Jesus and Law and Order

law and order

Herb Montgomery | September 25, 2020


“Beware when you see those in power using law and order rhetoric used to maintain power, position, control, and political office. Jesus’ followers should be the first to recognize when ‘law and order’ is being used to serve and protect the elite and privileged rather than the marginalized and excluded.”


At the beginning of Luke’s version of the Jesus story, we read this summation of the character of what Jesus’ ministry will be in the gospel of Luke:

“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)

Here Jesus is portrayed as taking a firm stand with those his society was pushing to the margins,. This solidarity comes into even sharper focus just two chapters later in Luke’s sermon on the plain:

“Looking at his disciples, he said:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets …

But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6.20-31)

Jesus here is announcing that God’s just future is decidedly for those the present system makes last. Jesus’ announcement is that the last will be first. What about those the present system is already making first? Jesus’ words are blunt. They’ve “already received” their comfort.

In his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? Peter Gomes explains how problematic Jesus’ solidarity with those who are presently marginalized is,

“When the gospel says, ‘The last will be first, and the first will be last,’ despite the fact it is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions, it is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first… Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others. In order that the gospel in the New Testament might be made as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, its rough edges have been shorn off and the radical edge of Jesus’ preaching has been replaced by a respectable middle, of which “niceness” is now God. When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the ends of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed.” (p. 42, 31)

Jesus’ solidarity with those on the margins of his society is not just a characteristic of Luke’s Jesus. Each of the Gospels begin on the margins. John the Baptist rejected his more central role of being a priest in the temple. He was a voice crying out in the wilderness. Jesus was from the marginalized region of Galilee and the majority of his story takes place here as well. This had deep, encouraging, political significance for the marginalized audiences of each of these gospels. “While the margin has a primarily negative political connotation as a place of disenfranchisement, Mark ascribes to it a primarily positive theological value. It is the place where the sovereignty of God is made manifest, where the story of liberation is renewed, where God’s intervention in history occurs.” (Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 12)

What does this mean for those Jesus followers whose present social location is not marginalized but more centered? The temptation is often to call for those at the center to make room at their table for those more marginalized. Miguel A. De La Torre offers a different option. This option does not invite those on the margins to a table at the center of an oppressive society where God is not. But to recognize that God is already present at the tables of those presently on the margins; God is already at work there. God is with them and we are only with God when we, too, are with them.

The question for those endeavoring to follow Jesus whose social location is more central and privileged is whether they will reject a status quo that privileges some over others on the basis simply of difference and begin supporting and working alongside those our society relegates to the margins. God is already there. The question is: are we?

“In reality, the gospel is thriving in the margins of society. The real question facing the center, accustomed to confusing its interpretations with the biblical text itself, is whether those at the center will also participate in the body of Christ that already exists in the margins of society.” (Miguel A. De La Torre, Reading the Bible from the Margins, Kindle location 1075)

Jesus’ solidarity with those on the margins reached a critical breaking point with Jesus’ protest in the courtyard of the temple. The temple was the political, economic, and religious symbol of the temple state of his own society. Don’t think of the temple as a modern Christian church. The temple was much more like a state’s capital building This was the center of power. Jesus’ protest in his flipping over the tables of the money changers was the decisive move in the synoptic gospels which marks the threat of Jesus’ teaching as having gone too far. His temple protest damaged temple property and threatened the income of those power-brokers who were at the center of a system that economically exploited the poor. The growing number of followers of Jesus each day meant to those in power that something must be done. This is where we see the machinery of Roman “law and order enter” the story. Before the week is over, Jesus is hanging on a Roman cross.

Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas gives us insight into how the rule of Roman law and order including Roman crucifixion functioned in Jesus’ society,

“In Jesus’’first-century world, crucifixion was the brutal tool of social-political power …. It indicated how much of a threat that a person was believed to pose. Crucifixion was reserved for those who threatened the ‘peace of the day. It was a torturous death that was also meant to send a message: disrupt the Roman order in any way, this too will happen to you ….The crucified class …. consisted of those who were castigated and demonized as well as those who defied the status quo. Crucifixion was a stand-your-ground type of punishment for the treasonous offense of violating the rule of Roman ‘law and order.’” (Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 170)

Law and order should be to protect the vulnerable, those whom the more powerful in society will take advantage of if given the opportunity. Too often law and order and the rhetoric that surrounds a law and order approach is nothing more than the powerful of society using law enforcement to silence the unrest and protest of the marginalized crying out for a more just and more equitable society. The question we must always ask about law and order is which sector of society is our law and order serving and protecting.

Jesus stood in solidarity with the marginalized over and against those who would exploit them. When ‘law and order’ is instead standing with the powerful and centered over and against the cries of those calling for justice we must recognize this not as life-giving to society but death-dealing, literally. We can have peace through establishing distributive justice or we can have peace through a heavy-handed use of law and order that silences protest. These are two paths toward peace. Rome used the latter. In America presently, we are seeing the use of the latter. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan comment on the error of using this method, “The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world.” (The First Christmas, What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth, p. 166).

Beware when you see those in power using law and order rhetoric used to maintain power, position, control, and political office. Jesus’ followers should be the first to recognize when law and order is being used to serve and protect the elite and privileged rather than the marginalized and excluded. America has a long history of law and order being used to systemically serve and protect only the elite or privileged. And Christians should be the first to recognize when this American tradition is being repeated. It’s what our story is all about.

The resurrection itself is God’s definitive, nonviolent victory over law and order being used to protect privileged positions of a society’s elite. The resurrection is God’s definitive, nonviolent victory over systemic death-dealing. This victory was not one where death is overcome by a more severe death-dealing. But one where the death dealt by an unjust system is overcome by life. Life and life-giving overcomes systemic death and death-dealing in the Jesus story.

Again, Rev Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas calls us to reorient our interpretations of what the Jesus story is actually saying to us in moments like this one we are presently witnessing in the U.S. “The resurrection is God’s definitive victory over crucifying powers of evil. Ironically, the power that attempts to destroy Jesus on the cross is actually itself destroyed by the cross. The cross represents the power that denigrates human bodies, destroys life, and preys on the most vulnerable in society. As the cross is defeated, so too is that power. The impressive factor is how it is defeated. It is defeated by life-giving rather than a life-negating force. God’s power, unlike human power, is not a ‘master race’ kind of power. That is, it is not a power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s’ power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is a resurrecting power. Therefore God’s power never expresses itself through the humiliation or denigration of another. It does not triumph over life. It conquers death by resurrecting life. The force of God is a death-negating, life-affirming force.” (Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 188)

Luke’s gospel climaxes, not with a Roman cross, but a reversal, undoing, and overcoming of the rule of Roman law and order used by the elite over and against the marginalized:

“On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright, the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!’” (Luke 24.1-6)

What resurrecting power against our societal injustice–both private and systemic–are you needing in your life today?

What resurrecting power are the gospels calling you to go forth and exercise in our own lives as members of our society?

HeartGroup Application

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

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. How do you see law and order rhetoric being used today? What is the social location of those calling for law and order? What kind of violence is being critiqued? What kind of violence is being affirmed? Discuss with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Choosing Peace through Militarized Policing or Distributive Justice

Herb Montgomery | June 26, 2020

riot police

Photo by Spenser on Unsplash

This week we end our consideration of the final warnings in Luke’s version of the Jesus story and how they might relate to our society. In Luke 23, we read:

“Jesus turned and said to them, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then ‘they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?’” (Luke 23:28–31)

In this passage, Jesus addresses women weeping for him as Roman soldiers march him toward Golgotha. Jesus is just moments away from being crucified here. Luke tells us that “a large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him” (Luke 23:27). Days earlier this same crowd had ushered Jesus into Jerusalem. White Christians today who still trust in militarized saviors in our current social climate miss a lot of the details in Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.

Luke’s gospel borrows imagery used by Rome itself, which referred to Caesar as the “son of God.” He was called “the savior of the world.” Through the victories of Rome (i.e., Caesar), the political propaganda of Jesus’ day proclaimed, “peace on earth” would come. They called that peace the Pax Romana, the “peace of Rome.” And when Caesar would approach a city in the Roman Empire, emissaries from the city would go out to meet the dignitary and escort him on his way into their city. They would welcome Caesar and the “peace” that Roman occupation brought to their lives.

The fact that Luke’s gospel used images of honor thought to be due only to the “Lord” Caesar would have deeply subverted Rome’s political gospel. As Luke’s Jesus approached Jerusalem, the crowd cries out, “Blessed is the KING who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “PEACE in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Yet there is a difference between Luke’s Jesus and Rome’s Caesar. Where Caesar would have ridden a warhorse in his triumphal entry, Jesus came riding on the foal of a colt, or a young donkey. At least two literary agendas are present here: a contrast to Rome’s militarized methods toward peace and Jesus’ path toward peace through distributive justice rather than policing, and the writer pointing readers/listeners to the words of the prophet Zechariah:

“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your KING comes to you, righteous and having salvation, lowly and riding on a DONKEY, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will TAKE AWAY the CHARIOTS from Ephraim and the WARHORSES from Jerusalem, and the BATTLE BOW will be broken. He will proclaim PEACE to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Zechariah 9:9, emphasis added)

Attaching Jesus to Zechariah’s words put the violent imagery of Caesar riding a warhorse in direct confrontation with the nonviolent Jesus riding a donkey, calling for those on the margins to be centered and for the elites’ wealth to be redistributed to the poor. What we have here is two paths toward peace. One was enforced by militarized power and the other addressed the root causes of injustice that lead to the lack of peace.

One approach toward peace is imposed, and the other is a more organic approach to social causes and effects. When Jerusalem came into view, Jesus stopped and wept: “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you PEACE—but now it is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42–44, emphasis added).

This calls to mind what we are seeing take place in our society presently. The protests are a call for justice that has long gone unheard. Yet Trump is responding, not by listening to the underlying systemic causes and working to address these injustices, but by simply threatening greater force. We have an overfunded, militarized police force and as a country, we spend twice as much on law and order as we do on social welfare.

It is in a context like this that Luke’s Jesus addresses those weeping for him on the way to his execution. Rome executes Jesus because of his economic protest in the temple and his growing number of followers among the disinherited, dispossessed, and disenfranchised.

“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children… For if they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”’ (Luke 23:28–30)

Again, many scholars believe Luke’s gospel was written after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Luke connects Jesus’ economic teachings about distributive justice, the economic elites’ rejection of those teachings, and the Jewish poor people’s revolt in the late 60s. As I’ve shared in previous weeks, the poor people’s revolt grew into the Roman Jewish war (66-69 C.E.), which resulted in Rome’s violent leveling of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Luke’s gospel tries to make sense of the devastation of 70 C.E. Christianity has a long, anti-Semitic history of explaining Jerusalem’s destruction as God’s punishment of the city for rejecting Jesus. I don’t believe that. Instead, I see the gospel authors connecting rejection of Jesus’ economic teachings of wealth redistribution and resource-sharing with what later happened in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. They are making a more organic, intrinsic connection between a society that rejected economic distributive justice and restructuring their community to prioritize the poor on the one hand and the poor people’s uprising and revolt on the other. The results are not divinely imposed or arbitrary. They are the natural outcome of political, economic, and social causes and effects.

This helps us understand the words, “if they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” If Rome responds to Jesus’ minor protest and demonstration in the temple with such violence as a crucifixion, what will Rome do when it’s facing an entire poor people’s revolt and an all-out class war (i.e. the Jewish-Roman War, 66-69, and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.)?

Luke’s Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea, who centuries before had spoken those words about the way Israel would be destroyed by Assyria. “The high places of wickedness will be destroyed—it is the sin of Israel. Thorns and thistles will grow up and cover their altars. Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Cover us!’ and to the hills, ‘Fall on us!’ . . .” (Hosea 10.8-10) Luke applied Hosea’s words to how Jerusalem would be destroyed by Rome.

“As the legions charged in [the Temple], neither persuasion nor threat could check their impetuosity: passion alone was in command . . . Most of the victims were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, butchered wherever they were caught. Round the Altar, the heap of corpses grew higher and higher, while down the Sanctuary steps poured a river of blood and the bodies of those killed at the top slithered to the bottom . . . Next [the Romans] came to the last surviving colonnade of the outer court. On this women and children and a mixed crowd of citizens had found a refuge—6000 in all. Before Caesar could reach a decision about them or instruct his officers, the soldiers, carried away by their fury, fired the colonnade from below; as a result, some flung themselves out of the flames to their death, others perished in the blaze: of that vast number there escaped not one.” Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 359 (6.5.1; 271–76)

This is where the path of systemic injustice pressed down too long by militarized force ultimately ends. People finally have enough. When the dust settles, there is either change or massive destruction as social unrest is once again quelled, and social change is once again pushed further down the line for a future revolt.

Rome put down Jerusalem in 70 C.E. But just seventy years later, there was another revolt, the Bar Kokhba revolt, the third Jewish revolt in the new millennium that ended in Rome’s genocidal destruction of the Jewish people. There’s no way to tell how a revolt quelled by militarized force will ultimately turn out. Will change come at a later date, or will it be just greater destruction?

Peace through a militarized quelling of unrest is not peace, but a lull waiting for another future eruption. Jesus’ life teaches us that it doesn’t have to be this way. The path toward peace is not greater force. The path toward peace is addressing the underlying causes for unrest, the underlying systemic injustices, and inequities causing the revolt.

For Luke’s Jesus, the green tree and dry tree imagery echoes the warning given by Ezekiel in the days when Babylonian captivity loomed on the horizon:

“Hear the word of the LORD. This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am about to set fire to you, and it will consume all your trees, both green and dry. The blazing flame will not be quenched, and every face from south to north will be scorched by it. Everyone will see that I the LORD have kindled it; it will not be quenched.” (Ezekiel 20:47)

Luke’s Jesus is saying “If Rome will do this to me—a prophet of nonviolence—if Rome sees my temple protest (involving the damage of privileged property) and my growing number of followers as a threat, how much more will they do this to Jerusalem when the people have had enough and choose the path of violence and insurrection and war?” Jesus is proclaiming, “Do not weep for me. Weep for yourselves.”

What does this mean for us today?

We can go on quelling social unrest, or we can choose to listen.

I’ve been reading The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale. On the cover of the book it reads, “The problem is not police training, police diversity, or police methods. The problem is the dramatic and unprecedented expansion and intensity of policing in the last forty years, a fundamental shift in the role of police in society. The problem is policing itself.”

Rather than funding solutions to underlying causes of inequities, we have consistently funded a path of militarized responses to those responding to those inequities. Policing looks very different in other countries with a criminal justice system that is rehabilitative rather than punitive. In some of those countries, the police haven’t taken human life in years, and they have extremely low recidivism rates compared to ours.

It’s time to take the funding we’ve been using to respond to inequity with militarized policing and invest that funding on reshaping and restructuring our societies in more just, more compassionate, safer ways and with life-affirming institutions. Recently, Mark Van Steenwyk of The Center for Prophetic Imagination posted a list of resources for those who would like to learn more about what defunding the police means and what it doesn’t mean. I recommend this list as a good starting point.

As Michelle Alexander recently stated, “America, this is your chance.”

Another iteration of our world is possible if we will collectively choose it.

HeartGroup Application

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

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

  1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
  2. What are some changes to the underlying causes of inequities that you would like to see more funding for in your civic community? Discuss it with your group?
  3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of systemically shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

A More Distributively Just Way

by Herb Montgomery | May 1, 2020

workers


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


Happy International Worker’s Day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Matthew’s gospel we read:

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

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

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

Setting Prisoners Free

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

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

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

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

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

Migrant Workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

When Doing the Right Thing Is Illegal

Herb Montgomery | June 14, 2019

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

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


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

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

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

Each of the gospels interprets the Sabbath work-prohibition and includes acts of healing in the category of labor that was forbidden during Sabbath.

“He said to them, ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11-12)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In contrast to Hellenistic literature, in which miracle-workers normally function to maintain the status quo, gospel healings challenge the ordering of power. Because Jesus seeks the root causes of why people are marginalized, there is no case of healing and exorcism in Mark that does not also raise a larger question of social oppression.” (“Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 14)

Law and Order

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

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

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

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

Faith Communities and Noncompliance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Jesus, Law and Order

Herb Montgomery | January 31, 2019


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


HeartGroup Application

Consider these four stories from our sacred text:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another world is possible.

I love each you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.