Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

Epiphany and Our Crisis of Authority

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Epiphany is a word we use akin to “revelation”: a sudden realization, an unexpected vision of the true and possible, that eureka moment of creativity and insight. “And then, I had an epiphany.” We “have” epiphanies. We possess them. We feel compelled to share them. Epiphanies abound.

Western Christians observe (if they do) January 6 as Epiphany, the day the Magi, those astrologers from the East, visit the infant Jesus. The second chapter of Matthew tells of the first appearance, the manifestation (ἡ ἐπιφάνεια) of the Jewish Messiah to the Gentiles. Three fahncy gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) are given and so we traditionally imagine that three Magi made the trip. An angel dreamtells them to avoid King Herod on their way out. Herod, fearing for his power and wanting to snuff out the competition, orders the slaughter of all children under the age of two. Rachel wails for her children. She will not be consoled.

On Epiphany last year, then-President Trump, fearing for his power and wanting to snuff out the competition, incensed his devoted mob to go to the Capitol to prevent the certification of the electoral college votes. They obeyed his authority, waning and sharp. Proud Boy plans were put into motion. A gallows was raised. Pence and Pelosi hid and were hunted. Police officers were assaulted and injured. One died soon after. More died by their own hands. An insurrectionist was killed, a few others died. Our elected officials were protected and the votes were counted and approved. American democracy prevailed, but only just.

As I watched aghast the insurrection unfold on the Capitol steps, I saw Christian Nationalism rear its ugly and profane head. In the churning crowd were numerous Christian symbols and slogans: Protestant flags. Banners proclaiming “Trump is my President Jesus is my King”. Shofars blown. Later, we would see video of insurrectionist prayers loudly lifted up on the Senate floor. Their cause was righteous and true, commanded by their divinely appointed, anointed ruler. In contrast, in the Capitol, countless Congresspeople and staffers hid and silently prayed for their safety, only walls and locked doors separating them from those who would do them real physical harm.

Matthew’s story of the Epiphany is a story about authority. The Magi are Star-Readers. Their trade, interpreting cosmic time and truth. Magi work outside of government policy and religious edict, while even creating and enforcing it. Their authority is not grounded in earthly kings, but above in the dark heavens. The Magi bring gifts to Jesus as any ambassador would bring to a new ruler. They accept Jesus as a king, their visit auspicious (though that myrrh is suspect…). But beyond King of the Jews, Jesus will be given by the Church command of Time, Itself: A.D., Anno Domini, in the Year of our Lord. Time, an ultimate authority, is the realm of the Star-Readers, the Star-Readers who transgress in transit from the East, from the Land of Rosy-Fingered Dawn. Their word has, for better or worse, cache.

Herod the Great, installed as king of Judaea by Mark Antony and the Roman Senate, would not be usurped by this “king of the Jews” these foreigner seek. Jesus is an illegitimate threat to the power bestowed on him by Senatus Populusque Romanus. As a client king of Rome, he must demonstrate dominance by force. And thus, Matthew has him order the slaughter of infants. There is no record of this erasure outside this gospel, but it fulfills for Matthew the words of doleful Jeremiah. Epiphany has a dark side to it, even under the glimmering light of the Star of Wonder.

One needs not read the stars to see that our nation’s democracy is in crisis. Our epiphany is not a revelation, but a manifestation of the erosion of authority. This is the greater crisis. Critique of authority is valid, but critique in the absence of understanding is foolish and full of danger. The Big Lie sows disinformation within a public uninformed or preconditioned to accept propaganda as truth. But within American conservatism, under the guise of “freedom”, authority itself is increasingly balkanized to the point of solipsistic narcissism.

This narcissism goes beyond politics. It has become pervasive in science (vaccines and climate), society (race and gender), religion (salvation and providence), economics (wealth and infrastructure policy) and culture (nationalism and purity). It is an epistemological narcissism that prejudices the autonomy and authority of the individual’s self-understanding over the acceptance of the knowledge and expertise of professionals. It is the Dunning-Kruger Effect writ large. “Do your own research” and a banal edification by social media provide an aesthetic of authority and value, a self-enforcing reward pellet for having done any work whatsoever toward a perceived understanding toward truth. Yet, this kind of “truth-seeking” leads toward the single truth-telling that fascism proclaims for itself, from hallowed origin story to near-past and present to glorious horizon of eternal power.

A significance of Matthew’s Epiphany is that the Gospel cannot be controlled. Outsiders, the marginalized, the oppressed will find it. It is a different kind of authority. Yet, Christian Nationalists, in the name of their own freedom, seek to control State and Church, locating God’s Anointed, the Messiah in Donald Trump, who will Make America Great Again, restoring the mythological past to create an eschatological future so glorious and powerful, each of us “will become tired of winning”. All science and politics and culture shall submit to this power and virility. This is their gospel of authority and control, an authority seized by crisis.

On January 6, 2021, the insurrectionists, from Republican legislator to Proud Boy proclaimed their freedom to enforce their will upon the will of the general electorate of the United States of America. On January 6, 2021, this is the epiphany, the manifestation of Christofascism, Christian nationalists who “did their own research”, spreading the infectious lies of election fraud. People who knew better. People who felt threatened by the outsider, by change, by a new ruler. Christofascism can only abide democratic rule if it is in the pocket of its own ruler, a sycophantic Senate leaping at the whims of its Imperator.

A century ago, the nascent NSDAP was derided by the general German populace. They were called “nazis”, slang for bumpkins, simpletons. They were understood as brutes and idiots. And they rose to power through lies and crises and fear and force. They seized authority. And they seized the churches. And the rest is history. Epiphanies abound.

20 + C + M + B + 22

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By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

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