“…keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.“ Paul the apostle
“…dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” Zechariah the prophet
“…my kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus the Christ
We Christians in the west are at a crossroads. A day rarely goes by without my hearing Christ followers arguing, loudly and angrily, about cultural issues. For any issue, ranging from vaccines to critical race theory, abortion to health care, there are Christ followers on both sides. Instead of addressing these things redemptively, we’re dividing, often breaking relationships because of a failure to know how to move forward together when cultural issues need addressing by the church.
The particular ethical issues as they’re presented in their partisan political forms are not what’s most alarming to me, though that’s a problem. There’s a bigger problem. It’s running through the house of God, decimating individuals' faith and destroying institutions. If we fail to address it, both collectively and individually, the consequences will be grim. We’re already seeing the first fruits of our failures in the parade of leaders departing from the church via burnout and moral failure, along with a rapidly growing antipathy toward all forms of institutional Christianity on the part of people under 30, and even more so for those under 25. People who are trying to remedy these two issues directly (through ‘more accountability’ for leaders, and ‘better consumer worship experiences’ for young adults) are widely missing the mark. They’re trying to fix symptoms rather than getting to the core issue.
What’s the core issue?
We’ve lost our way when it comes to understanding Jesus and Paul’s words about “seeking the things above” and the “kingdom not of this world.” Evangelical Christianity has its roots in a focus on personal transformation and personal change of destiny. ”Receive Christ as your savior” we were told, “and then get to work ‘making disciples of all nations’, and you’ll be fine, both here and in eternity.” That message sunk deep into evangelicalism as the root, and rose as the tree.
Pointing to Christ as a source of personal transformation is true and right and good; our hope regarding eternal destiny. That should be clear. The crux of the matter, though, is this: Is that really the root foundation, and the flowering tree that is the essence of the gospel?
No. Or said a bit more forcefully, NO! In a world where being born again and changing one’s personal eternal destiny is at the forefront, it would be not only easy, but logical, to presume that Jesus' words, ”my kingdom is not of this world” meant that his kingdom has nothing to do with our lives here, on this planet. Getting our ticket ‘out of here’ is what matters. Between here and that eternal destiny, it falls to each of us as individuals to avoid lying, cheating, hitting people over the head, and stealing stuff, whether from the store or on your tax return. But work hard, love God, confess your sins, receive Christ, and you’re right where you need to be, because his kingdom is not of this world, which is interpreted to mean: not here in this world.
That, though, is a wild misreading of the Bible. Jesus never said his kingdom is not in this world. In fact, Jesus even went so far as to remind his disciples that they were called to be in this world but in their living in the midst of this world, they must not be of this world. Failure here is what has allowed blind spots in faith communities to not just remain, but fester, gain strength, and even become sanctioned as ‘gospel’. I’ll show you what I mean:
When we’re “of” the world, we adopt a prevailing cultural narrative believing it to be God’s narrative for us, the people of God. Because of the incredible cultural malleability of the gospel (a different topic for a different day), we’re able to build the case that the value system of our particular culture or sub-culture is what God favors.
Exposing this lie is what got Jesus executed. The 1st century people of God presumed that Messiah would affirm their political and national aspirations. Zealots, Pharisees, Herodians, and Essenes constituted four different sub-cultures within the Jewish world. They all hoped and believed Jesus would elevate their tribe because they knew it to be God’s favored way of seeing the world. Instead Jesus elevates none of them.
He’s not elevating tribes, or political parties, today either. Not European globalism/socialism, not republican nationalism/capitalism, not evangelical individualism/pietism, not democratic belief in ‘the power of the state’ to solve every ailment… not any of it. Remember? His kingdom is ‘not of this world.’
On the other hand, his kingdom is decidedly “in” this world. When John the Baptist heralded Jesus' arrival and called for repentance, people asked what they should do, and every answer he gave had to do with economic justice. “Give your extra stuff away.” “Be content“. “Don’t accuse anyone falsely.” John, and later Jesus, would simply be echoing Zechariah’s calls for justice, along with Micah, and Isaiah, and Moses himself. Forever, God has had a heart for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. Forever, God has challenged people who have the power to address systemic oppression to do so (read Exodus, or Esther, or Isaiah). Addressing oppression, actively loving enemies, advocating for peace, are precisely what it means to have a kingdom ‘not of the world’ and yet fully ‘in the world.’
The Way Forward
We need the kingdom that is above to frame our conversations. (Remember Jesus' model prayer: May your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven). God’s reign is perfect justice, and restoration, healing and hospitality, hope, forgiveness and joy.
Instead of seeking the kingdom above, we’ve aligned with movements, parties, and organizations ‘of this world’ - We put our energies into the appointment of pro-life Supreme Court justices, or the organizational cause of Black Lives Matter, or any number of other earthly organizations, or aspirations, or ideologies. But none of those aspirations fully represent God’s reign because all of them have to do with kingdoms of this world. Let’s be clear: Many of them may align partially with Jesus’ reign. None will align fully. In other words, and this can’t be said loudly enough:
God’s Kingdom ≠ Any Partisan Organization or Political Party
Not everyone who believes we should teach the truth about the Greenwood Massacre subscribes wholeheartedly to critical race theory.
Not everyone who believes in the importance of confessing ‘the sins of the fathers’ (in matters of racism such as redlining and colonialism) buys into every value of the Black Lives Matter organization.
Not everyone who believes life in the womb is precious and votes in ways that support that, believes that the election was stolen by Democrats.
And so it goes. You can’t dump your truck full of organizational labels on someone simply because they believe one thing that organization believes in. The left and right both align in various ways with kingdom values, just as the partisans of Jesus’ day aligned at various points. It’s also true that they all missed the mark in other ways. For any organization or ideology to say God was ‘wholly on their side’ did immense damage to the testimony of the church, even as it does today.
We need fly higher and take about kingdom principles and ethics, not organizational loyalties. For example, we need conversations are about the stewardship vs. the domination model of doing economics, politics, and creation care. It’s about the dividing wall between tribes and peoples being broken down (as stated in Ephesians 2) and what that means for systemic racism. It’s about the role of confessing generational sins, and restorative vs. retributive justice. It’s about protecting life in the womb as precious, and the life of children fleeing death squads in Central America as also precious.
Kingdom conversation should happen at these higher levels. If, instead, we‘re only arguing the merits of a particular party or organization, our conversations are ‘of this world’, even if thinly veiled with Bible verses. That’s deception, folks, and its presently burning through the church in America like a raging forest fire. Let us ‘reason together’ as Isaiah said - so that we can put the fire out.