A Liberation For Those Who Mourn

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)

IMG_0464(Top to bottom; left to right.): Ethel Lance, 70; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49; The Rev. Clement Pinckney, 41; Susie Jackson, 87; Myra Thompson, 59; The Rev. Dr. Daniel Simons Sr., 74; The Rev. Sharon Coleman-Singleton, 45.

I’m in Brazil this week sharing two separate series of presentations. The first series was in Manaus and the next will be hosted in Novo Airão.

My heart was torn in two directions as I started to write this article. Since my arrival in Brazil, I’ve wanted to share with you the gross economic disparity I see between so-called “first world” countries and “third world” countries. I’ve noticed how developed countries have harnessed developing countries and I’d like to talk more about that.

But my heart also breaks for what has taken place back at home in the US, with the violent, anti-Black, mass murder in Charleston resulting from white, xenophobic hatred.

As a white male in American society, whose voice is often heard and listened to, I’ve wrestled with whether my comments on Charleston will benefit or harm those who we should be making room to listen to in this moment.

I hope that w hat I am about to share will contribute to a safer and more compassionate world for all. This is what’s on my heart.

What I’m sharing are my feelings—how I feel and not just what I think. I believe and teach enemy-transforming, restorative forgiveness, which is vastly different than simply letting someone off the hook. Yet there is a sick feeling in my gut when people of color are murdered by White people and I hear White people affirming the victims for forgiving their murderers and not killing White people in return. When I share this feeling, some of my White friends retort, “But I thought you believed in nonviolence, Herb?”

Yes, I do believe in nonviolence. And I don’t think that what I believe is the most important question we could ask at times like this.

So I want to qualify what I’m about to say. This piece is primarily for those White people who want to understand how I apply my teachings about Christological nonviolence. I am in no way critiquing members of the Black community about whether they should be nonviolent or what form their nonviolence should take. African-Americans are entirely free to self-determine their responses, and it is not for me, or any other than that community, to decide for them.

If you’ve followed my work over the last few years, you’ll know that I have said a number of times that Christological nonviolence is not passive in the face of evil; instead, it is disruptive and that’s the very reason it can be effective. If nonviolence is passive and does not subvert or transform white racial violence, it simply empowers that violence. Whatever form nonviolence takes, it must carry with it a distinctive and profound “no” to the violence it’s responding to.

I’m on the wrong side of the tracks to be thankful that another racist white murderer is being publicly forgiven by relatives of the people he killed. If these family members would like to do that, that is their prerogative. But I do not feel comfortable being thankful for it. The business of racism, the business of oppression, the business of violent, anti Black, xenophobic hatred must not continue as usual, and for me to ask victims of racial violence to be peaceful according to my standards when I belong to the group that still controls the status quo would be a subtle form of violence in the name of nonviolence: nonviolence in name only.

Think back to our study of the Jesus story itself. Only a poor Jewish outcast could tell poor Jewish followers to nonviolently confront their oppressors. For a Roman citizen to tell a Jew to be nonviolent just after a violent Roman massacre of Jews would’ve been a special, blinkered breed of violence. Those in white society are in no position morally to approve or reject the choices made by those in communities of color, whether those choices be forgiveness or revolt, nonviolence or violence. As someone who belongs to the group still in control of our societies, I have no ground to judge those whose humanity the status quo is denying. As the nonviolent Jesus taught, it’s not for me to focus on the dust that may or may not be in someone else’s eyes. I need to “first take the beam out of [my] own eye.” These are the kinds of feelings I am navigating today.

When we consider the historical context of the Jesus story, we see the wealthy classes economically abusing the poor. Herod’s plan was to deliver Israel through economic wealth at the expense of the poor; Pilate oversaw Roman political oppression of the Jewish people; and the High Priest Caiaphas monetarily benefited from both of these abusive structures. He added “God’s” blessing to the abuse and allowed the Temple to be co-opted in the stronger’s domination of the weaker. Jesus threatens this trifecta and is executed on a Roman cross.

James Cone’s monumental book, A Black Theology of Liberation, affirms how Jürgen Moltmann describes the resurrection. Cone writes, “Moltmann is correct when he speaks of the resurrection as the ‘symbol of protest.’”

The resurrection is God’s “NO” to the systems of oppression that lynched Jesus. Yes, Jesus forgave. And the resurrection is God’s further response—a decided NO to the violence Jesus was victim to on the cross. The status quo executed Jesus because he stood in solidarity with the oppressed and those who had been “Othered.” In the resurrection, God stood in solidarity with Jesus in this and stood against the violence meted out through the cross.  Everything accomplished in the cross was undone and reversed in the resurrection.

Whenever the status quo desires people of color to remain passive in the wake of horrific white violence, Martin Luther King, Jr. is always drug out of the grave and co-opted. If only the system knew how subversive and critical of the system King really was, I do not think they would tout him so readily. Listen to King speaking at the funeral service of three of the four children killed as a result of racist violence in a church in 1963. Speaking of three of these children, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, and Cynthia Diane Wesley, King said:

“They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly . . .”.(emphasis added.)

So what about what Jesus taught in Matthew 5? What he taught and demonstrated in his life is not a nonviolence of self-denial that he imposed on the victims of his day. It was oppressors who he called to deny their lust to victimize others. Jesus’ nonviolence for the victims is not self-denying, it is self-affirming. Their “selves” were already being denied by their oppressors. Rather than harnessing the oppressed with an enemy embrace, or demanding they reconcile with their “enemy” before their “enemy” becomes a friend, Jesus’ nonviolence empowers those being dehumanized with a way to affirm their humanity through nonviolent, enemy confrontation. Reconciliation may happen down the road, yet it is a reconciliation that follows enemy transformation.

As I have said in previous weeks, the Jewish people faced disproportionate violence from Rome. If they reacted to Rome with violence, Rome would raze Jerusalem to the ground, much as white Charleston residents burned down Emmanuel AME church in the 1800s after Denmark Vesey’s attempted slave revolt. Jesus empowered the oppressed to choose a nonviolence that they could apply even if they were grossly outnumbered. Its primary goal was not reconciliation but the transformation of the enemy.  Again, any reconciliation would only come after their enemies were transformed. Ultimately, Jesus’ nonviolence has the goal of liberation for everyone. King called this the “double victory” of liberating both the oppressed and the oppressors. But we must note that liberation for the oppressors is radically different from the liberation of the oppressed. The oppressors choose to perpetuate dehumanization, whereas the oppressed have dehumanization chosen for them. Both need to be set free from injustice, but liberation means very different things to each side.

Lastly, Jesus’ nonviolence is not concerned whether we make waves or “remain peaceful.” It is not about maintaining the society of the oppressors. Jesus’ nonviolence is grounded in solidarity with the oppressed and a solid rejection of the oppression of the oppressor. Jesus’ nonviolence offers the oppressed a self-affirming, enemy-confronting, non-peaceful nonviolence. Scholars such as Walter Wink, Marcus Borg, and others have shown that, culturally understood, the three examples of nonviolent protest Jesus gives in Matthew chapter 5 are nothing less than “cheek” defiance, public nakedness, and a refusal to follow the oppressors’ rule. (See Jesus and Nonviolence by Walter Wink, chapter 2; as well as the presentation The Way of Enemy Love). Jesus’ nonviolent protest in the Temple flipped tables and scattered livestock. It most certainly disrupted “business,” and it might have even involved some damage to the property of those who were facilitating oppression in the temple. Jesus’ nonviolence was not passive. Jesus’ nonviolence shut down the business of oppression in the Temple. Jesus’ nonviolence is rooted in love, even enemy love, yet it is enemy love with the goal of liberation, and it will neither settle for nor stop at anything less.

This week, I don’t have much more than this to share: this is what’s on my heart. My heart hurts for the nine families whose loved ones were taken from them much too soon. I don’t have a neat little HeartGroup Application, I don’t have a quippy ending, and I’m asking the followers of Renewed Heart Ministries to simply do this:

Engage and listen to those whose existence in our societies is elementally different from your own, because they don’t share the privileges that most of us are oblivious to. This is not the time for censure or smug approval. It is the time to listen to those whom we have failed to hear.

This week more than ever,

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. One shared table, many voices, one new world.

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

Jesus’ Words to the Disinherited: Salt, Light, Justice, and Anger 

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Eyes close-up little boy

“You are the light of the world.” — Jesus (Matthew 5.14)

Last week we talked about the difference it makes when we place the Sermon on the Mount in the context of Jesus belonging to and speaking among the community of the oppressed.

I’ve taken this week’s title from Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited. If you have not read Thurman’s work, you really do owe it to yourself to do so. It’s a short read, and packed with insight.

There are four passages from the Sermon on the Mount that I’d like you to consider this week. Notice how each changes when we name their audience as the disinherited.

The Salt of the Earth

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Matthew 5.13)

New studies show how first century farmers used salt as fertilizer added to manure to enrich their soil. With this metaphor, Jesus encourages his audience to more fully engage this world, “the earth,” not to escape it. The metaphor is about re-enriching the nutrient-depleted soil of this earth. Jesus directs the oppressed to place their focus on “this world,” not the next. He directs his audience away from escape and he empowers them to make a difference in the world they live in.

Imagine it this way. Compassion and safety for everyone are just two of the plants that grow out of the soil of a healthy society. When certain voices are marginalized or pushed to the fringes, their absence depletes the social soil. Jesus is here telling the marginalized and oppressed that they are the salt of the earth. Their inclusion can give back to the soil of a society the nutrients of a wider consciousness and perspective that enables compassion and safety for all to grow again. Including marginalized voices enables one to integrate the many diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole: inclusion uproots weeds of fear and insecurity, and provides rich soil for a society to produce compassion in the place of those weeds.

Our societies today are depleted of compassion and safety for those who share this globe with us but whom our systems also force to live on the fringes. Jesus actually believes they are the “salt,” or the fertilizer, and their voices will give back to the soil the nutrients that need adding back to the societies of our world. Remember, Jesus is looking at the disinherited when he says, “You are the salt of the earth.”

As we have said so often, Jesus’ shared table must not be homogenous. It is at a heterogenous table that we share our unique and different life experiences, form a more beautiful and coherent world view, and make this world a safer more compassionate place for us all. Through this teaching, Jesus is saying that it is the subordinated, the oppressed, and marginalized who restore the nutrients of society’s depleted soil. It is the disinherited who are the “salt of the earth.”

The Light of the World

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine. (Matthew 5:14-15)

When we understand Jesus’ audience to be the disinherited Jews, those who are pressed down, and those who are silenced even among the ones forced to live on Jewish society’s fringes, it becomes empowering to hear Jesus affirm that they are the light of the world. Jesus is investing those around him with value and telling them not to hide their light. They are to “let their light shine!”

Some of you who are reading this have been told that your voice is not welcome. You have been made to feel you are “other.” To you, first and foremost, Jesus would say, “You are the light this darkened society needs.” Remember, darkness is only the absence of light. When we exclude and marginalize voices, their very absence creates darkness in society. And as Dr. King so famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” Jesus is telling you that the inclusion of your voice brings “the light.” Your story is worthy of being shared at Jesus’ table. It is to you that he says, “Let your light shine!”

There is also another truth to what Jesus is saying here. Too often, Christians have taken for granted that they are the light of the world when they have been the ones in society calling for the exclusion of those unlike themselves. Whether it be with Jews and Muslims during the crusades, the silencing of women’s voices by patriarchal Christians, Black voices by White Christians, the voices of the poor by rich Christians, or the voices and stories of those who belong to the LGBTQ community by christians in general.) Yes, there are exceptions, but as a rule, Christians have made some of the loudest calls for certain voices, certain stories, to be pushed to the margins. Certain people are not ordained worthy of being heard.

Again, when anyone’s voice, anyone’s story is shut out from Jesus’ shared table, the absence of that voice creates darkness. It is the excluded and marginalized in every situation who are Jesus’ “light” that must be brought back to dispel the darkness that their absence created. When Christians exclude and marginalize, they cease to be “light,” and instead become the creators of darkness itself. “If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6.23) It would be well for those who have historically claimed to be the “light of the world” to listen to Jesus’ words here.

Surpassing Retributive Justice

Unless your justice surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.20)

The community that Jesus is speaking to here is one whose theism, morality and ethics had been shaped through the interpretations of the Law and the Prophets approved and taught by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. These groups were the religious educators of the Jewish working class. To get through to the people, Jesus must first disturb their confidence in these teachers, and in this saying, Jesus points out the inadequacy of the approved teachings.

The Pharisees believed in a Messiah who would usher in world peace, and many believed this peace would come through a sword retributively raised against Israel’s enemies and energized and supernaturally empowered by the strictest Torah observance.

The justice that Jesus is placing before them in Matthew is of an entirely different nature: it is a restorative, transformative, liberating justice that includes one’s enemies. Jesus is clear in verse 17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. “Fullfil” here in this verse is pleroo, which means to complete or to perfect. In the very next verse Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” The word here for “accomplished” is ginomai which also means “to perfect or complete.” By implication, that which precedes this perfecting is imperfect or incomplete. What Jesus addresses in verse 20 is the retributive, punitive justice that is often found among those who have been oppressed and marginalized. Retributive justice is one of the elements that Jesus is referring to as incomplete, partial, underdeveloped and imperfect. Yes, within the Law and the Prophets one may find a justice defined as an eye for an eye. But one will also find a more complete, restorative, transformative Justice, too. Jesus is calling his audience away from an imperfect retributive justice to a more complete and holistic restorative kind. Jesus’ quality of justice was to “surpass” the eye-for-an-eye justice longed for by his contemporaries. So is the justice of his followers.

Liberation from Internalized Anger

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (Matthew 5:21-22)

This passage, our last for today, is where we see Jesus beginning to describe how his teachings would surpass the teachings his community was used to hearing. As we discovered last week, Jesus invites us to stop viewing well-being as solely external and recognize its internal nature as well. In this passage, Jesus is naming the hatred that those who have been wronged so often feel toward those who have wronged them. He teaches that the external liberation the disinherited so deeply long for is founded on prior internal liberation. An example of this is found in his teachings on nonviolence. These teachings were not simply techniques for more effective protest: they were that and they were also much more than that. Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence was rooted in an internalized love for enemies and forgiveness that enabled the Jesus follower to think and feel radically differently toward their enemies, to transcend revenge and instead work for their enemies’ transformation. Ponder what Jesus is saying in Matthew 15:

“Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.’ Then the disciples came to him and asked, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?’ He replied, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.’ Peter said, ‘Explain the parable to us.’ ‘Are you still so dull?’ Jesus asked them. ‘Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.’ (Matthew 15:10-20, emphasis added)

If Jesus’ disinherited peers were to experience liberation from their enemies, it would be because they were internally liberated from ‘anger’ against one’s enemies. Anger, wrongly placed, too often turns efforts that could have been restorative from transformation to retribution and mere punitive revenge. As King also said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This teaching highlights two ditches, two places we could stumble. One ditch is the idea that the disinherited need to focus only on external liberation with no thought for their internal relation to their oppressors. The second is the belief that all one needs is internal liberation, and that when this is in place it no longer matters whether a person is externally liberated. This second ditch has been dug over and over throughout history in the path of the oppressed: it pacifies the oppressed and leaves the status quo unchallenged and undisturbed. I see this too often, even today.

But make no mistake: Jesus’ new social order, Jesus’ new world, what he called “the Kingdom,” is a world where all oppression, injustice, and violence is put right, internally and externally. The new world subverts the status quo here, now. The whole system is to be dismantled. Jesus’ revolution doesn’t end with internalized liberation from hatred, fear, and anger toward one’s enemies. That is only where Jesus’ revolution begins.

HeartGroup Application

Reread Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and reflect on the significance of Jesus’ audience being his own community, a disinherited people. May this small interpretative key turn on some more lights for you as it does for me.

  1. Choose a section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount this week and contemplate its meaning within the context of his audience being his fellow oppressed. How does this audience inform your understanding of his words?
  2. Journal what you discover.
  3. Share your insights with your HeartGroup, your Shared Table, this week.

In the introduction to Jesus and the Disinherited, Vincent Harding eloquently states that Jesus’ teachings are replete with significance for any group being subordinated in modern domination systems: “Latinos, Native Americans, Southeast Asians, many women, and gay and lesbian people are only the most obvious additions” and the Black people Thurman originally wrote to. Today, so many make up the community of the disinherited, oppressed, marginalized, or as Thurman would put it, those whose backs are against the wall.” Jesus’ teachings directly empower these community members to live with dignity and creativity as they move toward liberation.

Whatever your place in this world, whether you belong to the community of the poor, the Native Americans, African-Americans, cisgender women, women of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, YOU have the power to enrich the nutrient-depleted soil of our society, YOU are the light of this world, and it is your voice that must be heard at Jesus’ table as we journey together toward a meaningful, more coherent whole, and a safer, more compassionate world for all.

Jesus’ new world is coming. In fact, in those whose hearts the Kingdom’s mustard seed has already sprouted, Jesus’ new world has already begun.

Wherever this finds you this week, keep living in love, enriching the soil of the earth around you, and shining bright like cities on hills, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you.

And I’ll see you next week.

Letting Go of Three Types of Fear

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

sunny road

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

I have recently gone through a paradigm shift in the way I look at Jesus and I believe this shift is significant. In short, Jesus and his message were not outside the economically disadvantaged and subordinated in his society. Jesus’ teachings emerged from within this community. Jesus was not speaking to people whose daily experience he did not share first-hand. Jesus was speaking to and with his own peers. In Howard Thurman’s privately published volume of poems, The Greatest of These, he wrote:

“His days were nurtured in great hostilities

Focused upon his kind, the sons of Israel.

There was no moment in all his years

When he was free.”

Jesus was a poor Jew. He was oppressed on two counts: being from the community of “the poor” and being part of the politically subordinated Jewish people ruled by the Romans, he understood first-hand the implications of his teachings. Although he was a Jewish male within a Jewish patriarchal society, he choose to stand in solidarity with Jewish women (see Matthew 9.22; John 8.10; Luke 15.8; Luke 10.42; Mark 10.11; Mark 15.40), and he also also voluntarily chose a life of solidarity with people who were socially marginalized, including the eunuchs of Matthew 19:12, saying there was room in his new world for them, even though many in his day considered them “unclean.” (Deuteronomy 23.1; Acts 8.36-39; cf. Isaiah 56.3)

It is as one of the “least of these” that Jesus spoke to his peers about the topic we’re looking at this week: the continual war carried out on the nerves of the oppressed people that causes them to live in a perpetual state of fear.

There are three types of fear that we will consider this week:

  1. the fear of going without
  2. the fear of violence
  3. and the fear of isolation, helplessness, and insignificance.

Fear of Going Without

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:25-34)

I want to point out here that Jesus was not teaching the economically oppressed to sit back and do nothing. Notice the phrase, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.” Jesus was speaking to a people who had precious little: security was one of their chief concerns. Jesus is here inspiring them to risks even their own temporary security to make active advancements toward the new world (“the kingdom”). He was casting a vision in their imagination of a just world (“his righteousness”), and assuring them that if they would pursue a world that is just, safe, and compassionate for all, then in the end result, they would see a world where everyone’s needs would be met.

This passage directly refers to the mentality so many downtrodden people have: “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Those in control use present security, even when it is a facade, to dissuade people from questioning or threatening the status quo.

Fear of Violence

“So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who destroy your external well being but cannot touch your inner well being. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy your entire well being, both your outer as well as your inner wellbeing in Gehenna [(Annihilation of 70 C.E. by following militaristic messiahs)] Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Matthew 10:26-30 (Personal translation.)

Here, Jesus is speaking with those whose internalized fear of their oppressors (the Romans) had driven them to also internalize hatred of the Romans and the wealthy Jewish aristocrats who had “sold out” to complicity with the Empire. The Zealots would have only been at one end of the spectrum of those Jesus is speaking to. All across the spectrum of those disgruntled with the system, there were those who believed they could overthrow Rome by taking up the “sword” like Judah Maccabee during the Maccabean revolt. In Matthew 5.38-41, Jesus offers this audience another way. Jesus foresaw that if his people chose the way of violence toward their violent oppressors, that choice would only end in Rome’s annihilation of the Jewish people. This is exactly what transpired in the Jewish-Roman War of 66-69 C.E. that climaxed in Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 C.E. Jesus offered his peers a force more powerful than violence, a force rooted not in hatred of one’s enemies and a desire to defeat them but in love and a desire to transform them. Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence were not passive. They did involve noncooperation in some scenarios and they also included nonviolent direct action, risk, and creative imagination. Both noncooperation and direct action have their appropriate use in nonviolently “seeking” Jesus’ new world (“the kingdom”) and its justice (“righteousness”) for all.

But where all of this must begin is deliverance from fear of those in control of the present “dirty, rotten, system” (Dorothy Day). Jesus is offering a way for us to transcend fear of what others can do to our external realities and be internally immunized against the fear that so often leads to a loss of integrity and an embrace of hatred. This is what Jesus means by destroying one’s body and their “soul” as well. Fear, falsehood, and hate have the power to kill you, internally as well as externally. They produce what I would call a living and enduring hell.

Take a moment and reread the above passage in Matthew 10 with this in mind. We’ll consider Jesus’ words through the works of Thurman in just a moment.

Fear of Isolation, Helplessness, and Insignificance

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”  (Luke 12:32)

The adjective here for “little” is mikros. It refers not just to size but also to one’s dignity. By comparing the oppressed to a flock, Jesus is purposely drawing attention to the way that, like sheep, they have been objectified and dehumanized, and are simply part of someone’s else’s net worth. And by referring to them as little flock, he addresses the dignity they lack even among others who are objectified and dehumanized. Little flocks were worth far less than large flocks. Jesus was speaking to the least among the disadvantaged, the lowest among the community of the low.

And Jesus says, “It is to YOU, the little flock among the flocks, that the Heart of the Universe is pleased to give this new world.” 

These words of assurance are especially for those who are multiply oppressed in the community of the oppressed. (Modern examples of this would be women of color among White feminists, or transgender people in the LGBT community.)

There is something deeply humiliating and foundationally damaging to the self-respect and personal dignity of those who cannot appeal to anyone for protection from their oppressors.

I want to share three passages from Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited that are relevant: I cannot say it better than Thurman did! I’ll simply share his insight here and have only edited Thurman’s words to make them more gender inclusive.

“There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person . . . A person’s conviction that they are God’s child automatically tends to shift the basis of their relationship with all their fellows. They recognize at once that to fear another person, whatever may be that person’s power over them, is a basic denial of the integrity of their very life. It lifts that mere person to a place of pre-eminence that belongs to God and to God alone. Those who fear are literally delivered to destruction.

“To the child of God, a scale of values becomes available by which people are measured and their true significance determined. Even the threat of violence, with the possibility of death that it carries, is recognized for what it is— merely the threat of violence with a death potential. Such a person recognizes that death cannot possibly be the worst thing in the world. There are some things that are worse than death. To deny one’s own integrity of personality in the presence of the human challenge is one of those things . . .

“The core of the analysis of Jesus is that every person is a child of God, the God of life that sustains all of nature and guarantees all the intricacies of the life process itself. Jesus suggests that it is quite unreasonable to assume that God, whose creative activity is expressed even in such details as the hairs of a person’s head, would exclude from God’s concern the life, the vital spirit, of the persons themselves. This idea—that God is mindful of the individual—is of tremendous import in dealing with fear as a disease. In this world the socially disadvantaged person is constantly given a negative answer to the most important personal questions upon which mental health depends: ‘Who am I? What am I?’  The first question has to do with a basic self-estimate, a profound sense of belonging, of counting. If a person feels that he does not belong in the way in which it is perfectly normal for other people to belong, then they develop a deep sense of insecurity. When this happens to a person, it provides the basic material for what the psychologist calls an inferiority complex. It is for a person to have no sense of personal inferiority as such, but at the same time to be dogged by a sense of social inferiority. The awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in new courage, fearlessness, and power. I have seen it happen again and again.” (Adapted from Howard Thurman’s, Jesus and the Disinherited)

Dr. King spoke on fear and faith this way:

“Now it isn’t easy to stand up for truth and for justice. Sometimes it means being frustrated. When you tell the truth and take a stand, sometimes it means that you will walk the streets with a burdened heart. Sometimes it means losing a job…means being abused and scorned. It may mean having a seven, eight-year-old child asking a daddy, ‘Why do you have to go to jail so much?’ And I’ve long since learned that to be a follower to the Jesus Christ means taking up the cross. And my bible tells me that Good Friday comes before Easter. Before the crown we wear, there is the cross that we must bear. Let us bear it—bear it for truth, bear it for justice, and bear it for peace. Let us go out this morning with that determination.

“And I have not lost faith. I’m not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I can still sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ because Carlyle was right: ‘No lie can live forever.’ We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant was right: ‘Truth pressed to earth will rise again.’ We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell was right: ‘Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne.’ Yet, that scaffold sways the future. We shall overcome because the bible is right: ‘You shall reap what you sow.’

“With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid because the words of the Lord have spoken it. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when all over the world we will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!’ With this faith, we’ll sing it as we’re getting ready to sing it now. Men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And nations will not rise up against nations, neither shall they study war anymore. And I don’t know about you, I ain’t gonna study war no more.” (Sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967)

Jesus’ new world of compassion and justice for all is possible. We must, just like Jesus, not lose faith in humanity. Jesus spoke as one who himself belonged to the community of the oppressed, and his way to this new world begins with the call to abandon fear.

All that might follow begins with this. For as perfect love drives out fear, fear also drives out perfect love. And it is love for all, and only love, that compels us to sit at Jesus’ shared table and opens the way to that world where the Heart of the Universe has become the Heart of us all.

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, go back and spend some time each day contemplating Jesus’ words in Matthew 6.25-34; Matthew 10.26-30; Luke 12.32.
  2. Journal your thoughts, your questions, your insights, and your breakthroughs as you engage with these passages every day this week.
  3. Share your journal insights with your HeartGroup, your shared table, for discussion and feedback.

Here’s to a safer, more compassionate world for us all: many voices, one shared table, one new world. Wherever this finds you this week, keep letting go of fear, living in love, and listening with compassion, till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.