Heavy is the head that wears the crown
The Biblical attributes of kingship and queenship
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Obituary reflections following Queen Elizabeth II’s death coalesce around admiration for her well-lived life, devotion to duty, and her faith in Christ—manifest in public proclamations and actions that reinforced them: ceremonial demonstrations of remembrance and reconciliation, patronage of near-innumerable charities, and, not least, the stability displayed in the love she shared with Prince Phillip. In a culture fragmented by its abandoning of traditional morality, the queen served as a gravitational point of constancy, resilience, and basic decency.
As Archbishop Justin Welby put it, “We remember her not for what she had, but what she gave.” Admittedly, when some think of the royals, what with their income, castles, and the other seemingly happy accoutrements of monarchical life, cynicism rather than gratitude may be the more keenly felt emotion. Nevertheless, as reminded us by an Oxford schoolmaster, the queen’s “was a life of privilege, yes, [but] also a life of duty and service.” This is it exactly. The queen knew her station was never ultimately about her.
This was evident to C.S. Lewis. In a letter to an American correspondent, Lewis dismissed any fairytale quality to Elizabeth’s recent coronation. What impressed him most was that “the Queen herself seemed quite overwhelmed by the sacramental side of it.” For Lewis, sacraments—symbols signifying a sacred reality—mirrored the ability of everyday things to point to the transcendent. In food, for instance, especially if such as bread, wine, or apples, there can be found “the echoes of myth, poetry, and scripture.” All such goods, Lewis observed, could be used either to uplift or to bring down: wine could be a refreshment or element in a religious rite or, in its abuse, a means to get oneself drunk.
In the coronation Lewis saw something more than merely the installation of a national leader. “The pressing of that huge, heavy crown on that small, young head [became] a sort of symbol of the situation of humanity itself.” In this juxtaposition of weight and frailty was the reminder that all human beings have been called by God to be his vice-regents, to exercise the responsibilities of dominion over all the earth. In the crowning of Elizabeth, Lewis could hear the Divine voice saying, In my inexorable love I shall lay upon the dust that you are glories and dangers and responsibilities beyond your understanding.
Here lies the danger. Sovereignty, like wine, can be used well or poorly. The biblical record, whether as seen in the requirements laid upon the Old Testament kings or as seen in the example of King Jesus, makes plain that proper sovereignty is characterized by compassion, humility, clean hands, and a pure heart. The sovereign cares for the fatherless, the stranger, and the widow. Grounded in the same motivations, the sovereign accepts that in his or her political community there is no one greater charged with the maintenance of justice, order, and peace. In the biblical view, power and benevolence—greatness and goodness—are not contradictions, but mutually reenforcing attributes of kingship.
The exercise of sovereignty can ultimately only be motivated by either of two kinds of love: caritas—or charity—which is manifest in other-centered acts of self-donation, or cupiditas—cupidity—the perversion of love manifest in self-centered acts of other-donation. This distinction carries through any use of sovereign power from the lowliest granting of favor or privilege to resort to power’s ultimate exercise. War, the ultima ratio regnum (the last argument of kings), must always only be the use of force for public good, motivated by caritas. Whether a war is just or unjust depends on whether it accurately determines that nothing else will properly protect the innocent, requite an injustice, or punish evil. Force deployed for private gain—not war but duel—is motivated by cupiditas and can only be unjust. The implication is that sovereignty is sustained by doing one’s duty and is lost by abandoning it.
While present-day British monarchs do not hold the power necessary to be tempted toward tyranny, the point remains. As the Oxford schoolmaster asserted, “the queen’s body was not merely a personal one: she embodied the nation.” Properly understood, the queen’s station ought never to provoke envy. Rather, Lewis saw in it only the occasion for awe, pathos, and even pity. As Lewis’ King Lune insisted, to be a king is:
“To be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”
Royalty, Lewis cautioned, while splendid, is a “tragic splendor.”
Following Queen Elizabeth’s lead, Christians, as God’s vice-regents, must embody a radical continuity bravely bridging ancient virtue, tradition, and morality with and through the ever-evolving present moment.
Heavy, indeed, is the head that wears the crown.
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