The Personal Cost of Causing Division

Herb Montgomery | August 12, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


“Our reading this week calls to mind times when we have also had to make decisions about speaking out against things we feel are unjust or harmful and facing division or controversy as a result. How many times have we found ourselves in a situation where doing what we feel is right or speaking out would involve a personal cost?”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

He said to the crowd: When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, Its going to rain,and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, Its going to be hot,and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you dont know how to interpret this present time?” (Luke 12:49-56)

The context of this week’s reading is Jesus looking ahead to his arrival at Jerusalem and the demonstration or protest he will engage in there. He will flip the tables of the moneychangers, that protest will cause an uproar, and he will receive pushback that might cost him his life.

A word about the language Luke uses here. The metaphorical imagery of Jesus as a fire starter held different meanings in different versions of the Jesus story. In the gospel of Thomas, for example, fire is something that Jesus kindles and guards till it blazes. This makes fire a good thing that symbolizes the growing Jesus movement itself.

In Luke, however, this rhetoric conjures a more dangerous connotation: social and political conflict. These are the connotations I want to emphasize this week. Jesus’ internal conflict was not with his own Jewishness or his Jewish tradition. He struggled with the economic, political, and social harm he saw being committed against those his society had made vulnerable, and with what he felt he had to do in response.

The language of baptism (immersion) is also a metaphor for the concrete hardship or distress that Jesus’ protest and speaking out could possibly cause. In this passage we are reading of a Jesus who is in distress on one level but also resolute and embracing the reality that he will cause division and the personal cost that will involve. He doesn’t wish to avoid it but rather wishes that it was already over.

It’s also noteworthy that the divisiveness that Jesus is talking about will thoroughly permeate his society’s social structures, all the way to the family unit. The family unit in 1st Century Judea and Galilee was the central economic and social structure of Jesus’ society.

Our reading this week calls to mind times when we have also had to make decisions about speaking out against things we feel are unjust or harmful and facing division or controversy as a result. How many times have we found ourselves in a situation where doing what we feel is right or speaking out would involve a personal cost?

I think of whistleblowers who have to make these difficult decisions.

I think, too, of social truth tellers in religious and nonreligious contexts who suffer personally because they chose to speak truth rather than silently go along with things they knew were harmful.

I don’t quote Leo Tolstoy very often anymore, but this week’s reading reminds me of a statement that I love:

“And therefore you cannot but reflect on your position as landowner, manufacturer, judge, emperor, president, minister, priest, and soldier, which is bound up with violence, deception, and murder, and recognize its unlawfulness. I do not say that if you are a landowner you are bound to give up your lands immediately to the poor; if a capitalist or manufacturer, your money to your workpeople; or that if you are Tzar, minister, official, judge, or general, you are bound to renounce immediately the advantages of your position; or if a soldier, on whom all the system of violence is based, to refuse immediately to obey in spite of all the dangers of insubordination. If you do so, you will be doing the best thing possible. But it may happen, and it is most likely, that you will not have the strength to do so. You have relations, a family, subordinates and superiors; you are under an influence so powerful that you cannot shake it off; but you can always recognize the truth and refuse to tell a lie about it. You need not declare that you are remaining a landowner, manufacturer, merchant, artist, or writer because it is useful to mankind; that you are governor, prosecutor, or tzar, not because it is agreeable to you, because you are used to it, but for the public good; that you continue to be a soldier, not from fear of punishment, but because you consider the army necessary to society. You can always avoid lying in this way to yourself and to others, and you ought to do so; because the one aim of your life ought to be to purify yourself from falsehood and to confess the truth. And you need only do that and your situation will change directly of itself.” (Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, pp. 263-264)

In this week’s reading, Jesus stands within his own Jewish prophetic tradition, where the prophets speak out against the unjust actions of the centered rich and powerful harming the poor and marginalized.

How many times have we been told not to be divisive in our time? There is a time to push for unity, and there is also a time when division is holy, just, and good.

The Hebrew scriptures remind us:

“There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under the heavens:

  a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

  a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,

  a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

  a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

  a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

  a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

  a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

Yes: there is a time for unity and there is a time for division.

My burden this week is that each of us will have the wisdom to discern the difference, that we will have the wisdom to recognize where calls for silence are coming from. Is it the privileged who are warning us not to rock the boat? Will division be harmful to those we are trying to help, or is the division simply threatening those who are benefiting from an unjust system.

One last word about Luke’s Jesus.

In this week’s passage, Jesus is engaging in resistance and speaking out, not promoting passive endurance of injustice. He is also not choosing to die, as feminist and womanist theologians have explained. (See Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique by Brown and Bohn, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Williams, and Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us by Parker and Brock.) He’s rather choosing to hold onto a life-giving ethic even when threatened with an unjust execution. He’s answering not whether he is willing to die but how badly does he want to live. For me, these are not semantics. The difference informs how I myself respond to injustice and abuse.

I desire us to have wisdom and also to have courage in these kinds of moments: courage to bear the personal costs we will suffer when we are called to “instigate” division for the sake of what is right.

Our reading concludes with clouds on the horizon and a coming storm. This could reflect Luke’s (and possibly also Matthew’s) beliefs in a coming eschaton (cf. Matthew 16:2-3). It could also indicate that Jesus saw that injustice is not sustainable and that, eventually, societies that benefit a few by harming the masses will break down. When they do break down, it harms us all.

In the end, it’s harm reduction and mitigation that is moving Jesus to speak out. It is the reality of this harm to everyone that outweighs the personal cost he will suffer for speaking out.

What can this week’s story say to you when you, too, are called to speak out?

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Share an experience in your own life where you were faced with similar decisions as we see in this week’s reading. How did things turn out? 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



Begin each day being inspired toward love, compassion, action, and justice.

Go to renewedheartministries.com and click “sign up.”

Free Sign-Up at:

https://renewedheartministries.com/Contact-forms?form=EmailSignUp

Breathing In Spirit, Exhaling Love and Justice

Herb Montgomery | April 22, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


“In the stories, Jesus doesn’t come back from the dead just to live another 30 or so years doing the same thing he’d done before he was executed. The attempted silencing of Jesus and his saving work is only an interruption, not an end. Each resurrection story defines Jesus’ resurrection as causing his life work to continue in the lives of his followers. Jesus commissioned his disciples to continue his life work in the same spirit that inspired him.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Messiah. Again Jesus said, Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyones sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, We have seen the Messiah!” But he said to them, Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, My Savior and my God!” Then Jesus told him, Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:19-31)

This first weekend after Western Christianity’s Easter each year, we begin reading the stories of the early believers after the resurrection. In each post resurrection story, the good news or gospel is not that Jesus died or even died for you, but that this Jesus that was brutally murdered by the state and those who controlled the status quo is risen. He’s alive! The crucifixion and all that Jesus’ death accomplished has been undone, reversed, and overcome!

This week’s story from John is similar to yet still very different from those found in Luke 24:36-49, Mark 16:14-18, Matthew 28:18-20, and Acts 1:8.

In John, Jesus cryptically breathes the Holy Spirit onto his disciples. He then attaches to this gift of the spirit the authority of “loosing and binding,” forgiving, bringing comfort and liberation, and setting people free (cf. Matthew 16:19; Matthew 18:18).

It’s vital that the power of forgiving or not forgiving is connected to the disciples receiving the spirit of Jesus. Forgiveness divorced from that spirit serves to only perpetuate oppression and harm. I’ll explain.

Jesus uses this language in the gospel of Luke:

The Spirit of the Most High is on me,

because the Most High has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

The Most High 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 Most High’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Here the work of the Spirit is to announce good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for prisoners, set the oppressed free, and announce the year of the Most High’s favor, the year when all debts would be forgiven, regardless of creditors’ wishes. In that year, debtors were released!

Those who are forgiven in the Jesus story are those on the margins, those pushed to the underside and edges of Jesus’ society by those benefiting from the status quo. What about those whose social location was more at the center or upper class? Did Jesus extend forgiveness to them, too?

Remember the story of Zacchaeus? (see Luke 19:1-9) Jesus forgave and loosed him, too. Yet Zacchaeus was not loosed or forgiven from the consequences from his actions. Jesus instead called him to stop participating in oppression. Only then did salvation come to Zacchaeus’ house, because salvation looks like justice for the oppressed. This reminds me of Gandhi critiquing Christianity: he said he didn’t want to be saved from the consequences of his actions but from those actions themselves.

How many times have we seen those who harm others or benefit from that harm being forgiven or assured of no condemnation without being called to make restitution or reparations?

Being loosed is not conditional on acts of restoration like a quid pro quo, tit for tat, or an exchange. Rather, for oppressors, being loosed actually is these acts of restoring that which has been taken from others.

This is why I believe the disciples were given authority not to forgive, too. Reserving “forgiveness” is a way to remind them that their freedom is intrinsically tied to their choice to stop participating in the harm being done to others. Anything less than that is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as “cheap grace.” During the 1930s, Bonhoeffer watched Christians giving assurance to the Nazis. Assuring oppressors that everything is okay while they continuing to do harm is akin to expecting victims or survivors to reconcile with those who have harmed them but done no work of restitution. Neither of these are life-giving interpretations of the forgiveness ethic in the Jesus stories.

These stories don’t help us recover so much of the historical Jesus as much as they establish the authority of his disciples. In this week’s reading, the focus is Thomas and the story about him serves a double purpose for the fledgling Jesus movement.

First, it establishes Thomas as an early movement leader. Multiple documents in Christian history would later be attributed to this disciple. Thomas is supposed to have taken the gospel to the Parthians and then on to India. He is credited with establishing the Mar Thoma Church and was martyred there as well. Thomas is also a central figure in Syrian Christianity: his bones are claimed by that faith tradition to have been removed from India and brought to Edessa close to the end of the fourth century.

Second, this story challenges people to believe in the Jesus story even though they haven’t seen Jesus for themselves.

What speaks to me most about these stories is that Jesus didn’t come back from the dead just to live another 30 or so years doing the same thing he’d done before he was executed. The attempted silencing of Jesus and his saving work is only an interruption, not an end. Each resurrection story defines Jesus’ resurrection as causing his life work to continue in the lives of his followers. Jesus commissioned his disciples to continue his life work in the same spirit that inspired him.

I consider again how Jesus’ life work was summarized in passages like Luke 4:18-19: as good news for the poor, release for the prisoners, setting free the oppressed, and proclaiming the most High’s favor or forgiving debts. There are similar teachings in both Luke’s sermon on the plain (Luke 6) and Matthew’s sermon on the mount (beginning in Matthew 5). These are the ethics and values in the Jesus story: Jesus both comforted and challenged individuals and also, in his overturning of the tables, challenged unjust systems, demanding a different order of things in the here and now.

So I ask myself, am I breathing in this same spirit that we read of in this week’s passage? And how closely is my story aligning with the Jesus story?

In what areas does my life harmonize with the Jesus story? Where is there dissonance?

Each of us looses and binds things every day. Are the things I bind and loose similar to or vastly different from the liberation work, the love, compassion, safety and justice in the Jesus story?

This first weekend after Easter, I want to foster more harmony between my life story and this story of Jesus that I hold dear.

I’m sure you do, too.

Here’s to breathing in that spirit, together, and exhaling love and justice with those our lives touch each and every day.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. In what ways are you inspired to breath in spirit and exhale love and justice in your own spheres of influence this new year? 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

Easter and the Myth of Redemptive Suffering

empty tomb and easter

Herb Montgomery | April 15, 2021

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


These are valid questions. How can we reconcile seeing the cross event as a salvific divine act without unintentionally inferring that God’s power to save is rooted in willingness to humiliate, physically denigrate, and violate someone’ body to save others?”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

Now it was the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came, early on while it was still dark, to the tomb and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Messiah out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple came and went to the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple ran ahead of Peter and reached the tomb first. And bending down to see, saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not enter. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb, and he saw the linen wrapping lying there. And the facecloth that had been on Jesus’s head, not lying with the linens wrappings but rolled up separately in another place. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, went in and saw and believed. Indeed they did not understand the scripture that it was necessary for Jesus to rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned once more to their homes.

Now Mary stood outside, facing the tomb, weeping. As she wept, she bent down to see in the tomb. Then she saw two angels in white sitting, one at thread and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. They said to her, “Woman, why do you weep?” She said to them, “Because they have taken my Savior, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why do you weep? For whom do you look?” Thinking that he was the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (Which means Teacher.) Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, because I have not yet ascend to the Father. Rather go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I and ascending to my Abba and you Abba, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Savior”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:1-18, translation by Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney; A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year W)

This week, we are reading the resurrection narrative found in the gospel of John. This is a combined resurrection narrative developed after the early Jesus movement, and I believe there is something we can glean from this version.

One thing that is common to all the gospel narratives is the presence of women at the tomb of Jesus. In John’s version, notice that Mary uses the word “we.” Women who had the courage to go to the tomb as soon as there was daylight after the Sabbath led to the first proclamation of the resurrection. Those who showed up first got to be the first ones to share the good news. John’s version of this story encourages me to speak out when men and institutions say women can’t posses equal authority or credentials to proclaim the gospel.

Each resurrection narrative also begins in sorrow, and as John tells the story, I can imagine Jesus saying Mary’s name tenderly. I love that she mistook Jesus for a gardener: the detail grounds this version of the story in the interconnectedness with our natural world that gardeners know firsthand. I also love how Mary had to be told to let go. Wouldn’t you have held on as she did if you had just witnessed the brutal murder of someone you cared so deeply for, and now saw him alive again, standing right in front of you?

This version of the story also tells us something about how diverse the early Jesus followers were. Some patriarchal groups eventually won the power struggle and they came to shape the Christian religion. But early on, there were more egalitarian communities of Jesus followers, some who valued Mary Magdalene as others would later value the Apostle John, the Apostle Peter, and the Apostle Paul.

John’s gospel represents the community that valued John, yet even here we can see signs of three early Jesus communities vying for credibility as the Christian church forms. Mary is first to proclaim the risen Jesus, but this version also adds Peter and John racing to the tomb. Peter is first to enter the tomb, but John is the first to arrive and believe. So all three of these early church figures and their communities are competing in this version, and we still have power struggles in the church today.

Every canonical version of the resurrection narrative drives home the importance of believing women when they speak. We can apply this practice in every area of our society today, both within our faith communities and in our larger society.

This coming weekend, most of Western Christianity will celebrate Easter. Perhaps we could deepen our practice of listening to women when they speak by listening to a few perspectives on the crucifixion-resurrection narrative at the heart of so contemporary Christianity.

The perspectives I’m about to share challenge traditional, familiar interpretations of this narrative and many of the atonement theories that have been born from them.

I’ll begin with a short, challenging example from feminist theologian Dr. Elizabeth Bettenhausen and her preface for the classic book, Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse.

I want to offer a content warning here: this excerpt contains sexual violence in reimagining the cross event.

“Several years ago I asked a group of seminarians to choose New Testament stories about Jesus and rewrite them imagining that Jesus had been female. The following recreation of the passion story of Luke 22.54-65 was one womans knowing by heart.

They arrested the Christ woman and led her away to the Council for questioning. Some of her followers straggled along to find out what was to become of her. There were seven women and two men followers. (The men followers were there mainly to keep watch over their sisters.) Someone from among the crowd asked a question of a man follower, Havent I seen you with this woman? Who is she, and what is your relationship with her?He replied defensively, She is a prostitute, she has had many men. I have seen her with many!The men who were guarding the Christ [woman] slapped her around and made fun of her. They told her to use magic powers to stop them. They blindfolded her and each them in turn raped her and afterward jeered, Now, prophetess, who was in you? Which one of us? Tell us that!Thy continued to insult her. (Kandice Joyce)

After this story was read aloud, a silence surrounded the class and made us shiver. Ever since, I have wondered would women ever imagine forming a religion around the rape of a woman? Would we ever conjure gang-rape as a salvific event for other women? What sort of god would such an event reveal? (p. xi)

These are valid questions. How can we reconcile seeing the cross event as a salvific divine act without unintentionally inferring that God’s power to save is rooted in willingness to humiliate, physically denigrate, and violate someone’ body to save others?

This is just one reason I believe we must interpret the Jesus story and the crucifixion-resurrection event not in terms of how someone died, died for us, or was executed. It is a story about how the One who was murdered for social, political, and economic reasons by the state, was brought back to life. This is a story of how life conquers death, love conquers hate, sharing conquers greed, and life giving power conquers death dealing.

Last week I shared a little bit from womanist theologian Dr. Delores Williams last week. This week I’ll add Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas’s book Stand your ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. She offers some absolute gems about the cross beginning on page 178. As she quotes from Williams, “The cross . . . represents historical evil trying to defeat good.”

She then explains how life overcame death in the Jesus story:

Jesus takes on evil. He takes on and defeats . . . not granting the power of death any authority over him . . . he does not respond in kind, by adopting the methods of this power. The final triumph over the death of the cross is the resurrection of Jesus.

The resurrection is God’s definitive victory over the crucifying powers of evil.

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 . . . That is, it is not the 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.

God’s power never expresses itself through 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.

Next, Dr. Douglas quotes Audre Lorde: “The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (Sister Outsider, p. 112)

Then she continues, “God does not fight death with death. God does not utilize the violence exhibited in the cross to defeat deadly violence itself.”

If indeed the power of life that God stands for is greater than the power of death, this must be manifest in the way God triumphs over death-dealing powers. The freedom of God that is life requires a liberation from the very weapons utilized by a culture of death. In other words, these weapons cannot become divine weapons . . . The culmination of this liberation is Jesus’ resurrection.

This exegesis resonates with me so deeply. Every fiber of my heart says amen! The Jesus story isn’t about a God who overcomes death by adding one more death, i.e. Jesus’ death. It’s the story of a God who overcame, reversed, and undid death by resurrecting the one the state sought to execute.

For me, this is powerful. This is a story that moves us to believe in love’s ability to win, even in the face of death, and to work toward that end.

We can work more effectively for a better iteration of our world when we believe that that better iteration is actually possible. Ultimately, I believe this was a 1st Century story told in 1st Century language that was intended to inspire early Jesus followers to do just that.

This story can still inspire Jesus followers today.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What does interpreting the Jesus story as a story where life overcomes death and love overcomes hate change for you? Share 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


Understanding and Sharing a Theology of the Cross with Children: Beyond Substitutionary Atonement

Here’s a conversation on talking to children about the violence of the cross during this holiday weekend that was recorded this spring. Grateful to my friends author and pastor Traci Smith of Elmhurst Presbyterian Church and author Daneen Akers of Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints for this conversation.

Listen at:

Understanding and Sharing a Theology of the Cross with Children: Beyond Substitutionary Atonement

A Different Vision for Memorializing the Last Supper

last supper

Herb Montgomery | April 8, 2022

 

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.

 


“Next week is Holy Week leading up to Easter for many in Western Christianity. This time of year always amplifies several passages from the passion liturgy that are important for Jesus followers who care about justice to interpret in life-giving ways.”


 

Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:14-20)

Next week is Holy Week leading up to Easter for many in Western Christianity. This time of year always amplifies several passages from the passion liturgy that are important for Jesus followers who care about justice to interpret in life-giving ways. So it was difficult for me to settle on which passage to write on this week.

I love the story of Jesus’ protest and demonstration in the temple courtyard against the economic exploitation that was taking place there. I believe both his protest and his burden for those being harmed by systemic injustice have much to teach us. I love the story of Jesus humbly washing his disciples’ feet, which Christians now celebrate each year on Maundy Thursday. I also believe it’s important to interpret the holy week narrative beyond death and dying, even though at the end of the week Jesus is the victim of state violence in response to his protest, calls for change, and growing popularity with the exploited masses in his society. It’s more life-giving to interpret Holy Week as a story of how life overturns death and death-dealing, how everything accomplished through the execution/death of Jesus was undone, reversed, and overcome through the resurrection. The cross was not Jesus’ saving act, but the state’s attempted interruption and halting of Jesus’ saving life-ministry. The resurrection reversed and undid the state’s violence, and Jesus’ life-saving ministry lived on in the actions of his followers.

So as we begin this holy week, I’ve chosen to address Luke’s version of Jesus’ last shared meal with his disciples. I’ll begin with an important point from Delores Williams’ womanist theology classic book, Sisters in the Wilderness.

On page 131, Williams reminds us that “The cross is a reminder of how humans have tried throughout history to destroy visions of righting relationships that involve the transformation of tradition and transformation of social relations and arrangements sanctioned by the status quo.” She goes on to point her readers to the resurrection and the kingdom of God theme in Jesus’ life ministry as the salvific conduit that teaches humankind how to “live peacefully, productively and abundantly in relationship.” She lists Jesus’ beatitudes, parables, moral directions, and reprimands. She reminds us of Jesus’ healing ministry of “touch and being touched,” and how Jesus ministry was militant, too, expelling evil forces that harm people including during his temple protest.

This is how she characterizes Jesus’ saving life: a life grounded in the power of faith “in the work of healing,” compassion and love. She demonstrates with multiple examples how Jesus conquered sin in life, not in death. Considering the persistence of evil and oppression (and sin) still centuries after the life of Jesus in our world, she wonders whether or not most people can believe that Jesus’ death on the cross overcame evil and sin. I agree with her assessment that it seems “more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life” (p. 131).

A major theme in William’ work is the surrogacy of black women and how various atonement theories and ways of interpreting the cross substitutionally have historically supported that surrogacy rather than subverted it.

She concludes:

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

And this leads me to the tension in this week’s passage. Jesus’ last meal in the gospels seems to lead Jesus followers to glorify the cross through the rite of the Eucharist and by glorifying the suffering of the exploited, render their suffering and exploitation sacred.

But as with everything in our sacred text, it all depends on how we choose to interpret the story.

The early Jesus community was not monolithic in how they remembered and interpreted Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. Paul transformed the last supper into a ritual reenactment of Jesus’ broken body and shed blood (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-26), but there were many Jesus followers who didn’t connect the last supper with the passion of Jesus at all, so much so that the first Christian document to explicitly instruct Jesus followers in celebrating the last supper doesn’t mention the passion of Jesus. This document is the Didache. To the best of our knowledge it was composed at the end of the 1st Century or the beginning of the 2nd Century. In it we read:

“Concerning eucharist, this is how you are to conduct it:

First, concerning the cup, ‘We thank you, our Father, for the sacred vine of David, your child, whom you made know to us through Jesus, your child. To you be glory forever.’

Then concerting the fragments of bread: ‘We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge that you made known to us through Jesus, your child. To you be glory forever. Just as this loaf was scattered upon the mountains but was gathered into unity, so your church should be gathered from the ends of the earth into your domain. Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.’

No one is to eat or drink from your eucharist except those baptized in the name of the Lord. Recall what the Lord said about this: ‘Don’t throw what is sacred to dogs.” (Didache 9:1-5)

This tradition has led quite a few modern Christians to reinterpret how they memorialize Jesus’ last supper, especially at this time of year when our attention is drawn to it once again. Many Christians today, given what we just read in the Didache, see Jesus’ last supper as the same kind of meal he frequently ate with his disciples and with anyone else who desired to eat with them. Jesus’ open table practice in a culture where whom one ate with had social and political meaning was another example of the inclusiveness he practiced every day. Most scholars today believe that the earliest rituals around Jesus’ last supper took the form we see described in the Didache. The supper was later attached to Jesus’ death as we read in Paul (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), a connection that is then picked up by Mark, Matthew, and in our passage in Luke. In John’s gospel, however, Jesus’ last supper is not associated with the imagery of his death (the passion) but rather with images of his life.

Whereas Mark and Matthew follow Paul’s eucharist order (bread then cup), in our passage this week from Luke, we see signs of early Jesus followers memorializing his last supper both ways: we see both the form found in the Didache and the form found in Paul blended together. This would make sense as Luke’s gospel repeatedly attempts to tell the Jesus story in a way that provides a big tent view of following Jesus. Luke is telling a narrative so that it can be valued by the largest number of Jesus followers. Regardless of which Jesus community readers belonged to, they could nonetheless find what they believed to be meaningful and sacred in Luke’s version of Jesus story.

So let’s take a look at our passage once again.

First, the form found in the Didache:

“’For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.’ After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them’”

Then the form found in Paul:

“And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’”

Because Luke’s trying to include both forms, Luke’s version of the last supper is the only version to include two cups. In the Didache’s order, you have cup then bread. In Paul’s order, you have bread then cup. And in Luke, which blends both ways of memorializing Jesus last supper, we have a cup (Didache), then bread (Didache and Paul), then a cup again (Paul). Mark and Matthew repeat the form found in Paul, and thus only have one cup.

Why all this “nerding out” over the story detail differences in the gospels, Paul, and the Didache? What’s the point?

The the point is that there is no one right way to celebrate or memorialize Jesus last supper. If you, like me, have come to find more life in a story that isn’t about someone dying, but about how life and love overcame and reversed everything the state attempted by executing Jesus, how love and life overcome death, fear, bigotry and hate, then you also have options in how you remember Jesus’ last supper. We don’t have to remember Jesus’ last supper in a way that glorifies death, even if it’s Jesus’ death. We don’t have to perpetuate the harms pointed out by Williams above and others.

Jesus most certainly broke bread and shared cups with people from all social and economic locations, those at the center and those on the margins. The egalitarian inclusivity he demonstrated with his meal practice of sharing resources, specifically food, was at the heart of the vision Jesus had for human community. And it also can become a ritual for us, when we interpret it as such, that transforms and shapes us into people who share resources with one another in our own ways and contexts today. How we celebrate rituals determines the kind of humans those rituals shape us into being. I like the shared table way of remembering a Jesus who, realizing what was coming, chose to share an open table with his disciples one last time.

Ritualizing this reminds me of the kind of world I want to be creating every day.

It’s a world where our bread and wine are not hoarded but shared. A world where we are all connected. A world where no one is fully thriving till we are all thriving.

 

 

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Does this way of interpreting Jesus’ last supper change the way you engage the Eucharist? If so how? Share 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

Mary’s Perfume and No More Poverty 

feet

Herb Montgomery | April 1, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


“I want to offer an alternative interpretation. Poverty is a human-made reality, and therefore poverty can be eradicated through our choices in how we structure our societies . . . I don’t believe Jesus’ words in John about poor people should be interpreted as establishing as an existential reality that poverty is an eternal, unchangeable given for our world.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesushonor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesusfeet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, Why wasnt this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a years wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:1-8)

John creatively resets this story from previous versions of the Jesus story by including the characters Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. There are both significant differences and consistent story elements. What is common in each version is a meal, a woman interrupting the meal, a container of perfume, objections from some of those present at the meal, and Jesus’ defense of the woman’s actions. Oral storytelling traditions commonly alter story details for the storyteller’s purposes or the needs of their audience. John’s storytelling does that too.

In John’s version of this story, we are in Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ home, not the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke) or Simon the Leper (Mark and Matthew). The woman who interacts with Jesus is Mary of Bethany (Martha and Lazarus’ sister), not the woman of ill repute as in Luke, nor an unnamed woman as in Mark and Matthew, and most definitely not Mary Magdalene (contrary to the 6th Century Pope Gregory, Mary of Magdalene is a completely different character in John’s gospel). Mary also anoints Jesus’ feet (not his head as in Mark and Matthew). Foot-washing was a customary hospitality practiced at dinners in a culture where people ate together seated in a reclining position on the floor, not at a table that hid guests’ feet.

In this story, Mary’s act is one of gratitude, specifically for the events of the previous chapter. In that chapter, Lazarus, Mary’s brother, had gotten sick and died, and Jesus brought him back from the dead to live again. This is a repeated theme in the gospels: life and life-giving overturning, undoing, and reversing death and death-dealing. It is one of the strongest, most life-giving interpretations of the Jesus story. The story is not primarily that someone died, but that that the state’s murder of someone who was calling for social change was overturned, undone, and reversed. The life-giving teachings of this Jewish prophet of the poor from Galilee lived on in the life of his followers. In Acts 13:32-33, the early believers say: We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus” (italics added).

The good news in this interpretive paradigm is not that Jesus died, but that Jesus overcame death, death-dealing and the state. His story is a story of life overcoming death, or love overcoming in the end—love that overcomes hate, fear, injustice, and bigotry.

In John 11, Jesus conquered, reversed, and undid Lazarus’ death. Jesus had said to Lazarus’ and Mary’s sister, Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life” (see John 11:25).

Again, in John, Mary is anointing Jesus in an act of gratitude for Jesus’ reversal of sickness and death and his channeling that reversal as “the resurrection and the life.” We must not miss that in John’s story, Jesus states that Mary had been saving this perfume for Jesus’ burial. So the fact that Mary instead uses it now hints that she has learned his lesson—life and love will overcome in the end.

Those hearing this story are being prepared for how John’s version of the Jesus story will turn out: Perfume will not be needed to anoint a dead body lying lifeless in a tomb. No, that tomb will be found empty. Mary has embraced Jesus as the resurrection and life, and has chosen, not to save her perfume for a dead body but to use it now in gratitude. Love will win in the end. She won’t need this perfume later, and she is banking on it.

So many social sicknesses are in need of reversal in our society, today: the sickness of White supremacy, the sickness of patriarchy and misogyny, the sickness of classism and greed, the sicknesses of bigotry against LGBTQIA people, and many more sicknesses that lead to death. What does it mean for us to live as people who overcome, who genuinely believe that love wins?

Lastly, I want to address Jesus’ words, “You will always have the poor among you.” This statement, which appears in each gospel, has been used by the wealthy to discourage Jesus’ followers from working toward economic justice and social change. In this interpretation, Jesus’ phrase is a prediction that trying to end poverty is futile, that poverty is an eternal social reality and there is nothing we can really do to prevent it. They would like us to think that all we can do to ease poverty in society is acts of charity and creating a society where poverty doesn’t exist is impossible.

But this interpretation benefits those who are enriched by the status quo and don’t want to see structural change. Charity is not justice, remember. Charity can ease injustice but leaves an unjust system unchanged.

I want to offer an alternative interpretation. Poverty is a human-made reality, and therefore poverty can be eradicated through our choices in how we structure our societies.

Consider this passage from the Torah:

“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORDS time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-5)

This passage states that there doesn’t need to be “poor people” among Israelites. They are being given instruction on how to eradicate poverty. Later in the same chapter, we read, “There will always be poor people in the land [i.e. the surrounding societies outside of Israel]. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land [as opposed to the larger societies in which poverty will always exist because the way those societies are shaped] (italics and capitalization added).

I don’t believe Jesus’ words in John about poor people should be interpreted as establishing as an existential reality that poverty is an eternal, unchangeable given for our world. Even if one does, however, then we can read Jesus as saying that Israelite society has become like the surrounding nations in Deuteronomy where poverty “will always exist” because of their structure. Jesus words here are an indictment of his society’s rejection of the mandate to forgive debts every seven years. Therefore, they were choosing to structure their society by immortalizing poverty as the surrounding nations in Deuteronomy 15 had. These choices can be reversed. We can structure our societies differently. The early Jesus followers in the book of Acts eradicated poverty from their own community in Jesus’ name:

“With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.”

Remember, it was not that Jesus had died, but that he had been resurrected. His death had been reversed.

“And Gods grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales.” (Acts 4:33-34, italics added)

Last year, I mentioned these words of Nelson Mandela and Gustavo Gutierrez in Declaring War Against Poverty:

Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings.” (Nelson Mandela, in a 2005 speech at the Make Poverty History rally in Londons Trafalgar Square)

The poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, The Power of the Poor in History, p. 44)

There is a lot to consider here.

How are you being called to be a conduit of love, healing, life, and life-giving in your own contexts, this week?

HeartGroup Application

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

2. How do you perceive poverty as something that could be prevented in our society? What would our society have to incorporate in order to eradicate poverty? Discuss (and imagine) 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


 Myth of Redemptive Sacrifice

ash bowl for ash wednesday

Herb Montgomery | March 4, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


In the wilderness story, Jesus rejects the temptation to sacrifice himself and tempt God to save him in the end. This calls into question how we interpret Christian narratives of Jesus’ death and resurrection as we walk through Lent toward Easter. I can think of no better way to begin the season of Lent than by calling into question the myth of redemptive suffering.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, It is written: humans shall not live on bread alone.’” The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, It is written: Worship the Sovereign God and serve God only.’” The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. If you are the Son of God,” he said, throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “ ‘God will command the angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered, It is said: Do not put the Sovereign God to the test.’” When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:1-13)

For many Christians, this weekend marks the first weekend of Lent, which commemorates the 40 days and nights that Jesus spends in the wilderness before embarking on his ministry of healing, liberation, inclusion, and establishing justice.

Luke’s version of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness has much to teach us today. There are so many good, life-giving, holistic, political, liberation, and justice-rooted interpretations of these three temptations, and this week I want to mention some highlights relevant for us.

Forty days and nights held special meaning in Hebrew tradition. This was the amount of time Moses spent on Mt. Sinai before receiving the tablets of stone with the law and commandments (Deuteronomy 9:9-11). It was also the amount of time Moses spent interceding for Israel (Deuteronomy 9:18, 10:10). Israel explored the land of Canaan for forty days and nights, and spent a comparable amount of time journeying in the wilderness—a year for each day (Numbers 14:34). Also remember how the flood rains in the time of Noah lasted forty days and nights (Genesis 7:12), and Jonah warned Nineveh for forty days that it would be destroyed (Jonah 3:4). Each of the synoptic gospels builds on this tradition, preparing Jesus for his ministry of liberation by sending him into the wilderness for forty days (cf. Mark 1:13, Matthew 4:2, and Luke 4:2).

Profit, People, and the Environment

Matthew and Luke add significantly more detail to Mark’s story, and both gospels list Jesus’ first temptation as turning bread to stone after forty days of fasting. In our passage this week we read:

The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: humans shall not live on bread alone.’

Jesus’ response resonates deeply with me. How many times have you had to choose between “bread” and doing what you feel is right? In this world, profit is sovereign. People’s needs and what is right for their wellbeing are continually less prioritized than or even sacrificed to the almighty profit margin. Greed or desire for more and more bread while so many around the globe are starving fuels the international economy, and control or power over that bread drives decisions at the highest levels of our world.

In Rome’s day, those who controlled the supply of bread ruled the world. Today, the same is true. Whoever controls the supply of resources that humanity needs for its survival rules the world. This has environmental implications as well as economic ones.

From the beginning, capitalism’s ruling principle has been “bread.” Profit has caused us to devalue and therefore destroy our most precious resources, especially those natural resources used to produce profit that are not infinite. Today, many are realizing as never before that if we, the grand human family living on earth, will survive, we must first embrace our connectedness to both each other and every living thing on earth. We must say, as Jesus said in the wilderness, humans shall not live by bread alone. The means by which we obtain our bread—whether those means are just, life-giving, and sustainable—matters as much as the bread does. Bread alone is not life-giving enough.

Ends That Don’t Justify the Means

In Luke’s version of the story, Jesus’ next temptation offers him all the kingdoms of our world if he would worship the tempter. To understand this story, enlarge your definition of worship beyond religiosity. Our society worships profit. Our society worships war and sacrifices generations of people for war. Many in our society subscribe to and worship various expressions of White, European, patriarchal, straight, and cisgender supremacy. Worship is about what we choose to reverence, honor, or value.

In this temptation, Jesus is called to subscribe to a value system, a way of doing life. The promise is that if he will subscribe to the tempter’s value system, all the world will be within his grasp. Jesus rejects the offer, and his model prompts us to consider not just what goals we seek to accomplish through the lives we live, but also how we try to accomplish those goals.

Justice, safety, compassion are our goals. They must also be the means we use. Dr. King held in tension his goal for peace and his rejection of the means many offered him during his sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church entitled When Peace Becomes Obnoxious:

If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I dont want peace. If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I dont want peace. If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I dont want it. Peace is not simply the absence of conflict, but the existence of justice for all people.

In my sacred imagination, I picture Jesus considering his own burden for justice. Perhaps he meditated on the passage from Isaiah, He will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth” (Isaiah 42:4). Considering what that goal could mean for him, and responding to the tempter’s offer, he whispered, “But not like this.”

Myth of Redemptive Sacrifice

Next in Luke’s version, Jesus goes from the mountaintop where he saw all the empires of the world to the capital of his society’s temple state. There he is tempted to throw himself from the highest point of the temple, to sacrifice himself with the promise that it will all work out in the end.

I see in this the temptation that many who work for justice face: to sacrifice themselves for the cause in the belief that their self-sacrifice will be redemptive. Within Christianity, Jesus himself is held up to sell this myth. As Rev. Drs. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Ann Parker wrote in their seminary-hall-shaking essay, For God So Loved the World?:

If the best person who ever lived gave his life for others, then, to be of value we should likewise sacrifice ourselves. Any sense that we have a right to care for our own needs is in conflict with being a faithful follower of Jesus. Our suffering for others will save the world. The message is complicated further by the theology that says Christ suffered in obedience to his Father’s will. Divine child abuse is paraded as salvific and the child who suffers “without even raising a voice” is lauded as the hope of the world. Those whose lives have been deeply shaped by the Christian tradition feel that self-sacrifice and obedience are not only virtues but the definition of a faithful identity. The promise of resurrection persuades us to endure pain, humiliation, and violation of our sacred rights to self-determination, wholeness, and freedom. (p. 2)

I cannot encourage you enough to take the time to read their entire essay slowly and thoughtfully.

In the wilderness story, Jesus rejects the temptation to sacrifice himself and tempt God to save him in the end. This calls into question how we interpret Christian narratives of Jesus’ death and resurrection as we walk through Lent toward Easter. I can think of no better way to begin the season of Lent than by calling into question the myth of redemptive suffering.

Are our rituals shaping us into life-giving people, not only for others but for ourselves as well? Over the next few weeks, we’ll address this more thoroughly.

For now, hold in tension the Jesus we encounter in the wilderness who firmly rejected self-sacrifice and the Jesus we usually view sacrificing himself to save the world and believing that in laying down his life, it would be given back to him.

Much to ponder! Behind every answer is another question. And in the end, our stories must be about life, and not glorify death.

More on this in the coming weeks.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Share an example of how moving away from the myth of redemptive suffering has changed how you follow Jesus? 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



March is Donor Appreciation Month

During the month of March, we want to do something special to thank you for supporting the work of Renewed Heart Ministries.

Renewed Heart Ministries provides deeply needed resources that help enable Christians to discover the intersection of their love for Jesus and their work of healing our world through actions of love, justice and compassion; actions Jesus modeled and called us to follow.

Engaging our communities in ways that shape our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone is often hard work and its worth it. We appreciate the actions, big and small, each of you take each day to engage this work.

This month, we are partnering with Watchfire Media to offer a free thank you gift, shipping included. We want to offer you Watchfire Media’s absolutely beautiful Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints 2022 Wall Calendar to everyone who makes a special one-time donation of $50 or more through the following special link during the month of March to support RHM’s work.

The online donation link to use is https://bit.ly/RHMCalendar.

(Or you donate by mail by sending your donation to

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

*If donating by mail, simply make sure that your donation is specially marked indicating you would like a HolyTroublemakers & Unconventional Saints 2022 Wall Calendar as a thank you.)

If you are unfamiliar with this special calendar, The Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints 2022 Wall Calendar features 12 “holy troublemakers,” people of faith from different faiths and different eras who worked for more love, kindness, and justice in their corner of the world. Each of them did the right thing even when it was the hard thing, and even when it rocked the religious boat.

Like the book Holy Trouble­makers & Unconventional Saints, this calendar centers holy troublemakers who are women, LGBTQ, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who have too often been written out of religious narratives. Their stories inspire, educate, challenge, encourage, and move us all towards more love and a faith that works for the common good of everyone.

Packed with original artwork, short bios, and inspiring quotes, the calendar also includes important holidays from diverse faith traditions, social justice movement anniversaries, and dates that help us remember that joy is an essential part of holy troublemaking.

Thank you in advance for supporting the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. Together we will continue being a voice for change. And thank you to Watchfire Media, as well, for partnering with RHM this month to be able to share this special thank you gift with our supporters. We appreciate all you do, too!

Product details:

2022 Wall Calendar: 24 pages

Publisher: Watchfire Media
Language: English
Product Dimensions: 12” x 13”
Shipping Weight: 1 lb.
ISBN: 978-1-7340895-1-6

Taking Up Our Crosses, Injustice, and Abuse

rosary with cross

Herb Montgomery | September 10, 2021

[To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast click Episode 388:Taking Up Our Crosses, Injustice, and Abuse]


“Oppressors throughout history have used the concept of ‘taking up one’s cross’ to prioritize themselves over survivors and to encourage oppressed people to passively and patiently endure violence rather than resist . . . This story is, on the other hand, encouraging Jesus’ followers to resist as he did flipping tables in the temple courtyard, even though it resulted in the state violence of a cross.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, Who do people say I am?” They replied, Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. Get behind me, Satan!” he said. You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Fathers glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:27-38)

In this week’s reading, we encounter Jesus’ admonition to his followers that they also “take up their cross.” This saying has a long history of religious abuse, so I want to give a word of caution about it.

Years ago now, I was invited to a conference on nonviolence and the atonement. I chose to speak on the violence of interpreting the cross event itself as salvific—how atonement theories that treat the violent death of Jesus as salvific have borne death dealing fruit to oppressed communities and/or those who belong to marginalized communities. I explained how the atonement theory of penal substitution has historically produced various forms of social abuse, and how abuse has also been the fruit of alternative atonement theories such as moral influence theory and Christus Victor.

Oppressors throughout history have used the concept of taking up ones cross” to prioritize themselves over survivors and to encourage oppressed people to passively and patiently endure violence rather than resist. This interpretation has proven very convenient for oppressors and those who dont want to disrupt the power imbalance of the status quo. It also impacts intimate relationships as well. When one spouse suffers physical or emotional abuse at the hands of another, for example, how many times have Christian pastors counseled the abused spouse to bear their cross,” be like Jesus,” and simply turn the other cheek”? I have written at length on other ways to interpret Jesus’ turning of the other cheek as a call to creative, nonviolent forms of disruption, protest, and resistance (see A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence Parts 1-10). I interpret the turn-the-other-cheek passages as did the late Walter Wink, who understood them to give those pushed to the undersides and edges of Jesus’ society a way to reclaim and affirm themselves despite being dehumanized.

This week, alongside the feminist and womanist scholars who have deeply influenced my thinking, I want to suggest that taking up ones cross” is not a call to patiently, passively endure the violence of systemic or relational oppression and abuse, but rather is a call to take hold of life and stand up against injustice even if there is a threat for doing so. This saying is not a call to passively suffer, but to protest even if the status quo threatens suffering if you speak out.

The implications are huge. What we are discussing this week is called the myth of redemptive suffering. I have often repeated Joanne Carlson Brown’s and Rebecca Parker’s statement in their essay God So Loved The World?:

It is not acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not, Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering. If you believe that acceptance of suffering gives life, then your resources for confronting perpetrators of violence and abuse will be numbed.” (also in Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, p. 18)

So what did Jesus mean, then, when he said take up your own cross?”

First, Borg and Crossan correctly remind us that Jesus’ cross in the gospels was about participation, not substitution:

For Mark, it is about participation with Jesus and not substitution by Jesus. Mark has those followers recognize enough of that challenge that they change the subject and avoid the issue every time. (Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesuss Final Days in Jerusalem; Kindle Locations 1589-1593)

While I agree with Borg and Crossan about the theme of participation rather than substitution, I disagree with their interpretation that suffering on a cross was intrinsic to following Jesus, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that suffering is an intrinsic precursor to triumph or success. Suffering only enters the story of following Jesus if those benefitting from the status quo feel threatened by changes that Jesus’ new social vision would make, and threaten his followers with a cross. Being willing to take up ones cross is not a call to be passive in the face of suffering, but a call to protest and resist even in the face of being threatened with a cross.

“Taking up one’s cross” in this context means being willing to endure the results of disrupting, confronting, resisting, and protesting injustice. The cross in the Jesus story is a symbol of the state violence that those in power threaten protestors with to scare them into remaining passive. Remember, as Carlson Brown and Parker wrote, the question is not how much am I willing to suffer, but how badly do I want to live!

If those in power threaten you with a cross, then and only then it becomes necessary for you to “take up a cross” and stand up against injustice. Protesting, for instance, does not always involve being arrested, but if it does, protest anyway!

The goal in scenarios like these is not to suffer, but to refuse to let go of life.

How one interprets taking up one’s cross has deep implications for survivors of relational violence, and for all who are engaging any form of social justice work. When those who feel threatened try to intimidate and silence your voice through fear of an imposed cross,” this week’s reading calls us to count the cost and refuse to let go of life. Do not be silenced! Though it may sound like an oxymoron on the surface, speaking out in the face of a threat is a form of rejecting death.

Let’s take relational violence as an example. First there is the relational violence itself. Then we have a choice in our response:

illustration

Too often, Jesus’ teaching of taking up the cross is interpreted so that the abuse itself is the cross.

illustration

But the abuse is not the cross but an initial injustice, and the cross is the threats one receives for standing up to or resisting injustice.

Illustration

Jesus is encouraging his followers to resist as he did flipping tables in the temple courtyard, even though it resulted in the state violence of a cross.

If a cross comes into the picture, then resist anyway. Jesus’ nonviolence was rooted in resistance, and sometimes change happens before oppressors send a cross. At other times, change happens after the cross. In both cases, suffering may come, but it is not redemptive.

Jesus emerged in his Jewish society as someone calling for the just distribution of food and land and the inclusion of those presently marginalized. His way of structuring human community threatened imperial Roman society and those who most benefited from the Roman system. And the early Jesus movement that grew out of an encounter with this Jesus resulted in a way of doing life together that was also seen as a threat to those in positions of power and privilege.

When those in power choose to threaten crosses for those standing up to systemic injustice, dont let go. Keep holding on to the hope of change even in the face of impossible odds. Keep holding on to life! For, Jesus says, what does it profit if you gain the whole world by your silence and yet lose your humanity?

Whoever wants to save their life through remaining silent in the face of injustice will actually be letting go of life. But whoever is willing to fight for life, for equity and equality, for love and compassion, for inclusion, for a just and safe world that is home for everyone, even if you’re threatened with death and death-dealing for doing so—all who refuse to let go of life and those things that are life-giving are the ones through whom life is saved, life is found, and another world is not only seen as possible but created in those moments of refusal.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What difference does it make for you to define ‘taking up your cross’ as a possible response to your speaking out and resistance, rather than passively bearing abuse and injustice? 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



logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.

We continue being a voice for change because of you.

The Inherent Relationship of Love and Justice

 

clouds in the sky

by Herb Montgomery | May 7, 2021


“There is a way to teach God’s love that is complicit in oppression and is harmful to marginalized communities. There is another way to teach love that can be foundational to the work of transforming our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone . . . Love that only leaves the privileged in a conscience-appeased state so they can sleep better at night isn’t a love worth having . . . We can explore ways that understanding Universal love that lead us, not to private, assured passivity, but to the work of remaining in that love by shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for each and every one of us.”


Our reading this week is from John’s gospel:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Fathers commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down ones life for ones friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his masters business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.” (John 15:9-17)

The intended audience for this passage is the developing community of Jesus followers, and the central theme of the passage is love. Out of all the canonical gospels, John’s expresses the highest form of Christology since the writing of the gospel of Mark. Since then, the community developed its ideas about the relationship between Jesus and Jesus’ Father (see John 1:1-3). In our passage this week, this relationship and Jesus’ relationship with his followers are models for Jesus followers to emulate in their relationships with one another. Love is one of the central themes in John, more so than in Matthew, Mark, Luke and even the book of Acts where the word love does not appear even once.

Consider, by contrast, how often love is the focus of John’s version of the Jesus story:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, italics added.)

“The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.” (John 3:35,italics added.)

“For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed.” (John 5:20, italics added.)

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34,35, italics added.)

“No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” (John 16:27, italics added.)

“I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23, italics added.)

“I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (John 17:26, italics added.)

See also John 10:17; 14:15, 21-23, 31; 17:24; and 21:15-17.

Each of the synoptic gospels addresses love, but none of them repeats the theme to the degree we see in John’s gospel.

There is a way to teach God’s love that is nothing more than guilt management for the privileged, propertied, and powerful, that does nothing more than help them to silence the background noise of their troubled conscience. I’ve also found over the years that many Christians who live in an empowered or privileged social location also name John’s gospel as their favorite out of the four. I wonder if there is a connection.

There’s also another way to teach God’s love that could be foundational to our work to transform our world into a just, compassionate, safe home for all those who are vulnerable to harm in the present system. I’m reminded of the words of Dr. Emilie M. Townes:

“When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isnt very far behind.” (Dr. Emilie M. Townes; Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology)

In 2010, Dr. Cornel West firmly grounded distributive, societal justice work in the soil of universal love when he said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also relied on his deep belief in a universal love and social justice for the objects of that love:

“When days grow dark [sic] and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice which will lead us through lifes dark [sic] valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, in A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings, p. 9)

Love that only leaves the privileged in a conscience-appeased state so they can sleep better at night isn’t a love worth having. If a belief in universal love is only serves to achieve privatized, individual, internal well-being and doesn’t also move us to work publicly for justice within our communities, then we should abandon that belief and kind of love immediately. I agree with James Baldwin who wrote, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” (James Baldwin; The Fire Next Time, p. 47)

The late Thomas Merton went so far as to equate a theology of love with a theology of resistance and revolution:

“A theology of love cannot afford to be sentimental. It cannot afford to preach edifying generalities about charity, while identifying peace’ with mere established power and legalized violence against the oppressed. A theology of love cannot be allowed merely to serve the interests of the rich and powerful, justifying their wars, their violence and their bombs, while exhorting the poor and underprivileged to practice patience, meekness, longsuffering, and to solve their problems, if at all, nonviolently. A theology of love may also conceivably turn out to be a theology of revolution. In any case, it is a theology of resistance, a refusal of the evil that reduces a brother or sister to homicidal desperation.” (Thomas Merton; Toward a Theology of Resistance found in Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, p.121)

I want to offer one word of caution in relation to our passage this week. As I’ve repeatedly said over the past few weeks, John’s gospel speaks to the myth of redemptive suffering more so than any of the other canonical gospels:

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down ones life for ones friends.”

I’ve also written repeatedly about the harm the myth of redemptive suffering does to vulnerable communities so I will not unpack the whole discussion again here. Instead I will offer Dr. Katie Cannon’s words in the foreword to the 20th Anniversary edition of Delores Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness:

“[Williams] contends that theologians need to think seriously about the real-life consequences of redemptive suffering, God-talk that equates the acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse as the way for true believers to live as authentic Christian disciples. Those who spew such false teaching and warped preaching must cease and desist.” (Kindle location 133)

As I wrote in Imagery of a Good Shepherd, there is a difference between empowered people sacrificing and them teaching disempowered people to sacrifice themselves. (Also see Brown and Parker’s For God So Loved The World?) The early church was largely comprised of those who, as Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas often says, didn’t have a wall to even have their back up against. While the giving of some people in privileged social locations can hardly be called sacrifice (see Mark 12:41-44), teaching disempowered people the myth of redemptive suffering can be destructive or even lethal.

I’ll close with Thomas Merton’s timely words:

“Instead of preaching the Cross for others and advising them to suffer patiently the violence which we sweetly impose on them, with the aid of armies and police, we might conceivably recognize the right of the less fortunate to use force, and study more seriously the practice of nonviolence and humane methods on our own part when, as it happens, we possess the most stupendous arsenal of power the world has ever known.” (Ibid.)

This week, let’s explore ways that understanding God loves everyone can lead us, not to private, assured passivity, but to the work of remaining in God’s love by shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for each and every one of us.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Contrast some of the ways a message of love can be used to impede our justice work along with ways a message of love can be foundational.  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

 


Imagery of a Good Shepherd

logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without you.

 


shepherd with sheep

Herb Montgomery | April 23, 2021


”This story that so many White Christians hold dear puts God on the side of these lost Black lives. And where we stand, whether in solidarity, neutrality, devil’s advocacy, indifference, or even opposition, reveals where we stand in relation to the God of the Jesus story. We are only with this God when we are with them.“


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” (John 10:11-18)

Our passage focuses on the image of Jesus as a shepherd. This was a popular image of Jesus before Western Christianity became fixated on crucifixes. Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Kashima Brock write in the prologue of their groundbreaking book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire about how they saw early Christians use this imagery over and over:

“It took Jesus a thousand years to die. Images of his corpse did not appear in churches until the tenth century. Why not? This question set us off on a five-year pilgrimage that led to this book. Initially, we didn’t believe it could be true. Surely the art historians were wrong. The crucified Christ was too important to Western Christianity. How could it be that images of Jesus’s suffering and death were absent from early churches? We had to see for ourselves and consider what this might mean. In July 2002, we traveled to the Mediterranean in search of the dead body of Jesus. We began in Rome, descending from the blaze of the summer sun into the catacombs where underground tunnels and tombs are carved into soft tufa rock. The earliest surviving Christian art is painted onto the plaster-lined walls of tombs or carved onto marble sarcophagi as memorials to the interred. In the cool, dimly lit caverns, we saw a variety of biblical images. Many of them suggested rescue from danger. For example, Abraham and Isaac stood side by side in prayer with a ram bound next to them. Jonah, the recalcitrant prophet who was swallowed and coughed up by a sea monster, reclined peacefully beneath the shade of a vine. Daniel stood alive and well between two pacified lions. Other images suggested baptism and healing, such as the Samaritan woman drawing water from a well, John the Baptist dousing Jesus, depicted as a child, and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus also appeared as a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders like Orpheus. We could not find a dead Jesus, not even one. It was just as the angel had said to the women looking for Jesus at his tomb, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5). “He is not here” (Mark 16:6). He most certainly was not.” (Italics added.)

Even today when you do a simple image search for Jesus, you’ll get ten or more images of a Jesus on a cross for every single image of a shepherd. Early Jesus followers had a very different focus: not the cross of Jesus but a living Jesus whose resurrection overcame and reversed everything his death accomplished. (See The Good News of Forceful Nonviolent Resurrection)

In this week’s passage from John, the focus isn’t the death of Jesus but Jesus taking life back up after his death. Even the purpose of Jesus’ laying down of life was that he might take it up again. The focus is not death, but taking hold of life—resurrection.

During this post-Easter season, remember that the cross interrupted Jesus’ life-giving ministry and teaching. The powerful, propertied, and privileged intended it to be permanent. The cross was meant to silence his calls for societal change, but the resurrection overturned that silencing. In the story, the resurrection doesn’t conquer death with more death. It answers death with death-reversing life; it answers death-dealing injustice with life-giving justice. I love this statement by Elizabeth Johnston that squarely defines act of Jesus’ crucifixion as a sin. And if it is a sin, then it is contrary to the will of God:

“Along with other forms of political and liberation theology, feminist theology repudiates an interpretation of the death of Jesus as required by God in repayment for sin . . . Jesus’ death was an act of violence brought about by threatened human men, as sin, and therefore against the will of a gracious God . . . What comes clear in the event, however, is not Jesus’ necessary passive victimization divinely decreed as a penalty for sin, but rather a dialectic of disaster and powerful human love through which the gracious God of Jesus enters into solidarity with all those who suffer . . . The victory of love, both human and divine, that spins new life out of this disaster is expressed in belief in the risen Christ.” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is, Kindle Location 4183)

The resurrection overturns the unjust state-sanctioned violence, and places Divine solidarity on the side of Jesus and all others who have unjustly suffered violence at the hands of the state. Today, that Divine solidarity includes Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Pamela Turner, Korryn Gaines, Yvette Smith, Miriam Carey, Shelley Frey, Darnisha Harris, Malissa Williams, Shantel Davis, Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tarika Wilson, Kathryn Johnston, Kendra James, Tyisha Miller, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and many, many more. This story that so many White Christians hold dear puts God on the side of these lost Black lives. And where we stand, whether in solidarity, neutrality, devil’s advocacy, indifference, or even opposition, reveals where we stand in relation to the God of the Jesus story. We are only with this God when we are with them.

The resurrection places the God of the Jesus story squarely on the side of justice and in the midst of the state-murdered community. The symbol of resurrection sends a message of justice overcoming injustice, love conquering hate, life overcoming death, and an unjust tomb not being able to hold justice back.

Today we need a new story of justice overcoming in the end. I don’t believe justice inevitably overcomes injustice on its own. If the moral arc of the universe is to bend toward justice, we must choose to bend it that way.

In the wake of the outcome of the trial of Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s murder, I have to question if we will bend that arc systemically toward justice? As we daily witness Black lives cut down by police, we have a lot of work still to do.

If things are going to change, we are going to have to choose to change them.

Before we close, I will offer one word of caution concerning our reading this week. I see the image of the Shepherd in this passage held in contrast with the myth of redemptive suffering. The myth of the redemptive suffering teaches those who are abused and oppressed to be willing to suffer in order to change the heart or “redeem” their oppressors. As Brown and Parker rightly state, “The problem with this theology is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoer ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, For God So Loved The World? p. 16)

There is a difference between the self-sacrifice of disempowered people and the self-sacrifice of empowered people for those they love. John’s gospel is believed to be the latest written in our cannon. In John, Jesus has evolved in the story telling into an incarnate, cosmic figure, an empowered figure. The phrase, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord,” indicates that John is placing Jesus in a position of empowerment not disempowerment.

In the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the story is different. Jesus belongs to the community of the disempowered. His death is an act of sanctioned, state violence. His life is taken from him and then his death is powerfully overturned in the symbol of the resurrection. It would be irresponsible and dangerous to hold up the self-sacrifice of Jesus in John’s version of the Jesus story as an example to be followed by the community Jesus belongs to Matthew, Mark and Luke. In synoptic gospels, Jesus is a disempowered person. Jesus, unlike Paul, is not even a Roman citizen. As Howard Thurman so eloquently writes,

“Jesus was not a Roman citizen. He was not protected by the normal guarantees of citizenship—that quiet sense of security which comes from knowing that you belong and the general climate of confidence which it inspires. If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar [as did Paul]; he would be just another Jew in the ditch. Standing always beyond the reach of citizen security, he was perpetually exposed to all the ‘arrows of outrageous fortune,’ and there was only a gratuitous refuge—if any—within the state.”(Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 34)

In the synoptics, Jesus is a non-citizen, a marginalized person, who was in the end executed by the state for standing up to injustice. At minimum we need to perceive the difference between the synoptic’s Jesus and John’s Jesus. As a parent, I understand the imagery of John’s gospel. I have sacrificed for my children throughout their lives. I know what that kind of sacrifice feels like. And that kind of sacrifice is a very different from asking survivors, the abused, the oppressed to sacrifice themselves to change the hearts and minds of their abusers or the laws and policies unjust systems.

However you interpret the shepherd’s willingness to lay his life down for his sheep as contrasted with the commitment level of a “hired hand” here in John, what we don’t read in this passage is a sheep being willing to lay down their life to change the heart of an oppressive shepherd. The self-sacrifice of victims and survivors, people whose self is already being sacrificed and whose humanity is already being denied, only causes further damage. Justice in this context would be achieved by taking hold of one’s humanity, not sacrificing it.

And that leads me to my overall point this week.

Justice only wins in the end if we make it win.

We are in need of new stories of justice overcoming in the end in our context today. And I believe we can create those stories with our choices, here and now. When we choose to make justice ultimately win, not just in isolated occurrences but systemically, we are determining whether our ancient, cherished stories of justice overcoming ring true or are merely desperate, wishful fairytales.

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 does focussing through the lens of a good shepherd rather than a substitutionary, crucified Jesus impact your own Jesus following and your engagement with public social injustice? Contrast and 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

 


The Good News of Forceful Nonviolent Resurrection

Herb Montgomery | April 2, 2021


“The good news was not that Jesus died, or even that he died for you. The good news rather was that this Jesus whom they killed, God has brought back to life! . . . These passages are not without their problems. Yet what is unmistakable in each of them is their emphasis, not on salvific purpose in Jesus’ death, but in how God overcame the injustice of his murder through a life-giving, death-conquering, death-reversing, injustice -overturning resurrection.”


Our reading this week if from Mark’s version of the Jesus story,

“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’

“But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:1-8)

Much of Western Christianity is commemorating Holy Week this week, this coming Sunday being Easter Sunday. (Our Eastern Orthodox siblings will be celebrating Easter on May 2.) Christians spend a lot of energy this time each year reflecting on the closing scenes of the Jesus story: Jesus’ last week, his death, burial, and resurrection. Leaders in many communities will interpret these events this weekend.

The early followers of Jesus varied widely in how they interpreted the closing scenes of Jesus’ life. Some viewed his murder as somehow salvific on a cosmic level, while others focused their attention on how his resurrection overcame, reversed, and undid the interruption Jesus’ death posed to his life-giving ministry and caused that life to live on.

These varied voices and explanations are in our sacred scriptures as well. The canon made room for all of them.

The voices that speak most deeply to me are the voices that emphasize God’s overcoming of the unjust death of Jesus through bringing Jesus back to life rather than those that reframe such an unjust act as having a secret Divine purpose.

The book of Acts offers just one biblical example of this focus and emphasis. In Acts, the good news is not that Jesus died, or even that he died for you. The good news rather is that this Jesus whom they killed, God has brought back to life!

Consider the “good news” identified in each of the following passages:

“With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all.” (Acts 4:33, emphasis added)

“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (Acts 2:22-24, emphasis added)

God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.” (Acts 2:32-33, emphasis added)

“When Peter saw this, he said to them: ‘Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.’” (Acts 3:12-16, emphasis added)

“Then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’” (Acts 4:10-11, emphasis added)

The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:30-32, emphasis added)

“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:36-43, emphasis added)

“We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.” (Acts 13.32-33, emphasis added)

These passages are not without their problems. Yet what is unmistakable in each of them is their emphasis, not on salvific purpose in Jesus’ death, but in how God overcame the injustice of his murder through a life-giving, death-conquering, death-reversing, injustice-overturning resurrection.

Womanist theologians have shaped my thinking and faith journey. I owe them so much.

During the Easter season, for instance, I’m often reminded of statements like this one from Delores Williams in her classic work, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk:

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

For Williams, it is the resurrection and the kingdom of God theme in the Jesus story that is life-giving. Not Jesus’ death. Jesus came, not to die, but to show us how to live. “The kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, pp. 130-131)

I also want to lift up the voice of Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, who weaves even nonviolence into the meaning of the resurrection story event. She writes:

“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 a 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 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 . . . God does not fight death with death. God does not utilize the violence exhibited in the cross to defeat deadly violence itself . . . through the resurrection, God responds to the violence of the cross–the violence of the world—in a nonviolent forceful manner. It is important to understand that nonviolence is not the same as passivity or accommodation to violence. Rather it is the forceful response the protects the integrity of life. Violence seeks to do another harm, while nonviolence seeks to rescue others from harm. It seeks to break the very cycle of violence itself. The forces of nonviolence actually reveal the impotence of violent force. That God could defeat the unmitigated violence of the cross reveals the consummate power of the nonviolent, life-giving force that is God.” (Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 178-180)

This weekend, for those of us who choose to commemorate the resurrection event in the Jesus story and all the meaning that story event symbolizes, I hope that our easter rituals will further shape us into death-negating, life-giving people. That we will commit more deeply to life-affirming work in our world. That together we will continue to work toward a world that is a safe, compassionate, and distributively just home for everyone.

Happy upcoming Easter to each of you.

Love can conquer hate.

Equity can conquer fear and greed.

Inclusion can conquer exclusion and marginalization.

Life-affirmation can conquer death-dealing.

Forceful nonviolence can conquer life-negating violence.

The golden rule is this way of life.

Jesus is risen.

He is risen indeed.

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 does focussing on injustice-overturning resurrection in the Jesus story inform, inspire, and empower you in your own participation in justice work today? Share 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