There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath
I’ve written before about how Christian theology has often failed the Earth; too often, we read the words of Genesis – that we have dominion over the Earth, that we ought to subdue it – or read Psalm 8, and we take them at face value and call it a day. The result is a misguided, sinful notion that we can do whatever it is we’d like with the land, air, and water on which all life depends.
But, the Bible is more complicated than that. A Christian relationship with the Earth is a far cry from this dominating, hateful approach to the ways Christian cultures have historically regarded the Earth (an approach which is anything but Christlike).
I preached this sermon at the First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn, a suburban UCC congregation where I currently work as the senior high youth director. In it, I borrow the concept of the Sabbath – born out of Jewish practice and expounded upon through millennia by Jewish theologians, but still present in Christian tradition – to suggest a different way we might come to relate to the other life on our planet.
I use a text from the prophet Isaiah, which you can read here, to highlight the ways in which Jesus was firmly rooted in his own Jewish faith – and then to explore the implications of this teaching for our relationship to our planet and all life on it.
You can watch the sermon in the video below, or read it in the transcript on the following page.
I have a funny relationship to reports on the climate crisis. On one hand, I so desperately want the crisis to be covered by media sources – and I want it covered honestly, with transparency and frankness. I want to read the IPCC reports as they come out. I want to know the full extent of the crisis we’re in, because I want to be a knowing witness to what is unfolding, and perhaps even an agent in its change.
And yet, when reports on the climate crisis do come out, it is often so upsetting that my first instinct is to look away. I get a funny feeling in my stomach, and my hands sweat, and I can only sigh deeply at headlines that announce what kind of world we’re heading towards. Usually, I bookmark the story, and I spend a few days dreading it before I finally find the courage to read what bad news that report contains.
It’s been this way for a while, but I had no words for what I was experiencing. Eco-grief is a term I’ve recently become acquainted with, and learning it was relief – like a drink of water in a dry land. Eco-grief refers to a broad range of emotions experienced in response to the loss of ecosystems and species, and to environmental destruction. Like other forms of grief, it includes emotions like sadness, despair, frustration, anger, confusion, loss, and hopelessness – among others.
It was a relief to just have these emotions named, and to realize that I was not alone in my feelings of grief. Naming it and seeing that I was not alone became my foundation for acting for a different kind of future.
These are the thoughts I carried with me as I wrote this sermon; my convictions about the need for action for the Earth, my sense of grief in the climate crisis, and my knowledge that many others carry this grief, but still feel alone. And I believe that this is a place where people are sorely in need of hearing the Gospel.
I preached this sermon at my seminary, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, as part of our observance of the Season of Creation, a liturgical movement which seeks to pray for and act to protect creation. You can access the audio to the sermon here, or read it below. I’d love to hear your thoughts about eco-grief or the sermon in the comments, and if the sermon touches you in anyway, I’d be delighted it you shared it.
What happens when we view the whole earth as an icon for the Holy Trinity?
The Whole Earth in the Trinity
This post is the second in a three-part series on ecotheology and biodiversity. Last month, I discussed how the Christian theological tradition contributed to the ethical frameworks which allow people to justify their immoral behavior toward the earth. You can access that post here.
Today, I am posting here about how the Trinity can help us to shake some of our anti-earth theologies. I am posting it today especially because of the Trump Administration’s shameful weakening of the Protected Species Act, which has happened today. We Christians cannot stand idly by as the lives of thousands of species are in jeopardy; we must respond faithfully, and reclaim our faith as one in which even the sparrow’s life has infinite value.
It is an ancient knowledge which tells us that human life and non-human life are tied together, our livelihood resting in the well-being of the other. It is something that Vine Deloria Jr., the theologian whose work I discussed last week, explains as being central of Native American religion in his book God is Red. And yet, it is also something forgotten by many of us in Western cultures, and so reports on climate change often read as if the news of the interrelatedness of all life is something recently discovered. For example, in the New York Times report I referenced last month on mass extinction, one scientist, Robert Watson, framed the findings of this study as something newly added to the conversation on ecology. “For a long time, people just thought of biodiversity as saving nature for its own sake … but this report makes clear the links between biodiversity and nature and things like food security and clean water in both rich and poor countries.”
Who is it, exactly, that thought that preserving biodiversity had nothing to do with the well-being of all creation – including us human animals? And what are their backgrounds, that allowed them to think this way for so long?
Deloria would argue that Western Christian theology contributed to this kind of thinking, and that this kind of thinking is contrary to the ways Native American religion posits human relationship to the earth. In writing about the native understanding of creation, he says, “To exist in a creation means that living is more than tolerance for other life forms—it is recognition that in differences there is the strength of creation and that this strength is a deliberate desire of the creator.”
In this framework, biodiversity has inherent value in its own right, regardless of how much or how little it benefits humanity. It is a “deliberate desire of the creator.” It’s a far cry from how the editorial board of the New York Times describes the importance of biodiversity when they write, “Biodiversity loss, [the report] says, is an urgent issue for human well-being, providing billions and billions of dollars in what experts call “ecosystem services.” This is a framework in which biodiversity is important only because it is imperative to human well-being and financially beneficial; it is only important because it can fulfill human desire. And Christian theology has been an active participant in developing this earth-as-tool mindset which has led us to the ecological disaster we face now.
But, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Christian theology does not have to be a death-dealing force when it comes to discussing the earth, nor should it be. It is imperative at this time in history to draw on our theological tradition to find a life-giving, life-sustaining approach to the earth and all its inhabitants because, as I discussed last week, our theologies influence the actions of people outside of our seminaries and churches – either for good or for ill.
At the core of this discussion is the question of anthropocentrism. Whereas Deloria considers the values and experiences beyond those of humans, the New York Times, in this editorial, expresses concern only for human values and concerns. As Western cultures come to understand more and more than our fate as human beings is tied up with the fate of our non-human neighbors, we must begin to consider more than just our values and experiences; we must abandon our anthropocentrism.
This might first appear to present a problem for Christian theology; after all, in our tradition, humanity was honored with the imago Dei, and God became truly human in Jesus Christ. These are high praises for human beings, which exalt us over and above non-human life as the crown jewel of creation. One goal of ecotheology is to find parts of our tradition which help us to claim the value of non-human life. I think one place we might begin is with the Trinity.
The Trinity, which sees perfect unity in multiplicity and perfect differentiation within one being, offers us a model for making sense of our own home of planet earth, which simultaneously and mysteriously functions as one complex organism and as a complex web of an uncountable number of individual living beings. Brian Swimme, a professor of evolutionary cosmology, once described it this way: “The universe is a single, multiform energetic unfolding of matter, mind, intelligence, and life,” – a reality we can see reflected in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. This is the argument of Brazilian ecofeminist and liberation theology, Ivone Gebara. She describes the Trinity as being a reflection not of stagnant dogma, but as a reflection of life lived, as something which is better experienced than catechized. Above all, she says, the Trinity is relationship, and we participate in it constantly. She writes, “We need to reaffirm that the Trinity is an expression of the Mystery, both one and multiple, that envelops us, that has made us what we are, and in which we participate ceaselessly… The Trinity is relationship, after all: an existential experience in ourselves and in the world.”
However, despite the dynamism of the Trinity, we have clung to exclusive language which limits our understanding of the Divine. For so long, we have clung to our traditional and exclusively male imagining of God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – at the expense of allowing our living faith to, well, live. We are left with a god theologian Sandra Schneiders cheekily describes as “an old man, a young man, and a bird.” The truth, which Gebara points to, is that God is so much bigger, transcending the images and metaphors we use to point towards this reality. This does not mean that the image of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is inaccurate, but our dogmatic approach to this image being The Only Image for God closes our minds. Instead, we must be able use many images if we wish to use language to describe God, which is something Jesus did when he spoke of God as a mother hen, a woman with a lost coin, a shepherd and, of course, a father.
In reality, we use many images for God all the time, though people are often miffed (to put it mildly) by incorporating other trinitarian formulations in church. But to do so is important in the world of ecotheology; by opening up our language about the Trinity, we can come to see the Trinity in many and various places throughout creation. The whole earth becomes an icon of the Holy Three in One.
This allows Christian theology to loosen its death grip on anthropocentric faith and begin to see non-human life as inherently valuable, rather than valuable only as a tool for humankind. When we consider the earth and its biodiversity as worthy only because it is useful to us, this is another way of expressing our perceived dominance over the earth, which is the kind of attitude which created our ecological crisis. Coming to see value inherent in the earth is a crucial step in being in right relationship with it. Rather than seeing it as something to be protected just because of its utility, we can instead come to appreciate all life in its abundant diversity as being “deliberately desired by the creator,” as Deloria puts it, in both its superb interconnectedness and particularity.
What do we make of the unique and multiform structure of our planet? What do we make of it that no two non-human animals are alike, even those of the same species? What do we make of it that every one of these individuals has a role to play in its own neighborhood, and that not one of them could live without the other? What do we make of it that we are equal to these non-human animals, at least in our distinction as having been formed by the Creator?
And how could we ever make sense of these things, expect through the Trinity, the mystery of our interrelatedness and particularity?
To see the entire earth and all its inhabitants as an icon of the Trinity, to see each living being in its particularity while knowing that our lives cannot be extricated from each other, has great implications in our lives and in our faith. It is an awe-striking change of perspective; rather than the meaning of this life coming our dominance over the world and its inhabitants, rather than seeing ourselves as exalted above our fellow creatures, we come to an “awareness of the meaning of life comes from observing how the various living things appear to mesh to provide a whole tapestry,” and the fullness of creation, the true majesty of the work of God, begins to reveal itself before us.
But it also has real ethical implications. By understanding ourselves as just one piece within the trinitarian earth, “we accept the responsibility of knowing and loving the earth as a living being, and of refraining from manipulating its secrets and destroying it,” as Gebara put it. No longer can we sit idly by as our governments destroy animal life and the few measly protections it currently has.
Acknowledging our part within the Trinity makes us aware of something new about ourselves. Seeing our own part in the Godhead calls us to be in a right relationship with the earth and its creatures, a calling I’ll discuss in the next final installation of this series.
This is the first in a series of three posts about Christianity, ecotheology, and biodiversity. In this post, I explore the ways that centuries of Christian theology about creation has had a devastating impact on our common home. I publish these critiques with a heart full of love for the Christian tradition, and a heart full of sorrow, knowing that Christians have often failed in our duty to love our earth and our neighbors who call it home.
In the final two posts, coming out in the next two weeks, I’ll discuss some constructive ways Christians can talk about God and God’s relationship to our planet: theology that is life-giving and life-sustaining, instead of deadly, as our theology has sometimes been throughout history.
In May, the New York Times announced something many of us already knew: Humans are speeding up mass extinction. Across the world over, biodiversity is shrinking, native species are in a precipitous decline, and entire habitats are disappearing – all while the populations of humans and the animals we farm for food are growing at an alarming rate.
I knew about these worrisome trends before I read this particular headline, but still, I thought a great deal about this story. In large part, I thought about the image which dominated my laptop screen when I opened the New York Times that morning. In this terrible image, a beautiful olive ridley turtle is on the sand. Its head is bowed, its face mournful and still, its eyes closed. It is being strangled by a fishing net, tied almost as if it were a deadly bow around the great creature’s neck . That turtle died, as many sea creatures do, because of our insatiable and unsustainably desire to eat aquatic animal life – tuna, halibut, scallops, sea bass, shrimp, and on and on and on. In the background of the image, children play in the sand and water. It’s haunting.
That turtle was one casualty of human
disregard for the lifeforms with whom we share our planet. It is a
heart-wrenching image of just one animal, but the reality is much larger than
one turtle. To understand the destruction we level against our non-human animal
neighbors, we’d have to imagine millions of animals like this lone olive ridley
It is an
injustice that we have condemned so many innocents to such a fate, and it’s a real-life
injustice which reflects a biblical one, found in the Christian account of
creation. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and all the
creatures in the waters and on the land and human beings in God’s image, and God
called it all very good. And then humanity took a bite from some fruit, and God
condemned not just humanity, but all creation, to pain and toil and death for
the rest of our days.
The animals (at least, the non-human, non-snake animals) and the earth and the waters had nothing to do with the decision of Adam and Eve to eat that fruit – and yet, they paid the price along with us. It is an injustice, one that Native American theologian Vine Deloria, Jr. correctly names as intolerable. I can imagine that, if we asked that dead olive ridley turtle whether she too paid the price of humanity’s sin, she would give a resounding yes. We ate the fruit from the tree of technology and fossil fuels, and so pollution, destruction, and degradation entered the life of the whole creation. It is intolerable, and devastatingly true, that the consequences of our wrongdoings reach far beyond the human community.
Unlike the other
mass extinctions long ago in the earth’s history, the responsibility of the
current devastation we are witnessing lies squarely on our shoulders. This
current mass extinction is the result of our clearing of forests for animal
agriculture, the ever-expanding cities and suburbs, ceaseless logging, hunting,
wanton water pollution, and our transportation of plant and animal life around
– resulting in invasive species colonizing the habitats of native species. All
of this is in addition to the overfishing caused solely by human demand for
fish to eat.
All of this makes
one thing clear: we have a poor relationship with the earth and its creatures.
In human terms, we might say that we have an estranged relationship with the
earth. We’re not on speaking terms; in fact, we humans are frequently actively
violent towards these other earthlings and their homes.
But we didn’t get
to a point of crisis over night. Relationships are not ruined in one dramatic
moment – not with other humans, or with other creatures. Instead, this current
moment in time, when we are so acutely aware that we are living in an
ecological crisis, is the result of Western civilizations’ disrespect for the
earth – and especially Christians’ poor theology around the creation that God
called good. This is a bold claim, but it is not a new one. It’s an argument
that is frequently associated with Lynn White,
an American historian who argued in 1967 that Medieval European Christian
theology laid the theological, ethical groundwork for a worldview which sees
the earth as a disposable tool, which was passed down through the generations
to the early modern period and the first burgeoning moments of
And I’m sad to say that I think White was correct; Christians bear a great responsibility for creating ethical frameworks which allow people to find mistreatment of the earth and all the creatures who call it home tolerable. It’s something that Vine Deloria – the theologian I mentioned earlier – also argued. In his most famous work, God is Red, Deloria compares Christianity to Native American religions to illustrate the ways that Christian theology has often been harmful. He points out two especially egregious ways that Christian theology – especially that grounded in our creation story – has objectified and disrespected the earth.
The first egregious theological claim
about creation is that it has been that it is entirely corrupted.
The logic goes that, since all creation fell when Adam ate the fruit, creation
became sinful. But, unlike humanity which has Jesus as our savior, the earth
will simply pass away and a new, virtuous one will take its place (people who
hold this theological view often cite Revelation 21 here). Of course, this
biblical interpretation ignores important verses that stress the redemption of
all creation through Jesus, such as John 12:32: “When I am lifted up from the
earth, I will draw everything to myself.”
This theology runs deep, even today. So deep, in fact, that John 12:32 is often translated as Jesus saying, “I will draw all people to myself,” despite the fact that the Greek word in questions here is pantas; it literally just means all, the whole, and everything. Translating this word as “all people” instead of “everything” highlights exactly what Deloria is saying: Christians often see the earth as unredeemable. So unredeemable, in fact, that even Jesus isn’t promising to save it, as if God’s grace does not (or cannot?) extend to the land and waters on which we make our common home.
The second way
that Christian theology has often been used to demean our ecosystem is through
the idea that we have been given rightful domination over the earth and all the
non-human animals in it;
the emphasis here is on the word “subdue” found in most translations of Genesis
1:28. This idea is ubiquitous among Western Christians, and even within the
social and governmental policies Christians have created in the American
Colonies and the United States.
nineteenth century Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton combined racist ideas
about Native Americans with biblical language to argue for Manifest Destiny,
the movement which claimed that it was the God-granted right of White people to
expand across North America (and take Native lands). Benton said,
“It would seem that the White race alone received the divine command, to subdue
and replenish the earth: for it is the only race that has obeyed it-the only
race that hunts out new and distant lands, and even a New World, to subdue and
This is not to
say that it is only European and Euro-descent cultures which have exploited the
earth, something Deloria is quick to say, as well.
After all, it is well known now that deforestation led to the end of humankind
on Easter Island. But Deloria points out that one would be hard-pressed to find
another society that justifies its exploitation of the land and waters with
theological claims of a corrupt earth which we have been commanded to subdue.
It is clear to me
that my own tradition of Christianity shares the responsibility for the
ecological crisis we face today. We Christians share the responsibility of that
olive ridley turtle’s death; we Christians share the burden of responsibility
for current crisis of mass extinction.
But we are not doomed to an
anti-earth theology, and the impact of anti-earth theology makes something
clear: the way we practice our faith can have a real impact on the earth. Next
week, I’ll talk about an alternative way that Christians can approach
theologies of the earth, which is also firmly grounded in the traditions of our
faith. Perhaps we can hope and pray that ecotheology might have as broad an impression
on the earth as anti-earth theology has had before it.
Vine Deloria, Jr. God is Red: A Native View of Religion. (Golden: Fulcrum
Publishing, 2003), 86.
The Editorial Board, “Life as We Know It,” The
New York Times. 11 May 2019.
“Christianity has nothing to do with certainty… Christianity is about living in opposition to certainty; it is about faith in the midst of doubt. Indeed, Christianity has no room for certainty, for certainty lives by the law of self-protection; its own rightness keeps it from hope and, most importantly, (the greatest of these, Paul says) from love… Doubt then is not our enemy, but our friend. For it keeps us from the most unchristian of things: assuming that we possess certainty, that we need not think about faith or love our neighbors, and worse, that we need not search for God.”
Andrew Root, “Doubt and Confirmation: The Mentor as Co-Doubter” in The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry
I worry that our churches are setting faithful people up for failure. Given that the people in our pews are thinking, intelligent people, and given that they listen and engage with faith every day, it is only a matter of time before anyone who attends church regularly will begin to think: hey, wait a minute. What about…? And yet, our churches don’t often have room for this kind of doubt, and people feel that they cannot both doubt and find a home in our communities; the only option they have, it would seem, is to leave.
Questions and doubt shouldn’t scare us, whether the questions are our own or the doubts of someone whom we love. Doubt, questions, ponderings – these are all the surest sign that we have engaged our faith seriously, that we are seeking our tradition and God on a deeper level. Put another way, questions mean that we taking the things we hear seriously, and wanting more information; questions are a sign of great faithfulness.
And yet, this is not often how we approach questions in our faith communities. Confirmation classes are often structured to simply hand information over to the young people in our congregations, sermons are often filled with statements born in a certainty foreign to the people in the pews, and one does not often hear people voice their doubts in the church coffee hour.
Scripture gives us an alternative way of approaching doubt. Indeed, in the story of Thomas at the end of the Gospel of John, I am struck by how the doubtful apostle is so able to express his doubts to his community – and still remain a part of the community. I can’t help but wonder whether the story of Thomas might help us to build church communities which encourage curiosity, doubt, and questions as integral, healthy parts of faith, rather than obstacles to be overcome.
I wrote this sermon for Resurrection Lutheran Church here in Chicago to speak to the virtue of doubt. So, here’s to doubt: our friend on the road of faith, encouraging us to seek more knowledge about God, about scripture, about what it means to live faithfully. Doubt our co-companion, who keeps our minds and our hearts open to something new, who weeds out our certainties so that we may flourish in our faith.
Here is the lectionary reading for the day, and you can see the sermon by going to page two just below this text.
Throughout the month of January, I traveled throughout the Eastern Mediterranean: to Israel/Palestine, Jordan, and Greece, visiting sites important to both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This trip was a dream of mine, and I am still processing much of what I saw: the Church of the Nativity in the midst of a walled-in Bethlehem, Golgotha, the Jordan River, the Dome of the Rock, and Ancient Corinth, just to name a few.
As people often are during pilgrimages, I was surprised to find that the holiness I sought was often found in the places between the sites. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I felt I learned the most about God from the people I encountered, for both the joy and pain I witnessed in my experiences with them: vendors who gave directions, strangers who helped us navigate buses and trains, teenage Israeli soldiers with machine guns on their arms, Bedouin children who sold tea in Petra, Palestinians who told us their stories of heartbreak and loss, and also of love of homeland, a longing for peace, and resiliency.
It is these images that I carried in my heart and mind as a I approached the texts for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, though the stories of my travels do not enter this sermon. While Luke’s Beatitudes take place on a level place and not on a mountain, as in Matthew, I thought of the beauty and serenity of the modern-day Mount of the Beatitudes, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee, and how the quiet prayerfulness of this place belies its proximity to state-sanctioned violence and poverty and hunger – suffering from which I was immune because of my blue American passport.
And I wondered: what does it mean to be a Christian today, and what does it mean to be an American Christian? And who would I be in the crowd Jesus addresses in this passage from Luke: one to whom he says “blessed”? Or “woe”?
These questions became the bedrock for my sermon at Resurrection Lutheran Church on February 17th. You can find both the text for that morning and my sermon text below.
It should strike us as absurd. Pilate is the Roman governor of Judea. He has a palace, he has cops and regents and the support of an entire Empire. Jesus, in the context of this passage, has just been abandoned by his only friends and supporters, arrested, subject to police brutality, and is now sitting helpless in front of one of the most powerful men in the Judea. Pilate holds all the power, something he would remind Jesus of only a few verses later, and yet he is asking Jesus about truth, and about who Jesus is.
And Pilate does not ask him, “do you claim that you are king of the Jews?” Pilate only asks him, “Are you king of the Jews?”
This short Gospel reading is missing most of its context. If we were to read it in context, we would know that Pilate is pacing back and forth between Jesus, the accused, and the people of Judea, who have demanded that Jesus be killed, though they have not specified what his crimes were. Imagine: the decisive governor of Judea, pacing between a mob and a lone, peaceful man, trying to figure out what to do with this accused man. If we read this passage in its context, we would also know that Jesus has already announced who he is; only a few short passages before this, Roman soldiers announce that they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus answers, “I AM.” And everyone falls before him, bowing.
“Are you king of the Jews?” Pilate asks. But Jesus does not play his games. He has already said who he is, and king is never the title he has applied to himself.
In fact, when Pilate asks again whether Jesus is a king, Jesus only replies, “You say that I am a king,” but that he has come to this world to testify to the truth.
The truth? Pilate must have thought this was a bold claim, because he immediately asks, “What is truth?” Those who know the Gospel of John well may have the answer on the tip of their tongue. Before his arrest, Jesus announced “I am the way, the truth, and the light.”
We know the answer to Pilate’s question about truth, and yet still I can’t help by feel that we are Pilate. Like Pilate, we pace between Jesus and the things people are saying about Jesus, wondering what the truth is; we pace between the mobs of this world and the man hanging on the cross, wondering who to believe. We have been told who Jesus is, perhaps felt ourselves fall before the great I AM, and yet still we wonder what the truth about this curious person, Jesus of Nazareth, is. Or, perhaps, in an age where the words ‘fake news’ are so often used, we may pace between what we hear and what we know, wondering what is true, and then perhaps wondering what God has to do with the truth, anyway.
N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar, said that, “truth is what happens when humans use words to reflect God’s wise ordering of the world and so shine light into its dark corners, bringing judgment and mercy where it is badly needed.”
So, when we say that Jesus is the truth, we testify to the fact that Jesus, the powerless man who stood before Pilate, is the one who comes to shine light into our dark corners, to illumine where hearts break and death reigns high, to bring mercy and love and grace to those who need it so desperately.
But truth, as NT Wright defines it, is at odds with the Roman Empire. Empires, he says, can’t cope with the truth. He goes on to say that empires “make their own “truth,” creating “facts on the ground” in the depressingly normal way of violence and injustice.”
And this is certainly true of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire spread and dominated through the largest and fiercest military the world had ever seen, and they grew their territories through violence and force. They killed entire cities which resisted, salted the earth to remove people’s ability to live off the land, they exploited the natural environment wherever they went, and they created a system where the vast majority lived in squalor while the richest among them enjoyed luxury.
But they had their reasons. The Roman Empire functioned this way to keep chaos at bay, to maintain order. They valued the pax romana, the Roman Peace, wherein people could trade freely and people could live safer lives, if only the violence exported further away from Roman cities. They prided themselves on a prosperous economy, on a stable government. The Roman Empire emphasized its military force and exploited the land and its people because they believed that this was the best way to give people good lives.
In short, they believed that violence would be their savior.
And Jesus claimed the opposite.
Jesus, who came to testify to the truth, says that his kingdom is not from this world, because the kingdoms of our world are full of this myth of saving violence. Our kingdoms, whether they be the Roman Empire or the United States, claim that we can be prosperous and safe – we can find our salvation – if we simply rely on violence in whatever its form.
But Jesus tells us that this kingdom is not from our world, where violence is hailed as savior, but that his kingdom is over truth. And Pilate asks him, “what is truth?”
But Pilate could have known already, had he been listening. Jesus had been preaching and teaching publicly for three years by the time he was put on trial before Pilate. For three years he had been shining light on the dark places of our world and bringing mercy and healing to all whom he met. Jesus testified to the truth by healing the sick and dying, by raising Lazarus from death, by comforting the brokenhearted, by speaking to foreigners and teaching women, by feeding the hungry and witnessing to God’s light in the world.
Jesus had been testifying to the truth for years by proclaiming God’s love for the world, and by showing that this great love meant healing from our every ill, freedom from the captivity of injustice, and redemption for all creation.
And the Empire could not cope with this truth, and they crucified him.
Pilate paced back and forth between Jesus and his accusers, wondering which savior he might choose. And he chose violence.
So, Jesus is right. His kingdom is not from this world, it has no basis in saving violence. And Jesus never does claim to be a king. His only crown was made of thorns, and he had no throne – only a cross.
So, why then, do we even have Christ the King Sunday? Why is it we gather once a year, at the end of our church’s calendar, and proclaim Christ to be something that he never claimed for himself?
The answer lies in the origin of this feast day. You see, unlike Advent or Lent or Easter, which are all ancient parts of our church calendar, Christ the King Sunday is only 93 years old. It was declared a holy day in the Roman Catholic Church in the year 1925, as a political response to the rise of fascism in Europe, and especially in Italy.
That same year that Christ the King Sunday was given a place in the Roman Catholic Church’s calendar, Mussolini had declared himself dictator over Italy. And he believed vehemently in the myth of saving violence. His “Black Shirts,” the fascist party of Italy, claimed that it would resurrect Italy to the former glory of the Roman Empire through violence and domination.
And the Church Universal felt the need to remind the world that Christians do not count our allegiance with the Empires of this world, and that our salvation comes not from violence. Rather, we follow a different way. The Truth, over which Christ reigns, is where we count our allegiance. It is in Christ, not violence, that we find our salvation. And it is through God’s love, not weapons and fists, that we will find the redemption of the entire world.
Today, we may find ourselves like Pilate in so many ways. We may wonder what the Truth is, and we may scurry between who Jesus says he is and who the world says he is, wondering what is to be believed. We may wonder who our real savior is – Jesus or the violent ways of Empire.
And like Pilate, we rely on the violence of an Empire to secure our own safety and economic prosperity and comfort. We may not be the ones who hold the weapons, but we rely on the US military, now the largest the world has ever known, and police and private prisons and factories which rely on child labor and detainment centers for immigrant children for the kind of lifestyle we live here in Lakeview. Like Pilate, we have outsourced the violence we rely on for our lives, and like Pilate, we can find ways to make this violence into our savior.
But the difference between a Christian and Pilate is that Pilate chose Empire. As he paced between his two options, between the mob and Jesus, he decided that violence was his savior after all. And we, as Christians, claim that Christ is the true king. As Christians, we proclaim that we have chosen a different way that the one that our empire has laid out for us. As Christians, we hold fast to the faith that love is a greater savior than violence, and love will always have the final say.
Christ the King Sunday marks the end of this year’s church calendar. Next week, we will begin the season of Advent, where we wait with bated breath for the birth of Jesus. It is fitting that we celebrate Christ the King just one week before we remember the beginning of his earthly life. Because nothing can tell us more about the kind of sovereign Christ is than to see that he entered this world as a helpless, fragile infant, born with all the limitations of our frail flesh, born helpless and hunted by the Roman Empire. And all this, only to be Immanuel, God with us. It is this Jesus of Nazareth, laying in a manger, that we proclaim God, and it is this Kingdom of God, where violence has no foothold, to which we belong. Amen.