Written by James McMahon : October 27, 2007

Since this is my first official post at Jesus Manifesto, I feel the need to explain my approach to writing about the issues concerning Christianity and the church that are ‘near and dear’ to me. I will always attempt to ground my thoughts in Holy Scripture first and foremost (even if I do not directly quote chapter and verse), and secondly upon Christian orthodoxy as seen in the Christian tradition that encompasses the last two millennia. Nevertheless, my theology is still a work in progress and probably will always remain such. With that being said, I am always open to being shown areas in my theology that are incorrect, weak, or on target. I do not shy away from discussion, as long as it is conducted in a Christian manner. So without further ado . . .

I am growing increasingly concerned with the mentality among certain groups within the Christian community that equate Christianity with political power and the illusion of a Christian nation based on such power. This concern does not rise out of Christian participation in the political process of American society, but comes from the implications of a desire for power to rule over people in the name of ‘taking America back for God.’ I think this rather large group of the Christian community has fallen into the same basic error that we see Israel make in Scripture.

This error is seen many times in Scripture, but perhaps one of the best examples is found in 1 Samuel 8:1-9. In the text, Samuel has served as high priest and judge for the nation for most of his life. Nevertheless, the end of his time as leader of the people approached, so he appointed his sons to take his place. However, the people of God did not want his sons to lead them and so they asked Samuel to “Give us a king to lead us” (8:6). Of course, Samuel was personally offended by this, but he sought God’s counsel about the people’s request. God’s response leads us to the point I am trying to make about the danger of Christians seeking ruling power. God responded to Samuel about the people’s request by saying, “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king” (8:7).

Now fast forward to the New Testament. Jesus, the King above all kings, comes into the world. He performs mighty signs and miracles and preaches the message of His kingdom. From this message a new nation is born, it is called the church, and it is made up of the disciples of Jesus who are citizens of His kingdom.

Now return to 21st century America, and you see a large portion of the Christian community saying, as Israel did, “now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have” (8:5). In this quest for political authority to impose Christian ‘values’ on a pagan society, Christians have implicitly rejected their true King and His ethic of kingdom life in order to have a Christian nation “such as other nations have.” As long as this mentality dominates the church it is very difficult for the Christian community to truly follow Jesus in the empire.


James McMahon is a 31 year old husband and father who became a Christian at the age of 22. Over the last nine years he has received his B.A. in Religious Education, as well as his Master of Divinity, all the while making himself available for service within the Lord’s community. He is currently working on a Ph. D. in Theology with a probable emphasis on pre-Constantinian Christianity, Anabaptist theology, and/or Christian Ethics (with special focus on Bonhoeffer or Yoder). After completing doctoral work, he hopes to become a professor and author.

James McMahon is currently working on a Ph. D. in Theology with dual emphases in historical and systematic theology. After completing doctoral work, he hopes to become a professor and author.

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    I think you nailed it--we are not called to "take America back for God," but to live as citizens of the Kingdom of the Beloved Son. How to balance this with civic responsibility is the rub--and I think our responsibility begins at the local level as we build community and hold our local authorities accountable.

    I just read a recent sermon by N.T. Wright based mainly on Acts 16.16–34; and Wright brought out the fact that Paul held the authorities accountable for treating him according to the laws of Roman citizenship. I'm not sure how this works out at every level of government, so I look forward to more posts on this subject.
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    I'm going to quibble, the sort of quibble that used to get folks like me burned back in the Good Old Days of the Inquistion.

    Jesus specifically does _not_ preach "the message of his Kingdom." He goes around, at least in my translation, announcing that God's Kingdom is real, present, and in some sense also "coming." (Intensifying, perhaps--manifesting more clearly?)

    He refuses to do any signs as a witness to his own authority (at least in Matthew & Mark--& I would think also in Luke, which I'm less familiar with--while the Jesus of John's later portrait behaves entirely the opposite way, but is obviously not intended to be journalistically realistic.) Rather, Jesus performs miraculous acts of compassion and explains the results as evidence that God's rule is breaking in & overruling the accustomed (dis)order of the world.

    Obviously, being "king" of Israel, the kingdom that is supposed to be literally "God's country," is a different role than being a "king like the other nations have." (Different, as you say, from being the sort of king in which people are accustomed to putting their misplaced faith.)

    I do agree with your diagnosis... like William Stringfellow said some time ago, the US goes around being Babylon while imagining itself to be Jerusalem.
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    Jesus teaches extensively about the kingdom in the gospels. If he was just a human being then I would agree that the kingdom he spoke of was God's kingdom. However, Jesus is God the Son, thus the teaching about God's kingdom is about His kingdom. Further, there are times when Jesus refers to the kingdom as his (for examples see Luke 22:29-30, John 18:33-37).

    About Christians being like Israel in the request for a king. The point I was trying to make was a comparison between their rejection of the Lord as their King and all its implications, especially the implication of establishing a human form of government to what many Christians are trying to do by establishing a Christendom model of Christianity in America and its implications.
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    I consider Luke and especially John as relatively far-removed from the actual historical person Jesus, Matthew and especially Mark closer in time and context.

    But looking at the two passage you mention, I see Jesus talking about his position as the Messiah, ie the king of the actual land of Israel. As a "son of God", like David or Solomon or any of their successors were titled (much as the Emperor of China was called the "Son of Heaven.")

    The word "Christ" was the closest gentile equivalent, but "Messiah" was essentially the properly crowned king. "Annointing," by the right person in the right circumstances, was the ceremony that made a person the "king de jure" (But becoming king de facto was a different process, one which sometimes got messy!)

    It could be done in secret. Elisha slips a flask of oil to one of his 'servants', says "Take Jehu aside and annoint him king over Israel," and so it happened. It didn't require any particular pedigreed, merely a prophet's obedient choice of whichever candidate God approved.

    If an earthly king were ideally obedient, then God's rule could be conceivably transmitted through that king's government. God would act through him; it would be equivalent to rule by God (but would not render God and the king identical...)

    The author of 'John' frequently makes Jesus speak as if he were identical to God. There are examples in the other gospels where Jesus speaks _for_ God, without an intervening "Thus says the Lord," and I do think that was something Jesus did sometimes. I don't doubt that he had a mystical consciousness of the presence of God in the human soul... but could have expressed that in a properly Jewish way. John's way of putting it works for a great many Christians, but for me it's always sounded out of character. (Mystical consciousness was an intrinsically dangerous thing to express for an Islamic teacher, as Hallaj's execution showed. But the Hassidim found ways within Judaism.)

    Whose "rejection of" what "Lord" are you talking about in that last comment, by the way? Can you make that a little more precise?
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    I consider Luke and especially John as relatively far-removed from the actual historical person Jesus, Matthew and especially Mark closer in time and context.

    I understand the position you are coming from in regards to this, and am unconvinced that somehow the early Christian community would allow these authors to present a Jesus that was false, especially since at the time these texts were written there were still eyewitnesses alive who could refute false representations of Jesus. I find James Dunn's position concerning the oral tradition of early Christianity as the forerunner to the texts we have to be convincing considering the nature of education in first century Judaism (see Jesus Remembered by Dunn). However, each author also intended the text to be normative for the communities he directly addressed (i.e. Matthew to a Jewish Christian audience, Mark to a Gentile Christian audience, Luke to both, and John to a Jewish Christian audience). But we can't solve this here, so I'll move on.

    Whose “rejection of” what “Lord” are you talking about in that last comment, by the way? Can you make that a little more precise?

    I was referring to Israel rejecting God in the passage mentioned in the post as a comparison to what seems to be happening among certain sections of Christianity.

    *One last thing, please read my initial comments at the beginning of the post because it contains the two basic presuppositions by which I approach theology: 1) I have a very high view of Scripture (i.e. it is more than a mere ancient text that can be treated like any other historical document). 2) I strive to hold to orthodox Christian teaching and constantly adapt my theology to fit within what the Church has always believed. Even in expressing my opinion I try to be careful to speak within those two parameters.

    If you want to continue the discussion, then I would ask that you first let me know the basic assumptions that you bring to the discussion of such matters. It always helps a discussion when each person knows where the other stands.
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    My "basic assumptions," oy vey! Not an unfair request, but this could get lengthy...

    1) Everything that happens is from God, and meaningful (although we may easily be mistaken about the reasons for a particular event, or may need to start with a superficial understanding and be eventually led to deeper ones.)

    An idea I found first in a Sufi book... and later in Quaker tradition: "God is our teacher." If you live in this expectation, you find that it's true.

    2) The (various sets of) Christian scriptures are from God in that same sense. But so are whatever other books we come across--And again, the face value meaning is there for us to examine and consider, not for us to swallow uncritically.

    3) Scriptures are produced by human beings, whose inspirations are filtered through human blind spots.

    4) Since scriptures are intended to help us better know the nature of God and Life, they tend to be richer in meaning than most human literature...

    an example: Among the books I used to read to my son when he was little, there were Arnold Lobel books like _Mouse Tales_, _Frog and Toad_, etc. He liked to hear his books read over and over to him, and sometimes this got tiresome, but the Lobel books, while very simple, held up. Sometimes I'd be reading one of those stories, and then some unexpected meaning would come in out of nowhere and clobber me. Later on, I learned that at least one of those stories had been borrowed from the Talmud...

    Jesus was not the only Jewish teacher to make good use of parables (I even found one of his in traditional Jewish use, whoever thought of it first...) Anyway, the good ones have this tricky quality. You read it, you understand it--and then years later, you might be sitting in Meeting, or in a church, or anywhere--and suddenly you see it in a whole new light. The same thing happens with many stories, laws, precepts in the Bible--but also much other religious literature.

    5) The most significant thing about a text is not whether it is "true" or "false," but that we read it in a way that better aligns our hearts, minds, and spirits with the truth. People can get truth out of a false document and they can be mislead by a true one.

    6) There's an old doctrine the earliest Friends stole from other contemporary Puritan sects: In order to properly understand the Christian scriptures, you need to be in the same spirit as the people who wrote it.

    7) "Inspiration" is not "infallibility." Consider Matthew's misunderstanding of Zechariah, by which he has Jesus riding two animals into Jerusalem...

    8) There are tremendous cultural gaps between the Biblical patriarchs, the Hebrews in the time of Moses, the Hebrews before the monarchy, or during the monarchy, or as exiles compiling material from those periods in exile in Babylon, as theocrats within the Persian Empire, as subjects of the Roman Empire--and between all these and their Helenistic neighbors--and 2000 years worth of conceptional minefields between all of the above & us.

    9) God is revealing God to us, but it ain't easy... The answer to the biggest kind of question is not that we receive some "answer," but that we become a person who sees the question differently.

    I'm sure there is more that could be said....


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