Kingdom Politics: In Search of a New Political Imagination for Today’s Church

kingdom politics

A NOTE FROM KURT WILLEMS: This is a guest post from two anabaptist thinkers/practitioners who offer us some needed reflections on Christians engaging in politics. I hope you will read and consider picking up their book!

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Upon returning to his hometown of Nazareth from forty days of temptation in the desert, Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming, with calm confidence, a simple yet earthshaking refrain: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17, Mk 1:14).

Jesus’ ministry began not with a call to spiritual purity, a claim about how to get to heaven, or even a command about love (though all these were integral to his gospel). It began, in a sense, with a political claim—the inauguration of a new Kingdom, the reign of a new King, a great re-centering of reality itself around a cosmic, all-encompassing authority.

At the end of his ministry, Jesus would be faced with another political question—“Are you King of the Jews?”—asked by a Roman governor attempting to uncover just what type of political threat this carpenter from Nazareth posed to the Empire. Jesus’ response, like the simple refrain that inaugurated his ministry three years earlier, shatters our understanding of politics: “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:33-37).

Clearly, Jesus’ politics is not politics as we know it. It is not a politics that trades on selfish ambition, that subverts justice, that nails dissidents to a tree. His authority, and the ways he wields it, are not like the world’s: “If my kingdom were of this world my servants would be fighting.” The Kingdom that Jesus claims to rule is unmistakably different from earthly kingdoms. And yet, at both the open and the close of Jesus’ earthly ministry stand the unmistakably political claims that a new Kingdom is at hand, and that a new King has been crowned.

From beginning to end, Jesus’ ministry was about inaugurating a new kingdom, an alternative form of politics in the world. As N.T. Wright puts it, “Jesus’ launch of the kingdom—God’s worldwide sovereignty on earth as it is in heaven—is the central aim of his mission, the thing for which he lived and died and rose again.”

Politics as usual? No. But politics nonetheless.

And therefore the community of Jesus-followers, at its core, is itself a political body, bound together by the inescapably political confession that Jesus is Lord. If the church is to be faithful to Jesus’ mission, it must be political—though, of course, not on the world’s terms. It must be political in its loyalty to a different kingdom, ruled by a different king (Acts 17:7). When the church gathers in worship or is sent out to serve its neighbors, it becomes a different kind of political body, one that pledges allegiance to a heavenly authority over all earthly ones (Phil 3:20).

This is a central claim of our book Kingdom Politics—that the church is an inherently political community, and that acknowledging this fact can help it better witness to a gospel that is both personal and social, public and private, spiritual and physical. It’s one thing to make a theological claim from an armchair, but quite another to see it take shape in real congregations.

So, just as the 2012 election season began picking up steam, we embarked on a journey to explore the ways churches understand, engage, and avoid politics in their worship, leadership, and missions.Equipped with a tape recorder and a generous grant from the Project on Lived Theology, we spoke with church leaders and members at five diverse congregations across the country.

On the one hand, we encountered the many ways congregations often struggle to understand, and especially to live out, this political mission. American culture teaches us to think of politics fundamentally in terms of partisanship, and in the absence of compelling alternative models for faithful Christian political engagement, churches often fall into one of two traps. Some churches avoid politics like the plague because it seems to contaminate the purity of the church. Others engage directly in electoral politics, lobbying, and activism to change public policy, but allow their allegiance to parties and other earthly powers to determine and constrain the scope of their engagement.

Both responses reflect a poor understanding of the church’s political identity because they are both held captive by a conception of politics tethered to state or political party. At a time when most churches fail to engage with the world because the only models of public engagement they have encountered are tied too closely with political and partisan agendas, the church needs a new political vision, one that takes its cues about the nature of politics not from the state, but from another political reality: the Kingdom of God. And during we visits, we also saw ordinary practices that have the potential to help the church build just such a vision.

Take Rick Warren’s evangelical megachurch, Saddleback. While church leaders avoid all political issues from the pulpit for seeker-sensitive purposes, their PEACE Plan missions teams partner with local district attorneys and international governments to reduce gang activity in Los Angeles and legalize civil marriage in Rwanda to protect widows from land-grabbing. In fact, their medical missionaries are so effective that they were asked to testify before Congress about global healthcare strategy.

Or Prairie Street Mennonite Church—their practice of hearing congregational prayer requests during every worship service, including Latino/a immigrants voicing prayers for family members who died trying to cross the border, has led the church to develop a distinctive “Hispanic ministry” as well as to advocate for immigration reform on a national level.

At Saddleback, an opportunity to partner with government to do effective Kingdom work transcended a pragmatic aversion to partisan politics as such. For Prairie Street, an ordinary worship practice led to both an act of local hospitality and an act of direct political intervention on a federal level. These actions may not seem political in the way we have been taught to understand that word—but, as we claim in the book that developed from this research, each demonstrates a way the church can allow its allegiance to Christ’s mission to break down dividing walls and offer a new vision of the Kingdom the world.

These practices (and many others like them) show that the church’s response to an overly partisan public arena need not be to join a camp, nor to abandon politics altogether, but to orient its allegiance toward the only political reality that transcends parties and nations, tribes and tongues, cultures and generations. The church must learn to understand politics not fundamentally as divisive, but as a framework that unites believers in allegiance to a common King and Kingdom. And maybe—just maybe—a church that takes this posture could find greater unity with people who do not share its ultimate allegiance, by identifying and pursuing common loves with and for them.

Our book, Kingdom Politics: In Search of a New Political Imagination for Today’s Church, traces our visits to five congregations—including Saddleback, the Emergent community of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, and the former church homes of theologians Yoder and Martin Luther King, Jr. It offers snapshots of the ways their ordinary practices of worship, leadership, and missions can shape and reshape the church’s political imagination.The stories in this book demonstrate that churches are inherently political in the deepest and most basic sense, and offer glimpses of the kind of political imagination we need in churches—not conservative politics, liberal politics, or anti-politics, but Kingdom politics.

Claiming this new political vision requires churches to move beyond a shallow understanding of politics based in American partisanship, and understand that the church is, by definition, an inescapably political body, called to embody a new and different form of politics in the world. The church’s political task is not primarily to influence state power or achieve desired electoral results; nor is it to unthinkingly reject the politics of the state as contaminated. Rather, the church’s political task is to witness before the world to the rule of Christ and the coming Kingdom of God:“It is for this purpose that I have come into the world.”

Kristopher Norris & Sam Speers are authors of Kingdom Politics: In Search of a New Political Imagination for Today’s Church (Cascade Books, 2015), from which this post is adapted. For more information or to purchase the book, visit kingdompolitics.com

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  • Richard Worden Wilson

    So, Jesus started his ministry by saying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17, Mk 1:14), but you say: Jesus’ ministry began not with a call to spiritual purity.
    I’m sorry for my incredulity, but really, “repent” doesn’t even suggest to you a call to “be holy, for I am holy”? If that isn’t a call for spiritual purity, what is it? Help me out here. Yeah, I get where you are trying to get, I think, but isn’t the Kingdom of God from first to last a spiritual reality, rooted in a covenant relationship in spirit and truth, and then consequently also a political reality? It doesn’t seem to me appropriate nor accurate to say Jesus’ ministry “began, in a sense, with a political claim—the inauguration of a new Kingdom.” This may make sense in some post-biblical, social Gospel context, but it doesn’t seem to me to make sense except as a reorientation away from the biblical witness.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems
      • Richard Worden Wilson

        And…..conclude what? That Jesus was tempted to see his ministry as a grasping of the miraculous power of God to feed himself (and perhaps others), and then tempted also to see it as becoming THE political ruler over all earth? Instead he healed physical infirmities and cast out spirit demons, and preached the kind of Kingdom of God that transforms individual lives in the midst of political oppression. What exactly do you see in Luke 4 that I’m missing? Isn’t helping the blind to see that they will be released from their oppression a favorable thing from Yahweh that is both spiritual and political without being first of all political? I don’t think you can accurately say that the Kingdom Jesus enacted or preached in Luke 4 was first or primarily a political kingdom unless that is what you want to see there. BTW, without seeing the context of the NTWright quote (textual reference please!) I doubt that what he meant actually supports the purpose to which you put it; I’ve read a fair amount of NTW and am pretty sure he would not agree that Jesus’ primary purpose was inaugurating a new political reality; he would see it as primarily a Spirit enabled presence of God’s new covenant community that has responsibilities with political dimensions.

        • charlesburchfield

          i think perhaps the first century chaps that were filled w the holy spirit which, BTW is still w us, is the main reason humanity is surviving empire.

    • Andrey Bolkonsky

      You’re correct, Jesus wasn’t some progressive socio-economic savior trying to make life on earth better for people. In fact, he said that hating life here on earth was a requirement, twice, as follows:

      Luke 14:26 If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.

      John 12:25 anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life

      As for people who were actually enjoying all the wonderful things that life here on earth offers, Jesus reviles them as worthy of being drowned and roasted in flames, in the following passage:

      Luke 17:26-29 “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all. It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.”

      Jesus also condemns the Wisdom book Ecclesiastes, which also promotes the concept that one should enjoy all the wonderful things that life here on earth offers.

      Ecclesiastes’ Epicurean Ceterum censeo that nought is good for man but eating, and drinking, and pleasure (8:15, 2:24, 5:18, cf. 3:12) is condemned by Jesus (Luke 12:20) in a section which contains several allusions to the Book of Ecclesiastes (cf. Luke 12:18, and Eccl. 2:4; Luke 12:20b and Eccl 2:18b, and above all, Luke 12:27 = Matt. 6:29 (Solomon in all his glory.)[…]

      Paul Haupt (1905) The Book of Ecclesiastes: A New Metrical Translation (with an introduction and explanatory notes). Baltimore: John Hopkins Press. p.6. books.google.com/books/about/The_Book_of_Ecclesiastes.html?id=DYIwAQAAMAAJ

      • charlesburchfield

        I love you & wonder abt you at the same time andrey. I wonder why you post your put down messages on christian blogs? Do you think you have the power to bust christian’s ‘bubble’? i’ve been aware of you over a period of time bingeing on your own adrenalin. I don’t think that’s a very good way to get high.

  • SuperKamiGuru

    In case you can’t read, Jesus’ ministry began with a call to REPENTANCE. As it says in the EXACT quote you used.

  • Rust Cohle

    //the church’s political task is to witness before the world to the rule of Christ//

    If your imaginary friend Jesus ruled, he’d make a worse hash of things than the Republicans and Democrats ever have. Following your imaginary friend Jesus isn’t the answer, as the chapter on The Uneconomic Jesus as Enemy of the Poor explains from the following text:

    Avolos, H. (2015) The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics. Sheffield Phoenix Press Ltd. amazon.com/Bad-Jesus-Ethics-New-Testament/dp/1909697796/

  • berryfriesen

    Kurt, thank you for highlighting the book by Norris and Speers. They are on the mark, as I understand the gospels. “They kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven . . . ”

    If Not Empire, What? (a book John K. Stoner and I published late in 2014) surveys each book of the Bible and highlights each book’s discussion of the political dimension of life. It’s not in every book, but it is prominent in most of them.

    For those interested, our text is available online via http://www.bible-and-empire.net.

  • louismoreaugottschalk

    yes!