A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence (Part 10)

Herb Montgomery | October 11, 2019

mountains during golden hour

Photo by Jonny McKenna on Unsplash


“Jesus’ form of nonviolence was an act of self-affirmation in a society where one’s self was already being sacrificed. When we interpret nonviolence as self-sacrifice, irreparable harm, even lethal harm, is done to those who survive and those who are victims of violation.”


Thank you for journeying with us through this series on self-affirming, nonviolent resistance. This is our tenth and final installment. Leaving the objections we’ve addressed, I want to wrap up our time together by summarizing what we’ve learned. I believe that understanding the Jesus of the gospels as teaching self-affirming, nonviolent resistance is a life-giving interpretation.

Let’s begin by summarizing nonviolence itself.

Nonviolence

In Jesus’ vision for social change (what the gospel authors refer to as “the kingdom”), Jesus had certain options. He had seen the results of both violent and nonviolent resistance to Roman oppression. As he weighed the success and failure rates of both approaches, Jesus rejected violence. As the late Walter Wink reminds us:

“The issue, however, is not just which [violence or nonviolence] works better, but also which fails better. While a nonviolent strategy also does not always “work” in terms of preset goals-though though in another sense it always “works”—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe.” (Walter Wink. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Facets, Kindle Locations 316-318).

Also, the social goals that Jesus was endeavoring to plant the seeds for in his own community cannot be achieved through violence: “Violence can beget fear, stalemate, annihilation, dominance, or more violence, but it cannot beget love, justice, abundant life, community, or peace.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Parker; Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 13)

Others have also recognized the impossibility of using means that contradict the ends we are trying to achieve. As Audre Lorde wrote:

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

The 1st Century Judea and Galilee had both seen violent and nonviolent acts of resistance. Jesus’ gospel was not only a gospel of liberation but also one of surviving and being able to achieve a quality of life once that liberation was accomplished. What good is liberation if your entire people and culture and way of life are wiped out in the process?

Jesus’ supreme value was not simply the rejection of violence but, more, the goal of arriving at a just society. Correcting the societal roots of systemic injustice was his passion. This is important. If rejecting violence is your highest moral goal, and justice is secondary, this has too often led to a passive response to injustice rather than acts of resistance and nonviolent noncooperation.

“Violence is not an absolute evil to be avoided at all costs. It is not even the main problem, but only the presenting symptom of an unjust society. And peace is not the highest good; it is rather the outcome of a just social order.” (Walter Wink. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Facets; Kindle Locations 493-495).

Lastly, nonviolence is rooted in the value of maintaining a love for one’s enemy. Love for one’s enemy should not be interpreted as accepting enemies’ behavior, actions, or choices. Love of enemy is the choice to hold on to your enemy’s humanity. As human beings, we are all still part of one another. We still belong to each other. Nonviolence enables us to find a balance where we stop or obstruct our enemy’s actions but remain characteristically unlike our enemies in our methods. Love of one’s enemy also holds space for and adds pressure towards our enemies making better decisions than they are presently making:

“With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand, I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised outstretched – maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not – but always outstretched . . . With this hand, we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’” (Barbara Deming, Revolution & Equilibrium, page 224)

Resistance

As we covered in Part 4, Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence were rooted in an attempt to provide nonviolent forms of protest, noncooperation, and resistance to injustice, both personal and systemic. Culturally, turning the cheek was a refusal to accept one’s marginalized or lower social class position and treatment. Handing over your remaining article of clothing was using public nudity as a form of protest, and going the second mile was a refusal to play by the rules of one’s oppressors. Today, ignoring tone-policing or respectability politics is a similar refusal to play by the rules of an unjust status quo.

Self-Affirming

Finally, Jesus’ form of nonviolence was an act of self-affirmation in a society where one’s self was already being sacrificed. When we interpret nonviolence as self-sacrifice, irreparable harm, even lethal harm, is done to those who survive and those who are victims of violation. As we’ve said, defining Jesus’ nonviolence as self-sacrificial is rooted in interpreting Jesus’ cross as an act of self-sacrifice, as a submission to death rather than a defiant refusal to let go of life.

Remember, those in positions of power and privilege use both metaphorical and literal crosses to keep those who are being violated silent. Jesus taught us not to remain silent, but to speak our truth even if threatened with a cross. Far from being passive or submissive, Jesus’ call to take up the cross was the call to join him in self-affirming resistance to injustice regardless of dire threats. Again, to quote Brown and Parker:

“It is not the 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.” (Brown & Parker, Patriarchy, Christianity and Abuse, p. 18)

Jesus’ cheek defiance, naked protest, and refusal to play by the rules of oppressors were not self-sacrificial, but a means of reclaiming and affirming one’s humanity when those in power ignored or denied it.

Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence should not be interpreted as self-sacrifice but as self-affirmation in the face of violence.

Over the last ten installments, I’ve shared my belief that Jesus’ form of nonviolence is much more life-giving when we interpret it as self-affirming, nonviolent resistance. Thank you to each of you who read, listened, wrote in, or commented online about how this series was making a difference for you. I’m so glad you have been here.

We must allow more destructive interpretations of Jesus to give way to more life-giving interpretations. This I believe is in harmony with the spirit of his life and teachings. The movement born out of his life once gave hope to the most marginalized and discarded of his society. May all those who take his name today reject violence, including the violent forms of religiosity that have been created in his name. May we work toward healing and reparations for all those whom certain strands of Christianity have harmed.

Jesus taught the rejection of violence.

Jesus taught self-affirmation for the marginalized.

Jesus taught resistance for those whose humanity was being violated.

May those who follow this Jewish Galilean prophet of the poor today do the same.

HeartGroup Application

Share with your group how this series has affirmed, challenged, or deepened how you presently follow Jesus.
Are there any new practices that this series has brought to your attention that you are implementing in how you live out the ethics of love, justice, and compassion? Share with your group.
How has your HeartGroup itself grown in its collective understanding of nonviolence? Has it changed even some of the ways you communicate with each other?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Don’t forget, we need your support here at RHM to continue making a difference. To do so, go to renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate.”

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence (Part 4)

Herb Montgomery | August 23, 2019

close-up photography of person lifting hand
Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

“We’ve been discussing the importance of listening to those on the margins of society and their experiences and wisdom. What follows is a result of doing just that in the context of the subject of nonviolence.”


Before we begin, I want to pause for a moment and ask for your support. Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice. We need your support to bring the kind of resources and analysis that RHM provides.

Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed now more than ever.  

Help Christians be better humans. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Renewed Heart Ministries, today.  To do so just go to our website at renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate” on the top right or if you prefer to make a donation by mail, our address is:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

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

Over on our Social Jesus blog, we’ve been discussing the importance of listening to those on the margins of society and their experiences and wisdom. What follows is a result of doing just that in the context of the subject of nonviolence. 

So far in this series, we have discussed both nonviolence and resistance. It’s now time to address the difference between nonviolence as self-sacrificial and nonviolence as self-affirming. 

Historically, certain forms of nonviolence have tended to drift into victims passively enduring suffering to redeem their oppressors. This is why we must take a moment to clarify the differences between self-affirming nonviolence and the myth of nonviolent, redemptive suffering. Other scholars’ work will help us understand.

Drs. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan write in their book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem:

“Notice, above all, how repeatedly Mark has Jesus insist that Peter, James and John, the Twelve, and all his followers on the way from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem must pass with him through death to a resurrected life whose content and style was spelled out relentlessly against their refusals to accept it. 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.” (Borg, Marcus J., and John Dominic. Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem [2007], p. 102.) 

Mark’s Jesus speaks of the cross as participatory rather than as substitution. At this point of the story, it was something Jesus invited his disciples to join him in. We must ask ourselves what this means for other Jesus followers in other times and places. 

Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence in the sermon on the mount were forms of nonviolent resistance through which his fellow oppressed could stand up to the dehumanizing attempts of their oppressors. They were nonviolent forms of resistance and self-affirmation. 

But what we see in the story is Jesus’ suffering of his cross can be interpreted as a passive lack of resistance. If this proves a valid interpretation, then his instruction in the Sermon on the Mount would be distinct from the lack of resistance we see at the cross. His teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and interpreting Jesus’ actions surrounding the cross event as being passive have been conflated to produce harm.

How many domestic violence survivors have had the cross of Jesus and his “patient endurance of suffering” held up to them as something they should emulate? They have been told to “take up their cross” and simply endure: it’s a dangerous situation where they are deemed “Christlike” as they endure abuse for the redemption of their spouse. They are told that this is what it means to follow Jesus’s “example.” So how do we harmonize what he taught and what he did?

Let’s back up and unpack what led up to Jesus’s cross in the story.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the cross is the direct backlash of the elite class in power to Jesus’ protest in the Temple where he overturned the tables and drove out the livestock. Jesus was not “patiently enduring suffering” in his Temple protest. He was resisting. He was protesting. He was shutting it down. And, ultimately, the cross was the result of his resistance. A cross is not the first act of violence that oppressors inflict on the oppressed that we simply must endure. The cross is a secondary act of violence that oppressors impose on the oppressed for standing up to the primary violence. Consider the following chronologies.

Myth of Redemptive Suffering versus Self-affirming Nonviolence

Within the myth of redemptive suffering the recommended chronology of events is:

1) Initial Oppression

2) Our “bearing our cross” which is defined as a patient, passive endurance for the redemption of the violent

Within an interpretation of Jesus teachings as self-affirming nonviolence the chronology of events would be:

1) Oppression

2) Resistance even though there may be a backlash

3) The cross is defined as the violence that is threatened by those in power if one does stand up.

4) The cross is the backlash that must be risked rather than avoided through passive acceptance of initial oppression.

Self-affirming nonviolence is quite different from redemptive suffering. Self-affirming nonviolence is the call to stand up to oppression. Remember Barbara Deming’s statement about the two hands, one held up and one outstretched. 

“With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised outstretched – maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not – but always outstretched . . . With this hand we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’” (Revolution & Equilibrium. Grossman, 1971. Page 224.)

The cross was the violence that people in power used to threaten those considering standing up to their oppressors. Taking up one’s cross in self-affirming nonviolence is not patient, passive endurance of suffering but the choice to resist and stand up against oppression even if one is threatened with a cross for doing so. 

Feminist and womanist scholars criticize theology that equates the cross with patient, passive, endurance of oppression and violence:

“Christian theology has long imposed upon women a norm of imitative self-sacrifice based on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Powerlessness is equated with faithfulness. When the cross is also interpreted as the salvific work of an all-powerful paternal deity, women’s well being is as secure as that of a child cowering before an abusive father.” (Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn, Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique [1989] p. xii)

“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 evildoers ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (Ibid. p. 20)

“In this sense Jesus represents the ultimate surrogate figure; he stands in the place of someone else: sinful humankind. Surrogacy, attached to this divine personage, thus takes on an aura of the sacred. It is therefore fitting and proper for black women to ask whether the image of a surrogate-God has salvific power for black women or whether this image supports and reinforces the exploitation that has accompanied their experience with surrogacy.” (Delores S. Williams and Katie G. Cannon, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk [2013], p. 127)

The Rev. Drs. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker make an important distinction between the myth of redemptive suffering and choosing life in spite of suffering that may be threatened as a result:

 “It is not the 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.” (Brown & Parker, p. 18)

Yes, there are subtle distinctions between defining “taking up one’s cross” as passively enduring oppression and defining it as being willing to stand up and resist even if there are those who threaten you with a cross. But how we define Jesus’s call to take up our cross makes all the difference in how we respond to oppression, violence, and injustice. Does taking up the cross mean remaining passive? Or does it mean not letting our oppressors threaten us into remaining passive? 

Lastly, the cross is not universally intrinsic to following Jesus, as some would have us believe. It only comes into the picture if one’s oppressors use it as a threat to try to force us to remain passive. The cross is only present if oppressors make it present, and only if the oppressed choose to resist and stand up in spite of being threatened. If those in power do threaten you with a cross for following Jesus and standing up to oppression, then following Jesus involves the cross for you. The cross is secondary and not universal; it is not primary or intrinsic to following Jesus for all.

This leads us to discern what the teachings of a 1st Century Jewish prophet of the poor may offer us today in our contemporary work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. It’s not the cross that transforms society. Following the teachings of Jesus and standing up to injustice transforms society. So it is not the cross of Jesus that “saves” us societally, but following Jesus saves societally us by placing us on a different path with different intrinsic results. It is, as Brown and Parker state, not the acceptance of suffering that brings life, but the determination to choose life that brings life. Jesus didn’t die so the elite in the status quo could go to heaven at death. Jesus died because he stood up to the status quo in solidarity with the oppressed in spite of being threatened with death for doing so.

In this series on nonviolence, we must head the caution that the Rev. Dr. Katie G. Cannon gave us: nonviolence should not be interpreted as passivity, redemptive suffering, or societal disengagement: 

“[Delores 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.” (Delores S. Williams and Katie G. Cannon, Sisters in the Wilderness the Challenge of Womanist God-Talk [2013], Forward)

Williams goes on to quote the scholars we referenced this week, who critique Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. allowing his own nonviolence to drift into forms of redemptive suffering:

“Their critique of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s idea of the value of the suffering of the oppressed in oppressed-oppressor confrontations accords with my assumption that African-American Christian women can, through their religion and its leaders, be led passively to accept their own oppression and suffering—if the women are taught that suffering is redemptive. Brown and Parker quote Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words about suffering which he saw as a most creative and powerful social force…. The non-violent say that suffering becomes a powerful social force when you willingly accept that violence on yourself, so that self-suffering stands at the center of the non-violent movement and the individuals involved are able to suffer in a creative manner, feeling that unearned suffering is redemptive and that suffering may serve to transform the social situation. Brown and Parker’s critique of this theology ‘is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoers ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.’” (Ibid.. p. 161.)

One of King’s most famous sermons drifts into the myth of redemptive suffering or nonviolence defined as self-sacrifice of the oppressed rather than self-affirmation:

“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’” (in Martin Luther King, A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings [2012], p. 54)

There is a subtle difference between the above passage and the passage we read previously from Barbara Deming. Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount did not call his followers to passively respond to suffering but to stand up to injustices in nonviolent forms of resistance. 

Both feminist and womanist authors warn of defining Jesus’ cross (when interpreted as passive acceptance) rather than his teachings as the centerpiece of our nonviolence. Again the cross did not demonstrate Jesus’ nonviolence. It was the backlash for Jesus’ previous nonviolent resistance. 

Consider Delores Williams’ words, one more time:

“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. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, 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.” (Delores S. Williams and Katie G. Cannon, Sisters in the Wilderness the Challenge of Womanist God-Talk [2013], p. 130-131)

As we close, let’s revisit Elizabeth Bettenhausen’s account of a conversation with a group of seminarians. It gives us much to ponder about whether Jesus’ nonviolence was rooted in the self-affirmation of the oppressed found in the instruction in the Sermon on the Mount or should be defined as the oppressed’s self-sacrifice—their cross:

“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 woman’s 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, “Haven’t 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!” They 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?” (in Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn, Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique [1989], p. xi-xii)

Again, the cross was the result of Jesus’ refusal to let go of his hold on life and the lives of those he stood in solidarity with in the face of the oppression, violence, and injustice of his day. The cross proves Jesus was not content to remain passive and politically disengaged. We have seen in this series that Jesus’ teachings on nonviolent resistance was a means of marginalized groups affirming their selves, their humanity, and the value of their lives.  It was not more than resistance. It was more than nonviolent. It was nonviolent resistance that at its heart was an act of self affirmation. 

HeartGroup Application

  1. What difference does it make for you personally to see nonviolence as self-affirming rather than self-sacrificial?
  2. What difference do you believe this could make for society to see nonviolence as self-affirming rather than self-sacrificial?
  3. How does this difference impact how you define what it means to follow Jesus both within your own faith tradition and in our larger society today?

Discuss each of these with your group.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

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

Another world is possible if we choose it. 

Don’t forget, we need your support here at RHM to continue making a difference.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Part 2)

“Destruction,” 1836, part of the “Course of Empire” series, by Thomas Cole

“Today we live in the wake of these changes. Christianity and its Jesus fell in the same way as all the other religions taken in by Rome . . . If the bloody violence of Christianity’s history has taught us anything, it is that we must question the Christian theory of justified violence including redemptive violence.”


Before we begin, I want to stop for a moment and ask for your support. Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice. We need your support to bring the kind of resources and analysis RHM provides.

Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed now more than ever.

Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Renewed Heart Ministries, today.  To do so just go to our website at renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate” on the top right or if you prefer to make a donation by mail, our address is:

Renewed Heart Ministries, PO Box 1211, Lewisburg, WV 24901

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

This week we’re continuing the series we began last week on the self-affirming, nonviolent resistance of Jesus. 

In this second part, we’ll consider the shift from what Christians originally taught about nonviolence (see A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Part 1), and what they began to teach after their social location changed when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Later in the series I will critique the Church Fathers’ self-sacrificial nonviolence and compare it to what I believe is Jesus’ self-affirming nonviolence. For now, I want you to note the contrast between early Christian nonviolence and the later use of violence, not as a periodic exception to Jesus’ teaching, but as the preferred method of converting non-Christians. Let’s again read from Christian teachers writing before the change:

“We [Christians] no longer take up sword against nation, nor do we learn war any more, but we have become the children of peace.” — Origin

“And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?” — Tertullian

“Anyone who has the power of the sword, or who is a civil magistrate wearing the purple, should desist or he should be rejected.”—Hippolytus

Hippolytus recommended that the Church excommunicate those who enlisted in the military or took a political office where they were responsible for wielding Rome’s sword.

“Rather, it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it. We would rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another.” —Arnobius

“It makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited.”—Arnobius 

Again, with “by word,” Arnobius, like Hippolytus above, is referring to holding a political office where one commands state violence.

“When God forbids killing, he doesn’t just ban murder (some translations read ‘brigandage’), which is not permitted under the law even; He is also recommending us not to do certain things which are treated as lawful among men…whether you kill a man with a sword or a word makes no difference, since killing itself is banned.”—Lactantius, the tutor of Emperor Constantine’s son.

“…no exceptions at all ought to be made to the rule that it is always wrong to kill a man, whom God has wished to be regarded as a sacrosanct creature.”—Lactantius

Yet about a hundred years after Rome embraced the Christian religion, it was illegal not to be a Christian (there was an exception for Jews), and you could not serve in the military unless you were a Christian: You were not trusted as loyal unless you were a Christian. 

How did Christianity get to that point?

On October 28, 312, Constantine was engaged in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge against his rival, Roman Emperor Maxentius. Lactantius recounts that, on the evening of October 27, just prior to the battle, Constantine had had a vision of the Christian God promising victory if his soldiers daubed the sign of the cross on their shields. (The details of the vision differ among sources reporting it. Lactantius reports that the vision promised victory if Constantine would delineate “the heavenly sign [‘the letter X, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of CHRIST’] on the shields of his soldiers” (On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Chap. 44). Eusebius also reports that the sign God instructed them to use on their shields was the Chi Rho symbol. These reports of Constantine’s vision state that he saw a cross of light with the inscription, “through this sign you shall conquer.”

There are various theories today about these reports. Some view the vision as legend with no historical basis. Others believe Constantine made up the story after the fact: he was a great political strategist and saw a way to coopt Christianity’s influence by uniting Christianity and Rome. Each theory is speculation, including the popular historical interpretation that the vision was genuine and that Jesus actually supported Roman conquests. What we know for sure is what happened within Christianity after this period. The Christian church’s social location changed dramatically, and what happens to individuals and communities that transition from “Have-not” to “Have” continues to amaze me.

Constantine declared Christianity a religio licita (a legal religion) through the Edict of Milan. He lavished gifts upon all Church leaders, increasing their salaries, exempting them from paying taxes, building church buildings, and funding Bible copying. Through this support, Church became centered in a building rather than in a group of people and crucifixion and gladiatorial games were abolished because of their connection with Christian victimization and trauma. The first day of the week was also declared a weekly holiday for all people and the Christian calendar absorbed pagan holidays. Pagan temples were converted into Christian churches, with statues of Roman gods replaced by statues of the Apostles and other biblical characters.

Eventually, Christianity’s becoming the official religion of the Roman empire would lead to new theological and ethical interpretations as well as new practices. Augustine, Eusebius, and others began to see Christianity’s new social location and its political power as having been handed to them by God Himself, and for the first time in history, Christians began wielding a sword in Jesus’ name. In the subsequent centuries we would get a brand new Christian norm:

“When people falsely assert that you are not allowed to take up the physical sword or fight bodily against the enemies of the Church, it is the devil trying to attack the fabric of your Order.”—Jacques de Vitry 

Notice that the non-violent teachings of Jesus had come to be redefined as of the “devil.”

“Do not ever be ashamed, O Bride of Heaven, to take up the sword against heretics; for the God still lives who sanctified such action through the arms of David.”—John of Mantua

Jesus’ nonviolence would be sidelined and the example of more violent figures from the scriptures would began to take center stage. Military leaders such as David and Joshua and others became the models of the Christian faith, and Christians, like the majority of evangelicals today, even embraced bodily torture. As Pope Innocent IV once wrote, “Bodily torture has been found the most salutary and efficient means of leading to spiritual repentance.”

Through the Church and State becoming unified, violence in defense of both became justified. 

Some of the greatest minds in Christianity would come up with Biblical support for this turn. Augustine (354–430 C.E.) and, later, Aquinas (1225–1274 C.E.) made significant interpretive changes. Augustine, a bright theological mind in his time, developed and defended a “justified violence” theory for Christians based upon existing Roman and Greek thought. Christians were now encouraged to join the army and to become involved in government. Violence could be used as God’s instrument to “punish” evildoers (e.g., Romans 13:1- 7), and Augustine saw punishment as a more justifiable motive than self-defense. By 416 C.E., all Roman soldiers were required to be Christians. Up until this time, “pagan” had simply meant civilian as opposed to soldier. It came to mean non-Christian as opposed to believer.

Here is a sampling of the new Augustinian teaching:

“War is waged to serve the peace. You must, therefore, be a peacemaker even to waging war, so that by your conquest, you may lead those you subdue to the enjoyment of peace.”— Augustine

Peace as an end was separated from peace as the means. War was doing others a favor.

“What, indeed, is wrong with war? That people die who will eventually die anyway so that those who survive may be subdued in peace? A coward complains of this but it does not bother religious people.”— Augustine

“Does anyone doubt that it is preferable for people to be drawn to worship God by teaching rather than forced by fear of punishment or by pain? But because the one type of people is better, it does not mean that the others, who are not of that type, ought to be ignored.”— Augustine

Augustine taught that, yes, it’s better for people to come to worship the Christian God on their own rather than being tortured or threatened with violence, but just because some will choose the Christian God on their own doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t force others to worship. Thisis a complete disconnect from the teachings of Jesus. Augustine’s writing turns more and more to the Bible and to desperate attempts to find some clue in Jesus’ teachings that Jesus really didn’t mean what He taught on nonviolence and enemy love. 

Augustine also exhibited dualistic Platonic (Hellenistic/Greek) thinking, which sees the body as separate from an immortal soul. This was in contrast to the more holistic philosophy of ancient Hebrew culture. With a dualist view, you could do whatever was necessary to someone’s body if it saved their soul. So killing someone could be justified if that was how you saved their soul. Augustine taught that it was acceptable to run your enemies through with the sword, as long as you did not kill them with hatred in your heart, for Jesus taught us to love our enemies.

Augustine developed and systematized a religious philosophy that justified saving souls at any cost, even by means of torture and violence. Augustine taught that the Christian should respond to torturing confessions out of others by crying “fountains of tears” for this “necessary state of affairs.” But never did he stop to consider that torture itself might be wrong. This was the origin of Christianity embracing “justified violence” in the form of the “just war” theory supported by the contemporary, Americanized, evangelical worldview.

Today we live in the wake of these changes. Christianity and its Jesus fell in the same way as all the other religions taken in by Rome. When Rome embraced the Greek gods, their appearance in pictures and statues changed. Under Roman influence, for example, Zeus (Greek) became Jupiter (Roman). But it wasn’t just their names that changed; their attributes changed too. Under Rome, the Greek gods became more warlike, and more distant, not mingling with mortals as much. They became harsher and more powerful. They came to stand for discipline, honor, strength, and violence. For instance, Hypnos, Greek god of sleep, didn’t do much until Romanized. The Romans called him Somnus, and he liked killing people who didn’t stay alert at their jobs: if they nodded off at the wrong time, they never woke up. This same pattern took place as Rome remade the Christian God, Jesus.

If the bloody violence of Christianity’s history has taught us anything, it is that we must question the Christian theory of justified violence including redemptive violence.

Next week we will begin unpacking our first passage in this series from the Gospels. What could Jesus have meant when he taught turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, and the stripping off of one’s under garment? Thank you for staying with us.

HeartGroup Application

  1. What value do you see in Christians specifically returning to an ethic of nonviolence within our society today? Explain with you group.
  2. In what ways do you see American values today influencing sectors of Christianity and Christian rhetoric as Roman values did in the above history?
  3. Where do you see the values and ethics of the Jesus story as being in contradiction with current practices of the American empire today or it’s leadership?

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

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

Another world is possible, if we choose it. 

Don’t forget, we need your support here at RHM to continue making a difference.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Part 1)

Herb Montgomery | July 26, 2019

gray bird cutout decor on brown plank symbolizing nonviolence
Photo by Tamara Menzi on Unsplash

We need your support to bring the kind of resources and analysis RHM provides.
Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed now more than ever.
Click here to make a tax-deductible donation.

“But today most of Christianity either rejects Jesus’ nonviolence outright or embraces nonviolence in a way that leaves marginalized and exploited people passive in the face of injustice and harms them. There are alternatives . . . I want to offer an interpretative lens that I refer to as Self-Affirming Nonviolent Resistance.” 


Seven years ago I wrote a series on Nonviolence.  Much has changed for me since then.  Originally, my understanding of nonviolence had been deeply influenced by those who define nonviolence  in a way that is rooted in self-sacrifice.  I’ve grown to understand nonviolence differently. I’ve grown to see that this way of defining nonviolence is itself violent.  A healthier, more life-giving form of nonviolence is needed. This is significant enough for me that I believe a rewrite of that series seven years ago on nonviolence is important.  In the words of Katie Cannon from the introduction of Delores Williams’ classic Sisters in the Wilderness, “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.” I have so much gratitude for Cannon and others for helping me see this. I have thought seriously in response to womanist and feminist critiques of defining nonviolence in ways that are rooted in self-sacrifice and the myth of redemptive suffering. It is as a result of listening to these critiques that I feel that this revision is needed.  

Let’s begin.

In Matthew’s Gospel we read these words:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too. And if someone takes you to court to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles. When someone asks you for something, give it to him; when someone wants to borrow something, lend it to him. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’ But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun to shine on bad and good people alike, and gives rain to those who do good and to those who do evil. Why should God reward you if you love only the people who love you? Even the tax collectors do that! And if you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary? Even the gentiles do that! You must be perfect—just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)

When it comes to nonviolence in general, it seems to me that Western, Americanized Christianity has lost its way. Maybe we’ve forgotten what the road we’re supposed to be on even looks like. Since Jesus spoke the above words two millennia ago, followers and non-followers alike have read them and struggled to interpret and apply them in life-giving ways.

I want to offer an interpretative lens that I refer to as Self-Affirming Nonviolent Resistance.

The first word I want to focus on is “Nonviolent.”

Today, many Christians say that Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence is only for certain groups, certain time periods, or certain cultural circumstances. Even so it is obvious that Jesus taught a form of nonviolence.

Further, too often Christians who do teach nonviolence teach a self-sacrificing form of nonviolence rather than a self-affirming form. I once did this myself because during the first 300 years of Christian history, many Christians interpreted Jesus’ teaching as self-sacrificing nonviolence too. But listening to marginalized communities and their experiences with nonviolence opens up new understandings of what Jesus may have originally taught.

I am fully aware that some supporters of Renewed Heart Ministries who are wonderful Christians have a different opinion from me on this topic and do not subscribe to nonviolence. Thank you for tracking with us on this series anyway. It would be easier for you to focus on things that don’t pull you out of your comfort zone. Through this series, we will look at this subject again, secure and confident in our love, respect and consideration of each other.

I want to also speak to those who subscribe to self-sacrificial nonviolence. Our social structures already deny justice and full humanity to so many people. They’re forced to deny their selves. For this sector of society, I don’t believe Jesus would teach them to further sacrifice themselves in a society that already requires that. I believe Jesus’ form of nonviolence gave marginalized people a way to affirm themselves, affirm their humanity, to hold on to their selves in a world that would either prefer they did not exist or demand that they “go back to where they came from.”

Nonviolence, even self-affirming nonviolent resistance, is a disposition, an attitude, and a way of life where the means and the ends are aligned. We do not choose the way of violence in order to maintain peace: Jesus’ way of peace disrupted unjust systems. Jesus’ way arrived at peace through resistance, by establishing distributive justice for all, especially those our communities push to the edges and margins.

Today we have overwhelming evidence that the early followers of Jesus were nonviolent. Over the church’s first three centuries, those who held onto nonviolence drifted into more self-sacrificing forms of it. Yet their testimony for some form of nonviolence is still relevant and challenging to Christians today who reject nonviolence completely, regardless of its form. The U.S. Christian church has become something that early Christians wouldn’t recognize. The statements that follow are representative of the voices in Christianity for its first 300 years.

“We (Christians) no longer take up sword against nation, nor do we learn war any more, but we have become the children of peace.” —Origin

“And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?” —Tertullian

“Anyone who has the power of the sword, or who is a civil magistrate wearing the purple, should desist, or he should be rejected.”—Hippolytus

“Rather, it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it. We would rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another.” —Arnobius

“It makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited.”—Arnobius

“When God forbids killing, he doesn’t just ban murder, which is not permitted under the law even; he is also recommending us not to do certain things which are treated as lawful among men.”—Lactanius

In some of these statements we see love and nonviolence defined by the early church leaders as self-sacrifice, the willingness to suffer for the benefit of someone else. We’ll discuss this at greater lengths in this series when we listen to feminist and womanist voices and their critique. For now, Marcus J. Borg sums up the concern of self-sacrifice in his book The Heart of Christianity:

“Oppressed people, in society and in the family, have often been told to put their own selves last out of obedience to God. When thus understood, the message of the cross becomes an instrument of oppressive authority and self-abdication.” (p. 112)

Defining nonviolence as self-sacrifice for the oppressed has proven itself to be a violent form of nonviolence.

In this series I hope to offer an alternative view.

I interpret Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence similarly to Walter Wink who states that Jesus’ nonviolence gave oppressed communities, a way to “assert [their] own humanity and dignity . . . refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position [and] expose the injustice of the system.” (in Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way)

But today most of Christianity either rejects Jesus’ nonviolence outright or embraces nonviolence in a way that leaves marginalized and exploited people passive in the face of injustice and harms them.

There are alternatives.

In this series, we will consider Jesus’ sayings on the subject of nonviolence. We will then address frequently asked questions about applying nonviolence. Lastly we will listen to objections and critiques, not from those who would use violence to dominate or subjugate others, but from communities for whom a form of nonviolence has left them further oppressed, exploited and subjugated. 

My hope is that we will arrive at a form of nonviolence that’s not only faithful to the Jesus story but that’s also life-giving and that bears the fruit of liberation, too. 

This series is going to be a wonderful journey of discovery for us, regardless of where we begin. Whether we agree at the end of this series or not, our understanding will be greater as we explore what we believe and why. 

We’ll begin next week. For now, it will be enough for us to contemplate what this passage may hold for us today:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too. And if someone takes you to court to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles. When someone asks you for something, give it to him; when someone wants to borrow something, lend it to him. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’ But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun to shine on bad and good people alike, and gives rain to those who do good and to those who do evil. Why should God reward you if you love only the people who love you? Even the tax collectors do that! And if you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary? Even the pagans do that! You must be perfect—just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week, discuss whether or not you subscribe, at least in principle, to some form of nonviolence. 

2. In what areas of your life are you practicing nonviolence?  What do these practices look like?

3. What questions do you have about nonviolence?  Have your group email some of those questions in to us here at Renewed Heart Ministers and they may just end up in this new series!  I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

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

Another world is possible, if we choose it. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Why Resurrection

Herb Montgomery | April 26, 2019

Photo Credit: Billy Pasco on Unsplash

“Even when it looks like nothing is ever going to change, and regardless of whether or not changes are ever made to the extent we desire, the mere presence of our voice makes things different than they would be had we not taken a stand, showed up, or spoken out.”


“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:5-6)

Triumph Over Execution

Last weekend, the majority of Western Christians ritually celebrated Easter. This time of year, in the context of spring, many Christians pause to memorialize and celebrate the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Although early Christianity included risking a cross for standing with the social changes that the teaching of Jesus implied, early Christianity was about resurrection, not death. It was not about getting to an otherworldly heaven, and it was not about hell (hell isn’t even mentioned in the book of Acts once). Early Christianity wasn’t even about a cross. It was about resurrection:

“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4:33, emphasis added)

“You crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2:22-24, emphasis added)

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” (Acts 2:32-33, emphasis added)

“You handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, but God raised from the dead.” (Acts 3:12-16, emphasis added)

“Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 4:10-11, emphasis added)

“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 5:30-32, emphasis added)

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10:36-43, emphasis added

“Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead . . . And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.” (Acts 13:35-38, emphasis added.)

The early message of the Christian community was not the individualized, privatized and personal message that Jesus had died for you. The message wasn’t even that Jesus had died. It was that this Jesus, whose popularity with and message of hope and change for the masses threatened the powers-that-be; this Jesus executed by those with the most to lose from changes in the status quo; this Jesus, a prophet of the poor from Galilee, God had raised back to life! He was alive!

We can only understand why it was such good news that this Jesus was resurrected if we understand how deeply his teachings had resonated with those who faced marginalization, exclusion, and exploitation in his society every day.

Jesus’ Teachings Are Salvific

This week, I want to amplify the work of Delores Williams as we seek to understand what people in Jesus’ own time found truly special about him. Williams is a womanist theologian who I believe has much to offer us today as we seek to follow Jesus in the most life-giving way in our context. She writes from her experience as a Black woman, yet the majority of her work is rooted in the history of Black women and Black families in the US, the Black Church’s oral tradition, and the Bible’s stories about women, especially marginalized and African women. 

“Black women are intelligent people living in a technological world where nuclear bombs, defilement of the earth, racism, sexism, dope and economic injustices attest to the presence and power of evil in the world. Perhaps not many people today can believe that evil and sin were overcome by Jesus’ death on the cross; that is, that Jesus took human sin upon himself and therefore saved humankind. Rather, 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. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, 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.” (Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, pp. 130-131)

I agree with Williams here. Jesus being executed by imperial power for being a threat wasn’t what was special or salvific about him. What made him special was his kingdom teachings, his vision for what life can look like here on Earth for us as a community. He laid before us an alternative path that leads to life: not a life we somehow earn by following him, but a life that is the intrinsic result of the choices we make in how to relate to ourselves and others.

Williams unpacks further how the resurrection affirmed Jesus’ teachings:

“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. (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 130, emphasis mine.)

The Truth Within the Resurrection Story

Williams is describing the gospel message of the first half of Acts. The truth within the story of the resurrection was of Jesus’ vision for what human life could be.  This vision so captured the hearts of the oppressed in his time that it was victorious over the attempt to kill it. Jesus’ death interrupted his lifelong salvific work. He did not die so that we in the 21st Century can be individually and personally assured of going to heaven when we die. Jesus died because he stood up to the status quo in the 1st Century. 

And the resurrection is the overcoming of this interruption, this death. It’s the reversal of all that Jesus’ death meant. The resurrection reignites the flame of Jesus’ vision for human life that those in positions of power had attempted to extinguished with his execution. The truth within the story of the resurrection is the restoration of Jesus’ message. It is the picking-back-up of Jesus’ teachings from being trampled in the dust of death and them living on in the lives of those who choose to embrace the hope that another world was actually possible. The truth within the story of Jesus’ resurrection is of a God on the side of those Jesus also lived in solidarity with over and against the system, and not a God on the side of the system over and against those being exploited as is often the system’s narrative.

I remember years ago listening to an Easter presentation on Luke’s resurrection narrative by the late Marcus Borg. I loved the truth within this story which Borg reimagined for me that day. 

“The domination system tried to stop him. They tried to shut him up. But even a rich man’s tomb couldn’t hold him. ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!’ He’s still out there,” Borg said into the mic. “He’s still recruiting, ‘Come follow me.’”

Jesus’ Palm Sunday demonstration and Temple protest which followed labelled his movement as something that finally had to be dealt with. Within the week, Jesus was dead. Yet the resurrection transforms his death into an attempted set back and not a final silencing that makes Jesus a failure. The truth within the story of Jesus’ resurrection narrative is that systems of injustice don’t always win. The status quo doesn’t always have the last word. Justice is worth fighting for, even when the outcome looks bleak. Even when it looks like nothing is ever going to change, and regardless of whether or not changes are ever made to the extent we desire, the mere presence of our voice makes things different than they would be had we not taken a stand, showed up, or spoken out.

Joan Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker remind us again that the gospel is not about an execution but about a refusal to let go of life. 

“Jesus did not choose the cross. He chose to live a life in opposition to unjust, oppressive cultures . . . Jesus chose integrity and faithfulness, refusing to change course because of threat . . . It is not the 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 . . . To be a Christian means keeping faith with those who have heard and lived God’s call for justice, radical love, and liberation; who have challenged unjust systems both political and ecclesiastical; and who in that struggle have refused to be victims and have refused to cower under the threat of violence, suffering, and death. Fullness of life is attained in moments of decision for such faithfulness and integrity. When the threat of death is refused and the choice is made for justice, radical love, and liberation, the power of death is overthrown. Resurrection is radical courage. Resurrection means that death is overcome in those precise instances when human beings choose life, refusing the threat of death. Jesus climbed out of the grave in the Garden of Gethsemane when he refused to abandon his commitment to the truth even though his enemies threatened him with death. On Good Friday, the Resurrected One was Crucified.” (For God So Loved the World? in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.18-20, edited by Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

This is why the truth within the story of the resurrection narratives of the gospels is still worth remembering, ritualizing, and celebrating. This is why the story still matters to me. Why resurrection? This is why.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:5-6)

HeartGroup Application

This week, spend some time as a group sharing with one another: 

  1. How does the story of Jesus’ resurrection give you hope in the here and now, in our world today, and not simply for an afterlife?
  2. As a Jesus follower, how does the story of Jesus’ resurrection inform your work for justice in your own sphere of influence today?
  3. How did you as a group celebrate the story of Jesus’ resurrection this year?  What parts spoke to you? Share your experience with the group. 

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

Wherever you are today, keep living in love and compassion. Keep taking action. Keep working toward distributive justice. 

I will be in Delaware next weekend speaking at a weekend event there. Therefore there won’t be a podcast episode or article published next weekend, but we’ll be back the following weekend after next.

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you in two weeks.

Lightening the Burden of Others

Herb Montgomery | December 21, 2018


“This Christmas, we may not all have someone whose economic debt we can cancel. But are there other types of forgiveness we could embrace? Are there reparations for past wrongs we still need to make? Does someone else’s peace and reconciliation depend on my apology? Can I participate in restoring Jesus’ distributive justice, especially for the marginalized?”


“To give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven.” (Luke 1:77-78)

Since I was young, my all-time favorite Christmas story has been Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I don’t think it’s really possible for me to even get into the festive spirit every year without partaking of this story in some form. 

This year, I sat down with my younger daughter to watch the film The Man Who Invented Christmas. I wanted to see it last year when it came out, but we live in such a small town that it never screened at our local theater. When I was finally able to watch it at home, I loved it. In the movie, one line from Dickens comes when Charles’ father reminds him, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of another.” I love the transformation of Scrooge in the story where he learns this lesson.

I hope this is how I will be remembered when my time here is up: as one who lightened burdens. But why should we stop at lightening burdens? Many burdens are made and could be eliminated entirely! This line in the film made me think about similar words from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus says:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

The Gospels’ Christmas stories are rooted in liberating people from the weariness and burden-bearing that any form of oppression places on them. This teaching is in every gospel. In Luke’s gospel, for example, we read of Zechariah who speaks prophetically of John the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus. According to Zechariah, John’s role would be:

“To give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven.” (Luke 1:77-78)

There is an order here that struck me. First, “salvation” here could just as easily be translated as “liberation.” “Salvation” was not a preoccupation with an afterlife.  Salvation in first century Jewish culture was much more about participating in making this world a better place in the here and now. Many of the Jewish people in Jesus’ day longed to be liberated from Roman occupation and oppression, and they tied this liberation to the idea of forgiveness. As we covered last week, the Hebrew concept of Divine forgiveness included collective forgiveness for the social sins of injustice and exploitation of the vulnerable. This forgiveness was not privatized, and not about individuals and their personal morality. Some believed these social wrongs explained their repeated occupation by Gentile Empires: foreign occupation was seen as a punishment that would end when the people had made reparations for collective wrongs and Divine forgiveness resulted. Liberation would result from “the tender mercy of our God” forgiving social exploitation. 

Please notice the order here. Forgiveness would not result from Divine wrath being appeased by a violent death on a cross. An already existing mercy in the heart of the Divine is the cause of the forgiveness. Following this, humans who chose to mirror this forgiveness toward one another would then be participating in a wealth redistribution (debt cancellation) toward shaping a distributive justice society which would include those who were previously being marginalized. 

In the gospels, when forgiveness isn’t from the Divine to humans but between humans, the concept has an economic context. (See A Prayer for Debts Cancelled.) Forgiveness wasn’t initially about people facing oppression unconditionally forgiving their oppressors. Instead the call to forgiveness was originally aimed at the economic elite, and meant a Jubilee-like cancelling of debts. It was a cry for the privileged and powerful to forgive all debts on behalf of those living under debt burdens. Talk about lightening the burdens of another. What would your life be like if every one of your debts were forgiven in one day?

Human-to-human debt forgiveness was to be rooted in the already-existing forgiveness in the heart of the Divine, the One whose heart was already full of mercy. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus explains it like this:

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35)

Notice that the original forgiveness was rooted in the creditor’s tender mercy. When the debtor could not pay, the creditor simply forgave the debt. There were no conditions and no contingencies. Initial forgiveness should have awakened a spirit of forgiveness in the debtor. Just as the saying goes that hurt people hurt people, forgiven people should forgive people. 

But that’s not how Jesus’ story goes. The debtor in the story didn’t internalize the lesson and becoming more forgiving. Instead, he turned to his own debtors and exacted payment. His own forgiveness had no conditions but was given freely in mercy. But if the forgiven person failed to internalize the ethics of forgiveness and apply them to how they related to others, they would forfeit the forgiveness so freely given to them. There was no contingency in obtaining freely given forgiveness. But there was a condition for keeping the freely given forgiveness. One could lose liberating forgiveness if they failed to forgive toward their own debtors.

It’s also very important to note that Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness included reparations. Those who followed him would not only forgive debts, but also offer reparations for past exploitations. Consider the story of the wealthy tax collector, Zacchaeus. 

“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’ But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’” (Luke 19:7-8)

Forgiveness in Jesus’ paradigm was not individualistic freedom from condemnation, but liberation from debt, reparation for exploitation, and yes, letting go of past abuses in the context of those reparations. To call for reconciliation without liberation or reparation is to perpetuate injustice, violence, and oppression. Peace and reconciliation are to be the fruit of forgiveness and also the fruit of justice restored and reparations made. Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness included all of these elements.

A community initiative was to set in motion a change in the world: the forgiven were to become forgiving.

All of this is implied in our text this week:

“To give his people the knowledge of salvation [or liberation] through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven.” (Luke 1:77-78)

The myth of redemptive suffering destructively teaches that Jesus’ cross makes possible the forgiveness of God, but this text teaches the opposite. Knowing salvation or liberation was to come from forgiveness rooted not in a violent death, but in an already existing tender mercy in the heart of God. God’s mercy, leading to forgiveness, leading to liberation from oppression and transforming people becoming a collectively just and safe society would be like the rising of the sun on a brand new day. It would bring new life and a new hope. It would be a dayspring to us from heaven. 

This language harks back to Jeremiah’s words in Lamentations:

“Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22)

Discussions on forgiveness today are almost always directed toward survivors, calling for them to give even more. But in the Jesus story, forgiveness was initiated by a wealthy creditor or oppressor toward those in their debt. These types of debt cancellations have been more common throughout history then you might guess. An especially insightful and relevant article was written by Mehreen Khan back in 2015 explains this history. I would encourage everyone to contemplate it: The biggest debt write-offs in the history of the world. In it Khan rightly states:

“Loans were less a way to make money than they were a means to help one’s fellow man. Given that all worldly wealth and property belonged ultimately to God, a creditor’s rights over it were temporary rather than absolute.”

Khan goes on to speak about the ancient Babylonian practice of smashing debt tablets and modern European and other global examples. These examples are inspiring as we consider present and future possibilities for debt forgiveness. 

This Christmas, we may not all have someone whose economic debt we can cancel. But are there other types of forgiveness we could embrace? Are there reparations for past wrongs we still need to make? Does someone else’s peace and reconciliation depend on my apology? Can I participate in restoring Jesus’ distributive justice, especially for the marginalized?

Let’s keep the spirit of this festive time of year in these ways, and so set in motion a more beautiful world today and for tomorrow.

“To give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven.” (Luke 1:77-78)

     

HeartGroup Application

Last month, we asked our HeartGroups to participate in a show of love initiated by Auburn Seminary in New York toward the Tree of Life* Or L’Simcha Congregation.

I’m happy to share that this generated nearly 2,000 messages of love and support!  You can read these messages at: http://bit.ly/treeoflifethanks

Take a moment this week and together as a group read through some of these.

     

A Special Request

Also we would like to remind each of you our special request from you as the end of 2018 approaches.

Renewed Heart Ministries has been in existence for over a decade now, but over the last four years we have gone through transition. We have become a “welcoming and affirming” ministry. We have also become more intentional and passionate about the intersection of the teachings of Jesus in the gospels and our work today of love, compassion, action and justice in our larger society.  It’s been a time of rebirth and rebuilding here at RHM, and we believe we are a much healthier ministry with a much healthier focus, as a result. 

Yet these changes have not been without deep loss. We’re asking you to help us avoid a budget shortfall for 2018 and be able to plan for 2019. We have many projects in the works for next year that we would love to see come to fruition. We would love to be able to expand both our online presence, as well as the number of free, teaching seminars we conduct across the nation. An initial edit has also been completed for my upcoming book that will be a sequel to Finding the Father. The title for this new, second book will be Finding Jesus. We would love to see this manuscript be able to go through its final stages and go on to publication this next year.  

As many of you already know, to help RHM this year, a very generous donor has pledged to match all donations to this ministry for both this past November and this present December. 

If you have been blessed this year by RHM’s work, take a moment this holiday season and support our work.  

You can do so by going to our website at renewedheartministries.com and clicking “donate” or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
P.O. Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

If you would like your donation to be matched just make sure it’s postmarked by December 31.

Help us continue to grow this ministry in 2019 as we, together, follow Jesus more deeply in the healing work of love, compassion, action and justice for the marginalized.

Thank you in advance.

I love each of you, dearly.

There will not be an eSight next week due to the holidays.  

Merry Christmas and a happy new year!

We’ll see you in 2019.

Salvific Teachings: Womanism and the Gospel

Herb Montgomery | September 7, 2018

 

Picture portraying three Women of Color

Photo Credit: Eloise Ambursley on Unsplash


“Notice that in this passage, which is not at all unique to the gospels, the ‘gospel of God’ is the announcement of the arrival of the reign or kingdom of God, who desires a world that is a safe, distributively just, and compassionate home for everyone. This was indeed, good news to the oppressed, marginalized and exploited of Jesus’ time, and it’s good news in our time as well.”


 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15)

This week we take our third and final look at Jesus’ crucifixion through the lens of the experiences of members of vulnerable communities who daily face marginalization, domination, exploitation and/or oppression. We are going to listen at the feet of one of the greatest womanist theologians of our time, Delores S. Williams.

 

Last week, we considered how many feminist theologians reject the sufferings of Jesus as redemptive because of the lethal fruit this interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion has produced in the lives of women. Womanist theologians hav e the same concern.

 

“African-American Christian women can, through their religion and its leaders, be led passively to accept their own oppression and suffering — if the women are taught that suffering is redemptive.” (Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 161)

 

Seeking an alternative source of redemption in Jesus other than his sufferings, Williams addresses one the most historically damaging interpretations of Jesus’ death: Substitution, or as Williams calls it “surrogacy.” It doesn’t matter whether a theology represents Jesus standing in the place of God or of people. To the degree that Jesus was a substitute, representative, or “surrogate” sufferer in one’s interpretation of Jesus’ cross, then to that same degree surrogacy takes on “the aura of the sacred” and is divinely validated as an acceptable way for people to relate to each other. After all, if Jesus or God both participated in surrogacy, surrogacy itself cannot be impugned without calling the morality or justice of both Jesus or God into question as well. That has a particular import for Black women, historically forced into surrogacy during and following the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. (For further discussion on the oppression of Black women specifically in the context of surrogacy see Sisters in the Wilderness; The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p 40-60)

 

“In this sense Jesus represents the ultimate surrogate figure; he stands in the place of someone else: sinful humankind. Surrogacy, attached to this divine personage, thus takes on an aura of the sacred. It is therefore fitting and proper for black women to ask whether the image of a surrogate-God has salvific power for black women or whether this image supports and reinforces the exploitation that has accompanied their experience with surrogacy. If black women accept this idea of redemption, can they not also passively accept the exploitation that surrogacy brings?” (Delores S. Williams; Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 127)

 

Some differentiate Jesus’ surrogacy for humanity from the historical surrogacy role of Black women under the subjugation of their oppressors by saying Jesus’ surrogacy was voluntary. Williams finds such rhetoric insufficient:

 

“After emancipation, the coercion associated with antebellum surrogacy was replaced by social pressures that influenced many black women to continue to fill some surrogacy roles. But there was an important difference between antebellum surrogacy and postbellum surrogacy. The difference was that black women, after emancipation, could exercise the choice of refusing the surrogate role, but social pressures often influenced the choices black women made as they adjusted to life in a free world. Thus postbellum surrogacy can be referred to as voluntary (though pressured) surrogacy.” (Ibid., p. 41)

 

Williams offers an alternative interpretation of Jesus as a source of redemption. Jesus, she explains, gave “humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life.” This is, by far, my favorite paragraph from Williams on this subject:

 

“Black women are intelligent people living in a technological world where nuclear bombs, defilement of the earth, racism, sexism, dope and economic injustices attest to the presence and power of evil in the world. Perhaps not many people today can believe that evil and sin were overcome by Jesus’ death on the cross; that is, that Jesus took human sin upon himself and therefore saved humankind. Rather, 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. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, 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.” (Ibid., pp. 130-131) 

 

Now, it is up to us whether or not we will follow Jesus and practice his vision, whether we will follow this “ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life.” If the world doesn’t seem that different after Jesus than it was before, then it’s not that Jesus’ teachings have been tried and found wanting. As Chesterton stated, they have “been found difficult and left untried” (What’s Wrong with the World, Part 1, Chapter 5).

 

To focus on Jesus’ Kingdom of God theme as “the gospel”, the good news, and the source of redemption holds the most weight in the gospels. The gospels do not define the good news as “Jesus died for you.” The good news of the gospels is, every time, the Kingdom among us.

 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15)

 

Notice that in this passage, which is not at all unique to the gospels, the “gospel of God” is the announcement of the arrival of the reign or kingdom of God, who desires a world that is a safe, distributively just, and compassionate home for everyone. This was indeed, good news to the oppressed, marginalized and exploited of Jesus’ time, and it’s good news in our time as well.

Consider this statement in Luke’s gospel:

 

“ So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the gospel [euangelion] and healing people everywhere.” (Luke 9:6) 

 

What I love about this passage is that it tells us that followers of Jesus were t preaching the gospel far and wide, but Jesus had not yet died, much less been resurrected. What, then, were his followers telling people when they proclaimed the gospel? Whatever it was, their message was a gospel without a cross and without a resurrection. We have to let that confront us. 

 

According to Luke, it is possible to preach the gospel and never mention the cross or the resurrection. What were they sharing instead? They were announcing the kingdom and it was good news! The good news is always primarily about the kingdom, the new social vision for humanity that Jesus taught was possible here and now.

 

Consider  the book of Acts and take note of the gospel they were proclaiming:

 

“But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God . . .” (Acts 8:12)

 

“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)

 

“Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.” (Acts 20:25)

 

“They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus.” (Acts 28:23)

 

“For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance.” (Acts 28.30-31)

 

I believe Delores Williams is onto something significant.  Survival, liberation, redemption, salvation, and quality of life—in the Jesus story these are the themes that come through what Jesus called the kingdom or reign of God. Again, “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.” This is what is salvific about Jesus and his teachings.

 

Williams continues, “Humankind is, then, redeemed through Jesus’ ministerial 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 God-Talk, p. 132)

 

As challenging as Williams’ words are to our traditional interpretations, they hold promise, too.y Consider again the book of Acts. Even after Jesus died, the gospel was primarily about the coming of the Kingdom. Jesus had died and was resurrected but the story of the gospel would not include his death  fin its proclamation of the kingdom, and the emphasis when Jesus’ life story was told was not on Jesus’ death but his resurrection. The good news, in other words, was not that Jesus had died, but that he was alive! The Romans couldn’t stop him, and  a rich man’s tomb couldn’t hold this prophet of the poor. He was still out there, still recruiting, still calling people to “follow me.” 

 

Notice the good news now emphasizes his resurrection over his death:

 

“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4:33)

 

“You crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2:22-24)

 

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” (Acts 2:32-33)

 

“You handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, but God raised from the dead.” (Acts 3:12-16)

 

 “. . . Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 4:10-11)

 

“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 5:30-32)

 

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10:36-43)

 

“Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead . . . And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.” (Acts 13:35-38)

 

It is quite possible that atonement theories that focus on explaining how Jesus’ violent death saves us are trying to answer the wrong question. To use Williams’ phrase, a “more intelligent” question might be how do Jesus’ teachings save us? What does salvation mean for us here and now? Why did the proclamation that Jesus was alive inspire such hope among the  oppressed communities of Galilee and the surrounding areas in the 1st Century? However one interprets  the story of Jesus’ resurrection today, we cannot miss that it gave hope as good news to the early followers beyond hope for an afterlife. It gave them hope for this life. The reign of God had come near. The powers that be had tried to stop it, but failed. Another world is possible.

 

If what we learned last week holds any weight, if interpreting suffering as being redemptive is deeply damaging to marginalized and vulnerable communities, then this week we are being offered an alternative interpretation. tThe teachings of Jesus are salvific:  his vision for life and human community, his vision of distributive justice, the golden rule, our loving of one another as the interconnected begins that we are , his call to solidarity with those presently oppressed. These teachings and more point to a way that’s different from the course the status quo is presently pursuing. It’s a way or path to life. And it still calls to Jesus’ followers today.

 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1.14-15)

 

A Special Request

 

This is the time of year when Renewed Heart Ministries needs your support the most.  If you have been blessed by our work, consider making a one time gift or becoming one of our monthly contributors.  Any amount is deeply appreciated. Your generosity enables our much needed work to continue. 

 

You can do so either online by clicking here: Donate 

 

Or you can mail your support to:

 

Renewed Heart Ministries

PO Box 1211

Lewisburg, WV 24901

 

Thanks in advance for your help.

 

And thank you for checking in with us, this week. Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love, justice and compassion reigns. 

 

Another world is possible. 

 

I love each of you dearly.

 

I’ll see you next week.

 

 

A Refusal to Let Go of Life

Herb Montgomery | August 31, 2018

Statue of crucifixion

Photo credit: Ricky Turner on Unsplash


“Jesus chose to live a life in opposition to unjust, oppressive cultures. Jesus did not choose the cross but chose integrity and faithfulness, refusing to change course because of threat.” (Brown and Parker, For God So Loved the World?; Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.27)


 “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” (Mark 8:34)

In our time, there are two ways to define the cross. One defines it as passive endurance of abuse and injustice, whereas the other defines it as not being cowed by a violent system that  those in power use to threaten people who stand up, resist, and push back against abuse or injustice. (See last week’s article, “The Violence Inherent In The System.”*)

But Jesus’s audience couldn’t miss the meaning in his call to take up one’s cross. Roman crosses had only one connotation: it was used on dissidents. To be passive was to avoid being put on a cross, but to stand against injustice would almost certainly land you on one. 

The cross therefore had a singular political meaning. Some scholars even see evidence that the phrase “take up one’s cross” was used as a rallying cry by Jewish insurgents, a group whose members were constantly  being crucified for their activity (see Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man, p. 245-246). Jesus called his followers to nonviolent resistance, yet also used this specific phrase. hHis priority value in his nonviolence was not passive, patient endurance, but noncooperation, resistance, and dissent. The difference may seem subtle but the results are anything but when one considers the fruit that these interpretations bear in the lives of communities who daily face oppression and injustice.

This week we’re listening to and learning from voices from another marginalized community: women. We are considering the crucifixion event in the closing scenes of the Jesus story from the perspectives of various first wave, feminist theologians and scholars. 

Let’s begin with a classic and favorite article of mine, For God So Loved the World? by Joan Carlson Brown & Rebecca Parker. If you have not read it in its entirety you can do so online. It offers much to contemplate in light of the distinctions we are making this week.

“It is not the 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.” (in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 18, eds. Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

When Jesus called for his followers to be willing to take up their crosses, the political context of Roman crosses and their use means that Jesus wasn’t asking them to accept suffering. Rather, he was asking them if they desired “fully to live?” He was calling them to refuse to let go of their desire to live, to stand up to the injustice and join him. Whether Jesus spoke of a cross, or used the more veiled imagery of a “baptism” or drinking a “cup,” he never spoke of these experiences as something he was to do alone. In Mark’s gospel, each time he brings the subject up, he doesn’t preach his action substituting for the disciples’, but calls for their participation right alongside his own.  

“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life [by being passive or silent] will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake [standing up to injustice and abuse], and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world [through their silence] and forfeit their life?’” (Mark 8:34-36; see also The Myth of Redemptive Suffering)

“But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with ?’ They replied, ‘We are able .’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.’” (Mark 10:38-39)

As we saw last week, at this point in the gospels, Jesus is headed to Jerusalem to engage in a temple protest of dissent. He knows what the outcome may be, and he calls his followers to join him. His disciples understand Jesus’ call to participate with him. We know this because every time Jesus brings it up in Mark’s gospel, the disciples quickly change the subject (See Mark 8-10). Had they responded to Jesus positively rather than with denial, Calvary could have included thirteen more crosses in addition to Jesus’. 

This way of interpreting the Jesus story is important. Jesus taught resistance rather than passive acceptance of injustice. He taught self-affirmation rather than self-sacrifice. He taught speaking out rather than remaining silent. As feminist writers have pointed out, these distinctions are especially relevant for oppressed communities. Historically, Christian interpretations that describe Jesus’ teachings as sacrifice of one’s self, patient endurance of abuse, and silent passivity in the face of injustice have produced deeply harmful fruit for women. Consider the following critiques of traditional theology conducted from empowered social locations. Also take note that these comments come from theologians working from the margins.

“Women are acculturated to accept abuse. We come to believe that it is our place to suffer . . . Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive.” (Brown and Parker, For God So Loved the World?; Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 1-2)

“Christian theology has long imposed upon women a norm of imitative self-sacrifice base on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Powerlessness is equated with faithfulness. When the cross is also interpreted as the salvific work of an all-powerful paternal deity, women’s well-being is as secure as that of a child cowering before an abusive father.” (Elizabeth Bettenhausen, Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. xii; edited by Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

“The qualities that Christianity idealizes, especially for women, are also those of a victim: sacrificial love, passive acceptance of suffering, humility, meekness, etc. Since these are the qualities idealized in Jesus ‘who died for our sins,’ his functioning as a model reinforces the scapegoat syndrome for women.” (Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father, p. 77)

These critiques may challenge some of your theologies very deeply. That’s okay. We each need to be willing to consider whether our beliefs are producing life-giving fruit or whether they produce oppression, violence, and injustice. As Jesus-followers, we are called to liberation and solidarity with our fellow humans, even when that challenges us to reassess some of our most deeply held ways of interpreting the Jesus story. Remember, our sacred stories are eternal.  Our interpretations of them are not. Our interpretations can change! We can make our interpretations give way to more life-giving interpretations. And, in the future, if we discover our new interpretations also do harm, we can process them again. The goal of the gospel is always life.

I want to take a moment now to caution some of our followers interested in specific atonement theories. As we read critiques from the margins, we cannot pride ourselves in the fact that we don’t subscribe to more violent interpretations of Jesus’ crucifixion such as penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Two popular, classical replacements for PSA are the Moral Influence theory and Christus Victor. Consider that even these two alternatives are not immune to the critiques we are considering this week from our sister theologians.

First,  consider the interpretation of Jesus’ death as redemptive through moral influence.

“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 evildoers ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (Brown and Parker, For God So Loved the World?; Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 20.)

Next consider the interpretation of Jesus’ death as redemptive in the context of the Christus Victor narrative.

“The believer whose thoughts and feelings have been shaped by a tradition that teaches or ritualizes in liturgy the Christus Victor view may interpret her or his suffering in this light. In response to suffering it will be said, Be patient, something good will come of this.” (Brown and Parker, For God So Loved the World?; Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.6 )

Whatever we choose to believe about Jesus’ crucifixion, I believe we must stay grounded in the insights we discussed last week. The cross was the response of those in power to Jesus as he refused to be silent in the face of injustice he saw committed against the vulnerable. He acted for justice and was kille. Remember these wise words from both Brown and Parker:

“Jesus chose to live a life in opposition to unjust, oppressive cultures. Jesus did not choose the cross but chose integrity and faithfulness, refusing to change course because of threat.” (Brown and Parker, For God So Loved the World?; Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.27)

I want to close this week with Elizabeth Bettenhausen’s story of a classroom exercise of changing the genders of the Jesus story. Reading her experience forever changed my own reading of the Jesus story. I’ll share it here with you.

“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 woman’s 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, ‘Haven’t 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!’ They 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?” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. xi-xii, edited by Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

Kandice Joyce correctly perceives the intensity of rape and the shock of using it in this way as analogous to the intensity of execution by crucifixion and the way the Romans used it in their day. All of these women scholars are calling us to embrace the reality in both our lives and in our interpretations of our sacred stories that suffering is never redemptive. Suffering, even Jesus’s, cannot be redeemed. “The cross is a sign of tragedy. God’s grief is revealed there and everywhere and every time life is thwarted by violence” (Brown and Parker). But violent theologies have had devastating effects on the ives of vulnerable people,  specifically women. The reality is that victimization never leads to triumph, regardless of what our fairytales and interpretations of sacred stories tell us, and victimization, even when survived, can lead to even greater pain if not rejected or stood up to. When we fail to refuse abuse, abuse kills a person’s sense of power, worth, and dignity. Lastly, passive, patient endurance of abuse can lead to actual death.

It is not hyperbole to say that how we choose to interpret Jesus’ words has life or death importance.

“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” (Mark 8:34)

HeartGroup Application

This past week, Jamel Myles, a nine year old boy in the fourth grade at Joe Shoemaker Elementary School in Denver, Colorado committed suicide as a result of being bullied by his classmates for coming out as gay.  I have a 10 year old son who is in fifth grade. This story hits home for me.  I can’t imagine my life without my son.  Leia Pierce, Jamel’s mother spoke out, “We have to stop bullying and teach people it’s OK to love each other. … We have to stop hating each other for differences, differences that make us equal and unique.” (For more of Jamel’s story see https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/28/us/jamel-myles-suicide-denver.html) 

1. This week in your HeartGroup, share some ways that your experience in Heartgroup has challenged you to see our human differences as the rich and diverse variety within a humanity that bears the image of the Divine rather than “less than.” How have you encountered experiences of life that are different than your own?  How have these encounters helped you to move beyond fear and insecurity in relation to those who are different than you?

2.  As a group, list some ways that you can actively lean into the beautiful experiences of seeing each person as made in the image of God, a testament of the rich diversity seen in humanity, and actively move further toward a more meaningful, nonhomogenous, yet coherent view of our world and the life we, together as human siblings, live in it?  How can you more deeply love one another as yourselves?

3. Pick something from that list this week, and do it.

Thank you for checking in with us, this week. Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love, justice and compassion reigns. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

To support these podcasts and weekly eSight articles, go to www.renewedheartministries.com and click “donate.”

Self Affirming Nonviolence and the Myth of Redemptive Suffering (Part 2)

by Herb Montgomery | June 21, 2018

Picture of a cross

Photo Credit: Christoph Schmid on Unsplash


“Taking up one’s cross should not be interpreted as acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse, but rather as the call to stand up, resist, and refuse to let go of life, justice, and the hope that another world is possible—even in a status quo that threatens you for doing so if you do.”


 

 “And lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13)

Last week we considered how Jesus’ nonviolence was not represented by the cross but by his Temple protest: nonviolence is another form of resistance. 

This week I want to build on that idea of nonviolent resistance and discuss what womanist and feminist scholars describe as the myth of redemptive suffering. I am deeply indebted to Joanne Carlson Brown, Rebecca Parker, and Delores Williams for helping me see the idea of redemptive suffering in a new, and what I believe is more just and healthier, and accurate light. 

Let’s begin with Jesus, who challenged his own followers to take up their crosses and follow him. 

“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.’” (Mark 8:34)

What does it mean to take up one’s cross? 

This passage, without a doubt, has been used to encourage those who suffer abuse and/or injustice to simply remain passive hoping that their suffering will convert their abuser or oppressor. I want to argue that this is a gross misinterpretation. (This is a position I have changed on thanks to womanist scholars speaking out.) Understanding this passage within its socio-political context actually reveals that Jesus was calling his followers to join the crucified community of resisters in their culture. Jesus was not asking them to simply bear with the injustice, abuse, and exploitation that was rife in their time. Crucifixion was the way in which the status quo made an example of those who fought back against injustice and sent a message to others that the same would happen to them if any of them also resisted.

As I shared two weeks ago from the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, “In Jesus’ first-century world, crucifixion was the brutal tool of social-political power. It was reserved for slaves, enemy soldiers, and those held in the highest contempt and lowest regard in society. To be crucified was, for the most part, an indication of how worthless and devalued an individual was in the eyes of established power. At the same time, it indicated how much of a threat that person was believed to pose. Crucifixion was reserved for those who threatened the “peace” of the day. It was a torturous death that was also meant to send a message: disrupt the Roman order in any way, this too will happen to you. As there is a lynched class of people, there was, without doubt, a crucified class of people. The crucified class in the first-century Roman world was the same as the lynched class today. It consisted of those who were castigated and demonized as well as those who defied the status quo. Crucifixion was a stand-your-ground type of punishment for the treasonous offense of violating the rule of Roman “law and order.” (Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171)

In Mark, Jesus was challenging his followers to follow his own example and stand up, resist, protest, just like he was about to do in the courtyard of his own Temple. He was challenging them to resist even in the face of being threatened with a cross. 

This is important. Jesus was not calling his followers to suffer, but to stand up to unjust suffering, oppression, and exploitation. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker rightly remind us, “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” (For God So Loved The World?, Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, pp. 1-30).

Circles that teach nonviolence sometimes also teach that if we passively endure suffering, then we will win in the end. With all of the enormous good Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplished, he also allowed his teaching of nonviolence to drift into the territory of teaching redemptive suffering. 

Dr. King saw suffering as “a most creative and powerful social force…. The non-violent say that suffering becomes a powerful social force when you willingly accept that violence on yourself, so that self-suffering stands at the center of the non-violent movement and the individuals involved are able to suffer in a creative manner, feeling that unearned suffering is redemptive, and that suffering may serve to transform the social situation.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in Brown and Parker, p. 20)

Delores Williams, Joanne Carlson Brown, and Rebecca Parker all respond to King’s teachings on passive endurance of suffering, stating that the problem “is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoers ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (Brown and Parker, p. 20; see also Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk; p. 161)

And in the foreword of Sisters in the Wilderness, Katie Cannon sternly writes, “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.”

Taking up one’s cross should not be interpreted as acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse, but rather as the call to stand up, resist, and refuse to let go of life, justice, and the hope that another world is possible—even in a status quo that threatens you for doing so if you do.

Let’s plug this understanding back into our passage in Mark and see if it works. 

Mark 8:34-38: “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 [be willing to resist even if you are being threatened with a cross] and follow me. 

‘For whoever wants to save their life [by remaining quiet, passive, keeping their head down] will lose it, but whoever loses their life [being willing to stand up against injustice even if there are consequences for doing so] 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 Father’s glory with the holy angels.’”

One phrase kicks me in my gut every time I read it:

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

As a person of immense privilege in this culture, this question hits home. What does it profit me if I gain the whole world by looking the other way if in so doing I lose my humanity? If I “forfeit my soul,” I, too, become a kind of “dehumanized” being as I go along with the dehumanization of the vulnerable among us. 

The Jesus story includes a Roman cross, and we cannot ignore it. That is one of the few historically provable elements of the story: Jesus was executed on a Roman cross. But we must also be careful not to glorify the cross. As Kelly Brown Douglas argues: 

“The cross reflects the lengths that unscrupulous power will go to sustain itself. It is power’s last stand. It is the ‘extinction‘ side of the Manifest Destiny ultimatum: be assimilated or become extinct. The cross reflects power’s refusal to give up its grip on the lives of others. It is the refusal of power to retreat. Essentially, the cross represents the height of humanity’s inhumanity. It shows the extent to which humans defile and disrespect other human bodies. It represents an absolute disregard for life. It reveals “human beings’… extraordinary capacity for evil” (Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 177). 

The cross reveals the violence inherent in the system. And yet, the focus need not be on the fact that Jesus was executed. It should be on the fact that he resisted in the face of a threatened empire that dealt him execution on the cross. The teachings of this Jesus call us to resist in the face of threats too. 

Speaking of what this means specifically for Black women, Delores Williams hits the nail on the head: “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 God-Talk, p. 132).

So what do we do with our featured text this week? Jesus’ model prayer states, “Lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil” (Matthew 6:13)

What is Jesus talking about here? Matthew’s gospel uses the same phrase: “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41, NRSV)

What is the time of trial or temptation? I believe that for the disciples it was to run away the night of Jesus’ arrest, to abandon him, and, when threatened with a cross, to hide. The temptation the disciples faced was to remain passive when threatened with a cross as opposed to standing up and joining the ranks of the crucified community. 

To be sure, there was at least one who did choose to resist, but please notice the form his resistance took:

“With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. ‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’” (Matthew 26:51-52) 

In Luke’s version, Jesus had told them just moments earlier to buy swords (see Luke 22:35-38). Yet here Jesus rebukes Peter for thinking they were to be used for violence. 

“When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’” (Luke 22:49-52)

Jesus taught resistance, but it was nonviolent resistance. It was not a path of self-sacrifice for those whose self was already being sacrificed in their society. It was a means to stand up and claim their sacred dignity. Jesus’ nonviolence was not only non-cooperative and disruptive, but also self affirming. 

Both Peter and his fellow disciples failed their temptations that night in the story. Peter gave into the temptation to rely on violence. The rest gave into the temptation to passively run away. Jesus chose a different path: he refused to let go of life, even when threatened with death. He chose to keep gripping the hope of liberation for all. 

“And lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week, I want to assign some homework for your group. I’d like you to listen to the series on our website, Nonviolence and the Cross.

2. Discuss with your group three things you take away from the series that are meaningful to you. 

3. What difference does it make to see Jesus’ teachings as salvific rather than just his death? Could this change the way you define salvation? What relevance to liberation here and now do you find in this way of viewing Jesus’ life? Discuss with your group.

4. Also I want to ask you to keep calling your representatives and voicing your objection to the atrocities that are happening on our southern border here in the U.S. related to immigration and those seeking refugee status from the atrocities they face in the areas they are fleeing from.  What is being touted as a solution to separating families of asylum seekers now leads to another grave injustice of imprisoning children.  Keep speaking out.

I’m so glad you checked in with us this week. Wherever you are presently, choose love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 


To support these podcasts, weekly eSight articles and to help us grow, go to www.renewedheartministries.com and click “donate.”

Self Affirming Nonviolence and the Myth of Redemptive Suffering (Part 1)

by Herb Montgomery | June 16, 2018

Jesus Cleanses the Temple by Gustave Dore (1832-1883)

Artwork: Jesus Cleanses the Temple by Gustave Dore (1832-1883)

 


“In its own cultural setting, Jesus’ nonviolence was a means of self-affirmation for those who don’t have access to common power, and it is best illustrated not by the cross but by his temple protest. Linking Jesus’ nonviolence to the cross instead is a way to promote the historical myth of redemptive suffering.”


 

“And lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil.” —Matthew 6:13

I want to talk about Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence this week. I have some concerns about them. I’m concerned about how those who benefit from the violence of the status quo continually co-opt nonviolence to condemn those who rise up against injustice while leaving their own use of violence on the vulnerable unaddressed and untouched. I’m also concerned about how some use Jesus’ nonviolence to promote self-sacrifice for those whose self is already being sacrificed. In its own cultural setting, Jesus’ nonviolence was a means of self-affirmation for those who don’t have access to common power, and it is best illustrated not by the cross but by his temple protest. Linking Jesus’ nonviolence to the cross instead is a way to promote the historical myth of redemptive suffering. It centers victimizers at the expense of survivors and victims. 

I want to unpack some of these ideas over the next two weeks and see if we can understand Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence in a healthier, more life-giving and socially transformative way. First let’s talk about the historical backdrop upon which Jesus took up the methods of nonviolence. We are all shaped by the times in which we live. 

Jesus grew up in the wake of the Judas Rebellion, which razed the near-to-Nazareth city of Sepphoris and led to the crucifixion of some 2,000 Jewish people outside Jerusalem. This rebellion and Rome’s violent crushing of it took place in 4 BCE (see Josephus; Jewish Antiquities 17.295) Jesus would have witnessed the aftermath of this rebellion firsthand. 

Within Judaism at that time, there was also some understanding of forms of nonviolent resistance to Rome already being practiced by some Jewish people. In 26 CE, during the time of Jesus, Josephus tells us about a Standards (Ensigns) incident that took place in Jerusalem where Rome sought to place a Roman Standard in Jerusalem itself. Viewing the Standard as a violation of the Torah against “images” or “idols,” Jewish adherents used a form of nonviolent resistance to stop these Standards from being posted. Josephus tells us, “At this the Jews as though by agreement fell to the ground in a body and bent their necks, shouting that they were ready to be killed rather than transgress the Law.” (War 2:175-203)

After Jesus we also see both methods of resistance, violent and nonviolent, being used by the Jewish community in resistance to Rome. 

In 40 CE, Rome attempted to place a statue of Gaius Caligula in the Temple in Jerusalem itself. Again, Josephus tells us that Jewish adherents to Torah used a form of nonviolent resistance. It could be that this was the only form of resistance they had at their disposal. A group, en masse, laid down before the Roman soldiers and cried out, “On no account would we fight, but we will die sooner than violate our laws” (Antiquities 18:261-309). Philo, too, tells us of this incident: “When the Jews at large got to know of the scheme, they staged mass demonstrations of protest before Petronius, who by then was in Phoenicia with an army.” (Legatio ad Gaium)

The result was that the statue of Caligula was not placed. 

Next came the Jewish-Roman War of CE 66-69, which began as a poor people’s revolt and climaxed in 70 CE with the Roman razing of Jerusalem. The Bar Kokhba revolt. which followed, is often referred to as the Third Jewish Revolt between 132-136 CE. As a result of this violent revolt, 580,000 Jews perished and many more died of hunger and disease. Rome sold many survivors into slavery. The Jewish communities of Judea were devastated to the point of genocide.

Jewish violent revolt against Rome seemed to result only in greater devastation, while nonviolent resistance gained short term and partial results. And although Jesus would only have personally witnessed some of this history, it would have been enough to have led him to the conclusion that if liberation were possible, it had the best chances with nonviolence. Rooted in liberation of the oppressed (see Luke 4:18) and a compassionate desire for those being dehumanized to stand in the power of their YHWH-given dignity and worth, Jesus emerged and began to teach: 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” (Matthew 5:38-44)

RHM has several resources on how to understand these words in their own cultural setting according to the research of Walter Wink and scholars like him. Far from teaching passivity, or simply being a door mat, these words teach a type of cheek resistance. They teach a way to shame one’s oppressor and exploitative, unjust, and cruel economic structures. They also teach refusing to play by oppressors’ rules and putting power back in the hands of oppressed people. 

If this interpretation is new to you, read this eSight. This month’s featured presentation also includes relevant details. 

Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence are modeled in his Temple protest. Too often, his nonviolence is, what I believe, wrongly thought to be modeled on the cross. This leads to two mistakes.

The first mistake is that if we use the cross to understand Jesus’ nonviolence, it almost every time leads to defining nonviolence as a passive response to persecution or injustice. But the cross did not demonstrate Jesus’ passivity. The crucifixion happened because those who were protecting the status quo were rightly feeling threatened by Jesus nonviolent resistance toward the Temple state. 

The second mistake, which we’ll cover in detail next week, is that we begin to believe the myth that passive suffering is redemptive. Jesus was teaching a nonviolent form of civil disobedience, direct action and/or resistance. One of my favorite passages in Mark hint at why we should interpret Jesus’ overturning of the Temple tables as a protest against the economic exploitation of the poor:

“Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” (Mark 11:11) 

What we today call Jesus’ “triumphal entry” was originally supposed to have ended with Jesus entering the Temple that Sunday night, dismounting the donkey, and overturning the tables immediately in protest. He was entering the heart of the Temple state to shut it down, to prevent business as usual. 

Instead, he entered, looks around, and “since it was already late”— most people were not present and not much was going on in the temple to shut down—he returned to his friends’ home in Bethany with his twelve disciples and went back to the Temple the following morning when economic exploitation was in full swing. 

This was not a passive plan. Those who respond with passivity to injustice don’t get crucified!

“And he [Jesus] has been acclaimed in the West as the prince of passive resisters. I showed years ago in South Africa that the adjective ‘passive’ was a misnomer, at least as applied to Jesus. He was the most active resister known perhaps to history. His was non-violence par excellence.” (Gandhi, Non Violence in Peace and War, Volume I, p. 16

The Jesus we see in the story didn’t teach “peace-keeping” through nonviolent passivity. He taught peace-making through the nonviolent establishment of distributive justice. (See The Lord’s Prayer.) Peace-making is never accomplished through peace-keeping iin an unjust status quo. 

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

Jesus’ followers were continually labeled troublemakers, and disturbers of the peace.

“These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” (Acts 17:6-7)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rightly stated, “Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators” (Letter from Birmingham Jail).

Gandhi again reminds us:

“[Nonviolence] does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means the pitting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save his honour, his religion, his soul and lay the foundation for that empire’s fall or its regeneration.” (Mohandas Gandhi, Young India; January 8, 1920, p.3) 

The value of nonviolent forms of resistance is that they enable those who practice them to not become like their oppressors. In other words, nonviolence can provide a path for oppressed people to not dehumanize oppressors the way oppressors have dehumanized them. Understood as a form of resistance, nonviolence enables us to resist, to stop injustice, while simultaneously maintaining our connectedness to the humanity of those who oppress. As I have often said, I know of no better statement that captures this balance than the “two hands” metaphor used by Barbara Deming in the book Revolution ad Equilibrium: 

“With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised out- stretched – maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not – but always outstretched . . . With this hand we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’” (p. 69)

When understood as resistance, nonviolence must not be used keep people facing oppression and exploitation in a state of passivity. Nonviolence is not a critique of resisters as much as it is a protest first and foremost of the violence that produces the need for resistance.

“First, Jesus’ practice and teaching demand absolutely the unmasking of and a resolute struggle against the form of violence that is the worst and most generative of others because it is the most inhuman and the historical principle at the origin of all dehumanization: structural injustice in the form of institutionalized violence. It follows that we have to unmask the frequent attitude of being scandalized at revolutionary violence and the victims it produces without having been scandalized first and more deeply at its causes.” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, p. 215)

Lastly, when nonviolence becomes synonymous with passivity, or, as we’ll see next week, self-sacrifice rather than resistance, the only other pathway that could lead toward change in response to injustice is violence.

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard . . . in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; 1968; “The Other America”)

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” (John F. Kennedy; Remarks on the first anniversary of the Alliance for Progress, 13 March 1962)

As we move into part 2 of this article, let’s consider ways we might practice the value that is at the heart Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence—resistance.

And lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil. (Matthew 6:13)

HeartGroup Application

Resistance can come in many forms. Yes, there is public, in the streets activism, that should be done. There are other forms of resistance as well. Kneeling at football games is a nonviolent form of resistance for athletes. I know professors who intentionally teach specific methods and content as an expression of resistance. Some people tell stories, some write, some sing, some do theater, some produce films. Some organize educational events, others wash dishes or make sandwiches, have their own garden, and lend help and support anywhere they can. Resistance can begin in a coffee shop or within conversations merely with family and friends. 

As Bayard Rustin said, “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.”

  1. What are some of the ways you resist systemic injustice in your day-to-day life? List them.
  2. What are some of the ways your HeartGroup as a community resists? List them.
  3. Lean into these lists and a living practice of resistance this week. Don’t allow the machine to drive you endlessly through the rat race of the status quo. Resist!

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly. 

I’ll see you next week with part 2.


To support these podcasts, weekly eSight articles and to help us grow, go to www.renewedheartministries.com and click “donate.”