Second Maston Lecture: “The Kingdom of God…America”

Second Maston Lecture: “The Kingdom of God…America” April 17, 2016

“The Kingdom of God as Critical Principle for Christian Social Ethics: America

The Maston Lectures, East Texas Baptist University

April, 2016

Roger E. Olson

“That action is right which fits the shape of the Kingdom to come.” John Howard Yoder

In my first lecture of this series I explained what I mean by a “critical principle.” Here I use it as an ethical concept: a litmus test for what is morally-ethically acceptable and what is not. It seems self-evident to me that followers of Jesus Christ, those who hear and seek to heed his command to “Seek first the Kingdom of God,” should at least be uncomfortable with anything they cannot envision being part of the Kingdom of God. If, as God’s people, we envision a world led by Jesus the Messiah, the Lord, the Crucified and Risen Savior, as I think we should, then that vision ought to disturb our existence. It ought to create within us, both as individuals and as Christian communities, a condition of tension with our social environments insofar as they embody elements contrary to that vision. And that tension should lead to prophetic denunciation of all that contradicts God’s will and annunciation of God’s will as revealed in Jesus the crucified and coming king.

My first lecture focused on the Kingdom of God as critical principle for the church and there I called for reform of especially American churches of all denominations insofar as they have become accommodated to their culture in ways contrary to the Kingdom of God. Churches are not the Kingdom of God, but they are intended to be anticipatory communities embodying practices of that Kingdom. Jesus came to earth for three primary reasons. First, he came to save the world, people, from their sins, to reconcile us with God. Because of his life of perfect obedience to God and his obedient death in which he represented us before God, taking on himself as both God and human, the punishment we deserve, reconciling God’s wrath and love in one perfect sacrifice for sins, we can be reconciled to God, forgiven, taken into God’s family. Second, he came to reveal the heart of God, God’s true character and will, not only in prophetic speech but also, and above all, as God himself walking among us. Third, and finally, he came to establish a new social order among people called “the church,” the ekklesia, the fellowship of the called out ones.

All three of Jesus’s missions inform our understanding of the Kingdom of God. As the Suffering Servant who chose the cross over zealotry Jesus demonstrated that the Kingdom of God appears in what the violent world considers weakness. The Kingdom’s mode of existence is self-sacrificing love for the undeserving. As the very embodiment of God’s character Jesus revealed that the Kingdom of God appears in what the world considers unrealistic and even repugnant—compassion for the outcasts. The Kingdom’s mode of existence is breaking down the artificial barriers the world has constructed between people based on difference. As the king who formed a band of rag-tag followers into a fellowship of love and called them his “friends” and who delivered a charter for their fellowship that emphasized meekness and humility, Jesus established a new social order within the world to be a light to the nations, a city set on a hill, whose citizenship is based on loyalty to Jesus and to his vision for life together more than to any human empire, nation or city.

My question, the one I pose to myself and to you today, is this: What does all this, most of which we Christians hear with warm enthusiasm, mean for our attitude toward the United States of America and any country or nation? But I don’t want to remain in an ethereal realm of generalities; I want to bore down and be fine-grained in these ethical reflections. So here is the question I raise and will attempt to answer, however tentatively and incompletely: What should our Christian attitude, shaped by the Kingdom of God as critical principle, be with regard to what is called “American exceptionalism?”

Before plunging into that answer, however, let me state unequivocally my American patriotism. I grew up in the post-World War 2 era when America was awash in victorious patriotism if not nationalism. On July 4, Independence Day, as well as on May 31, Memorial Day (it was always then May 31), and on November 11, Veterans Day, my family would put out our “Stars and Stripes,” the American flag, and attend patriotic parades and picnics. We sang patriotic songs like “American the Beautiful,” “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” and “God Bless America, Land That I Love” in school and at church. Our church participated in a city-wide softball league and, before every game, everyone present would stand and sing the National Anthem. We began every school day with the collective salute to the flag. To this day I cannot resist the tears welling up in my eyes and the catch in my throat when I hear “O Say Can You See?”

And yet, I well remember that my home church, an evangelistic and revivalist church in the Upper Midwest, clearly distinguished between patriotism and nationalism. We knew that our first and highest loyalty was to God and his Kingdom—above any nation or state. In fact, although we had both the American flag and the “Christian flag” in our worship space, we supported young men who served in the military as conscientious objectors. And we actively discouraged church members from participating in political campaigns. Voting or not was a matter of conscience, but most of the people in my home church probably did not vote. America was a great country and we loved it mainly because of the freedom we had to worship and witness as we felt led by God. Religious freedom was the highest freedom we valued and America was the only place on earth, so we thought, where absolute religious freedom was found. I was told that my ancestors left “the old countries” to come to America primarily to find freedom of worship, conscience and belief.

What I am explaining is that we had patriotism without nationalism. We explicitly refused to identify America or any country or human society with God’s own Kingdom. For us, the fullness of God’s Kingdom would only come after Jesus returned to earth. We looked forward eagerly and passionately to his millennial reign on earth that we envisioned as a worldwide era of righteousness, peace and justice. We even sang about it. One hymn we sang ended with the chorus “O, our Lord is coming back to earth again. Yes our Lord is coming back to earth again. Satan will be bound a thousand years; we’ll have no tempter then—after Jesus shall come back to earth again.”

We knew that our citizenship was in that future messianic reign of King Jesus and we believed that our church and others like it were called to be outposts of that Kingdom pointing forward to it. We were far from perfect in how we lived that out, but at least we knew where our citizenship belonged.

Over the years of studying and teaching Christian theology and ethics I have developed and refined my childhood and youthful understanding of all that. I believe passionate patriotism is fully compatible with serious Christianity; there is nothing sinful about celebrating the wonderful gifts one’s country has from God. On the other hand, I have observed how many American Christians have blurred the line between patriotism and nationalism. Nationalism is idolatry of a nation-state; it is uncritical and even enthusiastic embrace of a nation-state as sacred. It appears when people are unable to love their country while at the same time seeing and pointing out its flaws. It especially appears when a patriotic person dares to point out his or her country’s flaws and is harshly told “love it or leave it” meaning leave this country if you don’t find it perfect.

One of the patriotic songs I mentioned before was “America the Beautiful.” Its second verse says “O beautiful for pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress, a thoroughfare of freedom beat across the wilderness! America! America! God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law!” Many who have succumbed to nationalism, including many American Christians, cannot sing that verse because it implies America is not yet all that it could be in terms of living up to its own ideals.

I worry that patriotism and nationalism are being confused when I hear about “American exceptionalism,” especially when that is used to justify whatever America does on the world stage and to claim that America can morally act in ways we Americans would condemn if done by other countries. Nationalists, including many Christians, confuse God’s blessing America in special ways with God sanctioning American atrocities, imperialism, lavish luxury and rejection of desperate outsiders as unworthy of our embrace.

Of course, if “American exceptionalism” only means belief that God has called this nation to be a light to other nations and to use God’s blessings to us to bless others, then there is nothing wrong with it. But, increasingly, I hear and read “American exceptionalism” being used in other ways such as I mentioned earlier. Other countries ought never to torture people, but America can. Other countries ought never to turn away refugees desperately fleeing persecution and violence, but America can. Other countries ought never to engage in pre-emptive wars of aggression, but America can. For many believers in American exceptionalism “just war theory” is one thing applied to America and something else entirely applied to other countries.

Two very different theologians have recently informed my thinking about America and the right Christian attitude toward it. Neither one has caused me to reconsider or jettison my American patriotism. Both, however, have caused me to reconsider aspects of my attitude, as a Christian, as a citizen of God’s Kingdom, toward America. And both are American theologians who I consider prophets.

The first theologian-prophet is Peter Leithardt whose defense of Constantine in his 2010 book Defending Constantine (InterVarsity Press) almost caused me to overlook his other, better contributions to Christian theology and ethics. As an Anabaptist-wannabe I found even the title of that book off-putting, to say the least. However, the book was not as bad as the title and, after reading it, I had a better impression of Leithardt. All he really accomplished in his Constantine book was demonstrate that the first so-called “Christian emperor” was well-intentioned and often misrepresented even if he was a tyrant. But that led me to read Leithardt’s later book, his most recently published, with an even stranger title: Between Babel and the Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Cascade, 2012). I consider that book one of the most prophetic messages to America ever published.

In Between Babel and the Beast Leithardt, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in America and president of the Theopolis Institute for Biblical, Liturgical, & Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Alabama, argues that since World War 2 a new world religion has emerged on the world stage and he labels it “Americanism.” Nothing in his book is anti-America; for all one can tell Leithardt is an American patriot. But he expresses profound concern that all American Christians should hear and heed about the rise of an idolatry of America. Leithardt acknowledges America’s greatness because of its ideals including, especially, religious freedom and charity for the needy. But then he sagely warns that America’s “virtues and vices are sometimes hard to distinguish.” (58) On the one hand, he warmly praises American virtues affirming its “remarkable efforts to serve the poor, the stranger, the orphan and widow.” (58) On the other hand, he sternly warns that many Americans who profess belief in Jesus and “the tenets of Christian faith” actually believe not in Jesus or Christianity but “another creed” called “’Americanism,’ the ‘fourth biblical world religion’.” (58)

Leithardt explains this alarming but prophetic claim thus:

“America” is a new type of political community, and being an American entails commitment from the heart to this particular form of political community, an assurance that the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution establish it as the best political order the world has ever seen, the last best hope of mankind. It is a polity devoted above all to liberty. America is the firstfruits of the polity of the end of time, but it is not the full harvest, and Americans and America will never feel content, or quite secure, until the inner Americans and America that dwells within every human being, and the splendid inner America that is the telos of every political order, struggles free of his chrysalis. America is the already of an American global order not yet formed, but Americans are here to help. The “Americanism” in which Americans, including American Christians, believe is a religiously charged faith in American liberty as the hope of mankind. Our national self-consciousness is a “Messianic consciousness.” (58)

Of course, Leithardt is there riffing on G. K. Chesterton’s claim a century before that America is a “nation with the soul of a church.” However, he is making a much more challenging claim than Chesterton’s. His book is a sustained argument that Americans, including many American Christians, have wrongly identified America with the Kingdom of God on earth. Of course, as heard in the above quote from Between Babel and the Beast, Leithardt acknowledges that most Americans realize the “not yetness” of the Kingdom. But America at its best is the “already;” a not-yet Americanized world is the “not yetness.” Whereas Baptist Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbsuch called for the “Christianizing” of the American social order, Leithardt believes Americans by-and-large envision a Christianizing of the world social order by means of its Americanization. The end result of that hope is American empire confused with God’s own Kingdom come.

To that extent, Leithardt charges, America is a “heretic nation.” That’s because of its latent but blooming idolatry of Americanism as a quasi-religion. Leithardt means by “religion,” of course, what theologian Paul Tillich meant—“ultimate concern.” A religion is an ultimate concern; a loyalty above all loyalties. Idolatry is when something unworthy of ultimate concern is treated as worthy of it.

The great irony in all that, to the extent that Leithardt puts his finger on a real danger, is that many adherents of what he calls Americanism are Christians who dream of renewing a past “golden age” when America was “truly Christian.” If asked they would say the America of today is a “heretic nation” because it has wandered away from its true Christian roots and past realizations of its ideals. And yet they still and nevertheless envision a worldwide American empire—a “pax Americana” enforced militarily if necessary. But the question is, based on their own perception of the defections from true Christian America besetting contemporary American society, would that hoped for pax Americana be also a “pox Americana” of rampant consumerism, individualism, and obsession with sex?

Contrary to what some who have not read Leithardt’s book might think, he is not there damning America. Rather, he is calling America back to at least one of its own true Christian roots—the Puritan ideal of a political and social order under God, blessed by God, but clearly and unequivocally distinguished from God and from the Kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus but yet to come. What he is condemning and warning against is another of America’s roots—also a Puritan ideal of the New World as a place to establish the Kingdom of God on earth and from which to spread that to the rest of the world. That Puritan-based Americanism of “Manifest Destiny,” Leithardt believes, is only now really coming to fruition with America’s self-identification with its divine destiny to Americanize the world.

Are matters as serious as Leithardt declares or is he like “Chicken Little” declaring ominously but fallaciously that the “sky is falling?” On the one hand, I think his critique is a bit premature and overblown. On the other hand, I think it is worth hearing and heeding—as pointing toward a very real danger if America does not regain its humility and consciousness of being a nation “under God.” The root of that danger is belief in “American exceptionalism” as defined earlier. One typical expression of that was provided by Harvard University professor Irving Babbitt who, in 1924, just after America’s victory over Germany and her allies in World War I, declared that “We [Americans] are willing to admit that all other nations are self-seeking, but as for ourselves, we hold that we act only on the most disinterested motives.”[1] In other words, we, America, act toward other nations and peoples out of motives not rooted in self-interest but in universal goods. American exceptionalism says America is unique in world history and contemporary world affairs. It implies that, in some sense, Americanism is the “end of history,” not in the sense that time stops but in the sense that history’s own goal, the end of the “arc of history” has arrived here in our social order. American empire, is the notion that America’s exceptionalism justifies American use of power to intervene anywhere in the world, at any time, to, as President George W. Bush put it, “rid the world of evil.”[2]

A millennium and a half ago the great church father Augustine provided the definitive Christian response to such nationalistic delusions in his classic work The City of God. Without denying that the Roman Empire had accomplished much good for the then known world, Augustine differentiated it and any human social order from the Kingdom of God. His was the right response to Christians’ disillusionment over the gradual but inevitable fall of the Western Roman Empire: They should never have identified it or any human social order with the Kingdom of God. Augustine announced the transcendence, even supernatural nature, of God’s own Kingdom and denounced all idolatry that confused it with a human social order. The “city of God,” he declared, is no human social order but is the reign of God through Jesus Christ hidden within the world. It will survive the fall of any human social order and come in its fullness when Jesus returns. Unfortunately, Augustine wrongly identified the Kingdom of God with the Catholic and Orthodox Church of his day, the church of the bishops, and called for the persecution of even other Christians to say nothing of pagans. He did not free himself of Constantinian Christendom; it was left for the Anabaptists a millennium later to do that.

Augustine’s main point in The City of God, however, remains true and applicable to our American situation. We American Christians need his reminder that no human “city,” nation-state or social order, is the Kingdom of God. Neither is any denomination, by the way. The Kingdom of God is not brought about by force; our task as God’s people is to receive it as gift through prayer: “Thy Kingdom come.” The church, whatever its denominational label or none, is to be the Kingdom’s outpost, colony in enemy occupied territory, shining the light of God’s love into the darkness around it. The church is not to be a launching pad for Christian empire, American or otherwise, but God’s alternative social order within the fallen world ruled by “powers and principalities” challenging them with light dispelling their darkness, not the might of power and force.

How should we understand the Kingdom of God? Where is it? What does it look like? Before it can function as the critical principle we need for Christian social ethics, we need to have a picture of it. That picture, of course, was provided by the prophet Isaiah, as well as by some of the so-called “Minor Prophets,” and by Jesus himself. It is a Kingdom of the Messiah himself in which swords are beaten into plows and every man sits under his own olive tree. In other words, no more war or servitude, no violence or penury. It is a social order of peace and justice without all the evils that have resulted from the fall into sin.

A century ago German evangelical revivalist, exorcist, healing evangelist, socialist, universalist, pacifist Christoph Blumhardt proclaimed the Kingdom of God on earth—in the future after Jesus returns and in the church, among God’s people. Blumhardt’s passion for the Kingdom drove him to surrender his ministerial license and run for parliament. He did not think that he would thereby bring about God’s Kingdom on earth; instead he believed Christians could and should announce God’s reign and denounce the evils of the world in any non-violent forum. He used the prophets’ and Jesus’s own “picture” of the Kingdom of God on earth as his critical principle for what he could accept and what he had to fight against in his world. Here is how Blumhardt, a renowned preacher of the Kingdom, described it:

What matters [for the Kingdom of God now] is that people are delivered, cut free, and torn away from false masters, from human domination. God’s sovereignty opposes human dominion. That is the point, and that is why the struggle in us and around us is so hard. If God’s Kingdom exists only to give us joy in heaven, if we were meant simply to put up with the way things are and accept all laws as they are, it would be an easy matter. Then all we would have to do is accommodate ourselves to the world. We could stupidly accept that our whole history of war and hatred is part of God’s order, that violence quite naturally belongs to human life, and that without war there would be no real men. After all, “Christian” nations go to war in the name of God. We oppress each other in his name, and in so doing the world remains the world. There thus arises a world god, whom the Savior calls the prince of this world. He claims our allegiance. But Christ, too, claims our service; he rises up in the name of God and shapes life on earth in opposition to that power that has established itself over the centuries. This is why it is such a struggle for God’s Kingdom to advance on earth.[3]

Blumhardt was no postmillennialist; he did not believe, as many in his time did, that God’s Kingdom would come on earth through human effort. By “struggle for God’s Kingdom to advance on earth” he meant what Dietrich Bonhoeffer later meant by the “penultimate” as opposed to the “ultimate.” For Blumhardt, Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God, as described by the prophets and by Jesus himself in his Sermon on the Mount, and left the people of God to penultimately realize it on earth—first within the community of God’s people, Israel and the church, and second, insofar as possible, non-violently and without force, within our so-called “secular” social orders. But, like Augustine, Blumhardt clearly distinguished between the Kingdom of God and any nation state or empire. Unlike the vast majority of his German compatriots, including the vast majority of German Christian leaders, he rejected Kaiser Wilhelm’s imperialistic war of aggression and suffered for that. With regard to the Kingdom of God Blumhardt’s paradoxical motto was “Wait and Hasten”—wait for Jesus to usher it in when he returns but also hasten it by struggling against everything in the social world that hinders its partial realization now. Blumhardt clearly believed in envisioning the Kingdom of God as gift and task. Only God can accomplish it fully; it will come as gift that cannot be earned or achieved. On the other hand, God’s people are to struggle against everything in the present social order that contradicts it, approximating the Kingdom of God in the future, as promised by the prophets, Jesus and the apostles, first in the church and then in the social order—but without triumphalist illusions of Christian empire.

That brings me to the second theologian who, alongside Peter Leithardt, has recently challenged and informed me about the problem of American exceptionalism in light of the Kingdom of God as critical principle for Christian social ethics. Stanley Hauerwas, recently retired from Duke Divinity School, named “best theologian” by Time magazine in 2001, wrote War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity (BakerAcademic) in 2011. It’s a book about American exceptionalism as the title indicates and focuses especially on the problem of war—specifically that America seems always to be at war. Hauerwas, a notable pacifist, but neither liberal nor Anabaptist, offers a biting answer to “Why?” Why does America now seem always to be at war somewhere in the world? And he seeks to answer another question which is “Why is it so difficult to criticize America’s wars?”

Like Leithardt, Hauerwas loves America and being American. And yet, also like Leithardt, he has an ongoing, never-ending lover’s quarrel with America. One might not be too far off the mark to say Hauerwas has a prophetic consciousness. He writes and talks as if he believes he sees something few others, even perceptive American Christians, see. Also like Leithardt and many prophets he is given to purple prose; it would be easy, too easy, to miss his points by focusing critically on his rhetoric.

In War and the American Difference Hauerwas argues that war is America’s actual, functional, religion. That is to say, for contemporary America, war, the military in action, whether actually fighting or training or just occupying, functions as our common social bond. Nothing else really binds Americans as much as passionate love for “our fighting men and women” to whom we owe our freedom. Now, one might argue just as well that our common social bond is really “our freedom,” nebulous as that concept has become with talk of “freedom fries” instead of “french fries” in the wake of France’s reluctance to join our crusade against Saddam Hussein in 2003. But Hauerwas is convinced that it is really war, meaning military might and force, that unites us as Americans.

The logic of Hauerwas’s argument is this: Every society needs some “glue” to bind it together in community and especially as pluralistic a society as America needs one. Once upon a time we had two glues that bound us together as a nation of immigrants: civil religion and real religion—mostly Christianity. England’s two glues are the Church of England, even if not everyone belongs, and the crown, the royal family and all that it represents. A recent television documentary about Norway stated that its “religion” is “good government.” The documentary’s writer meant, of course, that “good government” is what unites Norwegians—just as the Lutheran state church once did. Especially a diverse society needs a religion. It’s that simple. It requires a common “ultimate concern” to unite it. Otherwise it will dissolve.

Real religion, belief in God, and civil religion, belief in the self-authenticating truth of the Constitution and government founded on its principles, no longer function to unite America’s peoples. Religion has largely become privatized and there is no consensus about the meaning of the Constitution or how government should function. The vacuum is filled by war, by the military. It gives us occasion and cause for wild celebration and harsh condemnation of its critics. I saw this myself at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. The founding pastor of a large network of fundamentalist Christian churches was being interviewed on national network television. He declared unequivocally that anyone who disagreed with the war or dared to criticize it was a “traitor.” Now there’s a pretty little irony! We fight for our freedom, but we are not free to criticize an American war.

That pastor and denominational leader well illustrated Hauerwas’s point. Of course he did not think and would never admit that war is America’s, his own, real religion. But his condemnation of all critics of a particular controversial war, including fellow Christians, revealed his true ultimate concern which takes us back to Leithardt and Between Babel and the Beast. For that pastor and denominational leader interviewed on national network television Americanism is his true, if unconscious and unadmitted, religion. For Leithardt, Americanism is a “biblical religion,” the “fourth great biblical world religion,” which means that, like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it believes in God, the personal creator God of the Bible—Yahweh. But it connects Yahweh God with America inseparably. In other words, one can appeal to Yahweh against any other nation-state but not against America because, apparently, even if without conscious awareness, America is Yahweh’s own nation-state just as Israel was Yahweh’s own nation-state. And yet, ironically, Israel’s own true prophets dared to criticize Israel’s wars! So that pastor-denominational leader surpassed even Israel’s own prophets in baptizing his country as identified with God’s own cause.

Now, unlike Hauerwas, I am no pacifist. I jokingly tell people I’d kill to be a pacifist. Seriously, however, I believe a Christian must always grieve over killing, however necessary it may be. Killing human beings created in God’s image and likeness is no cause for celebration. My heart was broken by my fellow Americans’ wild celebrations when Osama bin Laden, his son and a female relative were killed in 2011. Perhaps it was necessary; I think that’s debatable. I don’t rule out all killing as ethically wrong even as I do believe all killing to be sin. Sometimes it is the lesser of two evils. I know what I would do if a man was attempting to kidnap, rape or kill my granddaughter. If I could, and if I had to, I would kill him. Then I would repent and throw myself on God’s mercy which I believe he would extend to me. But I would not celebrate it. I would celebrate that my granddaughter was rescued, but I would not celebrate that I had to kill a fellow human being to do it. Why not?

Here I bring back to our attention the Kingdom of God as critical principle of Christian social ethics. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus said “Resist not an evil person” (Matthew 5:39) and he criticized Peter for attempting to rescue him from murder with a sword. The prophet depicted the reign of God as a social order in which swords, weapons, would be beaten into plows, instruments of agriculture. Surely, in light of the Kingdom of God, we Christians cannot celebrate killing fellow human beings. We can only, at most, justify it as necessary evil. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is our example here. Contrary to the recent book Bonhoeffer the Assassin? (BakerAcademic, 2013) the German pastor-theologian did knowingly participate in a plot to kill Hitler. His best friend and favorite student, his biographer and editor of Letters and Papers from Prison, Eberhard Bethge, reported that he personally heard Bonhoeffer say he would kill Hitler if he could and had volunteered to do it himself. According to Bethge, Bonhoeffer asked what is the duty of a man who sees a madman driving a car through a crowd of people? To go behind it taking care of the wounded and dying or to do whatever he could to get the madman out from behind the wheel of the car? And yet Bonhoeffer, a pacifist, felt overwhelmingly conflicted about his involvement in the conspiracy that he knew was intended to kill Hitler.

In his lectures collected and published under the title Ethics Bonhoeffer distinguished between the ultimate and the penultimate in Christian social ethics. The ultimate is God’s Kingdom, the coming reign of the Messiah Jesus. Then there will be no violence. The penultimate is our conflicted accommodation to the real world filled with sin, oppression, violence and helpless victims of madmen. Sometimes we must participate, like Bonhoeffer himself, in the penultimate that falls short of the ultimate good, our ultimate concern, the Kingdom of God. But we should never be comfortable with it; we should never celebrate it.

In conclusion I will state and explain some specific aspects of America’s social order and common life that I find problematic in light of the Kingdom of God and that keep me from identifying it with that. I think you should find them problematic, too.

First, two aspects of Jesus’ teaching and ministry stand out as especially ethically significant; they are features of the Kingdom of God. One is life and the other is humility. Interestingly, “personal freedom,” our American obsession, is hardly mentioned in Jesus’s teaching as a signal feature of the Kingdom of God.

Life is a precious gift of God far greater than personal choice for convenience and happiness. We Americans celebrate choice to the point that we can be paralyzed when shopping for something by all the options presented. We also crave justice defined too often as retribution at the expense of life as restoration. Abortion-on-demand and capital punishment both contradict the Kingdom of God which is life. The Kingdom of God calls us to preserve the life of the weakest members of our communities; nobody is weaker than a fetus. The Kingdom of God calls us to restorative justice even for the most wicked members of our community. Daily in America thousands of unborn children are aborted, killed, for convenience’s sake. Abortion is routinely used as a means of birth control. Recently a Christian teen boy who declines to engage in sex with his non-Christian girlfriend told me she said that, should they have sex, if she became pregnant, she would just “get an abortion.” That is an all-too-common attitude in America today. At the very least we Christians should denounce abortion-on-demand for convenience, as a means of birth control, and announce God’s will for protection of the life of the weakest among us. At the same time, of course, we must be there to provide for the weakest when they are born and not fight abortion only to then neglect single mothers and their children in need.

More controversial, I suspect, is my stand on capital punishment. In some parts of the United States capital punishment is widely viewed, even by Christians, as a sacrament and not even as a necessary evil. I spoke at a Baptist church in the shadow of the state’s death chamber and saw that they provide a dinner for the family of victims of murder after the murderer’s execution. I asked if they had ever thought of providing dinner or something for the families of the executed; they expressed surprise at the very idea.

I suspect the only way we can justify capital punishment is by not thinking of the condemned person’s family—his or her children, spouse, parents, siblings. And we have to assume that innocent people are never executed which is ludicrous. Some people, even some Christians, view that possibility, the execution of innocents, as “the cost of doing business.” As a Christian guided by the critical principle of the Kingdom of God I cannot justify any unnecessary killing; every person killed, whether guilty or innocent, is a person for whom Christ died and therefore loved by God. And by killing him or her we are usurping God’s place—assuming that God has no plan for his or her future. The Kingdom of God calls us to practice restorative justice even toward the most guilty. That does not mean excusing their evil acts or releasing them from custody prematurely. It does mean, however, treating them as humans and not as animals to be thrown away forever or killed. Our prison system teeming with males of ethnic minority status is prima facie evidence of a culture that devalues life. So is our cultural obsession with guns designed to kill people, not only animals for food.

Increasingly our American culture is obsessed with power, wealth, status and arrogant pride. Conspicuous consumption instead of simple living is becoming the norm as advertising touts “No limits!” and invites us to spend large sums of money on totally useless products. Advertising tells us we “deserve” a fancy new car and expensive cosmetics. The Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus is a social order grounded in humility where everyone puts others’ good first, before their own good. When I was a child growing up in an evangelical church it was common to hear sermons condemning the “sin of conspicuous consumption.” When a family in our church drove a brand new, very expensive Cadillac—then top of the line model–to Sunday morning worship the pastor paid them a visit to tell them they should have purchased a cheaper model and given the difference to missions!

As a society America is also obsessed with celebrities, even ones who are only famous for being famous. We revel in the daily doings of the “beautiful people,” including their moral and legal failings. We put them up on a pedestal and then revel in what the Germans call Schadenfreude when they fall into predictable pits of addiction, immorality and crime. We take pride in them, as we live vicariously eventful lives through theirs, and we take joy in their downfalls. The whole obsession with celebrities is contrary to the principle of Kingdom meekness. We should have genuine heroes instead of celebrities; we should celebrate self-sacrificing service instead of arrogance based on fame, wealth and status.

Even as Christians we take all of these American habits of the heart for granted and fail even to question them, let alone denounce them and announce something different—the Kingdom values of life and humility. Jesus said that his Kingdom was not of “this world,” meaning not conformed to the dominant culture and its values. There was a time in America when true Christians, people of God who were genuinely born again by God’s Spirit and followers of King Jesus rather than “king culture,” used words like “worldly” for the excesses of the entertainment-soaked, consumer-oriented, sex-obsessed, hedonistic, death-craving social environment. Today, unfortunately, so social scientists tell us, there is very little difference between the lives of American Christians and American non-Christians.

The good news hidden within and behind all of that is that there is a better way—the path of God’s Kingdom marked by love of life, transformation to humility, self-sacrificing service to the weakest members of society, and celebrating the true heroes among us who quietly live simple lives of service.

Every Sunday in the city where I live the Kingdom of God happens under a busy interstate highway bridge where addicts, the homeless, the mentally ill, the disabled and the poverty-stricken gather to worship God without walls. They have fellowship with one another and look for ways to serve each other. Some affluent, healthy people join them without telling them to sit down or be quiet or clean up or act reverently. The motley crowd sings gospel songs together without worrying about quality as eighteen wheelers rumble overhead. Throughout the week Mission Waco, the church’s sponsor, feeds the hungry, gives shelter to the homeless and abused, and advocates for those in legal trouble because they are poor. Nearby in a simple cottage a small group of Christians defends the dignity of the poor when police harass them and gives the poor free warm meals three days a week—all without fanfare and sometimes at the expense of disdain if not harassment by authorities who want the poor to go away. The Kingdom of God happens. A group of men, women and children hold up signs calling for preservation of life in the face of abortion-on-demand in front of a so-called “Women’s Clinic.” The same group offers single mothers medical care and shelter and job training and day care for their children. The Kingdom of God happens. Another group of Christians stands in front of the death house door in Huntsville and holds candles in silent protest against the totally unnecessary killing inside and prays for the condemned man’s family who watch him die for no reason except revenge. The Kingdom of God happens.

America is not the Kingdom of God, but the Kingdom of God happens in America. For that I am grateful. Thanks be to God.



[1] Quoted in Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Saving Christianity from Empire (Continuum, 2005), 25.

[2] Quoted in ibid., 1.

[3] Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, The Gospel of God’s Reign: Living for the Kingdom of God, trans., Peter Rutherford, et al., eds., Christian T. Collins Winn and Charles E. Moore (Plough Publishing and Cascade Press, 2014), 17.

Browse Our Archives