Mary, Jesus, King, and Us

by Herb Montgomery | January 18, 2019

Picture of the Black Madonna, Jesus /crucifix and police booking picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“This is a much different take on women’s virginity than I was raised with. It would also allow a different interpretive lens through which to view Mary who raised a son who modeled, taught, and was crucified for being a political rebel as well.”


“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)

Many have struggled with Mary’s story in the birth narratives for Jesus in Matthew and Luke. This makes sense to me. Growing up in Evangelical Christian purity culture, women’s virginity symbolized their submission to patriarchy and male dominance over women. Mary as the holy virgin triggers such religious abuse and Christians often interpret that image of Mary in ways that perpetuate the non-egalitarian treatment of women. 

This past December while I was re-reading Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives, though, I was struck by how non-compliant Mary sounds. Consider what we refer to today as Mary’s Magnificat:

“My soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has been mindful 

of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

holy is his name.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,

from generation to generation.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones 

but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty. 

He has helped his servant Israel,

remembering to be merciful

to Abraham and his descendants forever,

just as he promised our ancestors.” 

(Luke 1:46-55)

Patriarchal cultures use virginity as a symbol of submission, yet here is a young girl who sounds more like a rebel. The lines “He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty” are not the words of a model submissive or someone who demonstrates how not to make waves. Proclaim these words today and see what kind of trouble they stir up. Christianity has a long history of trying to explain away the edge to these words, and something doesn’t add up. 

This week, I want to suggest that the story element of Mary’s virginity in the gospel narrative may have actually been written as a nod to resistance movements in the culture of that time, not to promote purity culture’s submission.

Researchers in RHM’s suggested book of the month for December 2018 explain how virginity was used by dissident groups in the 1st Century. 

“About a decade before the birth of Jesus, Rome passed marriage laws that inflicted severe tax penalties on citizens who refused to marry and to generate offspring. With an infant mortality rate of more than 60 percent and life expectancy at age twenty-five, Rome needed every woman to begin reproducing at the onset of puberty and bear five children to keep the empire’s population at a replacement rate. A shrinking population meant a declining tax base and fewer sons to serve in the military and guard the empire’s vast frontiers. The standard marriage involved an adult male, who had proven his ability to provide for a family, and an adolescent female a decade or more younger. People joined dissident religious groups to resist conscription and overtaxation, and asceticism and virginity emerged as ways to defy imperial pressures to reproduce and marry.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker in Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 195)

For two of the four Gospels that characterize Mary as a virgin, this may have been in the authors’ thinking when they chose to characterize Mary as a virgin. (Although she is still written as being engaged.) The elements of Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives show the Jesus story was resistance literature responding to Roman rule. (See The Subversive Narratives of Advent (Parts 1 – 3))

Later Christians who lived in the context of the Roman empire also used virginity and refusing to marry as a means of resisting Rome.

“In resisting domination, many early Christian women rejected the curse of women’s subordination to men, a status based on heterosexual sex. Engaging in sex with men required women to accept a subjugated role. Virginity and chastity gave them power. Virgins chose to remain so by refusing to marry, and married women left their husbands to live in women’s communities. Sex was legally regulated and restricted and socially fraught by gender and power, as it still is today. However, today many tend to regard virginity as a sign of conformity to patriarchal double standards and the disempowerment of women. The popular novel The DaVinci Code, which suggests that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife and carried his bloodlines through her descendants, might appear to elevate Mary’s importance to Christianity. However, early Christians would not have regarded making her Mrs. Jesus as an improvement over her role as a preeminent apostle and teacher with her own divinity. The virginity of early Christian women was a radical statement against male dominance and in favor of women’s own power. The only legitimate virgin in a pater familias was a daughter, who was owned by her father until she could be transferred to a husband, at which point she was no longer a virgin. For daughters to refuse to marry may have aggravated Roman opposition to Christianity. As a spiritual practice, women’s abstinence from marriage granted freedom from male sexual domination. Abstinence ended the curse inflicted upon Eve when she was exiled from the Garden, “your desire shall be for your husband and he shall lord it over you” (Gen. 3:16). Therefore, Christian virginity defied the core power system upon which Rome was built, the pater familias.” (Ibid, p.193-194)

This is a much different take on women’s virginity than I was raised with. It would also allow a different interpretive lens through which to view Mary who raised a son who modeled, taught, and was crucified for being a political rebel as well. 

And this leads me to my question for us this week.

How can we, too, rebel against injustice in our society?

Seeing Mary, Jesus, and early Christian women as those who rebelled against injustice and considering the upcoming annual celebration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought to mind Dr. King’s words in his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail. These words paint a very different view of King from the domesticated picture that we typically get today. In this section, King defends his resistance and rebellion against injustice:

“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’” (Letter From Birmingham Jail, May 1963)

So again, how might we rebel against injustice in our society? Which injustices are especially galling to your heart? How might you resist and rebel? What difference does it make for you to view Mary, King, and even Jesus as a rebel rather than as compliant? Does it give you courage? Do you feel as if you are in good company? Are you less alone than you might think? 

Resistance to injustice is a river that stretches far back before you and will continue long after you are gone. How deeply we might wade into its waters today?

Given the details in the stories of Jesus’ mother and Jesus himself, rebelling against injustice, oppression, and violence was a staple of what it meant to follow Jesus in the first few generations of the Jesus movement. May it become a staple for us today as we follow Jesus.

“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)



HeartGroup Application

Compose three lists this week together as a group.

First make a list of injustices that you feel should be opposed.  Allow time for discussion as this process can be lengthy.

Second make a list of ways you could possibly exercise opposition to injustices on the first list as individuals.

Third make a list of ways you could possibly exercise resistance as a group. 

Lastly, pick some actions from the last two lists and begin putting them into practice.

I’m glad you checked in with us this week. 

Where you are this week, keep living in love, justice, compassion and action. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Violence Inherent in the System

by Herb Montgomery | August 24, 2018

Mosaic of Jesus carrying a cross


“Those who read the Jesus story from within communities of people facing marginalization regularly see in Jesus’ crucifixion a deep solidarity with those on the margins in Jesus’ day and also those in that same ‘class’ today. Jesus and the God Jesus preached are on the side of those who are being marginalized.”


“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” (Mark 10:32-33)

In our last eSight/podcast (Jesus From The Edges), we focused on the importance of listening to the theologies that arise from the experiences of communities of people who daily bump up against oppression, marginalized, and/or subjugation. These sources are contrasted with theologies that come out of a more privileged social location in our society. 

As womanist theologian Jacquelyn Grant writes, “Liberation theologies including Christian feminists, charge that the experience out of which Christian theology has emerged is not universal experience but the experience of the dominant culture . . . liberationists therefore, propose that theology must emerge out of particular experiences of the oppressed people of God” (White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, p. 1, 10). 

James Cone also writes, ““Few, if any, of the early Church Fathers grounded their christological arguments in the concrete history of Jesus of Nazareth. Consequently, little is said about the significance of his ministry to the poor as a definition of his person. The Nicene Fathers showed little interest in the christological significance of Jesus’ deeds for the humiliated, because most of the discussion took place in the social context of the Church’s position as the favored religion of the Roman State” (God of the Oppressed, p. 107). 

From my own experience I know that those on the margins of society see things in the Jesus story that those more centered in society simply miss. This doesn’t mean that some people have no blind spots. We all have blind spots. But in learning to listen to one another, especially the voices of those rarely given the mic, we discover our own blind spots and can move toward a path of compassion and justice for everyone. 

Given this reality, I would like to spend the next few eSights/podcasts contemplating the closing events of the Jesus story through the lens of the experiences of oppressed communities and the life actions these insights call us to engage. 

One of these insights has impacted my own theology for the better, has been life giving, and borne healthy fruit for me. That insight is the interpretation of Jesus death that holds that the crucifixion was not for the purpose of satisfying divine wrath, honor, or justice, but instead was an act of injustice, an expression of the violence inherent in unjust political, social, economic, and religious systems.

To the best of our knowledge, the earliest version of the Jesus story is the gospel of Mark. Three times in  that gospel, Jesus reveals that he understands that his actions in Jerusalem will lead to his arrest and crucifixion by the Romans (see Mark 8:31-34; Mark 9:30-32; and Mark 10:32-34). 

Mark’s point is that  the crucifixion was a direct response to the political, social, economic, and religious actions Jesus took in the Temple in Jerusalem, the heart of the Temple State.

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

When one interprets what we call Jesus’ “triumphal entry” as climaxing in his temple protest, it makes a lot of sense to understand the cross as the response of the powers in control at that time. “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 ” (Martin Hengel, Crucifixion, p. 87, emphasis added).

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t die so that people can go to heaven when they die. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus dies because he stood up to the status quo. One’s social location enables one to either see the relevance of this story detail or miss the point entirely. James Cone makes the same point in his classic book A Black Theology of Liberation: 

“What is most ironic is that the white lynchers of blacks in America were not regarded as criminals; like Jesus, blacks were the criminals and insurrectionists. The lynchers were the ‘good citizens’ who often did not even bother to hide their identities. They claimed to be acting as citizens and Christians as they crucified blacks in the same manner as the Romans lynched Jesus . . . White theologians in the past century have written thousands of books about Jesus’ cross without remarking on the analogy between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people.” (James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, p. 158-159)  

Yet for Cone, his own experience as a Black man in America enabled him to see the cross as a violent act of injustice by an oppressive system. Seeing Jesus’ crucifixion in this light helped him to make sense of his own experience and to stand up to the injustice he faced. “The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross . . . I believe that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice.” (The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Introduction)

In Mark’s gospel, we read: 

“When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethpage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

‘Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” (Mark 11:1-11)

This was a planned demonstration by Jesus. Echoing Zechariah 9:9, Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem that day was to culminate in a dramatic Temple protest. Yet according to Mark, there was one flaw in his plan. When he finally arrived at the Temple, it was already “late in the day” and the majority of people had returned home. For a demonstration or protest to have effect, it must have witnesses. So what does Jesus do? He returns with the twelve and spends the night in Bethany, most likely at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and delays the final act of his demonstration for the following day.

“On the following day . . . they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.” (Mark 11.12 -16) 

Notice that these two events were supposed to be connected. They were not to happen separately but together. Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey and then overturning the tables in protest against how the poor were being exploited by the Temple state was intended to be one  action, not two.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ action on that second day was enough to threaten the powers, and before the end of the week, he was arrested by the “police” (Luke 22:52, CSB) and  hanging on a Roman cross. 

What does the cross say first to those facing marginalization within their larger society? 

Those who read the Jesus story from within communities of people facing marginalization regularly see in Jesus’ crucifixion a deep solidarity with those on the margins in Jesus’ day and also those in that same “class” today. Jesus and the God Jesus preached are on the side of those who are being marginalized:

 “That Jesus was crucified affirms his absolute identification with the Trayvons, the Jordans, the Renishas, the Jonathans, and all the other victims of the stand-your-ground-culture war. Jesus’ identification with the lynched/crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the ‘crucified class’ of his day. (Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171)

“The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned, and tortured.” (James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, p. 26)

What, then, is our first takeaway from looking at Jesus’ crucifixion through the lens of the experiences of those who belong to oppressed communities? That Jesus ended up on a Roman cross tells us that Jesus and Jesus’ God stood with those being marginalized over against the violence inherent in the system. Today, when we stand alongside those who are being marginalized, who face the violence inherent in our system, we are standing with that same Jesus and his God. We’ll consider another insight next week. For this week, contemplating this much is enough. 

“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles.” (Mark 10.32-33)

HeartGroup Application

  1. What does standing up to injustice look like for you? Share with your group.
  2. As a group, choose and read about an injustice that doesn’t apply to you. Make sure that what you read is by a member of the affected community and directly impacted by the injustice.
  3. How does what you’ve read impact you? What would it look like to stand up to this injustice alongside those impacted? Consider, as a follower of Jesus, doing so.

I’m so glad you checked in with us, this week. Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love, justice, and compassion reigns. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


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