An earlier Fish Hooks dealt with Luther’s teaching of the Two Kingdoms: the concept that God administers the “left-hand kingdom” of ordinary human experience through fallible and sinful human leaders, whom we are nonetheless to obey; whereas the “right-hand” is the invisible “Kingdom of Heaven” in which God’s saving grace prevails, and where human government and institutions have no place. Luther’s insight was that all Christians hold dual-citizenship: we are to serve our sovereign Lord faithfully in both of His kingdoms.
When Luther expounded his concept of Two Kingdoms he was preaching to a world where the church meddled in civil government and kings routinely tried to influence the church for their own ends. In addition to providing a model for appropriate governance (James Madison, the principal author of our First Amendment guaranteeing separation of Church and State, specifically cited Luther’s influence), the Two Kingdoms also provided a way for Christians to think of how they can serve God faithfully “in the world” without becoming “of the world.” (John 17:14-19) Rather than fleeing the world to seek a ‘pure’ spiritual life in monasteries or communes, we are to serve God faithfully in the messy and imperfect left-hand kingdom of God’s fallen creation where we physically reside, while our desire and our destiny is firmly settled in the right-hand kingdom of the Gospel.
But how do we do this? Is it our charge to force our society to conform to God’s just law? (This has sometimes been called ‘Dominion Theology.’) Are we to opt out of civic service or public responsibility that doesn’t strictly conform to our beliefs? Luther’s answer is a (qualified) ‘no’ to both – we are to be faithful citizens of both the left and right kingdoms, or as Jesus put it: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17) How do we resolve the tension between these two imperatives: to “… be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1) while insisting that “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29)? We justly condemn the self-professed-Christians who administered the Nazi death camps because they were “just following orders,” yet we also cannot approve the imposition of a Christian form of “Sharia Law” on our society. What is the faithful Christian to do?
There is no clear “one size fits all” answer that resolves the tension inherent in our dual citizenship. This becomes a matter of spiritual discernment that each Christian must wrestle with. However, it can perhaps be helpful to consider how, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructed his followers to be “the salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” (Matthew 5:13,14)
Now it’s interesting to note that Jesus did not say “you are the food of the earth” or “the remodelers of the world.” Salt is not a meal in itself, but instead enhances the taste. It is usually not our calling to ‘change the menu’ of the world we reside in (God alone has this authority and power), but rather by our influence we impart the “flavor of Christ” to the meal. We are to be the savory taste of God’s love and justice evident in society.
Similarly, light illuminates, but does not itself alter the world it shines upon. Light reveals both the horrors that hide in the shadows, and the splendors that are concealed by the night. As disciples of our Lord we are not silent and passive in the face of evil and suffering, but rather the ‘spot lights’ who expose the darkness of human depravity and injustice. At the same time, we reflect the glory and hope of the Sun of Righteousness to a world stumbling in darkness and despair.
As faithful citizens of God’s Kingdom of the Left Hand we trust in our Lord to administer all of creation according to His infinite goodness and mercy. We serve our Lord faithfully when we are the salt and the light that draws our fellow sinners to also seek citizenship in God’s Kingdom of Heaven.
“ … let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)