Yesterday was the Feast of Christ the King, and today brings news that England’s Prince Harry is planning to wed the actress Meghan Markle (prompting me to joke on Facebook, “Apparently, Prince Harry is engaged to an American Catholic. I can’t tell if this marriage is a British plot to retake America, or a Popish plot to retake Britain”). In other words, it’s a great day to talk about the idea of the “Kingdom of God,” and why it matters for Christianity.
First, the idea of the “Kingdom of God” is absolutely central to the Christian Gospel. The first words out of the mouth of Jesus in St. Mark’s Gospel are “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). St. Matthew says that Jesus “went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people” (Mt. 4:23). And we pray for the coming of this Kingdom every time that we pray the Lord’s Prayer.
Second, Christ is King in the Kingdom of God. The Angel Gabriel prophesied at the Annunciation (Luke 1:32-33) that “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” St. Paul testifies (1 Timothy 6:13-16):
In the presence of God who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ; and this will be made manifest at the proper time by the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
Likewise, St. John sees an image of Christ in Glory, and “on his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16). Pope Pius XI, in his 1925 encyclical Quas Primas (perhaps the best explanation on the Kingship of Christ), gives a brief Biblical exposition:
Moreover, Christ himself speaks of his own kingly authority: in his last discourse, speaking of the rewards and punishments that will be the eternal lot of the just and the damned; in his reply to the Roman magistrate, who asked him publicly whether he were a king or not; after his resurrection, when giving to his Apostles the mission of teaching and baptizing all nations, he took the opportunity to call himself king, [Matthew 25:31-40] confirming the title publicly,[John 18:37] and solemnly proclaimed that all power was given him in heaven and on earth.[Matthew 28:18] These words can only be taken to indicate the greatness of his power, the infinite extent of his kingdom. What wonder, then, that he whom St. John calls the “prince of the kings of the earth”[Revelation 1:5] appears in the Apostle’s vision of the future as he who “hath on his garment and on his thigh written ‘King of kings and Lord of lords!’.”[Revelation 19:16] It is Christ whom the Father “hath appointed heir of all things”;[Hebrews 1:2] “for he must reign until at the end of the world he hath put all his enemies under the feet of God and the Father.”[1 Corinthians 15:25]
And of course, we proclaim Christ’s Kingship every time we declare “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3). As Americans, we sometimes miss this, because we don’t have much exposure to kings and lords, but that’s what we’re saying, whether we realize it or not.
Third, Christ has a Kingdom, not a Democracy. This is closely related to the last point. In a democracy, we regularly think of power and authority as flowing from the bottom-up, what Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address referred to as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” There are two closely related ideas here: (1) we the people get to decide who our leaders will be, and if we don’t like them, we can replace them; and (2) our leaders get their authority from us. This second idea is clearly articulated by the Declaration of Independence:
Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The end point of this is relativism. In the political sphere, that looks like people saying “not my president” when they don’t like the outcome of democratic elections (and that’s a mantra both now, and dating back to at least the Clinton Administration). In the religious sphere, it’s relativism, with its idea that we can choose our own god. But it really goes beyond even that, to the idea that we get to create our own reality. The Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey actually endorsed this radical view in claiming that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
In other words, the end point of this democratization is the idea that all of reality is something we get to create and determine for ourselves. But Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords whether or not we recognize His Kingship and Lordship, and His authority comes from His Father, and not from us. Some parts of reality have to be acknowledged and accepted, not invented. We don’t get to choose our God, we don’t get to choose our parents, and we don’t even really get to choose our Church leaders. These authorities are given to us for our good and our protection. They’re accountable to God for how they lead us, but they’re the ones in charge. As it says in Hebrews 13:7, 17-18:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. […] Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you. Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things.
Protestantism and the Enlightenment were born at about the same time, and closely influenced one another, so it’s not particularly shocking that many Americans (living in a democratic, historically-Protestant country) naturally think of religion in democratic terms. We choose the religious practice that fits us, a place where we feel comfortable worshiping, etc. We, the sheep, decide who we want as our shepherds. If we don’t like them, a board of elders can replace them and get us shepherds we prefer. When Joseph Smith invented Mormonism, that Protestant and American influence showed through. That’s why the current head of the Mormon religion is “President Thomas S. Monson.” What could be more American that replacing popes and kings with presidents? But democratic governance isn’t the model of Church governance given us by Jesus Christ. From the Old Testament forward, leadership is top-down. It’s something we in the pews respect and accept, not something that we invent ourselves.
Fourth, the Kingdom of God is the foundation (and limit) of all civil authority. Christ tells us both that we must “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21) and that “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:21). On the surface, this looks like a contradiction – if we serve both Caesar and God, don’t we have two masters?
But the New Testament repeatedly shows how to harmonize these two teachings. St. Peter puts it this way (1 Peter 2:13-17):
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,[b] whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
St. Paul say something remarkably similar (Romans 13:1-7):
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
And Christ puts it simply in His testimony before Pilate (John 19:10-11):
Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.”
In other words, we are called by God to serve legitimate civil authority, and so in serving Caesar (so long as he isn’t defying God), we are serving God. Being a good citizen is a critical part of being a good Christian. But this, of course, also sets limits on the scope of civil authority. God never asks us to disobey Him (that idea is absurd and incoherent), so we can’t say that our patriotic duty trumps our religious service.
If our patriotism and civic-mindedness is rooted in our faith, we’ll immediately know who to side with when Caesar starts to claim for himself what properly belongs only to God. The Apostles bore witness to this with their lives. The same three men who testified to the legitimate authority of the state – Jesus, St. Peter, and St. Paul – all died at the hands of the Roman state due to their refusal to subordinate the things of God to the things of Caesar.
On the other hand, the idea of power flowing from the bottom-up is a dangerous idea even within the framework of civil society. If civil society and law are rooted in the will of the people – that is, in majority appeal – then there’s little check against majoritarian violence or mob rule. The clash between these two conceptions of law is nowhere clearer than the Civil RIghts Movement. As Simon Sinek put it,
Dr. King believed that there are two types of laws in this world: those that are made by a higher authority and those that are made by men. And not until all the laws that are made by men are consistent with the laws made by the higher authority will we live in a just world. It just so happened that the Civil Rights Movement was the perfect thing to help him bring his cause to life.
Jim Crow and lynch mobs were majoritarian rule – the white majority having their way with black minorities. King appealed, not to majority rule or popular appeal, but to a higher authority, God’s Law. As he put it in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.
So Jesus’ preaching about the Kingdom of God is part of a revelation of something like a political theology. It’s not that Jesus or the Church are endorsing a particular model of civil governance (although it excludes certain models: it’s hard to see how one can accept Romans 13 and claim that “taxation is theft” or that anarchy is good). Instead, for any valid mode of civil governance, the Christian message is one of showing how civic participation fits within the broader question of how one is to live as a Christian in society.
Finally, the Kingship of Christ reveals what Kingship ought to look like. At the Last Supper, Jesus takes an opportunity to teach His Apostles about true greatness (Luke 22:25-27):
The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.
The next day, He exemplifies this self-giving kingship in a radical way. Think about the most public proclamation of Jesus’ Kingship given at any point during His ministry. It’s on the very last day of His earthly (pre-Resurrection) life, as He’s hanging from the Cross (John 19:17-20):
So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Gol′gotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.
It’s no coincidence that Christ, who spent three years seeming to avoid the title of King of the Jews should have it hanging over Him on the Cross. Because in the end, He is King, but not in the way that the people who had been following Him had expected. The Cross finally reveals what Jesus’ Kingship looks like, and it reveals to all of us entrusted with authority and responsibility and power how we should exercise those gifts.