The ugly beauty of the kingdom of GodBy Kurt Willems
Much in the world is ugly.
Ugliness manifests itself in ways that we hope never to even imagine. Each day it confronts us when we least expect it. Depending on the day, the circumstances, or our disposition in the moment of confrontation, our responses may differ. Ugliness in a movie might bring us to tears on one occasion, but in another moment we may battle an apathetic exterior. When we find ourselves in the midst of unexpected human or animal suffering, we recollect how horrible the world can be. No matter our response, the truth is that the world is much uglier than we often realize. Forces of evil in the invisible sphere of reality partner with fallen humanity to create a wrecking ball of destruction.
Much in the world is beautiful.
Beauty, although taken for granted on a regular basis, is all around us. The leaves that slowly teeter-totter as they float toward earth on a breezy autumn day remind us that our fast-paced lives often take our gaze off of the subtle wonders of this world. The warm waters of the Costa Rican seashore invite rest or recreation depending on our longings in the moment of saturation. Even the creations of humankind can be beautiful. The wonder of flying thousands of feet above a major city as the lights dance below never ceases to evoke awe. God’s world, when stewarded well, resembles a bride dressed up for her wedding, pure beauty worthy of adoration.
The history of this world is one where the tension between ugliness and beauty keeps us guessing. Will we experience the ugly or the beauty of earth today? Something interesting continues to happen due to this tension when it comes to Christianity. Our history includes elements of both.
The church of Jesus Christ committed some of the vilest sins in the history of the world, unleashing ugliness to a beautiful world. We’ve murdered so-called heretics while failing to realize that committing murder was a worse heresy than having one’s doctrine in a perfect line. We’ve used violence to convert empires into “Christian societies.” We’ve committed genocide to clear lands for “our” people to settle. We’ve spoken favorably about wars that kill innocent men, women and children. We’ve given our local churches and families over to earning money without counting the cost. We’ve chosen to give our allegiance to nations rather than the kingdom. We’ve been ugly and sadly this isn’t news to anyone.
The church also should be commended for her incredible beauty; she is, after all, the “bride of Christ.” From early in our history we’ve looked after the “least of these,” including orphans, widows, lepers and outcasts. We’ve provided innovative healthcare throughout history. We’ve been at the forefront of most humanitarian movements. We’ve pioneered education and intellectual culture, helping to bring progress. We’ve championed prison reform. We’ve led movements to abolish slavery. We’ve created some of the most breathtaking art by choosing to partner with the Creator God as co-creators. We’ve looked like Jesus when we’ve embodied the fullness of our humanity, as image bearers of God.
Jesus brings us to the epitome of the tension between the ugly and beauty.
His life was normal in many ways. He got dirty, worked hard, played hard, rested, laughed, cried and even died. Yet, he transcends our categories for normalcy through the incarnation; Jesus is God in human flesh! This is beautiful. Not only because of Jesus’ divine essence but also his human nature. Both are inherently beautiful. Lest we think that the “ugly” of Jesus was his humanness, let’s be clear: Jesus is all beauty — in both of his natures.
The “ugly” of the Jesus story, then, is something else entirely.
Jesus experiences the ultimate corruption of beauty — dehumanizing violence on an executioner’s torture stake. The cross is ugly, but the wonder of the kingdom is that God takes on ugliness and uses it as the ultimate example of beauty. No beauty in all the earth compares to the ugly way in which Christ was condemned to die on behalf of the whole cosmos. The powers of evil that partner with the human will to create ugliness unleashed their full wrath on Messiah Jesus. Unbeknownst to the powers, both institutional and personal, both spiritual and physical, the horror of the cross is the glory of God. The greatest moment of beauty the world has ever known is told in the story of a God who died for God’s enemies. This is what it looks like when ugliness and beauty collide. This is the ugly–beauty of the kingdom of God.
Although church history contains some of the excessive examples of ugliness that history remembers, it also brought forth (and continues to reveal) glimpses of beauty. Perhaps a time is coming when we Christians will be known for the unlikely pairing of beauty and ugliness, just like Jesus showed us as he died as a revolutionary for the very people who executed him. If we are truly becoming like our teacher as we gather and are sent as communities of faith, then we might find ourselves partnering with his Father in making hideous things, gorgeous — ugly things, beautiful.
Kurt Willems (M.Div., Fresno Pacific) is an Anabaptist writer preparing for church planting project with Urban Expression and the Brethren in Christ. He writes at the Pangea Blog and is also on Twitter and Facebook.
Comment on the blog post The ugly beauty of the kingdom of God
Please keep comments civil. MWR editors reserve the right to remove any comment. When posting a comment, you agree to the MWR Comments Policy. Name and comment will be posted; commenters are strongly encouraged to give their full name. Email address is for follow-up only and will not be made public.