Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

Kings, Queens, Popes, and Jesters

We have all heard that George Washington was offered the position of king, and turned it down. Of course historians debunk this notion as flatly as the idea that the young George “could not tell a lie,” and confessed to chopping down a cherry tree.
And who doesn’t remember Camelot? I wasn’t born until 1967, and yet the images and rhetoric from the Kennedy presidency have been so prevalent in print, film, and text over nearly 50 years that I feel like I remember the actual events.

We are fascinated by the idea of royalty. By holding on to Washington’s myth, he somehow becomes much larger, grander, wiser to us. The same goes for Kennedy. When his widow Jacqueline described her husbands years in the White House as being a period of hope and optimism–an American Camelot, the media jumped on it and we embraced it, and as a result Kennedy’s legend has become…well, just that, legend.

It is not hard to see how easily that happens. We want to believe in people at their unbelievable best. Want a Moses to part the water, a King Arthur to rule benevolently, a Robin Hood to take care of the poor.

Problem is that such extreme greatness never seems to happen in our lifetimes or even in the verifiable past. So many of our religious leaders have affairs, or abuse children. we have seen not-for-profit charities being dishonest in their financial dealings. And don’t even get me started about our presidents.

But Americans have never given up on having our own royalty, so in the absence of the leader or hero to crown, we must look elsewhere for our kings and queens. Because with royalty comes wealth, we have a tendency to confuse the two, mistaking wealth for royalty, but wealth, even when coupled with humanitarianism doesn’t seem to be enough.

If it were, we would be crowning Kings Ted Turner, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who remain largely above the tabloid fray and try to use their wealth to better our world. Or, if royalty were more about power than benevolence, we need look no farther than the largest corporations–Walmart, Exxon, Chevron and the like, but again, the American people don’t view them in that light. Nobody wants to put a crown on the head of Exxon’s Director Michael J. Boskin. Who even knows his name?

No, American’s don’t look for power, kindness, or morality in the ones on whom we place our crowns. Money seems to be important to us, but when it comes to granting royal status, we tend to turn away from the more kingly traits and place the castle jewels on the jesters.

Just yesterday I heard a reference on a popular NPR radio show to  “American Royals, the Kardashians.” When Glamour Magazine polled it’s readers as to whom they consider America’s royal couple, along with the names Kennedy, Clinton, and Obama, were Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, and Beyonce and Jay-Z. And a recent poll by Public Policy Polling recently declared Green Bay Packers Quarterback Aaron Rodgers King of Wisconsin. I don’t know which is more frightening, that a quarterback would be crowned king or that time and money were spent determining which quarterback should wear the crown.

I could go on and on with my list, but I think you get the point. Americans want to be entertained, and we worship those who entertain us best. We would sooner crown a jester in all his pomp, buffoonery, and scandal than a wise, benevolent, even altruistic leader, which brings me to the clown who got me thinking about all this.

On Christmas Eve in his homily, Pope Benedict XVI came down on the commercialization of Christmas and suggested to his followers to “ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season.” Later in his address, he spoke of the barn in Bethlehem believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, and of the entrance to the chapel on the site with an opening merely one and a half meters high. He suggested that this small opening–much smaller than the original–was “above all to prevent people from entering God’s house on horseback. Anyone wishing to enter the place of Jesus’ birth has to bend down.”

I couldn’t help but ponder such words from a man whose house and real estate value over 900 million dollars, who rides around in a specially-designed one-of-a-kind car, whose wardrobe eclipses those of Elton John and Elvis, and who appears to his followers from a high balcony overlooking a massive courtyard.

It all seems a bit hypocritical to me, but it also fits the American model of royalty. He is wealthy beyond belief, his business is riddled with sexual scandal and coverups, he dresses like Liberace, claims a special relationship with God, all the while espousing the nature of Jesus–a man with no business, no house, no money, by all accounts morally pure, and who preached that his followers could do greater things than him.

It makes perfect sense then that royalty-loving Americans would be big fans of the Pope. He brings it all to the table. Step aside Kim Kardashian. To the sidelines Aaron Rodgers. By American standards, Pope Benedict is more king-worthy than either of you. And he has one more qualification–birthright. I’m pretty certain that Brad and Angelina’s parents weren’t royal, and there is no guarantee their children will amount to anything, but this pope, the last pope, and the next pope will certainly come from the same Vatican fraternity–the college of cardinals.

Makes me wonder…if the Vatican sold all its holdings, and the pope were left  with one humble outfit, a single pair of sandals, and a bowl, would anybody care what he has to say?


Add Yours →

I’m not certain I agree with your assessment of the jester. I hold the fool in high regard and would not judge those whom you describe above to be worthy the title jester. Was Shakespere’s Feste not deemed “Wise enough to play the fool” ?

Of course, your point is clear and this is great. Thank you, Jim.

Not sure if you are familiar with the work of Rev John Wesley, Anglin Priest and founder of Methodism, but in his sermon titled “The Almost Christian” preached at St. Mary’s, Oxford, before the University, on July 25, 1741, he said, “He that hath the form of godliness uses also the means of grace; yea, all of them, and at all opportunities. He constantly frequents the house of God; and that, not as the manner of some is, who come into the presence of the Most High, either loaded with gold and costly apparel, or in all the gaudy vanity of dress, and either by their unseasonable civilities to each other, or the impertinent gaiety of their behaviour, disclaim all pretensions to the form as well as to the power of godliness. Would to God there were none even among ourselves who fall under the same condemnation!”

I think he might share your opinion of the popery decadence mentioned above.

Really awesome writing at a time when I am really trying to field some words on a similar topic. Thanks Jim!

Thanks Skander. I’d love to read what you are writing. If you haven’t seen it yet, visit my Facebook page and scroll down to the open letter I wrote to the Pope. It is short, and not all that thought out–just a little thing in the moment, but it will show you my thought evolution. Hope you are well out there, brother. Love you!

Jim, as you know I have been looking at the teaching of Jesus in light of those of the Essenes of his day. It has been very revealing to know that there have been those in history that actually lived by the teachings of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount and had been for almost two hundred years when he was born. We today look at those same teachings and immediately begin to discount them and talk about how unreasonable they were. Especially those where he told us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor as prerequisite to following him. That one must despise and hate wealth if they are to love God. I keep waiting for some pastor of a mega church to begin to preach that on Sunday morning. But I am afraid that one will be a long time coming. Probably will come after he preaches Jesus teachings to put up all their swords, guns and begin to turn the other cheek. As the Essenes like Jesus forbade his followers to carry weapons. They were allowed to carry a walking stick with which they could avoid blows but were never allowed to return them.

Jim, you bring up some thought provoking comments. The responses that one may have could be very different depending on the view of history either according to the Bible and God’s economy or a secular view. But even to the casual observer of the church and its history reveals how man has accepted the place of the clergy-laity practice in the church. This clearly allowed positions such as the Pope’s or any evangelical pastor there elevated place.

Man’s view on life, especially in North America, has been captured by the practice of consuming way beyond what we need, elevating too many people above their due place, and losing touch of the reality of who we are, especially as Christians. With the economy and all the unrest around the world it is clear change is coming and we need to be ready and willing to embrace it.

Hi Jim,
A few areas of note.

First, the items you call to attention don’t belong to the Pope, they belong to the Catholic Church. As I understand it, most Catholic priests take some kind of vow of poverty and receive a small monthly stipend. If a priest has a full time job say as a teacher in a school all their salary goes to the Church.

Second, Pope Benedict actually agrees with what I think is your observation about poverty and the teachings of Christ. From a September 2011 address to the German Church:

“History has shown that, when the Church becomes less worldly, her missionary witness shines more brightly. Once liberated from her material and political burdens, the Church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world, she can be truly open to the world. She can live more freely her vocation to the ministry of divine worship and service of neighbour.”

Worth reading in its entirety, the full text of his speech is here:

Interestingly, Pope Benedict shares both the namesake and birthday of a man dismissed from the Trappist and Carthusian order, ended up as a Franciscan monk/tramp. And yes, as you say in your post not many people cared for what he had to say and yet he was canonized as a Saint in 1881.
Saint Benedict Joseph Labré.

Additionally, Catholic Charities is the second largest social service provider in the US with 90 cents of every dollar going directly to caring for the poor.

And lastly, the Catholic Church is a 2,000 year old global organization of human beings. All of us are flawed and broken in some way. Each of us, and the Church, are on a journey to discover what it means to live the teachings of Christ and be in union with God in ourselves, others and the world around us.

Hey David!
Thanks for weighing in. For some reason, wordpress thought your comment was spam. Fortunately, I found it and revealed it to the world today.

Thank you for pointing out that the items I mentioned belong not to the Pope but the church. To me, this only extends the hypocrisy to the institution (Which I think most folks would infer without the point being made.). The fact that the pope delivers these homilies like the one you quoted is exactly what I am talking about. He says these things, while the church operates with with such opulence and hording. This is precisely where I see the institution grossly missing (or conveniently twisting) Jesus’ message. Just for fun, take the real estate, the pulpit, and attire and imagine Jesus delivering his sermon on the mount (or even one of the pope’s homilies) from those shoes. It just doesn’t work. If he means what he says, show us. I’d like to see him liberate himself and the institution “from (their) material and political burdens.” All I am asking is that he practice what he preaches–either change the message to fit the practice or change the practice to fit the message.

As for the social services the Catholic Church provides, I think they are wonderful. I have worked side-by-side with volunteers from Catholic Charities on many occasions and appreciate them. I hope nothing I wrote suggested otherwise. It was never my intent to condemn the church, her members, or their good works, but merely to point out what I see has some blatant hypocrisy which unfortunately robs the church of moral authority, weakens an important message, and drives many people away.

And of course we are all flawed, but we don’t all claim to be delivering God’s word. In making that claim, the Church raises the bar and must be held accountable for it.

And most importantly, I hope you and Heather are doing well. I think of y’all often.

Love you!

What do you think?