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Kingdom Reality-Check and the Middle East Crisis

originally published at ABTS Lebanon

Jesus’ first declaration of his public ministry was “repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” The Kingdom of God was a persistent theme throughout his teaching as He communicated the nature of this Kingdom through parable and story. His miracles demonstrated the authority of the Kingdom over every sphere of life. He called his disciples to abandon all present loyalties for the sake of the Kingdom. The genealogical records of the Gospel as well as citations of prophecies depict Jesus himself as the promised Messiah—the King who would ascend the throne of David and rule over all God’s people forever. The apostles declared Jesus’ ascension to be his enthronement at the right hand of God and called all people, everywhere to bow the knee before this King in acknowledgment that He alone is deserving of our honor and homage.

Most Christians would give ready assent to the preceding paragraph yet the real and present impact of Jesus’ Kingdom seems to escape us when dealing with thorny existential realities such as the current crisis in the Middle East. No one (to my knowledge) goes so far as to assert the Kingdom’s absence from such horrendous devastation, but our questions and commentary betray the fact that we assume its absence. The parties which clamor for and lay claim to our attention are those which play a visible and material role in the conflict—ISIS, Khorazon, the Nusra Front, the Free Syrian army, the regime of Syrian president Asad, the Peshmerga (the Kurdish forces) and now, of course, the “coalition of the willing” led by the United States and its allies. These factions represent the new idiom of the conflict and the visible parties providing reference points for our understanding of it.

Would anyone dare to make the preposterous claim that Jesus is the enthroned king presently ruling over the chaos of the Middle East? Would you?

Some might respond “well if he is the king and he rules over this mess, he’s either powerless or heartless. A real king—one with real authority—would put a stop to the senseless killing, the displacement of peoples and the spread of violent religious radicalism.”

Fair enough. So the spread of senseless blood-letting, often perpetrated in the name of religion and for the preservation of power must be divorced from Jesus’ kingdom. The former has nothing to do with the latter. One is the action of the empires of this world while the Kingdom of Jesus is somewhere else. Providing a line of demarcation between the empires of this world and the Kingdom of God ruled by Jesus gives us an emotional respite. It allows us to ask questions such as “what should we do?” where the “we” assumes the particular faction that we most closely associate with in the present, material conflict.

I’ve recently visited some churches in the US where I was often asked “what should we do?” The clear underlying assumption is that “we” stands for the United States. The question, in my opinion, betrays a misplaced loyalty—an assumption that our most effective action can and must be carried out through the empires of this world. Similar misplaced loyalties also become evident in conversations in the Middle East. The assumption is that one empire or another must win out in the conflict and we should throw our weight behind the most like-minded faction. After all, in the real world, someone has to win. And someone has to lose. Right?

And just what and where is “the real world?”

Jesus calls us to a different “real world.” His Kingdom provides a new reality—a new way of seeing the world and a new way of being.

The Kingdom of God was to be in and among the empires of this world but never a part of them, never subservient to them. The new Kingdom would coexist with the powers that be, ever calling them to bow the knee to its authority but never coercing them. The line of advance of this Kingdom would not be marked by swords and spears (tanks and F16’s in our day) but by the absorption of evil in the willing embrace of suffering by Kingdom people. Jesus’ followers were told in no uncertain terms that to follow Him meant embracing his cross.

The Kingdom is anticipated by the first of its line of sovereigns—King David—who though anointed as the sovereign leader of the people, was nonetheless pursued like an animal by the pseudo-king Saul. His suffering, portrayed vividly in the Psalms was God’s plan for the eventual consummation of his kingdom. David’s steadfast refusal to take vengeance in his own hands and kill Saul prepared the people for a more noble expression of the Kingdom. It is also a prototype of the new Kingdom of God. Jesus has been anointed and has ascended the throne. His Spirit has been poured out on his followers from all nations and peoples. United by the outpoured Spirit, they form the body of Christ on the earth. Thus Christ, through His body, continues to be pursued and persecuted here on earth as he awaits the consummation of his Kingdom. The suffering of Christ’s body is not an aberrant mishap, but the kingly strategy.

So in view of this Kingdom reality-check, what is our response to the current Middle East crisis?

First, Jesus’ Kingdom is in and among the empires of this world even in the Middle East. We must hold the suffering of Christ’s people in the Middle East in the forefront of our thoughts and prayers. This is no aberrant mishap. The displacement of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian Christians is a vivid portrayal of the realities that Jesus taught concerning His Kingdom. The Kingdom of Jesus is suffering with, in and among the peoples of this world. By so doing, it offers them an alternative kingdom—a King of Peace whose reign is procured, not by the suffering of others but by his own suffering at the hands of this world’s empires. The Kingdom of Jesus has the audacity to ask “how can I share in the suffering of Christ’s people in the Middle East?”

Second, we must replace our misplaced loyalties. No matter which party or faction you identify with in the Middle East conflict, if you are a Jesus-follower, your fealty can only be given to one King. Now the question “what should we do about the Middle East crisis?” takes on new meaning. The “we” is not the country of which you are a citizen or the faction with which you are aligned, but the people of the Kingdom of Jesus who are from all nations and peoples. That makes a huge difference requiring us to divest ourselves of our national interests, embracing the multi-cultural reality of the new Kingdom. Think about it.

Third, because the Kingdom of Jesus has renounced violence as its modus operandi, it becomes a viable (perhaps the only viable) candidate for peace-making and reconciliation. It appears that every faction in the current crisis presses its own advantage to the detriment, even destruction, of the other parties in the conflict. “Kill or be killed” is the law of the jungle, but never the law of the Kingdom of Christ. Christ-followers seek the good of their enemies. “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who persecute you.” Such is the radical self-giving nature of Jesus’ Kingdom. Is it blissful naiveté? Not at all. It is the reality of following a King who hung from a cross and cried “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Nothing could be more real, more authentic than that. Here are some questions to ponder: What if Christ has left his people (his body) in the conflicts of this world as his unique vehicle of peace-making and reconciliation? What if his people miss their calling to be agents of peace-making and reconciliation due to their stubborn affiliation with the empires of this world? “Blessed are the peace-makers, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”

One may well ask “does this mean that a Christian never supports armed resistance in any form?” Thoughtful Christians will take different sides on that issue. However, the question I am asking here is not “should Christians be pacifists?” but how should Christians respond to the ongoing Middle East conflict in view of Christ’s Kingdom? Even if we recognize the legitimate right of sovereign states to engage in armed resistance, we must press further to ask what unique role the Kingdom of Jesus plays in the conflict and how am I to respond in view of this Kingdom? How does my loyalty to Christ’s Kingdom position me differently than my affiliation with one or more of the warring factions in the Middle East?

Jesus appears before an empire-leader of his own day. He is robed in royal purple, crowned with thorns, accused of insurrection—calling himself the king of his people, while a mob calls for his suspension on wooden beams, pierced through with nails. The pseudo empire-leader reprimands Jesus’ silence when interrogated, “do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” The mob casts its lot with the empire of this world “we have no king but Caesar!” Despite all outward appearances to the contrary, Jesus states that the empire-leader would have no authority unless it had been given him from above (see John 19:11).

Might not the same be said of the current conflict in the Middle East? The warring factions would have no authority were it not given them by God? Might the true Kingdom of Jesus, despite all outward appearances, actually be in and among the conflict, still suffering, still giving itself for the sake of the world, calling people of all nations to its loving embrace of peace?

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