The one not with me is against me, and the one not gathering with me scatters. (Q 11:23)
Matthew 12.30: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
Luke 11.23: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
To begin this week, I have three words for us to keep in mind as we consider this week’s saying:
Anyone taking this passage out of its context in Q, Matthew and Luke, and applying it to just any cause or work that they may be involved with is overreaching and assuming too much of themselves, their work, and the actions and attitudes of others. We must also add to our discussion this week what this saying might mean for a non-Christian humanist to hear Jesus (and the Christians who speak for him now) say “You’re either with me or against me.” I think it is a mistake for Christians today to characterize non-Christians as necessarily being “against Jesus” just because they may disagree on the subjects of cosmology, ontology, religion, and practice. This may sound out of step with what has been typical of Christians throughout history. But I don’t believe one has to embrace a 1st Century worldview, as Jesus had, to find much in Jesus’ teachings from his own time and place that can inform our work in our own contexts today. Christians and non-Christians alike are working toward humanity’s survival, holistic ways of resisting oppression, liberation of those who are being subjugated and marginalized, concrete, material restoration of and reparation toward peoples who have systemically had everything taken from them, and the transformation of our world into a safer, just, and more compassionate world for us. (For a history of how secularists and certain tolerant “believers” have worked together in pioneering societal reforms in America’s past see Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.) A person may find their own goals and even their methods have much in common with the Jewish Jesus of long ago, and yet they may not answer the larger more philosophical and religious questions the way many Christians around them do today. I think it would be very sad for Christians and non-Christians both to hear this week’s saying in an excluding, religious context rather than a societally transformative, liberating one.
Is there a context in which the above statement could be a true statement?
I want to offer just such an example. On April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned the now famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. This letter was written after King had been jailed in response to the Birmingham campaign which had begun on April 3, 1963. The Birmingham campaign was a series of marches and sit-ins Birmingham, Alabama. On April 10 a Circuit Judge in Birmingham (Jenkins) ordered all “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing” to be illegal. In the spirit of nonviolent noncooperation and resistance King and the other leaders of the campaign refused to obey. King was arrested along with Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth on April 12.
In Rieder’s Gospel of Freedom, in the chapter titled Meet Me in Galilee Rieder states, ”King was placed alone in a dark cell, with no mattress, and denied a phone call. Was Connor’s aim, as some thought, to break him?” Also on April 12, “A Call for Unity” was published in a local newspaper by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods. The Letter from Birmingham Jail is King’s response.
While the whole letter is very much worth your contemplation, there is a section that is applicable to this week’s saying:
“I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
In this context, it would be perfectly appropriate for King to say, “the one who is not with me is against me.”
Remember, in the context of our saying this week, Jesus is being accused of being evil while all along he is actually engaged in the work of liberation for the oppressed. (See Luke 4.18-19.) He has just been accused of being a conduit of Beelzubul. His work of ending the suffering for so many is being labelled as dangerous and of “the satan” in an effort to prevent their position of power and privilege within their society from being threatened. This would have been a perfectly appropriate context for a first century Jewish liberation rabbi of the people to make the above statement.
Today, I hear comments such as, “I simply want to stay neutral. I don’t want to take sides.” And certainly there are cases where that would be acceptable. But in the case of oppression, where the status quo empowers injustice, neutrality IS taking a side. It’s taking the side of oppression. Robert McAfee Brown, in his book Unexpected News : Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, quotes Desmond Tutu as saying, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” (p.19) Tutu’s statement reminds me of the title of Howard Zinn’s 2002 book You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times. We fail to realize that neutrality is an illusion when one is already complicit and benefiting from systems of injustice. Jesus, in this week’s saying, is forcing those in possessions of power and privilege to actively pick a side. The deception that one can just stay neutral in matters of injustice is a lie.
Matthew, Luke and Q
In all three texts (Matthew, Luke and the derived text of Q) this statement comes in the context Jesus efforts toward the liberation of the oppressed within his society and the religious leaders of his day claiming that he was actually an agency of evil. As I wrote two weeks ago, it is one thing to be deceived and mistake something evil to be something good. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many. From a desire to preserve the status quo, this same dynamic has been repeated over and over again, especially within the history of very vocal sectors of Christianity here in America
I want to emphasize that this is only within sectors of Christianity. Those Christians who are typically in position of societal power and privilege are the ones we see this dynamic repeated in. An example is in the white Bible belt of the South. White Christianity fought hard against the civil rights movement. Christian schools begin, their history is rooted in, an attempt at beginning an alternative education choice to avoid having to embrace integration. The history of Christian education in the south is deeply mired in attempts by White Christians to not have to have their white children going to school alongside of black children. The Black Christian tradition on the other hand was on the receiving end of this bigotry. So I want to be careful to state, typically in prominent sectors of Christianity specifically sectors where we find those who are in positions of power and benefit, it is these sectors that we have witnessed this dynamic most often.
Whether it be:
- White Christians resisting social change for black lives,
- Male Christians, both black and white, resisting social change for women,
- White Female Christians resisting change for black men and women,
- Upper class Christians resisting change of the lower economic classes,
- Or Straight, Cisgender Christians resisting change for those whose sexuality is fluid and who identify as being gender nonconforming.
This history has been repeated over and over again.
Over the past few months, I again have been overwhelmed with White Christian critiques of Colin Kaepernick’s justified protest. I was aghast at the white voices which have spoken out against him. I have also been amazed by the white voices which may not have been speaking out against Kaepernick, but have remained silent nonetheless in the wake of police brutality, the two recent occurrences that are in my mind as I write this are the killings of Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher. This silence is compounded by that fact that these same white voices finally did speak out. They finally chose to put their voices to something that did concern them deeply. They chose to voice their disapproval of the property being damaged in protests such as in Charlotte, NC. Where are the voices of white Christians to speak out against the futility many lives face as a result of the way we are presently structuring and policing our society? We desire to follow a Jesus who placed people above property, yet our silence regarding the destruction of black lives, broken only when property is destroyed betrays a priority of concern regarding property over a concern regarding people that would have been wholly unrecognizable by the Jesus we desire to follow.
Another example in the sectors of Christianity I typically find myself surrounded by (I’m a white, straight, cisgender male), I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve been told about the evils of the U.S. Supreme Court finally recognizing the validity of same sex marriages. I will admit that these statements are usually made to me by Christians who don’t know me or aren’t familiar with my journey over the past four years. What is also standard is that these comments are typically made within the context of gross ignorance of the actual injustice and suffering this recognition seeks to bring to an end for so so many. They come from a demographic, for me, from folks who don’t have a sweet clue what it’s like to live on this planet as anyone other than a person just like themselves. They haven’t stopped to listen to what its like to experience life for those they have in their hearts, minds, speech and actions, othered. This is why, typically, among Christians, the ones who have a change of perspective are the very ones who have a close friend or family member who musters up the courage within that environment to “come out.”
Again, it is one thing to be deceived and mistake something that is actually evil to be something good. We’ve all made that mistake. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, and accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many.
It is in contexts such as these that even moderate neutrality is opposition. It is in contexts such as these that one’s silence is complicity. It is in contexts such as these that calls for nonviolence are themselves violent. It is in contexts such as these that calls for unity are simply veiled attempts at maintaining a status quo.
It is in contexts like these that one could justly and rightly say:
The one not with me is against me, and the one not gathering with me scatters. (Q 11:23)
This week I want you to:
2. What lessons can you learn from contrasting and comparing these two letters about how societal justice is accomplished in our communities and the characteristics as well as the rhetoric of the pushback these efforts are met with. List at least three.
3. What are the parallels between A Call for Unity and much of the critiques and pushback we are witnessing in our time today in response to movements, of varied types and concerns, that are engaged in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration and transformation interdependently working toward a making our world a safer, just, compassionate home for us all.
I remember the first time I read “A Call for Unity.” It taught me how to recognized when these tactics repeatedly show up again. For some of you, like me, this will be review. But for others, you are about to experience a paradigm shift. I’m so excited for you.
Thank you, again, for checking in with us this week. Wherever you find yourself right now, choose a life of love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.
I love each of you dearly.
I’ll see you next week.