I saw this interview on Religion News Service with Scot McKnight, who argues that Christians talk a big game about this idea of “kingdom,” but don’t really understand what it means in the Bible or how it should play out in their everyday lives.
I admit, I was a little floored. Though I do agree with him entirely about the word “kingdom” being misunderstood (in that I certainly don’t know what he’s talking about; I deconverted before that became a trendy idea), I’d frankly disagree hugely with his assessment that it is the most misunderstood word in the Christian lexicon right now. That’d be the last word I’d ever have picked, speaking as someone who stands almost every day on the receiving end of a far greater misunderstanding.
I’d say that the most misunderstood word in the Bible today is “love.”
A year or so ago I talked about how Christians have been redefining the word ‘love’ for many years now.
I don’t see why “kingdom” matters if Christians can’t even figure out how to truly show love. Jesus didn’t tell his followers that “they will know you by how awesomely you live the KINGDOM,” but rather by how they love others.
A pity the most ardent, fervent followers of the Lord of Love haven’t got the faintest idea how to do that.
It is simply astonishing to me to witness just how many contortions Christians make in order to get out of doing exactly what their own Savior specifically and explicitly told them to do. When I run across Christians behaving hatefully, I helpfully mention to them that they are, and immediately get back reams of protests about how no no, they are totally being loving, and I’m just totally wrong–as if they’re the ones who get to define whether or not their deeds are loving rather than the recipient–or should I say “victim”–of their behavior.
Since writing that original post about how love gets redefined by so many Christians, I’ve come to understand that these same Christians tend to value intentions over reality. Just as feeling lust is exactly the same as committing adultery, just as wishing really hard for help to arrive at someone’s door is the same as actually doing something to help that person, wanting to behave lovingly is exactly the same as showing love toward others. Heck, it might even be superior.
And, too, if Christians reserve for themselves alone the self-serving right to be the sole arbiters of whether or not their behavior is loving, why then, that frees them of having to deal with the bloody inconvenience of being actually loving, or face any fallout from being called hateful instead. There’s a certain beauty in the logic here, and I’ll walk you through it:
1. A Christian is commanded by no less than Jesus Christ himself to be loving toward one’s neighbors.
2. Being loving is however very difficult for a variety of reasons.
3. Let’s just redefine what love means, so it now encompasses being very un-loving (controlling, bigoted, discriminatory), which will make it much easier to obey, since that’s how we wanted to behave in the first place;
4. We’ll need to totally ignore or shout down anybody who criticizes this new definition and deny to the very skies any denunciation or pushback of what we’re doing.
5. Hooray! We’re loving our neighbors! (And possibly being “persecuted” by people who don’t use our same definition of “love”–BONUS!)
6. Now we can celebrate being totally in the right because people are being critical of our behavior, which obviously they would never be otherwise. Obviously Jesus is totally happy with us now!
7. Who shall we “love” next?
See what I mean? They’ve removed every single mechanism for recognizing their wrongdoing and along with it every single means of correcting themselves. They’ve elevated this false definition to the status of an idol and worship at its stinking feet–because it lets them behave in shockingly controlling and nasty ways to people around them and, they think, get away with it. It really reminds me of people who can’t cook at all who use packaged turkey gravy mixes and are convinced these are as good as making a proper turkey gravy from scratch, and lick their lips and ask for more of it at Thanksgiving. And that’s okay, I ain’t going to judge busy people for doing what they think is best to do to get a big dinner on the table, and gravy does have a few tricks to making it, but barring the most disastrous kitchen misadventures a package mix for it not as good as the real thing is. Alas, by now a lot of people have never had from-scratch turkey gravy so they don’t even know what they’re comparing the mix to. In the same manner, a great many Christians don’t seem to have the faintest idea what love is, and I’ve got to wonder if the reason they’re acting this way is maybe because they’ve never really seen it themselves, so they don’t really know how to show or share it–so they think that their inferior substitute is just as good as the real thing.
Christians have built entire websites around trying to explain away and spin-doctor this glaring shortcoming in their people. One has the audacity to declare that “The non-believer cannot be excused from believing just because it is possible to point to those who simply pretend to be what they are not.” (Citation needed, because I certainly think that’s more than enough of a reason.) Another site goes the route of nit-picking what the term “hypocrite” actually means to excuse away this signal failure in Christian believers as a group, reiterating that just because the religion is filled with hypocrites, that’s no excuse; the author of the page throws in a No True Scotsman about his peers just for good measure. (Did he become psychic, one must wonder? Isn’t that against the rules?) I find this sort of distancing act to be laughable–considering these same Christians genuinely believe that their god makes Christians better or more moral people, except when he doesn’t or if the Christians in question are just pretending.
But they’re not really getting away with this redefinition any more than they’re getting away with being unloving.
The problem (for them) is, more and more non-Christians are aware of these mindgames, and more and more Christians themselves are waking up to the reality of what their religion is doing to people. One of this blog’s dearest friends is a now-ex-Christian who found, as this other religion blogger did, that when it comes to sheer hatefulness, spit-flecked spite, and roiling nastiness, nothing, nothing, NOTHING beats a Christian with a keyboard. Indeed, as FaithStreet’s author discovered, once he began a blog about religion that wasn’t toeing the party line of fake “love” he got deluged with the nastiest, foulest, most horrifying and shocking threats you can possibly imagine from “loving” Christians determined to terrorize him into compliance. But there were some unexpected (to him at least) observations to be made:
Interestingly, the only other people I have gotten hate mail from are atheists. Atheist hate mail is usually of a more intellectual persuasion, and they have never been violent, but they are extremely contemptuous, insulting, and condescending. I once wrote about a barrage of hate mail I got from atheists and received dozens of apologies from other atheists. I have never gotten any personal hate mail from a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a pagan, an agnostic, or a humanist.
He’s a little confused about why so many Christians feel the need to shriek violent threats and hate-filled rhetoric at anybody who dissents. But I’m not.
The type of Christians who behave hatefully are tribal Christians who are part of the religion because they think it gives them a leg up over other people. It’s part of their identity as a dominant class. When anybody tries to point out their flaws and mistakes, even if that person technically is part of the “tribe,” that person becomes a threat to their dominance. And threats to dominance must be negated and destroyed as quickly as possible.
So we see with Christians’ current big targets: women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. Standing on the correct side of these culture-war issues is now more important to most Christian groups than showing love to one’s neighbor, as Godless in Dixie has noted. Both of these issues, once they filter their way through the system, will have profound impacts on Christian dominance; to some extent they already are. So obviously the holders of dissenting opinions on these topics are threats and must be vanquished.
Jesus might be the most powerful being in the universe to his followers, but he’s obviously not strong enough to withstand the threat these two forces present to his church. His followers have to help him out. And they do, by doing their best to squash those threats for him. And they call their efforts “love” even though nobody outside the choirloft is fooled and even though their behavior is as unloving as anything could ever be, and think this is how they advance their god’s “kingdom,” which brings us back around to Scot McKnight.
The word “kingdom” is just the latest soapy goopy feel-good word Christians like to make up. It’s one of those words that doesn’t really mean or quantify anything but which gets invested with huge-but-metaphorical importance, and because of that it’s a very easy word to pick fights over. It gives Christian leaders something else to nitpick over how Christians are doing everything wrong today; it lets them speculate as well about the growing numbers of almost-entirely-uninvolved Christians drifting into “None” status, as Scot McKnight even says in his interview: he blames this supposed misunderstanding about the word “kingdom” for–and I kid you not here–lower rates of involvement with local churches. Back in my day the word that fulfilled those exact same functions was “discipleship,” if you’re wondering, coming in from the retiring heavyweight “submission”; the terminology might change over time although the usage really doesn’t.
But this word is not even going to ping anybody’s radar in a decade or two any more than the other ones did. Christians can concentrate on it or not or pick another one entirely, as they like, and their choice won’t impact their religion’s health a single bit in the long run. But you know what will? How well they love–truly love, not the shitty substitute they’ve created for themselves and think is just as good as the real thing. By concentrating on this other word and fighting and squabbling over what it means and how Christians should live it, they’re ignoring the real problem.
By concentrating on correcting people’s misuse of the word “kingdom,” Scot McKnight is missing the elephant in the room: the abusive redefinition of love that so many of his peers are operating under. That’s the error that will destroy the Christian church if not seen and corrected, not the one around “kingdom.” He’s certainly allowed to care about whatever he wants to care about, and certainly there is room in Christianity for lots of concerns (hell, there really should be a lot more than there are). But the article about him characterizes this word as the most misunderstood one in the Bible–and while Mr. McKnight is certainly entitled to his own opinion, it’s a bit startling that he’d pick this word as the one to launch an education campaign around. I’d figure that if Christians could figure out what love really is, then this “kingdom” kerfluffle would likely figure itself out, and by the same token if they can’t figure out what “love” even is, then certainly secondary concepts like “kingdom” will remain elusive. Part of me wonders if so few of them are tackling “love” because doing so would alienate their core fanbase of fanatics and zealots, much like how I think the Republican Party can’t afford to change course on its various awful platforms or risk losing the one bloc they actually know for sure they have at this point.
Alas, there’s not a lot of time left in which these folks can monkey around and tinker with things. Growing numbers of people already know or are learning that Christianity hasn’t got a monopoly on the showing of love, and as the religion gets more and more polarized around its pet mission-drifts, they’re going to lose more and more people who don’t want to be part of a movement like the one their leaders are building. Indeed, one Christian polling group found like six ways of wording this exact same problem when they looked at why hordes of young people are leaving their religion. Either Christians will figure out what they’re doing wrong and why it’s so disastrously impacting their religion, or they’ll drill down on hate-as-love train and ride it all the way to irrelevance, which is nowhere near as fun as Space Mountain.
I figure that either which way this thing goes, humanity wins.