Privilege and Power

Herb Montgomery | June 28, 2019

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

“Today, certain Christians are still trying to use the power of the state, not to side with the people and protect the vulnerable . . . to push their own agenda regardless of the real harm such actions do to real people. As long as there is a state, it should side with the vulnerable against those who would seek to do harm. Christians must choose to learn from their destructive history. The Jesus story calls us to side with ‘the people,’ not the agendas of the powerful, privileged, and elite.”


“The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people. Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.” (Luke 20:19-20)

This passage juxtaposes the mass of Jewish people who favored Jesus, the elites in that society who were threatened by Jesus’ populist teachings, and Roman power and authority. The reference to the authority of the governor is a political story detail through and through. The story reminds us of how those in positions of power and privilege use the power of the state to protect their own social position, especially when their agenda is contrary to the masses’. 

For those who have been reading this month’s book of the month for RHM, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet by Jason W. Moore and Raj Pate, you’ve read how historically our capitalist society has not been based on equality, win-win, and cooperation, but on competition, inequity, and the kind of “winning” that requires someone somewhere else to lose. The economic and political elite has continually used the power of the state to accomplish their goals. In Luke, this method is chosen because the elite “fears the people.” 

Jesus’ teachings are represented here as being popular among the people. The elite does not have the people’s best interest in mind, but looks for how best to manipulate them and preserve the status quo. Jesus was popular with large sectors of the have-nots in the story: the haves have always used the system’s “authority” to preserve themselves.

In a more just and compassionate structure the state could protect the vulnerable from being exploited by the powerful and privileged. Yet the times when there has been a more regulatory form of state power on the side of the masses have been the exception to the history of state power in capitalist/colonialist society, not the rule.

As long as we have classes and other social locations where some have power and others don’t, the state should protect the vulnerable. I think of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a talk he gave at Western Michigan University in 1963: he spoke against the idea that the power of the state is useless in our work toward a just society:

“Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963)

When we consider the “authority of the governor” in our passage this week, it was not on the side of the people, but contrary to the will of the people, within the context of the conflict between Jesus and the political elite of his day. 

I want to stop here and ask you to dream with me for a moment . What is your image of a perfect world? I’m not saying the world will ever be perfect. The exercise of dreaming about what a perfect world would be though is a practice that helps us in our work of moving toward a world that is less unjust, less exploitative, less unsafe.

Does your image of a perfect world include the need for the vulnerable to be protected from the strong? Or does your image of a perfect world make even this obsolete? Is your image of a perfect world one where some take responsibility for caring for those who are vulnerable?

Jesus envisioned a world where even the meek inherit the earth.

“And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24 -27)

Jesus here contrasts systems of dominion and systems of service. Humanity’s hope for the future is not in devising more efficient ways of dominating one another, but in creating more effective ways of caring for one another. 

The tragedy is when those who claim to represent Jesus today use the same method as is in our original story in Luke 20. Privileged and powerful Christian Evangelicals view Trump as their Messiah because he will enforce their political agenda. At the foundation of this delusion is the Christian Right’s long struggle to overturn Roe vs Wade, the law that affirmed legal access to a safe abortion. Just this week, someone commented on a post of mine that if Planned Parenthood was defunded it would protect “thousands” of lives of the vulnerable.

“Vulnerable?” I thought. I assumed they were speaking of the unborn. But what about the vulnerability of women, especially those in a certain social location, who will die as a result of overturning Roe vs. Wade? Those who are informed understand that lowering abortion rates has nothing to do with the legality of abortion. It does have to do with the availability of education and birth control, and child and youth advocacy. Abortions have actually increased when outlawed. In the end, this is yet another example of those in power, mostly men, using state power to control the lives and bodies of women who should have autonomy over their own bodies. Pro-choice is not pro-abortion. There are genuinely effective ways of lowering the rate of abortions in society that do not escalate the fatality rate for women nor seek to remove women’s bodily autonomy. (For more seeHow I Lost Faith in the “Pro-Life” Movement)

Since Trump’s election, we have seen a surge in Evangelical, American Christianity’s desire to influence our state and federal governments to enforce its dogmas under the misapplied label of “religious freedom.”

Here in West Virginia, we are in the midst of a battle over education, where for-profit charter schools are using Christians as pawns. I understand that some nonprofit charter schools have been a tremendous help to some minority Black and Brown communities. That’s not what is happening here. Christians are lifting their voices alongside for-profit corporations against what the majority of “the people” here in WV want. These Christians want to use the power of the state to protect them from the fear that they will have to send their children to public schools where they will sit in a classroom beside nonwhite, migrant, Muslim and LGBTQ kids. 

Christianity has a long history of being on the wrong side of the use of state power. On October 28, 312 C.E., Constantine defeated his rival to become sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Constantine attributed his victory to Jesus Christ. He allegedly received a vision just prior to the battle that promised him victory if his soldiers marched with the sign of Christ on their shields. It was the first time in history that the name of Jesus was aligned with the nationalistic, violent power of the state. This set a precedent and Christianity’s social location changed dramatically to make it the official state religion. Eusebius, Augustine, and other church leaders interpreted Constantine’s vision and the consolidation of power that his victory engendered to be from God. The power of the state has been used for centuries to crush Christianity’s enemies to exploit and/or execute heretics, Jews, Muslims, women accused of “witchcraft,” indigenous populations, those whom we today identify as LGBTQ, and more.

Today, certain Christians are still trying to use the power of the state, not to side with the people and protect the vulnerable, but, sometimes ignorantly, sometimes knowingly, to push their own agenda regardless of the real harm such actions do to real people. 

As long as there is a state, it should side with the vulnerable against those who would seek to do harm. Christians must choose to learn from their destructive history. The Jesus story calls us to side with “the people,” not the agendas of the powerful, privileged, and elite.

A misuse of the power of the state executed Christianity’s Jesus.

And misuse of the power of the state is still harming the most vulnerable groups today.

“. . . but they were afraid of the people. Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.” Luke 20:19-20

HeartGroup Application

Here are a few things to discuss with your group.

  1. List examples you have seen the power of the state used to protect the interests of the have’s against the have nots?
  2. Think of the Jesus story for a moment.  What are some examples in the gospels of where you see Jesus taking the side of the vulnerable, excluded, or marginalized over against the powerful and privileged of his day.
  3. As we work toward a more just world, damage mitigation along that journey is also important. How could the power of the state be transformed and reimagined along this process to protect the have nots from the elite? Be imaginative. 

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  I’m so glad you’re here.

Wherever you are today, choose love, take action, choose compassion, work toward justice, title the only world that remains is a world where love and justice reigns. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

Challenging Exclusion

Herb Montgomery | June 21, 2019

Picture of board game pieces with one being excluded.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

It’s not enough to simply offer a gospel that only offers divine forgiveness of sins. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include people forgiving people. It must include a redistribution of power and resources so that everyone has what they need not simply to survive but also to thrive. It must include reparations alongside reconciliation. It must include access and inclusion where the vulnerable have been excluded. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include material, holistic liberation.


“Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.” (Mark 2:4)

In the worldview of the gospel authors and their intended audience, healing was normal. Whereas most healing stories in that era tended to bolster the way society was organized, the healing stories in the gospels challenged, subverted, and even threatened the status quo.

One such resistance/healing story is found very early in the gospel of Mark:

“A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, ‘Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ So he said to the man, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’” (Mark 2:1-12)

Message of Inclusion

The first thing we bump into in this story is a lack of room. The crowd could have made room for the paralyzed man to get through. They could have practiced a preferential option for the one with the disability. Yet they didn’t. They were each focused on making sure there was a place for themselves, even if it came at the expense of someone else. 

I used to fly a lot. Those two options—a preferential option for others or making a place for oneself—always played out during the boarding practice. Before airlines started overselling flights, there was enough room for everyone. The plane was going to leave at the same time for everyone and seats were even already assigned. Yet you could see passengers who only thought of themselves from a concourse away. 

Saving ourselves at others’ expense has a long evolutionary history for humans. Yet I contend that our salvation as a race lies not in what works for some at the expense of others but in what makes our world safe, just, and compassionate for all. We will survive together or we will perish together. What once worked for the survival of some, will not ensure the survival of us all in the context of global climate break down. 

I also want to address the gospel author’s use of a person with a disability. In the culture of the gospel writers, there were religious teachings that explained disabilities as the result of sin, either one’s own or one’s parents (see John 9:1-2). This teaching added a basis for further exclusion in a world that already left those with disabilities on the margins. But in Mark’s story, Jesus rejects that teaching and declares that this paralytic has been forgiven. Jesus does not offer the man a plan or program: do this and your sins will be forgiven. Jesus declares that this man already was forgiven. 

His teaching challenged those who believed that those with disabilities were being punished for some sin. It challenged them to view this man as their equal regardless of his ability. Jesus here juxtaposes disability and the culture’s definition of right standing, and calls people  to rethink.

Similarly, one could challenge non-affirming Christians’ definition of what’s normative in relation to the LGBTQ community. Last week, Renewed Heart Ministries posted a meme for Pride Month juxtaposing LGBTQ identity and LGBTQ people’s being in the image of God. This deeply challenges Christian cis-heterosexism.

Again, though, Jesus does not offer the man a plan or program to follow. Jesus declared that this man already was forgiven, and so challenges many Christian stories that teach a God who must be moved by some action on our part first.

Holistic Liberation

Just like in any work of affirmation or liberation, there will always be pushback by those who feel threatened by such inclusivity and equity. The objection in Mark’s story is “only God can forgive sins.” Jesus doesn’t respond by stating that he is divine. The gospel writers instead identify Jesus with a “a human being” or the “son of man.” This language is from the Maccabean era Jewish resistance literature.

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man.” (Daniel 7.13, NIV, emphasis added.) 

“As I continued to watch this night vision of mine, I suddenly saw one like a human being . . .” (Daniel 7.13, CEB, emphasis added.)

The “human being” in Daniel 7 was a symbol of liberation from oppressive empires and putting the world to right. 

Forgiveness in Mark’s story is also a human act. It’s not something left only to a god or cosmic being that leaves us off the hook. Forgiveness as something we should practice as humans was part of Jesus’s message. Yet I don’t believe Jesus taught reconciliation without reparation and liberation. Jesus message of forgiveness was primarily aimed at wealthy, elite creditors and called them to “forgive” the debts of their poor debtors. Jesus’ message of forgiveness included a deep economic implication. It was a call for debt forgiveness, the Jewish Jubilee. (See A Prayer for Debts Cancelled)

Jesus’ gospel included material liberation. And not only was the man with the disability told he had already been forgiven, but the story also includes him being liberated from his inability to walk. Honestly, I don’t like this story as I read it from our vantage point today. It can be too easily coopted to make people with disabilities feel less than those without. I’m thankful that the story author challenged the crowd’s bias against this man before he removes the group’s actual reason for marginalizing him. Otherwise the marginalized would be simply kept marginalized.

If the gospel writer had written the story differently, the solution to marginalized women would be to make women men.

The solution to marginalized Black, brown and other people of color would be to  make them White. 

The solution to marginalized LGBTQ people would be make them straight and/or cisgender. (Conversion therapy is harmful and is outlawed in 18 states, Maine and Colorado being the latest to ban such practices.)

Rather than using various disabilities as metaphors for social evils (as the gospels do), we can do better and name specific social evils instead.

Being gay is not a social evil.

Being a woman is not a social evil.

Being non-white is not a social evil.

Being a migrant is not a social evil.

Being disabled is not a social evil.

How the social system treats these folks is a social evil.

Poverty is a social evil.

Keeping people uneducated is a social evil. 

Keeping people indebted is a social evil.

Keeping people without adequate access to health care is a social evil.

And that is what I believe Mark’s story is trying to teach. In holistic liberation, everyone receives what they need. When we apply this to people with disabilities, we arrive at the lesson of removing the barriers that keep people with disabilities excluded. We are to remove the barriers that keep people with disabilities from accessing what they need to thrive.

Actual social evils are what we as followers of Jesus must work against today. This story doesn’t stop at forgiveness. We can’t afford to either. It’s not enough to simply offer a gospel that only offers divine forgiveness of sins. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include people forgiving people. It must include a redistribution of power and resources so that everyone has what they need not simply to survive but also to thrive. It must include reparations alongside reconciliation. It must include access and inclusion where the vulnerable have been excluded. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include material, holistic liberation.

This story calls us to work toward an inclusive, just, safe society for everyone.

“Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.” (Mark 2:4)

HeartGroup Application

  1. What are some of the ways you either experience or witness others experiencing discrimination and exclusion, either in your faith community or our larger society today?
  2. Make a list of practices your HeartGroup can engage that express inclusion, justice, and create a safe space for those mentioned in number 1.
  3. Pick something from the list and put it into action this week.

Thanks for checking in with us. I’m so glad you’re here. 

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

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


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When Doing the Right Thing Is Illegal

Herb Montgomery | June 14, 2019

Picture of a wall with writing that says, "No one is illegal."
Photo by Miko Guziuk on Unsplash

“What happens when we have to choose between saving life and abiding by the law? Jesus’ healings call us to take a side either with the marginalized and liberator (with Jesus) or to interpret his acts as lawless defiance. How we choose is determined by which value we hold most dear.”


“Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent.” (Mark 3:4)

In this story in Mark’s gospel, Jesus contrasts that which is lawful and that which is life-saving, and calls our values and priorities into question. Among the values and principles we hold dear and seek to live out in our daily lives, which values hold our highest priority? Let’s look at the story in its entirety:

“Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’ Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” (Mark 3:1-6)

Each of the gospels interprets the Sabbath work-prohibition and includes acts of healing in the category of labor that was forbidden during 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?” (Matthew 12:11-12)

“Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, ‘There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.’” (Luke 13:14)

“Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath . . . Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.’” (John 9:14-16)

This interpretation of what it meant to be faithful to the Sabbath prohibitions was an interpretation by those who did not need healing, those in power and positions of privilege. It was an interpretation by those most prone to underestimate the damage of their interpretation because it did not affect them negatively. 

We must also remember, as we read these stories in our context today, that people in the 1st Century didn’t look at healings the same way most people do today. Healing wasn’t considered exceptional as it is in our post-enlightenment scientific age. Healing was normative. 

The point of these stories was not that Jesus healed, but about who was being healed and when. Jesus continually healed and restored those who were being socially marginalized. He stood with those being pushed to the edges of his society by the elite. 

Every story of healing in the gospels questions the legitimacy of the status quo, and subverts the myths on which the status quo was based. These are stories of resistance, survival, and liberation as well as stories of healing.

Ched Myers in his book “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship correctly states: 

“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.” (“Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 14)

Law and Order

And this brings us to the point of the passage we are considering this week. What happens when we have to choose between saving life and abiding by the law? Jesus’ healings call us to take a side either with the marginalized and liberator (with Jesus) or to interpret his acts as lawless defiance. How we choose is determined by which value we hold most dear—standing alongside the vulnerable over and against harm being done or being committed to the status quo above all else.

This is nothing new. White clergy in the South used the legality argument to try to silence Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the Civil Rights movement. King responded, 

“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.” (Read Letter from a Birmingham Jail)

Today we can still feel the tension between what is legal and what is compassionate, just, or right. Consider the example of Scott Warren and others volunteering for the humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths. No More Deaths provides food and water along migrant trails in Arizona. Right now, Warren is on trial for offering humanitarian aid to migrants in some of the most lethal terrains of their migration. Humanitarian aid is deemed a crime, legally, but the No More Deaths organization is arguing back “that humanitarian aid is never a crime” (see CNN). NPR also reported on these actions last week: “Extending ‘Zero Tolerance’ To People Who Help Migrants Along The Border.” I can hear the echo of Jesus’ question, “Is it lawful to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”

Faith Communities and Noncompliance

Within faith communities, there are also times when people have to choose between complying with what their institution’s policies allow versus doing what is right. I think of many leaders in the faith tradition I grew up in having to face compliance committees set up to enforce policies prohibiting the ordination of women, excluding LGBTQ members, and silencing scholars who hold scientific views about Earth’s geological record.

In the United Methodist tradition, there are leaders standing against policy, or what is legal, to do what is right. Just last week I read how two US conferences are ordaining and commissioning LGBTQ clergy despite their institution’s ban. (Read the entire story at https://www.umnews.org/en/news/two-us-conferences-ordain-commission-lgbtq-clergy.)

Taking both their noncompliance and their commitment to doing what is right very seriously, Bishop Sally Dyck, resident bishop of the Chicago Area, stated, “My prayer is that the church will grow in grace so as to fully give its blessing to every child of God who is called to ministry.”

Those being ordained and commissioned are experiencing firsthand the tension between standing for what one believes is right over and against the legality of continued institutional evils. The Revs. Elizabeth Evans who was commissioned as a provisional deacon rightly stated that she doesn’t believe the church can “transform the world” while upholding the same unjust structures as the world does.

It is difficult to make these types of choices. I know this firsthand, too. 

In the gospels, Jesus sided with the vulnerable and marginalized over and against the institutions of his day when they practiced injustice.

He disregarded legality in favor of doing what was right until it escalated to a Roman cross—the punishment for “violating the rule of Roman law and order.” (See Kelly Brown Douglass, Stand Your Ground Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171)

Jesus’ noncompliance in the gospels challenges us with this question:

Which side of the story would our actions have placed us on?

“Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful . . . to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent.” (Mark 3:4)

HeartGroup Application

  1. What are some examples of when you had to choose between doing what’s right and doing what was compliant? Discuss these experiences among your group.
  2. What examples of this same tension have you experienced or witnessed within either your former faith community or your present faith community? Discuss.
  3. What examples do you presently see in our larger society where people are having to choose between what is right and what is legal? Discuss.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  Wherever you are today, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.  Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. 

I’m so glad you’re journeying with us. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Catching Big Fish

Herb Montgomery | June 7, 2019

Photo by Chris Bair on Unsplash

“The fishing metaphor was a way to denounce injustice against the vulnerable, and looks forward to social change.”


“‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will show you how to catch big fish.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” Mark 1:17-18 (Personal translation)

Last week I was reminded of the hymn, How Can I Keep From Singing. Although this hymn has been around for quite some time in a minority of hymnals, Pete Seeger popularized it in the folk music of the 60’s. Seeger incorporated an additional verse from Doris Penn (from whom he’d learned the song) and modified the lyrics to have broader reach, much like we today can speak of “the reign of love” where the gospel writers used “kingdom. I want to share with you Seeger’s version as we begin this week. 

“My life flows on in endless song

Above earth’s lamentation.

I hear the real, thought far off hymn

That hails the new creation

Above the tumult and the strife,

I hear the music ringing;

It sounds an echo in my soul

How can I keep from singing?

What through the tempest loudly roars,

I hear the truth, it live’th.

What through the darkness round me close,

Songs in the night it give’th.

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that rock I’m clinging.

Since love is lord of Heaven and earth

How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,

And hear their death-knell ringing,

When friends rejoice both far and near,

How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile

Our thoughts to them are winging.

When friends by shame are undefiled,

How can I keep from singing?”

(For a live version of Seeger’s rendition, see Pete Seeger: How Can I Keep from Singing? – Live, 1982)

These lyrics inspire me to keep believing change is possible: another world is possible. Faith communities characterized by a different set of values than what I was raised with are possible. Societies that are just, safe, and compassionate are possible. 

And this leads me to our text about fishing this week. I briefly shared in Social Sins, Social Justice, and the Jesus Stories how the Hebrew prophets’ original use of the “fishing” metaphor in the gospels was more political than religious. During the Christian Revival era in the 1950-60s here in the United States, “fishing” language was popularized and transformed to mean bringing people into the Christian faith. 

But Jesus’ audience, especially the working, fishing people of Galilee and Judea, would have had a different association with this metaphor. Consider again how this metaphor is used by the Hebrew prophets:

“I am now sending for many fishermen, says God, and they shall catch [the people of Israel]…” (Jeremiah 16:16) 

“The time is surely coming upon you when they shall take you away with fishhooks…” (Amos 4:2) 

“Thus says God: I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt…. I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your channels stick to your scales…” (Ezekiel 29:3f)

This language of catching the big fish was used as a symbol of disrupting and overturning unjust power structures both within Israel and within gentile empires. As Doris Penn wrote, “How can I keep from singing? When tyrants tremble, sick with fear, And hear their death-knell ringing.” I love how Myers sums up the Jewish background of this fishing metaphor: Jesus might have been using this language with the fisher folk in our text. 

“Jesus is, in other words, summoning working folk to join him in overturning the structures of power and privilege in the world!” (Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 10)

The fishing metaphor is a way to denounce injustice against the vulnerable, and looks forward to social change. This impacts those who endeavor to follow Jesus today in relation to Christianity’s complicity in unjust power structures. As Guitierrez writes, “The denunciation of injustice implies the rejection of the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 69) Christianity has often been used to legitimize unjust established orders like patriarchy, white supremacy, slavery, colonialism, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. 

In each of the synoptic gospels, what finally got Jesus executed was his overturning tables, challenging the established order of economic and political injustice being bolstered by religion. That’s still happening in Christianity today.

What I also find intriguing about the Jesus stories is that although this is a story of overturning unjust structures of power and privilege, it is also a story about alternative ways of doing so. This is a story of alternative “fishing” methods, if you will. From Jesus’ teachings on reparations, nonviolence, and wealth distribution among the poor to the stories’ ending with a resurrection after a violent death, the stories about Jesus are stories where resurrection is the means of overthrowing the crucifying power of evil and injustice. 

As I’ve said so many times before, the Jesus story does not say that the cross was Jesus’ saving work. If anything, the cross was an attempted interruption of Jesus’ saving work and was overcome through the resurrection. The resurrection reversed everything accomplished by Jesus’ execution, and it did so as an alternative, life-giving method of overcoming the evil and unjust use of the violence of a cross. 

Speaking of unjust structures of power and privilege being overturned in this story, Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglass in her book Stand Your Ground, Black Bodies and the Justice of God reminds us:

“[God’s power] is not a power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is a resurrecting power. Therefore God’s power never expresses itself through the humiliation or denigration of another. It does not triumph over life. It conquers death by resurrecting life. The force of God is a death negating, life-affirming force.” (pp. 182-183)

The Jesus story does not overturn injustice, hierarchies and exclusion by adding death to death. 

Douglass goes on to quote Audre Lorde:

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider, p. 12)

We need more than temporary solutions. We must not underestimate how much damage mitigation temporary solutions can accomplish as we work for more lasting change. Ultimately, we must work to end structures that kill marginalized people. Methods that may have worked to keep us alive at one stage of our human evolution, enabling some to survive at the expense of others, must give way to life-giving methods whose goal is the inclusion, survival and thriving of all. 

We can evolve further.

The challenges in our text this week are: 

The gospel, the good news, is about the potential for change in the status quo. 

This should cause us to question and let go of the status quo if we benefit from it, rather than continuing to give the established order continued religious legitimization.

The gospels also challenge some of the means and ways that unjust established orders are changed and overthrown. 

And lastly: a change in the status quo must not end in adding death to death. It must overcome death. It must be an overthrowing, a reversal, a rejection of death that results in life and respect for the sanctity of life of all. It must be a refusal to let go of life and life for all.

As I shared last week, if the language of “gospel,” “Jesus,” “God,” “heaven,” or other Christian terms are associated in your experience with abuse, call them love instead. Seeger had to change the lyrics of the hymn we began with this week from “Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?” to “Since love is lord of Heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?” and that’s okay. (More blood has been shed in the name of “Christ” than almost any other name in human history. I would have changed the word “lord,” too.) 

What we are talking about is the reign of love as our established social order. And if the word “love” is also associated with abuse in your experience, we are still working toward a world that is just, safe, equitable and compassionate for you and for us all. 

“‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will show you how to catch big fish.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” Mark 1:17-18 (Personal translation)

HeartGroup Application

This week in your HeartGroups, engage this exercise together. 

1. Name a few unjust power structures that you see in our present social arrangements today, both in larger society and within your faith community. Write them down. 

2. Thinking of Jesus’ actions with the Temple money changers, describe how you would imagine Jesus would engage some of these unjust power structures today.

3. RHM’s book of the month for June is A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. If you’re reading this volume with us this month discuss as group how you see the power structures you’ve named play into larger systems of injustice. 

Exercises like these are useful because they begin challenging the way we look at both our world and our faith in following Jesus.   Next week, we’ll build on this. 

Thanks for checking in with us. 

Wherever you are today, choose love.  Keep living in compassion, action and justice. 

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

I love each of you dearly.

Another world is possible. 

I’ll see you next week.