Jesus was all about his kingdom. The first declaration of his public ministry was “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” He communicated the nature of it in parable and story. His miracles demonstrated its authority over every sphere of life and he called his disciples to abandon all present loyalties for its sake. The genealogical records of the Gospels and citations of the prophets depict Jesus as its fulfillment—the promised Messiah-King.
Most Christians would give ready assent to the preceding paragraph, yet the real impact of Jesus’ Kingdom seems to escape us when dealing with thorny existential realities such as the current crisis in the Middle East. The parties which clamor for our attention are those which play a visible and material role in the conflict—ISIS, Khorazon, the Nusra Front, the Free Syrian army, the regime of Syrian president Asad, the Peshmerga (the Kurdish forces) and now, of course, the “coalition of the willing” led by the United States and its allies.
Would anyone dare to make the preposterous claim that Jesus is the enthroned king presently ruling over the chaos of the Middle East? Would you?
Some might respond, “Well if he is the king and he rules over this mess, he’s either powerless or heartless. A real king—one with real authority—would put a stop to the senseless killing, the displacement of peoples and the spread of violent religious radicalism.”
Fair enough. So the senseless blood-letting, often perpetrated in the name of religion and for the preservation of power must be divorced from Jesus’ kingdom. The former has nothing to do with the latter. One is the action of the empires of this world while the Kingdom of Jesus is something else. Drawing a line of demarcation between the empires of this world and the Kingdom of God ruled by Jesus gives us an easy out. We no longer need face the question: “How can Jesus be King amidst such devastation?”
“What should we do?” –that’s the question I’ve heard in a number of different contexts. There is an assumption behind the question. “We” is some group, some faction. Spoken in the West “we” might refer to the military coalition. In the Middle East, it might refer to one of the warring factions. For many, I suspect this natural question betrays a misplaced loyalty—an assumption that our most effective action must be carried out through the empires of this world. After all, in the real world, someone has to win. And someone has to lose. Right?
But Jesus calls us to a different “real world,” a new reality, a new way of being—his Kingdom.
The Kingdom of God is in and among the empires of this world but neither contained by them nor subservient to them. The new Kingdom coexists with the powers that be, ever calling them to bow the knee to its King but never coercing them. The line of advance of this Kingdom is not marked by swords and spears (tanks and F16’s in our day) but by the absorption of evil in the willing embrace of suffering by Kingdom people. Jesus’ followers were told in no uncertain terms that to follow Him meant embracing his cross.
The Kingdom is anticipated by the first of its line of sovereigns—King David—who, though anointed as king, was nonetheless pursued like an animal by the pseudo-king Saul. His suffering, portrayed vividly in the Psalms, was God’s plan for the eventual consummation of his kingdom. David’s steadfast refusal to take vengeance in his own hands and kill Saul prepared the people for a more noble expression of the Kingdom. David’s kingdom is a prototype of Jesus’ Kingdom. Jesus, anointed and enthroned, has now poured out his Spirit on his followers from all nations and peoples. United by the outpoured Spirit, they form the body of Christ on earth. His body continues to be pursued and persecuted on earth as he awaits his Kingdom consummation. The suffering of Christ’s body is no aberrant mishap. It is the Kingdom strategy.
So in view of this Kingdom reality-check, what is our response to the current Middle East crisis?
First, Jesus’ Kingdom is in and among the empires of this world, even in the Middle East. We must hold the suffering of Christ’s people in the Middle East in the forefront of our thoughts and prayers. This is no aberrant mishap. The displacement of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian Christians is a vivid portrayal of the realities that Jesus taught concerning His Kingdom that suffers with, in and among the peoples of this world. By so doing, it offers them an alternative kingdom—a King of Peace whose reign is procured, not by inflicting suffering on others but by his own suffering at the hands of this world’s empires. Jesus’ Kingdom people ask “How can I share in the suffering of Christ’s people in the Middle East?”
Second, we must replace our misplaced loyalties. No matter which faction you identify with in the Middle East conflict, if you are a Jesus-follower, your fealty can only be given to one King. Now the question “what should we do?” again takes on new meaning. The “we” is not your birth country or the faction with which you are aligned, but the people of the Kingdom of Jesus from all nations and peoples. That difference requires us to divest ourselves of our national interests and embrace the multi-cultural reality of the new Kingdom. Think about it.
Third, because the Kingdom of Jesus has renounced violence as its modus operandi, it becomes a viable (perhaps the only viable) candidate for peace-making and reconciliation. It appears that every faction in the current crisis presses its own advantage to the detriment, even destruction, of the other parties in the conflict. “Kill or be killed” is the law of the jungle, but never the law of the Kingdom of Christ. Christ-followers seek the good of their enemies. “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who persecute you.” Such is the radical self-giving nature of Jesus’ Kingdom. Is it blissful naiveté? Not at all. It is the reality of following a King who hung from a cross and cried “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Nothing is more real than that. What if Christ left his people (his body) in the conflicts of this world as his unique means of peace-making and reconciliation? If so, then maybe the greatest obstacle to peace-making is our stubborn affiliation with the empires of this world. “Blessed are the peace-makers, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”
By the way, this is not a plea for non-violent resistance per se. Even if we recognize the legitimate right of sovereign states to engage in armed resistance, we must press further to ask how my loyalty to Christ’s Kingdom positions me differently than my affiliation with one or more of the warring factions in the Middle East.
Jesus appears before an empire-leader of his own day. He is robed in royal purple, crowned with thorns, accused of insurrection, while a mob calls for him to be nailed to wooden beams. The pseudo empire-leader reprimands Jesus’ silence, “Do you not know that I have authority to crucify you?” The mob casts its lot with the empire, “We have no king but Caesar!” Despite all outward appearances to the contrary, Jesus states that the empire-leader would have no authority unless it had been given him from above (see John 19:11).
“…No authority were it not given them by God.”
Might the true Kingdom of Jesus, despite all outward appearances, actually be in and among the conflict, still suffering, still giving itself for the sake of the world, still calling people of all nations to its embrace of peace?