Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Kingdom of Heaven in the United States of America

Recently a paper, “Declaration of Covenant” from was distributed at our church. The intent of the distribution was to allow our church-goers to consider the point of view which is popular among some Christians: that the United States of America was founded as a politically Christian nation and should be “restored” to a Christian nation politically. As a student of history who knows we have not been a very Christian nation, as a follower of Jesus, who said that “My kingdom is not of this world” and “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s,” and as an Anabaptist who remembers our history of being persecuted by both Protestants and Catholics who were trying establish politically Christian kingdoms, I dispute the truth and wisdom of that point of view.

A quick note about points of view: I firmly believe that a point of view can be wrong or correct or (in most cases) have elements of truth mixed with falsehoods. But at the same time when we believe something we see current events, history, and scripture through the lens of that point of view. For this reason, once we come to believe something, we are not quick to change our minds about it because we key in on aspects that support our beliefs while downplaying or finding explanations for those things that contradict our beliefs. It is usually when we have built up enough unexplainable contradictions or the Holy Spirit changes our hearts that we are willing to change our minds and give up a belief. For this reason I ask the reader to be patient if they do not agree. I do not expect a reader who disagrees with my point of view to immediately change their minds upon reading this. However, reading this article may help you to better explain your own point of view, understand another person’s point of view, or be an important step in coming to a different point of view yourself one day.

When we look at the history of the Church we see warnings to forgo creating a political kingdom. Up until the Roman Emperor Constantine, the church was separate from the government. There were government officials who were Christians but governments were not “Christian.” As a separate entity, the church was able to be a prophetic voice, telling those in power to be just to the poor and the stranger. As a separate entity the church was able to love all and the nationality of the person did not matter because the church was without borders. As a separate entity the church could love its enemies. However, Constantine saw the growing numbers and wealth of the church and the decline of Rome’s power. Upon his conversion to Christianity (whether real or politically expedient) he joined the Church and the State into the Holy Roman Empire. At this point the church became an arm of the state (it has never been the other way around in any “Christian” government). The church became compromised. To speak prophetically was sedition. To love your enemies was treason. To be born a Roman was to be a Christian and the heart did not matter. To be born a non-Roman was to be outside the Church. And we can see the quick decline of the Church into becoming just another government with only the trappings of religiosity.

Into this came the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther. They were fed up with the loss of faithfulness to God’s word and broke off, starting anew. However, they did not give up on the idea of the church being part of the state. When other Christian groups, such as the Anabaptists (to which we Brethren belong), tried to practice our faith as we saw scripture teach, the Christian governments were quick to use the sword to maintain their kingdom, slaughtering us with drownings in icy rivers, burning at the stake, and other tortures (along with the normal, more pleasant, executions). When we ran to Catholic governed countries, we received the same treatment because we were not their kind of Christian either. And that is why we ended up in America. That is why we have historically supported the separation of church and state. We understand that with the power of the state behind it, the version of the church in power uses that power to persecute.

I’m not saying that an officially Christian United States would start executing Muslims or atheists or Mennonites. But as any attendee of a Christian school in America can tell you Christian law enforcement almost always declines into Pharisaical obsession with sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, conformity, and nationalism, while justice, mercy and faithfulness are ignored. And even now, as the church seeks and attains political power, it is compromised and we can see this happening.

I could write at length about the history of America and how those who founded and lead this country were in large part were not worshippers of Jesus. Among those who founded the United States there were Christians of many denominations, but there were also deists like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The facts that our founders were a mixed bag religiously are well established. I’m not going to waste your time rehashing what you can find in many history books, National Archives, etc. I know there are people who try to use out of context quotes to “prove” all founding fathers were Bible-believing, born-again Christians, but they are deluding themselves and others. It just is not so. These founders from different religious backgrounds knew the dangers of officially religious governments and they wisely decided to separate the state from the church. For the good of both the church and the state.

I could write at length about American history and how we as a nation have behaved in a most un-Christlike way throughout our history. But that also is well established by history.

The main reason we are not going see a treatise here on Christianity in American History is it really doesn’t matter whether or not the United States was started as a politically Christian nation or not. If a politically Christian nation is a holy and righteous thing to do, it is holy and righteous regardless of American history. If it is wrong, it is also wrong regardless of history. What does scripture say? As followers of Jesus, we must look to the example of Jesus and the revelation of God’s will in the Bible. Another note: Jesus and the New Testament is the lens through which we must view the Old Testament. Just as we do not directly go to the Leviticus for instructions on whether to mix different fibers to make cloth or how long a woman is unclean after her period or what kinds of animals are ok to eat, so we do not look for instructions on government in the Old Testament without looking through the lens of the New.

Jesus did teach about establishing a kingdom. But it was not a political kingdom. He had every resource and worldly reason to restore the political fortunes of Israel. The land of Israel was occupied by pagans who worshipped their emperor and a myriad of other “gods.” They demanded taxes of God’s people to expand their kingdom and further the worship of these false gods. Jesus was the Messiah. He was supposed to save his people and restore the throne of David. The masses loved him and would follow him as an un-numbered army. He was Almighty God and had legions of angels at his call. But when the people tried to make him a political king he rejected the idea. He told parables about the kingdom being like yeast worked through the dough of the world or about the wheat and the weeds growing together in the same field until the very end when God would judge between them. The Jewish leaders asked Jesus about paying taxes to the pagan Roman government, knowing the people wanted to throw off the Romans and establish Israel as an independent Jewish kingdom, Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” When the people realized that Jesus was not about to be the messiah they wanted, they turned on him. When brought before Pilate, Jesus was asked if he was a king. His answer was that yes, he was a king, but his kingdom was not of this world. A few hours later he established his kingdom by dying and being raised from the dead. He established a spiritual kingdom, not the political kingdom the Jews wanted.

If we are to “walk as Jesus walked” and he refused to create a political kingdom or allow his followers to do so, how can we do different? If this refusal to change the world by writing laws seems strange, it is because it is strange. To become rulers and compel people to obey with the power of the sword (or financial pressure, threats of ostracization, shame, etc.)is the world’s way. “But we do not wage war as the world does.” Our model for establishing the kingdom is the towel and the cross. Our model is servanthood, love, and suffering. When Jesus washed his disciples feet, he also washed Judas’ feet. Jesus did not wait for our hearts to change before he died on the cross. He went to the cross first and that act of love convinced us. Now it did not convince all, but that did not change Jesus’ final commands. He did not say, “Love, serving, and suffering don’t really work in the real world. No, he told his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” He told them to build the church, his body, and not a political nation.

After Jesus was taken into Heaven, the church grew by leaps and bounds. But while they established their own organizational structure, they were not creating a nation. On the contrary, their goal was to be the yeast and salt of the earth. They were to be scattered throughout the nations as living testimonies to their pagan neighbors. We will look at 2 examples (there are more).

In 1 Peter 2:9-17 it reads:

9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

It starts off pointing out that the people of God are a peculiar people: they are a nation, but not a political one. The church is a nation without borders that fills the earth. They are to live among the rest of the world as foreigners and exiles, without a country of their own, and to revere and obey God while they honor the government of the country they are in. Not to go off and start their own country where they can outlaw paganism.

In 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 we read:

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister[c] but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”[d]

One of the primary goals of an American politically Christian government is to enforce moral laws. But we are not supposed to be disciplining the people outside the church; that is God’s job.

Some will undoubtedly point back to the nation of Israel and argue that God started a nation in that instance. And that is true. But as Jesus obviously refused to reestablish Israel or establish some other political nation, we can conclude that God is calling us to something different than creating Christian nations. God chose Abraham to bless the entire world. Israel started off as a few dozen shepherds; they were taken in by Egypt during a famine, grew to several hundred thousand, were made slaves, and then lead out of Egypt. At this point God made them a political nation, with laws and organized government. They were more of a confederation than anything else, with a tribal form of leadership. God was to be their king. But the people did not want God as king. “Everyone did as he saw fit.” And after several hundred years, the people demanded a king, “like the other nations,” in effect corporately rejecting God as king. So they had Saul, David, and Solomon. But then after only 3 generations of kings, the nation was split by civil war, 2 tribes following Rehoboam to form Judah and 10 following Jeroboam to form Israel. Israel was disobedient, having not a single righteous king (Although not all the people were so; God told Elijah that he had a remnant of 7,000 righteous in Israel). After a few generations, Israel had so besmirched God’s name that he let them be defeated by the Assyrians and, with the exception of the dregs of society left behind to become Samaritans, were dispersed throughout the Assyrian empire. Judah had some good kings and some bad kings, but eventually, God let them be conquered and exiled by the Babylonians. In exile they learned that their true identity was as God’s people, not a political nation. After a time of exile they were repentant and God returned them to Judah. They were still a conquered nation and were governed over by other nations until finally they were ruled over by the Romans, at which time the Messiah came to them. Jesus came calling the people to a new kind of kingdom. He called them to repent, to do what is right, and to be a part of God’s heavenly kingdom. The word “heavenly” does not refer to afterlife. It means having to do with God and it takes place in the here and now. And, based on Jesus’ support for paying taxes to the Roman government while obeying God and his assertion that his kingdom “was not of this world”, Jesus was not starting a new political kingdom. He was calling the people to be a kingdom that exists parallel to all other governments. That supersedes those governments. The nation of Israel (largely) rejected their Messiah and the kingdom of heaven, instead trying to recreate their own lost political kingdom by a violent rebellion which Rome crushed and then dispersed the Jews throughout the world. The church became God’s people (with many of Jewish descent among them) and they are now scattered throughout the world, bringing the blessing to the world God promised to Abraham.

We are part of a kingdom which is so much more than a mere political nation. The church is a kingdom without borders that fills the whole earth. Scripture teaches us to live in the world as aliens and strangers among the pagans. It teaches us to discipline our own brothers and sisters (gently, with humility, and for their good) but to leave those outside the church to God’s judgment. The kingdom of heaven is an upside down kingdom (as far as the world is concerned) where God’s” strength is made perfect in our weakness,” our hope is “not on what is seen, but on what is unseen,” and the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. When we pursue the creation of a political nation we are very much like a new Israel. We are like the Israel that rejected Jesus because he did not create the political kingdom they wanted. Instead let us as the church in America be like the true Israel which follows Jesus into advancing the Kingdom of Heaven.