Free from Anxiety like Ravens and Lilies

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you are to eat, nor about your body, with what you are to clothe yourself. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? Consider the ravens: They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. Are you not better than the birds? And who of you by being anxious is able to add to one’s stature a cubit? And why are you anxious about clothing Observe‚ the lilies, how they grow: They do not work nor do they spin. Yet I tell you: Not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these. But if in the field the grass, there today and tomorrow thrown into the oven, God clothes thus, will he not much more clothe you, persons of petty faith! So‚ do not be anxious, saying: What are we to eat? Or: What are we to drink? Or: What are we to wear? For all these the Gentiles seek; for your Father knows that you need them all. But seek his kingdom, and all these shall be granted to you.” (Q 12:22b-31)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 6:25-33: “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.”

Luke 12:22-31: “Then Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, 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, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.’”

Gospel of Thomas 36:1, 4, 2–3: “Jesus said, ‘Do not fret, from morning to evening and from evening to morning, about your food–what you’re going to eat, or about your clothing, what you are going to wear. You’re much better than the lilies, which neither card nor spin. As for you, when you have no garment, what will you put on? Who might add to your stature? That very one will give you your garment.’”

We can best understand this week’s saying by looking at an interesting detail in Luke’s version of this saying. At the very beginning of this discourse in Luke, we read:

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ Jesus replied, ‘Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?’” (Luke 12:13,14)

In Jesus’ audience is a man arguing with his brother over their inheritance from their father. One brother asks for Jesus to speak to the other brother on his behalf and Jesus flatly refuses to arbitrate between them.

Arguments over inheritances aren’t common among the poor or lower middle classes. These are problems that exist among the affluent. My own mother passed away in 2014, a typical Appalachian woman with nothing. I remember having to sort through mail and having to speak with creditors. There was no inheritance to try and figure out; there was only debt to be cleared or written off.

Jesus didn’t see settling disputes between the rich as his purpose. He was a prophet of the poor and called his audience to solidarity with the poor. One example of this is Jesus call’ for the rich to “sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” It was a call for radical wealth redistribution.

It’s possible that those who heard Jesus teach believed that there would not be enough for everyone if we actually did share. This is a narrative of scarcity. It leads people to feel anxious about the future and preoccupied with accumulating as much as they think will insulate them from any negative future events. Accumulating resources and anxiety can grow into the drive to monopolize resources, exploit others and their resources, and uphold this exploitation through violence. However we label this narrative, we must learn to recognize it for what it is: a narrative of scarcity.

Jesus, on the contrary, taught a different narrative, a narrative more like the one Gandhi later taught, that “every day the earth produces enough for each person’s need, but not each person’s greed.” Jesus called us to embrace a narrative of enough or abundance, the belief that there is enough to share. This sharing replaces anxiety with gratitude, generosity, connectedness, community, and hospitality. Rather than monopolies and exploitation, abundance brings distributive justice and replaces violence with peace.

Let’s look at this week’s saying again with these two narratives in mind:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you are to eat, nor about your body, with what you are to clothe yourself. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? Consider the ravens: They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. Are you not better than the birds? And who of you by being anxious is able to add to one’s stature a cubit? And why are you anxious about clothing Observe‚ the lilies, how they grow: They do not work nor do they spin. Yet I tell you: Not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these. But if in the field the grass, there today and tomorrow thrown into the oven, God clothes thus, will he not much more clothe you, persons of petty faith! So‚ do not be anxious, saying: What are we to eat? Or: What are we to drink? Or: What are we to wear? For all these the Gentiles seek; for your Father knows that you need them all. But seek his kingdom, and all these shall be granted to you. (Q 12:22b-31)

Jesus’ “Kingdom,” the “reign of God,” was his way of using the language of his own time and culture to share his social vision of people taking care of each other. James M. Robinson reminds us in The Gospel of Jesus, “This is why the beggars, the hungry, the depressed are fortunate: God, that is, those in whom God rules, those who hearken to God, will care for them. The needy are called upon to trust that God’s reigning is there for them (“Theirs is the kingdom of God”) . . . Jesus’ message was simple, for he wanted to cut straight through to the point: trust God to look out for you by providing people who will care for you, and listen to him when he calls on you to provide for them.”

This is what Pëtr Kropotkin called mutual aid:

“While [Darwin] was chiefly using the term [survival of the fittest] in its narrow sense for his own special purpose, he warned his followers against committing the error (which he seems once to have committed himself) of overrating its narrow meaning. In The Descent of Man he gave some powerful pages to illustrate its proper, wide sense. He pointed out how, in numberless animal societies, the struggle between separate individuals for the means of existence disappears, how struggle is replaced by co-operation, and how that substitution results in the development of intellectual and moral faculties which secure to the species the best conditions for survival. He intimated that in such cases the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community. ‘Those communities,’ he wrote, ‘which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring’ (2nd edit., p. 163). The term, which originated from the narrow Malthusian conception of competition between each and all, thus lost its narrowness in the mind of one who knew Nature.” (Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution)

In the New Testament book of James, the writer comments on Jesus’ teachings in the sermon on the mount and the narrative of anxiety that leads to exploiting others: “But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?” (James 2:6-7)

Like the gospels do, James gives a scathing, prophetic pronouncement to those who live by the old narrative of scarcity and accumulation:

“Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.” (James 1:9-11)

Even in 1 Timothy, believed to have been written quite a bit later than James, there is a call away from the narrative of scarcity, anxiety, and individualistic trust in one’s own accumulated wealth to insulate one from future harm:

“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their trust in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (1 Timothy 6:17)

Remember, putting one’s “hope in God” according the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q meant trusting God enough that God would send people to take care of you as you share what you’ve accumulated with those God calls you to give to today.

“Ravens and lilies do not seem to focus their attention on satisfying their own needs in order to survive, and yet God sees to it that they prosper. Sparrows are sold a dime a dozen and, one might say, who cares? God cares! Even about the tiniest things—he knows exactly how many hairs are on your head! So God will not give a stone when asked for bread or a snake when asked for fish, but can be counted on to give what you really need. You can trust him to know what you need even before you ask. This utopian vision of a caring God was the core of what Jesus had to say and what he himself put into practice. It was both good news—reassurance that in your actual experience good would happen to mitigate your plight—and the call upon you to do that same good toward others in actual practice. This radical trust in and responsiveness to God is what makes society function as God’s society. This was, for Jesus, what faith and discipleship were all about. As a result, nothing else had a right to claim any functional relationship to him . . . [Jesus] sought to focus attention on trusting God for today’s ration of life, and on hearing God’s call to give now a better life to neighbors . . . All this is as far from today’s Christianity as it was from the Judaism of Jesus’ day. Christians all too often simply venerate the “Lord Jesus Christ” as the “Son of God” and let it go at that. But Jesus himself made no claim to lofty titles or even to divinity. Indeed, to him, a devout Jew, claiming to be God would have seemed blasphemous! He claimed “only” that God spoke and acted through him.” (James Robinson, The Gospel of Jesus, Kindle Location 102)

This is the vision Jesus cast before his listeners of what human society could look like: People taking care of people. In Jesus’ theological language, that was God taking care of people through people. It’s through us, through our choice to be compassionate and just or turn away, that we determine one another’s fate. We have a choice to make. Will we care for someone today, trusting that someone will care for us tomorrow if we have a need?

“Seeking first the Kingdom” is not seeking an artificial quid pro quo where if I help people, I expect God to supernaturally bless me. This isn’t the prosperity gospel. This is more intrinsic. As I take care of others when they need care, I’m setting in motion a world where I’ll have folks that take care of me if I need care. Like we discussed last week, I’m investing in people today. And that will intrinsically create a reality where others will share “all these things” with me if I experience a crisis.

Jesus’ teaching means the creation of human society in which we change the nature of the world we live in, where care and cooperation solve the dilemmas of survival rather than competition, domination, subjugation, and exploitation. This world is not based on a win-lose closed system, but a win-win where we learn to be each other’s keeper. Our world is what we, collectively, choose to make it. For my part, I’m choosing compassion.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you are to eat, nor about your body, with what you are to clothe yourself. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? Consider the ravens: They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. Are you not better than the birds? And who of you by being anxious is able to add to one’s stature a cubit? And why are you anxious about clothing Observe‚ the lilies, how they grow: They do not work nor do they spin. Yet I tell you: Not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these. But if in the field the grass, there today and tomorrow thrown into the oven, God clothes thus, will he not much more clothe you, persons of petty faith! So‚ do not be anxious, saying: What are we to eat? Or: What are we to drink? Or: What are we to wear? For all these the Gentiles seek; for your Father knows that you need them all. But seek his kingdom, and all these shall be granted to you. (Q 12:22b-31)

HeartGroup Application

This week, I’d like you to sit down with your HeartGroup and compile a list of needs and abilities that exist among you. Here’s how.

  1. Divide a piece of paper into two columns.
  2. Go around the room and list the needs that members presently have in one column
  3. Next, list in the second column the abilities and talents that people in the room have.
  4. Drawing lines between the two columns, linking needs and group members’ ability to help take care of those needs.

As you do this exercise, not all of the needs will be met, but some of them will. And as we become aware of the needs with each group, we will discover ways to meet those needs. Each group is a microcosm of a world where everyone contributes and everyone’s needs are being met. It’s people taking responsibility for one another. It’s people taking care of people. And once you begin engaging your HeartGroup in this practical, tangible way, it also really becomes fun.

Jesus’ solution to challenges we face was each one of us. Jesus’ hope for our world is us.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Storing up Treasures in Heaven 

Multiracial Group of Friends with World Globe Map

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Do not treasure for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and gnawing deface and where robbers dig through and rob, but treasure for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor gnawing defaces and where robbers do not dig through nor rob. For where your treasure is, there will also be your heart.” (Q 12:33-34)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 6:19-21: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Luke 12:33-34: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Gospel of Thomas 76:3: “You too look for his treasure, which does not perish, (and) which stays where no moth can reach it to eat it, and no worm destroys it.”

This week’s saying tells us to focus on storing up “treasure” in heaven rather than on earth. I want to offer a word of caution about that. Karl Marx correctly wrote that religion focused on heaven or afterlife bliss rather than survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation of our world now tends to leave oppressed people passive.

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” (Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Collected Works, vol. 3)

James H. Cone pushes back on Marx’s blanket condemnation of all religion in his landmark book God of the Oppressed. This is a rather long quotation, but one worth considering: Cone is not addressing Marx’s critique from the perspective of someone trying to preserve the status quo. He addresses the critique as someone in an oppressed community who’s working for societal change and the dismantling of the status quo.

“The vision of the future and of Jesus as the Coming Lord is the central theme of black religion. This theme is expressed with the idea of heaven, a concept that has been grossly misunderstood in black religion. For any people the idea of heaven, in the songs and sermons of black people, is proof of Marx’s contention that religion is the opiate of the people. Unfortunately, many uninformed young blacks, hearing this Marxian analysis in college, have accepted this criticism as true without probing deeper into the thought forms of black people. To be sure, white missionaries and preachers used Jesus Christ and heaven to make black slaves obedient and docile. But in reality, the opposite happened more often than not. For any black slaves, Jesus became the decisive Other in their lives who provided for them a knowledge of themselves, not derived from the value system of slave masters. How could black slaves know that they were human beings when they were treated like cattle? How could they know that they were somebody when everything in their environment said that they were nobody? How could they know that they had a value that could not be defined by dollars and cents, when the symbol of the auction block was an ever present reality? Only because they knew that Christ was present with them and that his presence included the divine promise to come again and to take them to the ‘New Jerusalem.’ Heaven, therefore, in black religion was inseparably connected with Jesus’ promise to liberate the oppressed from slavery. It was black people’s vision of a new identity for themselves which was in sharp contradiction to their present status as slaves. This vision of Jesus as the Coming One who will take them back to heaven held black people together mentally as they struggled physically to make real the future in their present.” (pp. 119-120)

Cone continues:

“The past and present history of Jesus are incomplete without affirmation of the ‘not yet’ that ‘will be.’ The power of Christ’s future coming and the vision that it bestows upon the people is the key to why the oppressed can ‘keep on keepin’ on’ even when their fight seems fruitless. The vision of Christ’s future that breaks into their slave existence radically changes their perspective on life; and to others who stand outside the community where the vision is celebrated, black people’s talk about “long white robes” and “golden slippers” in heaven seems to be proof that black religion is an opium [sic] of the people. But in reality it is a radical judgment which black people are making upon the society that enslaved them. Black religion, therefore, becomes a revolutionary alternative to white religion. Jesus Christ becomes the One who stands at the center of their view of reality, enabling slaves to look beyond the present to the future, the time when black suffering will be ended. The future reality of Jesus means that what is contradicts what ought to be. When Jesus is understood as the Coming One who will establish divine justice among people, then we will be able to understand why black slaves’ religion emphasized the other world. They truly believed the story of Jesus’ past existence with the poor as told in the Bible. (pp. 120-121)

As someone who does not speak from Cone’s social location, I want to acknowledge Cone’s critique of Marx. When religion leaves us waiting for a future time when justice comes rather than working for distributive justice in our world today, then Marx is correct: religion is an opiate. Cone is also right that a religion that identifies God as the God of the oppressed doesn’t have to pacify people.

Yet Cone drifts awfully close to using religion as an opiate himself in the following paragraph:

“People get tired of fighting for justice and the political power of oppressors often creates fear in the hearts of the oppressed. What could a small band of slaves do against the armed might of a nation? Indeed what can the oppressed blacks today do in order to break the power of the Pentagon? Of course, we may “play” revolutionary and delude ourselves that we can do battle against the atomic bomb. Usually when the reality of the political situation dawns upon the oppressed, those who have no vision from another world tend to give up in despair. But those who have heard about the coming of the Lord Jesus and have a vision of crossing on the other side of Jordan, are not terribly disturbed about what happens in Washington, D. C., at least not to the extent that their true humanity is dependent on the political perspective of government officials.” (p. 121, emphasis added)

With this tension between Marx and Cone in mind this week, I ask the question: what did the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q mean when he asked us to place our focus on heaven rather than earth, especially when such a focus has historically proved detrimental to the victims of oppression, injustice and violence?

James Robinson offered a possible answer in his book on Sayings Gospel Q.

“Some people get confused by the fact that in the Gospel of Matthew the ‘kingdom of God’ is usually referred to as the “kingdom of heaven,” leading them to think that the kingdom is in heaven—something one can experience only in the afterlife or at the end of time. But Jesus was talking about God reigning in the here and now. Use of the idiom “kingdom of heaven” is due to the fact that Matthew is the Gospel most closely related to Judaism and so still reflects its sensitivities. Jews have been so committed to not taking God’s name in vain, which, after all, is one of the Ten Commandments, that they have thought it best not to “take” God’s name at all. That is, they do not pronounce Yahweh out loud at all. Sometimes they carry this so far that they not only avoid pronouncing Yahweh; they even avoid pronouncing “God” and instead simply refer to the “name,” by which everyone in the Jewish community knows what they mean—God. (The Gospel of Jesus; Kindle Locations 2722-2730).

The kingdom of heaven is not a kingdom in heaven, but a new social arrangement that Jesus announced had come from heaven to earth. It was the reign of God and it was emerging from the community of the oppressed in Jesus’ day on earth. It was a social vision where people took care of people, where people practiced mutual aid and resource sharing, and where wealth inequality was met with wealth redistribution (see Acts 4:33-35). Jesus’ “kingdom of heaven” was a Jewish way of referring to the kingdom or reign of God, which had arrived here on earth in the present life, now.

This reign of God called people to trust in a God who would send other people to take care of them in the future to the degree that they would loosen their grip on hoarded wealth that insulated them from future risk so they could  be the one God sent to help those who are in need today. As Robinson points out: “This hardly means that as surely as a human parent gives bread and fish in the here and now, the heavenly Father will give ‘pie in the sky by-and-by.’ It clearly means that God will answer the petition ‘Our day’s bread give us today’ in the here and now, daily. (Ibid. Kindle Locations 2789-2791) Together, we could face the insecurity of the future, because no matter what the future brought, we could make it because we had each other.

What Jesus may be saying in this week’s Q statement is this: don’t store up material treasure on Earth, which always involves some level of risk. Invest your resources in the kingdom of heaven that has arrived here on earth, which is made manifest in people taking care of people. “Lay up treasure” in the lives of people, especially the vulnerable, the poor, those on the underside and edges of our societies. Invest in a compassionate, safe, just world for people. Put your treasure in them, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

People are often not comfortable with their religion becoming this down-to-earth. They are much more comfortable with religion being about investing in a post-mortem retirement program for themselves. But I don’t think that approach to interpreting Jesus’ saying is consistent with what we have witnessed about the Jesus of sayings Q so far. His teachings are not about you gaining heavenly bliss later; they’re about bringing the liberation of heaven into people’s lives here, now, today.

What does it mean to lay up treasure in heaven? The kingdom of heaven for Jesus was the reign of God that had arrived here on earth. It called people to stop solving the challenges of survival for themselves at the expense of others around them. It called them to take responsibility for making sure one another had what they needed.

This week’s saying is not a matter of location (heaven versus earth). Nor is it a matter of timing (post mortem versus now). It is a matter of seeking plenty “for yourself” on earth now, versus seeking “the kingdom of heaven” with others on earth now. Storing up treasure in heaven means people taking care of people here.

At home, one of my projects is storing some of my daughter’s favorite belongings in our attic while she’s away at college. When she comes home, she won’t go up to the attic to enjoy her belongings. She will take those belongings out of the attic and bring them down to enjoy them in her home.

When we take care of other people, even if we use the language of “storing treasure in heaven,” we must not forget that our home is here. When we choose to take care of people, we’re transforming our home here. We’ll be able to take out and enjoy the treasures we have stored in each other in a transformed world that is a safe, just, and compassionate home for us all, on earth “as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6.10).

Do not treasure for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and gnawing deface and where robbers dig through and rob, but treasure for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor gnawing defaces and where robbers do not dig through nor rob. For where your treasure is, there will also be your heart.” (Q 12:33-34)

HeartGroup Application

1.  How does choosing to take responsibility for one another’s survival and care transform our world today? In what ways does doing so affirm how the world already is?

2.  List some ways that your group could lean more deeply into taking care of each other. Then list some of the ways that your group could lean more deeply into taking care of those in your neighborhood.

Separate both lists into two categories: actions that may help people today yet leave in place a system that will cause them to need help again tomorrow; and actions that will impact the systemic problems and transform society at the root as well. It is important to do both, not just one or the other. If a person is drowning, they need pulling out of the river. And those throwing people into the river need to be stopped as well. Renewed Heart Ministries’ book for March is James H. Cone’s God of the Oppressed. In that book, Cone writes, “For the oppressed, justice is the rescue from hurt; and for the oppressors it is the removal of the power to hurt others—even against their will—so that justice can be realized for all” (p. 159).

3 .  Pick two items from your group’s lists and begin putting it into practice this week. This is how we begin storing up treasure in heaven, transforming our world.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Keep living in love, a love that bears the fruit of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Hearings before Synagogues

Slaves liberation, Goree Island, Dakar, Best of Senegal

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“When they bring you before synagogues, do not be anxious about how or what you are to say; for the holy Spirit will teach you in that hour what you are to say.” Q 12:11-12 

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:19: “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say.”

Luke 12:11-12: “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”

Synagogues

Rome referred to the synagogue as a Jewish “public school” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 16.6.2). The book of Acts describes synagogues of places of religious worship and instruction. These were places for the local community to assemble for social, intellectual and spiritual reasons. Today, Jewish synagogues are overseen by rabbis. While 1st Century synagogues did have leadership, rabbinical leadership did not become universal till some time in the Middle Ages.

One of the ways Rome kept the peace in the territories it conquered was by working closely through the territories’ religious institutions. So the synagogues, though much more local than the temple in Jerusalem, would have played a part in the Roman occupation.

Also keep in mind that in 1st Century Jewish society, strict divisions between political/civil and religious life did not exist. These were intertwined as they are often in our time.

This week’s saying is an encouragement to followers of Jesus who got arrested for following him. In the U.S. today. Christians don’t get arrested for following Jesus. We’ll discuss a few possible reasons for this in a moment.

First, rather than pointing a finger at how the Jewish elites joined religious and civil authorities to oppose the threat of Jesus’ vision for Jewish societies, I’d like to consider our history: how most of Christianity has witnessed this same opposition to Jesus’ societal vision.

Christianity

Most scholars point to the conversion of Constantine as the period when Christianity began colluding with empire. Feminist scholars point back to patriarchal abuses of women, which have always plagued Christianity. (See Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, edited by Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn.) Christianity, embracing the violent use of the sword as justifiable in the face of Rome’s enemies, grew to become the political head of most of Europe. Christianity then became the empire itself. As the right arm of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant countries in Europe, imperial Christianity laid the foundation for the church’s endorsement and use of colonialism in the 15th Century during the so-called “age of discovery.” In my twenties, I visited Trinidad and Tobago as young, naive Christian “preacher.” Much to my horror I discovered history my Christian education had conveniently left out. I heard stories from the people there of how, rather than condemning colonialism as the genocidal rape of indigenous lands and people, Christianity and the name of Jesus was part and parcel of colonialism. Colonialism was viewed as an acceptable and even preferable means of carrying the “gospel” around the globe, making “disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” with the Bible in one hand and a sword in the other (see Matthew 18:29).

Christian Colonialism took lands and resources from indigenous people viewing them as “modern Canaanites,” treating indigenous people themselves as capitalist resources that could be taken forcefully from their lands as slaves. (See Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, pp.123-142) Christians participated with clear consciences in the slave trade. (See Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness, pp. 66-68) After all, their sacred text had given them permission:

“However, you may purchase male and female slaves from among the nations around you. You may also purchase the children of temporary residents who live among you, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat them as slaves, but you must never treat your fellow Israelites this way.” (Leviticus 25:44-46)

This moral stain still rests with Christianity today. The end of slavery in the U.S. was brought about by secularists partnering with a minority of Christians derogatorily labeled “radical Christians.” (See Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and Carol Faulkner’s Lucreitta Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America.) Jim Crow, too, was ended by secular federal legislation opposed by the majority of white Christians in the southern states. (The Real Origins of the Religious Right)

Today, Christianity again has raised its head to support the most outspokenly misogynist, racist, xenophobic American administration in modern history.  For most of my socially conscious friends, Christianity is seen not just as out of touch with Jesus’ societal vision, but actively opposed to a world that resembles what Jesus was working so tirelessly to inspire among his 1st Century followers.

Today

In the 1960s and 1970s, in North and South America, a different Christian movement was born. Latin voices in South and Central America, and Black voices here in the U.S. developed differently focused theologies that would come to be known as liberation theologies:

“If theological speech is based on the traditions of the Old Testament, then it must heed their unanimous testimony to Yahweh’s commitment to justice for the poor and the weak. Accordingly it cannot avoid taking sides in politics, and the side that theology must take is disclosed in the side that Yahweh has already taken. Any other side, whether it be with the oppressors or the side of neutrality (which is nothing but a camouflaged identification with the rulers), is unbiblical. If theology does not side with the poor, then it cannot speak for Yahweh who is the God of the poor.” (James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, p. 65)

“Under these circumstances, can it honestly be said that the Church does not interfere in ’the temporal sphere’? Is the Church fulfilling a purely religious role when by its silence or friendly relationships it lends legitimacy to a dictatorial and oppressive government? We discover, then, that the policy of nonintervention in political affairs holds for certain actions which involve ecclesiastical authorities, but not for others. In other words, this principle is not applied when it is a question of maintaining the status quo, but it is wielded when, for example, a lay apostolic movement or a group of priests holds an attitude considered subversive to the established order.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 40)

Both statements reveal a challenge to Christianity’s historic complicity with and empowerment of the status quo. Christian liberation movements were born in solidarity with oppressed. This marked a significant shift in theology away from North American and European centered interpretations and toward theologies being done from within oppressed communities.

These theologies were labeled “radical” expressions of Christianity and they have yet to become popularly emphasized in status quo, White, patriarchal, heterosexist Christianity. These theologies have not gone beyond the halls of academia in order to reach the people in the pew listening to most of North America’s weekly evangelical preaching.

Today, U.S. society is markedly a secular society with a plurality of religious beliefs, and the religion with the most followers is Christianity. Too often, this kind of Christianity is simply concerned with spiritual and/or post-mortem matters that prove to leave systemic oppression unchallenged for those in positions of privilege. It also leaves those underprivileged in a state of pious passivity.

Yet, if liberation theologies rooted in the experience of the oppressed and informed by their sacred texts are a reflection of what early Christianity possibly was in the first century, they sound a clarion call for Christianity to wrest itself free of its historical failures, to make reparations for the damage it has done, and to begin charting a new course where the poor, women, people of color, and those of varied orientations and gender identities are no longer the victims of Christianity but the community Jesus would call us to stand in solidarity with instead. This is not a “liberal agenda,” or “gay agenda” threatening the gospel of Jesus Christ. This IS the gospel of Jesus Christ: liberation for the oppressed. (Luke 4:18-19)

As I mentioned above, Christians are not getting arrested in the U.S. today. Is that because society has become just, safe, and compassionate for everyone so that Christianity has no opposition to a status quo to mount? Or is it because Christianity, as it has done historically, is being complicit in systemic injustices, exploitation, and harm being perpetrated out of societal fear of those who are different?

American Christians have a long way to go before they are being brought before “rulers and authorities” for standing up against injustice and a lack of compassion in our world today. It’s more likely that if one is “arrested” and brought to trial today, it will be the Christians who comprise the prosecutors.

“When they bring you before synagogues, do not be anxious about how or what you are to say; for the holy Spirit will teach you in that hour what you are to say.” Q 12:11-12 

HeartGroup Application

This week I have some passages from the Hebrew scriptures that I’d like you to contemplate together. James H. Cone in our book of the month for March, God of the Oppressed, wrote:

“For theologians to speak of this God, they too must become interested in politics and economics, recognizing that there is no truth about Yahweh unless it is the truth of freedom as that event is revealed in the oppressed people’s struggle for justice in this world.” (p. 57)

  1. Consider the following passages:

“Yahweh ’heard their groaning, and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; he saw the plight of Israel, he took heed of it’” (Exodus 2:24—25 NEB).

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has risen up in triumph; the horse and his rider he has hurled into the sea.” (Exodus 15:1 NEB)

“The Lord is my refuge and my defense, he has shown himself my deliverer.” (Exodus 15:2 NEB)

“You have seen with your own eyes what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you here to me. If only you will now listen to me and keep my covenant, then out of all peoples you shall become my special possession; for the whole earth is mine. You shall be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4—5 NEB)

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21; cf. 23:9 RSV)

“You shall not ill-treat any widow or fatherless child. If you do, be sure that I will listen if they appeal to me; my anger will be roused and I will kill you with the sword.” (Exodus 22:23—24 NEB)

What do these passages tell us about the Hebrew God’s relationship to the oppressed?

2. The narrative states that the liberated people eventually became oppressors of the vulnerable. Consider these passages from the Hebrew prophets:

“For you alone have I cared among all the nations of the world; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:2 NEB)

“Shall not the earth shake for this?  Shall not all who live on it grieve? All earth shall surge and seethe like the Nile and subside like the river of Egypt. Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, the Aramaeans from Kir? Behold, I, the Lord God, have my eyes on this sinful kingdom, and I will wipe it off the face of the earth. (Amos 8:6-8; 9:7-8 NEB)

“For among my people there are wicked men.. . Their houses are full of fraud, as a cage is full of birds. They grow rich and grand, bloated and rancorous; their thoughts are all of evil, and they refuse to do justice, the claims of the orphan they do not put right nor do they grant justice to the poor.” (Jeremiah 5:26-28 NEB)

“God has told you what is good; and what is it that the Lord asks of you? Only to act justly, to love loyally, to walk wisely before your God. (Micah 6:8 NEB)

“Put away the evil of your deeds, away out of my sight. Cease to do evil and learn to do right, pursue justice and champion the oppressed; give the orphan his rights, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:16–17 NEB)

3. The Davidic Kingly narrative texts teach us that the king was to rescue the needy from their rich oppressors:

“May he have pity on the needy and the poor, deliver the poor from death; may he redeem them from oppression and violence and may their blood be precious in his eyes.” (Psalm 72:12-14 NEB)

Yet we don’t see this being the ultimate outcome:

“The Lord comes forward to argue his case and stands to judge his people. The Lord opens the indictment against the elders of his people and their officers: They have ravaged the vineyard, and the spoils of the poor are in your houses. Is it nothing to you that you crush my people and grind the faces of the poor?” (Isaiah 3:13–15 NEB)

God’s people were to stand with the oppressed, like their God did:

“He who is generous to the poor lends to the Lord.” (Proverbs 19:17 NEB)

“He who oppresses the poor insults his Maker; he who is generous to the needy honors him.” (Proverbs 14:31 NEB)

“Do not move the ancient boundary-stone or encroach on the land of orphans: they have a powerful guardian who will take their cause against you.” (Proverbs 23:10-11 NEB)

In the book of Luke, we find these two descriptions of the work of Jesus:

“His name is Holy; his mercy sure from generation to generation toward those who fear him; the deeds his own right arm has done disclose his might: the arrogant of heart and mind he has put to rout, he has brought down monarchs from their thrones, but the humble have been lifted high. The hungry he has satisfied with good things, the rich sent empty away.” (Luke 1:49-53 NEB)

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me, he has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NEB)

What does it mean to see Jesus as part of a Jewish liberation tradition?

What does it mean for us today who desire to follow this Jewish, liberative Jesus?

What if you belong to the community of the oppressed?

What if you don’t belong to the community of the oppressed?

Does this liberative Jesus call us each to stand in solidarity with those on the undersides and edges of our society?

As I mentioned a moment ago, I believe much of Western Christianity has a long way to go before this week’s saying holds any relevance to it. At most right now it is a strong rebuke of how far we have drifted from being a community of the oppressed rather than a community of oppressors.

But that doesn’t mean things are hopeless. The choice is yours today. As a follower of Jesus, whom are you being called to stand in solidarity with? Who knows, you may find yourself standing before “rulers and authorities” for living like the Jesus community of old.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Wherever this finds you, keep living in love. Keep up the good work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. We have our work cut out for us. Let’s get to it.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Speaking against the holy Spirit 

White dove in the cage, Pigeon locked in a cage.by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And whoever says a word against the son of humanity, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him.” Q 12:10 

Companion Texts:

Matthew 12:32: “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

Luke 12:10: “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”

Gospel of Thomas 44: “Jesus says: ‘Whoever blasphemes against the Father, it will be forgiven him. And whoever blasphemes against the Son, it will be forgiven him. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, neither on earth nor in heaven.’”

Womanism and Spirit

For those unfamiliar with the womanist school of thought, Alice Walker writes, “Womanist to feminist is as purple is to lavender” (In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, pp. xii). Womanism’s origins are among Black women of the African diaspora. And within our context this week, I love the emphasis womanist writers place on Spirit.

Karen Baker-Fletcher, a Christian womanist, explains, “The Spirit is the all-encompassing, inclusive force in which God/Creator, Jesus and all of creation are inextricably entombed.” (My Sister, My Brother, p. 31). She quotes Igbo theologian Okechukwu Ogbannaya: “[Spirit] is like the amniotic fluids—the waters of the womb—that encompasses a child before it is born, and accompany it, flowing out with it as it makes its way into the world as we know it. It surrounds the child and forms the first environment out of which it is born.”

Christian womanists view Jesus as the “human embodiment of Spirit” (ibid.). Spirit is the source of strength and courage to both survive and stand up to individual and systemic oppression. Womanists join love with justice in their discussion of Spirit. Emilie Townes, for example, reminds us that we see the evidence of the Spirit at work when we see justice as the demands of love (see In a Blaze of Glory, p. 143-144). Within a womanist understanding, whenever we see love as engagement of the world of justice for the oppressed, marginalized, or subjugated, we are seeing the Spirit at work.

So a womanist would read our saying this week assuming that the Spirit expresses love through restorative, liberative, transformative, and distributive justice.

I remember an evangelical fourth of July celebration I had to attend once in California where supporters of the Christian Right repeated quoted Paul’s statement, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom [liberty]” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Too often, however, this “freedom” or “small government” rhetoric has not been freedom for the oppressed, nor liberty for those imprisoned and exploited (Luke 4:18). Rather it has been about individual freedom, or state’s freedom to oppress, segregrate, imprison, and exploit.  (For an example read here.)

In other words, for those at the top of an exploitative social pyramid who are privileged, advantaged, and benefited by the status quo, freedom and liberty means something fundamentally different than it does for those at the bottom. One is fixated on the freedom of the individual to do whatever they desire. The other sees that in nature, we are not truly free from one another. As we said last week, we are interconnected. We are part of one another. We are each other’s fate, and what one does affects others. What the individual does affects the community as much as what the community does affects the individual. We are not genuinely free from one another.

The Spirit’s work in Luke is especially helpful for us to remember now:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year for the cancelling of all debts [or “of the Lord’s favor.”]” (Luke 4:18-19, emphasis added.)

The Spirit works in solidarity with those on the undersides and margins of our societies. It calls those among the elite to abandon their advantage, join the rank and file, and work for a society marked by equity, fairness, compassion, and safety for all.

This week, I want to encourage you to think of the Spirit in the context of distributive justice, justice that makes an environment where each person not only survives but also thrives. This is one of the most devastating critiques of capitalism for Jesus followers because capitalism creates wealth disparity between winners and losers.

The U.S., the wealthiest nation in history, is also home to the greatest wealth disparity in history. Today six people possess as much wealth as the bottom 50% of society. Despite being so wealthy, the U.S. is still home to 43 million people who live below the poverty line. As I often say, the game Monopoly is fun for the first two rounds, but the last two rounds are only fun for one person at the table. For everyone else, it’s a slow painful death.

I want to speak for a moment to the middle class in our society. Here in the U.S., we do have a class structure. Below many of us is the lower class. Above us is the upper class, and there are large portions of the middle class of people who have drunk the upper classes’ Kool-aid. These are people who look at the upper class and long to be where they are, who subscribe to their economic philosophies and their societal “solutions.”

Even within Christianity, many people here in Appalachia think that if the poor can simply be taught how to play the upper class’s game of gaining and keeping individual wealth, this will solve poverty. (An example are churches who promote programs such as Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University).

What I want us to stop and consider is whether the game itself has moral ramifications. Is it enough to teach people how to succeed in an exploitative system? In Sayings Gospel Q we rather see a Jesus who critiques the exploitative system itself and casts before his listeners’ imagination a world that plays by a different set of values and priorities.

But I continue to bump into a certain resistance in Christian churches when I speak of Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. Just recently a gentleman came up to me after one of my presentations, stuck his finger on my chest, and said, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let someone else take my hard earned money away from me and give it to lazy poor people.”

I want to try and break down what I see happening here. First within the U.S. the higher one traverses up the class structure the more tax loopholes one can use to legally avoid paying taxes. The U.S. president admitted in the third presidential debate, “I haven’t paid taxes in nineteen years. That makes me smart.”

This legal tax avoidance means that the middle class pays most for social programs that go to alleviate the economic hardships that capitalism produces for the poor. The lower middle class—those who have worked really hard just to eek across the line from lower class to middle class—pays most. They have worked really hard to get to where they are, and I get that frustration.

But what I want us to see this week is that they, too, are being played by the upper class that doesn’t pay any taxes. They get out of paying taxes, unlike us, and they place the majority of the tax burden on others. This predisposes middle class people, even in Christian congregations, to have knee-jerk negative reactions whenever helping the poor is brought up.

Most of the Christians I have the pleasure of giving presentations to are middle class Christians. They are not exempt from what I’ve described above. When Christians hear their Jesus speak of selling everything the have and giving it to the poor, they hear it from their social location and they respond, “But then we all will be poor.”

I would like us to consider that Jesus’ message to the upper class was “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” To the middle class Jesus would instead say, “Do not be afraid little flock, it’s the Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom, too. Seek first Jesus’s new social order,” which the gospels refer to as “the Kingdom.” This is a social order marked by no more classism, mutual-aid among those in the lower class, resource-sharing for those in the middle class, and radical wealth redistribution for those in the upper class. Jesus envisioned class structures being replaced by a shared table with enough for everyone. Every person’s needs are met in the Kingdom, and not in the sense of “just scratching by.” No, no. This is world where everyone is thriving together!

But here is the catch: How does this relate to our saying this week on “speaking against the Spirit.” The spirit Jesus spoke of is the Spirit of liberation and restoration and transformation. It calls those who are in the middle class to stop their love affair with the upper class. Stop standing in solidarity with the rich. Stop making preferential options for the wealthy. Enter instead into a love affair with the poor. Stand in solidarity with the economically exploited. Embrace Jesus’ preferential option for the poor! When we do this, “all these things will be added unto you” intrinsically, because within a community that embraces the values and priorities of Jesus’s social vision, all these things are added to everybody!

“But seek first his kingdom and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

And yet the upper class continually has us think, speak, feel, and act against this “Spirit” that anoints one to bring good news to the poor. Some, in an attempt to delegitimize a world that looks like Jesus’s, use as slurs such labels as “leftist,” “socialism,” “communism” because they know that many people find these words emotionally charged. Some of those who use these terms derogatorily don’t even know what they mean! And others do know and use them accurately, but genuinely want an oligarchy where the world is ruled by the elites.

Stop falling for their fear-mongering.

Stop drinking their Kool-aid!

Recently I watched two documentaries back to back. The first was The 13th, an in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality. Then, at the request of a friend, I watched the documentary Occupy UnMasked, which is an Alt-Right spin on the Occupy Movement written by Steven Bannon and hosted by the late Andrew Breitbart.

Watching these two films back to back is what produced a spontaneous combustion in my heart. There are people today who buy hook, line, and sinker popular misrepresentations of the Occupy Movement. (The movement did have flaws, as all movements do, but was nowhere what Breitbart accuses it of being.)

When the masses have been made solely dependent on corporate elites for survival, this has been massively detrimental to them. And yet, I have family and friends who think that documentaries like Unmasked represent the truth, while documentaries like The 13th are spin. It is calling evil good and good evil. The Hebrew prophets pointed out the same phenomena within their societies:

“Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20)

The term “fake news” was originally used to call out conspiracists whose reporting was without foundation. I have family now who calls news agencies like The Washington Post “fake news.” They are saying things like “I’m simply choosing to believe in the alternative facts.”

Each of these family members also claims to be Christian. And though they might not realize it today, their Jesus stood in solidarity with the oppressed. He taught a gospel that did have a preference, for the poor, the outcast, those forced to live on the edges of society.

Stop standing with those who once were in the driver seat of abuse and want to be restored to that place of power over others once again. Stand in solidarity with and be informed by the voices of those who historically have been abused. Equity will always feel oppressive to those with privilege. Their privilege over others is being removed. Their advantage over others is being removed. But we are making a world that is safe for everyone, including them. They rarely perceive it this way.

Wherever the liberating, holy Spirit is believed to be evil, where it is accused of being dangerous, as it was by Jesus’ enemies among the elite in his own society, these words call us to reconsider:

“And whoever says a word against the son of humanity, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him.” Q 12:10 

HeartGroup Application

Who is telling the truth? Which side should one listen to in the uphill work of making our world a safer, more compassionate, just home for us all? Jesus’ gospel calls us to make a preferential option for the voices of the vulnerable and oppressed, all of them. We cannot afford to make a world that solves the human dilemma at the expense of any group.

Sit down with your HeartGroup this week and

  1. Discuss what difference it makes to define Jesus’ holy Spirit as liberation for the poor, marginalized, and disinherited?
  2. Those in positions of privilege within the status quo will always have a different side to the story. Of course they will, because even if only subconsciously, they want to preserve their social location. What difference will it make to base your preferential option on the perspectives of underprivileged people in our society?
  3. This week choose some well respected news outlets to read and begin asking yourself which side is this person’s perspective making a preferential option for: those with privilege or the underprivileged? Then come back to your group next week and discuss any changes in the “Spirit’s work” that you began to perceive this week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Keep living in love, loving like Jesus, and following the gospel Jesus modeled for us by making a preferential option for the least of these. Wherever this finds you this week, keep up the good work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. We are in this together.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Confessing or Denying

woman holding drawing of zipper over her mouthby Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Anyone who may speak out for me in public the son of humanity will also speak out for him before the angels. But whoever may deny me in public will be denied before the angels.” (Q 12:8-9)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:32-33: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”

Luke 12:8-9: “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God.”

Not Remaining Silent

The context of this week’s saying is Jesus teachings to his followers to:

This week’s saying repeats the encouragement not to remain silent that we saw three sayings ago. What could Jesus have meant by the phrase, “Speaking out for me?” I grew up believing this was about being proud to be a Christian, about boldly engaging others in a conversation about whether they had accepted Jesus as their “personal Lord and Savior” so that they could enjoy assurance about an other-worldly post-mortem life. Nothing could be further from the social context of this saying in Sayings Gospel Q.

Jesus message in Q announced the arrival of the reign of God in the hearts of people. This reign, in Q, made itself manifest in a person’s newly embraced commitment to take responsibility for the care of the people around them—especially those pushed to the underside and margins of society by the status quo. The “kingdom” in its simplest form is people helping people. It critiqued the present system, which privileged elite at the expense of the dominated and subjugated class. It called people to dismantle society’s present arrangements and replace them with the community Jesus modeled in his shared table. 

Why would Jesus need to encourage his followers to speak out and refuse to keep silent? Because whenever you begin speaking truth to power, whenever you begin speaking out against the way things are, those benefited by societal bias will always feel threatened. Equity to those who are disproportionately privileged always feels like a threat to their way of life. And rightly so, because it is! Those who benefit push back against critiques, endeavoring to silence those who speak out against injustice. To those whom others are trying to silence, the Jesus of Sayings Q encourages, “Speak out for me and the societal vision we are casting before the imaginations of any who will listen.” Adolf Deissmann in his classic volume, New Light on the New Testament From The Records of the Graeco-Roman Period, tell us that archaeological evidence indicates that the primitive Jesus community was “ a movement of the proletarian middle class.” (p. 7) Jesus was a community organizer teaching his disinherited and oppressed proletariat followers how to speak up for and work towards the changes they wanted.

Apocalyptic Worldview

Whether Jesus subscribed to an apocalyptic world view or that was the worldview of those who preserved his story, the dualism of apocalypticism is in plain view in this saying. As we covered before, this ancient worldview assumed that there were cosmic forces of good and evil connected to earthy conduits of good and evil.

Jesus accesses the cosmic imaginations of his listeners by referencing “angels” on the Day of Judgment, one of the events where those who subscribed to this worldview believed injustice, violence and oppression in our world would be put right. Jesus’ gospel was an announcement that this long awaited “putting right” had come and it was theirs if they would embrace the reign of God manifested in people choosing to take care of people. It was a deeply held belief that the Day of Judgment was a breaking in of the cosmic world into this world: a day of reckoning, a day of reward and punishment, a day of reversal, when the oppressed would be liberated and oppressors would be removed from their places of domination. The last would be first and the first would be last. In our saying this week, this vision of a future day of judgment is used to motivate the early followers of Jesus. Jesus says that those who speak out would be spoken for on that day, and those who remained silent in the face of injustice would be repudiated.

This may have been a deeply motivating idea for the first audience of the Jesus story. Today, we can use other motives to inspire one another to take care of each other. We are interconnected. We are each other’s fate, and what affects you, affects me. Whether one subscribes to the apocalyptic worldview of the 1st Century, or a more naturalistic 21st Century worldview, the truth of our interconnectedness is universal. We are in this life together. If I do not speak out for those being marginalized and pushed under, it will come back to negatively affect me as well. The world we create for others is the world we are creating also for ourselves.

Son of Humanity

I trace the “Son of man” title for Jesus back to the political imagery of Daniel 7. In this piece of Jewish apocalyptic sacred resistance literature, the Son of Man is seen:

“Coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)

“Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.” (Daniel 7:27)

This is not imagery where the rulers or destroyed or annihilated, but rather they are gathered into Jesus’s ethical vision for the world, and they follow it.

This imagery is picked up in the Christian scriptures in the apocalyptic book of Revelation:

“All nations will come

and worship before you,

for your righteous acts have been revealed.” (Revelation 15:4)

“The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.” (Revelation 21:24)

We could reclaim some of this imagery today, but not in the way that the colonial nations or modern Christian Right have used it. We don’t imagine a world where everyone embraces the evangelical Christian religion and its Western White theology—or else. We could reclaim this imagery in a much more compassionate, holistic way: a vision of human societies being transformed as they embrace the universal truth that Jesus taught: we are connected. In the “everlasting dominion that will not pass way,” human society chooses to end racism, to end classism, to end sexism, to end heterosexism, and more. Humans cease their endless efforts to gain power over others in order to preserve a world that’s safe for them, but not safe, compassionate, or just for others. Our differences are not met with fear but embraced as part of the beautiful human kaleidoscope that we all are.

Taking Hold of Life

The saying of Jesus we are considering this week is Jesus’ repeated call to “speak out.” A statement that I have referenced before and will be referencing repeatedly over the next few weeks is Joanne Carlson Brown’s and Rebecca Parker’s statement on the myth of redemptive suffering. I can’t get this statement out of my head. It deeply challenges the way I have applied the teachings of nonviolence in the past as a person who benefits from the status quo.

“It is not the acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.18)

In our saying this week, Jesus calls those being intimidated into remaining silent to speak out anyway. He calls them to take hold of life and keep holding onto life even if they are threatened with a cross for doing so.

This strikes home for me. Recently I was shut out of a network of Christian churches in North Dakota, a region that has been experiencing a gold-rush like financial boon over the last few years. I was told that because of my solidarity with and support of Native people’s NoDAPL movement, they do not want me speaking in their churches at this time and so my meetings in North Dakota for this month have been cancelled.

When I heard this, I had a choice to make. Do I let go of my solidarity with Native people to be able to speak, or do I maintain my hold on life (and my humanity for that matter) in spite of the negative consequences? Many people have written to me over the past few weeks having experienced social media silencing, on Twitter and Facebook. They’ve shared stories of friends telling them they are being “too political” when they have spoken out or acted in defense of people being made vulnerable in the U.S. today.

To those experiencing that silencing, I would say, keep speaking out. People matter, and therefore politics matter. Politics is much more than arguing over individual candidates, too. Don’t misunderstand me: the character and policies of politicians matter. Yet these policies and how they affect the most vulnerable among us also matters.

The subject of politics is the discussion of how power is distributed and who gets access to resources. Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets, spoke of distributive justice and an order where power and resources are distributed in a way that ensures a world that is safe, compassionate and just for all, including the most vulnerable, and the vulnerable are no longer exploited, evicted, or excluded.

While I was in Canada a couple of weekends ago, I heard stories of Canadian citizens being refused entrance to the United States just because they are Muslim. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/another-canadian-citizen-refused-entry-united-states-border-1.3976230) A sports team was allowed past the border to an event being held in Boston, except for their one Muslim team member. This week mothers who were brought to the U.S. as children and are now adults with a husband and children being ripped away from their kids and shipped to a country they have never lived in. People matter, and therefore we should be speaking out.

Jesus’ gospel, as we have defined over and over again, was people taking care of people. This is what it means to speak out for Jesus. When we speak out, it isn’t in defense of Christianity, but in defense of Jesus’ vision of a world where people matter and we choose to take care of each other rather than being afraid of one another.

Over the past three years, I’ve repeatedly experienced backlash for affirming the lives of my LGBTQ and Black siblings. And the small pushback I’ve encountered as an ally isn’t even to be compared with the real and genuine crosses that LGBTQ community members and people of color face themselves for having the courage to “take hold of life,” stand up for themselves and stand up against bigotry and racism. As someone whose starting point in theology is Jesus’s gospel to the poor, I’m reminded too of how the Occupy movement was also demonized by those in power and those benefiting from the present structure. They, too, were threatened, and those who sympathize with their “taking hold of life” were misrepresented and became the focus of misinformed prejudice.

But to every group seeking to affirm their God-given selves and thrive in life, to those who are tired of the sun and rain God sends on all being systemically prevented from reaching them too, speak up and stand up.Whether you realize it or not, you are accessing the same courage that the Jewish Jesus sought to have his first followers find and take hold of as well.

Last week, Now Toronto reported around 1,300 Torontonians joined MILCK to sing the unofficial protest anthem I Can’t Keep Quiet. You can watch it here. Speaking out has a long tradition, and the Jesus of the gospels belongs to that tradition. These historical moments give us pause and a possible way to reclaim and reframe the sayings of Jesus:

Anyone who may speak out for me [and my egalitarian social vision for society] in public the son of humanity will also speak out for him before the angels. But whoever may deny me in public will be denied before the angels. (Q 12:8-9)

Heart Group Application

This week I want you to engage in a group activity. I’m hoping at least one person in your HeartGroup is a Netflix subscriber. I’d like you to sit down together as a group and watch the documentary The 13th.

  1. Watch the documentary.
  2. Afterward list 2-3 paradigm shifts you experienced during the film. Depending on your social location you could experience more than this, but start with 2-3.
  3. As many as feel comfortable, discuss as a group each person’s reaction to the film.

Lastly, spread the word. Share this film with others and have them watch it as well.

Embracing the courage to speak out, either for oneself, or in solidarity alongside others who are speaking out, is a significant step in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. To each of you who are speaking out, keep at it! You are not alone. Countless millions both now and throughout history are standing with you.

Keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only Love reigns.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.