It’s been a while since I’ve done a post in this series. My homeroom students of four years were getting ready to graduate (awww…I’m so proud of them!) and I didn’t want to weigh myself down mentally and emotionally by going back through the week’s news to put these pieces together. Then I spent the first week of summer vacation as one of five chaperones on a mission trip with twenty of our upcoming seniors in Baltimore working with Catholic Charities. Well, a lot’s happened in the news that could fill this post. However, instead of going back and trying to make sense of it all right now, I’m writing something a lot more personal. I want to write about why I’m passionate about what I’m passionate about and explain the forces that shape my politics.
My personal politics have never come down to a matter of being “liberal” or “conservative” nor “Democrat” or “Republican.” In my life, I’ve been a registered Republican and a registered Democrat. I’ve also never been one to vote the party ticket. I’ve always tried to vote for whomever I feel will do the best job of helping to pull us, no matter how slow the progress may seem, towards the Kingdom of God. My faith in Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God is what shapes (with varying degrees of success, given the day) the choices I make and the causes I commit myself to.
The Kingdom of God is Jesus’ term for the world radically transformed in the image of God. Jesus gave his life and his ministry to the service of this dream. The dream was God’s and Jesus invited all those he met to live that dream too. As such, his ministry was fueled by the passion of a choice. He saw the world as it was and he saw the world as God wanted it to be. He chose the latter and his teachings and actions were a constant challenge to all those who came in contact with him to do the same. Jesus dared to dream of the world remade in the image of God. He dared to share God’s dream for creation and he challenged the world to do the same.
To authentically honor Jesus I feel we must honor what he lived for. It isn’t enough to attend Mass every Sunday and receive the Eucharist. It wasn’t for a specific liturgical rite that Jesus lived, although that sacramental and communal bond is vitally important. He lived for God’s dream and we—first and foremost—must choose that dream for the world as well. To say that we believe Jesus is our “personal Lord and Savior” but ignore and neglect the driving purpose of his life is to pay him little more than lip service. If we are to call Jesus “Christ” and mean it we must put ourselves in the service of the Kingdom because that is what Jesus did. To say we honor the man and willingly or apathetically refuse to follow his call is the deepest of hypocrisies.
A few weeks ago, on Pentecost Sunday, the homily at Mass made the point in this way. Our priest essentially said on the cross Jesus won the victory of salvation over sin…but his mission wasn’t finished. He left the work of building the Kingdom of God to the church. Our responsibility then is to follow Jesus’ model in faith and forge the Kingdom with God.
Although two thousand years of Christian faith and theological writings have obscured this point we must understand fully and completely that Jesus wasn’t talking about heaven. Jesus, as a devout Jewish man growing up in Nazareth in the first century, most likely believed in an afterlife. It certainly wouldn’t have been uncommon for him to do so. A clear Jewish belief in resurrection and a vision of the afterlife began to take shape during the second century BCE. However, that is at best an educated guess as Jesus never preached about an afterlife. For Jesus the Kingdom of God was a this-worldly reality. When we discuss Jesus and his Kingdom vision we must remember it was always a plan for this world. To get lost in the idea of heaven is to lose Jesus’ message.
It is significant that the only instance we have in scripture of Jesus teaching how we are to pray affirms this. When we look at the Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer, found in Matthew 6:9-14 and mirrored in Luke 11:2-9, we see this illustrated vividly. In both instances the prayer is given to the disciples in the context of their asking Jesus how to pray. Matthew has Jesus respond:
“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
The plan for the Kingdom is very clear in this prayer. “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The Kingdom of God was about remaking earth in heaven’s image. It was about placing God in control—“Your will be done”—of the earth as God is in heaven. Bread and debt were concerns of the living. Jesus is clearly speaking about the removal of hunger and debts from the starving and impoverished. And, following the sequence of the prayer, that happens as a result of remaking the earth in the image of heaven. In this prayer, Jesus is calling those who will listen to relinquish control to God and work alongside God to radically transform the world, realizing God’s dream for creation in the process.
We must also remember when Jesus was preaching the Kingdom of God he wasn’t speaking of only a religious reality. With the Kingdom’s intimate and passionate connection to God it is religious in the fullest sense of the word. The Kingdom was God’s dream for this world. That made it religious. However, to be engaged in and concerned with the affairs of the world as fully as Jesus and his Kingdom vision were is to be political. The Kingdom was God’s dream for this world. So the Kingdom of God was as much a political vision as it was a religious one. Jesus called his followers to be involved with the world. There was no other way to realize God’s dream. That involvement thrust them amidst all that was religious and political. Jesus’ call was to choose God’s dream. To make that choice is to work toward nothing less than the complete and total transformation of the world in God’s image.
This begs the very natural question: What is the character of that transformation?
Jesus’ Kingdom vision was certainly at odds with the world and its values, as much then as now. The Kingdom of God challenges everything the world and culture hold as sacred. The best compilation in scripture of Jesus’ challenge to society on behalf of God’s dream is found in the form of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. These scripture passages can essentially serve as Jesus’ greatest hits. Both sermons begin with the Beatitudes, offering as striking a challenge to the status quo today as when they were delivered two thousand years ago. Luke’s version in 6:20-21 is commonly considered to be closer to the actual words of Jesus than Matthew’s more spiritualized and elaborated version. So Luke’s will be considered here. In Luke, Jesus begins his sermon with these words, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” By using the term “blessed” Jesus is telling his listeners that God is to be found in the most unlikely of places. God is among the poor, the hungry, and the weeping. The Kingdom of God is good news aimed at these marginalized and oppressed people. When the Kingdom comes, it will belong to the poor. In it, the hungry will be full. Those who weep will laugh. With the Kingdom of God, the natural order of the world is turned on its head.
Our world seems about as ready to accept this vision today as it was when Jesus proclaimed it two thousand years ago. Those in power will fight it. Those living comfortably will underplay it. And those at the edges of society will rejoice in it. As scripture scholar N.T. Wright explains, “He solemnly announced God’s blessings—but he blessed all the wrong people; the poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the persecuted, the peacemakers…This is a dangerous message, an exciting, deeply subversive message.” These words make all of us who don’t fall into the blessed group uncomfortable.
This is what Jesus calls us to understand. God is with the poorest of the poor. Jesus stood for them and proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was theirs. That means we, as contemporary Christians, need to stand by and for the poor, hungry, and oppressed too. If we are to pledge ourselves to the service of the Kingdom, if we are to choose God’s dream, we have to pledge ourselves to the poor and marginalized. There is no way around it.
After his section on the Beatitudes, Luke moves directly to Jesus’ call to love. This is vitally important. Throughout the New Testament writings, from Paul’s genuine letters to the Gospels to Hebrews, 1 Peter, and 1 & 2 John, love is both the primary means of forging the Kingdom and the mark of a true Christian. As a result, Luke 6:27-36 is not only one of the most important passages Luke records, it is also one of the most challenging. In the very beginning we see that Jesus is talking about unconditional love. This love, a love of our enemies and persecutors, must be without limits. Jesus calls us out by saying that everyone loves the people who love them back. That’s easy. Love is the love of Jesus when we love that which seems impossible to love. It is only with this unconditional love that we can build the Kingdom of God. In every moment of every day we are called to love.
Jesus’ love also implies nonviolence. We see this in Matthew 5:38-45. “[T]he Greek verb translated ‘resist’ most often means ‘resist with violence.’ Thus, rather than counseling nonresistance to an evildoer, which would imply doing nothing in the face of evil, the verse really says, ‘Do not resist an evildoer with violence.’ “ Turing the other cheek was a far more rebellious act grounded in nonviolence than we may think. “In that world, a slap with the back of a hand was the way a superior struck a subordinate. The saying thus presupposes a situation of domination: a peasant being backhanded by a steward or official, a prisoner being backhanded by a jailer, and so forth. When this happens, turn the other cheek. What would be the effect of that? The beating could continue only if the superior used an overhand blow—which is the way an equal struck another equal.” Jesus would never advocate a Kingdom bringing program that allowed abuse. Those who pledge their lives to the Kingdom of God are not to passively sit back and allow themselves to be beaten. They can (and should) resist evil but with nonviolent means. It was fighting back violently that was forbidden. Love doesn’t endure abuse. But love doesn’t use violence to accomplish its ends either.
The love Jesus calls us to is also one free of judgment. In Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus illustrates the very real hypocrisy inherent whenever we judge another human being. We are all sinners, this passage implies. We have all made mistakes. So then it’s not our place to judge—ever. We have no right to judge. Love doesn’t judge and God doesn’t judge. Who then, are we to? Jesus reminds us of this and then takes it one step farther. We will not be judged unless we judge others and the measure we receive will be the measure we have given. Essentially, we get what we give. To work, unconditional love and non-judgment must go hand in hand. When we stop judging we can love without condition. And when we love without condition we will no longer judge.
This love is also manifested in total giving. Jesus calls those who listen to give more than is taken from them and to never refuse any request from anyone who begs of them. Momentarily imagine a life like that. Imagine walking through Times Square in New York City and giving freely to everyone who begs of you. How far do you think you could go before your wallet was empty? How many blocks could you walk before you had nothing else left to give? Yet that is exactly what Jesus calls us to do. This illustrates two key aspects of the Kingdom of God. First, love freely and willingly answers any call—no questions asked. Second, our ideas of “mine” and “yours” are no longer relevant in the Kingdom. “Ownership” and “possession” are determined by need instead.
Finally, the Kingdom must be a communal activity. It can only be forged by many people working together. If I alone walk through Times Square giving to all who beg it won’t be long until I have nothing left. But if everyone who can give gives to everyone who needs then soon the issue is resolved. There is no unfair strain on a few and with everyone sharing everything freely, the very foundation of need itself is eroded.
It wasn’t just preaching that Jesus offered though. He lived as though the Kingdom was already present. Despite a purity system of the time that saw sin as a communicable disease, Jesus used his healings, most often performed by touch, to show no one who needed help was off limits. By approaching those who were sick, Jesus was not only able to heal their physical ailments but he was able to heal the scars of their exclusion from society that their sickness left behind as well. Jesus thereby forced others to either reject him from their community or to accept the leper within it as well. We see the same movement towards radical egalitarianism in those he ate with.
At table, Jesus cast a new vision of society. This was done not without risk or insult. Matthew 11:18-19 shows Jesus speaking about the charges leveled at both himself as well as John the Baptist by their detractors. The charges were harsh and humiliating but they made sense given the company Jesus kept. Jesus dined with and accepted tax collectors and sinners. He dined with women, made them central to his movement, and afforded them the sort of respect and equality given only to men. No boundaries were sacred. What Jesus was doing was unacceptable to the culture; he would have been considered a deviant and perverted for his actions. But he wasn’t worried about his reputation. He wasn’t worried about anything other than the people he ate with and the world that meal was creating. In the Kingdom of God there are no boundaries, borders, divisions, or hierarchies. All are radically equal. This gives us a glimpse into why Jesus meant so much to the people he met. He gave them an unparalleled gift by loving them completely and accepting them fully just as they were.
This world of unconditional love and giving, this world free from judgment where everyone is welcomed with full inclusion as they are is the world of the Kingdom of God. Is this Kingdom of God impossible? Or is it simply improbable? The world overwhelmingly affirms that it’s impossible. But Jesus believed (to paraphrase Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino) it was not only an object of hope but one of certainty. If we are to take seriously the call of Jesus then we must consider this too.
I believe, in the very core of my being, that all of this is indeed possible. If I didn’t, I couldn’t teach what I teach nor would I live how I try (even if I often fail) to live. But I believe in the Kingdom of God. This is why I fight for universal healthcare, for careful and loving stewardship of our planet, for loving inclusion of all, for open boarders and a rejection of violence, racism, sexism, and a punitive attitude towards the poor and marginalized – because that’s what the Kingdom is. At the deepest, most intimate level of who I am I believe this Kingdom of God is possible. I believe it because I believe in Jesus and what he called us to build.
This past week in Baltimore, Hannah and I took our group of students to serve dinner at My Sister’s Place – a meal service provided exclusively for women and children. At My Sister’s Place, the daily dinner count is always significantly smaller than those served for breakfast and lunch. The reason for this is simple. It is more dangerous for a woman to sleep on the streets than it is for a man and shelters have a limited number of beds. Given this reality, many women seek shelter for the night at the expense of dinner.
As Hannah and I watched our students serve food to these women and their beautiful children all trapped in the stupid, senseless evil of homelessness, our conversation began in sadness, moved to frustration, and settled in anger. How can we as a country not see that EVERY HUMAN LIFE is worth more than everything we culturally value above them? We lamented our cultural disconnect, our willful ignorance, our selfishness. We desired an answer but only found a growing tide of anger inside ourselves.
At a particularly dark and heavy moment in our conversation one of the regular volunteers at My Sister’s Place cued up a mix tape she put together of dance music. It turns out she likes to throw dance parties whenever high school students volunteer. A party erupted in the dining room. Our students danced as the women eating watched and smiled while their children laughed and joined in. In the midst of the sadness and the frustration Hannah and I were feeling, all of a sudden, there was the birth of great joy. In that half hour of dancing, we were all united in a divisionless party and the joy of dancing.
As I realized what I was watching – the Kingdom of God breaking into reality, if only for a moment – I started to cry. Who would have ever thought such a profound spiritual revelation would come care of the Cha Cha Slide? For the briefest of moments we saw the possibility of the Kingdom of God because we saw the community that comes when we drop all divisions and connect in love, as human being to human being. That’s something I will never forget.
We can’t expect political policies to bring us to this point. The only thing that allows us to love like this is a complete conversion of our hearts. Ultimately, government will become superfluous as we let love reign. The Paris Accords won’t matter when we’re all loving stewards of the planet. Declarations of war can’t hurt us when we all refuse to pick up a weapon. And cutting funding to social programs won’t make a difference when we abandon the idolatrous economics of wealth for a truly communal caring of each other. But until that day, we need to continue the fight, every day, to honor those values of the Kingdom of God and do our best to make them manifest in society.
Least we believe this is simply a Christian ideal, we must look more closely. All Abrahamic faiths – Jewish, Christian, or Muslim – worship the same God and this God calls us to this world. Buddhism’s vision of interdependence creates a similar world. Hinduism leads us to unity in moksha. Taoism calls us to balance in nature. And every atheist or agnostic seeks loving connection. It’s not “liberalism” or “progressivism” or a new vision of “conservatism” that the world needs. It’s love. And it’s with and for love that I try to live. It’s with and for love that we all need to try to live. In so doing, we do our part to bring the Kingdom of God.
If you’d like to learn more about the work Catholic Charities is doing in Baltimore or if you’re interested in volunteering or donating yourself, please click here.
 Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus & The Heart of Contemporary Faith, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 85.
 N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, (London: SPCK, 2000), 20.
 Scholars debate whether these words actually go back to Jesus himself or were developed later by the early tradition. Most likely they represent, as so many of the Gospel sayings do, a little of both. Either way, they fit perfectly with what we truly know of the Historical Jesus. Whether taught by Jesus himself or synthesized by the early movement they still represent Jesus’ vision and his understanding of God and the Kingdom in a very succinct manner. Thusly they are worthy of the importance we give them and more.
 Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 290.
 Many scholars only attribute the first three Beatitudes to the Historical Jesus. The fourth about persecution as well as the woes are considered to be additions by the developing tradition. While they are important in that regard only the ones that are closest to Jesus’ actual words will be explored here.
 N.T. Wright, The Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary, (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 50.
 Marcus Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 248-9.
 Ibid., 249.