Friday, October 14, 2005

(But how is the Kingdom of God like that?) (cont'd)

The Kingdom of God is like this

The assassin practiced with the dagger against the wall of his own house
Sure that he was ready, he went out to find his powerful enemy

(But how is the Kingdom of God like that?)
John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus (New York: HarperSanFranciscso, 1994, 1st ed.), p. 133

I have been talking with people who are concerned about the rising fuel prices in America; concerned not for themselves, but for the poor, for those on low incomes, who have to work and have to drive and have to pay nearly $3.00 a gallon for gas on incomes that haven't adjusted to that dramatic increase in the cost of living. These are not "progressives," or even "liberals." They are conservatives, American conservatives (some of the most doctrinaire on the planet, almost by definition), but they are compassionate, and they are concerned. And I can't help but wonder (albeit with no evidence to confirm my suspicion), if this isn't another result of Katrina turning over the rock of American society, and making us all have to consider, at least, that we might be living in Omelas.

And I wonder if this doesn't have something to do with the Kingdom of God.

"I form light and create darkness," God says through Isaiah, "I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things." And, a few sentences earlier: "I arm you, though you do now know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other." He is addressing Cyrus of Persia, who took Babylon and released the Hebrews back to Israel. But God is putting Godself in the midst of human history, is expressing directly the source of the debate for Hellenistic Christians ever after: God is expressing both God's immanence, and God's transcendence.

Which is the problem with the Kingdom of God, for us; that it is both immanent, and transcendent, both here and now, and still to come. Current New Testament scholarship wants to flatten out that "hump," by declaring the Kingdom present if we see it and live in it; but that makes the Kingdom an act of will, and leads us back to the parable above, and leaves us with the question: "But how is the Kingdom of God like that?" If the Kingdom of God is of God, then how can it be affected (or effected) by the presence or absence of human will? But if the Kingdom of God is here now, where is it, and why can't we see it, and why aren't we living in it?

And how is the kingdom of God like an assassin practicing to kill a powerful enemy?

The kingdom is not forced; it is, in fact, an invitation. But the kingdom is also present, and breaking through, and demanding our attention. "He who has ears had better listen!," Jesus is often quoted as saying. Today, in the world of TV, we would add: he who has eyes had better look. And it is relentless; and it is determined; and it has a powerful enemy to overcome: human selfishness.

We want the parables of the kingdom to be simple stories with easy answers, so that we can stand apart from the disciples in Mark or Matthew and know, so we can be sure we understand. But the parables of the kingdom resemble, more than anything else, Howland Owl's observation about nuclear physics: it ain't so new, and it ain't so clear. How we understand it, even if we understand it, is always up to us. Which doesn't mean it is an issue of soteriology; but it is the way into eternal life.

God creates weal and woe, forms light and creates darkness: this is a necessary understanding if we embrace God as Creator. God creates the Kingdom, also, but then God does something extraordinary, something not done by any other kingdom we know of: God invites us to live in it. We may change fealty, loyalties, nationalities, but we can never live apart from nationality; not without an extraordinary act of will, and even then, it is only an artificial state. We are all born into a political system somewhere, wherever we are born, and no one gives us the opportunity of a choice. The kingdom of God is an invitation, not a compulsion, not even a requirement. But how does that make it like an assassin seeking to take the life of a powerful enemy?

Perhaps because it is a danger to our complacency, our complicity, our acquiesence of responsibility for each other. Perhaps because the kingdom breaks into not just our awareness, but our reality itself. If God creates weal and woe, God creates hurricanes, too. We certainly know they are necessary to the global weather system, that they will storm the Gulf as surely as blizzards will strike in winter, or rivers will flood, or tornados will blow, or earthquakes will rumble. And the two questions these things actually raise for human society are: how will we prepare for these things, including buildings that can survive disaster or evacuations that protect human life. And the other question is: how do we respond, especially if we are in a position to help?

And then the assassin is the assassin or our complacency, and the powerful enemy is our selfishness, our desire to take care only of ourselves, and leave everyone else to their own. Their "own fate," we call it; but how is their fate divorced from ours? We want to hear from God:

"I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the doors of iron, I will give you treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by name." But what if those doors or bronze and iron are the ones we have erected, to seal the basement in the city of Omelas? And what if the treasures and riches hidden in secret places are our brothers and sisters who needed us, who always needed us, and we were the ones who hid them? How is the kingdom of God like that?

Isn't it more like the assassin, who practices to kill our complacency and murder our blindness and slay our selfishness, so that we can use our eyes and our ears? Isn't the kingdom of God more like radical change than it is like our comfort and our convenience? Our acts of will lead us inexorably to the situation Katrina revealed to us, situations we willfully ignored.

Maybe we call storms "Acts of God" for better reasons than we knew.

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