I’ve been enjoying the stimulating conversation at the Ecclesia National Gathering in DC. Scot McKnight started things off with a polemic against the “skinny-jeans evangelicals” (like me, sometimes) who tend to define the kingdom of God as happening “when good people do good in the public sector for the common good.” I think his polemic is legitimate. There is a furious backlash among evangelicals of my generation against the culture wars, which can turn us into generic “social justice” activists who no longer have any concept of church. “Kingdom” gets used as a code label to define a here-and-now social gospel over against an “eternal fire insurance” gospel. As McKnight says, “If the kingdom means everything, it means nothing.” He comes up with five Biblical principles for what the kingdom must include. But I think he needs some help from a “skinny-jeans evangelical” heckler like me, because I don’t think his five principles avoid reaffirming and returning to the problematic Christendom of the past.
So here are McKnight’s five principles for legitimately talking about the kingdom of God:
1) The kingdom of God has to have a king.
To talk about the kingdom means recognizing Jesus as the legitimate king of the universe. In other words, he’s not just our buddy or our mentor or our sage. He’s our king, which means that he’s in charge and his subjects submit to him.
2) The kingdom of God has to have a people.
McKnight was very intentional about naming Israel as the people of God and saying that we who are Gentiles are grafted onto the tree of Abraham, as Paul puts it. One of the great historical evils of Christian theology is supersessionism, saying that the church replaces Israel as God’s people. Now at this point, McKnight said something that I’m not sure I would go along with. He maintains that “kingdom work” can only be done by Christians. So for example, to him Gandhi did good works, but he did not do kingdom work. The objection I raised with him was that this way of defining things means that Christ isn’t fully sovereign over all the good that happens in the world. I will get into that more later.
3) The kingdom of God has to involve the king ruling, teaching, and redeeming.
I think McKnight means here that all activity related to the kingdom of God is an outflow of Jesus’ reign. So essentially kind of like #2, just because good things are happening doesn’t mean that they’re kingdom things. For something to be a kingdom phenomenon, it’s a good work that’s directly connected to the redemptive work of Christ drawing all the nations into his body.
4) The kingdom of God has to have a law.
It makes sense that if we’re going to talk about a kingdom, there has to be some kind of law or there isn’t really any sovereignty to speak of. Now I don’t think this means that the law needs to be exhaustively casuistic down to the jot and tittle. Jesus may have said that in Matthew 5, but he also did plenty of breaking the law to fulfill the law. Paul does say in Romans 13:10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” I see the law more in virtue ethic terms; it is the behavior that organically flows out of somebody who has been given the heart of Christ.
5) The kingdom has to have a land.
I’m a little puzzled by this one, and McKnight ran out of time to explain it. I get that God has the prerogative to elect a particular people as his starting point for redeeming the world and that the minute we try to deny this particularity like the Enlightenment did, then we’ve started the journey towards secularism, and white supremacy, as J. Kameron Carter documents in Race: A Theological Account. But I’m very troubled by the apartheid that currently exists in the Holy Land. If we’re going to talk about a physical land for the kingdom, then it should be the Zion of Isaiah 2, where “all the nations stream” to receive God’s teaching. There are far more widows in Zarephath now in the Holy Land than in the time of Elijah (Luke 4:25-26).
So here’s the problem.
All five of these components for the kingdom of God could be legitimately attributed to European Christendom as it existed for most of Christian history. It ostensibly submitted itself to Jesus as king; it had a people who were brought together across national boundaries through a common church by which they became the original basis for racial “whiteness”; Jesus’ redemptive work was the official raison d’etre for colonialism; Jesus’ law was the mark of “civilization” and the reason that “primitive” cultures had to be civilized through slavery; the land of the New World was the “city on a hill” through which white people would build the perfect Christian utopia.
In American Christianity, wealthy suburbanites often create gated communities of socially enclaved homeschooling families who go to the same megachurch and call that being “out of the world.” The irony is that the privilege and exclusivity of a gated community are the epitome of worldliness. We leave the world in a very specific way, the same way that the condemned prisoners would leave the world on the way out of the city gates to Golgotha to be crucified. It has to be cruciform.
When Jesus says in Mark 8:34: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” he had not yet been crucified, so the cross could not yet have a spiritualized meaning. The only meaning that the cross had at the time that Jesus said these words was an instrument of Roman terror by which people were utterly dehumanized. (You only get to give “cross” a post-Easter spiritualized meaning in this context if you want to go down the historical-critical road of saying that Mark put words into Jesus’ mouth for his own didactic purposes.) For Jesus’ audience at the time he spoke, to take up your cross would mean to join the procession of condemned prisoners whose humanity had ceased to be recognized. So the call to take up your cross is a call to illegitimacy,
which is one way of understanding what it means to “deny yourself.”
A recognition of the necessary illegitimacy of the kingdom is the way to avoid resurrecting the colonial monstrosity of Christendom. If we recognize our illegitimacy, that means understanding that none of us do kingdom work; only God does, through people who recognize what he is doing and through people who don’t. God is the sovereign author of all the good that is done in the universe. Every good work is part of his kingdom even if his kingdom remains hidden from the accidental agent whom he uses to promote his good. The hiddenness of the kingdom is certainly a broadly enough attested Biblical trope (so maybe that could be principle #7: the kingdom is always hidden from even its “citizens”).
As Christians, our task is to declare the work of the kingdom in our own lives and the lives of those who have not yet recognized the kingdom in which they’ve been unwitting accomplices. The critical difference that I am drawing between this model of kingdom and Christendom is that we are not insiders; we are merely prophets who proclaim what we see God doing for those who have ears to hear. God does not need to submit himself to the mechanisms of our institutionalized church. True church is not anything we create, but simply God’s “out-calling” itself; his ekklesia. In the Roman communion liturgy, when the priest says, “Look not upon our sins, but upon the faith of your church,” he’s essentially saying to God: look upon your own faithfulness instead of our perpetual failure to build on top of it.
The kingdom is the “wind [that] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). It is “as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how” (Mark 4:26-27). It is a mystery that we should not try to colonize even though we are being colonized by it. The most important thing about God’s kingdom is that we don’t own it. We are not its gatekeepers; only its heralds. The kingdom has no insiders, because it’s only for outsiders.