Every once in a while, a film slips through the cracks of the Academy of Motion Pictures. There have been some obvious misses over the years with some classics, but one that not many think about is a coming of age film about a man struggling to find a place in his world and locating it among the most unsuspecting of friends. Yes, of course I am talking about Billy Madison.
Ok. Maybe it didn’t deserve a golden statue. However, something came to my mind in the days following the U.S. election of a reality TV personality as the leader of the free world. I was seeing and processing so many different people of faith’s reactions to the election. I have many progressive, liberal Christian friends who obviously were deeply grieved. I have right wing, republican Christian friends who puffed their chests and paraded around like a peacock (who, we learn in another Academy Awards fail, “The Other Guys” that peacocks don’t fly…) As I sat on my couch shocked but not shocked at all that had occurred, I began to think of the Kingdom and our rather strange obsession with kingdom. Seems confusing, but note- one has a little ‘k’ and one has a big “K.” As a person seeking to follow Jesus, I have found myself first and foremost aligned with the Kingdom of Heaven living in the kingdom of the U.S.A.
Jesus had a political system that he prescribed and lived by. In the midst of great oppression- violent, political oppression, this was the Roman Empire, folks- he certainly could have spoken clearly about such things. In fact, it seems that is exactly what his people wanted from him. They wanted freedom from Roman rule and they hoped he would lead that movement. This is why they wanted to toss him off of a cliff when he suggested that more than just the Jewish people were included in the Kingdom he was talking about. This was crazy talk! You don’t include your oppressors! This is why many were “went away confused” by his message and parables. This is why, towards the end of the story, they wanted Barabbas instead of Jesus, because maybe Barabbas could lead the rebellion. They needed a man of war, a man of violence, and Jesus was coming up short. They did not understand that the rebellion Jesus was offering was to be carried in a different way and was really quite different
I am no historian, but I think it’s pretty safe to say as far as humanity goes, we have always had this thing with political rule, with the rise and fall of kingdoms. Why is that? Why is it that we get so emotionally attached to an outcome of a political season and election cycle? In reality, it comes down to one thing- Power. Again, as long as there have been civilizations, there has been this need, this thirst, this lust- for power. Following the Christian faith back to its Genesis (see what I did there?) It started in a garden story where two people were offered a chance at just a little bit more power, even though they’ve been given as much of it and freedom as they could ever require. The first biblical recorded murder? It was about power. Look for conflicts, and you’ll find somewhere involved within it, the struggle for power. Don’t get me wrong, many times this need of or shift of power has been a noble, good, necessary thing. Just in America’s brief existence as a nation, examples like the desire to even have a country free from religious oppression, to the ending of transatlantic slave trade, to women’s suffrage, to the civil rights movement- these are all examples of a good shift in power. It is just as easy (maybe even easier) to make a list of shifts in power that were not noble, though at the time they were painted as such, many of those situations tangled within the ones listed above.
So it was in the beginning of civilization, so it is today- humanity gets into groups and gathers power and pushes back and forth for it. But then there’s Jesus, the person who we claim, as people of faith, to follow. He offers a politic of power that is completely backwards to these ways that seem normal to humanity, both at his time all the way to today. His way is completely against the systems of power we are almost seemingly wired to pursue (if you want to dive deep- If we follow his way, and the other way is anti his way, they are, by definition “anti-Christ.” Yes. That is what that means.)
Read the beatitudes (all those, “blessed are the…” statements.) Where is the power? It’s been lost. Given away. Offered to. Look at the way Jesus tells stories, pay attention to when and where and to whom he performs miracles. When he is literally asked about taxes on two separate occasions- one time he asks who’s face is on the coin. He says, “welp, there ya go.” Another time, he is questioned by Peter regarding a tax (either a temple tax or some roman tax. I’ve read it described as both.) He sends Peter to catch a fish, open its mouth and produce a coin from it that would cover both Peter’s and Jesus’ tax that was requested. There is no statement regarding that fishing trip occurring, but it’s as if Jesus is responding to something greater than a tax. He’s responding to power. It’s as if he’s saying, “there’s more than one power at play here. There is an earthly power, and there is a Power that is not subject to that power.” I find the fish thing really intriguing. It’s like, ‘the coin is in the fish. The coin will pay the tax. But, who put the coin there?” Maybe, that’s the real power to be pursued.
Which brings me back to the initial subject, one William Madison. Billy, as he’s known, is forced to go back to school to graduate so he can take over his family business. His first class is with Ms. Lippy who shares a story of a puppy who lost its way. While the other children are asleep after the story ends, Billy questions the person in the story’s effort in finding his lost puppy. “You’ve got a pet, you’ve got a responsibility. If your dog is lost, you don’t look for an hour and then call it quits. You get your keester out there and you find that flibbityflooping dog!” (some words may have been changed in this quote….)
The church- evangelical, mainline, progressive, rightwing, no wing, peacock wing, etc etc- we’ve lost our puppy. The politics of the Kingdom of Heaven have never once changed. They have been constant since the foundations of the earth. They were on full display in the life of Jesus and in some faithful humans since. (Incidentally, lots of those faithful humans met some awful ends of life on this earth. But, let’s not worry about that right now…)Others you may have never even heard of or seen but may have caught the reality of their execution of this higher way of politics. Kingdom politics have also never bowed to or been supported or advanced by earthly political power. They simply do not jive. It’s oil and water. What has Jesus asked us to do, politically? Find the commands or ideals he puts forth- there honestly aren’t too many. You can find most of his instruction in Matthew 5-7, something I like to call the “matt-trick.” It’s like a hat trick in hockey (3 goals scored in one game) but it involves three chapters in the book of Matthew. Because, I’m witty. Those 3 chapters hold enough difficult things to keep us busy for a while readjusting our politics.
As far as America is concerned- we should be doing the things we should have always been doing, the things we are called to, which Jesus (and the rest of scripture) is pretty clear about- caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, standing against injustice, providing an ear, a shoulder, and practicing intentional enemy love.
Does this new America under Donald Trump promote those ideals? No. That’s silly. It’s equally as silly to believe it would have been promoted under Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, George Bush (either of them) or any of the other 41 presidents of the U.S. Because the politics of the Kingdom of Heaven will always be counter to the politics of any other kingdom. My realization, that has been made clear in recent days, is that the church has lost it’s puppy. We have forgotten our responsibility. We have lost what we should have been about all along. My prayer and hope, is that now we will be given the opportunity to find it. Every power shift has offered this and every moment in between. This power shift has been apocalyptic, though. It’s been a shaking and it may be a tremendous catalyst. (For more on that idea, check out my friend Zach’s blog.)
Should we participate in earthly politics? I am honestly searching that answer out for myself. I think we have a voice to be heard, but it’s not about country. It’s not about rights being infringed upon or majority rule or any of those earth kingdom ideas. It’s about people. Always people. My friend Johnny always offers the old leadership adage, “we should not be a thermometer, aware of the temperature of our environment but rather a thermostat, a people setting the temperature.” We can’t do that from behind screens and keyboards. We can’t do that getting riled up every 4 or 8 years. We do that with faithful presence in sometimes difficult places. Directly in the middle of nowhere, as Brennan Manning says is the space between the now and here. We do that only by executing the politics of the Kingdom. Let’s get our keesters out there and find our flibbityflooping dog.