The story of God’s people in the Old Testament can be fairly characterized as a constant struggle between the invitation for the people to let God lead them, and the temptation for them to lead themselves. This is most plainly seen in the books of Samuel, where the people grow weary of having God as their king and cry out for their own king, like the other nations around them.
The man that they choose is Saul: Tall, handsome, and imposing, he’s exactly the sort of man that you would expect to be king. A man who could inspire the people, who would admire him and be united and strengthened by his presence.
The problem was that Saul turned out to be a disaster. He didn’t listen to the Lord, showed impulsivity and poor judgment, and throughout his reign he was plagued by mental illness and evil spirits. Saul seemed good on the outside, but inside he was full of problems. As the Lord told Samuel, “The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16.7)
From that point forward, the Israelites had problems with their kings. For every good and godly king like David, Solomon, and Hezekiah, there were a handful of wicked kings who completely disregarded the ways of the Lord in favor of evil. And when the people of Judah returned from their Babylonian exile, determined to follow God, they never again had a king of their own people: they were still subject to the Persians, and later the Greeks and finally Romans.
Throughout the post-Exilic period, the people waited for a new king, the mysterious figure Isaiah and others had prophesied, who would rule them justly. But when God fulfilled his promises, it was in a radically different way from what everyone was expecting.
The true King came not as a king born in a palace to noble people; instead, he was born in a stable to a young, still-unmarried couple that were anxious about their future, that had been turned upside down by Mary’s surprise pregnancy. He didn’t grow up instructed by sages and magisters in imperial courts, but as a skilled artisan who worked with his hands. And he never came to conquer Rome or advocate one political movement or another: instead, his followers were a hodgepodge of contradictory and conflicting fellows. A tax collector beholden to the status quo, a Zealot eager to overthrow Rome, ordinary blue-collar fishermen, and others.
When Jesus stood in Nazareth’s synagogue and proclaimed the words of Isaiah – claiming that he was the one who would fulfill the role of Messiah anointed by the Spirit, boasting freedom for captives, sight for the blind, and liberty to the poor and oppressed, Jesus was looking at something much deeper and much more universal than the political climate of his day. He implied that on the inside, everyone was weak, poor, and enslaved – and it was those whose physical reality was closest to those things who most eagerly welcomed him.
Jesus was the sort of King that God had intended all along: one who would usher in a new type of Kingdom that would do much more than topple Rome or deal with the short-term political concerns of his day. Jesus’ Kingdom would strike a fatal blow to the strongholds of Sin and Death that had held mankind in bondage since Adam. And Jesus inaugurated a new way to live that defied every expectation: he emphasized holiness, but extended grace to sinners and blasted the apparent morality of the Pharisee. He spoke extensively of the Kingdom of Heaven, but never sided with the Zealots who wanted to overthrow Rome and bring a new political order. Jesus frustrated and confounded just about everyone around him because he didn’t fit into their agenda.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year trying to figure out what I believe in regards to politics, current events, and society in modern America. The similarities to Jesus’ time are truly striking. The left and right alike are equally convinced that Jesus is on their side, but I think they’re both wrong. Jesus and his Kingdom have been coopted again and again throughout history and this is as good as a time as any to say that enough is enough. I don’t think Jesus is eagerly trying to return us to an idealized conception of the past and a “Christian Nation” that probably never really existed to begin with. And I also don’t think Jesus would consider the expansion of government and more programs as the solution to our society’s problems. Jesus rejected both the radicalism of the Zealots, and the conservatism of the Pharisees; neither Routine nor Revolution was the solution to the spiritual core of social issues. He was something quite different from both sides, and the Church, especially in America, has forgotten how to be that difference.
But it’s never been easy because the church, society, and most political forces throughout history have completely missed the point of Jesus. It’s so much easier to pick and choose a verse here and a verse there to support a pre-existing agenda. The danger of believing in Jesus in name only is playing out in Europe, with nations struggling to maintain an identity after centuries of superficial faith through Christendom results in people not knowing who they are or what they value: a spiritually zombified continent filled with beautiful churches nobody attends, and in which few people have actually believed in Jesus over centuries of going to church being “the right thing to do.”
The Good News is that while centuries of top-down “Christian” society have mostly been a spiritual disaster, there has been plenty of good, too – it’s just that God’s kingdom is always moving at the bottom, out of the spotlight, among the mundane and unremarkable, the dirty and unpleasant, the everyday and ordinary. The Kingdom of Heaven has never stopped moving, it just rarely moves in the spotlight, and like the people of ancient Israel who wanted a King to lead them, the modern Church struggles to accept God moving like this. It seems clear to me that Christians on both the left and right want a King of sorts to lead them – forgetting they already have one.
During an election year when we’re tempted to put our hope in a political candidate who promises the world but will let us dow, do the hard thing – read your Bible, ask the Spirit for guidance, and seek to campaign for the Kingdom of Heaven. Look for opportunity in bad situations (like immigration policies) and in everything you do – your work, your friendships, your creative pursuits, your hobbies, whatever – ask yourself:
How can Jesus’ Kingdom be made manifest in what I’m doing?
If you do that, I’m pretty sure it’s going to go a lot farther your political candidate of choice. The Lord is playing the long game.