Christianity and the Shadow of Monarchy

Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What do you mean by seizing the whole earth; because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor”. (Augustine, City of God)

I write these words in a period of national mourning, a week in which thousands have queued for hours to catch a glimpse of the coffin of Britain’s recently departed monarch. The last few days, in their multiplicity of ceremonial displays, have brought to the surface some surprisingly deep reflections on the nature of power, nationhood, and cults of personality. For my part, they have reinforced a deep theological suspicion regarding the substance of such civic displays. All this for a single person, all because she wore a crown? The question is mostly rhetorical, but it is a helpful entry point into my deeply held anxieties, not just about kings and queens, but politics in general. One of the reasons I continue to oppose the institution of monarchy (and incidentally a fetishistic attitude towards representative democracy) is the secular appropriation of the Corpus Mysticum (the claim that One can stand in for the Many). This seems to be something opponents and advocates of the British monarchy have agreed upon over the last few days. Either Queen Elizabeth II personifies ‘the best of us’ (however ‘us’ is defined) or she is the representative of Imperial atrocity and systematic racism. But to treat the Queen in this totemic fashion is to render her into an Idol or a scapegoat. In either case, such judgements conform to the ideological script of monarchy, that there are indeed special people who are able to represent whole groups and histories.  It is a proposition which I think doubtful at best, but the notion is lodged so deeply in our collective way of thinking and feeling, that few challenge it.  It is certainly peculiar to see stern opponents of the monarchical principle repeat its central myth of mystical identification. To escape the mythological landscape of monarchy we must, not merely seek abolition of a formal institution, but seek to discard a habit of mind that encourages us to see people as capable of mediating things as contested as ‘nations’.  It is one thing to say that the Queen was merely human (no-one in this century denies that). But the greater secularisation is to say that she had no special power of representation, that in the end, one human being attempting to stand in for millions of others is a fiction. Once we let go of this tiny piece of political magic, (perhaps the first and last magic which monarchy possesses) the illusion is shattered. The British constitutional monarchy endures because the spell remains in force.

But like energy in Nature, the aura of kingship is neither created nor destroyed, but simply transferred. Any close examination of political systems will demonstrate that the mystical identification at the heart of monarchy is still capitalised upon, even where formal structures of kingship have been completely abolished. When a successful war is concluded or a treaty signed, there is a glamour around the inhabitant of an elected office, an aura which resembles a much older monarchical precedent: The success of the ruler is the success of a people and vice versa. This identification goes beyond any reasonable estimate of a leader’s responsibilities or real-world competences. The assumption is that his role is more than that of a transient administrator of shifting government departments. He is called upon to be a conduit for collective hopes and shared ambitions. He is summoned to the podium, not merely to offer an update on organizational progress (the relative strength of GDP, the state of unemployment, or foreign exchange rates), but to provide a story and a context for a people. Even in the bland modern state, the politician is encouraged to be a bard and a storyteller, even if he is discouraged from being a priest. When the most charismatic of politicians paints in primary colours ‘the destiny of a nation’, the narrative function is only effective because it is assumed that his individual identity has been fused into that of a general, national consciousness. If we consider this notion with a critical eye, we quickly realize that it is not possible for millions of people to be of the same mind, and that even banal words like ‘peace’, ‘freedom’ and ‘security’ mean many different things to different people.  There can be such a thing as a thin social consensus, but there can never be a human conduit between the people and the State. Yet, the appeal to common destiny works through the bypass of our estimating mind and turns instead to the yearning of the heart. We want unity and will do what we must to find a suitable canvas for that desire.   

But if this logic of glamorous transposition elevates a leader to the height of an Idea, the same logic easily destroys the foolish or corrupt officeholder. It is often said that a President who acts badly on the world-stage is a stain on his country (implying that there is some kind of invisible bond between himself and the land he is elected to serve). No procedural structure proves this supposition. The belief (for that is what it is) is quasi-spiritual, that a single individual can contain and compromise multitudes). When the contamination of a given political icon becomes too great, the only remaining option is to cast out the unbecoming pretender. In the crushing election defeat the sacralised representative becomes a shrunken secular man in borrowed clothes. The invisible crown and sceptre conferred by a self-declared democracy has left him, migrating to a new representative. The frequent migration of monarchical power it turns out is incredibly useful for flippant democracies (particularly those of the grubby and acquisitive kind). In the ejection of the unscrupulous leader, the people can feel that his personal evil (which was also general) is purged from the body politic. It is possible for a people to make of their fallen leader a scapegoat, absolving themselves of sin (or in secular terms, political miscalculation). The action of absolution is marvellous to behold in its secular form, as effective as any ritualised penitence of the Middle Ages. The procedure is particularly  remarkable because the bureaucracy often remains unchanged, but because the corrupt Premier or President is removed from the scene, the public suddenly feels spotless. The affects of a government’s misdemeanours may continue to reverberate through the world, but the removal of this figurehead of authority brings the sense that a new start is possible. The people who elected him are again blameless, so too are many of the politicians who once served the one deposed.  Theatre replaces bureaucratic thought, appearances become more important than hard realities. The water is dirty, but everyone present declares they have been washed clean. 

There are many solid pragmatic reasons why one might reject the logic of monarchy (whatever garb it currently wears). It underwrites collective wrongdoing. It simplifies the realities of power. It misleads us into thinking that the wrongdoing of society can be expunged when a single person is removed from the social  pyramid.  We become fixated on the face of authority, rather than reflecting keenly on how authority actually works. Christians, unconvinced by the pseudo-theology of monarchy, may have sympathy with all these arguments, but such sympathy hinges on an important fact. Early Christians lived in a world where the Emperor of Rome claimed for himself the right to mediate the world to itself. He was the face which looked down on the world and declared what was good, right, and lawful. He declared meaning midst chaos. In his royal personage, (though he did not call himself a king) he framed the destiny of peoples. When Christians said Jesus was Lord, they were claiming (among other things) that only Christ can stand in for many because his life came from the Universal Life of God. Caesar cannot represent anyone because his claims to divinity are baseless. He is a gangster atop a hoard. He is a pirate who has garbed himself in purple.  If the young Augustus had fallen at the battle of Actium that is all he would have been, a failed schemer, no different from the pirates chased by his Imperial ships. Consequently, the first Christians came to understand that service to Caesar had no more metaphysical significance than the transactional relationship between a crime boss and his clandestine employees. People died in the name of Caesar it was true, but the Church insisted that, fundamentally, their sacrifices changed nothing. The wheels of power rolled on, asking for more blood.  Emperors came and went. Death seemed eternal. This then was Christianity’s claim to radicality, that the Emperor and his torments were neither ultimate nor binding. For the earliest followers of Jesus, this judgement was summed up by the Cross. Christ’s death, the New Testament insisted, was altogether different from those who died for Caesar. Jesus stood as an officeholder of king and high priest, but instead of holding onto power, he relinquished it. And paradoxically, this confirmed him as a king forever, surpassing the pale imitations of all earthly sovereignty. Crowns were now worthless because of the Cross. Christ truly stood in the place of all, his body becoming the temple of temples, in which darkness and evil were slayed eternally. As the Letter to the Hebrews expresses it:  

Now since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity, so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews, 2:14-5)

Kings deal in death, but none end it. What does this revelation of Christ’s subversive kingship mean? It means that all claims to transposition by secular political authorities to represent us are at bottom bogus facsimiles. Perhaps such claims are a necessary fiction in the name of order, but a fiction they are. Millions of voices cannot be filtered through a few hundred representatives. No territory can be adequately described in terms of the opinions of a few party-machines.  The flag does not represent us any more than the king on his throne. There is no mysterious ultimate unity in this world. There are people who variously fight and squabble, agree and dissent, struggle, and accord. The art of politics is really the art of compromise, the process of negotiation by which power is contained and an imperfect order is sustained. There are better and worse regimes. Legitimate disagreements can be had about political principles, but one is painfully misguided if such principles are given spiritual ultimacy. Principles are tools to an uncertain end.  One should of course not discount these ends just because they are uncertain. In the process of political negotiation beautiful things can emerge, peace, civic co-operation, even cherished institutions. But all politics can really do is make the space for these experiments. No king or politician can guarantee them. If we live under one of the old representative governments, we must not be lured into the belief (so useful to narcissistic politicians) that they represent us in some deep metaphysical sense. They cannot possess a psychic link with those they rule, neither can we expect their actions to replace our own responsibility to care for the place we live. Their capacity to represent is an imperfect, often faulty attempt, at including voices in the political process. While such inclusion has merits in its favour, we cannot expect it to do wonders. We should not expect to find any genuine mystique in politics, neither purification nor a grand story. There is no salvation in a polling booth nor in the military parade.  No flag can protect us from misfortune. No party-chairman is free from error. Human power and its symbols, whether crowned or built, voted for, or imposed, will always come to dust. As Augustine put it so vividly in the City of God:

[Earthly] joy may be compared to glass in its fragile splendor, of which one is horribly afraid lest it should be suddenly broken in pieces.  That this may be more easily discerned, let us not come to nought by being carried away with empty boasting, or blunt the edge of our attention by loud-sounding names of things, when we hear of peoples, kingdoms, provinces.

But what does a refusal to be carried away by names mean? For Augustine it meant appreciating practical political goods like order and peace without worshiping the rulers who pretend to guarantee them. I appreciate the fact that I can write down my thoughts without the risk of riling a censor, but it would be utterly sycophantic to thank the State because officials have decided not to censor me. Augustine would go further. We must administer society without believing that ‘society’ is all that matters.  The true Prince of a Christian State he says, would rather see his State destroyed than compromise what was ultimately good. A State that serves itself is a monstrous false god who should never be served. A Christian who seeks to put the Good News at the centre of her life should want the full secularisation of politics. No magic, no kings, no destinies, only a desire to live together in reasonable justice and peace. Spiritually safe politics is procedural and dull. Mysticism in politics is the source of countless evils. We cannot and should not expect any earthly leader to save us, perfect us, validate or affirm us. It is not within the power of politics to make life meaningful. When ideology takes on this ultimate role, it becomes a false idol that diverts us from the one who is the true Corpus Mysticum (the body that does indeed encompass multitudes). Those walking past the Queen’s coffin this week are channelling deep emotions into a woman that most did not know,  but who appears close and vital through the art of their imagination. It would be better to pour those feelings into an immediate attachment rather than an image (or in some cases an image of an image).  The same can be said of republicans, who make of a single person a scheming Imperialist monster (a human-shaped box proper to  contain their worst suspicions and fears). Such is the ideology of monarchy. But the New Testament offers us another vision of power, and another account of political substitution. It is indeed possible for one life to partake of the lives of many, but crown and  palace knows nothing of this radiant alchemy. The Messianic spirit which brings such identification about, exists at the edges, among the ignored and scattered. Christ’s rule is marked by the dissolution of distant sovereignty, in favour of traveling in the shoes of those who have traditionally been invisible to kings. J.R.R. Tolkien in the Lord of the Rings said (in a decidedly Christological accent): “For it is said in old lore, ‘The hands of the king are the hands of a healer.’ And so the rightful king could ever be known’”. This for Christians must be the true mark of Kingship. States sometimes heal, but their appetite for wholeness is limited. Victory or dominance is always more appealing. Political leaders might posture as healers, but they always carry a sword. Christ is different. He enters fully into the human situation, achieving kingship by giving up power. He represents by reaching out to all.  His death actually changes the human situation without demanding political loyalty. These facts not merely defy the logic of kingly cult, they actively transcend the ideology of both secular and sacred monarchy.    

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