The Kingdom of God: Why Progressive Christians think it is important
For modern and postmodern readers, the phrase “Kingdom of God” seems archaic. The idea of Kings and Queens who sit at the top of a hierarchy and who “reign” seems highly romantic, or if you know any history, highly dodgy. The tyrannical self-centred nasty Kings far outnumber the benevolent ones. However, this is not a bad starting point. The way the gospel writers use the “Kingdom of God” challenges expected ideas of Kingship (and Empire, the Greek translation of Kingdom) and opens up new possibilities. In a sense, it is akin to Derrida’s discussions of Democracy in which the term is deconstructed, showing up the underlying power relations that distort current realities and impede future possibilities.
Unfortunately, for many years, actually millennia, most churches chose to ignore the critique of Kingdom explicit in the Gospels. This came to a head in the West when the church began to identify itself as the total embodiment of the Kingdom after they became a State religion under Constantine and his successors. The Russian Orthodox church under Putin is currently making the same mistake.
The Kingdom of God portrayed in Scripture is a strange, uncanny place that overturns expectations and which does not lend itself to easy definition. At the start of the Beatitudes we hear “How blessed are you who are poor: the Kingdom of God is yours” (Luke 6: 20). In our context this is like saying blessed are you who are on welfare and struggling to survive, working at poorly paid jobs and not making ends meet, sick with insufficient healthcare, homeless because you have fallen through the cracks of the welfare system, an Aboriginal person still suffering from historical and ongoing oppression or a refugee whose life is being made difficult by the State. This is far from the expected Kingdom where the rich and famous have pride of place. Later Jesus is recorded as making this very explicit when he says “In truth, I tell you, it is hard for someone rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Yes, I tell you again, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 19:23-24). The disciples are recorded as being astonished by this response.
Matthew in his gospel often uses the term Kingdom of Heaven as a synonym for Kingdom of God. This appears to reflect the Jewish scruple which substituted metaphor for the divine name. Unfortunately, later Christians often replaced Kingdom of Heaven with simply “Heaven” depriving the term of its immanence. Hence the problem for the rich person of entering the Kingdom of God/Heaven is delayed till after death, as is the blessedness of the poor who also have to wait till they die and so then supposedly enter the blessed state. This is clearly not what is meant in the Scriptures. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand” (Mt 4:17): “The Kingdom of God is very near to you” (Lk 10:10): “I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God” (Lk 9:27).
Announcing the good news of the Kingdom of God is central to Jesus’ teaching (Mt 4:43). Yet paradoxically much of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom is done in parables which on first reading or hearing are not altogether clear, a point Jesus himself is recorded as acknowledging (Mt 13:10-11). One of the reasons for this seems to be that for Jesus, the Kingdom of God is not a concept but a reality that is both about to happen, is happening and will happen and that only those who follow him can hope to grasp the reality by entering and helping to create it. The Kingdom of God is not just another concept or principle that can be held at arm’s length and thought about. To begin to understand it, you need to help build it. The poor have a head start, the rich have huge difficulty getting to first base.
The Beatitudes adds other groups for whom features of the Kingdom of God becomes a lived reality: the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for uprightness (or justice), those who are merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness (Mt 5:4-10). This is an action plan for the new community of the Kingdom that is unfolding.
In his actions, Jesus also teaches that the Kingdom of God is a place of healing. This is made explicit in the response Jesus gives to John the Baptist when he asks if Jesus is the Messiah or should they wait for someone else, “Go back and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind see again, the lame walk, those suffering from virulent skin diseases are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Lk 7:22).
There is an expectation on Jesus’ part that his followers will continue the work of the Kingdom in the here and now. One of the clearest theologians I have found who has written on the Kingdom of God is the American Walter Rauschenbusch who was writing at the beginning of the 20th century but whose prose still feels amazingly fresh.
The Kingdom ideal contains the revolutionary force of Christianity. When this ideal faded out of the systematic thought of the Church, it became a conservative social influence and increased the weight of the other stationary forces of society. If the Kingdom of God had remained part of the theological and Christian consciousness, the Church could not, down to our own times, have been salaried by autocratic class governments to keep the democratic and economic impulses of the people under check (Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, 1918).
To enter the Kingdom of God is to embark on a great adventure. Personal survival is not guaranteed. Jesus and most of the apostles did not live long lives. It is costly in terms of personal wealth, security and fame. The goal of a just, loving, equitable and peaceful kingdom seems not only improbable but impossible. And yet! What a wonder it is! To work always for a better world. To be amazed, surprised, humbled, grateful for the ongoing love present in the world.