Friday, December 18, 2009

Thoughts on War, Nation and Kingdom

I'm a member of a community of theologians and practitioners called The Ekklesia Project. Recently, I was asked to contribute an essay as a response to President Obama's Nobel speech. I don't naturally write about things that are "political" in the way we normally use the word in society. The following is my response to the practice of War. It is some new work combined with an edit of an older essay. This Advent we desire peace.

Thoughts on War, Nation and Kingdom:

Although I resonate with many of the tenants of pacifism, I am not a very good pacifist. I want to be, but if you try to hurt my wife or kids, odds are, I’ll slug you in the face. That’s all to say, I haven’t got all of this figured out.

When it comes to issues of war, nationalism and imperialism; I can afford to have stronger convictions in part because I am not in a position to act on them – as President Obama currently is. Here again is a transparent inconsistency in me. I want to live in a world where the church leads the way into peace, but I also stubbornly enjoy knowing that I live in a nation-state system that uses violence to regulate “peace” to my personal benefit. Like many, I have some mixed views on the subject. I could be a hypocrite. But hopefully I am just finding my way to a practical expression of my theological convictions.

My primary problem with war is that it is so powerful. (Here, of course, I paraphrase Yoder, Hauerwas and others.) War, we all say, is hell; but there is nothing better than War to draw people together for a common purpose. My issues, therefore, with War and nation-worship rest here. It is such a powerful thing that it becomes a shadow of what is real. War is the fuel that propels the false idol of nationalism.

War reminds us (as Americans) that we are part of a Kingdom – the Kingdom (reign) of what we commonly call freedom, democracy or justice. It also gives us a Mission – an enemy to eradicate and a higher purpose worth dying for. Lastly, War (I capitalize the word as if it were a person or a god purposely) births genuine community. We have only to think back to the days after 9-11 to remember how “close” we felt to each other as Americans. War brings us together. War protects us while giving us hope and security for our future. The only problem is, that’s God’s job.

War is the way nationalists worship.

The problem for Christians is that we have foundational beliefs associated with Kingdom, Mission and Community. The common gods of War and Nation shadow our beliefs so closely that we give ourselves over to them without a second thought. These issues of Kingdom, Mission and Community should matter tremendously to us. Our God, it would seem, is innately connected to these ideals:


God is Sovereign. The Creator, Sustainer, and Consummator of the universe. He alone deserves praise, worship and homage. He truly is King of all that was, is and will be.

As King, God has always desired a people to be his followers – or subjects. In this regard, God is truly "political" in the literal since of the word, but his "polis" surpasses the kingdoms of this world, which amount to nothing compared to his Kingdom. God elected Abraham and the nation of Israel to be his chosen people, but Israel could not be faithful to his covenant.

As the entire New Testament testifies, Jesus came to proclaim access to the Kingdom of God, fulfilling and completing the Law and the Prophets of the Jews. He was the one true Israelite. Jesus came, announcing the good news (gospel) that the Kingdom had broken into humanity in a new, fresh, and eschatologically significant way. As the Messiah/Christ (our political King) Jesus offered access into the Kingdom of God to all who would listen to his proclamation, repent and faithfully live under his political authority.

The reality of this new "Kingdom-among-us" radically transformed the lives of Jesus' closest friends and disciples. Since the death, burial and resurrection of Christ the reality and power of the Kingdom of God has been made available to all people who will continue to follow Christ as his early friends did. The Kingdom Jesus brought to us is better than the Kingdoms of the world. War distracts us from this reality.


God, by nature, is a missional being. He is a missionary God. Even within Himself, He is a sending God. (The Father sent the Son, the Son sent the Spirit.) The people of God reflect his missional character by allowing themselves to be sent by Him, proclaiming life in the Kingdom and incarnating the love of God in their time and place. Disciples of Jesus follow Him as King and are sent by Him both as his ambassadors and soldiers to the world.

The people of God are called to live as resident aliens in a world that is not their own. Therefore, for every true follower of Christ, their world (their time, place and culture) is their battlefield – where the mission is accomplished. They are reclaiming the earth for their King. They are residents of the Kingdom of God-both the Kingdom of the here-and-now and the Kingdom that is to come. In this sense, Jesus disciples are by nature already armpit deep in world war. We cannot afford to be distracted by another.


God is an eternal community of one-ness. Though He is Three, He is also One. God exists in everlasting love within his own being-Father, Son and Spirit. God created mankind to live in community with Himself. He desires a people. If you will, God is a nation-builder.

Men and women are created with an innate longing for community with God and with each other. However, the human race both originally and continually opts to sin against God. As human beings continue to prefer their own will to the will of God, true community with God and other people becomes impossible for fallen people. However, through Christ, God returned the gift of community to the human race.

Through the faithfulness of Christ, community occurs within the context of the Kingdom of God as followers of Jesus trust the Holy Spirit and love one another in response to first being loved by God.

When the Kingdom of God is proclaimed and received in a given locality, the Holy Spirit forms the people of God into a church. The local church functions as the people of God and as the embassy of the Kingdom of God in a given culture.

The Church is not the Kingdom of God. The Church submits to the Kingdom as its sign, foretaste and agent. The Church is a particularly eschatological phenomenon. This means that the church belongs to the last days (the "eschaton"). These last days came with the life, death, burial and resurrection of Christ and will be completed upon his second coming to earth. The church exists in the interim days between the beginning and the end of the eschaton. The church is a pilgrim people on a voyage toward the ultimate and total reign of God as the true and only King.

The church is the sign of the Kingdom in that it is not the Kingdom, but it points people toward the rule of God. The church is the witness of the reality that the Kingdom of God is both already alive among us and will one day fully come. In this regard, the church exists to proclaim King Jesus and his Kingdom to the world.

The church is the foretaste of the Kingdom in that it contains the true people of God. Though the Kingdom has not come fully, it has come already. The rule and love of God may be felt and understood within the church in a real and dynamic way. Life in the church prepares us and fits us for life in the Kingdom.

The church exists as a community of Jesus followers. The community, however, is normally, if not always, counter-cultural to the dominant structures of the time and place where the church exists. The local church sees itself as the "polis" or city of God. Members of the church allow themselves to be led only by God (their true Lord), not by the epistemology, economy or politics of their culture.

More often than not, the politics of Jesus are different than the dominant worldview being lived out day to day by the people of any culture. As a general rule, when the church becomes too central or cozy with the powers that be, the church loses its marginality, its true power as the eschatological sign of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, the church should normally have a marginal place in society. It creates its own cultural norms that are often counter to the norms of an anthropocentric worldview. The church strives to live true to the teachings of Jesus and to model his faithfulness to the world. If Jesus was marginalized, persecuted and hated (and he was), those who follow him should expect the same treatment.

Contrary to popular sentiment, the church grows in a more substantial way when it retains its position at the margins of society. The church historically weakens when it converts to a nation-state or a “secular” epistemology.


These are my thoughts this Advent as I ponder the state of the world. I am not an academic or a politician. I have no real answers to how the church universal (or American) should react to the current Wars raging on the planet. I’m just a practitioner and pastor who desires to see Jesus conquer violence once and for all. I help lead a large evangelical mega-church in Ohio full of people whom I love and serve, but who mostly think differently than me on these points. My hope in posting this essay is only to contribute slightly to a discussion that may help me and others like me lead God’s people through a violent and deceptive world.


karlyjon said...

Wow, great post. I just finished reading "The Myth of a Christian Nation" by Greg Boyd and it gave me a whole new perspective on the Kingdom of God vs. the Americanized version of Christian nationalism I have been observing in our culture. Thanks Joe!

Sandy Maudlin said...

So well put. Thanks and Merry Christmas!

Helen Ann said...

I also want to read Greg Boyd's book. Looks good...

I see the Kingdom of God a little differently than a God desiring "followers" or "subjects"...I see Him more as a loving Father who desires relationship with His kids. That was how Jesus saw him. He followed his Father's direction but not because He was a subject under 'rule' of His dad but because He trusted His Father's vision for reconciling the world to Himself. the whole imagry of Kingdom and Ruler and subjects (which I used to use all the time) no longer sits well with me as I get to know my Papa more in my spirit than just on the ideas and images I grew up on (which I am grateful for because they introduced me to Jesus). I believe there is a "Kingdom" but I don't believe that it is set up the way humans expect it to be. God always does things way different than we expect. That's just a little bit of Helenology.

deadbug said...

its lonley to be scattered through the church. for years ive only found a handfull of people who are able to talk like this. i miss them.

Beati pacifici.

Deb said...

Wonderful essay -- on such a difficult topic. I'm glad a friend sent me here.

I've read "Myth of a Christian Nation" and also "Myth of a Christian Religion" -- also by Boyd. Great perspectives and extremely eye-opening. I recommend them for all American Christians.