Royal subjects know the voice of their king. Those in early 20th century England certainly recognized their king’s voice in the stammering speech of George VI. The 2010 movie The King’s Speech tells the story of how Bertie, the future King George VI, is led by his wife to Lionel Logue, a speech therapist. Bertie has struggled since childhood with a vocal stutter, and with the new reality of speaking publicly on a regular basis, Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth, is determined to fix the speech defect that has plagued him for most of his life.
Logue is a rather unusual choice for a speech therapist. He is an Australian with very little formal training in speech therapy, as Bertie later finds out to his dismay and to the dismay of those in his close circle. He’s not a medical doctor, although Bertie, at first, assumes that he is. There are, in fact, no credentialed letters after Logue’s name that can provide any formal imprimatur of his expertise. And at first, Bertie is completely unconvinced of the effectiveness of Logue’s training. But over time, he comes to see that Logue is actually helping him find his voice, if in unconventional ways.
The rocky beginning of Bertie and Logue’s working relationship soon morphs into a friendship grounded in shared vulnerability. Logue is a failed actor and a self-made man, and he comes from humble beginnings. And Bertie, with his lack of eloquence, is a most unlikely candidate to be King of England. He is uncomfortable with the public scene. He is many ways self-effacing, in spite of his temper. He is after all, not even supposed to be king.
He is king only because of his brother Edward VIII’s abdication. Bertie’s entire speech training with Lionel Logue has been intended to prepare him to fit into a particular mold as king. This mold is one forcefully imposed upon him, one created by centuries of British politics, pomp, circumstance, and colonialist pride. The might of the British empire must be represented in the might of a king, and the might of a king is represented in a certain image. And this image does not involve a stammer.
And so Bertie is caught in a vicious and self-defeating cycle of despair. His speech defect seems to be largely psychological, the result of years of being beaten down by his family and those in the inner royal circle. From the abuse of his cruel childhood nanny to the impatience of his father who can’t sympathize with his speech defect, this pressure is precisely why Bertie cannot speak without stammering—that is, until Lionel Logue gets at the heart of his problem. Logue is able to see that Bertie can, in fact, speak with fluency. Logue helps the king find his authentic voice, even if it still defies the mold of expectations for a mighty ruler, because Bertie’s slightly stammering voice is still the voice that his people know. It is, in fact, the only voice his people know.
When, in 1939, Bertie is obligated to make a public speech declaring war against Nazi Germany, his stuttering speech and lack of confidence are pitted against the blustering arrogance and darkly strident speech of Adolf Hitler. Bertie seems somewhat envious of such speech that, while horrid and evil, is capable of captivating audiences. And yet, what George is still only beginning to accept is that, with Logue’s assistance, he has discovered his own unique voice as king. It is a voice that the British people in a new age of wireless communication are able to recognize as that of their leader, for better or for worse. And even this vulnerable, imperfect voice can become the voice of a nation standing against forces of evil. After the successful 1939 broadcast, Logue gently notes that George showed some difficulty in pronouncing “w’s.” George cheekily replies, “I had to throw in a few so they’d know it was me.” After all, royal subjects know the voice of their king.
The question for us is how do we know the voice of our King, and how do we listen for his voice of truth? When facing the dominance, might, and ruthlessness of Pontius Pilate in the trial prior to his passion and death, Jesus never calls himself a king. Jesus never claims majesty, power, and brute strength as defining factors of his kingship. Instead, Christ admits that his kingdom is not of this world. His kingdom is something so very different from the secular definition of a kingdom, that the world does not recognize him as bearing imperial authority. Jesus testifies that his kingdom is characterized by truth. And this truth is received by listening to his voice.
But the issue with this voice is that many people in Jesus’s day were not able to hear it for what it was. And many people in our day still do not hear this voice. This voice of our true and only King is sometimes unrecognized because it doesn’t speak in ways that the world expects. In Jesus’s day, as in the more modern examples of kings, there are certain assumptions about what a king’s voice should sound like and what it should say. Our King’s speech in 1st century Palestine was not a voice of imperial dominance and military brawn, as were the voices of most other kings and rulers in that time. Christ’s voice was not one that basked in privilege and unrestrained civic power. It was a voice that spoke in ways that defied cultural expectations, so that some people simply couldn’t identify this voice as that of a King, as that of their King.
This voice entered the world in a babe born in a Bethlehem stable, who with his first meek cry challenged the suppositions of a complacent and unjust world order. This King of kings was born of an unwed mother and adopted by a lowly carpenter. This King established the borders of his kingdom by proclaiming that the oppressed would be raised up and the mighty cast down. This King challenged the religious order of his day and called out its hypocrisy and refusal to help those in need. This King of the world declared victory by dying on a cross in desecrated territory outside Jerusalem.
And yet God’s word of truth was uttered clearly in the human voice of Jesus of Nazareth. It was uttered when he spoke words of healing to the sick and to those possessed of demons, when he spoke words of forgiveness to sinners, and when he spoke words of intercession for all of humankind before the throne of God. This incisive but gentle human voice of Christ was seemingly incapable of rising above the noisy din of worldly rulers in their struggle for domination, but in its persistent strength, it nevertheless continues to speak two thousand years later in Scripture and through the Church.
The voice of our heavenly King did not assert truth by force or volume, and it was a voice that was willing to stammer in vulnerability. It was a voice that could break into tears at the death of a friend. It was a voice that could admit thirst in the last pangs of death on the cross. It was a voice that would give up its last breath in agony. But in spite of worldly expectations of what a king should be and how a king’s voice should sound, this King’s voice did not cease to speak at death.
Precisely because this King’s voice did not speak truth through arrogance and the savage screaming of a dictator, it is still capable of being heard even these many years later. Precisely because this voice sounded through vocal cords given flesh in the Incarnation, its message of truth has not ceased. It lives on even today, and it’s heard by all who belong to the truth.
Indeed, this voice of truth must still vie in quiet strength against more worldly voices that yell and compete for attention. But because of the Word made Flesh, our King’s voice still speaks in unexpected ways, and yet the vulnerability of this voice is the only way in which we can recognize it as our King’s voice. We hear this voice in those whose song is that of Mary, yearning for the lowly to be lifted up and the mighty to be cast down. We hear this voice in prophetic strains that strive for justice, peace, and respect for the dignity of all people. We hear this voice as we read and pray with Holy Scripture in community through the power of the Holy Spirit. We hear this voice in the cries of those who hunger and thirst, and in the sorrow of those who weep for the violent deaths of their friends.
This familiar voice of a risen, ascended, and glorified Christ is still recognizable to us because those to whom Christ spoke in his day are still with us in our own day. Christ is still speaking truth to us over the noise of a troubled world. Now, Lord, give us hearts to respond to this voice for the life of the world, because if we’re really listening, we will know the voice of our King.
Preached by Father Kyle Babin
25 November 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia