The Kingdom of God; The Heart of Justice
On our Florida vacation we visited one of the big theme parks. It was a great place for people watching. When you spend a half hour, or forty five minutes, or longer, waiting in a line for a theme park attraction, there is little else to do, but observe the interesting variety, shapes and sizes and ways we have, of being human.
I noticed something happening inside myself while waiting in line. Confronted with people from different places, and ethnic backgrounds, and to some extent, social and economic standing, the first thing I tend to notice is the differences. I might tell myself I am seeing how people are different from each other, but on a deeper level, I also pay attention to how people are not like me. I also look to see if there is anyone around who is like me. I play a bit of “them and us”.
Maybe it is a leftover trait from earlier times. Our ancestors banded together into extended families or tribes for protection from other groups that might covet the food or water or shelter they claimed for their own use. Members might dress alike, or do their hair in similar ways, or wear markings that identified them as part of one group, and not part of the other. That’s why sports teams, and armies wear uniforms.
When I was relaxed and patient, and feeling okay about waiting in line, the differences amongst people were interesting, actually kind of entertaining. At times when I was losing my patience with waiting, or when my feet hurt, or I was hungry or thirsty, I was less entertained. Then I might begin to notice how some people’s behaviours were annoying. Maybe they were speaking loudly, or to my mind, rudely. Maybe they were being unkind to their kids, or people nearby. Maybe they were eating loudly, or drinking, or smoking, and subjecting others to second hand smoke. Maybe they just looked not merely different, but weird to me.
My attitude about people’s differences changed depending upon on how I was feeling, and whether or not I felt like my needs were being met. Like my need to get to the head of the line!
I also noticed that if a child became upset, or someone needed help, another shift happened inside me. I began to be able to care about these folks I did not know. Once I saw a child escape from the attention of its mother, and begin to wander, and my “dad” instincts kicked in. I broke out of my invisible cocoon to talk to the mom, and point to the child. That led to a little conversation about who was from where. Compassion overcame the barriers that separated us, and we became something other than strangers, we became fellow travellers.
In this week’s chapter of The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg says that the United States is the most individualistic culture in human history. I don’t think we are much different in Canada. Emphasis on individual responsibility, and the belief that we are masters of our own lives, the product of our own efforts leads us to ignore the web of relationships and circumstances that shape our lives, and make them possible. We buy into the idea that we are self-made, self-sufficient, and tend to live in self-serving ways.
This self-centered way of being is encouraged by a certain kind of Christianity, that focuses on personal salvation. When the emphasis is on what each person must do to ensure their place in heaven, there is little attention given to how things are going on earth. In this paradigm of Christianity, God’s justice is seen as only being about how we are judged by God for our sins, and God’s mercy is only about God’s forgiveness. This narrow, and distorted conception of God’s passion for justice does not encourage us to go beyond our individual concerns. It discourages faithful people from talking about politics, or trying to fix our broken system. It skips over the words of Old Testament prophet Micah, who when asked what God requires of us, answered, “to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8)
Another author, an evangelical Christian named Ron Sider, in a book called “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger”, told the “Parable of the Ambulance Drivers and the Tunnel Builders.”
A group of devout Christians once lived in a small village at the foot of a mountain. A winding, slippery road with hairpin curves and steep precipices without guard rails wound its way up one
side of the mountain and down the other. There were frequent fatal accidents. Deeply saddened by the injured people who were pulled from the wrecked cars, the Christians in the village’s three churches decided to act.
They pooled their resources and purchased an ambulance. Over the years, they saved many lives although some victims remained crippled for life. Then one day a visitor came to town, Puzzled, he asked why they did not close the road over the mountain and build a tunnel instead. (Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger Word Publishing, 1997, pp. 223-224).
“Ambulance drivers” try to respond to the needs that they see. “Tunnel builders” try to address what causes those needs to arise in the first place. The picture Marcus Borg paints of Jesus is that he was as much a tunnel builder as an ambulance driver.
Central to Jesus’ teaching were the words “Kingdom of God”. We use that metaphor every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. ”Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” Kingdom is a political word. Jesus could have spoken about the community of God or the family of God. Those images would express how we are all connected. But Jesus used the word “kingdom”, in a time and place in which kingdom meant very specific things.
Jesus was a Jew born into poverty in Palestine, a state controlled by the Roman Empire, which ruled through military might, and with their puppet Jewish King, Herod. Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God in ways that were at odds with life in the kingdoms of Herod and Caesar. Under Caesar, ordinary people had no voice in the way things worked. They were ruled by the monarchy and a powerful aristocracy.
Ordinary people were exploited for their labour in a system in which 90 percent of the people were poor. 1/2 to 2/3 of the wealth produced ended up in the hands of the wealthiest 1 to 5 percent of the population. Poor people had much harder and shorter lives than the wealthy elite.
The religion of the Roman Empire proclaimed Caesar was a god on Earth, who ruled by divine right. In places like Palestine, the Roman occupiers kept the local religion in place, and used the figurehead king, who already had the blessing of the local religion, to run things for them. This perpetuated the idea that the way things were, was the way the gods had created them to be. To question the authority of Herod, or his Roman bosses was not just treason, it was also heresy.
When the Jesus movement began to grow and thrive, it became common for people to declare “Jesus is Lord”. To our ears this sounds like an expression of piety. In places under Roman control, this was also a political statement, because “”Lord” was one of the titles of the Roman emperor. To say that Jesus is Lord was to say that Caesar is not Lord.
On coins, and on the inscriptions on statues and public buildings, Caesar was also referred to as the “son of god”, as “savior”, as “king of kings” and “lord of lords”. Caesar was also credited for having brought peace to the earth.
When the writer of Luke’s Gospel told the story of the birth of Jesus, they included a declaration of the angel to shepherds, amongst the poorest of the poor, that contained direct challenges to Caesar. “To you is born this day a Saviour, who is the Christ, the Lord… who will bring peace on earth.”
For a follower of Jesus to say in Roman times that Jesus is Lord, is like Christians in Nazi Germany saying, Jesus is mein Fuhrer, and therefore Hitler is not. Jesus’ words about the Kingdom of God were a radical critique of Caesar’s earthly kingdom.
With the exception of Jerusalem, Jesus avoided cities, which were home to the wealthy and their servants, and the small middle class of merchants and traders. Jesus spent his time in the villages and towns of the rural countryside, where he lived with, and spoke with, and shared meals with peasants. Many of them lived hand to mouth. They sought work each day to earn the money to feed their families.
We don’t have to look any further in Jesus’ teachings than the Lord’s Prayer, to see the passion for justice. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven. “In other words, “Heaven’s in great shape; earth is where the problems are.” The way things are under Roman rule is not how God wants them to be.
“Give us this day our daily bread” reminds us of our daily dependence upon God, but it also comes out of the peasant’s daily experience, their struggle to find enough to eat each day.
The next part of the prayer, depending upon which version we read, is about the forgiveness of sin, or the forgiveness of debt. There is spiritual value is praying for forgiveness of sin, and it is important to connect that to our capacity to forgive others.
To pray the other version, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” speaks to the situation of the peasants, many of whom had lost or were losing their homes, or the small parcels of land their families had held. When they had nothing left that could be foreclosed on, many ended up being sold into indentured labour, virtual slavery.
The Lord’s Prayer we say so often, without really considering its justice dimension, can be heard as a rallying cry for social change. A call for a more just system, in which there would be fair access to food for all who are hungry, and a way out from under the crippling burden of debt. It is no wonder that in places like Guatemala and Nicaragua, priests and ministers, missionaries and nuns who taught ordinary people to pray this prayer, and to study the words of Jesus were called dangerous revolutionaries.
For those of us who are to some degree removed from those daily survival issues, the political, justice seeking aspect of Jesus’ message may seem less relevant. But for Jesus, the two halves of the message; the need for each of us to be transformed, to become a new person, and God’s desire that the kingdoms of this world reflect real love and real mercy, are inseparably linked. Our spiritual well-being depends upon the well-being of others. The work for justice in our world needs to be rooted in our awareness of God’s love for us, and for every other person. We really are all members of God’s family, fellow citizens of God’s kingdom. Amen