Social Salvation

by Herb Montgomery | May 17, 2019

Photo by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash

“Here in the West we are shaped by a deeply individualistic culture, and some Christian communities rarely address Jesus’ social salvation, if ever. The form of Christianity that most people experience focuses heavily on a person’s individual (personal) salvation and leaves the idea of social salvation unspoken. We must also be honest: many of those who lead this form of Christianity are those in privileged social locations and with a degree of power in our society. It’s very convenient for this part of American Christianity to focus on an individual salvation that leaves social injustice untouched and emphasizes attaining heaven after death rather than a more earthly focus of working for things now to be ‘on earth as they are in heaven.’”

“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12) 

We’ve been getting a lot of questions over the past few weeks about our articles on a more social reading of the gospels. Again, I’m not saying that Jesus never addressed an individual’s personal salvation. In the stories of the gospels, he does. But he also worked toward society’s salvation too. 

Here in the West we are shaped by a deeply individualistic culture, and some Christian communities rarely address Jesus’ social salvation, if ever. The form of Christianity that most people experience focuses heavily on a person’s individual (personal) salvation and leaves the idea of social salvation unspoken. We must also be honest: many of those who lead this form of Christianity are those in privileged social locations and with a degree of power in our society. It’s very convenient for this part of American Christianity to focus on an individual salvation that leaves social injustice untouched and emphasizes attaining heaven after death rather than a more earthly focus of working for things now to be “on earth as they are in heaven” (see Matthew 6:10).

So where do we find examples of Jesus working toward social salvation in the gospel stories?

The most familiar story is of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we have labeled as Palm Sunday and his Temple protest the following day. Both of these events were public demonstrations calling for social change. His entry into Jerusalem that day competed with Rome’s entry into Jerusalem going on at the same time. (See chapter 1 of Borg’s and Crossan’s The Last Week.) Jesus was protesting Rome’s vision for society, the Pax Romana. 

Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple courtyard was an even more pointed social protest. I want to be clear though: Jesus’ actions must be understood within Judaism, not outside or against it. Remember, Jesus was never a Christian. He was a Jew. Jesus was not against Judaism; nor was Judaism against Jesus. Jesus’ voice was one of many Jewish voices in his own society: there was a spectrum of positions among the Essenes, the Zealots, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. Each of these groups had ideas and interpretations about what it meant for Jewish society to live in faithfulness to the Torah. Christianity grew out of an early group of Jewish Jesus followers who resonated with Jesus’ vision for Jewish society. It was later, when the Jesus movement became populated by more nonJewish adherents and adherents from the upper classes of Gentile society that anti-Semitism enters the telling of the Jesus story. Originally the Jesus story was not read this way. 

Let me also say, on the flip side, that the context Jesus was in was also not a uniquely Jewish story. The dynamics and social tensions of that society happen in all societies, Jewish and non-Jewish. When Jesus flipped the tables in the Temple (see Matthew 21:12) at the beginning of his final week, he was not protesting Judaism! Far from it. He was protesting political oppression and exclusion in his society. He was protesting the economic exploitation of the vulnerable in his society. And he was protesting the religious legitimization and complicity of the priests in the Temple. His actions were not against the Temple because it was the Jewish Temple. His actions were in solidarity with the Jewish poor in his Jewish society. 

Political oppression and exclusion, economic exploitation, and religious legitimization are not uniquely Jewish by any means. They are universal social evils that take place in all societies. Christians should not rush to point fingers at their Jewish neighbors, because Christianity’s history and present offer many examples of these social sins as well. Elite Christians who benefit from these sins could have just as easily and surely executed a prophet of the poor, and they have. Rome executed Jesus because he threatened an unjust status quo. People have been removed from society in one way or another in every generation when they have stood up to an unjust status quo.

With this in mind, here is one more example of Jesus addressing social evils, not mere personal/individual ones:

“Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’ He said to them, ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” (Mathew 12:9-14)

Plotting to kill Jesus seems like a pretty extreme response if we only read this story as Jesus healing one individual with a “shriveled hand.” But if we read this story as Jesus attacking a socially unjust power structure—a religious interpretation that was the foundation for a social evil that marginalized the vulnerable, and the authority of those who perpetuated this interpretive foundation—their response of feeling threatened and feeling an immediate need to silence or remove Jesus begins to make sense. Speaking of the healing stories in the gospel of Mark, Ched Myers points out: 

“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.)

In the Jesus stories, then, we see a Jesus who continually took a stand with the marginalized sectors of his society even when that stand pitted him against more popular religious teachers and their authority. (See Solidarity with the Crucified Community.) This should give us some pause today when we encounter ways of interpreting our sacred texts that either side with religious institutional positions that harm others or give a sacred foundation for inclusion, compassion, centering the vulnerable, and justice. For example, in Christianity today, there are multiple ways to interpret Biblical texts that have been applied to the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ youth who belong to non-accepting Christian families demonstrate disproportionately higher rates of suicide. It would be far better for these children to belong to a non-Christian family that accepted them than a Christian family whose interpretive lens does them such harm.

This is just one example. Interpretations of the Bible are also used to harm women as well, as we are seeing in the Southern portions of the U.S. presently.

Here not Heaven

Another contrast between personal salvation and social salvation is that personal salvation tends to focus one’s attention on the afterlife, gaining heaven, a pessimistic patience for how things are now, and a hope for change only at some point in the distant future.

However, notice how within the story of Lazarus in John’s gospel Jesus rejects this future focus and calls Martha to the present, now and not later. When Jesus finally arrives to Lazarus’ tomb, he assures Martha that her brother will live again. 

“Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’” (John 11:24) 

Here Martha exemplifies this far distant future hope. Jesus contradicts her, calling her to focus her hope for change in the present. 

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’” (John 11:25)

Individual salvation places a person’s hope in the future, either at death or in Jesus’ return to this earth. Social salvation says, no, “I am the resurrection and the life” now. Change can take place now. Another world is possible, if we would choose it, now. Jesus taught the meek will inherit the earth, not a post-mortem heaven (see Matthew 5:5).

And this leads me to my third contrast this week.

Today Not Later

Private and personal salvation focuses on a future hope while leaving the present’s social structures largely untouched. In Luke’s gospel, we read the story of Zacchaeus whose personal transformation or salvation came as a result his embracing Jesus’ vision for social salvation from the social evil of wealth disparity. Jesus had been preaching a more distributively just vision for society. Jesus envisioned a society without disparity, where everyone has enough and no one has too much while others are suffering and going without. In Luke, Jesus had also called his followers to sell their surplus possessions, and give them to the poor (Luke 12:18, 33; cf. Acts 2:44-45; Acts 4:33-34).

Zacchaeus embraces Jesus vision and states, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).

Jesus responds, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9, emphasis added).

“Today.” Stop and ponder that. Some equate salvation with eternal life. Zacchaeus entered into what makes life eternal in the gospels that day Jesus spoke. He didn’t enter at his death. He entered that day, because eternal life is social. Societies can follow paths that will eventually bring about their own ruin and destruction, or they can follow the path of life. Humanity as a species has to choose between these options as well. 

I’m reminded of Brock and Parker’s insight into how eternal life is defined in the gospels:

“The Gospel defines three dimensions of this eternal life: knowing God; receiving the one sent by God to proclaim abundant life to all; and loving each other as he had loved them. Eternal life, in all three meanings, relates to how life is lived on earth. The concrete acts of care Jesus has shown his disciples are the key to eternal life. By following his example of love, the disciples enter eternal life now. Eternal life is thus much more than a hope for postmortem life: it is earthly existence grounded in ethical grace.” (Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 29) 

That day Zacchaeus embraced an offer from Jesus, but it was not an offer of post-mortem bliss. Zacchaeus embraced Jesus’ social vision for societal change—Jesus’ social gospel.

Yes, Jesus engaged a person’s personal salvation, always in the context of that person embracing Jesus social teachings. This means that divorcing a person’s private salvation from their larger participation in Jesus’ vision for social salvation is being unfaithful to the story. Jesus didn’t just change individual lives. He changed individual lives when they chose to participate in Jesus’ challenge to the status quo and his call for social change.

“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12)

A Special Request

If you have been blessed by our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries, I want to take the opportunity this month to reach out to you and ask you to support our work.  

This is a time of the year when the need for your support is keenly felt as well as deeply appreciated.  

You can support our work either by clicking on the donate page on our website or by mailing your support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

You can make a one time gift, or please consider becoming one of our continuing monthly sustainers by selecting the option to make your gift reoccurring.

All amounts help, regardless of the size. 

Thank you in advance for your support.  

We simply could not exist nor continue our important work without you. Earlier this month, after a presentation I had just given, one of those in audience approached me and said, “Thank you. If we had more messages like this, my church would be a different place.”

I believe another Christianity is possible. 

I also believe another world is possible.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  

Wherever you are today, choose to keep living in love. Choose compassion. Take action. Seek justice. Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. 

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are today, choose to keep living in love. Choose compassion. Take action. Seek justice. Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. 

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week. 

Why Resurrection

Herb Montgomery | April 26, 2019

Photo Credit: Billy Pasco on Unsplash

“Even when it looks like nothing is ever going to change, and regardless of whether or not changes are ever made to the extent we desire, the mere presence of our voice makes things different than they would be had we not taken a stand, showed up, or spoken out.”


“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:5-6)

Triumph Over Execution

Last weekend, the majority of Western Christians ritually celebrated Easter. This time of year, in the context of spring, many Christians pause to memorialize and celebrate the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Although early Christianity included risking a cross for standing with the social changes that the teaching of Jesus implied, early Christianity was about resurrection, not death. It was not about getting to an otherworldly heaven, and it was not about hell (hell isn’t even mentioned in the book of Acts once). Early Christianity wasn’t even about a cross. It was about resurrection:

“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4:33, emphasis added)

“You crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2:22-24, emphasis added)

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” (Acts 2:32-33, emphasis added)

“You handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, but God raised from the dead.” (Acts 3:12-16, emphasis added)

“Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 4:10-11, emphasis added)

“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 5:30-32, emphasis added)

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10:36-43, emphasis added

“Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead . . . And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.” (Acts 13:35-38, emphasis added.)

The early message of the Christian community was not the individualized, privatized and personal message that Jesus had died for you. The message wasn’t even that Jesus had died. It was that this Jesus, whose popularity with and message of hope and change for the masses threatened the powers-that-be; this Jesus executed by those with the most to lose from changes in the status quo; this Jesus, a prophet of the poor from Galilee, God had raised back to life! He was alive!

We can only understand why it was such good news that this Jesus was resurrected if we understand how deeply his teachings had resonated with those who faced marginalization, exclusion, and exploitation in his society every day.

Jesus’ Teachings Are Salvific

This week, I want to amplify the work of Delores Williams as we seek to understand what people in Jesus’ own time found truly special about him. Williams is a womanist theologian who I believe has much to offer us today as we seek to follow Jesus in the most life-giving way in our context. She writes from her experience as a Black woman, yet the majority of her work is rooted in the history of Black women and Black families in the US, the Black Church’s oral tradition, and the Bible’s stories about women, especially marginalized and African women. 

“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.” (Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, pp. 130-131)

I agree with Williams here. Jesus being executed by imperial power for being a threat wasn’t what was special or salvific about him. What made him special was his kingdom teachings, his vision for what life can look like here on Earth for us as a community. He laid before us an alternative path that leads to life: not a life we somehow earn by following him, but a life that is the intrinsic result of the choices we make in how to relate to ourselves and others.

Williams unpacks further how the resurrection affirmed Jesus’ teachings:

“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. (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 130, emphasis mine.)

The Truth Within the Resurrection Story

Williams is describing the gospel message of the first half of Acts. The truth within the story of the resurrection was of Jesus’ vision for what human life could be.  This vision so captured the hearts of the oppressed in his time that it was victorious over the attempt to kill it. Jesus’ death interrupted his lifelong salvific work. He did not die so that we in the 21st Century can be individually and personally assured of going to heaven when we die. Jesus died because he stood up to the status quo in the 1st Century. 

And the resurrection is the overcoming of this interruption, this death. It’s the reversal of all that Jesus’ death meant. The resurrection reignites the flame of Jesus’ vision for human life that those in positions of power had attempted to extinguished with his execution. The truth within the story of the resurrection is the restoration of Jesus’ message. It is the picking-back-up of Jesus’ teachings from being trampled in the dust of death and them living on in the lives of those who choose to embrace the hope that another world was actually possible. The truth within the story of Jesus’ resurrection is of a God on the side of those Jesus also lived in solidarity with over and against the system, and not a God on the side of the system over and against those being exploited as is often the system’s narrative.

I remember years ago listening to an Easter presentation on Luke’s resurrection narrative by the late Marcus Borg. I loved the truth within this story which Borg reimagined for me that day. 

“The domination system tried to stop him. They tried to shut him up. But even a rich man’s tomb couldn’t hold him. ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!’ He’s still out there,” Borg said into the mic. “He’s still recruiting, ‘Come follow me.’”

Jesus’ Palm Sunday demonstration and Temple protest which followed labelled his movement as something that finally had to be dealt with. Within the week, Jesus was dead. Yet the resurrection transforms his death into an attempted set back and not a final silencing that makes Jesus a failure. The truth within the story of Jesus’ resurrection narrative is that systems of injustice don’t always win. The status quo doesn’t always have the last word. Justice is worth fighting for, even when the outcome looks bleak. Even when it looks like nothing is ever going to change, and regardless of whether or not changes are ever made to the extent we desire, the mere presence of our voice makes things different than they would be had we not taken a stand, showed up, or spoken out.

Joan Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker remind us again that the gospel is not about an execution but about a refusal to let go of life. 

“Jesus did not choose the cross. He chose to live a life in opposition to unjust, oppressive cultures . . . Jesus chose integrity and faithfulness, refusing to change course because of threat . . . 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 . . . 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? in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.18-20, edited by Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

This is why the truth within the story of the resurrection narratives of the gospels is still worth remembering, ritualizing, and celebrating. This is why the story still matters to me. Why resurrection? This is why.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:5-6)

HeartGroup Application

This week, spend some time as a group sharing with one another: 

  1. How does the story of Jesus’ resurrection give you hope in the here and now, in our world today, and not simply for an afterlife?
  2. As a Jesus follower, how does the story of Jesus’ resurrection inform your work for justice in your own sphere of influence today?
  3. How did you as a group celebrate the story of Jesus’ resurrection this year?  What parts spoke to you? Share your experience with the group. 

Thanks for checking in with us this week. I’m so glad you did. 

Wherever you are today, keep living in love and compassion. Keep taking action. Keep working toward distributive justice. 

I will be in Delaware next weekend speaking at a weekend event there. Therefore there won’t be a podcast episode or article published next weekend, but we’ll be back the following weekend after next.

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you in two weeks.

Social Sins, Social Justice, and the Jesus Stories

Herb Montgomery | April 19, 2019

Photo credit: Jason Betz on Unsplash

“Understood in this light, Jesus’ story offers rich fields for exploration and discovery as we learn to hear a gospel that calls us not to simply be ‘a good person,’  but also to stop shaping, maintaining, enforcing and benefiting from socially sinful systems. The gospel stories call us to follow this social Jesus . . .”


“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice [social justice] through to victory.” (Matthew 12:20)

Last week we compared the social focus of Jesus’ kingdom theme with the private, personal gospel that characterizes much of Christianity today. Preparing for Palm Sunday last week, I ran across this statement from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan on how Jesus rebuked the social elite in his day: “The issue is not their individual virtue or wickedness, but the role they played in the domination system. They shaped it, enforced it. and benefited from it.” (The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, p. 22)

Jesus’ life and teachings do far more than save us from personal sins. They also provide an alternative social path that addresses social sins and so provides social salvation. In the words of Walter Rauschenbusch, “If our theology is silent on social salvation, we compel [people], to choose between an unsocial system of theology and an irreligious system of social salvation.” (A Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 7).

Consider how each of the gospels begins, not by emphasizing a person’s personal salvation from their private/public individual sins, but by emphasizing Jesus as a catalyst for addressing social sins and social change.

Let’s look at each of the synoptic gospels beginning with Mark.

Mark

In Mark, the Jesus story begins with Jesus calling fishermen to a different kind of fishing.

“As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” Mark 1:16-17

Ched Myers’ work reveals that, although evangelical Christians have largely interpreted this saying to be about saving individual souls for heaven after they die, a look at the Jewish prophetic tradition suggests that this language would have had a much different implication and meaning in Jesus’ 1st Century Jewish culture.

“An apt paraphrase of Jesus’ invitation is: “Follow me and I will show you how to catch the Big Fish!” (1:17). In the Hebrew Bible, the metaphor of “people like fish” appears in prophetic censures of apostate Israel and of the rich and powerful: “I am now sending for many fishermen, says God, and they shall catch [the people of Israel]…” (Jeremiah 16:16) “The time is surely coming upon you when they shall take you away with fishhooks…” (Amos 4:2) “Thus says God: I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt…. I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your channels stick to your scales…” (Ezekiel 29:3f) Jesus is, in other words, summoning working folk to join him in overturning the structures of power and privilege in the world!” (in Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 10, emphasis mine.)

From the very beginning, then, Mark’s Jesus is focused on overturning tables: overturning social structures of power and privilege. Mark’s gospel is a social gospel.

Matthew 

To the best of our knowledge, Matthew’s gospel was the first gospel to begin with a birth narrative about Jesus. It’s remarkable to me that Matthew seems to have been shaping his birth narratives about Jesus based on popular midrashim about the birth of Moses. (See Borg and Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth. United States, HarperOne, 2009.) If this is true, thenMatthew was painting Jesus to be a new Moses: not a replacement for Moses, but one who stood in the Jewish prophetic lineage of Moses. The images of Moses that Matthew chose to emulate in his Jesus story were those related to themes of liberation from the oppressive domination of Egypt. Again, the liberation in Exodus is not a concern for individual Israelite’s personal salvation without a changed their social situation, but for the social liberation or social salvation of the community as a whole as the Exodus narrative states:

“Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’” (Exodus 5:1)

Characterizing Jesus’ work as similar to Moses’, Matthew points to a social understanding of Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus addresses the social sins of his own time and place and offers an alternative path for his Jewish society. The social liberation characterizing Jesus’ teaching from the very beginning of Matthew’s gospel (See Matthew 5) lays the foundation to understand everything that is to follow in the stories. Including the social liberation found in Jewish folk stories of the Exodus from the very beginning of Matthew’s telling is purposeful for Matthew. Like Mark, Matthew’s gospel is first and foremost a social gospel announcing social salvation. Any personal or private view of salvation in Matthew only adds to this foundation.

Luke

If Mark and Matthew have a social emphasis, Luke does even more so. At the beginning of Luke’s gospel that we read Mary’s Magnificat:

“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 1:51-55)

This is not a prayer/proclamation of personal change for individuals within a society that is left untouched. These words communicate society-wide change from the bottom up and the outside in. 

Just three chapters later, when Luke has Jesus begin his teaching ministry in a synagogue near Nazareth, Jesus finds these words in the scroll of Isaiah to read:

“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) 

Out of all the passages in the Hebrew scriptures the author of Luke’s gospel could have chosen to summarize Jesus’ ministry, the choice of these words from Isaiah helps us to understand the entirety of the rest of Luke’s gospel. This is the story of an itinerant Jewish teacher, a prophet of the poor from Galilee, calling out social sins, and offering a path of social salvation, social reparations, and social redemption. (See Luke 6.)

In the early 20th Century, the Social Gospel movement recaptured attention for these larger social themes in the gospels. In the 60s and 70s in both North and South America, liberation theologians adopted a more global context and focused on those who faced oppression and exploitation across each continent as a result of the gospel’s social themes.  

During that same time, Black Liberation theologians took these social themes in the gospels seriously, as well, and from their context called White Christians to take action in the context of white supremacy and racial justice. 

Today, some contemporary feminist and womanist Christians also see deep harmony between this social emphasis in the Jesus story and their work today of survival and liberation. This vision encourages them as they strive for social change. 

Today, too, many LGBTQ Christians find a wellspring of wisdom in the gospels’ emphasis on social salvation from social sins, and that wisdom keeps them going as they work toward inclusion and equality in their faith communities and the wider secular society.

The call to hear the gospel stories as naming social sins and systemic injustice is being heard in our time. Today, the gospel stories tell of a Jesus whose teachings and solidarity with the oppressed in his day led him to the political demonstration we now call “the triumphal entry” (which many Christians today religiously and ritually celebrated last weekend). Jesus publicly demonstrated and overturned tables, he cried out for social change and social salvation. And that call is being heard more and more.

Understood in this light, Jesus’ story off ers rich fields for exploration and discovery as we learn to hear a gospel that calls us not to simply be “a good person,” but also to stop shaping, maintaining, enforcing and benefiting from socially sinful systems. The gospel stories call us to follow this social Jesus, as we, too, in the words of Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, refuse “to be consoled until the justice that is God’s is made real in the world.” (Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 229)

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice [social justice] through to victory.” (Matthew 12:20)

HeartGroup Application

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Thanks for supporting our work of participating in making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

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Today, right where you are, choose love. Choose compassion, take action and seek the path of distributive justice we find in the teachings of Jesus. 

Another world is possible.

I love each of you, dearly.

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A Social Jesus

Herb Montgomery | April 12, 2018

picture of man standing before a wall with "Jesus" graffitied behind him.
Photo Credit: Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

“Today, sectors of Christianity that only teach a personal Jesus deeply need a reintroduction to the gospels’ social Jesus. They need to rediscover and understand social salvation contrasted with personal salvation. They need a gospel that impacts the here and now and that isn’t just about the premium they must pay in this life to get a post-mortem fire insurance policy.”


“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)

“Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?” he shouted at me. I was at the grocery store one evening trying to grab some missing ingredients for dinner. As I left the store I passed a table on the way to the parking lot. There, a group of Christians sat or stood behind the table, trying raising money for their organization. 

I politely smiled in his direction and said, “No thank you.” I was still walking as I heard him call out, “If you die on the way home do you know for sure where you’ll end up next?”

I couldn’t believe there were still Christians who talked like this, with these well-worn phrases as conversation starters. But again, this is Appalachia and as someone born and having grown up here, if you can still find this kind of talk anywhere, you can find it here.

This month at RHM, we are featuring Walter Rauschebusch’s classic work A Theology for the Social Gospel as April’s book of the month. One of the things I appreciate about the early 20th Century Social Gospel movement is that it drew attention to Jesus’ vision for social salvation, not individual, private, personal salvation.

I recently posted this quotation from Rauschenbusch on Facebook: “If our theology is silent on social salvation, we compel [people] to choose between an unsocial system of theology and an irreligious system of social salvation” (Ibid. p. 7). Immediately one person asked, “What is social salvation?” This question reveals more than it asks. 

Firstly, contemporary, privatized, and individually focused forms of Christianity focus their adherents so much on personal salvation and Jesus as a “personal Savior” from post-mortem punishment that those who only encounter this kind of Christianity may have never even heard of the social salvation described in the gospels. 

Seeing Jesus as a social savior is the oldest Christian message. It can be argued that interpreting Jesus as a personal savior, an individual savior, or a private savior is a later interpretive addition not found until Christianity became populated with middle- to upper-class people centered in their culture. 

Secondly, how nice it must be to belong to a social class that’s so privileged that it doesn’t even know what social salvation is, much less imagine it needs it. Countless people face discrimination, marginalization, and exclusion each day and don’t need a textbook definition for the phrase “social salvation” because they know the system all too well. They know what it is to need salvation from societal and social injustice and oppression.

Let’s dive in.

Kingdom

Each author of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke-Acts) place the theme of “the kingdom” at the center of their stories about Jesus.

“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)

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:23)

“But he said, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’” (Luke 4:43)

“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)

“He proclaimed thekingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:31)

I have my own theories about why the author of Acts ties Paul’s teaching to Jesus’ “kingdom” but the fact is that the Kingdom is the focus in the gospels and Paul must come to be associated with it in the book of Acts. Nowhere in the book of Acts is the goal to escape postmortem hell or enter into a cosmic heaven. The coming kingdom is the central theme.

The kingdom theme in the gospel stories served a twofold purpose: it hearkened back to the Maccabean era of hope in restored Jewish independence and it contrasted with the Roman empire (see Daniel 7). Matthew’s use of kingdom is more in line with the first purpose, and Luke’s is more about the second. Mark’s use can be argued to be a hybrid of both. Neither view of kingdom was about saving individuals. Instead they were about restoring distributive justice for a whole community, including all the individuals that made the community. The hope of the kingdom went beyond the personal to the social: it was about social salvation.

Gospel

In the canonized Jesus stories we have today, the term gospel meant the announcement of the coming of this kingdom. It’s important to note that the term “gospel” or “glad tidings” was originally a political term, not a religious one. The Roman empire used it to refer to announcements made when the empire annexed a new territory. The gospel was public announcement, or tidings, of the newly arrived rule of Rome. So the word “gospel” itself was not about privatized, individual, personal change but rather a fundamental social change.

Here are three examples that we have still today of contemporary, secular uses of the term gospel in the 1st Century.

“Even after the battle at Mantinea, which Thucydides has described, the one who first announced the victory had no other reward for his glad tidings [euangelion-gospel] than a piece of meat sent by the magistrates from the public mess” (Plutarch, Agesilaus, p. 33, 1st Century).

“Accordingly, when [Aristodemus] had come near, he stretched out his hand and cried with a loud voice: ‘Hail, King Antigonus, we have conquered Ptolemy in a sea-fight, and now hold Cyprus, with 12,800 soldiers as prisoners of war.’ To this, Antigonus replied: ‘Hail to thee also, by Heaven! but for torturing us in this way, thou shalt undergo punishment; the reward for thy good tidings [euangelion-gospel] thou shalt be some time in getting’” (Plutarch, Demetrius, p. 17, 1st Century).

“Why, as we are told, the Spartans merely sent meat from the public commons

to the man who brought glad tidings [euangelion-gospel] of the victory in Mantineia which Thucydides describes! And indeed the compilers of histories are, as it were, reporters of great exploits who are gifted with the faculty of felicitous speech, and achieve success in their writing through the beauty and force of their narration; and to them those who first encountered and recorded the events [εὐαγγέλιον– euangelion] are indebted for a pleasing retelling of them” (Plutarch, Moralia (Glory of Athens), p. 347, 1st Century).

The phrase “glad tidings/gospel of the kingdom” as the gospels’ authors used it was a way to signal that Jesus and his teachings held a new vision for structuring society. Those who were last in the present arrangement would now be first. Those being marginalized were to be included and centered. Those who were hungry and thirsted for a distributive, social righteousness would be filled (see Matthew 5 and Luke 6). The authors of the Jesus story used “gospel” to mean a change in society or human community that went beyond mere personal nor private change. It was about social change here, social change now. 

Eternal Life

Even when we consider the way eternal life was framed in the gospel stories, an argument can be made that even eternal life is not private, personal, or individual, but communal and social. Eternal life meant the continuance of a community as a whole, not merely continuance for individuals within that community. The path Jesus was pointing toward is a path by which the human race can continue, a path that leads to life rather than extinction for our race and not simply life for individual humans. Eternal life is about having our quality of life rooted in what Parker and Brock call an “ethical grace” lived here on earth, a path of living differently as a society today, here, now. 

“The Gospel defines three dimensions of this eternal life: knowing God; receiving the one sent by God to proclaim abundant life to all; and loving each other as he had loved them. Eternal life, in all three meanings, relates to how life is lived on earth. The concrete acts of care Jesus has shown his disciples are the key to eternal life. By following his example of love, the disciples enter eternal life now. Eternal life is thus much more than a hope for postmortem life: it is earthly existence grounded in ethical grace.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 22)

Death by Crucifixion

Lastly, people don’t get jailed (like John the Baptist) and don’t get crucified (like Jesus) for teaching personal, private, post-mortem salvation. They get in trouble, as we saw last week, when they call out social injustice and call for social change, societal reparations, social redemption, and social salvation. Private change threatens no one, but social change threatens those privileged in the present way of organizing society who would have much to lose if the status quo changed.

Today, sectors of Christianity that only teach a personal Jesus deeply need a reintroduction to the gospels’ social Jesus. They need to rediscover and understand social salvation contrasted with personal salvation. They need a gospel that impacts the here and now and that isn’t just about the premium they must pay in this life to get a post-mortem fire insurance policy. 

There is a need to understand how the life modeled and teachings taught by Jesus have the potential to socially save. They aren’t a myth of redemptive violence and suffering that saves us from divine satisfaction. We can be deeply revived by following the teachings of Jesus, and not merely mentally assenting or believing story details about him. We need a gospel that recaptures the story truth of a resurrection, and not endless gospels that only offer people a cross.

It is to this end that we’ll be turning our attention over the next few weeks. I’m so glad you’re with us on this journey. 

“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)


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Thank you for checking in with us this week.  I’m so glad you did. 

Wherever you are today, choose love, choose compassion, take action and seek justice. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Prophets and Priests

Herb Montgomery | April 5, 2019

Picture of woman using megaphone
Photo by Melany Rochester on Unsplash

“Where else do you see institutions threatened by the voice of prophets? We may not call them prophets in every institution, yet the punishment of prophets is a universal dynamic. Whenever there are people calling not only for personal piety but also for societal change, seeking to make our world a just, safe, compassionate home for everyone, those who have much to lose will use these tactics.”


“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31) 

RHM’s book of the month for April is Walter Rauschenbusch’s 1917 classic A Theology for the Social Gospel. Although Rauschenbusch writes in the language and limits of his time and social location, he and others in the early social gospel movement nonetheless broke new ground by calling Christians to return to the gospels’ teachings on social change, social justice, and social salvation. Their call contrasted with versions of Christianity that focus on private, individualistic, or personal salvation. Many who have been raised in evangelical Christianity today still are surprised when they discover the gospels’ focus on systemic injustice. This focus was accurately labelled the “social gospel” not because it focused on social salvation instead of personal salvation (as some have wrongly accused) but because it focused on social salvation alongside personal salvation.

Forty years after A Theology for the Social Gospel was published, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., read it and wrote, “It has been my conviction ever since reading Rauschenbusch that any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried” (Stride Toward Freedom, p. 91).

This week I want to look at a juxtaposition that Rauschenbusch uses in the end of A Theology for the Social Gospel. I admit freely that it’s oversimplified in terms of what we know today. I also find Rauschenbusch’s description of the function or motivation of the ancient priestly class in this paragraph to misrepresent the priestly function in the Jewish faith tradition as a whole. I do believe Rauschenbusch’s description matches his own experience with institutionalized Christianity and the professional clergy’s push back against his call for a more socially focused gospel. I believe he is reading his own experience back into the text. I, too, can attest that it is difficult if not impossible to get professional Christian clergy to see things at times that their paychecks requires them not to see. This can happen within any faith tradition when an institution and those employed by that institution become aligned with injustice, exploitation and/or exclusion. Yet this passage from Rauschenbusch still has much to offer us as we seek to speak truth to power or call out systemic injustice despite push back from those who benefit by what Rauschenbusch named as “institutionalized sin” (whether within our faith traditions or our larger secular communities). The juxtaposition he uses is that of priest versus prophet in the Jewish faith tradition. I found his comments under what he classifies as prophetic deeply encouraging and this week I want to share them with you.

“The priest is the religious professional. He performs religious functions which others are not allowed to perform. It is therefore to his interest to deny the right of free access to God, and to interpose himself and his ceremonial between the common person and God. He has an interest in representing God as remote, liable to anger, jealous of his rights, and quick to punish, because this gives importance to the ritual methods of placating God which the priest alone can handle. It is essential to the priestly interest to establish a monopoly of rights and functions for his group. He is all for authority, and in some form or other he is always a Spokesman of that authority and shares its influence. Doctrine and history as he teaches it, establish a jure divine institution of his order, which is transmitted either by physical descent, as in the Aaronic priesthood, or by spiritual descent through some form of exclusive ordination, as in the Catholic priesthood. As history invariably contradicts his claims, he frequently tampers with history by Deuteronomic codes or Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, in order to secure precedents and the weight of antiquity. He is opposed to free historical investigation because this tears open the protective web of idealized history and doctrine which he has woven about him. He is the middle person of religion, and like other middlemen he is sincerely convinced that he is necessary for the good of humanity and that religion would perish without him. But underneath all is the selfish interest of his class, which exploits religion. 

The prophet becomes a prophet by some personal experience of God, which henceforth is the dominant reality of his life. It creates inward convictions which become his message to men. Usually after great inward conflicts and the bursting of priest-made barriers he has discovered the way of access to God, and has found him wonderful, ‘just, merciful, free.’ As a result of his own experience he usually becomes the constitutional enemy of priestly religion, the scorner of sacrificial and ritual doings, a voice of doubt about the doctrines and the literature which shelter the priest. He too is a middle-man, but he wants no monopoly. His highest desire is to have all humans share what he has experienced. If his own caste or people claim special privileges as a divinely descended caste or a chosen people, he is always for some expansion of religious rights, for a crossing of boundaries and a larger unity. His interest is in freedom, reality, immediateness, the reverse of the priestly interest. His religious experience often gives a profound quickening to his social consciousness, an unusual sense of the value of life and a strong compassion with the suffering and weak, and therefore a keen feeling for human rights and indignation against injustice. He has a religious conviction that God is against oppression and ‘, on the side of the weak . . . The prophet is always the predestined advance agent of the Kingdom of God. His religion flings him as a fighter and protester against the Kingdom of Evil. His sense of justice, compassion, and solidarity sends him into tasks which would be too perilous for others. It connects him with oppressed social classes as their leader. He bears their risk and contempt. As he tries to rally the moral and religious forces of society, he encounters derelict and frozen religion, and the selfish and conservative interest of the classes which exploit religion. He tries to arouse institutional religion from the inside, or he pounds it from the outside. This puts him in the position of a heretic, a free thinker, an enemy of religion, an atheist. Probably no prophet escaped without bearing some such name. His opposition to social injustice arouses the same kind of antagonism from those who profit by it. How far these interests will go in their methods of suppressing the prophets depends on their power and their needs.” (A Theology for the Social Gospel, pp. 274-277, emphasis added.)

Let’s take a brief look at a few of Rauschenbusch’s statements.

History Contradicting Claims

Today, both science and history can contradict long-held religious beliefs or doctrinal claims. It’s tempting to become defensive and resistant to new information rather than learning how to lean into new information. Deconstruction is naturally uncomfortable. We must be honest in parsing the difference between resistance due to personal discomfort and resistance due to threats to institutions from which we derive privilege. As Rauschenbusch states, it’s possible to be “opposed to free historical investigation because this tears open the protective web of idealized history and doctrine which [one] has woven about [oneself].” 

Where have you seen this take place? Take some time to list examples that come to mind.

Selfish Class Interests

Religion has often been complicit in making oppressed communities passive and in exonerating or justifying one class’s exploitation of others. I agree with Rauschenbusch’s statement that when voices question the status quo, they are quickly labeled “enemy” or a “voice of doubt” or even “heretic.” We see an example of this in John’s version of the Jesus story: “Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about [Jesus]. Some said, ‘He is a good man.’ Others replied, ‘No, he deceives the people.’” (John 7:12)

All Humans Share 

Jesus, like other Jewish prophets before him, had an inclusive encounter with the Divine. His desire was egalitarian inasmuch as he wanted those being excluded to also have a seat at the table. Rauschenbusch observes, “If his own caste or people claim special privileges as a divinely descended caste or a chosen people, he is always for some expansion of religious rights, for a crossing of boundaries and a larger unity.” Those who push for a more egalitarian society transgress boundaries in their work and are often accused of not staying within the lines drawn for them and for others in society.

Social Consciousness

The Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and many others throughout history who have stood up to institutionalized injustice, seeking change in individual hearts and social and systemic change as well, can often trace their social consciousness and the roots of their passion for social justice to the belief in a Divine Universal Love. As Rauschenbusch wrote, “His religious experience often gives a profound quickening to his social consciousness, an unusual sense of the value of life and a strong compassion with the suffering and weak, and therefore a keen feeling for human rights and indignation against injustice.” For Christians, this passion for justice is grounded in the belief that if there is a God who loves everyone, this same God stands with the oppressed and is on the side of distributive justice. It is ironic that those whose belief in Love led them to the work of justice too often come to be ostracized by the very religious communities they first learned that Love through.

Heretics

Rauschenbusch’s use of this term struck home for me. When we stand up against injustice and some of those in privileged positions in our faith communities are also in positions of privilege in our larger society, it still amazes me how efficiently religious systems label and shut out or suppress voices for justice that they deem a threat. “This puts him in the position of a heretic, a free thinker, an enemy of religion, an atheist. Probably no prophet escaped without bearing some such name.” I could give quite a few examples of where I have witnessed or experienced this dynamic. 

Suppression

“His opposition to social injustice arouses the same kind of antagonism from those who profit by it. How far these interests will go in their methods of suppressing the prophets depends on their power and their needs.” I’ve seen those who side with Love and Justice go from having a packed speaking schedule for years in advance to almost overnight being treated as if they no longer exist. In the Jesus story itself, suppression took the form of false accusation and execution. 

I want to be very careful here. Jesus was not trying to start a new religion. He was deeply Jewish, and most of his more inclusive interpretations of the Torah had Jewish precedents before him. Yet his interpretations threatened those who had everything to lose politically.

Where else do you see institutions threatened by the voice of prophets? We may not call them prophets in every institution, yet the punishment of prophets is a universal dynamic. Whenever there are people calling not only for personal piety but also for societal change, seeking to make our world a just, safe, compassionate home for everyone, those who have much to lose will use these tactics. 

If you are in the midst of being treated this way, remember, you’re in the right story. You’re not alone. Another world is possible. If you need to take a break for self-care, do so. It’s okay to take a break; just don’t give up. We are in this together. And together we can make a difference.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31)


HeartGroup Application

We here at RHM have something special for our readers and listeners this month.

From now through April 22, we’ll be offering our listeners and readers this special, premium t-shirt to support our work, show others you’re a fan of our podcast, and help spread the word so others can enjoy each episode as well.

Don’t miss out on these! They’ll only be available for a limited time.

Get yours today for only $24.99.

And support the JFE Podcast in making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone.

Go to:

https://www.bonfire.com/love-and-justice-tee/

Get Your JFE Podcast Tee Today!

Thank you for checking in with us this week.  I’m so glad you did. 

Wherever you are today, choose love, choose compassion, take action and seek justice. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Calling Good Evil (Part 5 of 5)

Herb Montgomery | March 29, 2019

Picture of neon rainbow
Photo Credit:
Jason Leung on Unsplash

“The image of God is the male-female spectrum. When we speak of a person’s sex, we’re describing their bodies in terms of characteristics we define as male, female, neither, or both. Wherever nature places a person on this spectrum, they are still just as much a bearer of God’s image. With gender identity, a person may identify as male, female, neither, or both. They are still fully human. Whether your orientation is to be attracted to men, women, neither, or both, you are still fully human and still bearing the image of God.”


“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)

I initially thought this series would only have two parts, so whether you’re still tracking with me, or joined me in the middle, I’m so glad you’re here. This week we’ll wrap up this series by considering the last two passages that some Christians use to harm the LGBTQ community and their allies. 

The first one is in the New Testament book of Jude.

Jude

“Remember Sodom and Gomorrah and the neighboring towns; like the angels, they committed fornication and indulged in unnatural lusts; and in eternal fire they paid the penalty, a warning for all. In the same way these deluded dreamers continue to defile their bodies, flout authority, and insult celestial beings.” (Jude 7, 8, REB)

Just recently, a non-affirming Christian brought up this passage in a conversation we were having. You see, in the New King James Version part of this passage reads, “having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh.” The person I was speaking with wanted to convince me that “strange flesh” referred to sexual activity with someone of the same sex. But nothing could be further from the context and language of this passage. 

In this series we have established that the Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis does not address generic same-sex activity (see Calling Good Evil, Part 2). More than that, this passage is not only referring to the Sodom story in Genesis 19, but also to the less-told story in Genesis 6 where angels initiate sexual activity with humans. 

“Strange flesh” isn’t about sex between same-sex humans. It’s not about sex between same-ness at all, but about sex across utter difference: sex between humans and cosmic beings. Matthew Vines explains:

“The other verse, Jude 7, is more frequently cited by non-affirming Christians as a potential reference to same-sex behavior. There, we read that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah ‘indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh’ (NASB). The phrase ‘strange flesh’ is variously translated as ‘perversion,’ ‘unnatural desire,’ and ‘other flesh,’ which some argue is a reference to same-sex relations. But the Greek phrase used in Jude 7 is sarkos heteras—literally, other or ‘different flesh.’ Hetero, of course, is the prefix for words like heterosexuality, not homosexuality. Far from arguing that the men of Sodom pursued flesh too similar to their own, Jude indicts them for pursuing flesh that was too different. In fact, the phrase ‘strange flesh’ likely refers to the attempted rape of angels instead of humans. Jude 6 supports that connection by comparing Sodom’s transgressions with the unusual sins described in Genesis 6. In that chapter, ‘sons of God’ (interpreted by many to be angels) mated with human women, arousing God’s ire before the flood.” (God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, p. 69)

The context of this passage in Jude confirms this reading: the very next verse addresses an “insult” to “celestial beings.” 

Genesis 1

Our final passage is from the Hebrew origins story in Genesis 1.

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

This passage, too often interpreted through a gender binary lens, is used against those with a same-sex orientation as well as against those who are transgender, non-binary, or gender nonconforming.

Last year, Asher O’Callaghan beautifully shared a more inclusive reading of this passage.

“In the beginning, God created day and night. But have you ever seen a sunset!?!? Well trans and non-binary people are kind of like that. Gorgeous. Full of a hundred shades of color you can’t see in plain daylight or during the night.

In the beginning God created land and sea. But have you ever seen a beach?!?! Well trans and non-binary people are kind of like that. Beautiful. A balanced oasis that’s not quite like the ocean, nor quite like the land.

In the beginning God created birds of the air and fish of the sea. But have you ever seen a flying fish, or a duck or a puffin that swims and flies, spending lots of time in the water and on the land!?!? Well trans and non-binary people are kind of like that. Full of life. A creative combination of characteristics that blows people’s minds.

In the beginning God also created male and female, in God’s own image, God created them. So in the same way that God created realities in between, outside of, and beyond night and day, land and sea, or fish and birds, so God also created people with genders beyond male and female. Trans and non-binary and agender and intersex, God created us. All different sorts of people for all different sorts of relationships. Created from love to love and be loved. In God’s image we live.

God is still creating you. You are no less beautiful and wild than a sunset or a beach or a puffin. You are loved. You have a place here.” 

(Asher O’Callaghan, Facebook, October 18, 2018)

I believe the creation story also can be understood in a way that not only affirms transgender or non-binary or intersex people, but also affirms people with same-sex orientations. 

This story is about beginnings. This story speaks of a God who began the human race by creating male and female, together, in the image of that God. Think of these categories as a spectrum with what we define as “male” on one end and what we define as “female” on the other. Could the image of God be the entire spectrum of humanity regardless of where any one individual identifies on a scale between male and female? 

The image of God is the male-female spectrum. When we speak of a person’s sex, we’re describing their bodies in terms of characteristics we define as male, female, neither, or both. Wherever nature places a person on this spectrum, they are still just as much a bearer of God’s image. With gender identity, a person may identify as male, female, neither, or both. They are still fully human. Whether your orientation is to be attracted to men, women, neither, or both, you are still fully human and still bearing the image of God. 

There are so many possible combinations. You could, for example, understand your body as male, yet identity your gender closer to the female end of the spectrum, have an androgynous gender expression, and be attracted to men. Whichever combination, whether in sex, gender identify, gender expression or sexual attraction/orientation, you are still part of the human family and a bearer of the image of God. You are as much a reflection of that original Hebrew story as anyone else. You are not other.

This means that God is much more diverse than we may have assumed. 

And humanity, bearing God’s image, is much more diverse than we may have assumed, as well. 

This beautify and diverse way of seeing humanity and the Divine image is reflected in a Jewish prayer first introduced to me by my dear friend Dr. Keisha McKenzie, “Blessed are you oh Lord King of the Universe for you vary the forms of your creatures.” And in the Jewish proverb another dear friend of mine, Danneen Akers, introduced me to, “Before every person there walks an angel announcing behold the image of God.” 

Conclusion

I want to end this series with a passage from Brownson’s work on the “one flesh” language of Adam and Eve in the Genesis story.

“As I have already observed, the language of ‘one flesh’ is the language of kinship. When the man meets the woman in Genesis 2:23, he declares, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” In Genesis 29:14, Laban recognizes his kinship bond to Jacob, and says, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” In 2 Samuel 5:1, as the tribes of Israel move to make David their king, they declare to him, “Look, we are your bone and flesh” (similar examples can be found in Judg. 9:2; 2 Sam. 19:12f.; and 1 Chron. 11:1). In all these cases, gender distinctions play no role; the focus is entirely on kinship, shared culture, experience, and identity — the same focus that I argued is present in Genesis 2. Furthermore, the use of the word “cling,” used in Genesis 2:24 to describe the relationship of the man and the woman, does not carry sexual connotations in any other usage, but reflects the desire for association and connection that is characteristic of kinship.” (Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, p. 107).

There is so much more I wish I had space to share from Brownson’s work on the Genesis narratives. If you’re interested in a more holistic understanding of the Hebrew Genesis stories, his work is well worth your time.

This Hebrew origin story points to human kinship, the foundational solidarity of the human family of which we all are a part. In a more specific way, it also points to any of the numberless committed, consensual, loving relationships between human beings, whether they be same-sex or otherwise. 

The story is about kinship. It’s about love. And any place we find genuine love, we find the image of God, for God is love. (1 John 4:8)

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)


HeartGroup Application

As we continue to work toward creating safe places in society for people who daily face marginalization, this work is desperately needed within our faith communities as well. This week I am encouraging both our readers as well as our HeartGroups to volunteer some time with Church Clarity. From Church Clarity’s website: “Church Clarity was borne out of a genuine desire to address very simple, yet profoundly impactful shortcomings of the church.” What is this harmful shortcoming? Ambiguity. “Church Clarity is a crowd-sourced database of Christian congregations scored by our team of volunteers based on how easy it is to find a church’s Actively Enforced Policy online. We currently evaluate church websites for policies that impact LGBTQ+ people and Women in Leadership.” You can find out more about Church Clarity here

This week:

  1. Volunteer as a scorer for Church Clarity. It’s not difficult and they’ll walk you through it.
  2. Recommend new communities that you are familiar with for volunteers to score.
  3. Then share with your HeartGroup what you’ve learned from your experience and how you feel you made a difference.

Thanks you, each of you, for checking in with us this week.  If you have been with us through this entire five part series, I want to say a special thank you to you. I’m so glad you are on this journey with us. 

Where you are today, choose to live in love, compassion, action and justice. 

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Calling Good Evil (Part 4 of 5)

Herb Montgomery | March 22, 2019

Gaius Caligula

“If Brownson is correct and Paul is referring to Gaius Caligula’s actual behavior, which Paul’s contemporaries, Philo, Dio Cassius, and Dio Chrysostom all wrote about with similar language, then he is describing harmful behavior that most LGBTQ people would condemn alongside most straight, cisgender people.”


“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)

As we continue this series this week, we’ll look at a passage that Christians have used in harmful and destructive ways against the Christian and non-Christian LBGTQ communities: Romans 1. 

I want to begin with the basic understanding that the culture in which Paul wrote this passage was one where the earth was thought to be at the center of the universe. That culture knew nothing of germ theory. It held women as of lesser than men. It practiced slavery as morally and ethically innocent. And it knew nothing of what we understand today as a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Paul’s society assumed everyone was born what we’d call today “straight,” and they thought that gender was binary and static. 

Matthew Vines tells us how Paul’s society, therefore, viewed same sex relations: “The fact that societies of the biblical world associated same-sex relations with sexual excess rather than sexual orientation has been conceded even by a number of non-affirming scholars” (God and the Gay Christian, p. 38). 

If we are going to interpret Paul’s words in Romans 1 without harming those who are demonstrably different from cisgender, heterosexual people, we must first understand that Paul’s society assumed all people naturally possessed a straight orientation and same-sex relations could only result from straight people with out-of-control lust being satisfied by different-sex and same-sex sexual acts. Again, this society had no understanding, as we have today, of humanity’s ability to naturally possesses other orientations. Today we know that humanity can also naturally possess lesbian, gay or bisexual orientations which do not in the least bit imply the simultaneous possession out-of-control lust or what we might call today a sex addiction. Out-of-control lust can occur within all orientations.  And I have bisexual friends today that practice a more holistic, non-objectifying, values based, humanizing sexual ethic than do a lot of my “straight” friends.

With this in mind, let’s begin.

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” (Romans 1:20-32)

At this point I want to turn to Brownson’s work on this text. His evidence for what may be lying behind this passage has resonated the most with me. He writes:

“We see a similar connection between idolatry and excessive lust and perversion in the Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish apocryphal text dating from a period not long before Paul’s writings. 

‘For the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life. . . . For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery. For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil.’ (Wisdom 14:12, 23-28)

(Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, p. 154)

The fact that these authors tie idolatry to objectifying lust is telling. As we continue, ask yourself: is what Paul could have been writing about even remotely related to committed, faithful, consensual, loving same-sex relationships then or today? Paul’s culture viewed same-sex relations as conducted by straight people going against their natural, straight orientation because of insatiable sexual lust. 

Brownson offers more evidence from Roman orator Chrysostom:

“The Roman orator Dio Chrysostom, for example, who wrote shortly after Paul’s time, speaks of same-sex eroticism as the manifestation of insatiable lust: The man whose appetite is insatiate in such things, when he finds there is no scarcity, no resistance, in this field, will have contempt for the easy conquest and scorn for a woman’s love, as a thing too readily given — in fact, too utterly feminine — and will turn his assault against the male quarters, eager to befoul the youth who will very soon be magistrates and judges and generals, believing that in them he will find a kind of pleasure difficult and hard to procure. His state is like that of men who are addicted to drinking and wine-bibbing, who after long and steady drinking of unmixed wine, often lose their taste for it and create an artificial thirst by the stimulus of sweating, salted foods, and condiments.” (Ibid., pp. 154-155)

So far, what Paul is describing looks nothing like committed, faithful, consensual, loving same-sex relationships aligned with whichever orientation one naturally posseses.

But the example that forever changed how I read Romans 1 is the story of Gaius Caligula, a Roman emperor whose excesses and lust fit Paul’s description in Romans 1 perfectly. 

Please forgive the length of this next passage from Brownson. I want you to get the whole story. Content note: this story contains graphic sexual violence, including rape and forced same-sex relations as entertainment.

“Neil Elliott has called attention to the striking similarities between Paul’s language and the incredible greed, violence, and sexual excesses of Gaius Caligula, an emperor who reigned in a period not too long before Paul wrote Romans. First of all, Gaius is closely linked to the practice of idolatry. The Roman writer Suetonius reports how Gaius 

‘set up a special temple to his own godhead, with priests and with victims of the choicest kind.’ 

Another Roman writer, Dio Cassius, comments negatively on how Gaius was the only emperor to claim to be divine and to be the recipient of worship during his own lifetime. Gaius also tried at one point to erect a statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem; he was dissuaded only by a delegation from Herod Agrippa. Hence the link between Gaius and idolatry would have been well-known indeed, particularly in Jewish circles. 

But Gaius also serves as “Exhibit A” for out-of-control lust. Suetonius reports how Gaius 

‘lived in perpetual incest with all his sisters, and at a large banquet he placed each of them in turn below him, while his wife reclined above’.

He records gruesome examples of Gaius’s arbitrary violence, vindictiveness, and cruelty. Later, Suetonius chronicles Gaius’s sexual liaisons with the wives of dinner guests, raping them in an adjoining room and then returning to the banquet to comment on their performance. Various same-sex sexual encounters between Gaius and other men are similarly recounted. Finally, a military officer whom he had sexually humiliated joined a conspiracy to murder him, which they did less than four years into his reign. Suetonius records that Gaius was stabbed through the genitals when he was murdered. One wonders whether we can hear an echo of this gruesome story in Paul’s comments in Romans 1:27: 

‘Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own person the due penalty for their error.’ 

Gaius Caligula graphically illustrates the reality of which Paul speaks in Romans 1: the movement from idolatry to insatiable lust to every form of depravity, and the violent murderous reprisal that such behavior engenders. 

Interestingly, Elliott notes how the Jewish writer Philo writes in similarly scathing terms of the evils of Gaius Caligula, interpreting his depravity as the result of his refusal to honor God, and his death as a manifestation of divine justice. This suggests that Gaius’s excesses and the divine judgment incurred by them were a common theme that would have been familiar to many Jews in the ancient world.”

(Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, pp. 156-158).

If Brownson is correct and Paul is referring to Gaius Caligula’s actual behavior, which Paul’s contemporaries, Philo, Dio Cassius, and Dio Chrysostom all wrote about with similar language, then he is describing harmful behavior that most LGBTQ people would condemn alongside most straight, cisgender people. Like everyone else in his society, Paul knew nothing of what we refer to today as someone’s sexual orientation. The only instances of same-sex relations that Paul wrote about were rooted in Gaius’ violent lustfulness. Gaius’ narrative doesn’t even remotely represent the numberless committed, faithful, consensual, loving same-sex couples whose love—not lust—was forcibly hidden for their own safety from straight, cisgender people like me.

The violating behavior of Gaius Caligula should be rightly condemned. And still I have yet to meet a Christian LGBTQ person or couple who even remotely resembles what we have read about this week. 

Do we have the courage to admit our interpretations have been wrong? Can we own up when our interpretations have done demonstrable bodily harm to a group of humans born different than others? Do we have the courage to let go of those damaging interpretations and make them give way to life-giving interpretations instead? 

We have much to ponder this week. We also have much to apologize for.

I hoping to conclude next week as we consider one more New Testament passage and then return to the Genesis story.

For now, remember:

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)


HeartGroup Application

This week I want to ask you, as a group, to discuss your progress on last week’s HeartGroup Application.  You were to make a list of ways you, as a group, can be more inclusive of those others are excluding and then begin putting them into practice.

  1. How were you successful this week?
  2. How were you not successful this week?
  3. Looking at both of the above, what can you do better this week?

Next week will be our last installment in this series and I’ll have a very special offer for our HeartGroups to engage more deeply in the work of creating safe spaces. Until then, I’m so glad you’re still with us along this journey. Together we can shape our society into a safe, compassionate, just home for all.

Where you are today, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Calling Good Evil (Part 3 of 5)

Herb Montgomery | March 15, 2019

Picture of ripples from a droplet in a rainbow colored pond.
Photo Credit: Jordan McDonald on Unsplash

“Using the term ‘homosexual’ in these translations represents negative cultural bias. If these passages were free from homophobic bias, they would read ‘pederasty.’ One must ask which interpretation is more culturally biased, and more so, what is the fruit of each interpretation? One produces demonstrable bodily harm to a group of human beings because they are born different. And that should warn us.”


“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)

This week we’re continuing our look at passages that Christians have typically interpreted and used in ways that harm LGBTQ people and others. There are a myriad of ways to interpret the passages we are considering in this series, so I want to remind us to continue asking ourselves, what is the fruit of how I interpret these passages? Are my interpretations doing harm or are my interpretations life giving? As Jesus said, “No good tree [or interpretation] bears bad fruit.”

A few years back, I listened to a presentation by Justin Lee where he mentioned Mark Noll’s book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Lee brought up Noll’s book because of the striking similarities between the theological crisis slavery and the abolition movement brought to Christianity in America and today’s schisms caused by churches’ refusal to recognize, include, embrace, and celebrate Christians who identify as LGBTQ. The United Methodist Church’s recent decisions are just one example. Immediately after listening to Lee, I purchased Noll’s book and was shocked at how similar the arguments for and against abolition were to today’s arguments for and against inclusion of LGBTQ Christians as members and as clergy in the Christian church. 

Noll writes: 

“Nuanced biblical attacks on American slavery faced rough going precisely because they were nuanced. This position could not simply be read out of any one biblical text; it could not be lifted directly from the page. Rather, it needed patient reflection on the entirety of the Scriptures; it required expert knowledge of the historical circumstances of ancient Near Eastern and Roman slave systems as well as of the actually existing conditions in the slave states; and it demanded that sophisticated interpretative practice replace a commonsensically literal approach to the sacred text.” (Mark A. Noll. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, p. 49)

As we turn to the New Testament passages under our consideration, we too must pay attention to nuance. We must do more than engage in surface readings of passages that too easily can be interpreted through our own unseen biases. We need not throw out our sacred text. We must simply learn to look more deeply at passages in their context and in our context today to arrive at life-giving interpretations. 

This is keenly true of our first two passages.

1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10

The term “homosexuality,” though invented in the late 1800s, did not appear in any Bible before 1946. This is significant. As I argued last week, the passages in the Hebrew scriptures that Christians typically associate with loving same-sex relationships were not addressing same-sex attraction as we understand it today. Christians for most of history read these two New Testament passages very differently than those translated recently.

I want you to see the progression in translations. 

King James Version (1611):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, 

1 Timothy 1:10: For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine;

Revised English Bible (1989):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Surely you know that wrongdoers will never possess the kingdom of God. Make no mistake: no fornicator or idolater, no adulterer or sexual pervert. 

1 Timothy 1:10: And fornicators, perverts, kidnappers, liars, perjurers—in fact all whose behaviour flouts the sound teaching

The two Greek keywords in these passages are malakoi and arsenokoitai. These words are extremely difficult to translate. We’ve seen that the passages in the Hebrew scriptures usually associated with our topic are actually referring to sexual violence that men used to terrorize or dehumanize other men in times of war. Brownson also reveals that these two passages were not speaking of what we call homosexuality today, but were describing the abusive Roman practice of pederasty (sex between an older man and a young boy): sex with a minor, which would today be condemned as rape by the LGBTQ community.

“[Arsenokoitai] is particularly problematic because there is no attested usage of this word preceding the New Testament documents — that is, in extrabiblical literature — that might provide additional information about its range of meaning. But the most important thing to recognize is that there are two words, not just one. Most scholars recognize that the presence of these two words reflects widespread assumptions throughout the ancient world about male-male homosexual activity: almost all the documents discussing male same-sex eroticism assume a distinction between active older men (commonly referred to in Greek as erastai) and passive younger males (commonly referred to as erōmenoi) — in other words, the practice of pederasty. The malakoi (“ softies”) are the younger, passive erōmenoi, and the arsenokoitai (“ man-bedders”) are the older, active erastai. (James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, p. 274, emphasis added.)

Brownson concludes on the next page:

“But when we take the original social context of these vice lists seriously, we again recognize a gap between what these vice lists are rejecting and what is happening in committed same-sex relationships today.” (Ibid., p. 275.)

After 1946, though, there is an obvious homophobic bias in New Testament translations that is not warranted by the original languages. Where the original languages address sexual and power violations between an adult and a child, i.e. injustice, we begin to see after 1946 generic homophobia instead.

Here are a few examples from more contemporary translations:

New International Version (2011):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 

1 Timothy 1:10: for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.

Notice how in the NIV the wording is “men who have sex with men.” The pederasty reference in the original language is completely and, with bias, ignored.

New American Standard  (1960):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 

1 Timothy 1:10: and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, 

Today’s New International Version (2005):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals

1 Timothy 1:10: for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers. And it is for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine

New Revised Standard Version (1989):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 

1 Timothy 1:10: fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching.

We’ve considered what was really happening in the ancient Sodom story. The term “sodomites” used in the New Revised Standard Version is a misnomer and betrays a heterosexist bias and the cultural normativity of our day. 

That’s the biggest point this week. Those who seek to interpret these Bible texts in more life-giving ways within the LGBTQ community are often accused of allowing the present culture to bias them. But what we see in the progression of translations over the last half-century is that translating 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 terms as homosexuality rather than pederasty allows contemporary cultural homophobia to bias the translations while completely ignoring the cultural context which these passages were originally intended for and written in. 

Using the term “homosexual” in these translations represents negative cultural bias. If these passages were free from homophobic bias, they would read “pederasty.” One must ask which interpretation is more culturally biased, and more so, what is the fruit of each interpretation? One produces demonstrable bodily harm to a group of human beings because they are born different. And that should warn us. 

In the Jesus story, some religious leaders (scribes, Sadducees, some Pharisees) taught interpretations of the Torah and practiced a kind of holiness that marginalized the most vulnerable. Jesus, like the prophets before him, instead valued people and interpretations of the Torah that were life-giving rather than destructive. Jesus practiced a kind of holiness that expressed itself in a preferential option for the vulnerable. Even if, as a Christian, you deem same-sex attraction as condemned by your sacred text, you still have one grave reality staring back at you in the face: As a Jesus follower, why are the results, the fruits, of your interpretation so different from Jesus and so identical to those in the story who crucified Jesus? We must let this contradiction confront us.

Regardless of our claim, the fact that LGBTQ Christian youth have such a higher suicide rate in our Christian faith tradition, a rate that is increased by their being “Christian” and having been rejected by their religious families, a rate that is eight times higher rate than non-Christian youth who are accepted, all of this screams to us that in all our piety and holiness, we have imbibed more the spirit of those who stood in opposition to the Jesus of the story than we have the spirit of Jesus himself.

Being LGBTQ has not taken the life of one Christian gay young person, but our interpretations and the way we are relating to them has.

If sin is wrong because it produces death and does harm, and how we are to responding to our LGBTQ population is producing death, you have to ask where is the sin? First get the log out of your own eye, then you will see more clearly to get the dust out of someone else’s.

For the sake of every Christian LGBTQ young person who is struggling with this right now as I write, for the sake of every last phone call made and every effort engaged to talk someone back down off the ledge, it is time for change. 

If you are following Jesus, it’s time for change. Please don’t say you’re simply standing up for what is right. Those who rejected and crucified Jesus felt they were too. Jesus stood up to defend those who were being damaged by those who were standing up for what they interperated as right. It’s time that we and our Jesus looked more like the one in the story.

Next week, we’ll consider Romans 1.

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)

HeartGroup Application

First let me say, it’s good to be back.  While I have been traveling over the past few weeks, a lot has been happening in the Christian LGBTQ community in relation to the recent decisions made by the United Methodist Church.

It was a deeply disappointing to watch for many of us who were hoping for and even expecting a very different outcome. I’m encouraged personally to see how many within the Methodist tradition are standing their holy ground.  Churches who have been welcoming and affirming across the nation are choosing to be excluded on the basis of whom they include rather than included because of whom they exclude.

I would like your HeartGroup this week to sit down and discuss three ways your little group can become more welcoming and affirming, too. It’s never a bad time to become more inclusive of those others are marginalizing. As we have often discussed, Jesus modeled and practiced a preferential option for those others excluded. How can your group do the same. 

After you’ve listed three, make a timeline, and begin putting all three into practice.

Together we have the ability to be a source of change in our society. 

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are today, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.   

Calling Good Evil (Part 2 of 5)

by Herb Montgomery | February 15, 2019

“My purpose in sharing their work with you is so that each of us can do our own homework, putting in the energy to read, study, and grapple before we ask someone in the Christian LGBTQ community to answer questions they have already answered multiple times and in multiple ways. These discussions are not academic for them. They are personally invested and many are tired of continually arguing about their existence. They already exist and have callings to pursue. It’s up to you how you respond. With that said, I want to offer some help to those who are sincerely searching, doing their homework, and wanting direction.”

“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:16-20)

As I shared last week, I’ve refrained from debating the passages we’ll be considering this week. I’ve also not wanted to be another straight, cisgender male getting air-time to speak on passages that LGBTQ people have been speaking and writing on for decades now. I didn’t want to take up space when I believe others’ voices need to be heard right now. 

And yet, as I said, I’m torn when I watch the toll it takes on my LGBTQ friends to repeatedly explain these passages. Speaking about this does not have the same emotional cost for me as it does for them. Perhaps I have been a little too silent: not silent in my affirmation, but silent on some of the ways I arrive at affirmation. 

So I’ve promised to amplify two voices on this topic: the excellent work of Matthew Vines, a writer and speaker in the LGBTQ community that Jesus followers should be listening to, and James Brownson, a Bible scholar and parent of a child in the LGBTQ community. 

My purpose in sharing their work with you is so that each of us can do our own homework, putting in the energy to read, study, and grapple before we ask someone in the Christian LGBTQ community to answer questions they have already answered multiple times and in multiple ways. These discussions are not academic for them. They are personally invested and many are tired of continually arguing about their existence. They already exist and have callings to pursue. It’s up to you how you respond. 

With that said, I want to offer some help to those who are sincerely searching, doing their homework, and wanting direction.

Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian is very readable. It’s not written for scholars but for average people. Brownson’s book, The Bible, Gender, and Sexuality,is a definitive work on affirming Christian theology. It played a significant role in my own journey of learning about affirming theology.

What follows is a brief explanation of how I interpret each passage typically used to address LGBTQ people. These are not exhaustive defenses of each passage, but brief summaries—an introduction to get you started. For a more detailed discussion of each passage, I recommend the two resources above. 

Let’s begin.

Genesis 19

This passage is an ancient story of a city’s xenophobic refusal to show hospitality to strangers. This refusal came out of the townspeople’s desire to protect their affluence from the threat of having to share with others. The city, Sodom, was located in a coveted, agriculturally fertile region. Much like the U.S., which has recently separated migrant children from their parents on its southwest borders, Sodom developed an effective strategy of terrorizing potential migrants to keep foreigners away.

In the story, Lot was different. He saw two foreigners in his town and invited them to his home for the evening to keep them safe, hoping to send them secretly on their way at the first light of dawn. What happened that night was terrifying and an intentional message to all foreigners to stay away!

“The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. ‘My lords,’ he said, ‘please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.’ ‘No,’ they answered, ‘we will spend the night in the square.’ But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.’” (Genesis 19:1-5)

Typically, Christians use this story to marginalize those with same sex attraction/orientation or in same sex loving relationships. I believe these interpretations miss the mark in a most destructive way for those who identify as LGBTQ. 

In this story and culture, rape was a way to inflict the worst possible humiliation on another, and was rooted in ingrained, patriarchal gender roles. (See Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East) The laser beam of convicting truth in these ancient tales should not be focused on members of the LGBTQ community but rather on people who use sexual violence (or any form of terror) against others and on the kinds of xenophobic actions the United States is committing at its borders and against immigrants across the country. 

Hospitality toward strangers was and still is a deeply held Jewish value (see Deuteronomy 26:12; Deuteronomy 24:19-21; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; Deuteronomy 10:19).

The Jewish followers of Jesus carry on this tradition of hospitality toward strangers in the New Testament scriptures as well. This passage from the book of Hebrews almost echoes the story of Sodom:

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

The story of Sodom is not about the LGBTQ community or LGBTQ people’s loving relationships. Instead it has everything to do with people who were extravagantly affluent and did not wish to share. 

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (Ezekiel 16.49-50)

The story of Sodom has nothing to do with sexual orientation.or loving same-sex relationships. It’s rather about the evil of responding to strangers with violence, in this case sexual violence, especially when their lives depend on your welcome and hospitality. And it is a warning against xenophobia and the terror tactics xenophobes employ. (For additional background, read Judges 19:11-30; see also Rape as a “weapon of war” against men, Male rape survivors fight stigma in Uganda, and Male Rape and Human Rights). 

Leviticus 18

Leviticus 18:22 reads, “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” 

Christian affirming theologies interpret this passage in many different ways. The way that speaks most deeply to me and my sense of justice is related to our previous story in Sodom, which does not address same-sex sex between women but only what men to do other men. 

Again, this passage is not informed by what we understand today as sexual orientation. It’s informed by the sexual violence that men inflict on other men to diminish them (see again Judges 19:11-30, Genesis 19:1-5, and the above sources referenced). As I just explained, a man raping another man intended to inflict the worst possible humiliation on him. In that culture, women were wrongly considered less than men and so one way to dehumanize a man was to lower him to the same status as a woman. 

So in this culture the law prohibited diminishing men by treating them as if they were women. Both men and women were raped in times of war and conquest, and still are today. But it is shocking to see how lightly many portions of our sacred text considered the rape of women. We seem to see much more concern with protecting men from being raped by other men than with protecting women from rape or raping women being “detestable.”

Again, this was an androcentric culture of deeply rooted patriarchy. Today, we still see misogyny and toxic masculinity at the heart of many men’s reaction to same sex relationships between men. Many men today seem to more easily tolerate same sex relationships between women than those between men. Some even treat same-sex sex between women as a sexual fetish. 

I remember sitting in a restaurant speaking with a friend of mine whose son had just come out to him as gay. My friend was beside himself. He stated how deeply repulsed he was by same-sex intimacy between men. He said he didn’t even want to be in the same room with “them,” and now his own son was “one of them” too! 

I looked at him and risked an accusation. I was banking on our relationship allowing me to get away with it. I looked him in the eye and said, “You just don’t like the idea of men looking at you the way you typically look at women.” 

The light came on in his eyes and the coin dropped in the slot. His misogyny and objectification of women was deeply tied to his inability to accept same sex relationships among men, including his own son’s.

I’m happy to say that conversation was a turning point for my friend. Today, he fully embraces and celebrates his son, and his relationships with women have become a million times more healthy. He is an outspoken ally of LGBTQ folks. He’s come a long way. 

What a contemporary reading of Leviticus should warn men about today is the intrinsic harm of believing women are somehow less than men. I’m convinced that if someone truly believed women were equal with men, then seeing men who don’t align with our culture’s toxic definitions of what it means to be a “man” would not threaten those of us who identify as male. And yet, even in saying all of this, it says a lot when “masculinity” is still defined as “not femininity.” When that’s the case, the rape of men is a problem because it treats men like women. The deeper violation is that sexual violence is a problem on its own terms and one that harms people of all genders. To fail to see this is still as androcentric as the culture out of which Leviticus was written.

We’ll look at four New Testament passages next week. Then we’ll close with a look at Genesis 1. 

For now, remember:

“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:16-20)

HeartGroup Application

I grew up in a faith tradition that looked at the Bible as having only one right interpretation and many wrong interpretations. I was wrongly taught that one could objectively find this one right interpretations if one practiced the proper hermeneutics. 

I no longer subscribe to this way of looking at sacred texts. Our biases are inescapable. We all have blind spots. Even in our attempts to be objective, we rarely recognize our own biases and blind spots. Fish don’t know they are wet. When we look at the text as having only one right interpretation, the result is that we seek to find that right interpretation, regardless of whether that fruit is harmful for life giving.  We want to be right rather than being righteous.  The goal, I believe, should rather be to allow the text to speak to us in our contexts today with the most life giving, life affirming, life celebrating interpretations our present level of knowledge will enable.

Sacred texts of all religions, including the Bible, can have a myriad of interpretations and applications. The goal is to embrace life giving interpretations and move away from interpretations that do harm to oneself and others. Asking whether an interpretation is right or not, I believe is the wrong question.  We must ask if our interpretations are righteous. What fruit do they produce? Is the fruit harmful or life embracing, life giving?  Does it liberate or oppress? Do our interpretations fuel injustice or do they empower us to move away from injustice toward the work of shaping of a just, compassionate, and safe society for everyone?

The choice, including in our interpretations, is an ancient one—life or death. (Deuteronomy 30:15-2) How can you know if you’re on the right track? Consider if your interpretations are bringing life or doing harm. “By their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:16) If your interpretation of a passage is doing harm, don’t hold on to out of a prioritized value of being right or because it is an interpretations that most resonates with your own biases, perceived or otherwise. Prioritize people first. People matter. Loosen your grip on harmful interpretations regardless of how long you’ve held on to them, and be open to embracing other interpretations that are righteous, that prioritize people’s well being, that are just, and that give life.

This week:

1. Come up with a list of three (if you can) interpretations of Bible passages that you believe are harmful. 

2. Discuss with your HeartGroup the harm you have witnessed from these interpretations.

3. Discuss with your group alternative interpretations and/or begin seeking out new interpretations with the goal of interpreting your sacred texts in more life giving ways.

Thanks for journeying with us so far. I’m deeply grateful that you’re here.  We’ll keep exploring next week. This week, wherever you are right now, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice. 

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Calling Good Evil (Part 1 of 5)

Herb Montgomery | February 8, 2019

“And yet I’m torn when I watch the toll it takes on my LGBTQ friends to repeatedly explain these passages. Speaking about them does not have the same emotional cost for me as it does for them. Perhaps I have been a little too silent. I haven’t been silent in my affirmation. But I may have been too silent on some of the ways I arrive at affirmation. So this week and next, I want to amplify two voices on this topic.”

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.” (Matthew 12:33)

In the last month, I’ve spent the last two weekends in the company of LGBTQ Christian communities. Every time I spend time with communities like these, I am deeply moved by their compassion, insight, and wisdom. The people I’ve met have always failed to match the mischaracterizations that homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic Christian communities assign to them. I walk away from each experience with a deeper understanding of my own faith and what it means for me to follow Jesus today our work of love, compassion, action, and justice.

During these visits I bumped into a high school friend who I haven’t seen since graduation. He told me of his sister, a deeply Christian lesbian woman, who recently married the love of her life, a pastor. On the morning of her wedding, her mother sent her a very ugly email. This mother, who had refused to attend the wedding, wrote this message to her daughter: “What you’re doing today makes me want to go jump off a bridge.”

When I heard this story I sat aghast. What is it about anti-LGBTQ Christianity that causes parents to so deeply reject and shame their own children? I have yet to understand this. 

For many Christian parents, discovering their child is attracted to those of the same sex or identifies with a different gender than the one on their birth certificate begins their journey of discovering that everything their faith tradition has taught them of the LGBTQ community has been deeply misinformed at best and intentionally maligning at worst. They discover they were wrong. 

But far more parents in these same faith traditions don’t make this journey. Far more often, parents reject their own children in order to be faithful to their anti-LGBTQ faith. Religion can be a powerful force of good in the world. It can also be a powerful force of the worst kinds of evil.

This week I want us to consider a story from the gospels of Mark and Matthew where Jesus was also mischaracterized and maligned. Jesus has strong words here for those who malign that which is holy, just, and good and call it evil.

But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.’ Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’” (Matthew 12:24-37; see also Mark 3:23-29)

In this story, Jesus teaches the principle of knowing a tree by its fruit. His community had ways to interpret their sacred texts that could gave them ample basis to reject him. But there were also other ways to interpret those same sacred texts that would have freed them to embrace him and his life-giving teachings. 

How do we know if our interpretations of our sacred text, in any religion, are moving in the right direction? Jesus tells us in this story: What is the fruit of your interpretation? If the tree is good, its fruit will be good. If the tree is bad, its fruit will be as well. 

While I was in Arizona last month, a sincere questioner asked me how I interpret the Bible’s passages that contemporary homophobic and biphobic Christians use to scare people away from affirming LGBTQ people. For a long time, I’ve refrained from debating these passages. A dear friend of mine calls such debates “text hockey.” I’ve also not wanted to be another straight, cisgender male getting air-time to speak on passages that LGBTQ people have been speaking and writing on for decades now. I didn’t what to take up space when I believe others’ voices need to be heard right now. 

And yet I’m torn when I watch the toll it takes on my LGBTQ friends to repeatedly explain these passages. Speaking about them does not have the same emotional cost for me as it does for them. Perhaps I have been a little too silent. I haven’t been silent in my affirmation. But I may have been too silent on some of the ways I arrive at affirmation. 

So this week and next, I want to amplify two voices on this topic. First is the excellent work of Matthew Vines, a voice in the LGBTQ community that Jesus followers should be listening to. The second is James Brownson, a parent of a child in the LGBTQ community. 

I want to share their work with you so that each of us can do our own homework, putting in the energy to read, study, and grapple before we ask someone in the Christian LGBTQ community to answer questions they have already answered multiple times and in multiple ways. These discussions are not academic for them. They are personally invested and many are tired of continually arguing about their existence. They already exist and have callings to pursue. It’s up to you to how you respond. With that said, I want to offer some help to those who are sincerely searching, doing their homework, and wanting direction.

Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian is very readable. It’s not written for scholars but for average people. Brownson’s book, The Bible, Gender, and Sexuality is a definitive work on affirming Christian theology. It played a significant role in my own journey learning about affirming theology.

As Vines reminds us, “Christians did not change their minds about the solar system because they lost respect for their Christian forebears or for the authority of Scripture. They changed their minds because they were confronted with evidence their predecessors had never considered” (p. 24). He also writes, “The telescope didn’t lead Christians to reject Scripture. It simply led them to clarify their understanding of Scripture” (ibid. p. 38). 

Certainly there are multiple ways texts can be interpreted. We must reach for the most life-giving choices when possible. What are the fruit of the interpretations we choose? We must be honest about the fruit that is born from homophobic and biphobic theologies. We must also be honest about the life-giving fruit of our Christian LGBTQ siblings’ affirming theology. The life-giving fruit of their affirming theology is something we cannot afford to ignore.

Jesus said that it’s one thing to mistake an evil thing good, and quite another to label something that’s holy, just, and good evil. Jesus called the latter unpardonable. 

So next week, we’ll begin in the book of Genesis and progress through the texts Christians typically use to harm our LGBTQ friends, relatives, and neighbors. Each text will be well worth our time to explore. I’m so glad you’re here with us on this journey.

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.” (Matthew 12:33)

HeartGroup Application

In your HeartGroups this week, discuss the meaning of these two words—intrinsic and imposed

  1. Have you ever experienced imposed rules within a community (religious or secular) prohibiting actions that you knew had no negative intrinsic result? 
  2. Have you ever experienced a lack of concern, acceptance or even encouragement of attitudes and actions that you knew to intrinsically bring harm or bear destructive fruit?
  3. Discuss both of these experiences within your group this week. What are the differences between actions to which are added imposed results such as imposed penalties or affirmation, and actions that have their own intrinsically harmful or beneficial results? Is there a place for imposed rules and consequences when properly associated with actual intrinsically destructive choices? Can imposed rules be abused? Can they be misapplied in ways that label things as bad or harmful that can are actually good or at least neutral?  What can your group learn from this discussion? How can your group become a healthier community that bears life-giving fruit, itself? How can your HeartGroup community impact your larger community in life-giving ways as well?

Thank you for checking in with us this week.  I’m so glad you are here. 

Wherever you are today, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.  

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.