Turning Around and Rethinking the “Royal Theology” of Our Time – Tom Mundahl reflects on the appeal of kingdom, power, and exceptionalism.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
As we move from the Genesis pre-history to God’s forming a new community through Abram and Sarai, the centrality of creation and the vocation to care for the land and make it a home endure. Even though divine action “ruptures” safe worldviews in favor of living by promise, this week’s readings provide courage to continue even when this new community is at odds with power structures.
What is most striking about the Priestly account of the Abrahamic Covenant is that it is given in extemis. The narrator makes it clear that Abram and Sarai are so far beyond the age of child-bearing, that even to speak of posterity is ridiculous. But this Holy One, who is here introduced as El Shaddai, an early appellation that may mean “God with breasts” or “fertile God” ( cf. Genesis 49:25) is true to his name and enlivens hope in this couple with the promise of a child (Genesis 17:16).
This new covenant fulfills creation promises of fruitful multiplication (Genesis 1:28, 9: 1), providing for a future that is clearly dependent upon God’s gracious action and nothing else. “But the point of fruitfulness, of son, of enduring covenant is announced only in v. 8, an affirmation made not to either Adam or Noah, but only to Father Abraham. It is delayed until now, until the new history of Abraham, and it concerns land: ‘And I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the Land of Canaan.’” Brueggemann goes on to claim, “This is the focal verse of the tradition of promise history.” (Genesis, Louisville, John Knox, 1980, p. 21)
The promise of sons and daughters (a future) only makes sense in light of a land of where they can become a sustaining community (Which makes the omission of v. 8 questionable at best). But in no way can either the land or the progeny be considered “property.” As the Deuteronomist warns the people, “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18). These words and the Abrahamic Covenant must have been especially powerful to those in Babylon “barren” of land during their nearly half-century of exile.
Seeing children and the land as covenant gift was theologically crucial. As early as the reign of Solomon (970-930 BCE), a “royal theology” had emerged based on Israel’s affluence, as well as their diplomatic and military power. Unfortunately, proponents of “royal theology” began to see the land as property, wealth as something to be enjoyed by the few, and even fellow Israelites as subject to forced labor—all too reminiscent of Egyptian bondage (Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002, p.24). Not only did this religious decay lead to the emergence of the prophets, but it comes into play in this week’s Gospel reading as Jesus warns Peter to distinguish “human things” from “the things of God” (Mark 8:33). More importantly, the focus of “royal theology” on kingdom building neglects a question that every leader should ask in humility as she/he thinks about amassing power: “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” (Genesis 18:14)
The psalmist approaches this question from a better angle: the standpoint of a lowly one (ani, one of the aniwim) lamenting in words familiar from Good Friday, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). It is only in the midst of the worshipping community (v. 22) that this lowly one is empowered once more to reflect divine passion for the earth and its people in the peculiarly appropriate act of praise. It is worship that stems not from a “royal edict,” but from a celebration of the goodness of a creation, where even “the poor shall eat and be satisfied” (v. 26). Despite the earth’s cycles of living and dying, the LORD ensures the fruitfulness of creation.
This creational generativity is upheld by Paul as he writes to the churches of Rome to reconcile Jewish and Gentile believers. Equally important is his hope to extend the mission of the church as far as Spain. To accomplish both of these goals, he holds that “in the shameful cross, Christ overturned the honor system that dominated the Greco-Roman world and that provided support for the premise of exceptionalism for the Empire” (Robert Jewett, Romans, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007, p. 1). No longer can categories of exceptionalism be tolerated (cf. Galatians 3: 27-28).
In this takedown of Roman imperial theology, Paul can find no better model than Abraham. Abraham certainly carried no religious resume to boast of; he and Sarah simply trusted the nearly laughable promises of heirs and land. Because of this trust, not only was it “reckoned to him (Abraham) as righteousness” (Romans 4:3), but Paul suggests Abraham and Sarah were “to inherit the world . . .”(Romans 4: 13). This cosmic inheritance drives powerfully to Romans 8, where Paul will claim that the entire world waits with eager longing for “the revelation of the sons of God” (8:19), who as Jewett claims “would take responsibility for the polluted world” (Jewett, p. 326). This is a direct effect of the faith God engenders in all—regardless of ethnicity or citizenship—faith that grows from the soil of promise.
That Abraham should inherit the world (Romans 4:13) comes as no surprise since the gift of faith grows out of the gift of creation. Abraham believed in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4:17b). Therefore, “if faith is a gift, creation is the greater gift” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 75).
Here Paul reminds us of Henry David Thoreau, who in his essay “Walking” wrote, “. . . in Wildness is the Preservation of the World” (Lewis Hyde, ed., The Essays of Henry David Thoreau, New York: North Point Press, 2002, p. 162). By this he meant that creation has been given the capacity for renewal as part of its being. When that capacity for renewal is blocked, through drought, through suburbanization, or through climbing earth temperatures, the “world”— human and all else—is threatened.
That threat is visible in the massive attempt of the Roman Empire with its explicit “imperial theology” to control reality in multi-faceted ways, ranging from the over-harvesting of timber throughout the Empire to proclaiming the emperor divine. Paul claims that real life is celebration and care of the gift of creation and promise through faith. In doing so, he tears a hole in the fabric of a system dedicated to maximizing human control.
As we enter the anthropocene epoch, we have begun to realize that the fruit of human attempts to control the natural world have failed and, in many cases, led to a “wildness” that no longer nourishes, but is “out of control.” Take the case of the Mississippi River and its tributaries in Dubuque, IA. Since its founding in the late 1790’s, this human settlement on the banks of the Mississippi has tried to control the river with levees, dikes, and a massive flood wall built after the devastating 1965 flood. The many smaller streams and creeks emptying into the river were simply paved over. None of this has worked: the flood wall simply intensifies the speed of water flowing to increase flooding downstream and the city storm sewer system has proven inadequate in coping with underground water flows.
Finally, residents have begun to preserve their city by learning from the “wildness” Thoreau referenced. Just last year, the first of several creeks to be “daylighted” (uncovered) was dedicated, Bee Branch Creek. This creek, along with others in planning stages, not only provides recreation and beauty, but it is important in flood control, especially in efforts to stop frequent flash flooding. In fact, living and working in the Bee Branch Watershed is becoming more attractive because of the beauty of the Creek and the flood prevention it has provided (Connie Cherba, “The Bee Branch Creek is Back,” Big River, Sept,-Oct. 2017, p. 37). As Thoreau might have said, “Learning from the Wild is the preservation of the World.” Faith and trust in creation, not control, is a crucial step in mitigating the disorder of our new age.
Our Gospel reading shows Jesus and the disciples in a place of intense control, Caesarea Philippi, whose villages surrounded the new imperial city in the highlands of northern Israel, formerly a center for the worship of the Baalim and the Greek god Pan. In this area with a long tradition of religious ferment, Jesus asked his students who they thought he was. The first to speak was Peter who answered, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29). Not only did Jesus strongly silence his circle, but he used this as an opportunity for teaching.
What is most striking is that in the first of three “passion predictions” central to this gospel, he calls himself not “the Christ,” but the “Son of Man,” or, as some translate it, “the human one.” Even more surprising is his conviction that “it is necessary that the Son of Man undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise” (8:31). Shocked, Peter protests and begins to rebuke Jesus. But Jesus rebukes (the verb, “rebuke” is the same one used to silence demons, 1:25) Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but human things” (8:32).
Why did Peter react so strongly? Ched Meyers suggests it was because ”according to the understanding of Peter, “Messiah” necessarily means royal triumph and the restoration of Israel’s collective honor” (Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008, p. 244). Jesus’ self-identification as the “Son of Man” and his passion predictions “dismantle the dominant theories of power by asserting that all such would-be power is in fact no-power. Thus the passion announcements of Jesus are the decisive dismissal of every self-serving form of power upon which the royal consciousness is based. Just that formula, Son of man must suffer—Son of man/suffer!—is more than the world can tolerate . . . ” (Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002, pp. 96-97).
Following Peter’s rebuke, Jesus’ free and open teaching continues with the “crowd” included. This has often been called a “catechism” for disciples; perhaps we could see it as the vocation of all who believe. The words are familiar and still shocking: they turn the “instinct” of self-preservation and the desire for wealth and glory upside down. Why? These are the rules for confronting all authoritarian regimes which are ultimately based on fear of death. The one “with the most stuff when she/he dies” actually wins nothing except the contempt of those who have to deal with “the remaining collection.” In fact, they (we?) have “forfeited our lives” (Mark 8:36b) in favor of standards of economic ease we entrust as life’s “the bottom line.” Real life is dangerous, often counter-cultural, but on the way, as poet W. H. Auden wrote, we are promised “unique adventures” (“For the Time Being,” Collected Poems, New York: Random House, 1976, p. 308).
Jesus unmasks the weakness of the power system. If one of the definitions of a government is that agency exercising the “‘legitimate’ power of coercive violence,” all is revealed. For the most extreme threat, then, is the power of execution justified as a method of keeping order or, at the least, protecting interests. By being willing to “take up the cross,” the one called to follow contributes to shattering the powers’ reign of death in history (Myers, p. 247). Discerning the legitimacy and proper methods of resistance must be done prayerfully within the context of the Christian community, a community that follows on this “unique adventure.” Yet, we do so in confidence because we have “been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
Combining last week’s narrative of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13) and this week’s calling out of Peter as a “satan” for defining Jesus as a power-playing Messiah in the highland villages, we see that Mark’s Gospel does contain a complete temptation story (cf. especially Matthew 4:8-10 and Luke 4:5-8). Just as the Son of Man rejects the way of messianic power, we are called to find real life in serving, including building eco-justice. The “royal theology” of our time is addiction to economic power that requires nothing less than endless growth, maldistribution of growth’s benefits, deregulation of those inconvenient measures to promote safety and health, and the denigration of education and culture. The result is a culture dedicated to intensifying the dangerous impact of the “anthropocene epoch.”
The cost of resistance is high, but this is the season for repentance—turning around and rethinking. Those to whom we preach expect faithfulness and honesty. Control over the natural world has backfired. Our vocation is no longer to be found solely in the realm of “freedom,” but also in the realm of necessity, “because our duty to care for the Earth must precede all others” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, pp. 52-53). And yet, is not this duty at the center of Luther’s definition of “Christian freedom: “not only royalty subject to none, but obedient service, subject to all.” (paraphrased from “The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther’s Works–Career of the Reformer: I, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1957,vol. 31, p. 344) Today that “all” must include service to a fractious creation.
Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.