Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
The Solemnity of Christ the King: The King Who Frees Us from Politics
I recently completed an audio course on the various city states of Italy, from Rome to the unification of Italy. One of the points the professor made was one with which it was difficult for me to concur, but I did understand why he held this opinion. He pointed out that those city states with some form of hereditary monarchy, be it through Kings or Dukes, tended to be far more stable in the long run than those whose elected officials changed every few years. Well, I certainly don’t believe that people are governed best by monarchies, but I do agree that those who are elected feel the greatest obligation to those who elected them or, at least, those who paid for them to get elected. Political expediency dominates decision making. Even the very best of our presidents, Washington and Lincoln, sometimes felt a deeper obligation to keeping the peace with those in power around them then their obligation to doing what the country needed them to do. This is particularly evident regarding the issue of slavery. Washington knew that African slavery was immoral, but he also knew that what he called "our peculiar institution" could not be eliminated without losing the support the new country needed from slave owners, both in the North and the South. He allowed politics to trump morality. Lincoln also knew slavery was wrong. But he entered war with the South to preserve the union, not, initially, to eliminate slavery. He needed the support of the border states, slave states. They would be loyal to the North if they were allowed them to keep their slaves, which they did, at least until the last year of the war. The Emancipation Proclamation only applied to the Confederacy. As the brilliant movie Lincoln pointed out, slaves were only freed a few weeks before the war ended when Lincoln forced the ratification of the 13th Amendment.
Human beings govern through politics. What is politically expedient, what is necessary in order to stay in office, or what is necessary to have one’s legacy be respected, most often takes precedence over what is in the best interest of the people who are governed. The old musical Evita said that politics is the art of the possible. Indeed, the greatest achievements of our country resulted from people making concessions to other people, compromises, that might be against something for which they stood, but would result in what the politicians wanted.
Wherever there are people, there will be politics. This includes the Church. The Church, unfortunately, is governed by people who very often weigh their decisions with the opinions of others who share their power, or who have power over them. A study of the history of the Church shows how this was brazenly lived by the hierarchy of the Middle Ages, from Pope Leo X who said, "God has given us the Papacy, now let us enjoy it," to the bishops and priests who used their influence over their people for worldly benefits.
We are all sick of politics, but how can we possibly escape the fact that we are all in some ways political animals?
And the man whom we call Dismis, the Good Thief, looked at the man next to him who was also being tortured to death on a cross, and said, "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
What did Dismis see in Jesus that led him to recognize the King of Kings? He did not see any form of physical power. Jesus was dying next to him. He did not see any form of political power. Those in political power put him to death. The leaders of the Hebrews, the Sanhedrin, would not take the chance that this Jesus might replace them not just in the minds and hearts of the people, but also actually become the conquering Messiah the prophets had predicted would come. They used the Romans to eliminate Christ by invoking politics, "If you allow this man to live, you are no friend of Caesars," they said to Pilate. They forced Pilate to go against his conscience in order to keep peace with the Jews while maintaining his own political power as the Roman Procurator. What chance did Jesus have to preserve his physical life in the face of such opposition? It was all quite clear that Jesus had no political power.
And, yet, Dismis recognized that he was dying next to a King. What did Dismis see? He saw a man who was so thoroughly united to God that the power of God was evident in His every action. Jesus was only concerned with serving His Heavenly Father. If that meant losing disciples because some thought His teaching on eating His Body and drinking His Blood, was too difficult, so be it. He would remain true to the Father. If that meant that calling out those in power to treat their subjects with justice and compassion even though they would perceive these teachings as threats to their power, so be it. If that meant allowing the world to do its worst to Him in order to defeat the grip that evil had on the world because this was the plan of the Father, then so be it. Everything that Jesus did, He did in service to the Father. Everything He did, He did to establish the Kingdom of God. Dismis saw Jesus as the King the world longed for, the one who would govern not by politics but by the love of God. Dismis saw that the Love of God was so powerful in Jesus that He Himself could only be that Love become flesh. "Have you no fear of God for you are subject to the same condemnation?" he had called out to the other criminal.
How can we escape the world of politics? We need to follow the One True Authority. We need to follow Jesus Christ, the King of Kings. His only focus was on serving God. He would do that by reverencing the Divine Presence in all of creation, particularly in that part of creation made in the Image and Likeness of God, human beings. When he healed the sick, raised the dead, and called others to charity, He showed us how to serve God. Immediately before He gave us the Eucharist, He washed the feet of his disciples and told them and us that what we had seen Him do, we also must do. The gift of the Eucharist itself is the Body that is given up for us
and the Blood that is shed for us. When we are united to Him in communion we are united to the one who is calling us to give our Bodies and Blood up for others in service to the Father.
How can we escape politics and serve the King of Kings? Look towards the saints. They were all frail human beings with foibles and sins. They were all tempted to please others in order to preserve their status, or in the case of the martyrs, their lives. But they all died with one focus in life, to serve God no matter what the cost to themselves. And so a St. Teresa of Calcutta would leave the relative comfort of teaching in a girls’ school because she heard the call to serve God in the poorest of the poor. Maybe with her dynamism she could have become superior general of that teaching order, but her concern was to serve God where He was leading her, not to do what was politically expedient. And so a St. John XXIII was willing to upset the delicate curial applecart and call a council to transform the Church, even though he knew he was being treated like a buffoon by some of those in power around him. It would have been so much easier and political expedient for him "to enjoy the papacy" and to be the do-nothing pope some of them had elected him to be. But he chose to serve God, not politics. And so a St. John Paul II could flaunt tradition and transform the papacy from the pope being an administrator to the pope being a missionary. Even when he had grown old and frail, he would not make the easier choice and stay home at the Vatican. He would not stop traveling to bring the presence of Christ to the world. And so a Pope Francis continues to shock the world by having no concern for what is politically expedient, either within the Church or outside it, but only being concerned with serving God.
And so we can serve the King of Kings when the focus of our lives is to serve God in our every action. We can escape the grip of politics be they in our home, our community, our work, our country and even our Church. We can do this by purely serving the One who created us to love, honor and serve him in all things and in all people.
We are confronted with choices throughout our lives. We can make the political choice, that which will give us the greatest support among others. Or we can make the Christian choice, the choice that would make the presence of the Kingdom a reality in our world.
Jesus Christ is our King. He is the King who frees us from politics.
We can, and we must serve Him.