Hurricane Sandy can be pondered as a parable, because, like every parable, it contained a paradox. In this case, one of power. The hurricane reminded us of two distinct aspects of power: it both savages and sustains life.
First, the savaging. Sandy schooled us again, about the tremendous power latent within nature itself. The same forces that produce gentle rains and grow our crops were also capable of killing at least 199 people. Besides the Caribbean and Eastern Canada, Sandy adversely affected millions of lives in 24 U.S. states. The hurricane’s power inflicted, according to initial estimates, 20 billion dollars in property damage. It drained 50 billion dollars from American commerce. And no one knows how many lives have been forever sundered by Sandy into segments of before and after. For many, the hurricane was the single largest display of raw power in their lives.
Paradoxically, Sandy was also a lesson in power as sustenance. The hurricane is also estimated to have produced 8.5 million power outages. Nature’s potency reminded us how dependent we are upon the conduits of energy that flow into our homes and institutions each day. Modern men and women cannot help but to think of energy-on-demand as part of the way life is: plug-in, and you are instantly connected to power. We were reminded that it does not have to be this way.
Parable Hurricane Sandy surely has as many lessons as it does victims; paradox Sandy reminds us that power itself is ambivalent. In excess, it can destroy, and yet human life itself is dependent upon power.
Pondering power can be a way to access the metaphor of Christ as King, because, when primitive peoples thought of a king, these ambiguous aspects of power would have immediately come to mind. The king is given great power, because the first task of the monarch is to protect the less powerful. The Arthurian legend beautifully depicts a common, ancient perception, that a weak or ailing king afflicts the land itself. Strike the crown, and you deal a mortal blow to the realm. A king without power cannot defend.
Of course, as the descendants of those who rebelled against royal power, we tend to emphasize that power, especially political power, over the lives of others, must be limited to prevent abuse. True enough, but those who first turned to kings thought of them as great stewards of power, leaders whose potency protected and sustained human life. That is a notion that lies latent in the Church’s metaphor. It deserves consideration.
To acclaim Christ as King is to identify him as a source of power, the power that lies within life itself. We have deeper ways of getting at this truth. Saint Thomas Aquinas called God actus purus, pure act, because he identified God as the deep center of reality, that which calls everything else into existence. For Thomas, versed in Aristotle, when anything in the world flourished, came into its own, the presence of God was to be espied. Jesus was more direct when he simply identified himself as “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14: 6). To say this of Christ, to call him King, is ultimately to confess that he is the source from which all life flows.
But doesn’t the parable of Hurricane Sandy challenge Christ’s kingship? How can so many suffer, and in the King’s realm? Is the power of our King too weak to protect? Sandy is a parable because it teaches what anyone already knows in the face of a terminal illness, or a grave injustice, or a simple but singular heartbreak. As Jesus himself put it, we have a king whose kingdom is elsewhere. “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here” (Jn 18: 36).
What possible good can a King of Heaven be here on earth? As Macduff put it so sorrowfully in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, having learned that his wife and children have been massacred by the usurper, “Did heaven look on and would not take their part?” (IV,iii,230). Is heaven, is Christ our King, nothing more than a mountebank’s medicine, a tonic swallowed by the foolish and the simple?
How one answers these questions depend in large measure on how essential one judges hope to be. Is it possible to live a human life and not hope? Aren’t hope, anticipation and expectation the very engine of human life, the innate power that propels us from our past into our future? Doesn’t the Book of Revelation give voice to the broken human heart itself? “Behold, he is coming amid the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him. All the peoples of the earth will lament him. Yes. Amen” (1: 7).
Clocks tick off the hours of an animal, but time means something entirely different for us. It is the place, the moment, where we struggle to free the future from the weight of the past. Is that necessary, and essentially human, task possible without hope? Put another way, doesn’t human life have to strive for something beyond itself, for that which we call God? As we rebuild after a hurricane, a potent parable, a living example of the storms that beset every human life, don’t we need to believe that our work is purposeful, that our lives have meaning?
Christians confess that history awaits the summons of a Beloved Voice, one that responded to the cynical question of the Roman procurator, “Then you are a king?” with the unambiguous avowal of his life, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (Jn 18: 37).
Deuteronomy 7: 13-14 Revelation 1: 5-8 John 18: 33b-37