Readings for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe: 2 SM 5: 1-3, PS 122: 1-5; COL 1: 12-20; LK 23: 35-43
Since taking up residency in Spain two months ago, I’ve developed a new understanding of why I’ve learned Spanish. It has allowed me to access lines of critical thought that would otherwise be closed to me as a resident of the imperial Global North.
Those lines have given me a new understanding of this Sunday’s liturgical focus, viz., the celebration of “The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” They have shown me how that phrase, “King of the Universe” can be understood in two ways, one that is oppressive and the other that is liberating – one that is Eurocentric and the other that is truly universal.
The Solemnity calls westerners to change our minds from Eurocentrism to one that sees Jesus as promising a New Order where the poor and oppressed displace the earth’s traditional rulers.
Let me try to explain what I mean.
To begin with: a word about the critical thinking I’m referencing. (I intend to write much more about this in upcoming posts.)
I’m talking about Global South scholars who have shaped my worldview over my last 50 years. They include Costa Rica’s Franz Hinkelammert, Mexico’s Enrique Dussel, and Puerto Rico’s Ramon Grosfoguel. I consider the first two to be colleagues and mentors of mine. I worked with them in Brazil and Costa Rica.
My initial reason for reconnecting with these scholars while in Spain was to sharpen my understanding of the language here. However, what I’ve learned has gone far beyond that superficial intention.
That’s because the current project of my mentors is the reinterpretation of the “universal history” of humanity in ways that are anti-colonial and decolonized, and that put in ideological perspective the understanding of Jesus as “King of the Universe.”
Fake Eurocentric History
Their critical vision holds that the traditional tri-partite periodization of western history as (1) antiquity, (2) middle ages, and (3) modernity is deceptively Euro-centric and colonial. It completely distorts human experience as if universal history were synonymous with European history – as if God’s self-revelation began with the Hebrews 1200 years before the dawn of the Common Era, as if philosophy started in 5th century (BCE) Greece, and as if modernity began with the European Renaissance in the 16th century CE.
According to Hinkelammert, Dussel, and Grosfoguel, none of that is true. It ignores the fact that in terms of world history, Europe and its understandings of God, philosophy, astronomy, physics, and industrial development are completely marginal. Theology and philosophy began in Africa (think Egypt and the Bantu nations) thousands of years before Moses and Socrates.
Its development moved eastward towards India and China, leaving a marginalized Europe on the periphery.
For instance, China experienced its Renaissance long before Europe. Islam’s understanding of the world based on scientific principles (including the heliocentric universe) preceded Galileo’s and Newton’s by centuries. In fact, the latter European “greats” largely copied their insights from Chinese books printed on presses that predated Guttenberg’s by hundreds of years.
China also developed processes of steel production long before Europe. In the 19th century, it sent advisors to England’s city of Sheffield to teach industrialists there how best to make their world-changing product.
Of course, there is so much more to be said here. But you get the idea. My teachers are insisting that Europe’s culture and achievements, far from groundbreaking were marginal and derivative – not at all central.
This means that establishing the central figure of European religion as the “King of the Universe” was completely ideological, misleading, and imperial. It was part of a colonial project that allowed European despots to delegitimize much older and more deeply spiritual visions – like those of India and China. Europeans used the universalization of their religion to justify their holocausts of “pagans,” “witches,” “Indians,” and “infidels” all in the name of their false “universal” God.
Jesus’ Universal Meaning
But none of this means that Jesus does not have a universal meaning which is in fact portrayed in today’s liturgical readings for the celebration of the “Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.”
The texts identify Jesus as a member of a class that perhaps alone merits the term “universal,” viz., the poor and oppressed everywhere – the victims of imperial kingdoms be they European, Muslim, Chinese, or Indian.
The historical experience of such people is shared across cultures. It includes poverty, houselessness, hunger, rejection by their “betters,” rebellion, police harassment, arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution. It’s all remarkably similar regardless of the historical period or culture in question.
According to Christian belief, that’s the “universal” experience their God chose as the vehicle for revealing the Divine Self. And it’s all reflected in today’s final reading from Luke, Chapter 23. Consider its content for a moment.
Here, Reza Aslan’s best-seller, Zealot, is the most accessible guide I’ve come across. It clarifies what I’ve been saying by paying particular attention to Jesus’ cross, and to the Roman inscription identifying Jesus as “King of the Jews,”
Take the cross first. It was the mode of execution reserved primarily for insurrectionists against the Roman occupation of Palestine. The fact that Jesus was crucified indicates that the Romans believed him to be a revolutionary terrorist. Aslan asks, how could it have been otherwise? After all, Jesus was widely considered the “messiah” – i.e., as the successor of David in today’s first reading who was expected to lead “The Great War” against Israel’s oppressors.
Moreover, Jesus proclaimed the “Kingdom of God,” a highly politicized metaphor which could only be understood as an alternative to Roman rule. It would return Israel, Jesus himself promised, to Yahweh’s governance and accord primacy to the poor and marginalized. The Romans drew logical conclusions.
Put otherwise, the Roman cross itself provides bloody testimony to the radical threat from below that the empire saw personified in Jesus.
That threat was made specific in the inscription the Romans placed over the head of the crucified Jesus. It read, “King of the Jews.”
Typically, those words are interpreted as a cruel joke by the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate – as if he were simply poking fun at those who saw Jesus as the worthy successor of Israel’s lionized King David.
However, according to Aslan, nothing humorous or ironic was intended by the inscription. Instead, it was a titulus. Every victim of crucifixion had one – a statement of the reason for his execution.
The motive for Jesus’ crucifixion was the same as for the many others among his contemporaries who were executed for the same crime: aspiring to replace Roman rule with home rule – with an Israel governed by Jews instead of Romans. The titulus on Jesus’ cross, along with the cross itself identify him as the antithesis of what he eventually became, a tool of Eurocentric empire.
For years while I was teaching at Berea College in Kentucky, I taught a Great Books course called “Religious and Historical Perspectives.” It was the best education I’ve ever received.
However, the course followed that tripartite historical organization referred to above — ancient roots (in Israel, Greece, and Rome), Middle Ages (with virtually no mention of the Ottoman Empire), and Modern developments (focused on Galileo, Newton, and figures like Marx, Dawin, and Freud).
There was hardly a word about Islam, and none about the great world cultures of India and China. In other words, for all its virtues, the course was completely Eurocentric and colonial. Its treatment of Judeo-Christian texts implicitly justified belief that God chose the Mediterranean West as the exclusive site for his (sic) Self- Revelation.
Moreover, references to Jesus’ “kingship” along with the iconography of the European Renaissance gave the unspoken impression that “Christ the King,” along with his mother “Mary Queen of Heaven and Earth” were from the royal class or at least its supporters.
According to Hinkelammert, Dussel, liberation theologians, and so many others from the Global South, all of that not only distorts history itself, but the true meaning of the significance of a Divine King who was truly universal in the sense of sharing the invariable lot of the poor and oppressed.
According to perspectives from the Global South, the “Kingship” of Yeshua of Nazareth promises to turn the world upside-down. In the words attributed to Jesus mother in Luke’s Gospel (1: 46-55), Jesus reigning from the cross embodies Mary’s promise to “put down the mighty from their seats and exalt the humble.”
From that perspective, today’s liturgical celebration promises the eventual triumph of the marginalized over their royal , imperial, eurocentric oppressors. It’s all about the coming Great Reversal.