by Matt Swaim
Nerdier readers of this post may be familiar with the idea of cartoon physics, the notion that things in the world of cartoons work differently than they do in ours. For instance, in cartoon physics, gravity only works on a cartoon character that walks off the edge of a cliff when the character happens to look down. More pious readers of this post may also be aware of the concept of what I call “Kingdom physics, ” the idea that in Christ’s re-ordering of things, the last become first, and the first become last; those who exalt themselves become humbled, and those who humble themselves become exalted. Simply put, what willfully goes down must come up.
Upside down-ness is only one aspect of the idea of Jesus’ explanation of the Kingdom of God that can be confusing; the more confusing thing is the idea of a kingdom, period. Most of us live in democratically ordered societies, where the will of the people rules the day. In American society, for example, it is not the government who employs us, but rather we who employ our governors. Because of this, it can be a very difficult thing to wrap our minds around the idea of what it means for Jesus to have established a kingdom here on earth. Citizens of countries like ours likely find it easier to understand Jesus as the President of Presidents in the Democratic Republic of God rather than the King of Kings in the Kingdom of God. We prefer to subvert authority rather than appoint it; that’s why most elections end up being more about firing people than hiring them.
There can be no kingdom without a king, and no king without subjects. It may be easy to look at Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God as a sort of “power to the people” manifesto, and indeed, many have taken such a view. Justice for the downtrodden is a key tenet of our faith, but it is not the ruling tenet. The ruling tenet is obedience to the kind of king that can secure that kind of justice.
Obedience trumps sacrifice over and over again in the Scriptures. It might be tempting for those of us who live in countries governed by democratic processes not to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, ” but rather, “my empowerment come, our collectively bargained will be done, at home as it is in Sweden.” The trick of it all, however, is to learn what it means to be a subject, rather than a voter, since the ruling principles of the life we’ve signed up for are already established. The Kingdom of God is not of this world, but that doesn’t mean it’s without a king.
The Kingdom of God is not an empire, however; Jesus doesn’t force his kingdom upon us any more than he forced a Jewish rebel uprising against the Romans of his day. We are not made subject to his will, despite the assertions of Calvinist theologians; we make ourselves subject to his will. Doing so means surrender; and no surrender comes without having been preceded by a fight, in this case, an internal one against our own concupiscience. The Kingdom of God on earth, namely the Church Jesus founded, has always been spread most effectively when it has relied upon the upside down laws of Kingdom physics: sheltering the widow and the orphan, feeding the hungry, tending to the sick, and exercising charity when callousness seems to be the easier path. Ultimately, our loyalty to the Kingdom of God is rooted in our loyalty to the King himself, who repeatedly reminds us that the way to glory is through sacrifice.
Last of all, for those enthusiasts of early 90’s Protestant hair-metal ballads, I’ve linked a video for the following song, * which happened to be running through my head during the entire creative process of crafting this article. Viva Cristo Rey!
*apologies to TeenMania enthusiasts 🙂
What are your thoughts? What else can we learn from “Kingdom”?
Matt Swaim is the producer of the Son Rise Morning Show on EWTN Catholic Radio, and the author of The Eucharist and the Rosary (Liguori 2010) and Prayer in the Digital Age (Liguori 2011). He and his wife reside in Cincinnati, OH.
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