Rethinking the Kingdom of God: Part I

The following interview was done by Chad Crawford over at Homebrewed Christianity. In it, I speak about the kingdom of God a bit.

For readers who haven’t listened to our podcast episode with Len Sweet, tell us about how you two decided to write your “Jesus Manifesto” essay.

Back in February 2009, Len and I spoke at George Fox Seminary. While there, we got to spend a number of hours together. Most of our conversation revolved around the Lord Jesus Christ, and we discovered that we were tracking with each other 100%. In short, we believe that Jesus Christ has gotten short-changed in His church today. So much of contemporary theology and religious discussion is related to Him, but it ultimately misses or devalues Him. The entire Bible shows us that God the Father is totally occupied with His Son. The same for the Holy Spirit. And the same for Paul, Peter, and the early Christians. Yet so many contemporary Christians are consumed and occupied with so much that isn’t Christ. We’ve put so many other things (good things, religious things, even “spiritual” things) on the throne and lost Jesus in the temple without noticing.

Anyways, Len and I kept in regular touch after that visit and felt the need to put into writing what was on our hearts concerning the supremacy of Christ. We wanted to draft a short, but clear articulation that brings the Lord Jesus back into view and that gives Him His rightful place.

I believe it was Len who had the idea of the “manifesto.” It didn’t take us long to write. I want to say two weeks. The manifesto launched in June of this year (2009), and it quickly went viral. We estimate by the end of September it will have been read by half a million people. It’s been translated into numerous languages and there’s an audio version available also. Due to the interest, it is updated regularly with new translations, interviews, related resources, etc. To my mind, this is evidence that there’s a great hunger among God’s people on this matter today.

Update: In June 2010, the online manifesto was expanded into a full length book called Jesus Manifesto published by Thomas Nelson.

After the podcast, we got comments from listeners saying they appreciated the Christocentric spirit of the message. One thing Len said that surprised some of our listeners was that liberation theology killed mainline Christianity. It wouldn’t be fair to ask you to clarify what Len meant (we’ll ask him next time) but I wonder if you two had a conversation about liberation theology specifically. Could you give your own take on it?

We haven’t really discussed it, but I would be happy to share my thoughts on it and how they relate to the manifesto.

I agree with William Cavanaugh and Steve Long on the subject. They both point out that one must differentiate between the theology of liberation as a way of thinking about theology and the theology of liberation as a label for a movement among Christians.

They argue that there are some real flaws in the liberationist style of theology because it’s a style of theology that assumes that social science— especially the Marxist version of social science—has binding truths to teach the church. The church has to hold, according them, the right sort of social science.

I believe that’s mistaken. The church of course should be willing to learn truth through whomever it comes; but we know what the truth is by looking at Jesus Christ. Christ is the incarnation of truth. All truth is in Him.

On the other hand, the practice that was found among the grassroots Christian communities in Latin America is something else. That was rather remarkable. Those communities drew on their study of Scripture (which points to Christ), their prayer together, their shared-lives together, and their mutual support for one another. And that’s what drove them in the main.

Let me add a point about the social gospel, which is often equated with liberation theology.

The social gospel and liberal theology shouldn’t be confused. The social gospel is a North American development. In the early 20th century, Walter Rauschenbusch and some others began advocating the notion that Christianity was on the side of social justice. And therefore, Christians needed to see that what they were called to do was bring in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God would be a world that reflected God’s intentions by being a world of justice, equality, and freedom. The movement began before WWI, but some of it continued well into the 20s. WWII pretty well blasted it away because it was based on a very optimistic view of history. There are still elements of it that hang on in the U.S. and in some contemporary movements, nonetheless, it’s not what it once was.

The liberation theologians were not based on such optimism. The liberation theologians said it is impossible to be neutral in the social conflict between the oppressors and the oppressed. If you look at the Old Testament and the New Testament— especially if you look at the prophets, God clearly sides with the oppressed. He sides with the poor man who is being crushed to the ground. Therefore, amid the social conflict in Latin America, in which you had peasants and workers struggling against the landowners and the government, the church’s task should be to align itself with the workers and the peasants against the government. In terms of application, the liberation theologians championed the grassroots Christian communities and tried to help them spread.

In time, there was a split among liberation theologians. Some were committed to nonviolent resistance. Others became part of the guerilla movement. They also began to draw on Marxist social analysis in varying degrees.

Nevertheless, one can hold to liberation theology and/or the social gospel and use Jesus as the founder of “a cause” (without even knowing Him) and then try to do something good in the energy of fallen human flesh. We address this impulse in our manifesto.

What made you decide to quit baseball and become a Christian author and speaker? Just kidding.

I got bored. So I decided to write subversive Christian literature instead. While I lost my seven figure salary, the hate mail keeps me intrigued with life. :-)

Mark Van Steenwyk wrote a thoughtful critique on the statement, in which he agreed with you on moving away from the language of imitating Christ, but thought you might go too far, emphasizing a high Christology to the point of diminishing his earthly ministry. The example Mark gives is: “Jesus was not a social activist or a moral philosopher.” Wasn’t he though? Wasn’t he all of the above and so much more?

I have a lot of respect for Mark. Here’s my take on your question along with what some other critics have said in response to our manifesto.

A perspective that is very popular today is one that sees the kingdom of God as a political utopia taught by Jesus that we Christians are supposed to bring about. It’s essentially the old fashioned social gospel (see above).

Those who hold this view are still caught up in the old “fundamentalist individual gospel” vs. “social gospel” dichotomy. Advocates, therefore, think that the only way to talk about social justice is to do it in social gospel terms. Consequently, since our manifesto doesn’t put the discussion in those terms, these folks assume that we don’t take justice seriously.

The thinking goes like this: “These guys just want to talk about Jesus.” Yet their thinking is rooted in the idea that the gospel falls into two separate parts: The part that has to do with Jesus and the part that has to do with Jesus’ teaching. They separate the teaching from the Person. And that’s one of the things we take dead aim at in our manifesto.

We reject the idea that you can separate the two. We are not rejecting Jesus or justice or the kingdom. We are rejecting the notion that you can take the justice side of Christ and push it into a separate theme on its own. According to this thinking, Jesus gave us a political social ethical teaching that was His real purpose on earth. His real intention was the political transformation of the world. And now Christians must get it done.

But Origen said that Jesus is the autobasileia (the self-kingdom). He is, in Himself, the kingdom. The kingdom of God was Jesus own liberating presence. Jesus’ own person and work is the establishing of a new humanity—a new social form of existence. So that in Him we find the kingdom of God. In Him, we find what freedom and equality genuinely means. By contrast, the notion that freedom and equality are values that Jesus endorses is not true.

To put it in Bonheoffer’s terms, God is both Act and Being, and the act and being of God are found in Christ. Jesus is God’s Act and God’s Being. And it’s a royal mistake to separate the two.

I believe that this is what’s happened.

To my mind, the best definition of the kingdom of God is as follows: The manifestation of God’s ruling presence. Let’s look at that in pieces.

The manifestation – this has to do with the image of God. God made visible. Jesus is the image of God; He displays Him. See also God’s original mandate for humankind in Gensis 1:26-28.

Ruling – this has to do with God’s rule (His Act) – in Jesus we have God’s reign. See also God’s original mandate for humankind in Gensis 1:26-28.

Presence – this refers to God Himself in the Person of Christ. Jesus is God’s very presence (Being).

What I find fascinating is that many in the Charismatic camp focus on God’s act when they talk about the kingdom, but they talk about His act of supernatural power over God’s enemy. So healing, casting out of demons, miracles are all tied in with the kingdom. Few in this camp talk about changing the social order or standing for social justice.

Yet over in the Emergent camp (for lack of a better word) there’s also a focus on God’s act when they talk about the kingdom, but there’s hardly any mention of God’s supernatural power whereby He exercises the authority of His kingdom. Instead, the focus is on social justice, helping the poor, making the world a better place by natural means mostly.

Interestingly, one can demonstrate both strains in the New Testament depending on which texts one chooses to highlight.

But notice that both of the above stress God’s Act when discussing His kingdom. What Len and I are saying in the manifesto is that the kingdom is both Act and Being. The indwelling life of Jesus by the Spirit is the missing note here. The kingdom is God’s ruling presence manifested. “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you,” Jesus said. In the biblical context, that means, “I’m standing here in your midst. I am the kingdom incarnated. Not only in what I do, but in who I am.”

In this connection, Barth and Bonheoffer argued that God’s revelation is found in Christ. They objected to the idea of natural revelation, which some of the Germans used to support Hitler. Barth and Bonheoffer responded by saying “no,” revelation is in Jesus Christ.

Freedom, justice and equality are parts of Christ. Christ is Justice, therefore, the kingdom of God is made visible and seen when the community of the King embodies justice, peace, love together and then shares it with the world. The church, therefore, is the embodiment and instrument for displaying the kingdom of God.

Regarding the issue of politics and Jesus, I do not believe that Jesus was political in the sense that we use that term today. Jesus was not trying to put together a revolutionary movement to overthrow the government. I personally think that overthrowing the government is a distraction. Christians need to act as much as possible as though the government were irrelevant. Jesus basically ignored it.

There are times when the church should stand up prophetically and say, “This is wrong because it outrages the image of God in human beings.” Slavery, sex trafficking, genocide, abortion, etc. are some of those issues.

But the truth is, Jesus spoke about Rome very little. He did speak to a certain extent about the leaders in Israel, but He hardly touched on the empire at all.

On the other hand, Jesus is political in this sense. He Himself was the beginning of the change of the world. John Chapters 1 and 2 are the new Genesis. Christ is the beginning of a new creation. And He is the Head of a new creation. That new creation also has a body.

I would agree with John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas on this point. That the church is a new polis. It is a political community that embodies a new politic. Jesus is the new emperor. The church, therefore, is a colony from another realm representing the rights of its sovereign Lord. So our politics is embodied in the life that we’re called to live out together as God’s people—as the church. That is our politics.

In that sense, the church is the new order. We are the beginning of that God’s kingdom that is already happening. We are the new order in the midst of the old. So before the old order is shut down, God already begins to set up in its midst elements of the new order.

If the church is operating properly in a locality, the kingdom of God is seen. Justice, peace, love, mutual care, giving, etc. are made visible. Christ is seen on the earth again. What Steve Long and John Milbank call the “economy of the gift” is in operation. What we have under our present social order is an “economy of exchange” in which we exchange money for goods or goods for goods. This is rooted in selfish gain. In the economy of the gift, which is the economy that we are introduced to in the life of the Triune God, everything is a matter of sheer gift. We give to each other without any desire to receive back from; we receive back because the other person also gives. As I’ve argued in my book Reimagining Church, the church properly conceived and practiced is the earthly echo of the fellowship of the Godhead. Much more can be said, but I’ll leave it there.

How does your new book, Finding Organic Church, build on your previous writing?

Since 2005, I’ve been writing a series of books on radical church reform. The series is built on a few premises. 1) That the New Testament envisions church in a way that blends together a high church theology with a low church ecclesiology. 2) That the local church is the polis, the city of God, where God’s kingdom is made visible on earth and Christ is loved, known, displayed, and expressed in a real way. 3) That we have borrowed a great deal from Constantine, not only in the way of viewing the empire, but also in how we have viewed church “practice.” So lots of reexamination and rethinking is in order on that score. 4) Jesus Christ is the only rightful head of the church, and God has a burning mission – or “eternal purpose” – and the church is at the center of it. 5) The church is to be the visible expression of the invisible God. And God is a Community of three Persons who are one. Thus the church, rightly practiced, is also a shared-life community embodied by the economy of the gift.

My new book, Finding Organic Church, is the practical, nuts-and-bolts follow up to all my other books (Pagan Christianity, Reimagining Church, From Eternity to Here, and The Untold Story of the New Testament Church).

Therefore, if someone has read one or more of my previous books or if they are interested in the subject of planting alternative expressions of the church that are counter-cultural and which display the kingdom of God—the manifestation of His ruling presence—they will be interested in reading the new book.

Click here to read Part II

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