Another year, another 4th of July. Burgers and sausages are being bought, grills are being revved up, and in my hometown of Chicago, thousands of people are streaming across the border (help us, Donald Trump, you’re our only hope!) into Indiana to load up on fireworks with which to smuggle back into Illinois to take advantage of the temporarily-relaxed laws.
While the Fourth is supposed to be a celebration of America’s Independence Day, the day we pulled the original Brexit and became our own sovereign nation, today it has expanded into a celebration not just of that momentous occasion in the late 18th century, but a sort of catch-all holiday to celebrate America and the values we ostensibly stand for: liberty, justice, equality, and the like.
In practice, however, the United States of America has come to symbolize many other less positive things to people both at home and abroad. Entire generations in Central America and the Middle East associate America not with the land of the free, but with the coming of helicopters and drones that kill their families and burn their homes to the ground.
Here at home, we are a long, long way off from real equality or justice or even liberty. The edifices of white supremacy still loom over entire communities, keeping people of color economically disenfranchised and ensuring that the justice system treats them more harshly than their white brothers and sisters. Meanwhile, millions languish in poverty and do not have access to clean water, a good education, or decent healthcare.
These negatives are actually in many ways a direct result of the quintessential American attitude of self-reliance and our narrow definition of liberty. How often has “freedom” been used as a justification for America’s brutal overseas adventures? How many times have you heard the poor and dispossessed accused of being victims of their own “laziness”? How many pundits and politicians have fought against measures to help these people on the basis of “liberty”?See, it’s not enough to hold up a founding document from centuries ago to claim the mantle of a beacon of liberty, justice, and equality (just ask the slaves who were alive when that document was written). If your nation does not truly embody the values it claims as foundational, then perhaps that nation is not worth celebrating.
When Jesus of Nazareth spoke of “The Kingdom of God” he was not referring to an afterlife. His Kingdom was meant for “Earth, as it is in Heaven” (Matthew 6:10; by the way, Matthew’s term “Kingdom of Heaven” is equivalent to “Kingdom of God” and its meaning is probably similar to the way we use “The White House” or “Washington” to stand in for the President).
The Evangelist John has Jesus say to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36) but the next line make’s Jesus’s meaning absolutely clear: “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews.”
Leaving aside the fact that Jesus never actually said any of this (very little of the Gospel of John can actually be reliably attributed to the historical Jesus), even John’s meaning was not that the Kingdom referred to an afterlife.
While we know the Roman political establishment of Jesus’s time as the Roman “Empire,” at the time Rome called itself the “Kingdom” of Rome. Kingdom was an inherently political term, and Jesus’s usage of it was intended to contrast the way of Rome (or of Caesar) with the way of God (“Render unto Caesar…”). When you consider that the Jewish Messiah’s identity and purpose in Second-Temple Jewish belief was as an heir to King David and to re-establish an independent Kingdom of Israel, you can see where Jesus got the idea.
So knowing this, “My kingdom is not of this world” means that the Kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of this world (specifically the Roman Empire).
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