My 5-year-old, Olivia, lives in a world where all that she imagines is fiercely real. She walks through life with an entourage of imaginary friends, all busy participants in the universe she has created. The situations she conjures up are colorful and complex. On more than one occasion, I have been asked to mediate imaginary disputes or attend birthday parties for characters that I cannot see. Among the entourage of the imaginaries who live in our house is a certain character called “the wicked king.” This character, originally created for the TV show Doc McStuffins, has jumped out of the television and moved into my daughter’s room. And of course, he’s always causing trouble. He is grouchy and mean to the other toys and quite mischievous. Since every heroine needs a villain, we tolerate his presence, and hope it helps with our child’s moral formation.
The stories of wicked kings are not hard to find when we turn to Scripture. After the Exodus, God creates a covenant with the people to rule as king from above. Moses went up to the mountain to receive God’s law, and to establish God’s priestly kingdom with Israel. But it turned out that the people of Israel were not the best followers. While they told Moses that, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 24:3), in the end they turned to idols and broke God’s laws. By the time we get to First Samuel, we hear the people clamoring for an earthly king so they could be like other nations (1 Samuel 8:4-22). They thought life would be better if they shook up their system of government, so they ditched the judges and looked for an outsider. In the end, they got exactly what they asked for – a king named Saul who was wicked and moody and paranoid.
Maybe God still gives us what we ask for. The leaders we elect are often mirror images of our deepest held prejudices, particularly when we elect leaders who come into control by conjuring up our most terrible fears. In times of wicked kings, people of faith will often say that “God is in control.” But what does that really mean? The people of Israel abdicated God’s control by relying on an earthly kingdom, rather than building God’s kingdom on earth. From the days of the first king, no earthly kingdom has ever lived up to the standards of God’s reign.
In ancient Israel, when kings were crowned, the Scriptures were read aloud. Similar to our own presidential inauguration rituals in the United States of America, the public reading of Scripture has been used to both authorize and subvert earthly reigns. When Scripture is read in the public square as kings are being crowned, even the words meant to authorize their reign are still subversive.
Psalm 2 is a royal psalm that, in its original form, was likely read at a king’s coronation. In this psalm we find the nations conspiring, and the people plotting together in vain. The earthly kings have set themselves against God, as if they might be able to plan a coup d'état to topple the heavenly king. Through their speech, the earthly kings rebel against God. They’ve taken to the public square to wage a war of words against God. The reply from God comes also through speech – a speech that begins with laughter and ends with the earthly kings bowing down to kiss God’s feet. The words of the earthly rulers do not frighten God, but rather bring laughter from a God who knows all things.
When wicked kings rule, God is still in control, but we should not imagine that God’s control will keep us safe. We should also not imagine that God’s control means we can ignore our own work to bring about God’s justice. When wicked kings rule, no one is safe. And then there’s this business of God’s wrath. Scripture reminds us time and again that wicked kingdoms cannot help but be toppled by God’s justice. Our work in the time of wicked kings is to be sure we are building God’s kin-dom, rather than clamoring around a king, lest the earthly kingdom crush us as it falls.
As residents of earthly kingdoms, and members of a heavenly kingdom, we have been given the gift of glimpsing life on the holy mountain. As 2 Peter 1:16-21 reminds us, we have “been eyewitnesses of his majesty,” and because we have seen Jesus, “we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed.” But this Jesus that we know did not come to build an earthly kingdom. When he was transfigured in front of Peter, James, and John, he did not agree to build tents and live there forever with Moses and Elijah. Jesus did not run for office, or set up an earthly kingdom, but instead, left the work of kin-dom building to us.
There is a deep and abiding freedom we can claim when we realize our citizenship in earthly kingdoms is temporary, but our real citizenship is in heaven. Yet, as Matthew 25 reminds us, to get into that heavenly kingdom, we must continue the work of Christ by building God’s kin-dom here on earth.
Kin-dom building is subversive, uncomfortable work. We must welcome the stranger and visit those in prison, and care for the sick and feed the hungry. We must work for the common good by creating policies and programs that care for those for whom God cares. If we truly serve the God of second chances, who uses earthquakes to break people out of prison, then we must work to end our system of mass incarceration and give help to those who are reentering society. One way we do this is through relationships that lead us to justice. Simply put, we get a little help from our friends.
My 5-year-old takes her entourage of imaginary friends to church each week, and when she arrives her first hug is from her “BFF” – our friend Nikki – who is a writer, and activist, and a returning citizen. Olivia knows Nikki’s story, that she spent time in prison and that she works now to end mass incarceration. When Olivia first heard the Bible story of Paul and Silas and their time in prison, she read their story through the story of Nikki’s incarceration. Prison is not an unimaginable place because Nikki has taught Olivia how to imagine prison as a place deserving of our compassion.
At the end of the day, it is not the kings we know who will help us change the world, but rather the stories and lived experiences of those who have been pushed to the margins. If we want to find God in the time of wicked kings, we will do well to find ourselves in the company of those who are being excluded. For they are the only ones who can teach us how to build God’s kin-dom here on earth.
Via ON Scripture.