I was speaking with a neighbor who I was meeting for the first time but whom I knew was a Christian. At one point in the conversation he confided that he thought the Lord’s return was near because of how godless and immoral the world was becoming. Seeing someone in need of correction and encouragement, I first warned him against judging the state of the world by how things look in America. There are other parts of the world, like China and Africa, where people are pressing and crowding into the Kingdom of God. Then I asked him if he had ever considered that maybe we are still in the early church.
He was visibly startled by this suggestion. It was as though I had stolen his hope. But I was calling him to a broader Christian perspective on current events–globally and historically. This is the theme of my Worldmag column this week, “American Decline is Not the End.”
In his new book, On China, Henry Kissinger suggest that in our dealings with China it is well to remember that they see the world and history differently. They are an ancient civilization, and so they take a broader perspective on history, and are more patient in seeking their their policy goals. (Their one child policy didn’t seem to be particularly far sighted, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution seemed to pursue utopia in an awful hurry, but we’ll set that aside.) America, by contrast, is a young civilization used to a fast paced world. (Alexis de Tocqueville has a lot to add about the short-sightedness and impatience of democratic peoples.) Mao’s premier, Zhou Enlai, was once asked what he thought was the significance of the French Revolution (1789). He responded, “It’s too soon to tell.” That tells you a lot about the Chinese perspective.
It is difficult for Americans to appreciate that way of looking at the world. It is surely asking too much of Americans to adopt if for themselves. Christians, even Christian Americans, are another matter.
The Christian’s perspective on current events should be more like that of the Chinese. Though American history is short and has a record of fairly steady advance, a Christian’s citizenship is fundamentally in the Kingdom of God which, like China, is thousands of years old, filled with rise and decline and developments that span centuries.
When we observe the immorality, social disintegration, and national decline in our day, we are tempted to think, “The end is near!” But for a Christian, until the Lord returns, every end is the beginning of a new chapter for the Kingdom that will never end. Every setback is a repositioning for Kingdom advance. “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The persecution of Christians in Jerusalem and the subsequent fall of that holy city was a Diaspora of faith to the world. Barbarian invasion, whether by Gauls or Vikings, has meant barbarian conversion. “Plunder me, but carry away my faith,” is a Kingdom response to invasion, albeit through tears and bathed in blood.
For the few years, my pastor has been encouraging us to think of the consequences of our kingdom labors in terms of their effects on our great-great-great grandchildren and beyond. Many of the blessings we enjoy today, whether church buildings, Christian colleges, or classics of Christian literature have come down to us because of the faithful labors of those who preceded us by many generations. Perhaps you came to faith in part because an ancestor in Christ prayed for you in Puritan New England, in Hugenot France, or in your great grandfather’s prayer closet. The Kingdom perspective, being broadly Kingdom-oriented and grace-dependent, is patient and far-seeing.
David C. Innes is associate professor of politics at The King’s College in New York City, and co-author of the forthcoming Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media).