The Social Contract and the Kingdom of God

On the compatibility of basic social conceptions
with the Kingdom of God

by Urs Eigenmann, Religious Socialist Union of Switzerland.

1. Society on the brink of reconstruction

The globalisation of the economy, with a tendency to universal and complete domination by neoliberal, deregulated market forces in the service of the accumulation of capital, has led to such economic, socio-political and cultural-ideological changes, that the national consensus appears to be endangered and the debate about a new social contract has been initiated. Against this background, criteria for a new social contract must be sought; they must be oriented on that vision which is associated with the kingdom of God and his justice, the vision of a fulfilled life for all human beings. Starting from the central position, wealth of substance, complex structure and differentiated hermeneutics of the kingdom of God, thetic elements of a compatibility-test between basic social conceptions and the kingdom of God will here be formulated.

2. The kingdom of God and God’s justice for the earth

2.1. Central Status
According to the testimony of the Synoptic Gospels, the kingdom of God (or the kingdom of heaven) was Jesus' primary concern. At the beginning of his public life he said: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mk 1,14f.)! In the Sermon on the Mount he exhorted his disciples: "But seek first his (God's, U.E.) kingdom and his justice, and all these things shall be yours as well." (Mt 6,33). The central prayer in the Our Father is: "Your kingdom come" (Lk 11,2). The kingdom of God was likened by Jesus to a hidden treasure (cf. Mt 13,44) and a pearl of great price (cf. Mt 13,45). The kingdom of God (or heaven) is therefore not just one of many subjects and not just a locally restricted factor, but a universally deciding one. Leonhard Ragaz put it this way: "The Bible has only one content from the beginning to the end: the proclamation of the living God and of the kingdom and his justice for the earth."

2.2. Wealth of Substance
The kingdom of God comprises a great wealth of substance. In the course of history it has, over long stretches of time, been curtailed through individualistic privatisation, supposedly apolitical spiritualisation and ideological emphasis on the hereafter, or it has been misused for the establishment of claims to political or ecclesiastical supremacy, respectively for the justificaton of revolutionary violence.

Option for the disadvantaged

At the beginning of his public life, in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus' primary concerns are summarised programmatically when he applies to himself the words which he has read from the book of Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are opressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." (Lk 4,18f.). Jesus was therefore putting himself on the side of the poor, of prisoners and the blind and was not an accomplice of the rich, the mighty and the religious or ideological leaders. The works of Jesus, his preaching and his understanding of the kingdom of God will now be more closely specified with regard to the aforementioned social sectors (the economy, politics and culture/religion/ideology), in an exemplary manner and with no claim to entirety.


The preferred recipients of the kingdom of God are the poor (cf. Mt 9,10f. par.), whereas the rich remain excluded from it (cf. Mt 19,23f. par.). These poor are not simply needy but poverty-stricken, members of the lowest class of society. Among other ways, Jesus lived his solidarity with the poor in his variously witnessed practice of calling for the sharing of bread and fish, in order that all should be satisfied (cf. Mt 14,13-21 par.). He did not seek to organise the distribution of essential goods by means of money, but to achieve it through sharing (cf. Mk 6,36f. par.). In the parables of the rich farmer, the ravens, and the lilies (cf. Lk 12,16-31), Jesus pleads against an economy of enrichment and for an economy of justice, which orients itself on God's universal care for a life of dignity for all creatures and which is bound up with the striving for the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 12,31).


In seeking the company of the despised tax collectors and sinners at table (cf. Mt 9,10f. par.), Jesus broke through social barriers. He told the high priests and the elders of the people that tax collectors and harlots would enter the kingdom of God before them (cf. Mt 21,31). The pharisees (and some scribes) reproached him for eating with tax collectors and sinners, and called him a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (cf. Lk 7,34 par.), and his relations declared him to be out of his wits (cf. Mk 3,21). The kingdom of God held for Jesus a critical view of the family: "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother" (Mk 3,33-35 par.). For him, children have access to the kingdom of God (cf. Mk 10,13-16), and with women he was above social restrictions (cf. Jn 4,1-26). Often he overcame the social isolation of the sick, lepers and those who were possessed, even on the sabbath day (cf. Mk 1,30f.40-44 par.).

Cultural / religious / ideological

In his contact with lepers, Jesus broke through the bounds drawn between clean and unclean (cf. Lk 17,11-19). He explicitly established a connection between delivery from demons, and the kingdom of God : "But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Mt 12,28 par.). Jesus' battle with the religious leaders was, in the end, a battle for God and about which practice is connected with faith in which god. In the story of the healing of the paralytic (cf. Mk 2,1-12) the God of the scribes, who sanctioned the conditions of the time, and the God of Jesus, who healed and delivered, are irreconcilable with each other.

Fundamental criticism of the system

Of the utmost importance for Jesus' understanding of the kingdom of God is his criticism of unjust social structures. He was not only available to individuals who were on the fringes of society, but he also attacked the very circumstances which led to economic disadvantage, political domination and cultural/religious/ideological regimentation. This is demonstrated by his attack on the temple as the economic, political and religious centre of Palestinian society (cf. Mk 11,15-19 par.; Jn 2,13-16). By driving out the buyers and the traders, Jesus put a stop to the business of the licensed temple merchants; by overturning the tables of the money-lenders, he prevented the further exploitation of the people, who were then not able to borrow the necessary money for the temple tax at a fixed rate from the temple bank; by driving out the pigeon dealers, he prevented the poor from bringing sacrifice; ultimately, Jesus deprived the temple of divine - and therefore of any - legitimation, when he declared that the temple was no longer a house of prayer, but a den of robbers (cf. Mk 11,17).

The universal feast as a subversive metaphor for the kingdom of God

Probably the richest metaphor for the kingdom of God is that of the wedding feast (cf. Mt 22,1-10) or banquet (cf. Lk 14,15-24). This illustrates what Jesus thought; that he understood the kingdom of God as a reversal of the social order, because the first shall be last and the last first (cf. Lk 13,29 par.). It is the essence of a feast that everyone has enough to eat and drink. It is important at a feast that there is room for everyone and nobody is excluded. And finally, a feast that is more than a mere respite from the drabness of everyday life is the celebration of a good life for all mankind. This would be according to the mind of Jesus, who came that all may have life, and have it abundantly (cf. Jn 10,10). The parables of the wedding feast, respectively of the banquet, can "...serve to ground all of those aphorisms, dialogues, and parables [of Jesus, U.E.] concerning the Kingdom of God" . The guests whom the host causes to be called are, according to Luke, "the poor and maimed and blind and lame", together with others from the country roads (Lk 14,21-23) and according to Matthew "bad and good" (Mt 22,10) in that order: bad and good. “But if one actually brought in anyone off the street, one could, in such a situation, have classes, sexes, and ranks all mixed up together. Anyone could be reclining next to anyone else, female next to male, free next to slave, socially high next to socially low, and ritualy pure next to ritually impure. And a short detour through the cross-cultural anthropology of food and eating underlines what a social nightmare that would be.” In the cross-cultural anthropology this type of company at table is known as "open commensality" an open commensality, an eating together, without using table as a miniature map of society’s vertical discriminations and lateral separations. The social challenge of such equal or egalitarian commensality is the parable’s most fundamental danger and most radical threat ... The Kingdom of God as a process of open commensality ... clashes fundamentally with honour and shame, those basic values of ancient Mediterranean culture and society.”

2.3. Complex Structure
The kingdom of God has a complex structure and comprises at least five areas of tension, the poles of which neither simply exist side by side nor stand dualistically opposite to each other, but are dialectically co-ordinated and must both be radically emphasised.

Gift of God and obligation

The kingdom of God is a radical gift of God, which however just as radically puts the faithful under an obligation. It is ”... according to the bible, entirely God’s work inasmuch as it comes entirely from Him, inasmuch as man could never ever create it, with all his art and all his might, inasmuch as he could never add a nail to its completion, as he could at most build Babylonian towers, if it did not come from God. That is one half of the truth ... but the other is: The kingdom of God would never come, if man did not accept it and put himself at its disposal.” The kingdom of God as God’s gift calls to the imitation of Christ, whereas it frees man from the compulsion to create the totum and ultimum of history by himself.

Not of this world, but in it and for it

For Jesus, his kingdom is not of this world (cf. Jn 18,36). It is neither the religious transfiguration of the world, nor completely separated from it. In his healing and liberating work, Jesus clearly showed that the kingdom of God must take shape in the world and work through it as does the leaven in the flour, or grow through everything like the mustard plant. The central prayer in the Our Father is: Your kingdom come. ”His kingdom must come: to us, on earth, neither must we go to his kingdom in a far-off hereafter, nor will it not be until the ‘Last Judgement’ after the ‘resurrection of the dead’, but here and now. His will should be done on earth, not in Heaven, where it is already done, but it should be followed so perfectly on earth as in heaven. Earth must not be drawn up into heaven, but heaven must come down to the earth.” The kingdom of God is certainly not of this world, but His righteousness is valid for this world and must take shape in it.

Existentially personal and politically structural

In Jesus’ life, the kingdom of God was doubtlessly his commitment to individual sick people, to people who were materially disadvantaged, socially discriminated, possessed by demons or religiously despised. At the same time, however, he criticised the social circumstances and attacked their representatives, which created resp. sanctioned the structures which led to the marring of human life. The kingdom of God comprises both the existentially personal level, in that it calls for personal conversion and solidarity with the disadvantaged, and the politically structural level, in that it requires action towards conditions which serve the complete development of all men and women. Neither a reductionist care for the individual alone, nor a concern only for theoretical structures, is according to the idea of the kingdom of God. What rather accords with it is a critical analysis and liberating formation of the logical relationship between individual and society, between subject and structure.

Celebrated symbolically and testified practically

Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God in parables, but he also testified to it practically in his life. As long as we are on our way to the promised completion of the kingdom of God, this kingdom, which has already come in Jesus, must be brought to mind in religious speech and liturgical celebration, or its completion must be symbolically anticipated. Religious speech and liturgical celebration should give guidance and courage to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. The kingdom of God has a religious, spiritual dimension and stands for an inner stance in the spirit of Jesus. This is genuin in so far as it is bound up with a personal, pastoral and political practice of the faith in the imitation of Christ.

Dawning in the present and promised for the future

The kingdom of God is already dawning and come near in Jesus himself. It is universally present, fragmentally, wherever people act in the spirit of Jesus; for as you did to the least of these, you did it to me (cf. Mt 25,40). The completion of the kingdom of God, however, as a promised act of God, has still to come. It is necessary to adhere to both these aspects at the same time; to the fact that the kingdom of God is present now in fragments, and to the fact that it is the eschatologically utopian horizon of all our efforts. It is in the nature of this horizon, however, that it basically cannot ever be reached. If something cannot ever be reached, we are infinitely far away from it. If we are infinitely far away from something, we are always equally far away, i.e. infinitely far away. The difference between present conditions and the kingdom of God is therefore not a quantitative one, which can be reduced step by step and eventually removed. It is rather a qualitative difference. Therefore the question is not quantitative, how near or far we are from the kingdom of God. The question is qualitative, whether our social structures and customs are basically compatible with the kingdom of God or not. The kingdom of God is not a static future Utopia which, striven for in infinite progress, could at last be fully realised. It is not an aim which is attainable through the realisation of a historical project (free market system, planned economy etc.). The identification of the kingdom of God with a historical project is an utopian Anti-Utopia. There is no historical deed or action of which one may say that the kingdom of God was present in it. If this is nevertheless stated, it leads to a triumphalist mystification of earthly conditions, where the eschatological aspect is negated and the existing situation is declared sacral.

2.4. Differentiated Hermeneutics
In order to avoid a fundamentalistic truncated reference to the kingdom of God, a differentiated understanding of its status and its contents is necessary. For this, the ”alternative” model of the correspondence of relationships, such as Clodovis Boff suggested, is helpful. According to this model, the biblical text and our situation do not directly correspond, but it is rather so that the biblical texts with regard to their historical context are on the one side, and our answer and practice with regard to our context, analogous to the relationship between the biblical texts and their context, are on the other side. There is, therefore, a correspondence of relations: Scripture / its context = we (our practice and answer) / our context. In this sense ”... one may not expect formulas to ‘copy’ or techniques to ‘utilise’ from Holy Scripture. What it can offer us are guidance, models, types, guiding rules, principles, inspiration, in short, elements with the help of which we can acquire for ourselves an ‘hermeneutic competence’, because they make it possible for us to judge for ourselves ‘according to the mind of Christ’ or ‘in harmony with the Holy Spirit’ the new and unforeseen situations with which we are constantly confronted today. The christian Scriptures do not give us a what, but a how: a way, a style, a spirit.”

This means that, in order to understand the kingdom of God, our practice with regard to the kingdom of God must be realised in analogy to that practice which Jesus testified in the context of the social structures of Palestine. The content of the kingdom of God is therefore not ultimately fixed. This is so, for example, for the ecological problematic, which was not as virulent then as in our times. It is also so for the assessment of the situation of women, for which there are only criteria for a liberating practice on the fringes of scripture and not centrally.

3. Elements of a Compatibility Test Between Basic
Social Conceptions and the Kingdom of God

3.1. Option for Life
The most fundamental contrast of all is that between life and death. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of life. Jesus testified to it as liberation from all that harms or destroys life, and preached it as the vision of true, whole and fulfilled life before death for every human being on earth. It is therefore his will that all may have life, and have it abundantly (cf. Jn 10,10). The kingdom of God is unalterably bound to the option for life. This option includes nature, because human life is only possible in a society in which nature also has its place. The option for life means, in the sense of the parable of the Last Judgement (cf. Mt 25, 334-40), just that elemental love which would procure for all mankind the material goods, human affection and cultural-religious interpretation of life which they need for a life of dignity and fulfilment. This criterion, of supplying the basic needs of all, is universally valid and is absolute. It carries the implication of the universal disposition of all goods. Thus the right to private possessions is so subordinate to the right to life that there is no right to private possessions, as long as even one human being is suffering or dying because he or she is is denied satisfaction of the most basic human needs.

A society is inasmuch compatible with the kingdom of God as it is guided by the option for life in wholeness and dignity for all mankind.

3.2. A society and world in which all have a place
The option for life in its entirety corresponds with the conception of a society and world in which all have a place and nobody is excluded. This accords with Jesus’ vision in which he likened the kingdom of God to a banquet, to which all are invited in the sense of open commensality and at which all barriers are removed. The kingdom of God, according to Jesus, is the universal, jointly responsible human society, in which each recognises that all others have material, social and cultural-religious needs. A concept such as this represents ”... a universal criterion for the weighting-up of social principles which claim general validity. This universal criterion does not carry with it the assurance of knowing which is the best form of life for all men and women. Irrespective of what their ideas of a good life are, they are still subject to the criterion that a good life for one may not make it impossible for another to live”.

A society is inasmuch compatible with the kingdom of God as it binds itself to the project that all have their place and nobody is excluded.

3.3. Equal rights for women
Women are economically, politically and culturally disadvantaged in several respects. Over the whole world, men control 90% of the income and 99% of the assets, both measured in money. Compared with men, women’s earnings are lower. Some women are therefore poor although they are in full employment (working poor). Because of their precarious work situation, women are more likely to lose their jobs, and to slide into poverty. In addition, their reproductive work in the family and their contribution to the welfare of society through social and cultural services is hardly, if at all, remunerated.

A society is inasmuch compatible with the kingdom of God as in it women are neither economically, politically nor culturally disadvantaged, but enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men.

3.4. No utopianisation of universal social principles
The project of a society and world in which all have their place comprises the abandonment of universal social principles, such as an antiutopian utopianisation of the free market or of an historical socialism, because ” the exclusion of members of society ... (is) in the nature of universal social principles, inasmuch as they totalized”. This abandonment results from the productive-critical eschatological reserve which must be kept towards all historical phenomena; because the kingdom of God is the qualitative eschatological-utopian horizon at the end of time, such reserve refuses to proclaim the completion of history before the fullness of time, promised as God’s work, and so to sanction the current social conditions.

A society is inasmuch compatible with the kingdom of God as it does not identify its own historical project in an idolatory manner with the Whole (the totum) and the Last (the ultimum).

3.5. Primacy of politics over the appeal to the force of circumstances
In consideration of the ecologically and socially destructive results of neoliberal deregulation in the name of an utopian total market, a society must once again be prepared to accept responsibility for the dominant social conditions and the customs which are connected with them. They are not based on nature but the result of historical development. Therefore the responsibility must not be delegated, in an idolatorous act of perverse lack of responsibility, to the ostensibly infinitely wise market mechanisms. Instead of the primacy of economics over politics, there must be a primacy of politics over economics.

A society is inasmuch compatible with the kingdom of God as it is prepared to establish its conditions and customs responsibly, instead of irresponsibly putting itself at the mercy of the supposedly immutable force of circumstances.

3.6. Associative-symmetrical system dynamics versus the ‘two-thirds- society’
The impending ”two-thirds-society” is the product of a neoliberal policy of deregulation, which is a tendency of every aspect of society, in the service of maximisation of that anonymous magnitude, capital. In opposition to inclusion-exclusion dynamics, a policy of re-regulation should be pursued, directed to the welfare of the weak, aiming at their integration and reversing the present distribution of income and wealth from bottom to top. The economic, legal and cultural aspects of social system dynamics should make a point of joining people together associatively, instead of separating them dissociatively. They should promote egalitarian-symmetrical conditions, instead of unequal-asymmetrical ones. They should so prevent individuals or population groups from being economically left out, socially excluded and culturally ostracised.

A society is inasmuch compatible with the kingdom of God as it does not submit to a social inclusion-exclusion logic, but regulates the dynamics of social conditions and customs in such a way that all have their place and nobody is excluded.

3.7. Meaningful work, resp. guaranteed minimum income for all
Productive and reproductive work are both objectively socially necessary, and subjectively of great importance for the individual. Therefore everyone should have a right to meaningful work. In order that this can be possible, in view of declining employment and a tendential increase in reproductive work, the traditional partition of socially necessary work in remunerated productive work and unpaid or badly paid reproductive and caring work must be removed, and completely new time models must be developed. Those who, for physical or psychic reasons, can do little or no work have the right to a minimum income, in the sense of the social-ethical materialization of the religious word of justification through faith, according to which no-one must justify his or her existence through performance. The minimum income must be so arranged and adjusted that it allows a large measure of social participation and a life of dignity, and does not simply ensure a fringe existence on a financial minimum.

A society is inasmuch compatible with the kingdom of God as it provides meaningful work for all, respectively guarantees all a minimum income which allows a life of dignity.

Urs Eigenmann
Religiös-sozialistische Vereinigung der Deutschschweiz
December 1996

Translation: Jean Drummond-Young
August 1999