Christian Life (Essay 2)
Let's get rid of "The Kingdom of God".
What did Jesus Actually Mean?
We are dealing with what Norman Perrin (1976) describes as a tensive symbol, whose set of meanings can be neither exhausted nor adequately expressed by any one referent. This is a complex multi-faceted phenomenon, what N.T Wright (1996) calls a grand narrative, although he confines the narrative to the biblical themes of exile and restoration (of Israel). The tendency to short-circuit this foundational meaning - of broad scope and complex significance - has bedevilled scholarship for several centuries and is now evoking a greater thoroughness and transparency as we seek to discern the authentic truth(s) of our Christian faith.
The actual historical meaning is further jeopardized by the language we popularly use. In English the word, Kingdom is masculine, while the Gospels written in Greek use the word Basileia which is feminine. Scholars assume that Jesus spoke Greek and would probably have used it in debate with Scribes and other intellectuals of the day. However, his home language was one or other version of Aramaic, the language he would have used in his ministerial discourses especially among his followers. In Aramaic, a likely translation is that of Malkuta which is feminine, and in the corresponding Hebrew, Kindom is rendered as Mamlaka which is also feminine.
The preponderance of feminine words suggests that Jesus used the word Kingdom with a very different meaning from our conventional Western understanding (useful notes in Douglas-Klotz 1999; also web-page: www.abwoon.com). Even a translation like New Reign of God (used by several contemporary scholars) probably does not do justice to the original meaning. Whereas Kingdom denotes royal power and domination, privilege, exclusion and hierarchical control, the feminine versions used by Jesus denote something much more egalitarian, liberating and empowering, a quality of leadership that enables and empowers others to take the next step(s).
Kings and kingly governance at the time of Jesus were considered normative, not just culturally and politically but in religious terms as well; the king was considered to be the primary representative of God on earth. Because Christianity, for much of its history, colluded with kingly power and fortune, often modelling its rules and norms on those of patriarchal kingship, it has taken us several centuries to come to terms with the counter-cultural impact of Jesus, who seems to have rejected forthrightly the kingly conditioning, offering instead a radical alternative characterised by empowerment from the bottom up rather than power from the top down. That, in short, is the revolution embodied in the Gospel phrase, The Kingdom of God. (Aptly, the Canadian writer, Donald Kraybill (2003), describes it as an Upside-Down Kingdom )
The Frightening Domestication
Things began to go wrong from a fairly early stage. Robert Funk (1996) suggests that the early Christian followers (including the twelve) were so conditioned by the concept of brokerage (laying down conditions) that they largely missed the unconditional giftedness Jesus was proclaiming and living under the rubric of the new vision. Next, there followed the long process of ecclesiastical ordering, which already within a few centuries was producing the equation: the Kingdom = the Church. Attention was focussed on that which was more visible and tangible, ensuing in the notion of the Kingdom fading into the background.
Another major deviation, or domestication, happened in the fourth century when Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. By declaring Jesus as pantocrator (ruler of the universe), Constantine unmistakably brought Jesus under the bar of imperial, earthly governance, effectively suppressing for several centuries the counter-cultural vision of the upside-down Kingdom. Perhaps, as a compensation, several leaders and movements began to spiritualise the notion of the Kingdom of God, one of the more recent being Pope Benedict XV's book, Jesus of Nazareth (2007, pp.46ff). According to this interpretation, the Kingdom of God is an inner disposition characterised in daily behaviour by adopting the mind and outlook of Christ. Cultural, social, political interpretations are considered to be deviations, or at best, secondary consequences.
Despite the domestication, and its many articulations, there have been periods in Christian history when the alternative vision of the Kingdom of God blossomed forth – usually not with the approval or blessing of the Church. We note this in the 12-13th centuries when several feminist and ecologically-based movements (e.g., the great St. Francis) flourished; interestingly, many Church historians describe that period as a dark age of the Church. In the 19th. century, some liberal German and British theologians tried to retrieve the primacy of the notion of the Kingdom, with limited success. Since about 1960, scholars have progressively reclaimed this priority. Church leadership is still far behind, and many lay people are largely unaware of the significance of this key concept of Christian faith.
An Empowering Horizon
One of the most daring and visionary retrievals of the foundational vision was published in 1986 by a little known American scholar, Thomas Sheehan (1986; electronic version: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/thomas_sheehan/firstcoming/bibliography.html ). Sheehan claims that in adopting the rubric of the Kingdom, Jesus was seeking to transcend all religion, and empower people towards life in abundance (cf Jn.10:10), to be realized in the context of their daily secular reality. For the greater part most other commentators have concentrated on highlighting the limitations of our conventional understandings, and our failure to see the patriarchal, regal underpinnings then and now (e.g., Crossan 2007; Horsley 2003; Schussler-Fiorenza 1985).
Catholic scholars (such as Fuellenbach 1996) often present what to me seems a compromised vision. Seeking to honour the priority of the Kingdom, and its extensiveness beyond the Church, they still seek to defend the position that despite all its limitations, the Church is, and must be seen as, the primary embodiment of the Kingdom on earth. The evidence of history does not sustain this conviction, and it carries little weight for more enlightened Christians in our time. That Jesus envisioned faith communities to subsequently embody his vision is beyond question, but something akin to Basic Christian Communities, rather than an institutional Church, is probably what he had in mind.
Among scholars, the Kingdom of God continues to be a field of intense study and research. Paradoxically, it does not feature strongly in the formation programmes offered either in theology schools or in seminaries. The ambivalence of many centuries still seems to undermine our resolve to follow Jesus more fully. Or it might be natural human reluctance to take on a vision that could lead us to places we would rather not go!
Naming our Vision Afresh
For many years, I have encountered people, particularly women, who find the term Kingdom of God alien and oppressive. Many people have never had a direct experience of living under the governance of a king (or queen). And many educated people today readily see the archaic imperialism which inherently belongs to such language and the imagery it begets. Perhaps the time has come – as I indicate in the title – to get rid of the terminology itself.
The companionship of empowerment also challenges and transcends the competitive individualism so endemic to our time, and quite alien to the time and culture of Jesus. The empowerment envisaged in the life and ministry of Jesus is that of setting relationships right, co-creating communities and networks through which we incarnate transformative justice, healing and forgiveness, empowering love and enduring liberation. The counter-cultural call is not that we look to others to do it for us (the kingly, hierarchical model), but that we mutually empower each other to do it together - for each other and for the earth we inhabit. This is also the vision of the Beatitudes, the radical option for which Jesus lived and died.
So, let's get rid of the language of the "Kingdom of God." Delete it from the Gospels , and replace it with the "Companionship of Empowerment." And let's not wait for scholars or churches to do it for us. We are not destroying tradition, or tampering with sacred writ. Rather, we are seeking to reclaim something closer to the originality and dynamism of what Jesus was on to in the first place, a vision which Christians of every age and culture are invited to embrace. With this new language, and the vision it embodies, Christianity stands a much better chance of becoming once more the dangerous memory it was always meant to be.
References: Borg, Marcus ED. (1998), Jesus at 2000.