One of the striking images from US President Donald Trump’s recent visit to the Vatican was of him and his wife standing hand in hand gazing up at Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.
If there is one message that comes through loud and clear from that great work of art, it is this: Jesus is Lord.
Now that is an expression which is used quite a lot, indeed it is a commonplace for Christians. It can be said with fervour and devotion, or it can be said as a plain matter of fact, without much thought being given to it. But there are still places in this world where to proclaim Jesus is Lord means putting one’s life on the line.
This was also the case in the ancient world. Writing recently on “preaching like an apostle”, Bishop Robert Barron noted that the word Kyrios (Lord) had a Jewish and a Roman sense. In the Jewish sense it pointed to Jesus’ divinity — as St Paul, who continually referred to Jesus as Lord, stated that Jesus was given the name above every other name, by which he meant the name of God.
Bishop Barron continued: “Now Kyrios also had a Roman sense, since Caesar was called Kyrios, meaning the one to whom final allegiance is due. Do you see how edgy and subversive it was to declare that Jesus is Lord, and by implication, Caesar is not? And do you see why those who made that claim usually ended up imprisoned and/or put to death?
“A twentieth century Anglican bishop memorably expressed the insight as follows: ‘When Paul preached, there were riots; when I preach, they serve me tea’.”
Who are the subversives, the prophets, in our society and in our Church today? Pope Francis is one candidate. Even though he might be served tea after he preaches, he also rocks a few boats.
There are others — notably in the social justice and peace advocacy areas, such as Ploughshares and the Catholic Worker movement.
Another “subversive” is Family First’s Bob McCoskrie, who is in the news a lot, most recently promising legal action after the Charities Board said it was going to deregister his organisation as a charity. This was despite a 2015 High Court ruling which rebuffed a previous attempt to deregister Family First on the grounds that its purpose — to protect and promote the traditional family — is not charitable.
The 2015 ruling stated that there is a legitimate analogy between Family First’s role and that of other organisations which have been recognised as charities. It also noted that advocacy for “the traditional family” is analogous to advocacy for the “mental and moral improvement” of society that drives other charitable groups.
Mr McCoskrie and Greenpeace’s Russell Norman, who would not often be on the same side of an issue, agreed that if the move by the Charities Board against Family First succeeds, it will have a “chilling” effect on other registered charities who wish to speak out on Government policy.
Such can be the price of being subversive, of speaking truth to power, whether that power be wielded by the Government or the bureaucracy or by the mainstream in society. But that shouldn’t be the case in a society which values a level playing field, equal rights under the law and freedom of speech.
It says something about our society when advocacy for the traditional family, for life-long marriage between a man and a woman, is seen as subversive.
These things were once considered normal. They should be considered normal still and valued as such. And voices like Bob McCoskrie are needed to keep reminding people of this without the threat of sanction by the Charities Board.