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The Social Location of Your Christianity Matters
Herb Montgomery | October 23, 2020
—”This devolution of the Jesus of the story justifies why many today are repulsed or revolted when anything Christian is brought up or the name Jesus is evoked. But in the story, it was the elite and privileged who felt this disgust and loathing. Today, it’s those on the margins of society, those who have also been hurt by Christianity or disenfranchised and harmed by Christians . . . Their intense dislike of all things Christian simply expresses a much deeper internal revolt against injustice and the religion of those who perpetuate it.”
My heart is heavy this week as I listen to some of the other Christian voices here in Appalachia. I wonder sometimes if we are reading the same Jesus story, and I know that we are, at minimum, interpreting the story differently.
I read the Jesus story as a story of Jesus being a conduit of hope for the disenfranchised and oppressed in the gospels. This Jesus’ teachings and actions threatened the privileged and therefore had to be stopped. The Jesus story doesn’t center on a cross. It focuses on the life that overcame a cross; life-giving that reversed and ultimately triumphed over the crushing death-dealing in the story.
The resurrection event in the Jesus story is the Divine response to Jesus’ unjust crucifixion on a Roman cross and a system of injustice that culminated in such acts against those deemed social or political threats. The resurrection event speaks of a Jesus in solidarity with oppressed people rather than with the oppression and oppressors who benefit from oppressing.
As western Christianity’s social location changed over the centuries, many of these themes in the Jesus story became ignored or reinterpreted. Under the Roman emperor, the same empire that had crucified Jesus also changed the church’s social focus and understanding of the “gospel.” The stories about Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) have political implications and those implications became problematic as Christianity transitioned from a community of the oppressed, as James Cone used to say, to a community of oppressors. Seemingly overnight, the Jesus of the gospels became the Jesus of the oppressors. This devolution of the Jesus of the story justifies why many today are repulsed or revolted when anything Christian is brought up or the name Jesus is evoked. But in the story, it was the elite and privileged who felt this disgust and loathing. Today, it’s those on the margins of society, those who have also been hurt by Christianity or disenfranchised and harmed by Christians. The Hebrew narrative of a God who stands in solidarity with those who suffer at the hands of others was so strong in the Jesus stories and has been subverted.
Today, many of my non-religious friends who oppose Christianity are rooted in a deep concern about matters of justice. Their intense dislike of all things Christian simply expresses a much deeper internal revolt against injustice and the religion of those who perpetuate it. I acknowledge this. I also recognize that the European-American Jesus who stands with the superpowers of this planet does not exist in the biblical stories or in life. The Jesus we find in the Jesus of the stories was radically inclusive, seeking to mitigate the harm being perpetuated toward the vulnerable and excluded in his society. He stood in solidarity with those on the bottom of our systems of oppression, flipping tables and challenging systemic and economic injustice with those for whom injustice meant an early death.
This leads me to the inescapable conclusion that the “Christian” god of the conquering West is not the God we find in the Jesus story. The god that many of us white Christians have worshipped all our lives doesn’t exist. The God of the Jesus story stood in solidarity with the Abels, not the Cains, and with the Hebrews, Jews, and the 1st Century followers of Jesus persecuted by systems they lived under.
Today this must call us to re-evaluate our standing in relation to the lives of Indigenous Americans, Black and Brown people, Women, poor people, queer people, and anyone whom our society relates to as “less than.” I believe the gospel stories about Jesus can still speak to these communities of how another world is possible, here, now: a world where the first are last and the last are first. It’s not a world that makes room at the top of a pyramid of oppression for people who were once oppressed themselves. It’s not a world where the oppressed become the new and inevitable oppressors, as Saul Alinsky imagined they would. The world of the gospels is a world where the relationships of oppressor and oppressed are no more. We’ll have outgrown survival instincts that may have once kept us alive but are now impeding our survival as a human community.
The themes of the gospel of Jesus are a universal love and care about the injustice that beloveds are facing today. This kind of gospel is not about post-mortem bliss but about a world, in this time, that we can shape into a just, safe, compassionate home for everyone. It’s not a gospel of mercy, grace, and forgiveness that releases us from a Divine, punitive retribution, but of a mercy, grace, and forgiveness of debt that gives birth to distributive, restorative, transformative, and reparative justice. Death is overcome by life and not avoided with greater death-dealing. We choose the path of life-giving politics for our societies, and guilt gives way to reparations and reparations, to reconciliation. It’s a world where we reap what we sow and what we’ve sown is compassion, love, justice, and inclusion. This is a world that is a “blessing” to those the present arrangement oppresses, and it will be a “blessing” to those who stand in solidarity with and give a voice to those who have been oppressed (cf. Matthew 5-10, and Luke 6). Lastly, this is a world where the means we have used to build are the “oak within the acorn.” They have shaped the kind of world we have ended up in the end: the means determined our end.
This week I’m challenged once again to believe this kind of world is actually possible. What hurts my heart as someone raised within Christianity is to see how many, many Christians are allowing themselves to be misinformed enough to oppose the world found in the oldest interpretations of the Jesus story. This month, the recommended book at Renewed Heart Ministries is Miguel A. De La Torre’s Burying White Privilege: Resurrecting a Badass Christianity. While I read this short, timely, and poignant book, I was struck by a statement that captures the kind of opposition I’m referring to:
“While justifying their choice with pro-life rhetoric, [pro-life Christians] bloody their hands through their allegiance to death-dealing policies that disproportionately impact the poor, the undocumented, and the queer. Pro-life Christians in the United States who today want to build walls to drive brown bodies into the desert to die are the ideological descendants of pro-life Pilgrims and slave masters whose invasion, genocide, enslavement, and rape epitomize the legacy of white Christianity.” (Kindle location 239)
Every day we have the opportunity to choose what kind of world we want to live in. When we make these choices collectively, our choices create change. None of us can change the world all by ourselves, but together we can accomplish great and beautiful things.
In the US, we have an opportunity in just a couple of weeks to work toward change collectively. I cannot tell you who to vote for. What I can do is encourage you not to hold illusions about what the act of voting is in this county. I can encourage you not to try voting for a candidate and think they will heal all of our country’s ills without failure. There are no heroes. In the words of Alice Walker, we are the ones we have been waiting for. Whoever wins, we will have to hold them accountable. We don’t vote for ideal candidates, then. Instead, this year, vote for those you believe will cause the least amount of harm, misery, and oppression for the world’s marginalized, disenfranchised and underprivileged. Vote to mitigate harm while we continue to work every day toward a world where the vulnerable are no longer harmed.
To paraphrase what Vincent Harding used to say, we are citizens of a country that doesn’t exist yet. But I believe we can take steps that move us closer to the realization of our highest values and ideals.
Another world is possible.
Over the next few weeks, let’s move closer to it.
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. What are some practices in other countries, that you see support for in the Jesus story, that you wish we also practiced here in the United States? Share with your group, along with how you see the Jesus story supporting these practices.
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