Kingdom vs. Empire

“Isn’t it right for us to take up arms and fight back against the enemy?”

In November a suicide bomber detonated just outside this college building in Kontagora, barely missing the targeted crowd of students (especially girls) gathered inside for their exams.
In November a suicide bomber detonated just outside this college building in Kontagora, barely missing the targeted crowd of students (especially girls) gathered inside for their exams.
The passion with which my student asked his question hinted at the enormity of the situation it represents. For Christians in Nigeria right now, this question is more than just theoretical. In the last week I have heard it come up in casual conversations, Sunday school lessons, and master’s degree classes.

Why? Because Christian churches and communities have been increasingly frequent targets of Muslim attacks. Because Nigeria’s mixed population of Christians and Muslims has become polarized by rivalry, violence, and fear.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Matthew 5:38-39

For the decades now Nigerian Christians have turned the other cheek. But their collective wounds have accumulated with each additional bombing, each raid on their communities, and each restriction on their rights. The cry I have been hearing from this young pastor and from many others like him is one of frustration and angst.

This community of refugees  was forced to flee tribal warfare in their region. The Bishop of Kontagora has advocated for their rights to land and a place of worship. A local pastor regularly treks out to their settlement to lead them in worship.
This community of refugees was forced to flee tribal warfare in their region. The Bishop of Kontagora has advocated for their rights to land and a place of worship, and a local pastor regularly treks out to their settlement to lead them in worship.
“We have turned the other cheek so many times that there is no cheek left to turn!”

I feel for their dilemma, and the red-blooded American part of me wants to pick up a gun and join them. I was raised on stories about the Alamo and slogan’s about fighting for our rights. I have no problem with the use of arms to protect the vulnerable and oppressed. In fact, I think that is one of the core responsibilities of any government.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Matthew 5:43-45

But what about church leaders encouraging their people to shoot Muslims who threaten or harm them? Apparently this is what happened in one region of Nigeria, and such a bloodbath followed that leaders on both sides were appalled. The police ran for cover as Muslims and Christians slaughtered each other until their hatred and their ammunition were spent. In the end, those Christians gained the fearful distance of their Muslim neighbors, but they lost their testimony.

My spirit recoils from the violent outcome of this sort of pragmatic solution. Didn’t Jesus forgive His enemies and offer His back to His oppressors? If I were living here, shouldn’t I be more concerned with ministering to my Muslim neighbor than with killing him? But for these Christians, the tidy categories of “ought to” have been blown open by the painful reality of kidnapped sisters and demolished churches. Being passive is no longer an option.

But is being aggressive the solution?

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. … Live in harmony with one another. … Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
Romans 12:12-18

This morning I witnessed a very different sort of solution to the crisis, one so subtle that I almost failed to recognize it. Here in the north central region of Nigeria, Muslims outnumber Christians. They control local government policies enough to be able to stop Christians from running orphanages, building new churches, or even renovating existing ones. In light of the mounting opposition and the upcoming elections, many Christians have left this region. For understandable reasons they have taken their businesses and their families to the less Islamic areas of the country, further depleting this area of its Christian presence.

Bishop Jonah Ibrahim and his group of Anglican pastors.
Bishop Jonah Ibrahim and his group of Anglican pastors.
But a dedicated band of pastors led by their tenacious bishop have courageously stood their ground. They have neither given in to their enemies nor attacked them. Instead they have patiently toiled with minimal resources to advance the presence of the kingdom of God in this place. These pastors oversee three churches each, often going without their monthly salary because it simply isn’t there. Their bishop doggedly works the socio-political system, making the necessary compromises and outlasting the opposition until he finally gets things done. An orphanage built and government permission relentlessly pursued to take in the area’s many needy orphans. A tiny, open-air church established for the community of refugees who immigrated here last year. A clean water project and sustainable animal husbandry developed to help to support local pastors.

Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Romans 12:19-21

But of all the work these Christians are doing here, the project that spoke the loudest to me was the school that I visited today. Initially I was most moved by the sight of teenaged girls sitting in a classroom, refusing to relinquish their education to the threats of Boko Haram. But when I heard that both Christians and Muslims have been welcomed as students in this school, I was dumbfounded. Such an audacious move speaks louder than any number of guns or grenades ever could. This is taking love for enemies to the next level.

Courageous school girls, undaunted by Boko Haram's threats.
Courageous school girls, undaunted by Boko Haram’s threats.
Refusing to retaliate against enemies takes a massive amount of courage. But refusing to quit loving them takes even more.

I am humbled by what I have seen here, and am still processing the difference between how governments should respond to violent oppression verses how churches should. This much I can say:

The empire may strike back, but the kingdom of God will advance one act of mercy at a time.

22 thoughts on “Kingdom vs. Empire”

  1. Dear Tiffany,

    Thanks for sharing your observations and thoughts about Nigeria’s Christians with us and the truth that is found in the words of our Lord.

    Jesus commanded us NOT to take up arms against our enemies but to bless them. You can follow this current Islamic bloodbath all the way back to the “Christian” church under the rule of the Roman Emperor Constantine who led the first “holy war” in the name of the cross of Christ in 311AD. He continued to kill those who would not convert to his new state sponsored religion “Christianity” which was the antithesis of all that Christ taught and eventually its murderous crusades caused the rise of Islam in its militant form we see today under the teachings of Mohammad.

    The principle of an eye for an eye is so opposed to the New Covenant, yet America, a supposed “Christian Nation,” keeps the pot boiling with its version of “holy wars” against Islam, a.k.a. the War on Terror. This blood feud will never end now that it has started, until Christians are willing to obey Christ and His Spirit and lay down their lives instead of their visceral instincts to survive. “He who loves his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake shall find it.” It seems that everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. In the face of death true faith prays, “Father I wish that this cup would pass from me, but none the less, not my will but Thine be done.”

    Love in Christ,

    1. These are excellent thoughts, Michael. As I have been grappling with this question while facing the “on the ground” implications of how we answer it, my mind has often gone to America’s “War on Terror.” I kept wanting to make parallel comparisons but having to pull back from that a little because I think we do need to maintain a difference between Kingdom and empire, between the church and political governments.

      So much in the Bible (Old and New Testament) calls kings and judges to uphold justice, to protect the oppressed, and even to punish oppressors. When human governments judge rightly and vindicate justly, they are imitating the righteous Judge of the earth. However I think the church has been commissioned to a very different task. We have been called, as you rightly say, to lay our lives down for the sake of others and ultimately as a testimony of our love for Christ. Like Jesus, we win the war through sacrifice, not retaliation. Ultimately, we overcome our enemies by loving God more than ourselves. (Rev. 12:11)

      Having said all that, I can’t take lightly the constant threat that our brothers and sisters in Nigeria face. In theory the answer seems simple, but the ground realities are not. If my children’s lives were at risk and my every step opposed, I would find it extremely challenging to live up to Jesus’ example of sacrificial love. May God grant the persecuted members of our family extra measures of grace!

  2. Tiffany,let me share a thought with you.I stay in the northwest of Nigeria.every crisis that occurs Christians and churches are killed and burnt until Christians rises to defend themselves, of course leading to great casualty of Muslims, since then attacks on Christians are limited. what can we say of these?may God who created us to be together help us not to contraven his word.l love yours thought. thanks

    1. I’m glad to hear from you, Joshua. You were the one who first introduced this question to me and it has been pressing on my mind ever since. I feel the inadequacy of passive inactivity as you do. But after seeing Christians resolutely refusing to back down in fear as well as proactively loving their Muslim neighbors, I was challenged to see this sort of response as precisely the sort that Jesus had in mind. I think His message is so relevant to your situation because He was also speaking to a group of people (Jews) who were being occupied, controlled, and at times violently oppressed by another people (Romans).

      I value your perspective on this, especially since you are one of the ones who has to face the practical, everyday realities of this horrendous situation. May God grant you the grace and the strength to uphold His will under fire. And I pray on a daily basis that He will surround you and your flock with His holy angels to protect you.

  3. This is what happens when you worship a human who can’t even defend himself instead he cries like a sissy girl on the cross…lol :-))

    1. I grieve for you, Truthseeker, over your lack of a God to look up to. Jesus’ willingness to suffer to that extent is the ultimate manifestation of His love for all people, including those who mock Him. I pray He will open the eyes of your heart that you may see Him for who He really is and gain in Him a God worth adoring.

      1. Truly I grieve for you more!! Why? Because of yr blind faith in a man who inspired the genocide of millions of people throughout the world. Perhaps you have forgotten the crusades, inquisitions and slave trade all of which had biblical sanctions. I am not surprised that history was altered and hidden because christians can’t face the truth yet you speak of love and truth!!!

        DEFINE IRONY!!!

      2. You are right in pointing out the failures of Christians past and present to live up to Christ’s example of love. At times I have to put myself in that category, too, confessing my own hardheartedness to the needs of others. Just because we misrepresent God sometimes doesn’t change who He is. But there are also amazing examples of Christians who are sacrificially giving their lives to love the most needy. This sort of love seems to be something that you affirm, and yet the tone of your comments is anything but constructive or loving.

  4. Good and thought provoking article and interactions. As a stake holder on this subject matter, being one of the locals and having witness in various dimension conflicts arising from religious beliefs, to my view, ‘kingdom vs empire’ dichotomy is one of the root cause of these conflicts.
    As Christians our way of life ought to have been same; Kingdom or Empire by emulating the life of Christ in our form of government. Muslims always insist on implementing their Sharia while we insist on practicing Democracy or other forms of Government. If I may ask, is Democracy Biblical, a Christian model of governance or our own creation? Why did Christ preach only about Kingdom rather than our preferred Democracy? What type of Government or Constitution are we supposed to have in place as Christians? We can raise more questions, but all I know is that, the Bible is our constitution, Christ is the King of Kings and we are………?? Either way, we are expected to live and lead as Christ. But here we are, faced with Christians living and practicing our fashioned way of government on one hand and Muslims who are always sympathetic or trying to enforce Sharia in line with their Holy books on the other hand.
    Though conflict is inevitable, but I believe if we remain the salt of the earth, light of the world and kingdom citizens no matter the provocation, most of these problems would be minimized. SHALLOM!!

    1. Well said, Michael. You raise several powerful points.

      First, you are right in identifying the problem with Christians separating their faith from their approach to government and society. Of course being members of the Kingdom of God influences every area of how we live our lives, providing us with the compelling vision of transforming the world around us into a place that reflects the character and nature of its rightful King.

      But what should that actually look like? I smiled reading your critique of the way we often equate democracy with Christianity. You’re right. If we were to remove our cultural lenses and simply read the way the Bible describes government, we would probably come away staunch monarchists. 🙂 However, I believe that one of the great beauties of the Bible is its incredible flexibility: it’s ability to speak relevantly and directly to many different cultural forms and systems. I wouldn’t say democracy is THE Biblical form of government, but rather it is a form which can be a true expression of God’s value on the dignity of all who bear His image. But I think other forms of government have the potential to equally portray His nature and ways. The problem is not the form of government but rather the hearts of those who comprise it. As you so wisely say, if we Christian take seriously our role as agents of social transformation and channels of God’s love, then our governments (whatever form they may be) will also be transformed into channels of peace.

  5. Oh how very convenient to just brush a side all the so called short-comings of Christians which were done with full knowledge of the bible. The only reason why the so called love and sacrifice arose was because the blood lust died out. But when it comes to others short-comings christians would document and vilify others repeatedly while concealing yrs.

    The real enemy of abrahamic faiths (christianity & islam) is truth and wisdom which is why all ancient libraries were destroyed and burn to the ground. Whatever was left is distorted and eventually made into academic authority thus everything is base on nothing but lies!! Like the bible which was translated into English, I wonder how much editing was done to suit yr own agenda.

    As far as my tone is concerned it is nothing compared to what christians said in the past and present (not to mention yr actions) The manner in which christians demonize other religions repeatedly and hurting another’s feeling is astounding.

    Truly yr so called son of god said ‘I am not here to bring peace but a sword’ was clearly demonstrated by christians in both action and speech.

    1. I’m sorry… have I done something to harm you? I am ready to repent of any unloving action that I have taken against you or others, but I’m unaware of what you may be referring to. Please help me understand.

      Much of the test of true religion is now how right we always get it, but rather how we handle it when we have been wrong.

      Thankfully with God there is forgiveness. I hope there can be with you, too.

      1. Tiffany,
        Please forgive me if my comment at the beginning of this thread is why all these attacks against you have taken place. The thing that I want to say is that while Jesus was being tried, Pilate asked Him why His own people wanted Him to be condemned. Jesus’ answer to him is very important if we are to understand who we are in Christ, “My kingdom is NOT of this world…” The kingdom of God is not of this world system which is ruled over by the prince of this world. Jesus told the Jewish leaders who wanted to kill Him, “You are of your father the devil and his wishes you will do… he was a liar and a murder from the beginning.” Satan offered all the kingdoms of the world to Jesus and said that they were his to give, but Jesus refused to bow down and worship him for He came to represent the Kingdom of God not the kingdoms of men.

        So we see two dynamics at work here, the kingdoms of this world (kosmos system under Satan) and the Kingdom of God under Christ. We either serve Jesus with all our hearts as He gives us new hearts to do so and give to the world’s Cesars what belongs to them or we get politically entwined with this vast area over which Satan has dominion through his lying and murderous ways and eventually become just like him.

        As for religion it is only a cheap knock-off of that God desires is for men. It is a substitute to surrendering our all to God by paying him homage with our mouths while our hearts are from Him. Jesus did not come to establish another religion and call it “Christianity.” No, he came to draw all men to the love of His Father in a personal relationship with Him based on love and forgiveness for them, not law and punishment. But as we see with the religions of men, they all gravitate to law and punishment and make the message of Christ’s gospel into a lie.

        By the way, I am not speaking from a vacuum. I was involved in the Vietnam War for three years of my life in the US Navy and saw the corruption of the American government as it was “Making the world safe from communism.” The whole thing was a lie and millions died in that war for NOTHING. I will never take up arms against my fellow human beings again.

        Sister, I am glad that you are a member of Jesus’ kingdom and have not bought into the deceptions of the world and the religions of men.
        Jesus said, “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, that you have love for one another.” I feel His great love in you and am blessed to know you.

      2. It’s not exactly you that’s has offended, but it’s yr faith and followers that have offended mankind. All christian atrocities and the covering up is offensive.

        I am merely highlighting yr ignorance!

        As far as repentance is concern I see it as a form of hypocrisy, how can you repent for the millions who were slaughtered??

        Christians have always avoided intellectual conversations on their history or talk about repentance.

      3. Sadly, I am all too aware of the horrible ways that Christians have behaved, both past and present. There is no excuse. I’m also painfully aware of the atrocities committed by Hindu fascists, Muslim fundamentalists, and secular egotists. It seems we all have the same problem in common: ourselves. But if our only hope lies in getting it right the first time around, then we are all doomed. It seems we all need to be rescued from ourselves and given a new ability to love, forgive, and nurture each other. This is why Jesus’ act of self-sacrifice is so powerful. Through it He enacted God’s forgiveness towards us. And through His resurrection He made it possible for us to be given a new nature, too. This my hope: that He will change me to be able to love like He does. I know I still have a long way to go, but I’m not going to quit until He finishes the good work He has started in me.

        You are right in pointing out that many Christians avoid our nasty past. It is unsettling to have to face up to our failings, especially when we can’t go back and change them. But that is no excuse for cover-ups or denials. Rather I think we should expose the crimes of our past, confessing them as antithetical to the God we are supposed to represent lest we send the message that this is what He is like. And though such self-humbling is never easy, Christians should be able to do this because we believe in a merciful God who does hold us accountable but who also forgives those who grieve over their faults.

    1. Oh Ibrahim. My heart aches for the many brutal slappings your people have received. I don’t feel I have any right to say, “Yes. You must keep sitting there allowing your girls to be kidnapped and your churches to be bombed.” To be very honest, I wish I could stand between your enemies and you, offering myself in place of your people. If only that would work! But I know well enough that the hatred of your enemies goes deeper than any logic or reason, and that only a miraculous intervention will put a stop to their attacks. I pray for that intervention.

      In the meantime, I will not denounce any defensive actions on the part of the Christians in Nigeria. But I would like to hold up a higher standard, one of love and proactive sacrifice.

      I believe our cheeks are ours to offer. Other’s cheeks are ours to defend.

  6. I agree with what you say to some extent however I have to point out that Hindu fascism is radically different from whatever Christians and Muslim did and are doing.

    History clearly shows that the aggression started with christian and muslims. As much as 150 million Hindus with several million Jains, Buddhist, Taoist and Sikhs were massacred in a spade of a 1000 yrs just because they chose not to convert. Women and children were put to the sword as well. Not to mention how christian missionaries distorted and lied about the eastern religions which today has become the epitome of understanding the eastern faiths. Till today both Christians and Muslims have never apologized for their actions. The reasons is because their scriptures sanction such actions.

    All these were done in the name of Jesus and Mohammed. Thus the uprising in recent times is nothing more than self-defense for the right of eastern religions to exist.

    1. Thanks, Andy. It is a privilege to get to observe His hand guiding and using His faithful ones around the world. May He bless and use you for the work of His kingdom.

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