Checking Your Privilege

Herb Montgomery | July 19, 2019

hand holding glasses
Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash

“We can do better than defensiveness. In this story of Jesus I hear the call to lay mine down . . . Another world is possible. But we’re going to have to learn to listen to those whose experiences are less privileged and end the very system of privilege if we are to get there.”


In Luke’s gospel we read a story of Jesus rebuking his disciples:

“As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.” (Luke 9:51-56)

Let’s get a little background on who the Samaritans were. To the best of our knowledge, this 1st Century group had Hebrew roots and focused on Mt. Gerizim rather than Jerusalem. The traced their lineage back to Ephraim and Manasseh of the northern tribes of Israel. When Israel returned from captivity and attempted to rebuild the temple, Jewish people in Jerusalem refused to allow Samaritans to join them in rebuilding the temple. This was a time when Jewish people feared their identity was at risk of being lost. During periods like this, hard lines are often drawn between insiders and outsiders. Jewish rejection of Samaritans thus led to open animosity, resentment, and even hostile violence between the communities. Samaritans erected their own temple on Mount Gerizim, which Jewish people destroyed in 130 BCE. The Samaritans built a second temple at Shechem. 

Bitter hatred between Jews and Samaritans continued to escalate, and the gospel stories were written during this period. It was dangerous for Jewish travelers to travel through Samaria. According to Josephus, “Now there arose a quarrel between the Samaritans and the Jews on the occasion following. It was the custom of the Galileans, when they came to the holy city at the festivals, to take their journeys through the country of the Samaritans. And at this time there lay in the road they took, a village that was called Ginea: which was situated in the limits of Samaria, and the great plain; where certain persons thereto belonging fought with the Galileans, and killed a great many of them.” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 6)

Reparation and reconciliation efforts between adherents of Samaritanism and Judaism throughout the centuries have been attempted. (For an excellent summary of the Samaritans and the challenges in understanding who they were in the 1st Century, see “Samaritans” in Craig A. Evans, et al. Dictionary of New Testament Background, InterVarsity Press, 2005, and Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, WB Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2019.)

Given this history, I find fascinating the story of Jesus rebuking his disciples’ violent attitude toward the Samaritans. 

I live in a predominantly White area of West Virginia. I was born and raised here, and though we moved away when I became an adult, we moved back to take care of my mother who since passed away. I remember a time when a dear friend of mine who is Black visited us. As we walked through the grocery store together, she blurted out, “Two.” 

“Two?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s how many non-White people I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”

Europeans first settled in my little town in the mid 1700s, and we just elected our first Black mayor. We still have a long way to go in my area of this state in the work of racial justice.

From time to time I hear people attempting to define justice efforts as “reverse racism” and getting upset whenever White privilege is even brought up. Crystal and I were standing with other parents at my daughter’s high school and talking about privilege and racial injustice. One of the dads blurted out, “I’m never gonna apologize for being born White!” I shook my head. Crystal tried to help him understand. He didn’t get it and I don’t think he really wanted to.

In the story we began with, Jesus doesn’t take a defensive stance when the Samaritans refuse him lodging. In fact, he rebukes his disciples for their desire to retaliate against what they deemed as inhospitality. For crying out loud! Did the disciples actually think the Samaritans should offer thirteen Jewish men lodging given all that Jewish men had done to them? 

I want to imagine that Jesus understood. That he didn’t fault the Samaritans. That he knew the Samaritans had a right to set the healthy boundaries they needed. I find it interesting that he didn’t lecture the Samaritans on their need to show him, a Jewish man, some enemy-love. I want to believe that Jesus understood the Samaritans’ right to self-determine whom they would and wouldn’t offer lodging to. Social location matters, and I want to believe that Jesus is not just rebuking his own disciples for being offended but also taking the side of the Samaritans. 

I’ve worked with multiple organizations in my town that are engaged in racial justice work here, and I continually have to choose to check my privilege. Sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I screw up and have to make things right. I’ve learned that what is okay for someone in one social location to do is not always okay for those in other social locations and vice versa. At a Christian conference event a couple years ago, a very popular, Christian preacher and author shut me out of the conversation and challenged my call to build egalitarian, mutual participation in Christian circles. Later that week, a friend who is queer and Latinx told me that another White straight male, an invited speaker, needed to bow out of a panel they were on to allow room for other voices and other perspectives. My beliefs about egalitarian, mutual participation in Christian circles were challenged again, but differently. Some would see these as the same thing, but, no, social location matters. It is perfectly right for people whose social location is less privileged and whose voices are typically excluded to demand a seat at the table instead. This is very different from someone whose social location is privileged demanding their voice be the only one heard.

If these thoughts are new to you, a great discussion of the principles of racial justice is Teaching Tolerance’s White Anti-Racism: Living the Legacy. Answering the question, “What are the common mistakes white activists make when trying to be allies to people of color?” Yvette Robles, a Chicana and Community Relations Manager in Los Angeles, responds, “Not acknowledging that they have power and privilege by the mere fact that they are white. That is not to say that other parts of their identity can’t lead them to feel powerless, for example, being white and gay, or being white and working class. Another mistake I see is when white activists try to emulate a different culture by changing how they act, their speech or style of dress. It’s one thing to appreciate someone else’s culture; it’s quite another to adopt it.” 

Georgette Norman, an African American woman and director of the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, adds, “The most common mistakes white activists make are setting an agenda with the illusion of inclusion, and having to have a franchise on comfort. God forbid a person of color says or does anything to make white activists feel uncomfortable. That means there can be no discussion of race and no challenge to their privilege, which means no challenge to their power.” 

Sejal Patel, a South Asian American woman and community organizer in South Asian immigrant communities answers the same question: “White anti-racists make a mistake when they shut out the poor and uneducated and keep in those ‘in the know’ to decide what’s good for people of color. No movement can work where there is divisiveness. Also, if people of color want to have their own space and place in certain aspects of society — say for a weekend or a month — they shouldn’t have to feel like they are being exclusive for doing this. White activists need to understand that society is their space and place every single day, and they shouldn’t feel threatened or left out.”

I interpret Jesus in this story as acknowledging the degree of Jewish power and privilege he held in contrast with the Samaritans in his society. He respected their space. Jesus wasn’t offended by them protecting their space. In fact he rebukes his fellow Jewish male disciples for taking offense and becoming defensive (offensive).

The disciples could have found biblical examples to use to justify their retaliation of “calling fire down from heaven.” They could have used Elijah’s words in 2 Kings 1:10: “If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” They could have appealed to other stories like the tale of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, where even “the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the LORD out of the heavens.” (Genesis 19:24)

Jesus could have become defensive and chosen to use any of these stories against those who received Jewish violence, and he didn’t.

So what can people of privilege learn from this story?

Check your defensiveness.

I just finished reading the late James H. Cone’s posthumously published book, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of A Black Theologian. In one portion, Cone recounts how many of his white listeners responded when he spoke out on loving his own blackness and embracing Black Power: 

“When I spoke of loving blackness and embracing Black Power, they heard hate toward white people. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and James Baldwin confronted similar reactions. Any talk about the love and beauty of blackness seemed to arouse fear and hostility in whites.” (James H. Cone, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, Orbis Books. Kindle Edition, Kindle Location 592)

We can do better than defensiveness. In this story of Jesus I hear the call to lay mine down. 

Straight people can choose to listen to LGBTQ people rather than be defensive. 

White people can choose to listen to people of color rather than be defensive.

Cis men can choose to listen to women, cis and trans, rather than be defensive. 

Cis folk can choose to listen to trans folk rather than be defensive.

Non-disabled folk can choose to listen to disabled folk rather than be defensive. 

Wealthy people can choose to listen to the poor and working classes rather than be defensive. 

Wisdom is not the sole property of those who are most widely read or who have gained the most academic accomplishments.

Another world is possible. 

But we’re going to have to learn to listen to those whose experiences are less privileged and end the very system of privilege if we are to get there.

“When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” (Luke 9:54-55)

HeartGroup Application

  1. Can you name a time when listening to someone else’s experience made a significant change in your own understanding?
  2. Share with the group what it was that actually changed.
  3. How can we make a practice out of learning to listen to others? Be creative.
  4. Choose something from this discussion and put it into practice this week.

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

Today, choose love, compassion, taking action and seeking justice. 

Together we can choose to take steps toward a world that is a safe, compassionate, just home for us all. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Challenging Exclusion

Herb Montgomery | June 21, 2019

Picture of board game pieces with one being excluded.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

It’s not enough to simply offer a gospel that only offers divine forgiveness of sins. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include people forgiving people. It must include a redistribution of power and resources so that everyone has what they need not simply to survive but also to thrive. It must include reparations alongside reconciliation. It must include access and inclusion where the vulnerable have been excluded. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include material, holistic liberation.


“Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.” (Mark 2:4)

In the worldview of the gospel authors and their intended audience, healing was normal. Whereas most healing stories in that era tended to bolster the way society was organized, the healing stories in the gospels challenged, subverted, and even threatened the status quo.

One such resistance/healing story is found very early in the gospel of Mark:

“A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, ‘Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ So he said to the man, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’” (Mark 2:1-12)

Message of Inclusion

The first thing we bump into in this story is a lack of room. The crowd could have made room for the paralyzed man to get through. They could have practiced a preferential option for the one with the disability. Yet they didn’t. They were each focused on making sure there was a place for themselves, even if it came at the expense of someone else. 

I used to fly a lot. Those two options—a preferential option for others or making a place for oneself—always played out during the boarding practice. Before airlines started overselling flights, there was enough room for everyone. The plane was going to leave at the same time for everyone and seats were even already assigned. Yet you could see passengers who only thought of themselves from a concourse away. 

Saving ourselves at others’ expense has a long evolutionary history for humans. Yet I contend that our salvation as a race lies not in what works for some at the expense of others but in what makes our world safe, just, and compassionate for all. We will survive together or we will perish together. What once worked for the survival of some, will not ensure the survival of us all in the context of global climate break down. 

I also want to address the gospel author’s use of a person with a disability. In the culture of the gospel writers, there were religious teachings that explained disabilities as the result of sin, either one’s own or one’s parents (see John 9:1-2). This teaching added a basis for further exclusion in a world that already left those with disabilities on the margins. But in Mark’s story, Jesus rejects that teaching and declares that this paralytic has been forgiven. Jesus does not offer the man a plan or program: do this and your sins will be forgiven. Jesus declares that this man already was forgiven. 

His teaching challenged those who believed that those with disabilities were being punished for some sin. It challenged them to view this man as their equal regardless of his ability. Jesus here juxtaposes disability and the culture’s definition of right standing, and calls people  to rethink.

Similarly, one could challenge non-affirming Christians’ definition of what’s normative in relation to the LGBTQ community. Last week, Renewed Heart Ministries posted a meme for Pride Month juxtaposing LGBTQ identity and LGBTQ people’s being in the image of God. This deeply challenges Christian cis-heterosexism.

Again, though, Jesus does not offer the man a plan or program to follow. Jesus declared that this man already was forgiven, and so challenges many Christian stories that teach a God who must be moved by some action on our part first.

Holistic Liberation

Just like in any work of affirmation or liberation, there will always be pushback by those who feel threatened by such inclusivity and equity. The objection in Mark’s story is “only God can forgive sins.” Jesus doesn’t respond by stating that he is divine. The gospel writers instead identify Jesus with a “a human being” or the “son of man.” This language is from the Maccabean era Jewish resistance literature.

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man.” (Daniel 7.13, NIV, emphasis added.) 

“As I continued to watch this night vision of mine, I suddenly saw one like a human being . . .” (Daniel 7.13, CEB, emphasis added.)

The “human being” in Daniel 7 was a symbol of liberation from oppressive empires and putting the world to right. 

Forgiveness in Mark’s story is also a human act. It’s not something left only to a god or cosmic being that leaves us off the hook. Forgiveness as something we should practice as humans was part of Jesus’s message. Yet I don’t believe Jesus taught reconciliation without reparation and liberation. Jesus message of forgiveness was primarily aimed at wealthy, elite creditors and called them to “forgive” the debts of their poor debtors. Jesus’ message of forgiveness included a deep economic implication. It was a call for debt forgiveness, the Jewish Jubilee. (See A Prayer for Debts Cancelled)

Jesus’ gospel included material liberation. And not only was the man with the disability told he had already been forgiven, but the story also includes him being liberated from his inability to walk. Honestly, I don’t like this story as I read it from our vantage point today. It can be too easily coopted to make people with disabilities feel less than those without. I’m thankful that the story author challenged the crowd’s bias against this man before he removes the group’s actual reason for marginalizing him. Otherwise the marginalized would be simply kept marginalized.

If the gospel writer had written the story differently, the solution to marginalized women would be to make women men.

The solution to marginalized Black, brown and other people of color would be to  make them White. 

The solution to marginalized LGBTQ people would be make them straight and/or cisgender. (Conversion therapy is harmful and is outlawed in 18 states, Maine and Colorado being the latest to ban such practices.)

Rather than using various disabilities as metaphors for social evils (as the gospels do), we can do better and name specific social evils instead.

Being gay is not a social evil.

Being a woman is not a social evil.

Being non-white is not a social evil.

Being a migrant is not a social evil.

Being disabled is not a social evil.

How the social system treats these folks is a social evil.

Poverty is a social evil.

Keeping people uneducated is a social evil. 

Keeping people indebted is a social evil.

Keeping people without adequate access to health care is a social evil.

And that is what I believe Mark’s story is trying to teach. In holistic liberation, everyone receives what they need. When we apply this to people with disabilities, we arrive at the lesson of removing the barriers that keep people with disabilities excluded. We are to remove the barriers that keep people with disabilities from accessing what they need to thrive.

Actual social evils are what we as followers of Jesus must work against today. This story doesn’t stop at forgiveness. We can’t afford to either. It’s not enough to simply offer a gospel that only offers divine forgiveness of sins. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include people forgiving people. It must include a redistribution of power and resources so that everyone has what they need not simply to survive but also to thrive. It must include reparations alongside reconciliation. It must include access and inclusion where the vulnerable have been excluded. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include material, holistic liberation.

This story calls us to work toward an inclusive, just, safe society for everyone.

“Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.” (Mark 2:4)

HeartGroup Application

  1. What are some of the ways you either experience or witness others experiencing discrimination and exclusion, either in your faith community or our larger society today?
  2. Make a list of practices your HeartGroup can engage that express inclusion, justice, and create a safe space for those mentioned in number 1.
  3. Pick something from the list and put it into action this week.

Thanks for checking in with us. I’m so glad you’re here. 

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

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


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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.

Social Sins, Social Justice, and the Jesus Stories

Herb Montgomery | April 19, 2019

Photo credit: Jason Betz on Unsplash

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


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

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

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

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

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

Mark

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 

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

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

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

Luke

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

“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:51-55)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

Last weekend to get a JFE Podcast Tee.

This past month we have been offering our listeners this special, premium t-shirt as a way of supporting the JFE podcast, showing others you’re a fan of our podcast, and helping to spread the word so others can enjoy each episode as well. The availability for these ends this Monday , April 22.

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

I’m so glad you are here.  

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

Another world is possible.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Calling Good Evil (Part 5 of 5)

Herb Montgomery | March 29, 2019

Picture of neon rainbow
Photo Credit:
Jason Leung on Unsplash

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


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

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

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

Jude

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genesis 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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


HeartGroup Application

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

This week:

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

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

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

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Calling Good Evil (Part 4 of 5)

Herb Montgomery | March 22, 2019

Gaius Caligula

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


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

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

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

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

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

With this in mind, let’s begin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brownson offers more evidence from Roman orator Chrysostom:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now, remember:

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


HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Calling Good Evil (Part 3 of 5)

Herb Montgomery | March 15, 2019

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

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


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

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

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

Noll writes: 

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

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

This is keenly true of our first two passages.

1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10

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

I want you to see the progression in translations. 

King James Version (1611):

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

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

Revised English Bible (1989):

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

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

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

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

Brownson concludes on the next page:

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

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

Here are a few examples from more contemporary translations:

New International Version (2011):

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

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

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

New American Standard  (1960):

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

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

Today’s New International Version (2005):

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

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

New Revised Standard Version (1989):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week, we’ll consider Romans 1.

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

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

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.   

Calling Good Evil (Part 2 of 5)

by Herb Montgomery | February 15, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s begin.

Genesis 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leviticus 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now, remember:

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

This week:

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

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

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

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

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Calling Good Evil (Part 1 of 5)

Herb Montgomery | February 8, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Forgiving a Sinning Brother or Sister Repeatedly

by Herb Montgomery | November 10, 2017

“Safe spaces” are not spaces where everyone’s opinion is equally valued. Safe spaces are spaces where there is a preferential option practiced for the most vulnerable in the room. Safe spaces are spaces where the voices and experiences of the vulnerable are not only believed and validated, but they are also centered. As Jesus taught, the first shall be last and the last, first (Matthew 20:16).

Featured Text:

“If your brother sins against you rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him. And if seven times a day he sins against you, also seven times shall you forgive him.” (Q 17:3-4)

Let’s jump right in this week with Matthew’s use of this week’s saying.

Matthew 18:15: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.”

Matthew 18:21: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’”

This week’s saying is an in-house teaching: it’s about how Jesus followers were to relate to each other. As Deissmann reminds us, “By its very nature Primitive Christianity stood contrasted with the upper class not first as Christianity, but as a movement of the proletarian lower class” (New Light on the New Testament From the Records of the Graeco-Roman Period, 1907, p. 7). And within this lower class movement, survival was a central concern: “Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed” (Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 29). In this early community of Jesus followers, being divided from within was just as much a threat as being divided from forces that opposed the movement from without. As we look at this week’s saying, however, it’s not about forgiving “oppressors” or “enemies” outside of the community. It’s about how to navigate wrongs committed within the community itself. There are different sayings of Jesus that relate to the subject of enemy love. Our saying this week rather focuses on the community of the oppressed: “if your brother or sister sins against you” (emphasis added).

In the community of the early movement, there were those who used to be former oppressors who had chosen to stand in solidarity with this movement, repenting of their former lives and now choosing Jesus’s preferential option for the poor. Speaking of the internal struggle between predominantly white feminism and the struggle for liberation by women of color, Jacquelyn Grant shares, “From a Black women’s vantage point then, the language of partnership is merely a rewording of the language of reconciliation, which proves empty rhetoric unless it is preceded by liberation” (Jacquelyn Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, p. 191) This week’s saying isn’t empty rhetoric. It values liberation before reconciliation within the early community of Jesus followers. Let’s unpack it a bit.

Internal Divisions

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus states, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25 cf. Luke 11:17). The context in Mark is that Jesus was speaking of the house of one’s oppressors, but it’s a universal truth that applies to any community working for social change as well. Last week, comments by Rev. Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church illustrated once again how internal differences can divide communities engaging the world of survival, resistance and liberation. He reminded me how necessary intersectional resistance is if we are going to make a difference. Those outside of our communities can divide us over our varied identities if we are not careful. “This division creates a kind of fragmented fellowship among progressives with advocates dispersed across a range of issues; income/wealth inequality, workers’ rights, mass incarceration, anti-poverty, education, environmental justice, LGBT rights, anti-violence work, healthcare, voting rights, the list goes on. This dynamic weakens our ability to create a unified front in combating the forces that oppose social and economic justice; forces which are much more unified and better financed than we are” (“The New Abolitionism” – Monetary Reform And The Future Of Social Justice)

We have to work to not allow our differences to divide us. This requires intention. Internal divisions can result from a variety of causes: intention, carelessness, ignorance, and more.

As an example, when I was first introduced to Christian LGBTQ communities, I remember being called on the carpet multiple times by two dear friends in particular. They were committed to the principle of putting liberation first, as a precursor to reconciliation or unity. They were committed to not letting me keep my blind spots or get away with my unintentional but still very real and damaging participation in their oppression.

At the time I believed respectability was required of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people if they were going to make progress in the minds and hearts of straight people. I offered the example of how seeing Christian LGBTQ folks and how that had contradicted every stereo type the kind of Christianity I was raised in had peddled to me of the LGBTQ community.

This respectability, though, was being defined by straight people, specifically certain Christian, straight people, but not required of us, and my friends were quick to call me out on it. Were the only folks of the LGBTQ community worthy of being “counted as human and therefore who get to live in a world that supports their flourishing” the Christian ones? My friends were part of a community that loved me too much to let me get away with treating them differently. It was a community of accountability. And this accountability was vital if our community was to be safe for oppressed people.

We recently covered this when we discussed Jesus’s preferential option for the vulnerable. Jesus’ community practices genuine love that does not allow people to get away with abuse and that prioritizes those to whom abuse would do the greatest damage. This starkly contrasts with the Christian communities I had been accustomed to. I was used to communities of “grace.” I know grace can have different meanings, and too often it means, “We don’t judge people other around here.” It produces an unhealthy environment where anything goes, and forgiveness is prioritized over accountability. Christian communities like that are dangerous for vulnerable people. They are communities where a preferential option for oppressors is practiced, consciously or unconsciously. They use the rhetoric of love but these communities are not loving because they don’t protect those who are most vulnerable.

This is where our saying comes in this week.

“So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” (Luke 17:3-4, emphasis added.)

Jesus’s community practices rebuke and repentance when community members sin against each other. This is a community that seeks to set up healthy boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not. It not only “went out and preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:12), but also required repentance within the community. Repentance is more than saying one is sorry; it is more than apologizing. Repentance also requires someone to change their mind and behavior regarding someone or something. Repentance is a change in how someone thinks about and acts toward someone or something.

And this change in how one thinks about someone or something requires listening, openness, belief, and choice. Examples include White people changing in relation to people of color, men changing in relation to women, straight folks changing in relation to LGB folks, cisgender folks changing in relation to trans folks, and the wealthy changing in relation to the poor. In order to allow one’s thinking to be changed (to allow repentance), you have to be willing to listen to the experiences of those whose lives are unlike your own. You have to be open to believing another person’s experience, and also choose to prioritize that person’s experience in your future choices.

There is a lot of talk today about what is being called “Third Way Spaces,” communities where people simply agree to disagree. Instead of defining community around one of two opposing positions, the community seeks to maintain a unity and cohesiveness without requiring any group to repent or change its mind. These types of communities are fine if we are disagreeing on the “best” flavor of ice cream. But they can be dangerous if the disagreement is over whether a person should exist or not. In matters such as orientation, gender, racial, or economic equality, for example, repentance is the necessary foundation of forgiveness and unity. “Safe spaces” are not spaces where everyone’s opinion is equally valued. Safe spaces are spaces where there is a preferential option practiced for the most vulnerable in the room. Safe spaces are spaces where the voices and experiences of the vulnerable are not only believed and validated, but they are also centered. As Jesus taught, the first shall be last and the last, first (Matthew 20:16).

Seven times

Let’s talk about the part in both Matthew’s and Luke’s use of this saying where it is required to forgive even “seven times.” Understand that if someone makes the same so-called “mistake” seven times, that’s probably indicative that repentance, a change in how someone thinks about something or someone, has not really happened. In Mark’s gospel, we get a hint of what this could mean:

“When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons” (Mark 16:9).

Not the same demon seven time. Seven different demons. These were seven different instances, not the same instance being repeated seven times over and over again. As long as a person is willing to grow, they may have multiple issues they’re going to have to put the work into to deal with. As long as they are willing to do the necessary work intrinsic to repentance, then they can remain in the community. I think of those who were patient with me, who took note of my dedication to growing, my willingness to think differently and do the necessary work on my own, too, in challenging how I thought about things. These friends didn’t give up on me while I was still willing and working to change. I don’t want to be misunderstood. If others don’t bring to your relationship a prevenient willingness and investment in changing, it’s not your job to convince them to. They have to come to this in their own way. Our job is to create communities where reconciliation is built on the preceding foundation of liberation and that possess healthy boundaries of active repentance.

Ignorance is inevitable: our experiences are not all the same. But division is optional. Each of us can choose repentance. And if repentance is genuinely present, forgiveness can be chosen as well.

Unity at the price of silence

What I hope we are seeing this week is that in the early Jesus community, unity was not the highest value. Justice was. Liberation was. Thriving, especially for the vulnerable, was. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail places justice above unity and peace. This letter was Dr. King’s response to several criticisms made by his fellow clergymen who claimed to be allies and “brothers,” but published a letter entitled “A Call for Unity” and asked King to stop his work. King’s letter was the “rebuke” that called them to the kind of “repentance” required by our saying this week.

In my own faith tradition, presently there are those who are calling for ministerial ordination to include women. (I know. It’s 2017 and we’re still having to debate this.) Those opposed to ordaining women are calling for unity. But unity requires a change in how someone thinks about something or someone. There can be no unity while the official position and policy expresses that women are somehow “less than” men. There can be no unity where injustice toward others is not challenged and rejected. There is no genuine unity where injustice is practiced within the community.

I think of the recent interview of Angela Davis by Michelle Alexander hosted by Union Seminary and Riverside Church. In the question and answer session at the end, the dynamic of repentance being prioritized above unity in the relationship between White allies and people of color is discussed. It’s well worth your time to watch the entire interview if you have not already.

Choosing to think and live differently is not always easy, but it is possible. We can choose to center our community in the experiences of the vulnerable. Choosing to forgive is not easy either. Both repentance and forgiveness take work, and it’s worth it. Division only ends up empowering our oppressors.

If your brother or sister sins against you rebuke them, and if they repent forgive them. And if seven times a day they sin against you, also seven times shall you forgive them. Q 17:3-4

HeartGroup Application

  1. Those who feel comfortable sharing, share with the group a time when you found it deeply challenging to listen to another person’s experience, but chose to listen anyway. How did it end up changing the way you thought about something?
  2. Share with the group a time when someone who hurt you chose to change, and how that change impacted your ability to forgive them. Share the result of that forgiveness.
  3. Commit as a group to set up healthy boundaries where we hold each other accountable. Become a group that creates a safe space for the vulnerable among you. Practice Jesus’s preferential option for the vulnerable. Be willing to change.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Wherever you are, keep living in love, love that holds people accountable in our work of survival, resistance, and liberation on our path toward thriving.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.