What do we mean by the Kingdom of God?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life April 2002

Christian orthodoxy has always seen Christ as king as well as prophet and priest – a king who will personally and visibly reign some day, following the second coming. In the meantime there is ‘the kingdom of God’ which Vatican 2 identifies with the church, understood as ‘the people of God’.

When Jesus said ‘the kingdom of God is within’ and ‘at hand’ and that we should ‘seek’ it we can link this idea to the second birth that comes with baptism by the Holy Spirit. That is to say, a Christian spirituality can build a kingdom within us where Christ reigns as Lord, one that can gradually change also our outward cultural and social reality, moving the church and human society gradually towards a second visible coming of Christ.

But how do we envisage Christ reigning then? ‘Kingdom’ now seems a very archaic concept – especially in a context where the mystique of royalty has been totally destroyed by media intrusion into the all-too human frailties of the Windsors. No advanced country in the world is now ruled by a hereditary monarchy with real executive power – and this seems sensible. And so the ‘kingdom’ language of the Bible is one of those aspects of Christianity that make it seem fusty and culturally antiquated – the doomed intellectual property of a backward looking patriarchy. Must we Christians believe that God is stuck in an ancient and medieval mindset that will insist upon returning us some day to something like the kingdom of David or Solomon or Charlemagne, only more magnificent and triumphant, with Christ holding court in some fixed, earthly location and directing a centralised governmental system?

I believe not. I believe that if we read and ponder holistically the Biblical accounts of the kingdom of Israel, as well as the Gospel references to the kingdom of God, we find a dynamic that is actually predictive of a modern global egalitarian society – but one that lacks the imperfections of the most advanced we now have.

First, God did not impose an earthly kingdom upon Israel – but granted it reluctantly and apparently with the intention of letting Israel learn from the experience. The first book of Samuel tells us:

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” 1 Sam 8:4,5

Notice ‘such as all the other nations have’. This tells us something of crucial importance – that the earthly kingdom of Israel arose out of mimetic desire, or covetousness – the desire to possess that which is possessed by others – because they possess it. The perceived greater power of the surrounding monarchical systems – especially that of the Philistines – led Israel to envy them, to suppose that it was these systems that gave them this greater power, and to undervalue the system they already had – one in which prophets and judges ruled in a relationship of equality and familiarity rather than hierarchy and splendour.

The text goes on to tell us that Samuel was displeased by that request, but that the Lord told him:

“Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.”

So, according to the text, the kingdom of Israel essentially involved the rejection of an earlier ‘kingdom of God’ over which the Lord ‘reigned’ through the prophet Samuel, but without placing Samuel on some sacred plane above other men – a ‘kingdom’ that God preferred, and one without a palace or court. The word ‘kingdom’ in that context obviously has the widest possible connotation: that over which there is some kind of rule or dominion. We ought not, therefore, when attempting to conceptualise the kingdom of God, begin with, say, the military kingdom of David or Solomon – for these were inferior to the original kingdom of God.

The essence of that inferiority was their origin in an inferior spirituality – mimetic desire – and this is confirmed by the accounts of the central flaws of the three great kings – Saul, David and Solomon. David’s victory over Goliath made him the hero of the women of Israel, who accorded less glory to Saul – and he became murderously jealous. In other words he entered into mimetic rivalry with David for esteem – as did Absalom later, with equally tragic consequences. But David disgraced himself also by committing murder in order to possess Bathsheba – the wife of a subject. The fact that she was already married meant that David’s essential weakness also was associated with mimetic desire.

As for Solomon, he became renowned for his wisdom and, according to the text, ultimately preferred this renown to fidelity to the God who had given him this gift. Renown is simply wider esteem. The need of the man of eminence to be esteemed by other humans had again become his undoing. And this same weakness was the root source of the brutality of the Herods in Jesus’s time.

Sacred kingship essentially turned a mere human being into a mystical being upon whom an exaggerated dignity and military expectation was then conferred – with the consequence that the individual so honoured usually became virtually obsessed with his own reputation or ‘glory’. Another consequence was the inevitable withdrawal of dignity from those subjects who could never expect to come close to this semi-sacred being. Here again the book of Samuel is highly specific:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day.” 1 Sam 8:11-18

What is being described here is subjection: a loss of dignity and freedom. The sons who ran in front of the chariot would be the first to die in battle – for the glory of the person they served. Samuel’s critique of ancient kingship could have served perfectly the antimonarchist causes of revolutionary America and republican France nearly three millennia later.

If an inability to overcome the compulsion of mimetic desire was always associated with the visible kingdoms of Israel, then the original invisible kingdom had never been surpassed. It is against this background that we need to observe Jesus’ dealings with kingship – especially his rejection of the option of building such a visible kingdom in the only way that was feasible in the ancient world: by conquest.

This decision began with the second temptation in the desert, and was finally decisively rejected at Gethsemane. Jesus’ reply to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” can thus be interpreted as “That over which I rule is not one of those earthly kingdoms which arise out of mimetic desire and conflict”. And this means it cannot be like the kingdom of David either. It is the same ‘kingdom’ that Israel had abandoned in the time of Samuel, with Jesus in the Samuel, i.e. the prophetic, role. That is to say, it is really an anti-kingdom – one that contradicted the pattern whereby the subject would die for the glory of the king.

We must not make the mistake of supposing that an earthly kingdom ruled by a visible Jesus must necessarily be free of mimetic desire and envy – i.e. of imperfection – for the Gospel tells us otherwise. “Which of us is the greatest?” the apostles repeatedly ask of him, with the sons of Zebedee aiming at a heavenly elevation also. If the kingdom of God is to be free of mimetic desire, there simply cannot be a human pyramid of esteem with Jesus at its summit – for no matter how perfect the king, people would then jealously compete for closeness to him, supposing their own dignity rested upon that, as humans have throughout history. Earthly kingship creates inevitably a pyramid of dignity, in which a ‘wannabe’ fixation deprives everyone else of a sense of her/his own dignity (the source of all those English dreams of tea with the Queen).

The only ‘kingdom’ that can be free of mimetic desire is one in which all accept their own equal dignity. It will therefore be unlike any earthly kingdom of the past, and superior – in terms of egalitarianism – to the most advanced democratic societies today. It is a future society in which dignity is equally distributed – far superior to the ‘meritocracy’ aimed at by our current political elites, for mimetic desire is rampant there also. It follows that power also will be distributed rather than concentrated as in all absolute monarchies.

This is part of the meaning of the passion and death of Christ: he is bringing down the pyramid of esteem, establishing a relationship between humans that is based upon equal mutual respect – the meaning of the washing of the feet. The continual eucharistic division of the body of Christ means that wherever the ‘subject’ is, there is Jesus also. Each of us is equally close, so none lacks dignity.

With globalisation our perception of human space is shifting. In the ancient world people supposed they lived upon a planar disc with real physical boundaries. There had to be a boundary out there, an ‘edge’, encircling human space. This is why Alexander set out to travel to that boundary – the end of the earth – conquering as he went. The human idea of kingship was therefore linked to the notion of a bounded planar surface, over which human heroes fought for arch dominion. The notion that Jerusalem lay at the centre of that surface persisted into the late Middle Ages in Europe.

The idea of earthly kingship was also linked to that of a vertical hierarchy of heavenly dignity, in which the earthly king’s elevation ‘above’ his subjects reflected the even greater dignity of God in the perfection of heaven.

If we interpret the Genesis story of ‘the fall’ as related to human mimetic envy of God in Heaven (‘you shall be as Gods’), we can then interpret the story of Jesus as a revelation whose central teaching is that God is not to be envied – because he is prepared to accept the humiliation of the world. And this in turn means that our conception of Christ as King must be one that rejects the typical earthly kingly pyramid. Somehow he will always be equidistant from us all, so that all are equally honoured.

The Eucharist achieves this, of course, by allowing within sacred space a perfect equality of contact with the king. The Ascension we can see then not so much as a departure, but as a necessary step towards a sacramental banquet in which all Christians are equally admitted to the divine presence, which can also, through the Eucharist and the Spirit, reign within. In this way God raises all into his being equally – undermining the power of mimetic desire.

Now conscious human space has no fixed boundaries, for we know the surface upon which we live is spherical, always returning to meet itself. Thus, the surface of the earth can have no centre, so that no location upon it is more privileged and prestigious than any other.

Furthermore we now look out upon an enfolding heavenly space so vast that the notion of human dominion there is ludicrous. And so we can envisage also a global – and even extra-terrestrial – human society in which, with the continual breaking of bread and body, there is a perfect equality of dignity, and therefore no need for conflict or concentrations of military power.

It is profoundly mysterious that there should be in texts that were written in the ancient planar world a clear revelation of a divine preference for a ‘kingdom’ that would look beyond any existing in that world, to provide what the global human family now needs, and will always need. That is, a Lordship that claims authority first and last in the human heart, that excludes no-one, and that promises freedom and equal dignity to all.

In an earthly community of this kind, people would not notice someone who came by, gently, seeking their company rather than their obeisance, their freedom rather than their subjection. He would not be challenged – for all people would be in the habit of accepting strangers this way.

Here is an early Irish poem that dreams of the future kingdom of Heaven:

CREATION OF HEAVEN

King, you created heaven according to your delight,
a place that is safe and pure, its air filled with the songs of angels.
It is like a strong mighty city, which no enemy can invade,
with walls as high as mountains.
It is like an open window, in which all can move freely,
with people arriving from earth but never leaving.
It is huge, ten times the size of earth,
so that every creature ever born can find a place.
It is small, no bigger than a village,
where all are friends, and none is a stranger.
In the centre is a palace, its walls made of emerald
and its gates of amethyst; and on each gate is hung a golden cross.
The roof is ruby, and at each pinnacle stands an eagle
covered in gold, its eyes of sapphire.
Inside the palace it is always daylight, and the air cool, neither hot nor cold; and there is a perfect green lawn, with a blue stream running across it.
At the edge of this lawn are trees and shrubs, always in blossom,
white, pink and purple, spreading a sweet fragrance everywhere.
Round the lawn walks a King, not dressed in fine robes,
but in a simple white tunic, smiling, and embracing those he meets.
And people from outside are constantly entering the palace,
mingling one with another, and then leaving.
Everyone in heaven is free to come to the palace,
and then to take with them its perfect peaceful joy;
and in this way the whole of heaven is infused with the joy of the palace.

(Celtic Prayers, R Van de Weyer, Abingdon Press)

It’s clear that the unknown author of this poem was someone within whom the Lord reigned already spiritually, and who understood that a perfect equality and lack of rivalry would eventually characterise his people. The word ‘subjects’ is out of place to describe these, for there is no subjection, only liberation. With such a ‘kingdom’ the most radical egalitarian and democrat could find no fault.

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