In early 21st century American politics, the two sides of our partisan divide can be described as a rupture between the two halves of Jesus’ Great Commandment. One side champions personal holiness (love of God) and thinks that the role of society is to create a basic system of law and order that will allow individuals to succeed or fail according to whether or not they make responsible choices. The other side champions social justice (love of neighbor) and thinks that the role of society is to make sure that everyone is provided for and has a seat at the table. The challenge of Christians who want to see kingdom values reflected in our society’s politics is to sew love of God and love of neighbor back together.
The problem is that many people use the half of the Commandment they like as a shield against the other side. Some justify their lack of concern for social justice with their zeal for personal holiness, while others do the opposite, and most are in the confused middle. It has not always been the case that personal holiness and social justice were pitted against each other. In the late 19th century, evangelicals built a prophetic movement that fought for temperance, women’s suffrage, labor union rights, and public education, among other justice and holiness issues. So how in the world could the religious right and the religious left of today ever unify around a kingdom-based political movement? I propose starting with the following recognitions about the kingdom and the world around us.
1) Peace and justice can only fully happen in the kingdom
The kingdom of God describes the social order that is submitted to the reign of God’s mercy established through Jesus’ cross and resurrection. Kingdom people have gained the freedom to admit that they’re wrong; they know that Jesus suffers with them anytime they are mistreated; and they trust that God will right every wrong just as Jesus was vindicated by His resurrection. This is the social circumstance in which true peace and justice can exist organically between people. The word for mercy in Hebrew is hesed, which means not just “forgiveness,” but the unconditional “loving-kindness” that you have inside a family. God establishes peace and justice not through war and tribunal, but by making us a family in which the blood that incorporates us is thicker than genetics. This doesn’t negate the need for restitution and reconciliation in dealing with the conflict and injustice of the world. It just means that our feet need to be wearing kingdom shoes whenever we march on Washington, like Dr. King who sought to be reconciled with his oppressors into one family.
2) The kingdom engages the world both subversively and pragmatically
People of the kingdom should always remain aloof to the structures and allegiances of the world. Christians on both sides of our Great Commandment schism have failed in this regard. Social gospel Christians from the early 20th century allowed their social reforms to get co-opted and absorbed into a centralized, secular bureaucracy. Similarly, the Christian family values movement today has allowed its cause to be co-opted by worldly agendas that have nothing to do with Jesus’ priorities like gun rights and climate change denial. We have to engage the world, but it is a perilous task that we must do cautiously to avoid being remade in the world’s image. We need to be subversive, which means that we can do things like cover our hearts for the Star Spangled Banner in order to win others for the kingdom but never forgetting that pledging our allegiance to a piece of fabric is flirting with idolatry since Christ is our king. We also need to be pragmatic, which means that even though we might like it better if the church could feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and heal the sick on its own, we do not accomplish this goal by sabotaging the ability of secular institutions like the government to provide for the hungry, naked, and sick.
3) Technocracy and capitalism both stand against the kingdom
There are two major forces in our society right now that stand against God’s kingdom. Technocracy describes the presumption that our society’s problems have to be handled by “experts,” who are hidden behind bureaucratic walls and speak in inaccessible jargon whenever they do enter the public discourse. Technocracy tells us that regular people can’t be heroes. It throws a wet blanket over the spirit of entrepreneurship which, understood properly, is a thoroughly Christian value – the fearless surrender to the lead of the Holy Spirit, something kingdom people should be all about.
The other suffocating force in our society is capitalism, by which I do not mean simply a “free market” environment in which we are free to start our own businesses that sell products at prices we set, but rather the mysterious force that emerges within the free market which manipulates us into seeing everything as a commodity whose value is derived extrinsically through exchange rather than intrinsically through its intangible worth as God’s creation. Capitalism can easily cause us to see everything we own as investment property. One of the most damaging impacts of capitalism has been the sexual degeneration of our society over the past 40 years, which is primarily the result of making sex into the most important commodity used to sell products. Kingdom people cannot avoid navigating the free market, but we must avoid falling under the seduction of its commodities.
4) The kingdom is neither Pleasantville nor Woodstock
The 1998 film Pleasantville offers a side-by-side comparison of what I consider the two failed moral imaginations of the twentieth century. The premise of the movie is that two teenagers from the present have been warped into a 1950’s sitcom in which everything is absolutely safe and predictable. It critiques the American nostalgia for an idyllic Pleasantville that creates the phenomenon of suburbia, a way of leaving the world in which you flee the city with its violent mixture of race and class in order to seek a place where you only see people who look like you. This is the opposite of the way that we were told to leave the world by our Savior who said, “The poor will always be with you.” And yet many American Christians confuse the flight to Pleasantville with seeking the kingdom of God.
The film Pleasantville solves the problem of the Fifties by making the Sixties happen and invoking what I will call the Woodstock moral imagination. After the co-protagonist Mary Sue “pins” the captain of the basketball team in his car at Lovers’ Lane, patches of color start to appear in the black and white scenery. Soon, sexual liberation leads to a proliferation of art and culture and the whole town turns completely into color. The film doesn’t seem to realize that its Woodstock utopia is the second failed moral imagination of the twentieth century. Free love doesn’t make us free. It makes us selfish. “Open-mindedness” doesn’t make us more tolerant of each other; it makes us intolerant of people whose principles make our self-indulgence feel uncomfortable.
The kingdom is the solution to both the Fifties and the Sixties at the same time. Kingdom people seek neither to build safe, isolated castles for their nuclear families nor abandon themselves to their appetites at clothing-optional, drug-infested parties. We want to build a world in which all are safe, joyful, and part of the same family, which requires personal moral discipline on each of our parts but not as a means of constructing moral gated communities from which we can watch the world with a sanctimonious disapproval that justifies our lack of compassion.
You’ll notice I didn’t say anything about voting. I don’t think we should refrain from voting, but if the church were the prophetic voice it has been at other points in history, the buttons we pressed every two years would be less relevant than the relationships we built with politicians between election campaigns. Because of the culture wars, politicians have no reason to take the church seriously. As long as they’re voting for our preference on the token culture war issues, there’s no reason for them to think that we would change our vote if they blow us off on any other issue. Until a critical mass of Christians can sew the Great Commandment back together and demand that our government live in accordance with the love for God and love of neighbor that define the values of the kingdom, we will have little impact on our politicians’ realpolitik calculations. I look forward to the time when we look back on this broken and frustrating time in our history as the catalyst for a movement of prophetic integrity.
Morgan Guyton is the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Virginia, and a Christian who continues to seek God’s liberation from the prison of self-justification Jesus died to help him overcome. Morgan’s blog “Mercy Not Sacrifice” is located at http://morganguyton.wordpress.com. Follow Morgan on twitter at www.twitter.com/maguyton.