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What if the Kingdom of God were REALLY a Kingdom?

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : January 8, 2007

One of the driving ideas behind Christian Anarchism is that the Kingdom of God is a political reality. Recently, someone challenged me by saying “I don’t see the stuff you talk about in the Bible.” My banter about “empire” and “Christian anarchy” and my resistance of ideas like “consumerism” and “militarism” seem foreign to an evangelical read of Scripture. When someone with a conventional evangelical hermeneutic reads my blog, they either dismiss me as a leftist, are a bit intimidated by my radical fringe-ness, or they are curious to dig deeper. People in the first two camps assume that I’ve lost focus of the Gospel. As one pastor once asked: “what does consumerism have to do with the Gospel?” The same question could be asked of my other “pet” issues.

The reason I seem extreme to such folks (yet, strangely, not to myself) is because when I read the New Testament, I see it as a political text, as well as a theological and spiritual text. Yet we live in a world shaped by the rise of nation-states and the modern experiment–ours is a world that so easily divorces spirituality from embodied life. Religion is something INTERIOR, whereas politics is a matter for the EXTERIOR world–the public sphere.  So, when one focuses on the exterior life in their understanding of the Gospel, it worries folks.

But Jesus didn’t come simply to save us from hell or simply to give us a robust interior life.  He came to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom–which is a spiritual AND social reality.  And while it is true that the Gospel transforms the soul, it also transforms external things too.  The inter-relatedness of all spheres of life would make more sense to us (and be more readily apparent in our reading of Scripture) if we hadn’t bought into the division between private faith and public life.
Secularists are happy with this division–for it allows them to engage life in the public sphere without too much trouble from religious-types.

Liberals are rightly concerned about giving religious fundamentalists coercive power–they remember that part of history class. However, liberals encourage us to engage in public life shaped by our religious beliefs, but ask us to work for the common good without bring our faith into the conversation. In other words, religion is great if it gets you to care about the rights of all people and the plight of the poor, but you shouldn’t bring JESUS into the public sphere…after all what Jesus was really ALL about was the rights of all people and the plight of the poor.

Conservatives (especially evangelicals) are rightly interested in having Jesus at the center of their faith. But all too often, they play the same game as the Liberals–allowing their values to influence the way in which they engage in politics without necesarily having it be about Christ. So, while Liberals focus on the rights of all people and the plight of the poor, conservatives are interested in obliterating abortion, gay marriage, etc. Both seem to be willing to leave Jesus out of the equation…

Although, in their defense, there are a good number of evangelicals willing to enter into the political sphere and take Jesus right along with them (Falwell and Robertson, for example). But folks like that scare the hell out of me.

I find myself agreeing with the impulse of Jerry Falwell–that we don’t leave Jesus at the front step when we enter into the political world. However, the reason he scares me is that he seems to be willing to grab a hold of state power–coercive power–in his desire to bring Jesus into the political sphere.

So…back to my original question: What if the Kingdom of God were really a Kingdom?

Well, then, why the heck are we so concerned with the power structures of a different (and competing) Kingdom? The Kingdom of God isn’t MERELY a spiritual reality. It is a physical reality as well. Jesus is REALLY our King. And we are REALLY his people. And we REALLY owe him our fealty and had better not give our fealty to another.

In his AWESOME book the Theopolitical Imagination, William Cavanaugh argues that the modern state is simply a rip-off of the Body of Christ. In the Body of Christ, we have interdependent members joined in a covenant together by the head–who is Christ. The modern state, however, is a social contract of formally equal individuals who have banded together to grant the government the freedom to use coercive force to secure the rights and properties of the individuals.

When I study Jesus and his teachings, I see that we are most certainly NOT to pursue coercive power (ie, Luke 22:25-26, Matthew 5:38-48). The modern state was established as the legitimate user of coercive power. The Body of Christ is a sacrificial community of inter-dependent people who do not cling to private property, yet submit all to Christ as they distribute to those who have need. And, as Cavanaugh puts it: “If it is true that the modern state is but a false copy of the Body of Christ, then it should be obvious that state power is the last thing the Church should want.”

This is why I am a Christian Anarchist. I don’t want to wield any state power. I think it is misguided. The Church has its own, alternative way of moving in the world as we accomplish Kingdom goals. Furthermore, I do not recognize the authority of any government other than that of Christ’s Kingdom.

This is what it means for me to live as though the Kingdom of God were REALLY a Kingdom. It doesn’t mean that I work to undermine the established government. After all, they serve a function–to punish those who do evil (Romans 13). Let Caesar have what is Caesar’s–but I belong to Christ. And Christ calls me to forsake violence, take up the Cross, and practice Jubilee.

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Comments

12 Responses to “What if the Kingdom of God were REALLY a Kingdom?”

  1. Daniel Winings on January 8th, 2007 10:59 pm

    I need you to help me by following up this post by giving a more detail explication of what you mean by “anarchist.” One can refuse the sales pitch of the modern participatory republic and still see a need for the order. Romans 13 is an example that distinguishes the ethic of the state (Ro 13) from the ethic of the Church (Ro 12). One can adhere to a two Kingdom theology (as I myself do) and busy themselves with the work of the Kingdom of God (overcoming good with evil) without denying the legitimacy (and I use this word somewhat loosely) of the state to maintain order. My initial response to the language of anarchy is that its inflamitory nature my distract from your biblical argument.

    peace, courage, joy
    Daniel

  2. christy on January 9th, 2007 7:22 am

    Just trying to understand what this looks like in a few simple, practical areas? Do you vote? Do you follow ‘the laws of the land’?Do you pay taxes?

    Does this seperation from/ rejection of an important part of our culture create an obstacle for you in minstering to others who don’t share your viewpoint?

  3. markvans on January 9th, 2007 10:23 am

    Great questions! I was afraid no one would engage me on this stuff.

    Daniel: The word “anarchist” may not be the best word to use, but it works. Christian Anarchismhas a history and a development of thought. And while I don’t buy into everything that major Christian Anarchist thinkers have put forth, I do find myself in roughly the same ballpark. Maybe I can find a viewpoint that gets to the same idea without the use of such inflammatory language. I’m more interested in stout Kingdom allegiance than I am in rejecting other governments. However, I believe it is impossible to ally one’s self with the Kingdom of God without also having to resist–in one way or another the “empire.” This is why I don’t find the “two kingdom” approach convincing–at least as it is commonly articulated.

    Christy: I pay taxes and follow laws in my obedience to Christ. I try to “live at peace with everyone.” However, I have no problem disobeying laws that I think are unjust because I don’t feel I owe allegiance to the U.S. Instead, I live here as a respectful sojourner.
    I have opted out of voting…though I will vote at the local level. My biggest problem is that to vote nationally is to be an active part of the military machine.

  4. dlw on January 9th, 2007 2:03 pm

    MarK: When I study Jesus and his teachings, I see that we are most certainly NOT to pursue coercive power (ie, Luke 22:25-26, Matthew 5:38-48).

    Luke seems more about the need for us not to lord it over each other in the church as was done in the pagan world. This says nothing against participation in reworking the rules that govern us all. Likewise wrt Matt, one does not “hate” one’s opponents when working in opposition to them on matters of policy. In fact, it is when there is relatively little acrimony between opposing groups that the needed compromises get made efficiently in ways that are more agreeable to more people.

    The modern state was established as the legitimate user of coercive power.

    dlw:the roots of the modern state are in its desacralization made possible by Jesus. Dan spells out well how its role is approved of in scripture. We don’t need to reject it for us not to put our hopes for real lasting change in it. And, I would argue a bulk of experience shows that the most effective opposition against “empire” has to play political jujitsu and pick its battles carefully.

    M:The Body of Christ is a sacrificial community of inter-dependent people who do not cling to private property, yet submit all to Christ as they distribute to those who have need.

    dlw: We also shd acknowledge that we are having the Sword of the State wielded on our behalf in not eschewing private property. I’d rather think of it as being willing to risk our economic security on behalf of others spiritual and political and economic needs than simply clinging to private property. We inevitably do “cling” to some private property, as we smooth our ability to share with others(including family) over time.

    And, as Cavanaugh puts it: “If it is true that the modern state is but a false copy of the Body of Christ, then it should be obvious that state power is the last thing the Church should want.”

    dlw: If it is true that the modern state learned from the Body of Christ, then the state can’t be irreparably pagan. As for state power, the issue isn’t what we want but what voice we do have and how we discipline ourselves to steward it as part of our witness to others.

    At root, IMO, Christian Anarchism is a misguided theological understanding of our situation as Christians. I don’t blame people for not wanting to deal with politics, I just don’t think such is consistently possible and fail to see how not voting in any elections does anything to disentangle oneself from the matrix of power in our fallen world. That’s simply a myth, though I believe there can be good missional value in keeping politics on the sidelines of how we do ministry.
    dlw

  5. catholicanarchy.org » COBRA, Christian anarchism, etc. on January 16th, 2007 11:10 pm

    […] I’ve had a few interesting conversations recently, both in person and through email, about the idea of Christian anarchism, and have even had a couple requests to write some kind of statement about a specifically Catholic take on this tradition that would particularly address the whole question of Church authority. I’m kicking around some ideas for that. I was impressed with a couple posts [1] [2] recently over at Mark Van Steenwyk’s Jesus Manifesto blog that described his thoughts on Christian anarchism. […]

  6. Patrick on January 19th, 2007 8:15 pm

    So, you oppose the anthropology inherent in the modern nation state — the autonomous self defined solely by rights — and, subsequently, you reject the political implications of that anthropology, emphasizing a political relationship based not on private property and the legitimate coercive protection of private property, but on a deeper, sacramental connection as the Body of Christ. You then speak of political power in opposition to the power intoned by Christ in the Gospels, claiming that you would not want to wield political power, but that it is also “misguided.”

    I assume you’ll flesh this out a bit, but I’m a bit confused by some things here. You claim to recognize no authority but Christ’s, but you also claim that Christians have a duty to give unto Caesar etc…. I’m curious as to what your definition of “recognition” is. My main problem with Christian anarchists of all stripes, even those such as Dorothy Day who lived quite authentically, is that they avail themselves of the protections and perks of a stable government cultivated through hundreds of years while simultaneously claiming to renounce it. When does someone cease to “recognize” the benefits of law and order while participating in it?

    In some ways I don’t see how your thought is incompatible with the history of Christian political thought. From antiquity there has always been a strong sense that civil law ought to be subservient to natural law. But the state has always been seen as a failed institution, necessary to govern a fallen humanity and incapable of complete redemption but still subject to Christian scrutiny. Is your problem with Christians who practice instead a vague civil religion? Do you want to do away with a conception of society built on individual assent? If that’s the case then I agree with you, but I don’t see how that makes one an anarchist.

  7. dlw on January 20th, 2007 11:19 am

    That seems a more esoterical and terse way of putting it.

    I don’t appeal to natural law, as I don’t buy it, though there can be historical regularities that must be taken into account in discerning right practice.

    No doubt political ideology is a mess and most “evangelical” seminaries do not prepare us for dealing with this mess and so it’s not surprising that top-dogs like Haggard so often easily call the shots.

    If we can simply see dealing with controversy with love as part of our missional witness to others then that would be a big step forward, but we tend to get too polemical too easily or too wrapped up in theology that is geared to our fears of failing.

    dlw

  8. Patrick on January 20th, 2007 2:37 pm

    dlw,

    Sorry for the misunderstanding. My post was in response to the original message, not yours. I think we’re on the same page, mostly. I don’t quite understand statements like “The Modern State is a false copy of the body of Christ.” This is true only to the extent that all political alliances command loyalty and promote unity based on common ideals and shared experiences. The foundation of the modern state seems radically distinct from Christianity.

  9. dlw on January 20th, 2007 3:41 pm

    Aye, Patrick, I think we are on the same page mostly.

    I knew you were responding to him. I’m just trying to steal away a little of all that attention that Mark’s blog gets…

    I think Mark’s point is that there are aspects of the modern state that have learned from Christianity and my point is that that is probably a good thing. Political science has shown how gov’ts where the parties are less acrimonious towards each other tend to function better along a number of measures.

    This is why the manifesto of my own previous blog was: a commitment to the reduction of the faith-based political acrimony in the US associated with the cultural wars.

    dlw

  10. markvans on January 20th, 2007 5:57 pm

    My point about the modern state being a false copy of the Body of Christ isn’t my own point. William Cavanaugh gets into this (quite well). The way in which it is a false copy is that it emerged out of an ecclesial environment in which their was no church/state distinction. It attempted to marginalize (in a sense) the church by rendering religion as part of the “interior” life while the state dealt more with the “exterior.” Instead of Christ being seen as a political head with each person in covenant with one another and that head, the modern state re-definied the social contract in a way that undermined church authority, lifted the individual, and empowered the state in ways distinct from the faith. This isn’t to say that things were necessarily BETTER before the rise of the Modern state. However, it can be said that the Modern state’s emergence (as well as other social developments linked to its emergence) changed the way in which European Christians understood their allegiance to Christ, the State, and to one another. No longer was this understood ecclesially.

    Just to change directions a bit…often it is said that my position (which is really just the position of political theologians like Cavanaugh and Hauerwas and others like them) is too divisive and polemic. I think this is a bit unfair. The anabaptist spirit that they are catching a “whiff” of has often thought of the church/state relationship in these ways with an irenic spirit. Often, “mediative” views or other views that try to take the role of faith seriously within one’s understanding of the political process cause much more acrimony and discord. :)

  11. dlw on January 20th, 2007 7:16 pm

    But if the lack of a division of Church and State in Europe were “not good” before, then can it really be bad for the modern state to take on some of the characteristics of the nat’l churches when they undermined their political authorities?

    Christ was never really the political head in the past, and so what’s the big deal? It sounds like your bottom line is the need to develop an ecclesial understanding of Christians’ allegiance to Christ, the State, and to one another.

    It also sounds like the problem are the dichotomies raised by this transition, but I think one tends to see similar dualities among Anabaptists and Lutherans.

    MVS:Just to change directions a bit…often it is said that my position (which is really just the position of political theologians like Cavanaugh and Hauerwas and others like them) is too divisive and polemic.

    dlw:Maybe it is too polemical. I guess I am also polemical, though my point is simply that we view how we participate in the ongoing reworking of the rules that govern us as a critical part of our missional witness to others. I don’t want political theologians elevated in how we do this. I would rather listen to people who have studied more of the actual issues on a case-by-case basis and who help to reframe the issues in ways that foster peaceful resolutions to conflicting groups on them. I think this may be due to my dissent from the free-church heritage, of which anabaptists are a part of.

    MVS:I think this is a bit unfair. The anabaptist spirit that they are catching a “whiff” of has often thought of the church/state relationship in these ways with an irenic spirit. Often, “mediative” views or other views that try to take the role of faith seriously within one’s understanding of the political process cause much more acrimony and discord.

    dlw: I think that if one views how one relates to politics as a critical part of one’s witness or mission then this opens up for serious disagreements among Christians. I think that if one radically decentralizes the most important decisions through the house church (that Mark has yet to interact with from his blog, harumph…) approach that this mitigates the problem, as local communities are better at working thru conflicts with love.

    dlw

  12. Jesus Manifesto::Mark Van Steenwyk’s Weblog » Blog Archive » Church and State pt 6: initial explorations of practical implications on March 28th, 2007 11:29 am

    […] What if the Kingdom of God was REALLY a Kingdom? […]

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