Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding of the church over the centuries has been related to how the church is to manifest the Kingdom of God in society. One of the main purposes of my blog and indeed, why, a half dozen years ago I decided to “deconstruct” my evangelical assumptions, can be summed up in a desire to better manifest the Kingdom of God. The gospel message is about the Kingdom of God and not, as in evangelicalism, about what you must do to avoid hell and “go to heaven when you die.”
When Jesus was asked by Pilate if he was the “king of the Jews,” his reply of “my kingdom is not of this world,” seems to have never fully registered with his followers in the centuries that followed. Looking at the social milieu in the first century we see a Palestine under Roman control. Israel has faced a number of centuries being conquered and reconquered by foreign powers. In other words, a theocratic state conquered and ruled by secular states. In order to survive and maintain some degree of power, the Jewish Sanhedrin and the Pharisees compromised with the Roman government. In doing so, they took on the methods of Rome: quest for power, control, wealth, in other words, their own self-interests. The common person was largely left out of the equation and reaped little benefit form the merger of church and state. In fact, they suffered because of it.
In a blatant rebuff of an earthly theocratic rulership, Jesus declares the Kingdom of God is not “of this world.” This is something he conveyed over and over in his parables and is the central theme of the Sermon on the Mount: the Kingdom of God is not like early kingdoms. It is worth pondering for a moment. If God’s Kingdom is not of this world, was a theocratic state, i.e., Israel, ever really a “final plan” of God’s, or was it a misunderstanding, a tribalistic anachronism of Moses and Aaron’s? Certainly, the tribalistic, warrior God of early Israel seems at odds with the Heavenly Father Jesus portrays.
In large part, Jesus’ clashes with the religious leadership was over collusion. When religion merges with the state, it is religion that suffers or is diminished. So how is it that the Kingdom of God is to flourish among men (and women)? The key to understanding is scattered throughout his teaching via parable. Parables were a popular teaching method in the first century and allowed Jesus to be subversive to the Jewish leadership in a way that the common folk could understand and agree with, but not give legal reason for his arrest. It bought him time to get his message out before his inevitable arrest and murder by the state.
Jesus knew, no doubt, that his “good news” was good news to the poor, the sick, those rejected by the religious powers, but would be a threat to those who colluded with Rome. The growth and distribution of the Kingdom of God was not to follow an earthly blueprint. Like a tiny mustard seed it would start small and eventually snowball into something huge. But not by coercion or manipulation. Not by putting the Ten Commandments back in courtrooms, not by putting Bibles in classrooms, not by having compulsory prayer in our schools, not by passing legislation to deny women, minorities and foreigners equal rights, but by the selflessness of people sharing the love of God to others. For almost 300 years this was the paradigm of the early church, in stark contrast to the Jewish-Roman collusion, which did not end well for the Jews.
But, then, in the early 4th century, the emperor Constantine, a ruthless violent man, “converted,” i.e., saw the advantage of merging the growing Christian church with his secular power regime. The early church fathers, tired of the relentless persecution, did exactly what the Jews had done in the first century, they colluded with the enemy of the Kingdom of God. To some, this was seen as a godsend, the opportunity to spread the gospel unhindered by persecution. In retrospect it allowed a perverted and unhealthy church to grow in power, wealth and influence. In time holding the “keys to the Kingdom” meant the religious controlling majority could not only declare heresy, or anathematize “false teachers,” but arrest and execute those who did not toe the line.
History had repeated itself. The lesson that collusion with the state does not end well, as with the Jews, was a lesson not learned. The entire Middle Ages was squandered by the Church of Rome consolidating its stranglehold on Europe. And again, with the Reformation and it’s break with Catholicism, the same mistake of collusion was made. Some finer points of theology had shifted but the Reformers policies were straight out of the Catholic playbook.
Fast forward to the 18th century. Christianity in Europe had become, state religions. Dying institutions propped up by the secular governments as a way of morally legitimizing their harsh governments. Ah, the great American democratic experiment. Unfortunately, again a major misunderstanding of how the Kingdom of God operates. The cries of religious freedom were then, as they are now, primarily not about freedom for all, but freedom to practice particular forms of religion at the exclusion of others. Slavery, the seizure of tribal lands and subsequent displacement of First Nation peoples and the various persecutions of Catholics, Jews, Chinese, Mormons, etc., all an outgrowth of a nation who fancied herself, “Christian.” Yep, collusion again.
Someone once said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over again, expecting a different result. This is what the American church is guilty of, colluding with the state and eventually expecting it to result in the Kingdom of God. The evangelical church over a two century period, enjoyed a tremendous growth, not only in numbers, but in power and prestige. It identified completely with the nationalist interests of the American government. The government, as conceived by the fathers of our nation, became an object of worship, in its romanticized form by the conservative church.
Any hint of change to the chummy relationship the church had developed with civil government was seen as an attack on “Christian values.” This is the tragedy of Trump Christianity: the Right has so thoroughly mixed partisan right wing conservatism with Christian ideals, that the Gospel of the Kingdom has been pushed out. Now, with the major shift in American ideology away from conservatism and towards equal rights and inclusivity, the Religious Right is majorly threatened. It would mean the death of “church as usual.”
This is an observation I made a few posts back, that society is advancing morally faster than the Religious Right is. Society as a whole, is acting more Christlike than the church. The goal or methodology of the church, in its endeavor to bring the Kingdom to earth, is not to impose legal sanctions and laws against what it determines to be “sin,” but to simply love others, regardless, and seek justice, mercy and grace for all mankind. This is not meek pacifism, but a call to action. Actions that will have an effect on society for the better.