After my post yesterday on Shane Claiborne and the responses to him at the Envision conference, I thought I’d go ahead and reflect on this new article by N.T. Wright in The Christian Century called “Kingdom come: the public meaning of the gospels“.
It’s a classic summary of Wright’s views, and I think it provides some resonance with and some balance to Claiborne’s book. Wright laments that the church has not known what to do with the four Gospels:
The Gospels have thus been seen either as a social project with an unfortunate, accidental and meaningless conclusion, or as passion narratives with extended introductions. Thus the Gospels, in both popular and scholarly readings, have been regarded either as grounding a social gospel whose naive optimism has no place for the radical fact of the cross, still less the resurrection—the kind of naïveté that Reinhold Niebuhr regularly attacked—or as merely providing the raw historical background for the developed, and salvific, Pauline gospel of the death of Jesus.
Rather, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection together “launched God’s saving sovereignty on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom of God, that is, the reign of God, is at hand. God has returned at last in the person of Jesus to take charge of his broken and rebellious creation. Jesus has proceeded to the centers of Jewish and Roman power (just as Paul would in the following years) to claim that he is the true Messiah of Israel, the true Lord of the world. In doing so, however, he refused to take up the sword and to bring about the kingdom by violence. He achieved a strange victory over evil, absorbing its worst and finding new life out the other side, eventually ascending to rule at the right hand of God.
Jesus didn’t shy away from power, but he did refuse to idolize the kind of power that is offered by the kingdoms of this world (starting with his temptation in the desert). He embraced the sort of power that can only be bestowed by God in response to self-sacrificial love in the face of evil. Jesus ministered on the margins, on “the fringes of empire,” but from there he also confronted the forces of evil at the center of empire and caused them to reveal their true colors. These were not two separate missions, but rather two integral parts of a single vocation. The ministry on the margins gave meaning to the final confrontation in Jerusalem, while his death at the hands of Herod and Caesar brought his work to its climax and opened the way for his healing love to be unleashed to the corners of the earth.
We have a challenge in bringing these insights forth into our present day, because now we have more options for how to relate to power. In Jesus’ day, either you collaborated with the empire, you revolted, or you embraced Jesus’ mysterious third way. In our day, we have the ability (the responsibility?) to influence (or even to become!) our ruling authorities through democratic means. Wright (with the support of scripture) encourages us to see government as a God-given institution, intended to keep order, to keep the strong and the wealthy from squashing the weak and the poor. But we are to bear prophetic witness that our transient rulers are serving on borrowed time, and that they serve at the mercy of the one who even now is the true Lord of the world, Jesus.
Could this include attempting to become one of the rulers of the world? Certainly, but not if doing so involves becoming owned by and bound up with and compromised by the many different interests scratching and clawing for more and more power. I would love to see many followers of Jesus running for political office, campaigning on principles reflecting the generous, restorative, peace-loving heart of God and remaining fully uncompromised by the messy political process–even if this meant that they all lost! What a powerful witness it would be to have vast numbers of Christians living, with Shane, at the margins of empire, with the suffering and the forgotten . . . to mount uncompromised political campaigns at every level, with candidates concerned more about the love of God than their own victory . . . to mostly suffer defeat, but in so doing to force the political system into showing its own true, worst colors. That would be preaching the gospel like Jesus did.