You are gods, sons of the most high, all of you. (Psalm 82:6)

There are relatively few reigning monarchs left in the world and fewer still who are regarded as divine. Offhand, I can think of only one, and he, strangely enough, presides over a communist regime. North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un, grandson of the nation’s founder, doesn’t call himself a monarch, and his country is officially atheist. However, his rule is absolute, and he is closer to an object of worship than a traditional leader of government. The pattern was established by his grandfather, Kim il-Sung, who led resistance to the Japanese occupation of Korea during World War II. The elder Kim formally remains North Korea’s head of state, or “eternal leader,” under its constitution, even though he died in 1994. There are tens of thousands of monuments to him throughout the country, and citizens are obliged to pay homage on his birthday and on the anniversary of his death. According to state propaganda, a double rainbow attended the birth of his son Kim Jong-il, and a new star appeared in the heavens. The son, who died in 2011, quickly joined his father in the pantheon of North Korea’s de facto state religion. It was claimed that his moods controlled the weather and that he neither urinated nor defecated. All this might be dismissed as a mere bad joke, except that the current supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, believed to be no more than 29 when he assumed power, has missiles and nuclear weapons at his disposal and has repeatedly threatened to use them.

As a strategy for consolidating power, declaring oneself to be quasi-divine has much to recommend it. Kim il-Sung had only to look to his communist allies in China and the Soviet Union, each of which had developed cults of personality around their leaders. As a child growing up during the Cold War, I remember pictures of the May Day parades behind the Iron Curtain, with their gigantic portraits of Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong on the sides of buildings. Kim himself had come of age during Korea’s occupation by the Japanese, who worshipped their emperor as a god. He had also grown up in a Christian household, which may have provided inspiration for the father-and-son deities who later ruled North Korea.

Totalitarian regimes may have perfected leadership cults, but they are nothing new, of course. The ancient Egyptians believed their pharaohs to be incarnations of the god Horus. In Imperial Rome, emperors became divine by decree of the Roman Senate. The Chinese designated their emperors as Sons of Heaven long before Mao usurped that position, if not the title. And the Roman Catholic Church has elaborate canonization procedures for elevating deserving individuals to sainthood, among them two recent popes.

There is a natural tendency to want to look up to one’s leaders. But how do they come to be regarded as divine? The distinction between god and human is not always clear-cut in religious mythology, even in the Judeo-Christian tradition. According to the creation myth in the Book of Genesis, we are created in God’s image, for example, which means that we share at least some divine attributes. Then there is Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians believe to be the Son of God. And a close reading of the New Testament would suggest that Jesus was not meant to hold an exclusive franchise. “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God,” wrote St. John in his gospel. Just to emphasize that point, St. Augustine later commented, “If then we have been made sons of God, we have also been made gods.” Jesus himself told Jews at the temple, "Is it not written in your law, 'I said, you are gods'?”

Whether or not you believe Jesus was divine, he could never be accused of putting on airs. He specifically forbade his disciples from erecting monuments in his honor after the Transfiguration, and his grand entrance into Jerusalem at the end of his life was made on the back of an ass. When his disciples jockeyed for position, he told them, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave…” Amplifying on this thought, St. Paul noted that Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” This might suggest that those seeking to follow in his footsteps should do likewise.

John 1:12; 10:34
Matthew 20:25-27
Philippians 2:5-7

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