Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
--Matthew 6:10 KJV
Each Sunday we pray in unison The Lord’s Prayer, often called The Our Father. In our modern individualistic reading of the prayer, we often understand it as an expression of personal piety. Yet, the prayer was clearly intended for a community (“our,” “us,” “we”). In our context we often miss the radical nature of the prayer because we rarely stop to consider what alternatives to the prayer’s statements might look like. For example, we pray for our Father’s kingdom to come on earth, so what other “kingdoms” exist that wish to claim our allegiance?
A simple and prevalent answer to the question of what other kingdoms exist beside God’s kingdom is the “kingdom” of evil or Satan. History is filled with Christians describing groups or nations as “kingdoms of Satan” with disastrous results, so we should be cautious with such a label. Any dualism that breaks down the world into a simple good vs. evil ignores the complexities of human life.
On the other hand, we may spiritualize the idea of a “kingdom” opposed to God, so that it is a matter of personal religiosity while ignoring larger societal sins like racism, sexism, homophobia, greed and violence. Any responsible discussion of what alternative “kingdoms” exist to God’s own, needs to include not only personal morality but systemic sins as well. Yet, caution is always advisable lest our own political biases, cultural identity and personal lists of which sins are the worst make use of “the kingdom of God” for our own selfish ends.
In our Zoom Sunday School class this past Sunday, we watched a video with a scholar of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) named Walter Brueggemann. He is a scholar I regularly quote in my preaching and teaching because he makes the stories of the Bible wondrously relevant for today’s world. In the video, Brueggemann used the term “empire” often in his discussion of the message of scripture for its own day and for our own. We had to spend some time unpacking what “empire” means and why the biblical writers are often opposed to it.
When I was in a New Testament Ph.D. program in the late 1990’s (before I accepted a call to pastoral ministry), Biblical Studies was beginning to talk about “empire” a lot. A flurry of books and articles began addressing the Bible and empire which has not stopped over twenty years later. Biblical scholars studying the concept of “empire” was part of a broader trend in academics.
In the second half of the 20th century, the humanities, which had been dominated by white European males for centuries, began to change. Scholars from African, Asian and Centra/South American countries historically dominated by European empires began to have a voice. This type of scholarship is broadly called “Postcolonial Studies.” An old saying goes “history is written by the victors,” but Postcolonial Studies is broadly about telling history, literature, sociology, etc. from the perspective of the people who were not the “victors” but rather under the control of empires. An Indian person under British colonial rule would have a different perspective than one of the British rulers, so also would an African person living under the rule of Belgium, Italy, France, etc. Bible scholars were influenced by this type of work and began to investigate what it was like living as conquered people in Bible times.
Readers of the Bible have always known empires played a part in the great stories of the Bible. The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt had to do with the Egyptian Empire. Stories like the ones found in Daniel and Esther had to do with the Babylonian and Persian empires. The apocalyptic writings in Daniel and Revelation are responses to the Greek and Roman empires. The ministries of Jesus and Paul responded to the rule of Rome as well.
Because of its geographic location at the intersection of Europe, Asia and Africa, Israel was conquered by a succession of great empires, such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. Each empire attempted to colonize or control its conquered territory and did so not only by its army but also by its culture and religion. So much of the Bible has to do with combatting idolatry, because Israel and the early church were constantly under threat of losing their corporate identity under the weight of a greater political, cultural and religious force. Whether it was Egypt’s Pharoah, Babylon’s king or Rome’s emperor, the rulers of empire usually claimed the title of “god” and demanded not only political but religious devotion. Virtually all aspects of culture were impacted. Just as European powers imposed Christianity upon conquered nations with devastating results, so also did the ancient empires impose their religions upon Israel and the early church.
Until rather recently, Bible scholars focused upon the influence of these ancient empires in terms of politics alone, almost as if the words of the Bible were often separated from the imposed cultural assimilation constantly happening to Israel and the early church. Since most Bible scholars were themselves the product of modern empires, they gave little thought to the Bible as a means of resistance to the control of empires.
Now, in many ways, for the first time in human history, people formerly controlled by empires have a voice. This has also been the case when it comes to reading the Bible. Now thanks to people who are a part of communities historically controlled by empires, those of us who descend from people who ran those empires are beginning to see the Bible as written by people resisting empires rather than as it has been understood for so long as a tool of empires.
A good example of this change in perspective regarding the Bible is found in the experience of African American Christians. In the days of slavery, slave owners and their supporters used the Bible to justify enslaving people from Africa and their descendants. At the same time, these enslaved people found in the Bible in the stories of the Exodus, the words of the prophets and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus a religion that supported resistance to their oppression. This same dynamic continued in the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights era and down to today in our current struggles over white nationalism. The experience of those on the receiving end of oppression produces a reading of scripture closer to the writers of the Bible than does the experience of the oppressors.
What scholars like Brueggemann and others are asking of the church is what forces or “kingdoms” exist today in opposition to God’s kingdom? As I mentioned above, we want to be careful in who we label as opponents of God, because all of us “sin” or do things that are opposed to God’s love. Yet, while we must be cautions, we also should consider the radical nature of the prayer we pray every Sunday.
On January 6, we saw an extreme example of people identifying God’s kingdom with their political ideology during the riot at the Capitol Building. People committing violence and vandalism declared they did so as a part of their Christian faith, in essence claiming the language of God’s kingdom to justify behavior opposed to what Jesus taught. In more subtle ways, our own nation may seek to usurp our allegiance we owe to God. The treatment of African Americans during slavery, Jim Crow and down to today, as well as the treatment of Native Americans stands in contrast to the words of the law, prophets and Jesus when it comes to caring for oppressed and powerless people. Similarly, our cultural and economic dominance around the world too often reduces people and the very planet itself to commodities that can be bought and sold instead of seeing all people as children of God and the earth as belonging to its Creator.
When we pray “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” during worship, we step into a space where we as disciples of Jesus must ask what is God’s kingdom (or empire) and what is in opposition to God’s reign? The implications of such a question touch all dimensions of our individual and corporate lives.
If we really wish to go deeper into the words we pray each week, we can ask if the word “kingdom” itself is the best term to describe God’s claim over us and our world? Is God only male? Does the God we know in Christ exercise power like a king or emperor or like a servant oppressed by human kings and emperors? There is much more to this prayer we recite by memory each week than perhaps we often realize.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851