The Inherent Relationship of Love and Justice

 

clouds in the sky

by Herb Montgomery | May 7, 2021


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


Our reading this week is from John’s gospel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


Reinterpreting the Easter Story

spring sunrise

Herb Montgomery | March 19, 2021


“The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the harmful message that suffering is redemptive. So what do we do with the passage from John’s gospel?”


This week’s reading is from John’s gospel:

“Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” (John 12.20-33)

The statement that jumps out at me each time I read this passage are these words from Jesus: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Statements like these seem to be more prevalent in John’s version of the Jesus story, and they trouble me. They bring to mind the writings and critiques of both womanist and feminist Christians who recount these passages’ destructive and even death-dealing fruit in their communities.

For example, womanist scholar Delores Williams, writing of how destructive holding up Jesus’ death as an example for Black women has been, states, “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” (Sisters in the Wilderness, p. 161).

She also writes, “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” (p. 132).

Two pages earlier, Williams explains, “The resurrection does not depend upon the cross for life, for the cross only represents historical evil trying to defeat good. The resurrection of Jesus and the flourishing of God’s spirit in the world as the result of resurrection represent the life of the ministerial vision gaining victory over the evil attempt to kill it. Thus, to respond meaningfully to black women’s historic experience of surrogacy oppression, the womanist theologian must show that redemption of humans can have nothing to do with any kind of surrogate or substitute role Jesus was reputed to have played in a bloody act that supposedly gained victory over sin and/or evil.”

Similar reflections come from Christian feminist scholars like Elizabeth Bettenhausen, who writes, “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.” (Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, p. xii)

In the same book, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker wirte in their ground breaking essay For God So Loved the World?—“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.” (For God So Loved the World?, p. 1)

And in the book Beyond God the Father, Mary Daly writes, “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” (p. 77).

So what do we do with the passage from John’s gospel? First, I understand how desperately some people in the early Jesus community needed to make sense of Jesus’ unjust execution. So many had placed their hopes for change and liberation in his teachings, and he had been executed by the very status quo he had spoken out against. I can imagine early followers grappling with what this all meant for them and their decision to follow Jesus. I understand why, especially with Paul’s popularity among Gentile Christians, so many would come to see Jesus’ death as salvific and redemptive.

Today, I find much more positive fruit in life-affirming interpretations of the Jesus narrative, like those from womanist theologian, Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, who in Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, writes, “God’s power . . . is not a power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of life. This is resurrecting power” (p.178). In other words, God doesn’t overcome death and death-dealing through more death, but by giving life, resurrecting life—life that overcomes, reverses, and undoes everything accomplished in the killing of Jesus.

Also, science has something to teach us about this passage. Seeds that germinate haven’t died! Germination is not death, but transformation. When seeds die, they don’t germinate. They actually “abide alone” when they die. But if they germinate rather than die, they transform or “sprout” into a new form: a beautiful plant with the potential to propagate and create more potentially germinating seeds that continue to give life. Life on top of life on top of life on top of life.

As we shared a couple of weeks ago, in other versions of the Jesus story, Jesus died because he refused to keep silent in the face of injustice. The cross was not his silent bearing of injustice, but an unjust penalty imposed on him by unjust people in power who felt threatened by him and his public critique of their unjust system. In other words, Jesus doesn’t model the passive bearing of wrong. He models how to speak out against injustice even if you’re threatened with a cross for doing so.

I didn’t always teach this and I’m thankful for womanist and feminist scholars like those mentioned above who have brought these ideas to our attention. The way I used to interpret and teach the story of Jesus death’ has had devastating effects on the lives of abuse survivors and victims. Suffering is never redemptive. Standing up, speaking out, and saying “no” is redemptive, and glorifying people’s victimization can extend their bodily, emotional, and psychological pain. Victimization destroys a person’s self-worth, self-image, and dignity, robbing them of their sense of self-determining power, and theology that glorifies victimization rather than condemning or resisting it can also lead to death.

Life-giving interpretations of the Jesus story tell of a Jesus who doesn’t ask us if we are willing to suffer, but asks if we desire to fully live, to not let go of life, to not lay down, to not be passively silent when threatened for speaking out. Jesus did not come to die, nor did he choose the cross. He rather chose to live a life opposing unjust, oppressive and exploitative ways of organizing life in this world. Jesus chose not to remain silent; he chose to stand up in faithfulness to his life-giving God, and he refused to change course because of threat.

Jesus knew where his speaking out would lead. He knew what his solidarity with the excluded and exploited would cost him. And he chose to do it nonetheless. He refused to let go of life. He rejected the way of death, even while being threatened with death himself. In the words of Brown and Parker, choosing this interpretation, “is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 18)

Indeed, it makes all the difference in the world.

This week, let’s not ask ourselves how we can die. Jesus doesn’t call a person do die, but to live.

So what is it going to take for us to germinate?

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Share with your group examples of how you have witnessed the message of redemptive suffering bearing harmful fruit. How do you interpret the story of Jesus death and resurrection in life-giving, life-affirming ways?

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Jesus and Protest

cartoon of protesters

Herb Montgomery | March 5, 2021

This week’s reading is John 2:13-22. I prefer Mark’s version of this story:

“On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. (Mark 11:15-18)

Most scholars believe that out of the four canonical gospels we have today, Mark was written the earliest and John the latest. In the passage for this week, Mark’s author conflates and places in the mouth of Jesus two passages from the Hebrew scriptures, one from Isaiah and the other from Jeremiah:

“These I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:7)

And:

“Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 7:11)

In Mark’s gospel, the Temple in Jerusalem was the capital building of the Temple state. The Temple state, centered in Jerusalem, was not a purely religious system as we think of Christian churches today: there was no separation of church and state in Jesus’ culture. The Temple state was a religious, political, social, and economic system that governed all aspects of Jewish society. It’s telling that in the revolt leading up to the Jewish-Roman war of 66-69 C.E., when the rebels took over the temple, the scene was not like a church or a synagogue, but rather a banking institution. The rebels found the debt records for the poor and burned them. In one sense, it was a religious act for those who considered faithfulness to the Jubilee [debt cancellation] of the Torah to be faithfulness to the God of the Torah. But it was also an economic and political act too.

By the time John’s gospel was written, the story of Jesus and the Temple has evolved. It has become concerned not with a system that exploits the poor but with one that defiles religious space. The writer’s emphasis is not on the Temple as a building at the center of a system that perpetuates poverty, but on the Temple as a symbol for Jesus’ body which would be crucified and then resurrected (John 2:14, 19-20).

I understand why so many people have focused on John’s version of the story recently. Many Christians have begun their stride toward the Easter holiday and its focus on the death and resurrection of the Christ. I find Mark’s political and economic emphasis on the systemic exploitation of the poor much more helpful at this time in the U.S., however.

It’s important to connect the context of Jesus’ temple protest in Mark with his other acts and statements that day:

“As he taught, Jesus said, ‘Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” (Mark 12:38-40)

Jesus’ concern here is the economic exploitation of the most vulnerable: how widows are being forced into poverty. He is not concerned that something is being done incorrectly in the temple’s worship system.

Mark continues:

“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

This statement is not praise for the widow as so many Christians interpret it today. No, Jesus is critiquing a system that leaves widows with nothing left to live on!

This story ends with:

“As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’ ‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’ (Mark 12:41-13.2)

In Mark, Jesus is not speaking about his own death and resurrection as he is in John. He is speaking about how exploitative systems are not sustainable and will eventually crumble under the weight of their own injustice.
The present economic system of consumption and massive profit at others’ expense is unsustainable ecologically. Jeff Bezos has once again become the richest person in the world, with a net worth of $191.2 billion in the midst of a pandemic with an economic displacement worse than during the Great Depression. I think, too, of President Biden’s reluctance to cancel student debt even though it was one of his campaign pledges. But what stands out to me most is how immigration in the U.S. has been handled over the last four years and I hope that the next four will bring desperately needed change.

The U.S. immigration system has a long racist history. Rather than America becoming a multiracial democracy, its immigration system is designed to keep it as a country where White people are still the majority and where those White lives matter more than the lives of those who are not White. (For a detailed, yet easy to understand recounting of the racial history of immigration in the U.S. see Kelly Brown Douglass’ Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.)

Over the past four years, for example, we have seen the immoral crime of the U.S. terrorizing families by ripping children away from their parents just because they sought asylum here. Words from Emma Lazarus’s famous 1883 sonnet “The New Colossus”—“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—have been eclipsed by White nationalism and White supremacy. If ever there were a setting in which Jesus followers should follow Jesus in flipping the tables of a system that was irreparably harming those who were already vulnerable, family separation was it. Some Christians actually did respond. But not many.

I’m thankful to see the Biden administration moving toward change on this issue. I’m thankful to see it using more inclusive language, such as “noncitizens” and “undocumented noncitizen” instead of “alien” or “illegal alien,” referring to the “integration” of immigrants into society instead of their “assimilation,” and abandoning language that dehumanized immigrants or was racist.

This is undoubtedly a step toward a welcoming America. And while I’m thankful for these beginnings, I want to see more than linguistic changes, too. It’s going to take real policy change, real action to turn around the Trump administration’s hostile stance and inhuman response to immigrants. We have a chance to do something fundamentally different. My hope is that we transition away from the immigration policies of the past that endeavored to protect Whiteness, and instead take genuine steps to affirm the future of America as a multiracial democracy where every voice matters and everyone, regardless of race, religion, net worth, ability, gender, orientation, or gender expression can have a seat at the table. I know these changes don’t ever happen fast enough, and we have the potential at this moment to leap forward.

My favorite part of Mark’s story this week is actually found in Mark 11:

“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)

Jesus’ temple protest was supposed happen the first day Jesus entered Jerusalem, but by the time he arrived at the temple courtyard, it was too late in the day and there were not enough people in the temple courtyard for his protest to make much of a difference. So Mark states he goes back to Bethany with his disciples, spends the night, and comes back the following day.

This makes me wonder about the effectiveness of our own protest. When we do protest, how do we make it matter? How do we make it count?

Again, change for those being harmed never happens fast enough. But in each of our circles of influence we have today and all the potential for change today brings. Each day we still can move a more just, safe, compassionate, inclusive future closer.

Let’s do it.

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

2. Share three characteristics you feel a protest must possess in order to be effective in our social climate, today.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Gaining the World, Losing One’s Humanity

man alone on beach

Herb Montgomery | February 26, 2021

In Mark’s gospel we read,

“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’ Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:31-38)

Those controlling an unjust status quo have always used violence to force the silence of those who call for distributively just change and equitable transformation of society. In Jesus’ society, Rome maintained social “peace” by terrorizing inhabitants with the threat of a militarized, heavy handed backlash if any group disrupted the smooth functioning of the Pax Romana.

That is the political or social context in which we must understand the above passage. Jesus was facing two options: remain silent and avoid Rome’s violent response, i.e. crucifixion, or stand in the tradition of past Hebrew prophets and speak his truth to the unjust, exploitative, clients of Rome controlling the temple state. With this context, we can most safely reclaim and understand the “must” language of the passage we read today.

As Jesus saw vulnerable people in his society being harmed, he could not remain silent without losing hold, to some degree, of his own humanity. He must speak out. And speak out he did in the temple courtyard through both rhetoric and flipping the moneychangers’ tables. It is the must that must hold priority in our understanding. The reason Jesus “must suffer” the political consequences of speaking out was that he could not remain silent. I imagine he could not picture any other way. This to me speaks of his courage: he knows the cost of his upcoming temple protest, and he chooses to speak out anyway.

This gives us insight into life-giving ways to interpret the language of “taking up the cross and following” Jesus. Interpreting the cross as self-sacrifice that Jesus modeled and that we must follow too has borne destructive, harmful fruit in multiple vulnerable communities, especially women in Christian circles. In these circles, taking up one’s cross has come to mean remaining silent: Be like Jesus. Take up your cross. Just silently bear the injustice you are suffering. But this is not at all what we see Jesus doing in the story.

In the story, Jesus is refusing to be silent and bear suffering. He is speaking out, despite knowing that a cross may very well be the backlash he receives for doing so. I do not believe that Jesus would have taught the oppressed, whose lives and selves were already being sacrificed by those in power and whose humanity was already being denied, to choose self-sacrifice and denial of their humanity. Jesus instead gave them a way to affirm their humanity, worth, and value; to stand up and speak out, even in the face of the threat of death.

The other phrase in this passage that speaks to me at this moment in American society is “What does it profit a person if they gain the world but lose their self.” At the time of this writing, I was watching the second impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump. Over the last four years, every time I have thought that this is the moment Republican lawmakers will wake from their spell, break from their path, and do what’s right, they have instead sunk to lower depths. But my concern is not partisan politics. My concern is humanity. One party has dug in and placed their own political, re-election aspirations over and against the common good, the good of the country, basic humanity including their own, and even against democracy itself.

Ultimately, Republican Senators voted not to convict the former president, despite how much evidence piled up over. They mis-judged that their own futures would be better if they just buried their heads in the sand . Yet what’s at stake is larger than democracy. As Jesus called his followers, we’re called to find and reclaim our humanity. To Republicans who have kept following Trump down paths that none of them should have followed, this is the moment to turn around. What does it profit a person if they gain the whole world and yet, in doing so, lose their souls?

My heart hurts as I watch the resoluteness of so many refusing to do what is right. In the spirt of our passage from Mark on doing what is right even if one is threatened with a cross, I was moved by two significant moments from the impeachment trial. The first moment was Chaplain Barry Black’s reference in his prayer at beginning of the trial to a hymn that was my favorite when I was a teenager, Once to Every Man and Nation. Second was Representative Jamie Raskin’s adaptation of Thomas Paine’s words in The Crisis at the very end of the prosecution’s case. I’ll end this article this week with both quotes:

“Once to ev’ry man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side.” —James Russell Lowell

“These are the times that try men and women’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will shrink at this moment from the service of their cause and their country; but everyone who stands with us now, will win the love and the favor and affection of every man and every woman for all time. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; but we have this saving consolation: the more difficult the struggle, the more glorious in the end will be our victory.” —Thomas Paine

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

2. Have you ever had to make a decision between staying silent and speaking out? Share your experience and any possible lessons learned with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Three Paths Toward Change Rejected

Herb Montgomery | July 31, 2020

diverging paths


“And in each of these versions of the story, Jesus announces the arrival of God’s just future (‘the kingdom’) but rejects three methods for bringing justice to fruition. We’ll look at each of them.”


The beginning of Mark’s gospel reads:

“At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” (Mark 1:12)

The story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is believed to have been a part of the earliest Jesus tradition. In each of the next two synoptic gospels written, the story is given more detail.

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’ Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down. For it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is also written: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”’ Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.” (Matthew 4:1-11)

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”’ Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’ Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:1-13)

Jesus rejected the Satan three times. And in each of these versions of the story, Jesus announces the arrival of God’s just future (“the kingdom”) but rejects three methods for bringing justice to fruition. We’ll look at each of them.

Bread

Jesus chose not to justify a system simply because it offered bread. Rome promised sustenance to its inhabitants but at what cost?

In our time, Duke Energy recently abandon its Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, citing costs due to activist obstruction. Some people with power pushed back against this monumental decision by pointing to the jobs that would now be lost. Such people believe placing profit above the planet was justified because, despite the ecological damage, the pipeline produced jobs for the working class and profit to company owners: it produced bread.

Exploitative economic systems create scarcity to create a narrative needed for their survival. The scarcity of things we need produces undercurrents of survival anxiety for us. Our desire for security and assurance that our needs will be met (“bread”) drives us to support systems that promise to fulfill those needs regardless of how people and our planet suffer as a result. And, without fail, those who are most driven by this economic anxiety protect and defend these systems at all costs. This is the essence of exploitative economies, and it comes with a long list of victims upon whom we lay the costs of our hopes that these systems will give us the bread we need.

Jesus’ first temptation was to coerce nature, to “turn stones into bread.” Think of Monsanto, or the meat and dairy industry here in the United States, which has deemed essential workers expendable during this pandemic. Henry Kissinger once said, “Those who control the food supply control the people.” Now and in the times of Jesus, the way to establish an exploitative system economically was to control what supplies people’s “bread” needs. Jesus rejects the use of such methods in establishing God’s just future, quoting from Deuteronomy:

“He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Jesus saw what the temptation really was. He refused to prioritize profit or “bread” over justice, and instead chose the ancient Hebrew narrative of manna: needs will be supplied not by accumulation and exploitation but daily, as needed. There will be more manna tomorrow.

Jesus rejected a narrative of scarcity, anxiety, accumulation, and exploitation for a narrative of trust, gratitude, sharing, and generosity. As Gandhi said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every person’s needs, but not every person’s greed.”

The accumulation of bread is not the highest value of God’s just future. God values how that bread is produced and what its production violates or affirms. Our hope is “not by bread alone.”

Self-Sacrifice

In both Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the story, Jesus is also tempted to sacrifice himself while assuming that he would be spared death. His response is to not “put God to the test.” On the temple mount the devil told him to leap from was the symbol at the core of his society’s political, economic, and religious systems. His temptation was to sacrifice himself in front of this system with the promise that in the end, God’s just future would come through his sacrifice.

This temptation strikes at the heart of the method most pushed on masses who desire social change. I don’t believe the oppressed must sacrifice themselves to achieve social change, but. The sacrifice of innocent victims for achieving social change has a long history.

Speaking of how the idea of sacrifice has impacted women in Christianity, Elizabeth Bettenhausen writes:

“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.” (Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, p. xii; edited by Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

In Brown and Parker’s essay in the same volume, “For God So Loved the World?” they write:

“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.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 1-2)

Mary Daly makes a similar comment:
“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.” (Beyond God the Father, p. 77)

Again, Brown and Parker:
“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.” (in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 20.)

Brown and Parker also critique nonviolent movements that use self-sacrifice to drive change. They use some of the methods used by Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example. 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.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 20)

Finally, Delores Williams’ classic book Sisters in the Wilderness builds on this critique with applications specifically for Black women. These insights have been powerfully transformative for me personally. I want to share them with you here:

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

“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.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, pp. 130-131)

“The resurrection of Jesus and the kingdom of God theme in Jesus’ ministerial vision provide black women with the knowledge that God has, through Jesus, shown humankind how to live peacefully, productively and abundantly in relationship.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 132)

“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)

Again, Brown and Parker:

“Suffering is never redemptive, and suffering 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. God’s grief is as ultimate as God’s love. Every tragedy eternally remains and is eternally mourned. Eternally the murdered scream, Betrayal. Eternally God sings kaddish for the world. 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?”)

“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.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.18,)

“Such a theology has devastating effects on human life. The reality is that victimization never leads to triumph. It can lead to extended pain if it is not refused or fought. It can lead to destruction of the human spirit through the death of a person’s sense of power, worth, dignity. or creativity. It can lead to actual death.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse)

Jesus did not choose the way of sacrifice. He rejected the way of sacrifice and, instead, “chose to live a life in opposition to unjust, oppressive cultures…. Jesus chose integrity and faithfulness, refusing to change course because of threat.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse)

These insights have grave implications for how some sectors of Christianity have traditionally interpreted the death and resurrection of Jesus. (For more on these implications see my presentation Nonviolence and the Cross)

As Katie Cannon sternly admonishes us, “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.”

And there is a third path the Jesus of the story rejected, too.

Complicity

Lastly, in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus was tempted to arrive at God’s just future through being complicit with exploitative and oppressive systems. But he resisted that temptation of achieving God’s just future by “bowing down.” He instead worshiped God and God’s just future only. God’s just future cannot be achieved through compromise with exploitation, oppression, and exclusion.

Christianity has a long history with being complicit in systems that oppress, and some adherents still use it to promote White supremacy, neocolonialism, and capitalism today.

Much more needs to be said about this.

I’m reminded of the words that the late Peter Gomes wrote in The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus. When Jesus’ followers choose complicity, he explains, “The church, then, is made an agency of continuity rather than of change, conformity rather than transformation becomes the reigning ideology of the day, and the church that is comfortable with the powers-that-be is no threat to them.”

These early Jesus story narratives give us much to think about as we, too, continue the work of moving toward a more just future today.

Another world is possible. We must reject some common means to get it.

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

2. Have you experienced any of the three methods mentioned this week used by sectors of the Christian church? What are some examples? Have you witnessed secular social justice movements or organizations promote any of the above methods? Discuss with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Ethic of Enemy Love (Part 2)

Herb Montgomery | January 31, 2020


“This I believe is the genius of the ethic of enemy love that Jesus and many others in history have taught. Rightly understood, it enables one to stand up to one’s enemies while not becoming like them.”


“But to you who are listening, I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27)

In Part 1 we discussed what the ethic of enemy love may mean and what it most definitely does not mean.

Socially and historically, one of the most used methods for uniting a society or community has been to rally that community against a common enemy. It’s effective and it’s easy. Produce a common enemy, and people who were once enemies will join together against that enemy. In Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Henry gives this advice to his son, who will become Henry V after him:

“Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out,
May waste the memory of the former days.”
(Henry IV Part II, Act IV, scene V)

Another example is found in Luke’s version of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. Herod and Pilate struck up a friendship, yet until Jesus appeared on the scene, they had been enemies.

“That day Herod and Pilate became friends — before this, they had been enemies.” (Luke 23:12, emphasis added, cf. Job 16:10)

Jesus taught a different way of living life together. One of the ethical threads in the fabric of his community was that members would no longer be united in hatred for a common enemy. Rather they’d be united in the practice of loving their enemies.

Jesus was calling his Jewish community back to its roots of enemy love when he said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:43)

This teaching went back centuries:

“If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” (Proverbs 25:2, cf. 2 Kings 6:21-23)

“If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it.” (Exodus 23:4,5)

“Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.” (Proverbs 24:17, cf. Job 31:29)

At the same time, in both Jewish and Christian scriptures, one can also find support for hating one’s enemy. What made Jesus stand out in his own time and culture was his ability to parse and interpret his community’s teachings in life-giving ways. We are called to do the same.

Jesus’ vision of a just, safe and compassionate society calls us to include those who are presently our enemies, those who oppose a more compassionate society. For Jesus, enemies were to be seen as capable of change. No person was disposable, no matter how wrong they may have been. We are all connected, all of us. And as difficult as it may be, we are in this together.

Evolutionary Survival Ethic of the Past

A few years ago, I placed my 16-year-old daughter on an airplane and she flew from West Virginia to Colorado all by herself to visit her grandmother. Because she was underage, she was assigned a flight attendant to watch over her and get her safely from our care to her grandmother’s.

Before my daughter reached her grandmother, she had to comply with everything the flight attendant asked her to do. But once she was in her grandmother’s company, it would have been foolish for her to cling to the flight attendant. The attendant would want my daughter to go with and listen to her grandmother, even if, over the course of the flight, my daughter and the attendant had become fondly attached.

It could be debated that hatred of one’s enemies has, in the past, worked toward our survival as a human species. Even if that proves true, I would offer that the time for such has passed, we have outgrown its usefulness. The future does not belong to those who hate, but to those who have found a way to love, even their enemies.

Love is Not Naive

Enemy love does not mean we accept our enemies’ behaviors and choices. It means we refuse to allow their actions to change who we are. We remain responsible for our own choices and are able to choose how we respond (response-able) to our enemies’ choices. We act, proactively, out of the kind of person we choose to be. We don”t simply react to the types of people our enemies choose to be. As we said in part one, we’re part of a humanity that also includes our enemies. Yet we choose not to be the same kinds of people our enemies are choosing to be.

James Baldwin, whom I admire greatly, wrote of this principle in his classic The Fire Next Time:

“I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know—we see it around us every day—the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff—and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition.” (p. 83, emphasis added)

Love acknowledges the choices our enemies make. Love even obstructs enemies’ harmful actions. Yet it stops short of allowing a person to become the same type of person as their enemy. Love means choosing not to debase another person in the way they have debased us. We don’t ignore the actions of our enemies. We simply choose to be shaped by something greater than their actions.

This I believe is the genius of the ethic of enemy love that Jesus and many others in history have taught. Rightly understood, it enables one to stand up to one’s enemies while not becoming like them. It breaks the mimetic tendency we as humans have to simply mimic each other, even in violence. It breaks the chain and enables us to be different, to do differently than what has been done to us.

While holding our enemies accountable, we can do so with a transformative, reparative, and restorative perspective rather than with retribution in mind. This approach holds on to our enemies’ humanity and seeks a path toward a just future that includes transformation for them too. Dr. King, who strove to understand and rightfully apply the ethic of enemy love, stated as much in his sermon Loving Your Enemies, delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in November 1957:

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption . . . It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says, love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive.”

So it would seem that there really isn’t a middle ground. We either permit our enemies’ actions to shape us, to determine the kind of people we will be, or we choose a path that has the potential (without guarantee) to shape our enemies as we choose to be the kinds of people we aspire to be.

Liberation theologies today might say we can choose to remain free internally, in our own inmost being, while we work to become free outwardly.

Enemy love is difficult. But most things that are worth it are.

HeartGroup Application

1. Are there stories of enemy love that you find compelling for you, today? Share one with your group.

2. What did you learn from last week’s exercise/practice? Share with your group.

3. How can your HeartGroup deepen its practice of enemy love collectively this coming year?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see next week.

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 9)

Herb Montgomery | October 4, 2019

red and white stop road sign

Photo by Michael Mroczek on Unsplash


“Self-defense, in and of itself, is not violence. Violation is violence. Oppression is violence. Injustice is violence. Protecting one’s privilege and power over others is violence. Self-defense or self-affirmation in the face of all of these things is not, in and of itself, violence. Although one can employ violence, one can also reject it.”


logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice. We need your support to continue bringing 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.

Before we wrap up this series on self-affirming nonviolent resistance, I want to address a topic that often comes up when we speak of nonviolence. That topic is self-defense.

When Peter uses the sword in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells him “Put your sword back in its place, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Some Christians use this passage to say that if we take Jesus’ nonviolence seriously we also have to reject all self-defense. I do not agree. I interpret this story of Peter as pointedly rejecting the use of violence to accomplish the kind of human community (“the kingdom”) that Jesus envisioned. I do not interpret this passage as a rejection of marginalized people’s self-defense: rejecting their self-defense has produced harmful and even lethal fruit for victims of violence.

Jesus taught violated people ways to resist violation and to stand up and to affirm their selves when their humanity, their selves, were being denied (see Part 4). As we’ve discussed repeatedly in this series, Jesus did not teach his followers to be passive or submissive in the face of injustice, oppression, and violation.

There is a difference between using lethal force in self-defense and using non-lethal, yet violation-halting force. I do not mean to imply that just because something is nonlethal it is nonviolent. Yet some forms of self-defense follow Deming’s illustration of stopping the perpetrator while refusing to let go of their humanity and leaving open the possibility of transformation, of the perpetrator making better choices:

“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, 1971, p. 224)

Self-defense, in and of itself, is not violence. Violation is violence. Oppression is violence. Injustice is violence. Protecting one’s privilege and power over others is violence. Self-defense or self-affirmation in the face of all of these things is not, in and of itself, violence. Although one can employ violence, one can also reject it.

There are countless examples that we have today of nonviolent forms of self-defense. But does nonviolent self-defense only apply to individuals or can nonviolent forms of self-defense be used globally? Just war theory is a violent form of self-defense on a global scale. Are there other options?

I want to bring up an event in history that is usually used to illustrate the limitations of nonviolence and accuse nonviolence advocates as naive. The question is usually phrased, “Would nonviolence have stopped Hitler in World War II?”

First, to say that America entered World War II to defend the Jewish people against Hitler’s holocaust romanticizes the history at best and reconstructs it at worst. The U.S. knew what Hitler was doing long before it entered the war and it still chose to remain on the sidelines. Not until the Japanese government attacked the United States’ interests in Pearl Harbor did the U.S. entered the war.

America could have ended Hitler’s holocaust without firing a single shot.

The following is from A People’s History of the United States:

“By 1941 Standard Oil of New Jersey [Exxon] was the largest oil company in the world, controlling 84 percent of the U.S. petroleum market. Its bank was Chase and its owners were the Rockefellers. J.D. Rockefeller had always argued that two things were essential to the oil industry’s survival: checking ‘ruinous competition’ and ‘cooperation.’ Given the success of his monopoly at making enormous profits for its investors while at the same time destroying any form of competition and keeping prices artificially high, it seems quite clear whose survival he was really talking about.

“After the Rockefellers, the next largest stockholder in Standard Oil was I.G. Farben, the giant German chemical company. This investment was part of a pattern of reciprocal investments between the U.S. and Germany during the Nazi years. During the Great Depression, Germany was viewed as a hot area in which to invest.”

The article continues:

“A brief aside is required here to explain what type of company I.G. Farben actually was. At the time, it was the world’s largest chemical company and through the talents of its scientists and engineers, it secured the vital self-sufficiency that was to enable Germany to maneuver in the world of power politics. From its laboratories and factories flowed the strategic raw materials that Germany’s own territory could not supply, the synthetics of oil, gasoline, rubber, nitrates, and fibers. In addition, I.G. produced vaccines and drugs such as Salvarsan, aspirin, Atabrine, and Novocain, along with sulfa drugs, as well as poison gases and rocket fuels. The depth of I.G. Farben’s connection to Nazi policy was finally realized at Auschwitz, the extermination center where four million people were destroyed in accordance with Hitler’s ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’. Drawn by the seemingly limitless supply of death camp labor [free labor by those in concentration/extermination camps], Farben built I.G. Auschwitz, a huge industrial complex designed to produce synthetic rubber and oil. This installation used as much electricity as the entire city of Berlin, and more than 25,000 camp inmates died during its construction. I.G. Farben eventually built its own concentration camp, known as Monowitz, which was closer to the site of the complex than Auschwitz was, in order to eliminate the need to march prisoners several miles to and from the plant every day.”

What we must not gloss over about this history is:

“This [I.G. Farben] was the company enthusiastically embraced by Standard Oil [Exxon] as well as other major American corporations like Du Pont and General Motors. I do not, however, state that Standard Oil [Exxon] collaborated with the Nazis simply because I.G. Farben was its second largest shareholder. In fact, without the explicit help of Standard Oil, the Nazi air force would never have gotten off the ground in the first place. The planes that made up the Luftwaffe needed tetraethyl lead gasoline in order to fly. At the time, only Standard Oil, Du Pont, and General Motors had the ability to produce this vital substance. In 1938, Walter C. Teagle, then president of Standard Oil, helped Hermann Schmitz of I.G. Farben to acquire 500 tons of tetraethyl lead from Ethyl, a British Standard subsidiary. A year later, Schmitz returned to London and obtained an additional 15 million dollars worth of tetraethyl lead which was to be turned into aviation gasoline back in Germany.” (Emphasis added.)

One of the most damming pieces of the article follows:

‘After the war began in Europe, the English became angry about U.S. shipments of strategic materials to Nazi Germany. Standard Oil immediately changed the registration of their entire fleet to Panamanian to avoid British search or seizure. These ships continued to carry oil to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, where they refueled and siphoned oil to German tankers for shipment to Hamburg.” (Emphasis added.)

Finally:

“This deception was exposed on March 31, 1941 when the U.S. State Department issued a detailed report on refueling stations in Mexico and Central and South America that were suspected of furnishing oil to Italian and German merchant vessels. The report listed Standard Oil of New Jersey and Standard Oil of California among those fueling enemy ships, but there is no record of any action being taken as a result of this discovery. Similar deals between Standard Oil and the Japanese government for the purchase of tetraethyl lead have also been uncovered, but no direct action was ever taken against Standard Oil for its dealings with America’s enemies. A brief side note, however, is that on April 17, l945 the Chase National Bank was placed on trial in federal court on charges of having violated the Trading With the Enemy Act by converting German marks into U.S. dollars. Because many countries refused to accept German currency during the war, the Nazis used foreign banks like Chase National to change the currency into money that would be accepted, and thus allowed them to purchase much need materials to prolong the war. The closer one looks, the more ties one finds between American business and Nazi Germany, many of which remained strong well into and beyond the war.” (Emphasis added.)

In other words, had U.S. corporations valued people over profit, especially people who were being exterminated over war profiteering, Hitler would never have had the resources (gasoline, oil, rubber, nitrates, and fibers) needed for the war and holocaust of Jewish and other marginalized people (see Ford and GM Scrutinized for Alleged Nazi Collaboration):

“Although [Henry] Ford later renounced his antisemitic writings, he remained an admirer of Nazi Germany and sought to keep America out of the coming war. In July 1938, four months after the German annexation of Austria, he accepted the highest medal that Nazi Germany could bestow on a foreigner, the Grand Cross of the German Eagle. The following month, a senior executive for General Motors, James Mooney, received a similar medal for his ‘distinguished service to the Reich.’” German trucks driven by the Nazis were manufactured by the Ford Motor Company and by Opel [GM] which also built German war planes.”

This entanglement lasted until America declared war on Germany in December 1941, and when contact with the German subsidiaries of these companies became illegal.

All companies involved denounce their activities with the Nazis, today. But closing their free labor camps and blocking the Nazi’s extermination of Jews and others could have brought Hitler’s efforts to its knees without a shot ever being fired.

We will never know.

Lastly in this treatment of self-defense, I want to address home invasion. I want to disclose that I have had my own home broken into, and I understand this violation firsthand.

I also know that we live in a system that creates winners and losers, and sometimes losers become desperate in their attempts to survive. We must understand when someone is stealing “a loaf of bread just to be able to eat.” I’m reminded of Hugo’s Les Miserables where a priest responds to Val Jean’s theft of the silver by giving him the additional silver candlesticks.

We must learn to distinguish between those in a more marginalized social location defending their right to live, to survive, and those from a more centered social location defending their privilege, power, and property over others who are subjugated. One is self-defense. The other is not self-defense but continued oppression.

Are we really defending ourselves? Or are we simply defending our privilege or “standing our ground?” Self-defense does not have to violate the principle of self-affirming, nonviolent, resistance, but defending one’s privilege against a more egalitarian world is itself an act of violence.

I want to be clear. Anyone who violates another person should be stopped, regardless of social location. We must learn to mercifully and justly hold their humanity too.

Next week will be our final installment of this series.

HeartGroup Application

  1. List some forms of nonviolent self-defense other than those found in Matthew 5 of cheek defiance, naked protest, and refusing to play by one’s oppressor’s rules. Use google to help you. Discuss what you found with your group.
  2. How can self-defense be the opposite of violence?
  3. Discuss how you can apply these principles in your own life as we work together toward a safer, compassionate, and just world.

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 8)

Herb Montgomery | September 27, 2019

The Crucifix statue

Photo by Ricky Turner on Unsplash


“As followers of Jesus, especially ones who choose to embrace Jesus’ rejection of violence, we must remember that Jesus did not stand up to injustice, and suffer for it, on our behalf. He calls us to do the same.”


logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice. We need your support to continue bringing 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.

In all four canonical gospels, Jesus disrupts and, in protest, shuts down the economic activity of the Temple courtyards. For some, this conflicts with interpreting Jesus as teaching nonviolence.

Let’s look at all four versions of the story first. Then we’ll look at the objection.

“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)

“On reaching [returning to] Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.” (Mark 11:15-16)

“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12)

“When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling.” (Luke 19:45)

“In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. (John 2:14-15)

Mark’s version of this event quickly takes us to the next chapter for Jesus’ explanation of his disruption and protest:

“They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” (Mark 12:40)

“But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.” (Mark 12:42)

Jesus considers the temple tax and the temple state’s failure to redistribute funds raised among the poor as economic exploitation that takes everything from those who have nothing to give in the first place.

Jesus’ reason for protesting in Mark is economic and political if one defines politics as the discussion about how power and resources are divided among the polis or people.

It was also religious inasmuch as the Jewish prophets’ similar critiques were, too:

“The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the LORD.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths, and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:11-17)

We must be clear that it’s harmful to interpret Jesus’ actions as Christianity versus Judaism. All of the early followers of Jesus were Jewish. Jesus himself was a Jew and never a Christian. In protesting exploitation, Jesus is not opposed to the Torah, nor to Judaism in general. Jesus’ voice was rather one of many Jewish voices within Judaism in the 1st Century defining what it meant to be faithful to their God, the God of Torah.

I do not believe Jesus’ actions in the temple were anti-Semitic, as some Christians would later interpret them. They were much more about how Jesus saw his own Jewish society and the Jewish Temple State relating to the poor. As both Borg and Crossan remind us, “The issue is not [the Temple state elites member’s] individual virtue or wickedness, but the role they played in the domination system. They shaped it, enforced it, and benefited from it.” (Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, p. 28)

This explains the lethal backlash from Rome and the societal elite of Jerusalem to Jesus’ temple protest. We’ll discuss that in a moment.

First, the objection.

In John’s gospel we read:

“In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. (John 2:14-15)

To some, Jesus with a whip in-hand contradicts their understanding of nonviolence.

There are a few things we must keep in mind:

Jesus’ nonviolence is not passivity, it was a way to resist injustice.

Jesus could have made his whip of cords solely to drive out the livestock. It seems to me that he used the whip to drive out the livestock and the turning over of tables drove out the money changers.

Even with this, Jesus’ actions still fall within the parameters of nonviolent action. What must also be held in tension is that none of the force used was lethal. No one’s life was being threatened in his protest.

Add to this that all nonlethal force used was in protest of the ruling classes oppression of the poor. This was not nonlethal force being used to oppressor or marginalize those who were societally vulnerable. Social location matters.

Jesus was not losing his temper. His protest was calculated and well-thought. As we covered in Part 6, Mark’s gospel reveals that Jesus intended this temple state protest to be the climax of his entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. But when he arrived, it was already late in the day and the temple was empty. There was no crowd of people to witness his demonstration and disruption. Therefore he retired to Bethany for the night and returned the next day to disrupt the economic activity of the courtyards:

“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)

If we allow Jesus’ nonviolence to inform our own nonviolent protests today, we must also consider whether it is ever appropriate for the property of the economic elite to be damaged during a nonviolent protest. Jesus valued people, especially poor people, above property. Some level of property damage was involved when he protested in the temple that day. If we have ever been more concerned about property being damaged in protests than we are about the injustice to people at the heart of those protests, we may need to reassess which side of the gospel story we would have been on.

By the time of Jesus’s protest, his actions had economic and political implications and the number of his followers was growing, especially among the poor and destitute. Property damage could not go without both Rome and the social elite making an example of Jesus in their own demonstration. Those who engage in protests like this will suffer what follows. Before the end of that week, Jesus was hanging on a cross.

Howard Thurman explains why the elite of Jesus’ society may have been complicit with Rome in opposing property damage:

“[The Sadducees] represented the ‘upper’ class. From their number came the high priests, and most of the economic security derived from contemporary worship in the temple was their monopoly. They did not represent the masses of the people. Any disturbance of the established order meant upsetting their position. They loved Israel, but they seem to have loved security more. They made their public peace with Rome and went on about the business of living. They were astute enough to see that their own position could be perpetuated if they stood firmly against all revolutionaries and radicals. Such persons would only stir the people to resist the inevitable, and in the end, everything would be lost. Their tragedy was in the fact that they idealized the position of the Roman in the world and suffered the moral fate of the Romans by becoming like them. They saw only two roads open before them— become like the Romans or be destroyed by the Romans. They chose the former.” (In Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 24)

When one begins to understand how Jesus’ disruption in the Temple threatened the Temple State’s survival in the Roman empire and how Rome viewed all public disruptions, it becomes quite easy to understand how the week ended with Jesus being crucified. Consider the following statements on the specific purpose for which Rome used crucifixion:

“In first-century Christianity, the cross had a twofold meaning. On the one hand, it represented execution by the empire; only the empire crucified, and then for only one crime: denial of imperial authority. The cross had not yet become a generalized symbol for suffering as it sometimes is today when one’s illness or other hardship can be spoken of as ‘the cross I’ve been given to bear.’ Rather, it meant risking imperial retribution.” (Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, Kindle location 519)

“Jesus then suffered persecution, knew why he was suffering it and where it might lead him. This persecution, consciously accepted, is the measure of this faithfulness to God. It reveals him as a human being who not only announces hope to the poor and curses their oppressors but persists in this, despite persecution because this is God’s will. The final violent death does not come as an arbitrary fate, but as a possibility always kept in mind.” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, p. 201.)

Crucifixion was the political punishment for “violating the rule of Roman law and order.” (See Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171.)

“Crucifixion was and remains a political and military punishment . . . Among the Romans, it was inflicted above all on the lower classes, i.e., slaves, violent criminals, and the unruly elements in rebellious provinces, not least Judea . . . These were primarily people who on the whole had no rights, in other words, groups whose development had to be suppressed by all possible means to safeguard law and order in the state.” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, p. 372)

Ched Myers reminds us that what got Jesus crucified was not a religious protest, but a protest of the entire political edifice of the Temple state and the Roman empire too.

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

As followers of Jesus, especially ones who choose to embrace Jesus’ rejection of violence, we must remember that Jesus did not stand up to injustice, and suffer for it, on our behalf. He calls us to do the same. As Rustin said, “We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers.” (Bayard Rustin, ORGANIZING MANUAL NO. 2; FINAL PLANS FOR MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS AND FREEDOM, AUGUST 28, 1963)

This is not about redemptive suffering or a call to suffering (see Part 4). Suffering does not bring life. Refusing to let go of life, brings life. Jesus calls us, not to die, but to resist injustice even if threatened with death for doing so. The difference can be subtle, but it results in a world of difference in how we respond to suffering and injustice. As the late liberation theologian James Cone stated, “The only meaningful Christian response is to resist unjust suffering and to accept the painful consequence of that resistance” (James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed). Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino adds: “Suffering in itself has no meaning; the only suffering that has any meaning is the suffering we accept in the fight against suffering.” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator)

Jesus’ actions in the temple don’t contradict his nonviolence. Rather, his actions embody his teachings on nonviolent, self-affirming resistance to injustice. Next week we’ll consider one more clarification regarding nonviolence before we conclude. I’m so glad you’ve journeyed with us through this series.

HeartGroup Application

  1. Discuss with your group what injustices today you feel particularly passionate about. What kinds of resistance or protest would you find effective or useful in standing up to those injustices?
  2. Does Jesus’ example of standing up to injustice in his own setting encourage you to do the same in yours? If so, discuss how.
  3. How can your group reach out to and help those who are the objects of injustice while also working for systemic change?

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 7)

Herb Montgomery | September 20, 2019

selective focus photography of book

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash


If Jesus taught nonviolence, why does the rest of the Bible seem to endorse or even command violence?


This week’s episode is quite a milestone. This is our 300th episode! I want to take this opportunity to ask for your support so we can continue our work. Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice. We need your support to continue bringing 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.

This week I want to begin with another common objection to interpreting Jesus as teaching nonviolence. If Jesus taught nonviolence, why does the rest of the Bible seem to endorse or even command violence?

I agree with Philip Jenkins, author of Laying Down the Sword, that we must not “ignore the Bible’s violent verses.” Christians have repeatedly used the violent passage and commands of the Bible as a basis for their actions during the last two millennia, making Christianity the most violent world religion to date. Yet before the Roman empire embraced the Christian religion, Christianity was a religion of pacifists who believed Jesus taught his followers to practice some form of nonviolence. (See Part 1 and Part 2).

So what do we do with the violence of the Bible? First, we need to be honest about it. The Bible, to which the Jesus story belongs, is a very violent book overall. From Genesis to Revelation we are accosted with violence, both human and Divine.

Second, we need to understand the social-political context of Jesus’ nonviolence was Jewish society under a very heavy-handed Roman control.

Jesus had options for what form his resistance to injustice would take. He chose nonviolent, self-affirming resistance as his means of change. Jesus chose to embrace and teach his followers nonviolent forms of resistance that some first-century Jewish resistance efforts were already using.

In his volume The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, John Dominic Crossan shares a brief history of violent and nonviolent Jewish resistance movements within the culture of the gospel stories. Three significant Jewish rebellions stand out in that context:

The first was the Judas Rebellion under the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus. It took place in Sepphoris in 4 BCE. Josephus tells us how Rome responded to this rebellion. The Roman Governor in Syria, Varus, had first “committed part of [the soldiers] to his son, and to a friend of his; and sent them upon an expedition into Galilee: which lies in the neighbourhood of Ptolemais. Who made an attack upon the enemy, and put them to flight, and took Sepphoris, and made its inhabitants slaves, and burnt the city.” (Antiquities of the Jews, 17.288–89). Varus then marched on to Jerusalem. He “sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt: and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty; and some he dismissed. Now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand.” (Antiquities of the Jews, 17.295)

Think of the psychological damage to the rest of the population of seeing 2,000 crosses with rebels crucified on them along the Jewish countryside. What message would this have sent? Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas reminds us that “Crucifixion was a stand-your-ground type of punishment for the treasonous offense of violating the rule of Roman ‘law and order’” (in Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171).

The second major Jewish rebellion during the time the gospels were written was the Roman Jewish War of 66-69 CE under the Roman emperor Nero. This ended in the destruction of the Jewish Temple and in Jerusalem being burned to the ground.

The third rebellion was the BarKokba Revolt from 132-136 CE. Rome killed more than half a million Jews in this war, and more died from starvation and disease. Rome also sold Jewish war captives into slavery. (Menaḥem Mor, The Second Jewish Revolt the Bar Kokhba War, Page 471) So great was the devastation from Rome’s backlash after this third rebellion that Joan Taylor states “the crucial date for what can only be described as genocide, and the devastation of Jews and Judaism within central Judea, was 135 CE and not, as usually assumed, 70 CE, despite the siege of Jerusalem and the Temple’s destruction” (in The Essenes, the Scrolls, and the Dead Sea. Oxford University Press, 2014. Page 243)

We must understand Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence in terms of the historical reality that the Jewish people picking up the sword against Rome would not have been an act of liberation but an act of suicide. Jesus would have grown up in the wake of the destruction of the first Jewish rebellion we discussed above, and his nonviolence held thriving, surviving, and liberation in tension.

But what about those 1st Century nonviolent resistance movements we spoke about earlier? Nonviolent resistance movements, though less popular, were also used by the Jewish people during this time. We’ll consider two that we have a record of.

The first is the Ensigns Incident in 26 CE. If Jesus had been on the fence before emerging in Galilee as a teacher of nonviolence, the incident would have taken place just before his ministry began and could have influenced his thinking on the potential success of nonviolent resistance.

Josephus tells us:

“As procurator [Greek: “hegemon”] of Judaea Tiberius sent Pilate, who during the night, secretly and undercover, conveyed to Jerusalem the images of Caesar known as standards. When day dawned this caused great excitement among the Jews; for those who were near were amazed at the sight, which meant that their laws had been trampled on — they do not permit any graven image to be set up in the City — and the angry City mob was joined by a huge influx of people from the country. They rushed off to Pilate in Caesarea, and begged him to remove the standards from Jerusalem and to respect their ancient customs. When Pilate refused, they fell prone all round his house and remained motionless for five days and nights.
The next day Pilate took his seat on the tribunal in the great stadium and summoned the mob on the pretext that he was ready to give them an answer. Instead he gave a pre-arranged signal to the soldiers to surround the Jews in full armour, and the troops formed a ring three deep. The Jews were dumbfounded at the unexpected sight, but Pilate, declaring that he would cut them to pieces unless they accepted the images of Caesar, nodded to the soldiers to bare their swords. 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. Amazed at the intensity of their religious fervour, Pilate ordered the standards to be removed from Jerusalem forthwith.” War 2:175-203

The second example of Jewish nonviolent resistance is the incident over the statue of Gaius Caligula that Caligula attempted to erect in the Temple in 40 CE.

The following is Josephus’ account of the mass demonstration in response:

“Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Jews came to Petronius at Ptolemais with petitions not to use force to make them transgress and violate their ancestral code. They said, ‘If you propose at all costs to set up the image, slay us first before you carry out these resolutions. For it is not possible for us to survive and to behold actions that are forbidden us by the decision both of our lawgiver and of our ancestors. … In order to preserve our ancestral code, we shall patiently endure what may be in store for us… for God will stand by us; Fortune, moreover, is wont to veer now toward one side, now toward the other in human affairs.’ Petronius saw that they were determined and that it would be impossible to carry out Gaius’ order without great conflict and slaughter. He went to Tiberias to determine the situation of the Jews there. Again, many tens of thousands faced Petronius on his arrival. They besought him to not put up the statue. ‘Will you then go to war with Caesar, regardless of his resources and of your own weakness?’ he asked. ‘On no account would we fight,’ they said, ‘but we will die sooner than violate our laws.’ And falling on their faces and baring their throats, they declared that they were ready to be slain. They continued to make these supplications for forty days. Furthermore, they neglected their fields even though this was the time to sow the seed. For they showed a stubborn determination and readiness to die rather than to see the image erected.

“Then members of the royal family and civic leaders appealed to Petronius to refrain from the plan and instead to write to Gaius telling how incurable was their opposition to receiving the statue and how they had left their fields to sit as a protest, and that they did not choose war, since they could not fight a war, but would be glad to die sooner than transgress their customs, and that since the land was unsown there would be no harvest and no tribute. They brought pressure to bear upon him in every way and employed every device to make their plea effective. Petronius was influenced by their plea, and saw the stubborn determination of the Jews, and thought it would be terrible to bring death on so many tens of thousands of people. He thought it best to risk sending a letter to Gaius. Perhaps he might even convince him to cancel the order. If not, he would undertake war against the Jews. And thus Petronius decided to recognize the cogency of the plea of the petitioners.” Antiquities 18:261-309

Again, this is the landscape upon which the gospels were written. The early Jesus community, which wrote the gospels, chose the path of nonviolence.

How did early Christianity reconcile this ethic of nonviolence with the rest of their sacred text? Let’s stop for a moment and first ask that question of ourselves.

Have you ever felt that in order to do what was right and ethical you had to go against your understanding of what you believed your sacred text taught? Remember, our sacred texts can be eternal while our interpretations are temporary. We must learn to distinguish between our sacred texts and our interpretations of them. We can choose to allow older destructive interpretations that do harm to marginalized communities to give way to new life-giving interpretations for everyone, the marginalized especially.

This is the story of early Christianity. To do what they believed was right, early Christians had to go against their understanding of what they believed their sacred text had previously taught. They created or discovered new ways of interpreting their sacred text, informed by the teachings of Jesus.

We see another illustration of this in the first verses of the New Testament book of Hebrews:

“Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various forms by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by a son [who is the] radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” (Hebrews 1:1-3)

New ways of interpreting their sacred texts emerged to replace the old. I’m sure this was just as unsettling for those back then who did not like change as it is for certain Christians today.

I have to confess, too, that I deeply wrestle with the violence I see in our sacred text, the Bible. A lot of Christian authors try and justify the violence in the Bible, conflating it with punitive or preventive justice. Their goal is to make that violence look fair or the lesser of two evils. While I admire their efforts to make these passages look less ugly, they really don’t solve my problem with Biblical violence. There is a world of difference between reconciling the violence of the Bible with justice and reconciling the violence of the Bible with Jesus and his teachings on nonviolence. One may be able to justify an example of violence in our sacred text, but the Jesus of the gospels didn’t teach justified violence or what is today called just war theory. The Jesus of the gospels taught resistance that was self-affirming and nonviolent.

The moral standard for a follower of Jesus is not the Bible. It’s not the ten commandments. It’s not even our interpretations of the Gospels. The Jesus we claim to follow taught that “a tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33 cf. Luke 6:44). This means that we can know whether we are interpreting our sacred texts in harmful or life-giving ways by the fruit that interpretation produces. Is our understanding certain stories and passages producing life, especially for the “least of these,” or is it harming others? The moral standard for a Jesus follower, according to Jesus, is to do no harm and to treat others the way you yourself would like to be treated.

This series is a call to all of those who claim to follow the Jesus of the gospels to return to what he taught about our relation to violence. When we bump into what we could interpret as a Biblical endorsement of violence or as Biblically mandated violence, we must hold those passages as secondary to Jesus and his rejection of violence in the gospels.

Last week, as the U.S. remembered the events of 9/11, a friend of mine who is a pastor, Daniel Wysong, posted this relevant reminder on Facebook:

“My hope in remembering 9/11 is that we would learn the lesson that killing people is horrible. The 2996 people who died on 9/11/2001 shouldn’t have. Nor should the 7000 US service members that died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor should the ~100,000 police and guard members. Nor should the ~300,000 Iraqi and Afghani civilians. Every single one of those lives lost is a tragedy of equal proportion.
If we wish to honor the memory of those who have been killed, it can only be by remembering that violence is horrible. And remembering that violence begets violence. And intentionally moving towards a world with less killing.
We honor their lives by learning and remembering that we will never create the world we all want to live in by killing enough people.” (https://www.facebook.com/danwysong7/posts/10219666062303603)

May followers of Jesus come to be known in our society as those who reject violence, once again.

HeartGroup Application

1. In what ways has used the gospel stories of Jesus caused you to have to reinterpret other parts of your sacred text? Share with the group.
2. Are there passages or stories in the Bible that you feel you cannot redeem or reclaim? Share these with the group as well as why these passages trouble you.
3. How has reinterpreting the Bible through the lens of the Jesus story changed the ethics by which you live or affirmed ethics of peace you are already living? Share 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.