The book of Revelation knows all about the principalities and powers of arkydom – yet it knows nothing of the common arky-faith alignment that divides human arkys into two categories (the “good” ones sponsored by God and the “bad” ones by Satan) which are then pitted against each other in determining humanity’s future …
Arkys have no ultimate significance or even lasting function.
— Vernard Eller, Christian Anarchy.
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Sociologist Jacques Ellul was both incisive and prophetic when, in 1966, he contended that everything in the modern Western world is now understood and evaluated solely from a political point of view. Nothing is allowed to escape the infection of what Ellul termed the “politization” of society. “Politics and its offspring,” he wrote, “have become the cornerstone of what is good or represents progress. Political concerns are thought to be inherently excellent.”*
On this day in history (September 25, 2015), much is being made of Pope Francis’s celebrated address to the joint session of Congress. And true to Ellul’s observation, the whole thing is being given a purely political twist. It’s a sign of the times we live in.
This Pope is worthy of our respect and admiration on a number of different levels. On that point there can be no doubt. There is one respect, however, in which he has made a sad departure from the example of his historic namesake. For we can be sure that the Little Poor Man of Assisi would never have wasted his time talking to the Stuffed Shirts and Bigwigs on Capitol Hill.
The original Francis was entirely unimpressed with that kind of power. The story goes that in September 1209, when the Poverello and his Little Brothers were living in a poor hut near the streambed of Rivo Torto, Otto IV, newly elected Holy Roman Emperor, passed through the neighborhood on his way to Viterbo to be crowned by Pope Innocent III. With him traveled a dazzling retinue of horsemen, churchmen, soldiers, and retainers – all the political pomp and circumstance the thirteenth century was capable of mustering gathered together in one big parade. Naturally, the entire population rushed out and lined the roadways in order to get a glimpse of this magnificent cavalcade. But not Francis. Biographer Julien Green writes,
“What was an emperor? Francis and his brothers remained in the hut, all except one, who was dispatched to the great man to remind him that all triumphs are ephemeral.”**
According to some sources, the message delivered by this single barefoot friar was simpler than Green’s account would lead us to suppose: “Emperor Otto! Take your crown and throw it in the river!”
Francis, of course, was not the first to adopt this kind of attitude toward rulers, “arkys” (Vernard Eller), and political hoopla. He was only following the example of the apostle Peter, who told the rulers of the Sanhedrin, “We ought to obey God rather than men;” of the prophetess Huldah, who bluntly told King Josiah’s royal embassy, “Tell the man who sent you to me, ‘Thus saith the Lord …;’” and of Jesus Himself, who reminded the Roman governor of Judea, “You would have no power over me whatsoever were it not granted to you from above.”
This is the Pilgrim’s attitude toward kings, presidents, congressmen, candidates, and all the “powers that be,” of whatever description: neither disrespect nor defiance, but rather pure indifference to the theatrics of small-time pretenders to the throne.
* Jacques Ellul, The Political Illusion, p. 17.
** Julien Green, God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi, p. 128.