For years, we would rise early or stay up late sharing stories, dreams, and what we were learning over coffee. One of the aspects that I love about her is the way she would pour out her soul with bold delight. Her laughter is sweet, her ambition is admirable, and her compassion runs deep. She is fierce and divine. She loves people and is in a profession that seeks to provide care and repair to people in the midst of broken circumstances. Our friendship changed when I came to realize that coffee was the only blackness that she truly loved.
I listened to a voice message from my friend in which she expressed that “even though we voted differently” we would remain close friends. I replayed it because I was sure that I misheard her. How could we have voted differently?
Following my revelation about how we voted differently, we talked. We disagreed. We shared our thoughts via text messages. The breaking point in our relationship came when after reading an article about the increase in federal executions for people who were on death row, she responded, “And honestly all the people who are being executed, I’ve read in depth about them a while ago, I’m not sad about it.” Although it would be over a year and a half before we would talk again, it was that conversation that further confirmed that we thought differently about our faith. In response to Russia invading and declaring war on Ukraine she responded, “Well, more and more people are coming to Jesus through this.”
As one who proclaimed a commitment to the kingdom of God in her talk and through her frequent mission trips, I could not understand her voting choices. It appeared to me that she was voting against the very people that she claimed were a high priority for her to serve. She spoke of a call to care for those who had undergone trauma, specifically as refugees, yet her political allegiances seemed antithetical to her call and the kingdom of God.
“First, sin and salvation are social.”*
The kingdom of God is so radically different from the politics we have come to know–it is righteous and just in ways that make any government structure or elected official fall short. To be political, partisan, and to have preferences is to be human. In our current reality, no political party possesses good news for all people. Yet, the vision is that we do our part to work for and proclaim truths through our activism. The kingdom ideals that Jesus modeled and spoke of demonstrated that everyone is deserving of love, dignity, and belonging. It involves bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and release to prisoners (see Isaiah 61:1). And not just in an idealistic hopeful sort of way, but in the theological praxis of providing living wages, overhauling the injustices of the prison industrial complex, advocating for police reform and stricter gun laws, and ensuring access to nutritious and affordable food and high-quality healthcare. To create current conditions for people to be made well and whole is part of salvation in the kingdom of God. The evil that inhibits such salvation is sin.
For years, I had been slowly moving towards spending more of my time in communities that welcomed me without expecting me to edit myself. In the midst of the intensity of politics and polarization in the U.S., I became even more committed to pursuing a new community that bore witness to Jesus in the ways that aligned with what I sensed God beckoning me towards. My former worship community often talked of the kingdom of God, but sometimes neglected to do the hard work of discerning how proclaiming the kingdom looked in their everyday lives. There seemed to be a commitment to principles over people, which sometimes meant leaving Jesus out and bringing in an ideal of Jesus that was more comfortable. I yearned for an embodied faith. I was trying to figure out how to live before a God who chose embodiment in Brown flesh and spent time with folks that even the apostles were uncomfortable with.
I had spent my time leading on college campuses and in ecclesial spaces that believed that Jesus was radical, but they mainly believed this when it came to holiness. Abiding with Jesus in different communities taught me not just about holiness, but Jesus’ radicality in transgressing social boundaries and believing in a beloved community. I learned that people talked about salvation in terms of its origins–wholeness and not simply a soteriology that centered on an afterlife that avoided damnation. I saw Jesus-justice folks saying that salvation meant doing something about people’s problems and pain now. So, they joined movements, marched, and voted in ways that aligned with the Spirit’s movement.
I started noticing that the mental checklists I was taught to make about who is “in and who was out” rarely served me or others well. I noticed that some of the most liberated and loving folks I came to know were followers of the Brown skinned Jewish man. They did not give much time to keeping track of who was heavenbound because they were so focused on the good news and a kindom* of justice for all. These communities did not dismiss heaven, yet they did not center it. Jesus and His kingdom was the center, which affected the choices they made in the real and right now. I remember Pastor Judy Peterson telling me, “I am going to err on the side of love. If I am wrong, I believe that God will have grace because I chose love.”
In regards to my former dear friend, I love her. But you know what? I also love me. And loving me while seeking to love my neighbors as myself does not mean I love this friend less, but it means I demonstrate my love for her differently. It means keeping my distance. Loving God means drawing near to the neighbors that I need to do life with and helping me to be more faithful in bearing witness to God’s kingdom.
We are each more than our voting choices. We are more than our hope for particular rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. We are more than the heated discussions that we may have with our parents, aunts, and co-workers. We each deserve to be seen for who we are, to be loved, to feel dignity, and to pursue wholeness–and not just in the next life. But in this one. Is this not the kingdom of God?
It is not about separating/ending relationships/unfriend-ing just because we vote differently, but it is about discerning what happens when we live differently. I could not ignore that my Black body is how I am called by God to live in this world. I am political by my mere existence. I am pledging allegiance to the kingdom of God by choice. The way that we perceive our allegiances differ. And that is okay. I know that my friend that I wrote about above is not against God’s kingdom, but that she strives to be for it. But I think she may be against me. Me in this Black body. Me who she dismisses and seeks to educate as though I cannot discern with wisdom. Me whose ancestors worshiped with a spirituality that was not dependent on European teachings and biblical interpretations. It’s not that she is malicious. I deem that it is better if our close friendships are with the people that we can be for.
As a Christian pastor, I struggled with being one who is called to curate and lead communities while feeling as though I was creating an exclusive one in my personal life. Yet, what I needed was a community of people who saw me, valued me, and could hold space for me. I gave a lot of time to leading and living into a call that meant being someone who supported people by journeying with them during some of the best and worst moments of their lives. I needed friends who would do the same for me. Beyond the pulpit and church, I needed people who nourished my soul, challenged my mind, and who offered reciprocity to my heart. It was through being in community with these kinds of people that I came to glimpse what Jesus meant by the parables about hidden treasure, the valuable pearl, and the mustard seed (see Matthew 13).
Let us be committed to discerning what it means to seek the kingdom of God. To be engaged in this world and the kingdom of God that is now. Not later. Not after this present life is over. Now. It means paying attention to Jesus’ words. It means paying attention to the words of our friends. It means being willing to listen, learn and ask hard questions. And as we do this, it means learning lessons and making better choices.
I suggest taking time to reflect on these questions:
- Is there someone in your life that comes to mind as you read this? If so, what do you feel? Consider if it would be helpful to process your feelings and reflections with a trusted and thoughtful companion.
- If there is a lack of authenticity in a close relationship, how might it hinder you from living into a greater sense of the kingdom of God?
- If you are in a relationship with someone who is dear to you and their identity or allegiances make it difficult for you to truly know how to be for them, take time to pray about your perspective and seek out wisdom from others who may be able to provide insights. Be careful of sharing with someone who you know will be quick to “take a side,” instead of offering to listen and provide feedback that you are requesting.
- How does thinking about the present social implications of sin and salvation change the ways in which you advocate, preach, and discuss social issues?
- What kinds of characteristics, practices, and actions mark the lives of those in a community in which you feel seen and loved?
- What communities have you sensed the Spirit beckoning you towards?
- How do you learn and listen to communities that model the kingdom?
I used a friendship as an example, but if the relationship is with a close family member, the choices and conversations and distance may need to look different. Either way, it is important to find a community that loves and liberates you in the way of Jesus.
* Monica Coleman writes this statement in providing a synopsis of the work of womanist theologian, Delores S. Williams. She goes on to write, “Social sin occurs when one group commits wrongdoing against another group…Sin is social because it involves the evil and suffering inflicted upon groups of people by other groups of people. Sin is found in the behaviors of groups of people and in the systems that perpetuate this behavior.” 20-21. Coleman also notes, “Salvation is social, this-worldly, and, with the active participation of black churches, institutional.”
Coleman, Monica. Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008.
* The term kindom is attributed to the theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz who used the term “kin-dom” to call to mind a Christ-centered community based on kinship over the patriarchal and imperialistic images of kingdom. See this article by Dr. Bridgett Green, “On ‘Kingdom’ and ‘Kindom’: The Promise and the Peril.”
Alexis Carter Thomas (MDiv, Duke Divinity School) is an ordained minister, consultant, and writer. She has served in various pastoral roles in churches and on college campuses. Her work encourages theological engagement at the intersections of faith, justice, and society. Alexis drinks coffee daily, writes often, takes road trips regularly, and lives with her husband and son in a small town in South Carolina.