Skip to main content

A rambling book review: 'The Upside Down Kingdom'

Somehow, I made it through five years in two Anabaptist colleges without reading Donald B. Kraybill’s The Upside-Down Kingdom, considered a classic and seminal work in New Testament and Kingdom studies. But recently, I picked up the 25th anniversary edition (an updated version of the classic) and was glad I did. Kraybill accomplishes what he set out to do: show us just how “upside-down” and radical Jesus' Kingdom was in that first century Palestine—and how just as radical and upside-down it is today.

What does Kraybill mean by an “upside-down Kingdom”? Early on, Kraybill defines the Kingdom as the “dynamic rule or reign of God” that’s “dynamic, always becoming, spreading, and growing.” It “points us not to the place of God but to God’s ruling activities.” It “thrives here and now” and “appears whenever women and men submit their lives to God’s will.”

And this rule of God, this Kingdom that Jesus ushers in, is a new order, one that breaks “in upon, and overturning, old ways, old values, old assumptions,” shattering “the assumptions which govern our lives.” In this Gospels, Kraybill points out, this hits us right away:
Good Guys turn out to be Bad Guys. Those we expect to receive rewards get spankings. Those who think they are headed for heaven land in hell. Things are reversed. Paradox, irony and surprise permeate the teachings of Jesus. They flip our expectations upside down. The least are greatest. The immoral receive forgiveness and blessings. Adults become like children. The religious miss the heavenly banquet. The pious receive curses—shattering our assumptions. Things aren’t the way we expect them to be.
Kraybill goes onto to explore Jesus’ “upside-down” teachings and actions in the Gospels and how they apply to our lives today. I’m not going to summarize his insights and explorations because a) I don’t think I could do them justice and, b) I think you should read this book for yourself, heh. Instead, I’m going to hit on some aspects of the book I appreciated.

In the preface to this latest edition, Kraybill writes:

Sometimes it’s hard to see Jesus because he comes to us through the filters of twenty centuries of church history. Our images of him may come from storybooks, bumper stickers, or theological words we hardly understand. In many ways, Christians have domesticated Jesus, taming him to fit our culture and time. In retelling the story, I have tried to peel off some of the filters so we can see him more clearly in his own cultural setting. It’s of course impossible to reconstruct all the details, but when we remove some of the filters, we often discover a very different Jesus than the one who came to us in Sunday school. He may be a Jesus we never knew before.
And strip away Kraybill does. Kraybill puts Jesus in context of his surroundings—political, social/economic and religious—which gave me a great deal of insight into just how radical his teachings are, as well as giving them depth and nuances I’ve missed.

Jesus grew up and taught in a tumultuous political climate. In the 500 years before Jesus was born, says Kraybill, the Jewish people experienced the loss of their nation-state and “were tossed among the great powers of the Middle East: Babylon, Persia, Greece, Egypt, Syria and finally Rome.”

We can read a sentence like that and not get how violent, oppressive and horrible that kind of history really is. Kraybill paints that picture very well. Essentially, Palestine was a kind of buffer zone shuttled back and forth between major world powers. The Jewish people lived in an almost constant occupied territory battered by changing armies and political powers. But these powers didn’t just occupy the land with their forces; they forced their culture, laws, customs and religions on the occupied territories as well. Many of these powers sought to assimilate the people, not just their land.

The Jews, like many other people groups who are forcefully occupied, fought to maintain their religion and political autonomy. Sometimes, this was done in civil disobedience. Sometimes, covertly. And sometimes militarily. As the Jews fought for their state, thousands upon thousands of them were slaughtered, rounded up as slaves and oppressed. It was a volatile, dangerous time—not unlike many places around the world today. I think of Darfur, Northern Uganda, the Kurds under Hussein, the former Soviet countries under communism, Bosnia, Palestine—the list goes on. There was a lot of anger and deep hatred. To remember that Jesus grew up and walked and taught in a climate such as this does indeed strip away some of the story-book images and ideas we have about him and the Kingdom he ushered in.

I also really appreciated Kraybill’s exploration of social grouping and how he approached power in the context of the Kingdom. If I’m reading him right, Kraybill straightforwardly acknowledges the presence and need for social grouping as well as the reality that each of us have differing levels of power at our disposal. While Jesus’ Kingdom is indeed “flat,” the point isn’t to eradicate these realities, but to uncover what they look like, their misuses and how they are redeemed and function in the Kingdom. His exploration reminds me of a recent post on using labels in the church by Scot McKnight, whose comment near the end of the post’s comments section seems to sum up what I’m getting from both Kraybill and McKnight: “Is anyone saying we don’t need labels? Of course we do. The post is about how to use labels.” I like this kind of discussion because it is real-world grappling with how to live with the here-and-now. Good stuff.

I also really liked Kraybill’s section about how the “social skins” (institutions, programs, etc.) we come up with as we live-together in the Kingdom are “the servant structures the church creates to do its work” but they “are not . . . the church or the kingdom.” I’ve already talked about that, so for more on that go here.

When I finished the book, I felt deep appreciation for being reminded of how Kingdom-living is incarnational. Kraybill reminds us that we live by a different sight, vision and set of values. The Christian community—this living-together of disciples of Jesus—“embodies God’s design for human integrity, wholeness and shalom.” That’s very different from the culture around us, so this “upside-down” Kingdom living can’t help but play out in the grit and dirt of that world, in how we live with and what we do with money, power, injustice, enemies, the outcasts and lost.

But perhaps because of my recent musings over our tendencies to make our living-together-in-the-kingdom center around programs, institutions and ministries, I wish I could know more about what Kraybill thinks about our day-to-day as-we-go life and what that looks like. We often respond to biblical calls to social justice and incarnational living with programs and structured ministries—which definitely isn’t a bad thing. But perhaps our efforts are over-focused in that direction and perhaps the Kingdom is hobbled when we put our main focus into programs and organizations rather than our day-to-day as-we-go living-together. What does that kind of incarnational living-together Kraybill calls for mean as we break bread and share our lives as-we-go? What does it look like outside of institutions and programs and organized efforts? I heartily echo Kraybill’s call to live out Jesus’ Kingdom in the social, political and economic world around us—ones to which we will often walk counter to prevailing culture. But I think one of the weaknesses of the current way we do church is to grasp these calls and turn them into programs rather than explore and live out what that means in our homes, neighborhood, work and as-we-go.

The Upside-Down Kingdom is a very good read. Thoughtful and thought-provoking. And I highly recommend it. Enjoy!

(Image: book cover and art, MPH)