Read an Excerpt
Foreword: Freely Living between What Is and What Is Not Yet
by John Shea
The World as It Should Be: Living Authentically in the Here-and-Now Kingdom of God is one long invitation to Christians (and perhaps some curious others) to rethink what the kingdom of God means and to act accordingly. There are questions at the end of each chapter so readers cannot escape without personal involvement. As I answered the questions and allowed myself to be pulled into Greg Pierce’s exploration of the kingdom of God as a symbol of the way human beings should live together, here are two things that happened to me.
I remembered the first time I meet Langdon Gilkey, then a professor in theology at the University of Chicago. I had decided to do my doctoral dissertation on his work on secular consciousness and religious language. A senior faculty member where I taught warned me against it. “First of all, Jack, he’s Protestant and you’re Catholic. But most of all, he’s alive. What if he doesn’t like what you write and refutes you? Stick with the dead.” It was sound advice. But I forged ahead anyway.
Over a coffee in the basement of Swift Hall, Professor Gilkey asked me why I wanted to do a dissertation on his work. I said I was interested in theology that was pastorally sensitive and important, and I thought his was. He smiled and said, “That’s what my critics say.”
This was not going well. So I tried to get a little more intellectual. I asked him if he thought there was one feature of secular consciousness that, if you did not heed it, your theology would not get a hearing. (As best as I can remember, I said it in that clumsy way.) He was quick to respond and the gist of what he said had two points:
- If a theology looked past earthly history to heavenly destiny, it would not get a hearing, even though it promised a happy outcome to difficult lives.
- If a theology held there was an eternal plan that predetermined history, it would not get a hearing.
The reason these types of theology would not be heard is because contemporary people sense in the marrow of their bones that their identity is tied up with their freedom to influence the outcomes of history. If this freedom is not affirmed, their ability to live authentically is compromised. Therefore, what invitations they accept and what invitations they decline are of ultimate importance. As contemporary people, we have to own who we are and how we will live.
Greg Pierce’s presentation of the kingdom of God plays into this aspect of contemporary consciousness. He keeps on implying that history is open-ended and human freedom has to create it according to the lure of the kingdom of God. He is like the messenger owl in Harry Potter. He just keeps showing up with that mail. Underneath all the particular questions of the chapters, there is one recurrent question: What are you going to do? And if you stall for a moment and seem lost, Pierce has a suggestion: “I maintain an Internet discussion group. If you’d like to join, send me an e-mail at SpiritualityWork@aol.com.” It’s that owl again.
The second thing that came to mind is another feature of contemporary consciousness—“contrast.” Many consider contrast experiences to be the religious experience that is most available to people today. I am not sure of that. I am always leery of analyses that claim too much. But I do know my own contrast experiences have such a ring of truth that they are difficult to walk away from. They have the power to catalyze this old body into action.
Contrast experiences begin when we encounter the world as it is and immediately conclude that it is at cross-purposes with the world as it should be. We are suddenly in the middle of an ethnic hatred that has gone on for centuries, or we see children dying from malnutrition, or we watch self-interest undercut community benefit, and so on. We find the words, “That shouldn’t be!” in our mouth before we know we have said them. The immediacy of this response is important. We do not reason to it, although reasons may be supplied at a later date. It is the whole person resonating against something that is wrong, “out of joint,” or downright evil. This mental, affective, and volitional response is the kingdom of God within us that judges the present as inadequate and impels us to work for the kingdom of God outside us.
Contrast experiences have another important aspect. They are fueled by experiences of a positive sort. We are in the presence of ethnic harmony, or we see well-nourished children, or we watch people sacrifice for one another. These experiences do not lead us to the simple-minded observation that some situations are better than others. They impel us toward the contrast situations with more determination and creativity. We know things can be different, and so we will not settle for the way they are. We decide to become makers of a better history.
As I read Greg Pierce’s rendition of the kingdom of God, I knew my contrast experiences had found a dialogue partner. I saw my experiences in the light of the Gospel passages and the Gospel passages in the light of my experiences. There was a great deal of similarity. My experiences supplemented the Gospels, and the Gospels expanded my experiences. Have I been in the grip of the kingdom of God all along and not known it? Is the Gospel vision of the kingdom the thing I need to fully appreciate what my human, indeed my God-given, intuitions attest to? However these questions are answered, the conversation is worth having.
So that is my suggestion to Christians (and those of other traditions) who read this provocative book. Greg Pierce has interpreted the central Gospel symbol of the kingdom of God (“the big idea of Jesus”) in a way that speaks to the contemporary consciousness of freedom and contrast. Let it speak to you. It will trigger memories and ideas. Let them come. The conversation is well worth having.
When Michelle Obama chose “the world as it should be” as the theme of her speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, she was using a phrase from community organizing made popular by Ed Chambers, the executive director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the leading citizen-organizing network in the United States. Obama was tapping into a strong, nonpartisan desire to make this world a better place for all people.
But she was also coming out of a strong Christian tradition of inaugurating the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven,” as Jesus taught us to pray. This tradition has always seen Christianity as good news for the world, a religion that emphasizes work for a just society as the primary vocation or responsibility of each Christian.
This book explores the convergence of those two ideas: the world as it should be and the kingdom of God. It presents things you should know about the Christian concept of the kingdom of God but in the context of the secular task of building the best world possible. Each chapter is followed by questions for reflection or discussion among Christians and another set of questions for dialogue with people outside the Christian tradition.
I argue that the kingdom of God is not a particular system or philosophy. It is neither liberal nor conservative. It does not offer answers to difficult issues of public or social policy—that lies in the realm of human endeavor, where we try to figure out the best way to accomplish what God wants us to do. In pursuing the kingdom of God, two people of good faith can disagree strongly on a particular question of politics or economics or business or family values. If they are both operating in good faith, however, they will seek out the best possible solution—usually some sort of compromise, which is not a bad word in the world as it should be. And they will do so in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. The litmus test for Christians, in any case, is whether decisions are made in the spirit of love, for God and for neighbor.
The kingdom of God is not like any kingdom we are used to on earth. “My kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36), Jesus told Pilate. So the normal rules of “kingdomness” do not apply. But the kingdom of God is clearly meant to come on earth, starting right now, and so by definition it must involve itself in the secular efforts to build the world into something better, something more like the way the God that Jesus revealed to us would have things.
The kingdom of God is meant for everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, especially those who are disenfranchised by the kingdoms of this world. This is the good news: we followers of Christ are sent forth to “love and serve the Lord.” And the Lord wants each of us to be salt to the earth and light to the world in the everyday activities of life. This is not an option for Christians but the universal vocation to which we are called. And as we exercise it, we will discover that others have that same vocation, even though they do not understand it in Christian terms.
This book offers thirty short chapters on various aspects or elements of the kingdom of God. They are simply stated and explore in detail the practical implications for our daily lives. It is not a book of theology or Bible study. It is a book for Christians, but one that we invite others to read as well, so that we might enter into dialogue with them about the world as it should be.
I am a businessman, a writer, a book publisher, an editor, a son, a brother, an uncle, a godfather (four times), a husband, a father (three times), a friend (many times), a citizen, a community organizer and leader, a Catholic layman, a high school religious education teacher, a former kids’ baseball coach, and a Cubs fan. I think people like me should write more books like this, because we know how difficult it is to carry our beliefs out in the world as it is. I approach the kingdom of God as a man who is trying to live my life in a way that makes sense. I think I have found this in Jesus of Nazareth, and I have thrown my lot with him and his vision of what God is really like and how the world can and should be, if enough of us work at it with and through him.
So, explore with me what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God and what it means for us to try to help bring it about. I have tried to keep the chapters short so you can read them on the bus, between innings, or in the car while waiting for your child to finish practice or rehearsal. I have suggested a few questions for reflection or discussion at the end of each chapter, which you are welcome to use, or not, as suits your needs. The quotes from Scripture in this book are from the New Revised Standard Version (accepted by most Catholics and Protestants) or, when noted, from The Message by Eugene H. Peterson. I use the latter, which is more of a paraphrasing or retelling than a formal translation, as a way to overcome the familiarity many of us have with Bible verses, which can prevent us from seeing what is really there regarding the kingdom of God.
I had a lot of help with this book. For years I have maintained a group online called Faith and Work in Cyberspace. Many of those people made suggestions that helped identify or clarify the points I am trying to make. They also contributed some of the questions at the end of each chapter to help get you started on your own reflections and discussions. If you would like to join them, simply send me an e-mail at SpiritualityWork@aol.com.
No matter what your religious or political background, I invite you into a discussion of the world as it should be, which we Christians call the kingdom of God.
Gregory F. Augustine Pierce
The kingdom of God . . .
. . . was Jesus’ big idea.
At the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus is still around. Many of us forget this. We think that the Gospels are the story of Jesus and that the rest of the New Testament is what happened after he left. But at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus is present, if only for a couple of verses. Luke says it something like this: Jesus, after he had suffered and died but before he ascended to the Father, met with the disciples over forty days, showing them in many ways that he was still alive and speaking to them about one thing and one thing only (see Acts 1:3).
This is a remarkable statement. Here is a man who has just gone through the most amazing sequence of events any human has ever experienced. First, he suffered terribly and unjustly. The Gospels go to great lengths to point out that Jesus was completely innocent; he is called the Lamb of God—which in the Jewish culture meant a sacrifice without blemish. Finally, he was executed by a most brutal form of Roman torture: nailed naked to a cross until he died of blood loss, shock, asphyxiation, and heart failure.
His disciples had all run away from this horrendous scene, but Mary of Magdala, a couple of other women, Jesus’ mother, and the “beloved disciple” stayed.
Three days later, Jesus began appearing to his disciples, apparently starting with Mary of Magdala. They experienced him as truly alive, though in some sort of glorified state. He told Mary not to touch him because he had not yet ascended to the Father; he seemed to walk through walls and locked doors, yet he offered to let Thomas touch his wounds; he cooked some fish and ate it; he appeared to a couple of disciples on the road to Emmaus, although they did not recognize him until they broke bread together.
The point is that Jesus appeared to his disciples many times, showing them in many ways that he was still alive. This alone is pretty amazing. (How many resurrected dead people have visited you?) What is even more interesting, however, is what Jesus chose to speak about with his disciples.
This group had come to realize that they had the Son of God with them. Jesus had suffered brutal torture—some of them had seen it. He had died—some of them had been there. Two prominent members of the Jewish council had taken down the body and laid it in an unused tomb. Pontius Pilate had put guards in front ofthe tomb to prevent anyone from stealing the body. Then, on Sunday morning, some of the women discovered an empty tomb and didn’t know what to make of it. Jesus began appearing to various disciples. They were confused and scared but overjoyed.
It turned out that Jesus soon was going to ascend to the Father. Maybe they didn’t realize what this meant immediately, but he made it clear that he was going away. Who knows why? He said, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). He said that he had to go before them “to prepare a place” for them (see John 14:2–3). So, all they knew is that he was planning to leave them again. This must have made them very sad, but it did lend some urgency to the short time they had with him.
According to the centurion at the crucifixion, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (Mark 15:39). Jesus had suffered and died terribly at the hands of the religious and political leaders of his time. The people had turned against him; his own disciples had run away; he had even wondered aloud on the cross whether God had forsaken him. Then miraculously he was raised from the dead. His Father had been faithful to him.
In just a matter of days, Jesus would ascend to the Father and be with him at his right hand for all eternity. He had a short time to be with his disciples, who had not proved a stellar group during their ministry with him and especially through his arrest and execution. They were still afraid, and he had to know that they didn’t really grasp what this was all about. He had one last chance with them.
So, what would Jesus talk about during the forty days? Would he teach them how to pray some more? Would he explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity or the Incarnation or the Immaculate Conception? Would he reminisce about the good old days back in Nazareth or describe what it was like to be dead for three days and then come back to life?
He spoke to them about what he had spoken about from the beginning. He spoke to them about what he cared about most, the center of his mission, what he understood his Father wanted him to do, the reason he had come into the world. He spoke to them about what he wanted them to remember most, what he wanted them to do, what he was sending them forth to accomplish: “In face-to-face meetings, he talked to them about things concerning the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3, The Message).
The kingdom of God was Jesus’ big idea. It was his vision of the world as it should be, the way his Father would have things, the way things were in heaven. Jesus’ entire ministry and mission can be found in the phrase “the kingdom of God,” yet it is one of the most misunderstood and sometimes misused concepts in the Christian faith. This book addresses those misunderstandings and misuses and explores what Jesus really had in mind.
What he had in mind was a much different way for human beings to relate to one another and to their world. It was not so much a next-world promise as a prescription for how this world should operate. And it was a radical view indeed, one that has both inspired and repelled millions of people over the past two millennia. Yet it remains every bit as potent and relevant today as it did more than two thousand years ago.
Questions for Christians
- What do you think Jesus meant by “the kingdom of God”?
- Why do you think it was so important to him?
- If you were one of the disciples whom Jesus met with after his resurrection, how would you have reacted to what he told you? (Note: You are!)
Questions for Dialogue with Non-Christians
- Does the concept of the kingdom of God relate in any way to your tradition’s view of the world as it should be? If so, how? How does your tradition talk about these things?
- What are your concerns about bringing religious values and language into the discussion about how the world should be?
- Please share your view of how the Christian message, at least as far as you understand it, relates (or doesn’t relate) to secular political, economic, and business concerns. Describe how your tradition approaches these same topics.
The kingdom of God . . .
. . . is an unfortunate phrase.
One of the many problems today for people trying to understand the kingdom of God is that the phrase “kingdom of God” itself is foreign to modern speech and sensibilities. Kingdoms are things of the past (Charlemagne was a king; so were Arthur and Frederick and a host of others), or at best they are quaint anachronisms like the British royal family. Another problem with the word kingdom, of course, is that it implies a male hierarchy. Even the queen of England is head of a kingdom. Let’s face it: most of us would not know a king if we saw one, and if we did, we’d probably giggle or take a picture with our cell phone.
Clearly, Jesus never intended to set up a physical or political kingdom in the sense that we use the term. In fact, it can be argued that the church has made terrible blunders every time it has tried to identify itself with the kingdom of God and then attempted to make that kingdom a political entity, whether it be through the Papal States, the Holy Roman Empire, the Crusades, or the Inquisition. Fortunately, even the most politically minded pope today would no longer equate the kingdom of God with the church. Whatever it is, the kingdom of God is bigger than the church and is out there in the world, where God’s kingdom will come, at a time and place nobody knows—not even Jesus.
A contemporary version of the literal view of the kingdom of God is that some Christians try to impose their values and beliefs on others democratically. Working from that mind-set in the debates on abortion, stem-cell research, artificial insemination, gay marriage, and other hot-button issues, they seek secular power to force others to believe as they do. Although it is certainly appropriate, necessary even, that Christians participate in the public debate and the resolution of these issues, this will not be done by grasping secular political power in an attempt to establish some kind of Christian state.
Jesus specifically told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world:
“But I’m not that kind of king, not the world’s kind of king.”
Then Pilate said, “So, are you a king or not?”
Jesus answered, “You tell me. Because I am King, I was born and entered the world so that I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for the truth, recognizes my voice.”
John 18:36–37, The Message
So, Jesus did clearly use the image of a kingdom to describe what he was proclaiming. It made sense back then, because a kingdom ruled by a king was one of the few forms of government people knew about. The Jewish people themselves had a king, although by then he was a lackey of Rome. Certainly Jesus didn’t mean he’d be a king like Herod or Caesar, but it is also true that he didn’t see himself as a king like David or Solomon. He was a different kind of king, because his kingdom was a different kind of kingdom, not of this world but still in this world.
To avoid all these problems, many have taken to referring to this big idea of Jesus’ as “the reign of God.” That avoids the kingdom problems, but it raises new ones. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., defines the verb reign as “to possess or exercise sovereign power,” or “to exercise authority in the manner of a monarch.” This might be acceptable in the abstract and for the long term; certainly God is the ultimate power or authority. But God does not choose to rule as a king or queen. In a sense, reign is too weak a word for what the kingdom of God is all about.
Jesus captures the essence of the kingdom of God in the Lord’s Prayer when he says, “Your kingdom come, your will be done”—that is, they are the same thing—“on earth, as it is in heaven.” How are things done in heaven? Well, we really don’t know, do we? In fact, those who say they know, do not. Are the streets paved with gold? Is it a constant beatific vision? We don’t know. What we do know is what Jesus thought the kingdom of God would be like here on earth. He talked about it all the time. It was his big idea, and we’ll spend the rest of this book exploring what he had in mind.
But we will do so while we use the unfortunate phrase “the kingdom of God.” We have to use it for a simple reason: Jesus used it. Over and over again, he talked about the kingdom of God. It was the best image he could come up with, given the time and place in which he was operating. Can we wish he had used something different? Sure. Can we come up with another phrase that might be a little more palatable or politically correct? “the democracy of God” or “the state of forgiveness of God”? Maybe. But we’d better not, for if we do, we might find ourselves off on a tangent that we cannot leave easily. Or we’ll spend all our time fighting about what the new image might be. Or we might leave behind most people, who are perfectly comfortable with the words “kingdom of God” and wouldn’t know what we are talking about if we changed it.
By the way, the best alternative phrase I’ve ever heard for “the kingdom of God” came from the pastor emeritus at my parish in Chicago, Father Leo Mahon. He said that the kingdom of God was “the way God would have things.” Another phrase can be found at the end of the Nicene Creed, where Christians proclaim that they “look for the life of the world to come.” That world to come is the kingdom of God, where the blind see, the captives and oppressed go free, and the poor have good news brought to them (see Luke 4:16–22). The kingdom of God is not heaven or life after death. It is the life of this world, which is still to come. The book of Revelation uses the image of a New Jerusalem to discuss the idea of a better world, a world built on the law of love. So, use any or all of these phrases if you’d like, or make up your own. It doesn’t matter anyway. What matters is that we understand what Jesus meant when he talked about the kingdom of God and how we might help bring it about on earth as it is in heaven.
So “kingdom of God” it is. It’s an unfortunate phrase because of the baggage it carries, but it is an inspiring vision of how the world could be and has already begun to be. It is the vision of Jesus of Nazareth, who promised that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) and chose to name his dream “the kingdom of God.”
Questions for Christians
- If you could think of another phrase or image for the kingdom of God, what would it be? Explain your reasons.
- What do you think is the essence of the kingdom of God that Jesus preached? Explain.
- What problems do we get into when we begin to think about the kingdom of God as some kind of earthly kingdom?
Questions for Dialogue with Non-Christians
- How does your tradition talk about making the world a better place? What images are used?
- Is there a way for Christians and non-Christians to work together to make the world a better place, without first having to agree on theological language or even specific goals? How?
- Is there a phrase that all faiths could agree on that would encapsulate the joint mission to the world that they all share? Try to think of one or more.
The kingdom of God . . .
. . . is authentic.
Authentic is in.
Time magazine lists authenticity as one of the top new marketing trends:
Promoting products as “authentic” is serious business these days. You will notice the word and its variants being used to sell just about everything—Stoli vodka (whose new ad campaign urges you to “Choose Authenticity”), Kool cigarettes (“Be Authentic”), the now expired presidential campaign of Mike Huckabee (who called himself an “authentic conservative”), the Web site Highbrowfurniture.com (“Authenticity. Period.”), the Claddagh Irish Pub chain (which claims to have an “authentic ‘public house’ environment,” whatever that is) and the state of Maryland, where “even the fun is authentic.”
From “Synthetic Authenticity,”
by John Cloud, March 13, 2008
The problem with what passes for authenticity these days is that it is either inauthentic or falsely authentic. You can go to identitee.com and order a T-shirt with a lyric to virtually any song. This tells people “who you are” and “what you believe.” It gives you an “identi-tee” (get it?). At authenticrecordsonline.com you can buy records from Iowa garage bands. You can also purchase their best-selling item, which is a T-shirt that reads “Authentic Records.” So you can wear the T-shirt even if you don’t actually listen to (or even like) the music.
“We have a hunger for something like authenticity,” George Orwell said, “but are easily satisfied by an ersatz facsimile.”
Jesus said it this way:
I’m not interested in crowd approval. And do you know why? Because I know you and your crowds. I know that love, especially God’s love, is not on your working agenda. I came with the authority of my Father, and you either dismiss me or avoid me. . . . This is what my Father wants: that anyone who sees the Son and trusts who he is and what he does and then aligns with him will enter real life, eternal life.
John 5:41–43, 6:40, The Message
The dictionary says that authenticity comes from the Greek word for self, implying that those of us seeking to live authentically need to know who we really are. The authenticity that Jesus offers is not false or fleeting but is our truest identity as human beings. For Christians, child of God is the first and foremost identity. If we remember that and act accordingly, we are fully alive right now—and forever.
How do children of God act? They act like Jesus, who always did the will of God the Father: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also” (John 14:6–7).
So, for Christians, to be authentic is to follow Jesus. But what does that mean in the world as it is?
In his excellent essay “Fake Authenticity: An Introduction” (in Hermaneut magazine, December 22, 2000), Joshua Glenn says that true authenticity is “ironically and radically suspicious of all received forms and norms” and “strives to lucidly affirm and creatively live the tension of human reality in all its contingency, ambiguity, and absurdity.”
Christians can live with that definition. We must be suspicious of both received and prevailing wisdom until we are sure it meets the law of love, and we have to live in the tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be, with all its “contingency, ambiguity, and absurdity.” If we are seeking first the kingdom of God, as Jesus asked of us, we are living authentically in the here-and-now kingdom of God.
This definition of authenticity surprises many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, who think that Christians are anything but suspicious of the status quo. Christians, however, are supposed to look at the world as it is and see it for what it is—full of injustice, suffering, violence, and death. But we also are to have a deep and abiding experience of the world as it should be—full of love, mercy, joy, potential, and life. We are perfectly willing to live with one foot in both worlds, as long as we can do so authentically. The way we do that is by following our leader, Jesus of Nazareth, and his vision for the world, which he called the kingdom of God.
What does this mean practically, in our daily lives? Well, for one thing, we don’t seek our authenticity in things or people. We don’t allow anything or anyone else to be the measure of who we really are.
Oh, we Christians are as capable as anyone of following fads, and if stone-washed jeans or fruit-flavored martinis are in this year, we’ll try them. As do others, we have a sense of history and an eye for quality, and if we think something is authentic, we might be as likely as anyone to buy it. But we don’t think that these things make us authentic.
Likewise, we don’t get our authenticity from other people, including—and maybe especially—our family or our religious leaders. We aren’t authentic because our parent or our pastor or even the pope or some other religious leader is (or is not) authentic. Our authenticity comes from within ourselves, to the extent that we stay in touch with who we really are and how we really act.
To do this, most of us try to stay rooted in Scripture and faithful to our religious institutions and practices. We are afraid that if we wander too far from these we may lose our way and become inauthentic or falsely authentic.
But it is not piety and fidelity to doctrine that keep us authentic; it is our action on behalf of the kingdom. “When was it that we saw you sick or in prison?” we’ll ask in the judgment. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:39–40), Jesus will say.
Then, and only then, will we know that we lived a life of authenticity.
Questions for Christians
- Describe a moment in your life when you felt truly authentic. What do you think caused you to feel that way?
- Do you see Christians as “ironically and radically suspicious of all received forms and norms”? Explain your answer.
- How do you stay close to Jesus and his message?
Questions for Dialogue with Non-Christians
- Do you observe Christians “lucidly” affirming and creatively living the tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be? Explain your answer.
- What does authenticity mean in your tradition? Give some examples.
- What is your deepest identity as a human being? How do you stay grounded in that identity in the midst of daily life’s hustle and bustle?