A recent visit to Australia and New Zealand by Prince Charles and his wife seems to have been less successful than anticipated. Those ‘down-under’ who’d like to get rid of the monarch as their official head of state claimed that the visit actually boosted the Republican movement. While the reigning Queen’s popularity remains relatively constant due to her personal attributes, the prospect of having Charles on the throne is much less convincing to many. To be clear: I’m not expressing my personal views on the monarchy or on constitutional arrangements; I’m referring solely to recent events.
In the modern world of governments comprised of elected representatives, the idea of monarchy and power being passed down as a birthright seems to be becoming increasingly irrelevant and outdated. In a few Western democracies, their monarchs are reduced to playing the role of more or less glamorous ornaments. The record of most of ‘real-power’ monarchies in the world is rather dismal. Therefore, I’m struggling a bit today with the ‘Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King of the Universe’ – as the full name of the feast goes. It sounds extremely grandiose, the King of all the stars, planets (the Earth included), comets and other celestial bodies along with the vast emptiness between them in the infinity of outer space. It seems to be a rather ridiculous claim, as Christ’s royal prerogatives on the one planet known for the Christian faith appear to be very thin. Theologically it can be appropriate, as we believe that the whole universe has been created by the Triune God. But sticking a medieval concept of monarchical power onto Jesus Christ pays Christianity a disservice in at least two ways.
The first one concerns an idea that the law of the land should be founded entirely upon the laws of a specific religion – in practical terms we call such a system a theocracy. Although in this country the notion doesn’t seem to be popular, across the world there’s no shortage of people scheming and trying to establish this kind of rule; the most obvious examples are the internationally-recognised Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the international pariah that is the so-called ‘Islamic State’. Theocracies are in fact using religion as an instrument of holding onto power and often of wielding oppression against dissidents. In so-called Christian countries the records of mixing religion and state are not great either. Personally I’m happy to live in a country whose laws leave space for individual choices and permit one’s practise of religion, without adopting any particular one as the national one.
Calling Christ “the King of the Universe” can do Christianity a disservice in another way: opening it up to ridicule. To many people, natural or man-made disasters raise many questions; among them is this one: ‘how did God allow this to happen?’ People affected by personal misfortune, or by disasters on a larger-scale like the recent terrorist attacks, can have legitimate doubts as to whether Jesus Christ actually is the King of the Universe, or why He’s apparently so ineffective at preventing those shattering blows. I have to admit that I don’t have any easy or simple responses to those questions; and sometimes I struggle to find them for myself.
The dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate in today’s gospel sheds some light on the actual nature of Christ’s power: ‘Mine is not a kingdom of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, my men would have fought to prevent my being surrendered to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this kind.’ Jesus rejects any notion of earthly theocratic settlement, supported and policed by power. He continues: ‘I came into the world […] to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.’ Following Jesus and conforming to his teaching is – and must remain – a matter of personal choice, not imposed externally or by force, but made freely. If we have to stick to the term of ‘King’ regarding Jesus, I’d prefer this one: Jesus Christ the Universal King – the one whose message of love and compassion is offered universally to each and every one of us.