God of the Oppressors Vs. God of the Oppressed and the Sermon on the Mount by Herb Montgomery

colonialism

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5.1-11)

After ten days in Kapolei and two weekends with the HeartGroup there, I’m sitting on a plane, flying back home—unable, once again, to escape my introspections. This time I’m reflecting on the Hawaiians of the Hawaiian Islands, a beautiful culture with rich narratives that I have just been privileged to taste a small part of. I’m also contemplating the Maoris of New Zealand that I had the privileged of briefly learning about this summer while I was in Christchurch. Almost a decade ago now, I remember discovering the warrior people known as the Caribs and the peace-loving Arawaks during the time I spent giving a series of presentations in Trinidad and Tobago. I’m thinking today about American and British colonialism as well as European and American capitalism. My mind then jumps to the Jewish people of the first century under Rome and then further back to the exiled Jews, taken captive and ruled over by the superpowers of their day, such as Babylon and Greece. What about the Hebrews, who served as the sweatshop workers of their day under the Egyptians? Lastly, I think of Abel under the raised fist of Cain.

There has always, for as long as anyone can remember, been a top. There has always been a bottom. There has always been a conqueror and a conquered; always an oppressor, always an oppressed. The schools I attended taught me the historical narratives of those who had “won.” But I can’t help thinking that those who are on the bottom, those who have “lost,” have their narratives too. And if the narratives of the Abels, the Josephs, the Jobs, the Hebrews are whispering anything to us, they are calling us softly to listen to the stories of those who have been conquered, those on the bottom, those not in positions of privilege.

The resurrection, as God’s response over against the unjust crucifixion of Jesus on a Roman cross, testifies that—although Jesus’ God loved both oppressor and oppressed and was seeking to restore them both—this God seeks to accomplish this “restoration of all things” through standing in solidarity with the oppressed over against the oppression carried out by those in positions of privilege.

Yes, the Egyptians had their gods, and so did the Babylonians. And the Greeks had their gods, who would become much more violent versions with different names under Rome. But these were the gods of the conquerors. These were the gods of the people on top. Let me try to make this clear. With the exception of when Israel rebelled by wanting to have a king, the God of the Hebrew narrative is a God not of the superpowers but of the oppressed, the wanderers, the nomads. Historically the European conquerors, too, had their god, just as America has hers. But here is the catch, and I don’t know if you even caught the switch.

A slight of hand has occurred.

In the fourth century, something mysterious took place. But there was nothing truly magical about it. It was a charlatan move, much like the actions of those who stand on stages, waving trick wands and pulling rabbits out of hats. Christianity was subverted by a Roman emperor and wedded to the empire. And I’m not sure we realize what really happened with this. Overnight, the God of the oppressed became the god of the oppressor. The Hebrew narrative of the God who stands in solidarity with those who suffer at the hands of others was subverted. This narrative was now replaced, eclipsed rather, by a god with the same name but of a very different disposition. Now God stood on the side of Rome and conquered, oppressed, and violated through Rome. Think about how those who are oppressed today by the American Empire see America as a “Christian” nation.

The lens you use when discussing “God” makes a difference. Are you contemplating God as the one who is standing in solidarity with the oppressors or the oppressed? When you enter into ontological debates about God, are you asking questions about the existence of the god of the conquerors or the God of those being conquered?

We don’t want our God to be the God of the conquered. We want a strong God, one who is never defeated! But here is where we often miss the point. The God we find in the Jesus story is a God who stands in solidarity with the losers of the “war games” we humans play.

This is a point that many (not all, thank you, Ryan Bell!) of my atheist friends miss. What I’ve encountered, without exception, in every one of my atheist friends is that their atheism is really rooted in a deep concern about matters of justice. Their atheism is simply the expression of a much deeper revolt within themselves against injustice (and the “god” of those who perpetuate injustice). And this must be recognized, acknowledged, and honored! As a Jesus follower myself, I find this hunger and thirst for justice by my atheist friends to actually be in perfect harmony with the ethics I have found taught by the Jesus of the Jesus story (see Matthew 5.6). Yet what many of my atheist friends miss is that most of their arguments against “God” are built on a foundational assumption that the God of the Jesus story is the god of those on top. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “God” and Gandhi’s “God” looked very different from the European-American “Christian” god many of us wrongly believe is really out there. Let me make this clear. I think the atheists are right. The European-American god who stands in solidarity with the superpowers of this planet does not exist. That god is not out there. Saying that doesn’t make me an atheist. I simply agree that the god my friends say isn’t there, really isn’t. It is no wonder that the fruit of the god of the West, the god of the European conquerors, the god of America, given enough time, leaves people hungering and thirsting for justice and wanting nothing to do with god.

The God that we find in the Jesus of the Jesus story is a Divine Parent of us all, oppressed as well as the oppressor. This God is a radically inclusive God who loves all and is seeking to restore all, yet a God who does this through standing in solidarity with those on the bottom of our systems of oppression, seeking to awaken the hearts of the oppressors and to inspire them to escape their systemic injustice and stand in solidarity with the oppressed as well. (This is the story of Saul of Tarsus.)

Let me also say a word about monotheism while I’m here.

Monotheism—within the context of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who are endeavoring to conquer others—looks very different when it champions the supreme and only god of the oppressors than when it portrays the one and only God who stands in solidarity with those being oppressed or conquered. Monotheism (and I also have many friends who are not monotheists) can be one of the most destructive “isms” in the hands of those on top. But for monotheism to be properly evaluated as intrinsically harmful or not, we must ask whether we are talking about a monotheism in the hands of the conquerors who say no other god exists but theirs or a monotheism in the hands in those being oppressed, which gives hope to those being oppressed whispering that what the oppressors call their god is really no god at all. This not about theistic debates; it’s about the god/gods the oppressors are claiming is on their side over against the God those who are being oppressed believe is the only true God, who is actually standing with them even in their position of being oppressed. Today it is pointless to argue about the superiority of your religion or “god” over another person’s if both these religions worship the god or gods of the oppressors.

This leads me to the inescapable conclusion that the “Christian” god of the conquering West is not the God we find in the Jesus story. The “Christian” god that many of us have worshipped all our lives really doesn’t exist.

Again, believing this does not make me an atheist. I simply see a radical difference in the god of the oppressors and the God the Jesus story claimed was really out there and who was actually standing in solidarity with the Abels, the Hebrews, the Jews, the first-century Christians persecuted by both Judaism and Rome, the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century, Hawaiians, Caribs, Arawaks, Maoris (even against the colonial missionaries who carried crosses), native Americans, African Americans, women, the poor, and anyone considered non-normative today.

I also want to add one last thing that I think many people miss. Whatever your theistic beliefs are, I as a Jesus follower have to remind myself continually in our work against injustice that I am not striving for a world where room is made at the top of a pyramid of oppression for more people—people who were once oppressed themselves. No, the God of the Jesus story is not asking those at the top to make room for others at the top. This God is calling those at the top to abandon their positions at the top in order to stand in solidarity with and give a voice to those at the bottom. This God is calling for the entire pyramid of oppression to be disassembled one human heart at a time. This God is asking for the entire edifice to come crumbling down as human beings begin to see that there is no “us” and “them”—only us, sitting side by side around a shared table, brothers and sisters once again.

For those who are interested, I’ve included a few of my thoughts on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount this week too. This is the sermon that changed my life. It’s the sermon that I believe has the power to heal the world.

At the end of these brief comments I want to try to lay out a project I’m working on. I know that at this stage it is oversimplified and very incomplete. I’m opening a window into my headspace for those who have the courage to take a look inside there. It’s not just our ideas about God that are affected when we see God through the resurrection, standing in solidarity with the oppressed. The gospel, too, is radically impacted. The gospel preached by the oppressors—the powerful, the privileged in European-American colonialism and capitalism—is significantly different from the gospel we find the Jesus of the Jesus story teaching. I’ve included a few blank spaces for you to make your own comparisons. This is a work in progress. In other words, this is not a completed product. It’s not finished. It’s ongoing, and this is a very rough draft. If you have some comparisons that you feel should be added, shoot me an email. I would be most interested in hearing those and possibly adding them to my list.

For those who have already been reading long enough, I’ll sign off.

Keep living in love and loving like Jesus till the only world that remains is a world where Jesus’ love reigns.

I love each of you, and remember that God does too.

My Musings on the Sermon on the Mount

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.3)

The poor in Jesus’ day were one of the groups who were considered to be living contrary to the Torah and who were therefore being punished by God. The poor were oppressed and marginalized by the rich. Rather then feeling compassion for the poor, those who were better off simply felt morally superior. Why else would God be blessing them economically while withholding blessing from others? To be poor in spirit simply meant to stand in solidarity, in spirit, with the poor, those who were economically oppressed. This kingdom Jesus had come to establish would readjust how life operates on planet Earth in a way that would be especially good news to the “poor” in the present arrangement. (Jesus’ kingdom of redistribution of resources would be impossibly difficult for the wealthy to accept, but it was good news to the poor.)

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. (Matthew 5.4–7)

This kingdom Jesus had come to establish would bless those who were mourning because  of the present distribution. The meek were those who had been trampled on by the powerful and privileged in the present distribution. Those who were hungering and thirsting for justice are those who were being oppressed by the powerful and privileged class.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5.8,9) 

The pure in heart are those who do not allow what they’re suffering at the hands of the powerful and privileged to cause them to resort to impure methods of redistribution. The peacemakers are those who participate in Jesus’ nonviolent way of establishing justice once again on earth.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. (Matthew 5.10–11)

Those who stand in solidarity with the oppressed—whether in matters of economics, gender, age (both young and old), race, or orientation—will be persecuted, hated, reviled, and spoken against as evil by the powerful who feel their position of privilege being threatened by Jesus’ kingdom.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5.12)

The prophets have always called for injustice, oppression, and violence on earth to be made right.

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58.6)

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an eternal flowing stream.” (Amos 5.24)

 God of the Oppressors                                 God of the Oppressed

The gospel is first and foremost that “God loves Me” (Me meaning those in a position of privilege). The gospel is the entire Jesus story, which climaxes in the revelation that “this Jesus, whom the oppressors crucified, God has raised back to life, and this Jesus is Lord.”
The gospel is about post-mortem assurance about things like getting to heaven or escaping hell, keeping those who suffer oppression passive looking forward to “bliss” in the afterlife. The gospel is about Jesus’ egalitarian kingdom being restored on earth here and now, healing the world, puting all injustice, oppression, and violence to right (Matthew 6.10).
Focuses on proving the historicity of story details within the Jesus story. Focuses on demonstrating the intrinsic value of the ethical teachings of Jesus.
A private, personal relationship with God that is inwardly focused An ever deepening encounter with God that focuses one outside oneself toward the present restoration
Hierarchical authority structures Mutual egalitarian community
Justice is punitive and was satisfied by Jesus on the cross. Justice is restorative and was initiated, begun, started, commenced, instituted, launched, set in motion, established, founded, brought in, ushered in, introduced once again, and inaugurated on earth by Jesus through the power of his death and resurrection over against the powers of injustice, violence, and oppression.
Has an aversion to justice and focuses on mercy, grace, and forgiveness instead Deeply focused on justice, the restoration of which is promised for the oppressed
Justice is seen as standing in opposition to mercy and love. Justice is the natural expression of mercy and love.
Mercy, grace, and forgiveness are things that we receive from God and that give us post-mortem assurance. Mercy, grace, and forgiveness come from God but are what we are called to show our fellow humans who are oppressing us.
Eschatological focus on the destruction of the world and being a part of an elite, special, privileged group that escapes. Eschatologically focused on a renewed and restored heaven reunited with a renewed and restored earth.
“Fire” is punitive and retributive “Fire” is restorative.
Evangelism focuses on the threat of hell, the reward of heaven, and the love of God in saving humanity from God’s imposed punishment. Evangelism focuses on putting on display the beauty of what the world changed by Jesus and his teachings actually looks like, recognizing and honoring this beauty already at work in some, while endeavoring to inspire those in whom this beauty is not present to join the revolution.
Focused on enemies getting their due (vengence) Focused on enemies being won and restored along with the restoration of justice to the oppressed.
Violence is an acceptable means of maintaining and preserving a position of privilege. Nonviolent direct action rooted in enemy love is the means of saving even our oppressors from systemic injustice.
Salvation means being allowed into heaven by ontological certitude (being certain of what exists and is true and what doesn’t and is not). Salvation is seen as the healing and restoration of this world, which all are invited to participate in.
Human suffering is a huge philosophical problem for a God who is in control. Human suffering is a tangible and formidable enemy that God is at work bringing to an end.
A God who desires sacrifice rooted in sociological scapegoating A God who never desired or required sacrifice but desires us to follow the way of mercy instead (Mathew 9.13; 12.7)
God is love (means something very different for the oppressors) God is love (means something very different for the oppressed)

HeartGroup Application 

1. Spend some time this week sitting with Jesus and contemplating the above chart.

2. Journal what Jesus brings to your mind—other passages, questions, stories, thoughts, and insights.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what Jesus shows you this upcoming week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Non-normative Jesus

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His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:10-12)

This week I want to consider Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 19. But to understand why these words are relevant, we have to go all the way back to a seemingly bizarre statement Moses makes in the book of Deuteronomy. When you see the connection between Deuteronomy 23 and Matthew 19, you will be blown away, just as I was.

“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23:1)

I’ll bet you didn’t think we would be looking at this verse in this week’s eSight! But this verse is not random, and it’s not marginal. When we explore this verse together with Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, a new and beautiful understanding of Jesus begins to emerge.

The “assembly of the Lord” refers to when Israel assembled for religious ceremonies. Eunuchs (men who had been castrated or were otherwise unable to reproduce) were considered non-normative within this society. Among the Hebrews, the carrying on of a man’s name through his male offspring was the only way to ensure that his name and nation would endure forever. Passing that name down through generations was the ancient Hebrews’ idea of eternal life.

What about the women? When it came to reproduction, ancient Hebrew culture considered the woman little more than an incubation chamber for the baby that was being passed down from the male. I know, I know, extremely patriarchal! At this stage they didn’t have the faintest idea about the zygote being the combination of the female ovum and the male sperm. For the Hebrew, the male seed contained everything needed for a human to be produced. All that was required was the fertile soil (the woman) for the seed to planted in and to grow. It’s no wonder that many women in this culture were treated like dirt!

Being a eunuch within Hebrew society, by birth or otherwise, placed a man in the “non-normative” category. “Normative” simply refers to that which has been established by the majority in a society as normal, or standard. The opposite of “normative,” academically speaking, is the word queer. Today, “queer” too often is used in an offensive and negative sense, typically as a slur toward someone who is non-normative in matters of sexuality or gender. But in an academic sense, the term “queer” carries no negative connotation. It simply refers to something that is non-normative or non-majoritive. For example, in a world designed for right-handed people, left-handedness (a trait my eldest daughter possesses) is non-normative. In matters of dexterity, left-handed people might labeled as dexterously queer. All of this is to say that eunuchs in Hebrew society during the time of Moses were considered non-normative, and therefore were not admitted to the assembly of the Lord. (Maybe my left-handed daughter would have been excluded from the assembly as well!)

Notice what Moses has to say about normativity in this passage from Leviticus.

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles […] that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am the LORD; I sanctify them. Thus Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the people of Israel. (Leviticus 21:16-24)

What’s fascinating is to observe in the book of Isaiah how God begins to change everything, moving Israel further along a trajectory from where they have been toward what we are about to discover in Jesus.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. (Isaiah 56:3-8)

Here is the question I want you consider. How is God going to give the eunuchs an everlasting name when that, within a Hebrew context, can only be accomplished by producing a long line of male children?

Let’s listen in on a private conversation Jesus had with his disciples and see if we can find the answer.

His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:10-12)

Who is Jesus referring to when he says, “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven”? In this context, voluntarily becoming a eunuch did not refer to self-mutilation. Jesus is referring to young Hebrew males who chose to abandon the patriarchal expectations of their society — taking a wife, having children, and propagating the nation of Israel through male offspring — to embrace a life of celibacy instead. Who had done this? Who is Jesus referring to? He was standing right in front of them! Jesus is referring to HIMSELF! He included himself in the eunuchs’ “tribe,” saying, in effect, “I’m choosing to stand in solidarity with you, voluntarily becoming one of you!” The eunuchs would now have an everlasting name, a name that would never be cut off. Moses had excluded them, but now they were being made holy by Jesus’ solidarity with them.

Celibacy is still considered “non-normative” in many of today’s hetero-normative cultures. The cultural pressure for a single person to marry and have children is often immense. But according to Jesus, whether a person is a eunuch by birth, is made so by others, or has simply chosen to live a life of celibacy for the Kingdom’s sake, they have been made not merely acceptable, but holy, special, unique. They have been given a place at Jesus’ table alongside everyone else by virtue of Jesus’ embrace of them…by Jesus’ becoming one of them.

As a side note for those who are non-celibate, you’re included, too. No one is left out.  Jesus is quick to say that choosing a life of celibacy, while still non-normative, no longer holds negative connotations; after all, Jesus was celibate, too. Celibacy is to be strictly voluntary, according to Jesus. Further, only those who have been given the spiritual gift of celibacy are called to be celibate. For those who have not been given this gift, Paul would say, “if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (1 Corinthians 7:9)

But let’s get back to this non-normative eunuch, Jesus, who, standing in the prophetic lineage of Isaiah, calls for the radical inclusion of those once excluded under Moses.

Radical inclusion is a trend in Jesus’ ministry. Speaking to Israel, Jesus announces that the favor of God is now available for the Greeks as well. (Luke 4:25-29) Addressing the Jews, Jesus calls for the inclusion of the Romans. (Matthew 5:43-48) With the Pharisees, Jesus calls for the inclusion of Jews not living according to the Torah (i.e., “sinners,” Luke 19:7-9). Addressing the rich and healthy (wealth and health being socially constructed indications of “God’s favor” in Jesus’ day), Jesus calls for the inclusion of the poor, the blind, and the lame. (Luke 14:13-14; cf. Luke 6:20, 24) Addressing men within a patriarchal society (and women with a Stockholm-syndrome like support of partriarchy), Jesus calls for the inclusion of women. (Luke 10:39-41) Jesus calls to all who are benefiting from society’s arrangements to make room for those who are being oppressed. It was this radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ kingdom that led his early followers who were circumcised to begin including the uncircumcised among them as well. (Acts 10:47)

What I want you to ponder this week is what it must have meant for those non-normative eunuchs of Jesus’ day to be embraced by Jesus, to be called His new “tribe.” Just imagine it:  after years of being excluded from the “assembly of God,” they were not merely accepted by their long-awaited Messiah; he had actually chosen to live as one of them. This is the non-normative Jesus, choosing the life of a eunuch as a Hebrew male and Rabbi who refused to marry and have children. This non-normative Jesus chose to stand in solidarity with a group considered non-normative in his day. What did it mean to them that Jesus, through his identification with them, could give them a name that would now last forever?

It is no accident that the first individual conversion story Luke records in the Book of Acts is that of an Ethiopian eunuch. Luke purposely chooses to tell the conversion story of a person who, under Mosaic law, would have been excluded from the Hebrews’ religious assemblies. Luke knows exactly what he is communicating when he begins the many individual conversion narratives of Jesus’ Kingdom with Philip’s baptism of a eunuch.

He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. (Acts 8:38)

Societies today, ours included, can still be divided into the normative/majoritive and the non-normative/non-majoritive. There will always be a majority and a minority. (Again, think of my left-handed daughter.) But when those considered “normative” fail to recognize those considered “non-normative” as their brothers and sisters in Christ, every bit as deserving of a place at Jesus’ table, something monstrously un-Jesus-like is being perpetuated — something that looks very different from the example we are given in the non-normative Jesus. When normativity is wedded to exclusivity it produces hierarchical privilege for the normative and, by definition, an oppressed minority composed of anyone non-normative. When the preservation of normativity is the Moral concern, rather than the deeper non-objectification, non-dehumanization, and anti-degradation of those who are considered non-normative as the Ethical concern, in the name of “standing up for what is right,” the non-normative minority will always be objectified, dehumanized and degraded, becoming themselves the recipients of attempts at being purged from society by the normative majority. This is exactly the opposite of what we see the non-normative Jesus doing with the eunuchs of his day.

HeartGroup Application

1. The early followers of Jesus embraced the radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ kingdom.  I’d like you to spend time this week with Jesus, contemplating Paul’s words in Acts 17:24-31.

“The God who made the world and everything in it, this God who is sovereign of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is this God served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since this God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and God allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for this God and perhaps grope for this God and find this God—though indeed this God is not far from every one of us. For ‘In God we [all] live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are God’s offspring.’ Since we [all] are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now God commands all people everywhere to [rethink everything we have assumed about God, ourselves and the world around us], because this God has fixed a day on which [the injustice, oppression and violence of this world will be put to right] in justice by a man whom this God has appointed, and of this God has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

2. As you contemplate this passage, journal what Jesus reveals to you through these words.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what Jesus shows you this upcoming week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Jesus’ love reigns. Keep loving like the sun shines and the rain falls, restoring one human heart at a time.

I love each and every one of you. And remember, whether in today’s world you are considered normative or considered non-normative, God loves you, too.

I’ll see you next week.

The Demoniac, the Crowd and the way of Mercy rather than Sacrifice.

angrymob

Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” (Mark 5:9)

I must confess that this is one of the most bizarre and difficult sections of the four Jesus narratives. In our naturalistic worldview, most of us struggle to entertain this story long enough to perceive and understand its point. The demonology framework prompts kneejerk reactions in those whose outlook is more scientific. But don’t chuck the story yet. Demonology certainly is present in this story. It points to this story having a very early origin in the Jesus revolution of the first century. When we understand the point of the story and its early dating, we gain a window into what the early Jesus community was really about. It calls us to rediscover this point again for ourselves today. Let’s jump in. This story is found in both Mark 5:1–20 and Luke 8:26–29. We’ll look at Mark’s version.

They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills, he would cry out and cut himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of Him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.”

We cannot miss three details if we are to understand what has taken hold of this man.

1. No one was strong enough to subdue him.
2. He cut himself with stones.
3. Its name was Legion.

Let’s start by putting the puzzle pieces on the table and turn to point number 2 first. This man cut himself with stones. Scholars have seen this as what they call auto-lapidation. Lapidating is the act of pelting or killing someone with stones. What cannot be missed is that the gospels always attribute this activity to a crowd stoning a victim (Matthew 21:35, 23:37; Luke 20:6; John 8:7, 59, 10:31–33, 1:8) What this man does to himself is auto-lapidation or self-lapidation. Self-stoning. Why would this man do this to himself? The answer is found in point number three. Whatever has taken over this man, its name is “Legion, for we are many.” This story fits perfectly with the pattern running through the gospels that it is always the many—always the majority, always the crowd—that engages in this form of capital punishment, in which a group throws stones at a person until the victim dies. This man embodies the crowd’s collective violence. The crowd, the many, is embodied in one person. And this story in front of us is how Jesus delivered this man from legion.

Before we can move on, we must understand point number 1, too. Legion, the crowd, the many within this man, cannot be subdued. It might help to realize that what is true of the crowd many times in the gospels is also true of this man right now. This man embodies the crowd or legion, so in order to understand what’s going on inside him, we have to pause and ask how crowds or the many actually work.

The Mechanics of the Crowd/Many/Legion 

Throughout history, societies have faced moments that threaten their coherence and unity. Scholars have observed that, to keep society from coming apart at the seams in the times of conflict, a strange phenomenon often takes place. A society will regain its unity and solidarity by finding a common enemy around which to unite in blaming for its struggles. The many historically have managed their societal rivalries, competition, and disunity, not by turning their violent tendencies on one another, but by coming together and transforming what would be their violence toward one another into collective violence against an Other. In short, a society finds unity in finding a common enemy.

Collective Violence

Violence in a society becomes collective when it chooses someone all its members can come together against. They find unity in agreeing on who they are against. If violence is not channeled together and directed toward a common enemy (which is the way of sacrifice), the violence will turn on the society itself and will destroy it. More on this in a moment.

The Demoniac 

This man is the embodiment of the crowd (i.e., legion/we are many). And whatever it is inside of this man cannot be subdued. It cannot be bound or chained. Yet again, this man simply contains “the crowd” within one individual. The violence of the crowd cannot be overcome. A crowd can never collectively free itself from its own violence. It can manage, or direct that violence, but it needs someone outside of that community to set it free.  A society, in all actuality, only has three options: a) The society can allow the violence to escalate until it tears apart the society; b) The society can unconsciously but collectively direct its violence against a minority whose absence would least diminish the overall whole, thus restoring unity in action against this minority; or c) Someone from the outside the society (in this story, Jesus) can intervene and remove the violence from the society one person at a time.  This makes perfect sense when laid along side of what we just said about number 2. While the crowd can collectively redirect its violence against an Other,this man is alone, there is no Other, so the crowd inside of him turns the violence on itself. (This is why we see this man cutting himself in auto-lapidation. We’ll see this more clearly in a moment when we get to the pigs.)

To illustrate how we, in following Jesus, become free of this mechanism within our society is exactly why we have this story. What many miss is that what is going on inside this man happens on a larger scale between this man and the society in this region. (Think of the medieval icons of angry mobs carrying pitch forks and flaming torches against a monster.) This region manages its societal rivalries, competition, and disunity (a) not by turning its violence on one another but by coming together and transforming its violence into collective violence against this man (b). Jesus came to create a new humanity (a new crowd, so to speak) that united around mercy (c) instead of sacrifice, mercy and love toward enemies (or Others) instead of common hatred. Jesus came to end humanity’s paradigm of us vs. them. And He began His work of saving this society, turning this region away from the way of sacrifice to the way of mercy, by first rehumanizing (I know that’s not a word; I just made it up) the one the crowd had sacrificed or purged. In this case, the demoniac. Jesus’s actions cause them to fundamentally reassess their entire way of life.

Let’s proceed through the rest of the story and see if we are on the right track.

And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.

In this mostly Greek region (Gentile with very few Jews), pigs were a farming commodity. But why do we have this bizarre detail about the pigs running off a cliff? The pigs (animals) become infected with the legion/crowd and the violence that had just been in this man, and with no one against whom to turn that violence (they are just pigs), the herd runs and hurls itself off a cliff. It is self-destruction. It is the crowd/legion that comes out of this man, and goes into these pigs, and throws itself off the cliff. The point? If people are not freed from that which lies at the heart of this demon, the crowd which temporarily finds peace and unity by purging a victim from its homogenous society eventually runs itself off a cliff, just like these pigs. The same demon that causes the crowd to throw stones at others stones/destroys itself if it does not find a victim for the crowd to come together against instead. If not remedied, that which drives the crowd to collective violence against a minority destroys that society in the long run.

Now let’s finish the story.

How did Jesus begin to turn things around in this story?  Jesus began with restoring the one within this narrative the crowd had been collectively against. When Jesus restores this man they had been sacrificing and reintegrates him into society, He threatens the unity and peace the society had found by coming together against this man. He, in effect, turns their way of life, their stability, their worldview, their “sacrifice” on its head. They are forced to see the one they had collectively been sacrificing as a fellow human being, like themselves. Jesus un-objectifies the man. Jesus de-dehumanizes him. Jesus de-degrades him. Jesus lifts this man up and returns him to a place of belonging within the very society that had found unity and coherence by purging him. Jesus challenges the entire arrangement of this society, calling its members to no longer find unity in the practice of societal sacrifice but in coming together in the way of mercy (cf. Matthew 9:13, 12:7; Hosea 6:6).

Do they follow this Jesus? Do they follow this radical social revolutionary?

Sadly, no. Now, they simply find a new sacrifice. They need a new person to purge. They need a new victim through which to find unity by being against. Whom do they choose? You guessed it. Jesus Himself. The way of sacrifice is so ingrained in them that they unconsciously, without missing a beat, simply switch victims, putting Jesus in the place of the man, and go on as if nothing ever changed. They purge Jesus now, instead.

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy [as opposed to sacrifice] on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

The man is sent back to teach this society about the way of mercy, rather than sacrifice. Set free from legion himself, perhaps he can help his society get free of the same demon.  It could be said that the only thing that was wrong with this man was that he had become infected with the crowd.  He had allowed how the crowd defined him to become the way he defined himself as well.  And when he, inside of himself, got free from what was also inside the crowd, he could now go back, “rehumanized,” to lead the community in a better way, the way of mercy.

When people get free of collective violence toward a non-normative minority, (whether in themselves toward others, or within themselves toward themselves) they are not becoming possessed by demons but, in a very real sense, they are being freed from them. THIS is the point of the story.  Embracing someone (or a group) that is accused by the crowd of being demon possessed isn’t to become possessed oneself. It’s called “following Jesus.”  And it is becoming free from the demon (the demon of scapegoating) that is actually possessing the crowd (legion) which was seeking to purge or sacrifice the minority to begin with.

This is my story. I am both the demoniac and the crowd, all in one. As the crowd, I have seen the humanity of the ones I once sacrificed, and it has turned my world upside down. As the demoniac, I have been set free from the legion, or rather, the crowd—the collective violence at the heart of the crowd’s unity—in order to follow the way of mercy instead. I wish I could claim some credit for this transformation, but I did not go looking for it. It was done to me, and for me, by others. Now, I, humbly and repentantly, simply want to bring others with me. The way of mercy truly is the better way. In fact, it’s the way of God.

What would happen if we saw the ones placed on society’s altars as our brothers and sisters? Maybe this is where Jesus starts with all societies that find unity in collective violence against minorities. If this is true, then Jesus’ work today is no different than it was in the gospels. Jesus today calls us to once again see those whom we have labeled indecent, different, other, non-normative, deserving of being purged from within our circles as . . . human. He calls us to embrace the reality that they are our brothers and sisters and have a place beside us at the table, too (cf. Luke 19:9).

“[In the story of the demoniac,] we’re witnessing the birth of an individual capable of escaping the fatal destiny of collective violence.” — Rene Girard, When These Things Begin, Conversations with Michel Treguer

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” — Jesus, Matthew 12:7

HeartGroup Application 

1. Where are you still participating with the crowd in sacrificing others? Spend some time this week with Jesus in contemplation of this question, and ask Him to show you if you are sacrificing or scapegoating someone. My 11 yr old daughter recently confessed to my wife Crystal, that she caught herself speaking poorly of a third person to become friends with another. “I think I might have been ‘scapegoating’ mom, and I don’t want to do that.”

Who might it be for us? Maybe it’s another family member we must join in and be against in order to fit in with the rest of the family. Maybe it’s someone at the office whom everyone hates, and we feel we must join in the collective disdain and ridicule. Maybe it’s at church where, in order to fit in, we feel pressured to label someone as less than a child of God, less than our fellow brother or sister. Or maybe it’s someone within society who we feel deserves retribution, not redemption. People we feel deserve punitive justice instead of justice that restores to them a humanity of which, in our hearts, they have been deprived. Whoever it is, ask Jesus to show you, and He will.

2. Ask Jesus to show you how He thinks and feels toward those being sacrificed. Invite Him to help you see them the same way He does, and then ask Him to give you the courage to follow the way of mercy, rather than sacrifice.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what you experience this week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns, where love is shed as indiscriminately as the sunshine and the rainfall. The new creation has come. Let us enlarge its radically inclusive and restorative perimeter one human heart at a time.

I love each and every one of you, and God does, too.

See you next week.