Another World is Possible (Part 1)

by Herb Montgomery | June 28, 2018

“Tempted to succumb to the narrative of scarcity and competition against one another for the one loaf in the boat, they forgot the lesson in the feeding of the multitudes.  What little we have (even a few loaves and fish), when passed through distributive justice and shared with others, creates an entirely different order.”

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

In the gospel narrative, John the Baptist was arrested after being deemed a threat to Herod (see Mark 6:17-18). In Mark, his arrest marked the launch of Jesus’ itinerant teaching ministry. Jesus would also follow in John’s footsteps in becoming a threat to the status quo. Whereas John was arrested and beheaded, Jesus would be arrested, too, but his execution would also carry the extra political weight of crucifixion. 

Which elements of Jesus’ teaching were so threatening to the privileged and powerful? Let’s consider a story Jesus told in Matthew’s gospel:

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”” (Matthew 20:8-16)

This story captures one of the central values of Jesus teaching. Jesus’ solution to the problems of his own society was community, but not just any kind of community. His community put “first” those his society was placing last. It reversed the status quo. To put it in the language of liberation theology, Jesus vision for humanity was a community that practiced a preferential option for those typically made “last.”

As I’ve shared before, this is good news for those who are last. It’s threatening and problematic for those who are first, especially those who have worked their entire lives competing and scheming through the power struggles of society to achieve their position. To those people, Jesus’ idea of reshaping human society into a community where those presently privileged and powerful become equal to those who have been pushed to the undersides and/or margins of society is deeply threatening. It causes trouble. Egalitarianism is not a good thing to people who want to be privileged above or hold power over others. To these people in Jesus’ story, the message that the “last will be first, and the first last,” that they would all be paid the same wages and treated equally regardless of how long each had labored that day, left them incensed. I love how the employer in the story responded: “Are you envious that I am generous?”

Another key value in Jesus’ vision of community was generosity. Jesus’ community was rooted in a generous sharing with one another based on need, not necessarily how many hours each one worked. In the book of Acts, Jesus-followers shared as they were able and received as they had need. Their community didn’t rely on individualistic competition, but on mutual aid and commitment to take care of each other. The future had hope not because each had insulated themselves from other members of the human family, but because they had embraced their connectedness to one another. They leaned into their connectedness and loved others “as themselves” (see Matthew 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31-33; Luke 10:27).

Today, there is a strong current in U.S. society toward rugged individualism. Each person is expected to take care of themselves. There is a concerted effort afoot to diminish social aid, (already at a bare minimum compared with places in Europe), which in the end would leave the vulnerable at the mercy of charity, the wealthy, and powerful corporations. Some want to exploit those who are more vulnerable for the benefit of a few who have money and power. Instead, Jesus teaches us to be generous toward those the present system makes last.

In Luke’s version of the Jesus story, we find another element of Jesus’ teachings that can easily be understood to have threatened those in power in his society.

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

Start preaching that poverty is not the result of chance but the cause and effect result of whatever system is producing that poverty and see how quickly pushback ensues. Start advocating for a new system that eliminates poverty entirely (a recent example would be the Poor People’s Campaign) and see how quickly opposition mounts.

But the passage in Luke 4 doesn’t just mention good news for the poor. It also includes good news to prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind. What I believe Luke is referring to here is what many scholars of that time and culture call “prison blindness.” In that time, when someone was awaiting trial, they were simply thrown into a deep hole in the ground. It was so dark in that hole, the prisoner could not see their hand right in front of their face. So the recovery of sight to those with prison blindness simply meant release from incarceration. It was liberation. It was setting the prisoners free. 

Begin today advocating for the abolition of mass incarceration and watch the result. Advocate for the end of the “war on drugs” which was created with racist intent and watch who begins to feel threatened by it (Report: Aide says Nixon’s war on drugs targeted blacks, hippies). Two books that in my opinion are must-reads if you want to understand how deeply unjust the U.S. judicial and mass incarceration systems are are Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Kelly Brown Douglas’ Stand Your Ground.

Douglas’ book Stand Your Ground also sheds tremendous light on U.S. immigration policy and what we are watching right now on the U.S.’s borders. U.S. immigration policy has always been about maintaining a White-majority population in the United States, and still is.

The next element mentioned in Luke’s passage of Jesus’ gospel was liberation, the setting free, of the “oppressed.” Liberation and survival is at the heart of Jesus’ teachings. Repeatedly Jesus’ vision of resource sharing and taking care of each other allowed his followers to survive the present world and also work to create another one. It helped them hold on to hope and practice the belief that another world was possible. I believe the greatest contribution liberation theologies have made to our understanding of the gospel over the last 50 years is a return to the heart of Jesus’ gospel of liberation for the oppressed. With that heart, many Christians have been introduced to Jesus for the first time. 

Lastly, in Luke’s description of Jesus’ ministry, we read “and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This was the year when all debts were to be forgiven. It was to be the beginning of a kind of wealth redistribution: slaves freed, prisoners released, debts cancelled, and a reset back to level ground for all society. In the year of the Lord’s favor, the oppressed were freed from those in positions of power. 

This part of Luke’s passage always reminds me of the game of Monopoly. Most folks love the game of Monopoly on the opening rounds. But the last two rounds are awful for everyone except the person who owns all the property on the board and has created the “monopoly.” 

I have a friend who had to quit playing Monopoly because every time it would reach this point they would flip the board and send pieces and money all over the table. It reminds me of the story of how Jesus flipped the tables in the Temple, sending property and money over the courtyard. Capitalism has today reached the need for a reset as well. We can either choose it voluntarily or those who who have no other option will rise up and force the reset. Today 6 men own more than more than half of the entire global population. That is unsustainable as well as being distributively unjust. The God of the Jesus story, Jesus states, causes the sun to shine and rain to fall equitably on all (see Matthew 5:45).

If this discussion makes you defensive or apologetic, I’d ask you to consider these words in Mark’s gospel:

“The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. ‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’ They discussed this with one another and said, ‘It is because we have no bread.’ Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ ‘Twelve,; they replied. ‘And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ They answered, ‘Seven.’ He said to them, ‘Do you still not understand?’ (Mark 8:14-19)

According to the gospels, the Pharisees did not understand. As an aspiring economic and political class within Jesus society, rather than believing another world was possible and seeking to create it, the Pharisees simply sought greater power and privilege in the present one. (Listen to Fox Valley: Jesus From the Edges). The first Herod, too, had achieved great wealth and power by pushing himself to the very top of Jewish society. The Herod Jesus was referring to in this passage had done the same. 

What then is the “yeast” that Jesus told his disciples to avoid? I believe it represents the lure of the present order that benefits a few at the expense of the masses; the lure of believing you can achieve the status of the 1% by competing and don’t have to lean into Jesus’ vision of mutual care and responsibility, sustainability and cooperation with others. Jesus references the stories of multitudes being fed by sharing few resources among them. “There’s only one loaf in the boat and if I want any of it I’d better fight for it,” they each were tempted to think. Tempted to succumb to the narrative of scarcity and competition against one another for the one loaf in the boat, they forgot the lesson in the feeding of the multitudes.  What little we have (even a few loaves and fish), when passed through distributive justice and shared with others, creates an entirely different order. There is often fear that there is not enough to go around, that if we share rather than continue to compete, that we will go without. And that’s why Jesus asks, “how many basket fulls were left over each time?” The answer was enough for the crowd and for the disciples too. Jesus was offering a narrative of resource-sharing, generosity, distributive justice, peace-making, and gratitude in the face of the too-often-lived-by narratives of scarcity, competition, greed, monopoly, violence, and hoarding.

Jesus called for putting people first over profit, power, privilege, and property.

Another world is possible. 

Will we believe it?

Will we choose it?

This gospel still calls to us today.

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

HeartGroup Application

Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (The Power of the Poor in History, p. 45) 

1. What are some of the other ways Jesus teachings called for a “different social order” than what we have listed here in this week’s article? Make a list.

2.  Discuss your list with your HeartGroup along with the lists others have made. What are some of the ways you can practice some of the things on your list this week?

3. Now pick something on your list and, as a HeartGroup, do it together. 

Paulo Freire stated, “As the oppressor minority subordinates and dominates the majority, it must divide it and keep it divided in order to remain in power. The minority cannot permit itself the luxury of tolerating the unification of the people, which would undoubtedly signify a serious threat to their own hegemony. Accordingly, the oppressors halt by any method (including violence) any action which in even incipient fashion could awaken the oppressed to the need for unity. Concepts such as unity, organization, and struggle are immediately labeled as dangerous. In fact, of course, these concepts are dangerous— to the oppressors— for their realization is necessary to actions of liberation.” (Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition; p 141). 

There is power—people power—in combining our energies in working to make our world a safer, just, more compassionate home for us all. We saw this last week as a combined outcry challenged the U.S.’ policy of separating families entering its borders. This problem is not yet resolved. In fact, the “solution” still does inestimable harm. As people of faith and good will who seek the intersection of their faith and their work toward societal justice, this is a great petition to have your entire HeartGroup sign:

Petition: All Rights for All, Without Borders

“As scholars and teachers of religion, we rejoice that public pressure led to initial steps to end family separation. Yet, we remain deeply concerned with the Trump administration’s attempt to substitute mass detention of families as a ‘solution’ for family separation. These practices continue to be rooted in an inhumane policy of ‘zero tolerance’ that is morally, ethically, and spiritually reprehensible, and we exhort all people of faith, and all people of good will, to reject and resist this immoral approach.”

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly. 

I’ll see you next week with part 2.

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