by Daniel Harrell
Traveled south to North Carolina to visit family recently. Spent good time with my older parents, remembered my recently deceased grandmother now fully ushered to glory, and hung out at the coast with my brother and sister and their families. We ate a lot of North Carolina Barbecue, of course, a staple of southern cuisine and sadly mimicked countrywide as pulled pork. Don’t eat anything called pulled pork. The best batch of barbecue this past trip got eaten at a joint in Durham called Hog Heaven—their slow-roasted swine over hardwood coals was served up eastern-style (meaning no ketchup in the sauce), along with the requisite slaw, hushpuppies and sweet tea by a sweet lady who kept calling me “baby” and “darlin.’” Like most true ‘cue establishments buckled tight in the Bible Belt, Hog Heaven is always closed on Sundays to make time for worship and family, praise the Lord.
This being presidential election season, heading south for family and barbecue also meant bracing for potentially contentious political conversations. Rural North Carolina where my family abides is mostly Trump Country if for no other reason than everybody hates Hillary down there and blames the government for their troubles. Remarkably, recent polls show both presidential candidates with historically low favorability ratings. The redneck side of my red state family is as disenchanted with the Republican offering as with the Democrat. One gun-toting cousin even suggested both candidates step aside in favor of their Vice-Presidential picks for the good of the country.
Much gets made of religion’s role in presidential elections. Given Donald Trump’s particular brand of playboy Presbyterianism, many wonder why any Bible-reading Christian would ever publicly champion his cause, especially since the Bible insists on welcoming strangers, stewarding the earth, loving enemies and feeding the poor. But when your only other option is Hillary’s brand of mendacious, fancy pants Methodism, what does the Bible matter anyway? Jesus wept. Besides, politicians have always cherry-picked Scripture to press their particular agendas and varnish their images. Just like preachers do.
To the contrary, Jesus remains intentionally elusive as to political alignment. You can’t nail him down, which is part of what got him nailed to a cross. His incited his opposition with deliberately political language, speaking of God’s kingdom as one whose values and purposes rejected political and cultural prerogative. Then as now, to say kingdom implied power, specifically, the power to control. Having defied the devil in the desert, Jesus steps forward in Matthew’s gospel to announced “the kingdom of heaven is near.” We traditionally interpret Jesus speaking solely about a personal relationship with God and heaven in your heart. But Jesus’ original audience, chosen people chafing under oppressive Roman rule already believed in God. Rural Galilee was a Bible belt too. For Jesus to say heaven is near—a word that can also be translated as at hand, or even right here—meant something more than heaven out there, or even heaven in your heart. For Jesus’ audience in Matthew, to hear that the reign of God had arrived could not have been construed as anything other than a radical denouncement of the government. This is what made it good news. Jesus announced that Roman rule was doomed. God’s kingdom had come.
In speaking of the kingdom, Jesus drew directly from Old Testament prophecy. In Daniel 2 we read, “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.” And then in Daniel’s famous vision of chapter 7, “As I watched, a ferocious fourth beast waged war against the saints and defeated them, until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom.” Israel’s rescue would come by one “given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language will worship him.” Jews understood Daniel’s fourth beast to be Rome. The “one given authority” was the storied Son of Man swooping down from the skies. For tyrannized Jews,“kingdom come” meant that salvation and vengeance. So where was the power? Who was their savior? And what about this uppity preacher proclaiming he knew what God was doing anyway?
Matthew reports a lot of people did love Jesus’ sermon—probably because it was so short. But a lot of people hated it too. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ preached it at his home church and folks there came close to throwing him off a cliff. I used to think this was because they thought Jesus mocked their faith. The text for his home church sermon that Sabbath was Isaiah 61: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed and proclaim the day of God’s justice.” That was fine until Jesus said me meant, well, me, Jesus himself. Talk about uppity. Who did he think he was? A better text would have been Isaiah 53: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should give him a second look.” But then again, I’m not sure it was Jesus’ appearance, social status, lack of experience or highfalutin assertions that proved so offensive. I think the thing that would have gotten everybody’s goat would have been him telling them to repent. Think about it. You’re the ones who’ve been run over and abused by a ruthless government. You’re the ones who need salvation and justice. It’s not your fault. You’re the victim. And Jesus tells you to repent? You’re like, “What did I do?”
The answer may be found by taking another look at what Jesus meant by kingdom. For Rome, kingdom meant power, power by military might and control by brute force. Historians describe Pax Romana as a time of world peace, but Rome made its peace by way of war, extortion and economic dominance. Roman apologists naturally called such imperial supremacy good news, which it was as long as you weren’t an enemy of the state, a slave, an immigrant, a woman, poor or Jewish. For Jews of Jesus’ day, Caesar’s rule was not good news, only his downfall. That God promised justice fueled hope, but these folks had been hoping a long time. Too long. Among Jews were some called Zealots, radicals who believed they needed to take divine justice into their own hands. Meet violence with violence, oppression with open revolt. Other Jews, known as Pharisees, opted for a cultural war. Bring on God’s kingdom though righteous legislation. Change the laws and you change the world. Scapegoat the sinners and shame society into submission. A third faction, the Sadducees, figured that if God was going to take his time they might as well take advantage. Cozy up to Roman power and you can reap the benefits of proximity and privilege—even though it meant hiding your faith under a basket, or redefining it to fit.
For each of these groups—Zealots, Pharisees and Sadducees—kingdom-come meant ruling power too. Whether through violence, legislation or accommodation, the end game was still all about getting your fingers on the control switches. It’s a narrative also played out through Christian history. From Constantine to the Crusades, from witch trials to monkey trials, from civil wars to state-sanctioned genocide, devout believers have long used God’s name to authorize violence. Similarly with indulgences, prohibition, blue laws, segregation, marriage, immigration, pregnancy and prayer—legislating morality without a common faith constantly founders, and often due to the exposed hypocrisy and immorality of the legislation’s religious proponents. Cozying up to political power never works either. Cherry-picking passages to fit political agendas only distorts Biblical truth and dilutes Christianity into a bland civil religion not worth its salt. Every human effort to attain kingdom power through political means ultimately fails because in the end, governments are not God. Governments lie and cannot be trusted. Only God can be trusted, therefore repent, Jesus says, and trust God in whom true power resides.
In Jesus, God issued his people a stark challenge. You are the light of the world and salt of the earth. But effulgence and flavor don’t happen by either blinding or overwhelming. God’s kingdom does not rule through human violence or political might or cultural mores. Kingdom power is ironic power. It works from the margins to love enemies and welcome outcasts and strangers. It cares for the poor, shuns privilege and the pursuit of wealth, it humbly goes the second mile, doing its good in secret and not for applause, its left hand not knowing what its right hand is doing.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Christianity’s calling card. Rome used crucifixion to viciously squelch insurrection. Crosses demonstrated the futility of political resistance by executing the death sentence on rebels. But Jesus used the same cross to expose the futility of Roman violence and religious complicity with it, while executing a sentence of forgiveness on his crucifiers. In God’s kingdom, peace was not made through the shedding of enemies’ blood, but by the king shedding his own blood. Ours is a Savior crucified by majority rule.
Just as Jesus will say later to trust God rather than public applause when it comes to practicing your piety, and trust God instead of money when it comes to storing up your treasure, here he says trust God rather than political power when it comes to the kingdom. “Repent and believe my version of good news instead.”
Granted, viewing crucifixion as good news is not easy to do. Especially once Jesus says we must take up our own crosses too. Popularity, moral accomplishments, monetary achievement, political influence and status—all of this has to be crucified. To carry a cross means the surrender of power and privilege, as well as persecution and hardship—which was why most disciples fled or denied ever knowing who Jesus was. Or pretended he was somebody else.
Isaiah 53 turned out to be a very accurate descriptor of Jesus. We read it every Good Friday: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should give him a second look. He was oppressed and afflicted, like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before its shearers is silent… The Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all and by his wounds we are healed.” Though terribly unattractive, we are attracted to it. Though awful and ugly, it is somehow beautiful too.
Above is the Japanese word for beauty. I learned this week how it is composed of two ideograms—“sheep” and “great.” In Japanese, the word beauty is a composite of great sacrifice. Embedded within its center there is a cross.
Mako Fujimori writes how in 1597, in Japan, a country that regarded Christianity as an outsider religion and a threat, 26 Christians were marched through the streets of Nagasaki. Their ears and noses had been cut off, so blood drenched the snow as they walked. When they arrived at the top of a hill overlooking the city, 26 crosses stood prepared for their execution. Purportedly, an 11-year-old boy among them responded, “Show me my cross,” to which another young boy echoed, “Show me mine.” Their devotion has inspired ever since. Centuries later, in Burundi, you’ll remember the story from our World Relief partners of Hutus who waged genocidal war against Tutsi neighbors. Hutu rebels attacked a Christian secondary school demanding students separate according to group, Hutus on one side; Tutsis on the other. The boys refused and held onto each other. Forty students died in the ensuing slaughter. The surviving schoolmaster cited love and forgiveness as outcomes. “This work,” he said, “was laid by the hand of God.”
A year ago last February, 21 Coptic Christians refused to renounce their faith and lost their lives on a Libyan beach to the knives of the murderous Islamic State. On the anniversary of their sacrifice, celebrants at the memorial service insisted, “We remember them, we remember what happened to them, and we will forgive because we belong to God.”
Only a few months after those murders, nine faithful believers attending a Wednesday night Bible study in a Charleston church were gunned down by an angry young racist who’d joined in for an hour prior. In Charleston the killer was quickly captured and arraigned, and the relatives of the slain with other church members pronounced their forgiveness as the country watched in awe and wonder.
Throughout the long and tragic history of the church, to die innocently and unjustly as you profess your faith is its own act of faith—both horrible and holy, both awful and awe-inspiring, both brutal and beautiful, both repulsive and powerful—a direct participation in the righteous and wrong suffering of Christ at the hands of evil.
Looking toward November, there’s little talk of sacrifice, little evidence of righteousness aside from the self-generated kind. Attuned to political power and control, with all its ugliness and harsh loudness, we cannot see beauty any more than we can hear the silence through which the Holy Spirit still speaks. This will be Jesus’ indictment against his people: “Seeing you do not see, hearing you do not listen nor understand.”
Therefore “repent,” he says, “the kingdom of heaven is here.” Memorialized in the bread and cup we partake, sacrificial love is kingdom currency, faith and hope its power, beauty and grace its light and flavor. Ultimately this table points to a brand new creation inaugurated by Christ’s resurrection—but in the meantime, until our prayers are fully answered and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, we shine and season through our surrendered faith. Historically whenever the church has borne its cross, that’s when it taps into its resurrection energy. “The kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus said. Therefore let us repent and believe the gospel. And then do what it says.