THE AUTOCRAT AND THEIR PR PROBLEM
If only one is in charge, all the skills of shared government must seem to coalesce in one person. In this they claim the power of Christ himself.
In 1925, faced with growing secularism and nationalism, Pope Pius XI created a new festival for the Church: the feast of Christ the King. The warning signs were there to see in the 1920s. Lenin had just died and Stalin was consolidating power in the Soviet Union. A new festival of Christ the King sent an unsubtle but necessary message to those with totalitarian instincts, that these are not compatible with the Christian faith.
It was a message that went unheeded, of course. Even the Pope could not have foreseen how terrible the next two decades would prove, as European civilisation brought itself to the edge of complete destruction.
Even for us, there is a hint of unease as we chart the growth of extreme nationalist movements across Europe today which are hostile to Muslims, especially those who are trying to come and live in Europe. Movements which ensure the ancient flame of antisemitism continues to burn.
Extremist political parties share many things in common, including individual charismatic leaders who claim to see the future in ways no-one else can. Autocracies – one person rule - have been a common feature of the modern world. Stalin and Mao built their empires on a personality cult; Kim Yong-Un continues that tradition. And there are plenty of others who have surrounded themselves with the appearance of democracy but who countenance no opposition to their personal rule.
Several things usually follow in the wake of such government. Wealth begins to accumulate among an elite which forms around the leader. The leader may be less ostentatious about this than those who surround them, but is often the richest of all. Opulent palaces are built. Vanity projects – often beyond parody – waste vast amounts of public money. Wars erupt against neighbouring states. A huge security apparatus is constructed. Enemies are found within and disposed of without due process. Essentially the autocrat sells his soul to the devil and those he has charge over reap the whirlwind.
Jesus was initially faced with the opportunities of an autocrat. The temptations in the desert are hard to get a grip on, until you realise what the devil was trying to achieve. In selling his own soul to the devil, Jesus was promised the conquest of every nation. In turning the stone into a loaf of bread, he was tempted to make his rule an extravagant display of riches for others to envy. In throwing himself off the temple, Jesus could show the world the infallibility of his security detail. Angels who would protect him from risk and put down any opposition to his rule. Had he succumbed to the temptations, it would have inaugurated the most appalling rule in human history, as the one with unprecedented powers turned them to his own ends.
In resisting the devil’s offer, Jesus showed the world the kind of leadership God seeks in those who aspire to govern. Despite the vast power at his disposal, Jesus chooses to serve and exposes himself to severe persecution. He is uniquely vulnerable. Unwilling to surround his life with a security perimeter, anyone can touch him. This enables the unclean to be made clean, the outcast to be embraced, the diseased to be healed. But it also allows the cruelty of the Roman Empire and the venality of Judean rule to kill him slowly when the time came. It is a mark of the greatness of the Saviour we worship that he emptied himself of the power that could have saved him in order to save us.
In the UK today there is a diminishing echo of the kind of public service that found its inspiration in the life of Jesus. Its murmur can still be heard among the clamour of other voices competing for our allegiance and it is one we should pray people can still respond to.
In Colossians it shows how big this servant king really is: ‘whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him…in him all things hold together’. A particular challenge is thrown down to autocrats in these words. Have you noticed how those who prop up regimes with their propaganda talk endlessly about the supreme leader’s unique vision and wisdom, insight and strength? They are shown hunting bears and spearing fish, flying planes and launching missiles. Statues show them staring into the distance, seeing things ordinary mortals cannot. This is the PR problem with the strong leader. If they are the only one in charge, all the skills and gifts of shared government must appear to coalesce in one person. No-one else is needed. They claim for themselves the powers of Christ: ‘in him all things hold together’.
While shared government is a cause for gratitude, because it enables people to pool their wisdom to find answers, we are faced with a growing problem today and it is to do with complexity. The interconnectedness of the modern world, with its ceaseless flows of people, goods and services, in the manic trading of shares by impersonal computers and the sharing of vast quantities of data, makes it very hard to predict what will happen next. If we don’t know what will happen next, it is really hard to make plans.
In the democratic world, no leader can afford to say they are struggling to make plans. They must give the appearance of knowing what to do. And we must believe the appearance. But the reality is less varnished. Who predicted the end of Soviet rule? Who foresaw 9/11? Who knew the banks would collapse? Who could have known that one market trader setting himself alight in Tunisia would lead to the destruction of Syria? The answers are next to no-one. Relationships and events are so dense and interwoven and yet so unpredictable and volatile, that outcomes are little more than a best guess. But we can’t admit this to ourselves, and so the pretence continues on all sides.
I am not sure we will engineer a proper, adult conversation around government any time soon, but we can action something much more quickly in the Church. The feast of Christ the King reminds us there is only one ruler with the wisdom, strength and sheer capacity to see us through. The leaders who make big decisions in public life may or may not pray about their decisions, but we are directly called to pray for them in scripture.
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