Thursday, January 26, 2012
Kingdom? What kingdom?
The verses I was asked to read are from Luke 17:20-21:
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The Kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the Kingdom of God is among you.’
There are lots of translational eccentricities with this text-segment. For instance, we have all heard it translated as "The Kingdom of God is among you," as well as the way in which it is picked up in Tolstoy's Christian anarchist manifesto, The Kingdom of God is Within You. Since I was going to be reading this out loud to a large gathering of people, I felt it was important to get this right. I quickly shot a question back to the seminary: Should I say that the Kingdom of God is among you, or the Kingdom of God is within you? That one word makes all the difference: among implies that the Kingdom is physically present within the crowd (perhaps in the person of Jesus of Nazareth?), while within suggests that the Kingdom lives within the hearts and minds of those gathered.
Came the reply from the seminary: "You should use "The Reign of God is among you."
This brings up a completely different translational issue: what do we do about the word "Kingdom"?
The Greek word is βασιλεια (basileia), literally, "kingdom." But there are problems with translating this word literally—I'll get to that in a minute. Yesterday, while discussing this issue over coffee with friends, I began to develop a few possible answers (or, at least, conversational perspectives):
1. We should translate βασιλεια as "Kingdom." Two of my friends said that it's a good thing to leave well enough alone—the word kingdom is a good, accurate translation.
2. We should translate it as "Reign." This is understandable. The word kingdom has obvious bias based in a patriarchal society. Why not "Queendom of God"?
3. My friend Mark says that words like kingdom can have negative connotations within oppressed cultures, and suggests that "Dream of God" might be a better way to communicate the idea behind βασιλεια. This holds special meaning among societies who have gone through such economic and social hardship that they have let go of dreaming of future possibilities.
4. Still others say that we should leave the word in its Greek form. If we don't have an adequate translation, we should let the word speak for itself.
These are all good answers. The difficulty is that words like kingdom and reign have lost their meaning in the global culture of the 21st century. You don't see too many true blue kingdoms in the world anymore, and the word reign doesn't mean much within a democratic context. And the word dream (while certainly beautiful) fails to communicate the deeply political dichotomy between the Basileia of God and the Empire of Caesar in first-century Judea. I also think that leaving the word as it stands in Greek is difficult, as well, as Basileia doesn't adequately convey the passage's spiritual context to the normal, everyday (non-Greek speaking) person in the church pew.
I don't have a solid answer as to how this verse should be translated. I just know that 1) it should be appropriately political, 2) it should be deeply spiritual, and 3) it must be approachable from the perspective of "the least of these."
I'm interested in what you think. You can post your opinions in the comments below.