“The Game of Thrones versus the Human One” Reflections given by The Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on January 14th, 2018. (Readings for the 2nd Sun. Aft. Epiphany: I Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 138:1-5,12-17, Excerpt from Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, John 1:43-51)
“Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Human One.” John 1:51
I want to talk today about the Game of Thrones versus the Human One—the only title Jesus of Nazareth ever claimed for himself.
Ove the holidays I was able to catch up on two seasons of “Game of Thrones.” I love it, but I’m not necessarily recommending others see it. It has great characters and plot development, but it’s also very violent. For me it’s essentially about the story of kingship, that is the pursuit of kingship is the game of thrones. It’s a fascinating fictional study. All these kings and queens from all these different cultures, all thinking their running the show, but what you see is how the show is running them. It illustrates the line from the Waylon Jennings song “It’s not supposed to be that way” when he sings “Be careful what you’re dreaming—or soon your dreams will be dreaming you.” They play all these games to seize power, expand it and keep from losing it. In the process, almost all of them get involved in lying, murder, torture, exploitation, and often sadism. They also help create and perpetuate the grounds of sexism, racism, and the war on difference as all of these tend to be intimately tied to the warfare state and imperialism. But if you think this is simply fiction read the books of First and Second Kings in the Bible. They tell the story of monarchy in Israel and it’s the same story. If you read the story of the Roman Emperors it’s the same story. In a way, you almost become struck by how unimaginative evil is as so many seem to get involved in the same kinds of perversities including killing members of their own families. If kingship were a deadly disease, I would suggest it’s probably killed more people than any of the other worst plagues in human history.
If there is a good simple history of the idea of kingship and when and how it entered human history I haven’t read it. My understanding is that it’s an idea that seemed to come into the world around 5,000 BC which is around the beginnings of recorded history. We don’t know much about life before the kingdoms, but life appears to have been quite different as the archeological record suggests that amidst what were large settled agricultural populations there was a much greater degree of social equality as reflected in the size of their houses. In contrast, as kingship arrives you suddenly have very different sized houses depending on someone’s status. You even have kings wanting to be buried with a lot of their wealth and sometimes even with their wives and slaves. Once the horse was domesticated it became possible to plunder, kill or enslave whole populations.
Now after several thousand years of this kind of bloody history something different began to happen around the world. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term the Axial Age to describe this new phenomenon. In the roughly five hundred years between the 8thand the 3rd Century BC new ways of thinking appear in Persia, India, China, and the Greco-Roman world with seemingly little direct connection between them. This is the period in which we find Confucius and Lao-Tse living in China and from their thought we see the development of Confucianism and Taoism. In India, we find Buddha and the development of Buddhism. In Iran, Zarathustra and the development of Zoroastrianism. In Israel, it was the era of the great prophets from Elijah and Isaiah to Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah. In Greece, it was the golden age of philosophy with writers and thinkers like Homer, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, Thucydides and Archimedes.
For Jaspers, the Axial age was “an interregnum between two ages of great empire, a pulse for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness.” In her book, The Great Transformation, Karen Armstong has proposed that this rebirth of human consciousness happened as people reflected on the previous centuries of genocide and the devastation that arose from the vision of kingship and empire. It was a time in which people reflected on what it means to be human and what human life, or a good life, is really about and they came up with answers very different than the answers assumed by the model of kingship. Though they have very different approaches and come up with many different answers, the fact that all these different cultures should be engaged in a similar quest suggests a humanity collectively struggling to find its way towards a new kind of consciousness.
Now, before I talk about Jesus, I want to say that the discussions of the Axial age seem to miss a vital chapter about humanity’s relationship to kingship and empire and that is the story we have in the Hebrew Bible of the period between 1200 and 1,000 BC when a new nation emerged, a nation which was determined to be a non-kingdom. Ancient Israel was to be known as the Kingdom of God because it was to have no king but God. When you read about this confederation it’s striking how many of their practices seem to have been created in opposition to the ways of the kingdoms. Israel was to have no standing army. The whole vision of kingship is a vision of power gained and maintained through military force. Kings engaged in warfare as a way to expand their wealth and power. It’s hard to do that with a volunteer army. Lest you think this was just some lovely romantic dream—the Israelites also had a policy that when they did go to war no one was allowed to claim any booty and prisoners were to be killed. Though that is very brutal it appears to have been about taking the incentive out of war because part of the game of warfare was that while poor people were slaughtered the nobles and warlords were often captured so they could be ransomed. It’s much less fun to go to war with people for whom it is not a game.
It’s also a culture that as part of its vision of what it means to be a free people– put at the heart of its life the idea of the Sabbath. It is a vision that people were not made for work but work for people. It also puts clear limitations on the accumulation of wealth by saying all creatures, people and animals, need a day of rest each week.
Lastly, perhaps to justify their vision of a violent universe that could only be appeased through blood—most of the kingdoms in the area practiced child sacrifice, but in Israel it was prohibited, though when Israel turns back to having kings it keeps showing up again and again.
Israel only lasted as nation without a king for something like two hundred years, but the memory of that era remained an incendiary memory that was used to evaluate the much longer period that followed. When John the Baptist and Jesus begin talking about the Kingdom of God being at hand—it would have evoked that collective memory.
If the idea of kings seems to have driven people crazy for thousands of years— in his teachings on the way of The Human One we see Jesus claiming a counter vision of what it means to live as free human beings and as children of the God of freedom. That is, I think in his discussion of The Human One and God’s vision for the earth and her peoples Jesus was in part challenging the ideological and spiritual foundations of the kingdoms and their vision of power over others.
“Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Human One.”
Epiphany, epi-phanos– means “revelation of the face.” It’s classically understood to refer to the revelation of the face of God, but perhaps we also need to understand it as the revelation of the face of true humanity. Epiphany begins with the story of the wise men who followed the star and the birth of a new kind of king, a child of God, and the revelation of God in the face of the baby Jesus. Last week we heard the story of the revelation that happened when Jesus was baptized. This Sunday we hear about another kind of revelation in the call of the disciples.
I think it is helpful if we let ourselves feel what strange stories the calling of the disciples’ stories are. Jesus talks to people, or seeks them out, and invites them to follow him and then, seemingly with almost no preparation, they leave everything to do it.
Have we ever encountered something that led us to be willing to leave our lives as we have known them to embark on a journey into the unknown? It doesn’t seem wise. Usually, it would strike us as pure foolishness and probably most of the time it is—but I would also suggest that beneath the surface many of us have been caught by a vision, heard a call, that has moved us in such a way that, whether we realize it or not, we’ve dedicated our lives to following it. We like to think of ourselves in terms of the 19th century liberal romantic vision that we are masters of our own destinies and yet, if we look more closely, I suspect many of us will find we are much more like these disciples—caught by a revelation we don’t fully understand—unable not to pursue it.
Now John explains the disciples’ whole-hearted response in terms of the hope for the Messiah. People were waiting expectantly for the Messiah—the one who will deliver them from the Roman occupation, the one who will usher in a new age of justice, equality, and peace. But even if that’s true, what was it about Jesus that led people to imagine him as the Messiah? Because the Messiah was usually envisioned as a warrior or a king and Jesus was neither.
What I want to suggest today is that perhaps what moved their hearts and rocked their world was that in Jesus they encountered “The Human One,” one who embodied what it means to be truly human. Jesus gives us an important clue as to what it means to be truly human when he describes “The Human One” as one on whom the angels of God ascend and descend. The Human One is one in whom heaven and earth meet and are in intimate dialogue. It is to be fully human, but also, to use the Quaker phrase, to be one in whom there is “that of God.” (“There is that of God in every person.”) If this is true, it means that Jesus probably did not discourage discussion of him as the Messiah, simply to delay his confrontation with the powers, but also because he understood that the whole understanding that people had of what the Messiah was to be about—might keep them from being able to hear or understand his message about the Human One and what it means to be children of God.
Two thousand years later, watching the Game of Thrones on TV or in contemporary world politics, it can feel like wow—what has changed? We still have all these folks holding up the idea of power over others in their worship of the rich and powerful and trying to be like them. Many seem to be wearying or even frightened of democracy and social equality. It’s striking how much people still don’t seem to see the connections between wealth and immiseration, between power and powerlessness, between racism, sexism, militarism, poverty, and the degradation of our planet and its creatures including the dehumanization of people.
The dream of kingship guided the peoples of the world for perhaps 6,000 years, it feels like Western Civilization has taken the vision of the Human One seriously for less than 500 years and in some ways only really seriously for the last hundred years. I would like to briefly highlight a few of the ways that the vision of the Human One has grown exponentially in our time as I think they are signs of the new humanity and new world that is struggling to be born and the kind of shifts in thinking that has led Karen Armstrong to believe we are in the midst of a new Axial age.
The emergence of the women’s movement over the last two hundred years testifies to a shift from a vision of women as the property or subordinates of men to seeing women as the equals of men. It has brought with it a whole different understanding of what it means to be human and how we can structure our most intimate relationships. We can’t over state how significant a change this is. Women didn’t get the right to vote in this country until 1920. That’s the year my mother was born. Her mother, my grandmother, through most of her life would never sit to eat with men, but instead would stand to serve them and eat afterwards. Only in my lifetime have we even had language for things like sexual harassment and sexual abuse. Even the fact that we can now name these abuses is enormous progress.
Simultaneously, over the last two hundred years we’ve seen a growing struggle for a world that is no longer controlled and dominated by the those who own capital. The struggle to build a world where, as it says in the Book of Acts, each gives according to their ability and receives according to their needs. It’s striking how hard its proved to be to figure out how to move beyond the paradigm that simply replaced aristocracies based on hereditary with those based on wealth.
After two world wars in which Western Civilization seemed clearly on the verge of destroying itself—around the world peoples began trying to throwing off the mantles of colonialism and racism. Again, those mantels have proved to be so much deeper and more difficult to overthrow than simply replacing some people with others.
Coming out of World War II, in 1948, the United Nation’s adopted the Declaration of Universal Human Right, which Eleanor Roosevelt drafted and promoted, with its recognition that simply by virtue of being human—people have rights that need to be recognized by all.
The anti-colonial struggles and the growing awareness of human rights helped to strengthen the attempt to democratize and to challenge the caste system in this country and the forces of imperialism within it through the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. Again, because our society seems to perpetually suffer from historical amnesia, it’s important to recognize how recent and profound these changes have been. Deena helped to raise me when I was a child. Her grandmother had been a slave.
The civil rights and anti-war movements in turn helped to energize so many important movements that have called for the recognition and honoring of different aspects of our humanity: indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBT, a renewed women’s movement.
The first Earth day celebration happened in 1970 testifying to a growing ecological movement and consciousness that has helping us to see how we as human beings need to be in a new relationship with our planet and its creatures—if we are going to be truly human, if we are going to survive.
There are so many other things I could highlight in terms of our growing understanding of what it means to be truly human, what a humanized humanity might look like, and how we might get there, but in conclusion I just want to close by focusing on Martin Luther King who for me is one of the most important prophets the world has ever seen, like all of us radically imperfect, but one on whom I experienced the angels of God ascending and descending.
It’s not clear whether or not we are going to be able to turn away from the paradigm of domination in time to save our species, but if we are able to its going to be partly because Martin Luther King did so much to help us understand the way of the Human one, and how through truth struggle we can engage the ideas that have divided and enslaved us, kept us at war with one another and our own humanity and are now threatening to destroy us as a species.
Has there ever been more hope and more despair happening at the same time in history? A new humanity is struggling to be born, a humanity in which diversity and our commonalities are honored through a vision of the common good, a humanity that honors the planet and her creatures. At the same time—we see so much reaction, so much fear, so much mindless pursuit of greed and power over others, and so much cynicism to the extent that many have come to believe that humanity itself is somehow innately at odds with the well-being of our planet.
The Jesus we encounter in our gospel today was beginning to recruit people into a campaign to show others how we could live paradise, heaven on earth. From the time Jesus began recruiting people until his death was less than three years and yet—those three years changed the course of human history. Martin Luther King was killed trying to organize a Poor Peoples’ Campaign to call for the recognition of the fundamental dignity, worth, and needs of all those being discriminated against because of their poverty, whatever their race, whatever their ethnicity. King was killed before this campaign really had a chance to come to fruition. Now, 50 years later, the mantle of that campaign has been taken up by the Rev. Dr. William Barber and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis—to tackle the evils of racism, militarism, economic injustice, environmental devastation, sexism and the other evils that King saw are so inextricably linked you can’t address one without addressing them all. We don’t know how successful this campaign will be in helping us to redeem our society and our humanity, but it is an opportunity to make a difference.
It is clear heaven is calling us, the Human One is calling us. A humanity born not of fear and coercion but of love and freedom is struggling to be born. We must help it to be born before the soul sickness that keeps us addicted to power over others kills us all. In the midst of this frightening, but beautiful struggle, may we remember that if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen