Metanarrative: Kingdom and kingdoms

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I recently picked up Cleveland’s A History of the Middle East, an accessible work on the subject. After blazing through a 50 page synopsis of about one thousand years of history (from the beginning of Islam up to the 18th century), I was struck by how much that little bit of information began to change and challenge my outlook on the region and, more broadly, relationships between nations today.

In particular, what struck me was the sense that all nations are either in the process of being conquered or being a conquerer. I’m not a historian (I know some of you reading this are- I’d love to hear your comments), but my guess is that this has been and will the case throughout history.

What to do as a Jesus follower if this is true? Do we just sit back and watch? Do we get involved somehow, especially if this is an ongoing reality? I feel like I can begin to understand how Christians end up having different ideas about this.

For example, as a Jesus follower I might take a more passive approach, given the belief that the Kingdom (Jesus’ Kingdom) is what matters, and so be a little more passive in my involvement (note the below comment by Chase, distinguishing passivism and pacifism.  This post has been edited as a result). The tension comes when a deeply corrupt and unjust nation comes around and begins to devastate humanity (eg- the 3rd Reich)- can Christians just be passive then? I can see how this might drive someone, especially in a democratic nation like the US, to get deeply involved in a nation’s foreign policy- there’s a belief that the ideas behind our government are good and can promote something better in a different area of the world, especially if other regions are devastating humanity. Yet at the same time, I can see why other Christians feel quite squeamish about this, especially if people go to the extreme of presenting a nation’s agenda as God’s agenda, seemingly equating a kingdom for the Kingdom in all its fulness.

As usual, there are no hard and fast rules in attempting to live for Jesus in our complex world. Being in a present kingdom and living for an already/not yet Kingdom is never easy…

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8 Comments»

  Chase wrote @

This is the question that fascinates me to no end. Because there are no simple answers. But one clarification: pacifism does not equal passivism. See Jesus, Gandhi, MLK jr. etc. I recommend checking out John Howard Yoder, if you haven’t already.

  yucan wrote @

Chase-

Great clarification between pacifism and passivism. I think that’s what I was describing more; the post will be edited to reflect that. Thanks.

  rob neighbours wrote @

Yucan,

This looks like a quality book and I think that you raise some thoughtful questions. As Christians I do not think that we are ever called to be passive. I think that Jesus never acted passively and we are blessed to be a part of the actualization of God’s Reign (the Kingdom of God), which requires compassionate action. I appreciate the comment made by Chase because I would argue that our actions should be prophetic and non-violent (although I still debate with myself about exceptions to this- especially with the example of the 3rd Reich which you brought up).

To say that we should be active is one thing, but deciding upon how we should act is another. A potential place to begin is the calling out of greed and lust for power of all of those involved and the showing that true value is born from the love of God through our love for one another. I’m still not sure how this translates to concrete action. What are your thoughts?

Also, I like your caution against equating the kingdom of our location with the Reign of God.

  Belisarius wrote @

Yes, it is a difficult question. And the struggle for us, in the obvious context in which we find ourselves, is not dismissed so lightly by saying, “A nation cannot present its agenda as God’s agenda.” We can learn both the positive and negative lessons from the past to guide us. A nation whose culture seeks to build itself inextricably upon God’s Word (which includes the principle of religious freedom, flowing from the biblical principle of free will) cannot, as I have pointed out before, act non-interventionist in the face of a horrific inhumanity.

While secular politics cannot be honestly sold as equivalent to the kingdom whom the Savior said “is not of this world,” it is important to seek to conform our politics to the Savior. As Abraham Lincoln said after Gettysburg, “What matters is not whether God is on our side, but whether we are on His.” It is easy to say that Western nations were not on God’s side when they fought wars for colonialism, or for pure conquest of indigenous peoples (not as easy an issue as some of us may think, either). But we certainly cannot say that it is wrong to have taken up arms against the likes of a Hitler, or of a Pol Pot, or the Soviet Union, to say otherwise is to countenance an inhumanity of the worst kind. Would it be wrong to deal in such a manner in Rwanda, or Darfur, or with Iraq if WMD or oil were not an issue? Would it be the act of a righteous nation or people who would knowingly allow the church in one region to be conquered and persecuted to the point of genocide? My brothers, that was actually the original argument behind the Crusades! How is that for a shot across the bow?

Think on it. Vaya con Dios.

  seth wrote @

What guidance did Jesus give to matters or politics? [this is a post of questions rather than answers]

I brush on a few points. One, being a “zealout,” particularly about Israel’s occupation by Rome, is a hot thing to do. The Roman emperor, ruling over Israel, made divine claims about himself. What does Jesus say about this? Perhaps mentions to ‘turn the other cheek’; says to ‘give unto Caesar what is Caesar, and give unto God what is God’s.’

I have two possible interpretations of Christ’s puzzling behavior (this being His noticeable absence of comment on the most pressing issue of his day): (1) the guy avoided saying dangerous things; (2) the guy had more important things to say. Since He was put to death, nominally for blasphemy, for what He said and would not retract, I find (1) to be unlikely. So I choose (2).

More important things to say than political direction? I think it must be the case. So much more important that he nearly avoids talking about anything political altogether? Apparently.

But all our discussion on politics is so moving, so pressing, so current. Why don’t those four Gospel books give us more to go on?

I don’t have a point. These are questions of frustration — because Immanuel didn’t dwell on the issue, didn’t drop the knowledge that (judging from thought from Augustine to this message thread) we all kinda want from Him.

It reminds me of the original institution of “government” in Israel. At first, it was just the cloud and Moses (the one guy who wasn’t obliterated by proximity). Moses had physical limitations, and so the judges were established to help him out.

Then the people _looked at other nations around them and wanted a king_. God gives them Saul in a manner that I’d (too lightly I’m sure) call “begrudgingly.” I mean, God doesn’t _want_ to do it (if such a sentence can be written). Maybe this is a better way to say it: He yields to the people’s obstinacy.

Saul comes in, the very picture of a good king (smart, slick, good-looking, strong) — and he turns to a witch for advice and away from God. I think David is God’s way of saying: “Government ain’t what its about, at least as far as what you can see and want for yourselves.” David wasn’t a good choice next to Saul on the criteria that get people elected in the US — but He had this bond to God (he acted like he _needed_ God) that from God’s point of view, evidently, was key.

It makes me feel like politics has this detachment from God in a certain sort of way: it isn’t like family, it isn’t like fellowship, it isn’t like agape love — those are part of His plan that He delights in, directs actively. But about government, Immanuel doesn’t say much and Paul says ‘it doesn’t bear the sword for nothing.’ God just doesn’t get too involved in directing how our Jesus-following interacts with politics.

I find this frustrating — but I suspect its also freeing. But the latter is an intuition without support. I think it is part and parcel of the Lord not laying down a philosophy for us to live by, instead continually (continually, continually) pointing it to Him: ‘I am the way.’ But the mechanics behind His sidestepping the issue, the meaning and reason for it? I don’t know.

  rob neighbours wrote @

Thanks for bringing up those questions, Seth. I definitely feel differently, but I understand and respect where you are coming from, and I appreciate that you shared your thoughts and musings with all of us. I would say that Jesus definitely speaks and acts in a political manner. I definitely do not argue that he always does this; neither would I say that he is a Zealot or anything like that. Jesus, however, is inherently political in his interactions with people and his proclaiming the Reign of God (Kingdom of God).

A few examples:
– Jesus proclaims the Year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-21). This proclamation has an inherent political aspect, especially for the poor, captives, oppressed, etc.
– Jesus’ numerous interactions with and stories about women have political implications
– Jesus affirms the dignity of Samaritans
– Jesus repeatedly challenged the established Jewish authority (which had connections with Rome)
– The social/political context of the time also shows how “turning the other cheek,” “give them your shirt as well,” and “going the extra mile” are ways to assert ones dignity in the face of an “evildoer.”

– Regarding the Old Testament, there are also many examples of political moments; particular the Exodus and the messages of the Prophets.

And I would say that Jesus poses a direct challenge to the Roman Empire by announcing the Reign of God, further Jesus’ divinity is a challenge to the claimed divinity of Caesar. Dying on a Roman Cross also has a political component.

Of course, this is only a piece of what Jesus is about. Jesus said and did dangerous and loving things that connected with and regarded the totality of people’s lives. His assertions of the love of God and this love being manifest in him (as God) are pivotal; I am just saying that these assertions have a political piece.

With all this, I find that I am challenged in how I should act and what I should do as a person striving towards Jesus living in political/social systems.

  Seth wrote @

Rob, good points. I was too broad in saying that God doesn’t get ‘too-involved’ in politics. As you say, a number of clear political values emerge from Jesus’ life and words: among them, the equality of women and focus on the poor in the community.

But these values are not accompanied by directions on how they should be achieved. Is our work with the poor to be a church enterprise (as the work of the deacons to distribute to the poor in Acts) or a state enterprise? Should Christians’ emphasis on loving the poor translate into government policies achieving material care for the poor?

Even more fundamentally, is there a form of government that our Lord would have us hold onto?

Take this last question, for instance. I don’t see clear guidance in the Word about it. There is not anything that leads me to believe a representative democracy is what God has in mind for our leadership, especially since the only government he explicitly established were theocracies followed by constitutional dictatorships (a monarch with the power, subject to law God had already given). So how fervently should I (hypothetically) push for democracy both in the U.S. and abroad? Why not push for more socialism, which could be said to manifest better material care (in principle) than pure democracy?

I see little explicit guidance on these questions. Instead, we must each wrap together the political values we get from Scripture (which are subject to interpretation) and form personal opinions on how they should be accomplished (which are subject to disagreement). I’m okay with the disagreement (even if a large portion of conservative Christianity is not), but I think it reflects a detachment, on God’s part, from directing our political lives. Given how important politics is to us, I find the fact fascinating.

Personally, I’m for representative democracy: for one, it validates the non-respecting of persons that God says is part of His community (so I figure is a good idea for a secular community too); but in large part it follows Churchill’s words that democracy is the “least imperfect” form of government he knew. With me, the same.

But I’m also in favor of some socialist-type programs, including worker rights programs and medical care. This puts me in disagreement with some other Christians, and I don’t believe with of us (me or those who disagree with me) can appeal to clear Scripture to back one side or the other. This is what I mean when I say God kinda doesn’t get ‘too involved’ in politics — He allows our political disagreement. That is very interesting to me.

  seth wrote @

The sentence above should be “This puts me in disagreement with some other Christians, and I don’t believe either of us (me or those who disagree with me) can appeal to clear Scripture to back one side or the other.”


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