Henry V and the Kingdom of God

We need to understand the Biblical picture of the reign of God or, as Christians, we will enact poor parodies of that reign as we stumble our way toward Christian faithfulness.

I confess, all of the anti-Empire work that’s floating around New Testament scholarship makes me more than a little nervous, as does N. T. Wright’s bold proclamation that we need to reclaim the word “theocracy.”

Yes, to claim that Jesus is the king of king and lord of lords means, also, that Caesar does not have this role, whatever his claims. And Caesar made such a claim even over Jesus, with Rome’s parodic crucifixion: “Ok, ‘king,’ hang on this cross and discover who is the king of all kings upon the earth!”

But let us not forget that the expulsion of Rome is exactly what Jesus never tried to enact, never promised to deliver.

Jesus did come and cast out a legion. But the great irony of the story is that the “Legion” was not Roman but demonic; and it was not expelled from Jerusalem or Judea or Galilee, but from a Gentile man in Gentile territory.

The undoing of the arms of Caesar was not the mission of Jesus.

This week Laura and I took in an outstanding rendition of Henry V at London’s Shakespear’s Globe Theater.

Jamie Parker played the part of Henry to perfection, leaving me wanting to stand and cheer after the St. Crispin’s Day Speech.

Overall, the play struck me as delivering rather a muted celebration of war. But more than that, the play struck me as having a rather lot of talk about God.

Henry demands that the great victory should be celebrated and recounted so as to give glory to God. God’s glory. God’s grace. God’s victory.

One suspects that the French didn’t quite see it this way.

And thus the problem of misidentifying the reign of God, and too closely associating with “not the reign of x king in particular.” There is a practical, nearly unavoidable problem in setting Jesus up over against other, particular earthly kings.

The problem, in short, is that we are too ready to identify ourselves and our kings and our kingdoms with the reign of God, and the other guy over there with the reign Jesus opposes.

Moreover, when we identify worldly kingdoms as the opposition, we too readily employ the means of earthly conquest in our efforts to unseat them.

Any truth worth its salt will be dangerous.

I do not commend dispensing with the idea of the kingdom of God.

But we must understand it well, and cultivate our participation in that reign with caution.

When our enactments look more like blanketing the enemy with paratroopers than an apparent nothing producing incalculable return, we’ve got a problem.

When our enactments look more like driving the nails than receiving the blows, we’ve got a problem.

When we find ourselves asking and pining and pleading, “Lord, is it now that you are going to restore the Kingdom to us?” We should immediately fear that the restoration is already taking place through some great act of self-giving love.

An that we are missing it.

23 thoughts on “Henry V and the Kingdom of God”

  1. When our enactments look more like blanketing the enemy with paratroopers than an apparent nothing producing incalculable return, we’ve got a problem.

    When our enactments look more like driving the nails than receiving the blows, we’ve got a problem.

    Wow. Love it!

    I have similar concerns and agree on this. I have long loved NT Wright and his work, but I don’t get his leap to political expressions of the kingdom. I’m not entirely opposed to being political in some respects (there is a tension here that I wrestle with). I also think there is a sense of Jesus and Paul subverting “empire” – but it is not done head on, it is done through submission to.

    Jesus did, in a sense it seems to me, “defeat” or ultimately subvert Rome – by letting Rome put him to death on the cross. Paul called Christians to submit to human authority (Rom. 13) at a time when that authority was probably headed by Nero Caesar. Neither Paul nor Jesus appear at all to be Christian empire builders or really have much of any concern about political leaders or starting a political movement (though Jesus did say a lot about Israel’s leaders, that was a divine theocracy he was operating under).

    1. Hi Jeff,

      Have you heard of a little book called “Christ and the Powers” by Hendrikus Berkhof? A passage from it is quoted by John Howard Yoder in his book “The Politics of Jesus” in a chapter called “Christ and Power.” It came to mind as I was reading Daniel’s Post, especially the line “When our enactments look more like blanketing the enemy with paratroopers than an apparent nothing producing incalculable return, we’ve got a problem.”

      What is the “incalculable return” that most believers are willing to exchange in the temptation to think worldly wisdom and power are the only means to solve a problem?
      Here is the quote that I think speaks for itself. I think it demonstrates, not leaving “politics” as a category, but leaving a “politics as usual” behind to pursue something far more substantial. But it requires we walk in the same path that Jesus walked.

      “By the cross (which must always, here as elsewhere, be seen as a unit with the resurrection) Christ abolished the slavery which, as a result of sin, lay over our existence as a menace and an accusation. On the cross He “disarmed” the Powers, “made a public example of them and thereby triumphed over them.” Paul uses three different verbs to express more adequately what happened to the Powers at the cross.
      He ‘made a public example of them.’ It is precisely in the crucifixion that the true nature of the Powers has come to light. Previously they were accepted as the most basic and ultimate realities, as the gods of the world. Never had it been perceived, nor could it have been perceived, that this belief was founded on deception. Now that the true God appears on earth in Christ, it becomes apparent that the Powers are inimical to Him, acting not as His instruments but as His adversaries. The scribes, representatives of the Jewish law, far from receiving gratefully Him who came in the name of the God of the law, crucified Him in the name of the law. The priests, servants of His temple, crucified Him in the name of the temple. The Pharisees, personifying piety, crucified Him in the name of piety. Pilate, representing Roman justice and law, shows what these are worth when called upon to do justice to the Truth Himself. Obviously, ‘none of the rulers of this age,’ who let themselves be worshiped as divinities, understood God’s wisdom, ‘for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’ (I Cor. 2:8). Now they are unmasked as false gods by their encounter with very God; they are made a public spectacle.
      Thus Christ has ‘triumphed over them.’ Their unmasking is actually already their defeat. Yet this is only visible to men when they know that God Himself had appeared on earth in Christ. Therefore we must think of the resurrection as well as the cross. The resurrection manifests what was already accomplished at the cross: that in Christ God has challenged the Powers, has penetrated into their territory, and has displayed that He is stronger than they.
      The concrete evidence of this triumph is that at the cross Christ has ‘disarmed’ the Powers. The weapon from which they heretofore derived their strength is struck out of their hands. This weapon was the power of illusion, their ability to convince men that they were the divine regents of the world, ultimate certainty and ultimate direction, ultimate happiness and the ultimate duty for small, dependent humanity. Since Christ, we know that this is an illusion. We are called to a higher destiny; we have higher orders to follow and we stand under a greater Protector. No Powers can separate us from God’s love in Christ. Unmasked, revealed in their true nature, they have lost their mighty grip on men. The cross has disarmed them; wherever it is preached, the unmasking and the disarming of the Powers takes place.”

  2. I am a little concerned when Christians say “it doesn’t matter” who sits on the throne. Clearly, it mattered when Israel had a good king, (rather than an oppressive one) or when Cyrus, not even a king over Israel, acted justly. If we take your point too far, (which is easier for those of us who won’t suffer much no matter who is in power) we completely denigrate any action in the political realm. And I think that’s a wrong way to go too.

    1. My $.02 on this, Tracy: I wonder why Paul was so silent about Nero? (As evil as they come). And, it is not to say that there aren’t bad rulers whom God will judge, but even the disciples in Revelation – under persecuting Asiatic worshipers of the Emperor – while not bowing to their rules of worship – did not rebel in a direct political sense. The “overcame” (victorious conquerors) “by the blood of the lamb and because they loved not their lives to the death” (Rev. 12:11) – not b/c they campaigned against to oust the bad tyrant. And, Jesus himself won by losing – by letting Rome invoke their most powerful and terrifying weapon (the cross) on him – and this was the means of the greatest victory ever.

      The parallels with Israel are not America or another secular nation but the new Israel – the church. The parallel among bad kings in Israel would be bad shepherds among God’s people today – not secular leaders. One of the core challenges among American believers – esp. evangelicals – is we think of America as the New Israel; when America is really Rome.

      1. “One of the core challenges among American believers – esp. evangelicals – is we think of America as the New Israel; when America is really Rome.” — Amen.

      2. Amen Jeff! Very well said. I have been echoing these thoughts for almost 40 yrs, to little or no avail amongst Christians. In 1976 I got in some trouble for this with the churches in my denomination (who along with others) were celebrating the bi-centennial almost as though it were the “year of jubilee”. This Israeli-Americanism is almost impossible to fight. Geographic pride/superiority seems to run through most people’s veins. Look at how adamantly (blindly) many support their sports teams.
        The problem I’ve had over the years is the “gospel of the kingdom” proclaimed by Jesus seemed to promote neither political or religious conditions with God or man. Understanding Jesus’ meaning of the kingdom and why it was His gospel has been a source of great consternation and even greater joy for me through the decades. Reconciling this with the post resurrection gospel was confusing if not troubling. I would love to hear your thoughts on the kingdom.

  3. This is sounding like another complementarian/egalitarian debate. With the Godly resolution being not a victory but a correct relationship.

    Not exactly “who sits on the throne”, but how things are run generally. Not the players, but the game. “Render to Caesar” implies that we pay attention to that side of the house: Jeremiah 29:5-6, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce… multiply there, and do not decrease.” Actually I think Jesus’ mission was (in part) the undoing of Caesar’s arms, but radically, by “rendering to God”, by an indirect form of confrontation. By bringing a different set of values into the political situation: the leaven that spreads through the flour makes it bread. Surely we hope to change the world before we leave it.

  4. I think another way to frame your concern is this. Jesus is not just king over THAT king. He is king over MY king. Whoever or whatever it is that I am tempted to worship, THAT is my best consideration as reference for HIS Lordship.

  5. I do wonder if these prophetic announcements concerning Kingdom reign are at all connected with the history of the matter. It’s easy after a bit of Shakespeare to say we shouldn’t automatically be on the side of particular nations until it’s quite clear that such a nation is in the right but in the real world men like Henry V had grave decisions to make and such considerations shouldn’t be taken lightly.

    Of course, graphs on perceived world corruption seem to indicate that the nations of Western civilization where the gospel firmly took hold do not act with the sort of unassuming patriotism glibly condemned by Dr. Kirk nor is it clear that motivation in supporting them results in anything but a sort of patriotism informed by Kingdom concerns. Even the misguided socialism of the last century or so that we see in Europe and increasingly in the US is essentially working with Christian concerns for our neighbors at heart.

  6. Jesus resisted Rome in this way:

    And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-27 ESV)

    1. Honestly, from your perspective, how could you ever prove such a verse has universal import?

      Are we really to believe that Constantine’s role as a Christian Roman Emperor was equivalent to that of first century still all too Jewish and apart from Rome Christians? Is there not some room to think that application of the passage in question might be different based on different times and circumstances–let alone things like God-ordained imperial vocation?

      1. Not sure what you’re getting at. Never claimed it has universal import. Constantine’s 200+ years after the gospels. Not sure what a God-ordained imperial vocation is.

        1. Well, Romans 13 would help us understand Constantine as a minister of God. We’re 2000+ years removed from the gospels. That might imply that our circumstances are resolutely different than what existed in Jesus’ day–especially post-Constantine.

          1. I guess that would beg the question how was Constantine any different from Nero in being a minister of God? Are we called to mark out the lesser of two evils? Or shouldn’t we just approach both of them as being ministers of God but yet not submissive to Christ?

            1. Exactly, Sam.

              It seems to me your point (and the point of Christ) is that kingdom leadership is always humble servitude – not authority or power (e.g., militant triumphalism).

    1. Sorry, I’m not questioning your integrity and I apologize if I’m being unclear.

      The point I’m trying to make is that when we speak of Christian influence and things like patriotism it is not enough any more to consider the subject as Dr. Kirk has provided or that we are in the same situation as powerless Jewish/Christian people in the Roman Empire. Furthermore, there are Christians in leadership today that are responsible vocationally for the calling God has placed in their lives to guide the nation. And, we live in a democratic society which means governmental participation and leadership is now in the hands of the people–and Christian people at that. In other words, we can stiffen the neck when the Non Nobis is sung after battle on St. Crispin’s Day but this isn’t the Middle Ages anymore. It’s easy to criticize a king not having been there and when really the only contact we have with him is a great play by Shakespeare.

      The question really is what do we do now and how do interpret and apply the Scriptures for our own day. Merely saying we should be a servant doesn’t seem to cut it when our responsibilities as citizens in this world and the next are at stake. As the Kingdom of God continues to usher in, how can we serve in our nations to make this world a better place for the reign and work of Jesus Christ? Perhaps the work of nations can be employed in the service of Christ as they most certainly have been in the past.

      1. Understood. Thanks for the clarification.

        I would respond that my interpretation suggests that Jesus critiques ‘kyriarchy,” lording over others, be they Roman officials, Temple leadership, or Patrons/benefactors. Such lording is often what keeps the poor in poverty and the outcasts outside the city walls.

        And in response to Dr. Kirk, I think Jesus resisted Rome, but only through enacting a new way of life that did not resemble the domination of the center of the world. As an American, I find this critique still applicable today.

  7. Daniel, I think your concerns over anti-imperialism in the gospels is legitimate. I do believe we would all agree that Jesus made plenty of statements that would have been perceived by many of his contemporaries as anti-Roman, or at least dangerously close. As you mention, why else might he have been executed under the indictment “king of the Jews?”

    Nevertheless, Jesus was often pointing in a third direction, if I can call it that. Not a middle way, but a truly alternate way through to the Kingdom of God. How grateful we are for Paul’s editorial: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood…” (Eph 6:12).

    I do think Wright is often careful enough to say that although Jesus preached and acted anti-imperial messages, he did not do so in the way we might think. Trouble is, not everyone will read so carefully.

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