Change from the Edges

Herb Montgomery | May 24, 2019

Photo by Yeshi Kangrang on Unsplash

“One of the first steps of hope for people in such wilderness places is to understand that their situation reflects social and political forces, not the divine will . . .”


“And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness.” (Mark 1:4)

Syracuse University’s Counseling Center defines marginalization as “the process of pushing a particular group or groups of people to the edge of society by not allowing them an active voice, identity, or place in it . . . Some individuals identify with multiple marginalized groups, and may experience further marginalization as a result of their intersecting identities.”

This week I ask what the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have to say to those who live disenfranchised, disadvantaged, marginalized, and underprivileged in our society.

Mark’s storytelling about Jesus begins very early on with the character of John the Baptist, who emerges as a Hebrew prophet in the wilderness calling for social change. The much later gospel Luke emphasizes this wilderness location by explaining that John’s father is a priest (See Luke 1:5, 8-10). John’s lineage allowed him to be a priest in the temple like his father, so it is telling that we instead see a John who isn’t a priest but a prophet like Isaiah’s voice “crying out” in the “wilderness.” 

The wilderness represents a marginal location in the Jesus stories: the edges of the Jewish society. It contrasts with Jerusalem, the temple state, and the elite who held positions of power and privilege in Jewish society. This is a Jewish story, and a story of Jewish voices in conflict with each other. It is the story of social tensions between those at the center of their society and those on the margins. It’s also a very human story. Every society includes a tension between those who are marginalized and those at the top and center of their social structure. When the status quo depends on marginalizing “a particular group or groups of people” Jesus’ time in the wilderness reflects the power dynamics we find in that society.

After Jesus interacted with John in the wilderness, Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus went straight away into the wilderness himself. 

“At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness.” (Mark 1:12)

Some Christian preachers use this passage to parallel Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness with the Hebrew people’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Mark does not explain how long Jesus spent there, and this parallel is often used to teach supersessionism. I do not read it this way.

I believe Jesus is making a social choice. He, like John, is choosing the wilderness as his starting point. From the marginalized region of Galilee, Jesus enters the wilderness after John, possibly to get in touch with his Jewish roots. His is a people whose origin stories were of enslavement, oppression, liberation, and brutal colonization of others. Jesus attempts to ground himself in his story as a Jew, within their wilderness origin story, and figure out how they got to where they are today. 

So both Jesus and John emerge from a place of “wilderness.” Ched Myers reminds us about the truth inthis story detail for those who today find themselves in “wilderness” locations.

“One of the first steps of hope for people in such wilderness places is to understand that their situation reflects social and political forces, not the divine will . . . While the margin has a primarily negative political connotation as a place of disenfranchisement, Mark ascribes to it a primarily positive theological value. It is the place where the sovereignty of God is made manifest, where the story of liberation is renewed, where God’s intervention in history occurs.” (Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 12)

Mark explains that when John is arrested, Jesus comes out of this wilderness location and does not straightway begin preaching in the more centrally located Jerusalem and Judea. Instead, Jesus enters the marginal region of Galilee. 

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15)

If Judea is a marginal region within the larger Roman empire, Galilee is a marginal region on the edges of Jewish society. In Jesus’ day, it was the buffer region between the Jewish population and the largely non-Jewish population beyond Galilee. In Mark, Jesus begins his work here, among those who would have been the marginalized in his society. Consider his teaching as well. Whom does he speak in solidarity with in his teachings?

“Blessed are the poor [broken] in spirit . . . 

Blessed are those who mourn . . .

Blessed are the meek . . .

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [distributive justice] . . .

Blessed are the merciful . . .

Blessed are the pure in heart . . .

Blessed are the peacemakers . . .

Blessed are those who are persecuted . . . 

Blessed are you when people insult you . . . 

Blessed are you when people persecute you . . . 

Blessed are you when people falsely say all kinds of evil against you . . . 

You are the salt of the earth . . .

You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:3-14)

In this teaching, Jesus is in solidarity with those who have been pushed to the edges and undersides of his society and are trying to survive there.  

Notice, too, those final two statements I quoted from Matthew 5. Jesus states that those on the margins of society are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. This was centuries before refrigeration and the harnessing of electricity. Salt preserved food. 

I want to offer a word of caution about the imagery of light in our context today. RHM’s book of the month for May is Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne by Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney. In a statement circulating the internet this past Easter season which was attributed to Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney (which I still cannot for the life of me find where she said this, but this does sound like her) we read, “We can celebrate the light of Easter without demonizing darkness and reinscribing a white supremacist dialectic on Christ and the resurrection. My blackness is radiant, luminous and will not and does not need to be made white as snow. The blood of Jesus will not make me white. We must learn to talk about brokenness in the world with our reducing evil to darkness and goodness to light. Blackness is God’s good gift.” (From more from Gafney go to www.wilgafney.com

We can celebrate light without demonizing darkness. Today we understand that life requires both light and dark. What’s important is balance, a life-giving equity, rather than one or the other. I can understand the original use of this language and also understand that that use is no longer appropriate today. 

Yet in the Jesus stories both images point to the marginalized of Jesus’ society. That’s the point Myers is making above. In the Jesus stories, the edges of society hold a “primarily positive theological value. It is the place where the sovereignty of God is made manifest, where the story of liberation is renewed, where God’s intervention in history occurs.”

Change happens from the outside in, from the bottom up, from grassroots movements. It is the voices sharing the experiences of those surviving on the edges of our society that tell us whether the status quo is just or unjust, life-giving or lethal. We can choose to listen to these voices or not. We can choose the way of life or not. We can choose those things that preserve society, like salt, or that which cause societies to self-destruct. Those who are in power and privileged have very little insight into how systems enfranchise some and disenfranchise others. At best they continually risk underestimating the damage done to those who do not share their social location. Change, renewal, intervention, salvation, often emerges from the edges, the “wilderness” locations. And this is one of the first truths we bump into in the Jesus story.

Today, a person can be marginalized on the basis of their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, education, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, ability, and more. Many marginalized people face exclusion for multiple intersecting traits, too. In whatever area of your life where you face marginalization, contrary to narratives of those at the top or the center of society, the Jesus story tells us that God is with those on the margins, those working in “the wilderness.” And we are working with God when we are working in solidarity with them.

A Special Request

If you have been blessed by our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries, please support our work. 

This is a time of the year when we keenly feel and deeply appreciate your support. 

Click on the donate page on our website or mailing your gift to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

You can make a one-time gift, or, alternatively, consider becoming a monthly sustainer by selecting the option to make your gift recurring.

All amounts help, regardless of the size. 

Thank you in advance for your support. 

We simply could not exist nor continue our important work without you. Earlier this month, after a presentation I had just given, one of those in audience approached me and said, “Thank you. If we had more messages like this, my church would be a different place.”

I believe another Christianity is possible. 

I also believe another world is possible.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are today, choose to keep living in love. Choose compassion. Take action. Seek justice. Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. 

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

Social Salvation

by Herb Montgomery | May 17, 2019

Photo by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash

“Here in the West we are shaped by a deeply individualistic culture, and some Christian communities rarely address Jesus’ social salvation, if ever. The form of Christianity that most people experience focuses heavily on a person’s individual (personal) salvation and leaves the idea of social salvation unspoken. We must also be honest: many of those who lead this form of Christianity are those in privileged social locations and with a degree of power in our society. It’s very convenient for this part of American Christianity to focus on an individual salvation that leaves social injustice untouched and emphasizes attaining heaven after death rather than a more earthly focus of working for things now to be ‘on earth as they are in heaven.’”

“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12) 

We’ve been getting a lot of questions over the past few weeks about our articles on a more social reading of the gospels. Again, I’m not saying that Jesus never addressed an individual’s personal salvation. In the stories of the gospels, he does. But he also worked toward society’s salvation too. 

Here in the West we are shaped by a deeply individualistic culture, and some Christian communities rarely address Jesus’ social salvation, if ever. The form of Christianity that most people experience focuses heavily on a person’s individual (personal) salvation and leaves the idea of social salvation unspoken. We must also be honest: many of those who lead this form of Christianity are those in privileged social locations and with a degree of power in our society. It’s very convenient for this part of American Christianity to focus on an individual salvation that leaves social injustice untouched and emphasizes attaining heaven after death rather than a more earthly focus of working for things now to be “on earth as they are in heaven” (see Matthew 6:10).

So where do we find examples of Jesus working toward social salvation in the gospel stories?

The most familiar story is of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we have labeled as Palm Sunday and his Temple protest the following day. Both of these events were public demonstrations calling for social change. His entry into Jerusalem that day competed with Rome’s entry into Jerusalem going on at the same time. (See chapter 1 of Borg’s and Crossan’s The Last Week.) Jesus was protesting Rome’s vision for society, the Pax Romana. 

Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple courtyard was an even more pointed social protest. I want to be clear though: Jesus’ actions must be understood within Judaism, not outside or against it. Remember, Jesus was never a Christian. He was a Jew. Jesus was not against Judaism; nor was Judaism against Jesus. Jesus’ voice was one of many Jewish voices in his own society: there was a spectrum of positions among the Essenes, the Zealots, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. Each of these groups had ideas and interpretations about what it meant for Jewish society to live in faithfulness to the Torah. Christianity grew out of an early group of Jewish Jesus followers who resonated with Jesus’ vision for Jewish society. It was later, when the Jesus movement became populated by more nonJewish adherents and adherents from the upper classes of Gentile society that anti-Semitism enters the telling of the Jesus story. Originally the Jesus story was not read this way. 

Let me also say, on the flip side, that the context Jesus was in was also not a uniquely Jewish story. The dynamics and social tensions of that society happen in all societies, Jewish and non-Jewish. When Jesus flipped the tables in the Temple (see Matthew 21:12) at the beginning of his final week, he was not protesting Judaism! Far from it. He was protesting political oppression and exclusion in his society. He was protesting the economic exploitation of the vulnerable in his society. And he was protesting the religious legitimization and complicity of the priests in the Temple. His actions were not against the Temple because it was the Jewish Temple. His actions were in solidarity with the Jewish poor in his Jewish society. 

Political oppression and exclusion, economic exploitation, and religious legitimization are not uniquely Jewish by any means. They are universal social evils that take place in all societies. Christians should not rush to point fingers at their Jewish neighbors, because Christianity’s history and present offer many examples of these social sins as well. Elite Christians who benefit from these sins could have just as easily and surely executed a prophet of the poor, and they have. Rome executed Jesus because he threatened an unjust status quo. People have been removed from society in one way or another in every generation when they have stood up to an unjust status quo.

With this in mind, here is one more example of Jesus addressing social evils, not mere personal/individual ones:

“Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’ He said to them, ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” (Mathew 12:9-14)

Plotting to kill Jesus seems like a pretty extreme response if we only read this story as Jesus healing one individual with a “shriveled hand.” But if we read this story as Jesus attacking a socially unjust power structure—a religious interpretation that was the foundation for a social evil that marginalized the vulnerable, and the authority of those who perpetuated this interpretive foundation—their response of feeling threatened and feeling an immediate need to silence or remove Jesus begins to make sense. Speaking of the healing stories in the gospel of Mark, Ched Myers points out: 

“In contrast to Hellenistic literature, in which miracle-workers normally function to maintain the status quo, gospel healings challenge the ordering of power. Because Jesus seeks the root causes of why people are marginalized, there is no case of healing and exorcism in Mark that does not also raise a larger question of social oppression. (Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 14.)

In the Jesus stories, then, we see a Jesus who continually took a stand with the marginalized sectors of his society even when that stand pitted him against more popular religious teachers and their authority. (See Solidarity with the Crucified Community.) This should give us some pause today when we encounter ways of interpreting our sacred texts that either side with religious institutional positions that harm others or give a sacred foundation for inclusion, compassion, centering the vulnerable, and justice. For example, in Christianity today, there are multiple ways to interpret Biblical texts that have been applied to the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ youth who belong to non-accepting Christian families demonstrate disproportionately higher rates of suicide. It would be far better for these children to belong to a non-Christian family that accepted them than a Christian family whose interpretive lens does them such harm.

This is just one example. Interpretations of the Bible are also used to harm women as well, as we are seeing in the Southern portions of the U.S. presently.

Here not Heaven

Another contrast between personal salvation and social salvation is that personal salvation tends to focus one’s attention on the afterlife, gaining heaven, a pessimistic patience for how things are now, and a hope for change only at some point in the distant future.

However, notice how within the story of Lazarus in John’s gospel Jesus rejects this future focus and calls Martha to the present, now and not later. When Jesus finally arrives to Lazarus’ tomb, he assures Martha that her brother will live again. 

“Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’” (John 11:24) 

Here Martha exemplifies this far distant future hope. Jesus contradicts her, calling her to focus her hope for change in the present. 

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’” (John 11:25)

Individual salvation places a person’s hope in the future, either at death or in Jesus’ return to this earth. Social salvation says, no, “I am the resurrection and the life” now. Change can take place now. Another world is possible, if we would choose it, now. Jesus taught the meek will inherit the earth, not a post-mortem heaven (see Matthew 5:5).

And this leads me to my third contrast this week.

Today Not Later

Private and personal salvation focuses on a future hope while leaving the present’s social structures largely untouched. In Luke’s gospel, we read the story of Zacchaeus whose personal transformation or salvation came as a result his embracing Jesus’ vision for social salvation from the social evil of wealth disparity. Jesus had been preaching a more distributively just vision for society. Jesus envisioned a society without disparity, where everyone has enough and no one has too much while others are suffering and going without. In Luke, Jesus had also called his followers to sell their surplus possessions, and give them to the poor (Luke 12:18, 33; cf. Acts 2:44-45; Acts 4:33-34).

Zacchaeus embraces Jesus vision and states, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).

Jesus responds, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9, emphasis added).

“Today.” Stop and ponder that. Some equate salvation with eternal life. Zacchaeus entered into what makes life eternal in the gospels that day Jesus spoke. He didn’t enter at his death. He entered that day, because eternal life is social. Societies can follow paths that will eventually bring about their own ruin and destruction, or they can follow the path of life. Humanity as a species has to choose between these options as well. 

I’m reminded of Brock and Parker’s insight into how eternal life is defined in the gospels:

“The Gospel defines three dimensions of this eternal life: knowing God; receiving the one sent by God to proclaim abundant life to all; and loving each other as he had loved them. Eternal life, in all three meanings, relates to how life is lived on earth. The concrete acts of care Jesus has shown his disciples are the key to eternal life. By following his example of love, the disciples enter eternal life now. Eternal life is thus much more than a hope for postmortem life: it is earthly existence grounded in ethical grace.” (Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 29) 

That day Zacchaeus embraced an offer from Jesus, but it was not an offer of post-mortem bliss. Zacchaeus embraced Jesus’ social vision for societal change—Jesus’ social gospel.

Yes, Jesus engaged a person’s personal salvation, always in the context of that person embracing Jesus social teachings. This means that divorcing a person’s private salvation from their larger participation in Jesus’ vision for social salvation is being unfaithful to the story. Jesus didn’t just change individual lives. He changed individual lives when they chose to participate in Jesus’ challenge to the status quo and his call for social change.

“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12)

A Special Request

If you have been blessed by our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries, I want to take the opportunity this month to reach out to you and ask you to support our work.  

This is a time of the year when the need for your support is keenly felt as well as deeply appreciated.  

You can support our work either by clicking on the donate page on our website or by mailing your support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

You can make a one time gift, or please consider becoming one of our continuing monthly sustainers by selecting the option to make your gift reoccurring.

All amounts help, regardless of the size. 

Thank you in advance for your support.  

We simply could not exist nor continue our important work without you. Earlier this month, after a presentation I had just given, one of those in audience approached me and said, “Thank you. If we had more messages like this, my church would be a different place.”

I believe another Christianity is possible. 

I also believe another world is possible.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  

Wherever you are today, choose to keep living in love. Choose compassion. Take action. Seek justice. Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. 

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are today, choose to keep living in love. Choose compassion. Take action. Seek justice. Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. 

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.