Herb Montgomery | August 28, 2020
“No matter how small or how disconnected it may feel to you, no matter how tempted you may be to categorize your present efforts to move this world toward justice, mercy, and peace as futile, our voices, our work, our effort, our love, and solidarity are not in vain. We are building on the changes brought about by those who came before us. Will those who come after us be able to build on our work? “
In Matthew’s gospel we read:
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)
Matthew’s sermon on the mount calls the meek to imagine a world where they inherit the earth. It doesn’t assure them that they will go to heaven when they die. Nowhere in the Jesus story does he ever share a sound-bite presentation of the “gospel” or try to get people to say a special prayer so they can go to heaven when they die. Even in the book of Acts, the message is never that fear of post-mortem hell is motivation to follow Jesus. The message is a hope of injustice, oppression, and violence being righted on this earth. Matthew’s readers are called to pray that God’s just community would come and that justice would be established “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
Jesus stood in the Hebrew prophetic justice tradition: that tradition and hope was grounded here on earth with those who “hungered and thirsted” for things to be put right (see Matthew 5:6). In the stories, we see a Jesus who made people whole so that they could then go and make the world they called home whole too. Jesus’ focus was creating a human community that practiced distributive justice, where together we have enough for each of us to thrive and live into our full humanity.
Far too often, certain sectors of Christianity have preached a gospel of escaping our world instead of embracing Jesus’ call to reshape the world around us. As Brock and Parker explain:
“Popular forms of Christianity that embrace redemptive violence and look to heaven in a world to come have become a major public and political voice for Christianity in recent decades. Reiterating Christian perspectives that echo imperial Christianity, they bless conquest and colonization, privilege those with wealth and status, sanction war against ‘evildoers,’ and exploit the environment. The paradise they offer is on the other side of the end of the world. Their apocalyptic expectations imagine that God’s plan is to destroy this earth and rapture an elect few into heaven.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 378)
By contrast, Jesus’ teachings pointed toward personal and systemic change now, and making our communities a safe and just home for everyone. Jesus called for distributively just changes in this life, and called his followers to share that focus. (See Mark 10:21; Matthew 19:21; Luke 11:42; Luke 12:33; Luke 18:22; Luke 19:8)
In Matthew, Jesus blesses those whom the present system makes poor, those oppressed by this present world. God’s just society on earth is especially for them. Those hungering because of how this world is structured would be filled and satisfied. Those the present system causes to mourn, grieve, or weep would break out in joy and laughter for the world being put right. And those who would join him in standing up against injustice, who would choose to be hated by those benefitting from the present arrangement, who would choose being excluded, lied about, and insulted by the privileged for speaking out—they would be called blessed (Matthew 5:3-12). Those benefitting from the current world at others’ expense would find Jesus’ changes harder to embrace (Luke 6:24-26). Those well fed in the present world would see Jesus’ teachings as a threat, not a blessing.
Today, not much about social injustice has changed from the injustices at work when the Jesus story was written. Today we are still called not be passive in regards to the injustice, oppression, and violence we see around us. In the words of Jon Sobrino, “The cross, for its part, tells of God’s affinity with victims” (Christ the Liberator: A View from the Victims, p. 88). We are called to this affinity as Jesus followers, too.
It is past time for western Christianity to let go of a primary focus on an age to come, and ask instead how Jesus’ teachings could save us from the evil present in this age. I’m reminded of the challenge Ida B. Wells made in Crusade for Justice:“Our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of White Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of Black ones from present burning in fires kindled by White Christians” (p. 154-155).
Will large sectors of Christians continue to miss the connection between the transformative, distributive, and restorative work we should be doing in our world today? Will we stop feeling as if any engagement with our social systems for justice, mercy, and peace in this world is others’ work but not ours?
No matter how small or how disconnected it may feel to you, no matter how tempted you may be to categorize your present efforts to move this world toward justice, mercy, and peace as futile, our voices, our work, our effort, our love and solidarity are not in vain. We are building on the changes brought about by those who came before us. Will those who come after us be able to build on our work? As Angela Davis reminds us, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” This doesn’t mean we should not also take time for self care. Self care is part of our work of transforming our world, too. I’m challenged by Davis’ words, especially because of my Christian background. I was raised with the futile belief that nothing I could do could make a difference. John Dominic Crossan challenges this mentality among Christians in his book Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer:
“You have been waiting for God, [Jesus] said, while God has been waiting for you. No wonder nothing is happening. You want God’s intervention, he said, while God wants your collaboration. God’s kingdom is here, but only insofar as you accept it, enter it, live it, and thereby establish it.” (The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, p. 27-28)
Of course we’ll get discouraged sometimes: Change doesn’t happen overnight and it never happens as quickly as we want. Change happens incrementally as we keep at it. I hope that one day I’ll be able to look back at each chapter of my life and the various justice efforts I’ve participated in and see that we’ve made a difference. Whenever I get discouraged, I remind myself of these words:
“People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.” (Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness, p. 11)
In the end, Jesus’ concern was not what we must do in order to secure heavenly bliss, but rather, what does the present state of our world here “on earth” require of us, how do we respond to the needs of those being harmed, and how can we participate with them in struggling for a more just world?
“The non-ethical practices and beliefs in historical Christianity nearly all center on the winning of heaven and immortality. On the other hand, the Kingdom of God can be established by nothing except righteous life and action.” (Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 15)
May our focus be that of Matthew’s Jesus: inheriting the earth and an earth that is worth inheriting. Each day, with the choices we make, we are shaping the kind of earth we want to be part of. May we be able to look back on each of our journeys and see an earth made more just than it would have been without us and our efforts.
Each of us, as Dorothy Day said, are like pebbles cast into a pond.
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. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?
1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
2. Discuss with your group movements in the past the enable us to further justice work, today. How can you imagine future generations being able to build on our work 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 all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.
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