Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come,
“Kingdom” has a strange ring to it, doesn’t it? On the one hand, it feels very familiar. Those of us who have grown up in the church are quite at ease flinging about ancient biblical terms like “kingdom.” But, on the other hand, we live in nation-states, a chunk of us under democratic rule with no intimate experience of what kingly rule was or is like (I assume that’s most–if not all–of us reading this post).
The authoritarian connotations of “kingdom” and the history of abusive, unjust, monarchical rule in (at the very least) European history funnel some of the faithful to reject the rhetoric of “kingdom.” Instead, other concepts and images are employed to speak of God’s human (eschatological) community and the hoped for social rhythms that will mark it. Last year I heard, for the first time, the word “Kin-dom” in a sermon. Removing the “g” results in a family-oriented idea, drawing on the “community of God” aspect of Kingdom, but purportedly removing the authoritarian (and thus abusive) connotations of historical human kingdoms. God would not rule over the faithful as a power-hungry monarch, so the logic seems to go, legislating activities to be followed mechanistically, oppressing and exploiting the weak, and expecting self-mutilating surrender from all. Instead God would commune with a wide and diverse family as a loving parent: providing nourishment, safety, care; sharing intimately in human life; and empowering mutual flourishing among family members.
However odd this move may seem, it is not anti-biblical or without its theological merit. The early church took on “fictive kin language” to characterize relations among the faithful. In Acts, the faithful are referred to as “brothers and sisters”1 (see verses here). Paul, too, greets his friends and compatriots in the church in the fictive kin language of “brothers and sisters” (see verses here). That trajectory of language stretched into the history of the church where priests were called “father” and nuns “mother.” In some Protestant churches today it is not uncommon to hear members referred to as “brother Larry” or “sister Lisa.” When I served a church in Kentucky, I was repeatedly called “brother Mike” by the local Baptists.
Theologically, fictive kin language gets at the “un-natural” relations that constitute the church community: namely, relations forged in grace through Jesus Christ. This language drew on and transformed the meaning of family terms in the ancient world where kin groups were defined by blood (nature) or law. Kin groups could be antagonistic to each other, feuding and fighting for power, prestige, and economic gain. But the faithful were bound together as family despite their different blood and legal relations. They were bound together in a more universal community, loving and supporting each other, looking after and remaining loyal to one another through God.
In light of this, it seems the move to “kin-dom” (as a rejection of “kingdom”), in my view, deconstructs itself. The very use of fictive kin language required drawing on and transforming the language used for blood and legal relations–which could be equally authoritarian, abusive, and corrupted. The use of “kingdom” was playing the same game, drawing on the images of empire and power that controlled the ancient world and transforming them into something else: a community in which God reigned by the activity of love. The character of that love, for Christians, is the person of Jesus Christ in his birth, life, death, and resurrection. God’s love arrives not at our expense, like an abusive monarch, but with our benefit, our flourishing in view. To hope for and strive to live into the completion of that vision is reason to celebrate the language of “kingdom,” not dismiss it.
Moreover, the word “kingdom” better lends itself to the inescapably political implications of God’s rule in our lives. In other words, not only does Kin-dom and Kingdom play the same game of transforming ambiguous, commonplace human terminology into something else, something deeper and wider; but also the term Kingdom adds an important political dimension to our understanding of God’s community that is easily lost on Kin-dom. God’s community includes practices of justice that embrace the weak, marginalized, and exploited; and which may be best instantiated in political form.
So I do pray that God’s kingdom would come–however strange and alien that may sound in my mouth. Maybe that is just what the term needs to regain its power in our lives: for how can we truly comprehend or anticipate the fullness of God’s Kingdom, a kingdom unlike any government or social structure history has hitherto known? Nevertheless, God’s kingdom is the kind of community I hope to experience and the kind of community worth our efforts to live into. It’s the kind of community I experience in glimpses and tastes whenever people come together to care and support one another through faithful reliance on the grace of God.
Rebecca and I have been blessed during our time in Austin to be nourished and encouraged by a small group that meets on Sundays. This “Hope group” shares dinner, conversation, and fellowship, followed by intimate study of the Scriptures in which our aspirations, anxieties, and life experiences are woven into our discussion. We’ve shared intimate details about our lives in the context of a safe and trusted environment. Prayer connects us to each other and to God. We ask deep and life-centering questions. And the Kingdom of God seems to break in again and again, even if only for a fleeting moment.
May that Kingdom find new expression in our lives, in a variety of ways, as we pray and yearn: Thy kingdom come.
1The term adelphoi is traditionally translated as “brothers” in English, since it is a masculine noun. However, it is not too far off to translate it as “brothers and sisters,” since it worked more inclusively than traditional English translations typically allow or imply. It could also be translated in gender neutral terms as “siblings.” However adelphoi is translated, it by no means skirts the gender issues at work in the ancient world–we should be careful, even in our most nuanced retrieval and translations of ancient words and ideas, not to romanticize the times.