The "Power Under" Kingdom
26 August 2010
Today's article is part two of a seven-part series of articles which take an in-depth look at the book The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest For Political Power Is Destroying the Church by Gregory Boyd.
Because I can only share a small portion of this vital book, it is vital that you get yourself a copy as soon as possible, and read the entire book a number of times. Click on the book cover to go to and make your purchase.
If you have not read part one — The "Power Over" Kingdom — yet, be sure to do so now before continuing here.
Today we will continue with an examination of the nature of the "power under" Kingdom:
The Kingdom Jesus came to establish is "not from this world" (John 18:36), for it operates differently than the governments of the world do. While all the versions of the kingdom of the world acquire and exercise power OVER others, the kingdom of God, incarnated and modeled in the person of Jesus Christ, advances only by exercising power UNDER others. It expands by manifesting the power of self-sacrificial, Calvary-like love.
To put it differently, the governments of the world seek to establish, protect, and advance their ideals and agendas. It's in the fallen nature of all those governments to want to "win." By contrast, the Kingdom Jesus established and modeled with His life, death, and resurrection doesn't seek to "win" by any criteria the world would use. Rather, it seeks to be faithful. It demonstrates the reign of God by manifesting the sacrificial character of God, and in the process, it reveals the most beautiful, dynamic, and transformative power in the universe. It testifies that this power alone — the power to transform people from the inside out by coming UNDER them — holds the hope of the world. Everything the Church is about, I argue, hangs on preserving the radical uniqueness of this Kingdom in contrast to the kingdom of the world.
The unique nature of this Kingdom is revealed in a discussion Jesus had with some of His disciples, who were arguing over which of them would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. They were, in their own way, exhibiting the "power over" mindset that characterizes the kingdom of the world and competing with one another to be esteemed. Jesus responded:
The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27)
Jesus identified the disciples' argument as a typical kingdom-of-the-world conflict — and thoroughly pagan. This is the way worldly rulers — and the world in general — naturally think. Indeed, it is a matter of common sense by the world's standards. Naturally the older is greater than the younger, the leader worthy of higher esteem than the follower, the one who sits at the table greater than the one who serves. Yet Jesus not only rejects this "common sense" logic — He reverses it! Jesus, the Son of God, the One who is greatest by any standard, came to earth not to be served but to serve others, and the Kingdom He came to establish would be marked by this distinctive feature. It would not be a "power over" kingdom; it would be a "power under" kingdom. It would be a kingdom where greatness is defined by serving and sacrificing for others.
This is why Jesus responded to Pilate's question by saying His Kingdom was "not from this world." If His Kingdom were of this world, He told Pilate, His followers would fight the way the kingdom of the world always fights (John 18:36). They would use the "power over" tactics and wield the sword to advance their personal, religious, and political interests. They would defend Jesus in the name of God, of righteousness, and the glory of Israel — but this is not the kind of kingdom Jesus came to establish.
One of His misguided disciples even tried to fight like a kingdom-of-the-world participant, cutting off the ear of one of the soldiers who came to arrest Jesus. Jesus rebuked the disciple and demonstrated the nature of His unique Heavenly Kingdom by healing the soldier's ear (Luke 22:50-51), showing that His Kingdom would advance not by destroying the enemy who seeks to destroy you, but by loving, serving, and hopefully transforming the enemy who seeks to destroy you.
It was the same message Jesus was about to send Pilate and the world. Rather than calling on His disciples or the legions of angels that were at His disposal to exercise "power over" in His defense, Jesus let Himself be crucified. Why? Because Pilate and the world needed Him to. It was an outrageously loving thing to do — and for this reason it violated the common sense of the kingdom of the world. The Kingdom of Jesus was, and is, a radically different kind of kingdom indeed, and it is this Kingdom that all who follow Jesus are called to manifest in every area of their lives.
The Kingdom of God advances by people lovingly placing themselves UNDER others, in service to others, at cost to themselves. This "coming under" doesn't mean that followers of Jesus conform to other people's wishes, but it does mean that we always interact with others with their best interests in mind.... We are to engage in this behavior not out of duty to an abstract ethic, but because the life of the One who came under all humanity on Calvary is pumping Kingdom life through our veins. We are part of the growing revolutionary Kingdom He began and is continuing to grow. It is a Kingdom that looks like Him, a Kingdom in which the greatest is the one who serves others (Matthew 20:26; Luke 22:26-27).
While we might regard this kind of power as weak by kingdom-of-the-world criteria, in truth there is no greater power on the planet than self-sacrificial love. Coming under others has a power to do what laws and bullets and bombs can never do — namely, bring about transformation in an enemy's heart. This is the unique "Lamb power" of the Kingdom of God, and indeed, this is the power of God Almighty. When God flexes His omnipotent muscle, it doesn't look like Rambo or the Terminator — it looks like Calvary! And living in this Calvary-like love moment by moment, in all circumstances and in relation to all people, is the sole calling of those who are aligned with the Kingdom that Jesus came to bring.
Participants in the kingdom of the world trust the power of the sword to control behavior; participants of the Kingdom of God trust the power of self-sacrificial love to transform hearts. The kingdom of the world is concerned with preserving law and order by force; the Kingdom of God is concerned with establishing the rule of God through love. The kingdom of the world is centrally concerned with what people DO; the Kingdom of God is centrally concerned with how people ARE and what they can BECOME. The kingdom of the world is characterized by judgment; the Kingdom of God is characterized by outrageous, even scandalous, grace.
Obviously, when hearts and motives are transformed, behavior is eventually transformed as well — but without "power over" threats. Similarly, where the rule of God is established, law and order are established — but without "power over" force. The Kingdom of God accomplishes what the kingdom of the world seeks to accomplish, but it also accomplishes much more, for it transforms people from the inside out — from their heart to their behavior. It has no concern with controlling behavior as an end in itself, such as the kingdom of the world has.
The crucial distinction between the two kingdoms is how they provide antithetical answers to the questions of what power one should trust to change ourselves and others: Do you trust "power over" or "power under"? Do you trust the power of the sword, the power of external force, or do you trust the influential but noncoercive power of Calvary-like love? Do you trust threats, judgment, shame, or social pressure (even in church!) to change people, or do you trust the Holy Spirit working in the people's hearts and using Christ-like acts of love to bring about change? The Kingdom of God consists of all those who choose the latter rather than the former and who act accordingly. It is composed of people who place God's will above their own and who believe that He will use their sacrificial love for others to expand His Kingdom in their lives and in the world.
The love we are called to trust and emulate is supremely manifested in the cross of Jesus. The cross is the ultimate symbol of the Kingdom of God, for it defines what that Kingdom always looks like. It looks like Christ — self-sacrificial and loving. It looks like grace.... THIS is the heart of the Kingdom of God. The rule of God is established wherever God's will is obeyed and God's character is manifested.... The character and rule of God is manifested when instead of employing violence against His enemies to crush them, Jesus loves His enemies in order to redeem them. The Kingdom is revealed when instead of protecting Himself, Jesus allows Himself to be murdered.... Nothing could be further from the "power over" mindset that characterizes the kingdom of the world.
The Kingdom-of-God lifestyle was beautifully illustrated just before the Last Supper. John tells us that Jesus knew that "the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God" (John 13:3). So what did Jesus do with all the Divine authority? He "got up from the table, took off His outer robe, and tied a towel around Himself. Then He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around Him" (John 13:4-5).
Here is Jesus, possessing all power in heaven and earth and knowing He is about to be betrayed and die a horrible death — and what does He do? He assumes the position of a common household servant and washes His disciples' dirty, smelly feet — the very people He knows will betray and forsake Him before morning!
THIS is how power is wielded in the Kingdom of God. If you have all power in heaven and earth, use it to wash the feet of someone you know will betray you! In serving like this, Jesus declares to all who are willing to hear that He "would not rule by a sword, but by a towel."
THIS is what the Kingdom of God looks like. It looks like humility. It looks like grace. It looks like service. It looks like Jesus.
Love, through service, has a power to affect people in ways that "power over" tactics do not, and it is this unique power of self-sacrificial love that most centrally defines the Kingdom of God. Insofar as we trust THIS kind of power and think and act accordingly, we are bearers of the Kingdom of God. Insofar as we do not, we are simply participants in the kingdom of the world.... Love, not religiosity, is the defining mark of the Kingdom of God.
If this teaching sounds impractical and irrational — to the point where we might want to come up with clever rationalizations to get around it — this is simply evidence of how much we have bought into the thinking of the kingdom of the world. By kingdom-of-the-world standards, this IS impractical and irrational, for in kingdom-of-the-world thinking only "power over" is practical and rational. But this radical, non-common-sensical, "power under" love IS the Kingdom of God, for this loving way of living reflects the nature of God and looks like Jesus.
In sharp contrast to kingdom-of-the-world thinking, therefore, disciples of Jesus aren't to act first and foremost on the basis of what seems practical or effective at securing a good outcome. We are to act on the basis of what is FAITHFUL to the character and reign of God, trusting that, however things may appear in the short term, in the long run God will redeem the world with such acts of faithfulness.
The way of living under God's reign is shocking and impractical within the context of the kingdom of the world, but it is the only way that is in harmony with God, in concert with what He is doing in the world, and, thus, the only way that manifests His reign.
Once again, this is the Kingdom of God: It looks and acts like Jesus Christ. It looks and acts like Calvary. It looks and acts like God's eternal, triune love. It consists of people graciously embracing others and sacrificing themselves in service to others. It consists of people trusting and employing "power under" rather than "power over," even when they, like Jesus, suffer because of this. It consists of people imitating the Savior who died for them and for all people. It consists of people submitting to God's rule and doing His will. By definition, THIS is the domain in which God is King.
Jesus defeated the cosmic powers of darkness by living a countercultural life characterized by outrageous love and by laying down His life for His enemies. So too, we contribute to the demise of the "power over" principalities that hold people in bondage when we refrain from judgment of others and rather extend grace to them, when we let go of anger toward others and instead "come under" them in loving service.
If we don't look like Jesus Christ carrying His cross to Golgotha — sacrificing our time, energy, and resources for others — our rightness is merely religious noise.... However right we may be, without love we are simply displaying a religious version of the world, not the Kingdom of God.
This discussion is continued in part three of this series: The Militant Church