Emperor Jesus?

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I have a confession to make: I’m less than comfortable with the phrase “Kingdom of God”. In fact, I almost break out in a rash every time I hear it. And, don’t even think about what happens when I use it myself. That also includes phrases like “Lord”, “King of Kings” and all that other imperial stuff. As you can imagine, singing in church isn’t exactly easy for me, considering that way too many hymns and praise songs use this imagery. What’s an unrepentant liberal to do?

I purposely used the word “liberal” in that last sentence because, surprise, all Americans are liberals in the classic sense. Liberalism, according to Wikipedia, “is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally they support ideas such as free and fair elections, civil rights, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free trade, and private property.” Born during the Age of Enlightenment, it rejected many common ideas of that time, such as hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy, and the Divine Right of Kings. And, it was the foundation on which America was built.

Because of that, such imperial language should raise our American hackles whenever it’s mentioned, even though we practice a pretty good version of imperialism ourselves. But, when it comes to the Bible, it doesn’t bother us for some reason. In fact, many good Christian Americans long for the coming of this Kingdom (aka end times). I am not one of those Americans.

When it comes to this language, I have a few questions. Here they are, along with my answers:

  1. Where did it come from? From what I can see, Jesus never overtly referred to himself as a king. It may seem like it sometimes, such as his exchange with Pilate shortly before his execution, but he’s actually responding to someone else’s characterization of his kingship. But, regardless of the context, imperial language exists in the text. Paul used it, as did other biblical authors. Why?
  2. Why was it used? In a video about imperial language, Dr. Matt Skinner of Luther Seminary says that Paul used such imperial language because it was a way to explain Jesus that his Greco-Roman audience could understand.
  3. Is it necessary? In a word, no. In fact, it may hinder our understanding of Jesus and what he actually means to us, viewing him as a conquering king rather than a liberating savior.
  4. Are there decent alternatives? Absolutely. Instead of Kingdom of Heaven, I like Josiah Royce’s “Beloved Community”, used by Dr. Martin Luther King to describe a society of justice, peace and harmony achieved through nonviolence. Instead of using king or lord in referring to Jesus, why not use Christ, the title his followers bestowed after his death and resurrection.

Once upon a time, this language was a viable way to express who Jesus was and what he was about. Today, it’s outdated and sounds strange (to my ears, at least). Don’t you think it’s about time we found a new way to talk about him?