To get to Armageddon, known in Hebrew as ‘Megiddo’, we drive past an airfield. Our Israeli guide tells us about the Syrian pilot who defected there in 1989. He was flying a Soviet-made MIG-23 fighter jet, which provided Israel with valuable military intelligence—and it feels like nothing ever changes. For in the Hebrew Bible, Megiddo is the site of many clashes where victory is attributed to God; in the book of Revelation, it’s the site where the kings of the world are assembled for a final battle. And so for many people Megiddo, or Armageddon, has long been associated with the destructive violence we expect from kings, whether human or divine: and thousands of years after these stories were first told, the military continues to be active here.
Our guide is understandably proud of the military. As well as being a farmer, he was also an officer; and he has spent his life contributing in very practical ways to the construction of modern Israel. He was born there, after his parents escaped Poland; all but one other member of his extended family was killed by the Nazis. Another day, at the Holocaust Museum, he will tell us what they learned: “The Jewish people will never trust anyone else for their safety,” he will say. “They can only trust themselves.”
But on this day, he keeps talking about fighter jets, and we keep driving. At Megiddo, we park and begin to climb. Megiddo is a tell: a settlement built on the ruins of another. And this tell is high: it has twenty-nine layers. Twenty-nine times, a settlement was built there; twenty-nine times, it was invaded, the people enslaved or slaughtered, the buildings demolished. Twenty-eight times, it was rebuilt; after the last destruction, it was abandoned.
We walk up the tell. It’s November 11th: Remembrance (Armistice) Day. Our New Testament lecturer reminds us that, in the book of Revelation, the Word of God comes with a sword not in his hand, but in his mouth; the sword is not for killing, but for proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ. I remember the image in Revelation of blood on white garments: not the blood of enemies slain, but his own blood, poured out already for the sins of the world. I remember the image of a throne on which sits neither lion nor warrior, but lamb. Vulnerable, with no military power, it is easily slaughtered.
At eleven o’clock, we pause. In silence, we pray for all those who have ever suffered or died in war; we pray for an end to all wars. Two Israeli fighter jets fly overhead. Their engines roar, and the echoes ricochet loudly for long seconds afterwards.
The minute comes to an end. Our guide points to the echoes in the sky. “Those are the sons of light,” he says. “Those F-16I’s protect us from the forces of darkness which seek to destroy Israel.”
Today is the Feast of Christ the King, a relatively new event in the church calendar. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, who was negotiating with Mussolini for absolute political independence for the Vatican, and the absolute dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in Italy. In return for these favours, Pius worked to suppress the only democratic party in Italy, agreed to neutrality in international negotiations, and instituted this Feast. Jesus never claimed to be king; and kingship is a role he shied away from. Yet for decades this day has celebrated a Christ made in the image of a European king—just look at the artwork associated with it—and this pseudo-Christ has been used to spiritually control the masses, and to shore up religious and governmental authority.
In case you’re thinking this authority was benign or benevolent, even godly, know this: From 1938, the Fascists in Italy expelled all Jewish children from state and private schools. They fired all Jews who were working in universities, banks, the civil service and the military. They limited and regulated Jews in other industries, and they stripped Jews of property and bank accounts. The Pope told Mussolini that the church had long seen the need to “rein in the children of Israel” and to take “protective measures against their evil-doing.” He agreed not to criticise the anti-Semitic measures; and Mussolini told the Pope that in any case he would do nothing to Italy’s Jews that had not already been done under papal rule.
So that’s a bit of our dark history, and it raises questions about why we even mark the day. In tonight’s gospel reading, we find out. For it doesn’t uphold this authoritarian Christ; instead, it challenges easy assumptions about Christ’s kingship. We don’t see Jesus enthroned in glory. Instead, we see a shackled Jewish political prisoner being interrogated. Because any suggestion of kingship has political implications, Pilate is trying to understand him. Is Jesus like the man our guide calls “that crazy meshuggeneh”, King Herod, who submits to Rome? Or will those who pledge allegiance to Jesus’ kingdom place Jesus’ authority above Rome, and Jesus’ agenda above all other agendas? What sort of threat is he?
These are good questions for those of us who pray, “Your kingdom come.” Will God’s kingdom be like another human kingdom, only bigger, more powerful, and more decisively violent? Will it come as many Christians imagine it, fuelled by the wrath of an angry God, with slaughter and desolation and blood running through the streets? Will cities and towns and villages yet again be depopulated and razed in the name of Christ? Is Jesus yet another Caesar, Kaiser, king: anti-Semitic, authoritarian, spiritually abusive and grasping at power? Will Megiddo get and then lose a thirtieth layer? Are F-16I’s a tool of the righteous?
With questions like these buzzing through his mind, Pilate asks Jesus, “What have you done?” But Jesus is elusive, saying, “My kingdom is not from this world. If it was, my followers would be fighting … I came into the world to testify to the truth.”
Do you hear that? Jesus’ followers don’t fight, not even to protect the one they call king. And Jesus didn’t come to shore up power, or to dominate, or to compel obedience, or to manipulate: instead, he came to testify to the truth which he embodies. And in his life, death and resurrection, we begin to see the nature of this truth. This is a truth known in free and self-giving love, the sort of love which accepts vulnerability, suffering and death in order to bring about reconciliation and life. This is a truth which does not discriminate against Jew or Gentile, but draws all peoples into a loving, healing, liberating, forgiving and life-giving embrace. This is a truth in which retaliation is not an option, and enemies are transformed by love.
This is a truth which is so radical, and which runs so counter to our usual experiences of kings, borders, sovereignty, security and safety, that Pope Pius XI couldn’t imagine it. Our Israeli guide can’t imagine it. Many Christians won’t imagine it. And in the shadows of the Holocaust, Hezbollah and Hamas, and the walls around Bethlehem, and Israeli military might, and the Australian Border Force, and the scars of settler wars and colonialism, and the mess that is the world, I don’t know how to imagine it either.
But after seeing Megiddo, imagine it I must. For twenty-nine invasions and twenty-nine destructions and twenty-nine rivers of blood in the streets tell me one thing: military violence never ends. It may stave off the chaos for a short time, but it changes nothing and heals no relationship. It does not bring peace, only fear and anxiety, submission and suffering, and the looming threat of further retaliation. Enemies remain enemies, locked in a dance to the death.
There must be another way: the way of Jesus Christ, that extraordinary man who turns kingship on its head. For unlike any earthly ruler, he insists that there is strength in vulnerability and power in nonviolence. He demands that we love our enemies, and he shows us how to offer our lives as a gift to others. So let us listen to his truth and allow it to change us; and may it bring about reconciliation, healing, and a true and lasting peace. His kingdom come; his will be done. Amen. Ω
A reflection on John 18:33-37 and Revelation for Christ the King Sunday, given to Sanctuary, 25 November 2018 (Year B Proper 29, BP29) © Alison Sampson, 2018. Image shows layers at Megiddo (and a stone altar); image credit: Alison Sampson.
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