Donald Trump will be sworn in tomorrow as the 45th president of the United States of America, but it was the eras of Barack Obama and George W. Bush through which God taught me how to respond to both the celebrations and protests of today.
More than a decade ago, a younger me was still deeply convinced of the validity of the marriage of evangelical faith and conservative politics found in Christian neoconservatism. Put another way, God was going to take this country back and blessings would flow…as long as we the faithful-and-historic-moral-majority-yet-persecuted-minority did our part through activism, voting, lobbying, and the like. 2 Chronicles 7:14 was clearly meant for America. Bush was elected, flags and crosses were held on high after 9/11, and it was time to make things happen.
As we moved toward the 2004 Bush v. Kerry contest, however, my shouts of acclamation trailed off as I forced them from a weary throat. The “wins” of the neocon movement rang hollow and cold to my touch. My soul grew troubled, weeping almost imperceptibly at first, as I saw more and more instances in which the means (and even some of the goals!) of my political party did not match the teachings of Jesus, the man we claimed as motivation.
Thus began a tremendously difficult time for me as I wrestled with God and America. By the time I began to emerge, God had trashed my theology, I had changed career aspirations from law to ministry, and Obama was on the doorstep of being elected the first time. Now, this is the part of the story where you might think I joined the push for Obama along with many others exiled from the GOP, but you’d be wrong. Obama and the larger Democratic Party held and still hold many foundational distinctives with which I could not fully reconcile. No party offered the identity my soul sought, or ever could.
As now ironic precursors to today’s left-wing “not my president” sentiments emerged from the right in reaction to Obama’s election, I struggled with how to understand my station when my time of wandering and wondering had shaken me until neither the president-elect nor his opponents, my former allies, could offer me hope or home. I resonated with right-wing Christians who proclaimed, “No matter who is president, Jesus is my King,” but the temporary fallback for which it seemed to be used grieved me deeply. Why does the language of possession and the celebration of Christ depend on whether or not our candidate wins? It was then I resolved to generally avoid referring to Obama as my president but instead simply the president instead. Not just Obama, though, but any president ever again. Authority would be recognized but not ties of allegiance or possession in either direction.
Why would I make such a decision, inconsequential to some and horrifyingly radical to others? Because language matters, and the Kingdom of God matters even more. Words reflect realities, but words also shape realities. The words we choose describe things to others, but these same words also affect how we and the hearer conceptualize the thing described, creating a framework we carry with us into later decisions and discussions.
Consider the words Jesus used to describe his mission. During my time of wrestling, I kept coming back to the extremity of the New Testament’s claims. Jesus’ use of Kingdom language was not simply the toothless metaphor representing a disembodied heaven to which we often reduce it today; rather, it was and is an extreme claim of absolute authority here and now. You don’t just go around calling yourself a king over a kingdom when Rome called itself the only show in town. Using language reserved for the state was liable to get you killed, and Jesus went to his death still holding to the seriousness of his claims. The New Testament letters take up the same claim. The gentile believers in Ephesus are reminded that despite being born as outsiders, they have been joined as citizens in a nation which defies borders and ethnicities. Christ’s earliest followers would submit to Rome (distinct from complete obedience) and pray for Rome, but their allegiance and a citizenship deeper than anything a earthly government could ever bestow belonged to the Kingdom. Given Jesus’ claims and my past tendency to follow earthly kings, I chose to let my speech regarding the president reflect this reality while also reminding me who I am in relation to both earthly authorities and Christ in order to influence my decisions for the better. After previously straying so far into the various Babylons of this world, I needed the ongoing rejection of possessive pronouns to constantly call myself back to the wilderness, for I belong only to Christ.
Christians, the Kingdom is a timeless truth. It is not a now dead rhetorical flourish born out of how brutal Rome was, expiring once we find ourselves in a country with elections and “In God We Trust” on currency. We belong to the Kingdom. We have more uniting us with Christians overseas than we could ever have with those simply born inside the same borders we were. We are resident aliens temporarily under the authority of those in whose country we find ourselves without giving up our allegiance to our true home, not unlike an American citizen living abroad. Christianity then is not a rejection of earthly powers’ existence or role but rather the decision to give ourselves over entirely to a different authority, a complete authority. One authority and one allegiance will inevitably override the other. Perhaps you don’t join me in using syntax as part of how to live out this truth, but the Kingdom is just as true for you as it is for me.
Maybe this all sounds overly harsh or divisive. What you’re feeling is the rejection logically necessary to choose instead something better, the best news that can be heard and the best path that can be chosen. In order to unite with your spouse, you have to choose not to join with other potential spouses. Some have used Jesus’ teaching on taxes to justify a Christian mandate for a robust sense of obligation to country. “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” as many of us have heard. But consider Jesus’ wording when he asks what’s on the coin. Caesar’s image is on the money, so he gets to claim it. But God’s image is on us and the Lord has claimed us as a holy people. When we give to God what is God’s we are free from the whiplash of having our allegiance hinge on whether or not our electoral preference wins. We are free to live out our purpose as a blessing to all people without wondering if doing so violates our allegiance. We are free to live out a rich life of citizenship in and ambassadorship for a country without borders in which all immigrants are welcome and called, ourselves included. As John Piper has said, “One day America and all its presidents will be a footnote in history, but God’s kingdom will never end.” We are freed from worrying if history’s inevitable political turmoil can end our country and its purpose of love. Our faithful foremothers and forefathers, the patriots of God’s country, achieved changes and blessings for others the likes of which kings and presidents can’t even dream. Some of the greatest such feats occurred without the backing of worldly power with its marble halls and mic’ed lecterns. They, like Jesus, did so by acting politically yet doing so from outside the world’s systems, speaking truth to power. You and I are freed and empowered to do the same, imagining infinitely and prophetically without the constraints of a world desperately clinging to the status quo. The Kingdom in which we’ve found a home is not of this world but has come into this world, our King has promised to be with us always, and his Kingdom is without end.