Whose world is it?

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I teach a course on “Jesus and the Movies,” examining nineteen features made on the life of Jesus between 1912 and 2014. And one of my favorites is a South African production, Son of Man (2006), which sets the gospel story in a fictional twenty-first century African country.

It begins in the desert, with Jesus and Satan sitting side by side atop a tall sand dune. There Satan offers Jesus the familiar temptations: use your power, dazzle the world, bow down to me and I will give you everything you desire.

Jesus listens for a while in silence. Suddenly he turns to Satan and shoves him off the ridge. As Satan tumbles downward – Milton’s fall of Lucifer comes to mind – Jesus shouts after him: “This is my world!”

Satan comes to a stop at the foot of the dune. He picks himself up and looks back defiantly at Jesus. “No,” he cries. “It’s my world!”

The film cuts abruptly to a village caught in the crossfire of a civil war. Terrible atrocities are taking place, making Satan’s point perfectly. It’s his world after all.

Tomorrow is the Feast of Christ the King, created by Pope Pius XI in 1925. Originally observed at the end of October as a prelude to All Saints Day, it was later moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year, where it provides both a grand finale to the calendrical Christ narrative and a dramatic overture to Advent. In 1970 it was adopted by other churches using the Common Lectionary, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians.

The pope was responding to the apocalyptic violence of World War I, where evil and madness seemed to have seized control of the world. He wanted to establish a clear reminder that it is Christ to whom the future belongs; it is Christ whom we must follow and serve.

Or in the words of Bob Dylan, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”

While the imagery of Christ as Lord of all may require some unpacking for interfaith dialogue, the pope’s original encyclical was clearly focused on Christian practice. If we profess Christ as our way, our truth, our life, then, in the pope’s words, “none of our faculties is exempt from his empire.”

But what do we do when Christ’s “empire” is in conflict with our other allegiances? How much do we give to Jesus, and how much do we hold back? Jesus gets Sunday mornings; does he get the working week? He gets our spiritual life; does he get our worldly affairs? Does he get our relationships, or our stewardship of time? Does Jesus get our politics, our economics?

Clarence Jordan was a Baptist preacher, New Testament teacher, and farmer in rural Georgia. In his celebrated Cotton Patch Gospels, he translated the Jesus story into a southern idiom, explaining that “the Scriptures should be taken out of the classroom and stained-glass sanctuary and put out under God’s skies where people are toiling and crying and wondering; where the mighty events of the good news first happened and where they alone feel at home.” [i]

In the 1940’s, in the middle of “the Good War,” in the heart of the segregated South, Jordan founded Koinonia, an interracial, pacifist farming collective using a communitarian model more like early Christianity than late capitalism. For his faithfulness to the dominion of Christ, he and his community were harassed, shot at, and bombed. The local church expelled him.

He was often invited to speak to groups around the country, and he would ask them, “What’s the biggest lie told in America today?” He’d let the question sink in for a bit, and then he’d say, “The biggest lie told in America today is: Jesus is Lord.”

I first heard this story when I visited Koinonia in 1980 and had a long conversation with his widow Florence (Clarence died in 1969). And in these latter days his words ring truer than ever.

Last year the Ohio legislature, hoping to derail the Affordable Care Act, blocked an expansion of Medicaid that would provide health care to 275,000 people who had no coverage. But the governor, John Kasich, made an end run around the legislature and got it done anyway.

As he said at the time: “For those who live in the shadows of life, for those who are the least among us, I will not accept the fact that the most vulnerable in our state should be ignored.”

The lawmakers howled. How dare he put the needs of the poor above our political agenda! So this is how the governor explained it to one those legislators, whom he knew to be a fellow Christian:

“Now when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did to keep government small; but he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. Better have a good answer.”

Governor Kasich, himself a Republican, was denounced by many in his party for appealing to a power higher than their ideology. The Wall Street Journal, wanting to make it clear that Jesus, lover of the poor, was not in fact Lord in America, offered a tart response: “Republicans get a vote before St. Peter.”

In Matthew’s gospel, the last parable Jesus tells before his arrest and crucifixion pictures all of humanity gathered before the glorified ‘Son of Man’ – the Lord of history – who reveals that he has always been among them in the bodies of the poor and needy: “I was starving … I was naked … I was an undocumented alien … I had AIDS … I was a convict …”

Everyone is of course quite surprised. But they all take his point. When you kneel before Christ the King, it won’t be at the foot of a mighty throne, but before the holy icons of “the least of these” – the vulnerable, the marginalized, the broken, the forgotten.

Well you kneel to the Lord and you will bless yourself…
Ain’t no need to kneel to no one else. [ii]

[i] G. McCleod Bryan, “Theology in Overalls: The Imprint of Clarence Jordan”, Sojourners (Dec. 1979, vol. 8, no. 12)

[ii] Bob Franke, “Trouble in This World (It’ll Be All Right),” on Heart of the Flower (Daring DR3016), © Telephone Pole Music, 1995

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