Kendrick Lamar on Bonhoeffer on “Struggle Music” and Solidarity

The Ancient of Days (William Blake)

I heard a sermon Sunday morning. It was magic. They usually aren’t, which is a shame. I’m a thorough-going baptist and we’re suckers for good preaching. Not folksy sermons pregnant with what sounds like conventional wisdom. We want that face-to-the-gravel prophetism. If you want to nourish a living room full of baptists you’d best be ready with a word from the Lord, built up brick-by-brick from the pages, and-we-do-mean-page(s), of the Spirit-breathed book we’ve inherited as the great-great grandchildren of Chrysostom and co., and you’d bloody well better preach it like the kingdom’s comin’ if it hasn’t already. And such was the sermon. It had been a while.

The subject was prayer. And music. And God. And suffering. And so forth. They’re not unconnected. They can’t be.

My pastor likes dust bowl ballads. And hip hop. Dust bowl ballads are struggle music. Hip hip is struggle music. Prayer is struggle music. But it’s different.

The word of the Lord, from Luke the historian. Chapter 16 of the Acts of the Apostles.

Paul and Silas heal a slave girl, as they do. She was possessed. Her demon was lucrative to the men who owned her, so our missionary friends wrecked the economic opportunities she created for her oppressors. They have them arrested on a dubious appeal to local customs, pulling at the heartstrings of the xenophobic magistrates and public. The Bible is relatable.

So they’re arrested. And imprisoned. They sing hymns to each other. And singing is like prayer. Deep calls out to Deep. Deep breaks the prison chains from the wrists and ankles of the missionaries and the jailer wakes to see the cells open. He’s ready to slay himself. Struggle music might slay the oppressor out of whose treachery it is born.

Paul and Silas catch him in time to stop him. He can’t believe they stayed. They tell him how he can be saved. He’s not uninterested. They baptize his whole family. He’s not ready to slay himself anymore. Struggle music might slay the oppressor or invite him to join the musician in enduring wrongs. When struggle music is prayer it’s always pastoral. It invites the oppressor to join the oppressed, and the Oppressed.

“Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” are struggle music because they have to be. It emanates from the dissonance between how things are and how they should be. We treasure the risen Christ in song and our minds have to wander somewhere south of heaven. Or we land ourselves somewhere south of safe and sound and our hearts have to treasure Christ because the Spirit in us treasures Christ like Christ treasures us and the struggle music we vomit forth preaches the gospel to people unencumbered by hope and homesick for something like heaven.

So Paul and Silas sang. And Silas sang the gospel to a Paul who probably didn’t feel it, and Paul sang the gospel to a Silas who probably barely felt it, and Silas sang the gospel to a prison full of people who probably didn’t know it, and the prison sang the gospel to a guard who couldn’t help but succumb to it. When prayer is struggle music it’s something more than struggle music.

We’re not real familiar with this, who are white and Christian in the post-Christian west. We’ve never felt the hot itch of fire at our feet while passers-by point and murmur about how fiery pits are where Jewish myths will land you, sat shackled in a dirty cell while sleeping guards dream about their families, or stared down lions in fanciful coliseums because we’re a national security threat. This is alien to us.

Of course there’s mental illness. And there’s music for it. And this is struggle music. And prayer is struggle music. There is a balm in Gilead for the woman who wakes up and wishes she hadn’t, who can’t find her bearings, who has no home among the land of the living. Some of us are foreigners on planet earth. We’d rather leave, really. But there’s no exit, save for death. Struggle music beats its chest and weeps itself worn, defiantly, to testify that struggle is better than death. It doesn’t feel true. But the Spirit in us believes it, and we’ll come around eventually.

Not all struggle music is prayer, but all prayer is struggle music if it’s prayer, thanks-giving included. This is important. We are the privileged, by virtue of living in a land where safety and subsistence abound. If we’re Caucasian, even more so. If we’re male, we’re practically impenetrable. The task of the average American preacher is that of proclaiming another kingdom to this kingdom’s privileged, which is a hard sell. There’s not much struggle to speak of in the Suburban, predominately-white churches that make up the largest part of our religious landscape. So what’s struggle music to us?

For one, an equalizing force. And I do mean force. Politics aside, the gospel demands solidarity with the victims of any ordering of society, even when its victims are not part of the believing community. That’s paraphrasing Bonhoeffer, from a speech that most of his audience walked out of. It was psalmic prayer, brought forth of desperation in somebody’s upper-room that wrought the strange communitarianism we see within the earliest Christian communities. (Acts 2, for reference.) I’m no Statist. Taxation is theft, and all that. But one of the non-negotiables of prayerful struggle music is that it beckons the privileged faithful to sacrifice their capital at the altar of solidarity. There’s nothing sacred about poverty itself. But we’re the workmanship of God, created afresh in Christ Jesus, and the voluntary redistribution of wealth is an avenue for worship that we don’t get to opt out of.

The extent to which the secular state should by taxation provide a safety net for those below the poverty line is up for debate, and it’s a debate I’ve joined on other forums. What isn’t up for debate is that Jesus, by a strange sort or intra-communal taxation, so to speak, provides for the destitute both in and outside of the believing community. He can do that. As previously mentioned, it’s voluntary. Ananias and Saphira weren’t struck dead for skipping the tithe. But it’s non-negotiable. The rich young ruler was excluded from Jesus’s entourage because he wouldn’t be convinced to sell his belongings to pool the capital for the poor to whom they ministered. It would be a good time to bring up Jesus’s prayer life.

It’s also a humanizing force. And I do mean force. There is a balm in Gilead for the man whose home has been devoured by debt and taxes. Out of a job, he can’t afford Christmas presents for his wife and too many kids. Or rent for January. And he’ll sing There Is A Balm In Gilead on Sunday morning – (Saturday if he’s an Adventist) – and know that everything is gonna some kind of okay, the details of which are yet to be seen. As he’s thinking on these things, it’ll occur to him that he was comforted by a “negro spiritual” that was eventually incorporated into the life of the whole church, at least in the States. And he’ll consider, perhaps sustainedly for the first time, the anxieties that gave birth to it. Of course there’s a balm in Gilead, he whispers. Why’d they need a song about it?

And his mind will wander to the high school English class where he read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or The Souls of Black Folk. He remembers how struck he was, or wasn’t, by the harrowing experience of the black man, sojourning in strange country like Israelites awaiting Exodus. And wherever he lands, he won’t give quite so much credence to the quieting rhetoric of those who would silence the complaints of the black community against what appears to be an inequality in the justice system. America’s no promised land. No yet. And he’ll know that, now, because prayerful struggle music is a cattle-call for the privileged to take up a cross of solidarity. It rehumanizes the other.

Like all struggle music, it gives us ears to hear what isn’t obvious. Namely, that we’re contributors to a system that offends God because it oppresses people who bear his image. Kendrick Lamar isn’t holy scripture, but there are echoes of Moses in Alright. Same with Regina Spektor in Your Honor, and echoes of Paul in Ode to Divorce. Genesis 3:16 says that man’s a curse to womankind in his natural state. In case I forget, Regina’s around to remind me. Numbers 12:1 says that racism permeates the very best of us, including authority figures. In case I forget, Kendrick will remind me.

Alright is the first half of a gospel proclamation, if I understand it correctly. Describing a racially charged confrontation with a police officer, Kendrick whispers:

I remembered you was conflicted
Misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power full of resentment

The officer abuses his power. No surprise there if you read the morning newspaper. He probably isn’t racist in any way that would register. But the uptick of tension as he approaches this unarmed black man is consequential. Our prejudices build their homes just beneath our consciousness, and their roots entangle everything. The officer misuses his influence, validated in doing so by the pre-conscious biases he brings to the confrontation. He’s the villain here, despite the badge. But it would be simplistic to stop there.

Kendrick won’t let us otherize police officers who use excessive force on suspects of color. Mainstream media lacks the attention span to give sustained focus to the personhood of either the victims or perpetrators of racially charged police violence, and so our dominating narratives are less than one-dimensional. Kendrick wants us to know that sometimes he did the same. Even as a victim of systemic racism he’s always within hailing distance of being the oppressor, given the right circumstances.

This is struggle music that invites the privileged to see themselves in the officer. Racism indwells everyone. We’re certainly not better than Aaron and Miriam from Numbers 12. But beneath it is the drive to dominate. Hearkening back to Genesis 3:16, the text says “Your desire will be for your husband, but he will dominate you.” That’s a brief encapsulation of the origins of patriarchalism, so to speak, but if the following chapters are taken into account, man and womankind are bent toward dominating the other wherever possible, in whatever form. One of those forms is racism, whether personal or systemic.

But, again, Kendrick draws attention to his own participation in the system that offends God. By his own admission, he is a Christian, so this song is low-hanging fruit, but the point stands. He testifies to the culpability of all of humanity, victim and victimizer alike, for the culture we create together. Everyone’s a predator in Kendrick’s vision, and John Calvin’s. Some predators live and die as victims.

And, to bring it back round to Bonhoeffer, the gospel demands solidarity with the victims of any ordering of society. Even if they’re predators, because they all are, like we are. Struggle music, prayerful or not, reminds us of this. It reminds us of the cosmological significance of systemic injustice. It reminds the privileged of the man who has to wonder whether the officer pulling him over will treat him fairly. And the woman who has to police her wardrobe, drinking habits, etc. for fear of becoming rape culture’s next casualty. And the Native American being heckled by the National Guard for protesting a pipeline being built through a Native graveyard. And the Middle Eastern family whose lives have been turned upside down because their governments were toppled by the imperialist West. It reminds us that the cross was demanded by the state of things. Systemic injustice isn’t the progressive stand in for aloof Evangelical doctrines of sin and so forth. They’re coterminous realities, often overlapping, reinforcing one another.

These are the sort of things that drive the pious and impious to prayer. Because struggle music is usually prayer. And it drives them both to action, carried on regardless of the jeers of the cynic, in the hope, childlike, you might say, that God will fight with them.


The Reality of Refugee Resettlement


Church volunteers and local refugee non-profits come together once a month to provide free produce to recently arrived refugees living in Fort Worth.

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well.

– “Home” by Warsan Shire

I have to remind myself that they just don’t know.

When people ask if there are communities in the city that abide by sharia law, when they ask how much of their taxes are going towards giving refugees free stuff, or when they shout that we don’t know who we’re letting into the country – “We’re just an open door to extremists!” – I have to remind myself that they just don’t know.

They talk of extremists crossing borders and I look around, wondering where they are. Last year, eighty-five thousand refugees were resettled in the United States and not one attack occurred. In fact, three million refugees have been resettled in the United States since 1980, and not one terrorist attack has been perpetrated by a refugee. They say we don’t vet refugees, and I try and figure out why it took my coworker six years to get a visa into the country. They say that refugees don’t pay taxes and I am confused why the resettlement agency I work for refers clients to workshops on filing taxes every year. They say that refugees are draining welfare programs, but I see almost all of our clients working within three months of arriving in the country.

I have to remind myself that they have not seen the faces of a Congolese family stepping off a plane after days of travel, leaving so much behind – only a pillowcase of belongings on hand – and yet feeling safe for the first time in years. They have not been hugged by a Syrian woman, letting go of her one suitcase and the hand of her child, fresh off the plane and not knowing what difficulties continue to lie ahead, saying thank you. They have not heard the stories of Sudanese families waiting fifteen years in a refugee camp without access to education or employment, or of children lost to bombs or drowning. They have not met Iraqi women who lost fathers, husbands, and brothers because they refused to fight on behalf of extremism. They have not met the Somali women, pregnant or with only half of their children, alone in this new place because their husbands and their other children are still in a refugee camp. They have not seen the Syrian father limping from a permanent disability because he shielded his youngest daughter from a bomb that was dropped on their home.

If you have felt doubt about the legitimacy of the refugee resettlement process, I want to reassure you. I want to let you know that I think it’s not fair that you have not been told how the system works, that you have not had leaders able to step-up and reassure you because it is easier to scare you.

So what I’d like to do is lay out the process for you. It will get a bit in-the-weeds, but if you have come this far then I think you are willing to go the distance. Situations can vary depending on the region that a person has fled from and fled to, but the security screenings done by the United States do not vary. Due to the thoroughness of the process, families can be split – if a woman has a child three years into the screening process, her child will not be included on her case unless she is willing to start the process all over again – and Iraqis who served the US Army have been killed while waiting to be approved.

This is not a vetting process based on compassion. It is a strict, slow, and detailed process. The smallest change to a refugee’s story or family information is cause for a re-do of security steps already taken. The smallest doubt will disqualify you.

When a person flees their country (because of violence or threat of violence) into another country, they seek out the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or a nearby embassy to apply for refugee status. They have to prove to the UNHCR that they are a refugee as defined by international law. This involves interviews that will require detailing their experience and reasons for fleeing, which can mean a reliving of trauma. They have to prove that they have experienced violence or were threatened while waiting on background checks to be run by agencies within the United Nations. Typically, in the meantime, the prospective refugee will remain in a camp where they are dependent upon donated food and makeshift shelters.

There are 65 million people that have been displaced by violence and out of that, 21 million are registered as refugees.

If given refugee status, the UNHCR will determine if the case is eligible for resettlement in another country or for integration into the client’s country of asylum (this is the country the refugee fled to). The UNHCR would then refer that person to another government agency depending on what country the United Nations decides to send the refugee to. This is an important thing to note. People believe that refugees are flocking to the United States with extremists hiding among them. This is simply not true. When a refugee applies for resettlement they do not get to request the country. They must go wherever the UN decides to send them, and since only 0.5% of refugees are approved for resettlement, you are MUCH more likely to be left in a camp than given a chance at resettlement.

The eligibility for resettlement in the United States prioritizes women, children, and families. They also allow for refugees with disabilities or severe (but non-contagious) health issues to be referred to the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Victims of anti-LGBTQ violence or human trafficking are also prioritized.

However, if you are lucky enough to be considered for resettlement you must begin a whole new process of security checks. For the United States, the State Department – via the Bureau of Populations, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) – and the Department of Homeland Security oversee this process. They run background checks through databases of at least five different United States security agencies, including fingerprint-based databases. Interviewers are trained for five weeks on the questions to ask and “red flags” to look for based on what region they are conducting interviews in. If an interviewer will be working with Syrian clients, they go through additional training. If there is ever ANY level of doubt about a person, they are simply denied the visa. If approved after the interviewing and security clearances, the refugee will undergo a health screening. The typical timeline for all of this vetting is about a 18-24 month process, on average. I know of many people who waited much longer.

If a refugee has won this lottery chance to be resettled – as one of the 0.5% – they (and receiving non-profits in the United States) are alerted to their resettlement about two weeks before departure. In that period of time, they go through a brief English class and Cultural Orientation and are placed on a plane – usually for the first time – and are told someone will be at the airport to greet them.

In the United States, there are nine national resettlement non-profits that meet on a weekly basis to decide which approved refugees to accept and where to send them. Last year, during the 2016 fiscal year, the United States resettled almost 85,000 refugees of the 21 million registered around the world. They came primarily from Burma/Myanmar, Bhutan, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria. Refugees come from many other places as well, but the larger numbers tend to be from these countries.

Upon arrival, refugees are given a caseworker for their first four to six months to assist with integration. They are placed in English classes, given a small amount of cash assistance for the first four to six months, and are given support to find employment. They are restarting their lives completely. Once employed, they will start paying back the cost of their flights to the United States that were given to them on a loan. Then after a year they will apply for residency and receive their green card. After five years, they are eligible for citizenship.

So, what does that mean with the potential executive order that is apparently in the works? As of my writing this, a draft of the order has been released. The main points are: freeze resettlement for 120 days while they determine the strength of vetting and make adjustments, reject applicants from Muslim majority countries (Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Syria, and Sudan), add an additional interview session that is focused on refugees’ ideologies in order to pick out and resettle Christians, set the ceiling at 50,000 refugees for the fiscal year of 2017, and refuse visas to Syrians indefinitely.

For many years the United States has been the leader in resettlement, accepting the most refugee cases. With this cut and these restrictions we will no longer be the country to look to as an example. Other countries will, and have already, rise above and exceed us in humanitarian response.

With the freeze, that means any refugees who were accepted for resettlement in the coming months will obviously be delayed, but could also be sent back to the UNHCR to restart the process. Families who have been waiting years for approval may have been told last week that they would be going to America at the beginning of February, but now must be approached and told that they will no longer be going and may need to start over with the UNHCR again – a process that likely already took them three to seven years to get through.

I won’t tell you how to feel about this. I imagine at times my personal emotions and personal policy leanings flared up, but I ultimately wanted to equip you with the reality of this work and the effects that the rumored executive order could have. People displaced by violence are such a vulnerable community and it’s wrong for us to step back in fear. Where is your backbone, America?

Perfect love casts out fear. Perfect love doesn’t settle for easy answers, it pursues justice no matter how messy or scary it may be. Perfect love is not satisfied with shallow policies – it does the hard work. It goes uncelebrated and often appears as foolishness to the world. It is not impressed by passionate political speeches founded on lies and generalities. It looks closer and acts on wisdom. It looks at the reality and fights, even though the powerful voices continue to push back. We must be careful that we don’t hold our hands too tightly around our concern for security, when we do so without looking close at what we fear. You are not keeping out the extremists or the oppressors. You are keeping out the people who are running away from the extremists and oppressors. You are taking away what little hope there is for people whose lives have been destroyed before their very eyes because you have not dared to look at the destruction or the complexity of darkness in this world. This is not an issue of political leanings. It’s not even an issue of being compassionate. This is an issue of millions of people who are being victimized, neglected, and exploited on all sides, and simply because of where they were born while our country shies away from looking closely at what it fears, refusing to do the hard work of listening, understanding, and responding wisely. Be courageous. Do not be deceived.

So now I will challenge you.

I will challenge you, if you live in a city of resettlement, to assist with an airport pick-up of a newly arriving family. When the children, perhaps from Central Africa, Southeast Asia, or the Middle East, approach you wide-eyed and confused and their parents shake your hands and kiss your cheeks vigorously while saying “thank you” – or perhaps they’ll just sleepily follow you to your car, clearly exhausted – tell me that we’re wrong to allow refugees a second chance at a normal, safe life. When you watch the children cling to and cry over a teddy bear you have given them as a welcome gift, tell me how your tax money is wasted. When a father arrives, falling to his knees and singing with joy because after four years of separation he is finally able to be with his wife and child – a child that was born in the United States while he had been left in an African refugee camp – tell me that our vetting isn’t strong enough.

Because now you know.

Countering America’s Complacent Apocalyptism, or Resurrection People in an Ecclesiastes World

John of Patmos watches the descent of New Jerusalem from God in a 14th century tapestry. Image taken by Gribeco.

“He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief. And he went about among the villages teaching.” (Mark 6:1-6)

After running the Palestine circuit performing healing and other miracles, Jesus and His disciples stop in His hometown of Nazareth to do ministry there.

And He gets the door slammed in His face. The people with whom He grew up working alongside and attending the synagogue have no ears to hear His teaching. These people are His family, and in a surprising turn of events, they’re the people with whom His teaching is the least welcome.

One unfortunate feature of American Christianity is that the vague notion of Jesus has become so familiar to us that the substance of what He taught and modeled for us in the Gospels has become dangerously easy to ignore and subtly reject. Churches can become the hometown in which the teachings of Jesus are not welcome. But why?

It could be that the average North American church does not believe in the future. They pray, sing, and lamely preach religious niceties with minimal conviction. For all of the hours they put in, there is beneath it all little hope that it’s  heading anywhere. There’s something in the Christo-American consciousness that tacitly joins the secular culture at large in sluggish disbelief in the reality of a hopeful future. For a variety of reasons, something in us knows the world is ending.

So at our best we carry on in the work of ministry without any real, motivating hope that our work matters. All is vanity. There is no hope. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. The end is near.

It’s a deadening hopelessness that accounts for much of the lethargy that has restrained the American Church and kept it at bay in the face of growing darkness. So we don’t believe in the future. We see ourselves exclusively as exiles. We celebrate that “this world is not my home,” or, on the other hand, resign ourselves to trudge along with the current of  what we could call our culture’s complacent apocalyptism. We detach from emotional involvement regarding the consequences of our political goings-on. Like the world from whom we obtusely pride ourselves in separating, we choose leaders who promise to represent our interests over against those of the ever-threatening other.

We abandon the clear call to counter-cultural holiness as a consequence of the gospel, because from the vantage point of complacent apocalyptism the transforming initiatives given by Jesus in the sermon on the mount are unrealistic at best. We slide into sinful patterns of behavior because they come naturally to us and in the absence of a future to hope in, opting into the counterintuitive lifestyle of hopeful self-denial is simply not a live option. “Don’t you know the world is ending?” One might say, “You might as well get your rocks off.”

Except that nobody would ever say these things. This complacency about the future is tacit, not explicit. Our contemporary detached apocalyptists can still be ambitious. They may still climb the corporate ladder or become president or start a non-profit or drop a bomb on Hiroshima. They may talk a big game about delayed gratification and hard work and old fashioned values because in the absence of hope for the future they’ve at least constructed a hopeful narrative about the past.

The good ol’ days. The golden age. The best generation. The Christian nation. The Garden of Eden. America is built on “Fall” narratives.  There were days when all was well and the world wasn’t ending.

Interestingly enough, the biblical worldview, which sees the entropy of the universe as a product of a primordial Fall, leaves absolutely no room for these small-scale, decentralized Fall narratives we construct. There’s no space for Fall narratives about America (or Europe, or Rome) because Total Depravity has always worked itself out through systems, and we’ve always been a prime example of it.

America was never great, so we’ve got no reference point to get back to. The golden generation still consisted of emotionally bankrupt sinners, mired in debauchery. The Christian Nation was plenty pagan. The good ol’ days were good for a nauseatingly small portion of the populace. Our decentralized Fall narratives don’t work.

And they can’t. Because the point of the doctrine of the Fall is not that all was once as it should be but now we’ve gone and lost it. The point is that the good ol’ days are ahead of us, not behind us. It’s not a coincidence that our book, which opens in a garden, concludes in a metropolis. In the book of Revelation, John writes:

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son … And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed … And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Rev. 21:5-27)

There’s no return to Eden in sight. It’s quite the opposite. John envisions an in-breaking of God’s reality to ours. Rather than obliterating everything that was and taking us someplace far away where nothing was ever wrong, He overlays the sin-spoilt streets of Rome with silver and gold and seas of crystal so forth and makes our little world into His big world, to borrow a phrase from Walter Brueggemann. So history is heading somewhere.

We are not free floating into undetermined waters. The voluminous streams of history will converge one day in a hopeful future that cannot be overthrown. The future is both determined and not. So when the kingdom comes in its fullness, it is a “new Jerusalem” made of redeemed people – those whose whole selves, their interests included, have been redeemed and brought back into relationship with God. The artist will likely remain an artist, and the engineer an engineer. Very possibly, the kingdom is a canvas painted on by the contributions of all of its citizens. A kingdom without definite form, open always to improvement and culture shift because its culture is enriched by the creativity of its inhabitants, through whom the creativity of God is fully expressed, the sovereignty of God fully extended, and the character of God fully embodied. A bringing together of all that can be and could be within the covenant community of God. That the Kingdom is coming is unshakable, but it’s substance is the product of our creative collaboration with the God who brought us into covenant with Himself. The Kingdom is what God wills it and we make it.

Nowhere is the Biblical hope some sort of ethereal bliss in a disembodied heavenly realm. Our hope is not in escaping this world and spending eternity in “a better place,” but in God’s act of reconciling this world to Himself, that Heaven and earth might be forever brought together in a marriage of sorts, and that God and His people would dwell together in a kingdom that will not end. It is a kingdom of rest for everybody involved. Those who are tired find their rest here. Those who are bruised and beaten up by the machinery of this world are invited to come and be nursed to health. Some theologians of old imagined it as a place where everyone might find their perfect happiness. They’re probably right. In the fullness of the Kingdom also lives the fullness of Joy.

It is not merely that we won’t need our pets or our loved ones to be happy, but that we will be joined together with the Source of Joy and happiness. We will dwell forever in the substance that cast their shadow. Whatever community we had in this life finds its completion in the fullness of God’s presence and kingdom. Far from abandoning the things that bring us pleasure and enjoyment today, I imagine that in the fullness of the Kingdom we will also find the fullness of fun.

It’s also a place of real freedom. We are a disfigured humanity, and there’s no rescue to be found within ourselves. The world is cruel because we are, oppressive because we are, broken because we are. We’re the villains of this story. But in Christ, God has made good on His promise to rescue us from our own disfiguration, and the disfiguration of the world we created in our image. For the person rescued by Christ, the whole of their experience in this life is restorative; no trial is punishment, no suffering is retributive. Every experience in the life of the Christian is designed to grow them in godliness. Jesus is creating for Himself a people that reflect His own compassion. One day the whole world’ll look like love.

Which brings me back round to complacent apocalyptism. If the golden years are ahead of us rather than behind us, I have good cause not to give up working toward them. We don’t build the kingdom, but we live on its terms together, surrounded by people who are homesick for it. We’re resurrection people in an Ecclesiastes world. But it doesn’t come naturally.

Few motivators are more powerful than the desire to do nothing. For all of my talk about pursuing justice for oppressed people, I am fundamentally inclined toward complacency. I reach the height of my creativity when I am manufacturing reasons to mind my own business and allow great social ills to persist that I have the power to positively affect. The truth is that I don’t have to buy coffee beans picked by children who were kidnapped and forced into slave labor when there are a multitude of products to choose from and I have access to resources that help identify which companies have been busted for unethical overseas labor practices.

I don’t have to be content as a bystander while politicians determine the fate of families who come to America illegally to create a better life for their families in the absence of a naturalization process that is both timely and affordable because as a voter I can gather sizable groups of like-minded voters and demand that my representatives make immigration reform a priority. But actually doing any of these things requires me to betray my chief motivator: complacency. Bringing about any change in the structure of things presses against the currents of human depravity. But God.

So like scripture is the eyes through which we read the past ans present, it’s also the tool by which the risen Jesus turns us into the hands by which He writes the future. We’re placed here as the chief means by which He brings about the reconciling of all things in Himself, because in first century Palestine, a Roman soldier could force a Jewish peasant to carry his heavy pack for up to one mile simply because he was Jewish. So there’s a new Jerusalem coming. Because In North Korea, millions are systemically abused and oppressed by a power hungry government whose cruelty seems to know few bounds. So there’s a new Jerusalem coming. Because in various parts of Africa, rebel group raid villages and kidnap the children to make them into bloodthirsty soldiers or exhausted sex slaves. So there’s a new Jerusalem coming. Because in modern day America, minority men and women have to go about their day to day lives in the knowledge that in every convenience store they walk into, a racially charged confrontation may await, and the justice system may not treat them fairly. So there’s a new Jerusalem coming. Because there is a deeply rooted brokenness in the world that needs not to be transcended but confronted, which we need not to be released from but rather to overcome and to chase into oblivion. So there’s a new Jerusalem coming, specifically, through the work of Jesus, as he ministers to the world through the resurrection people whom his Father called forth from our Ecclesiastes world. There’s a new Jerusalem coming so, by the Spirit, we swing against the grain of our culture’s complacent apocalyptism.