“Ahlan wa sahlan fi bayti.”
Welcome to my home.
Our host, a Palestinian Christian woman in her forties, worked at the hostel where my husband and I were staying. Between my rusty Arabic and her better English, we had accepted her invitation to visit her and her family in their home, which happened to be inside East Jerusalem’s Old City gates.
We greeted her husband and mother-in-law. They were watching Benny Hinn on television. As we at biscuits and sipped hot drank black tea with mint, we chatted together. Periodically my attention was drawn toward the TV screen. Standing on a sound stage erected outside the walls of the Old City, Benny Hinn preached to a crowd of tourists. Walking from our lodgings along Nablus Road, parked outside the Garden Tomb, we’d passed rows of idling chartered buses with Benny Hinn Tours decals. The Israeli-born televangelist and faith healer spoke about the predestined election of the saints, signs of the end times, the certain presence of the Anti-Christ already living among us, and the coming rapture and tribulation. Before commercial breaks there were several cuts of footage of Hinn breathing on people and them falling backward in the faint I’d heard charismatic friends refer to as being “slain in the Spirit.”
As with many of his Evangelical counterparts, Hinn’s eschatological imagination is shaped heavily by the 20th century interpretation of Revelation influenced by John Nelson Darby, and along with it a Platonic notion of bodily detachment from this world. As N.T. Wright, in Simply Christian, says, “The great drama will end, not with ‘saved souls’ being snatched up into heaven, away from the wicked earth and the mortal bodies which have dragged them down into sin, but with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, so that “the dwelling of God is with humans” (Revelation 21:3).
There, drinking tea as the guest of a devout Christian family in Old City Jerusalem, three flights up from the underground room where historians believe Jesus was held upon his arrest, along the Way of Suffering where Christians have processed on pilgrimages for centuries, I was not moved by the happenings on the television screen. But I was curious. I was curious what our Palestinian hosts made of it all. I wished for a bridge across our language barrier so that I could ask them.
In Luke 17:21, we read Jesus’ words: “The Kingdom of Heaven is among you.” Jesus tells us the Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast worked through the dough. Yeast is alive. Its effects are not immediate, but gradual.
When we talk about the “already but not yet” of the Kingdom of Heaven, the tendency is to focus the conversation on the “not yet.” What about the already? What does the Kingdom of Heaven among us even look like?
In the introduction to The Christian Imagination, Willie James Jennings describes a scene from childhood. He was with his mother, working in their backyard garden, when two white men came to introduce themselves. They were from the First Christian Reformed Church up the street. The men were awkward and formal as they told 12-year-old Willie and his mother all about their church and the plans they had for programs and outreach in the community.
“The strangeness of this event lay not only in their appearance in our backyard, but also in the obliviousness of these men as to whom they were addressing: Mary Jennings, one of the pillars of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. I thought it incredibly odd that they never once asked her if she went to church, if she was a Christian, or even if she believed in God. Mary and her twin sister Martha were about as close to their scriptural counterparts as you could get. Without fail they were in their customary seats in church every Sunday, and you could calibrate almost every activity of the church by and around them or us, their children.
“In addition, every Sunday they would visit every single person on the sick and shut-in list. The depth and complexities of Mary’s faith were unfathomable, as unfathomable as the blindness of these men to our Christian lives. My mother finally interrupted the speech of this would-be neighborhood missionary, with the words, ‘I am already a Christian. I believe in Jesus, and I attend New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, where Rev. J.V. Williams is the pastor.’
“I don’t remember his exact reply to my mother’s declaration of identity, but he kept talking for quite a few more wasted minutes. Finally, they gave her some literature and left. I remember this event, because it underscored an inexplicable strangeness embedded in the Christianity I lived and observed (Jennings).”
“Experiences like these fueled a question that has grown in hermeneutic force for me. Why did they not know us (Jennings)?”
As I read this story, I think of other instances that fit Jennings’ question: “Why did they not know us?” From historic Black church denominations in the US, to ancient Eastern churches: Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Greek, Syrian, to name a few. I think of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land who can trace their Christian ancestry to the time of Christ, yet feel largely overlooked by the western Christians who come to tour their ancient sites.
As a college student, I was part of a gospel choir, Angels of Harmony. The choir was majority Black American students with the remainder split between Latinx and White, as well as international students from Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and India. One Sunday, at one white choir member’s invitation, we climbed on a bus and landed at a morning worship service in a suburb of Baltimore.
We sang our songs and then sat for a “missions moment.” That morning’s visiting missionary family was on furlough from an assignment in a Sub-Saharan African country. Their presentation included a slide show featuring the “poor conditions” of peoples’ homes, and a joke about a group of men working hard to move earth with shovels being “an African backhoe.” Laced throughout the presentation was the message that these missionaries from the US were “bringing Christianity to Africa.”
When it was Q&A time, a Kenyan graduate student stood up. “I am a proud African man. I am a Luo, and a Christian. As an African I am offended by your presentation. You insult the dignity of my African brothers and sisters. You speak of bringing Christianity to Africa. This offends me as an African Christian. Have you not heard of King Azana of the Kingdom of Aksum? Have you not heard of the Kingdom of Abyssinia? Of the Ancient Coptic Church?”
I don’t remember what the missionary said in response. As a fellow member of the Angels of Harmony, I felt proud to be associated with this young Kenyan student. But as a white American Christian, I felt deeply embarrassed by the too-often over-indulged ignorance of my racial group.
The Kingdom could be found throughout Africa and India, long before the first evil ships brought enslaved Image Bearers to western shores. Scholar of Ancient Christianity and historical linguist, Dr. Vince Bantu: “We always talk about globality, in the modern context, like the Church was western and then one day it became global. No. Christianity has always been global.”
“I remember taking a church history class where it was the great white men of church history, and I was like, ‘Where are we at?’ It would only be like one day at the end of the semester where there would be ‘Black theology’ or ‘global theology.’” The implication? “It’s in the modern times that things become global.” (You can watch the interview on African American Identity and the Church here.)
As student and professor in a western Reformed academic settings, Dr. Jennings observed “the resistance of theologians to think theologically about their identities (Jennings, Introduction. The Christian Imagination).”
“It was the negation of a Christian intellectual posture reflective of the central trajectory of the incarnate life of the Son of God, who took on the life of the creature— a life of joining, belonging, connection, and intimacy. Indeed, it is as though Christianity, wherever it went in the modern colonies, inverted its sense of hospitality. It claimed to be the host, the owner of the spaces it entered, and demanded native peoples enter its cultural logics, its ways of being in the world, and its conceptualities. Western Christian intellectuals still imagine the world from the commanding heights (Jennings).”
These comments bring to mind the phenomenon of large, crowd-drawing praise and worship events held in urban settings, led by Christians who are often not residents of those communities. These gatherings are framed as “taking back” a territory that is viewed as a battleground for competing spiritual forces (“spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” as Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians).
We saw a particularly troubling iteration of this in 2020 as worship leader and former GOP Congressional candidate in California’s 3rd District, Sean Feucht, set up sound stages around the country, drawing mass outdoor gatherings, which he promoted via social media as “Riot to Revival.”
The first concert was near the site where Mr. George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer.
As Covid restrictions became politicized, Feucht’s “worship as protest” rhetoric morphed into a power struggle between a “Godly” team red and “Godless” team blue.
In his article about the Sean Feucht controversy, Portland pastor, Jelani Greenidge writes:
“Given the context, their efforts were tone-deaf, unresponsive to the needs and mood of the people who’ve been engaging with the hurt and chaos on the ground. Riding in from out of town to “bring Jesus to Portland” (a sentiment I’ve heard used repeatedly in reference to these and similar gatherings) is disrespectful to the local Christian ministers of all denominational stripes who’ve been doing their best to live out the words and mission of Jesus for decades (Don’t Understand the Sean Feucht Controversy? Stop Talking & Listen.)”
Situations like the one I describe, in which cries for justice are ignored and the plight of our neighbor is drowned out, bring to mind God’s rebuke to the people of Israel through the prophet Amos (chapter 5):
“23Take away from Me the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24But let justice roll on like a river,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
If we are honest, we will acknowledge that Christian history is full of examples where actions carried out under the banner of our religion has brought harm. And yet, as Jennings writes, “There is within Christianity a breathtakingly powerful way to imagine and enact the social, to imagine and enact connection and belonging (The Christian Imagination).”
How we conceptualize the “not yet,” of the Kingdom of Heaven, will inevitably shape how we live out the “already.” In his October 2011 lecture, Imagining the Kingdom, N.T. Wright says, “The assumption today that ‘the kingdom of God’ denotes another realm altogether, for instance that of the ‘heaven’ to which God’s people might hope to go after their death, was not on the first-century agenda. When Jesus spoke about God’s kingdom, and taught his followers to pray that it would arrive ‘on earth as in heaven’, he was right in the middle of first-century Jewish theocratic aspirations.”
“Salvation, then, is not ‘going to heaven’ but ‘being raised to life in God’s new heaven and new earth.’ But as soon as we put it like this we realize that the New Testament is full of hints, indications, and downright assertions that this salvation isn’t just something we have to wait for in the long-distant future. We can enjoy it here and now (always partially, of course, since we all still have to die), genuinely anticipating in the present what is to come in the future. ‘We were saved,’ says Paul in Romans 8:24, ‘in hope.’ (Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church).
The yeast of the Kingdom is at work, often where we lack the imagination to recognize it. Its appearance might disappoint the “theocratic aspirations” we are accustomed to imagining, replete with extra-Biblical images of the Eschaton that may have shaped our thinking. Like yeast, the Kingdom of Heaven is alive, and we are to seek it, especially in places where, without a Kingdom imagination, Jesus himself would not be recognized.