A different kind of kingdom

The kingdom Jesus was proclaiming would be based on compassion and justice for all, especially the poor.

Jan 20, 2023

By Anil Netto 
With a new government in power in Malaysia, expectations are high that real change is possible this time.

However, we should temper our expectations, given the realities on the ground. It will take some time to change the divisiveness, the unequal wealth distribution and the neglect of marginalised groups.

My thoughts wander back to the 1995 general election, when the ruling parties under Dr Mahathir Mohamad swept to a landslide victory. The major opposition parties were almost wiped out.

I buried my face in my pillow as I lay in bed. Would we ever see change and reforms in Malaysia?

But then a friend asked me a searching question: “Even if the opposition parties had done well, would there really have been deep, long-lasting change in the country?”

That set me thinking. If society’s value system does not change, any change brought about by a switching of the political parties in power is likely to be limited.

Back in his time on earth, Jesus faced a dilemma.

He had proclaimed the kingdom of God and the people wanted to crown Him Messiah.

But Jesus did not want to be known as a messiah — at least not the kind of messiah the people had in mind.

Back in those days, messiahs were almost a dime a dozen, as many yearned for liberation for Israel from Roman military occupation.

Many ordinary people did not even understand the nature of the kingdom Jesus was proclaiming. Some of His own followers thought He would lead them to victory over their Roman overlords and then be crowned king. This was one of the temptations that even Jesus faced.

But the kingdom Jesus was proclaiming would be based on compassion and justice for all, especially the poor. He could see that the problem was larger than the Roman military occupation.

Genuine change had to come from the bottom up for it to be lasting and meaningful. It had to be rooted in compassion for the marginalised and the oppressed which would then give real impetus to the quest for justice.

Otherwise, it would be difficult to dismantle an oppressive, exploitative system. Jesus could see that the local religious elite were manipulating religion for their own gain, making life miserable for the ordinary people. The Law, instead of upholding mercy and justice, was being exploited to enrich the elite and burden the peasants.

If the Jews succeeded in forcibly ousting the Roman occupiers from Israel/Palestine in battle — as the zealots hoped to do — would the new local rulers restore justice and lift the oppression of the long-suffering ordinary people?

Most likely, the end of Roman occupation would have resulted in neo-colonisation, this time by the local political and religious elite, still exploiting religion to the maximum, to secure even more profits, wealth and power.

So, a sense of urgency, of foreboding and doom, hung over the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus. They probably could sense that the seething resentment and bitterness beneath the surface towards Roman occupation would lead to a collision course between the little nation and the mighty Roman Empire — a catastrophe in the making.

That may explain why, as a matter of strategy, Jesus initially decided to urgently target His ministry at reforming the House of Israel, even though His kingdom project was relevant for all ages and places. He wanted to establish a new type of kingdom that involved people loving their enemies, reaching out to those in need, and doing good to those who harmed them.

So, it was both a sense of impending catastrophe and the heralding of a radical new order that characterised Jesus’ ministry.

But John and Jesus’ brief ministries until around AD 30 could not stop the Jewish-Roman wars — large-scale revolts against Roman rule — from breaking out between AD 66 and 135, with horrendous casualties and devastation.

The First Jewish-Roman War (AD 66-73) resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the fall of Galilee. Up to 1.4 million civilians and military personnel were killed.

In the Bar Kokhba Revolt in AD 132-136, the Romans devastated Judea’s countryside and ejected the people to suppress the revolt. The people, including many Christians, were scattered around the Middle East, and some even suffered persecution as minorities. “Fifty of their most important outposts and 985 of their most famous villages were razed to the ground. Some 580,000 men were slain in the various raids and battles, and the number of those that perished by famine, disease, and fire was past finding out. [...] nearly the whole of Judea was made desolate.” (Cassius Dio, 69:14.1-2)

Even though the catastrophes in Judea and Galilee could not be averted, the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed lived on in the minds of the exiled followers of Jesus and would be relevant for other times and ages.

This kingdom involved radical change, an inversion of the old order. Those who were excluded and marginalised would find their way in, even ‘force’ their way in.

In contrast, those who put their faith in earthly power and wealth would find themselves excluded. Perhaps that is inaccurate: they would not find themselves excluded; rather, they would exclude themselves from this ‘alien’ kingdom of compassion and justice — just like the young man of great wealth who walked away sadly when Jesus told him to give up his wealth (which was perhaps accumulated from the suffering and exploitation of others).

May we continue to work for the kingdom of justice and compassion and inclusion, if we want to see long-lasting, genuine, change in the world. Footnote: With thanks to the late Fr Albert Nolan, OP, a South African Dominican priest, theologian and writer, whose book “Jesus Before Christianity” inspired this article. Fr Nolan passed away on October 17, 2022.

(Anil Netto is a freelance writer and activist based in Penang. He believes we are all called to build the kingdom of God in this world)

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