Early 21st century American politics presents a unique historical context for Christian contemplation because the two sides of our partisan divide can be described as a rupture between the two halves of Jesus’ Great Commandment. One side champions personal holiness (love of God) and thinks that the role of society is to create a basic system of law and order that will allow individuals to succeed or fail according to whether or not they make responsible choices. The other side champions social justice (love of neighbor) and thinks that the role of society is to make sure that everyone is provided for and has a seat at the table. This is certainly an oversimplification (and I’m going to make a lot of oversimplifications in this piece since I’m a theologian not a historian), but I think it’s helpful to lay out the distinction in this way. The challenge of Christians who want to see the values of the kingdom of God reflected in our society’s politics is to figure out how to sew love of God and love of neighbor back together.
The problem is that many people use the half of the Commandment they have grasped as a shield against the demands of the other side. Some justify their lack of concern for social justice with their zeal for personal holiness, while others do the opposite, and the vast majority are somewhere in the disorganized and conflicted middle. It has not always been the case that personal holiness and social justice were pitted against each other. In the late 19th century, Methodist social reformer Frances Willard started the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) whose primary focus was attacking the devastating problem of alcoholism but expanded to include lobbying for public school education, protections against child abuse, union organizing rights, the eight-hour work day, and municipal sanitation. The WCTU and similar Bible-beating, populist, morally rigorous, social-justice minded organizations were astoundingly successful in their fight for many aspects of the social foundation that we take for granted in our country today. So how in the world could the religious right and the religious left of today ever converge to reestablish a kingdom politics? We could start by making some recognitions about the kingdom and the world that will help us to find common ground and better understand each other.
1) Peace and justice can only fully happen in the kingdom
The kingdom of God describes the social order of people who submit to the reign of God’s mercy established through the solidarity and atonement of Jesus’ suffering on the cross and the hope that is the product of Jesus’ resurrection. People who live in the kingdom have gained the freedom to admit that they’re wrong; they know that Jesus has been victimized by every crime committed against them; and they trust that God will right every wrong just as Jesus was vindicated by being raised from the dead. This is the social circumstance in which true peace and justice can exist organically between people. The word for mercy in Hebrew is hesed, which means not just “forgiveness,” but the unconditional “loving-kindness” that you have inside a family. God establishes peace and justice not through war and tribunal, but by making us a family in which the blood that incorporates us is thicker than genetics.
This in no way justifies nihilism, historical revisionism, or the lack of need for restitution and reconciliation in dealing with the conflict and injustice of the world. It just means that our feet need to be wearing kingdom shoes whenever we march on Washington, just like Dr. King who did not seek the annihilation of his oppressors but rather to be reconciled with them into one family.
2) The kingdom engages the world both subversively and pragmatically
People of the kingdom should always remain aloof to the structures and allegiances of the world. Christians on both sides of our Great Commandment schism have failed in this regard. The first half of the 20th century American Christianity was permeated by the social gospel, in which Christians were very passionate about building God’s kingdom on Earth as in heaven. But the great social reforms that were achieved got co-opted and absorbed into a centralized, secularized bureaucratic structure (to oversimplify). Over the past 30 years, the weight in the American church has shifted to the evangelical family values movement, which has protested the fragmentation of legitimately wholesome values and community stability that were dismantled simultaneous to the positive strides made in pursuing gender and racial equality. The family values movement has likewise been co-opted by a worldly agenda so that things like the right to own semiautomatic weapons and the denial of climate change are being propagandized as Jesus’ priorities for His people.
We have to engage the world, but it is a perilous task that we must do cautiously to avoid being remade in the world’s image. We need to be subversive, which means that we can do things like put our hands over our hearts when the Star Spangled Banner is played if that’s what we need to do to win others to the kingdom but never forgetting that pledging our allegiance to a red, white, and blue piece of fabric is flirting with idolatry since Christ is our king. We also need to be pragmatic, which means that even though we might like it better if the church could feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and heal the sick on its own, we recognize the practical need to support and work with secular institutions that provide for the hungry, naked, and sick, including the state.
3) Technocracy and capitalism both stand against the kingdom
There are two major forces in our society right now that stand against God’s kingdom and create a spirit of helplessness and nihilism. Technocracy is the name we can give for the way that a complex world has created fragmented spheres of specialization for all the tasks that must be done, so that people in general assume that our society’s problems have to be handled by “the experts,” who are hidden behind bureaucratic walls and speak in inaccessible jargon whenever they do enter the public discourse. I interpret the Tea Party movement as a reaction against technocracy, which they refer to as “government bureaucracy” even though technocracy is not exclusive to the public sector. Technocracy tells us that regular people can’t be heroes. It throws a wet blanket over the spirit of entrepreneurship which is perhaps the best American value, and in a Christian context, means a fearless surrender to the lead of the Holy Spirit, which is something kingdom people should be all about.
The other suffocating force in our society is capitalism, by which I mean something very specific. I am not talking about having a “free market” environment in which we are free to start our own businesses that sell products at prices we set instead of being part of a feudal society in which the king owns everything or a communist society in which the state owns everything. I am referring instead to the gravitational force of capital that emerges within the free market, which, left unchecked, can turn everything into a commodity whose value is derived extrinsically through exchange rather than intrinsically through its intangible worth as God’s creation. It is very easy to be hypnotized by these commodities so that you start to view everything you own as investment property. One of the most damaging impacts of capitalism has been the sexual degeneration of our society over the past 40 years, which is not primarily the fault of the hippies, but rather the result of making sex into the most important commodity that dozens of industries use to sell their products. Kingdom people cannot avoid navigating the free market, but we must avoid falling under its seduction and we should be cognizant of the forces it creates as we think through our advocacy regarding its regulation.
4) The kingdom is neither Pleasantville nor Woodstock
The 1998 film Pleasantville offers a side-by-side comparison of what I consider the two failed moral imaginations of the twentieth century. The premise of the movie is that two teenagers from the present have been warped into a stereotypical black and white 1950’s sitcom in which everything is absolutely safe and predictable. Of course 1950’s sitcoms were not the reality of the 1950’s; they were what people watched to cope with the reality of the 1950’s. The Pleasantville moral imagination is what has created and continues to create suburbia, a way of leaving the world in which you flee the confusion and danger of the city with its violent mixture of race and class in order to seek idyllic, homogenized scenery where people who look like you live. This is the opposite of the way that we were told to leave the world by our Savior who said, “The poor will always be with you.” Leaving the world for Jesus’ disciples meant a flight away from rather than into privilege and security. Yet many Christians conflate Pleasantville with the kingdom. I suspect this is one of the reasons we are coagulating into megachurches where our entire social universe can occur inside a safe, shopping mall-sized building that we only leave for organized mission expeditions like safaris into the African savannah.
The film Pleasantville solves the problem of the Fifties by making the Sixties happen and invoking what I will call the Woodstock moral imagination. After the co-protagonist Mary Sue “pins” the captain of the basketball team in his car at Lovers’ Lane, patches of color start to appear in the black and white scenery. Soon, sexual liberation leads to a proliferation of art and culture and the whole town turns completely into color. This the second failed moral imagination of the twentieth century. Free love doesn’t make us free. It makes us selfish. Age of Aquarius-style “open-mindedness” doesn’t make us more tolerant of each other; it makes us intolerant of people whose principles make our self-indulgence feel uncomfortable. The humility and integrity of recognizing that we don’t have all the answers or know each other’s circumstances well enough to cast judgment is coming from a different place than the Woodstock ethos.
The kingdom is the solution to both the Fifties and the Sixties at the same time. Kingdom people seek neither to build safe, isolated castles for their nuclear families nor abandon themselves to their appetites at clothing-optional, drug-infested parties. We want to build a world in which all are safe, joyful, and part of the same family, which requires personal moral discipline on each of our parts but not as a means of constructing moral gated communities from which we can watch the world with a sanctimonious disapproval that justifies our lack of compassion.
5) Jesus is the advocate; Satan is the accuser
If you look at Jesus’ interactions with the people he encountered throughout the gospel, they follow the basic principle laid out in Proverbs 3:34 that “the Lord opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” With the exception of the tough love that He showed to His inner circle of disciples and one strange encounter with a Syrophoenician woman, Jesus only attacked people who were attacking others out of solidarity with the victims. He was not primarily a critic of sinfulness, but rather an advocate of sinners who stuck up for them against other sinners who didn’t recognize their own sin. Jesus would be accused of condoning sin by many of the self-righteous among His people today. He let prostitutes bathe his feet with kisses, and He partied with the tax collectors who were more like hedge fund managers than IRS agents. And He had the nerve to tell the Pharisees that the prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the kingdom ahead of them.
Satan, on the other hand, has a name that means “accuser” in Hebrew. Throughout scripture, Satan second-guesses, heckles, taunts, and instigates people for the purpose of creating division. Satan is humanity’s one enemy because what he does is make us each others’ enemies. So if we find ourselves trying to come up with long lists of reasons why our opponents are not only wrong in a particular disagreement but wholly spiritually depraved in every conceivable way, then we are in league with Satan the accuser. If we want to be in league with Jesus the advocate, then our task is to resist whichever outrage echo chamber we are most susceptible to and even challenge others on “our side” of the political divide to speak of the other side with integrity and charity. Though we are called to stand up to lies in the public square, we do so as advocates in solidarity with the people who are hurt by those lies, not as accusers who are solely invested in tearing others down.
You probably noticed that I didn’t say anything about how Christians should think about voting. I do think we should vote; I’m not convinced that not voting is an effective form of protest or witness. But honestly if the church were the prophetic voice it has been at other points in history, the buttons we pressed every two years would be less relevant than the relationships we built with politicians in between election campaigns. Because of the culture wars, politicians have no reason to take the church seriously. As long as they’re voting for our preference on the token culture war issues, there’s no reason for them to think that we would change our vote if they blow us off on any other issue. Until a critical mass of Christians can resew the Great Commandment back together and demand that our government live in accordance with the love for God and love of neighbor that define the values of the kingdom, we will have little impact on the never-ending quagmire and deliberate sabotage that defines our government today. I look forward to the time when we look back on this broken and frustrating time in our history as the catalyst for a movement of prophetic integrity. God will rescue His people from our sinful, worldly idolatry even if He has to cut our proud tall tree down to its stump to get to the holy seed (Isaiah 6:13).