Race Relations & Luther's Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms

 by Uwe Siemon-Netto   

WASHINGTON, September 5 (UPI) -- Is there something ultimate about the color of one's skin? Are guns in every hand, the electric chair, affirmative action, and campaign finance reform issues linked to the Gospel?

The answer is of course: No! Yet Christian denominations often act as if they were, and this contributes to a monumental scandal in contemporary America: While blacks and whites often share identical religious beliefs, a vast gulf gapes between most of their churches.

The Body of Christ is split along pigmentation lines, and thus seems an oxymoron because the Apostle Paul has made it clear that such divisions cannot be: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28)

Recently, this columnist talked about this with one of the most thoughtful African-American theologians, the Rt. Rev. Dr. George McKinney, a bishop of the huge Pentecostal and predominantly black Church of God in Christ.

McKinney suggested that the inability of most black and white evangelicals to get together might be due to a fundamental flaw in their approach to a troubling problem in Christian theology: How do you handle the discrepancies between the radical demands of the Sermon of the Mount and the structures of this world?

In other words, how does a Christian cope with the secular realities without compromising the Gospel?

McKinney made a stunning suggestion rarely heard in evangelical circles, black or white - or, for that matter, in most U.S. mainline denominations: "It is time for to us to take a serious look at Luther's Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms."

This doctrine has been a sleeper in the Anglo-Saxon world, and often been maligned, by such high-caliber Reformed scholars as Reinhold Niebuhr, an American, and Karl Barth, who was Swiss.

Yet more and more theologians are once again beginning to study it carefully. This has lead to a situation where "it is now quite common to speak of a Luther Renaissance," as William H. Lazareth, a former Lutheran bishop of Metropolitain New York, rightly states in his wonderful new book, Christians in Society, Luther, the Bible and Social Ethics (Minneapolis: fortress Press, 2001, 274 pp., $22). 

This renewed interest in the 16th-century reformer especially focuses on his insight that God's exercises twofold reign in this world.

According to Luther, every Christian is a citizen of two realms, which serve each other but should never be "brewed and cooked together," lest the Devil has his way.

There is the infinite "Kingdom to the Right," where God has revealed himself in Christ. This is the realm of the Gospel, grace, faith, love and the equality of all. It becomes a reality in this sinful world where God's Word is proclaimed, where the sacraments are administered, and where Christ forgives the believer's sins.

This spiritual realm, the church, will never vanish but be completed gloriously in the end-time.

On the other hand, there is the secular and finite "Kingdom to the Left," of which Christ has said, "My kingship is not of this world" (John 18:36). Here God will never reveal himself. But it is still his creation. The Devil is the "Left-Hand Kingdom's" bitter enemy.

In this realm natural reason is the empress, according to Luther. Reason is God's good gift to man to find his way in this world.

The "Kingdom to the Left" is the realm of the hidden God who rules the secular world through "governing authorities ... instituted by him" (Romans 13:1). They are fallible, of course, and sometimes become outright evil. But in time God intervenes and puts things right again.

In this world where man lives his biological life, there is no equality. There are superiors and subordinates, the Law requires obedience, and misdeeds are punished. But the Law is nevertheless from the hidden God.

Secular rulers may not necessarily be believers. "Better a wise Turk than a foolish Christian," Luther remarked. "It is sufficient for the Emperor to possess reason."

God's two realms are not antagonistic, however. They are to serve each other. The "Kingdom to the Right" has the task to radiate into the "Kingdom to the Left," to inform, admonish and support it by preaching the Gospel

Secular rulers, on the other hand, serve the spiritual realm by maintaining order and preventing chaos, the state from which God's creation has saved the world. In wild chaos, the Gospel cannot take its course.

Luther insisted that it is essential to make clear distinctions between the two Kingdoms. But this is precisely what has not happened in America since the heady days of the Civil Rights Movement, Bishop McKinney lamented.

As a consequence, 33 years after Martin Luther King's assassination black and white evangelicals are in most cases further apart than ever, even though their religious beliefs are almost identical.

The reason for this state of affairs is that secular issues often dominate preaching and worship. Where this occurs, Christ's kingdom does not radiate into the world. Instead, the world radiates into his realm and therefore pollutes it.

Take, on the black side, affirmative action. William H. Lazareth does not talk about it in his book. But in an interview he said, "The Gospel issue in race relations is reconciliation.

"But affirmative action is about reparations for past wrongs, and this belongs to the secular realm. It must be resolved by reason. If we place it under the Gospel, we'll destroy the Gospel."

Similarly, many white evangelicals, particularly the Christian Right, also have a propensity for emphasizing worldly subjects during election campaigns. One such issue is the alleged right to bear arms, another the affirmation of capital punishment.

Again, the Church is the wrong forum for controversies of that kind. Reason must judge whether or not every adult ought to be allowed to own a weapon.

The death penalty, too, is a matter of civil righteousness, as opposed to the righteousness before God, which the Gospel of the crucified Christ proclaims. Whether or not a murderer should be executed is a question that comes under the law of temporal rule.

In the 16th century, Luther favored the death penalty but only as a means to assure order in the secular realm. Therefore, this is something that must not be settled in the church but in the secular realm by natural reason.

Should capital punishment really prove to be a deterrent, then it may be justified as a tool to hold this temporal world together; if not, this would be a valid argument against lethal injection. Either way, the Gospel - and therefore pulpit and altar - must have no bearing on this matter.

Yet the Gospel is about reconciliation - between man and God and between man and man. If most black and white American Christians did not go their separate ways on Sundays, if they sat side by side to hear the Gospel and receive the sacraments, the Kingdom to the Right would inevitably radiate to the Kingdom to the Left.

If they really saw each other as brothers and sisters in Christ's realm it would make sense that they would deal with each other in a more brotherly way during the rest of the week. It is one of the less ingenious arguments against black-and-white church unity that worship styles differ - as if African-American ears were incapable of appreciating Bach and white ears indifferent to the beauty of Gospel music!

The key point, McKinney said, is of course the education of ministers, white or black, most of whom do not even know the doctrine of God's two-fold rule.

If there is one thing Lutherans can teach other Christians, it is this: In Christ there is neither black nor white; pigmentation is no ultimate issue. To believe otherwise is to mock the Gospel.

As for the secular world, though, the Creator has endowed us with sufficient good sense to resolve our problems reasonably without spoiling the Gospel. We are told that young Americans are now eagerly searching for answers in church history. Maybe this is a perfect time for a suggestion to people justly concerned about race relations: Let's go back almost five centuries and listen to Luther.

Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto is a religion correspondent for UPI.

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