THERE has been a dramatic rehanging of paintings at
Tate Britain, and they are now lined up in strict chronological
order rather than by artist, movement, or school.
The reordering prompted me to look afresh at an old
chocolate-box favourite: John Everett Millais's The Boyhood of
Raleigh, with the young Walter Raleigh listening intently to
the stories of a sailor who is pointing out to sea.
It is a painting that evokes the power that ideas can
exercise within human history. Everything that Raleigh represents -
world exploration, the beginning of a new global awareness -
starts with ideas planted in the mind. These ideas, like seeds,
propagate from something hidden and inward into concrete
historical actions and realities.
We do not often think of Jesus as a
significant thinker with world-changing ideas, but this is an
oversight. Jesus's teaching that we should extend love even to our
persecutors, and that our forgiveness should have no limits is in
itself astonishing. But Jesus expands this ethic into a radical
ideal of political order: the Kingdom of God, in which every
individual is loved and recognised as a full and equal
Perhaps we are so familiar with the
sound of this teaching that it is easy to forget both its
distinctiveness and the challenge it poses to all forms of
self-interested human politics.
WE HAVE to look back two centuries, to the Christian
philosopher Georg Hegel, to find arguably the most dramatic account
of the power of Christian ideas. For Hegel, Jesus is essentially an
ethical and political prophet who lives only for the proclamation
of a truth "of colossal boldness", and is crucified as "a martyr
to the truth".
Christ is like Millais's seaman,
whose prophetic hand stretches out towards the horizon. We sit
like the young Raleigh, lost in wonder at what we are hearing about
the Kingdom. For Hegel, the Kingdom is the very idea of God
himself taking the form of human community. When at last we find
it, at the far end of the twisting road of history, this Kingdom is
a community of peace, free from violence, and in whose service we
find perfect freedom.
For Hegel, the "idea" of God is much
more than a political theory, it is the engine of human history; a
restless, questing idea that is powerful enough to create and
pires, to raise up heroes, and bring down rulers. Humanity is
powerless in the face of its inevitability.
The destiny of this idea is already fixed; it will
succeed, given time, in creating a peaceful universal kingdom on
earth. Human history is simply the story of this idea's working
itself out, as year succeeds year.
Sometimes, its achievements will be obvious, as
democracies replace tyrannies. At other times, its ways will be
dark and mysterious, as the good are defeated and evil seems to
prosper. But good will out, because this idea is more cunning than
any of its enemies. It will rule us all, eventually. As Hegel puts
it: "Humanity must transpose itself into this
THE power of the Kingdom does not come from physical
strength - after all, it is only a thought, thinner even than air.
Its power comes from its truth, from spiritual necessity. To
contest it would be like trying to wrestle an angel, or fight a
mathematical equation: its correctness does not depend on our
agreement. The Kingdom will happen - with or without our
A few people that Hegel calls "world historical
individuals" are able to discern the development of the idea of the
Kingdom in their own age, and force a global shift in our thinking.
These people are not necessarily Christian, but nevertheless have
become servants of the idea of God.
Nelson Mandela could be considered one of these. He
managed to embody the idea of radical forgiveness in an age of
mass communication, so that the world was forced to pay
attention. In loving his oppressors before an international TV
audience, Mandela showed us how forgiveness can dismantle even
the most fanatical system of oppression.
WE HAVE only to leaf through a few parish magazines
and diocesan newspapers to realise that churches are not properly
focused on the colossal and bold ideas in Jesus's teaching.
Increasingly, churches focus their energies on trying to make
people religious rather than trying to transform society into the
shape of the Kingdom.
Religious activity is regarded as an achievement in
its own right. Increases in Sunday attendance and additional of
acts of worship are taken to be advances in God's Kingdom, while
broken people and broken communities are all around us.
The invitation to join the church is rarely pitched
as the chance to be part of a movement that can change the
political order. Normally, church membership is advertised as an
opportunity to participate in religious activities, to attend
religious events - to become one who adds to the number registered
on the parish roll.
In contrast, the ideas that Jesus
outlines to his followers involve no religion at all. Instead, he
speaks of bringing good news to the poor, healing for the
broken-hearted, release to captives, sight to the blind, and
freedom to the oppressed. These are phrases that we are unlikely
to find in any parish mission-statement. This does not mean that
religion has no part to play, but that it must be in service to the
If the Church of England is looking for a New
Years's resolution, it could consider putting Jesus's big ideas
about the Kingdom back at the centre of its mission. This would
require a massive readjustment of priorities away from
"cultic" religious activity and towards ethical and political
engagement. But there would, in truth, be nothing very strange
about this move. After all, Jesus himself tells us to seek first
the Kingdom; the strange thing is that we are not doing more of
The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is author of 50
Key Concepts in Theology (DLT, 2007).