Voluntary Suffering and the Kingdom
In a post from two days ago, I wrote about the call to voluntary suffering for others as it is laid out in the New Testament. For the first three centuries of the church, Christians understood this call as they sought to follow Jesus’ example of forgoing the use of violence and expressing God’s self-sacrificial love toward others, including their enemies. Unfortunately, this mindset was lost when the Church acquired political power in the fourth century. Because many leaders viewed this political power as a blessing from God rather than a temptation from the enemy, Jesus’ refusal to use coercive power had to be re-interpreted.
For instance, Augustine speculated that Jesus’ decision to suffer unjustly rather than use coercive force was not intended to be a permanent example for all Christians to follow. Rather, he reasoned, Jesus had to suffer and die unjustly because he was the Savior, and his suffering and death were necessary in order for us to be freed from the devil and reconciled to God. Now that this has been accomplished, however, and now that God (allegedly) had given Christians the power of the Sword, it was not only permissible for Christians to use violence when the cause was “just,” but they also had the responsibility before God to do so. Voluntary suffering was no longer necessary.
But if we take seriously the passages from the New Testament about voluntary suffering, it could be argued that the Church’s willingness to suffer cuts to the heart of what it means to manifest the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ willingness to suffer out of love for his enemies rather than use coercive force against them is consistently identified in the NT as the ultimate expression of God’s love and the ultimate means by which the powers of evil are defeated. It’s what Calvary is all about. And so, the willingness of God’s people to suffer out of love for others—including our enemies—rather than use coercive force against them must still be considered the ultimate expression of God’s love and the ultimate resistance against the patterns of this world.
This attitude expresses the most radical difference between the kingdom of God, ruled by God the Father, and the kingdom of the world, ruled by Satan. The kingdom of the world relies on using “power over” others, but the kingdom of God relies wholly on “power under” on behalf of others. This is the power of the cross. By removing the cross from the center of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, we eliminate the most fundamental distinction between these two kingdoms. And when this happens, the church takes on the character of the kingdom of the world.