At George Washington’s first inaugural in New York City (following an election in which he received every electoral vote), some in the audience wondered if the former colonies had simply exchanged George III for George the First. President Washington, however, had no truck with domestic monarchists. Throughout his presidency, he maintained a careful balance of pomp and the common touch, willingly leaving office after his second term.
By the 1860s, however, Washington – both war hero and president – was the only historical figure capable of unifying a violently fractured nation-state. In 1865, accordingly, Constantino Brumidi painted an immense fresco above the US Capitol Rotunda, The Apotheosis of Washington, elevating the first president beyond monarchy to the status of a god.
At the center, Washington sits in heavenly glory, flanked by Liberty and Victory. Thirteen maidens dance about this trinity, surrounded in turn by personifications of American prowess. The nearest of these to Washington is War, dressed as Armed Liberty, and brandishing a sword against tyranny, kings, and the schismatic Jefferson Davis.
In the century and a half since Brumidi painted his fresco, some nations have learned subtler ways to celebrate the state’s mystical power as savior and protector. President Obama’s 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech followed the contemporary formula, condemning religious violence while accepting the tragic necessity of secular wars in which Americans spill blood out of “enlightened self-interest.”
America is a land of equals, we’re told, with no use for kings, Elvis excluded. Perhaps that’s why the last Sunday in the liturgical calendar, “Christ the King” (although the name is often neutered for various reasons to “The Reign of Christ”), carries, for me at least, the lingering scent of treason. There’s something un-American about the whole idea. Christians bow before a monarch who is killed rather than kills, promiscuously mingles justice and mercy, and suggests that the most serious matters aren’t about “life and death,” after all, but “death and resurrection.” Where’s the enlightened self interest in that?
The readings this Sunday present this king, “image of the invisible God, (and) firstborn of all creation,” nailed to a torture device between two common thieves. What’s more, he promises one of those thieves Paradise. That’s no way to run a kingdom, much less a universe.
And we, the king’s subjects, wear a cross, instrument of his violent death, on necklaces and chains. A cross leads our processions, adorns our walls, takes pride of place in our churches. It’s like commemorating Abraham Lincoln with miniature Deringers.
And what’s more, we’re supposed to emulate this king, to pick up our own crosses and follow him, presumably to the point of forgiving the guilty.
Only lunatics would do such a thing – lunatics like Dom Christian de Cherge’, one of the seven Trappist monks kidnapped and killed during the Algerian Civil War. Though the so-called Armed Islamist Group claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and murders, the exact circumstances of the monks’ deaths remains unclear. Only their heads were recovered.
Dom Christian knew such a grisly death was possible, perhaps even likely, in the increasingly dangerous environment where these Trappists lived as witnesses to Christ, servants to the people as their Lord served them. In anticipation, he wrote a “testament,” to be opened in just such an event. It began:
“If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. To accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would like them to pray for me: how worthy would I be found of such an offering?”
In the last paragraph of his testament, Dom Christian directly addressed his then and still unknown murderer:
“And also you, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, I also say this thank you and this adieu to you, in whom I see the face of God. And may we find each other, happy good thieves, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both.”
I never want to face anything like Dom Christian’s test of fidelity to the Crucified King. I almost certainly never will. I expect my trials will be vastly more manageable and infinitely less painful. Yet I tremble at the thought of witnessing even a hundredth portion of Dom Christian’s forgiveness and acceptance toward the several who annoy me and rouse my passions. That, however, is where we are called to go, bearing our considerably lighter and all but invisible crosses in witness to our king.
Perhaps if mortal danger were closer, more obvious, we would be better people. Maybe, but I doubt it. Between the Fall and the Eschaton, obedience to the nonviolent Messiah is unnatural at best. In this confused and confusing time, when the Kingdom is both present and not yet, little is clear save our bottomless need for grace. On this feast of the Crucified King, remember to pray for one another, servants of the Servant.