"My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."
When I was in seminary, the essay question on the Early Church History final exam was always the same: “Was the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 328 AD a missed opportunity or a tragic mistake?” Behind that question was the real question: could Christianity ever govern faithfully—is it possible to have a Christian “kingdom of this world”, or does Christianity become inherently corrupted by wielding earthly power? If it might be possible to govern a nation or a society according to Christian rule and doctrine, then the conversion of Constant ine was a missed opportunity—the Holy Roman Empire did not end up creating any more peace or faithfulness than any other empire. But if it would never be possible, working with the words of today’s Gospel from Jesus, to have a “Kingdom of this world” based upon his teachings, then the conversion of Constantine—and all the nations since that have attempted to consider themselves “Christian”—was a tragic mistake.
The correct answer—according to the professor, and since the test was the same every year, we all knew what to expect—was that the conversion of Constantine was a missed opportunity. Like most—but not all—of my classmates, that is the essay I wrote, and it’s a legitimate position. But in the intervening 16 years, I’m beginning to think that maybe the true answer is that it was a tragic mistake.
Miroslav Volf is a theologian who teaches at Yale; he is Croatian by birth, and grew up in Serbia as part of Yugoslavia; and has written extensively on reconciliation as both a practical and theological concept in the context of ethnic cleansing and war in the former Yugoslavia, and the shift in roles that takes one war’s victims and turns them into perpetrators in the next that makes the world so complicated. He wrote this week in a piece in the Washington Post on the question of whether religion is bad for the world:
Put the glove of religion on the hand of either a revolutionary or a statesman, and religion will be pulled into the dynamics of cohesion, control, acquisition and maintenance of power, and the marking of boundaries — and will more likely than not turn violent. In other words, align moral self-understanding of society, state and religion, and even most peaceful religion will become ready to “take up the gun.”
It’s a fabulous essay, worthy of reading in its entirety, but that passage particularly stood out for me in the context of our world today, with a group purporting to be an “Islamic State” terrorizing the world and some voices in our own nation calling for some sort of establishment of Christianity and Judaism as favored religions in our nation.
There are fundamentalist Buddhists in the process of oppressing, killing, and exiling Muslims in Myanmar and Thailand. Of all the world religions, you would think that Buddhism, with its complete focus on approaching Nirvana through setting aside earthly concerns, would be immune to political corruption. And yet. Human beings get in the way.
Jesus speaks a lot about his kingdom in the gospels—the “Kingdom of God” which is like a mustard seed, a pearl of great price, a field, and so many other images. It is not a kingdom of this world—it is the kingdom where the poor are blessed, the oppressed are free, and the blind receive their sight. That doesn’t sound like the world as it is. But it is also not completely disconnected from this world—it is very, very close. So close that for people of faith, those who follow Jesus, we encounter it daily—the kingdom of God breaks in on our earthly lives in compassion, in love, and in relationship; but also in sacrament and Word. The meal we are about to share is the foretaste of the feast to come—the taste of that banquet that we will fully encounter only in God’s kingdom.
So how can we live as citizens of this world and as citizens of the Kingdom of God at the same time, if it is not to establish the actions of our governments as acts of our religion? Because that is often a supposition of our faith: we are called to preach the gospel to ALL nations, and believe that Jesus is the way for ALL people, and if everyone in the world became a Christian, wouldn’t that solve everything? At some level, that is the supposition of the collect: “Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule”. We hear “rule” and thinking “kingdom of this world” instead of “kingdom of God.”
Let’s keep looking at today’s gospel: Pilate is baffled by this idea of a king whose kingdom is not of this world. Pilate asks Jesus, "So you are a king?" and Jesus answers: "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." And then comes the next line which is mysteriously omitted from today’s lectionary selection, when Pilate asks, “What is truth?”
Pilate is a governor who knows the objective truth: Jesus isn’t a criminal. And even though Pilate knows the truth, he is swept up by the needs of the people he is governing and decides to execute Jesus anyway. He tells himself a different story, a different truth: that it is expedient for one man to die to avoid civil unrest.
We tell ourselves a lot of stories. I know for myself, the stories I tell often make me look better than I actually am. There’s another subset of stories I tell myself that make me worse than I actually am. Neither set of stories is objectively truthful. We tell ourselves stories as individuals and also as cultures, and sometimes they are more truthful than others—the Thanksgiving narrative is an obvious and topical one, on several levels. When I learned the story of Thanksgiving, it was a story about Pilgrims who came to a new land to find freedom and made friends with the Indians, who helped them out and shared their feast and everyone lived happily ever after.
That’s not the fully truthful or factual version of the story—as I think we all know today. The Pilgrims were fleeing religious and political persecution—a persecution, I should point out, that was inflicted on them by us, the Anglican Church. We’re the people the Pilgrims were running away from (!). And they came to this new land, a great and noble venture, and while some settlers got along with the Native Americans, many did not, and their arrival marked one beginning of the near extinction of Native American lives and culture and prosperity.
The less truthful stories that we inherit and create shape our identity, our self image, our actions.
But Jesus comes to us today as the truth. Calling us to truth—as Christians, as citizens in the world, in every area of our lives. Truth. Honesty. Self-reflection.
Truth is sometimes unflattering—and always nuanced. There are competing goods in our truths: the Thanksgiving story has a people fleeing persecution, and in the years after that story, those who had been persecuted become persecutors themselves. Rather like Miroslav Volf’s writings on the former Yugoslavia.
If we are followers of Jesus then we are followers of the truth, and Jesus tells us that the truth will set us free. But we will need to look at all our stories and sift out the truth from them.
We tell ourselves stories about Islam: it is violent and oppressive. More violent and oppressive than other religions. We tell ourselves stories about Christianity: it is peaceful. More peaceful than other religions. And the opposite is true for some of us as well—we tell stories that do not acknowledge the vicious violence of some versions is Islam, and we tell stories that do not acknowledge the good and peacefulness of Christianity.
Jesus is the truth—not just the words of Jesus but his very life. So what is our truth?
He was born in a nation occupied by a ruling power.
He was born to poor parents.
Depending on which gospel you read, his family were exiled and lived as refugees in Egypt.
He healed people.
He was friends with sinners.
He was violently executed by a state, even though he had not committed a crime.
He was raised from death, and promised resurrection to all of us as well.
“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” Thanks be to God for Jesus, our truth.