We pray for God’s kingdom to come. Is “Kingdom” the right word? Certainly “Empire” is not: Jesus set His face against Empire in all that he did in his confrontations with authority. Let’s not forget that we mean here Roman authority. Jesus knew first hand, in ways we cannot, about Empire; He was executed at its hand. His people had spent centuries being taught by God that the Empires around them were not to be trusted. His opposition to Empire is based on what Empire stands for: domination, conquest, unfettered power, growth for its own sake.
Kingdom seems like a kindlier idea. We think of Kings as at the heart of their people, in contrast to distant Emperors. A King would suffer with his people, would lead from the front. These are rather romantic – almost Ruritanian or Narnian – ideas. We should remember that the Kings in the Old Testament ruled over less than what we would think of as a big town: King Herod had at most one million subjects: the leader of a County Council has far more responsibility! In fact the Bible records considerable unease about the idea of Kings: when the Israelites ask God for a king, God tells Samuel, “they have not rejected you, they have rejected me.” (I Samuel 8) Our modern experience of Kingship may be benign in Britain, but less so elsewhere: think of Persia under the Shahs.
Perhaps “Commonwealth” would be a better word? It means “the weal, or wellbeing, of everyone”. Again, experience of Commonwealth is mixed. The Commonwealth in England under Oliver and then Richard Cromwell was rejected roundly at the Restoration. But our twenty-first century Commonwealth seems a much gentler polity, of which I guess we are rather fond.
Setting this unresolved question on one side, we need to think about ourselves as citizens. Citizens have rights and responsibilities. They have a duty to play their part – to keep laws, pay taxes, serve on juries, vote in elections. They should be proud of their country.
In fact we have dual citizenship: of heaven and of the UK. We need to engage with both. “Seek the welfare of the city where you are,” God told the exiled Israelites through Jeremiah. It wasn’t a popular message then, and for different reasons perhaps not now either. It is not clear what the reasons are: is it that we feel our Christian input is rejected or suspected by others? or that we are too busy concentrating on growing Church? or too busy running Church? or that our core business is to save people? or that the problems our society faces are too many and too difficult – so that we cannot work out what to tackle or how to tackle it? or that we don’t feel confident that we could make a difference?
Researchers like Prof Robin Gill and Mgr John Devine have proved that as individuals, many Christians (and people of other faiths) carry a huge share of the burden of volunteering, which is the basic stuff of making society work. The value of this was estimated to be £95 million in the North West in 2005 – and the volunteer hours to be the equivalent of nearly 5,000 full time jobs! (To see the original research go to www.faithnorthwest.org.uk)
I wonder if what is lacking is some corporate, even coherent, Christian understanding of our role in society – in fact of commonwealth (or kingdom) and of citizenship? of the fact that social action and community engagement are not an add-on to mission, they are mission. People are not simply potential Christians. The world is God’s and justice, peace and care for creation are the work He has given us.