Many American Christians have substituted a quasi-religious political identity for the Kingdom of God. This earthly kingdom that many of America’s faithful embrace roots itself in violence and stands in stark contrast to the kingdom Jesus died to usher in.
Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in the way so many American Christians embrace the country’s wars, particularly the so-called “war on terror.” This appears most vividly in evangelical churches, but manifests itself across most denominations. It seems many American Christians have come to view the U.S. government as almost an extension of the church, acting as an agent for good across the globe, doing battle against forces of evil such as al Qaeda and ISIS.
Many in the Church see the war on terror as a religious battle against the forces of Islam seeking to control the world. A quick survey of the social media landscape reveals countless Christians expressing abject fear of Islam, horror at the prospect of Sharia Law in the United States and talk of a world-dominating Muslim caliphate. The spiritual fear aroused by the advance of Islam drives many Christians to embrace military and political solutions offered by the United States government, despite the fact that these policies kill literally millions of innocent people and stir up hatred for America across the globe.
To embrace a political and military approach to fighting “Islamic terrorism” is to embrace the system Jesus came to usurp, and to ultimately reject the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ death on the cross repudiated violent, earthly kingdoms and ushered in a new kingdom based on love, peace, forgiveness and humble submission.
Jesus did not overcome force with force. He overcame it paradoxically by submitting to it and triumphing over it.
When Jesus walked on the earth, the Jewish people eagerly anticipated a messiah. But by and large, they completely missed his appearance. Despite Christ’s profound teaching and miracles, the Jews did not recognize Jesus as their savior because they were looking for something else – an earthly king.
In the Jewish mind at the time, the savior would come as a great and powerful political leader in the vein of David. He would throw off the Roman yoke and usher in a new era of Jewish supremacy. They anticipated a great military victory over their Roman conquerors and a reestablishment of their earthly kingdom. Yes, there was a strong spiritual aspect in their conception of the savior, but primarily they viewed the messianic promise through a political lens.
Jesus came to usher in a different kind of kingdom. From the beginning, Christ flipped Jewish messianic conceptions on their head. Instead of preaching power, he preached meekness and submission. Instead calling for vengeance against their oppressors, Jesus told the people to love their enemies. Instead of fighting back, Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek.”
Jesus did not come to remake the world’s system. He came to overthrow it and establish a new kingdom based on faith, peace and love.
When Jesus made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the people spread out palm leaves along his path, a sign of homage generally reserved for a king or a triumphant military leader. It speaks to their mindset. Their savoir – their king – was coming to overthrow Rome. When Simon the Macabee drove out the Gentile forces from the citadel in Jerusalem, “he made his entry with a chorus of praise and the waving of palm branches, with lutes, cymbals and zythers, with hymns and songs, to celebrate Israel’s final riddance of a formidable enemy.” (I Macc. 13:51)
But the fact that Jesus rode in on a donkey instead of a horse signified that he was the ruler of a different kind of kingdom. Zechariah 9:9-11 reveals just what kind of kingdom that was.
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.”
Jesus had no intention of violently overthrowing Israel’s oppressors. He rode in humbly to claim his throne over a kingdom of peace.
Jesus established this kingdom through submitting to death – even to death on a cross. Under Pilate’s questioning, Jesus revealed the true nature of his kingdom (John 18:36)
My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now, my kingdom is from another place.”
This harkens back to Christ’s chastisement of Peter for drawing a sword and cutting off the high priest’s servant’s ear.
Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11)
In Luke’s account, Jesus asks the crowd that came to arrest him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs.” (22:53)
The Jewish leaders rejected the way of Christ and chose instead to pursue a political path – the way of violence and power – an earthly kingdom. Their insistence on releasing Barabbas instead of Jesus symbolizes their choice.
According to Mark, Barabbas was an “insurrectionist” who committed murder during an uprising. He was a political rebel – an insurgent. Josephus consistently applied the term that describes Barabbas in John – literally “one who takes booty” – to Zealots. The Word Biblical Commentary explains the significance.
From the Roman point of view these were guerillas who had to be exterminated; from the popular Jewish point of view such men were heroic freedom fighters…He will have been a leader among those who sought to make way for the kingdom of God through violence.”
In other words, Barabbas was the personification of political resistance against Rome. He represented a continuation of the world’s system of force and violence.
The Jews chose Barabbas over Jesus. They chose to follow the path of politics and violence instead of the path of peace. They traded the kingdom God for an earthly kingdom.
The Jews put an exclamation point on their choice when the chief priest proclaimed to Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar.” (John 19:15)
So it came about that the leaders of Israel, their henchmen, and the supporters of the popular hero asked for the release of one who had been guilty of violent political assault against the state, entailing murder, and demanded the death of him who came to realize the nation’s true destiny through the almighty but peaceful divine love.” [Word Bible Commentary]
Some 70 years later, Jerusalem would die by the very sword the Jewish leaders embraced. The Romans overran the city and destroyed the temple.
Today, we American Christians seem intent on following the path of the Jewish leaders who demanded Christ’s crucifixion. We reject the divine love of Jesus and his kingdom of peace in pursuit of violent, political solutions imposed by the state. We need to remember, we cannot serve two masters.