The last four years of American politics have created some confusion about the word “Christian.” It used to mean a follower of Jesus, but now seems to mean a follower of Jesus and a Republican (or a Democrat), a definitional disparity that has thrown the US, a Christian-majority country, into an embarrassing uproar. So what happened on January 6 was only the ugliest and most recent symptom of a deeper disease.
The mingling of religion and politics isn’t new, and in the case of Christianity isn’t even wrong. Jesus didn’t preach a banal ethic, self-help technique, or path to prosperity. His message was deeply political, just not in the way most Christians think.
The essence of the faith lies in what many believe is Jesus’ “last name”: I mean Christ, the Greek version of the Hebrew word Messiah. We usually think of a messiah as a savior who dies to redeem mankind, but the word actually means “anointed one.” The early Christians, all of them Jews, saw the messiah as the anointed king of Israel in the tradition of King David. Jesus came preaching a kingdom, and his followers, in calling him Christ, recognized him as its king.
To their great frustration, however, Jesus didn’t establish a kingdom. Instead, he spent three and a half years teaching the way to gain entry to the kingdom is through a life of obedience and sacrifice to the God of Israel. His kingdom was to be holy, and only holy people could enter its gates. Jesus died on the cross to model that holiness and extend its redemptive power to all who would become its citizens.
After the resurrection, his disciples asked when he would restore the kingdom to Israel. “It isn’t for you to know,” he told them, and ascended to heaven with a promise to return. Only after recovering from their shock did the disciples go forth to tell the world about his coronation (that’s the “good news” we mean when we say Gospel) and make more disciples. Within a few centuries, the world was filled with men and women who clung to the promise and waited for its fulfillment.
A Christian is someone who waits for the return of Israel’s King. Christianity is thus an “in-between religion,” a community of faith that locates itself between two cosmic events. The King came once and vanished for a time, but he will return someday riding a white horse, clothed with light, carrying the sword of judgment to establish his throne in Jerusalem once and for all. Those who proclaim his royalty will reign beside him; those who don’t will be cast out, and so will commence a thousand years of shalom. The kingdom having come, the will of God will finally be done.
Until then Christians remain a people in limbo, dual citizens called to obey their earthly rulers while waiting for the heavenly king. Their mission is to live righteous lives in the spirit of the future kingdom, to tell the news of its coming, and to baptize all who believe. Their message is not just that men and women ought to be saved, but that they be saved for the purpose of entering the kingdom.
But year faded into year, and the King failed to return. Some began to doubt his promise; others began to wonder if his kingdom was just a metaphor. The old promise was repeated wherever the creed was recited, but its potency and purpose were forgotten. Christians could wait no more. The institutional church slowly evolved into a monarchy, transforming from in-between community to temporal polity that ruled lands, exercised power over kings, and chastised unbelievers with the power of the state. It was a Christianity that Jesus and his disciples wouldn’t have recognized.
The bloody history that followed is well known. “The greatest, and main abuse of Scripture,” Thomas Hobbes observed not long after the Reformation, “is… to prove that the Kingdome of God, mentioned so often in Scripture, is the present Church… whereas the Kingdome of God was first instituted by the Ministery of Moses, over the Jews only; who were therefore called his Peculiar People.” Yet even the Protestant Reformers who rightly condemned the abuses of the Roman Church went on to imitate its practices, albeit at the national rather than imperial level.
America emerged as a notable exception to the great Christian error, mainly because its founders, Protestant dissenters and enlightened Deists, fled there to escape the religio-political tyranny of Europe. But this exception began to erode as soon as America’s Hebraic worldview began to dissolve. Nowadays, many American Christians, frustrated by the resurgence of pagan culture, yearn for a return to the old Roman model as the only means for regaining control. Protestant or Catholic, right-wing or left-wing, their impulse is the same. They have lost sight of the kingdom—and they are in error.
The in-between nature of Christianity does not demand passivity in the face of politics. On the contrary, it demands responsibility. The individual Christian lives between heaven and earth, duty-bound to God and man, constantly navigating his loyalties to both. But the church, seed of the future kingdom and corporate assembly of its citizens-in-waiting, has no place among this world’s powers. Its mission is invalidated when it loses sight of its destination in Jerusalem.
States and empires will pass away. Even the church will pass away when its mission is completed. Seen in this eschatological light, the suggestion that Donald Trump or Joe Biden could “save America” would elicit a puzzled look from the first Christians. The privilege of democracy allows us to choose leaders that we feel stand closer to the kingdom ideal, and we must take that privilege seriously; but we must never mistake terrestrial analogies for celestial realities. Whatever good our political leaders accomplish will always be provisional, contingent, and flawed. We must steward our citizenship to achieve as much order and justice as possible, but never get too worked up when it doesn’t go our way.
We must not lose sight of our destination. Christ will establish his kingdom as promised, at which time his followers among the nations, spiritually grafted into the commonwealth of Israel, will be physically integrated at last. The resurrection will come. History will take a new turn. Until then our mission is to proclaim his kingdom in word and deed, wisely engaging the political space while never getting sucked into its absurdities. Modest expectations in this world coupled with bright hopes for the next, all wrapped in a strong sense of irony and humor, are critical tools in the Christian toolbox.
Washington is a way station; Jerusalem is the destination. Only the King of Israel will decide when his kingdom will come. Until then we must live righteously, we must preach his kingdom, we must seek the peace of the city—but we must wait. America will be saved only when its Christians remember that America is not the goal.