On September 11th, 1973, Augusto Pinochet*, commander-in-chief of the Chilean army, led a military coup to overthrow the democratic government of Chile. As far as military coups go, it was peaceful. Less than 30 people died. In fact, resistance to Pinochet and his dictatorship was fairly mild, leading many in Chile at the time to believe that peace would be restored relatively quickly.
They were wrong. What followed during Pinochet’s 17-year rule of Chile was the horrific torture of roughly 30,000 prisoners who were supposed to be opponents of the regime. Thousands were murdered as suspected communists, usually after forced confessions.
By all accounts, the reason for Pinochet’s brutal practices of oppression and torture were not because opposition to his government was so dangerous and determined, but precisely because it was not. In order to justify the existence of such centralized authority and the curtailment of civil liberties (curfews, right to free assembly, etc.), the government had to make it look like the citizens of Chile were in constant danger from communist subversives, even when they weren’t.
Pinochet and his cronies’ favorite method for manufacturing this fear was called “disappearing” people. Usually in the middle of the night, a group of civilian-dressed men armed with machine guns would show up to a peasant’s house, blindfold him and his family, take him to a secret location, and torture him with an electric prod at random intervals for days or even weeks. Their goal was not so much to get information, or even to procure a confession, but to make the prisoner, along with his family who had no idea where he was, feel completely at the mercy of the state. They isolated him from everything in his past – forcing him to betray his political party, his church, even his closest family and friends. As far as the prisoner was concerned, he only existed because the state decided he existed – if he was granted an ID number, or a passport, e.g. He only had a future if the government generously decided to release him. Pinochet wanted his citizens to have no loyalty whatsoever, save an unquestioning and desperate loyalty to him and his regime.
Pinochet’s government wanted to take the place of God – both as the sole judge of his subjects and as their only source of sustenance. If the people wanted justice, electricity, or even food and water, they would have it on his terms, and on his terms alone. The way he accomplished this was to isolate his citizens, cutting them off from every institution, organization, or family to which they had ever professed loyalty. The only way for him to have the power he desired was for there to be two exclusive entities: The state and the individual. No political parties, no churches, no families.
Why am I telling you this story?
Today is the feast of Christ the King. Today we celebrate Jesus Christ, the unconditional, absolute King and ruler of all. “King” is a political title that, as Americans, causes us some justifiable discomfort. As democratic people, we are suspicious of anyone who claims total authority over our lives. We tend to think that absolute, divine-right kings are a thing of the unenlightened past, and any time tyranny rears its ugly head, it is some kind of barbarous return to that past.
But here’s the thing: Pinochet was not a king. Hitler was not a king. Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, and all the most murderous dictators of the last century were Presidents, Chancellors, Secretaries, and Prime Ministers. They were not kings and lords, they were heads of state. Kingdoms are made of people; states are made of borders, laws, and the power to coerce people to respect those laws. (It is no accident, by the way, that the murderers and terrorists known as ISIS call themselves the “Islamic State”, who by fear of torture and death make women into slaves and force anyone within the borders of their “state” to choose between conversion and death, among other things).
So why does any of this matter to us?
States are not always bad. In the U.S. we are used to a state that treats us fairly well and fairly equally. Like the Chileans in the 1970s, or the Germans in the 1930s, or the Russians in the 1910s, we have also entrusted our state with authority to make laws and coerce us to obey them. But unlike those states, those powers exist to protect us, not to control us. This, we assume, is because our government listens to us. We have control over who gets elected. And even those who are authorized to protect and govern us are bound by certain laws that were written and decided upon by wise men before any of our great-grandparents were born.
But let’s imagine for a moment that (God forbid) a commander Pinochet takes power. It may seem impossible, but I’m sure the people of Chile thought it was equally impossible in 1973. Or to bring it to a finer point, imagine we were under attack by a “state” that sought to place us under their complete control by fear of terrorism, suicide bombings, and the sadistic, random killing of innocent civilians in the public square. Imagine, in other words, that our state, which has been so generous and democratic, were replaced by one that was savage and tyrannical. What stands between us as individuals and such a state? If you were a German Jew in the 1940s, or a Chilean peasant in the 1980s, or a Christian in Syria or Iraq today, who would you turn to?
The Chileans turned to Jesus. Specifically, they turned to Jesus in the Eucharist. They knew, perhaps better than anyone else, that to gather on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist was not simply a matter of personal or individual devotion. Celebration of the Eucharist for them was a profoundly political act. It was to declare their allegiance to a King who was infinitely higher than any state, whether good or evil. It was to declare that they were not simply isolated individuals at the mercy of a tyrannical government, but that together they were members of a body. It was to declare that what the state had tried so hard to make invisible – the arrest, the torture, and the murder of their innocent brothers and sisters – was made visible in the sacrifice of the arrested, tortured, and murdered Jesus in the sacrament of His body and blood. They knew that to kneel before this King was, by default, to stand up to anyone who pretended to have authority over their minds, their wills, or their freedom. In the Mass they declared that Love was really the Lord, and that hatred, fear, and terror were merely tools of a defeated enemy.
The feast of Christ the King comes at the very end of the liturgical year. Next week is the beginning of Advent. But the yearly telling of these great stories – the birth of the King at Christmas; the triumphant victory of that King over the enemy at Easter – all culminate in this.
Jesus Christ is King, now and forever. He is not our president. He is not our elected representative. Christ is not a head of state, he is ruler of a kingdom of priests, prophets, and kings. And in that Kingdom, we all serve as sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, not lonely individuals. And that Kingdom is coming. No earthly ruler, no political power, no terrorist organization or extremist state can stop it. So long as his people pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done”, the Lord of life will continue to rise up again from the death and destruction we read about every day. So let us never waver in our loyalty; let us never lose hope. Long live Christ the King.
*Information regarding Pinochet and his government taken from Torture and Eucharist by William T. Cavanaugh, Blackwell Publishing, 1998.