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Beyond Tragedy 

by Reinhold Niebuhr

One of the foremost philosophers and theologians of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was for many years a Professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. He is the author of many classics in their field, including The Nature and Destiny of Man, Moral Man and Immoral Society, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, and Discerning the Signs of Our Times. He was also the founding editor of the publication Christianity and Crisis. 

 

Beyond Tragedy was published in 1937 by Charles Scribnerís Sons.  This material prepared for Religion Online by Harry and Grace Adams.

 

Chapter 14: The Kingdom Not of This World

 

Pilate therefore entered again into the judgment hall and called Jesus, and said unto him, Art thou the king of the Jews? Jesus answered him, Sayest thou this of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me? Pilate answered, Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done? 

Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?                    John 18:33. 

The Fourth Evangelist is not an historian but an interpreter of history. His record of the scene of Jesus before Pilate may therefore not be literal history. It is nevertheless a profoundly true drama. It is, in fact, an ageless drama, to which belong as individual acts the records of prophets standing before kings, and appealing to a higher judgment than that by which the king judges them. Jesus before Pilate is the climax of this drama. Here the incarnation of the Judge of the world is judged by the world ó and judges it. 

We may imagine Pilate the typical wielder of political power. Toward Jesus he had that attitude of mingled admiration and contempt which the man of power usually displays toward the power of pure goodness. It represents a majesty beyond his comprehension and yet a weakness in the domain in which he is master. Pilateís chief interest in Jesus was to determine whether his type of kingship represented a real threat to the Roman imperium. The chief priests had insisted that it did. In their indictments of Jesus before the Jewish court they had emphasised the religious implications of the Messianic idea and had accused him of blasphemy. Before the Roman court they emphasised the political implications of the Messianic idea (which Jesus had, incidentally, specifically disavowed) and accused him of treason. What Pilate wanted to know was whether this man before him was really a harmless religious dreamer and prophet or a dangerous insurrectionist. It may be observed in passing that the judgments of worldly courts are always weighted by that consideration. The most dangerous criminal is always the person who threatens the system which maintains the court itself. No court is ever impartial when questions of its own existence are involved, not even when, as in modern government, the judicial function is separated from executive power. This was the significance of his question: "Art thou the king of the Jews?" 

Jesusí answer must have quieted Pilateís fears immediately: "My Kingdom is not of this world." With that assurance Pilate relaxed. All the Pilates and Caesars of the world have been relieved by similar assurances. The Kingdom of God, the kingdom of truth, is not of this world. Therefore the kingdoms of the world need not fear it. Its servants do not fight. They do not set power against power. The kingdoms of the world fear only power. Religion is, after all, a very innocuous vagary. It prompts men to dream of another world in which the injustices of this world will be righted and the sorrows of this world will be turned into joy. Why should not such dreams and such hopes persuade men to suffer present pains with patience? That question has suggested itself to every man of power through the ages. By it he is tempted to offer the prophet and priest of religion a position of auxiliary ruler in his kingdom. We know from history how frequently the offer is accepted. 

Even when the prophet or priest is not consciously drawn into partnership with the ruler, the kingdom of which he is the messenger may support the kingdoms of the world. The sanctuary which the priest builds may be a thing of beauty to which men periodically escape from an ugly world, securing just enough relief from oppression to be beguiled from their rebellion against evil. The kingdom of righteousness of which the prophet speaks tempts men to feed on hopes when they are starved by realities. How could the Negroes of the days of slavery have borne their oppression, if they had not been able to sing: 

"When I go to heaven, Iíll put on my shoes 
And Iíll walk all over Godís heaven"? 

Oswald Spengler, the most brilliant apostle of political reaction in the modern day, has lifted this possible use of religion into a perfect system. A good priest, in his view, is one who persuades men that their hopes and dreams of perfection are not for this world. A bad priest is one who transmutes religious hopes into political discontent. Communism and every other political protest against injustice is thus, in his view, the illegitimate offspring of Christian perfectionism. Let Pilate be assured. Let the fears of Caesar be dispelled. The Lord has said "My Kingdom is not of this world." Furthermore he has instructed his disciples to "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesarís." Upon that assurance Pilate is able to report, "I find no fault in him"; and all who believe that religion is relevant to the world must be a little embarrassed by Pilateís acquittal. If Jesusí Kingdom does not threaten Pilateís kingdom any more than Pilate assumes, how can it overcome the injustice of Pilateís kingdom? How can it speak a word of legitimate hope to the victims of oppressive power? 

II 

Before we accept Pilateís complacency as justified it would be well to inquire further into the nature of this kingdom which is not of this world. Jesus defined it as a kingdom of truth: "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world that I should bear witness unto the truth." The Johannine Gospel, speaking particularly to the Greek world, makes much of the idea of truth and of light as the meaning of the Incarnation. It does not, however, regard the truth as some simple proposition which the natural reason of man can grasp. The truth is rather a revelation of the fundamental pattern of life which sin has obscured and which Christ restores. The Logos is the very pattern of the world. "All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made." The world is in darkness of sin and does not comprehend this light. The pattern of life comes unto his own but his own receive him not. Yet as many as receive him may become Sons of God. 

The world is, in other words, alienated from its true character. Men do not know their true relation to God. Therefore they make themselves God and their minds are darkened by the confusion caused by this self-glorification. The kingdom of truth is consequently not the kingdom of some other world. It is the picture of what this world ought to be. This kingdom is thus not of this world, inasfar as the world is constantly denying the fundamental laws of human existence. Yet it is of this world. It is not some realm of eternal perfection which has nothing to do with historical existence. It constantly impinges upon man every decision and is involved in every action. 

It is important to recognise that the Kingdom of God, according to the biblical conception, is never purely an other-worldly perfection, not even when it is interpreted in a gospel which is directed primarily to the Greek world. The Christian is taught to pray constantly "Thy Kingdom come." The hope of this prayer, when vital, is a constant pressure upon the conscience of man in every action. 

The kingdom which is not of this world is thus in this world, through man and in man, who is in this world and yet not altogether of this world. Man is not of this world in the sense that he can never rest complacently in the sinful standards which are normative in the world. He may be selfish but he cannot accept selfishness as the standard of conduct. He may be greedy but he knows that greed is wrong. Even when his actions do not conform to his ideals he cannot dismiss his ideals as irrelevant. Modern as well as ancient theologies which emphasise the total depravity of man fail to do justice to the difference between human ideals and human actions. The action may always be sinful but it stands under the criticism of the ideal. Every ideal of justice may be coloured by interest when it is applied to situations in which men are themselves involved; but they cannot consciously construct ideals of justice to conform to their interests. Every corruption of justice can exist only by borrowing from, and pretending to be, a more disinterested justice than it is. This vision of perfection is really what is intended in the stoic conception of the golden age and the Christian idea of perfection before the Fall. To relegate it to an historical period before an historical Fall is to take religious myths too literally and become confused by their historical symbols. 

The kingdom which is not of this world is always in this world in manís uneasy conscience. Even in Plato, who is more inclined than biblical thought to relegate perfection to another world, the kingdom which is not of this world is never wholly irrelevant to human actions. At the close of the fourth book of his Republic Plato describes the perfect justice to which the wise man will devote himself, and discusses its relation to historical actualities in a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon: 

"To this nobler purpose the man of understanding will devote the energies of his life. He will not allow himself to be dazzled by the foolish applause of this world and heap up riches to his own harm. He will look to the city that is within him and see that no disorder occur there. . ." 

"Then if that is his motive," said Glaucon, "he will not be a statesman. By the dog of Egypt he will. In the city which is his own he certainly will, though in the land of his birth perhaps not. 

"I understand," said Glaucon, "you mean that he will be a statesman in the city of which we are the founders and which exists in idea only, for I do not believe that there is such a one anywhere on earth." 

"In heaven," I replied, "there is laid up a pattern of it methinks which he who so desires may behold and, beholding, may set his house in order. But whether such a one exists or ever will exist is no matter. For he will live after the manner of that city and have nothing to do with any other." 

One is reminded, by this dialogue, of Jesusí words to his disciples when they joyfully reported that "even the devils are subject unto us through thy name." He answered: "Rejoice not, that the devils are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven." There is, in other words, a particular power in the kingdom not of this world over this world, precisely because it does not ask to have its standards validated by worldly success. Its servants may not fight Pilate but they are able to defy Pilate with a cool courage which is not derived from this world. 

There is this difference, however, between Platoís and the gospelís conception of the relation of the kingdom not of this world to the world: Platoís is a very individualistic conception. "Whether such a one exists or ever will exist is no matter," he declares. He is content to let the individual conscience defy the world without reference to the possible triumph of righteousness in the world. The biblical conception of the Kingdom of God is of an ultimate triumph in, or at least at the end of, history. For the Greek, perfection remains in heaven, because history is by its very character of temporality a corruption of it. In the biblical conception the sin of the world is not due to its temporal character but to man's rebellion against God. Christianity is therefore less confident than Plato that the wise man will obey the vision of perfection which intrigues him; but it is more confident that God will be able to overrule the sinfulness of man. 

III 

Even though we recognise the relevance of the Kingdom of God to every thought and action in the world, we have not yet faced the significance of Pilateís contemptuous sneer, "What is truth?" What indeed is truth or justice, no matter how high our conceptions may be in the abstract, when each man and nation is able to interpret and to corrupt the truth for its and for his purposes? That sneer comes significantly from a man of power and has particular significance in our own day. For we are living in a day in which new national religions are explicitly disavowing the universal validity of truth. Each nation fashions truth unashamedly in its own interest. Modern fascism thus explicitly affirms the relativity of truth which is implicitly involved in all human actions. If we mean by "the world" only the realm of actuality, the Kingdom of God is quite obviously not in it. It may be in the conscience of man but not in his action. The same man who dreams of an ideal justice or a perfect love acts according to his own interests when he ceases to contemplate and engages in action. 

"No deed is all its thought had been, 
No will but feels the fleshly screen," 

in the words of Robert Browning. 

It is this fact which persuades certain types of Continental theology to regard the Kingdom of God as revealed in the Gospels as only a principle of judgment upon the world and not as a criterion of judgment in the world. In their view the world continues to live by purely egotistic standards and in the inevitable conflict of interests which results from such behaviour. Even the Christian must submit to these standards. If he succeeds in forgiving an enemy or loving a neighbour he must not expect such actions to change the quality of the worldís life. Actions inspired by the truth of the Kingdom of God are merely symbols of judgment and hope set in a world which is destroying itself by its sin. 

Perverse as such conceptions are, they have, at least, the merit of calling attention to the fact that the sinful world is not as easily transmuted into the Kingdom of God as modern theology had supposed. In one sense the Kingdom of God remains outside the world. The same Pilate who found no fault in Jesus became nevertheless his executioner. The power of Rome felt itself for the moment secure against the threat of this kingdom. But the power of the priests was not secure and they therefore insisted on his destruction. The fact that Pilate, the symbol of power, became the unwilling tool of the priests, is an instructive bit of history. The ambitions of the powerful are never quite as inimical to the Kingdom as the confusion of priests and prophets who are less cynical and more fanatical than Pilate, having mixed truth with sin in a more confusing mixture. Whether it is the state or the church through which we act, the Lord is crucified afresh in every human action. 

Nevertheless the kingdom of truth constantly enters the world. And its entrance descends beyond conscience into action. The word is made flesh. The spiritual descendants of Pilate in Germany today are facing a determined band of spiritual sons of the Christ, and the former have found no way of quieting the defiance of the latter by their use of power. No threats of coercion and imprisonment have been able to change the actions of men whose primary loyalty is to God and not to some prince of the world. Their slogan, "We must obey God rather than man," has became a word of nemesis for those who sought to make power the sole source of truth. 

The fact that it is the church in modern Germany which defies the state, while many apostles of a universa1 culture and a universal science have capitulated, is most instructive in regard to the relation of the kingdom not of this world to this world. The university was the pride of Germany; and the German church was more or less moribund. Yet the former has allowed its universal culture to be corrupted by the state while the latter has fought valiantly against such corruption. The culture of the university sought universal truth through the genius of the wise man; and forgot that the wise man is also a sinner, whose interest, passion and cowardice may corrupt the truth. The kingdom of truth which rests upon human wisdom is obviously of this world; so much so that the world may conquer it and reduce its pride to humiliation. 

The only kingdom which can defy and conquer the world is one which is not of this world. This conquest is not only an ultimate possibility but a constant and immediate one. In every moment of existence those "who are of the truth" hear the Christís voice, warning, admonishing and guiding them in their actions. The real truth condemns their lies; pure justice indicts their injustice; the law of love reveals their selfishness; and the vision of God reveals their true centre and source of existence. They may continue to be disobedient to the heavenly vision; but they can never be as they have been. 

The kingdom which is not of this world is thus a more dangerous peril to the kingdoms of the world than any competing worldly kingdom. One nation may be destroyed by another more powerful nation. But civilisations and cultures in their larger historical development are never destroyed by external enemies without first having destroyed themselves. The force of their destruction is not only their own violation of the law of life but the loss of their moral authority under the challenge of those who speak against their power in the name of the Kingdom of God. Pure power cannot maintain itself. It must have some measure of moral respect. It must be admitted that pure conscience seldom defeats an unjust social system. Those who speak against its injustice are primarily its victims. Yet slavery would have persisted if only the slaves had recognised its oppression. A moral element thus enters into every successful challenge of Caesarís authority. 

It is hardly necessary to draw the conclusion from this fact that those who draw their inspiration from Christís Kingdom must limit themselves to purely moral weapons in contending against historic injustice. Conscience may prompt the challenge of power by power, though it must recognise that the new justice, which emerges from the resulting conflict, will be less than the perfect justice in the name of which it initiated the conflict. The Kingdom of God is relevant to every moment of history as an ideal possibility and as a principle of judgment upon present realities. Sometimes it must be obeyed in defiance of the world, though such obedience means crucifixion and martyrdom. Sometimes courageous obedience forces the evil of the world to yield, thus making a new and higher justice in history possible. Sometimes the law of the Kingdom must be mixed with the forces of nature which operate in the world, to effect at least a partial mitigation of oppression. Martyrs, prophets and statesmen may each in his own way be servants of the Kingdom. Without the martyr we might live under the illusion that the kingdom of Caesar is the Kingdom of Christ in embryo and forget that there is a fundamental contradiction between the two kingdoms. Without the successful prophet, whose moral indictments effect actual changes in the world, we might forget that each moment of human history faces actual and realisable higher possibilities. Without the statesman, who uses power to correct the injustices of power, we might allow the vision of the Kingdom of Christ to become a luxury of those who can afford to acquiesce in present injustice because they do not suffer from it.