One of the things I find most frustrating about Christmas is that we celebrate a King whose Kingdom we rarely see. The frustration only deepens when we understand what the word “Kingdom” means.
For most of us, when we hear kingdom, we think of a place that has a monarch. Those more attuned to the historic problems of patriarchy might think of a place with a male monarch. Either way, the residents of the kingdom (or queendom) are the people who live within the borders of that place. For many in Christianity, the Church becomes this non-geographically bound place. The people who are part of the Church then become the members of the Kingdom, or as I am hearing more often from the gender-conscious, kindom.
But that understanding is not what the Bible means when it talks about the Kingdom of God. Instead, it is talking about the “Kinging” of God, or in more neutral terms, the rule and reign of God. In other words, it is not so much about a place as an operating system. It is not where you live or what group you are a part of, but how you live and relate to others.
The second half of Psalm 146 outlines the heartbeat of this operating system. Here the Lord:
gives justice to the oppressed
and food to the hungry.
The Lord frees the prisoners.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are weighed down.
The Lord loves the godly.
The Lord protects the foreigners among us.
[God] cares for the orphans and widows,
but frustrates the plans of the wicked.
This means I can go to church every Sunday, not use course language, avoid addictive substances, and do whatever other things show up on a moral checklist, but if I am not seeking justice for the oppressed, seeing that the hungry are fed, or linking my life to the rest of Psalm 146, then I am not participating in the Kingdom of God.
And when I stop and look at the world around me, it is abundantly clear that there is very little of Christ Kinging in our world. Rather than having their plans frustrated, the wicked, the oppressors who profit off of others rather than seek their wellbeing, are the ones who rule and reign.
Growing up, I was told that government was the problem and if we trusted a free market then the resources that undo oppression would rain (or rather trickle) down. Four decades later, the American middle class is decimated and wealth has moved from the middle up, leaving little distinction between the vast majority of the population, but a massive distinction between most of us and societal elites.
It is a reality put on display in recent days as railroad workers, working with skeleton crews for years under draconian attendance policies (features built into the rail system by the carriers to maximize profits), were forced to return to work with a deal that offers them one scheduled day off a month and no sick pay. Sure they can use PTO if they or a child get sick or they want to attend a loved one’s funeral, but the company needs to know 30 days in advance to approve the absence, so make sure you pre-schedule sickness and death. Not having an approved absence can result in termination. Then, days later, one rail company announced a quarterly dividend that sent more than $800 million to shareholders, more than enough to treat its workers with basic dignity. This is not what it looks like when Christ is King.
Some respond to this reality by placing their hopes in the philanthropy of benevolent billionaires, hoping that a Mackenzie Scott-Bezos or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will come to the rescue. After all, these people are wealthy for a reason and therefore they should be trusted to fix our society. It is an idea that a friend of mine recently found to be pure fiction.
After selling the family company, he found himself in a place where he had more money than he would ever need. Wanting to use the money to do good, he went to establish a foundation only to discover that the laws for such organizations are crafted in such a way that it makes it almost impossible to do good. Instead, the laws surrounding foundations essentially create tax write-offs and opportunities for positive publicity while giving board members free lavish vacations as a part of their regular meetings. Philanthropist illusions are further unpacked in the book, Winners Take All. Again, this is not what it looks like when Christ is King.
At the same time, the government cannot be trusted either, after all, it took a bipartisan effort to create the laws surrounding foundations and denied rail workers their right to strike. If there is a difference between the two parties, it is that Republicans will smile as they punch you in the face while Democrats will draw you in for a hug so they can stab you in the back. My forays into third-party politics have made it clear to me that even when policies are good, there is something about the pursuit of political power that seems to undermine the rule and reign of the Christmas King.
As I look at all of it, when I look at the world we live in, it feels as if Christmas never came.
But Psalm 146 warns us of this outcome, it tells us this is what happens when we look to any king other than the one in the manger:
Don’t put your confidence in powerful people;
there is no help for you there.
When they breathe their last, they return to the earth,
and all their plans die with them.
So where do we find Christmas? In his book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, James Davison Hunter writes:
The incarnation of God through Christ changed all that. His birth was the world-historical event that ruptured the established structures of power – spiritual, cultural, social, and political – and inaugurated a new reality for humankind. Through his very life, he exposed the true nature of these powers as forces inimical to God’s purpose in creation. In his crucifixion, Christ disarmed all forms of worldly power and in his resurrection, he triumphed over them and by doing so, made it possible for those who believe to be liberated from them and to participate in the reality of his kingdom.
What does participating in this new reality look like? Here Hunter identifies four characteristics of what he calls Christ’s soft power. As I unpack them I would say it begins with
- the recognition of our belovedness and an embrace of God’s rule and reign, which means we
- reject our worldly status and reputation, along with any privilege that might come with them. Instead of elevating ourselves over others we
- live with compassion for all and embrace
- a non-coercive approach to those who hold different beliefs.
I cannot help but think that when we do that, and partner with others who embrace the same values, then Christmas will come in and through us.