I can remember as a child the uncertain feeling I had as I would come across phrases such as the ‘kingdom of God’ or the ‘kingdom of heaven’ as I would read the Gospels. What exactly did they mean? I confess that while I felt there was some spiritual truth encompassed in those phrases, I mostly skipped over them with a feeling of puzzlement. They sounded important, yet also seemed archaic to someone raised in a country that prides itself on rejecting monarchy and embracing democratic values. As I have gotten older I have come to realize that to understand what Jesus meant we need to take the word ‘kingdom’ in a more serious way, and consider what it may have meant to people at the time. In this post I will explore not only what it may have meant to people in Jesus day but also look for how we may be able to apply what we learn to ourselves as we interact in the religious/political climate today.
Over the last year I have been increasingly concerned of the encroachment of political philosophy into the theology of Christians. Political philosophy is becoming theology, and political parties are becoming de facto religions for many people, even among active church goers. As I have been searching for understanding on this development I find myself being drawn back to Jesus teaching on the ‘kingdom of God” for insight. Was this truly, as I have believed for a long time, a purely spiritual, apolitical kingdom? Or is the matter more complicated than that?
The Democracy of God
Perhaps we can gain some understanding if we exchange the word ‘democracy’ for the word ‘kingdom’ in the Gospels.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the democracy of God.”
“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the democracy of heaven.”Matthew 5:20
“Who then is the greatest in the democracy of heaven?”Matthew 18:1
“There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the democracy of God, but you yourselves will be thrown out.”Luke 13:28
“…but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the democracy of God, and healed those who needed healing.”Luke 9:11
If we can imagine Jesus saying these words to us today, what would our response be? What thoughts or feelings would it invoke?
As I try this thought experiment out for myself, I find that substituting in the word democracy creates an impression that is more threatening and far more real. There is a clear juxtaposition of the values of ‘democracy of God’ with the values of the democracy I live in, America. Many thoughts run through my mind. Why will some not be able to enter? Why are some thrown out? Does this mean the democracy of God is not inclusive of everyone? Is this a political attack on American democracy, or is it a spiritual analogy that should not be understood in a political context? What does this all mean? While these questions come to mind, I walk away with a few clear ideas:
-There is a clear line of demarcation and I must put thought into which side of that line I am on.
-I cannot relegate these statements to the realm of the merely spiritual. There is something real that we are invited to enter, or risk losing out on. If we enter, our entire value system will be restructured in ways that challenge accepted societal norms.
-The word democracy (kingdom) is in contrast not with other religions, but with other governments.
While there are limits of the democracy-kingdom analogy, viewing Jesus teaching through this lens may give us insight into how people in Jesus day may have perceived Jesus teaching. In an era where kingdoms and empires were the dominant (perhaps only) form of government, Jesus teaching about the kingdom of God would have inevitably invoked political imagery in the minds of his audience. This was especially true of the Jews who were waiting for a leader who would fulfill their longings to reclaim independence and re-establish the ancient dynasty of their most revered king, David. Indeed, just prior to Jesus ascension, his disciples asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) His words had been understood as defining the values between the kingdom of God and all other political kingdoms, and his disciples fully expected him to begin the overthrow of Roman rule and establish his own reign according to those values. And it some ways they were correct, but they misunderstood the nature of that kingdom.
An Invisible Kingdom
In the ancient world ‘God-kings’ were common. The Egyptian Pharaohs were considered divine, as were the rulers of the Incas, China, Japan, and many ancient Mesopotamian cultures. Christians would face death for refusing to acknowledge Caesar as Lord. It was not hard for people in Jesus day to accept a rulers claim to be divine; what was difficult was to conceive of the reality that there was an invisible kingdom that transcended geo-political boundaries. Jesus disciples could not imagine a scenario whereby God’s rule and Roman rule would coexist. When the Pharisees tested Jesus on the subject of paying taxes to the emperor, the implication was that Caesar was a rival to God. Jesus response “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” both acknowledged the legitimate place of Caesar but also God’s ultimate sovereignty. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s because God is sovereign, but when worship of Caesar was demanded, it was ultimately refused (to the point of death) on the same grounds; God is the true Sovereign and has no rival.
Understanding this reality is one we still struggle with today. We no longer view our rulers as divine, but the idea of a invisible kingdom that demands our allegiance over every earthly loyalty still mystifies us. We find it easier to throw in our lot with political parties or political movements that are working towards something more tangible, something more ‘this worldly’. It is easier in part because this world is the only one we have ever known. From the time we are children, all our longings, dreams, disappointments, and heartbreaks are woven into the fabric of this world. It was precisely this reality that Jesus was addressing when he said, “For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:32-33) While Jesus was specifically addressing materialism, the principle of “seek first his kingdom” can be applied to anything else that tempts us to cling tightly to this world. We humans also “run after” many other things- power, love, community, social respect- and if we do so without putting the kingdom first we are still acting as “pagans”, not mature Christians.
I hope at this point it has become clear that the idea of the kingdom of God being an entirely apolitical reality has to abandoned (a view that even in the last month I still held). It is a political entity, but one whose nature focuses on the spiritual, the eternal, and is not confined to political boundaries. It is also clear that allegiance to this kingdom is absolute. It takes precedence over all other allegiances, not just those external but every allegiance of the heart. Jesus often started with external morality, then drilled down into the condition of the heart. When teaching on the danger of materialism, Jesus noted, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) On the subject of adultery: “You have heard that it was said, “‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27) If we take a cue from Jesus and examine our own hearts with respect to our political allegiances, what do we find? What perspectives truly capture our hearts? Perhaps it will help to take some time and ponder the following questions:
-How much does fear motivate your political actions/involvement? And be honest with yourself.
-Are you more likely to refer to a Biblical example/passage or or a political commentator/ideology when discussing why you hold certain moral beliefs?
-How upset/angry do you get when your side suffers a political setback? Why?
-Do you hold grudges against the other side for slights-things a candidate said that seemed insulting to you, or perhaps how a political nominee that shares your views was treated by the other side? Consider this grudge in light of Scripture.
-Who influences your thinking the most on political issues? How deeply grounded in Christ is their thinking?
-Take some time and carry out the experiment I suggested earlier, replacing the word ‘kingdom’ with ‘democracy’ as you read sections of Jesus words. What insights does this give you into Jesus message of the kingdom of God?
You can answer these questions alone in a time of devotion, but I would recommend finding a trusted friend or even a small group and discuss these questions together. Opening ourselves up to friends who know us well enough to see through our attempts at self-justification and challenge our blind spots is an important part of spiritual growth. The importance of community and how that relates to both our political and faith expressions I will explore in-depth in my next post.
Online community can never replace in-person relationships, but I believe that it can augment our ‘real world’ relationships. I find that by writing I express thoughts and feelings that I often do not share when talking to someone. By using this medium, I can work out my thoughts and connect with others from around the country and the world. It is my hope that this blog will become a place of community where we can share our thoughts and feelings, and together sort out some of the challenges facing Christianity today. I encourage you to leave a comment below or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter. Also you can sign up below for email updates when a new post is published.