Look. We have to discuss the Kingdom vs Empire.
I am part of the 9/11 Generation. I can remember where I was when it all went down – I was in Freshman English with Mrs. Fairchild at Parkersburg High School. I watched, with the world, as two towers full of people crashed to the ground.
The following days/weeks/months were a blur of patriotism and nationalistic fervor as we prepared to go to war. This war was a “new kind” we were told…and it would be televised on the 24/7 news networks. I learned who people like Chris Matthews, Bill O’Reilly, Wolf Blitzer, and Tom Brokaw were. I was certainly entertained.
I had no qualms with America going off to war; that’s what we do, right? America went all over the world “Making the world safe and protecting democracy.” At any rate, America was the back-to-back world war champions. It was what I grew up inundated with “American exceptionalism” and military pride that fomented over generations.
I had also grown up being taught that war, America, and Christianity were completely compatible. At the time I didn’t believe in Christianity, so that part was irrelevant. For almost 11 years I watched the War on Terror live on TV from my couch…never giving it a second thought.
But then as I was preparing a sermon several years ago, I read some of the words of Jesus in Matthew and I was absolutely taken back. I had read Scripture through the lens of Western-American Christianity and forgotten that Jesus of Nazareth preached a radically different message than what I previously thought.
This first-century wandering preacher that we divide time by became the incarnation of Isaiah’s ancient prophetic title, “Prince of Peace” and taught a radically different way to be human in a crazy, violence loving world. He taught that the Kingdom of God was (and is) a place first and foremost, of peace.
He taught that while this Kingdom exists in this world, it is completely incompatible with the current systems in place. Why? Because it is a kingdom of peace, and He is the Prince of Peace.
I believe we have made a grave mistake. We believe the Gospel accounts of Jesus and the traditional doctrines of Orthodox Christianity…but we have ripped Jesus out of context to “tame” Him and his ideas to fit our likes and contexts. That, however, is a very dangerous maneuver. Why? Because we cannot divorce Jesus from His ideas and teachings and still claim to follow Him. This is especially true in Jesus’ political ideology. Brian Zhand says,
“The problem is this: when we separate Jesus from his ideas for an alternate social structure, we inevitably succumb to the temptation to harness Jesus to our ideas – thus conferring upon our human political ideas a assumed divine endorsement.” (A Farewell to Mars, Ch. 1)
In doing this, we literally find ourselves dancing in step with the powers and principalities of darkness that govern the systems of the “world” in a contrary fashion to God. This is a system set up and built upon violence, hate, war, fighting, and murder. The travesty of this is that when we participate in this we reduce Jesus to a get-out-of-hell-free card who endorses our own ideas on how to run the world. “This feeds into a nationalized view of the Gospel and leads to a state-owned Jesus.” As a result, since around the 4th Century Jesus became Roman Jesus, then Byzantine Jesus, then European Jesus, then German Jesus, and now American Jesus.
Because of this, we have conscripted Jesus to fit our national agendas and I believe the church MUST reject this now more than ever. We must understand Jesus, not as a nationalistic proponent of politics of the world, but we must re-understand, re-learn about the Jesus, the Prince of Peace who triumphs over idolatrous nationalism and stands directly against the ancient practices of violence and war.
The Power of the Atom
Brian Zhand has some startling conclusions on this:
“Okay. Let’s step back and take a look at where we stand as a people and a planet. It’s easy to imagine that the world doesn’t really change – that it simply marches around the maypole of violence, trampling victims into the mud the same as it ever has. But as true as that may be, something has changed. We are postsomething. If nothing else we are post-1945 when the enlightenment dream of attainable utopia went up in smoke – literal smoke! From the chimneys of Auschwitz to the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. After 1945, we lost our blind faith in the inevitability of human progress. A threshold was crossed, and something important changed when humanity gained possession of what previously only God possessed: the capacity for complete annihilation. In yielding to the temptation to harness the fundamental physics of the universe for the purpose of creating city-destroying bombs, have we again heard the serpent whisper, ‘You will be like God’?”
Oppenheimer, the father of the Atomic Bomb, upon witnessing it’s first successful test in the New Mexico desert quoted Vishnu in the Bhagavad Gita and said, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” It was that day that humanity became gained the literal ability to be “destroyers of the world.”
Here’s my point: in this Post-Holocaust, Post-Atomic civilization if we begin to believe that Jesus’ thoughts and teaching on peace are irrelevant in the age of genocide and nuclear armament, then we are guilty of inventing a false, unbiblical, untrue Jesus…and that leads to a completely irrelevant nationalistically-tainted Christianity.
Clash of Kingdoms
Here’s where this gets real. Jesus has a conversation before his crucifixion with the Roman Governor Pilate. Here’s the exchange as John records it:
33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him,“Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:33-38, ESV)
See, in this we miss two things: First, according to verse 36, Jesus Kingdom is NOT of this world. That’s where He explains that if it were, an army of followers would rise up and defend Him…but that’s not the way of Jesus. Second, Jesus’ teaching and life were so radically opposed to the Roman ideas that I’ll bet He was killed (from a purely political standpoint, but we know there was a spiritual reason that was primary) because He said that Caesar wasn’t lord, but He was.
It wasn’t the man who upset Rome, but the man’s ideas. Pilate understood how powerful this idea was…and Rome knew the power of ideas. Ideas that force change gradually are called progress, but ideas that cause rapid, pattern-shifting, culture moving change create something quite differing: Revolution.
The powers that be hated that. That is precisely what Pilate and the Jews hated about Jesus – the ideas he had were revolutionary and changed the power structure that favored them. That still happens today, by the way.
So what has happened over the past 2,000 years that has caused those of us who confess that “Jesus is Lord” have created a religion that separates Jesus Christ, who died on the Cross for the sins of mankind, from the ideas of the same Jesus who just by existing threatened the structure of human civilization?
Jesus ultimately knew that Christianity would triumph…but not in the way we wish – not by force or violence. It would triumph because of peace and love. It would triumph not by the might of nations or the bombs of civilization, but in the selfless acts of love that cherish life, regard its sanctity and rally to protect it.
We cannot embrace a Jesus who endorses nations to war. We cannot embrace a Jesus who wears an American Flag t-shirt. We cannot embrace empire…and we must repent and embrace the Kingdom of God. We cannot, as a church, any longer afford to ignore the ideas of Jesus – the cost will be more than we can bear.
The Kingdom vs. Empire. It is eternally important.
Blessings as we ponder this together. If this resonates with you, share it with those you love!