, of the first Black President of the United States. For many Americans, that election was a step forward for this country, portending a future in which the healing of racial and ethnic divides could proceed, in which women would be fully valued for their contributions, and in which our society and our common culture would be more accepting and respectful of our differences. Some of this promise has been realized. But the November election reminded us that there were also many Americans who felt differently. Who felt their traditions were being set aside, their standards eroded, and their struggles ignored.

Today it feels as though there are two Americas, one that elected Barack Obama and the other that elected Donald Trump. And the divide between those two is growing — not shrinking. We have always been contentious, but our disagreements seem to have become sharper and our methods for resolving conflict seem to be increasingly tested and found wanting. We disagree on politics, on policy, on culture, race, gender, and religion, and these differences seem to be less and less tolerated and respected. The gap between us is clearly highlighted in some of the numbers from the past election:

Nearly 60% of white voters chose Donald Trump. Nearly 75% of people of color chose Hillary Clinton. For Black voters, it was closer to 90%. Although race is not the only factor in our division, it seems clear that points of view are very different, and that there is a need for some kind of reconciliation.

At no other time in my life have I felt so keenly the Christian admonition to be in the world, but not of the world. To change the things in the world that I cannot accept as a Christian.

So, today I will speak of Kings and their Laws — things of the world — and of Light and Love — things we must use to bring change to the world.

Let us begin with a Coronation of sorts. On Christmas Day, the Republican National Committee issued the following statement, the first part of which went like this:

Merry Christmas to all! Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind. Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King.

At best the phrase “a new King” was unfortunate within the particular construction of the RNC’s statement. One might easily interpret it to mean we were crowning our recently-elected President, rather than a recognizing birth of an innocent child who would become the Son of Man.

But, setting aside the writer’s motives, the image of a King is a familiar one to Christians. Christ is prophesied as the one who will “make thine enemies thy footstool” (Psalms), and as a monarch who “shall reign for ever and ever” (Revelations). In our reading from Leviticus today, as the divine Law is being delivered to Moses, the legitimacy of each part of it is justified by the assertion of authority “I am the Lord your God.”

The idea of King is both ancient and persistent. Modeled on the patriarchy, the King is the Father of all. He is the protector, the rule giver, the provider and the bringer of order. A worldly leader, who appeals to our desire for security, provides a hierarchy, and gives us laws to follow so we know what is allowed. We measure goodness in terms of pleasing and complying with the Father-King, and are rewarded by feeling protected and secure in our place. The King proves his worth by keeping his people safe from enemies both internal and external, in ensuring order and structure, and providing rewards to the obedient.

This is very similar to what cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff calls the Strict Father worldview. “Father knows best” and will keep us safe through his actions and judgement. When one of our leaders talks about building a wall along the Mexican border to keep out undesirables, or advocates “extreme vetting” to prevent terrorist infiltration, he is causing that worldview to be referenced. When everything is a mess and only the Leader can fix it, we are in the realm of the Strict Father.

In this realm, God is the ultimate Father, and his authority is delegated to our Kings and leaders at every level from nation to state to county to city to family. One does not question that there is a natural hierarchy, in which men are in authority above women, and obedient children are favored over disobedient ones. In the United States the hierarchy also includes race. Within the Strict Father worldview, condescending statements to black people that assume they all live in “inner cities” that are beset by carnage are simply loving admonitions by a concerned Father who knows he could fix it if “the children” would just listen and comply.

If taken too far, the authority and power of the King becomes the central principle and goal. A common tactic in authoritarian regimes or groups is a focus one enemies that borders on obsession. These enemies may be external or internal and are identified using coded language: “radical Muslims” for fringe terrorists from Islamic countries or “global elites” for Jews. In Uzbekistan, the government even invented a terrorist group upon which it could place blame for any violence (real or imagined) as justification for crackdowns and abridgment of due process or legal rights.

But Jesus made it abundantly clear that he was different than earthly kings. When questioned by Pilate “are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus initially deflects, and then tells Pilate:

My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. (John 18:36).

Christ’s sovereignty is not based solely on power or on the right to rule over others. Recall that he was explicitly offered earthly rule during his 40 days in the wilderness. He rejected that temptation and with it the trappings of power in this world. What kind of King then is He?

Paul’s letter first letter to the church in Corinth — which had become riven by internal divisions — offers some important hints. First, he reminds them

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? … God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Paul is clearly rebuking the members of the church. Their actions and their division are not sitting well with him. But the way he does it is interesting. He does not address the rules that they have broken or his own disappointment — disappointment he might feel quite reasonably, as a founder and leader of the Church. He does not react as a Father to rebellious children. Instead he reminds them of the gift that has been given them (God’s Spirit), of their responsibility (to be holy) and of their agency (you are that temple). He quite clearly and deliberately is reminding them of both their own authority to act and of their accountability to God.

A little further on he tells them:

So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

Again, Paul does not issue orders to the congregation at Corinth. He doesn’t clarify which leader should be pre-eminent. In fact, he dispenses with the human hierarchy entirely and in its place invokes community and relatedness. “All things are yours — all belong to you — and you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.” This is in direct response to members of the church signing on under one leader or another, and the resulting divisions within the church. Paul is telling them to get their priorities in order — that God’s spirit dwells in each of them, and that they are each therefore part of one another. That is the connection that matters. It is not the bond of followership nor the allegiance to one leader or another that matters. It is that we belong to one another and that belonging comes to us through Christ, through the Holy Spirit, and through the Father.

Christ is a very different sort of King. His authority is rooted in what he did and said, in the things he valued and the things he did not. He cared for the innocent and the vulnerable. He healed the sick, the lame, and the blind. He broke bread with tax collectors and prostitutes, offering them both acceptance and forgiveness. He emphasized the virtues of Samaritans (today we may call them “Muslim refugees” or “illegal immigrants”) instead of shunning them.

It is important to note the kinds of things he did not do as well. He did not seek out wealth or political influence. He did not punish his enemies, he did not seek to vanquish his opponents except by befriending them. Even in his sharp verbal jousting with Pharisees, we cannot imagine Jesus mocking anyone as a “loser.” He did not build walls.

In being part of the body of Christ, we have never been called to be comfortable. Our priorities are not the things that are gloried in our culture. We are not called to enrich themselves in the coin of this world — whether it be in popularity, or in power, or in wealth. We do not gain at the expense of another’s misery. We do not attack or oppress those who are vulnerable. We are called to tell the truth, to be considered in our thought, in our speech, and in our behavior. To manifest our respect for others in thoughts, words, and actions. To shine a light — and to neither curse the darkness nor extinguish light of another.

For our King is our not our Monarch or our President or our Dear Leader. Our King is the Light of the World. Christ does not pull us along a path that only He knows. Instead, he is the Light illuminating the rocky terrain of our lives — and by that glow we find our own way.

But to what end? What does our destination look like? If we return for a moment to the worldview in which the Strict Father decides what is best, then the answer is easy — we follow his rules and keep his laws. It is worth recalling part of our passage from Leviticus:

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Jesus himself echoes this in the Gospel of Mark. But in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount he takes it further.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven;

As a Christian, you carry the Light of Christ with you always. Sometimes that light will make your destination clear, as if you were walking along a broad avenue in daylight. Sometimes you may have only of few streetlights, or maybe the moon to illuminate your surroundings. Sometimes you may have to take your smartphone out and turn on the flashlight setting, because that’s all you’ve got. But you can see the terrain, and you can choose a path.

Some of those are easy paths, smooth and level and safe. These are paths that lead toward conventional success — paths that will garner approval from many others (or envy, it that is your goal). There are paths of blind trust for authority figures, or of “going along to get along.” There are paths that dismiss poverty as due to laziness, or sexual assault as either “locker room” behavior or the fault of the victim. There are paths that insist we are victims of some scapegoat or another — but follow me and I will “Make America Great Again”

Then there are rockier trails. These are paths taken when we listen to that small voice urging compassion for refugees of the devastation of Syria, rather than to voices of prejudice about people who speak Arabic or worship the God of Abraham by a different name. These are the paths along which white, black, and brown people find common cause in stopping the unjust killing of people of color by police. These are the paths taken when Christians agree that it’s better for a young man or woman to be open about their own sexuality than to injure themselves trying to “fit in.” These are the paths where men rebuke men who harass or dismiss women in the workplace or online.

These are the path we take when we aspire to love our neighbors as ourselves, understanding that in this current age the world itself has become our neighborhood. And I know that many of you work every day to find and stay on these paths, helping to make this world a more just and more loving place. That is a challenge in and of itself.

But along the way, we will encounter those who have different ideas and different priorities. They may be satisfied with things as they are. They may not see the injustice that you so clearly perceive — or they may wish to perpetuate it because it is to their advantage. They will oppose you. Even if what you do is right and just.

They will be your enemies.

“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

What does this look like? How do we do that?

Let me offer a perspective from Indian-born writer and activist Sunny Singh, who posted this on twitter in January:

I have been thinking of apartheid South Africa where I lived just before liberation. Where I learned SO much about politics and activism.
Every single revolutionary was arrested (or worse) because someone close to home gave them up. For extra food, protection, cash, or promotion.
Every single betrayal was because the fear of revolution — and yes, of equality — was greater than the horror of apartheid, injustice, and cruelty.
So instead people threw leaders, revolutionaries, activists under the bus — often literally. Because that seemed safer or more profitable.
Lumumba, Biko, Fanon, Allende — Every revolutionary has known this truth: Betrayal is a necessary condition of revolution.
The challenge is not to crumble in the face of betrayal. When fear wins over faith. When conviction is defeated by doubt; ideals by pettiness.
The revolutionary’s way is to welcome every betrayal like a love letter. And to draw strength from one’s own goals and ideals, not the traitor.
The revolutionary way is to love the betrayer, though he or she may denounce one thrice. To accept fear, hatred, greed, even horror as a given.
Because the revolutionary must save all of the people, even those who betray. And especially those who are weak, hateful, greedy, or fearful.
It is a hard lesson to learn. Harder even to live and practice. But it is one necessary for anyone daring to demand — to dream — of change.

We have been given Light, we have been given Love. We are to use them to heal the divisions between us, as our purpose in, but not of the world. It is a daunting task.

Nevertheless, we shall persist.

This sermon was written for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany in the Episcopalian calendar, and delivered at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Westwood, CA on 19 February, 2017.