Playing the Game of Thrones
With an eye on the proper throne
I launch this post into a world that is numb with death and war. The murder of nineteen children and two teachers in a Texas elementary school particularly has left many asking, “What’s wrong with the world?” It’s a proper question.
But we pastors need to be asking a different question. The ugliness around us should cause us to ask, “What’s wrong with the church?” I like to think that the church could be a place of renewal for the whole world, but not if we’re unwilling to face that question. And if the murder of children does not force us to do so, I don’t know what will.
It’s hard not to notice that the highest incidence of gun violence in the developed world happens in the nation that is the most overtly Christian. That it would be safer to live in a country where the Christian church is less visible and less influential is a damning indictment of the Christianity we have normalized. The followers of the one who offered himself to his opponents as a lamb to slaughter often seem more comfortable with the sword.
The Mission was a beautiful 1986 movie concerning the establishment and then devastation of an 18th Century Jesuit mission in the high jungles of South America. When European political decisions place the mission’s native population under armed attack, the mission’s two priests struggle over how best to lead their flock. One, Father Mendoza, arms congregants and leads them in a fiery last stand. The other, Father Gabriel, takes up a crucifix and opposes the invasion with a prayerful procession. In choosing to lead his congregation in prayer rather than to meet violence with violence, Father Gabriel may or may not have chosen well. But the fact that such a response as his is so totally alien to the American church is a point worthy of consideration.
We tend to face challenges with power. If challenged with words we look for stronger words. If the challenge is political we build voting blocs. If the challenge threatens our way of life, we buy guns. We have adopted Cersei Lannister’s bargain, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” We are committed to winning.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s historical assessment of the American evangelical church reveals a disturbing devotion to power and aggressive masculinity.That Jesus once counseled his followers, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” is not even on the radar for many. Half of American evangelicals don’t even believe that Jesus ever said such a thing.
When Jesus’s disciples were refused lodging in a Samaritan village, they acted very much like modern Christians claiming their rights. “Lord,” they said, “do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” That Jesus rebukes them for such a response is something we need to take to heart.
My concern is that we have inadequately considered the heart and teaching of Jesus, in this and other matters, because we have mistakingly placed our hopes in the wrong kingdom.
We can be moved by tragedy to long nostalgically for an idealized past where things such as this would not happen. I understand such longing, but as followers of Jesus it’s a tragic mistake. Rather, we need to be moved by these things to fix our eyes on the kingdom that he modeled for us in his incarnation and for which we pray “your kingdom come.” As pastors, our calling is to lead our congregations to look to his kingdom and imagine what could be, not what might have been.
Ours is not a game of power. We play a different game serving a different throne. Our calling as pastors is to shape the culture of our churches in such a way that they look less American and more like the kingdom of which we are by Christ made citizens. That this is difficult, and looks impossible when our congregations are far more influenced by cable news and Instagram than by our preaching and presence is irrelevant to the call. We are inadequate for the task, and we will die before there is substantive change in the church, much less the broader culture. Perhaps in this life we impact only a few. That’s okay. We are committed to a long game.
I once drove through a slum built in a former South African township. In front of one hovel the residents had planted a flower that was blooming, a stark declaration that the surrounding ugliness was not going to stop their human impulse to bring beauty where they could.
If you and I spend our lives leading our flocks in the direction of a Christianity that is more reflective of the kingdom of which Jesus is king, then we will have died doing the one thing we’ve been called to do.
And if that is all we can do for nineteen children and two teachers whose loss we all grieve, it’s still a lot.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (United States: Liveright Publishing, 2021).