How do we introduce Caribbean Theology (CT) to our church communities? We must first keep in mind several realities that militate against us seeming to tamper with the “Word of Truth.” For instance, there is the perception that CT tries to get the Bible to say what it wants it to say – it distorts the scriptures. Another is that it is too taken up with earthly things, and that it is too concerned with things political. Perhaps another would be that it is too “vengeful,” attempting to get back at people who once did bad things to us. In short, CT is much too temporally concerned that it ignores eternal realities.
The 1964 musical classic, Mary Poppins, reminds us that “just a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down,” a piece of advice we ought to consider when introducing CT to the common man. Instead of seeking to address head-on the misconceptions highlighted in the first paragraph above, how about showing that the Gospel deals directly with the concerns raised by CT? Of course this will mean that in many of our traditions we will have to be teaching things that were previously ignored. But it is not so difficult, it seems to me. Here I want to restate the Gospel Biblically, showing how it speaks to the concerns of CT without making too much of a fuss.
The word “gospel” means “good news.” The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are called Gospels as they speak of the good news of the coming of Jesus Christ. In fact, Jesus himself tells us more about the content of the Gospel when he is reported to have said, “The kingdom of God is at your doorstep. Repent and believe the good news (Mark 1:15).” The good news is that the kingdom of God is so close at hand that we can experience it, if only we change our attitudes and actions (repent and believe). It is when we think and act in the way that God wants us to, that we participate in His kingdom and experience firsthand the good news. But how is that done? Let us seek to make that clearer. In this post we will discuss our first two points:
1. The kingdom of God is “not yet” but “already”
The message of Christianity as preached in Jamaica for the last two centuries has emphasized the reality of heaven in the after-life. There are enough passages in the NT to show us that the rewards of the after-life are indeed a reality to be celebrated and promoted by the church. Take for instance the idea that we have a living hope, kept for us in heaven, which will never perish, spoil or fade (1 Peter 1:4-5 and 1 Peter 1:13). The idea is that of a decidedly future reality which ought to spur us on to remain faithful to our commitment right now. In this sense we continue to “set our minds on things above, which are eternal and not earthly things, which are passing.” But the same idea can be related to pursuing the realities of the kingdom now. In the passage we know as the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus instructs his disciples to pray, “…thy kingdom come…” When we set our minds on heavenly things we reap some of the benefits of the kingdom right here and now – “The kingdom of God is… righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost (Romans 14:16-18).” Though not yet in heaven it is quite possible for us to experience some of the blessings of heaven. Indeed, the kingdom of God is at our doorstep, and sometimes we see that dramatically manifested through the answer to prayers and events we can only call “Godincidences” (thanks to Joanne Richards). There is nothing in this message so far that we cannot preach in our churches.
2. The kingdom of God is the doing of God’s will now.
“…Thy will be done on earth as in heaven…” is not a mere longing for the future. It is the decided teaching of the Gospels that God’s will be enacted right now, and the onus is on God’s people (especially) to do so. This involves a personal decision to do right (Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:7-14). But even in these passages speaking of our personal decisions, it is patently clear that such behaviour does not speak of a personal sort of piety as often expressed in our churches (like personal prayer, fasting, tithing and devotions). In each case the commitment to doing what is right involves how we live with other people, especially those we have “power” over. This is made extremely clear by Jesus in Matthew 23:23:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”
Though there is very little controversy about this teaching, it may prove harder to sell in our churches than the first point, because in it is perceived a discarding of particular practices that have become an essential part of our understanding of Christianity. Personal devotions, tithing, keeping one’s self pure, etc. are essential to much of our concept of holiness and so anything that seems to threaten these will be suspect at best. But the message of the Gospel of the kingdom of God does not say that these are of non-effect. It shows that the value of these are contingent upon things viewed by God as more essentially in keeping with the spirit of His kingdom – the showing of love, the pursuit of justice and the demonstration of mercy. The kingdom of God is best seen in how we relate to others, especially those in dire need of God’s presence in their lives. These are usually people on the margins of society, whose lives and experiences border on desperation in this reality, whether they understand it or not. It is how we live with and for these people that truly manifests God’s kingdom here and now and mirrors the incarnation of Jesus on behalf of the world. This starts with our responsibility to the “household of faith” but also stretches to the wider world. The Gospel of the kingdom then speaks of “spiritual realities” but is often demonstrated more clearly in our concern for “practical realities” that threaten to distort its essence. If this is so Christians must be concerned with challenging all realities inimical to God’s kingdom. For instance, wherever injustice of any sort exists, this must be a concern for the people of God, and not just one they ponder on but which they actively strive to reverse.
Implementing this message in our churches will not be easy. But if we make the scriptures speak for themselves, or churches which claim to be Bible believing will have to grapple with the realities of those teachings. At this point we do not have to call it by any name (CT or otherwise), but in laying such a foundation we are making the concerns of CT the true concerns of the church. In our next post we look at an essential third element.