When rulers obsessed with power and addicted to “lording it over us” realise that “organised religion” represents another centre of power , they want a share of it, in fact a big bite of it, want to invade it and take possession of it, “control-freaks” that they are.

Their approach is quite clever. They don’t wage war against the churches to try and destroy them — they know they can’t — but they take the church in a loving embrace so as to squeeze all life out of it. They try to pretend to be obedient followers of religion so that the religious people are obedient them and their kingdom as well.

Rulers and their henchmen, bodyguards and “praise singers” (disguised as Press officers) like to appear at religious functions and present themselves to the faithful as belonging to them even if they have to put on white gowns to make the point. In case people find this difficult to believe there are always armed guards around to suggest forcefully, “You had better, or else . . .”

In ancient times there were “priest kings” in Egypt and Babylon, and the Roman Emperor was worshipped as a divine being, religion serving as a prop for political power. In our day dictators turn themselves into cult figures, and even elected leaders present themselves carrying Bibles to get the Bible readers’ vote.

During these days after Christmas we are confronted with a very interesting text from the Bible. Some learned scholars arrive in Jerusalem and look for the “newborn King of the Jews” in the palace of King Herod — where else? In fact they find him in Bethlehem in the arms, not of a princess, but of an ordinary girl; her husband is a carpenter, and they have found a roof over their heads in very modest surroundings.

King Herod’s paranoid suspicion causes a bloodbath as he tries to eliminate the baby who threatens his royal throne. As a matter of fact, as a grown man Jesus, though a descendant of King David, will have nothing to do with this kind of kingship. He will call another Herod 30 years later “this fox”.

The prophets before Jesus were no enthusiastic royalists. Samuel warned the people of Israel against having a king. “He will take your sons and daughters as slaves and steal your fields,” he told them ( cf. 1 Samuel 8: 10 ff.). David seemed a good king: at least he repented when he took Bathsheba and had her husband killed. His descendants committed much bigger crimes without repenting.

Jesus did not want to fight the Romans for political power. When they wanted to make him a king “he withdrew again to the mountain alone” (John 6: 15). He taught, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Mark 12 : 17). Caesar’s empire and the kingdom of God are two different things and are ruled by different principles. Caesar must never try and control God’s kingdom.

Jesus’ followers will one day tell the authorities in Jerusalem, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5: 29). Christians are no anarchists (Rom. 13: 1), but in a conflict situation they follow God’s laws. The early Christians paid with their lives for their refusal to worship Caesar. They never forgot that Jesus does not approve of autocrats, “the kings of the Gentiles who lord it over them” (Luke 22: 25). He wants servant leadership, leaders who spend themselves in working for their people and the common good. As he did himself: he never lived in a palace, and he rode on a donkey, not a war horse.

If rulers want to be compared to Jesus they have to make a dramatic U-turn. They have to face the truth, past and present, and learn to heal rather than strike wounds, to reconcile with their enemies rather than indulge in hate speech, and to overcome their addiction to power, indeed, when the time has come, to let go of power altogether.

But let church leaders also be warned: if politicians are not to “co-opt” the church for their purposes, you must not rule as they do either!