Biblical Inclusion Versus Biblical Exclusion

by Herb Montgomery | November 8, 2019

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Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash


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


Very early in Luke’s gospel, we read:

“He [Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’” (Luke 4:16-19)

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

The story continues:

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

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

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

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

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

First, here is an example of an exclusionary passage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this all mean to us today?

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

What should you do?

Choose compassion.

Choose justice.

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

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

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

Another world is possible if we choose it. 

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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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Social Sins, Social Justice, and the Jesus Stories

Herb Montgomery | April 19, 2019

Photo credit: Jason Betz on Unsplash

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


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

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

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

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

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

Mark

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 

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

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

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

Luke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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Thanks for 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. 

Since John the Kingdom of God

Picture of protestorsby Herb Montgomery

“It’s one thing to mistake something bad as good. It’s quite another to mistake the Sprit’s work of liberating and re-humanizing those who have been dehumanized and objectified as an evil that should be opposed. This is the sin that is ‘unpardonable.’”

Featured Text:

“The law and the prophets were until John. From then on the kingdom of God is violated and the violent oppose it.” (Q 16:16)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:12-13: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.”

Luke 16:16: “The law and the prophets were until John; from that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every one useth violence towards it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fall.” (Douay-Rheims)

The Law and the Prophets

I have to confess that I used to interpret this passage differently than I do today. Growing up in a sector of Christianity that taught replacement theology, I interpreted this passage to mean that the Kingdom superseded the “Law and the Prophets.” I no longer believe that. Jesus was a Jew. He was never a Christian. As my friend Charlie Kraybill is fond of saying:

“Where did Jesus get his inspiration? From the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, of course. Little of what Jesus said was original with him. His genius was not so much in the substance of his sayings as in the way he curated his source material, the methodology he used for selecting what to highlight and what to leave on the shelf. And Jesus left a lot on the shelf. He ignored the negative qualities attributed to Yahweh: the wrath, the retribution, the jealousy, the rage, the pettiness. He also ignored Yahweh’s military exploits, the occasions where God was portrayed as siding with one tribe over other tribes on the battlefield. Jesus knew, intuitively, that stories of Yahweh behaving badly were projections of the humans who had written the texts. He understood that “Yahweh the Warrior” is a literary character, created by the scribes for their patriotic tales of Israel’s glorious past. At the same time, Jesus resonated with Yahweh’s noblest qualities: mercy, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, non-judgment, etc. He scoured the scrolls for passages where God is shown in the best light. These became Jesus’s favorite passages. They inspired his philosophy of conciliation, affirmation, and pacifism. Because Jesus was confident that the God who really exists — the Source of All Truth and Beauty in the Universe — is conciliatory, affirming, and non-violent. All the time. Any teachings or texts that contradict the mercy and compassion of God carry no weight. It was a radical perspective for a marginal Jew from the Galilean hinterlands, yet it’s the perspective that has made Jesus such a provocative and inspirational figure for the past two millennia.” (Marginal Mennonite Society)

The teachings that have been attributed to the historical Jesus are deeply Jewish. Here are a few examples of where we see Jesus’s teachings directly influenced by his Judaism:

Leviticus 19:17: “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.

Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge, but rather love your neighbor as yourself.”

Deuteronomy 4:31: “God is merciful. God will neither abandon you nor destroy you.”

Deuteronomy 15:11: “Open your hand to the poor and needy.”

Psalms 37:26: “The righteous are always giving liberally and lending.”

Psalms 103:8: “God is merciful, gracious, and abounding in steadfast love.”

Psalms 145:9: “God is good to All. God’s compassion is over all that God has made.”

Psalms 147:9: “God gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry.”

Proverbs 20:22: “Do not say ‘I will repay evil.’ Wait for God and God will help you.”

Proverbs 23:4-5: “Don’t wear yourself out to get rich. Be wise enough to desist. When your eyes light upon it, it is gone, for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven.”

Proverbs 25:21: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat. If they are thirsty, water to drink.”

Proverbs 29:13: “The poor and the oppressor have this in common: God gives light to the eyes of both.”

Isaiah 44:22: “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist.”

Isaiah 49:15: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I won’t forget you.”

Jeremiah 31:34: “I will forgive your iniquities, and remember your sins no more.”

Lamentations 3:30: “It is good to give one’s cheek to the smiter and be filled with insults.”

These verses show that Jesus’s vision for humanity (the kingdom) grew from these seeds found in the Law and the Prophets.

The Violation of Violence

In the second phrase of this week’s saying, “the kingdom of God is violated and the violent plunder it,” I hear Jesus speaking of the violence of the establishment’s opposition. In every version of the Jesus story in the gospels, the established social and political order responded violently to Jesus’s social vision. Mark, held by many as the earliest gospel, also describes violence as an early response to Jesus. In chapter three, “the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus” (Mark 3:6).

Ched Myers explains that this violence is “the bottom line of the power of the state.”

“Fear of [the threat of death] keeps the dominant order intact. By resisting this fear and pursuing kingdom practice even at the cost of death, the disciple contributes to the shattering of the power’s reign of death in history. To concede the state’s sovereignty in death is to refuse its authority in life.” (Binding the Strong Man, A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus)

This may sound like fatalistic nihilism, but it’s not. It’s the realization that sometimes protest and resistance come at the very high price of having to endure violence from the establishment.

Rome used crucifixion as political or military punishment inflicted on the lower classes and the unruly elements in rebellious provinces like Galilee and Judea. Crucifixion was reserve primarily for people who, in Roman society, had no rights. These were groups whose organizing had to be suppressed by whatever means necessary to ensure law and order within the state. As we have often said in this series, those in power will use violence when they feel threatened. Stand up anyway.

Reassurance

Luke assures Jesus’s followers facing the threat of violence: it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fall. Luke harmonizes Jesus’s teachings with the Torah, especially his teachings on debt cancellation and wealth redistribution. Jesus’s “kingdom” teachings were not anti-Torah, and in the 1st Century, assurances rooted in comparisons to the endurance of the earth held more meaning than they do today.

Today we are living in the midst of climate breakdown and realizing that the moral arc of the universe only bends toward justice if we choose to bend it that way. So today I would use different rhetoric than Jesus did to inspire people to keep hoping and to keep working despite the fact that there is violent pushback. We must work for justice anyway. The fact that we are all connected and share each other’s fate should make us engage with more intent, not less. As Alice Walker has said, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Contemporary Displays of Violence Against Liberation

Those in positions of power and privilege accused Jesus’s liberation ministry of being demonic. He responded by defining that accusation as blasphemy. Juan Luis Segundo writes, “Blasphemy resulting from bad apologetics will always be pardonable . . . What is not pardonable is using theology to turn real human liberation into something odious. The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to recognize, with ‘theological’ joy, some concrete liberation that is taking place before one’s very eyes” (in Capitalism Versus Socialism: Crux Theologica).

It’s one thing to mistake something bad as good. It’s quite another to mistake the Sprit’s work of liberating and re-humanizing those who have been dehumanized and objectified as an evil that should be opposed. This is the sin that is “unpardonable.” Ched Myers echoes Segundo when he writes, “To be captive to the way things are, to resist criticism and change, to brutally suppress efforts at humanization—is to be bypassed by the grace of God.”

This past week, Evangelical Christians once again engaged in violence against fellow Image-bearers. As in the days of Christian genocide of Native peoples, or enslavement of Africans, or objections to equal treatment of women, a group of Christians are again on the wrong side of history. The Coalition for Biblical Sexuality has repeated the anti-LGBT activism of the 1980s with a 14-article statement of bigotry signed by Evangelical Christian leaders including James Dobson, John Piper, John MacArthur, and Francis Chan. This document has been titled the Nashville Statement, although the Mayor of Nashville has made it clear that Nashville had absolutely nothing to do with it.

You can read it if you’d like, but you also don’t need to. It’s the same fear-driven, hateful rhetoric that has inspired violence toward the LGBTQ community throughout history. The Christian privileged elite has never been short of Biblical justifications for their oppression, exclusion, marginalization and dehumanization of socially vulnerable people.

Renewed Heart Ministries rejects the Nashville Statement in its entirety. We recognize and affirm our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender nonconforming community members as fellow image-bearers, as sacred, as being fully human and deserving our respect, of love, and justice. Objectification and dehumanization is violence. And in response to this violence we join our voices and our actions with all those saying “No” to efforts such as these.

If you are reading this and are part of the LGBTQ community, you are holy. You are worthy. You are valuable. And you are not alone.

The outcry against this document on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook was swift and stern demonstrating a turning of the tide in our society. These are steps that must be taken as we together work to make our world a just, safe, compassionate home for us all. There is still a lot of work to be done. And I am committed to that work.

Maybe this week’s saying can offer us some encouragement as we stand up to violence, bigotry and fear. The narrative of violence has been repeated over and over throughout history. We learn from the stories of Jesus in the gospels that God was not aligned with those placing others on crosses but in solidarity with the one they crucified for standing with the marginalized and calling for change.

We are not alone today. We are in the right story. If nothing else, may this give a little comfort, and encourage you to keep going.

“The law and the prophets were until John. From then on the kingdom of God is violated and the violent oppose it.” (Q 16:16)

Heart Group Application

This week I want you to do something simple. As Oscar Romero wrote in The Long View, “That is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.” Gandhi also wrote similarly, “It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”

In times like this, we must remember we are each other’s keeper.

This week at your HeartGroup meeting, go around the room and say something you value and appreciate about each person in the group. Make sure no person is left out, and encourage one another. When there are those who are continually endeavoring to tear us down, we must take the time to build each other back up.
Go home and journal some of the things that others said to you during this exercise and read from those pages when you need to be reminded how valuable you really are.

Wherever you are this week, know you are loved, you are fully human, and you are worthy. I’m so glad you checked in with us. Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

We are making a difference and weeks like last week only demonstrate that. If there weren’t folks threatened by change, they wouldn’t be acting out of such desperation.

Thank you to each of you supporting our work. To support Renewed Heart Ministries directly, you can go to http://bit.ly/RHMSupport

or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

If you are new to RHM, find out more about us at http://bit.ly/WhoIsRHM

So glad you’re journeying with us.
I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Hearings before Synagogues

Slaves liberation, Goree Island, Dakar, Best of Senegal

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“When they bring you before synagogues, do not be anxious about how or what you are to say; for the holy Spirit will teach you in that hour what you are to say.” Q 12:11-12 

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:19: “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say.”

Luke 12:11-12: “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”

Synagogues

Rome referred to the synagogue as a Jewish “public school” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 16.6.2). The book of Acts describes synagogues of places of religious worship and instruction. These were places for the local community to assemble for social, intellectual and spiritual reasons. Today, Jewish synagogues are overseen by rabbis. While 1st Century synagogues did have leadership, rabbinical leadership did not become universal till some time in the Middle Ages.

One of the ways Rome kept the peace in the territories it conquered was by working closely through the territories’ religious institutions. So the synagogues, though much more local than the temple in Jerusalem, would have played a part in the Roman occupation.

Also keep in mind that in 1st Century Jewish society, strict divisions between political/civil and religious life did not exist. These were intertwined as they are often in our time.

This week’s saying is an encouragement to followers of Jesus who got arrested for following him. In the U.S. today. Christians don’t get arrested for following Jesus. We’ll discuss a few possible reasons for this in a moment.

First, rather than pointing a finger at how the Jewish elites joined religious and civil authorities to oppose the threat of Jesus’ vision for Jewish societies, I’d like to consider our history: how most of Christianity has witnessed this same opposition to Jesus’ societal vision.

Christianity

Most scholars point to the conversion of Constantine as the period when Christianity began colluding with empire. Feminist scholars point back to patriarchal abuses of women, which have always plagued Christianity. (See Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, edited by Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn.) Christianity, embracing the violent use of the sword as justifiable in the face of Rome’s enemies, grew to become the political head of most of Europe. Christianity then became the empire itself. As the right arm of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant countries in Europe, imperial Christianity laid the foundation for the church’s endorsement and use of colonialism in the 15th Century during the so-called “age of discovery.” In my twenties, I visited Trinidad and Tobago as young, naive Christian “preacher.” Much to my horror I discovered history my Christian education had conveniently left out. I heard stories from the people there of how, rather than condemning colonialism as the genocidal rape of indigenous lands and people, Christianity and the name of Jesus was part and parcel of colonialism. Colonialism was viewed as an acceptable and even preferable means of carrying the “gospel” around the globe, making “disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” with the Bible in one hand and a sword in the other (see Matthew 18:29).

Christian Colonialism took lands and resources from indigenous people viewing them as “modern Canaanites,” treating indigenous people themselves as capitalist resources that could be taken forcefully from their lands as slaves. (See Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, pp.123-142) Christians participated with clear consciences in the slave trade. (See Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness, pp. 66-68) After all, their sacred text had given them permission:

“However, you may purchase male and female slaves from among the nations around you. You may also purchase the children of temporary residents who live among you, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat them as slaves, but you must never treat your fellow Israelites this way.” (Leviticus 25:44-46)

This moral stain still rests with Christianity today. The end of slavery in the U.S. was brought about by secularists partnering with a minority of Christians derogatorily labeled “radical Christians.” (See Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and Carol Faulkner’s Lucreitta Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America.) Jim Crow, too, was ended by secular federal legislation opposed by the majority of white Christians in the southern states. (The Real Origins of the Religious Right)

Today, Christianity again has raised its head to support the most outspokenly misogynist, racist, xenophobic American administration in modern history.  For most of my socially conscious friends, Christianity is seen not just as out of touch with Jesus’ societal vision, but actively opposed to a world that resembles what Jesus was working so tirelessly to inspire among his 1st Century followers.

Today

In the 1960s and 1970s, in North and South America, a different Christian movement was born. Latin voices in South and Central America, and Black voices here in the U.S. developed differently focused theologies that would come to be known as liberation theologies:

“If theological speech is based on the traditions of the Old Testament, then it must heed their unanimous testimony to Yahweh’s commitment to justice for the poor and the weak. Accordingly it cannot avoid taking sides in politics, and the side that theology must take is disclosed in the side that Yahweh has already taken. Any other side, whether it be with the oppressors or the side of neutrality (which is nothing but a camouflaged identification with the rulers), is unbiblical. If theology does not side with the poor, then it cannot speak for Yahweh who is the God of the poor.” (James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, p. 65)

“Under these circumstances, can it honestly be said that the Church does not interfere in ’the temporal sphere’? Is the Church fulfilling a purely religious role when by its silence or friendly relationships it lends legitimacy to a dictatorial and oppressive government? We discover, then, that the policy of nonintervention in political affairs holds for certain actions which involve ecclesiastical authorities, but not for others. In other words, this principle is not applied when it is a question of maintaining the status quo, but it is wielded when, for example, a lay apostolic movement or a group of priests holds an attitude considered subversive to the established order.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 40)

Both statements reveal a challenge to Christianity’s historic complicity with and empowerment of the status quo. Christian liberation movements were born in solidarity with oppressed. This marked a significant shift in theology away from North American and European centered interpretations and toward theologies being done from within oppressed communities.

These theologies were labeled “radical” expressions of Christianity and they have yet to become popularly emphasized in status quo, White, patriarchal, heterosexist Christianity. These theologies have not gone beyond the halls of academia in order to reach the people in the pew listening to most of North America’s weekly evangelical preaching.

Today, U.S. society is markedly a secular society with a plurality of religious beliefs, and the religion with the most followers is Christianity. Too often, this kind of Christianity is simply concerned with spiritual and/or post-mortem matters that prove to leave systemic oppression unchallenged for those in positions of privilege. It also leaves those underprivileged in a state of pious passivity.

Yet, if liberation theologies rooted in the experience of the oppressed and informed by their sacred texts are a reflection of what early Christianity possibly was in the first century, they sound a clarion call for Christianity to wrest itself free of its historical failures, to make reparations for the damage it has done, and to begin charting a new course where the poor, women, people of color, and those of varied orientations and gender identities are no longer the victims of Christianity but the community Jesus would call us to stand in solidarity with instead. This is not a “liberal agenda,” or “gay agenda” threatening the gospel of Jesus Christ. This IS the gospel of Jesus Christ: liberation for the oppressed. (Luke 4:18-19)

As I mentioned above, Christians are not getting arrested in the U.S. today. Is that because society has become just, safe, and compassionate for everyone so that Christianity has no opposition to a status quo to mount? Or is it because Christianity, as it has done historically, is being complicit in systemic injustices, exploitation, and harm being perpetrated out of societal fear of those who are different?

American Christians have a long way to go before they are being brought before “rulers and authorities” for standing up against injustice and a lack of compassion in our world today. It’s more likely that if one is “arrested” and brought to trial today, it will be the Christians who comprise the prosecutors.

“When they bring you before synagogues, do not be anxious about how or what you are to say; for the holy Spirit will teach you in that hour what you are to say.” Q 12:11-12 

HeartGroup Application

This week I have some passages from the Hebrew scriptures that I’d like you to contemplate together. James H. Cone in our book of the month for March, God of the Oppressed, wrote:

“For theologians to speak of this God, they too must become interested in politics and economics, recognizing that there is no truth about Yahweh unless it is the truth of freedom as that event is revealed in the oppressed people’s struggle for justice in this world.” (p. 57)

  1. Consider the following passages:

“Yahweh ’heard their groaning, and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; he saw the plight of Israel, he took heed of it’” (Exodus 2:24—25 NEB).

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has risen up in triumph; the horse and his rider he has hurled into the sea.” (Exodus 15:1 NEB)

“The Lord is my refuge and my defense, he has shown himself my deliverer.” (Exodus 15:2 NEB)

“You have seen with your own eyes what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you here to me. If only you will now listen to me and keep my covenant, then out of all peoples you shall become my special possession; for the whole earth is mine. You shall be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4—5 NEB)

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21; cf. 23:9 RSV)

“You shall not ill-treat any widow or fatherless child. If you do, be sure that I will listen if they appeal to me; my anger will be roused and I will kill you with the sword.” (Exodus 22:23—24 NEB)

What do these passages tell us about the Hebrew God’s relationship to the oppressed?

2. The narrative states that the liberated people eventually became oppressors of the vulnerable. Consider these passages from the Hebrew prophets:

“For you alone have I cared among all the nations of the world; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:2 NEB)

“Shall not the earth shake for this?  Shall not all who live on it grieve? All earth shall surge and seethe like the Nile and subside like the river of Egypt. Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, the Aramaeans from Kir? Behold, I, the Lord God, have my eyes on this sinful kingdom, and I will wipe it off the face of the earth. (Amos 8:6-8; 9:7-8 NEB)

“For among my people there are wicked men.. . Their houses are full of fraud, as a cage is full of birds. They grow rich and grand, bloated and rancorous; their thoughts are all of evil, and they refuse to do justice, the claims of the orphan they do not put right nor do they grant justice to the poor.” (Jeremiah 5:26-28 NEB)

“God has told you what is good; and what is it that the Lord asks of you? Only to act justly, to love loyally, to walk wisely before your God. (Micah 6:8 NEB)

“Put away the evil of your deeds, away out of my sight. Cease to do evil and learn to do right, pursue justice and champion the oppressed; give the orphan his rights, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:16–17 NEB)

3. The Davidic Kingly narrative texts teach us that the king was to rescue the needy from their rich oppressors:

“May he have pity on the needy and the poor, deliver the poor from death; may he redeem them from oppression and violence and may their blood be precious in his eyes.” (Psalm 72:12-14 NEB)

Yet we don’t see this being the ultimate outcome:

“The Lord comes forward to argue his case and stands to judge his people. The Lord opens the indictment against the elders of his people and their officers: They have ravaged the vineyard, and the spoils of the poor are in your houses. Is it nothing to you that you crush my people and grind the faces of the poor?” (Isaiah 3:13–15 NEB)

God’s people were to stand with the oppressed, like their God did:

“He who is generous to the poor lends to the Lord.” (Proverbs 19:17 NEB)

“He who oppresses the poor insults his Maker; he who is generous to the needy honors him.” (Proverbs 14:31 NEB)

“Do not move the ancient boundary-stone or encroach on the land of orphans: they have a powerful guardian who will take their cause against you.” (Proverbs 23:10-11 NEB)

In the book of Luke, we find these two descriptions of the work of Jesus:

“His name is Holy; his mercy sure from generation to generation toward those who fear him; the deeds his own right arm has done disclose his might: the arrogant of heart and mind he has put to rout, he has brought down monarchs from their thrones, but the humble have been lifted high. The hungry he has satisfied with good things, the rich sent empty away.” (Luke 1:49-53 NEB)

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me, he has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NEB)

What does it mean to see Jesus as part of a Jewish liberation tradition?

What does it mean for us today who desire to follow this Jewish, liberative Jesus?

What if you belong to the community of the oppressed?

What if you don’t belong to the community of the oppressed?

Does this liberative Jesus call us each to stand in solidarity with those on the undersides and edges of our society?

As I mentioned a moment ago, I believe much of Western Christianity has a long way to go before this week’s saying holds any relevance to it. At most right now it is a strong rebuke of how far we have drifted from being a community of the oppressed rather than a community of oppressors.

But that doesn’t mean things are hopeless. The choice is yours today. As a follower of Jesus, whom are you being called to stand in solidarity with? Who knows, you may find yourself standing before “rulers and authorities” for living like the Jesus community of old.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Wherever this finds you, keep living in love. Keep up the good work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. We have our work cut out for us. Let’s get to it.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.