By Robert Schmidt*
The nation was bitterly divided. On one side were the religious nationalists who wanted to make Israel great again. Realists were on the other side. They recognized that the future was in the hands of the Roman military which could enable and control world trade. Heightening the tension was the threat of the Parthians (Persians) who had occupied Israel and continued to challenge Roman rule throughout the Middle East (Wright, pp. 112, 113).
Parallels to our own times are clear. In the United States and other nations protecting their borders from refugees, we hear appeals to saving the country and its religious heritage from outsiders. Yet, realists understand that the major powers fostering international communications and trade will dominate the future. Then, threatening life as we know it, are climate change, a world pandemic, refugees, and rising tensions between major powers.
The Coming Kingdom
Into a divided and threatening world Jesus’s first recorded words in Mark are, “The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). For the people living in that politically polarized country, what was the kingdom of God and what was the good news? A few of Jesus’ hearers might have remembered Samuel’s chagrin when the people asked for a king so that they could be like other nations. God stepped in and said that the people had rejected God from being their king and if they would be ready for taxes, the draft, and the theft of their wealth for the military, they could have a king (I Sam. 8: 1-18).
Some of the politically astute might have recalled Danial’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream that when the imperial realms fell the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed (Dan. 2:44). Now governed by Rome, they might have remembered that in Daniel’s dream the dominion of beastly empires will be taken away and to one like a human being was given dominion and kingship, and all peoples, nations and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall never pass away (Dan. 7:13,14).
But for most of Jesus’ first hearers, they rejoiced because they knew and longed for the hope of the prophetic promises of the coming kingdom. Scarlet sins would be covered with white snow, death will be swallowed up, hungry and thirsty people satisfied, the sick healed, prisoners liberated, the poor under their own vine and fig tree would have work and a home. Daily facing an occupying army with their swords and spears was there a glimmer of hope that peace might come with the beating of swords into plowshares and spears into pruninghooks? But like with the promises of most politicians, Jesus’ words about a coming kingdom were probably greeted with a skeptical grin…. until the promises started coming true.
The Kingdom is Coming
After coming down from the mountain, Jesus heals lepers and a mother-in-law. An enemy officer’s servant is cured. A paralyzed man has his sins forgiven and can walk. A woman stops bleeding; a girl is raised from the dead and two blind men can see again. A man who was mute can speak (Matt. 8-9).
Then there is the food and wine. In the coming kingdom there would be plenty of food. Isaiah said that the Lord would make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines (Isa 25:6). After feeding five thousand and four thousand the baskets held the excess. Though not long in the jars, the wine at Canaan tasted truly “well aged” as it went down (John 2:10).
The crowds were amazed. “Never has anything like this been seen in Israel” (Matt. (9:33). But there’s more. Jesus sends out the twelve. They too were to proclaim that the kingdom has come near. They were to cure the sick, raise the dead cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons…and do it for free (Matt. 10: 7-12).
Both then and now, people debate the miraculous. If the kingdom comes through these miracles and we have a tough time duplicating them, maybe the kingdom just came to a few people and then sort of died on the vine until a distant future. But there is still more. People’s faith will be judged by how well they have fed the hungry, provided water, clothed the poor, visited the sick, aided refugees, and succored prisoners. Indeed, these tasks now take precedence over all other commandments because, decisively, that is the last and final judgment (Matt. 25:31-46).
A Kingdom Without Borders
A kingdom without borders was the necessary conclusion of the doctrine that there was only one God. The God of Israel was the God of the whole world. If God was king, the kingdom included everyone. Even when God promised to make of Abraham a great nation, all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3). “By his offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessings for themselves” (Gen. 22:18). Picking up on these promises the psalmist says, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession (Ps. 2:8). And David sings, “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made… Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations” (Ps. 145:8-13).
As God measures the waters in the hollow of his hand and weighs the mountains in scales, all the nations are like a drop from a bucket (Isa 40: 12-15). Now his begotten offspring comes quietly with a God sized task, “He will not cry or lift up his voice. . . he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth (Isa. 42:2, 3). And with justice also comes salvation, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6).
Yes, God chose Israel because he loved them (Deut. 7:8). But the nation was not an end in itself. It had a divine role to play in the whole world that God had made. Isaiah says, “for darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa. 60:2).
But as is normal with human beings, pride, fear, and selfishness and a mistaken view of God’s favor elevate our allegiance to the nation over our devotion to humanity. Even the disciples, after three years with a master teacher asked at the end, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6)? Is it any wonder that prosperous people throughout the world put their nation’s welfare above the desperate needs of fellow human beings?
Reflections on the Kingdom
The Kingdom of God has received widespread attention both from biblical scholars and theologians who applied it to some political concerns. John Bright wrote The Kingdom of God: The Biblical Concept and its Meaning for the Church, the classic work on the subject. To probe the full meaning of Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom he traces the history of the kingdom of Israel beginning from the hope of Moses. Bright follows that hope through David, who left a lasting imprint on the pattern of what kingship was all about. Solomon’s reign is the high point of prosperity but also the beginning of God’s judgment. The kingdom is divided, and the people are led into captivity. In the centuries that followed only the promise of a better kingdom was left. Then Jesus announced that the kingdom was near (Bright, 1953).
More recently N.T. Wright places Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom into the perfect storm of Israel’s nationalistic expectations and Rome’s anxiety of insurrection (Wright, pp. 27-38). In that conflict one senses the tension and danger of even speaking of the “kingdom of God.” Wright also compares how Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom compared to the promises of other charismatic and political figures such as Judas Maccabeus, Herod the Great, Simon Bar-Giora, and Simon the Star (Wright, pp. 107-116). In that context, the first hearers of Jesus understood some of the political implications of the kingdom even though that kingdom was very unlike the kingdoms of the world.
As the very foundation of Jesus’ ministry, his proclamation and practice of the kingdom has received the attention of Christian scholars over the centuries. Norman Perrin recounts how theologians like Ritschl, Rauschenbusch, and others saw the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth as the chief purpose of the Christian life. He contrasts that view with that of Weiss, Schweitzer, and others who said that Jesus was chiefly talking about the last times. Still others, like C. H. Dodd, have taken mediating positions (Perrin, 1963). That so much attention has been given to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom reveals its crucial importance, not only for Christianity but for the world we live in.
Political Application – Kingdom and Empire
In the City of God St. Augustine does not specifically comment on the “kingdom of God.” Yet, in comparing the City of God and the city of men God’s city looks very like the Jesus’ kingdom. Plato and Aristotle held that the state was a natural part of human life and capacities held together by and encouraging virtue. In contrast Augustine claims that sin corrupts human society to such an extent that a state is necessary to keep people from killing and chaos. For Augustine the state arose out of our lust for power and violence, and it has always existed largely to acquire what man desires because we are greedy and sinful. He contrasts that with the City of God. Whereas the state, the city of men, loves and glories in itself, the City of God loves the Lord and finds its highest glory in God (Dyson, pp. xv-xx).
Augustine neither identified the city of God with a political institution nor the institutional church. However, wrestling with the implications of his teaching, rulers sought to apply his principles to the state. In the Byzantine Empire, the state sought to control the church and make it serve the state and society (Latourette, p. 112). In the West, Charlemagne took special delight in Augustine’s City of God on which he based his political philosophy and sought as much as possible to make his realm the City of God (Latourette, p. 355).
The significance of the Kingdom of God as spelled out by Augustine cannot be underestimated. In the history of Germany Reinhart says,” Augustine (354-430), constructed a system of thought that was to stimulate and occupy the Western mind for more than a thousand years” (Reinhart, p. 35). Under Charlemagne, the Carolingian empire was a theocratic Church-State. This involved the establishment of feudalism, better commerce, advances in education, music, and culture. Monasteries thrived and proved instrumental in transforming waste lands and marshes into flourishing settlements. They were also among the first to establish markets and early banking (pp. 47-57). A long way from being a shining example of the City of God, it was more like a reflection of the parable of the kingdom, of the weeds in the wheat (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43).
Kingdom and Social Welfare
In the squalor produced by the industrial revolution there was a new appreciation of relevance of the Kingdom of God. In Great Britain F.D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley, and others provided leadership in the Christian Socialist movement which was to grow into the British Labor Party. Commenting on this application of the Kingdom of God, Maurice said, “The Kingdom of God begins within, but it is to make itself manifest without…. At last, it is to penetrate our whole social existence” (as quoted in H. R. Niebuhr, 1951, p. 228).
In Germany, Ritschl saw the Kingdom of God as the goal to which the entire Christian life was to be directed. Inspired by this insight, some Evangelical pastors joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD). In the Reichstag the Social Democrats increased their power and reflected the dissatisfaction of the working poor. To meet their demands, Bismarck said, “I desire to see our state, in which the vast majority are Christians, permeated with the doctrines of the religion we profess…regarding charity toward one’s neighbor and compassion for the old and suffering.” Soon followed comprehensive labor legislation, health insurance law, and the Old Age Pension Act (Reinhart, p. 617).
The Social Gospel movement in America, influenced by Walter Rauschenbush, also found its inspiration in his view of the Kingdom of God. He lamented this by writing, “The idea of the Kingdom of God on earth is a forgotten idea among the mass of Christian people” (Rauschenbusch, p. 99). Though attuned to the suffering of those he encountered in his early ministry and advocacy of remedies, it took over a century for some of the goals of the Social Gospel to be enacted into legislation in the New Deal (Blum, p. 475).
The Kingdom and Liberation
Still another political application of the Kingdom of God has come out of liberation theology. In Latin America and Africa some theologians addressed the oppression of indigenous people and former slaves who suffered as the result of colonialization. In A Theology of Liberation Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “It is toward this reality that the church is oriented: This reality is the Kingdom of God, which has already begun in history” (Gutierrez, p. 261). Coming out of Bolivia, Mortimer Arias calls for an evangelism based upon Jesus own announcement of the Kingdom of God which does justice to the whole gospel of God to address the starvation of millions, incredible violations of human rights, and rampant genocide (Arias, p. 116).
Though suppressed by the Vatican, liberation theology had a significant effect on the politics of Latin America in the early 21st century. Left-center candidates were elected in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Mexico. Perhaps the most significant effect, related to the goals of liberation was the election of the Argentine Archbishop to become Pope Francis I.
Linking the Kingdom of God to socialism in Europe and the U.S., and even to Marxism in the third world, might be seen by some as almost antithetical to the Christian faith. Yet, as we look back at Jesus’ parables of the kingdom, he would remind us that the kingdom is like a net cast into the sea bringing out both good fish and bad and we might not be able to separate them out until God does (Matt. 13:47-50).
How Does Christ’s Kingdom Come?
It comes through the word of God calling people to repentance and faith in all of God’s promises. That is the significance of the parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:3-9, 18-33). Forgiveness and the hope of the resurrection comes though the church’s proclamation and sacraments. The other fruits of the kingdom like feeding the hungry, healing the sick, seeking liberation of slaves and prisoners, providing jobs and homes, bringing potable water to the thirsty, and bringing peace to the nations come in a wide variety of ways. Some like feeding and healing partly come through church organizations. Others come from members of world religions, humanists, and politicians. Many of these reflect the work of Christ who created them (John 1:1-3). In their work of sharing the fruits of the Kingdom they reflect that through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven (Col. 1:20). The fruits of the Kingdom come alone from God, but like the disciples at the feeding of the five thousand, all of us are called upon to serve the riches of the Kingdom to those in need (Mk. 6:41).
How has the proclamation of the Kingdom of God worked in politics? From Augustine to Gutierrez, it reflected the parable of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:3). Like birds in its branches, governments from Charlemagne, through Bismarck, F.D.R., and Morales in Bolivia, rest on the promises of the Kingdom and have a place to work out their policies.
Given the tremendous needs all around, what is the social mission of the church? What should be its priority? For some, governments should enforce the personal ethics they claim come from the Scriptures such prohibitions on abortion, gay marriage, and euthanasia. Others support nearly all the goals of the party they favor.
Historically, however, the greatest impact the proclamation of the Kingdom has had on society is when it created new possibilities in times of crisis. Augustine presented a new way of looking at government. Theologians envisioned new ways of dealing with the social disintegration of the industrial revolution. Liberationists called for justice in societies designed for exploitation.
A Kingdom for the World
Climate change, Covid-19, coming conflict, and refugees are “world” crises. The stakes are unimaginably grim. No nation can adequately deal with them. When these crises are coupled with the already unequal divisions of wealth, access to health care, housing, and widespread unemployment of young people, the stage is set for disaster. Climate conferences come up short. The World Health Organization cannot provide vaccines for poor nations. The U.N. cannot stop the coming conflict between the U.S. and China and even now, before it gets worse, refugees, political and economic, are everywhere. . . waiting.
Crises like these, challenge the entire nation-state system. Commenting on crises in world systems, Wallerstein writes, “True crises are those difficulties that cannot be resolved within the framework of the system, but instead can be overcome only by going outside of and beyond the historical system of which the difficulties are a part” (Wallerstein, p. 76). Bible readers are acquainted with a gigantic shift change when the city-state system of Samaria and Jerusalem were overcome with the world empire system. This began with Assyria and continued until the fall of the Roman empire. The system changed again in the Western Europe to the feudal system and, when Italy and Germany finally united, to the nation-state system.
In a time of crises, when new beginnings are desperately needed, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is near. Now his disciples hand out tortillas to refugees; nurses work overtime healing and hold the hands of dying covid patients. Struggling with post-traumatic stress, soldiers question wars. Children play hooky as they protest the weak response to climate change. Deeply divided by the issues there are riots in the ghettoes and at the Capitol. School board members are threatened with death. Deep down in the souls of citizens their loyalty to their country is shattering. They have trusted their nation for their safety, their prosperity, their pride, and the future of their children. They have given over to their nation the right to govern, to police, and to make war, but now. . . there is doubt.
With the Kingdom of God so near, there is also hope. Bismarck is quoted as remarking, that he would hear in each given historical situation itself ‘the footsteps of God who strides through history’ (Moltmann, p. 332). Rajiv Shah, former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, recalls that in the depths of World War II Churchill and Roosevelt signed the Atlantic Charter which created the institutions which were to rebuild and industrialize countries and even address a steady convergence between wealthy and poor nations. With that as a model, Shah proposes an entirely new paradigm for global development. Instead of measuring development by economic yardsticks, he notes that a better measure is “human security.” This encompasses coping with pandemics, poverty¸ bad government, and environmental sustainability. He says that now is the time for a “COVID Charter.” The world’s leaders must aim not just to end the pandemic but to respond to climate change and the other causes of human insecurity (Shah, 179-191).
The Third Way
Like Palestine in the first century, our biggest divisions are between the internationalists seeking to profit from globalization and nationalists who find their jobs and culture threatened. Like then and now, the Kingdom of God presents a third way. Now in the poorest nations of the world, the Christian church is experiencing almost exponential growth. Literally millions of people in Africa, Latin America, China, and even India are tasting some of the fruits of the Kingdom. Of all Christians, they experience the lack of “human security” and are best positioned to create a social ethic to deal with it. But, as some of them already know, proclaiming the Kingdom can mean following Christ to the cross.
Could such a social ethic be effective in challenging the wealthy nations and corporations of the world? Listen to the prayers of the refugees and immigrants worshipping, sometimes in their own languages, in the churches of rich countries. What will they tell their hosts of why they left and how they still hold dear the people at home they seek to help? It does not seem like much but so the early church learned, and the Kingdom grew. The empires collapsed, feudal castles are ruins, the nations are troubled, but the Kingdom moves forward for a better world.
* Robert Schmidt has several graduate degrees in Theology and a PhD in Political Science. He taught at the Lutheran Seminary in Nigeria and served as the Dean of Theological Studies at Concordia University in Portland.
Arias, Mortimer. Announcing the Reign of God: Evangelization in the Subversive Memory of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
Blum, John. (ed.) The National Experience: A History of the United States. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World Inc. 1968.
Bright, John. The Kingdom of God: The Biblical Concept and its Meaning for the Church. Nashville: Abingdon Press¸ 1953.
Dyson, R.W. (ed.) Augustine: The City of God Against the Pagans. Cambridge: University Press, 1998.
Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation. New York: Orbis Books, 1973.
Latourette, Kenneth. A History of Christianity. New York: Harpers and Brothers, 1953.
Moltmann, Jűrgen. Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology. London: SCM Press Ltd. 1965.
Niebuhr, H.R. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1951.
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Rauschenbusch, Walter. The Righteousness of the Kingdom. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1968.
Reinhart, Kurt. Germany 2000 Years. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, 1965.
Shah, Rajiv. “The COVID Charter: A New Development Model for a World in Crisis,” Foreign Affairs. Vol. 100, Number 5. Sept./Oct. 2021.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. World Systems Analysis: An Introduction. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004.
Wright, N.T. Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What he Did, and Why it Matters. New York: Harper Collins, 2011.