Chapter 1

What Is the Kingdom of God?

In 1896, George Stratton, a professor at the University of California, was considering the different theories in circulation at the time about how our brains process the things we see with our eyes. In order to test his ideas, Professor Stratton became his own lab rat. He created a device he could wear over his eyes that caused him to see everything upside-down. When he was awake, he wore this contraption and forced himself to function in a newly upside-down world. Whenever he went to sleep and took off the goggles, he tied a dark blindfold over his face so that he would never see the world properly upright. For his longest experiment, he saw only an upside-down world for eight solid days. Throughout his experiments, Professor Stratton kept a detailed record of his adjustment to this new experience of visual (mis)perception. He carefully described two developments unfolding simultaneously.

Although his reversed visual perspective was initially very disorienting, he slowly adjusted to it, so that by the end of his experiments he had become thoroughly at home-at least functionally-in his new, upside-down world. His vision never corrected itself; that is, his brain never compensated by “righting” his view of the world while he wore the goggles. Everything continued to look upside-down to the professor, but he did eventually get used to it. He described how, over time, he was able to go for walks, write letters with pen and paper, reach out and grab distant objects, drink a cup of coffee, and perform any number of routine activities as if upside-down were the only way he had ever seen the world. Other scientists have reproduced Stratton’s experiment more recently and have reported similar results, with test subjects wearing their upside-down goggles as they went downhill skiing and rode a bicycle through busy intersections.

The second development is especially interesting for our current purposes. Professor Stratton also detailed a parallel process that may best be described as a mental contest developing within his own mind. While his eyes always saw the world upside-down through his goggles, his memory stood ready as a mental guardian, resisting the change by continuing to insist that the visual image was false. His mind or memory—perhaps we could say his “mind’s eye”—maintained and persistently reasserted the mental images of what it knew he should be seeing, that is, everything right-side up.

These right-side up images drawn from memory were in constant conflict with the upside-down visual images that his mind now had to register because they were the images his eyes actually perceived. Stratton’s descriptions of this mental contest sound like a perceptual tug-of-war coursing back and forth in his imagination as his mental processing tried to figure out what to do with the (seemingly) abnormal visual stimuli sent to his brain. The professor eventually describes a mental resting place that depended on whether his eyes were open or closed. As he continued to look through the goggles, Stratton became increasingly proficient at functioning in an upside-down world; his mind finally acquiesced and stopped contesting what his eyes saw. But whenever he took off the goggles and replaced them with the blindfold, so that the reversed visual images disappeared, his mind quickly relapsed into recalling the world right-side up. Now, with eyes closed, all imaginary activity occurred in the right-side-up world safely preserved within his mind. As he drifted off to sleep, Professor Stratton was, once again, a right-side-up man living in a right-side-up world.

Professor Stratton’s description of the internal perceptual tug-of-war sparked by his goggles experiment is helpful, I believe, in illustrating the sense of ethical disorientation that is often experienced by Jesus’s disciples, ancient and modern, as they begin to think through the practical, real-life implications of implementing Jesus’s teaching. It has become a truism to acknowledge that Jesus’s view of acceptable behavior among his followers is anything but intuitive .

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God; but woe to you who are rich (matthew 5:3; luke 6:24; my paraphrase).

Blessed are those who go hungry, for you will be filled; but woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry (matthew 5:6; luke 6:25; my paraphrase).

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you (luke 6:27–31, niv 84).

This short collection of Gospel sayings only scratches the surface of what several scholars have described as the upside-down, counterintuitive character of Jesus’s ethical teaching.

Observing the upside-down nature of the teaching is one thing; figuring out what to do with it in real life is another matter altogether. Here is where Professor Stratton’s visual experiment offers a useful analogy for any disciple trying to implement Jesus’s upside-down ethic in today’s apparently right-side-up world.

Defining what is normal is often a matter of familiarity. If we have known only one way of doing things, then it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine doing those things in any other way. That is, until someone with a broader range of experience than ours steps in and demonstrates a new, previously unthought-of alternative, an alternative that may be perfectly natural for the other person. Scientists call this a “paradigm.”

Jesus introduced just such a paradigm shift for his listeners when he announced the arrival of God’s kingdom and described the alternative, counterintuitive behaviors he expected of his disciples, who were new kingdom citizens. Let’s face it. On the surface, a great deal of Jesus’s ethical teaching sounds ridiculous by any sensible standard. We live in a world where, generally speaking, the rich and the well-fed are considered blessed, fortunate, safe, and secure, whereas the poor and the hungry deserve our sympathy-and maybe our donations-but certainly not our envy.

Refusing all claims to retribution (no matter how lawful), allowing others to take advantage of our generosity, offering unmeasured, unqualified benevolence that never expects repayment, not even a tax deductible receipt, is not only upside-down behavior, it is downright irresponsible in many people’s minds. Yet, such upside-down actions are precisely what Jesus says will characterize genuine members of the kingdom of God.

By deciding to follow Jesus, his followers must put on the upside-down goggles of kingdom morality. Initially, Jesus’s way of seeing the world will be disorienting, maybe even frightening. Living as kingdom citizens demands that Jesus’s disciples take significant risks; at the very least, true discipleship will appear risky from the perspective of our natural and conventional way of viewing life’s decisions.

While we were studying the Sermon on the Mount together in a class, one of my students exclaimed that Jesus could not possibly have meant for us to take his teaching literally. Living out the Sermon on the Mount in any straightforward way, she said, would mean the extinction of the church. Christians would be massively exploited and oppressed out of existence! In lodging this protest, my student was vividly expressing the internal tug-of-war that begins immediately once a person considers Jesus’s kingdom ethic seriously. It is a contest over our heart, mind, will, and obedience.