The feast of Christ the King (or, did Gandalf put on the Ring?)

The feast of Christ the King (or, did Gandalf put on the Ring?) November 22, 2015


Originally published at Ithilien in 2004.

This is the day when Episcopalians and Methodists celebrate a 20th-century Roman Catholic feast by singing a hymn (All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name) written by a particularly obnoxious Baptist (Edward Perronet–ex-Methodist and all-out dissenter who launched vicious attacks on John Wesley). In other words, a truly ecumenical occasion.

The feast of Christ the King, celebrated on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, was first proclaimed by Pope Pius XI in 1925. In the shadow of growing totalitarianism, Pius proclaimed that Christ alone was the supreme ruler of the world, to whom all honor and obedience was due. In the post-9/11 world, the reminder is no less needed. Christ the King is a wonderful way to end the liturgical year, paying tribute to the glorified Christ even as we prepare to celebrate His first coming in the humility of the Incarnation.

But of course the two can’t be separated. The only Christ we worship is the Christ of the manger and the Cross, and His kingship can only be understood in that context.

This is a particularly appropriate time to reflect on the nature of the Church as a political society. This is language used by theologians as different as Stanley Hauerwas and Oliver O’Donovan (Hauerwas once, in my hearing, called O’Donovan “the alternative to me”–i.e., to Hauerwas–so I’m not coming up with this juxtaposition out of my own head). I’m not sure which of them is right–I don’t claim to be familiar enough with their work (especially O’Donovan’s) to make an intelligent judgment. But where they agree, I think they’re both on to something.

This recognition of the political nature of the Church stands over against any notion of the Church as merely a dispenser of grace, a sort of sacramental or didactic vending machine. This may seem like a caricature, but something very like it can be found everywhere from liberal Episcopalianism to conservative evangelicalism. On the one hand, the Church is described as the vehicle for sacramental grace and the Gospel of God’s all-inclusive love; on the other, it is seen as a mere engine for bringing people into a personal relationship with Christ by preaching the Gospel of human sinfulness and faith in Christ’s atoning blood.

The Feast of Christ the King, without contradicting any of these emphases, reminds us that the Church is the society of which Christ is the ruler; a society which coexists with the kingdoms of this world but which has independent and frequently rival claims to theirs. Of course it’s easy to point to ways in which these claims have been turned into a particularly vicious form of tyranny.

C. S. Lewis called theocracy “the worst of all governments,” and his opinion has plenty of historical backing. In my first-semester Western Civ class, I’ve been teaching about the Crusades, and while I don’t think they were as thoroughly and irredeemably evil as my textbook implies or my students believe, they clearly involved some pretty horrendous stuff, and I see no way to avoid the conclusion that on the whole they did a lot more harm than good. (Maybe–just maybe–they helped prevent a Muslim conquest of Europe, but that’s highly speculative; what is not speculative is that they ratcheted up Christian intolerance toward Jews, hastened the destruction of the Byzantine Empire, and seriously worsened the condition of Middle Eastern Christians; not to speak of the thousands of people killed on both sides.)

The entire history of the High Middle Ages, while in many respects glorious, leaves me no choice but to believe that in some sense the Western Church of that era put on the Ring (to borrow a metaphor from Tolkien that would no doubt enrage him on several levels). Yet this is probably the era of human history in which the project of enthroning Christ as King was embraced most enthusiastically. Many of the evils of the Middle Ages can be traced to the Gregorian Reforms and their project of setting up the Church as an independent source of authority over against civil monarchs. This meant that the Church lost much of its moral edge precisely as it tried to gain the authority to proclaim moral and spiritual truths in the often cynical and ruthless environment of feudal politics.

The lesson of the Middle Ages, however, is not that the Church should abandon the claims made by Gregory VII and Innocent III. The Church has indeed been set over kingdoms to pluck down and root up, to build and to plant. But the instruments she has been given to carry out this mission are not the instruments of war and death, or even of democratic legislation (though the Church can and should urge its members to support legislation that corresponds with the moral law). The Church’s weapons are proclamation and witness, and the worst punishment she has the right to impose is excommunication.

Even this much, of course, is regarded by our society as intolerable presumption. In this past year, we have seen a presidential candidate announce that he believes life begins at conception, but that this belief cannot affect his policies because it is “religious” and hence bracketed off from his actions as a politician. This incredible hypocrisy (not to speak of muddled thinking) may have helped lose him the election (at least I hope so). But in the process his own Church has been reviled for its intolerance and arrogance because some of its bishops declared that Kerry should not receive communion. If the Church dares to suggest that it is a real society with the ability to declare who is and is not a member, it is accused of launching new Crusades and reestablishing the rack and the stake as instruments of ecclesiastical policy.

To continue the Tolkien metaphor–yes, Gandalf put on the Ring, and the results were terrible. But centuries ago Saruman cut the Ring from Gandalf’s finger, and the results have been far more terrible. And now, wherever Gandalf the Nine-Fingered wanders, the messengers of Saruman precede him, whispering in every ear that Gandalf’s message of hope and resistance is only an excuse for taking up the Ring once again. Or even, where they find particularly receptive and ignorant listeners, they claim that Gandalf still has the Ring. Saruman would be glad to take from Gandalf the one Ring he does possess–Narya, the Ring of Fire, given him long ago to rekindle hearts in a world grown cold.

We must, as Gandalf, resist the temptation to seek the power of the Ring once again. But we must also resist the temptation to give up the fight against Saruman just because we have made disastrous errors in the past. The Ring–the corrosive force of power–is the ultimate enemy, and whoever holds or attempts to hold the Ring must be fought with all the strength we possess. That is the mission we have been given–to model for the world a different kind of kingdom, one ruled not from a throne but from the manger and the Cross.

Image: Pixabay.

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