Long Reads

Autophagy #4: Politics and the Kingdom of God

On the political meanings of Death and Resurrection.

You may find it helpful to read the Autophagy posts I wrote before this:

Biographic Reflections, My Agnostic Christianity, and My Existentialism.

I spent the last three entries of my Autophagy trying to write, as concisely and clearly as I could, my thoughts on myself, my religion, and my worldview. In this post and the next, I want to pick apart and organize my ideas on the way I want to relate to people around me, and the way I hope everyone could learn to relate to each other. If you are scared of the title, don’t worry, I am not writing about elections.

I will try to keep this as short as I can. I will make statements of how I think about this and that, and you are welcome to connect the dots between my last three posts and this. If it still doesn’t make sense, you are welcome to reach out to me and ask questions. My hope, as before, is that you will come to question how you see and think about these things. I have divided this post in three parts: The Kingdom of God, Humanity, and Authority and Hope. On the next post, possibly the last of the series, I will elaborate how I hope to connect these to the way I see and act in the world around me in more concrete ways.

I have a very broad definition of politics. Aristotle defined human beings as “political animals“, which means, in his terms (which I adopt), beings who live in organized relationship. Relationships that are defined, discussed, transformed, enforced, resisted, etc. Politics is the science of the Polis, the City/State, the place in which different human groups learn to live together. Whenever you define yourself in a relational way you are making a political statement about yourself: I am a son, I am a brother, I am white, I am a man, I am Brazilian, I am a Permanent Resident of Canada, I am a descendant of Italians, Spanish, and French immigrants, and of enslaved South-American Natives; I am a worker, I am a student, I am a consumer. All of these labels exist to tell others something about myself, to help organize our collective act of living together. In other words, these are my political identities, and, if you noticed, I did not mention whether I like the conservative or the liberal party, democrats or republicans, libertarians, communists or fascists, because these groupings have very little to do with who I am as a political being. Those groupings and parties which we usually equate with “politics” represent ideologies, propositions, on how we should organize the Polis, the State, our collective living. They are not definitions of any one person as a political being. In other words, being white doesn’t make me a fascist, being poor does not make me a socialist, and thinking that people matter more than property does not make me a Bolshevik.

My ideology on how we should organize politics, which defines the way I will choose to position myself towards my neighbor in our collective society, and which directs me when I choose who I should vote for on election day, is, well… complicated.

THE KINGDOM OF GOD

The best word I would use is Christian, and by that I mean that I want to position myself in society according to the vision of the Kingdom of God. This “Kingdom of God” is a term which the Hebrew Testament prophets, and Jesus, used to speak of an ideal society in which people would organize and identify themselves in a new way: Not like in all the kingdoms of Man, which are ruled by greed and envy and violence, but in the way God would have us choose to exist together, in love, hope, trust, peace, and humility. A society not of domination and competition, but of mutual service and brotherhood, where the poor are considered valuable, and those with most power are accountable as the ones with the most responsibility. Today, it relates a lot to ideas we categorize as socialist, anarchist, and even communist, but it also transcends them.

Jesus came from Nazareth, in Galilee. It was barely a village, a very poor place north of Samaria, the ancient capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which suffered heavy prejudice from the Jews – the people of the Southern Kingdom, of Judah, where we find Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the cultural, economic and religious capital of Judea (land of Judah), where the Temple was, and it was controlled by a priestly class and ruled by a king which were both under the control of Rome. In other words, Jesus grew up in a world where his immediate government was a corrupt puppet government, in a land occupied by a powerful, and ruthless, empire. Jesus was killed in the most brutal way possible, nailed to wood outside the city by the crossroads, to suffer a slow death that anyone going in or out of the city could see, naked, bloody and exposed, under the charges of political insurrection and blasphemy. There was a sign on his cross so that everyone walking by could understand the reason for his execution: JESUS, KING OF THE JEWS, written in Aramaic, Greek, and Latin – the language of the local peasants, the international language of the time, and the language of the imperial capital. It was the brutal display of an empire showing what happens to anyone who challenged its political authority.

The average Christian today will tell you Jesus stayed out of politics. They say it because they have a narrow definition of politics: they understand that someone is political only if they run for office. However, politicians themselves, including kings, emperors, and even high-priests, all understand that politics is something much broader than running for office. Politics happens whenever people think about how they should organize themselves in society, and a man who preaches a new social order, a great feast of God in which the poor are welcomed and the abusive powerful are thrown away in the darkness, was duly recognized as a powerful political force. Even though Jesus refused to be proclaimed King and start an armed rebellion, the pharisees and priests of his time, who valued their good relationship with Rome, did not fail to recognize in his discourse that Jesus was making himself to be “the rock cut out not by human hands“, from the book of Daniel (chapter 2), which would become a mountain and cover the whole earth, reducing the Kingdoms of Man to dust.

What I mean is this: Jesus’ career was extremely political and he died for that reason. He did, however, stay out of the power dynamics of the Kingdoms of Man. This is because he was not interested in winning the human political game, but, instead, introduce a new dynamic, a new game, which he claimed to be divine, and already available for us right here, right now.

In order to see the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached about, one needs to be born again. To change their mind (μετάνοια, usually translated as “repentance”). To become born of the wind/spirit, someone free. To become a new creation. This means that Jesus’ Kingdom does not spread by military conquest, by assassinating a king, or even by election. It spreads through a change of mind about the nature of humankind, of authority, of property, of power, etc. After all, that is precisely how politics begin: you have ideas about yourself and about society, political principles, and those illuminate the way you think that things should be done. Systems of thought, be it a religion or a philosophy, or both, always have political implications.

One could say that one of the incredible things Jesus understood and incarnated in his ministry is that true change, and the arrival of the Kingdom of God, is bottom-up: changing the minds of individuals, these individuals naturally become a new form of society. The Kingdoms of Man, which Jesus refused to participate in, are top-down: we have leaders who force everyone else to obey their system. The historical human disposition when we want change is to seek power and then force others to obey. Jesus chose, instead, to empower the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, not himself. The Kingdoms of Man are built on hegemonic centralized power, and the Kingdom of God is built on liberating marginalized power.

It makes sense that Jesus got killed. I have a hard time picturing anyone being angry at Jesus if he really was just speaking of the afterlife. Like Nietzsche said in his critiques of Christianity, convincing slaves that the next life will be better is, precisely, the best thing a slave-master would want. The Kingdom of God was dangerous and subversive because it convinced everyone that there is no difference between this life and the next, that eternal life begins right now, and that Today, not tomorrow, is the day of redemption (when slaves are bought out and freed). I would argue that the way the church has over-spiritualized Jesus’ words is to make his revolutionary tone palatable, something that Bishops needed desperately in order to have the acceptance of the Emperor, making an effort to preserve the society Jesus came to destroy. The powerful hope for the next life in the New Testament does not rise because the early Christians were complacent workers, but rather, because they were persecuted, and they were persecuted because they lived a life of resistance, not complacency. The foolish and confusing resistance that blesses its enemies while staying unmistakably resistant.

As Daniel foresaw it, this movement has not stopped. When we see the advance of Western Civilization since the Christ-event, we can see these Christian ideas of the Kingdom of God affecting the very roots of our society. We see our collective ideas about government evolving as we progressively abandon totalitarian monarchies and empires and as we move slowly towards becoming democracy and empowerment of the margins. Our presidents and ministers are no longer our lords: they are our public servants. We progressively care about empowering all of society, refusing to give our political voice to those who already have too much power, and choosing to give a voice to minorities. Yes, we still have centralized governments that enforce themselves through violence, but progressively we move towards governments whose primary function is regulation and administration, not military self-preservation. This progression in the last 2000 years has not been linear, but dialectic: a succession of progressive movements answered by reactionary movements. Two steps forward, one step back. But still, overall, we have stopped worshiping our emperors as demi-gods and we have stopped throwing people to lions. The Kingdom blooms slowly.

A fully actualized Kingdom of God world-society would look like the Church described in the fourth chapter of the book of the Acts of the Apostles; in other words, a sort of anarcho-communist society: Anarchist in the sense that nobody was called master or lord, but instead, everyone is a brother or a sister, and all decisions are taken together. There was a central administrative group, for logistic reasons, for the redistribution of wealth, but it was all voluntary. It was a parallel spiritual community independent of the government and of the religious establishment. It was Communist in the sense that there was no private property, everything was shared and the community provided welfare to those who could not work.

I am thankful we had a historical glimpse of that society, and I understand why it didn’t continue: the powers of this world could not accept it, and Jesus did not teach military resistance, but, instead, sacrifice. The first Christians had their blood shed in order for the movement to continue onward, in the margins of history, slowly changing society. A seed must die before it blooms. We had a small glimpse of what it can look in a small scale. Our hope is to learn to bring it beyond it.

HUMANITY

Jesus and the Apostles spoke of humanity, as a collective, as enemies of God. We are given life and love and being every day by God, as his children, and yet, we live full of pride and greed, separated from God because we prefer to live as if we are our own gods: the center of our own worlds. From this pride, envy and greed, we exploit and kill each other because we want more things. Jesus, reflecting the prophetic tradition before him, spoke of God’s work of redemption, the Day of the Lord (when the few that live according to God are delivered from the wicked, and the wicked are destroyed) as something final and dramatic. The biblical authors and editors used the symbols of the Day of the Lord when they described the crucifixion of Jesus: darkness, earth shattering, the dead raising, etc. It was the final act where the Kings of Earth, the Powers of this World, the Enemies of God, the Sons of Adam, chose to kill the Son of God, the new Man, to protect their power. His resurrection is the act in which the Son of God, and the New Humanity, answer to the Kings of Earth and to Darkness and Death themselves that they cannot overcome Light and Life. Jesus incarnates not only God, but Humanity, in a stubborn resistance against oppression that refuses to join it. The Death of God in Christ is the incarnation of his refusal to answer evil with evil. The Resurrection of the New Human incarnates the hope that goodness persists, and that violence cannot overcome love.

However, just like Jesus’ life as Messiah surprised, to the disappointment of many, the expectations of a military uprising against Rome, his teaching of the Kingdom also surprised his own followers who, expecting the end of the world within a few decades, did not see it come to pass – or, at least, not as they expected. Jesus death – and resurrection – did not bring the destruction of the world as a whole. What it led to, in a prophetic way, was the destruction of the Jewish world: The City of Jerusalem fell on 70AD after a long siege by Rome after a military uprising, and the temple was burnt down. This temple has not been rebuilt until today. All of Jewish religion and society was transformed by that event. Animal sacrifices had to cease, the priestly class was replaced by rabbis, etc. The world may not have ended for these Jewish peasants in the first century, but it certainly felt like it did.

Yes, Jesus was a religious figure, but he incarnated a God who owned the destruction of the oppressive religious establishment (who were serving as puppets to Rome), and who encouraged the poor and the rich to organize themselves in a parallel egalitarian community independent of the Empire, facing the foreseeable collapse of the society he knew.

This parallel society was born as the beginning of a new creation, a new Humankind. This new human is meant to live in the world until all the enemies of God fall, until all of creation is transformed. A human who is not driven by the base instincts of fearful self-preservation, but instead is ready to sacrifice itself for the sake of others. A human who is not driven by pride, but by humility. A human who will not take by force, but who will be patient. A human who will not despair, but hope. A human who will not fight its enemies, but bless them. A human who will not live in competition, but in cooperation.

Historically, the “new human” discourse has served for antagonizing and demonizing. One is either one of us or one of them. In the New Testament discourse of New Creation, however, the perspective is this: we are all like Adam: created and beloved, but choosing to betray God. Called Sons of Adam, the old human, we are all the greedy self-preserving violent beast of pride and egoism. Such are all of us. Yet are all welcomed, with forgiveness and acceptance, to be transformed into the new, spiritual, sacrificial, humble and cooperative human. None of us deserves it, everything is a gift. Grace. We are all invited to be like the Centurion who, after presiding Jesus’ execution, and seeing his last breath, realized “Truly you are the Son of God!“.

A key point in this conversion, however, is that although the language is of transformation, progress, and novelty, the story of the kingdom is also a return. The pattern of Creation-Fall-Redemption, or Prosperity-Exile-Return, found in most biblical narratives, speak of a return to an original state. Jesus is not “the next step of humanity” but rather “humanity taking the right step”. He is not an inevitable reality in an impersonal evolution; he is a reminder of our responsibility in our collective personal transcendence. Participating demands intentionality.

The Christ-like response to the Other must be of welcoming, and the resistance against oppression is always by sacrifice, never by violent struggle. According to Jesus, as written in the book of John, the sign of true discipleship is Unity. Loving your neighbor, and your enemy, as yourself. Understanding that we are all affected by each other, and thus, we are all responsible for each other. According to Paul, the sign of being born of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the New Testament definitions of what it means to be Christian. To me, the fact that the pseudo-Christian institution that rose out of that movement decided to define one’s Christianity not by these things, but, instead, by theological assent to dogma, shows its departure from the Christ-movement. Again, to me, the fact that these institutions have persecuted each other instead of blessing each other, shows that, as Jesus once said to the Pharisees, they are not children of his Father.

All in all, nobody has been a perfect follower or a perfect actualization of this new humanity, but there has been much progress. Christians understood from the beginning that complacency is not an answer, and that one’s sanctification and transformation from the old humanity into the new one is a daily effort. One of my favorite ways of phrasing this is Martin Luther’s opening statement from his famous 95 thesis: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent” (Mt 4:17) he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” This means that if you take Jesus seriously (“believe in him“), you work everyday on transforming your own mind (repentance, metanoia). The Apostle Paul himself said so, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”, in a present imperative tense that implies continuity. Much debate has happened in Christian Theology over the idea of faith and works, of the dynamic of God saving you and you saving yourself. Overall, practically, both happen together: you take Jesus seriously, you act accordingly. You have faith, you work. The point is not to get the right semantics as if life is an academic test. The point is to live it.

Putting it simpler: Humans were created to be kind, in unity, cooperation, and love. For some reason we choose to be proud, competitive, and egoistic instead. We are called to recover our true humanity, and return to unity.

AUTHORITY AND HOPE

Authority implies power, respect, and right. We usually assign and communicate that authority with titles (Lord, Master, President, King, Emperor, Your Excellence, Your Holiness, etc.).

The Gospel records show Jesus refusing to be called good (Mk 10:18, :Lk 18:19), him criticizing people who call him Lord but who do not actually follow him (Lk 6:46), and him telling his disciples not to call anyone Father, Master, or Teacher, but instead treat each other only as Brothers and Sisters (Mt 23:8-10). He tells his disciples that the people they should honor as “great” are not their lords, but their servants (Mt 23:11, Lk 22:26, Mk 9:35). Before his death, he made sure to demonstrate what true lordship looks like by washing his disciples feet (Jn 13), a job that only slaves would do at the time, and he commanded his followers to imitate him.

One of my favorite analysis of our ideas of society is from Leo Tolstoy in his book “The Kingdom of God is Within You”, which can be found in Anarchist libraries. He speaks of how we think men are special because they wear certain costumes, like uniforms and crowns. We trust people to make decisions for us, to imprison us, to punish us, to boss us, to kill us, simply if they wear a costume. They spend the money of the poor in parade and pomp to make it look like they are more than what they are, and we actually believe them. We are the ones who give them this power, precisely by believing in them.

Jesus’ teaching of the Kingdom invites us to look at the world precisely like that. Jesus says Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I know this saying (and its different versions in each Gospel) has often been used to debate whether babies and children go to Heaven or not… Please forget this over-spiritualizing of the Kingdom. Jesus barely, if ever, spoke of the afterlife. Think of the political Kingdom of God. Think of a society without the pretense of adulthood. One where you trust people because they make sense, and because they show good will towards you through service, and not because they wear a badge and carry a gun. Remember you are a child, stop lying to yourself and to others about how grown up you have to be, and look at the world again. Return home, and look at how things really are, not the way you were taught they must be. Ask yourself, why do you spend hours and hours making someone else richer while some people starve? Ask yourself, why do we throw away food? Ask yourself, why are we destroying the planet? Don’t be content with simply accepting it because someone important wrote somewhere that this is the law, that this is how things are, that if you don’t obey, a man with a costume will come and make you give him paper (money) or else shoot you. A child wants to know more, to ask why, without the pretense of trying to look more respectful than they should.

How would your life change if you treated everyone, including the people you hate the most, as a brother or sister? How would your life change if you dropped the pretense and pride you carry, which stops you from hugging and laughing and questioning? How would your school or workplace change if you treated the janitor with as much respect as the CEO? How would your city change if you refused to leave people abandoned because some other big baby wants to be greedy and keep all the food and houses and toys for himself?

It’s not necessarily about changing other people, although you need to invite them to live like you. Paul said so once, in chains, to a king. “I wish you would become like me, except for these chains”. The first step is changing yourself, and how you see yourself in relation to the world. Instead of asking “what do I do with my money”, ask “how am I stewarding God’s gifts?”. Afterwards, “what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” Share the good news with your neighbor: you are not in competition! We are one! I will be responsible towards you! I care! We can be good! We can refuse to perpetuate the cycle of violence and greed! We can actually love our enemies, not just in word, but in action! We can offer the other cheek! We can do it! We can hope!

That is the Gospel. The Good News. Life beats Death.

It’s been 2000 years and things have gotten easier, perhaps less brutal. Maybe it hasn’t, which makes this movement of resistance still more relevant. If the government, or your boss, has something against it, well, give Caesar what is Caesar’s. They want paper? Let them have it! But do not let them have your life. Do not let them have your conscience. Do not let them have what belongs to God. You will be a blessing to all around you, and you will change what you can as much as you can for the good of all, without ever disrespecting the sacredness of life even in your enemies. Good thing is, in a democracy, we can do a lot more than in the Roman Empire.

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Be ready to carry a cross. Be ready to be killed and persecuted by those who love their power too much. Be ready to be ridiculed by those who call “mine” the things they were given to steward, the things that were here before they were born, which they cannot bring along to their grave.

As I finish writing this, I am amazed at how much I find myself quoting the bible, more than even my post about my Christianity. These are the principles by which I want to live my life, the way in which I want to follow Christ, and the way in which I want to relate to my neighbors. Any organized relationship with my neighbors is “politics”. I invite you to reflect on how you see these things, whether or not you believe a guy 2000 years ago may or may not have come back from the dead. In my next post, I want to speak of some concrete ways I think these things can be lived today. I am not interested in empty idealism. Yes, Idealism, and hope, and maybe even utopia, like a child. At the risk of crucifixion. Not empty, but full of grace and truth.


Picture: La Confession du Centurion, by James Tissot

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