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The Kingdom Heresy
The theological problem at the center of evangelical politics
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When I turned on the news this morning, the first story I saw was an interview with Georgia megachurch pastor Andy Stanley on Morning Joe:
Stanley was talking about a new book in which he criticizes the politicization of evangelicalism (he simply calls it “the church,” as if white evangelicalism is the entirety of Christianity). He correctly said that conservative white churches have become communities where “personal grievances” are now filtered through politics. “We’ve lost sight of what it means to be Christian.”
Barring the woefully inadequate interpretation of Jesus’ instruction to render taxes to Caesar, the conversation raised many good points. Notably, Stanley, who is a very powerful pastor, presented his case for depoliticizing evangelicalism. He is clearly worried about Trump’s continued influence with evangelical leaders. Given all the ways in which evangelical politics has harmed democracy in recent years, that alone is a worthy goal.
However, his theological argument to reach that goal was problematic.
Stanley rightly said that evangelicals had gotten into trouble when they veered into the “policy lane.” But then he claimed that Jesus didn’t go into the “policy lane.” Jesus “stayed in two lanes.” And the “Jesus lanes” were (1) speaking to the heart of human beings and (2) ministering to those injured by societal ills with grace and mercy.
That’s it. That’s what Jesus did. He transformed hearts and did works of mercy toward those suffering under the weight of social problems. Those were Jesus’ “marching orders” to his followers. Stay in those lanes.
Sorry, Andy. But Jesus had only ONE lane — proclaiming the Reign of God.
Jesus placed this reign at center of following God. His first sermon is recorded in the Gospel of Mark, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near.” The Kingdom is the good news. When asked how to pray, Jesus responded with these words:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
Stanley is probably right that evangelicals should get out of politics and stick to the heart and doing good stuff for people. That would defang them as a partisan political movement — and the rest of us would be grateful for that.
But, truthfully, the gospels don’t teach some sort of lane-theology. The New Testament doesn't have "lanes." The gospels proclaim a Kingdom. And that is political. Jesus envisioned creation healed, a cosmos where the Kingdom of God was real, manifest in daily life through sharing, forgiveness, and gratitude. He preached about God freeing captives and releasing slaves. Jesus preached that the kingdom would be the ultimate jubilee — all debts canceled, and all people living in harmony and kinship.
And when you proclaim prison abolition, the end of slavery, debt cancellation, and people dwelling in peace, you’re talking politics. Of course, this involves transformed hearts and acts of mercy. But those two things — Stanley’s lanes — should be for the larger purpose of embodying and practicing the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer: Your kingdom come.
The problem is not that evangelicals have gotten out of their lanes by being political. The problem is that white evangelicals — like so many other Christians throughout history — have wrongly interpreted the Kingdom of God, seeing it as a top-down hierarchy of power and authority, built on a rigid social order, and headed by godly men.
Of course, that’s a description of the Roman Empire — the world in which Jesus lived — and a description of all sorts of pyramid-structured political authorities. The great Christian heresy was believing that Jesus Christ would be a new Caesar.
When white evangelicals think of God’s kingdom, they imagine Jesus at the top of a global Christian Empire with his followers in charge — this Jesus hierarchy is righteous, and obedient citizenship in it on earth will be rewarded with eternal life in heaven.
Their vision of the Kingdom of God is wrong.
The phrase, “kingdom of God,” is in the New Testament. John Dominic Crossan refers to it as one of the most “unfortunate” expressions to ever enter the Christian vocabulary. Crossan also claims, “the Kingdom of God is inextricably and simultaneously 100 percent political and 100 percent religious. ‘Kingdom’ is a political term, ‘God’ is a religious term.”
In other words, it is all the same lane. You can’t make the separation Stanley makes. In the first century, there was no separation between religion and politics. Jesus wasn’t trying to get people to stay in their faith lane. He was trying to get them to see the kingdoms differently. As Crossan continues:
For Jesus, “the Kingdom of God” raised a politico-religious or religio-political question: to whom did the world belong, and how, depending on the answer, should it be run?
Jesus didn’t want his followers to avoid politics. He wanted them to live as a new community built on the practices of God’s “kingdom,” a “program of mutuality of healing and eating shared freely and openly.” Crossan goes on: “That program built a share-community from the bottom up as a positive alternative to Antipas’s Roman greed-community established from the top down.”
Contemporary evangelicalism imagines a top-down politics, where a powerful God appoints strong men to rule over the world and extend the reign of the church. Jesus as Caesar. This interpretation bears little resemblance to the paradoxical, liberating, subversive community depicted in Jesus' own teaching and practiced by early gatherings of his followers. The share-community "kingdom" was a table of friends who formed a new body of kinship that undid class, gender, race and ethnicity.
Caesar might rule over the world. But the share-community was to seed the world, forming an alternative polis (with a different "politics") of peacemaking, collaboration, grace, and freedom. The new "polis" would embody Christ's presence and draw all of creation toward God's dream of wholeness, thanksgiving, and joy.
Jesus didn’t invite people to lanes. Jesus invited people to live in such a way that the pretenses and injustice of imperial kingdoms were revealed as brutally false — and to give themselves fully to a community of daily bread and mutuality. Not power over, but the power of love. This doesn’t escape politics, but it entails a different "polis" with a reimagined practice of politics.
At its core, the evangelical problem with politics is a theological problem. Politics can’t be avoided. And shouldn’t be. The question is the same as in Jesus’ own day — to whom does the world belong and how should it be run? As long as white evangelicals continue to worship an imperial God who arranges the world as a pyramid of power, their politics will never be anything but misguided and dangerous.
Not only is their Kingdom-theology dangerous, but Stanley’s solution (at least as presented in the interview) moves in a risky direction as well. Put Jesus into “lanes” and pretty soon the highway has a political lane marked “Nazis” or “genocidal dictator” or “nationalist authoritarian.” If Christians protest that, those in the political lane tell Christians to stay in their faith and service lanes. Tend to your hearts and personal salvation — and make sure everyone who is wounded by “societal ills” gets a band-aid when they are bleeding.
Lanes are the problem.
I'm skeptical of any theology that equates following Jesus with lanes. Because lanes minimize the genuinely prophetic liberating power of Jesus' followers — and clears the way for all sorts of evil political movements while cheapening grace. This is the exact situation that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about in his masterful classic, The Cost of Discipleship. As bad as Christian corruption of the kingdom can be, relegating the transforming power of faith and works of mercy to isolated lanes is even worse.
Don’t stay in your lane. And get your theology right. There’s only one Jesus lane — a lane of liberating love in and for the world, a community of kinship empowered by humility and gratitude for the sake of our neighbors and creation.
Jesus preached politics all the time, everywhere. But he also ripped off the mask of top-down, authority-over, greedy Caesars who know nothing but violence against creation and human dignity. Jesus would have been appalled — heartbroken and angry — if he had known that some who claimed to follow him would turn God’s kingdom into new imperial horrors.
I wanted to tell Andy Stanley that it isn’t a matter of staying in the Christian lanes. Instead, Christians need to free Jesus from the heresy of “kingdom” that we created — and to follow him by practicing the radical kin-dom politics of the share-community.
And I wanted to remind him of what C.S. Lewis once said about lanes and Jesus: "He doesn’t like being tied down - and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion."
*The Crossan quotes in today’s piece are from God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (2007).
The way we envision the politics of Jesus — God’s kingdom and even related concepts of theocracy — looks radically different from the politics of Caesar at every turn. The result is what has been called a “contrast society” in which the God of Jesus does not rule from the top down — conveniently located in heaven or other high places — but is at work on the ground, in the formation of alternative communities whose way of life does not aim at overpowering others but a inviting them into shared relations of power. . . faith in the God of Jesus Christ went hand in hand with another way of life and another politics.
— Joerg Rieger, from Jesus vs. Caesar: For People Tired of Serving the Wrong God
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
— R. S. Thomas
Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.
— Malcolm Guite, please visit his website for this poem and many others
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