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Cleveland and Philadelphia: A tale of two cities

“King James Way,” the street sign reads. “Every king has a kingdom,” the mayor remarks to the crowd of 30,000 at the unveiling ceremony. “And every kingdom must have roads.”

Some 35 miles to the north, connected by Ohio’s once highly polluted and deemed dead Cuyahoga River, a downtown building dons another marker: a 10-story-tall banner picturing a man standing victorious, arms stretched wide and head raised heavenward, facing a throng of faithful followers. Etched across the man’s garment is a single, nine-character word—Cleveland—his city of victory. Nothing more.

Both the signpost and the signboard—short in words but long in meaning—tell a singular story. A dead and buried English monarch is not their subject. Nor do they point to a particular 1611 Bible translation and the crowning figure proclaimed across its pages. The duo of marquees point, instead, to a once unknown boy from Akron turned basketball sensation, otherwise known as LeBron James.

At 30 years of age, this 6’8” forward returned to his native northeastern Ohio, and, in little time, led the Cleveland Cavaliers to an electrifying dethroning of the Golden State Warriors to capture basketball’s coveted prize, the 2016 NBA championship. With that, Cleveland’s 52-year major sports championship drought officially ended—a streak predating the city’s infamous Cuyahoga River fire of 1969, ignited as sparks from a passing train fell on oil-soaked debris in the polluted water below.

Yesteryear’s dubious “mistake by the lake” moniker flows no more. Glory returns to the Lake Erie shore. And, as another billboard expresses of Akron’s son, “We are all witnesses.”

In celebration, an estimated one million fans lined a parade along Cleveland’s Cuyahoga banks to honor “King James” and his team. It was, ironically, June 22—the anniversary of the day a few sparks lit the river and burned the bridge from which the flickers of light flew.

But on this celebratory day 47 years later, something else ignited. The fireworks of fandom built a bridge—men and women, boys and girls, of all manner of races and religions—united under the banner of one, of a “king.” His revolution arrived. Night skies were illumined. And it wasn’t yet the Fourth of July.

A city, one might say, was reborn.

Declaring independence from a king

Another state to the east, along a widening Delaware River, had a smaller crowd gather in 1776. The city was Philadelphia. But all was not well. A king, George III, had saddled a people called colonials under a yoke of tyrannical rule. “The history of the present King of Great Britain,” they declared, “is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” The gathered congress of men—names like Jefferson and Adams and Franklin—could no longer suffer him.

“He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people,” they declared. Their grievances, carefully crafted and handwritten, numbered 27 in all. The “long train of abuses and usurpations”—sparks sprayed on liberty-impoverished soil—ignited a fire of freedom. Her flames spread up and down the Delaware and swept the land. The break “from all Allegiance to the British Crown” began, a full-throated revolution was underway.

A common people, under a common banner—one holding “these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—is conceived. This is their Declaration of Independence. A new nation—sealed by a “mutual[] pledge to each other” of “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor”—was established.

Two cities, two presidential histories

Now, late July 2016, the pomp and parades have returned to Cleveland and Philadelphia once again. So have the fireworks. The occasion, of course: the Republican and Democratic national conventions—one in the shadow of LeBron, inside the Quicken Loans Arena, where history had unfolded just weeks earlier; the other in the shadow of Independence Hall and the iconic, cracked Liberty Bell—symbols of the Declaration.

The road to the White House, history reminds us, has passed through these cities before.

It was Cleveland that the 20th U.S. President James A. Garfield called home, from birth until premature death—he succumbed to the grave 80 days after an assassin’s bullet struck him on July 2, 1881. The 49-year-old Republican occupied the Oval Office just 200 days. His body now occupies a crypt in Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery.

And not long before Garfield, Cleveland bid congratulations—and goodbye—to the “father of the Grand Old Party.” In 1861, Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural train crossed the Cuyahoga and stopped in the city en route to Washington amid cheering crowds. Four years later, a train returned on those tracks, en route to Springfield—this time carrying the 16th president’s corpse.

Then there’s Philadelphia, birthplace of it all. In 1789, a newly formed Congress, meeting in the “City of Brotherly Love” and in need of a tested leader, unanimously called the Revolutionary War’s commander-in-chief out of retirement, from his Mount Vernon home on the Potomac. George Washington, “father of his country,” would humbly serve his nation one last time, as first president. This new nation, after all, would crown no king.

Two cities. Two histories. Now, today, two proposed paths forward, flowing from the Cuyahoga and the Delaware once more.

The road forward is the road back

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens famously began his classic work A Tale of Two Cities, comparing and contrasting the social conditions of late-18th century London and Paris. Yet, as the political pageantry of 2016 America unfolds before us, amid a world reeling from all manner of injustice and unrest, one might wonder: Where have our “best of times” gone? (Supposing such times were once with us.) And where should we go from here?

The path forward may well begin with a journey back; first, to Philadelphia, where our nation was born. Jefferson, the Declaration’s chief architect, and Adams, one of four others on the drafting committee, surely had the Independence Day document on their mind as they both slipped into eternity on the same day 50 years later, in 1826. It was, after all, July 4.

Lincoln, too, thought back to that 1776 day. “Fourscore and seven years ago,” he solemnized at Gettysburg, “our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The great emancipator, standing on the then-quiet battlefield in November 1863, ensured that a wounded and divided nation would not forget—nor settle with a freedom still denied to millions. The cannon fire that lit that eastern Pennsylvania sky in one of many bloody battles over such freedom ended on July 3, the eve of Independence Day’s anniversary.

But we must go back further still, past Philadelphia. Not 200 years, but 2,000.

To another city, on the road less traveled

Before Cleveland gave us King James and James Garfield, before Philadelphia gave us the Liberty Bell and Old Glory, before the break from King George and the birth of a grand Declaration—long before all of those men and moments and monuments—there arose another man, with another mission, out of another city.

The people of his day sought a messiah of political and military might, one who would overthrow the yoke of Rome’s tyranny under which they had long lived. But this son of Nazareth offered them nothing of the sort. Political power and military prowess would not be his short-term mission. He came as no such king. He led no such revolution. Not this time, anyway.

This man named Jesus, at age 30, inaugurated a different kind of kingdom, out of a river called Jordan, ultimately suffering outside Jerusalem’s city gate and defeating the power of sin and the sting of death (1 Cor. 15:55–57; Heb. 13:12).

His would be a kingdom not confined to the cleaned-up Cuyahoga or the discharge of the Delaware. Nor would his living water flow only, as in a different Dickens tale, from London’s Thames or Paris’ Seine. His kingdom would instead cross land and sea, colonies and continents.

“My kingdom,” he declared, “is not of this world” (John 18:36).

Everything, consequently, would change. Which means we now live in “an already but not yet kingdom,” as Russell Moore describes in Onward, a kingdom that is “mysteriously both here and yet to come.” Followers of this King hold dual citizenship, both earthly and heavenly. Though we live in the City of Man, Augustine explains in The City of God, the rescued and redeemed labor for the City of God.

So, again, where do we go from here?

Seeking first the kingdom of God

This Man called the Christ offers the charge: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).

Even as we travel through Cleveland and Philadelphia, crowning kings and electing presidents, the One who sits on David’s throne points us toward another city, “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2). This Lion of the tribe of Judah directs our gaze forward to “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city” (Rev. 22:1–2). Fix your eyes, the head of all rule and authority exhorts us, upon the coming King of glory—himself—now seated victorious, arms stretched wide.

He and he alone holds the keys to the future realization of a dream once expressed by an assassinated mortal named King—when justice will “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Only this other—divine—King will forever vanquish “the worst of times” and usher in “the best of times,” “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

This Savior won’t roll in by train or touch down by plane from Cleveland or Philadelphia. The once-slain but risen-to-reign King will appear, instead, by horse, in the sky, from heaven. He came the first time to a crown of thorns, but he’ll return again with a crown of glory, “on his head . . . many diadems.” And “[o]n his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:11–16).

He needs no mayor or majority to wear that crown. He needs no street sign or ballot box to assume that throne. He needs not a court, or a Congress, or a consensus to determine any of that. God the Father declares of his Son, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom” (Heb. 1:8).

This Man—this Truth—has already triumphed. This Light has pierced the dark of night. King Jesus is, and always will be, the Way (John 14:6). A bloody cross and a cracked tomb are his Declaration. And we—the born anew, forgiven and freed—are all witnesses.

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