Thursday, May 28, 2009

Washing Feet Until We Take Over the World

What is the "kingdom of God"? What is our place here on Earth, here in America? How are we to interact with powers and authority systems? Should we be trying to win some abstract "culture war"?

"As we allow Christ's character to be formed in us -- as we think and act like Jesus -- others come under the loving influence of the kingdom and eventually their own hearts are won over to the King of Kings. The reign of God is thus established in their hearts, and the kingdom of God expands...

This, in a nutshell, is the primary thing God is up to in our world. He's not primarily about getting people to pray a magical "sinner's prayer" or to confess certain magical truths as a means of escaping hell. He's not about gathering together a group who happen to believe all the right things. Rather, he's about gathering together a group of people who embody the kingdom -- who individually and corporately manifest the reality of the reign of God on the earth. And he's about growing this new kingdom through his body to take over the world. This vision of what God is about lies at the heart of Jesus' ministry, and it couldn't contrast with the kingdom of the world more sharply.

I'm in the midst of reading The Myth of a Christian Nation (a provocative title if there ever was one). But the book's subtitle is "How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church." The author's main point is that the kingdom of God is about following the life of Jesus Christ. Trying to align ourselves too closely with any earthly government or political powers (voting the right way to take America "back for God," for instance) is not at all what the kingdom of God is about.

Jesus taught a "power-under" kingdom, where greatness is measured by sacrifice, service, love, and death. All perfectly embodied in the cross.

What this also means is that there is danger in associating the Christian faith too closely with political viewpoints, whether conservative or liberal. Jesus was about hearts and not about legislation. To some degree, many evangelicals fuse the kingdom of God with their preferred version of the kingdom of the world.

I'm not sure that Jesus is interested in "taking America back for God." The kingdom of God isn't about winning a culture war, or keeping the right words in America's Pledge of Allegiance, or outlawing gay marriage. The kingdom of God, incarnated and modeled in the person of Jesus Christ, advances by exercising power under others. Self-sacrificial, Calvary-like love.

It's a tough road to travel. Who's up for it?


Craig said...

". . . there is danger in associating the Christian faith too closely with political viewpoints. . ."Amen, Scott. Absolutely, amen.

Now, I will say that it does behoove those of us who aspire to live in Christ's kingdom, to speak the truth to our neighbors, and to the culture at large. Not, perhaps, to 'win the culture war', so much as to simply speak the truth, lest our neighbor, for whom Christ died, perish without ever knowing the truth.

And, love for our neighbor should motivate us to work for a just and life-giving social order. Not as an end in itself, to advance one or another political party, or to 'take back America for God', but just because, it will go better for our neighbor, beloved of God and made in His image and likeness, if the social order conforms with God's truth, to the greatest possible degree.

But yeah, absolutely - gaining political power isn't the thing, nor making America a 'Christian nation'. And you can't compel your neighbors to live as God means for them to, by means of laws and the exercise of power. We are, after all, 'strangers in a strange land', and 'here we have no earthly kingdom'. As Mother Teresa was fond of saying, "God doesn't call us to be successful; He calls us to be faithful."

Joe B said...

"many evangelicals fuse the kingdom of God with their preferred version of the kingdom of the world"Evangelicals? Good point, but there is no religious group immune from that error. Even quietist and separatist groups and theo-irrelevant-ogians are up to their knees in it.

And that is why your article is so profoundly important. Even "getting your religion right" is not what the Kingdom of God is all about.

Right religion is following Jesus, the rightful king of the world. Who also just happens to resurrect the dead to eternal life, or to final judgement.

Joe B said...

Good point Craig, and well said. We speak the truth of God to our neighbors because it is life and peace to them, and we are God's agents of life and peace.

Scott said...

Agreed, Craig. The problem becomes when we think that "the truth" we're speaking to our neighbor is more about issues like gay marriage than it is about Jesus. A good many churchy people think that those political issues are the "truth" that people need to hear, rather than the good news of Jesus.

I am also, it should be known, all for being an "activist" to stand up for the poor, the hungry, and the weak. I admit that even that, in a sense, is political. As you said, it's about standing up for a just and life-giving social order.

Joe, you're right, I think when I wrote "many evangelicals," I should have left it more open than that. Admittedly, I aped most of that sentence from the introduction of the book. :-)

Craig said...

I understand, Scott.

And I agree that 'political' issues like gay marriage do tend to distract a lot of Christian folks from 'the core of the gospel', or get confused with the gospel itself.

But, there is Truth to be spoken to our culture as re sexuality. Something, one might hope, more rational (and more True) than 'God hates fags'. But, our culture is dying, and the proximate causes of that death are mostly sexual. And we Christians do know a few things about sex and sexuality (or, if we don't, we should) that would profit our neighbors, if they understood them, and took them to heart. . .

And again, it would be (and has been) a huge mistake to identify the gospel with any specific political or economic program, or set of policies. But that doesn't mean that the gospel has nothing to say about justice, or a just socio-economic order. Specific programs/policies are things about which, as it is said, 'people of good will can disagree'. But there is nothing inappropriate about holding up core principles, and exploring ways to make them real 'on the ground'. Always bearing in mind, of course, that, as just as we can possibly make our social order (and I mean 'possible' in the same sense that someone has defined politics as 'the art of the possible'), this side of Heaven, it never will be The Kingdom of Heaven, and we ill-serve both our neighbors and ourselves, to speak and act as if it were.

I do understand what you're saying here, and I agree with it. Fundamentally, we Christians need to embody what we advocate - that is to say, we need to live the gospel radically and faithfully, and not worry about 'the world's' response to us. But we do, and we will, have pointed things to say to 'the world', from time to time. Whether they want to hear them, or not.

Joe B said...

"But, our culture is dying, and the proximate causes of that death are mostly sexual."I think that is clearly and aptly stated. But can I be a Christian and also say that it's incorrect?

Probably the only area of our culture that is in disarray is the sex-culture, marked by a meltdown of the necessity of marriage. But even that is a trailing effect of technology, not a primary effect of unbridled lust.

Look at the rest of sex-culture. It has never been less acceptable to marry barely-pubescent girls. It has never been less acceptable to marry multiple wives. It has never been less acceptable to keep a lesser-wife. It has never been less acceptable to keep a mistress. It has never been less acceptable to visit a brothel. It has never been less acceptable to slap around your one-night-stand. It has never been less acceptable to pimp your kids, a time-honored tradition all over the world. It has never been less acceptable to engage in an age or class-mismatched sexual relationship. It has only sometimes been less acceptable to do gay stuff, or even to be openly gay.

Divorce is more acceptable than ever, and promiscuity is less stigmatized than ever. The really big change is in what is acceptable to talk about, and pornography is the high-tide of that. All three things are technology driven.

The culture as a whole, especially as embodied and evidenced in our laws, is not dying at all. Church attendance is down. But is Christians following Jesus down? I rather doubt it.

Nevertheless, "we" sometimes do "speak to the culture" in magnificent, earth moving ways. Christianity has twice deferated slavery. We drove the Civil Rights movement magnificently home.

Craig said...

Joe, you can be a Christian and disagree with me all you want. I'm certainly not calling anybody's Christianity into question.

Point taken on the various and sundry things it has never been less acceptable to do (altho I wonder about a couple of them).

But the collapse of marriage is the big deal of them all, whether that's a primary or secondary effect of the culture. Families are the fundamental building blocks of society, and if a society can't form and sustain strong marriages, it is in deep, deep trouble. When more than half of a society's children are growing up without one or both of their parents, that society is in deep, deep trouble.

I keep thinking here about the Epistle of Diognetus (early 2nd century), in which he says (words to the effect that) Christians are in the world as the soul is in the body - we give it a life that it wouldn't have without us. And maybe that's getting back toward what Scott's original point was. . .

Joe B said...

Great quote, C. Hope you didn't think I thought you were gonna sink your teeth in me. It's just that nobody much dares to NOT say the culture is going to hell like never before.

The Marriage Thing IS bad. But it is not everything. Fact is, we have been through times of horrendous upheaval before. The Industrial Revolution brought mass migration to the cities (ever take in a Dickens book or mivie?) which ushered in social dislocation and moral decadence WAY beyond anything we're seeing here. Even so, things got right again, largely due to Christians, and to governments responding to Christians' expectations. Those Christians went Left with the Liberals in the great Fundamentalist schizm of the 20th century.

Sorry, I'm reacting to something that is not you, and it's not what you're saying. Christendom just tends to fall into a trap of justifying its existence based on how bad other people are.

Love, however, does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. When christianity gets all wrapped up in boogeymen like liberals or muslims or catholics or mormons or what not, they are departing from the way of Christ. So, love Truth more, and love Being Right less. Get less of a kick out of the sins of sinners, even if they do make us look rosy by comparison.

Craig said...

Point well taken re 'boogeymen'. I share your frustration on that account. We've got to learn how to relate to people, and not their 'labels'. Which ain't always easy to do. . .

And, re Truth vis-a-vis Being Right, you are spot-on. . .

Joe B said...

Wow, that feels good.