The Kingdom of God… by force

One of the classic lessons of Christianity, a Sunday school staple, is the contrast between the exuberant welcoming of Jesus into Jerusalem as a long-awaited messiah king, and the contempt and cruelty he suffered at the hands of that same crowd soon after. “They were expecting a fearsome, military warrior,” we are told. “They wanted someone to defeat the Romans and bring the Kingdom of God by force. They didn’t understand what Jesus really came to do.”

True enough. But as I look at many modern Christians and ecclesiastical spokesmen today, I cannot help but feel that the same applies.

In a recent article, Giles Fraser yet again bangs the radical, counter-cultural drum. “It sounds like a phrase from the French Revolution… but it’s the buried message of Christianity”. In some sense he is right; Jesus announced clearly what the gospel of the kingdom was when he went into every synagogue and asked for the scroll of Isaiah, announcing “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

But the question is this: Is it for us, as Christians, to enforce our own ideas of the Kingdom of God? We want to see the world redeemed, we want to see both mercy and justice, we believe that ultimately the first will indeed be last and vice versa. And we can absolutely live in ways which move towards rather than away from this goal, and encourage others to do the same. But is this a justification to self-righteously destroy those powers and principalities, believing that it is what Jesus somehow asks of us? Can someone who does not know God, does not believe in Jesus, is entirely ignorant of the Bible – can someone like that be strong-armed into fulfilling your own fiery idea of what the Kingdom of God looks like?

Caring for widows, orphans and the imprisoned (or whoever their stigmatised, excluded equivalents may be in our societies) are good works which I believe God has prepared for us to do. But trying to drag “the Kingdom” in by our own strength often looks worryingly like the sort of secular utopian idealism that has failed and failed again. Happily, almost no one is proposing that Jesus would have us conquer the world militarily. But many Christians seem so absolutely sure that it is God’s will for such-and-such corporation to be destroyed, for higher taxes and more welfare spending to be implemented and so on. God wants people to be fed, right? He wants structures which contribute to inequality to be destroyed, right?

Well, maybe; I’m not saying He doesn’t. However, I see their certainty and it makes me think of the certainty of those Jews anxious to be released from their Roman oppressors. It’s easy in retrospect to say “they didn’t understand”, but put yourself in their shoes: Surely God wanted to liberate His people, to free them from the yoke of the imperial tyrants?

As it turns out, no, He didn’t. He allowed the pagan empire to mercilessly crush those who saw themselves as His chosen people. And why? Because those chosen people – those who were sure they understood the terms on which God would act – could simply not accept that they were the ones who needed to change; that the problems they had were within, rather than without.

Giles Fraser sees the Church of England’s crumbling edifice of state-associated authority, of coronations and bishops in the House of Lords, as the sort of worldly power that Christianity should shun. What he doesn’t seem to realise is he too very much believes in a forceful entry for the Kingdom of God, at the sharp end of a guillotine or perhaps at the hand of Caroline Lucas.

You don’t have to be a Christian to feel angered by inequality or injustice, neither do you have to be a Christian to try to do something about it. A century or so ago, it seemed like only a handful of religious types were interested in helping the weak and the poor. Now, you probably have more friends who have done a charitable marathon than those who haven’t. But what the Christian can and should bring to what seems like the ever more desperate race to the moral high ground is perspective, not more sabre-rattling. The understanding that the world’s biggest problem is not poverty, nor capitalism, nor for that matter socialism, but heart disease. A heart disease for which there is only one qualified physician, and at Christmas we celebrate his arrival.

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