Christian eschatological hope is thoroughly and principally political, a fact clear in both Old and New Testaments. An example that illustrates well how this strand runs through both testaments is the 11th chapter of Hebrews.
The author narrates that the heroes of Israelite faith had to traverse a common path, one on which a secure place in this age was elusive; the faithful had to choose homelessness in this world in order to hold fast to the hope of a coming “homeland,” the “better country” and “city” that God was preparing for them (11:14-16). The very occasion for the argument is that the intended readers were then (or would soon be) suffering political persecution, and the text is intended to encourage them to take the long view, trusting that the judgment and justice of God’s kingdom is coming. So while this passage of Hebrews concerns the faith and faithfulness of suffering Christians, the enabling theology of the pastoral encouragement is a political eschatology that, the author alleges, captures the whole history of Israel and Israel’s Christ.
The fact that the eschatological promise of God’s kingdom informs or even norms how Christians ought to face the political realities of this present age raises two questions. First, in what way does the coming kingdom relativize or even contradict current political realities, such that its citizens are freed from the political limitations of this age? Second, insofar as citizens of the coming kingdom are free in this age, in what way are they free in relation to present political realities?
The two questions are different ways around the same problem. One might be inclined to speak of God’s kingdom as a present-tense reality, perhaps inhabited by the saints in glory, and to treat our politics as a separate, ontologically independent reality governed by morality or interests.
However, the eschatological notion of the kingdom’s coming forces us to find some way to articulate how present political realities are related to the kingdom, and how the baptized inhabit that relation. As the voices in heaven proclaim in Revelation: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Messiah” (Rev. 11:15). The “has become” of such a verse disallows the suspension of our eschatology from our politics. Christian eschatology will not leave our politics alone, nor is it exactly clear that eschatology will not disable our politics altogether.
This possibility, that eschatology could disable politics, is hardly theoretical. Two examples come to mind. First: my experience of having grown up in a Seventh-day Adventist church. The particular variety of apocalyptic eschatology I learned as a child was decidedly apolitical; Jesus was coming soon, and involvement with the world’s politics was therefore pointless. So was recycling, for that matter. The second example: the prevalent view in biblical scholarship that the Church’s institutionalization was a consequence of the delay of the parousia, that its eventual political involvement was a denial of its eschatological hope.
Both scenarios identify the End with some sort of divine invasion or conquest from without; in the language of Revelation 11, the kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of the Lord only when the Lord appears and disperses his enemies. The relation of the two kingdoms is one of mutually exclusive contradiction, and therefore, the logic goes, the baptized ought to inhabit the relation of the two by rejecting the politics of the world and waiting for the coming of the Lord.
While there are certainly instances throughout the Church’s history of political quietism, as well as interpretations of the eschaton as divine conquest, this view has never been dominant. At least since the “Constantinian settlement,” the Church’s eschatology and politics have offered a far more complex construal of the relationship between the politics of this age and the kingdom of the age to come. Famously, or perhaps infamously, John Howard Yoder described this relationship as one in which there is an overlap between the present age and the age to come. “Constantinianism,” Yoder alleged, produced the theo-logic of the Church as instrument of the kingdom in the present, progressively building or enacting the kingdom as God providentially guides history to its goal.
Whatever one makes of Yoder’s judgment of the Constantinian Church, what is clear is that the Church that took up the work of shaping Western society could not simultaneously do this work and affirm the idea that the coming of the kingdom would be a contradiction of the Church’s work. To the degree that the Church has set out to fashion the world around it, it has to the same degree had to affirm some kind of “realized” eschatology, either infinitely deferring any real eschaton or seeing its work as leading to and sharing in the coming of the kingdom. This eschatology remains the dominant view among mainline Protestants, despite the fact that the collapse of their political influence is surely sufficient to debunk this eschatology and its corresponding political paradigm. And that is to say nothing of other problems with an eschatology of progress, whether theological or biblical.
If one is not to abandon the question by speaking only of individual or existential eschatologies, another construal is needed. And the possibilities are not exactly endless. Scripture provides for us a political description of the eschaton, that the kingdom of the world will in the end “become” the kingdom of the Lord. We have words for such changes; I have already used two of them: conquest and progress.
Another concept we have to describe one kingdom becoming another kingdom is revolution. Sometimes one kingdom takes over another by conquest. Sometimes people steer a kingdom into becoming a different kingdom. And other times one kingdom erupts from underneath the collapse of another one, reordering that kingdom into another.
The kingdom of God, I suggest, will come in this way, the way of revolution.
To say that what we await is the revolution is to say that God’s kingdom will be what the Lord makes of the failure of our politics and systems. God will make of our politics his kingdom, not by providentially guiding us into greater and greater progress, nor by sweeping away our work, but by dramatic fulfillment: the Church is to walk the way of the cross faithfully in pursuit of God’s righteousness, and God will use the church’s assured defeat as the very occasion for his victory. As the defeat of the cross occasions and is even constitutive of the victory of the resurrection, the coming kingdom will be the victory over the injustices and death of our politics that is occasioned precisely by our politics.
The relation of the coming kingdom to the politics of this age is a dramatic relation. In such a relation, the Church experiences, not the pure contradiction of what is and what is to come, but the contradiction of urgency and patience; the Church may and indeed must act, but is freed from the burden of success or failure, and from the calculus of effectiveness. The Church is freed for revolutionary political action, outside of the bounds and limitations of the political options offered to us. The Church is united to Christ in conformity to him, obediently proclaiming and enacting the justice of the kingdom to the point of death, and trusting that God will make of our defeat his victory.
And so united to him in his victory, we will share with him in making of the kingdoms of this world the kingdom of the Lord and his Christ. As St. Paul says: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? … Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” (1 Cor. 6:2, 3).