“thy kingdom come”
For a while now, I’ve had the Lord’s Prayer on my mind—this prayer that many of us have prayed so many times throughout our lives that we may well have stopped thinking about what it is we’re actually saying.
But I want to reclaim what I believe to be the heart of this famous prayer: a radically revolutionary vision of justice, equity, and restoration to wholeness for all the earth.
As I was preparing to write this, there was a song that kept running through my head. You’ve probably heard it before. If not, take a minute–especially the chorus. You won’t regret it!
(doesn’t it almost feel as though you’ve just been rick roll’d? Ha!)
I don’t know that Belinda Carlisle had the Kingdom of God in mind when she sang this song, but I think she was on to something.
But first, let’s set the scene for this prayer:
About 150 years before Jesus was born, there was a Roman man named Aemelius Sura who famously proclaimed that there were five great empires that had ruled the world. The great empire of Rome, he declared, having been exalted by the gods, had reached the highest point yet achieved on earth. It was the fifth and climactic kingdom, “the empire of the world.” (1)
About that same time, there was a Jewish man named Daniel—you may recognize his name from the book of Daniel in the Old Testament. Daniel also refers to these four great kingdoms that have ruled the world. But for Daniel, the climactic fifth kingdom was not Rome, but the Kingdom of God—and here’s the important part: “it stood against all imperial kingdoms before, during, or after its advent.” (2)
This brings us back to the crux of the prayer Jesus teaches his disciples:
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven
(cue Miss Carlisle once more. . .)
Now, Jesus wasn’t praying for a theocracy. But by stating it this way, Jesus was taking his prayer out of a merely spiritual realm and placing it in his lived social context. It was a bold critique of Rome and the powers that be, a declaration that they were at odds with the Kingdom of God. In short, Jesus’ words—epitomizing his entire ministry—were an affront to the power structures of his day.
But Jesus didn’t merely critique. He offered an alternative. He proclaimed that God’s heavenly Kingdom was in fact already present right there in the midst of the oppressive and unjust rule of Rome. Yes, people could enter into it there and then (as opposed to pie in the sky when we die bye and bye). And yet, it was also clear that the Kingdom of God had not yet fully arrived, for the Kingdom of Rome was clearly still running the show.
Already, but not yet. Two thousand years later, this paradox is still our reality: we live in the in-between.
As in Jesus’ ministry, we encounter the already present Kingdom of God here and now in acts of radical hospitality, inclusivity, compassion and justice. But here is the challenge ever set before us: the continual building of this Kingdom—of the great restoration of all creation, not just some of it, to dignity and wholeness. And this can only take place with our participation. God is apparently not interested in doing this alone. No, the coming of the Kingdom will not occur with a “flash of lightning,” as in the popular “Rapture” faux-theology, but as a result of a long and arduous process of mutual cooperation between humanity and God.
To paraphrase St. Augustine: “God without us, will not; as we, without God, cannot.”
So why is this Kingdom message still relevant for us today?
Because we live in the current “world empire” and global superpower. And while I’m grateful to be a citizen of this country—for its freedoms, for its contributions and advancements to science, art, and technology—our imperial American empire has continually ignored the fact that injustice is enshrined in and thus perpetuated by the very systems and institutions governing it. No, we are not the pinnacle of humankind. In fact, we have a long ways to go!
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus challenges us to have the freedom of mind to imagine an alternative world beyond our present reality, to have the audacity to maintain hope in its coming despite the present pervasiveness of oppression and injustice, and to offer our hands, our feet, and our voices to the long and arduous construction process justice requires.
But there is another sort of religious word, I think, that has gotten in the way of this justice work:
Since we often conflate the two and seem to prefer charity over justice, I want to end by clarifying, in my eyes, their differences and the importance this difference makes in building the Kingdom of God.
Perhaps a story will help us here:
There was once a small town built just beyond a large bend in the Mississippi River. On one particular day some children from the town were playing along the shoreline, giggling and making up games as kids do, when they noticed three bodies floating downstream. Frightened, they jumped on their bikes and burst back to town shouting for help. Without hesitation, several people sprinted to the riverside, dove in and pulled the bodies out of the river.
One body was dead so they held a funeral and buried it. One was alive, but quite ill, so they took him to the hospital. The third turned out to be a healthy, though shaken child, who, after an unsuccessful search for her parents, was adopted and raised by a loving family.
From that day on, however, every day a number of bodies came floating down the river, and every day, the good people of the town would pull them out and tend to them—taking the sick to hospitals, placing the children with families, and burying those who were dead.
This went on for years; each day bringing its quota of bodies. The townsfolk not only came to expect numerous bodies each day, but also began developing more elaborate systems for picking them out of the river and tending to them. Some became well known for their generosity in tending to these bodies, and a few even gave up their jobs so that they could do so full-time. The town established a reputation in the greater region for their incredible generosity, a great pride of the local community.
However, during all these years and despite all that generosity and effort, nobody thought to go up the river, beyond the bend that hid from their sight what was above them, and find out why, daily, those bodies came floating down the river. (3)
As this story illustrates, there is a fundamental difference between charity and justice.
Charity addresses the outcomes of an unjust society—it takes the bodies out of the river, gets them the care they need, and a support structure to grow up in—acts that are vital and important, no doubt, but which will never eliminate the injustice, for they don’t get at the root cause, which is the work of justice.
Justice travels up the river to discover and change the reasons that people are ending up in the river wounded and dead in the first place. Moving beyond our story, justice looks at the systems in place so as to name and change those structural things that account for the fact that some in our society are unduly penalized even as others are unduly privileged (4). Justice has to do with issues such as poverty, educational inequity, racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and all other structural impediments that deny individuals and groups of people their inherent dignity and wholeness, and full participation in society.
Justice inevitably has to do with how we organize ourselves as a society, which is to say that justice inherently deals with the political. This is why, I believe, we have elevated charity over justice. It’s vastly easier, much sexier, and far less controversial. Even major corporations have gotten in on it! The famous line from Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Hélder Câmara makes the point well: “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
I close with the questions this reflection has engraved in my mind and heart:
Do you have the imagination to envision a just and equitable world? Are we, followers of Jesus, willing to embody the radical vision and mission of justice and equity at the heart of our most sacred prayer? What can each of you do to educate and involve yourself with justice issues in Madison and globally? And how can you spread that vision? How can you empower others in your community to lend their hands, feet, and voices to the cause of Justice, in solidarity with—not for!—the marginalized and oppressed. How can you be a part of the building of God’s kingdom on earth?
all my love,
1. Velleius Paterculus, Compendium of Roman History, 2.131.
2. John Domminic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer, 74.
3. story adapted from “Justice and Charity: A Parable” by Ronald Rolheiser in Living God’s Justice.
4. Dennis Arthur Conners, Preparing School Leaders to Ensure Equity and Work Toward Social Justice