Jesus, John Wayne, and Christ the King

 In her recent book, Jesus and John Wayne, Kristine Kobes Du Mez writes about the transformation of American Christianity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as it became indistinguishable from conservative white, masculine, nationalistic politics. While her focus is on evangelicalism, the story affects of all of American Christianity, in that the consumer culture we inhabit shapes us indelibly. She uses the actor John Wayne as a symbol of that transformation, showing how American evangelical Christians reimagined Jesus in light of Wayne’s iconic portrayal of the lone American fighting against evil in defense of the American way of life.

Such imagery may be profoundly alien to us. When was the last time you watched Wayne’s iconic Green Berets—his full-throttled defense of US involvement in Viet Nam? Perhaps you have seen The Searchers or The Sands of Iwo Jima. But for most of us, John Wayne and the characters he played in the movies are faded relics of a long-forgotten past. Still, Kobes De Mez reveals that the images continue to shape our worldview and Christianity and those of other Americans in profound and disturbing ways. His elevation of the lone individual fighting for truth and the American way, battling enemies who were usually not white; the emphasis on redemptive violence, the praise of dominant masculinity against passive femininity, all of these themes continue to resonate in our culture and in American Christianity.

The conflation of Jesus and John Wayne may seem an absurdity, laughable, idolatry. It may seem a distortion, even a heretical misinterpretation of the one who died on the cross, offering love to the world, preaching on behalf of the poor, the powerless, the hungry. But there is imagery in our scripture, liturgy, and theology that evokes themes of imperial power. 

Which brings us to today, the observance of Christ the King or the Reign of Christ. When we hear those words, it’s hard not to conjure up images of Jesus reigning in majesty, his head adorned with a crown, wearing imperial purple. All of those symbols are derived from the imperial imagery of the Roman Empire and medieval kingship. And while we may imagine a pax Christiana, or a pax Romana, in which the empire rules benevolently, peacefully, over a harmonious world, such tranquility always requires vigilant borders, suppression of dissent, overwhelming military power.

This commemoration of Christ the King, or of the Reign of Christ, as it’s often called these days, is a product of the political conflicts of the last century. It was proclaimed by the pope in 1925, a few years after the devastation of World War I, and in the face of the rising tide of Fascism in western Europe. It was an attempt to remind Christians to put our trust not in the kings or presidents, the forces of nationalism or the powers of this earth, but in the one who reigns in majesty in heaven.

Observing this theme today in the midst of our own political and constitutional crisis, with the threat of authoritarianism and the subversion of the democratic process, seems especially appropriate. And the gospel reading cuts to the very heart of our experience right now.

With today’s reading, we are at the end of our reading of Matthew’s gospel. It is also the final public teaching of Jesus in the gospel. The rest of the gospel is taken up with the events of the last supper, the crucifixion, and resurrection. In some ways, it resembles the parables we’ve been hearing the past few weeks; there’s judgment, there’s separation of good and evil, there’s condemnation. But the similarities end there. While it’s often referred to as a parable, it’s not. It’s more a description of the last judgment than a parable.

The ubiquity of the themes from this story in contemporary progressive Christianity are unfortunate, because it is usually reduced to a set of ethical imperatives—to care for the least of these, the poor, the hungry, the naked, prisoners. What’s overlooked in that perspective is that such actions are not humanitarian; they are sacramental. They take place in response to, and in the presence of Christ. But they are sacramental in a very interesting way, because they are unconsciously sacramental. That is to say, those performing the sacramental acts of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, do not know they are performing sacramental acts, they are performing those acts out of mercy and love, to Christ and to their fellow humans, not knowing that as they perform them, Christ is present.

To bring it back to the day’s theme, reading this text in the context of the Reign of Christ is a powerful witness to the sort of king Christ is, to the nature of the reign of Christ. It is the very subversion of human notions of kingship and power. It is unspoken, unseen, unrecognized. It is present in the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society, in prisons and nursing homes where COVID is raging uncontrollably, on streets where the homeless sleep, in the lines that appear when our food pantry is open. It is present on our borders, in refugee camps, and facilities where immigrants are being held, in the cages where children live.

Think for a moment about all of those places—places we don’t want to think about, or see, or visit. Think about how most of those places, especially prisons and nursing homes, are occupied by people we don’t want to see or know.

There, among the most vulnerable, the weakest, the ignored, there Christ reigns. There, Christ is. And we are called, not only to reach out, to offer food, clothing, and shelter, to be present there. We are called to see Christ there, to recognize his presence, to serve him there.   It is our calling to remind our culture of who Christ is, where Christ is, even when the culture wants to see Christ very differently, as a white, violent, powerful warrior hero.

In these dark days, in the midst of our fear and anxiety, as we struggle to make sense of what’s happening, to hold out hope for the future, following Jesus means to follow him there, where he reigns, and where he is present, in prisons, in nursing homes. And even when it is impossible to do so, as it is now, in these circumstances, it is our calling to bear witness to Christ’s presence in those places, among the victims of violence and oppression, the poor, the hungry, and the naked. We are called to challenge the powers of this world who ignore and prolong the suffering of the least of these. We are called to show even to them, the powerful, the wealthy, the uncaring, to make known to them Christ’s presence where they would least expect it and least recognize it. May we have the courage to witness and to show mercy.