Thursday, January 26, 2012

Kingdom? What kingdom?

Not long ago, I was asked to read a piece of scripture for my seminary's spring convocation service. At this service, my wife and the rest of the students in her MDiv cohort will be commissioned as they prepare to travel on a pilgrimage to Burma, where they will be spend some of their time visiting a Burmese refugee camp.

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.


  1. I love to see this poking around, kind of like an archailogical dig where pieces and objects are gathered together to try to make sense of how they were used and what they meant to the culture that used the. Terrifically interesting stuff! Good, solid answers are not always to be found. Was it this? Or was it that? This text is so rich in all the mystery of how to unpack it--especially to those who will be listening and hoping to learn, and a little different than congregations who sometimes think there is nothing new to learn! What an amazing task we "theologian-pastor-thinkers" have! But isn't it fun? And rich?

  2. I think Mark is selling me on the term "dream." And I think I understand that perhaps Jesus was purposely using empire language in order to subvert its oppressive meaning. However, perhaps we ought to cling to universal terms like "dream" in order to really convey how God is moving, working, and, yes, dreaming through us all.

  3. I personally would opt to keep the Greek term. It is better in my mind for people to realize they do not know what the passage is saying rather than reading kingdom and assume that they know what it means. Also, words like Christ and Messiah help to push people to explore Christianity more fully. It might be a great help to leave basileia as it is to prompt people to dig deeper to understand this important New Testament concept.

  4. Great post. I too struggle with the translation of this word. Each option seems to convey its own meaning ... which may or may not give recreate the imagine that was originally painted by Christ's words.

    What if we tried, at least for an American (or Western) audience to use a modern political term such as "nation" or "country"? While not perfect, these terms seem to parallel the first-century contrast with the empire.

    Maybe these terms would cause the modern reader to question what it means to be a citizen of both our physical nation and this new nation being ushered in my Jesus?

    Just my two cents. (And in this economy, their not worth much.)

  5. I too like "Dream of God". Interesting discussion my friend.

  6. I guess one of the many reasons I don't like the "Dream of God" is that it sounds too much like a fantasy. Dreams are not real; we tell this to our children. The "Dream" of God declaws the gospel, and introduces a vague concept of God either as a dreamer or as the one being "dreamed up"; the terms "Kingdom of God," or "Reign of God," however, reminds us who's in charge, and has a much more concrete, "this-world" connotation. Jesus was not wrong, I think, to use the phrase that he did; he was in an oppressed culture, and the Basileia of God gave the peasant Judeans something to sincerely hope for in this life, rather than daydream about.