Military violence never ends, but Jesus’ way leads to true and lasting peace. An insight received one Remembrance Day, while standing at Armageddon. (Listen.)
To get to Armageddon, known in Hebrew as ‘Megiddo’, we drive past an airfield. Our Israeli guide tells us about the Syrian fighter pilot who defected there in 1989. He was flying a Soviet-made MIG-23, 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; and 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 violence we expect from military rulers, whether human or divine: and the military is still active here.
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 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 for a minute’s silence. We pray for all those who have ever suffered or died in war; we pray for an end to all wars. In the silence, two Israeli fighter jets fly overhead. Their engines roar, and the echoes ricochet loudly around the valley for long seconds afterwards.
The minute comes to an end. Our guide, who lost most of his family in the Holocaust, 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 political independence 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, 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 has been benign, even godly, know this: With the consent of the Catholic church, 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,” and he agreed not to criticise the anti-Semitic measures. In any case, said Mussolini to the Pope, he would do nothing to Italy’s Jews that had not already been done under papal rule.
Locally, we know all too well how religious authority colluded with the state in the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families, in the shaming and control of unmarried mothers, and in the ongoing shaming and ostracising of LGBTQ+ folk. We know, too, how the state long turned a blind eye to the abuse of children by religious leaders. In other words, the image of Christ as an authoritarian king is the outcome of a dark marriage between religious and state power, and it leads to terrible outcomes.
And it has no foundation in the gospel. Instead, the gospel 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: 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 their king. And Jesus didn’t come to shore up power, or to dominate, or to compel obedience, or to manipulate, or to fight. 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 and 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 and borders and sovereignty and security and safety, that Pope Pius XI couldn’t imagine it. My Israeli guide can’t imagine it. Many Christians won’t imagine it. And in the shadows of the Holocaust, Hezbollah, Hamas, the walls around Bethlehem and Israeli military might, I don’t know how to imagine it either.
But after seeing Megiddo, imagine it I must. For twenty-nine invasions and twenty-nine flattenings and twenty-nine rivers of blood in the streets tell me one thing: military violence never ends. It may shut down the chaos for a short time, but it changes nothing and heals no relationship. It does not bring peace, only terror, 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: and this is the way of Jesus Christ, that extraordinary man who turns kingship on its head. For unlike any earthly ruler, he demands that we love our enemies, and he rejects all forms of retaliation and violence. He insists that there is power in vulnerability; he prioritises care for the most vulnerable; and he shows us how to offer our lives as gift. So let us listen to and proclaim his truth, and allow it to change us; and may it bring about reconciliation, healing, and a true and lasting peace in our hearts, in our relationships, and in the whole world. His kingdom come; his will be done. Amen. Ω
Reflect: What images of God have you needed to dismantle? What experiences led you to dismantle them? How do you imagine Christ’s peaceful kingdom? When have you experienced the transforming power of love?
A reflection on Revelation 1:4b-8 and John 18:33-37 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 21 November 2021 (Year B Proper 29) © Sanctuary 2021. Photo by Andreea Popescu on Unsplash.
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