By Bridgett Green, Assistant Professor of New Testament
Many Christians, having prayed “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” for their entire lives, treasure “kingdom” language. Other Christians strongly shy away from language heavily associated with imperialism, colonialism, oppression, and dominance—all antithetical to the liberating message of the gospel. In the 1990s, Cuban-American theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz responded to these concerns by authoring a ground-breaking essay, “Kin-dom of God: A Mujerista Proposal.” 1 Kindom is intended to reflect a modern understanding of God’s activity in and through Christian communities, connoting inclusion, care, mutual support, solidarity, and unity in an ethic that calls us to treat one another as family. By the turn of the millennium, finding that Isasi-Díaz’s neologism best expressed their understanding of Jesus’s preaching and call to discipleship, many Christians began to speak of the “kindom of God.”
In this essay I will make clear why “kingdom” is problematic, and I will com- mend “kindom.” However, I will also suggest “kindom” is not without its challenges, and I will argue that “kingdom” can also call Christians to participate in God’s transformative work of love and justice. I will explain how both metaphors contain promise and peril theologically and ecclesiastically.
As noted, Ada María Isasi-Díaz introduced “kin-dom” into the ecclesial lexicon through her work “Kin-dom of God: A Mujerista Proposal.” Her thinking about this concept began when Georgenne Wilson, a Franciscan nun, introduced her to the neologism in the 1970s. 2 During this time, feminist movements were beginning to influence scholars, ministers, and practitioners. They all began to wrestle, Isasi- Diaz says, “with the patriarchal and elitist implications of ‘kingdom of God.’”3
While the metaphor “kingdom of God” is familiar and comforting to many Christian communities, kingdom language can seem discordant with a gospel that brings “down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). A kingdom is a sociopolitical, hierarchal system where one individual or family is supreme ruler over a collective. In stark contrast, Jesus’s preaching is about healing and restoration of all aspects of life for humanity. His teaching and ministry were so disruptive that the State had him publicly executed (cf. Mark 15; Matthew 27; Luke 23; John 18-19). Despite Jesus’s disruptive preaching and ministry, “kingdom” still names an oppressive form of polity. Samuel’s warning to Israel about kings (and “strong man” equivalents in diverse polities) remains prescient: they will take your sons as soldiers, make your daughters into perfumers and domestic staff, seize the best lands for their own courtiers (cf. 1 Samuel 8:10–18).
As a New Testament scholar, I join those who think that since the biblical Greek says “kingdom of God,” we should analyze, critique, and assess what impact the writers intended with their use of that term. Still, I think Isasi-Diaz makes a strong point when she asserts that the metaphor has been used widely primarily because it bolsters institutions’ work to preserve and exercise patriarchal power. She writes, “The fact that ‘kingdom of God’ has remained the governing metaphor for Jesus’s vision of a world order centered on justice and peace, speaks more to the interests of those who exercise power in the churches—institutionalized Christianity—than to the relevance it has in the lives of the common people, of the people of God.” 4 Insofar as patriarchal talk of “God’s kingdom” has lent an aura of divine sanction to sexist and oppressive family, social, and political dynamics, it must be explicitly criticized in the name of the gospel.
Such conviction led to widespread use of “kindom.” Because it is rooted in the spirit of Jesus’s teaching and his identification of his disciples as members of his family, “kindom of God” resonated with feminist interpreters in their analyses of Jesus’s struggle against all oppression, including misogyny and androcentricism.
Isasi-Díaz also observes that Jesus lived and proclaimed the gospel in the context of a brutal and oppressive kingdom which was itself but a cog in a colonial empire. In Jesus’s context everyone had to relate and cope with kingdoms. In the modern context of the United States and other societies governed by democratic practices, however, kingdom is an unrelatable and potentially misleading image to use when trying to share Jesus’s proclamation of God’s beloved community. As a result, while Isasi-Díaz acknowledges that “kingdom” was used by the Gospel writers and Jesus, and while she affirms its relevance for first-century Palestine, she still concludes that the “analogical thinking that guides the use of the gospels in our daily life is impeded or made less rich by the use of the ‘kingdom of God,’ a metaphor that, at best, has little relevancy in our twenty-first century lives.”5
For Isasi-Diaz, “kindom” better reflects Jesus’s familial understandings of the community of disciples.6 Jesus envisioned an extended family with God as father. He announces that all who hear the word of God and do it are his family (Luke 8:21; cf. Mark 3:31-35 and Matthew 12:46-50). Further, Jesus links discipleship to membership in the family of God, saying that any who have left their blood relatives for the sake of the good news will receive back hundredfold in relationships and resources now and in the coming age (Mark 10:29-30, Luke 18:29-30, and Matthew 19:29). Jesus creates and grounds his community of disciples in the principles of kinship—and kinship with God comes not through blood relations but through participation in the duties and responsibilities proclaimed in the Torah and by the Prophets. “Kindom” evokes these values in horizontal relationships among all God’s beloved children, calling disciple communities to live into familial ideals of inclusion, mutual support, and sharing of resources.
Isasi-Díaz celebrates the “kindom” especially because it resonates with the centrality of family in Latinx cultures. She explains that the familial bond in Latinx cultures extends far beyond the nuclear family. “Hardly any Latina/o family,” explains Isasi-Díaz, “is without non-blood relatives who have the same duties and privileges as blood relatives.”7 For this reason, within Latinx cultures, extended kinship ties ground clarion calls for solidarity. Isasi-Díaz notes how communities would evoke being of the same blood to protest for peace among opposing parties in political and military struggles, for kinship trumps orders for violence or injustice.8
This is the expansive sense of family to which Bishop Oscar Romero appealed when he exhorted the soldiers in El Salvador in 1980 before his assassination. He reminded them of Jesus’s vision of kinship, reminded them that we are all children of God, that we are connected through an honor code that values all, that provides security and a foundation for each person to be able to extend themselves into the community without losing their identity and sense of self. 9
Isasi-Díaz also lifts up the importance of compadrazgo and commadrazgo—of godparents, godchildren, and the parents of godchildren—as part of the process of extending kinship bonds. All these relationships are rooted in love and fidelity, and insofar as they are understood in terms of kinship, talk of the “kinship of God” is profoundly moving and faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Mujerista theology is also careful to critique ideals of family rooted in sexism and homophobia. Isasi-Díaz defines "mujerista" as a self-identifying term among Latinas in the United States, “who are keenly aware of how sexism, ethnic prejudice, and economic oppression subjugate” them and “use mujerista theology to refer to the explanations of our faith and its role in our struggle for liberation.”10
Therefore, she pointedly writes, Mujeristas do not endorse the patriarchal family with its authoritarian and hierarchal structures. Neither does it endorse understanding family as being only those constituted by heterosexual couples. As a matter of fact, familias not centered in a heterosexual couple are plentiful in our communities: familias headed by single mothers, by the mother and the grandmother or aunt, by a mother and a neighbor, and more recently by fathers and the grandmothers, aunts, or sister.11
Mujerista theology expands the paradigm of kinship so that it is an inclusive term that forgoes narrow blood-line or patriarchal definitions. In that way, it aligns with Jesus’s proclamation, for Jesus’s vision of his and our relationship to God as “father” is different from the hierarchical structure of paterfamilias, which sustained the imperial world order, oppression, and injustice, and created systems of exclusion to the benefit of elite families.
While not explicitly designated as a metaphor for God’s activity in the scriptures, then, “kindom of God” language expresses “kingdom of God” values as established in the messages of the gospel. As Isasi-Díaz says, “Kin-dom of God as a metaphor includes the meaning that ‘kingdom’ had for Jesus and his community while neither endorsing nor sustaining the oppressive understandings that have been added to it throughout history.”12
The Peril of “Kindom” and the Promise of “Kingdom”
It is telling, of course, that we need to caution against patriarchal understandings of kinship. Notably, in Greco-Roman society, extended household systems were integral to survival and success. Unlike the modern US construct of the ideal nuclear family, ancient domestic units included cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents as part of the family unit. The “family” may have extended beyond blood relatives to include multiple families, all united through a fictive kinship rooted in socioeconomic patron-client relationships which sometimes brought entire communities together under the protection and leadership of a patron. This patron system has features perilously inconsistent with Jesus’s vision.
A patron system involves a transactional relationship between a patron and client. K.C. Hanson and Douglas Oakman explain, “Patrons are elite persons (male or female) who can provide benefits to others on a personal basis because of a combination of superior power, influence, reputation, position, and wealth.” 13 Clients receive economic and social support: employment, loans, education, training, housing, and references. In exchange, clients gave support, votes, and the appearance of importance through tributes and entourages; additionally, they owed labor, debts, and taxes to their patron or familial lord. These familial as well as fictive kinships were bound into political hierarchies wherein some families dominated other families. 14 In ancient Roman society, one’s survival depended upon maintaining strong relationships in the patronage system. At the pinnacle of all other families reigned the family of the Caesar, upon whom the Roman Senate regularly conferred the title pater patriae, father of the country. 15 In this way kinship structures, both ancient and modern, are frequently patriarchal.
Kindom language may also be interpreted as exclusionary. Many Christian believers associate being siblings in Christ or part of God’s family as a closed society that only includes other believers. The New Testament provides justification for this insular orientation. The Gospels note that Jesus claims as siblings those who hear and do the word of God and follow him. Paul’s epistles greet members of the house churches as siblings. The commandment to love one another as siblings who are children of God in 1 John refers only to other believers. This insular view of kindom also allows for abdication of commitment to people outside our Christian communities.
An additional peril is the challenge of having and maintaining accountability within kinships. Loyalty, responsibility, mutual care, and support are voluntary actions within a family that are at times sustained by rigid bonds of legacy, culture, taboo, shame, and indebtedness; written rules do not prescribe proper conduct for life together. However, besides trust and faith, nothing guarantees unconditional respect, justice, equity, shared responsibility, or inclusion within the family unit. The lack of accountability increases when communities try to apply kinship language to not only non-blood relatives, but to those who seem different, unfamiliar, and even foreign. The ties that are supposed to bind—even the gospel message and Jesus’s teachings—sometimes are not strong enough to overcome prejudice, selfinterest, and self-preservation.
Finally, many families do not resemble Jesus’s ideal for kinship. From the beginning, the scriptures are brutally realistic about families (the story of the very first family includes jealousy, lies, and murder of one brother by another). For many in our own contexts, family dynamics include disrespect, disloyalty, manipulation, and abuse. For some, the first thoughts that “kin” or “family” provoke are traumatic.
Those are the perils of “kindom” language, but they are clearly contrary to what Jesus envisions when he uses the model of a loving, mutually supportive family as one of the manifestations of God’s kingdom. His ideal family is bound together by shared interests and value and not by blood. Headed by God as loving parent, this kinship participates in the covenantal love of God and of neighbor as taught by the Torah and the Prophets. This kinship values and cares for the most vulnerable in the community and also for strangers; it seeks justice, refuge, and healing for all and provides mutual support for living and enjoying life. In contrast to the concerns of the paterfamilias, Jesus’s family focuses upon those without power, privilege, and prestige. But when dealing with real people who know only hurtful family dynamics, we must remember that there is peril in using “kindom.”
Close attention to context also alerts us to the promise of “kingdom.” The people of Israel suffered over the centuries from repeated defeat before imperial powers. By Jesus’s time, Israel had endured over 700 years of colonial subjugation—centuries of violence, turmoil, exile, and generational traumas. Colonization in the Hellenistic period under Greek and then Roman rule was exceptionally cruel and devastating. Almost all Galileans and Judeans were economically and politically deprived through land confiscations and debilitating taxation. By Jesus’s day, 90 percent of the population lived at or below subsistence levels with even higher poverty rates in rural regions. In this context, Jesus’s message of an alternative kingdom, where the poor would receive good news and salvation from their current social death and where the rich would be sent away empty and the powerful dethroned (cf. Luke 1:52-53), brought hope and renewed faith. In this oppressive context, talk of a new kind of just kingdom would have been as perilous to proclaim as it was promising for first-century audiences to hear.
Indeed, in Mark’s introduction of Jesus’s preaching ministry, the Gospel writer quotes him saying “the time has been fulfilled; the kingdom of God (basileia tou theou) is near” (1:14). A review of Jesus’s teaching, preaching, and work in the four Gospels reveals that the kingdom of God is a multifaceted space of God’s saving activity in and through Jesus that is continued in the life of discipleship. It is a spiritual, theological, political, economic, and social reality that brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed (cf. Luke 4:18). It stands in contrast to a world order that dehumanizes, demoralizes, and denigrates people. In the particular context of the Gospels, the kingdom of God is an alternative to the oppression of the Roman Empire, which colonized, subjugated, and stripped nations of their resources, autonomy, and identities.
As a theological space, the kingdom is for individual, moral transformation through encounters with Jesus that allow one to live in right relationships with God and creation. As sociopolitical space, God’s reign creates a society of liberation and dignity for all, facilitating an alternative to evil and oppressive political realms. Furthermore, God’s work through the kingdom affects the daily existence of personal lives, enabling and empowering economic, political, communal, and physical health and wellbeing. The kingdom of God affects personal lives as well through healing the sick, casting out demons, feeding the hungry, forgiving sins, and preaching the good news. Jesus preached the good news of the kingdom of God as God’s activity in the world and God’s call for humanity to participate in bringing the kingdom into fruition on earth as well as anticipation of it in the end times.
Appropriating the term that described political life in the kingdoms of the empire, Jesus offers alternative meanings for what a kingdom can and should be. The “kingdom of God” sayings of Jesus construct a radically different reality from the kingdoms and empires of the first century. 16 As Isasi-Díaz notes, “‘Kingdom of God’” refers to a world order that can be cogently understood by studying the parables, other forms of preaching Jesus used, and the miracles he worked, rather than by thinking of different actual kingdoms that Jesus and his followers knew from their history (that is, Egypt, Babylon, Persia, their own kingdom of Israel as an independent political unit, or the one they experienced daily, the Roman Empire).” 17 “This alternative world order,” says Isasi-Díaz, “is imaged as human kinship with God, thus introducing the family unit as the frame of reference for understanding what ‘kingdom of God’ refers to or connotes.” 18
On the one hand, then, the kingdom of God is an interplay of God’s activity and human participation to manifest a gospel of love, justice, reconciliation, and healing. On the other hand, kingdom language includes the specter of humiliation, subordination, punishment, exile, colonialization, sickness, poverty, as well as social, political, economic, and spiritual death. From the teachings, preaching, and actions of Jesus and later his disciples and then the church, the kingdom of God represents a promise of transformation in relationships among humanity, throughout creation, and with God. Yet, two millennia later, real-world kingdoms overwhelmingly represent peril, pain, hurt, and destruction. Add to that the inherent patriarchy of “kingdom,” and the peril associated with “kingdom” language remains clear.
Kindom and Kingdom: Concluding Thoughts
Despite their perils in conceptualizing God’s activity, “kindom” and “kingdom” both offer promise and responsibility in understanding, living, and proclaiming the gospel. The church benefits from mujerista theology’s academic scholarship, ethical orientation, and pastoral considerations. Ada María Isasi-Díaz was wise, in the face of near-exclusive use of “kingdom” with its piercing patriarchal overtones, to have retrieved the more naturally inclusive “kindom” metaphor, with its emphasis upon us all as equally valued members, beloved children, in the family of God. As we have seen, Jesus’s first-century listeners understood that both the “kindoms” and the “kingdoms” they knew were patriarchal and oppressive. They would have recognized Jesus’s clarion call to realize radically new visions of each: to struggle toward a new social order of inclusion, respect, mutual consideration, shared resources, love, and justice for all.
As presented in the proclamation of Jesus, kindom and kingdom language give us an expansive view of who we are and how we are to live as believers in Christ. The perils and promise of both metaphors reflect both the sin and grace through which God calls us God’s own. Whichever metaphor we use, it is only used rightly if it is aligned with Jesus’s justice-oriented, equitable, and inclusive message; a gospel that frees the oppressed, provides good news to the poor, and releases the captive; that heals, feeds, clothes, and even resurrects; that holds us accountable to the functioning of society as citizens of our communities and citizens of heaven (Ephesians 2:19-22; Philippians 3:20). Regardless of word choice, we are called to pray, practice, and preach God’s kin(g)dom come and God’s will be done.
1. Ada María Isasi-Díaz, “Kin-dom of God: A Mujerista Proposal,” in In Our Own Voices: Latino/a Renditions of Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2010) Compare Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twentieth Century (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996.
2. Isasi-Díaz, 179, fn. 32.
3. Isasi-Díaz, 179.
4. Isasi-Díaz, 182.
5. Isasi-Díaz, 172.
6. Since Isasí-Diaz’s essay, "kindom" has become the preferred spelling of the neologism.
7. Isasi-Díaz, 180.
8. Isasi-Díaz, 180.
9. Isasi-Díaz, 181.
10. Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Mujerista Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 1996), 60.
11. Isasi-Díaz, 181-182.
12. Isasi-Díaz, 182-183.
13. Hanson and Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2nd edition; 2008), 65.
14. Hanson and Oakman, 75.
15. Hanson and Oakman, 65.
16. Isasi-Díaz, 183.
17. Isasi-Díaz, 174-175.
18. Isasi-Díaz, 183-184.
Study Guide Questions
1. How would you describe God’s will for our societies using “kingdom” language? What are societies supposed to look like here on earth? What does Jesus teach about how Christians should participate in society?
2. Have you heard “kindom of God” used prior to reading this essay? In what ways does this descriptor of ideal Christian communities resonate with you theologically? In what ways does “kindom” not resonate?
3. Reflect on the Lord’s Prayer. As you consider God’s kingdom on earth as a spiritual space, how might its political connotations affect our understanding of the Lord’s prayer? What may Jesus be asking us to pray for when we say “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”? If we replace “kingdom” with “kindom,” how might that change the meaning of the prayer?
4. What does Christian discipleship look like when “kindom” is the primary metaphor for our participation in the proclamation of the gospel and in the mission of Jesus Christ? What does it look like when “kingdom” is the main metaphor?
5. What are ways in which Christians are called to live, in our daily lives and in participation through our churches, as the “kindom of God” and as the “kingdom of God”?
6. What do you think are the greatest perils of “kindom” language? Of “kingdom” language? How might we mitigate against these perils?
7. What do you think are the greatest strengths of “kingdom” language? Of “kindom” language?