The good news about Empire, the weirdly powerful Kingdom of Jesus, and our bodies
Life Spoiler Warning
It is possible that the world will look different to you after you read this. Some things may be a lot clearer, and you might start rearranging your life in surprising ways.
If it hits you that way, please feel free to get in touch with me, and I’d encourage you to find a community of people who you can trust to explore the implications with you. Relationships are important when navigating the profound life shifts that can happen when people understand the story I’m going to tell.
This is especially important to note if you’re a Christian or a non-Christian who thinks you know all about what I’m about to say. You might find it the most surprising and challenging of all. I understand if you’re rolling your eyes. That’s okay. I wanted to give you a friendly heads up, just in case.
This is a story about human beings, like you and me. We are embodied beings: made of layered structures of atoms and energy and molecules and cells and organs and anatomical systems of organs.
We breathe and sing and talk and have the most remarkable experiences.
We are utterly amazing, and whether we’re doing a good job or not, our biology is such that we are functionally in charge of this planet. At the moment, we aren’t doing the worst job possible. But in plenty of ways, including our collective impact on the climate and the fact that we’ve made weapons that can kill us all, we’re doing a dangerously bad job.
At the core of our ability to run the planet is a capacity, mediated substantially through our ability to see things as right and wrong, to create bigger social bodies than our own personal bodies.
Here’s what I mean: if your country is attacked (assuming you aren’t a stateless person in this world of states, of which there are sadly far too many) do you feel anything in your body? If there’s a terrorist attack or a war declared against your country, what happens in your body? If you’re a normal person, you’re likely to have very powerful responses: you may cry, you may feel like you’ve been punched in the gut, you may feel a powerful rush of adrenaline as your body literally prepares for battle or flight. This is the case even if you are thousands of miles away from the attack or the threat.
This capacity to be physiologically, personally impacted when a larger ‘social body’ that we associate ourselves with is impacted is an essential part of how we are able to coordinate our behavior in the most amazing ways, at large scales.
So in the same way that your body includes lower-level systems like cells, tissues and organs, your body is also enmeshed in higher-level, biologically rooted systems like these:
Corporations … tellingly named based on the Latin word for body
Cities, States/Provinces, Nations, etc.
None of these would exist without the atoms, cells, tissues, organs, and anatomical systems that make up our astonishing bodies. What’s more, because our bodies can physically respond to these broader ‘social bodies’ as if they are extensions of our own bodies, this means that the scale of what we’re talking about when we talk about our bodies goes all the way up to global. It even goes up to the International Space Station, a bit!
When your country or political party or church or temple gets punched, you feel punched. When someone does something kind to your country, political party or church or temple, you feel grateful. It’s amazing. It’s an essential part of how we’ve come to rule this planet, however well or poorly. It is a strange sort of gift that we’ve all inherited through our biology, for good or for ill. This power is in our hands and brains and guts now, whether we want it or not.
Once you understand that we’re embodied beings, and that our bodies are amazing, powerful, capable of great good and great evil, coordinated at scale, and that we carry important responsibilities to each other and our planet because of this, you’re ready to make some pretty deep sense of what Jesus demonstrates and talks about in Luke 6. If you’ve never read it, I’d invite you to take some time, be quiet or pray, and read it. (Here are three versions to consider: NIV, ESV, or The Message if you’d like a translation that tries to draw out the meaning of the words in our social context a bit more).
My reading of Luke 6 in the context of the best current Biblical scholarship I know of (especially the work of N.T. Wright) is the basis for everything else I’m saying here.
The Kingdom of Jesus
It is helpful to draw out these meanings, which we can learn by studying the context extensively, because the original intended meanings are often less clear in our own very different context. Here’s how I’d like to draw out the meanings that are there in Luke 6, and quite obvious in their original context.
At the start of this chapter, Jesus claims that he is a King, and therefore that he is organizing a large social body that we’d naturally call a “Kingdom” in English. The occasion of him making this point is that he is prioritizing feeding people, even in a situation where some of the religious/legal authorities interpret the law to suggest that this is illegal. One of the main things people remembered and recorded about Jesus was that he prioritized eating and feeding people, and that he built community in unlikely places by eating with the wrong people in the wrong places at the wrong times.
Anyone who knows about law understands that it is always a matter of interpretation and process, involving the weighing of various claims. And they also understand that a big social body like a country or Kingdom needs some kind of law system, even if the system is just “the King says it, that’s what goes.” Jesus isn’t that kind of arbitrary ruler, though. He argues within the parameters of his legal system for a different interpretation, and he claims that his interpretation is correct: he suggests that he is the King, and that there is a precedent in King David for his insistence on feeding people, overriding the normal rules. Was his claim of Kingship warranted? It is worth asking how a manual laborer from the countryside, without an army or any of the normal king stuff, could have made that claim. It is also worth asking why, 2000 years later, people continue to make that claim. These are both worth careful attention.
So this conflict over the interpretation of the law starts with Jesus feeding the wrong people at the wrong time, and then comes to a head when Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, knowing that the religious/legal authorities will consider this illegal and punishable by death. This points us to the climax of the entire narrative: he will be crucified. But unlike many other crucified rebels, that’s not the end of the Jesus of history.
However, Jesus does argue from a known legal principle at the time, suggesting that the highest priority of the law is in fact to preserve and protect life. Then he heals the man publicly and boldly, clearly aware that this sort of behavior is likely to get him killed. In context this amounts to an act of civil disobedience very much like those engaged in by the Civil Rights Movement in the US, where people disobeyed a legal system that they understood to be operating wrongly. The “offense” of Jesus was healing on the Sabbath. The “offenses” of the Civil Rights Movement included things like registering voters (knowing that some would die for this offense), and integrating restaurants and buses even though it was technically illegal. At least these things were technically illegal according to the people who controlled the government’s apparatus of violence, as well as the mobs and killers who routinely enforced the unwritten rules of American apartheid with a wink from the government.
For reasons you can read about more here, I call what Jesus did here “Living in the Future.” The basic idea is that Jesus demonstrates that he will do what is right by living in the better future he hopes for, and then bear the legal system’s questionably legal consequences. A common term in English that captures at least some of what Jesus is doing here is “non-violent resistance” or “non-violent, non-cooperation.” I appreciate that tradition and that language, but want to more positively define what he is doing: he isn’t trying to stop the machinery of law, but is instead simply doing good, regardless of what the machinery of law will do to him as a result. Then, he submits to the consequences … but in the way he submits, he breaks the power of the unjust “law” as it was wielded by those who, at least at that time, had their hands on the levers of legal power.
This is important context if you want to understand what Jesus does next. The teachings that he then gives are offered in a context where he is very provocatively insisting on living in the future, understanding that this will have a high “legal” cost: his own unjust but arguably legal death.
From there Jesus begins healing a ton of people, and he gathers his disciples to teach them the foundations, or the basics, of how things work in his Kingdom. He wants to make it clear that what he is advocating is going to be very different than what they’d normally expect of a King, but that his way will actually work better and yield lasting results.
The core thing to understand about a King is that he reigns in a dynamic way, wherever people are faithful to the King’s agenda and commands. It isn’t that the Kingdom vanishes where people disobey; governments and companies always have to deal with the reality that people often fail to do their jobs fully or properly (or at all). (Yeah, I’m looking at you :D).
But where people are committed to their roles or jobs, at least muddling along passably, and working to correct any mistakes they make, you have a real live social body that does stuff at scale. So being committed to a King isn’t about perfectly executing orders, but it is about being broadly and practically committed to their agenda.
So what is this king’s agenda, and is it something you’d be interested in supporting in whole or in part? These are the natural questions to ask at this point in our reading of Luke 6. The rest of the chapter lays out the basic laws of his Kingdom (Luke 6: 12–49). We can call this his “New Covenant,” understanding it as something like the Constitution of his non-arbitrary, comprehensible, counter-intuitive, and graciously regulated Kingdom:
Choose solidarity with the poor, if you want to experience the joy of the Kingdom.
The appeal Jesus makes isn’t moralistic or shame based: he promises joy to those who do things like help orphans. Anyone who has had the joy of helping rescue an orphan will easily understand what he’s talking about.
Love your enemies as a replacement behavior for violence.
This is very important to consider in context, if you’re living in the future in a way that means the “law” is coming for you, as it was for Jesus at this point. Do you resist them violently or in a different way? Live question.
Practice reconciliation, seeking forgiveness from others and forgiving them.
Be very careful to help everyone focus on fixing their own mistakes, instead of trying to hypocritically “fix everyone else’s mistakes” first. In this way, a community of grace and self-correction can blossom.
Jesus then goes on to use the paradoxical image of “figs growing thorns” to show us that when we see external behavior like violence (thorns), we are to be aware that this reflects something paradoxical that is happening in the heart, because the external behavior reflects the heart in a complex way. In context we also know that these images of “figs with thorns” are used for positive identity-based correction: the idea is to say, “You’re acting violently (you’re thorny), but you’re a fig tree (this isn’t you), and that doesn’t make sense. So let’s figure out what has gone wrong in your heart to create this confusing situation.” You can see the same sorts of images used in just that way in James 3:9, here.
Then, Jesus makes it clear that this really is the foundation of his Kingdom by offering a promise and a warning: those who build on this foundation will build something that lasts, because it will be part of his everlasting Kingdom. But those who do not will be like people building on sand. It’ll all fall apart.
And really, that’s it. That’s the basis for what we might call Jesus’s judicial, legislative and executive processes, in our culture’s language today.
Let’s stop and pause and think about the importance of reconciliation to everything Jesus is saying here, because it is precisely here that the working of grace in all of this becomes very clear. When people who are part of his new kind of government inevitably screw up in their jobs, Jesus teaches us that God is not at all like an angry, abusive, domineering boss who holds our failures over our head and shames us. Just the opposite: God is the most gracious and eagerly supportive and helpful boss we can imagine, rejoicing that a mistake was caught and encouraging us to keep going. If he corrects us, it is in the most encouraging way: “I know you’re better than your abusive/violent/cruel behavior would seem to suggest. That’s not you. You’re free to drop the behavior and keep yourself.”
The reserve of grace and forgiveness in Jesus, and in people who are committed to his peaceful and reconciling way, is bottomless, because this sort of grace is EXACTLY what they are all about. It’s in the Jesus Constitution. So it is important to understand that everything Jesus orders involves grace, and it must be a clean movement of grace from beginning to end. The commandment to pursue reconciliation is a gift to us, and when we follow it we receive it as a gift, practice it as a gift, and give it away as a gift. Unlike other systems of governance and correction, systems based on Jesus-like reconciliation can only be coherently pursued as grace from first to last. Jesus governs only by and from and in and to and through grace. Those who are faithful to him in this enemy loving, reconciling way, which is always rooted in solidarity with the marginalzed and suffering, are the ones he calls “faithful.” If people are doing something based on anything else, it is simply not the Kingdom of Jesus, and Jesus says that it won’t work or last.
After laying this out in very explicit and practical detail, which makes it clear that he intends for these directions to be followed, he underlines it in various ways. He chides people who take his name in vain, which means they call him ‘Lord’ but don’t do what he says. (Taking the name in vain isn’t about cussing. It is about acting like you’re following Jesus when you aren’t.)
And because there’s been a lot of confusion about this over the last 1700 years or so, I also want to emphasize that he also makes it clear that external behaviors relate to heart conditions: “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.” In this way, Jesus cuts off at the pass anyone who might want to argue that violence is fine as a replacement for the actual loving behaviors that Jesus teaches (like carrying bags for people) as long as your heart is in the right place. Jesus sees that one coming from a mile away, and his answer is simple and clear: if your behavior is in the wrong place, your heart is in the wrong place. The implication is that you need to check your heart to figure out why it has shifted away from allegiance to him, and towards allegiance to something that isn’t compatible with him.
I want to re-iterate that this type of moral correction is not at all shame-based. Just the opposite, it is about affirming a positive identity in order to address the heart issue that is resulting in negative behavior that doesn’t fit with that positive identity. If you’re having trouble with that, hop back over to the letter of James. There you can also see the main way this is used to help people learn to do right in a constructive and anti-shaming way: you affirm that someone is a fig tree, and identify the violent behavior (aka, thorns) as inconsistent with their identity, which indicates something has gone wrong in their heart. This helps to open up the underlying heart issues that are causing the behavior (like killing people, or otherwise harming them) to get at the root cause.
What is fascinating to me is that, counter-intuitive as it may sound, movements that structure themselves on these foundational principles are actually far more effective than those that don’t.
For example, we now know that non-violent resistance movements (such as the one Jesus led) are about twice as effective as violent ones, even against extremely brutal regimes. And just as Jesus was interacting with a brutal and often astonishingly cruel regime, research now shows that this kind of enemy-loving, living in the future works great against evil regimes all over the place.
Also note that the process of reconciliation and plank removal that Jesus describes, which involves building a community of people who scrupulously check their own work and sometimes invite others to help them check their work, are precisely the behaviors that help mark out the difference between science and pseudo-science. Good math and observations are also essential to modern science, of course, but you can have great math and lots of data and set them in the service of pseudo-science as well, if you go off-course on the fundamental reconciliation principles outlined by Jesus. I know that this connection between the teaching of Jesus and the practice of science runs hard against our cultural prejudices. If that’s coming up for you, this article might help you get less prejudiced.
Now with that in view, we’ve covered bodies and the Kingdom. The main way they relate is this: Biblically, the ‘heart’ is used to talk about our will, our core heartfelt commitments. When hearts are set on Jesus and therefore on his foundational teachings, people learn to enact the Jesus Constitution and teach others to do the same. Wherever that happens, insofar as it happens, there exists a fundamentally different kind of massive social body. Currently, about 2 billion people around the world are at least nominally committed to these teachings, just waiting to be invited to learn to follow them more fully. (Lots of them are thorny figs, but now you know what to do about that.)
That is how bodies relate to this Kingdom. This Kingdom is very powerful, not in spite of its refusal of the typical marker of government (the legitimated control of violence), but precisely because of it.
The Kingdom is a dynamic and powerful social body that exists wherever Jesus reigns in people’s hearts, from and by and in and to and through grace. It is expressed in visible action wherever possible, which results from authentic and deeply loving motives, but you have to pay close attention to see it.
Once you understand this, it is also easy to understand how Jesus reigns in real ways wherever people’s hearts turn to him even a bit. If you start doing this Jesus stuff, you’ll probably see how powerful and effective it is, and it will be pretty easy to imagine how he will ultimately reign completely: in a way that is entirely loving, entirely in solidarity with all who suffer, and entirely reconciling.
So now you’re ready for the final stretch, where we’re going to talk about the opponent and the opposite of the Kingdom, which also tries to build its own distinct social bodies using different methods. This diagram will help you synthesize what you’ve read so far, and get you ready for the next part, where we talk about the opponent of the Kingdom: Empire.
The entire narrative of the Christian Bible is a story about the evils of various Empires, and God’s work in liberating people from them. From Babylon to Egypt to Greece to Rome, with plenty of other bit-player Empires and even “Empires in Israel” in the mix, the central problem of the whole narrative of Christian Scripture can be summed up well in this way:
What is to be done about the evils of Empire?
While there are successions of various Empires in history, it is worth noting that none of them really last. The dreams of every emperor falter and fail. But the name of Jesus is now far more widely known and taken as a sign of authority than the name of any Roman Emperor or Babylonian King or Egyptian Pharoah or American President. Even Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan are pikers next to Jesus.
Still, the example of the Kingdom of Jesus helps to set in very sharp relief the practices of history’s repeat losers, the imperial sand-builders:
They build enslaving, abusive control structures on the basis of an ever-shifting foundation which seems powerful … until it all falls down. Once you understand that these Empire behaviors are precisely the behaviors that are displaced in human bodies when the Kingdom starts to come in our hearts, you’ll also understand how the Kingdom cuts off Empire at the very core of its power.
The basic behaviors of people with Empire in their hearts should sound familiar to anyone who has been following politics lately, pretty much anywhere in the world. Although not all politicians are completely overtaken by Empire, they generally are to a substantial degree these days. And so they dream petty little dreams and build petty little short-lived fiefdoms out of the bits of control they can cobble together. Here are the three, non-legal practices that make up their shadow “constitution.”
Pleasurable solidarity with the wealthy
This is what bribes and lobbying and junkets are all about, and those who seek pleasure lose out on the joys of doing things like rescuing orphans to the extent that they pursue those pleasures. Too bad for them. They could have had joy instead.
Enemy hatred, which can lead to the most grotesque and terrible violence
As horrible as war and violence are, they can’t build something that truly lasts. Genocidal regimes lay the seeds of their own destruction, even as they drag people down with them.
Hypocritical accusations, which feed into both the pride and the shame of the accuser.
Let’s dig into that last one more, because:
Just as reconciliation helped us understand the centrality of grace and truth to the Kingdom of Jesus, hypocritical accusation helps us understand the centrality of lies and shame to Empire power.
Where truth would actually liberate everyone, including the abuser who is caught up in Empire, Empire-devotees become accusers because they are too proud to be wrong (or to be seen as wrong). In many cases, they are also secretly ashamed of their lies, and so they try to make other people feel their shame. Pride and shame are two sides of the same shoddy coin, and both prevent repentance and reconciliation. Hypocritical accusations may relieve, at least momentarily, the interior psychological burden of living in falsehood. And also, for the truly cynical, these accusations muddy the waters and confuse people about the truth, even where the truth is obvious to any honest and clean-hearted person. This is how Emperors end up walking around naked, while plenty of people seem to think they’re splendidly clothed. The Emperors often come to believe their own lies! But all the lies in the world don’t actually add up to an ounce of truth, and their power always runs out eventually.
Basically, this is also where gaslighting comes from: when people with Empire in their hearts are confronted with the threat of truth, they accuse to cover their lies, which may even be lies they’ve believed themselves. When faced with enough of this, you can start to feel crazy just because you see clearly. But you’re not crazy. They’re really just caught in illusion. And the reality of gaslighting helps us see how Empire isn’t only a large-scale problem: it infects churches, family systems, and even our own internal lives.
Have you ever noticed that when you confront certain people with evidence that they are doing something evil or wrong, they come back at you with all kinds of outrageous and ridiculous personal accusations and attacks? This isn’t a bug, from the standpoint of the Empire-hearted, but a feature: it is designed to cow and silence people into submission. (And, internally, it is meant to keep even the accusers from hearing the truth, which might lead them to repentance and removal of planks from their eyes. The trouble is that truth threatens their internal ‘world’: the lie-power that they’ve come to rely on, instead of the real power of truth and reconciliation.)
Now let’s move on, at least briefly, to the other foundations of Empire power: have you ever noticed how people who want to lie and cheat and steal are also often demagogues, whipping up people into hate-filled frenzies so that they can rob people blind while claiming to be on their side? This hatred, unchecked, grows into genocides. And even when it is checked, it metastasizes like cancer and bursts out as random acts of terrorism, of the sort we are seeing so routinely in the United States these days. For those who aren’t aware, we’re seeing a lot of terror attacks perpetrated by white supremacists who have been goaded into intensifying hatred, in order to help others build their Empire power.
And have you ever noticed how lobbyists and other corrupt politicians use luxury and perks not only to lose themselves in fleeting pleasures, but also to build connections? Corruption of this sort feeds on itself in all kinds of ways, including by causing the Empire-hearted to enter into pacts based on the mutual threat of blackmail, because they both shared illicit pleasures together. This creates a strange, threat-based alliance: I won’t squeal if you won’t squeal. It is a truly miserable way to live, a soul-sucking kind of tragic life, and all of the apartments in Manhattan can’t fill the void. Joyful solidarity with the poor actually sets people free from it, if they have the courage to replace their self-destructive and other-destructive behaviors with it. (The work of the Kingdom involves helping people learn that courage!)
Have you ever noticed how these kinds of behaviors also reproduce themselves at all social scales? They happen in corporations, and churches, and families.
Have you ever noticed how you sometimes reproduce these abusive domination structures of Empire within yourself?
(I’m not psychic. I’m just familiar with the realities of being a human being, based on a few decades of experiencing it.)
Sometimes, we get stuck in pride-shame loops of self-accusation, because we’re unwilling to apologize and turn toward truth.
Sometimes, we get mired in hatred of others and even ourselves, shattering relationships and connections, instead of learning to love ourselves and others, even when we inevitably make mistakes.
Sometimes, we look for fleeting pleasures to numb the pain of existence, and are left deeply unsatisfied by them. At the very least, none of these sorts of pleasures, whether they are luxury vacations or video games or media addictions, can ever stack up to the joy of rescuing a single orphan. None of these pleasures are the sort of thing we’d want to be remembered for at our funerals, and yet we get caught in them.
So what’s the solution?
If you want to commit to follow Jesus, at least in a small way, you can focus on one or more of the articles of the Jesus Constitution to understand, and learn to do it at least a bit better. Nobody ever gets perfect at any of them, and that’s actually awesome: those of us who try to do this stuff all know this is challenging and counter-intuitive to learn. We also understand that we can only pursue it as a clean movement of generosity and grace from first to last. It has to be given and received as a gift, and can’t be pressured or coerced for even a moment. (Anything less than this clean movement of grace is a contradiction to fix: thorns on a fig tree.)
And while individual training and learning and internal work are absolutely essential, a Kingdom has to involve a community, because it is about changing the world for the better at every scale.
So if you want to learn to do this stuff but you’re not in a community of people who you can trust, who can support you as you learn to do this stuff without shaming you when you fail, gather or find one. That’s what churches are supposed to be. If you can’t find a church with even a little bit of Kingdom going on, it might make sense to look a little harder. They’re all over the place, even though Empire gets mixed into everything, too. Remember: churches are bodies too. They’re not the Kingdom, but they’re also not Empire. They’re just the places where the most Kingdom happens.
Now that you can see what the Kingdom looks like, you’ll know what to look for, if you’re looking. The church doesn’t have to be perfect, and none of them are. They just need enough Kingdom fires burning in them to get you started. Maybe you can even help breathe some warm little Kingdom coals to life, in your local church body, as the Holy Spirit breathes them into life in you!
I’d also recommend that you consider pulling together a group of people in your local church or community, and consider Plain Training as a next step.
And feel free to reach out to me. If you’re here, you can internet. And if you can internet, you can find me.
And now I’m going to pray a bit. Feel free to stop reading now, if you don’t want to be here for the prayer part.
Still here? Cool.
Come Holy Spirit!
Please lead us into all truth, together.
Jesus, help us understand your cross, and your resurrection.
Father, liberator of all peoples’ from Empire, please set the captives free.
Let us be, more and more, a part of you making all things new.