Lamps and debt. A friend in the night, and a sower of seeds. Wine, nets, pearls, weeds, and treasure. What is the kingdom of God like? It is like leaven and it is like two sons, like bridesmaids and sheep, like workers and judges.
In the 37 times that Jesus describes the reign of God in the Gospels, not once is the kingdom of God like a kingdom of earth. Thirty-seven times Jesus reshapes the imaginations of his followers. Thirty-seven times Jesus tells them a story to help them remake the only world they know.
The world of the disciples is one of domination and violence. Their world is one in which the wealthy and powerful rule over the weak, take advantage of that weakness, crush it under the boot, and lash it with the whip. It is a world in which Caesar is both king and god, a cruel, irrational tyrant who takes vengeance against his enemies.
There have been benevolent kings over time, but down to this day kingship is a word that signified inherited wealth and power, hierarchy, and the destruction of one’s enemies. We have to look no further than the reports this week announcing that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia ordered the gruesome murder of U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who wrote critically of the royal family.
Ada María Isasi-Díaz was visiting her friend, a Franciscan nun name Georgene Wilson, when she heard the word for the first time: kin-dom rather than kingdom. I imagine that as she sat with this word, turning it over in her mind, something clicked about her own life. For Latinas, she would go on to write, kin-dom offered a description of liberation that was “self-determining” within an interconnected community, seeing God’s movement emerge from la familia, from the family God makes.
Kin-dom became the language she used to describe God’s libertad, the liberation of God at work among people, the good news for those who suffer at the hands of kings. Isasi-Díaz dedicated her life to the work of mujerista theology, where the center of theological study is borne from the experience of Latinas. She wrote that, for Latinas, this liberation emerges from opening up space where love invites us into kinship, invites us to join others at a table that grows. Liberation is found not in hope deferred to another world, to life after death, but what can be created now.
This Sunday, the last one in November, the church makes room for Christ the King Sunday. This is the church’s New Year’s Eve, before we remember—once again—that God enters history as an impoverished baby, born to an unwed mother. But before baby Jesus we pause here, remembering the God who formed stars and planets.
The roots of Christ the King feast day go back to 1925 when it was initiated by Pope Pius XI. It was a year of grief, the nations reeling from World War I as government structures and institutions devastated by war left a vacuum filled by terror. That year, Benito Mussolini made a speech to the Italian Chamber of Deputies that was the turning point for his reign of fascism. The Ku Klux Klan held a march in Washington, D.C. that attracted 35,000 white supremacists. In 1925, Hitler was rebuilding the Nazi party and solidified his role as absolute leader. The future was uncertain.
Pope Pius wanted to remind the church of God’s absolute rule over history. In his encyclical Quas Primas, he writes to the people that the kingdom to which Christians belong is “spiritual and concerned with spiritual things … it demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross.”
I wonder how these words sit with us now, our eyes on history. We now know that Mussolini went on to be one of the world’s worst mass murderers, responsible for 400,000 deaths in World War II, 30,000 more during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. The lynching of black people abetted by white Christians in concert with the KKK between 1882 and 1968 is a wound on the soul of our nation. Six million Jews, seven million Soviet citizens, and nearly a million other disenfranchised people died at the hands of the Nazi regime.
What do we say of Pius’ assertion that Christians are to be “concerned with spiritual things” in the face of such terror?
It is striking to encounter Jesus’ ambivalence about being called a king in the Gospel of John text assigned for this feast day. Pilate ardently questions the incarcerated Jesus in hopes to force the rabbi’s hand, to set Jesus up as interloper to Caesar’s rule. In response, Jesus says: “You say that I am a king.” There is simply no room for this middle manager of Caesar’s reign of terror to imagine another possibility.
Pilate is not alone. The disciples quip on about the future kingship, arguing over who will sit at his left and right. Each time, Jesus tells them stories. Over and over again he roots the liberation of God in ordinary life, in what happens around us, not in throne rooms with princes and crowns but in baking bread and sowing seeds.
Isasi-Díaz writes in the book Solidarity: "From a Christian perspective the goal of solidarity is to participate in the ongoing process of liberation through which we Christians become a significantly positive force in the unfolding of the kin-dom of God.” Liberation is now, our “preferred future” worked out among us, our common commitments, our community spilling out into dismantling structures that bind and oppress.
If we are going to live into a preferred future, a life where the table is widened for the kin of God discovering who they are, charged with their own futures, then we will have to hear the mujerista prophets echoing back to us the words of Jesus. It will begin in recognizing that kin-dom is happening all around, not in other-worldly spirituality, but in creating concrete solidarities for liberation.
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