Kingdom, Pirates, and Triumphalism

This week we are looking at a recent teaching from Dr. Richard Beck. We have interacted with his work many times, but if you aren’t familiar I highly recommend his blog.

Captain-CrossbonesThe particular teaching we are looking at this week is how pirates can help us better understand and live into the Kingdom of God. The whole class is excellent, but I want to highlight one part of it to launch the discussion today.

Most of the time when we think about pirates (which I am sure takes up most of your reflective space during the day), we assume pirates were “bad” because they robbed, pillaged, and looted from people. This actually wasn’t the case.

At the height of piracy, the kings and queens of the day needed people who would rob and pillage other countries for them. So they would oppress people to do the dirty deeds. The pillagers were often forced into this occupation and were denied the rights of their labor.

Eventually, the oppressed group decided if they were going to be in the pillaging business, they should reap the spoils. So they became pirates.

The crime of piracy was not the looting. It was that the looters were not doing so under the auspices of a monarch.

They stole for themselves. They rebelled against the oppressive system.

Beck contends that piracy comes about when something in the system blocks equity. Piracy is an act of resistance to a system where some are privileged and others are denied access.

Now this may all seem a little bit odd or completely off the wall, but it gives some texture to what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God.

We often use very triumphal, violent imagery for the Kingdom of God: military conquests where “the good guys” go in and completely destroy “the bad guys.” The images reflect the triumphal attitude pirates rebelled against. We can oppress, manipulated, coerce, or force people into things because we have the privilege of being right.

The problem is Jesus doesn’t use triumphal images to explain the Kingdom. Jesus uses images of cleverness, smallness, and quiet organic growth. Not the loud, bombarding and conquering images we are often used to today. In fact, often the assumption is that living into the Kingdom of God may causes more suffering than it does triumph.

But we like the triumphal versions a little bit better. We like to be the winners. We like to be the ones who know who is good and who is evil. Because when we know with certainty who is good and who is evil, we then know it is our job to stomp the evil out.

Douglas John Hall discusses this in his fantastic book on a theology of the cross for an unjust world. He says modern, Western Christianity tends towards militant expansionism in its view of mission and evangelism. Moral imperatives are imposed on others because they are “right” or “true,” yet more often that not, these imperatives are detached from actual life.

In other words, triumphal mission robs, pillages, and steals in the name of a good cause. These other people don’t know what is good for them, so we will impose it on them. Difference, or anything outside of the approved system, is something to be overcome and conquered.

There are several problems with this approach. For one, the world is too complex for trite, moral imperatives. Jesus comes to make us fully human. And being fully human means we live our actual lives. When Christianity is detached from being an actual human, it isn’t Christianity following in the footsteps of Jesus. People engaged in Kingdom mission spend time reflecting not only on the words and life of Jesus, but the actual times and places and communities they find themselves.

Secondly, the metaphors of smallness remind us that participation in the Kingdom is when something small exists for the sake of something bigger than itself. Thus, the goal of Christian mission is not to make the world more Christian; the goal is to make the world more human. And we trust the creator of humans to help us learn what this looks like.

God designed humanity and the desire is that we would have life to the fullest. So God’s work in the world is helping us be fully and truly human – the way God has designed us to be. God doesn’t want to help us escape from our actual lives, but be human beings in a world which tries to lessen that humanity is myriads of ways.

Participation in the Kingdom is recognizing God’s work in the world and participating in it.

As Hall says, we have a “representative, priestly, stewardly responsibility.” We represent the love of Christ in the world, we are the hands and feet of Jesus to the hurting and oppressed and we care greatly for the time, place, and community we find ourselves in.

Piracy in the day was a subversive act of resistance to a triumphal system. And while we probably shouldn’t glamorize piracy as a whole, Beck helps us see that piracy gives us insight into what non-triumphal mission would look like.

Pirates did not overthrow the system, but they went outside of the system to create communities where everyone got a share for doing the work. They committed small, subversive acts which subtly eroded and called out the unjust system they were formally a part of.

The Kingdom of God is not about conquering and branding everyone with our brand. It is small, subversive acts of sacrificial love.

When we do these small acts, we may not change the world in a moment or a lifetime, but we call out the unjust systems of oppression. For a brief moment, we offer alternatives to the things that enslave us, whatever they may be.

These small acts are incredibly important. They are pushing the darkness back.

We often use triumphal imagery because we think it is our job to defeat the darkness. But it isn’t. That’s God’s job. Our job is to push back the darkness until it is finally defeated.

But the small acts of self-giving love are how we push it back.

It may take the form of art. It may be opening your home and sharing life with others. It may be engaging with people who are different than you are. It may be forgiving. It may be caring for those who can’t care for themselves.

No matter what form it takes, each time we make a small effort of sacrificial love, we reclaim something which was lost, we push back the darkness, and we witness to an alternative reality from the hurt, pain, and injustice we see in the world.

Go ye therefore and be a pirate.

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