Tag Archives: Kingdom

Begging the Question

So, the idea for this blog came out of my quest for what to do with my life after seminary. The title is just a clever and catchy way to get at the main theme of this blog, food and theology. As I have unpacked this silly little question it seems to have sometimes taken me far afield. Lately I write a lot about economics, anti-civilization, collapse and consumerism. In my mind, of course, they are all interrelated and connected, but maybe these connections are not always obvious. I try to tie it back in to this question “What Would Jesus Eat?” that’s really about making ethical choices in a very complicated world and helping us navigate these murky waters.

Well, my primary purpose for this blog is to be a place where I can process out loud my own thoughts about these issues from my own reading, experience and thinking and hopefully get some feedback from the few friends and readers that occasionally read and comment. The secondary hope is that some of this will be helpful to other people. Sometimes I think that this secondary purpose would help give more clarity to my thoughts and writing. If I delve into ideas about civilization collapsing, how does that help you understand and live in the world more faithfully? If I go on about economic theories or obscure aspects of finance that I don’t even understand, how does that answer the ethical questions we face about what to eat and what to buy?

In some ways my recent excursions have subverted (or at least criticized) the big question always on the top of this website. The question assumes a certain stance towards the world concerning what we eat and buy. It presupposes that we are consumers and the question of utmost importance is how to choose the ethically correct (or least ambiguous) products on the shelves of our local big box store. I use to have a relatively simple formula for answering this question.

  1. Buy local.
  2. Buy sustainable/organic.
  3. What you can’t buy local try to get fair trade.

It is perhaps still a helpful start in some ways, but it misses the deeper issues that we face. It does not question the assumption that consumption is the answer to the question of making ethical decisions about how we participate in the world through economics and in particular through what we eat. Nevertheless the goofy question that started this ball rolling still haunts me. What do average people living in the world today do to make the most ethical decisions given the world as it is? How does faith, Jesus and the Bible speak to the kinds of ethical dilemmas that plague us? What are practical things that people can do?

I don’t expect everyone to become some kind of radical anarchist, join an intentional community, protest, grow all their own food, forage, dumpster dive, make everything they need, somehow drop out of the economic system and in the end move to a developing country just like me. I’m certainly not as radical as I like to think I am. I depend on the food system and other conveniences of civilization that all of us do. So, in some ways the questions for me are not that different than the questions for the guy working in a cubicle.

So, as I’m coming down off of a reading, writing and thinking binge, I would like to return to this basic question about Jesus and what he might have to say about food and our choices, including issues around consumerism, agriculture, environment, economics. However, I would like to keep in front of us where some of these things really hit the ground, like building and maintaining a composting toilet system which is something I experience every day. I’ve often said I want to get back to the Food in the Bible series for numerous reasons, but I think it fits in with returning to some of the reasons why I write and what I hope for. I’m not making any promises, commitments, resolutions or covenants. As usual, I’m just thinking out loud.

If anyone is out there, I would love to hear some ideas, thoughts or suggestions about what would be helpful to you for me to explore. Here are some questions I’d love to hear answers:

  • What are your questions when walking down the aisles of your supermarket?
  • Where do you face ethical dilemmas or questions about food or consumption that don’t have easy answers?
  • Where do you find your economic life in conflict with your life of faith?
  • What practical skills or knowledge would help with growing your own food, living more simply or living off the grid?

I really look forward to hearing your responses and hope they can spark some new conversations.

Two Kingdoms: Low German Mennonites in Charagua, Bolivia

This may not relate much to the general topic of this blog (though that’s never stopped me before), but it does have to do with my work in Bolivia. By the end of this post I might find a way to tie it back to food, theology and consumerism.

Under the new Bolivian Constitution there is a process by which communities can become autonomous zones. There are various versions of autonomy for different groups. In 2009 the Charagua Municipality voted to become one of 11 autonomous zones in the country. They are forming an “autonomous indigenous zone”, which in the actual language of the constitution also includes “campesinos”, or small farmers, in order to make it apply more generally to an area. Charagua municipality is primarily composed of Guaranis who live in rural villages scattered throughout the area. The second largest group is actually the Low German Mennonites (LGMs) living on four colonies located just east of Charagua Estación where we live. In the main city of Charagua and the Estación there are Quechuas, Aymaras and non-indigenous Spanish-speaking Bolivians. This means that there are five main languages spoken in the area: Guarani, Quechua, Aymara, Spanish and Low German.

Since 2009 the community has formed an Assembly for Autonomy that is in the process of creating a structure that will govern this area. There are conflicts between those living in the urban center that did not vote for autonomy and the majority Guarani population that live in rural areas and did. These have to be worked out over time. Instead of simply imposing the wishes of the majority Guarani, the Assembly is trying to include all of the parties affected by this change in constructing an Assembly that represents everyone in Charagua Municipality.

While LGMs desire to continue their tradition of living “Stille im Land (Quiet in the Land)” by not participating in the autonomy process, they are the second largest population in the area and probably the largest economic producers. At the end of July the Assembly working on the Autonomy process invited the LGMs to meet with them to inform them about the process, ask for their input and participation. Both the coordinator for the MCC Low German Program and the Country Representative for Bolivia came to the meeting to help with translation for the LGMs. Since the coordinator is still learning Spanish and the Country Rep doesn’t speak Low German they both had to help translate using English in the middle to translate between the two of them. It was a long morning with so many languages, but very interesting. Overall the meeting went very well and was respectful on all sides.

One of the convictions of faith in the LGM’s tradition is that they should not participate in government in any way. This has to do with their understanding of the relationship between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. Many Christians have some form of a two kingdom theology, at least in theory, but in practice they do not make the kinds of distinctions that the Anabaptist tradition has made. More progressive Mennonites (a branch of the Anabaptist tree) make a distinction between the two kingdoms, for example, by refusing military service, but would believe that Christians can and should vote and even participate in government by holding office (though there is much disagreement over the particulars). Clearly, the LGMs have chosen a much harder distinction by living in colonies and abstaining from any involvement in government or politics.

This, however, does not mean that they reject the authority of the government (as some anarchist mennonites might do). Instead they submit to the authority of the government, as ordained by God. The government is a necessary reality to rule over the kingdoms of the world and as people who live in the world the LGMs submit themselves to the authority of these governing bodies, even as they refuse to participate in them. At the meeting they expressed their thankfulness for the information and the work of the Assembly, but did not want to participate in the process. They said they would submit themselves to whatever the governing authorities decided. Whether or not you agree with their method for embodying the kingdom or even their theology, their practice of the kingdom certainly encompasses the whole of their lives. This was difficult for some people to understand, but they were respectful of their convictions.

Their colony system is their attempt to live as faithfully as possible to the convictions of their ancestors and their tradition in embodying the kingdom of God in their lives together. What has made this possible is the agreement, or Privilegium, that they have had with the Bolivian government since 1962 which gives them certain privileges such as exemption from military service, their own educational system in their own language, their own judicial system and land. Since the new Bolivian Constitution was approved all previous agreements now have to be revisited and either re-approved, changed or rejected. So, in many ways LGMs have been able to live in Bolivia under their own version of autonomy for almost fifty years. This is similar to what the Guaranis are creating in Charagua. Yet, this new autonomous zone will encompass another autonomous zone that has existed for over fifty years.

It seems clear to me that these two “kingdoms” will likely come into more conflict at some time in the future. Conflict is not a bad thing, but something that can hopefully be dealt with constructively. First, I have already mentioned that the LGMs are a huge economic factor in the national economy of Bolivia and particularly in Charagua. They currently do not pay taxes to the government and do not desire to do so, but several people mentioned that citizenship (78% of LGMs are citizens in Bolivia) comes with both rights and responsibilities. We will have to wait to see how this plays out in the future.

In many ways it seems likely that things will continue much as they have for fifty years, but there may be important issues, such as taxes or land, that will test the ability of these two groups with very different worldviews to find the common ground to coexist. The history of the LGMs is one in which time after time they have decided to move to different countries because of changes in their agreements with the governing authorities. There may only be so many more places for them to move before they will have to find a way to deal with the world as it changes around them while maintaining their most treasured traditions and community life.

The question of how to work out the relationship between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world we live in is certainly a difficult one. You can find faithful Christians advocating everything from one extreme of complete accommodation to culture to the LGM version of detachment and isolation from the world into closed communities. For those of us who believe that decentralization and the support of local and regional systems for food production and economic activity are essential for a sustainable future the kind of autonomy sought by both communities are helpful in figuring out how to make this dream a reality in the future. If we hope to move from a world obsessed by the bigness of globalization, consumerism and a growth economy to one that thrives on the diversity of small businesses, communities, decentralized authority we will need the mechanism of autonomous zones that make it possible for people to make their own decisions about things that affect them. Increased participation in local issues, economy, production, organization and governance is necessary to strengthen local and regional economies. Autonomous zones might be the thing that makes it not only possible, but necessary for people to take control of their own lives and communities.

There. I tied it back to the theme of this blog after all.

I’ll Fly Away: Conclusion

creation_care_relca.jpgSo what does all this mean about climate change, environmentalism, population growth, agriculture and all the problems that our world faces? Our trusty friend in this conversation, N.T. Wright, puts the question this way,

We might begin by asking, What view of the world is sustained, even legitimized, by the Left Behind ideology? How might it be confronted and subverted by genuinely biblical thinking? For a start, is not the Left Behind mentality in thrall to a dualistic view of reality that allows people to pollute God’s world on the grounds that it’s all going to be destroyed soon? Wouldn’t this be overturned if we recaptured Paul’s wholistic vision of God’s whole creation? (Farewell to the Rapture)

If the earth is part of God’s work of redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus, then it is intimately bound up with our own salvation. I don’t mean that we are “saved” or not based on how we care for the earth. I mean that we participate in the ongoing work of redemption when we care for the earth. It is not a marginal part of kingdom work, but central to the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection (according to Paul).

If heaven is not going to be in some other realm and the earth is not going to simply be done away with, then our treatment of this planet must have some bearing on how the whole judgment scene might play out. Again, I don’t mean that whether or not we “make it to heaven” depends on whether or not we recycled. I mean that

If even the rapture scenario favored among many evangelicals is actually Jesus being welcomed to the earth to usher in the new creation, then we have to ask to what kind of place we will be welcoming him. I don’t mean that everything depends entirely on us to fix the world’s problems. I do believe that God can do what is beyond us, but I don’t claim to know how that works.

CreationCare.jpgI think a question N.T. Wright poses serves as a good framework for thinking about the implications of all this.

How can we respond to the heavenly dimension of the world without lapsing into an anti-earth attitude? (Apocalypse Now?)

The kingdom is already present and the way we live in relationship to the earth can reflect our participation in this kingdom here and now, even though it is still coming in its perfection. Just as with possessions, the way we treat the earth reveals our relationship with God. Genesis clearly places the natural world within our responsibility. Even the most conservative interpretation of “dominion” means that we will have to answer for what has been entrusted to us someday. It also seems that in our current predicament, science has a lot to tell us about what it means to live out this mandate.

I don’t pretend to know exactly what it means that there will be a new heaven and new earth. We can only speculate about what the nature of this final transformation will be. We should not, however, claim as certain or biblical an idea that has no support in the text. What’s more, we should be more careful about a concept of heaven or earth that leads directly to the destruction, degradation and exploitation of the earth that, according to the text, is our dominion.

How, after all, can we begin to describe the full significance of what we are doing, when we plant a tree in a devastated landscape, dig a well in a desert, give hope and love to an abandoned child, or campaign for an end to war? Only poetry, art and music can begin to do justice to such things; …We need to rediscover, for our own age, how to write today’s equivalent of truly apocalyptic language: language that will speak of earth and resonate with the music of heaven. (Apocalypse Now?)

Tree planting by Students- wonderofcreation.jpg

What specific actions or steps we should take as individuals, communities, societies or nations is an open discussion. While I believe that the Bible does give us some directions concerning our relationship to the land, it is a far cry from prescribing how to deal with climate change or the Farm Bill. This is left to the Holy Spirit as it leads the people of God into all truth and guides our actions in this particular time and place. It seems appropriate to conclude with a prayer.

God of creation, who holds the seas in the hollow of your hand, you have given us the privilege and responsibility of being the stewards of Your creation. Remind us in this task that we are but creatures dependent on the very creation we till and keep. Help us to listen to both science and the Spirit as we discern what the task of caring for the earth means at this time and in our particular lives and places. May we be found your faithful servants at that glorious day when the Holy City comes down from heaven, when we meet you in the air and welcome your reign over the new creation.

Tree and hands image from elca.org. Children planting a tree from wonderofcreation.org.

I’ll Fly Away: It’s the End of the World As We Know It

495px-Apokalipsis_XVI.jpgFinally, we consider the relationship between heaven and earth. It seems to me that dualistic thinking sets heaven and earth on a trajectory that must result in a catastrophic collision of some sort. We will address the shape this collision has taken in the popular imagination shortly. First, a longer quote from N.T. Wright’s Apocalypse Now? will help to clarify our thinking on this relationship. (It helps to imagine this being read in the Bishop’s British accent. It sounds smarter and will make me seem right.)

Talk of “heaven” and “earth”, though, comes to us mostly from the Bible; and in the Bible these are not two places, separated from each other by many miles, but two different dimensions of the total reality of the world. This is what I mean by a “duality”, as opposed to “dualism”. Just as animals, and many plants, are irreducibly male and female, with the two being complementary, and both being good and necessary for the flourishing of the species, so “heaven” and “earth” are the two dimensions of created reality. These two God-given dimensions interlock and interact in a variety of ways, sometimes confusingly, often surprisingly. And it’s particularly important to notice that heaven and earth were both created good. It isn’t the case that the physical world is somehow shabby or second-rate, and the non-physical somehow morally superior. That is to move into dualism, setting the two worlds against each other. Indeed, in the biblical story evil infected both spheres: creatures in heaven as well as creatures on earth, we are told, rebelled against God. But in that same story all things, in both spheres, are reconciled through Jesus the Messiah, though only after the principalities and powers, the spiritual powers that attempted to usurp God’s place, had been defeated through Jesus’ crucifixion (Colossians 1.15-20; 2.14-15). (Apocalypse Now?)

In the world of the Bible heaven and earth are connected, not separate. Jesus tells the disciples in a discourse launched by a question about the “kingdom of heaven”, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed on earth. Again I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:18-19). The point here is that there is an explicit connection between heaven and earth. If the Father does what is asked in heaven and it has no impact on earth, then what good is it? The implication is that the reality of heaven has a direct impact on earth.

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The collision course for heaven and earth is referred to as the End Times (or End of Days, Apocalypse, Armageddon, Tribulation… did I miss any?) when there will be a cataclysmic battle between good and evil that will result in the end of the world as we know it (and yes… I do feel fine). There are many different versions of this general idea. Dispensationalism alone (an invention of the 20th century) has pre-millenialists, post-millenialists and every variation imaginable. One aspect of this thinking saturated the popular imagination with the Left Behind series, the rapture. There is very little ink spilled in the Bible on this topic (certainly compared with the poor, the kingdom or love for example). The primary text used to justify it is 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18.

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.

I like to include verse 18 as a reminder, since these words are not always used to encourage. Numerous scholars have reached the same conclusion that N.T. Wright does about this passage (including J.D. Crossan who might not agree with the good Bishop on a lot of other things).

Paul conjures up images of an emperor visiting a colony or province. The citizens go out to meet him in open country and then escort him into the city. Paul’s image of the people “meeting the Lord in the air” should be read with the assumption that the people will immediately turn around and lead the Lord back to the newly remade world. (Farewell to the Rapture)

So, the idea in the main passage used to justify the idea of a “rapture” is actually that when Jesus returns we will go out to meet him in the air to escort him to earth where “we will be with the Lord forever”. This is in fact the exact opposite of the kind of escapism that keeps me awake at night. This means that heaven and earth are in fact two sides of the same coin. There is certainly a need for transformation, as I hope I’ve made clear. I do believe that there is a brokenness that pervades our relationships with each other, the earth and the powers and authorities. We are desparately in need of redemption and reconciliation. We wait eagerly for the new heaven and new earth where things are “put to rights”. The catch here is that this will not be some other realm or dimension (much less a physical location in the sky), but it seems to me will be located in the same place we’re living now. Praise God it won’t look the way it does now.

Durer_Revelation_Four_Riders.jpgThere are also other passages that have been used to bolster this “rapture” idea. N.T. Wright has this to say about them,

It is Paul who should be credited with creating this scenario. Jesus himself, as I have argued in various books, never predicted such an event[2]. The gospel passages about “the Son of Man coming on the clouds” (Mark 13:26, 14:62, for example) are about Jesus’ vindication, his “coming” to heaven from earth. The parables about a returning king or master (for example, Luke 19:11-27) were originally about God returning to Jerusalem, not about Jesus returning to earth. This, Jesus seemed to believe, was an event within space-time history, not one that would end it forever. (Apocalypse Now?)

The last sentence about it occurring within “space-time history” is important. It is not that this can be somehow proven, but that this is what the Jesus and the Bible seem to say. Strangely this is a radical shift in our popular imagination about what heaven, and particularly the Second Coming, might mean. N.T. Wright gives a pretty good summary of what he thinks it might mean.

The New Testament, building on ancient biblical prophecy, envisages that the creator God will remake heaven and earth entirely, affirming the goodness of the old Creation but overcoming its mortality and corruptibility (e.g., Romans 8:18-27; Revelation 21:1; Isaiah 65:17, 66:22). When that happens, Jesus will appear within the resulting new world (e.g., Colossians 3:4; 1 John 3:2). (Farewell to the Rapture)

Still there is so much left unsaid. We don’t know precisely what shape this will take, but it clearly challenges predominant ways of thinking about the Second Coming and the nature of heaven. After considering what the Bible has to say about the earth, heaven and their relationship, I would like to draw some conclusions (if you haven’t made yours already) in a final post.

Orthodox icon of the Apocalypse from Wikipedia. Comic of the rapture from http://getraptureready.com/blog/. Woodcutting of The Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer from Wikipedia.

I’ll Fly Away: Heaven Help Us

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Photo of earthrise from nasa.gov

What is this realm referred to as “heaven”, “kingdom of heaven”, or “kingdom of God” in the Bible? Although these terms are not used in the Hebrew Bible, there is certainly the expectation of a Messianic Age in which God will “put things to rights,” as N.T. Wright loves to say. I would also like to point out at the outset that although these terms are not necessarily used interchangeably in Scripture, I will use them variously to refer to the coming future perfection in which God reigns completely. There are aspects of this idea such as judgment, justice and salvation that I will not address, but are certainly connected to the discussion about the relationship between heaven and earth.

The first thing I think we should admit is that our knowledge of what we call heaven or the kingdom of God is limited. The descriptions throughout the Bible often feel contradictory and difficult to grasp. Jesus says to the Pharisees that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:21). In Mark Jesus says that the kingdom is at hand or near (1:15). Then you have the many parables that purport to “explain” the kingdom, but often seem to obscure it or make it more difficult to understand (Mt 13:24-52; 20:1-16; 22:1-14; 25:1-30 just to name those in Matthew). These are only the ways that Jesus described the kingdom, not including the Torah, Prophets, Psalms, Paul or Revelation. While it is necessary to try and make statements about what this realm of heaven, we should continually approach our attempts to understand it with humility and acknowledgment of our limitations.

For our purposes we are interested in the way that the Bible describes heaven or the kingdom in relationship to the earth. Does it describe it in contrast to earth, in the same terms or some combination of the two?

Heaven is certainly described in contrast to the current state of affairs, but the terms used to describe it are decidedly earthy. If some of the New Testament description of heaven could lead us to think that it is an other-worldly, spiritual realm, the Hebrew Testament depiction is distinctly grounded in the reality of this world. Isaiah’s vision of the “new heaven and new earth” uses language intimately connected to life here and now on earth.

They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat… They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune… the wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain (Isaiah 65:21-23,25)

The Hebrew Bible’s vision of the Messianic Age was grounded in the reality of the Israelite’s experience of exile in Babylon. The vision is of the restoration of Jerusalem. While it is concerned with judgment against the nations that oppressed Israel (Samaria, Assyria, Babylon, etc.), it is also concerned with the oppression practiced within its own borders (e.g. Amos 2:6-8). In terms of salvation it is concerned, not only with Israel’s future, but portrays an age in which all nations will come together under the banner of Yahweh (Micah 4:1-4; cf. Isaiah 2:1-4). This vision of the future Messianic Age is not one that is discontinuous with this world. In fact it is quite the opposite. The future perfection only makes sense in light of our present experience of imperfection, injustice and suffering.

I think it would be good exegesis, biblical interpretation and hermeneutical practice to read the New Testament’s words about heaven and the kingdom in light of what has just been said about the Hebrew Bible’s vision of the coming Messianic Age. Even the New Testament language about heaven is much more earthy than we typically believe. I would like to consider just one passage often used in this context, Revelation 21. Almost quoting (certainly paraphrasing) Isaiah the author writes,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with people, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:1-4)

The first thing I notice is that the new heaven and new earth are contrasted with the old heaven and the old earth. It is not a contrast between heaven and earth. As previously discussed our identities and the earth’s have continuity through redemption and ultimately the final transformation described here. Nothing here suggests that the planet which we currently inhabit will simply be disposed of like so much garbage and tossed into God’s landfill while God opens the brand new, shrink wrapped earth for us to live on for all eternity. If that were the case, then this passage suggests that there is also a place in that landfill for the old heaven. What could that possibly mean? We are dealing here with apocalyptic language and should read and interpret it as such. However, even a literal interpretation would deny the idea that heaven and earth are disconnected.

It is also interesting that the metaphor used her is that of a city, a most earthly concept. This is not just any city either, but Jerusalem. That vision from the Hebrew Bible of God’s people being restored and the world set right is alive and well in the book of Revelation. Indeed the names of the twelve tribes of Israel are inscribed on the gates of the city (Rev 21:12). This chapter goes on at great length about the layout of the city and the materials used to construct it. Chapter 22 goes on to describe a river flowing through it and trees that bear fruit every month. This is not a vision of heaven far away from earth in the clouds or even some dimension of being. Rather it is rooted (quite literally since there are trees) on the earth. The text clearly states twice (21:2, 10) that the city came down out of heaven. If it came down out of heaven, then where was it headed?

My intention is not to completely describe what the Bible has to say about heaven or the kingdom, but instead to shed light on the way that our dualistic thinking is not based on the biblical text. Heaven is intimately connected with this world. Certainly there is an element of the biblical description that is simply beyond us, but nothing necessitates the idea that the new creation will be discontinuous with the old.

Next… It’s the End of the World As We Know It