What does Jesus of Nazareth’s announcement of the Kingdom mean for the Church’s role in the public political space?
Whatever our immediate answer to this question might be, recent events have drawn attention to the Church’s relation to competing kingdoms on a national level. On a local level, parish leaders regularly deal with a version of these same church-and-state crosswinds. From “stay out of politics” to the inability to distinguish partisanship from discipleship, we find ourselves in an ongoing negotiation between the Church and political powers. If church leaders are going to help navigate the faithful through this complex socio-political space, they need some pastorally thoughtful and theologically clarifying examples of the Church witnessing to the Kingdom.
On January 6, rioters prayed on the Senate floor led by the “QAnon Shaman” Jacob Chansely. On January 20, leaders prayed at the steps of the Capitol at the inauguration. The one thing they all seemed to agree on is that it “is sacred space” (Jacob Chansley) and “hallowed ground” (the Rev. Silvester Beaman) at a “sacred time” (Fr. Leo O’Donovan). I have many questions about what makes this time sacred, but I most appreciated how the Rev. Beaman offered context to the “hallowed ground” as the site of human suffering and oppression. He says, “…where slaves labored to build this,” but goes on to call it a “shrine to liberty and democracy.”
If the Capitol grounds are indeed the site of worship to something other than God, what does this mean for the Church’s involvement in their civic liturgies? What makes one abhorrent and another acceptable to so many Christians?
After breaking into the Senate floor, the horned rioter Chansely prayed “in Christ’s holy name,” thanking God for helping them break in, ridding them of their enemies, and allowing the country to be “reborn”—to which the group replied several times, “Amen.” While this prayer was offered in the name of Christ, it is far from the means of Christ. On the other hand, Christian clergy at the inauguration prayed not in the name of Christ but to the “Holy Mystery of Love” and “the strong name of our collective faith,” though their peace and goodwill far more resembled the means of Christ.
Would it have been better for the clergy to pray in Christ’s name? Perhaps not, especially if the intent was hospitality to other religions in civic space. But at what point do political events become liturgies in sacred spaces directed at something other than the true God? If lex orandi, lex credendi (the rule of prayer is the rule of belief) is true, can the Church say “Amen” to the beliefs these prayers suggest? And what does leading these liturgies reveal about the Church’s functioning relation to the state? When religious language is used to sanctify political aims or adorn state rituals, is the state’s colonial vision over the Church exposed—using the sacred as a lever of power?
Whenever the sacred is leveraged for power, it is not for the sake of God, but for the sake of something else. While pursuing the “common good” of society should be in view for the Christian, that rationale is also used to ensconce a colonial vision of the state over the Church, or the Church over the state, rather than their separation. We can recognize this vision posed in a question like: “Shouldn’t the Church build the Kingdom through government and politics?” To this, it would be good to ask, “Does the Kingdom really lack for power in ways that the state could help?” A colonial vision can also be found in questions like: “Shouldn’t the Church focus on the gospel and stay out of politics, justice and the issues of the world?” In response, it would be good to ask, “Is the Kingdom only in the business of ‘saving souls’ and unconcerned with whatever is left of life?”
Is political theologian William Cavanaugh right when he states in his book Theopolitical Imagination that politics is simply “theology in disguise”? Did we not witness talk-of-God (theology) being worked out in the events of January 6 and January 20? Whether a violent overthrowing or supporting of the state’s status quo, both events signaled a heavenly backing for aims. Both were less concerned for the Church as a sign of the Kingdom of God than the cause they wanted blessed. Both cast a colonial vision upon the Church, one that stands in utter dissonance with the announcement of Jesus of Nazareth that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
This raises many questions, one of which I find critical and very practical: “What does Jesus of Nazareth’s announcement of the Kingdom mean for the Church’s role in the public political space? In response, I find the pastoral example of Saint Óscar Romero to be of help. He was the El Salvadorian archbishop who actively resisted the state’s colonization of the Church and was eventually martyred for it in 1980.
The particular story I want to focus on, coincidentally, surrounded the inauguration of El Salvador’s new president in 1977. There was mounting violence—including the torture and murder of priests—against the Church that Archbishop Romero now led in El Salvador. The death squad responsible for most of this violence was called the White Warrior Union, and was known to have circulated a flyer that read, “Be a patriot, kill a priest.” The outgoing and incoming president did not intend to bring justice to this persecution of the Church, and in response Romero boycotted all government events, including the upcoming inauguration. The Bishop of San Miguel, José Alvarez, strongly opposed Romero’s decision to boycott. Their exchange resembles the questions we face today, revealing a view of the Church and politics that offers clarity if we are to help untangle the confusion of Christian nationalism and the colonizing tendencies of our own situation.
In Bishop Alvarez’s view, the Church was supposed to support and legitimize the government’s authority for the sake of social order. For him, this was the only way for the Church to stay out of politics. According to Alvarez, the violence inflicted on clergy and the faithful was brought on by the unlawfulness of Christians, not their witness: “There is no persecuted church. There are some sons of a church that, wanting to serve, lost their way and put themselves outside the law.” In his insightful book Revolutionary Saint, Michael Lee points out that this exposed a “colonial vision in which the church serves as protector of the status quo, a dual-ordered status quo in which the church supports the government in political affairs because its domain is that of spiritual affairs.” Alvarez concluded that Romero’s refusal to attend the inauguration was an inappropriate political act.
About a month later, Romero wrote a pastoral letter in response. He argued that the Church’s mission is not determined by the colonial vision of the government and it is not animated by partisan politics. The Church’s mission centers on something far more disruptive to the status quo—the announcement of the Kingdom of God. In one of his homilies, Romero preached that because “God is walking with the history of the people,” the Church has no other allegiance than to the Lord, and no other security than when it travels with him. In another homily, he preached that the Church’s mission is to proclaim the wonders of God’s mercy, to call people to conversion, and denounce “everything that prevents us from making ourselves ready for God’s coming.”
Notice that Romero’s vision of the Church doesn’t fall prey to the dualism of real-world politics as opposed to spiritual matters. He also doesn’t draw up a view of the Church in light of the state, but—and this is key—in light of the Kingdom of God. As Lee further recounts in Revolutionary Saint, Romero calls the Church a “sacrament of salvation,” not merely pointing away to heavenly realities, but making Jesus present in the Church on earth. Refusing the heaven-or-earth dualism, and imagining itself as a sign of the Kingdom, the Church bears witness to the gospel announcement that “God who walks in history with the people” and is establishing justice. Because the Church is Christ in history, it joins the same mission announcing the Kingdom of God, which calls every person to conversion and renewal, and the outworking of the goodness of God in the real-world concerns of life. We can’t help but hear the echoes of the Lord’s prayer: “…on earth as it is in heaven.”
If the Church exists as a sign of the Kingdom, then it disrupts the colonial vision of the state over the Church. The Church does not run the errands of the state; it is not captive to its order, nor does it prop up the state’s desired status quo. Unlike the state, the Church is constituted as the Body of Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit to herald the Kingdom of God. This is why Cavanaugh writes in Theopolitical Imagination, “It should be obvious that state power is the last thing that the Church should want.” The Church doesn’t need to make Jesus king in the White House, because his death, resurrection and ascension have already secured him as Lord of the cosmos. Those who act in the name of Jesus have no need of colonizing the state.
Further, the Church is not relegated to a private prayer closet, the task of merely saving souls. The Church should not be kept out of the public and political because the reign of God is concerned with the real world. The Church exists, then, to herald with Christ the good news to the human poor, incarcerated, blind, and oppressed (Luke 4:18). The Church is the sign that the Father is setting things right through his Son and by his Spirit. Therefore, the Church is supremely and inherently political (not partisan) because it exists in human history addressing all of human society, and the Church is profoundly public because it concerns all of creation.
Romero’s witness reminds the Church that it is a sign and instrument of only one kingdom announcement: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). This is the basis for the Church’s witness in any public political space. This grounding in the Kingdom of God delegitimizes any vision of a Church “out of politics” or a Church inextricable from partisan aims. Instead, when the reign of God is in focus, the Church is freed to persist in its witness, unthreatened and un-tempted by the terms of any other kingdom.
In our local parishes, our preaching, fellowship and reconciliation signify to others that God is concerned with our neighborhood. When we consider the formative forces and allegiances tugging at us, we can more clearly see the importance of surrendering ourselves to the narrative of Scripture, the work of the liturgy, the allegiance confessed in our creeds, our diet of the Eucharist, and our openness to God in prayer.
With the Kingdom of God at hand, the Church is emboldened to be itself, traveling with the God who walks in human history and calls the real world into alignment with His way of doing things.
You’re probably wondering how to put this call to Kingdom allegiance into practice in your everyday life. I’ve created a free resource to help you do that. Download “3 Ways to Practice Living in the Kingdom of God.