The Concrete Liberation Narratives of Advent (Part 3)

Herb Montgomery | December 24, 2020

nativity


“So many are suffering hardship right now in the U.S. These stories of the birth of Jesus aren’t distractions from that suffering. They don’t turn our focus to postmortem bliss or internalized private and personal piety. Instead, they speak to hope and deliverance from the very tangible economic, social, and political realities that people are suffering through today. This is the focus of the Jesus stories. How much more should this be our focus if we claim these stories at the core of our religious tradition? The liberation in these stories applies to what people are going through right now, here, in the present unjust system.”


“This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)

This Christmas, many are enduring hardship because the political elite have mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic recovery some have touted is a “K” shaped recovery: the wealthy have gotten even wealthier whereas both the working class and those who live below the poverty line have seen their lives get worse.

In this context, Mary’s Magnificat in Luke’s birth narratives gives me much to ponder: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.”

As we said in part 2, these narratives in Matthew and Luke are not filled with the theme of another world or an afterlife. Instead, they present another iteration of this world. They are concerned with the concrete experience of those being exploited and fighting for their economic survival in this life, here and now. They are not about salvation as individual or spiritual but as concrete liberation from the social, political, and economic realities that seek to crush the people.

Luke’s entire gospel repeatedly contrasts the common people or peasantry with the ruling elite in the society of Luke’s intended audience (cf. Luke 6:20-26; Luke 4:18-19). Our communities today are divided along social, political, and economic lines too. During this pandemic, many of the haves have gained even more while the little bit that those without had, has either been taken away or been barely enough. What do these stories say for our lives, today? Can they still speak to us of another kind of world, possible here and now?

In Matthew, the Magi are key characters. Luke gives us the shepherds (see Luke 2:8). Interpreting these shepherds in Luke’s story, Horsley writes in The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context: “The shepherds of Luke 2 should not be over-interpreted, whether in the older fashion as symbols of some idyllic pastoral life or in the more recent mode as representatives of the despised and ostracized in Jewish society. Shepherds were simply part of the peasantry in ancient Palestinian society. Peasants, almost by definition, were poor, and dwellers were lowly in status. Shepherds while not despised by the people, were apparently some of the lowliest of the lowly.” (p.106)

Luke’s birth narratives are centered in the social location of the common people rather than that of the elite of the day. Even John the Baptist’s parents are common priests living in Judea and associated with the common people, not high-priests connected to other rulers in Jerusalem. Luke’s birth narrative places Jesus among and in solidarity with the hopes of the common peasantry of that time.

This association of Jesus with the hopes of those scratching and clawing for their survival helps us better understand the focus of three poems included in Luke: The Magnificat (Mary, Luke 1:46-55), the Benedictus (Zechariah, Luke 1:68-79), and the Nunc Dimittis (Simeon, Luke 2:29-32).

Let’s take a very brief look at each.

The Magnificat

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-55)

This is not the pious prayer of a saint, but a revolutionary song of concrete liberation. It stands in the tradition of sociopolitical, Hebrew victory songs. Songs like Mary’s were sung by Miriam (Exodus 15), Deborah (Judges 5), and Judith (Judges 6), and their form is very close to other Jewish hymns from the late-second-Temple era, like the psalms in 1 Maccabees, Judith, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, the Psalms of Solomon and the Qumran Hodayoth and War Scroll (The Liberation of Christmas, p. 108).

The themes of Mary’s song are also not solely spiritual: they are deeply and subversively social, economic, and political. The Magnificat is about God’s revolutionary overthrow of the established governing authorities on behalf of the peasantry of Israel.

Consider these examples of concrete, political usage of Mary’s same language:

“The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.” (Zephaniah 3:17)

“Your arm is endowed with power; your hand is strong, your right hand exalted.” (Psalm 89:13)

“You crushed Rahab like one of the slain, with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.” (Psalm 89:10)

“He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes.” (Deuteronomy 10:21, cf. Psalm 105)

See also the entire 111th psalm.

Mary’s song evokes the ancient memory of God’s great acts of liberation, the exodus from Egypt, and the Hebrew prophets’ promises of liberation, renewal, and restoration. “The humble state of his servant” does not refer solely to Mary but to the entire community of peasants in Israel. This language is used in Deuteronomy and the Psalms to describe a condition of being dominated, oppressed, and afflicted. It does not refer to an individual’s spiritual humility but to the concrete social, economic, and political conditions of all the people:

“Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil, and oppression.” (Deuteronomy 26:7)

“He remembered us in our low estate, His love endures forever.” (Psalms 136:23)

The proud, who God scatters, could have referred to the oppressive domestic rulers (Herod/High Priestly class) or to foreign oppressors (Romans). (See Psalm of Solomon 2:1-2, 25, 28-31; 17:8, 15, 26).

This is a song about the political liberation of a people with actual political enemies, just as the same kinds of liberation songs in previous generations referred to bondage in Egypt, rescue from Canaanite kings, and deliverance from the Philistines. The lowly in each instance means those who have suffered exploitation, oppression, and subjugation from the wealthy and powerful ruling groups and the systems of injustice they were responsible for.

Luke’s songs of social, political, and economic deliverance for the poor, marginalized, peasants announce that a new social order of justice and abundance as well as surviving and thriving is possible.

Read through the other two songs used in Luke’s birth narratives. I’ll share references showing examples of how the political language used in Luke had been politically used in other passages of the Hebrew scriptures, as well.

The Benedictus

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has visited his people and redeemed them.

[See Exodus 4:31; Ruth 1:6; Psalms 80:14; 106:4; 111:5-6,9]

He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David

[See Psalms 18:2; Ezekiel 29:21; 1 Samuel 2:10; Psalms 132:17; Judges 2:16, 18; 3:9,15]

(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,

[Jeremiah 31:34; 33:8]

because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,

[Isaiah 9:2; Psalms 107:9-10]

to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:68-79)

The Nunc Dimittis

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

[Isaiah 52:13-53:12]

and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)

Right after this last poem, Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph, saying that their child is for the “falling and rising of many in Israel.” This statement harks back to Mary’s song of some being lifted up and others pulled down, and it looks forward to the economic teachings of Jesus where the poor will be blessed, but the well-fed will go hungry (see Luke 6).

So many are suffering hardship right now in the U.S. These stories of the birth of Jesus aren’t distractions from that suffering. They don’t turn our focus to postmortem bliss or internalized private and personal piety. Instead, they speak to hope and deliverance from the very tangible economic, social, and political realities that people are suffering through today.

This is the focus of the Jesus stories. How much more should this be our focus if we claim these stories at the core of our religious tradition? The liberation in these stories applies to what people are going through right now, here, in the present unjust system. And this pandemic continues to reveal how disproportionately unjust our systems are for so many.

The songs of liberation speak of political, economic, social, and even religious conflict, and of deliverance—God’s just future—breaking into our suffering today. That just future is rooted in the teachings of this “baby” found by shepherds “wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Will we choose it?

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Share something from Matthew’s or Luke’s birth narratives that speak to you of concrete liberation, today.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Concrete Liberation Narratives of Advent (Part 2 of 3)

Herb Montgomery | December 18, 2020

wisemen


“Notice that, for their first audiences, the stories of Jesus were not Christian stories about getting to heaven. These were stories deeply rooted in the concrete liberation hopes and realities people were facing . . . These stories are political. They are rooted in the hunger of an oppressed people for social justice. They are about concrete liberation from injustice, both systemic and private, in the here and now, and that is to be our focus as Jesus followers, too.”


Matthew’s version of the Advent narratives begins with this note:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.” (Matthew 2:1)

This month’s recommended reading from Renewed Heart Ministries is The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context by Richard A. Horsley. Horsley identifies the Magi as the highest-ranking political and religious advisers of the Medean emperor and the Persian imperial court. Their religious role was meant to maintain what was believed to be a divinely given imperial order: even their religious purpose was for political ends. The Magi were priestly assistants to the Great King of the Persian Empire—the King of Kings, who was believed to be the divine ruler on earth. Tertullian tells us that “the East considers the Magi almost as kings” themselves (Against Marcion, 3:13).

One of their royal roles would have been to cultivate knowledge of the cosmos and cosmic events, including observing any unusual occurrences in the heavens, and interpreting the divine will or order of things to the king.

That the Magi are in Matthew’s advent story at all is significant. It’s about much more than the inclusion of Gentiles in salvation, salvation that the child they came to see would bring.

What are the implications including the Magi here?

Persia was Rome’s enemy at this time, and the Magi advised the Eastern kings. The Magi, therefore, represented the East in the East-West conflict between Rome and Persia. The Magi were also present at the birth of the Persian King Cyrus who had liberated the Jewish people in the 6th Century BCE (see Isaiah 45) So Matthew including the Magi in his story about Jesus had both international political and religious implications for Rome.

Remember, one of the purposes of Matthew’s advent narrative was to subvert the Roman imperialism subjugating the Jewish people. His story includes Rome’s international enemies, and they, as they were for Cyrus, are present at this little liberator’s birth. Matthew’s audience would have recognized their presence as a sign that this baby was allied with Rome’s enemies. The baby’s overthrow of Roman oppression would have been good news (gospel) to Rome’s enemies as well. Matthew’s story takes political sides against Rome by including the Magi.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matthew 2:1-4)

Three elements of this section will help us understand Matthew’s story more clearly.

  1. Herod
  2. The phrase, “King of the Jews”; and
  3. The disturbance of “all Jerusalem”

As we discussed last week, Herod was Rome’s client king for the Jewish people. Herod economically crushed the Jewish common people, piling on to the already oppressive Roman tax burden people faced in his area and threatening violence from a large, heavily armed militia if they resisted. Herod extracted heavy tributes for extensive building projects aimed to pay homage to Caesar. And he was intensely efficient at crushing uprisings and rebellions against his oppressive policies. He slaughtered people extensively, and life under him meant exploitation and tyranny for the Jewish peasantry: Herod economically bled his people and country dry, and the peasantry cried out day and night for relief from helpless and hopeless poverty. For many, Herod was synonymous with Roman oppression.

The phrase King of the Jews, used in reference to Jesus, has had a long and very harmful anti-Semitic history in Christianity, just as the term Messiah has.

Originally, Jewish liberation movements used the phrase “king of the Jews.” Jewish people didn’t then have a standardized or generally held expectation of a “messiah,” as the term is understood by Christians today. Messiah means “the one who is anointed.” Just like David was anointed by Samuel the prophet, “the anointed one” was anointed to become a king. At the time of Matthew’s story, a common hope among the many and varied Jewish liberation movements was that a king, like David of old, would rise up and liberate the Jewish people from their suffering under Rome. It was simply an expression of the broader hope of the people to be liberated from foreign rule.

This is the only context I believe helpful for understanding why the gospels use the phrase “king of the Jews” in reference to Jesus in the gospels. The community of the gospels was yet another oppressed Jewish community hoping for concrete liberation. For the gospels to call Jesus Messiah, king of the Jews, or anointed one is to simply refer to their Jesus as a liberator from oppression just as every other liberation movement of this time had their king, anointed one, or liberator. But we must leave these phrases in their own social context if we are to avoid Christianizing them into the harmful antisemitic beliefs and practices of supersessionism, the belief that the Christian church has replaced Jewish people and Judaism.

Why might “all Jerusalem” have been disturbed by the Magi’s declaration?

Judea was an agrarian society. Agrarian societies could be headed politically and economically by a fortified city where the rulers lived. This kind of agrarian society benefited and privileged the city rulers with a privileged, secure lifestyle with attendants yet at the expense of the peasant farm workers outside the city. The rulers typically owned the farmland outside the city, too.

That was the situation in ancient Judea. Judean society took the form of a Temple-state centered in Jerusalem and headed by a priestly aristocracy and their retainers such as the scribes. To the best of our knowledge today, this priestly aristocracy was comprised of four families who were appointed to their powerful positions by Herod and therefore Rome. The priestly aristocracy was the elite and powerful who were politically tied to Herod’s success.

When Matthew’s narrative says “all Jerusalem” was disturbed, I don’t believe he was saying all the Jewish population of Jerusalem. That interpretation blames Jews for Jesus’ later execution. No. “All Jerusalem” is more similar to what we here in the U.S. might say: that all D.C. was disturbed. We wouldn’t be talking about the taxi drivers but we’d be talking about those in political positions of power and privilege and their attendants who would have much to lose from a change in the status quo. Horsely again states, “‘All Jerusalem’ would have been the ruling city that politically dominated and economically exploited the rest of the people” (Ibid. p. 50). The elite in power because of Herod’s position would have been deeply disturbed by any threat of change to Herod’s situation and thus their own.

What does this have to do with us today?

Notice that, for their first audiences, the stories of Jesus were not Christian stories about getting to heaven. These were stories deeply rooted in the concrete liberation hopes and realities people were facing. Matthew borrows from the original Exodus narratives at certain places in his advent story because, just like the Exodus story, Matthew’s story is about our concrete real world, oppression in this life, here and now, and tangible hopes of liberation.

How do the ethics, values, and teachings that we find in the Jesus stories guide us to impact our real world in concrete ways as agents of action? How do they inspire us to shape our world into a safer, just, compassionate home for everyone? Are we, unlike these advent stories, just focused on an afterlife, post-mortem heaven, or escaping to bliss beyond? Or are we, like these stories, engaging the real harm being committed against vulnerable populations and communities in our society today? How much does our following Jesus align with these stories? How aligned is our Christianity with the this-life focus and liberation of Jesus?

These stories are political. They are rooted in the hunger of an oppressed people for social justice. They are about concrete liberation from injustice, both systemic and private, in the here and now, and that is to be our focus as Jesus followers, too.

This focus becomes even more pointed when we get to Luke’s advent narratives.

We’ll take a look at those next week.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. This year’s Christmas holiday is filled with harsh realities for many in the U.S.  Discuss with your HeartGroup what you can do, together, to mitigate some portion of that harm for someone this holiday season. Pick something from the discussion for your group to do together in this final week leading up to Christmas.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


The Concrete Liberation Narratives of Advent (Part 1 of 3)

Herb Montgomery | December 11, 2020

nativity carving


“This Christmas story, far from being about how Jesus would make a way to the afterlife and leave the oppressive systems and structures of this world passively untouched, speaks to its audience of liberation from soul-crushing realities affecting its listeners in the here and now . . . This year, as many of us are facing our own harsh realities, there may have never been a more appropriate time to consider the concrete liberation in the birth narratives of the Advent season: they were written for people who were facing harsh realities.”


“This is how the birth of Jesus the anointed came about.” (Matthew 1.18)

Advent season has begun!

Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at the birth narratives of Jesus from 1st Century perspectives. In their cultural context, both Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives are about concrete liberation for oppressed Jewish people in the here and now. Matthew and Luke differ greatly on the details of the birth of Jesus but both speak of concrete liberation. We will read each story in the religious and political contexts they were written in. They intensely subvert the political theologies of their day.

Today, we have access to information that helps us rediscover the stories’ meaning to the first-century followers of Jesus and also to us today as well.

A Preliminary Word about Both Narratives

Something to note before we begin: these narratives are primarily concerned with this world, not with heaven. They are focused on liberation in this life, much like the Exodus liberation narratives of the Torah are. Too often, the birth narratives of Jesus are read through the lens of salvation defined as an entrance into post-mortem heaven. But that is not how the original Jewish Jesus community would have heard these stories.

That community was concerned with the whole of life, not merely with an afterlife. A spiritual, afterlife application of these narratives became the dominant interpretation through the cultural influence of the Christianizing and expanding Roman Empire. Reading the gospel narratives with an otherworldly focus has born an intensely destructive fruit ever since then. Before imperial Christianity, people understood these narratives to be about the liberation and transformation of our communities and this world. They were not solely religious stories; they were also political, economic, and social, with distributively just imaginings of an end of violence, injustice, and oppression.

The Importance of Context

If we are going to wrest these two narratives from centuries of purely religious and otherworldly interpretations, we must discover their historical context. Once we see that context, we cannot unsee it. Once we know it, we cannot unknow it. Learning this context for myself has forever changed how I read the birth narratives of Jesus, so I want to share that journey with you.

This week, we’ll begin with Matthew’s narrative. We will consider why Herod is the focus and why the Magi are included. Next time, we will explore Luke’s birth narrative. My hope is the information in this series will enable you to read the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke anew. And I hope that these narratives, seen in their own contexts, will renew your heart and hope, and inspire you as a Jesus follower to more deeply embody their focus on transforming this world.

Though the early Jesus birth narratives were originally intended for 1st Century listeners, I believe they’re also significant for us today. In our era, these narratives are being eclipsed for Christians by consumerism that uses the gift of Jesus to affirm our holiday economic machine.

Richard Horsley describes this in the introduction to The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context. He writes:

“Indirectly at least, the giving, hence the buying, of gifts is rooted in the paradigms of God’s gift of the Christ-child and the costly gifts of the Magi. The Christmas story has clearly come to have a material significance: it helps to legitimate the festival of retailing and consumption of goods. The Christmas story has thus also become subservient to the contemporary economic ends as well as subjected to modern cultural presuppositions.” (p. ix)

Today the subversive political and economic themes of the Christmas story are lost even to Christians who are most familiar with them. Systemic racism continues to thrive, xenophobia toward immigrants and Muslim Americans flourishes, LGBTQ exclusion is still practiced by a large number of Christian congregations, and, much like the Rome of these birth narratives, the U.S. still seeks, to achieve peace through military violence—all while we adorn our American lawns with nativities of the babe from Bethlehem.

If we are to rediscover the original subversive power of the birth narratives of Jesus and rightly apply those stories to our lives today, we must read them in the context of the lives and hopes of people in 1st Century Galilee and Judea who daily faced dehumanizing and economically crushing oppression.

Matthew’s ‘King of the Jews’ uses a title reserved for Herod the Great. And Luke’s “Son of God”, Savior of the world, the One who brings peace on earth also uses titles and accomplishments normally applied to Caesar alone. We’ll explore what difference the reassigning of these titles to Jesus made for the oppressed communities of early Jesus followers throughout this series.

For now, the Gospel of Rome promised peace through terror and violence. The Gospels envisioned peace on the other hand through an establishment of distributive justice for all.

The historian Josephus wrote about the ceremonial celebration at which the Roman Senate made Herod the client king of the Jewish region. He said:

“The meeting was dissolved and Antony and Caesar (Augustus) left the senate-house with Herod between them, preceded by the consuls and the other officials, as they went to offer sacrifice and to lay up the decree in the Capitol. On this, the first day of his reign, Herod was given a banquet by Antony.” (War 1.285)

Herod would later economically crush the Jewish common people, piling on the already oppressive Roman tax burden of the inhabitants of the area under his control and threatening violent redress by a large and heavily armed militia. Not only was the Jerusalem Temple-state responsible for collecting the temple tax and the tribute due to Rome, but Herod would also extract heavy tributes for an extensive building project aimed at paying homage to Caesar and thus securing his position within the Roman empire. Herod was intensely efficient at crushing uprisings and rebellions against his oppressive policies, and his slaughter of the people in villages and towns was extensive at certain times. This was a time when life in this region under Herod looked most hopeless. It was a time characterized by exploitation and tyranny for the Jewish peasantry: Herod was economically bleeding his people and country dry.

Josephus again writes that, at one point, Herod’s economic tributes became so heavy that, Herod had to remit “to the people of his kingdom a third part of their taxes, under the pretext of letting them recover from a period of lack crops” (Antiquities 15.365). Because Herod himself was involved in projects whose expenses were greater than his means, “he was compelled to be harsh toward his subjects, for the great number of things on which he spent money as gifts to some, caused him to be the source of harm to those from whom he took his revenues.” (Antiquities 16.154)

The situation for many under Herod’s reign that the peasantry cried out day and night for relief from Herod’s tyranny. Herod had reduced the entire people to helpless and hopeless poverty. Herod had become a conduit for the transfer of the economic lifeblood of Jewish people to other peoples and thus deeply harmed the towns in his own realm as people, once of means, daily passed into poverty.

This is the concrete political, economic, and real-life situation Matthew’s birth narrative centers as it tells the story of a threat to Herod’s reign. This Christmas story, far from being about how Jesus would make a way to the afterlife and leave the oppressive systems and structures of this world passively untouched, speaks to its audience of liberation from soul-crushing realities affecting its listeners in the here and now.

We’ll take a deeper look at Matthew’s version of the story of the birth of Jesus next time.

What economically life-crushing realities are impacting you this week?

How has the COVID pandemic impacted your life? How has the government downplaying it, some leaders’ apparent choice to choose the do-nothing, mass-murder-policy of natural herd immunity, the U.S. Senate’s choice to recess early before the Thanksgiving holiday instead of passing on much-needed relief—how have these and more failed approaches to the pandemic impacted you?

This year, as many of us are facing our own harsh realities, there may have never been a more appropriate time to consider the concrete liberation in the birth narratives of the Advent season: they were written for people who were facing harsh and crushing realities themselves and found hope in the person and teachings of Jesus.

Advent has now begun.

What do its stories have to share with us today?

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. In what ways do you see the Advent narratives being much more concerned with our concrete lives, here and now, rather than being otherworld or afterlife focused?

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 

Transforming Communities Built on Exclusion

Herb Montgomery | December 4, 2020

inclusive hands and difference color pegs


Mark’s Jesus narrative offers a Jesus who has come not to destroy us or who we are but to liberate us from the self-hatred and the internalized low self-estimation our communities of origin have given us because of who we are. This Jesus has come to liberate us from our own captivity to believing that we are “less than” others simply because we may be different from those at the top of the privilege structures in our society.


Few stories have historically been scarier to the human psyche than stories of possession. Yet Mark’s author places this story at the beginning of this Jesus narrative for a reason:

“They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” (Mark 1:21-28)

This story takes place in the most sacred boundaries of time and space in Jesus’ community. It’s a story about the social phenomenon that the gospels refer to as the way of sacrifice.

As we’ve discussed over the past few weeks, communities built on exclusivity depend on their agreeing who to exclude from their society. They need a “sacrifice,” someone to expel out of their borders for society to function properly, and they find unity in being against what they define as “other.” Finding unity in vilifying someone gives communities like this their life. They depend on the existence of a “demoniac.”

We lose so much today if we throw out the stories of demoniacs and exorcisms in the Jesus narratives simply because we cannot find a naturalist explanation for them. If we look for their sociopolitical themes, though, demoniac stories help us understand human societies and they should not be dismissed too quickly. One possible interpretation of the demoniac stories in the gospels is to understand them as drawing attention to those whom the community has chosen to expel: the scapegoats, the sacrificed, the expelled victims who have internalized their community’s hatred as deserved. They have come to agree with the community that they should be driven outside the camp, and they become “possessed” by how their community estimates them.

Let’s look at each piece of the story:

The demoniac encounters Jesus.
The demoniac refers to Jesus as the “Holy One of God.” This is a political title Mark uses purposefully, and it’s a title that King David used for himself (Psalm 4:3; Psalm 15:10). It was also the title given to Aaron (Psalm 106:16, LXX).
The demoniac assumes Jesus has come to execute the social phenomenon of sacrificial destruction: “Have you come to destroy us?”

In this interpretation, demoniacs symbolize those who have internalized self-hatred from their community. Mark’s demoniac sees Jesus as the “holy one” who has come to carry out the expulsion he “deserved”—to destroy rather than liberate.

But Jesus’ role in this story is not to destroy lives but to liberate, heal, and restore. Jesus rejects the title given to him because he’s not the figurehead of this social phenomenon of exclusion. He represents something much different.

Jesus had come not to sacrifice scapegoats but to do away with the entire system of basing societies on sacrificing/scapegoating those considered to be “other.” He desired “mercy not sacrifice”: he had come to destroy the very system that creates demoniacs.

Two phrases in our story suggest the author’s point:

“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

“They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’”

Ched Myers gives insight into this contrast between those in authority within Jesus’ community and Jesus in his insightful volume, Say to This Mountain:

“The essential conflict is thus defined as the contest over authority between Jesus and the scribal establishment, a contest which will be central to the entire story. Sandwiched in between is an ‘unclean spirit’ who ‘protests” Jesus’ presence: ‘Why do you meddle with us?’ (1:23f; see Judges 11:12; 1 Kings 17:18). However, the demon’s defiance quickly turns to fear: ‘Have you come to destroy us?’ Who is the ‘we’ on whose behalf the demon speaks? The function of Mark’s framing device suggests that the demon’s voice represents the voice of the scribal class whose ‘space’ Jesus is invading. The synagogue on the Sabbath is scribal turf, where scribes exercise the authority to teach Torah. This ‘spirit’ personifies scribal power, which holds sway over the hearts and minds of the people. Only after breaking the influence of this spirit is Jesus free to begin his compassionate ministry to the masses (1:29ff). To interpret this exorcism solely as the ‘curing of an epileptic’ is to miss its profound political impact. 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)

With his healing act, Jesus is contradicting the community’s evaluation of their “othered” one. This same one has internalized their community’s evaluation and is thus “possessed” by the community’s hatred transformed into self-hatred. Jesus emerges in the stories to contradict the community’s “othering” and to stand in contrast with those in positions of authority within this system of “othering.”

Mark’s author wants us to notice the contrast between Jesus and those in places of authority who are responsible for the exclusionary system the community is founded on.

When Jesus sought to liberate the demoniac from being possessed by the community’s evaluation of them, all present begin to contrast Jesus’ authority with the scribes’ authority. Jesus showed everyone that there is another way for human societies to form and function. This is Jesus’s “new teaching.”

What does this have to do with us today?

Again, in this interpretation, demoniacs in Mark’s Jesus story designate not only those whom the community has “cast out” or driven off but also those who have adopted the community’s image of them as their own self-image, thereby producing within themselves a self-destructive self-hatred.

As we see in this story, internalized self-hatred can cause an outcast to view those who attempt to liberate them from their self-hatred as “the enemy.” The man in this story viewed Jesus as an antagonist and the liberation from internalized self-hatred that Jesus offered as adversarial.

I don’t know how many times I have witnessed this:

  • People of a different race or from a different place than the majority internalizing and believing that they are “less than” because they are the minority within a larger group
  • Women internalizing and genuinely believing they are “less than” men
  • Those of less economic status believing they are “less than” those who possess more wealth
  • Those who possess less formal or academic training than others while being intelligent and open-minded still believing they are “less than” others who are more formally educated yet domesticated by the status quo
  • Transgender people believing they are “less than” others because the world is built for and by cisgender people
  • LGBTQ people being afraid to “come out” even to themselves because of hatred bestowed on them by their community of origin, or teachings that say they are “less than,” evil, or even “possessed”

Mark’s Jesus narrative offers a Jesus who has come not to destroy us or who we are but to liberate us from the self-hatred and the internalized low self-estimation our communities of origin have given us because of who we are.

This Jesus has come to liberate us from our own captivity to believing that we are “less than” others simply because we may be different from those at the top of the privilege structures in our society.

The Jesus story is whispering to us that:

  • We were all made in the image of God.
  • We are all children of the same Divine Parents.
  • There is room at the Table for us all.
  • There is a place in Jesus’s new world for us all.

The person Jesus healed that day was restored to the community instead of cast out, and this restoration pushed the community into reassessment. When Jesus heals, the community and its way of living cannot stay unchanged. No, the man’s restoration causes the community to reevaluate and consider the contrast between Jesus’ inclusion and exclusion from those in power in their community. Not only was the individual liberated but the congregation was too.

Maybe the world can operate by continuing to find people to expel. But I don’t want to live in a world like that. Instead of driving the demoniac he met away, Jesus delivered him from self-hatred, restored him to his rightful place, and also created change within the community that had sought to expel him in the first place.

Jesus announced that a different iteration of our world was possible!

And this was just the beginning of Mark’s stories about Jesus.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Share a story of where you have witnessed a community being challenged by the inclusion of those they once excluded. Did the community change? Did the community reject the change and continue excluding?

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

No More Sacrifice

giving tuesday

December 1 is #GivingTuesday this year!  #GivingTuesday is a global day of giving that harnesses the collective power of individuals, communities, and organizations to encourage philanthropy and to celebrate generosity worldwide.

#GivingTuesday is held annually on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving (in the US) and the widely recognized shopping events Black Friday and Cyber Monday to kick off the holiday giving season and inspire people to collaborate in improving our communities and to give back in impactful ways to the charities and causes they support.

#GivingTuesday is a global giving movement that began in 2012 that has been built by individuals, families, organizations, businesses, and communities in all 50 states, and in countries around the world.

#GivingTuesday is endeavoring to transform how people think about, talk about, and participate in the giving season. It inspires people to take collective action to improve their communities, give back in better, smarter ways to the charities and causes they believe in, and help create a better world.

#GivingTuesday demonstrates how every act of generosity counts, and that they mean even more when we give together.

Every year millions of people come together on this special day to give back and to support the causes they believe in.

This year we are asking you to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries on this special day!

All contributions this day will be matched, dollar for dollar, thanks to a very generous and kind pledge to RHM by a few of our supporters.

This December 1st, make a donation to Renewed Heart Ministries as one of your chosen nonprofits and help make this #Giving Tuesday the best one yet. We can’t thank you enough for your support!

On December 1, go to renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate.”


No More Sacrifice

community holding hands

Herb Montgomery | November 20, 2020

“So the Torah offers not only the common way of sacrifice but also subtle challenges to the way of sacrifice. Both narratives of sacrifice and narratives of anti-sacrifice are found there, and we have to ask which path is life-giving for a community and which is not.”

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his questioners,

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13)

What does sacrifice mean sociologically?

As we discussed in A Community of the Rejected, anthropologists have long recognized a pattern throughout human civilizations. When a society’s unity and cohesiveness begin to pull apart, when competition and rivalry begin to threaten the health and longevity of that society, a mysterious but very predictable phenomenon occurs. The society will choose to turn on its most vulnerable members, individuals, or a group, and blame them for the tension and trouble it is beginning to encounter.

According to French historian and anthropological philosopher René Girard, once a society finds its scapegoat, unity is quickly restored because everyone now coalesces around a common enemy. Tensions and trouble threatening social cohesiveness evaporate into thin air and previous enemies become friends as they unite together around othering a group or person.

The community then expels this group or person, either by sending them away or by executing them via the angry mob) and life for the community goes on as usual. Yet, before long, the tensions that once plagued the group through their rivalry with one another resurface, and a new sacrifice is required. The unity that comes through sacrificing a common enemy is temporary and must be continually rekindled.

This is where many anthropologists believe religion was born. Rather than finding another victim to scapegoat, elders within a society sought to recreate and relive the first sacrifice through ritual rather than by repeatedly finding a common enemy in real life. They either used another person to serve as a human sacrifice or reenacted the historical event with an animal. In either case, the community unified by celebrating their sacred, historical victory over the group or person they believed was their enemy. Remember that in reality the original victim was never truly guilty and was only perceived as guilty by the angry mob.

Thus, sacrifice in human history was born. Ritual animal leads to ritual human, which leads to an actual human. This way of sacrifice was taught and reversed in both the Hebrew and Christian sacred texts. Both are present in the sacred text, so we have to choose which principle we will organize our societies by sacrifice or mercy. The Jesus story encourages us to follow the path found in the Hebrew prophets of mercy:

“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)

From the innocence of Abel, the nomadic herdsman who was slain by his brother Cain the tiller of the soil (see Enough for Us All) all the way down to Zechariah the prophet, we find narratives in the scriptures of Christian and Jewish people that could cure humanity’s need for “sacrificing” others.

Now let’s take a look at the story of Jesus.

Twice in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus uses this phrase:

“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ (Matthew 9:13)

“But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7)

Matthew 12 goes further than Matthew 9 by saying that if Jesus’ audience had understood that sacrifice is not of divine origin, we would not have condemned the “innocent.”

Once sacrifice became ritualized and religious, in other words, people believed that God or the gods demanded and required this sacrifice be done. As Jesus followers, we must refute the idea that sacrifice is demanded by a divine being. Jesus read his own Jewish sacred narratives in such a way that he concluded that sacrifice is not divine but human. I believe we have evidence that Jesus taught that the God of the Hebrews had never required sacrifice but had always been seeking to lead humanity away from it.

Consider the following passages, including the one Jesus actually quotes.

“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God, rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)

“‘What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?’ says the LORD; ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?’” (Isaiah 1:11–12)

Consider that last question. Isaiah’s God implies that the origins of the sacrificial practice are not found in Divine requirement: “Who asked you to even do this?” the text asks.

“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—my ears you have opened—burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.” (Psalms 40:6)

Jeremiah challenges these practices too.

“For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Jeremiah 7:22)

This passage from Jeremiah is puzzling because it contradicts the entire book of Leviticus. In Leviticus, God did command the children of Israel to make burnt offerings and sacrifices. So how can Jeremiah’s God say He did not? The answer, I believe, can possibly be found in Leviticus 17:7:

“So that they may no longer offer their sacrifices for goat-demons, to whom they prostitute themselves.” (Leviticus 17:7)

The Hebrews, like the surrounding societies they lived alongside, seemed to have already been practicing sacrifice when they came out of Egypt. Archaeology shows that Egyptian sanctuaries even had a dual apartment structure of holy and most holy places as the Hebrew sanctuary and temple did. The sociological trajectory is that the ritual animal leads to a ritual human, and then to an actual human. This pattern was not only present in the Canaanite cultures of that time; I would argue it was present in most cultures of the day.

There are competing narratives within the Christian sacred texts as well:

“Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire . . . with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.’” (Hebrews 10:5)

Some will ask, “Didn’t God originate sacrifice in Genesis?” It is true that Cain and Abel made sacrifices, but that only proves that it was common. When Cain departs after killing Abel, the earth is characterized as well-populated (see Genesis 4.14, 16–17). But there is not one single verse where God originates and commands sacrifice in Genesis.

Others will say, “Didn’t God make clothing for Adam and Eve out of animal skins?” Yes, but the types of animals one skins to produce clothing are not the animals typically used in ritual sacrifices. You would not sacrifice a lamb to get wool for clothing. You would simply shave it. In other words, there is no intrinsic connection between ritual sacrifice and the production of clothing. One does not imply the other.

Finally, some may wonder, “What about God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice and God’s rejection of Cain’s?” As we discussed briefly in Enough for Us All, much is missed when we read stories from our context rather than from the context of the original audience. This story was originally told in the context of Mesopotamian landowners and nomadic herdsmen. The “tillers of the ground” were in positions of privilege in that society. For agricultural reasons, they looked at land very differently than the nomadic herdsmen did. The herdsmen believed the land belonged to everyone and was not to be privately owned. Being nomadic, they were also the weaker of the two. The tillers of the ground had more permanent settlements and were thus stronger. They oppressed the migrant nomadic herdsmen as intruders on their property.

In the Cain and Abel narrative, God takes the side of the oppressed, cursing the ground for Cain’s sake and turning him from a tiller of the ground into a nomadic wanderer so that he can learn to view life through the lens of the marginalized.

Those who claim that God accepted Abel’s sacrifice because it contained blood and Cain’s didn’t, should remember that Cain’s sacrifice was completely acceptable under the Levitical rules for grain, wine, and food offerings. These did not involve blood either. The story of Cain and Abel was not a matter of “blood” being required by a God who demanded sacrifice. Their story is about the way of mercy rather than sacrifice. This is a story concerning liberation from oppression, ritual and sociological sacrifice, and societies being founded on the way of mercy rather than mutual hatred of a common enemy.

The Hebrew sacred texts include a trajectory that reverses the common sacrificial story:

People are called from ritual human sacrifice to ritual animal sacrifice.

Hebrew prophets call for a movement away from even animal sacrifice

Jesus concludes this prophetic trajectory in the gospels by calling his society from the way of sacrifice to the way of mercy.

Eventually, the Jewish people had to abandon animal sacrifices by necessity when they lost their temple in 70 C.E. Yet there was a social transformation that accompanied this ritual transition Karen Armstrong explains:

“But the most progressive Jews in Palestine were the Pharisees [of the school of Hillel], who developed some of the most inclusive and advanced spiritualities of the Jewish Axial Age. They believed that the whole of Israel was called to be a holy nation of priests and that God could be experienced in the humblest home as well as in the temple. He [sic] was present in the smallest details of daily life, and Jews could approach him [sic] without elaborate ritual. They could atone for their sins by acts of loving-kindness rather than animal sacrifice. Charity was the most important commandment of the law . . . In Rabbinic Judaism, the Jewish Axial Age came of age. The Golden Rule, compassion, and loving-kindness were central to this new Judaism; by the time the temple had been destroyed, some of the Pharisees already understood that they did not need a temple to worship God, as this Talmudic story makes clear: It happened that R. Johanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem, and R. Joshua followed him and saw the burnt ruins of the Temple and he said: ‘Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.’ Then said R. Johanan, “Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, ‘I desire love and not sacrifice.’’
Kindness was the key to the future; Jews must turn away from the violence and divisiveness of the war years and create a united community with “one body and one soul.” When the community was integrated in love and mutual respect, God was with them, but when they quarreled with one another, he [sic] returned to heaven, where the angels chanted with “one voice and one melody.” When two or three Jews sat and studied harmoniously together, the divine presence sat in their midst. Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 132 CE, taught that the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” was “the great principle of the Torah.” To show disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image was seen by the rabbis as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism. Murder was a sacrilege: “Scripture instructs us that whatsoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image.” God had created only one man at the beginning of time to teach us that destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world, while to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. To humiliate anybody—even a slave or a non-Jew—was equivalent to murder, a sacrilegious defacing of God’s image. To spread a scandalous, lying story about another person was to deny the existence of God. Religion was inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You could not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.” (The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (Kindle Locations 7507-7540)

Jesus models this same movement away from sociological sacrifice to mercy. Nonetheless, the elites embrace the way of sacrifice and choose to unite around their fear of the social changes Jesus’ teachings would create. Those of privilege and power felt they had everything to lose from a more distributively just society. So they arrest Jesus (Luke 22:52), and those who had previously been enemies unite in their desire to silence him (Luke 23:12). This is the way of economic, political, and sociological sacrifice. Jesus becomes the actual sociological sacrifice, the enemy around which rival enemies experience newfound unity and friendship. The story of his execution has all the telltale signatures of a sociological sacrifice story, including an angry mob that gets swept up in the scapegoating mechanism.

Yet Jesus’ story does not end in yet another sacrifice of an innocent by yet another human society. We can read the Jesus story so that it is not a narrative about a cross, but that it’s a narrative about how that unjust sacrifice of crucifixion was undone, reversed, and overcome. This is a story, not where death is overcome by another death, but where death-dealing is overcome and reversed by life and life-giving. The resurrection reversed and undid what was accomplished through the crucifixion of Jesus.

This is a story that calls us to imagine a world founded on the way of mercy rather than sacrifice. This is an alternate way of organizing human life that Jesus modeled and taught, a way the Hebrew prophets called for, and a way that can be found in the narratives of both the text of Christians and the Jewish people.

These narratives speak of a God who, rather than demanding someone’s sacrifice, stands in solidarity with those our societies sacrifice. We are called by these narratives to do the same.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Share a story of where you have witnessed the dynamic of scapegoat founded unity. Where do you see that happening today?

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

how we show up

Taking Sides, Reclaiming our Humanity

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2020 has been a challenging year for many nonprofits. RHM is no exception. We need your support to impact lives and bring the faith-based, societal-justice focused resources and analysis RHM provides.

Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed right now more than ever.

If you have been blessed by the work of RHM, please consider making a tax-deductible donation, today.

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Herb Montgomery | November 13, 2020


“Make no doubt about it. Jesus loved those on both sides in the stories. Yet Jesus is seeking to help both sides reclaim their humanity and that looks very different depending on which side of dehumanizing oppression you are on.”


The gospel of Matthew tells of two sets of workers. One had worked all day, and the other group showed up at that last hour of the day. Both receive the same pay, and the group that worked all day are outraged. Their employer’s response gives us much to consider:

“‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:12-16)

The employer in this story takes the side of the group who only worked the last hour. This is good news for those who belonged to this group, and it’s problematic at best for those who felt that they were being treated unfairly.

But the employer paid wages not based on how much each worker worked, but on what each worker agreed to initially.  I lean toward interjecting into this story that the employer may have made these agreements based on how much each worker needed rather than how long they worked.  In this culture, if one didn’t work one didn’t eat.  A day’s wages for those living from day to day made the difference of life and death.  Consider the possible implications of a needs based economy rather than a labor based economy in this story.

In the gospels, Jesus continually took the side of those society relegated to last place. In Jesus’ just future, those who were presently last would become first.

Didn’t Jesus also love those who held a more privileged place in society? In Mark’s gospel, Jesus interacts with a rich man, and the story states that Jesus “loved him” (Mark 10:21). Jesus took the side of the poor and last doesn’t diminish the fact that he also loved those who were not poor, not oppressed, and not marginalized. Jesus love for the rich man has another dimension too. 

Oppression dehumanizes everyone involved. By dehumanizing another, we lose our own humanity, and when we stand up for the humanity of others, we’re also reclaiming our own humanity as well as the humanity of those being harmed. 

Jesus loved that rich man. And that is why he called him to sell his superfluous possessions and live with Jesus in solidarity with those their society was doing harm. That call wasn’t just about the poor. Jesus was also inviting the rich man to reclaim his own humanity. Jesus was taking the side of the oppressed and calling the rich man to do so, too. 

Luke describes Jesus being on the side of the last, too.

Consider the contrast laid out in Luke’s sermon on the plain:

“Looking at his disciples, he said: 

  “Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who hunger now,

for you will be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you,

when they exclude you and insult you

and reject your name as evil,

because of the Son of Man.

  “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,

for you have already received your comfort.

Woe to you who are well fed now,

for you will go hungry.

Woe to you who laugh now,

for you will mourn and weep.

Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,

for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:22-26)

Jesus’ just future will bless the poor. Yet the rich will struggle in that transition to a more distributively just society, like as they did in the parable in Matthew. They will feel like a radical redistribution of resources is unfair.

Those the present system leaves hungry will struggle less with equity than those whom our present system leaves well fed; those our system causes to “weep” will struggle less than those our system causes to “laugh.” Those who are “hated” for challenging our status quo, who are mislabeled, slandered, and deemed as dangerous will struggle less than those who are “spoken well of” by those privileged in our present system. 

Make no doubt about it. Jesus loved those on both sides in the stories. Yet Jesus is seeking to help both sides reclaim their humanity and that looks very different depending on which side of dehumanizing oppression you are on. Jesus preached about a just future for both sides, one where oppression, violence, and injustice are put right. Jesus also modeled that for right now, this work can only be done by standing with the oppressed and by calling oppressors to rethink our present system and take their place alongside those who daily face oppression in the work of reshaping our society.

The Jesus stories repeat this theme over and over. In Luke, the father of the prodigal son deeply loved the older brother. He wanted to help the older brother find his humanity toward his younger brother, just as much as he rejoiced at the younger brother’s return. Even while the older brother feels the celebration of his sibling is unjust, their father maintains solidarity with the younger brother and pleads with his older son to embrace his brother as well. In other words, the father is not going to change who he is to accommodate the older brother’s warped view of justice. The older brother will have to change to stand alongside his father. He’ll have to embrace his younger brother if he is to come in from the outer darkness that night.

To see Jesus as one who takes the side of the oppressed is vital if we are to follow Jesus in shaping a more just reiteration of our present world.

Remember that Rome claimed the gods were on their side. Herod claimed God had chosen him as the messiah and rightful king of Israel. Caiaphas and the elite claimed God was on their side.

Yet for the early Christians, the Divine was not found standing with any of these. The resurrection event is part of the story to help us transit to a world where God is actually on the side of those being shamefully suspended between heaven and earth at the hands of unjust oppressive powers.

The Jesus story is all about taking sides. It’s about a path for those on both sides of oppression to take hold of or reclaim their humanity. It’s the story of a Jesus who stood in solidarity with all who find themselves on a cross at the hands of unjust systems. As Jesus stood in solidarity with the oppressed, marginalized, and disadvantaged, it calls into question the religious views of oppressors who say that God is instead on their side. 

A well-meaning response to this is to say that God doesn’t take sides. But, in the face of oppression, this doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t go anywhere near as far as Jesus went. The Jesus story repeatedly calls us to choose a side. 

To change systemic oppression, every time, we must stand in solidarity with the oppressed, demanding oppressors regain their own humanity in the face of the harm they’re doing. If Jesus took sides, then Jesus followers who live in privileged social locations must pick a side, as well.

If Christianity does not offer a better God than the one who has always stood in solidarity with oppression, it is not life-giving but death-dealing.

Jesus said it best: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” 

God’s just future—the justice that so many are socially, religiously, economically, politically, and ecologically hungering and thirsting for—is not retributive. It’s not punitive. No, God’s just future as revealed through Jesus is one where the humanity of everyone is restored and those who hunger for justice will be filled. 

Depending on your social location, first or last, this is good news. 

This is gospel. 

“From the heavens you uttered judgment; the earth feared and was still when God rose up to establish justice, to save all the oppressed of the earth. Selah.” 

(Psalms 76:8-9, emphasis added.)

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Living in solidarity with those who daily face oppression takes an intentional choice. Share an experience of where you choose to stand in solidarity with someone facing injustice.  What communities in our present society are in need of solidarity today?

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

A Community of the Rejected


2020 has been a challenging year for many nonprofits. RHM is no exception. We need your support to impact lives and bring the faith-based, societal-justice focused resources and analysis RHM provides.

Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed right now more than ever.

If you have been blessed by the work of RHM, please consider making a tax-deductible donation, today.


rock wall

Herb Montgomery | November 6, 2020

“This change of perspective has the potential to help us form new ways of shaping human communities. It has the potential to give birth to humans who root their communities in equity, justice, inclusion, love, compassion, and most importantly—safety, especially for those who are marginalized and rejected. And every time a community chooses to center the voices of those they once expelled, they demonstrate a new way.”

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says: 

“‘Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?” (Matthew 21:42)

Jesus has been telling a series of parables about rejection that would have been meaningful to the Jewish community he was speaking to, like this one:

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I will go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” (Matthew 21:28-32)

Rejection was a familiar theme for the early followers of Jesus. Jesus lived and ministered in solidarity with and defense of people his society socially rejected. His choice to call for change within his community was at the heart of why the elite and privileged also rejected him. 

Our original passage comes from Matthew 21:

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who stumbles over this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” (Matthew 21:33–46)

The phrase that always speaks to me in this story is “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” 

This passage has a long history of anti-Semitic Christian interpretations. I believe early Jewish Jesus followers struggled with the elite of their own society and their rejection of Jesus. Today we must reject interpretations of these passages that harm our Jewish siblings. How can we reclaim these stories in ways that today are life-giving?  

Let’s start with this phrase, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” 

Many human societies have been built on rejecting or scapegoating an individual or group victim. Human societies frequently unify by joining together against a common group to be afraid of. They then accuse that group of being responsible for society’s stresses and conflicts: the age-old, “Us versus Them.” When this social dynamic is active, rejecting a “stone” becomes the “cornerstone” of society, and these communities’ histories, legends, and myths say their deities are always on the side of those who are doing the rejecting. Often the gods are also demanding that the victim be sacrificed/rejected by the larger community. The Jesus story turns this dynamic upside-down. 

Jesus, the community formed around Jesus’s teachings, and their God are being rejected, and the victims in this story are innocent (cf. John 11:50). In the Jesus story, we’re seeing this social dynamic from the perspective of the person or group that is feared and thus united against to have removed. 

This is how “the stone that the builders rejected” becomes “the cornerstone.” We begin to see that our deities are not demanding the rejection of those we fear, but God actually stands with those we are rejecting. Jesus, the central figure of this story, is the one being feared and rejected by the privileged and elite. He isn’t leading the community in their rejection of someone else.

This change of perspective has the potential to help us form new ways of shaping human communities. It has the potential to give birth to humans who root their communities in equity, justice, inclusion, love, compassion, and most importantly—safety, especially for those who are marginalized and rejected. And every time a community chooses to center the voices of those they once expelled, they demonstrate a new way. 

Maybe others have chosen to reject you. Perhaps you aren’t educated. Maybe you don’t have the privileged skin color. Maybe you aren’t included because you don’t have the privileged anatomy and physiology. Possibly you don’t belong to the approved income bracket. Perhaps you’re not from around here. Maybe you don’t have the correct socially constructed gender identity and/or expression. Maybe you don’t fit in with heterosexist society because of who you are or whom you love.

The good news is that all of this matters to the God of the Jesus story. If you’ve been rejected by others, your voice is centered in God’s just future. Those who have been rejected in unjust social structures are the cornerstones of the human community the Jesus story announces. Your rejection uniquely qualifies you in the shaping of a human community that rejects the fear and rejection of those deemed different or other. Whether your rejection has been social, political, economic, or religious, you can choose to allow your own rejection to transform you into being among the last people on the planet to treat others as you’ve been treated. 

Later, the Christian community reflected on these words: “As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:4). The author refers to Jesus as the primary living stone rejected by humans but “chosen by God and precious.” The fact that “you also” are referred to as “living stones,” too, means that even though you also have been “rejected by humans,” you are “chosen by God,” and you are precious!

Have others feared and rejected you?

You are chosen.

You are precious.

You are valuable.

You are of inestimable worth. 

And another iteration of our present world is possible where people who are different are no longer feared and rejected, but included and even centered. 

How does your own experience of others fearing and rejecting you inform how you treat others?

Does it make you want to respond in kind?

Does it make you want to be a more life-giving, inclusive kind of human being?

As Jesus followers, we can reclaim these Jesus narratives to encourage each other and to give us pause when we see the tendency to fear and reject someone else simply because they are different. We can reclaim them so that they reshape us into humans who use our experiences to inform our actions to reshape our world into a safe home for all, a world of mercy rather than the sacrifice of innocents.  

We have the choice every day to see that stones rejected by others and maybe even also by us become cornerstones of a society where we all don’t merely survive but also thrive. 

“‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” (Matthew 21:42)

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. In what ways have you experienced rejection in your own life? Share an experience with your HeartGroup.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone? 

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

An Unjust Judge


2020 has been a challenging year for many nonprofits. RHM is no exception. We need your support to impact lives and bring the faith-based, societal-justice focused resources and analysis RHM provides.

Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed right now more than ever.

If you have been blessed by the work of RHM, please consider making a tax-deductible donation, today.


Herb Montgomery | October 30, 2020


“This is not a ‘pray only’ parable, however. The widow not only prays to her God but she also stands up to the judge, the implied source of the injustice she is enduring. Jesus is saying to oppressed people, ‘Keep pushing for justice. If change is to come, this is the only way change will come!’ Oppressors don’t let go of their power and privilege to harm others on their own.”


In Luke’s gospel we read this story,

“In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.” (Luke 18:2-8)

In this story, we read about an importunate woman who refused to be passive in the face of injustice. Key elements and clues tell us explicitly that this is not a parable about the prayers of the privileged; rather, it is a parable for those who face oppression, marginalization, and disenfranchisement daily.

This story includes:

“A judge”– Luke 18:2

The word for “judge” here refers to a magistrate or ruler who presides over the affairs of government.

And “a widow” – Luke 18:3 

Widows in 1st Century, patriarchal cultures lived in an oppressed social context.

Another clue:

The judge, “neither feared God nor had respect for people.”—Luke 18:2, emphasis added.

This widow was pleading for equity, what today could be called social justice, and justice came after her prolonged effort to make the judge uncomfortable. She cried day and night (Luke 18:7). For Luke’s audience, that phrase would have evoked Israel’s slavery in Egypt, when they too “groaned under their slavery, and cried out day and night” (cf. Exodus 2:23). In the Exodus narrative, God says to Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters” (Exodus 3:7, emphasis added).

These are not prayers by those in privileged social locations. They aren’t prayers to get a promotion in an already high-paying job or an “A” at an ivy league school, or to stop your favorite sitcom getting canceled this season. These are prayers from those who cry out to a God who is an Advocate in solidarity with oppressed people. These are cries for an end to oppression, violence, and injustice, cries from those who face marginalization, mistreatment, mischaracterization, whose plight is easily ignored by those seemingly unaffected by the injustice this group faces. 

This is not a “pray only” parable, however. The widow not only prays to her God but she also stands up to the judge, the implied source of the injustice she is enduring. Jesus is saying to oppressed people, “Keep pushing for justice. If change is to come, this is the only way change will come!” Oppressors don’t let go of their power and privilege to harm others on their own.

Injustice, oppression, and violence are a violation of Jesus’ just future. So in this story from Jesus, we see an Advocate God alongside those engaged in a formidable struggle against all oppression, injustice, and violence. From the lowly manger, all the way through Luke’s gospel to the resurrection of Jesus from an unjust Roman crucifixion at the hands of the elites, Jesus’ God is standing with those who daily have their backs against the wall, or as Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglass is fond of saying, have no wall to even place their backs upon. 

Remember, the good news in both Luke and Acts is not that Jesus had been crucified but that his crucifixion had been undone and reversed. Crucifixion often happened to those who stood up to Roman oppression, those deemed a threat to the status quo that politically and economically privileged some at the expense of the many. In the gospel stories, Jesus lives, dies, and is resurrected in solidarity with those daily crying out for justice, equity, inclusion, and mercy rather than sacrifice. His was the community of those who held tightly to the hope of the prophets that one day all injustice, oppression, and violence would be put right. Their hope wasn’t about getting to heaven after they died. Their hope was focused on turning this world right-side up once again, and the actions of the widow in our story is best understood in that context.

Luke adds Jesus’ comments to the story to portray a God standing in solidarity with the oppressed rather than with those socially, politically, economically, and religiously in power over others. This story gives hope to those whose trust that God is standing with those who face injustice at the hands of those in power and those who benefit from the way things are now. 

The story of this widow reminds me of a statement by Sam Wells in the introduction to Ched Myers’ Binding the strong man: A political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus:

“The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that there’s plenty wrong with the world. There are only two responses to this—either go and put it right yourself or, if you can’t, make life pretty uncomfortable for those who can until they do. When we take stock of our relationship with the powerful, we ask ourselves, ‘Does the shape of my life reflect my longing to see God set people free, and do I challenge those who keep others in slavery?”

That’s what this widow did. She made the life of the magistrate uncomfortable until he did something. We are called to do the same in relation to our legislators today. When was the last time you contacted your representative to share how you feel about society? When was the last time you were a holy gadfly? After all, power concedes nothing without demand:

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” (Frederick Douglass; If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress, 1857)

As Jesus followers, we are called to be like the widow: crying out day and night to both our God and those in power in our government. We are called to be people of the life-giving, death overturning resurrection; called to be part of undoing and reversing the personal and systemic injustice of our communities, today. 

Some will say that the story of the widow is only about prayer, that it has an otherworldly point and application only. This is a convenient interpretation for the judges in our day who hold the power to shape our societies into safe communities for the marginalized and disenfranchised but instead interpret laws in ways that do harm. I think of all those who are presently worried whether by this time next year whether they will still have healthcare. I think of women and their doctors wondering whether they will have a choice in how to treat their own bodies or manage their patients’ care. I think of my LGBTQ married friends and whether their government will still recognize their marriages with equal validity to mine. 

That’s why I don’t interpret this story to be solely about prayer. That would leave injustice untouched in our present world, and leave those who face oppression daily dangerously close to passivity. This widow not only cried out to her God day and night, but she also made life for the judge whose power she lived under, pretty annoying, too. 

Change doesn’t happen without action and action is how positive changes are maintained, as well. May the actions we choose today not require others to reverse them in the future. But if the positive changes of the last four decades are undone, if progress is reversed, we’ll be there for that, too. We have no control over what struggles we will be called to face in our lifetime. We only have the choice of how we will respond and what we will choose to do in the limited time that each of us is given here.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Take some time to take stock of your relationship with those in positions of power. Discuss with your group how you may individually and collectively push, like the widow in this week’s story, for justice in our society.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone? 

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Social Location of Your Christianity Matters

2020 has been a challenging year for many nonprofits. RHM is no exception. We need your support to impact lives and bring the faith-based, societal-justice focused resources and analysis RHM provides.

Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed right now more than ever.

If you have been blessed by the work of RHM, please consider making a tax-deductible donation, today.


The Social Location of Your Christianity Matters

cross on church

Herb Montgomery | October 23, 2020

—”This devolution of the Jesus of the story justifies why many today are repulsed or revolted when anything Christian is brought up or the name Jesus is evoked. But in the story, it was the elite and privileged who felt this disgust and loathing. Today, it’s those on the margins of society, those who have also been hurt by Christianity or disenfranchised and harmed by Christians . . . Their intense dislike of all things Christian simply expresses a much deeper internal revolt against injustice and the religion of those who perpetuate it.”

My heart is heavy this week as I listen to some of the other Christian voices here in Appalachia. I wonder sometimes if we are reading the same Jesus story, and I know that we are, at minimum, interpreting the story differently.

I read the Jesus story as a story of Jesus being a conduit of hope for the disenfranchised and oppressed in the gospels. This Jesus’ teachings and actions threatened the privileged and therefore had to be stopped. The Jesus story doesn’t center on a cross. It focuses on the life that overcame a cross; life-giving that reversed and ultimately triumphed over the crushing death-dealing in the story.

The resurrection event in the Jesus story is the Divine response to Jesus’ unjust crucifixion on a Roman cross and a system of injustice that culminated in such acts against those deemed social or political threats. The resurrection event speaks of a Jesus in solidarity with oppressed people rather than with the oppression and oppressors who benefit from oppressing.

As western Christianity’s social location changed over the centuries, many of these themes in the Jesus story became ignored or reinterpreted. Under the Roman emperor, the same empire that had crucified Jesus also changed the church’s social focus and understanding of the “gospel.” The stories about Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) have political implications and those implications became problematic as Christianity transitioned from a community of the oppressed, as James Cone used to say, to a community of oppressors. Seemingly overnight, the Jesus of the gospels became the Jesus of the oppressors. This devolution of the Jesus of the story justifies why many today are repulsed or revolted when anything Christian is brought up or the name Jesus is evoked. But in the story, it was the elite and privileged who felt this disgust and loathing. Today, it’s those on the margins of society, those who have also been hurt by Christianity or disenfranchised and harmed by Christians. The Hebrew narrative of a God who stands in solidarity with those who suffer at the hands of others was so strong in the Jesus stories and has been subverted.

Today, many of my non-religious friends who oppose Christianity are rooted in a deep concern about matters of justice. Their intense dislike of all things Christian simply expresses a much deeper internal revolt against injustice and the religion of those who perpetuate it. I acknowledge this. I also recognize that the European-American Jesus who stands with the superpowers of this planet does not exist in the biblical stories or in life. The Jesus we find in the Jesus of the stories was radically inclusive, seeking to mitigate the harm being perpetuated toward the vulnerable and excluded in his society. He stood in solidarity with those on the bottom of our systems of oppression, flipping tables and challenging systemic and economic injustice with those for whom injustice meant an early death.

This leads me to the inescapable conclusion that the “Christian” god of the conquering West is not the God we find in the Jesus story. The god that many of us white Christians have worshipped all our lives doesn’t exist. The God of the Jesus story stood in solidarity with the Abels, not the Cains, and with the Hebrews, Jews, and the 1st Century followers of Jesus persecuted by systems they lived under.

Today this must call us to re-evaluate our standing in relation to the lives of Indigenous Americans, Black and Brown people, Women, poor people, queer people, and anyone whom our society relates to as “less than.” I believe the gospel stories about Jesus can still speak to these communities of how another world is possible, here, now: a world where the first are last and the last are first. It’s not a world that makes room at the top of a pyramid of oppression for people who were once oppressed themselves. It’s not a world where the oppressed become the new and inevitable oppressors, as Saul Alinsky imagined they would. The world of the gospels is a world where the relationships of oppressor and oppressed are no more. We’ll have outgrown survival instincts that may have once kept us alive but are now impeding our survival as a human community.

The themes of the gospel of Jesus are a universal love and care about the injustice that beloveds are facing today. This kind of gospel is not about post-mortem bliss but about a world, in this time, that we can shape into a just, safe, compassionate home for everyone. It’s not a gospel of mercy, grace, and forgiveness that releases us from a Divine, punitive retribution, but of a mercy, grace, and forgiveness of debt that gives birth to distributive, restorative, transformative, and reparative justice. Death is overcome by life and not avoided with greater death-dealing. We choose the path of life-giving politics for our societies, and guilt gives way to reparations and reparations, to reconciliation. It’s a world where we reap what we sow and what we’ve sown is compassion, love, justice, and inclusion. This is a world that is a “blessing” to those the present arrangement oppresses, and it will be a “blessing” to those who stand in solidarity with and give a voice to those who have been oppressed (cf. Matthew 5-10, and Luke 6). Lastly, this is a world where the means we have used to build are the “oak within the acorn.” They have shaped the kind of world we have ended up in the end: the means determined our end.

This week I’m challenged once again to believe this kind of world is actually possible. What hurts my heart as someone raised within Christianity is to see how many, many Christians are allowing themselves to be misinformed enough to oppose the world found in the oldest interpretations of the Jesus story. This month, the recommended book at Renewed Heart Ministries is Miguel A. De La Torre’s Burying White Privilege: Resurrecting a Badass Christianity. While I read this short, timely, and poignant book, I was struck by a statement that captures the kind of opposition I’m referring to:

“While justifying their choice with pro-life rhetoric, [pro-life Christians] bloody their hands through their allegiance to death-dealing policies that disproportionately impact the poor, the undocumented, and the queer. Pro-life Christians in the United States who today want to build walls to drive brown bodies into the desert to die are the ideological descendants of pro-life Pilgrims and slave masters whose invasion, genocide, enslavement, and rape epitomize the legacy of white Christianity.” (Kindle location 239)

Every day we have the opportunity to choose what kind of world we want to live in. When we make these choices collectively, our choices create change. None of us can change the world all by ourselves, but together we can accomplish great and beautiful things.

In the US, we have an opportunity in just a couple of weeks to work toward change collectively. I cannot tell you who to vote for. What I can do is encourage you not to hold illusions about what the act of voting is in this county. I can encourage you not to try voting for a candidate and think they will heal all of our country’s ills without failure. There are no heroes. In the words of Alice Walker, we are the ones we have been waiting for. Whoever wins, we will have to hold them accountable. We don’t vote for ideal candidates, then. Instead, this year, vote for those you believe will cause the least amount of harm, misery, and oppression for the world’s marginalized, disenfranchised and underprivileged. Vote to mitigate harm while we continue to work every day toward a world where the vulnerable are no longer harmed.

To paraphrase what Vincent Harding used to say, we are citizens of a country that doesn’t exist yet. But I believe we can take steps that move us closer to the realization of our highest values and ideals.

Another world is possible.

Over the next few weeks, let’s move closer to it.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What are some practices in other countries, that you see support for in the Jesus story, that you wish we also practiced here in the United States? Share with your group, along with how you see the Jesus story supporting these practices.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

A Cautionary Tale for Society

Herb Montgomery | October 16, 2020


“Seeing the man set free from his internalized oppression, the society around him refuses to get free of the same ‘demons.’ . . . When people get free of collective violence toward a marginalized sector of our society, (whether in themselves toward themselves, or within themselves toward others) they are following the social truth within this gospel story.”


In Mark’s gospel we read a story that many people find difficult:

“[Jesus and his disciples] went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills, he would cry out and cut himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of Him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” (Mark 5:1-9)

The original audience of Mark’s gospel would have recognized the symbols and codes in this story. We are removed by time and context, and so it’s harder to follow.

I believe this story is a symbolic portrait of Roman imperialism. Ched Myers notes in his commentary on Mark’s gospel that this story is a story of “symbolic confrontation” and has specific political meaning. The name of the man, Legion, was the name of a division of Roman soldiers.

“The conclusion is irresistible that we are here encountering imagery meant to call to mind the Roman military occupation of Palestine,” Myers writes in Binding the Strong Man (p. 191). This occupation was destroying the spirit, independence, and will of the people Rome colonized, and this story depicts what we refer to today as a person’s internalized oppression.

As soon as Jesus arrives in this story, he is met with immediate resistance. This ancient exorcism story is full of symbolic action: oppression by foreign rule appears as occupation by a foreign “spirit.” The man Jesus meets, whom no one could bind, cut himself with stones. Self-cutting in this context is a form of auto-lapidation. Lapidating is the act of pelting or killing someone with stones until they die, and the gospels typically attribute this activity to a crowd stoning someone (Matthew 21:35; 23:37; Luke 20:6; John 8:7, 59, 10:31–33, 1:8) Why would this man do this to himself?

In the gospels, it is always the many, the majority, the privileged crowd that engages in this form of capital punishment, but this man has internalized this kind of violence toward himself. So this is a story where societal oppression leads someone to believe their oppressors’ valuation of themselves, and that leads to self-hatred and self-destruction.

Social violence becomes collective as members choose someone they can come together against. They find unity in agreeing on who they are against. Victims of this violence can adopt their society’s estimation of themselves. In our context this can take many forms:

Non-White people internalize White supremacy to survive,

Women internalize the patriarchy, going along to get along,

The poor and/or working-class people champion the cause of exploitative capitalists,

LGBTQ people internalize the repulsion and bigotry of cis-heterosexist, heteronormative society.

Jesus arrives in the story as someone outside of this man’s community coming to set him free from his own self-hatred.

The story doesn’t end with this man’s isolated experience, though.

“[Legion] begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, ‘Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.’ He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.” (Mark 5:10-17; Emphasis added)

In this Hellenized, mostly Greek region (Gentile with very few Jews), pigs were a farming commodity. Here the author zooms in to focus on the economic dimension of Jesus’ politics. If the larger community embraces this man’s liberation from internalized oppression, what will this mean for them? If they honestly estimate the Roman occupation, that will change everything, including their economic structure. Economic change is emotionally unsettling even when it’s more distributively just: it’s challenging what some people need for survival on one hand, and what others have hoarded for security and anxiety management on the other hand.

Jesus began by restoring the man, but the story quickly redirects us to the man’s surrounding society. His liberation of the man from internalized oppression threatens the unity and peace that the privileged of society had found in Roman occupation. Jesus turns their way of life, their stability, on its head and forces them to see the man as a fellow human being, like themselves. Jesus un-objectifies the man, de-dehumanizes him, un-degrades him. Jesus lifts this man up and returns him to a place of belonging in the humanity in the sight of a society that had found unity and coherence by purging him to the tombs. Jesus challenges the entire arrangement of this society.

The story doesn’t end well. The people choose economic and political security over the liberation Jesus pointed to. They cry, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds us.” Jesus and his liberation is not welcome with them.

Just this week I had a discussion with a neighbor of mine who was expressing their views about the upcoming election. He admitted that the present administration had economically benefited him and his business. At last, though, he said that even that economic benefit was not enough for him. He felt he also had to consider the thousands upon thousands whom the administration had harmed. He was choosing harm-mitigation and planned to vote for change come November. My neighbor made the opposite decision to the privileged in Mark’s story.

Seeing the man set free from his internalized oppression, the society around him refuses to get free of the same “demons.” Until then, this man had become infected with the bigotry of his own society toward himself.  He had allowed how his society defined him to become the way he defined himself as well. When people get free of collective violence toward a marginalized sector of our society, (whether in themselves toward themselves, or within themselves toward others) they are following the social truth within this gospel story.

This is my story, too. I am a member of the kind of scapegoating society this man lived in. But I have also seen the humanity of the ones I once marginalized, and it has turned my world upside down. I wish I could claim some credit for this transformation, but I did not go looking for it. Once it was laid at my doorstep, though, I did have to make a choice.

Today, I simply want to bring others with me. Has it brought me some economic uncertainty? You bet. The ministry I direct has gone through huge economic shifts as our support base has changed. I hope it will continue to recover. Too often, economic reasons drive us to reject positive changes and this story is a cautionary tale for just such moments.

What would happen if we saw those people we have placed on society’s altars as having just as much value, worth, and right to be included as we have? Though we are living with a very different worldview today than those for whom this story was written, our society, political, economic, and even religious bigotries are no different than those in this gospel story.

This story calls us today to once again see those whom we have labeled as different or other as human, bearing the image of the Divine just as we do. Jesus calls us to embrace the reality that they are our siblings, we are part of the same human family, and they deserve a place at the table, too.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Share an experience with your group of how you broke free from your own internalized dehumanization from how other’s viewed you, or where you chose to reject your own dehumanization of others.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week