Seng Bum is a brain scientist from South Korea who’s still an honorary member of our small multiethnic church plant in St. Paul, Minnesota even though he’s currently doing postdoctoral research in Boston at MIT. He often asks me the best questions after my sermons and it makes me feel like my seminary degree wasn’t a complete waste. Recently, I mentioned in my sermon that millions of Westerners understand John 3:16 in a decontextualized way, distorting its message. He wrote me a private message almost immediately. Later, over Zoom, his questions weren’t focused on hermeneutics as much as ethics. He asked how Christians in the United States can believe in ‘going to heaven when we die’ while so many millions of people—many of whom are Christians—are suffering all over the world.
I’m so grateful for his persistence in turning our church focus to our global sisters and brothers in Christ. Recently he urged us to keep Myanmar in our prayers as they are undergoing grievous political violence. Of course, this wasn’t the first time I’ve been asked questions that touch on the church’s responsibility to engage the broader society as citizens of the Kingdom of God. Last year the Twin Cities suddenly became the global epicenter of a new phase in the Black struggle for freedom in America after the murder of George Floyd. Questions swirled ferociously about what Christians are and are not ‘called to do’ in such circumstances. But this was the first time I’d been asked these questions since I’ve been equipped to address them with an excellent new resource: What is God’s Kingdom? And What Does Citizenship Look Like? by César García.
What is the Kingdom?, one of the newest entries into the fantastic series from Herald Press called The Jesus Way: Small Books of Radical Faith, is a masterclass in ecclesiology and civic engagement packed into so few pages one can easily read it in a single sitting. Even still, it’s so accessible it has instantly become my go-to discipleship resource for any Christian education setting. In just over 60 pages, García succinctly and thoughtfully addresses three critical areas of Christian discipleship: 1) What does Jesus mean by the ‘Kingdom of God’; 2) What is the relationship of the church to God’s Kingdom, and 3) What does Kingdom citizenship mean for civic engagement?
García avoids two very common misconceptions. He doesn’t equate politics with partisanship, and he doesn’t equate the Kingdom of God with the church. Instead, he demonstrates that Christian discipleship is inherently political because Jesus’s central message was about God’s rule and reign coming to earth as it is in heaven. As disciples of the King, we are automatically involved in ‘politics.’ García writes:
Jesus’ kingdom is not an ethereal or private religious experience. It is a voluntary decision that makes followers of Jesus citizens of a specific domain, a reign often most visible on society’s margins. To speak about Jesus is to speak about politics. Christian discipleship is inherently political because Jesus’s central message was about God’s rule and reign coming to earth as it is in heaven. As disciples of the King, we are automatically involved in ‘politics.’ Click To Tweet
Herald Press is a Mennonite publisher, and Anabaptists have often fallen into the trap of limiting the Kingdom of God to the realm of the church. But García precisely pinpoints the relationship between the two in a way that threads the needle perfectly: the church is the sacrament of the Kingdom. Quoting Ron Sider, “[T]he church is a visible model of a redeemed social order.” The church puts on display the power of the Gospel to transform human relationships and to topple oppressive systems and ideologies. As García explains:
Equitable relationships as God’s kingdom politics is in itself good news. In the nations of this world, our meaning comes from winning (which implies others’ failures), but in Jesus, we are welcomed into a new social structure where each perspective is essential. Gender and race are not obstacles, but God’s precious gifts. Social class is no longer a source of cultural distance. God’s kingdom does not condone financial differences that produce social classes; it challenges them.
Even though García is writing from an unapologetically Anabaptist perspective, he doesn’t reduce ‘politics’ to partisan polarization nor does he reduce the church’s role to separation and distinction. Far too often, Anabaptist authors easily default to a political quietism when confronted with the most complex challenges facing society. But not García. He is clear that not only does the Kingdom of God enlist the church in attractive politics—what he calls “centripetal force”—but the Kingdom also enlists the church in influential politics, what he calls “centrifugal force.” This means that it’s not enough for the church to be an enclave of heaven-glimpsing love all by ourselves. We must also seek the shalom of the cities where we live as exiles. One of my favorite sections contrasted a King David-style model of Israelite politics with a prophet Daniel-style model:
As God’s kingdom ambassadors, we can resist forces of human societies that push on us the pagan gods of nationalism and allegiance to enslaving political systems. The exile paradigm helps us achieve social change through peaceful movements that challenge sinful structures. We do so from the margins of society and not the from centers of political power. It’s not enough for the church to be an enclave of heaven-glimpsing love all by ourselves. We must also seek the shalom of the cities where we live as exiles. Click To Tweet
For good measure, What is God’s Kingdom? also lays a solid foundation for fruitful discussions of anti-racism by pointing to race as a social construct and the equity of God’s Kingdom in contrast to racial hierarchy. García details all the many ways the body of Christ is an alternative social order to patriarchy and extractive economies.
What is God’s Kingdom? And What Does Citizenship Look Like? is poignant, succinct, and timely. It’s an essential addition to the discipleship toolkit of socially-conscious, Jesus-centered Christians. I highly recommend it.