Three Paths Toward Change Rejected

Herb Montgomery | July 31, 2020

diverging paths


“And in each of these versions of the story, Jesus announces the arrival of God’s just future (‘the kingdom’) but rejects three methods for bringing justice to fruition. We’ll look at each of them.”


The beginning of Mark’s gospel reads:

“At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” (Mark 1:12)

The story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is believed to have been a part of the earliest Jesus tradition. In each of the next two synoptic gospels written, the story is given more detail.

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’ Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down. For it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is also written: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”’ Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.” (Matthew 4:1-11)

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”’ Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’ Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:1-13)

Jesus rejected the Satan three times. And in each of these versions of the story, Jesus announces the arrival of God’s just future (“the kingdom”) but rejects three methods for bringing justice to fruition. We’ll look at each of them.

Bread

Jesus chose not to justify a system simply because it offered bread. Rome promised sustenance to its inhabitants but at what cost?

In our time, Duke Energy recently abandon its Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, citing costs due to activist obstruction. Some people with power pushed back against this monumental decision by pointing to the jobs that would now be lost. Such people believe placing profit above the planet was justified because, despite the ecological damage, the pipeline produced jobs for the working class and profit to company owners: it produced bread.

Exploitative economic systems create scarcity to create a narrative needed for their survival. The scarcity of things we need produces undercurrents of survival anxiety for us. Our desire for security and assurance that our needs will be met (“bread”) drives us to support systems that promise to fulfill those needs regardless of how people and our planet suffer as a result. And, without fail, those who are most driven by this economic anxiety protect and defend these systems at all costs. This is the essence of exploitative economies, and it comes with a long list of victims upon whom we lay the costs of our hopes that these systems will give us the bread we need.

Jesus’ first temptation was to coerce nature, to “turn stones into bread.” Think of Monsanto, or the meat and dairy industry here in the United States, which has deemed essential workers expendable during this pandemic. Henry Kissinger once said, “Those who control the food supply control the people.” Now and in the times of Jesus, the way to establish an exploitative system economically was to control what supplies people’s “bread” needs. Jesus rejects the use of such methods in establishing God’s just future, quoting from Deuteronomy:

“He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Jesus saw what the temptation really was. He refused to prioritize profit or “bread” over justice, and instead chose the ancient Hebrew narrative of manna: needs will be supplied not by accumulation and exploitation but daily, as needed. There will be more manna tomorrow.

Jesus rejected a narrative of scarcity, anxiety, accumulation, and exploitation for a narrative of trust, gratitude, sharing, and generosity. As Gandhi said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every person’s needs, but not every person’s greed.”

The accumulation of bread is not the highest value of God’s just future. God values how that bread is produced and what its production violates or affirms. Our hope is “not by bread alone.”

Self-Sacrifice

In both Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the story, Jesus is also tempted to sacrifice himself while assuming that he would be spared death. His response is to not “put God to the test.” On the temple mount the devil told him to leap from was the symbol at the core of his society’s political, economic, and religious systems. His temptation was to sacrifice himself in front of this system with the promise that in the end, God’s just future would come through his sacrifice.

This temptation strikes at the heart of the method most pushed on masses who desire social change. I don’t believe the oppressed must sacrifice themselves to achieve social change, but. The sacrifice of innocent victims for achieving social change has a long history.

Speaking of how the idea of sacrifice has impacted women in Christianity, Elizabeth Bettenhausen writes:

“Christian theology has long imposed upon women a norm of imitative self-sacrifice based on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Powerlessness is equated with faithfulness. When the cross is also interpreted as the salvific work of an all-powerful paternal deity, women’s well being is as secure as that of a child cowering before an abusive father.” (Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, p. xii; edited by Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

In Brown and Parker’s essay in the same volume, “For God So Loved the World?” they write:

“Women are acculturated to accept abuse. We come to believe that it is our place to suffer . . . Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 1-2)

Mary Daly makes a similar comment:
“The qualities that Christianity idealizes, especially for women, are also those of a victim: sacrificial love, passive acceptance of suffering, humility, meekness, etc. Since these are the qualities idealized in Jesus ‘who died for our sins,’ his functioning as a model reinforces the scapegoat syndrome for women.” (Beyond God the Father, p. 77)

Again, Brown and Parker:
“The problem with this theology is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoers ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 20.)

Brown and Parker also critique nonviolent movements that use self-sacrifice to drive change. They use some of the methods used by Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example. King saw suffering as:

“‘a most creative and powerful social force’ . . . The non-violent say that suffering becomes a powerful social force when you willingly accept that violence on yourself, so that self-suffering stands at the center of the non-violent movement and the individuals involved are able to suffer in a creative manner, feeling that unearned suffering is redemptive, and that suffering may serve to transform the social situation.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 20)

Finally, Delores Williams’ classic book Sisters in the Wilderness builds on this critique with applications specifically for Black women. These insights have been powerfully transformative for me personally. I want to share them with you here:

“Matthew, Mark and Luke suggest that Jesus did not come to redeem humans by showing them God’s ‘love” manifested in the death of God’s innocent child on a cross erected by cruel, imperialistic, patriarchal power. Rather, the texts suggest that the spirit of God in Jesus came to show humans life— to show redemption through a perfect ministerial vision of righting relations between body (individual and community), mind (of humans and of tradition) and spirit. A female-male inclusive vision, Jesus’ ministry of righting relationships involved raising the dead (those separated from life and community), casting out demons (for example, ridding the mind of destructive forces prohibiting the flourishing of positive, peaceful life) and proclaiming the word of life that demanded the transformation of tradition so that life could be lived more abundantly . . . God’s gift to humans, through Jesus, was to invite them to participate in this ministerial vision (“ whosoever will, let them come”) of righting relations. The response to this invitation by human principalities and powers was the horrible deed the cross represents— the evil of humankind trying to kill the ministerial vision of life in relation that Jesus brought to humanity. The resurrection does not depend upon the cross for life, for the cross only represents historical evil trying to defeat good. The resurrection of Jesus and the flourishing of God’s spirit in the world as the result of resurrection represent the life of the ministerial vision gaining victory over the evil attempt to kill it. Thus, to respond meaningfully to black women’s historic experience of surrogacy oppression, the womanist theologian must show that redemption of humans can have nothing to do with any kind of surrogate or substitute role Jesus was reputed to have played in a bloody act that supposedly gained victory over sin and/ or evil.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 130)

“Black women are intelligent people living in a technological world where nuclear bombs, defilement of the earth, racism, sexism, dope and economic injustices attest to the presence and power of evil in the world. Perhaps not many people today can believe that evil and sin were overcome by Jesus’ death on the cross; that is, that Jesus took human sin upon himself and therefore saved humankind. Rather, it seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, pp. 130-131)

“The resurrection of Jesus and the kingdom of God theme in Jesus’ ministerial vision provide black women with the knowledge that God has, through Jesus, shown humankind how to live peacefully, productively and abundantly in relationship.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 132)

“Humankind is, then, redeemed through Jesus’ ministerial vision of life and not through his death. There is nothing divine in the blood of the cross. God does not intend black women’s surrogacy experience. Neither can Christian faith affirm such an idea. Jesus did not come to be a surrogate. Jesus came for life, to show humans a perfect vision of ministerial relation that humans had very little knowledge of. As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred. To do so is to glorify the sin of defilement. (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 132)

Again, Brown and Parker:

“Suffering is never redemptive, and suffering cannot be redeemed. The cross is a sign of tragedy. God’s grief is revealed there and everywhere and every time life is thwarted by violence. God’s grief is as ultimate as God’s love. Every tragedy eternally remains and is eternally mourned. Eternally the murdered scream, Betrayal. Eternally God sings kaddish for the world. To be a Christian means keeping: faith with those who have heard and lived God’s call for justice, radical love, and liberation; who have challenged unjust systems both political and ecclesiastical; and who in that struggle have refused to be victims and have refused to cower under the threat of violence, suffering, and death. Fullness of life is attained in moments of decision for such faithfulness and integrity. When the threat of death is refused and the choice is made for justice, radical love, and liberation, the power of death is overthrown. Resurrection is radical courage. Resurrection means that death is overcome in those precise instances when human beings choose life, refusing the threat of death. Jesus climbed out of the grave in the Garden of Gethsemane when he refused to abandon his commitment to the truth even though his enemies threatened him with death. On Good Friday, the Resurrected One was Crucified.” (“For God So Loved the World?”)

“It is not the acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.18,)

“Such a theology has devastating effects on human life. The reality is that victimization never leads to triumph. It can lead to extended pain if it is not refused or fought. It can lead to destruction of the human spirit through the death of a person’s sense of power, worth, dignity. or creativity. It can lead to actual death.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse)

Jesus did not choose the way of sacrifice. He rejected the way of sacrifice and, instead, “chose to live a life in opposition to unjust, oppressive cultures…. Jesus chose integrity and faithfulness, refusing to change course because of threat.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse)

These insights have grave implications for how some sectors of Christianity have traditionally interpreted the death and resurrection of Jesus. (For more on these implications see my presentation Nonviolence and the Cross)

As Katie Cannon sternly admonishes us, “Theologians need to think seriously about the real-life consequences of redemptive suffering, God-talk that equates the acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse as the way for true believers to live as authentic Christian disciples. Those who spew such false teaching and warped preaching must cease and desist.”

And there is a third path the Jesus of the story rejected, too.

Complicity

Lastly, in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus was tempted to arrive at God’s just future through being complicit with exploitative and oppressive systems. But he resisted that temptation of achieving God’s just future by “bowing down.” He instead worshiped God and God’s just future only. God’s just future cannot be achieved through compromise with exploitation, oppression, and exclusion.

Christianity has a long history with being complicit in systems that oppress, and some adherents still use it to promote White supremacy, neocolonialism, and capitalism today.

Much more needs to be said about this.

I’m reminded of the words that the late Peter Gomes wrote in The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus. When Jesus’ followers choose complicity, he explains, “The church, then, is made an agency of continuity rather than of change, conformity rather than transformation becomes the reigning ideology of the day, and the church that is comfortable with the powers-that-be is no threat to them.”

These early Jesus story narratives give us much to think about as we, too, continue the work of moving toward a more just future today.

Another world is possible. We must reject some common means to get 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. 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. Have you experienced any of the three methods mentioned this week used by sectors of the Christian church? What are some examples? Have you witnessed secular social justice movements or organizations promote any of the above methods? Discuss with your group.

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