[Editor's Note: the below was taken from Don't Call It a Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day, edited by Kevin DeYoung; chapter contributed by Dr. Russell Moore (Crossway Books). Used by permission.]
Can there be anything more haunting than the sound of a child screaming from a grave?
Marcus Garvey is remembered by Americans as one of the precursors of the civil rights movement in the United States. He led millions of his fellow African Americans to protest against the image of black inferiority projected by the Jim Crow era. And yet Garvey's cause never became the kind of age-transforming movement led later by figures such as Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. That's partly because, unlike the "beloved community" envisioned by the mid-twentieth-century civil rights movement, Garvey's message was of a kind of separatism and self-sufficiency that grew more and more extreme as his crusade for justice carried on. Garvey learned the self-sufficiency that would drive his life's philosophy, historians tell us, at the bottom of a newly dug grave.
Garvey's father was a professional mason, whose responsibilities included making cemetery plots. Once, the story goes, Garvey's father took the child with him as he was digging a grave and threw him into the pit below. Marcus's father pulled up the ladder and left him alone. No matter how Marcus would scream, his father wouldn't answer.
Garvey's father's action was abusive, to be sure, but he thought he was teaching his child a life lesson. The older man was a former slave, and he wanted his son to learn a hard lesson about making his way in the cruelty of this world: you can only rely on yourself. The young child learned the lesson and carried it with him throughout his life, preaching a virtual gospel of individual responsibility and self-sufficiency.1
Most of us can feel, when we read this story, the psychic trauma of being a child left alone in an empty grave, crying out to a silent father as we claw at the clay around us, feeling about for a ladder that isn't there. Yet most of us have never actually been in that situation. Or have we?
The gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that all of us have been, at some point in our lives, in a state of slavery "through fear of death" (Hebrews 2:15). We are born into a world cut off from communion with its Father, an executed world waiting for the dirt to be shoveled onto its face. The Scripture also tells us that, left to ourselves, we'll learn the wrong lesson from all this horror. We'll stop screaming and start clamoring with more ferocity, or we'll just sit in our dirt and call it home.
Against all of this, the gospel calls us from self-sufficiency—indeed from "self" itself—and toward an entirely new reality: the kingdom of Christ. Sometimes even those who've followed Jesus for a long time find the kingdom message a difficult one to grasp. We sometimes assume kingdom is just a metaphor for "getting saved" or for another denominational program or political crusade.
Part of that is our context. Most of us in the Western world have seen parodies of kings and crowns and kingdoms, but we've never seen anything approaching the real thing. So the language void is filled with all the chatter around us about the Prince of Wales or the local high school homecoming queen or the advertising slogans of the "King of Beers" or the "Dairy Queen."
And yet, the Bible we believe—and the gospel we preach—is constantly slapping us back to the message of kingdom, kingdom, kingdom, repeated throughout Old and New Testaments and in every generation of the church ever since. The mission of Christ starts and ends not just in the announcement of forgiveness of sins or in the removal of condemnation—although both of those things are true and essential. The mission of Christ starts and ends with an announcement that God has made Jesus emperor of the cosmos—and he plans to bend the cosmos to fit Jesus' agenda, not the other way around.
The Collapse of the Kingdom
The world around us looks like pretty good proof that the gospel isn't true. If we're really honest with ourselves, don't we have to admit the universe does seem to be just what the Darwinists and the nihilists tell us it is—a bloody machine in which power, not goodness or beauty, is ultimate? The gospel, though, doesn't shy away from such questions.
The book of Hebrews quotes a passage from the Psalms that reflects on the biblical truth that God created humans to have the rule over everything that exists:
You have crowned him with glory and honor,
putting everything in subjection under his feet. (Hebrews 2:7)