Three Paths Toward Change Rejected

Herb Montgomery | July 31, 2020

diverging paths


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


The beginning of Mark’s gospel reads:

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

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

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

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

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

Bread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, Brown and Parker:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complicity

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

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

Much more needs to be said about this.

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

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

Another world is possible. We must reject some common means to get it.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Have you experienced any of the three methods mentioned this week used by sectors of the Christian church? What are some examples? Have you witnessed secular social justice movements or organizations promote any of the above methods? Discuss with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Building the World We Want to Live In


“Today, many of us are seeing our society being pushed to yet another breaking point. Blessed are the ones calling for change now. Blessed are the ones modeling a compassionate new world. Blessed are the ones shaping a world that is just and safe for all, inclusive of those vulnerable now. Blessed are the ones pointing the way to healing, personal and private as well as public and systemic.”


In Luke’s gospel, we read,

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” —Jesus (Luke 13:34-35)

Christians have long interpreted this week’s passage in deeply antisemitic. But this passage is not a critique of Judaism or Jewish people. It explicitly refers to a “city.” It is a civic critique, not a religious one.

There was no such thing as a separation of “church” and “state” when this passage was written. But Jesus is not complaining about Judaism, his own religion. His complaint is about the power brokers, economic elites, and those privileged in the temple-state based in Jerusalem who resisted his distributive justice teachings as well as those in the Torah and from the Hebrew prophets. The text is not anti-Jewish. It’s opposed to the exploitation of the poor.

Jesus himself was a Jew. He was never a Christian. And although Luke’s gospel was written by Christians, we do not have to interpret this passage in an anti-Jewish way. Jesus was one of many voices within Judaism calling for a return to the economic justice teachings of the Torah (see Deuteronomy 15). Any society, Jewish or not, produces tension when systemic injustice is designed to benefit a few at the top of society at the expense of the masses on the margins and undersides of that society. The passage could today just as easily say “America, America, the country that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”

This is a passage that implies repentance. The Hebrew word for repentance is teshuvah. Teshuvah suggests “turning”—a turning from one path to an alternative. Jesus was calling those in control of his own society to repent, to turn from their economic violence against the poor toward a path of distributive justice. The verb form of teshuvah is shuv, which means to return. Originally it suggested returning to God from exile,” to go from the place of alienation and separation back to God. It meant a return from the path of destruction and the way of violence to God and God’s path of life, the way of peace. In Jesus’ world, it would mean returning to the Torah’s economic teachings. The rich were to be taxed and their taxes and gains distributed back to the poor. Debts were to be canceled, and poverty eliminated.

“At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORD’S time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.” (Deuteronomy 14:28-15:5, emphasis added)

Repenting, in the Jesus story, meant leaving the path of economic exploitation and “returning” to a path toward a world where no one had too much while others didn’t have enough.

Today, capitalism has a long history of straining its inherent contradictions to the breaking point and causing a social and economic crisis. Could we be on the edge of another such moment now in the U.S. as a result of the response to the current pandemic? We have more people in the U.S. unemployed than we had during the Great Depression. What might Jesus’ economic teachings offer us right now?

Gather Your Children Together

Like the Hebrew prophets of the poor, Luke’s Jesus confronts the state’s exploitation of the poor (see Luke 20:47; 21:2) with imagery that expresses the call for justice. The image in Luke is that of a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings in the presence of a predator. This image could represent Jesus’ desire to protect the poor from the predatory economic practices in his society. By the late 60s CE, the poor of Judea had had enough of their exploitation and they rose up. They overtook the temple state in Jerusalem, burned the debt records, and then expanded their uprising to oppose Roman oppression as well. The Jewish-Roman war, which ended in 69 C.E., did not end well. Rome responded to the uprising by razing the Jerusalem temple to the ground in 70 C.E. The only response more excessive in the Judean province was Rome’s response to the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136 C.E.) when Rome genocidally depopulated Judean communities in that region and forbade surviving Jews from ever entering Jerusalem again.

How fitting that Jesus would take up the image of a mother hen covering her baby chicks with her wings, protecting them from the circling predatory eagle in the sky above. It was a very fitting description: Rome’s symbol was the eagle.

Today, many of us are seeing our society being pushed to yet another breaking point. Blessed are the ones calling for change now. Blessed are the ones modeling a compassionate new world. Blessed are the ones shaping a world that is just and safe for all, inclusive of those vulnerable now. Blessed are the ones pointing the way to healing, personal and private as well as public and systemic.

I recently learned of a youth-led campaign here in West Virginia in response to the pandemic. The Youth Mutual Aid Fund is a partnership between the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project (The STAY Project) and The Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition (KSEC). West Virginian and Appalachian communities have a long history of pulling together to support one another during tough times. As someone who sees mutual aid as a central teaching in the Jesus stories, the Youth Mutual Aid Fund immediately caught my attention. One of their catch phases is. “Modeling the new world, building the world we want to live in.”

How can we model the new world? How do you want to begin building the kind of world you want to live in?

Disproportionate Impact

I learned about what STAY and KSEC were doing the same day I read about how “COVID-19 tore through a black Baptist church community in WV. Nobody said a word about it.” It cannot be stated enough that although we are all affected by this pandemic we are not all affected equally. COVID-19 is amplifying already present injustices in our social system. An economic system that plunges some communities into ways of surviving and working that make them vulnerable to certain diseases only makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19. This pandemic is disproportionally impacting Black communities and communities of color.

We can, and must do better.

The phrase in our above passage, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” can take on new significance in our context.

Will the power brokers and economic elites be any more open to more equity as we witness a massive loss of life? Or will we keep capitalism going at the cost of human life? All human life is precious. On the one hand, we have a massive loss of life because of the virus. On the other, we have a massive loss of life because of our fragile economic system. Millions are unemployed and hungry. There must be another path!

Will those who have long benefitted from the present system be any more open to structural, systemic changes today than they have been in the past? Again, that phrase haunts me, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

I see so many helpers right now. I also see structural, systemic inequities that need to be changed. What are you seeing? Again, how can you, this coming week, model the new world? How do you want to begin building the world you want to live in?

HeartGroup Application

We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this pandemic has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?

1. Share something from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode that spoke to you with your HeartGroup.

2. What could the economic teachings of the Torah and the Gospels about debt forgiveness and wealth tithe (wealth tax) and redistribution to the poor and migrant communities look like if they were to be applied in our society presently during this pandemic?

3. This week, The Poor People’s Campaign launched the “Stay in Place Stay Alive, Organize, and Don’t Believe the Lies!” campaign. The term “essential workers” is evolving into meaning expendable workers. You can find out more and how you, too, can participate here. As part of this campaign, Faith leaders, faith communities, houses of worship are being called to help remember and honor the precious lives that we have lost and will continue to lose during this pandemic. To find out how your HeartGroup can participate, click #TollingTogether. This coming week, how can you as a group begin building the world you want to live in?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Growth For Growth’s Sake

Herb Montgomery | May 15, 2020

city scape


“The contradictions of our present economic system are being exposed more every passing day. The exploitations built into our present system are straining in this pandemic. A system with such a long history of placing profit above people and planet cannot easily pivot now to prioritizing people, especially not the most vulnerable people in our society.”


In Luke’s gospel we read:

“At that very time, there were some present that told him about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did. Then he told this parable: A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:1-9)

As we discussed in A Gospel for the Earth, Jesus had called the elites in his audience to make reparations to exploited and marginalized people in their society before the response to their exploitation escalated out of control (see Luke 12:58). In our passage today, some in his audience respond by raising Pilate’s slaying Galilean rebels. Did they bring up this incident as a rebuttal to Jesus’ call for reparations in a society on the verge of rebellion?

Rome very carefully watched when any of its subservient people congregated, but it especially watched those with subversive tendencies leaning toward revolt. The Galilean Jews certainly fit this description. Being exploited nationally by Rome and economically by Jewish elites cooperating with Rome left some on the edge of rebellion, ready to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression by any means necessary. One of the ways the elite responded was to accuse the exploited rebels who hungered and thirsted for things to be put right (see Matthew 5:6) of being “sinners” getting what they deserved. Jesus called them blessed.

The elites were victim-blaming. The oppressed class’s failure to put things right was not because they lacked moral uprightness. It was the result of an almost insurmountably heavy system that had been designed to work against them, violently if need be.

As we all respond to COVID-19 now, where do you see injustices in our society being laid bare, amplified, and pushed to a breaking point? Are you seeing those most vulnerable being blamed today? Who is defending the system now? Who is calling repeatedly for change?

There are some parallels between Jesus’ context and our own economic and political breaking point. The story in Luke invites us to ask: how can we stand in solidarity with vulnerable people who are hungering for things to be put right, right now?

Most scholars agree that in the Galilean revolt referred to in Luke 13, Roman soldiers must have surprised Galilean insurgents while the rebels were sacrificing in preparation for their revolt. The Roman soldiers slaughtered the Galileans right then and there, and the religiopolitical elite responded by questioning whether the people revolting had been morally upright. Jesus replied:

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”

He goes on to say:

“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Then Jesus responds to these objectors with a second occurrence everyone was talking about during that time:

“Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”

According to some sources, the tower of Siloam was a tower that Rome used for weapons storage. A group of Zealot insurgents had tried to dig a tunnel under the tower, hoping to seize the weapons stored there and use them in a violent revolt against the Romans. But the tower’s foundation was already decaying, and the Zealots’ tunnel further compromised the integrity of the foundation. The entire construction suddenly collapsed and claimed the lives of several Galileans.

Jesus said again:

“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

In Jesus’ calls for repentance, I don’t hear the evangelical, moralistic idea of repentance so many of us are used to today. I hear a Jewish prophet of the poor calling for a change in society so that the poor and indebted are not further exploited, but could experience the distributive justice called for by the Hebrew prophetic tradition (see the book of Amos).

Luke’s gospel was written long after Jerusalem’s catastrophic crisis in 70 C.E. Yet in that gospel, Jesus warns that if the people did not change their society’s path, inequities would continue to escalate until their society imploded and all would be destroyed together. Because it was written after the fact, Luke’s gospel can connect these dots for its audience.

Jesus then finishes this warning with a story. Please read this story prayerfully, remembering the social and political context in which Jesus told it:

“Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”’”

The system of exploitation of the masses for the benefit of a few was set on a collision course with annihilation if something didn’t change. What was the fruit the gardener looked for that would ensure it remains?

I believe it was a more distributively just shaping of society, where the rain fell and the sun shone on all equitably (see Matthew 5:45).

What does this mean for us today?

The contradictions of our present economic system are being exposed more every passing day. The exploitations built into our present system are straining in this pandemic. A system with such a long history of placing profit above people and planet cannot easily pivot now to prioritizing people, especially not the most vulnerable people in our society.

Our food distribution chain is breaking down.

People have lost their income.

They can’t afford to feed their families.

Those who were barely surviving already now can’t pay their rent and/or mortgages.

The solution here in the U.S. so far has been to plunge those in need further into debt. Bailouts for people in the U.S. are very different than those other countries are offering to their citizens. States’ are also quickly running out of money.

The immigrant population here is especially vulnerable during all of this, and our present food chain depends on them.

The for-profit-health system is also at a breaking point, and healthcare professionals now have to place their own lives at risk.

Nonprofits that typically provide charity are also feeling the strain as they operate at significantly lower income levels than they usually do.

It’s time to dream of and work toward a system the places people over profit. Imagine the world we could create if Jesus followers insisted on following Jesus’ clear call to distributive justice.

In Luke’s gospel, the fig tree continued to grow but did not produce any life-giving fruit.

Growth for growth’s sake in capitalist economics is called profit. It’s good for business. But on a cellular level in biology, it’s called cancer.

It’s not good for creatures or for the planet. And it’s not good for those at the bottom and edges of our present economic system. It was once named a recipe for potential disaster, and today it’s proving to be just that.

In our passage, the fig tree won’t be allowed to continue to grow exponentially or indefinitely without providing fruit for the sustenance and life of those around it.

What can this say to us right now during this crisis about our own systems?

Our present system is not working. It’s not simply not working and for those our present system deems “the least of these,” it’s doing immeasurable harm.

I want to believe that another world is possible.

If it is, we will have to choose it.

HeartGroup Application

We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this pandemic has proven. And we need each other during this time. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?

  1. How have Jesus’ social teachings spoken to you during our present pandemic? Share with your group.
  2. Our present system with its long history of placing profit above people and planet is not pivoting well now to prioritizing people, especially not the most vulnerable people in our society. What is the parable of the fig tree saying to you in this context this week? Share with your group.
  3. Thinking of those most impacted in our society by our present pandemic, a statement by Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas has been on my heart. In Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, writes, “God’s justice means a restoration of the dignity of all people. This begins with the crucified class of people . . . God’s peace thus requires a radical restructuring of a political, social and economic order that is sustained by and thus creates ‘crucified classes of people.’” (p. 200) This week, how can we work toward a world where crucified classes of people no longer exist. Brainstorm with your group. Then pick something from what you come up with and begin putting it into practice this coming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

A More Distributively Just Way

by Herb Montgomery | May 1, 2020

workers


“The present pandemic is laying bare other areas of our unsustainable and unjust system. What would a world look like that is a safe, compassionate, inclusive, and just home for all of God’s children? Seeking Jesus’ gospel vision for a distributively just society means making sure everyone has access to the means for life.”


Happy International Worker’s Day!

Every community has its own way of relating to the rejection of leaders in whom they see hope for the future wellbeing of their society.

“Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore, this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.” (Luke 11:49-51)

Many scholars believe this passage in Luke to have been written after the fall of Jerusalem. In this passage, the Gospel authors are trying to make sense of such devastation. Was their interpretation healthy and life-giving or not?

I want to be careful here. Christianity has a long, anti-Semitic history of attaching punitive explanations to Jerusalem’s destruction, saying it was God’s punishment of the city for rejecting Jesus. I don’t believe that, even if the gospel authors connected Jesus’ rejection with what later happened to Jerusalem.

Whether it was life-giving or not, though, they made this connection. I also see them making a much more organic, intrinsic connection between a society that rejected Jesus’ teachings about wealth redistribution and restructuring the community to prioritize the poor and the poor people’s uprising and the revolt of the late 60s. The poor people’s revolt led to the Jewish-Roman war of 66-69 and then to Rome’s reprisal and razing Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The connection is less divinely imposed and arbitrary and much more natural about a political, economic, and social cause and effect.

Today, we as a society are witnessing resistance to a more distributively just way of organizing our society. A widening gap between haves and have-nots has been building over the last half-century here in the U.S. Do Jesus’ economic and political teachings have anything to offer our lives today? Even if we were to reduce Jesus’ teachings to his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, might they be able to speak into our struggles today?

Take a moment to consider Jesus’ teaching of the Golden Rule. What would a society that prioritizes treating others as you would like to be treated look like? Would it be a system that made the members of the community more “selfish, hypocritical, crass and violent” (see Robert Owen’s, A New View of Society: Essays on the Principles of the Formation of Human Character, 1813), or would it create people who are less competitive, less individualistic, more generous, and collectively sustainable?

In Matthew’s gospel we read:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:12-14)

Jesus’ version of the “golden rule” was the small gate and narrow path that leads to life.

And in the context of the golden rule, two things have caught my attention over the past few weeks as we all respond to the COVID-19 pandemic: 1) the criminal justice system in the U.S. and 2) the economic impact on the U.S. migrant community.

Setting Prisoners Free

Luke 4:18-19 is one of the key points of Jesus’ gospel: setting prisoners free. What would that mean for us today? Two weeks ago, the U.S. Attorney General issued an emergency order calling for especially vulnerable prisoners to be released into home confinement. Because of how closely packed people are in the U.S. prison systems, physical distancing is impossible. Prisons are being revealed to be places of mass death placing all inmates, regardless of their charges, on a kind of death row. This is specifically concerning for those who have not committed violent crimes. I don’t believe in capital punishment, but people imprisoned for nonviolent offenses don’t deserve a death penalty in the form of COVID-19.

I also think of those behind bars whose sentencing has not come up yet, who are there, guilty or innocent, simply because they cannot afford bail. Poverty in our global society already means an earlier death for too many, and this is deeply concerning.

Jesus’ gospel called his listeners to liberate the poor, to give the entire “kingdom” to the poor. Jesus’ gospel called his listeners to shape their society according to distributive justice. In our current setting, people in prison could become infected with and die of COVID-19 only because they could not afford bail or some other technicality. That is immoral.

Hundreds of prisoners and prison workers have already tested positive for the virus. It is a cruel irony that prisoners are producing hand sanitizer for the outside world, hand sanitizer that is desperately needed within prisons, and yet the very prisoners producing the sanitizer are being denied access themselves. I heard on the news last week that 20% of people infected will need hospitalization and 5% will need to be placed on ventilators. What does this mean for our prison population, mostly and disproportionately people of color? COVID-19 sharpens an already unjust system with an even sharper lethal edge.

Again, what does it mean for us today to take Jesus’ gospel seriously, “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners” (Luke 4:18)? What does the golden rule look like in this context? What does basic humanity look like in this context?

Migrant Workers

My second concern over the last couple of weeks has been for the population of migrant workers at the heart of the U.S.’s food supply chain. These people are among those our present system deems the “least of these.” They already go to work every day in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. What does social distancing look like for them? They are not being provided with personal protective equipment and are working for poverty wages. They don’t receive any kind of extended sick leave or child care now that their children are not in school, nor are their work environments more sanitary or less crowded.

Thinking of our migrant community members working in these settings, I thought of a statement I read years ago now by Stephen J. Patterson:

“In the ancient world, those who lived on the margins of peasant life were never far from death’s door. In the struggle to survive, food was their friend and sickness their enemy. Each day subsistence peasants earn enough to eat for a day. Each day they awaken with the question: Will I earn enough to eat today? This is quickly followed by a second: Will I get sick today? If I get sick, I won’t eat, and if I don’t eat, I’ll get sicker. With each passing day, the spiral of starvation and sickness becomes deeper and finally, deadly. Crossan has argued that this little snippet of ancient tradition is critical to understanding why followers of Jesus and their empire of God were compelling to the marginalized peasants who were drawn to it. ‘Eat what is set before you and care for the sick.’ Here is the beginning of a program of shared resources of the most basic sort: food and care. It’s an exchange. If some have food, all will eat; if any get sick, someone who eats will be there to care for them. The empire of God was a way to survive—which is to say, salvation.” (The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins, p. 74)

The migrant farmworker community is a modern-day reflection of the original audience Jesus taught about a preferential option for positive systemic change.

Because of the U.S. food supply chain, these workers are deemed critically essential. Yet this system may break down soon if their situation doesn’t change. Many are in the U.S. working on H-2A visas. While the present administration touts stimulus packages for other kinds of workers in our society, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is presently pushing to reduce wages for H-2A workers. There has to be a better way to save farmers.

Leviticus includes a Jewish application of the golden rule to “foreigners”:

“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)

This text informed Jesus’ preaching on loving others as oneself. It is the basis of the Golden Rule.

What would a society look like if structured on the golden rule rather than profit or a corporation’s bottom line?

The present pandemic is laying bare other areas of our unsustainable and unjust system. What would a world look like that is a safe, compassionate, inclusive, and just home for all of God’s children? Seeking Jesus’ gospel vision for a distributively just society means making sure everyone has access to the means for life.

And depending on how we respond right now, it may also be said of the powerful and privileged elite today, “this generation will be held responsible for it all.”

HeartGroup Application

[We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful and resilient than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?]

1. We’ve discussed two sectors of our society deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. What other sectors of our society have been on your heart, lately? Share with your group.

2. Yesterday, Jim Wallis published UNEQUAL SUFFERING: HERE’S HOW CONGRESS SHOULD HELP on Sojourner’s website. Following Jesus involves taking action. Many charities are also on the front line providing care and help to those presently in need; many while operating with a lower level of contributions than is typical. What are you seeing organizations in your area doing and what can your HeartGroup do to come alongside these organizations and offer help? Discuss with your group.

3. Together, rewrite Matthew 25:35-36 in light of the present pandemic. Who would be listed if the text were to be written during our present crisis?

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Pick something from your discussion in number two and begin putting it into practice this coming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

Zacchaeus and Christian Support of Destructive Administrations

“What is needed for empowered, privileged Christians who support a corrupt administration today to follow Zacchaeus’ example? What is needed for Christians to take more seriously Jesus’ commands to stand with the vulnerable and those on the margins rather than the systems that harm them?”

Luke’s gospel brings us the story of a tax collector named Zacchaeus who walks away from his support of and participation in a systemically unjust and exploitative system to become a Jesus follower. In response to Zacchaeus, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

The picture we get from the synoptic gospels is of a 1st Century Jewish prophet of the poor traveling through his society’s margins, teaching and calling his audiences to a distributively just society where those on the edges are included. Jesus appears in the stories as one who, like prophets such as John the Baptist before him, was a voice on the margins, “crying in the wilderness. ” Jesus’ vision was of the kind of society that the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas refers to as God’s just future.

Do Jesus’ ethical teachings still offer anything relevant to us in the 21st century, as we work to reverse systemic injustice? I’m convinced they do.

Luke’s story indicates that Zacchaeus was Jewish but also complicit in the injustice of the larger Roman empire. Like many Christians today who continue to unconditionally support the present administration in the U.S. despite harms to decency, democracy, minoritized people, and our planet, Zacchaeus participated in Rome’s economic exploitation of the vulnerable people around him.

Yet Zacchaeus finally wakes up. Luke doesn’t tell us what caused him to. He only tells us that Jesus declares his intention to go to Zacchaeus home, and the crowd objects, rightly accusing the unjust Zacchaeus of being “a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stands up and declares, “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).

This was a deep reversal for Zacchaeus. He not only walks away from his support of Roman administration but he also offers reparations to those his previous actions harmed.

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

For my Christian friends, Jesus does not define salvation as a legal transaction in heaven that assures Zacchaeus of post-mortem bliss. Nor does Jesus define Zacchaeus’ salvation as a pardon or letting him off the hook. Jesus instead defines salvation as the healing of Zacchaeus’ most inward being, healing that manifests in Zacchaeus’ rejection of an unjust system and his decision to work to undo the injustice of that system.

When, as Christians, we view salvation as remote forgiveness, as convincing God to let us off the hook, or as obtaining a celestial ticket to heaven, we are actually defining salvation differently than Jesus did.

For Jesus, salvation was not about getting a person from a state of being unforgiving to a state of being forgiven. It wasn’t about getting someone out of a post-mortem hell and into a postmortem heaven. Salvation for Jesus in Luke was about change for those in Zacchaeus’ social location.

I want to be careful here. The change was not so that a person could be saved. The change itself was the salvation. When we define Jesus’ vision of salvation as getting free of heavenly legal charges rather than the healing, liberation, and reparations he taught during his life, even salvation labeled as “by grace” is just another form of legal-ism. In this story we see something different: someone was complicit with an unjust system’s harm of others and that someone made a radical change in the direction in his life and became a follower of Jesus, the Jewish prophet of the poor.

The second thing Jesus declares when Zacchaeus changes is “This man, too, is a son of Abraham.” Zacchaeus had been living outside of the distributive, economic teachings of the Torah, yet Jesus declares that he is a “son of Abraham, too.”

Luke contrasts the tax collector Zacchaeus with the wealthy religious teachers who had made fun of Jesus’ economic teachings two chapters previously.

“The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.” (Luke 16:14)

What this story communicates to me is that rejecting systemic injustice is not optional for those who desire to follow Jesus. People may bear the name of Christian, but if they support corrupt administrations who do harm in exchange for political favor or for the sake of winning a decades-long culture war, they are out of harmony with the teachings of Jesus.

I’d like to believe Zacchaeus understood this. Political, economic, religious, or even social advantage does not justify participating in or supporting a corrupt system that does harm.

What is needed for empowered, privileged Christians who support a corrupt administration today to follow Zacchaeus’ example? What is needed for Christians to take more seriously Jesus’ commands to stand with the vulnerable and those on the margins rather than the systems that harm them? What is needed for Christians to be more than simply believers in Jesus of the story, but followers of him as well?

Remember, the picture we get of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, is of an itinerant teacher gathering those who will join him in a distributively just way of organizing and doing life as a community called “the kingdom of God.” The “kingdom of God” is not a place in the heavens or a place some go when they die. The “kingdom of God” is a vision of a just future in which people prioritize the least of these. History will judge us most critically by how we take care of “the least of these” among us.

Jesus’ vision of a distributively just future was about how we do life in the here and now. He called his listeners to go against what the status quo had taught them and to organize society instead, in ways that are life-giving for all.

Today, the Jesus story still invites us to choose a world shaped by distributive justice. To follow Jesus and live the Jesus way is not about saying a sinner’s prayer or attending a service once a week and then going back to the way things have always been done. To follow Jesus means adopting a life-giving way of living.

But the “kingdom of God,” God’s just future, received pushback then, and it will also receive as much from today’s elites. The cross was the elite of society’s violent “no” to Jesus’ vision of God’s just future. The resurrection undid all the violence of Jesus’ death, causing the hope of a just future to live on in the lives of Jesus’ followers. I believe that hope can live on in those who bear Jesus’ name today. Much will have to change in certain sectors of Christianity for that to happen, but I believe nonetheless that it’s possible.

I believe following Jesus is about learning to follow Jesus’ practice of love, inclusion, just distribution, and mutual aid, nonviolence, and compassion toward others. His practice was reparative and transformative and has the power to change our lives personally and systemically. If politics is society deciding who gets what, when, and how, and if we consider Jesus’ sermon on the mount, the politics of the Jesus story are:

  • Eradicate poverty by centering society on the poor.
  • Comfort those whom the present system causes to sorrow.
  • Create a system that takes care of those who are meek.
  • Give equity to those who hunger for things to be put right.
  • Stand with the merciful, those who refuse to acquit the guilty for bribes, the peacemakers working for distributive justice, and those the privileged and the powerful persecute, slander, and exclude for demanding change. (cf. Matthew 5:3-10)

Jesus’ vision of a just future is for the here and now.

The arc of history can bend toward justice if we bend it that way.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

We have choices to make.

Who will be our Zacchaeuses today?

HeartGroup Application

1. What parallels and contrasts do you see with Zacchaeus’ story and U.S. Christians today who fail to disavow the U.S.’s present destructive administration? If you need an example, ponder the children still in cages along the U.S. southern border. Discuss as a group.

2. Five years into the reign of the German Reich, in 1938 Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached:

“Faith is a decision. We cannot avoid that. ‘You cannot serve two masters’ (Matthew 6:24) . . . But with this Yes to God belongs an equally clear No. Your Yes to God demands your No to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak [or vulnerable] and poor . . .”

(Confirmation, Kieckow, April 9, 1938, quoted in The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 203)

What does this Bonhoeffer’s dichotomy mean for you today? Discuss as a group.

3. Create a list of how you can collectively say “no” to injustice as a follower of Jesus in our present context. Pick something from your list and begin putting it into practice this week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see next week

Biblical Inclusion Versus Biblical Exclusion

by Herb Montgomery | November 8, 2019

white printed paper

Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash


“What is our relation, as followers of Jesus, to the marginalized of our day? To what degree are we marginalized in our own lives? Are we standing in solidarity with others who are marginalized or are we participating in their continued marginalization?”


Very early in Luke’s gospel, we read:

“He [Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘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 4:16-19)

Of all the passages in the Hebrew scriptures that the author of Luke could have chosen to summarize his portrayal of Jesus, it’s telling that this gospel points to Isaiah 61. For Luke, Jesus proclaims good news, announcing liberation, reparations, and recovery. He promotes distributive, transformative and reparative justice, especially for the marginalized.

The story continues:

“Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they asked.
Jesus said to them, ‘Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ Truly I tell you,’ he continued, ‘prophets are not accepted in their hometowns. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.’
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” (Luke 4:20-30)

This story summarizes what Luke will share in this gospel. Jesus’ inclusion of those whom others exclude will ultimately lead to his rejection and attempted execution. Luke will have Jesus overcome that opposition not through escape but through the discovery of an “empty tomb.”

Luke’s connection of Jesus to Hebrew prophets like Elijah and Elisha is also telling. In each of the canonical gospels, Jesus is not part of the system in his society that is perpetuating injustice against vulnerable people. He does not emerge as one of the wealthy, powerfully positioned elite, seeking to reform society from the inside, nor is he fully abandoning society like the Essenes or even John the Baptist.

Jesus stands in solidarity with those to whom harm is being done, rolls up his sleeves, gets involved, and engages his society. He doesn’t come in the tradition of kings or priests. In Luke, Jesus comes in the traditions of the prophets of the poor. He is from the twice-marginal region of Galilee: marginal in relation to both Rome and Jerusalem. The fact that he appears in Galilee and Judea as a prophet of the poor and marginalized instead of as a member of the elite in his society speaks volumes to us. What is our relation, as followers of Jesus, to the marginalized of our day? To what degree are we marginalized in our own lives? Are we standing in solidarity with others who are marginalized or are we participating in their continued marginalization?

The story we began with in Luke mentions the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. This is important because our sacred texts have two categories of passages: passages of exclusion and passages of inclusion. I’ll give examples of both.

First, here is an example of an exclusionary passage:

No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you. However, the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loves you. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live. Do not despise an Edomite, for the Edomites are related to you. Do not despise an Egyptian, because you resided as foreigners in their country. The third generation of children born to them may enter the assembly of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 23:3–8)

In Isaiah, we find the exact opposite: an example of an inclusive passage.

“For my house will be called a house of prayer for ALL NATIONS” (Isaiah 56:7).

Immediately after the Jewish people return from exile, Nehemiah inspires a fascinating, conscientious, and meticulous return to a more exclusionary practice of their faith. To give Nehemiah the benefit of the doubt, I see in him a sincere desire to preserve Jewish culture. Yet his fidelity becomes “zeal without knowledge.” I see it as xenophobic, ethnically nationalistic. Change is always scary, and Nehemiah was likely preoccupied with doing whatever it took to make sure events like the Babylonian captivity would never happen again. But fear often clouds clear judgment.

Nehemiah deliberately rejects the inclusion found in Isaiah and returns to the opposite trajectory of exclusion.

It’s not by whim that Luke’s Jesus begins by quoting Isaiah rather than Nehemiah. Jesus embraces Isaiah’s inclusion. He mentions the widow in Zarephath and Naaman, who would previously have been excluded, receiving the prophets’ favor in the days of Elijah and Elisha.

Jesus looked at people excluded by one set of passages in the sacred texts as those marginalized and in need of distributive and inclusive justice. We find this pattern over and over again in the Jesus story. In John 8 a woman is caught in adultery. One set of texts demanded her exclusion and execution. Yet another set spoke of God no longer requiring sacrificing and scapegoating, but rather requiring mercy, inclusion, and justice (see Hosea 6:6; cf. Matthew 12:7).

Jesus did not follow the exclusionary passages in John 8’s story but chose instead much more inclusive passages. This pattern applies to the woman at the well in John 4 and the woman with the issue of blood in Luke 8. In all these stories Jesus takes the same trajectory away from exclusion. Whatever the reasons that these exclusionary passages are present in our scriptures, Jesus perceived the more life-giving passages to be those of inclusion instead.

Did this lead some to accuse Jesus as being a lawbreaker? Of course. Yet I believe he was prioritizing the inclusive sections of his sacred text over the exclusionary ones.

Today, too, Christians have a choice. Certainly one can find texts to exclude whichever sector of society one is afraid of. The Bible has been used against women, Black people, Indigenous people, the LGBTQ community, and more. Yet, as Jesus followers, we have to do more than ask whether our exclusion is biblical. We also have to ask whether we’re practicing the same inclusion and affirmation that Jesus practiced.

This juxtaposition between the two types of passage within the same sacred text may be disconcerting. But I want to clarify: following Jesus does not mean disregarding or disrespecting the sacred text. It means prioritizing our sacred texts in the life-giving ways as Jesus also did.

If you are wrestling to get your head around this, I encourage you to read the book of James. The new followers of Jesus were being accused of doing away with the old interpretations of the scriptures and living lawless lives. James points out that though they were violating parts of their sacred texts, they were not “lawless” but were prioritizing other values in those texts. James refers to Abraham’s attempted murder and Hagar’s false testimony because their actions were strictly condemned (Exodus 20:13, 16), yet these two were heroes because they prioritized a different set of values!

Will this approach bother those who interpret the scriptures in exclusive ways? Of course. When Jesus first introduced it in Luke’s story, people wanted to throw him off a cliff.

What does this all mean to us today?

Are there people in your life whom compassion calls you to include and affirm despite how you interpret other texts in your scriptures?

What should you do?

Choose compassion.

Choose justice.

You don’t need permission to show compassion. The fruit of compassion is its own justification: “Wisdom is proved right by all her children” (Luke 7:35).

But who knows? One day, you might find different ways to interpret those passages. Even if you don’t, remember the words of both Jesus and the Hebrew prophet Hosea:

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6)

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7)

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative, and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it. 

Don’t forget to take advantage of RHM’s Shared Table Fundraiser during the months of November and December, and remember all donations during these two months are also being matched dollar for dollar so you can make your support go twice as far!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

When Doing the Right Thing Is Illegal

Herb Montgomery | June 14, 2019

Picture of a wall with writing that says, "No one is illegal."
Photo by Miko Guziuk on Unsplash

“What happens when we have to choose between saving life and abiding by the law? Jesus’ healings call us to take a side either with the marginalized and liberator (with Jesus) or to interpret his acts as lawless defiance. How we choose is determined by which value we hold most dear.”


“Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent.” (Mark 3:4)

In this story in Mark’s gospel, Jesus contrasts that which is lawful and that which is life-saving, and calls our values and priorities into question. Among the values and principles we hold dear and seek to live out in our daily lives, which values hold our highest priority? Let’s look at the story in its entirety:

“Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’ Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” (Mark 3:1-6)

Each of the gospels interprets the Sabbath work-prohibition and includes acts of healing in the category of labor that was forbidden during 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?” (Matthew 12:11-12)

“Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, ‘There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.’” (Luke 13:14)

“Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath . . . Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.’” (John 9:14-16)

This interpretation of what it meant to be faithful to the Sabbath prohibitions was an interpretation by those who did not need healing, those in power and positions of privilege. It was an interpretation by those most prone to underestimate the damage of their interpretation because it did not affect them negatively. 

We must also remember, as we read these stories in our context today, that people in the 1st Century didn’t look at healings the same way most people do today. Healing wasn’t considered exceptional as it is in our post-enlightenment scientific age. Healing was normative. 

The point of these stories was not that Jesus healed, but about who was being healed and when. Jesus continually healed and restored those who were being socially marginalized. He stood with those being pushed to the edges of his society by the elite. 

Every story of healing in the gospels questions the legitimacy of the status quo, and subverts the myths on which the status quo was based. These are stories of resistance, survival, and liberation as well as stories of healing.

Ched Myers in his book “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship correctly states: 

“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.” (“Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 14)

Law and Order

And this brings us to the point of the passage we are considering this week. What happens when we have to choose between saving life and abiding by the law? Jesus’ healings call us to take a side either with the marginalized and liberator (with Jesus) or to interpret his acts as lawless defiance. How we choose is determined by which value we hold most dear—standing alongside the vulnerable over and against harm being done or being committed to the status quo above all else.

This is nothing new. White clergy in the South used the legality argument to try to silence Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the Civil Rights movement. King responded, 

“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.” (Read Letter from a Birmingham Jail)

Today we can still feel the tension between what is legal and what is compassionate, just, or right. Consider the example of Scott Warren and others volunteering for the humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths. No More Deaths provides food and water along migrant trails in Arizona. Right now, Warren is on trial for offering humanitarian aid to migrants in some of the most lethal terrains of their migration. Humanitarian aid is deemed a crime, legally, but the No More Deaths organization is arguing back “that humanitarian aid is never a crime” (see CNN). NPR also reported on these actions last week: “Extending ‘Zero Tolerance’ To People Who Help Migrants Along The Border.” I can hear the echo of Jesus’ question, “Is it lawful to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”

Faith Communities and Noncompliance

Within faith communities, there are also times when people have to choose between complying with what their institution’s policies allow versus doing what is right. I think of many leaders in the faith tradition I grew up in having to face compliance committees set up to enforce policies prohibiting the ordination of women, excluding LGBTQ members, and silencing scholars who hold scientific views about Earth’s geological record.

In the United Methodist tradition, there are leaders standing against policy, or what is legal, to do what is right. Just last week I read how two US conferences are ordaining and commissioning LGBTQ clergy despite their institution’s ban. (Read the entire story at https://www.umnews.org/en/news/two-us-conferences-ordain-commission-lgbtq-clergy.)

Taking both their noncompliance and their commitment to doing what is right very seriously, Bishop Sally Dyck, resident bishop of the Chicago Area, stated, “My prayer is that the church will grow in grace so as to fully give its blessing to every child of God who is called to ministry.”

Those being ordained and commissioned are experiencing firsthand the tension between standing for what one believes is right over and against the legality of continued institutional evils. The Revs. Elizabeth Evans who was commissioned as a provisional deacon rightly stated that she doesn’t believe the church can “transform the world” while upholding the same unjust structures as the world does.

It is difficult to make these types of choices. I know this firsthand, too. 

In the gospels, Jesus sided with the vulnerable and marginalized over and against the institutions of his day when they practiced injustice.

He disregarded legality in favor of doing what was right until it escalated to a Roman cross—the punishment for “violating the rule of Roman law and order.” (See Kelly Brown Douglass, Stand Your Ground Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171)

Jesus’ noncompliance in the gospels challenges us with this question:

Which side of the story would our actions have placed us on?

“Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful . . . to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent.” (Mark 3:4)

HeartGroup Application

  1. What are some examples of when you had to choose between doing what’s right and doing what was compliant? Discuss these experiences among your group.
  2. What examples of this same tension have you experienced or witnessed within either your former faith community or your present faith community? Discuss.
  3. What examples do you presently see in our larger society where people are having to choose between what is right and what is legal? Discuss.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  Wherever you are today, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.  Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. 

I’m so glad you’re journeying with us. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Jesus, Law and Order

Herb Montgomery | January 31, 2019


“Legality is never the end of the moral discussion. We must also ask if what is being done is right . . . Law and order arguments too often fail to account for whether the laws people are breaking are unjust. Are those breaking such laws practicing a moral responsibility by breaking laws rooted in racist ideology to begin with?”


“Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit?” (Luke 22:52)

I want you to try something that will be difficult for many Christians, and that is to consider Jesus as a law breaker. In Luke’s story, just two days have passed since Jesus engaged a disruptive social protest in the Temple. 

It was not a religious protest: Jesus was not protesting his own religion. He was protesting against the aristocratic elite that was using the Temple state to exploit the poor. His concern was not the temple’s purity, a concern that drove the monastic knights of the historically brutal Christian crusades. Instead Jesus’ concern was the oppression of impoverished people in his own society, people who also bore the image of God and whose situation was worsened by the elite (see Mark 12:42-44). After his last temple protest, Jesus was arrested by the temple police. 

Think back to the statement of Dr. King that we considered last week: “I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” (Letter From A Birmingham Jail, May 1963). Jesus didn’t break just laws for the sake of it. Rather, Jesus chose to break laws that he deemed were unjust.

Let’s consider some examples from our more recent past. The reason King had to even address the issue of lawbreaking was that quite a bit of the civil rights movement’s activism included civil disobedience to unjust and racially discriminatory laws. Even apparently neutral laws were disobeyed because segregationists were using them to obstruct the civil rights movement. 

When slavery became illegal in the United States, “Jim Crow” segregation laws were created in the south. And those who migrated north of the Mason-Dixon line did so only to find hostility there, as well. A racist population used Jim Crow laws to keep Black people entrenched in a type of post-slavery slavery (see Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.  Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016). If an emancipated person broke the law they were re-enslaved through a “justice” system that permitted slavery as a punishment for crimes. Unjust and unreasonable laws almost guaranteed a return to slavery in some form. (See Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2012).

After the gains of the civil rights movement, the powerful responded with a racially biased drug war. “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (John Ehrlichman, Watergate conspirator and top Nixon advisor, quoted in “Legalize it all: How to win the war on drugs” by Dan Baum, Harper’s Magazine).

President Nixon’s drug war took on new vigor and popularity under President Reagan. During the 1980s, we also saw a spike in Hollywood of movies like Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop selling the narrative of hero cops fighting a pervasive and all-pervading drug war in America. 

Today, being incarcerated as a result of America’s drug war has left multitudes of people of color disenfranchised from their political system, unable to find work or housing assistance, and more. 

The story of Jesus has something to teach us here. In Luke’s gospel is a passage from Isaiah that links the liberation of the poor with emancipation of those in prison. Systems of oppression use imprisonment, as Ehrlichman and Nixon did, to silence resistance and opposition under the guise of concern for “law and order.”  

“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)

Just as “small government” and “fiscally responsible government” rhetoric have a deeply racist past, “law and order” rhetoric does too (see again Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide).

It’s no wonder that in the gospels Jesus identifies not only with the poor, the naked, and the sick, but also with the imprisoned. 

“I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not take care of me.” (Matthew 25:43, emphasis added)

Note that Jesus specifically names the stranger, or immigrant, in this list, too. I find it equally offensive to see many privileged White Christians using “law and order” arguments when discussing immigration and asylum seeking. It’s lawful for anyone to enter a country to seek asylum. No one deserves to have their families separated and children torn from them and placed in inhumane facilities. And we simply do not provide a legal path toward citizenship for far too many. There must be a merciful solution, a compassionate solution for those who are fleeing social violence our global policies directly and indirectly helped to create. If you cannot see this as a matter of justice then for pity’s sake, have mercy. As Jesus taught, “Blessed are the merciful, for they, too, will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). No person is illegal. They are children of God, and share the same image of God as you. They are our human siblings. 

Myers’ groundbreaking commentary on the gospel of Mark offers insight that affirms my deep feelings that it is inconsistent for those of us who identify as Christians to use law and order rhetoric to deny mercy and justice to those who are the victims of unjust and unmerciful laws. 

“As in the modern practice of civil disobedience, which might break the law in order to raise deeper issues of its morality and purpose, so Jesus, just before ‘crossing the line,’ issues a challenge to his audience. Pitting his mission of compassion and justice to the poor against the imperatives of the dominant order, Jesus calls the entire ideological edifice of the law to account.” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, pg. 162 )

Legality is never the end of the moral discussion. We must also ask if what is being done is right. Last week many in the U.S. celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Dr. King wrote in the same letter quoted above, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ . . . It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers” (Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963).

Law and order arguments too often fail to account for whether the laws people are breaking are unjust. Are those breaking such laws practicing a moral responsibility by breaking laws rooted in racist ideology to begin with? (see No Room in the Inn)

Today, law and order arguments are used to defend police brutality and both the existence of and inhumane actions by agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). There must a better way. A just way. A merciful way. We can debate what those solutions might be. But whatever they are, law and order arguments have a long, oppressive history and I cannot understand, given the Jesus story itself, how Christians continue to promote them. 

When people were suffering, Jesus prioritized people over concern for law and order. As followers of Jesus, we should be practicing the same. Jesus broke the law when those laws contradicted justice and compassion for people. And his refusal to go along with law and order when people were suffering was why he was arrested in the first place. 

“Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him . . .” (Luke 22:52, emphasis added.)


HeartGroup Application

Consider these four stories from our sacred text:

Acts 4:18-20
Acts 5:27-29
Daniel 3:13-18
Daniel 6:6-10

As a group, make a list of laws, either federal, state, or municipal that you believe are good and right.  Discuss why.

Now make a list of laws that you feel are unjust. Discuss why.

Thirdly, make a list of laws, just or unjust, that you feel could be used to discriminate and/or disenfranchise certain vulnerable sectors of our society. Discuss why.

What are some ways you can follow Jesus in putting people first by living in resistance to such laws? What does civil disobedience look like when we choose to put people who are hurt by certain laws first and foremost in our doing? Are there times when we need to be willing to risk arrest for breaking immoral laws in the course of following Jesus? Discus what that could look like? What does it look like to engage the work of changing immoral laws in our society? Consider each level of our civil systems? What does it look like on municipal, state and federal levels? And don’t forget your religious communities as well. Are their unjust laws in your religious communities that you choose to live in noncompliance with? Why?  Have you ever considered how noncompliance can be a spiritual discipline in following Jesus? 

This should give rich ground for discussion and action this week in your HeartGroup.

Thanks so much checking in with us this week. I’m so glad you’re here. 

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

Another world is possible.

I love each you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

No Room In The Inn

Herb Montgomery | December 7, 2018


“In the Hebrew sacred text we read an ancient story of a town’s xenophobic refusal to show hospitality out of a desire to protect it’s own affluence from the threat of having to be shared with others . . . The laser beam of convicting story truth possessed in these ancient tales should rather be directed toward the kinds of actions being chosen on our southern border presently.”


 

“Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  (Luke 2. 4-7)

 

Last week, I witnessed many of my friends argue the wrongness of tear gassing women and children at the U.S.’s southern border.  I watched online as many of the people they attend church with argued the rightness of the U.S.’s actions as such.  I read thin arguments which did little to veil the bigotry from which those arguments flowed.  At the same time many of those arguments are being made by people who will put up nativities soon to celebrate the birth of their Jesus whom the Inn Keeper also turned away.  They will celebrate a narrative that also later speaks of Jesus as a child and his parents escaping violence in their own region to seek asylum in a foreign county. The irony this time is painful. The recent acts by the U.S. at it’s southern border not only should not be defended by Christians or any person of goodwill, the acts themselves are deeply inhumane.

“Tear gas has been outlawed as a method of warfare on the battlefield by almost every country in the world, that prohibition does not apply to domestic law enforcement officers using tear gas on their own citizens. The use of this chemical agent, which can cause physical injury, permanent disability and even death, is often excessive, indiscriminate and in violation of civil and human rights. Studies suggest that children are more vulnerable to severe injuries from chemical toxicity: Infants exposed to tear gas can develop severe pneumonitis and require weeks of hospitalization. Using it on a crowd of people who were exercising their right to seek asylum at an international border indeed violated human rights norms.” (See Tear gas should never have been used at the border. It doesn’t belong at protests, either.)

In the Hebrew sacred text we read an ancient story of a town’s xenophobic refusal to show hospitality out of a desire to protect it’s own affluence from the threat of having to be shared with others.  The city of Sodom was located in a coveted region because of its agricultural fertility. They, also as the U.S. is presently attempting, soon developed an effective strategy of terror to keep foreigners away.

For those familiar with the story, Lot, by contrast, saw the two foreigners in his town and invited them to his home for the evening to keep them safe, hoping to send them secretly send them on their way at the first light of dawn the next day. What happened that night was terrifying and intentional to send the 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 who are born with same sex attraction/orientation or same sex loving relationships.  I believe these interpretations miss the mark in a most destructive way for those who identify as LGBTQ. This story has nothing to do with sexual orientation and instead is about responding to strangers with violence, in this case sexual violence, in times where their lives depend on your welcome and hospitality. (See Judges 19:11-30; Ezekiel 16.49, see also “Rape of Menin Wartime Sexual Violence) In this story/culture male rape was intended to inflict the worst possible humiliation rooted in the social constructs of their ingrained, patriarchal gender roles. The laser beam of convicting story truth possessed in these ancient tales should rather be directed toward the kinds of actions being chosen on our southern border presently.  

The tradition of hospitality toward strangers is carried on by the Jewish followers of Jesus in the New Testament scriptures.  There we find the call to hospitality toward migrant strangers, too:

“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)

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus, too, names hospitality toward strangers as a mark of distinction between those who are genuinely following him and those who do so in name only.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” (Matthew 25.35)

Jesus here is standing in the Jewish, hospitality-to-strangers tradition of both the Torah and the Hebrew prophets. 

“When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.” (Deuteronomy 26.12, emphasis added.)

“When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.” (Deuteronomy 24.19-21, emphasis added.)

“At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” (Deuteronomy 14.28-29, emphasis added.)

“And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10.19, emphasis added.)

Today, many in the U.S. (not all) are participating in the same irony of being decedents of immigrants themselves, while participating in present day xenophobia toward contemporary immigrants, including those seeking asylum.  

“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”  Leviticus 19.34, emphasis added.)

Even the cherish Sabbath commandments include the foreigner. (As well as the problematic mention of those born slaves.):

“Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed.” (Exodus 23.12, emphasis added.)

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.”  (Exodus 23.9, emphasis added.)

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 22.21, emphasis added.)

“Do not oppress a foreigner.” (Exodus 23.9, emphasis added.)

“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner.” (Exodus 22.21, emphasis added.)

“’Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.’ Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’” (Deuteronomy 27:19, emphasis added.)

“Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.” (Deuteronomy 24:17, emphasis added.)

“YHWH defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:18, emphasis added.)

“The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice.”  (Ezekiel 22.29, emphasis added.)

Those who are presently migrating from Honduras are trying to escape a destabilized society that we created. The U.S. has a long history of destabilizing any society that leans toward either socialism or possesses resources we desire. These people are migrating away from a horrific societal state that we helped create. 

On top of this, we also have a long history creating immigration policies out of the intent of maintaining a White majority, a concern born from the myth of White supremacy. (Or rather, the Anglo-Saxon Mythology.) In Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglass’ book Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Dr. Douglass rightly shows how the same stand your ground values that lead to the murder of citizens of color (like Trevon Martin) is the same set of values that is at the heart of our racist immigration policies as well.  She quotes those in our history like President Theodor Roosevelt who “became so obsessed with the number of ‘new stock’ immigrants compared to the low birthrate of ‘old stock’ Anglo-Saxons that he feared ‘race suicide.’” And President Woodrow Willson who wrote “our Saxon habits of government” are threatened by the “corruption of foreign blood.”  In 1882, Henry Cabot Lodge, addressing the panic immigration was causing wrote, “The question of foreign immigration has of late engaged the most serious attention of the country, and in a constantly increasing degree. The race changes which have begun during the last decade among the immigrants to this country, the growth of the total immigration, and the effects of it upon . . . the quality of our citizenship, have excited much apprehension and aroused a very deep interest.”

Dr Douglass continues,

“In an article titled “Whose Country Is This?” President Calvin Coolidge provided a lengthy rationale for restrictive immigration laws. He argued that even though America was an immigrant nation, it could not allow sentimentality to get in the way of it accepting the ‘right kind’ of immigrant. He explained that it was in the nation’s best interest ‘to require of all those aliens who come here that they have a background not inconsistent with American institutions.’ By now we know, as Coolidge’s readers surely knew, that ‘American’ meant Anglo-Saxon. Coolidge made this clear when he said, ‘Such a background might consist either of a racial tradition or national experience.’ He went on to say that just as there was no room in the country for the importation of cheap goods, there was ‘no room either for cheap men.’ Thus, America was obliged ‘to maintain that citizenship at its best.’ This meant, for Coolidge, erecting some kind of quota system. He substantiated his bigotry with science. He said, ‘Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides . . . Observance of ethnic law is as great a necessity to a nation as immigration law.’ The argument put forth by President Coolidge reflected the longstanding fear that was sweeping across the country, one expressed by presidents before him. It was the fear that the Anglo-Saxon would be wiped out in America.

(From Brown, Kelly Brown Douglas,  Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God, pp. 29-30.)

Racist xenophobia is at the heart of what we are presently witnessing on the southern border of the United States. And yet we are about to celebrate a holiday centered around the narrative of a baby boy born in a dirty stable out back, because an inn keeper took one look at a poor man and his wife seated on a ragged donkey, strangers, and even though she was nine months pregnant, would not so much as give up his own bed to her for only one night, and instead looked at their state and inhospitably said, “We have no room.” Thank goodness he didn’t have any tear-gas.

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  (Luke 2.7)

HeartGroup Application

You don’t have to live on the southern border of the U.S. to welcome the stranger, include those who are marginalized, or provide community for those in need of a little love this holiday season.

1. Wherever your HeartGroup is located, wherever you meet, find was to practice hospitality this week.

2. Journal your experiences.

3. Next week, share what you’ve learned with your group. 

Thank you for checking in with us. We here at RHM are thankful to be journeying alongside you. 

And remember, right now we have an anonymous and very kind supporter who wants to extend the rare opportunity of matching each contribution made to support RHM’s work throughout the rest of  December, including all year-end contributions. As we approach the end of 2018, all contributions through December 31 are continuing to be matched. Help us reach our budget goals for 2018, avoiding a potential budget shortfall for this year, and be able to plan for 2019.

Yes, I want to help RHM’s work continue to grow.

We are beyond thankful for every one of you who support our work.

Right where you are, keep living in the beauty of love, compassion, action and justice. 

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.