From Kingdom to Kin-dom—and Beyond
by Reta Halteman Finger
It all started with a simple question among members on the EEWC-CFT group email list. Alena wanted to know who first coined the term “kin-dom” to replace the male-oriented, imperialistic word “kingdom” that we find in the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere in the New Testament. It grew into an extended online conversation about use of language—even though , during the discussion, we never did settle on a definitive answer to the question about the origin of “kin-dom” — a term many Christian feminists have been using for several decades.
Why the concern over kingdom terminology?
In the NRSV, the whole sentence in the Lord’s Prayer reads:
“Your kingdom come,
Your will be done on earth,
as it is in heaven.”
This is actually a radical political statement. It is Jesus’ alternative to the Roman Empire. It is asking God to set up God’s reign on earth instead of the martial, stratified, and repressive reign of Caesar. (It is, I might add, the same idea that Paul is working with in 1 Corinthians—see “Reta’s Reflections” blog on this website.)
The word “kingdom” is used here because the statement is political, and there is no alternative term in that world—even though God’s reign through Jesus is radically upside down from Caesar’s and not at all martial or imperialist.
A New Society
We should also note that Jesus envisions God’s reign (or New Society) to take place on earth, not in some faraway heaven. This is consistent with all the Gospels, Paul, Revelation, and as far as I know, the whole New Testament. Thus one cannot escape political connotations.
I think “kin-dom” is a good word and better reflects the kind of society Jesus envisions—as a shared community of equals who serve each other. But in the political context of that day, and in the literary context of the sentence, the term “kingdom” was easily understood—as well as in the 1600s when the King James Bible was translated.
But in the larger context of the New Testament, both “kin-dom” and “kingdom” make sense. The Apostle Paul plants small house churches, and when he writes to them, he calls them adelphoi—sisters and brothers—united in a kin-group not by blood but in a common loyalty to the Lord Jesus, over against the Lord Caesar. To these tiny outposts, Paul promises the coming victory of God over all other empires, through the return of his representative, Jesus.
Changing language that has been memorized and is deep in many Christians’ ritual practice is not easy. Perhaps the best we can do is teach and explain what we know whenever possible—and keep using kin-dom language ourselves. (For example, I feminize God in our congregational singing to make up for everyone else’s masculine language.) For more on “kingdom” and “kin-dom,” see my article in Sojourners magazine.
Kingdom is not the only term with a changed meaning today
Another religio-political term that has drastically shifted meaning through changing times and cultures is the cross of Jesus. It hangs behind the pulpits and atop the spires of many churches. Christians often hang gold crosses around their necks as the primary symbol of their faith.
But as an instrument of torture and execution for the crime of treason against Rome, the cross is anything but an object of worship. The three Synoptic Gospels, especially Mark, understand Jesus’ crucifixion as a brutal Roman punishment for a perceived threat against their hegemony. Luke is at pains to show Jesus is innocent of the crime for which he dies. Only God raising Jesus to life can vindicate that life and redeem the story.
But John’s ironic Gospel turns the cross on its head. In this plot, the despicable symbol of Roman execution now becomes part of Jesus’ ascent back to God. “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself,” says Jesus in 12:32. The author adds, “he said this in order to indicate the kind of death he was to die” (v 33). It is this writer’s way of explaining how victory and honor will be snatched from the jaws of defeat and shame. If we do not view a gold-plated cross as pure irony, we miss the point and cheapen the cost of our salvation.
As we understand the roots of our religious terms in the vocabulary of ancient empires, we can better understand their political overtones today.
Reta Halteman Finger, Ph.D., writes the “Reta’s Reflections” Bible study blog for Christian Feminism Today. A New Testament scholar, Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and continues her ministry in writing, speaking, and some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in her home city of Harrisonburg, VA. Reta is the author or coauthor of four books, the most recent of which is Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation.
© 2013 by EEWC-Christian Feminism Today