All Saints, Dorval
November 22, 2020
A week ago, season 4 of “The Crown”, the lavish TV series dramatizing the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, dropped on Netflix. I haven’t watched it yet – I’m busy catching up on “Snowpiercer”, which is a whole other conversation – but this season covers the Princess Diana and Thatcher years, and from the chatter about it on social media, I gather that it portrays the royals in an even more unflattering light than previous seasons, depicting them being rude, manipulative, and cruel to both Diana and the Prime Minister, among others.
Anyone watching the show could be forgiven for thinking that royalty is just a bad idea, period. And yet, here we are, on the feast of Christ the King.
It should go without saying that God being King over the whole creation is different from a family of flawed humans trying to wield earthly power. But even today’s Gospel passage, beloved as it is, can be somewhat alarming. Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats, is often – and rightly – cited as a proof text for the need for Christians to be involved in social action here on earth, but the casual promptness with which the King dismisses the goats as his left hand to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” can still take us aback. Is this God’s judgment? What if we find ourselves on the wrong side of it? Can we trust the King of the universe to be fair? Or is God just as capricious and uncaring as Buckingham Palace, circa 1980?
Much is revealed if we take a moment – as always – to think about where the power is in this scenario, and particularly, how different God’s judgment looks depending on where in the power structure the person contemplating that judgment is.
If we’re alarmed by the idea of God’s judgment, that probably indicates that overall, we’re in a fairly powerful and privileged place in society. The vulnerable and the oppressed know what it feels like to witness cruelty, neglect, and exploitation taking place and to cry out for God’s justice – we see this over and over in the Psalms, where those who have suffered at the hands of others implore God to give judgment on their behalf.
Sometimes judgment simply looks like the natural consequences of bad leadership. If you ignore a global pandemic and don’t put mask mandates in place, people will die. If you keep pumping carbon into the atmosphere, the earth’s climate will become unlivable. If you do nothing about police brutality and the trauma of racism, eventually the people will rise up.
But these judgments, predictable and reasonable as they are in the grand scheme of things, still fall most heavily on those with the least power to defend themselves. And so the cry continues – for right judgment, for God’s judgment, for judgment that will truly unveil all the forces at work and set things right.
This week, I learned about yet more developments in the story of someone I know, which I have been following with increasing horror for a while now. Several years ago, in all innocence and with the best of intentions, I was partly responsible for placing this young woman in a situation in which she was horribly abused. Although she and her mother went to the police, they have been told that unless another victim is willing to come forward, the case is unlikely to receive justice in court. Meanwhile, the abuser remains free and has power over quite a few other people as well as animals. It is entirely possible that justice will never be done in this life.
It’s situations like this that make us long for divine justice that is not subject to human faults and failings. And it’s stories like these, in the 25th chapter of Matthew, that give us hope that it will come. God will ensure that kindness does not go unrewarded and oppression will not go unchecked.
And if we are reading this story from the margins, from the perspective of the powerless, from the vantage point of those described as “the least of these” perhaps the most reassuring thing about it is that in the King, the Judge, the Son of Man on his throne, is one and the same as those “least of these”. Christ the King, even if he were not also God, is in no danger of being blinded by privilege and power in making his judgments.
Reading from the margins, from those places of powerlessness and need, is almost always far more accurate and insightful than reading from the center. The center can afford to ignore the margins; the reverse is rarely true. An oppressed group needs to know its oppressors, in order to be able to predict their behaviour and avoid their wrath; it’s a matter of simple survival. This is why women know more about men than vice versa – and especially abused women about abusive men; why Black and Indigenous people know more about white people than vice versa; why LGBTQ+ folks have figured out what makes the cishets tick, while the dominant group frequently remains in ignorance. And in our fallen human power dynamics, this knowledge gap is just another thing contributing to the failure of imperfect human justice.
But Christ, by becoming human, has collapsed the gap. Christ the King is both the almighty God Incarnate and the poor, hungry, homeless person sitting in the ER or in prison. The centre has, once and for all, moved to the margins in order to understand what the world looks like from that vantage point, so as to be able to judge rightly on behalf of those who are most in need of justice. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In the mouth of the Incarnate God, these words are not a pious platitude, but a cosmic fact. God judges on behalf of the needy not just because God knows all and sees all, but because God’s own self has been there with them, hungry, helpless, and at the mercy of the powers that be.
To return to where we started – imagine the Royal Family kicked out of Buckingham Palace and forced to live on a housing estate in the Midlands. (This is actually the plot of Sue Townsend’s hilarious novel The Queen and I.) One imagines that they might rapidly learn some basic facts about what life is like for the vast majority of their subjects who are do not live behind high walls of wealth, privilege and protocol, and perhaps become a bit more sympathetic than they are in the current season of The Crown.
But the real question, of course, is, what do we do with this story? I mean, if you feed the hungry and help the homeless because you’re afraid of God’s judgment if you don’t, that’s better than nothing, I suppose. But I strongly suspect that the God who told the sheep and the goats that “you did” – or “did not” – “do it to me” would prefer that, rather than just being scared straight, you too learn to see God’s judgment from the point of view of those who most need it on their behalf, and cry out for God’s justice to be done when human justice fails.
“I will seek the lost,” says God through the prophet Ezekiel, “and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”