Why Christians Should Be the Last People on Earth to Justify the Use of Torture for the Protection of National Security

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by Herb Montgomery

“You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”—Caiaphas (John 11.50)

Substitute the word “tortured” in place of the word “die” in the above passage and you’ve got quite a provocative story.

I’m presently alarmed at hearing how many Christians are justifying America’s use of torture, saying things like, “They did what they had to do to protect the American nation.”

The first time I heard those words, the words of Caiaphas rang in my ears. This mentality, this logic, this philosophy, this way of reasoning should be the last for any follower of Jesus, for it was this way of reasoning that led to the death of our Lord. It’s this reasoning that killed Jesus.

It’s this line of reasoning that led to the torturing of your Jesus. It’s this line of reasoning that led to your Jesus being bound and “blindfolded,” made to stand within a circle of men and guards who “spat in his face,” “slapped him” repeatedly, “struck” him, shouting “insults,” tauntingly endeavoring to intimidate him by asking him over and over to tell them, “Who struck you?”[1] And this was only by the ecclesiastical structure.

Jesus was charged with suspicion of insurrection[2] against the Roman Empire and then turned over to a group of Roman soldiers who had no knowledge of the preceding case. The soldiers didn’t know Pilate believed he was innocent. If Jesus was standing before them he must have been guilty, and they were required to follow orders. After all, the peace of Rome (the Pax Romana, Rome’s national interests) was at stake!

So the military soldiers of the Roman Empire did to Jesus what they did to all suspected insurgents. (Remember that torture and crucifixion was reserved for the political enemies of Rome.)

The whole cohort of military soldiers was gathered around Jesus. They “stripped” him and made him stand naked in front of them all. After they chained him to a post and tortured him, they dressed this insurgent in the royal garb of an opposing empire. Then they taunted him, spat in his face and struck him repeatedly upon his wounds. [3]

Then they led him away to be torturously executed.

Yes, it’s ugly to consider—but this, the torture of your Jesus, is where your philosophy that torture is necessary to protect national interests leads.

The resurrection of Jesus is God’s critique of Caiaphas’ justification of using violence, including torture, for the purpose of protecting national interests (“Better for one man to die than the whole nation destroyed”—John 11.50). When Jesus died as a result of Caiaphas’ methodology, the entire philosophy of justifying violence for national preservation was unmasked. By God resurrecting Jesus, God is, once and for all, unequivocally critiquing the way of the empire, torturing suspected threats included. The resurrection locates God within the narrative. God was not with Caiaphas, protecting Jewish national interests. God was not with Herod, protecting economic interests of the wealthy. God was not with Pilate, protecting Roman imperial interests. The resurrection reveals that God was in the one shamefully tortured and suspended on a tree at the orders of superiors and at the hands of those who were simply following the chain of command. The resurrection is God’s action over and against the torture and death of Jesus as a necessary evil for national security. In the resurrection, God undoes and reverses the torture and death of Jesus and makes known for all to acknowledge, “I’m in solidarity with this one whom you tortured.”[4]

The narrative of the death and resurrection of Jesus is saying to us that this entire philosophy is flawed, for if even God were to show up and be perceived as potential threat, a suspected insurgent, even with due process, the system would torture and murder God, too.

As Mark Van Steenwyk recently stated, “In case Christians need reminding, we worship a suspected Middle Eastern insurgent who was tortured.”

It is always the fear of a foreign threat that drives the methodology of violence, including torture. In the 16th century, it was fear of the Turks taking over Europe that led to the torture and murder of the Anabaptists who spoke out against violence in the name of national interest. In Jesus’ day, it was fear of the Romans that caused Jesus’ Jewish audience to reject his critique of violence. In our time, Martin Luther King Jr. was quickly assassinated when he added a critique of the use of violence for the protection of national interests in Vietnam to his platform of racial equality. Gandhi, too, was murdered when his nonviolence was seen as no longer a tool for national interest, but as a threat. It was this fear of foreign threat that has also radically changed the face of Christianity for the last 1,700 years.

Let me tell you a story. For the first 300 years of Christianity, Jesus’ followers were a nonviolent people who felt it was better to have their own blood shed than to have their hands stained with the blood of another. As Christianity began to exponentially grow, this became a problem to the Roman Empire in the fourth century—for if everyone became a Jesus follower and embraced Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence, who, then, would protect the national interests of Rome against foreign threats? Everyone would become a noncombatant.

Thus began the long and much disputed history of the Constantinian shift within Christianity, where Christianity simply became the tool of the empire.

But let’s imagine for a moment that the national interests of Rome in the fourth century had never compromised Christianity. As Christianity continued to grow, more and more Roman citizens would have embraced Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence.  Rome would have eventually fallen to foreign invaders. But the Christians would still have been present, and they would have continued to grow exponentially. Eventually, the new foreign empire would be facing the same challenges to its national interests that Rome had faced and would fall to its foreign threat. But, again, the Christians would still be present and still continue to grow. The third empire coming in contact with these Christians would eventually, too, be facing the same dilemmas.  This history would be repeated over and over, until, eventually, you would run out of empires, and Jesus’ new world would have been the last one standing.  All empires and national interests (beasts and dragons; see the book of Revelation) would have been overcome by a Lamb—not by a sword, but by a cross.

Would many Christians have died in the process? Absolutely. Yet they would have died with the hope of a resurrection into this new world once it became unobstructed. This is why Jesus emphatically said that the way we are going to change the world is through crosses not swords. Remember, crosses were only used by Rome for those suspected of being a threat to her nation interests.

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” (Matthew 16.24, emphasis added.)

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14.27, emphasis added.)

What does this all mean to American Christians today?

What if America, like Rome, has to fail for Jesus’ New World to succeed? Which allegiance would you choose? Would you remain a Jesus follower, or would your American patriotism and the protection of America’s national interests be of greater value? In other words, would you give up being an American to follow the ethical teachings of Jesus?

As Jesus followers, we are to call the nations to embrace the new world that has been founded by this Jesus.[5] When his followers historically have genuinely followed Jesus’ teachings, they have always been seen as a threat to the national interests of whichever empire they were living amidst. They were accused of turning society “upside down, ” as acting “contrary” to the interests of the Roman “empire.”[6] Rather than calling Caesar “Lord,” they proclaimed Jesus was “Lord.” (Acts 16.31.) Rather than calling Caesar “King” and “Son of God,” they proclaimed Jesus as “King” and “Son of God.” (Acts 17.5–7, 9.20.) Rather than justifying actions for the preservation of the “Pax Romana” (Peace through Rome), they proclaimed the “Pax Jesus Christo” (Peace through Jesus Christ). (Acts 10.36.) The refused to subscribe to Rome’s propaganda as being the “Savior of the World,” but instead proclaimed Jesus as the “Savior of the World.” (1 John 4.14.)

For all of these reasons, Jesus followers should be the last to justify the use of torture by any nation to protect that nation’s national interests. Not only was our Lord tortured and killed as a result of this way of reasoning, but Jesus also said we, as those who announce the new world founded by Jesus, we would also be seen as threats to our respective national interests, and tortured and killed as well.

“Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.” (Matthew 24.9, emphasis added.)

Please, my fellow Christians here in America, stop justifying America’s use of torture.

“Love your enemies.”—Jesus, The Gospel of Matthew

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”—Jesus, The Gospel of Matthew

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns …

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

1. “Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?’” (Matthew 26. 67–68.)

“Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’ The guards also took him over and beat him.” (Mark 14.64–65.)

“Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, ‘Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?’ They kept heaping many other insults on him.” (Luke 22.63–65.)

“When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, ‘Is that how you answer the high priest?’” (John 18.22.)

2. “But they were insistent and said, ‘He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.’” (Luke 23.5.)

3.  “Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.” (Matthew 27.27–31.)

“Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.” (Mark 15.16–20.)”

“And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face.” (John 19.2–3.)

4.  “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—this man, given to you according to the definite plan and purpose of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2.22–24.)

“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.” (Acts 2.32–33.)

“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2.36.)

“The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors, has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, but God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.” (Acts 3.12–16.)

“Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’” (Acts 4.10–11.)

“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Founder and Savior.” (Acts 5.30–32.)

“You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10.36–43.)

“Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to

have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.” (Acts 13.23–38.)

5.  “Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.’” (Matthew 28.18–17, emphasis added.)

“That night the Lord stood near him and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.’” (Acts 23.11, emphasis added.)

“Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation and tribe and language and people.” (Revelation 14.6, emphasis added.)

“Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All the nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed.” (Revelation 15.3–4, emphasis added.)

“To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all the peoples, the nations, and the languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7.13–14, emphasis added.)

“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb … the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. … On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 21.22–22.2, emphasis added.)

6.  “While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’” (Acts 17.5–7, emphasis added.)

Newton’s Amazingly Inaccurate Grace Myth by Herb Montgomery (Title by Keisha McKenzie)

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“The Spirit of the Lord is on me…to set the oppressed free.” — Jesus (Luke 4.18)

I want to thank all of you for the overwhelmingly positive feedback I received from last week’s eSight.

I also want to thank Keisha McKenzie for her timely correction of my comments regarding John Newton.  For those who missed our exchange on Facebook, let me share it here.

Keisha pointed out:

“John Newton didn’t turn away from slaving ‘immediately’ after his conversion. He didn’t confess support for abolition for another 40 years. He converted to evangelicalism in 1748. Stopped active trading in 1754 (but only for medical reasons—he had a stroke). And he did not write against the slave trade until 1788. In other words, his private conversion had no impact on his relationship to the slave trade for 4 decades. Christianity switched no lights on for him regarding the relationship of white people and black people. For 40 years.”

Keisha went on to say, “we don’t have that kind of time to wait for the privately pious to become publicly concerned.”

And I agree.

According to historians, John Newton gave up profanity, gambling, and drinking after converting to evangelical Christianity in 1748, but continued to work in the slave trade. Although Newton did say, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards” (Out of the Depths, John Newton), what I want you to notice is that while he saw nothing fundamentally wrong with the slave trade for another forty years, the first fruit of his Christian life was in giving up swearing, gambling, and alcohol.I do not fault Newton for this; I fault the type of Christianity that Newton became a convert of. Notice, Newton applied to be ordained as a priest in 1757; studied Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac; was a lay minister, and was finally accepted and ordained in 1764.  Mind you, he still would not publicly speak out against the slave trade, of which he had been a part, for another twenty years.

In 1788, Newton published Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade (almost a decade after Newton’s famous hymn, Amazing Grace, was published).  He also apologized for “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders” (Bury the Chains, The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery, Adam Hochschild).

Newton later joined William Wilberforce in publicly working to end the African slave trade for the next twenty years. Still, he had privately been a “Christian” in the forty years leading up to this.

In last week’s eSight, I made the statement, “If one is privately a follower of Jesus, then one should publicly be involved in ending systems of oppression and privilege”. How does one privately become a Christian, publicly become a priest in the Church of England, but it takes twenty more years of being exposed to Jesus to publicly come out as believing that there is something fundamentally wrong with treating other humans as lesser beings or items of property?

I can speak somewhat to this, for this, to a degree, is my story too.

Before the night of August 27, 2010, when I encountered Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I too was reading the Bible through the conventional, domestic lens that had been handed to me by white, evangelical, male-dominated, Christian culture. It was this encounter that marked a beginning for me. There I was, encountering Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount alone in a hotel room after a radio interview on the second largest Christian radio station in America, and feeling as if I was meeting Jesus for the very first time. I want to be clear: This was only a beginning. I’m still discovering ways in which I think and interpret the world around me, ways of reading the Jesus story, that are the product of a conventional, domestic Christianity that serves the purposes of a privileged class rather than Jesus’ New World.

This is a Christianity focused more on post-mortem destinations than on healing the world around us in the here and now. [1]

This is a Christianity intent on escaping this world, judging it as too far gone, instead of following a Jesus who is “making everything new”.[2]

This is a Christianity that directs its devotees toward a private, personal, individual, “spiritual” relationship with God, while neglecting the need to be publicly engaged in confronting oppressive systems and cleansing the modern day “temples” of the privileged.

It’s a Christianity that allows its adherents to live respectable, religiously pious lives, rather than be put on crosses or lynched for standing against the status quo.

It’s a Christianity that doesn’t need the resurrection, because it will never find itself upon a cross.

It will never find itself on trial before the economic (Herod), political (Pilate), or religious (Caiaphas) social structures of the day, in danger of an execution that is being demanded by the democratic majority (the crowd).[3]

It has very little to do with changing the world around us, for it is too preoccupied with “getting off this rock”. It fails to embrace the life-giving truth found in an old Spiritual sung by African slaves under the yoke of their white owners, “I gotta home IN that rock”.

In short, what I’m discovering daily is that I’ve been wrong. As I listen to the theological voices of those who read the Jesus narrative through the lens of oppression (whether it be in matters of race, economics, gender, or orientation), I’m discovering that I’ve been wrong. The Jesus I was worshiping was very different from the one I’m encountering and learning to follow in the stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Jesus I was worshipping conveniently never changed the world of the oppressors who hold their tickets to heaven in one hand and their oppression in the other. In the end, it will not be my white, evangelical background that I will be able to credit. Just like John Newton, this background did not “turn the lights on” for me.  When I one day take my place at the Creator’s table, it will be the intersectional lenses of black stories, female voices, queer theologians, and the wisdom of those who walk in our societies without two pennies to rub together, that I will be able to thank for introducing this straight, white, cisgender male preacher to the Jesus of the Jesus narrative.

I still believe that a New World began in the first century.

I still believe that those to whom the announcement of this New World was entrusted allowed themselves to experience a radical change.

To this day, many of their progeny are still unaware that their course has even changed.

Others, while feeling strangely out of place in their own spiritual communities, sense that something has gone wrong and spend their lives trying to rediscover what has been lost.

Others simply feel that it’s all too far gone.

Yet, undeterred, the Spirit has continued to speak in every generation. The New World grows—regardless of creed, race, gender, or orientation—in those who were willing to listen to its whispering.

This holiday season, it strikes me that although much of what I’m discovering in the Jesus narrative is revolutionary to me personally, it is a narrative with a long history among this world’s oppressed. I am discovering a path that not only stretches far ahead of me, but far behind me as well (this is not a path we are called to blaze). This is a pathway that reaches all the way back to the Gospels and has woven its way, not through Imperial Christendom, but along its societal fringes instead. It is also a path that we (especially white Christian males like myself) are being invited to step onto today, so that in humility, we may be taught by those already on this path what it has always, truly meant to follow a liberating Jesus: a Jesus who has been standing all along in solidarity with those at the bottom of our societies.[4]

Happy holidays to each of you this week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns;

I’ll see you next week.

 

1. Luke 9:2—“And he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.”

2. Rev. 21:5—“He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’”

3. Mark 15.15—Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

4. Luke 6:20-26—“Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.’”

7 Reasons Why White Christians Should Be Standing in Solidarity Right Now With Their Brothers And Sisters Of Color by Herb Montgomery

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Over the last few weeks, I have witnessed a very disturbing pushback from individuals I respect. This pushback is against the Black Lives Matter movement born out of the stories of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and many more.

I’d like to offer a few reasons why I am convinced that as white Jesus followers, our place is beside our brothers and sisters within the Black Lives Matter movement.

1. Jesus’ New World Is Not Color Blind

Whenever racism is discussed, you will always have a few well-meaning people who seek to dismiss the conversation by saying, “I’m color blind. I don’t see color. There is no such thing as race. We are all part of the human race. The more we talk about this, the more we continue to keep racism alive.” Part of that statement is correct. Yes, we are all part of the human race, but the idea that talking about a problem somehow keeps the problem alive is misinformed at best. We can’t fix a problem without talking about it. Racism will not go away by ignoring it. Not to mention that there is a significant difference between a white person saying, “We are all part of the human race,” in an effort to shut down a discussion on racism, and a person of color saying, “We are all part of the human race,” in an effort to open up the discussion and address the blind spots of privileged white people. One is insensitive and perpetuates racism; the other does not.

My black friends will be the first to tell you that there is nothing wrong with seeing their color or their race. It’s part of who they are, and there is nothing wrong with their race that I shouldn’t see it. It’s a huge part of their identity. The problem is when we treat one another as “less than” based on their race. THAT is racism.

Racism is a social construct created to divide human beings from other human beings in order to privilege some at the cost of others. When monarchies were thrown down and people began to believe that “all men are created equal,” hierarchy could no longer to be rooted in the bloodlines of kings and queens. So hierarchy took a new form. A new idea was created. This idea was that some races are superior to others, and this is how hierarchical privilege lived on.

Jesus’ new world is a world where there will be equity and justice between the races. It will not be a world where race does not exist. And thank goodness we will not all be white.[1]

2. Jesus Was About Liberation

Out of all the Old Testament pictures of Yahweh that Jesus could have chosen, Jesus chose the Advocate God, the Liberator of the Oppressed.[2]

Jesus chose to stand in a deeply oppression-confronting, prophetic lineage.[3] Each of the prophets made his respective privileged class uncomfortable by calling for systemic change as each stood in solidarity with the oppressed.

James Cone, in his book God of the Oppressed, states, “Any interpretation of the gospel in any historical period that fails to see Jesus as the Liberator of the oppressed is heretical.” This has grave implications for us as Jesus followers. We are called to be liberators, too! This is why Cone goes on to say, “Any view of the gospel that fails to understand the Church as that community whose work and consciousness are defined by the community of the oppressed is not Christian and is thus heretical.” (Emphasis added.)

Gustavo Gutiérrez, in his landmark book, A Theology of Liberation wrote, “The gospel itself contains the seed of liberation from all things that oppress.”

3. Jesus’ Liberation Is From Systemic “Sin” As Well As Private

One of the deepest disconnects for many of my white friends is that they still are looking at these stories emerging from the black community as isolated and individual occurrences without connecting the dots. They want to debate the intricacies of each case individually without stepping back and looking at the big picture. If we will stop and listen first, we will discover that our fellow Christians of color overwhelmingly see these cases not as disconnected, but as one example after another of an entire systemic problem. The stories of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice somehow hit the news and caught everyone’s attention, but they are not isolated occurrences. These stories are symbolic of the larger experiences—the daily experiences for people of color.

We follow a Jesus who came to liberate us from systemic sin as well as personal or private. I want to share two more statements from Gustavo Gutiérrez:

“Grace moves individually AND socially.” (Emphasis added.)

“Sin is evident in oppressive structures, in the exploitation of man by man, in the domination and slavery of peoples, races and social classes.”

When we focus on liberating individuals from personal sin while ignoring systemic sin, we create a reality that is deeply problematic. Let me try and illustrate why. Imagine systemic sin within a society as an automated locomotive train racing down the tracks. We are all on this train together. We as individuals may not participate personally in the operation of the train, yet we are still on the train with everyone else as it is moving along.

Someone can choose, privately or personally, to be a Jesus follower, but that person is still a member of a much larger society around him or her that is racing down a track. Just because the person is not racist doesn’t mean he or she is not on an automated train that is. As a white follower of Jesus in society, I may be completely unaware of how vastly unfair the societal structures are. Or, I may know, but choose in my private life to be different. But the train we are on is still moving us all together down the tracks.

Some will ask, “If we just focus just on healing hearts, won’t we heal the systems as well?” It’s a beautiful thought. It’s simply not that automatic. John Newton, the slave trader who wrote “Amazing Grace,” did not look at the slave trade after his conversion and simply say, “Eh, it will take care of itself if we keep converting souls.” No, he intuitively saw the difference between systems and the people who live within those systems. Just because he was converted didn’t mean the system had changed. He immediately went to work changing the social order of slave trading in his society. (*****This paragraph has been corrected here*****.)

If one is privately a follower of Jesus, than one should publicly be involved in ending systems of oppression and privilege. We must purposefully, as Jesus followers, be swimming against the current—swimming upstream, if you will forgive the mixing of metaphors. It’s not enough to be neutral; we must actually be anti-racist. We must be intentionally standing against present racial inequality, while putting on display a world that could be radically and racially different. That the current train is moving down the tracks and remaining neutral or privately non-racist isn’t enough. We must privately and publicly be anti-racists.

Neither is it anti-police to want law enforcement systems to be fair. Today, we live within an automated racist system (train) without racists (conductors). Therefore, if we are going to be following a liberating Jesus, we, like Jesus, must seek to take apart racist systems as well, even if we don’t personally think we ourselves are being racist.

As Peter Gomes stated, “Social sin does not differ from private sin: both stink in God’s nostrils.” Jesus came to heal us from more than individual and private sickness. We must not only embrace the private healing and shun the public healing. Jesus came not only to heal the heart but to heal our sick, social structures as well.[4] (I’ll come back to Jesus’ healing motif in #7.)

4. Jesus Shut It Down

In Mark’s gospel, we get a little tidbit that is most often overlooked.

“Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” (Mark 11.11, emphasis added.)

When Jesus arrived at the temple, it was already too late in the day for his temple protest to accomplish his desired result. So he had to go back to Bethany, spend the night and come back the next day, when there would be a sufficient amount of people to make shutting down the temple sacrifices an effective demonstration. (Imagine if Jesus had had Twitter.)

Luke tells us that as a result of Jesus shutting down the temple, the priests began “looking for a way to put Jesus to death.” And it would not be long before the temple police showed up at night with swords and clubs to arrest Jesus.[5] (Talk about police brutality.) During Jesus’ trial, Jesus was even subjected to police brutality according to John’s gospel.  “When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” (John 18.22 ) We can respond to this two ways. We can either say Jesus should have known how to talk to law enforcement respectfully, or we can see Jesus as not being disrespectful, but that there was a much more deeply systemic problem here with a very long history.

James Cone, again in his book God of the Oppressed, writes, “The only meaningful Christian response is to resist unjust suffering and to accept the painful consequence of that resistance.”

Jesus, in shutting down the temple, had “resisted” the oppression of unjust exploitation and ecclesiastical abuse, and now he must “accept the painful consequence of that resistance.” To their violence, he must respond by turning the other cheek. He must love his enemies—and even seek to restore them. He must do whatever it takes to endeavor to win them away from their own enslavement to systemic evil—even if it is through death and resurrection.

This is where the power, not of Jesus’ death, but of the resurrection of the Jesus narrative, takes center stage. Jesus’ death is nothing more than yet another lynching by those at the top of oppressive systems when their privileged way of life was threatened (economic via Herod, political via Pilate and religious via Caiaphas).

At the moment of Jesus’ lynching, Matthew tells us: “the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matthew 27.51).

The priests claimed God dwelt at the heart of their temple, at the heart of their system of oppression. But when the curtain that covered the central room of their temple, where they said God dwelt, was torn in two, it was seen that the room was empty. No “presence.” No “ark of the covenant.” Only an empty room, uncomfortably announcing the absence of God.

Now, place alongside this the story detail of the resurrection—where the torn curtain tells us where God was not. The resurrection tells us where God actually was. God is not at the heart of that system of oppression. The resurrection reveals that God was in solidarity with the one being lynched. Whether it is civic violence (Pilate), religious violence (Caiaphas) or economic violence (Herod), or what today is racial violence at the hands of law enforcement, the Jesus story puts on display that the presence of God is not found within the most exclusive holy places belonging to those systems of oppression. The true dwelling place of the presence is found in the one shamefully suspended, lynched on the “hanging tree” at the orders of those oppressive systems. In other words, God is standing, and always has stood, in solidarity with those our systemic injustice is oppressing. No matter what white theologians say, oppressive systems are not of divine origin, but actually capable of lynching God, too, if God were come as one among us and be viewed as an intrusive threat to such systems.

We have before us the story of an innocent man, born into poverty, who questioned authority and was unjustly executed because of it. Through religiosity, the story has lost its impact. Yet it is the story that is repeated in every Eric Garner.

“The cross was God’s critique of power—white power—with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.” (The Cross and the Lynching Tree.)

5. Jesus Taught Us How To Protest Civil Justice Issues Effectively

Jesus gave us three examples in the Sermon on the Mount of how to protest injustice both nonviolently and effectively. Please notice that “peaceful protest” and “nonviolent resistance” are not always the same. There is a subtle difference between passive nonresistance taught by those in positions of privilege because they would like to have their lives left undisturbed and what Jesus taught as nonviolent, de-centering and discomforting noncooperation that endeavors to disturb and wake up oppressors to their participation and perpetuation of systemic injustice. Let’s look at those three examples.

The first was the turning of the left cheek to be struck as a social equal instead of being humiliatingly backhandedly slapped on the right. This was a demeaning act whereby a supposed superior (master over slave, husband over wife, parent over a child, Roman over Jew, man over woman) purposed to humiliate and dehumanize. This is especially relevant in matters of race today. At its heart, racism dehumanizes, saying some races are “less human” than others. In Jesus’ example, a blow in retaliation would have most definitely invited escalating retribution. But in offering the left cheek, the one being dehumanized showed that the supposed inferior defiantly REFUSED to be humiliated in such a way. And with the left cheek now bared, the one struck was effectively stating that if a blow was to be given, it would have to be given on the proper cheek with a closed fist, which would have been an acknowledgement that the one struck was the social equal of his or her striker. Jesus is giving the one struck a nonviolent way to protest the intended dehumanization of the oppressor.

The second example was of standing stark naked in a court setting as if to “shame” an oppressor. Whether we like it or not, Jesus is endorsing in this example public nudity as a valid form of nonviolent protest.

And the last example is of putting the Roman soldier in the uncomfortable bind of causing him to break his own law by allowing the voluntary carrying of the conscripted burden a second mile.

In each of these examples, Jesus is putting the oppressed person in charge of the moment while exposing the exploitative system and decentering, shaming and discomforting the oppressors. Jesus was teaching nonviolent ways for oppressed people to take the initiative, to affirm their humanity, to expose and neutralize oppression. Jesus is demonstrating nonviolent ways in which people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of systemic oppression can learn to recover their humanity while at the same time reach out to redeem and restore those who are their “oppressors.” (I have written more about the cultural context of these three examples here. )

These were methods whereby oppressed people (such as the Jews under the Romans) could overthrow systems of injustice through waking their oppressors to their own victimhood to systemic injustice and winning their oppressors away from these systems to standing in solidarity with the oppressed.

This is what Martin Luther King refers to as the “double victory”:

“We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.” (Christmas 1957.)

This is especially why white Christians most of all should be standing alongside people of color at this moment in America. It is time for white Christians to proclaim the liberating power of Jesus in putting on a display of how Jesus woke them up to their own victimhood to systemic injustice as perpetrators of racial inequality. It’s time for white Christians especially to put on display a Jesus who has set them free to now stand in solidarity with those their white forefathers disadvantaged, marginalized and oppressed. THIS is what it means to announce the new world that has arrived in Jesus.

We must not close our ears, as some have done, by saying, “Well, maybe there is something wrong, but they are destroying their own neighborhoods. How does that help?” I want to go on record that, as a Jesus follower, I do believe that nonviolent protest is a force more powerful than violent protest. But it’s not my place as the white person who is benefitting from systems of oppression to dictate how those who feel harmed express their frustration. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Let’s assume King is right. What isn’t being heard? Yes, there are looters, but this happens every day on white Wall Street as well. We cannot use this as an excuse to tune out the legitimate groaning of a group of people who are trying to say that their experience in the world is very different than ours.

Those who benefit from white privilege must take great care not to do more damage by writing off the voice of the protestors because of a few who become violent. It smacks of what Broderick Greer tweeted recently: “So the loss of property is more important than the loss of Michael Brown’s life? #capitalism.” It is not the place of white Jesus followers to critique the voice of the black community who is giving voice to its oppression. A Jesus follower of color may do this, but as a white Jesus follower, I cannot. I am disqualified by my place of privilege within this system. No matter how sincere my critique may be, it comes across as only desiring to have my place of privilege not be made uncomfortable. As white Jesus followers, our place is to mourn with those who are mourning, lament with those who lament, march with those who march nonviolently, and to participate alongside people of color in nonviolent demonstrations. (The sit-ins of the ’60s have now become die-ins.) All the while continuing to ask ourselves, “What are we not hearing?” Before we judge, we must genuinely listen.

Again, I do believe nonviolence is a force more powerful. Yet it is not my place as a person of privilege to critique the oppressed. That only breeds further oppression. I’m not justifying violence protest; I’m simply saying we should care more about the voices who feel they are not being heard, voices who feel that their only option is violence. We should care more about the value of those voices than the value of our property.

6. Jesus’ “Kingdom” Is Not Of A Mere “Spiritual Nature”

When Jesus said to Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18.36), he was not saying that his kingdom is “spiritual” rather than this worldly. This is the tragic mistake of dualism. Jesus’ kingdom is not “OF” this world—meaning, his kingdom is not from this world. It doesn’t operate the way kingdoms of this world operate. It’s a kingdom that is really an upside-down kingdom—an un-kingdom, so to speak.

Jesus also refers to it as the kingdom “of heaven.” He does not say that his kingdom was in heaven; rather, it was of or from heaven, and had come to earth.[6] And its arrival contained significant implications for the present social structures of his day. These implications are outlined in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. With this, Jesus was not telling of a future, post-mortem heaven one could be assured of by experiencing personal, private, individual spiritual renewal now; rather, Jesus announces that if you are hungry, weeping, morning, or hated because of the present system, this new world he had come to found was especially for you. It was a message of liberation now for the presently oppressed. The arrival of Jesus’ un-kingdom marked the beginning of a new world of restoration, liberation, redistribution and a rearrangement of how life on earth was structured. (See Luke 6.20–26.) (I give more detailed explanation of how Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was announcing liberation to the oppressed here.) This is why Jesus’ followers of the first century were seen as such a threat to the elite and privileged of their day. If Jesus’ followers of the first century were endeavoring to only promote a “spiritual” kingdom, Rome would have never given it a second thought. But instead, those at the top of their social conventions felt especially threatened by this new Jesus movement.[7]

Some say, “Well, this all sounds too political.” Let me say “political” doesn’t go far enough. Not only does Jesus’ new world confront political systems, it confronts social systems, ecclesiastical (religious) systems and economic systems as well. Wherever there is oppression, Jesus stands in solidarity with the oppressed being the beacon of liberation from, yes, both private and social evil.

Notice how politically, socially, economically and ecclesiastically challenging the early Jesus movement really was.

In protest to calling Caesar “Lord” they proclaimed Jesus was “Lord.” (Acts 16.31.)

In protest to calling Caesar “Son of God” they proclaimed Jesus as “Son of God.” (Acts 9.20.)

In protest to calling “Pax Romana” (Peace through Rome), they proclaimed the “Pax Jesus Christo” (Peace through Jesus Christ). (Acts 10.36.)

In protest to Rome being called “Savior of the World,” they proclaimed Jesus as the “Savior of the World.” (1 John 4.14.)

Jesus called us to make disciples of the nations. We are not to only call individuals to follow Jesus, but systems, structures of the nations as well.[8]

“All nations” includes America. As Jesus followers, we are to call the nations to abandon their abuse of humanity and follow the teachings of Jesus as well. This is radically different than calling on America to enforce Christian values (often by the sword). This would be an abandonment of the teachings of Jesus by the Christians themselves who called for such. This is a call for America, as well as all nations, to no longer be conduits of oppression, to no longer depend on systems of injustice, but to submit themselves to the liberating new world that has arrived in Jesus, too.

7. Jesus Came To Heal The World

Jesus emphatically taught that his purpose in coming to this world was to heal it.[9]

Nowhere in the gospels do we ever find Jesus going around trying to get people to say a special prayer so they could go to heaven when they died. Jesus wasn’t focused on getting people to heaven later, but on bringing heaven into people’s lives in the here and now, today! For Jesus, salvation meant healing. And when he sent his first followers out themselves, he told them not only to proclaim the good news of a radically new world, but to “heal the sick” as well.[10] There are more sicknesses in this world than mere physical sickness. There is social sickness, ecclesiastical sickness, political sickness and economic sickness. (For more on this, you can check out the presentation I gave, A Time For Change, here.)

Jesus died to liberate us, not from the evils of a future, disembodied age, but to “set us free from the present evil age.” (Galatians 1.4.) White Christians—praise God for the exceptions—historically have been too busy saving people’s souls for eternity to even consider the bondage to social injustices and oppression that their potential converts are under in “the present.”

What Would Jesus Have You Do, Right Here, Right Now?

Some have said, “Why don’t we just focus on Syrian Christians who are suffering at the hands of ISIS in the Middle East, rather than civil, racial equality issues here in America?”

To those I would ask, “Why assume that racial inequality here is not affecting your brother and sister ‘Christians’ here?”

In all actuality, the question itself is born out of an experience only rooted in white theology. White theology is not the standard, default, “real” theology. There is no such thing. There is no such thing as just “theology.” All theology is done from someone’s vantage point. It is time we start naming what has passed as “theology” as really “white theology,” and allow other voices, other theologies that are speaking from different vantage points, to be heard.

ISIS is rebellion against the oppressive empires of the West that are associated with imperial Christiandom. Nonviolent noncooperation or protest was never something Jesus offered to empires as a means of defeating insurrectionists, but something Jesus offered insurrectionists as a powerful means of overthrowing oppressive empires. (I write more about this here.)

But most importantly, the fight with ISIS, for most of us in the States, is far, far away rather than right in front of us. The fact that we would rather identify with Syrian Christians thousands of miles away rather than our fellow black Christians right here is very telling. But Syrian Christians are a safe distance away. We will likely never meet them. We will likely never have to wrestle with their narratives. We can speak about our solidarity with them without ever having to bear a cross (or a lynching tree) with any of them.

Right before us is a very tangible but costly option. The stories of our black brothers and sisters are stories that we cannot project our own stories onto to justify our solidarity with them. These stories call us, like none other presently, to embrace what has too long been labeled, even among Christians, as “other,” as “equal but separate.” It’s time to embrace the liberating narrative of Jesus and to choose, in solidarity, to stand against the systemic racial injustice around us.

We do not look at physical sicknesses such as cancer and refuse to search for a cure, saying, “This will not be solved till Jesus’ return.” Why should we do this with social, political, ecclesiastical or economic sicknesses? Why should we do this with the cancer of systemic racism?

“As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick.”—Jesus, Matthew 10.7–8

“And until the white body writhes with red rage, until the white heart heaves with black tremors, until the white head bows before yellow dreams and tan schemes and olive screams for a different world, any communion claimed will be contrivance of denial. A theologian—speaking of resurrection, in a body not bearing the scars of their own ‘crucifixion’? Impossible!”—James Perkinson, White Theology

“White Christians that refuse to affirm that #BlackLivesMatter are rejecting the concrete option for Christian Solidarity in the way of Jesus.”—Drew G.I. Hart, @druhart on Twitter

“If your success is defined by being well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference, then we don’t want successful leaders. We want great leaders who love the people enough and respect the people enough to be unbought, unbound, unafraid and unintimidated, to tell the truth.”—Dr. Cornel West

“True peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice.”—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The resurrection assures us that we need not fear the consequences of our engagement against systemic injustice, racial or otherwise.  We stand in the victory of Christ over all injustice, a victory that has already been won.

Please accept my humble apology for departing from our Advent series this week. This is on my heart. And, really, isn’t the coming of the one who set the oppressed free really what Advent is all about?

I love each of you. I’ll see you next week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns …

#BlackLivesMatter
#HandsUpDontShoot
#ICantBreathe
#GodCantBreathe
#JesusCantBreathe
#SolidarityJesus
#JesusShutItDown

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[1] “He governs the world in righteousness and judges the peoples with equity.” (Psalms 9.8.)

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7.9, emphasis added.)

[2] “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4.18, emphasis added.)

[3]“Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8–9.)

“God judges in favor of the oppressed.” (Psalms 146:6–7.)

“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.)

“How terrible it will be for those who make unfair laws, and those who write laws that make life hard for people.” (Isaiah 10:1.)

“Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed.” (Isaiah 1.17.)

“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5.21–24.)

[4] “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world [as the political party of the Pharisees were desiring] but that the world, through the son, might be healed.” (John 3.17; sozo means healed, emphasis added.)

[5] “Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police and the elders who had come for him, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit?’” (Luke 22.52, emphasis added.)

[6] “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6.10.)

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5.5.)

[7] “While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’” (Acts 17.5–7, emphasis added.)

[8] Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” (Matthew 28.18–17, emphasis added.)

“That night the Lord stood near him and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.’” (Acts 23.11, emphasis added.)

“Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation and tribe and language and people.” (Revelation 14.6, emphasis added.)

“Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All the nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed.” (Revelation 15.3–4, emphasis added.)

“To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all the peoples, the nations and the languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7.13–14, emphasis added.)

“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb … the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. … On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 21.22–22.2, emphasis added.)

[9] “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world [as the political party of the Pharisees were desiring] but that the world, through the son, might be healed.” (John 3.17; sozo means healed, emphasis added.)

[10] “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10.8, emphasis added.)

“And he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” (Luke 9.2, emphasis added.)

Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10.9, emphasis added.)

Immanuel: God in Solidarity with an Oppressed People by Herb Montgomery

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“All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’” (Matthew 1.22–23).

This week I’d like to continue our liberation theme during this Advent season with one of the most controverted elements of the Jesus story. But before you put on your post-modern, naturalist worldview glasses, I’m asking you to put on your liberation from the pyramid of oppression and privilege spectacles instead. In other words, I’m asking you not to look first at what has come to be called “the virgin birth” scientifically, but to look at the “virgin birth” sociologically, first within the context in which the original audience of Matthew would have read it. What is the story truth here?

Matthew, writing largely for a Galilean audience, with a Galilean apologetic flavor, is here referring to a passage in accord with the Jewish culture of that time. Matthew reaches back into the Advocacy/Liberation God of the book of Isaiah, and here draws our attention to the words of Isaiah when Assyria was about to lay waste to Israel.

Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7.13).

The name “Immanuel,” within this context, communicated that even though Israel was headed into a time of being deeply oppressed, they were not to lose hope. A God who would liberate them (much like the God of the Exodus narrative) was “with them.” Immanuel is a name given to a people within the context of the oppression/oppressor dynamic. Oppressors who conquer others always tout that the gods are on their side offering their victory over the oppressed as evidence. I offer the lie of Manifest Destiny as just one example. History (as well as the Civic religion) is written by the conquerors, not the conquered. It is within this context that Isaiah offers a people who are about to be oppressed, not to believe the Assyrian narrative that would justify their oppression, but to hold on tightly to the belief that God was actually “with us”—the oppressed—and deliverance would come. A modern day example would be those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement taking place in America as I write this. In times of longing for deep social change, it becomes imperative for those being oppressed to hold close in their heart the belief that God is standing in solidarity with them in their cause, not their oppressors.

This is what Immanuel means for an oppressed people within its original context. Even though we are victims of oppression, injustice, and violence, God is standing in solidarity with us, and the glory of liberation and what Dr. Martin Luther King called the “double victory” must not be lost sight of.

Read Isaiah’s words just a few chapters later through the lens of a Liberator God who is standing in solidarity with the oppressed, Immanuel. I’ll offer some brief commentary within brackets.

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

[This is a king that will arise from the bloodline of the kings of a conquered and oppressed people.]

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding,  the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

[He will govern with justice and equity, in other words, as opposed to corruption, greed, and exploitative discrimination.]

 He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;

[He won’t govern according to the spin doctors who work for the oppressors.]

but with justice he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

[It would be well to remember this passage as Jesus quotes from it in the Sermon on the Mount when he assures us that in the new world he had come to found, the “meek will inherit the earth.”]

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”

[At this stage of Israel’s understanding, justice would come through killing Israel’s enemies. Jesus would turn this methodology on its head by teaching enemy love expressed through a restorative justice even for Israel’s oppressors. This is why many in Jesus’ day were looking for a messiah that would lead them in militaristic violence against the Romans. Jesus came with the problematic teaching of loving your enemies, saying God’s liberation from injustice, oppression, and violence was for the oppressors too. Jesus called the oppressed to see their oppressors as victims as well of a much larger systemic evil, in need also of being liberated from their participation. This is what makes Jesus’ teaching on nonviolent resistance so powerful. Jesus’ nonviolence has too often been coopted by oppressors, such as that which happened under King James VI in the King’s Authorized 1611 King James Version where Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.39 are grossly mistranslated as nonresistance. Too often Jesus’ words have been hijacked by the privileged to the keep the disadvantaged in their place. Jesus wasn’t teaching passive nonresistance. No, no! In Jesus’ sermon on the mount, Jesus gives three examples of nonviolent RESISTANCE as a powerful means of awakening the conscience of one’s oppressors calling upon them to abandon their participation in systemic injustice and to choose to stand in solidarity with those they once oppressed. It’s what King referred to in his sermon delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, at Christmas, 1957. Martin Luther King wrote it while in jail for committing nonviolent civil disobedience during the Montgomery bus boycott:

“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.’”

Notice Isaiah’s description, which envisions this world with no more oppressor/oppressed.]

Justice shall be the belt around his [this one who would come through Jesse’s bloodline] waist, and faithfulness [to the covenant promises] the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11.1–9)

No more injustice, no more violence, no more oppression.

John the revelator takes this passage from Isaiah and turns it on its head as well.

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will shepherd them with a staff of iron (Revelation 19.15.; notice that the sword is a verbal one, and that the striking of the nations with those words results in the nations becoming the sheep of this shepherd).

We miss so much when we only read the Jesus narrative through the conventional, domesticated lens of a Christianity that has been (with the exception of its first three hundred years) coopted and used by the oppressors (the Constantinian shift) and stolen from the oppressed. The Jesus Narrative was originally good news to the oppressed and seen as a threat to those at the top of sociological, privileged pyramids, a threat that from the very beginning must be removed (Luke 19.47).

Let’s take one more example from the Jesus narrative so we can contrast the two. We’ll be looking at Luke’s version of the Jesus story in Luke 12.

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly’” (Luke 12.13–16).

There are two ways of reading this story. One is through the lens of the oppressors. Let’s look at this first.

Many in positions of privilege interpret this story in a way that presents a Jesus that refused to intervene in “temporal matters.” “Jesus was about saving mankind’s soul,” they say. They misinterpret Jesus’ kingdom to be “not of this world.” And by this they mean to dualistically divide matters of systemic deliverance from the sins of injustice, oppression, and violence in the here and now from the work of “the gospel.” Their focus is purely on personal, private salvation, which typically is concerned solely with post-mortem destinations. Nothing is to be changed in this life. Injustice and oppression are interpreted as part of God’s purpose for this world. People aren’t to be treated with equality. Inequity is God’s way of developing character. Equity is not part of God’s purpose for this world. God’s focus is on saving your soul for heaven.

That’s one way this passage is interpreted. Strange how it just so happens to leave the world of the oppressors unchanged. Jesus’ revelation that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, in the here and now, is grossly missed.

The other interpretation of this story finds its source in looking through the lens of those who are oppressed. Jesus was not excusing himself from temporal matters. Far from it. His entire Sermon on the Mount is about the message that Jesus’ kingdom, although from/of heaven, has arrived here on earth and is about to restructure, redistribute, and restore. Jesus didn’t go around getting people to say a special prayer so they can go to heaven when they died. He sought to bring healing into people’s lives today. The story we have before us is of two wealthy brothers with a large inheritance that is being fought over. Jesus says, “I’ve not come to be the advocate of the wealthy against others who are wealthy.” He asks, “Who made me a judge between YOU?” i.e. an advocate for the rich. It’s as if Jesus is using the contemporary phrase today, “First World Problem.” Jesus had come as a liberator of the oppressed; he marked the return of the Advocate God to Israel. He, according to Isaiah, was to be an arbitrator. But Jesus was not to be an arbitrator for the rich between others who were rich. Jesus had come to be an arbitrator for the poor against the greed of the wealthy. Jesus came to be, not an arbitrator between those at the top of society’s privilege pyramids, but an arbitrator for those at the bottom of those pyramids between those at the top, standing in solidarity with those at the bottom. This is why Jesus tells the brother a story about a wealthy man (like himself) who was seeking to only acquire more and more, adding to his already existing wealth, rather than taking care of those who were hungry, poor, blind, and naked. Jesus is not rejecting being an arbitrator in temporal affairs. Jesus came to turn our temporal affairs on their heads (see Acts 17.6). Jesus is rejecting being an advocate between the greedy privileged against other who are privileged, saying I’ve not come to be YOUR arbitrator. I’ve come to be the arbitrator for the oppressed. I’ve come as Immanuel to those who are being marginalized, disadvantaged, the needy, the impoverished, the downtrodden, the abused, maltreated, ill-treated, subjugated, tyrannized, repressed, and crushed. I’ve come to reveal a God who is standing in solidarity with these. I have come to give these the hope of Immanuel. I’ve come to give them the ability to say with all hope and confidence, “God” is “with us.”

What is the Advent narrative saying to us?

Whether this week you are marching, holding a sign that says, “Black Lives Matter,” whether you are being disfellowshipped this week from your spiritual community because of an orientation you did not choose and cannot change, whether you are continuously never taken seriously because you do not have the correct anatomical appendage, or you are facing an over-commercialized holiday season wondering how you are going to feed your children this Christmas much less give them the Christmas your heart longs to give them, too, you can gather around the manger and dare to believe that the babe who lies there really belongs to you. The baby lying there is Immanuel, the Liberator, the Advocate God, who has come to set the oppressed free, here, now. He is Immanuel, God with you.

HeartGroup Application

In James Cone’s book, God of the Oppressed, James tells of how Jesus was “the subject of Black Theology because he is the content of the hopes and dreams of black people. He was chosen by our grandparents, who saw in his liberating presence that he had chosen them and thus became the foundation of their struggle for freedom. He was their Truth, enabling them to know that white definitions of black humanity were lies.” James goes on to tell of traditions and practices among the slaves that, rooted in the Jesus story, kept them from losing themselves to the white dehumanization and degradation they were continually immersed in.

1. This week I want you to pick up the story of Jesus’ birth found in both Matthew and Luke. I want you to sit with Jesus asking him to change your lens. In matters of gender, race, orientation, and economic injustice, I want you to, in whatever areas of your life that you may experience some level of privilege, try reading this story while placing yourself in the shoes of someone less privileged than yourself. Do your best to read the story from their vantage place.

2. Journal what Jesus shows you.

3. Share what you discover with your upcoming HeartGroup.

This Advent, may you come to know that in whatever way you are “seeking first” the justice of Jesus’ new world, where things are “on earth” as they are “in heaven,” may the liberating, advocating, solidarity standing “Immanuel” give you strength, courage, and hope.

Till the only world that remains, is a world where Christ’s love reigns, may all those things out of harmony with love give way to a shoot of Jesse’s healing, transformative “equity” and “justice.”

The wolf will lay down with the lamb.

Immanuel, God with us.

I love each of you, see you next week.

What does the Advent mean if not Liberation? By Herb Montgomery

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He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. – Mary; Luke 1.52–55

As the season of Advent has begun, I find myself, this year, not so much needing the story to be “true” as much as needing what the Jesus narrative promises to be possible. By this, I do not mean that I need heaven to be real. I do not mean that I need an afterlife to be possible to assure me that this is not all there is. I do not mean that I need even our origins to be explained. What I mean is that I need to know that a world where there is no oppression, injustice, and violence against an oppressed people by those who are advantaged and privileged is possible, here . . . now.

The Jesus narrative, with all its challenges to us today, is proclaiming that this new world has actually begun. I’m also well aware that when the Roman Empire coopted the Jesus movement in the fourth century, in what many scholars call “the Constantinian shift,” what the Jesus narrative says to those who are oppressed became eclipsed and largely lost as the church (those by whom the Jesus narrative was taught) would eventually become the Empire itself and almost irredeemably attach the name of Jesus to one of the most oppressive structures in the history of the Western world. Even with the protestant reformation, “Christianity” today continues to be one of the most oppressive voices in the West regarding issues of race, gender, sexuality, and economics. How has that which claimed the Jesus of the Jesus narrative to be its central object of reverence veered so far from what that Jesus taught in regards to liberation?

From all the pictures of God within the Jewish scriptures that this Jesus could have chosen to characterize his movement, he chose an advocate God who liberates the oppressed.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4.1819, emphasis added.)

When John’s disciples came asking Jesus if he was really the one they had been looking for, this Jesus offers his work of liberation for those socially oppressed as the conclusive evidence.

He answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7.22).

Remember, those who were blind, lame, and deaf were not considered objects of compassion, but “sinners” being punished by God and thus oppressed as well by those who were seeking this God’s favor. (We do this socially as well. One of the ways we become “friends” with someone is to show ourselves to be against those who they are against as well.) Jesus came, instead, announcing God’s favor for those who were being oppressed and calling for oppressors to embrace this radically new way of seeing God and to begin standing in solidarity with the oppressed as well.

Notwithstanding all of the challenges that the narrative of Jesus’ birth produces for us today, we can trace this picture of an advocate God of liberation all the way back to the words of Jesus’ mother Mary.

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1.5254).

Let’s unpack this.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly

Mary first portrays the work of her son to be subversive to monarchy. Her son’s work would decenter a world that functions hierarchically where humans “reign” over other humans. We can see this in Jesus’ words to his disciples in Luke 22. “He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” Jesus came announcing the possibility of a world that does not depend upon hierarchical structures for it to function. Hierarchy rules coercively; love inspires compellingly. Jesus came with the message that we can live together without being “ruled.” Jesus cast a vision of a world inspired by the beauty of egalitarian love (Matthew 23.8) where each person treats every other simply the way one would like to be treated (John 13.35; Matthew 7.12).

It might be said that today, at least here in America, we no longer practice monarchy but democracy. Nevertheless, even within democracy, hierarchy is still practiced. Privilege and advantage cause those of a different race, gender, orientation, or economic status to be “ruled over” by laws and policies written by white, wealthy, straight, cisgender males like myself. What does it mean, within a democracy, for the “powerful” to be pulled down “from their thrones?” Those who wear the name of this Jesus should not be supporting the status quo, but subverting it, pioneering a new way of “doing life,” calling those at “the top” of a nation founded on privilege to follow this “dethroning” Jesus as well. It is my belief that there is no better place for this to begin than within Ecclesiastical structures themselves. Until religious hierarchy ceases to be practiced and protected by those who say they are following Jesus, the church is betraying itself. Until those who claim the name of Jesus begin themselves to follow this “dethroning” Jesus, we cannot even begin to dream of (much less pioneer) a world that is truly different. New hierarchical structures will simply replace old ones. The names of the streets will be changed, yet the same old ways of mapping those streets will remain the same.

He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

It would be well to remember the words of Jesus in Luke’s version of the Jesus narrative in Luke 6.2026:

“Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.’”

Not as an outsider, but as one of us, Jesus had come to bring about a great reversal, a rearrangement, a redistribution of resources, here and now. Those who were presently poor, hungry, and weeping as a result of how the present society was arranged would be particularly blessed by the new world Jesus had come to found. Those who had been privileged, those who were rich, those who were well fed, those who rejoiced in the present structuring of resources would go hungry, would mourn, and weep.

Yes, Jesus came announcing good news to the disadvantaged, but it was not perceived to be good news by all. There were the few at the top of the political, economic, and ecclesiastical structures who viewed Jesus’ “good news” as a threat to be swiftly dealt with (see Mark 11.18 cf. John 11.4750).

As Peter Gomes in his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus writes, “Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others. In order that the gospel in the New Testament might be made as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, its rough edges have been shorn off and the radical edge of Jesus’ preaching has been replaced by a respectable middle, of which ‘niceness’ is now God. When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the end of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed.”

And again,

“When the gospel says, ‘The last will be first, and the first will be last,’ despite the fact that it is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions, it is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first” (Ibid.).

Today wealth and prosperity is taken as evidence of God’s blessing. Jesus did not teach this. Jesus taught that wealth and prosperity reveal an inequality in foundational structures that left some hungry while others were well fed. This new world pioneered by this Jesus was a world where “the hungry would be filled with good things,” and the stockpile reserves of the “rich would be sent away empty.”

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

The great hope of the Hebrew people was not to die and go to heaven, but that some day, on earth, all oppression, violence, and injustice would be put right. This hope was held to be precious by a people whose history was one of being the sweatshop workers of Egypt, then the conquered natives of the Babylonian Empire, and presently the victims of Roman colonization.

What Mary is announcing is that her son would be the liberator of her people from the oppressive presence of the then present Superpower of the known world. What Mary as well as many of the others within the Jesus narrative do not perceive is that this Jesus, whenever followed, would be the liberator of all who are oppressed in every generation. One needs only think of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the evidence of this being true. What I find most ironic is that Gandhi, in being inspired to follow the teachings of Jesus in the “sermon on the mount,” found liberation from British Christians. And King, by doing the same, found liberation from white Christians in positions of privilege here in America.

What does this mean to us this Advent season?

For me, it means that as someone raised as Christian, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me first and foremost, seeing that Christians have been, historically, oppressive first and foremost. As someone who is mostly white, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of racism. As someone who is mostly male, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of male privilege. As someone who is mostly straight, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of LGBQ rights. As someone who is mostly cisgender, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in regards to the threatening reality that my transgender friends live within every day. As someone who is mostly wealthy by global standards, I need to allow the Jesus story to confront me in matters of economics, especially in regards to justice for the poor. As someone who is mostly privileged, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to wake me up to the degree to which I am participating in oppression, even unknowingly, and to allow the beauty of this Jesus to inspire me to compassion instead of fear, and love instead of self-protection, and a letting go, instead of the death-grip grasp on my life as it presently is.

Change doesn’t have to be scary. For those at the top, following Jesus will change everything. But the beauty of the world promised by the Jesus narrative, I choose to believe, is possible. And it’s the beauty of this new world that wins me, at a heart level, to allow my present world to be “turned upside down” (see Acts 17.6).

Will it be costly? Of course it will be. But it’s worth it.

“The kingdom of heaven [this new world] is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13.44).

HeartGroup Application

1. As we begin this Advent season, let’s spend some time sitting with the living Jesus allowing him to open our eyes. As Rabbi Tarfon so eloquently stated, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

2. As you contemplate the injustice of the present world as contrasted with the justice of the new world promised by the Jesus narrative (see Matthew 6.33), journal what Jesus inspires you with.

3. Share with your upcoming HeartGroup in what areas of the world around us that Jesus has inspired you to want to make a difference.

Until the only world that remains, is a world where love reigns, may this Advent season mark a furthering and deepening of the world that babe in Bethlehem came to found.

Together we can ensure a better world is yet to come.

I love each of you, and remember the advocating, liberating God we see in Jesus does too.

Happy Holidays and Tikkun Olam.

See you next week.