The Church, Politics, and Bonhoeffer's Way Forward - Part 2

The Kingdom Maker

by Steve Bezner August 30, 2017

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." —Matthew 5:3

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." —Matthew 5:9

"But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven." —Matthew 5:44-45

Why was Martin Luther King, Jr. effective? When he stood on the steps of the National Mall and decried the racist structures and attitudes infecting much of the United States at that time, he spoke directly to the halls of power, crying out for justice. Why was his speech so memorable? Why did it move the hearts of many in our nation?

Think about it: He was rebuking many people directly, but he also managed to sway many hearts. How could he do both at the same time?

There are many reasons, to be sure, but—at least partly—Dr. King was effective because he did not only rebuke. He also envisioned the Kingdom of God. He imagined a new way of life. And he described it to his hearers. Armed with a new way to see the world, Dr. King did not solely shame those who had been entrenched in bigotry, but he gave them permission to move in a different direction.

I hear this statement regularly: “The world knows what Christians are against, but it does not know what they are for.”

To be honest, I can’t help but often wonder if Christians themselves know what they are for. I chalk this up to a basic issue: We do not envision, imagine, and embody the Kingdom of God nearly enough.

When Jesus came, he proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom of God. He declared that the Kingdom of God was “at hand.” In other words, he preached that one could live as if Jesus was King in the present. Those who decided to follow Jesus were not only accepting the promise of eternal life by following the Messiah, but they were also choosing to submit themselves to his teaching—also called his yoke.

The two cannot be separated. You cannot accept the truth that Jesus is the Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah, and then reject his teachings. His teachings are the description of his Kingdom—the way that he will rule into eternity and the way that his church will live in the here and now. Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection are the gospel of salvation, and the teachings of Jesus are the outline of the Kingdom.

This is what the Sermon on the Mount is: a description of how life is under the rule and reign of King Jesus. “You have heard it said,” Jesus declares, “but I say unto you.” The old ways and the Kingdom ways aren’t synonymous. The Kingdom pushes things deeper—to a heart level.

The Kingdom is the outworking of the gospel. It is the way that those who have been saved by Jesus live. It is the redemptive end-goal. It is what the world will one day be when it is finally and completely redeemed by Jesus’ glorious return. Until then, it is best seen in the way those who declare allegiance to Jesus live.

The Kingdom of God is the gospel of God made alive by the people of God.

If the Kingdom of God is this essential, it must be a centerpiece for the church’s political philosophy. The Kingdom, in fact, is the church’s answer for the world’s political posturing. When the world scrambles toward violence and retribution, the church should hold the Kingdom as a viable alternative.

But in order to do that, the church must understand the Kingdom. It must love the Kingdom.

And to do that, it must consistently imagine, proclaim, and embody what Kingdom life looks like.[1]

If we only rebuke, if we only resist, we provide only a negative view of our Lord. The Kingdom is the positive way forward. It is the way of explaining what we are for. It is, in fact, the things Christians can point to when they want to contrast the way of Jesus with the way of the world.

That is exactly what Dietrich Bonhoeffer did when he wrote his classic, The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer’s book, although best known for its opening chapter on “cheap grace” is actually a book-length treatment of the Sermon on the Mount. In chapter after chapter, Bonhoeffer lays out what the Kingdom of God looks like—based on the teachings of Jesus. Bonhoeffer used the work as a textbook as he trained Confessing Church pastors in illegally-functioning seminaries, focusing on the centrality of the Kingdom. You may not be surprised to discover that Bonhoeffer learned this theological approach in the African-American congregation of Abyssinian Baptist Church during a postdoctoral year in Harlem—the same theological stream Dr. King would draw from, as well.

Those of us who hope the church will move beyond simply rebuking and resisting need to present real-life substance to our hopes. Jesus is clear: The Kingdom is the way forward, and it is what ought to consume our imaginations.

Pastors and church leaders ought to consistently teach, envision, and embody Kingdom values for their church, because a rebuke without an alternative vision is simply a theoretical debate. As Bonhoeffer understood, however, when you live the Kingdom and center it around the teachings of the New Testament—particularly the Sermon on the Mount—it becomes a tangible example for others to observe. And potentially to want.

So should we rebuke? Of course. But we cannot stop there. We must surrender to the Kingdom as described in the pages of Scripture, and we must allow it to shape our thinking, our proclamation, and our church life. We must allow it to be the driving force behind our politics—not a particular party or candidate. We must continually be the people urging our own national politicians to shape our nation to look increasingly like the Kingdom.

To be sure, the United States (or any other global power) isn’t going to embrace a theocratic approach anytime soon. The goal is not for Christians to seize power through political maneuvering, but it is instead for Christians to model how the Kingdom of God subverts and redeems power.

We rebuke so that we can point to the beauty of the Kingdom.

Because the Kingdom is Jesus’ goal for the world.

In Revelation 4, we see that the throne room of Heaven consists of the elders casting their crowns before the Jesus. They do so, willingly, recognizing that their greatest enjoyment into eternity is deflecting any self-glory and pointing it to the King of Kings.

When we willingly deflect glory from ourselves and onto Jesus, we are crowning Him King. We are building the Kingdom.

And that’s something an unbelieving world needs to see—a different way of life, an alternative.

Let’s do more than rebuke. Let’s live the Kingdom.

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Even if this is the correct way forward, how would the church ever get the right to model the Kingdom in a world so hostile to orthodox faith?  I’ll explain in Part Three.

[1] The thinly-veiled reference to James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgy series is indeed intentional He, E. Stanley Jones, and Bob Roberts, Jr., along with Dr. King, helped me understand the Kingdom in a new way.