On Kingdoms

On Kingdoms


Yet another great film: “The United Kingdom.” The true story of the Botswana king who married a white Londoner shortly after WW2 and subsequently endured the wrath of racism and later out maneuvered the British government to gain control of the diamond mines discovered in his country so that his people, rather than the Brits, would benefit. He also renounced his throne and introduced democracy. In 1966, Botswana peacefully gained independence from Great Britain and he was elected president. Since then, it continues to be one of the most prosperous countries in Africa with a high standard of living and a continuous popularly elected democratic government. Why was this never in our history books? Why was virtually nothing in our history books about Africa?


“Kingdom” brings to mind some recent thoughts on kingdoms in scripture. In the Hebrew scriptures, we have a loose group of familial tribes finally unified into a true kingdom under David, enjoying peace and prosperity under Solomon, then dividing in two after his death (nonviolently and over the issue of taxation). The northern kingdom, Israel, has a succession of very bad rulers and is destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. The southern kingdom, Judea, has some good and some bad rulers and succumbs to the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The Babylonians are conquered by the Medo-Persians, and Cyrus the Great lets the Jews return to Jerusalem and rebuild a few decades later.


It’s never quite a kingdom ever again however. The Medo-Persians fall to the Greeks, who battle back and forth with Egypt (Israel caught perpetually in the middle of bloody conflict), and everybody succumbs to Rome. Sick of generations of oppression, the Jews long for Messiah to arrive and liberate them. Zealots come and go. Rome crucifies people by the tens of thousands; the world groans under oppression; the Mediterranean becomes a Roman lake; every man, woman and child is bludgeoned into submission.


Along comes Jesus – poor, from Galilee (Nazareth of all places!), lacking credentials, surrounded by fishermen, tax collectors, former freedom fighters, prostitutes, divorcées, all the disenfranchised, broken, bleeding, huddled masses. He is proclaiming a whole new kind of kingdom that he calls the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God. This kingdom has no military, no police force, no guns or bombs. This kingdom does not manipulate anyone or gerrymander to gain control. In it, the last are first, the first are last, the greatest are the servants of all, love is the response to everything and everyone. It is a kingdom that is invisible to the powers that be. It is here now; yet it is yet to come. It destroys death, fear, hatred, and malice. Subjects of this kingdom have indescribable peace, ataraxia, overflowing joy, and unconditional unconquerable love. This kingdom is irresistible. Its future is certain: The entire cosmos saturated in love, peace, and perfect harmony; all evil eliminated; no sickness, disease, poverty, or war; “righteousness will cover the earth as the waters cover the seas.” All are welcome.


Three and a half centuries later, along comes Augustine of Hippo who feels it necessary to knit Greek philosophy with Christian theology. And, now we have two kingdoms, so popes and kings fight for control of both the secular world and the ecclesiastical one.


In the 16th century, this coalesces into the Lutheran and Calvinistic doctrine of “Two Kingdoms,” that teaches that God rules all, but the “left-handed kingdom,” (terrible phrase) i.e., the secular world, is ruled by God through the human agents of governmental officials, courts, laws, police, coercion, taxes, drones, and so on; whereas the “right-handed kingdom,” is considered to be the rule of God by the Spirit in the lives of believers. Derived from Augustine’s “City of God and City of Man” concept, an upshot, though possibly an unanticipated upshot, is that it becomes legitimate for rulers of the nations to utilize force and raw power to control the masses. Different rules apply in business and government than in the faith-community.


We should not expect secular rulers to act with Judeo-Christian ethical principles. If a nationalistic strongman promises to promote Christians over Muslims, destroy the environment for economic gain, eliminate women’s rights and LGBT rights, slam the door on refugees, break up immigrant families, take away health insurance from the most vulnerable, paralogize and suppress free expression by disseminating falsehoods and propaganda, or promote torture, then it is not only right for a Christian to vote for him, but a duty to support him. He is, in this two-kingdoms’ view, God’s man for the hour. The two kingdoms are kept radically apart. Everything is neatly compartmentalized. A person can love God, love his fellow tribesmen, and promote policies that destroy the poor and persecute those of another faith tradition. A person can be a good Christian and support a dissolute troglodyte. One can enjoy a dance with the devil.


Alternatively, one may respond to the two kingdoms concept as do the Amish – the two kingdoms are incompatible and, therefore, a person must decide which one to be in. Being a part of God’s kingdom means withdrawal from the worldly kingdom. One does not, however, need to be Amish or Mennonite or Old Order Brethren to withdraw – being any kind of a fundamentalist will do fine. Because, it is argued, the world is evil, ruled by Satan, persons in God’s kingdom must carve out their own culture so that they remain untainted. Hence, whether we are considering this in a Christian, Jewish or Muslim context, the result is a group with its own schools, neighborhoods, vernacular, meeting places, music, literature, journalism, style of dress, habits, political viewpoints, and acceptable beliefs and behaviors.


In other words, to protect oneself from the evils of secular society, one must live in a carefully regulated bubble. I know people who were raised in fundamentalist households who attended private fundamentalist schools from kindergarten through graduate school, work in fundamentalist owned and operated businesses, attend fundamentalist congregations, live surrounded by others who think exactly like they do, listen only to “godly” music and radio, and read only accepted literature. There is no cultural, ethnic, religious, theological, political, artistic, or international diversity in their lives. Everything around them reinforces their religiophilosophical worldview. There is no chance whatsoever of a new idea or an alternative way of thinking to enter.


From that view, I push back. As believers, we are not called to withdraw from society, but to positively influence it, help transform it. We are called to live missionally within the culture. We confront hatred with love, bitterness with forgiveness, vengeance with grace, discrimination with justice, war with peace, rejection with acceptance, fear with faith, harshness with gentleness, rejection with kindness, disenfranchisement with full citizenship, marginalization with recognition, pollution with environmental stewardship, and greed with a non-consumerist lifestyle and sustainable simplicity. We stand in solidarity with the poor, the immigrant, the refugee, the incarcerated, the sick, the mentally ill, the homeless. We seek to be quick to listen, to see every person whose circumstances can only be described as wretched as “Jesus in distressing disguise” (to borrow a phrase from Mother Theresa). We try to approach life as a wonder. Every flower, ocean wave, person, culture, society, has something to teach us. The “other does not threaten us” because there is no “other.”


We are called to be salt and light, proclaimers of a new way of living, a new kind of kingdom and new kind of King. The scriptures that tell us not to love the world, to come out, and not touch that which is unclean, are not calling us to isolation. Those scriptures are calling us to guard our hearts against bigotry, hatred, racism, misogyny, homophobia, nationalism, racial supremacy, xenophobia, classism, sexism, ageism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, spiritual pride, violence, hatred, unforgiveness, and so forth. We do so not by living in a bubble, but by staying focused on God as we engage the culture in which we live. With humility, we listen, we seek to understand, we try to help, we serve, we wash feet, we discuss, we learn.


Anabaptists like me come from a faith tradition that says that the community is the witness. Anabaptists outlined this view in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527. We can live our quiet lives in social and theological isolation, and, as we do, that itself is a witness to others. Outsiders look at us and see our community of peace and desire the same. No need to engage the world at all. That may have worked to some degree in sparsely populated rural communities. But the fact remains that there are many groups doing exactly that and having no impact on the culture at all. Those outside either do not care or mock and reject, which is typically taken as a sign of divine approval – we are, we think, being persecuted for righteousness sake, which feeds into a narrative of spiritual pride and superiority.


In America, the largest group living in self-imposed isolationism is the white evangelical church, which has its own media outlets, its own educational pipeline, its own standards of acceptance, its own (thoroughly discredited) “science,” its own music and literature, its own distribution facilities, its own revered spokespersons, its own politicians, and its own functionally segregated suburban neighborhoods.


We all need community. Faith is lived out in community, not in isolation. We covenant together to love one another with pure hearts fervently. But that community must engage, rather than withdraw from, the society. A community of loving followers of Jesus will unquestionably have a positive impact on the culture if and when that community is not isolated from it. A group of friends seeking to faithfully follow Jesus buy homes in a poor urban neighborhood, fix them up, clean up the area, get to know their neighbors, love and serve them in practical ways, share meals and material goods, and without any imperialistic superiority, lovingly serve others. That group will transform a city.


About Dr. Larry Taylor

Radical Anabaptist, Jesus Freak, Red Letter Christian, sailor, thinker, spiritual director, life coach, pastor, teacher, chaplain, counselor, writer, husband, father, grandfather, dog-sitter

Posted on March 31, 2017, in Bible, Christianity, Spirituality and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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