There's much to be admired about the funeral of the late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy today. An amazing crowd gathered to honor the man's epic life, a crowd that included four presidents, hundreds of Members of Congress, and dignitaries of business, labor, journalism, and religion.
Even so, the funeral homily and the litany offered by family members ought to sadden us, if we hear what was being said.
The homily offered spoke much about the kingdom of God, but the kingdom was defined in an impoverished, politicized way. And the kingdom just happened to line up with Sen. Kennedy's legislative career. The words about the kingdom, frozen as they were in the partisan debates of our little blip of history, didn't communicate the transcendence offered by the Basilica itself.
USA Today said this afternoon that my disappointment (posted on my Twitter account) was "vitriolic" compared to the "hope" offered at the funeral itself. I'm willing to be corrected, but I see neither vitriol nor hope here. Is it "vitriolic" to say that the vision of the kingdom held by the church through the ages (Catholic/Orthodox/Protestant) is more than legislation, more than politics, more than human accomplishment?
It's as though the vision of the kingdom offered at the Basilica were written by Nicodemus, before his night-time conversation with our Lord Jesus. This isn't unique to the Kennedy family. It's the way almost all of us are prone to view the kingdom, the gospel, the Christian faith.
This isn't a Catholic/Protestant divide. I've heard many, many Baptist preachers do the same thing at a celebrity funeral. This is true even when the "celebrity" is just the kind of small-pond "celebrity" of the furniture store owner who happens to be the wealthiest man in a tiny hamlet.
It's not a conservative/liberal divide either. The Religious Right establishment often confuses the kingdom with a set of legislative goals just as surely as does the Left. There are many churches and ministries whose kingdom litanies would sound just like the Kennedy funerals, except on the other side of the legislative docket.
Church leaders had the opportunity to give the Kennedy family, and the rest of the onlookers, the opportunity to hear something we all need to hear: the gospel is bigger than politics, bigger than history, and bigger than one man, even this man's, life.
They didn't, and that's sad. When given the chance to preach the kingdom, all we heard was Camelot. That's not enough for hurting people anywhere, not even for the Kennedys.
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About Russell Moore
Russell Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He formerly served as Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective (Crossway, 2004) and Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway, May 2009).
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