Social Sins, Social Justice, and the Jesus Stories

Herb Montgomery | April 19, 2019

Photo credit: Jason Betz on Unsplash

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


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

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

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

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

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

Mark

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 

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

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

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

Luke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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A Social Jesus

Herb Montgomery | April 12, 2018

picture of man standing before a wall with "Jesus" graffitied behind him.
Photo Credit: Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

“Today, sectors of Christianity that only teach a personal Jesus deeply need a reintroduction to the gospels’ social Jesus. They need to rediscover and understand social salvation contrasted with personal salvation. They need a gospel that impacts the here and now and that isn’t just about the premium they must pay in this life to get a post-mortem fire insurance policy.”


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

“Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?” he shouted at me. I was at the grocery store one evening trying to grab some missing ingredients for dinner. As I left the store I passed a table on the way to the parking lot. There, a group of Christians sat or stood behind the table, trying raising money for their organization. 

I politely smiled in his direction and said, “No thank you.” I was still walking as I heard him call out, “If you die on the way home do you know for sure where you’ll end up next?”

I couldn’t believe there were still Christians who talked like this, with these well-worn phrases as conversation starters. But again, this is Appalachia and as someone born and having grown up here, if you can still find this kind of talk anywhere, you can find it here.

This month at RHM, we are featuring Walter Rauschebusch’s classic work A Theology for the Social Gospel as April’s book of the month. One of the things I appreciate about the early 20th Century Social Gospel movement is that it drew attention to Jesus’ vision for social salvation, not individual, private, personal salvation.

I recently posted this quotation from Rauschenbusch on Facebook: “If our theology is silent on social salvation, we compel [people] to choose between an unsocial system of theology and an irreligious system of social salvation” (Ibid. p. 7). Immediately one person asked, “What is social salvation?” This question reveals more than it asks. 

Firstly, contemporary, privatized, and individually focused forms of Christianity focus their adherents so much on personal salvation and Jesus as a “personal Savior” from post-mortem punishment that those who only encounter this kind of Christianity may have never even heard of the social salvation described in the gospels. 

Seeing Jesus as a social savior is the oldest Christian message. It can be argued that interpreting Jesus as a personal savior, an individual savior, or a private savior is a later interpretive addition not found until Christianity became populated with middle- to upper-class people centered in their culture. 

Secondly, how nice it must be to belong to a social class that’s so privileged that it doesn’t even know what social salvation is, much less imagine it needs it. Countless people face discrimination, marginalization, and exclusion each day and don’t need a textbook definition for the phrase “social salvation” because they know the system all too well. They know what it is to need salvation from societal and social injustice and oppression.

Let’s dive in.

Kingdom

Each author of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke-Acts) place the theme of “the kingdom” at the center of their stories about Jesus.

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

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:23)

“But he said, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’” (Luke 4:43)

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

“He proclaimed thekingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:31)

I have my own theories about why the author of Acts ties Paul’s teaching to Jesus’ “kingdom” but the fact is that the Kingdom is the focus in the gospels and Paul must come to be associated with it in the book of Acts. Nowhere in the book of Acts is the goal to escape postmortem hell or enter into a cosmic heaven. The coming kingdom is the central theme.

The kingdom theme in the gospel stories served a twofold purpose: it hearkened back to the Maccabean era of hope in restored Jewish independence and it contrasted with the Roman empire (see Daniel 7). Matthew’s use of kingdom is more in line with the first purpose, and Luke’s is more about the second. Mark’s use can be argued to be a hybrid of both. Neither view of kingdom was about saving individuals. Instead they were about restoring distributive justice for a whole community, including all the individuals that made the community. The hope of the kingdom went beyond the personal to the social: it was about social salvation.

Gospel

In the canonized Jesus stories we have today, the term gospel meant the announcement of the coming of this kingdom. It’s important to note that the term “gospel” or “glad tidings” was originally a political term, not a religious one. The Roman empire used it to refer to announcements made when the empire annexed a new territory. The gospel was public announcement, or tidings, of the newly arrived rule of Rome. So the word “gospel” itself was not about privatized, individual, personal change but rather a fundamental social change.

Here are three examples that we have still today of contemporary, secular uses of the term gospel in the 1st Century.

“Even after the battle at Mantinea, which Thucydides has described, the one who first announced the victory had no other reward for his glad tidings [euangelion-gospel] than a piece of meat sent by the magistrates from the public mess” (Plutarch, Agesilaus, p. 33, 1st Century).

“Accordingly, when [Aristodemus] had come near, he stretched out his hand and cried with a loud voice: ‘Hail, King Antigonus, we have conquered Ptolemy in a sea-fight, and now hold Cyprus, with 12,800 soldiers as prisoners of war.’ To this, Antigonus replied: ‘Hail to thee also, by Heaven! but for torturing us in this way, thou shalt undergo punishment; the reward for thy good tidings [euangelion-gospel] thou shalt be some time in getting’” (Plutarch, Demetrius, p. 17, 1st Century).

“Why, as we are told, the Spartans merely sent meat from the public commons

to the man who brought glad tidings [euangelion-gospel] of the victory in Mantineia which Thucydides describes! And indeed the compilers of histories are, as it were, reporters of great exploits who are gifted with the faculty of felicitous speech, and achieve success in their writing through the beauty and force of their narration; and to them those who first encountered and recorded the events [εὐαγγέλιον– euangelion] are indebted for a pleasing retelling of them” (Plutarch, Moralia (Glory of Athens), p. 347, 1st Century).

The phrase “glad tidings/gospel of the kingdom” as the gospels’ authors used it was a way to signal that Jesus and his teachings held a new vision for structuring society. Those who were last in the present arrangement would now be first. Those being marginalized were to be included and centered. Those who were hungry and thirsted for a distributive, social righteousness would be filled (see Matthew 5 and Luke 6). The authors of the Jesus story used “gospel” to mean a change in society or human community that went beyond mere personal nor private change. It was about social change here, social change now. 

Eternal Life

Even when we consider the way eternal life was framed in the gospel stories, an argument can be made that even eternal life is not private, personal, or individual, but communal and social. Eternal life meant the continuance of a community as a whole, not merely continuance for individuals within that community. The path Jesus was pointing toward is a path by which the human race can continue, a path that leads to life rather than extinction for our race and not simply life for individual humans. Eternal life is about having our quality of life rooted in what Parker and Brock call an “ethical grace” lived here on earth, a path of living differently as a society today, here, now. 

“The Gospel defines three dimensions of this eternal life: knowing God; receiving the one sent by God to proclaim abundant life to all; and loving each other as he had loved them. Eternal life, in all three meanings, relates to how life is lived on earth. The concrete acts of care Jesus has shown his disciples are the key to eternal life. By following his example of love, the disciples enter eternal life now. Eternal life is thus much more than a hope for postmortem life: it is earthly existence grounded in ethical grace.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 22)

Death by Crucifixion

Lastly, people don’t get jailed (like John the Baptist) and don’t get crucified (like Jesus) for teaching personal, private, post-mortem salvation. They get in trouble, as we saw last week, when they call out social injustice and call for social change, societal reparations, social redemption, and social salvation. Private change threatens no one, but social change threatens those privileged in the present way of organizing society who would have much to lose if the status quo changed.

Today, sectors of Christianity that only teach a personal Jesus deeply need a reintroduction to the gospels’ social Jesus. They need to rediscover and understand social salvation contrasted with personal salvation. They need a gospel that impacts the here and now and that isn’t just about the premium they must pay in this life to get a post-mortem fire insurance policy. 

There is a need to understand how the life modeled and teachings taught by Jesus have the potential to socially save. They aren’t a myth of redemptive violence and suffering that saves us from divine satisfaction. We can be deeply revived by following the teachings of Jesus, and not merely mentally assenting or believing story details about him. We need a gospel that recaptures the story truth of a resurrection, and not endless gospels that only offer people a cross.

It is to this end that we’ll be turning our attention over the next few weeks. I’m so glad you’re with us on this journey. 

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


Heart Group Application

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Don’t miss out on these! They’ll only be available for a limited time.

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

Wherever you are today, choose love, choose compassion, take action and seek justice. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Prophets and Priests

Herb Montgomery | April 5, 2019

Picture of woman using megaphone
Photo by Melany Rochester on Unsplash

“Where else do you see institutions threatened by the voice of prophets? We may not call them prophets in every institution, yet the punishment of prophets is a universal dynamic. Whenever there are people calling not only for personal piety but also for societal change, seeking to make our world a just, safe, compassionate home for everyone, those who have much to lose will use these tactics.”


“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31) 

RHM’s book of the month for April is Walter Rauschenbusch’s 1917 classic A Theology for the Social Gospel. Although Rauschenbusch writes in the language and limits of his time and social location, he and others in the early social gospel movement nonetheless broke new ground by calling Christians to return to the gospels’ teachings on social change, social justice, and social salvation. Their call contrasted with versions of Christianity that focus on private, individualistic, or personal salvation. Many who have been raised in evangelical Christianity today still are surprised when they discover the gospels’ focus on systemic injustice. This focus was accurately labelled the “social gospel” not because it focused on social salvation instead of personal salvation (as some have wrongly accused) but because it focused on social salvation alongside personal salvation.

Forty years after A Theology for the Social Gospel was published, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., read it and wrote, “It has been my conviction ever since reading Rauschenbusch that any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried” (Stride Toward Freedom, p. 91).

This week I want to look at a juxtaposition that Rauschenbusch uses in the end of A Theology for the Social Gospel. I admit freely that it’s oversimplified in terms of what we know today. I also find Rauschenbusch’s description of the function or motivation of the ancient priestly class in this paragraph to misrepresent the priestly function in the Jewish faith tradition as a whole. I do believe Rauschenbusch’s description matches his own experience with institutionalized Christianity and the professional clergy’s push back against his call for a more socially focused gospel. I believe he is reading his own experience back into the text. I, too, can attest that it is difficult if not impossible to get professional Christian clergy to see things at times that their paychecks requires them not to see. This can happen within any faith tradition when an institution and those employed by that institution become aligned with injustice, exploitation and/or exclusion. Yet this passage from Rauschenbusch still has much to offer us as we seek to speak truth to power or call out systemic injustice despite push back from those who benefit by what Rauschenbusch named as “institutionalized sin” (whether within our faith traditions or our larger secular communities). The juxtaposition he uses is that of priest versus prophet in the Jewish faith tradition. I found his comments under what he classifies as prophetic deeply encouraging and this week I want to share them with you.

“The priest is the religious professional. He performs religious functions which others are not allowed to perform. It is therefore to his interest to deny the right of free access to God, and to interpose himself and his ceremonial between the common person and God. He has an interest in representing God as remote, liable to anger, jealous of his rights, and quick to punish, because this gives importance to the ritual methods of placating God which the priest alone can handle. It is essential to the priestly interest to establish a monopoly of rights and functions for his group. He is all for authority, and in some form or other he is always a Spokesman of that authority and shares its influence. Doctrine and history as he teaches it, establish a jure divine institution of his order, which is transmitted either by physical descent, as in the Aaronic priesthood, or by spiritual descent through some form of exclusive ordination, as in the Catholic priesthood. As history invariably contradicts his claims, he frequently tampers with history by Deuteronomic codes or Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, in order to secure precedents and the weight of antiquity. He is opposed to free historical investigation because this tears open the protective web of idealized history and doctrine which he has woven about him. He is the middle person of religion, and like other middlemen he is sincerely convinced that he is necessary for the good of humanity and that religion would perish without him. But underneath all is the selfish interest of his class, which exploits religion. 

The prophet becomes a prophet by some personal experience of God, which henceforth is the dominant reality of his life. It creates inward convictions which become his message to men. Usually after great inward conflicts and the bursting of priest-made barriers he has discovered the way of access to God, and has found him wonderful, ‘just, merciful, free.’ As a result of his own experience he usually becomes the constitutional enemy of priestly religion, the scorner of sacrificial and ritual doings, a voice of doubt about the doctrines and the literature which shelter the priest. He too is a middle-man, but he wants no monopoly. His highest desire is to have all humans share what he has experienced. If his own caste or people claim special privileges as a divinely descended caste or a chosen people, he is always for some expansion of religious rights, for a crossing of boundaries and a larger unity. His interest is in freedom, reality, immediateness, the reverse of the priestly interest. His religious experience often gives a profound quickening to his social consciousness, an unusual sense of the value of life and a strong compassion with the suffering and weak, and therefore a keen feeling for human rights and indignation against injustice. He has a religious conviction that God is against oppression and ‘, on the side of the weak . . . The prophet is always the predestined advance agent of the Kingdom of God. His religion flings him as a fighter and protester against the Kingdom of Evil. His sense of justice, compassion, and solidarity sends him into tasks which would be too perilous for others. It connects him with oppressed social classes as their leader. He bears their risk and contempt. As he tries to rally the moral and religious forces of society, he encounters derelict and frozen religion, and the selfish and conservative interest of the classes which exploit religion. He tries to arouse institutional religion from the inside, or he pounds it from the outside. This puts him in the position of a heretic, a free thinker, an enemy of religion, an atheist. Probably no prophet escaped without bearing some such name. His opposition to social injustice arouses the same kind of antagonism from those who profit by it. How far these interests will go in their methods of suppressing the prophets depends on their power and their needs.” (A Theology for the Social Gospel, pp. 274-277, emphasis added.)

Let’s take a brief look at a few of Rauschenbusch’s statements.

History Contradicting Claims

Today, both science and history can contradict long-held religious beliefs or doctrinal claims. It’s tempting to become defensive and resistant to new information rather than learning how to lean into new information. Deconstruction is naturally uncomfortable. We must be honest in parsing the difference between resistance due to personal discomfort and resistance due to threats to institutions from which we derive privilege. As Rauschenbusch states, it’s possible to be “opposed to free historical investigation because this tears open the protective web of idealized history and doctrine which [one] has woven about [oneself].” 

Where have you seen this take place? Take some time to list examples that come to mind.

Selfish Class Interests

Religion has often been complicit in making oppressed communities passive and in exonerating or justifying one class’s exploitation of others. I agree with Rauschenbusch’s statement that when voices question the status quo, they are quickly labeled “enemy” or a “voice of doubt” or even “heretic.” We see an example of this in John’s version of the Jesus story: “Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about [Jesus]. Some said, ‘He is a good man.’ Others replied, ‘No, he deceives the people.’” (John 7:12)

All Humans Share 

Jesus, like other Jewish prophets before him, had an inclusive encounter with the Divine. His desire was egalitarian inasmuch as he wanted those being excluded to also have a seat at the table. Rauschenbusch observes, “If his own caste or people claim special privileges as a divinely descended caste or a chosen people, he is always for some expansion of religious rights, for a crossing of boundaries and a larger unity.” Those who push for a more egalitarian society transgress boundaries in their work and are often accused of not staying within the lines drawn for them and for others in society.

Social Consciousness

The Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and many others throughout history who have stood up to institutionalized injustice, seeking change in individual hearts and social and systemic change as well, can often trace their social consciousness and the roots of their passion for social justice to the belief in a Divine Universal Love. As Rauschenbusch wrote, “His religious experience often gives a profound quickening to his social consciousness, an unusual sense of the value of life and a strong compassion with the suffering and weak, and therefore a keen feeling for human rights and indignation against injustice.” For Christians, this passion for justice is grounded in the belief that if there is a God who loves everyone, this same God stands with the oppressed and is on the side of distributive justice. It is ironic that those whose belief in Love led them to the work of justice too often come to be ostracized by the very religious communities they first learned that Love through.

Heretics

Rauschenbusch’s use of this term struck home for me. When we stand up against injustice and some of those in privileged positions in our faith communities are also in positions of privilege in our larger society, it still amazes me how efficiently religious systems label and shut out or suppress voices for justice that they deem a threat. “This puts him in the position of a heretic, a free thinker, an enemy of religion, an atheist. Probably no prophet escaped without bearing some such name.” I could give quite a few examples of where I have witnessed or experienced this dynamic. 

Suppression

“His opposition to social injustice arouses the same kind of antagonism from those who profit by it. How far these interests will go in their methods of suppressing the prophets depends on their power and their needs.” I’ve seen those who side with Love and Justice go from having a packed speaking schedule for years in advance to almost overnight being treated as if they no longer exist. In the Jesus story itself, suppression took the form of false accusation and execution. 

I want to be very careful here. Jesus was not trying to start a new religion. He was deeply Jewish, and most of his more inclusive interpretations of the Torah had Jewish precedents before him. Yet his interpretations threatened those who had everything to lose politically.

Where else do you see institutions threatened by the voice of prophets? We may not call them prophets in every institution, yet the punishment of prophets is a universal dynamic. Whenever there are people calling not only for personal piety but also for societal change, seeking to make our world a just, safe, compassionate home for everyone, those who have much to lose will use these tactics. 

If you are in the midst of being treated this way, remember, you’re in the right story. You’re not alone. Another world is possible. If you need to take a break for self-care, do so. It’s okay to take a break; just don’t give up. We are in this together. And together we can make a difference.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31)


HeartGroup Application

We here at RHM have something special for our readers and listeners this month.

From now through April 22, we’ll be offering our listeners and readers this special, premium t-shirt to support our work, show others you’re a fan of our podcast, and help spread the word so others can enjoy each episode as well.

Don’t miss out on these! They’ll only be available for a limited time.

Get yours today for only $24.99.

And support the JFE Podcast in making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone.

Go to:

https://www.bonfire.com/love-and-justice-tee/

Get Your JFE Podcast Tee Today!

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

Wherever you are today, choose love, choose compassion, take action and seek justice. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Salvation as Liberation, Reparation, and Societal Healing

Herb Montgomery | January 11, 2019

Picture of earth with this week's article title.

“Jesus’ vision for this world was not to condemn it, wipe it out, and make a new one. Jesus pictured a God who loved our world: a God who dreamed of this world’s healing, reparation, and transformation. Jesus’ vision wasn’t to wipe our world out and start all over, but to see our world healed . . . Salvation is understood in the gospels not in terms of penalty and payment but in terms of restoration and healing in the context of the violence, injustice, and oppression faced by multitudes in our present world. Salvation as a post mortem fire insurance policy finds no place in the gospels.”

“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)

My wife and I purchased a home almost fifteen years ago now. It’s an American foursquare from the turn of the 20th Century. We thought it would be a beautiful adventure to restore an old home together. We wanted to do all the work ourselves, slowly, as we could afford it. So today, we live in an ongoing construction. The journey has hardly been what we thought it would be.

Some people look at our home today alongside the before pictures and say, “Herb, why didn’t you just condemn the building, bulldoze it, and build a new house?” That would have been easier, but it wasn’t the choice we made. The house, though in need of restoration, had great “bones.” But getting it into shape has been a lot of work.

John’s gospel includes an interesting story. Nicodemus comes to talk to Jesus in the night. And in the middle of their conversation, Jesus tells him:

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)

Contrary to many “end-time” preachers, Jesus’ vision for this world was not to condemn it, wipe it out, and make a new one. Jesus pictured a God who loved our world: a God who dreamed of this world’s healing, reparation, and transformation. Jesus’ vision wasn’t to wipe our world out and start all over, but to see our world healed.

The word in the passage most translated as “saved,” sozo, can just as easily and accurately be translated as healed. Salvation is understood in the gospels not in terms of penalty and payment but in terms of restoration and healing in the context of the violence, injustice, and oppression faced by multitudes in our present world. Salvation as a post mortem fire insurance policy finds no place in the gospels. 

John’s gospel defines salvation more holistically. What do we see Jesus doing with the majority of his time in all four of the canonical gospels? We see him going from place to place to place bringing healing and liberation. When I began to look at our world through the lens of healing and liberation rather than the lens of a fire insurance it shifted something in me.

In Luke 19, we find the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector. He was responsible for participating in a system that benefited the wealthy, including himself, while impoverishing many. 

The next thing the story tells us about Zacchaeus is the tree he had climbed. As in his own life, he had climbed higher and higher but as he sits in the tree, he realizes that the ladder he’d been climbing was leaning against the wrong wall. 

Jesus comes to the spot where Zacchaeus is lodged in the tree and tells him to climb down. “I’m going to go to your house today.” 

Everyone begins to whisper, “He’s going to the house of a sinner!” 

The masses disdained tax collectors like Zacchaeus and labelled them “sinners.” 

In Jewish society at this time, the label of “sinner” was not universal. It was a label the political elite used to marginalize and exclude people. There were two distinct groups: the righteous and the sinners. A Jewish person had to be living outside either the Pharisees’ or the Sadducees’ interpretations of the teachings of Moses to be labelled a “sinner” or “unclean.” Though they were born into the community of Abraham’s covenant, they could be labelled as living in such a way that excluded them from the hope and promises of their Jewish heritage.

(The Sadducees were much more conservative than the Pharisees, which served to marginalize more people as sinners. The Pharisees used more liberal interpretations and therefore were more popular.) 

This pattern of marginalization was Zacchaeus’ story. He was a Jew by birth, and so a son of Abraham, but on the basis of his complicity with the Romans, he was labelled a “sinner,” an Other, an outsider. 

This is why the people in the story were upset that Jesus planned to go to Zacchaeus’ house. Up to this point in Luke, Jesus had practiced a preferential option for the poor, yet here he was now, associating with someone responsible for making many people poor. 

Grace doesn’t mean letting someone off the hook. Genuine grace transforms oppressors, just as it liberates the oppressed. Did Jesus care that Zacchaeus was responsible for a system that was repressing so many? Absolutely. Yet something had already changed inside of Zacchaeus; we aren’t told how, and we aren’t told when. 

Before Jesus could respond to the crowd’s accusation that Jesus was going to the home of a sinner, though, Zacchaeus interrupts:

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8)

Zacchaeus was changing. As he climbed down from the tree, he was also climbing down from his position of power, prestige, and public privilege. Also, he was not seeking simple forgiveness. 

Zacchaeus understood that following Jesus would involve him making reparations to those he had exploited. It would also involve him going beyond direct reparations to a kind of wealth redistribution to the poor because of his role in an economic system that drove many into poverty. I’m reminded of the words of Nelson Mandela who stated, “Like slavery, like apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade and it can be overcome by the actions of human beings.” (Address at the Make Poverty History campaign, London, England, February 3, 2005.) The father of Latin liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez, wrote: 

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

Today, in a world where poverty is not the product of scarcity because we produce more than we can possibly need, and poverty results from unwillingness to embrace our interconnectedness and share, these words ring true: “There was a time when poverty was considered to be an unavoidable fate, but such a view is no longer possible or responsible. Now we know that poverty is not simply a misfortune; it is an injustice.” (Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutiérrez)

 Zacchaeus followed Jesus. He didn’t only believe another world was possible. He actually moved toward that world. Jesus responded to him by saying:

“Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:9)

Right there, then, at that very moment “salvation”—healing—had come to Zacchaeus’ house. 

What would it mean for salvation or healing to come to your house right now? Would it come in the form of liberation for you and the community you belong to? Or would it, like it did for Zacchaeus, come in the form of your transformation: you taking up the work of liberation with others working for their freedom and regaining your own humanity as you go? In our world where inequality and injustice are most often rooted in disparities based on race, gender, education, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, class, ability, and more, what would Zacchaeus-like salvation look like for you?

“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to [heal] the world through him.” (John 3:17)

HeartGroup Application

Healing our world can take a myriad of different forms. This week, here in the U.S. we find ourselves in the midst of a heated debate over our treatment of Jesus’ “strangers” and what, if not ended by this Saturday, could be the longest government shutdown in the history of the U.S. I’ver heard from many of you who follow RHM who are federal employees. I’ve heard the stories of how you feel as if you are being held for ransom as you continue to go without pay, some of you expected to show up to work regardless.

Last April our book of the month for RHM’s annual suggested reading course was Rev. Kelly Brown Douglass Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.  In the very first chapter, in the section titled The Making of Cherished Property: The Immigration Paradox, Douglass lays out the history of racism that has ever been at the heart of our immigration debates.  This week I would like to return to this chapter. Read and discuss this chapter as a group. How does this history inform how you consider what happening presently along the southern border of the U.S.?

Just this week, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, a Christian magazine dedicated to Jesus and societal justice, implored his readers: “Right now, it’s important that you tell your senator to pass funding bills to restore the operation of government agencies, without approving Donald Trump’s 2,200-mile monument to racism.” I agree on both counts.  Right now, it is important to be contacting your Congressional representatives.  And Wallis’ is correct in naming Trump’s wall as a “2,200-mile monument to racism,” especially in the context of the history of our immigration debate here in the U.S.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus condemns the choices of his followers who failed to follow his teachings in moments such as these. “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” (Matthew 25:43) Besides contacting your representatives, what else can you as a HeartGroup do to be a source of healing in your community presently?  Sharing an informed summary of our history to those who are misinformed in our daily discussions with others? Providing support for those seeking asylum in this country either directly if you live in an area along the souther border or through supporting an organization that is providing help? Do you have any federal workers in your HeartGroup that you can surround and come under and support during this difficult time for them, as well?  Come up with something you can do as a group and do it. 

Rev. John Dorhaur, who is the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, said it rightly this week, “We are faced with a moral crisis as a country, not a border crisis, nor a national emergency.” History is being made.  Let’s make sure we are on the right side of it. 

Thank you for checking in with us this week.  I’m so glad you are here. 

Next weekend I will be in Arizona officiating the wedding of two friends of mine, but I’m going to try and get out next week’s podcast/eSight before I go. 

Until then, remember, another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Courage in the Face of Setbacks

Herb Montgomery | January 4, 2019


“Something for us shifted because of this meeting. As the Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes so eloquently states in Journey to Liberation, ‘When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.'”


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

I’m sit here this morning, after the holidays, contemplating the future of Renewed Heart Ministries. This year will be our twelfth year: Renewed Heart Ministries has been sharing the message of love and inclusion for over a decade. 

But four and a half years ago, something changed. We were introduced to a precious community of people who are the objects of God’s love and who most deeply face marginalization on a daily basis. Something for us shifted because of this meeting. As the Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes so eloquently states in Journey to Liberation, “When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.”

In 2014, Renewed Heart Ministries started to become a welcoming and affirming ministry. We have become more intentional and passionate about the intersection of the teachings of Jesus in the gospels and our work today of increasing the love, compassion, action, and justice in society. This has been a time of rebirth and rebuilding here at RHM, and we believe we’re a much healthier ministry with a much healthier focus, as a result. 

Yet these changes have not been without deep loss, both of former friends and of support.

This is why this week’s text spoke to me this morning. 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God . . . ” (Mark 1:14)

John was Jesus’ mentor. He had refused to follow in his father’s footsteps and be a priest of the Temple state. Possible reasons could have been the Temple state’s exploitation of the poor and it’s complicity with Rome as means of survival. John had chosen instead another very Jewish option. He chose to stand in the stream of actions found among the Hebrew prophets, the habitat of the wilderness, speaking truth to power. 

For every action there is a reaction. And power typically responds to those who seek to name injustice. The reaction of Herod to John’s outspoken critiques and call for change was initially to have him arrested. Herod expected the arrest to silence John. Those who have read the story know that John is eventually executed. At this point in the story, though, he is simply arrested. He is silenced by being forcefully removed from the masses.

Acts like these by those in power are purposed to intimidate others and discourage them from pursuing similar courses. They are acts of terror at worst, and acts of warning at best. 

John’s imprisonment by the political leader Herod had to have affected Jesus. It was a significant setback, and possibly also a warning. Jesus was setting out on a course for which John had cleared the way or blazed a path. In the words of Isaiah, John had been 

“A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isaiah 40:3)

Would Jesus turn back? Would Jesus abandon his solidarity with the marginalized sectors of his society? Or would he renew his purpose in the face of John’s imprisonment? 

For me, what Jesus did next shows his courage. Jesus chooses to stand in solidarity with the vulnerable and marginalized of his society in the face of deeply troubling, political consequences. John had just been imprisoned, and it’s immediately afterwards that Jesus chooses to stand before the masses and resolutely say,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you . . . 

You are the salt of the earth . . . 

You are the light of the world.” 

(Matthew 5:3-14)

Jesus is choosing the community of those whose “spirit” has been broken by systems of injustice. I think of those today who no longer have the spirit to keep fighting for a just world, those who have lost faith that another world is possible.

Jesus chose those who mourn because of the present structure. I think of parents like those of Trayvon Martin, or more recently, 8 year old Felipe Gomez Alonzo and 7 year old Jakelin Caal Maquin, whose hearts have been broken by deep loss caused by our society’s systemic injustice. This is loss so deep it seems at times that it can never be repaired. 

Jesus chose the “meek,” those this world typically walks all over. He chose the community of the ones hungering and thirsting for righteousness—the Hebraic idea of a societal, distributive justice, an end of violence, and an end to oppression.

He also affirms the community of the merciful. I think of those who see immigrants seeking asylum and welcome them rather than coldly stating that they deserve harsh treatment.

He names the pure in heart. In our time, I think of those who refuse to be shaped by capitalism’s priorities of profit over people. And he names peacemakers, not peacekeepers: those who are willing to disturb the peace to work for a distributive justice that will give birth to genuine peace, where everyone has enough, and no one has too much while others go without.

Finally, Jesus (I wonder if he was thinking of John at this moment) mentions those persecuted for the cause of justice: those who speak truth to power, who name bigotry, exclusion, marginalization, exploitation, and oppression and experience deep loss as a result of their outspokenness. He mentions those who are insulted by the privileged and who are falsely labeled as dangerous, evil, and heretical, or “too radical.” 

Yet it is this community of the poor, oppressed, marginalized, abused and mourning that Jesus names the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In learning to listen to those who experience is different from our own, those who are the most vulnerable to a variety of injustices that we begin to see [i.e. “light of the world”]. It is in learning to listen to the stories and the voices of communities who daily face oppression that we encounter the choice to change and the possibility of our social life, our life together as a human family, being preserved [i.e. “salt of the earth”].

I cannot help but think that Jesus might have also been afraid to stand in solidarity with those this world makes last. Would he also be arrested like John? Could choosing and modeling a preferential option for those society makes last, in one degree or another, even cost him his life?

We all know how the Jesus story ended. At the beginning of the Jesus story, though, it was still being played out. 

This year, it means everything to me that, as he pondered his future if he, like John, continued to walk alongside and advocate for the oppressed, Jesus chose to keep believing that another world was possible. Jesus chose to keep working toward a world where those are presently made “last” would then be prioritized as those presently favored as “first” (See Matthew 20:8-16).

Lastly, this contemplation of John and Jesus, also makes me think of where Renewed Heart Ministries is today and what the future may hold for us. Has Renewed Heart Ministries faced setbacks as a result of our choice to stand alongside those being marginalized? In one sense, yes.

But in another very real sense, we are in a better place today than we have ever been. Never before has the Jesus story so deeply resonated with us. I’m thankful for those who have taken the time and invested their energy to open our eyes. And I’m thankful for those who follow us who were willing to have their eyes opened, too, alongside us. 

Like Jesus, we choose to work for a world where those presently made last are treated the same as those presently prioritized as first. Today, there are so many forms of “being made last.” But our differences—race, gender, education, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, class, ability, etc.—don’t make us less than another. Humanity is richly diverse, but we are all still family. 

And it’s for this human family that, alongside those who have gone before us, those presently making similar choices, and those who will come after us, we here at RHM dedicate 2019 to continuing the work of shaping our world into a safer, just, and more compassionate home for all, especially those Jesus might call blessed members of the kingdom of God.

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

HeartGroup Application

This week, as a group, open up Matthew 5:3-12 and explore through discussion, if Jesus were to speak these words today, whom would he say were the blessed recipients of his vision for human community? Whom would he say would inherit the earth?  Whom would he say would see God?  Whom would he name?  In 2014 I was a guest speaker at my first Kinship Kampmeeting. Here is a link to how this experience impacted whom I chose in making my own list of beatitudes then. This is an example of this exercise. Look at our world today and come up with your own list.

Discuss how you, too, like Jesus, like John, can work alongside these communities to bring concrete change this year.  

And then pick something from your discussion and begin doing it. 

May 2019 bring us closer to rather than farther away from that pearl of great price, that world where everyone is safe, everyone has enough, and where compassion and love are the basis of our relating to one another.

Happy New Year to each of you. 

Thank you for checking in with us. I’m so glad you did.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Lightening the Burden of Others

Herb Montgomery | December 21, 2018


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of this is implied in our text this week:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

     

A Special Request

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you in advance.

I love each of you, dearly.

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

Merry Christmas and a happy new year!

We’ll see you in 2019.

Healing Our World, Part 2

Herb Montgomery | November 29, 2018

Christmas ornament of earth with ribbon that says, "Peace on earth."


“Exclusion, whether racism, misogyny, homophobia, or whatever, is already within many us. What are our faith traditions doing to challenge and change us so that we can participate in making our larger society more compassionate, inclusive, just and safe for everyone? Are they helping us be more just, or are they embedding injustice more deeply into our souls?”


“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.” (Matthew 12:33)

Before we begin this week, I want to take a moment and thank all of you for support during this year’s #GivingTuesday.  With all of our matching-funds donors we raised just under $6000 to help Renewed Heart Ministries grow and I can’t thank you enough. Our work resonates with so many of you and I’m so thankful for your support. We are looking forward to doing even more in this coming new year.

This last October, we ran an article entitle Healing the World. Shortly afterward my friend Joel Avery sent me a story about deep racist medical neglect and abuse in a healthcare facility then owned by the Christian denomination I grew up in. If we are to be agents of healing and change, we must admit where we have been the source of injustice rather than healing.

“I think sometimes we believe that the very nature of the healthcare industry, and the particular view of healthcare that we have here at Advent Health University insulates us from the ills of society.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Lucy Byard is a name not often remembered inside or outside of the Seventh-day Adventist Church – understandably so. She arrived at Washington Sanitarium and Hospital (an Adventist Hospital) on October 14, 1943, in critical condition.

Because of her condition, the hospital admitted her immediately. There was just one problem – she was Black and Washington Sanitarium did not admit Black people. Once they discovered her ethnicity, they removed her from the room they had given her and made her wait in the hallway in a robe. 

Hospital managers made arrangements to transfer Byard from the Maryland-based hospital to Freedman’s Hospital, the Black hospital in Washington, DC. No one at Washington Sanitarium examined or treated her before they transferred her. 

They eventually transported Byard to Washington, DC not in an ambulance but in a car. 

Unfortunately, she died at Freedman’s Hospital before doctors could treat her there. 

Lucy Byard died after being rejected from an Adventist hospital. On that day in 1943, healthcare workers decided to exemplify the worst that society has to offer. 

Byard’s death incensed African-American Adventists in the Washington, DC area. As a result, African-Americans created an advocacy group and sought equality of treatment in the Adventist Church. 

In response the church created a half measure not requested by those who protested—a segregated church structure. [To this day Adventism in North America has both Black and White Conferences.]

I wish the Lucy Byard incident had a more Hollywood ending. I wish some white knight at Washington Sanitarium rode in on his trusty steed to stand up to racism and save the day. I know this story makes us uncomfortable. However, it is important for the Lucy Byards of the world to be remembered and for their stories to be told, despite how much it hurts us to tell them, and to remember that we live in a world where these things can happen.

Black History Month is not only about celebrating the accomplishments and societal contributions of a particular group of people. It is also about the recognition that part of what makes those achievements so extraordinary is the pain and anguish overcome in order to make those accomplishments a reality.

Moreover, to remember Lucy Byard is to be fully cognizant of the fact that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ 

Equality, justice, and fair treatment do not happen by accident and are not transferred through osmosis. It requires effort on our part to make the decision every day to do the right thing. Let us resolve to use this ministry to move the world forward.” (Dr. Jason Hines)

For more background about Lucy Byard and her story see Black History Month: Lucy Byard; Death in D.C. and Lucy Byard (1877-1943).)

Christians have a long history of reflecting the social ills of their society rather than being a part of movements for change. In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963), Dr. King wrote, “Here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.” 

Race is not the only issue where many faith traditions are on the wrong side of history. The same denomination whose hospital turned Byard away is today faltering on the path to gender equality with a century-too-late debate on whether or not women can be ordained as pastors. They also, with most faith traditions today, are still the source of much of the exclusion, pain and damage experienced by many of my LGBTQ family, friends and neighbors. 

Yet it, like others, is a religious tradition that has grown out of the teachings of the same Jewish teacher that taught:

“You are the salt of the earth.

“You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:13-14)

It is perfectly appropriate, given Christianity’s long history, to ask Jesus’ question:

“But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)

I’m often embarrassed to be associated with Christianity. The salt really has lost its saltiness. We can be added over and over to whatever issue, and rather than changing the flavor toward justice, we instead take on the flavor of the social ills around us. When it comes to justice, inclusion, or equity, often the outcry is that the church is being negatively influenced by culture. Truth be told, it always has been. 

We are people living within time, space, and cultures. And we must ask: are we adding the flavor of justice, inclusion, and equity to our society or are we are taking on the bigotry, fear and exclusion we see in our culture around us? Exclusion, whether racism, misogyny, homophobia, or whatever, is already within many us. What are our faith traditions doing to challenge and change us so that we can participate in making our larger society more compassionate, inclusive, just and safe for everyone? Are they helping us be more just, or are they embedding injustice more deeply into our souls?

A few weeks ago I shared with friends a Washington Post article on the historic level of diversity we are now seeing in among incoming Congressional freshmen in Washington, D.C.. While several of my Christian friends know how much representation matters and saw the news as a sign of hope, a few of my other Christian friends saw it as bad news, as slander against White people. I had to shake my head. 

Large sectors of Christianity here in North America today are primarily focused on individuals attaining postmortem bliss rather than engaging a present and local work in harmony with Jesus’ prayer for people’s quality of life to become “on earth as it is in heaven.” (see Matthew 6:10, Luke 4:18, and 6:20-21) This is a problem! A faith tradition focused on attaining heaven with very little emphasis on participating in liberating societal change is extremely vulnerable to glossing over oppression, marginalization, and exploitation in the present. I’m at a loss to understand how such an escapist tradition could be built on the Jesus who taught about liberating the oppressed in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who spoke truth to power and called for societal injustice, oppression and violence be put right. (See Amos 5:24)

The kind of Christianity that’s focused on postmortem bliss is too easily co-opted by those at the top of social structures. It becomes complicit in oppression, whether it be in matters of economics, race, gender or sexual equity, or other issues. Mainstream Christianity has played a role, sometimes the central role, in damaging marginalized groups, and the idea of getting to heaven has been used to keep marginalized people pacified. In the gospels, we don’t read of Jesus going from place to place trying to get people to say a special prayer so that they could go to heaven when they die. He brought liberation into people’s lives in the here-and-now, today.

This is not easy to hear if, like me, you identify with the Christian tradition, but I imagine that non-Christians might positively resonate with much of it.

As followers of Jesus we’re called to bring economic healing, racial healing, gender-inequity healing, political healing, religious healing. We are called to bring healing. Full stop. 

But how? Where do we start when we have such a history of quite the opposite?

First, we must be willing to name or admit societal ills, and we must own where we have played a part in those ills in the past. 

We must learn from those affected most by our past actions, including those whose have lived experiences as survivors. Then, where we are able, we must work for reparation, transformation, and healing alongside those who have been hurt. 

The story and teachings of Jesus can inform each step of this process, too. 

But we must first learn to listen to those we’ve hurt.

I believe we can change. I believe we as Christians can be re-introduced to our Jesus and his teachings. This process will be challenging. I know. For some it will be deeply unsettling. For others it will be a welcomed relief! I encourage us to lean into whatever challenges we may find rather than away from them. It’s worth it. Jesus once contrasted letting go of the present to take hold of the new. A world of inclusion and connectedness will become a reality when we are fully willing to let go of the one we already created:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46 )

Another world is possible. It’s not easy. It is work. But it’s possible, and worth it. 

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.” (Matthew 12:33)

HeartGroup Application 

Hunger Summit Advertising PosterLast night I attended the Hunger Summit event here in Lewisburg sponsored by the Greenbrier County branch of the National Poor People’s Campaign, a Call for Moral Revival.  This event was designed to increase public understanding of the challenges encountered by those who live in poverty here in Appalachia. Those who spoke relayed firsthand experiences with poverty and then we all were invited to participate in creating and implementing possible solutions.

This week, as we begin the holiday season, as a Heartgroup, choose some avenue in your community to become involved in and engage in the work of healing our world.

This is a time of year when want is not only felt, but hearts become more open to caring for one another.  I want to encourage you to get involved in your community as a group and make a difference.

Write in and share your experience with us here at RHM. I can’t wait to hear from you!

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Keep living in love, compassion action and justice. Keep following the one whom many celebrate this time of year “in whose name all oppression shall cease.” (John Sullivan Dwight, O Holy Night.)

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

Happy Holidays.

I’ll see you next week.

 

Justice, Grace & Charity: Part 2

by Herb Montgomery | November 16, 2018

Fall leaves changing


“While we work toward a better world we must also be about mitigating the damage being done in this one. But do not think for a moment that if we have only offered charity to those this world makes hungry, poor, mournful, or last, we are done with our job of following Jesus. Jesus helped those who were suffering before him, yes. He also rode his donkey into the Temple, the symbolic heart of the Temple state to which he belonged, and disruptively overturned tables to protest the Temple’s economic exploitation of the poor. Christians today excel at charity. We are not so good at justice.”


“But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you.” (Luke 11:41)

My family and I were visiting the Atlantic coast for Crystal’s birthday. Though West Virginia is beautiful, Crystal’s first love is the ocean. We had gone out for a birthday dinner and were walking home with almost a whole pizza in a pizza box. My daughter told us that we didn’t need to keep the pizza and suggested we find someone on the street to share it with. She was speaking my language. While the rest of the family went back to the hotel, my daughter and I began walking down the strip to find someone to share some pizza with. 

We met a wonderfully kind homeless man named Jeff who loved pizza, and spent some time getting to know him, hearing his story. Then we parted ways and headed back to where we were staying. 

On our walk back to the hotel, my daughter asked, “Papa? Why do we have homeless people?” I explained that a very small amount of people choose to revolt against capitalism and conventions about how they should live, but the majority of homelessness is the result of people being on the losing side of capitalism. We then had a long talk about the economy, life, and the Parker Brother’s game Monopoly, and she rightly said, “We don’t need more pizza, we need a different game!”

As we walked, we discussed the difference between charity and justice. Charity does harm mitigation right now, but we must also be engaged with movements working for a world where charity is no longer needed. We talked about how charity can actually empower systemic injustice, although it’s still needed until something more just dismantles and replaces those systems. I shared with her Gene Robinson’s analogy of people drowning in a river: charity pulls people who are drowning out of the river, and is vital. Yet at some point someone has to walk upstream and ask who’s throwing all these people into the river to begin with.  And I would add to the analogy that once we diagnose who it is, stop them. 

We eventually arrived back at our hotel and I completely forgot about our talk. But a few months later, my daughter asked if we could drive about 6 hours east to Baltimore to stand alongside with those protesting the murder of Freddie Gray. During our weekend in Baltimore, we stood on the lawn outside of Baltimore City Hall. A woman came over to where we were standing, sizing up my daughter and I. My daughter was wearing a black t-shirt with white letters that said, “Black. Lives. Matter.” and she carried a sign that said the same. As we were two of the very few White people present, the woman addressed my daughter and very sweetly asked, “Young lady, what are you doing here?”

My daughter looked at me and then back at her. She responded, “Ms., we’re from West Virginia. We wanted to come stand with you today. This isn’t charity. This is about justice.” 

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells his listening audience:

“Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33, Revised English Bible)

In this verse, the Revised English Bible (REB) uses the phrase give to charity. The Greek phrase behind this text is didomi eleemosunen. It can mean giving alms, showing pity, having compassion, or beneficence to the poor.

Luke’s gospel describes Jesus talking to a religious leader who prioritized ritual or religious purity more than compassion toward the vulnerable and marginalized:

“But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” (Luke 11:41)

Charity was a core component of Jesus’ teaching. In the language of the Gospel authors, the Greek root of charity was the word we translate today into mercy. Jesus’s vision for a new world was one where the merciful are not only prioritized but also recipients of the merciful world they had shaped by their own mercy.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

In Matthew’s gospel and in a context where charity was used to further privilege, benefit the givers of charity, and possibly marginalize recipients of charity further, Jesus gave this instruction:

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:2)

The kind of mercy or charity Jesus taught was one where the recipients of the charity weren’t further marginalized or “sacrificed.” It was to steer clear of victim blaming and not condemn the poor. In a world where poverty was not the result of chance but rather a system that created few wealthy winners at the expense of the masses, Jesus said,

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

All of this leads me also to critique charity. Certainly there will always be a need for charity that lends a hand to those who are victims of calamity. But what about charity that is needed because of a system that places people in a position of need? Can we work toward a world where this kind of charity is no longer needed because we live in a world of distributive justice, one where no one has too much while others don’t have enough? 

Rebecca Ann Parker’s fantastic book Saving Paradise sheds light on how Rome included charity in its system of oppression:

“To stave off riots and resistance, Roman officials distributed wheat imported from Egypt, North Africa, and Asia throughout the empire. Shipments from the fertile Nile delta were so crucial to Rome that protection of them from piracy was a major function of its navy—the Mediterranean was commonly referred to as the “Roman Lake.” In the miracle of the bread and fish, large crowds flock to Jesus, hungry in spirit and body, and they depart filled. His act of feeding offered compassion for the needy, encouraged generosity for the good of all, even among those with little, and affirmed life abundant for everyone, regardless of status or need. This value system undermined the paternalism of Rome, which was built on an elite and powerful few having so much that they might scatter their largess, distributing 20 percent of their grain as a dole to the vast masses. The poor and powerless were expected to be grateful to the empire for acts of charity that maintained its domination. Jesus, on the other hand, belonged to the peasant class and working poor, and his relentless judgments against the rich and powerful revealed how injustice betrayed God’s desire for all to have abundant life. He challenged this paternalistic system by offering food blessed by heaven and not by Rome.” (pp. 32-33) 

Again, if someone needs help, by all means we should help them. But with our other hand we should be working on a world where economic domination systems have been dismantled. We can work toward a world characterized by an equity that minimizes the need for so much charity. As Marcus Borg used to say, and as my daughter understood, “The prophets didn’t call for charity. They called for justice.” 

“Moses and Amos are not asking the kings to up their charitable giving, they are asking that their contemporary domination system give way to a more just and less violent world.” (Marcus Borg; see Social Justice in the Book of Amos)

Yes, we are called to be good Samaritans to those who have experienced catastrophe, yet even here we must do double work. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his final book:

“We are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.” (Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community? pp. 187-188)

This month at RHM, our annual reading course book is Dorothee Soëlle’s Theology for Skeptics. In this book she states unequivocally:

“Comfort [charity] and justice are not split apart in the Bible such that the church should ease difficult fate for individual persons with the newest psychotherapeutic methods and leave justice to the leading industrial nations. God does not come with cheap consolation, like a comforting lollipop from heaven. God does not console in such a way that we get something shoved into our mouths to quiet us down.” (Kindle Locations 1166-1168)

Here, Soëlle is directly speaking to the kind of charity that merely pacifies the exploited, as the Roman Empire once did. In this context we must take to heart Gustavo Gutierrez’s wise words:

“But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, Power of the Poor In History, p. 44-45)

As we said last week, we need a justice that is distributive, a grace that manifests itself in liberation for the oppressed, and a charity that doesn’t perpetuate economic systems of exploitation and marginalization, making many poor while making many rich beyond their wildest possible use of funds. 

I don’t want to be misunderstood this week. If someone needs help, by all means available, help them! While we work toward a better world we must also be about mitigating the damage being done in this one. But do not think for a moment that if we have only offered charity to those this world makes hungry, poor, mournful, or last (see Luke 6:20-23 and Matthew 20:16) we are done with our job of following Jesus. Jesus helped those who were suffering before him, yes. He also rode his donkey into the Temple, the symbolic heart of the Temple state to which he belonged, and disruptively overturned tables to protest the Temple’s economic exploitation of the poor.  Christians today excel at charity.  We are not so good at justice.

Again, if someone is drowning, pull them out of the river. Let’s also walk upstream and do something about those who are throwing people in the river to begin with. Let’s not blame those who are drowning for someone else throwing them in. Let’s work toward a world of distributive justice and, as we do, let’s also engage Jesus’ other teachings on mutual aid, resource sharing, and taking responsibility for each other’s survival and thriving. 

People matter. 

Another world is possible.

“But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you.” (Luke 11:41)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, share together some more of the differences you see between justice and charity. 
  2. List some of the things your group participates in that could be categorized as either charity or justice.
  3. Are you focusing more on charity? Are you also engaging the activities that lead to systemic justice? Do you need to be stronger in one area, or maybe both?
  4. Name some of the things you’d like to affirm in what you are already doing and list some things you’d like to do more of.  This holiday season, pick one from this list and, together, do it. 

Wherever you are this week, thanks for checking in with us.  Keep living in love, compassion, action, charity, and justice.  

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Justice, Grace & Charity: Part 1

by Herb Montgomery | November 9, 2018

Autumn path in the woods


“We need justice that is distributive.
We need grace which is liberating.
Only with both will we see far enough to have a life-giving discussion about charity.”


 

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.” (Matthew 12:18)

My younger daughter came home recently, visibly upset about misogyny in her high school. While she was speaking out against some of the structural, systemic privilege that boys receive at her school, one of her close male friends made a very patronizing, anti-feminist remark. She was shocked and disappointed. 

Later, she told me she couldn’t believe that one of her friends could have said and thought such a thing. She then repeated a saying I used to tell her when she was in elementary school. “Fish don’t know they’re wet,” she said. “He’s regurgitating only what he’s heard from the men in his life.” 

She wanted her friend to be a better human. She believed he could be a better human. She didn’t want to believe her friend could genuinely be so patriarchal. “He must not know any better,” she decided, and the next day she was determined to enlighten him. 

The following night she reported that her friend did apologize and had been open to listening. I wondered whether he was only trying to pacify her in order to keep her friendship, or was sincerely open to seeing another’s perspective. My daughter wanted to believe he was being sincere. “Oh this, by far, doesn’t fix things,” she said. “But it’s a start. We’ll see. Time will tell.”

Time will tell. For all of us.

This week I want to begin a two-week discussion of three words: Justice, grace and charity.

How we define each of these words makes a significant difference in whether we act as mere pacifiers for people’s or communities’ suffering or whether we go further and work as agents of change.

Justice

In the Hebrew scriptures, justice was understood not as retributive but as distributive. It was not about punishment but about resources and power being distributed fairly to all, so that everyone possessed what they needed to thrive. When justice prevailed, people would not thrive as individuals only: survival would not come at another’s expense. Instead, they were to thrive together. That’s the kind of justice that we find in the Jesus story. Matthew’s gospel refers to Jesus by quoting the book of Isaiah: 

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

“Bringing justice to victory.” I love that imagery. It captures the idea of distributive justice being presently obstructed, yet eventually overcoming through our choices for a more just world. Justice will one day be victorious.

Too often within Christian communities, justice is defined as retributive punishment or vengeance. This kind of justice then becomes seen as negative, something to be overcome by grace (another of our words this week that we’ll discuss in a moment). It becomes something that is escaped when grace prevails. But the hope of the gospels, like the hope of the Hebrew prophets, is not that justice will be overcome by grace, but that injustice, violence, and oppression will be overcome by justice—a distributive justice.

These same prophets do talk about punishment, too, but in the prophets’ writings and the gospels, the idea of punishment is restorative, not retribuitve. There were two Greek words for punishment in the cultures from which the gospels were written: timoria and kolasis. Both are translated in our English Bibles as “punishment.” Yet consider the ideas behind these two words.

Timoria implies causing people to suffer retributively. It’s very retributive and its purpose is penal. It refers to satisfying a need in the one who inflicts the punishment. Stop and consider that for a moment. The purpose of this kind of punishment is to satisfy a need not in the one receiving the punishment, but in the one inflicting or demanding it. That is retribution. (See Louw & Nida Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains and Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.)

Yet, as we know, there are other types of punishments—disciplines—that are not for the purpose of satisfying something in the punisher. When a parent rightly and healthfully disciplines a child, they don’t do so to satisfy their own retributive, punitive desire that demands payment from the child. Life-giving discipline is transformative, reparative, and/or restorative. It’s still a form of punishment. Yet the goal of restorative punishment is to win the child away from the behavior they have chosen to a different course. We should note at the same time that one of the perverse things about fundamentalism is how it teaches folks to inflict retributive, punitive pain and reframe it as restorative.

Kolasis implies this kind of reparative punishment, and Plato describes it in Protagoras:

“If you will think, Socrates, of the nature of punishment, you will see at once that in the opinion of mankind virtue may be acquired; no one punishes [kolasis] the evil-doer under the notion, or for the reason, that he has done wrong,—only the unreasonable fury of a beast acts in that manner. But he who desires to inflict rational punishment [kolasis] does not retaliate for a past wrong which cannot be undone; he has regard to the future, and is desirous that the man who is punished [kolasis], and he who sees him punished [kolasis], may be deterred from doing wrong again. He punishes for the sake of prevention, thereby clearly implying that virtue is capable of being taught.”

Various Greek lexicons and modern commentaries define kolasis similarly: 

  • “chastisement, punishment” (A Greek-English Lexicon To The New Testament, William Greenfield)
  • “the trimming of the luxuriant branches of a tree or vine to improve it and make it fruitful” (Graecum Lexicon Manuale, Benjamin Hedericus and Johann August Ernesti)
  • “the act of clipping or pruning, restriction, restraint, reproof, check, chastisement” (A New Greek and English Lexicon, James Donnegan) 
  • “pruning, checking, punishment, chastisement, correction” (A Greek-English Lexicon, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, Franz Passow) 

On later translations from Greek into Latin, Max Müller writes, “Do we want to know what was uppermost in the minds of those who formed the word for punishment, the Latin pæna or punio, to punish, the root pu in [Sanskrit], which means to cleanse, to purify, tells us that the Latin derivation was originally formed, not to express mere striking or torture, but cleansing, correcting, delivering from the stain of sin” (in Chips from a German Workshop, p. 259). For still more on the differences between timoria and kolasis see William Barclay, The Apostle’s Creed, p. 189, and J.W. Hanson’s Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine Of the Christian Church During Its First Five-Hundred Years, pp. 39-41)

What kind of punishment is kolasis then? It’s restorative, redemptive, and transformative. It’s the kind of punishment or discipline that a loving and functional parent gives a wayward child hoping to help them see the intrinsically destructive consequences of their choices so that they will turn from those choices and make better ones. It’s restorative justice, not retributive justice. 

What’s most important: whenever Jesus speaks of punishment in the gospels, the gospel authors use the word kolasis and never timoria! Jesus’ punishment is not a retributive punishment. It’s restorative, transformative punishment designed to reform the recipients.  

Yet, again, in the gospels and in the prophets, when they speak of “justice,” it’s not about punishment, but about a restoring a just distribution of resources. 

Consider this story in Luke’s gospel:

“Jesus said: ‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!”’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.’” (Luke 18:3-8)

In the gospels, then, the story of distributive justice is carried onward toward victory.

Grace

Grace is another word we find in the gospels. Consider how it is used in Luke:

“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.” (Luke 2:40, emphasis added)

Grace in the gospels is “favor that manifests itself in deliverance” (see Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible). It’s favor that works out liberation from oppression. 

In Christian circles, however, grace is too often defined as letting someone off the hook from punitive, punishing justice. In this context, grace becomes victorious over justice rather than justice being victorious over injustice, violence, oppression, marginalization, exploitation, subjugation, etc. When it’s all about grace, the discussion is about guilt alleviation rather than systemic change. The discussion is about a grace or unmerited favor that doesn’t condemn oppressors rather than a grace, a favor, that manifests itself in liberation for the oppressed. In the gospels, grace is expressed as a preferential option for the oppressed, for the vulnerable, for the marginalized. It’s favor or solidarity on the side of those hungering and thirsting for distributive justice or “righteousness.” (See Matthew 5:6.)

One of my favorite stories of Gandhi is how when he bumped into the idea of grace as simply being let of the hook. Gandhi tells of interacting with a Christian he refers to as “one of the Plymouth Brethren.”

The Plymouth Brother says to Gandhi: 

“How can we bear the burden of sin? We can but throw it on Jesus. He is the only sinless Son of God. It is His word that those who believe in Him shall have everlasting life. Therein lies God’s infinite mercy. And as we believe in the atonement of Jesus, our own sins do not bind us. Sin we must. It is impossible to live in this world sinless. And therefore Jesus suffered and atoned for all the sins of mankind. Only he who accepts His great redemption can have eternal peace. Think what a life of restlessness is yours, and what a promise of peace we have.’ 

Gandhi responded, 

“The argument utterly failed to convince me. I humbly replied: ‘If this be the Christianity acknowledged by all Christians, I cannot accept it. I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin. Until I have attained that end, I shall be content to be restless.’” 

(Gandhi, Mohandas K. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth, pp. 63-64)

Favor that manifests itself in liberation of the oppressed is miles away from favor that lets oppressors off the hook without discussing reparations or making things right.

Next week we’ll connect this to how the gospels speak of charity.

For now,

We need justice that is distributive.

We need grace which is liberating.

Only with both will we see far enough to have a life-giving discussion about charity.

We don’t need charity that is only temporary and leaves injustice not only untouched but also supported. We need a kind of justice and grace that shapes our world into one where charity is no longer necessary.

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.” (Matthew 12:18)

HeartGroup Application

This week, take some time together as a group and make a gratitude list.  There are plenty of things that still need changed in our larger communities. Yet progress is being made, too!  

  1. Each person write down three things you are thankful for this week.
  1. Go around the room, and from those who are willing to share, share why these items are valuable to you.
  1. Take a moment to bask in your gratitude and then name one area in which you see work still needs to be done.

picture of woman holding up two fingersAlso, don’t forget all contributions to RHM this month are being matched dollar for dollar.  You can make your support go twice as far during the month of November. [Find out more.]

 

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

Justice and the Love of God

Herb Montgomery | November 2, 2018

Pink clover from Horton Hears a Who


“To believe in universal love is to work for a distributive, societal justice for those who are the objects of that universal love.”


“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42)

All of my children love being involved in our local theater here in town. A few years ago my elder daughter auditioned for the high school musical. She was cast as Gertrude McFuzz in Seussical, an adorable retelling of Seuss’ most popular tales. As a result, our son, who was five or six years old at the time, took up reading many Seuss books. Horton Hears a Who became his favorite. 

In this story, Horton the elephant hears a call for help coming from a speck of dust. Though he endures much derision from his neighbors as a result of hearing something they can’t, he chooses to respond. He eventually learns that the call for help he hears is coming from a group of small creatures named Whos that live on this speck of dust. Horton is disbelieved, ridiculed, harassed, thought crazy, and eventually tied up. Horton’s neighbors also take the speck away from him and almost destroy it, but Horton convinces its inhabitants to begin making noise in hopes that they will be heard. The noise isn’t loud enough until one last Who named JoJo is found not participating. JoJo’s voice added at the very end gives the Whos enough volume to be heard by Horton’s fellow jungle animals and convinces them to join Horton in protecting the Who community. The catchphrase that Horton repeats throughout the story is, “A person is a person, no matter how small.”

Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote Horton Hears a Who after visiting Japan after World War II. (See Morgan & Morgan, pp. 144–145, and Richard Minear, Dr. Seuss Goes to War.) Geisel had held deeply racist and anti-Japanese prejudices before and during the war, but his visit to Japan, with other events, caused a dramatic reversal in Geisel. He wrote Horton Hears a Who as an allegory. The book includes veiled references to the war and the U.S.’ bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki like “When the black-bottomed birdie let go and we dropped, We landed so hard that our clocks have all stopped.” Geisel also dedicated Horton Hears a Who to a Japanese friend, Nakamura. He commented in interviews that when one considers Japan’s size as a country the theme becomes obvious, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

Shortly after the local performances of this play ended in our town, a dear family friend met with Crystal and me. They shared with us that they were trans and that they would be taking steps in the near future to live into their gender identity. Our friend had seen some of the beginning steps Crystal and I had taken to become affirming allies of the trans community, and she had decided to trust our family with her story and invite us to continue being part of her life. 

As we shared the news with our children, I knew my two eldest kids well enough to know their responses would be affirming and positive. It was my son, the youngest, who I was most curious about. As our friend shared with him as much of her story as was appropriate for his age, I could see him processing this new information. She was the first trans person he would ever know. After a moment, she asked what he thought. He reached up and took her hand. He looked into her face, said the new name she had just told him, and said, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

This week I want to talk about two values that are juxtaposed for us in Luke’s gospel: justice and love. In the short film Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology, which I watched last year, Dr. Emile M. Townes states, “When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.” This statement resonated so deeply for me that it brought tears to my eyes. 

Before I became an ally to trans people, and before all the fallout with our early followers, I had spent years speaking, writing, and teaching on the universal love of God for everyone! (See Finding the Father.) But one response I repeatedly heard during our transition as a ministry was people’s inability to understand what made us shift from God’s love to God’s justice. I spent countless hours trying to help folks understand that love means justice! They aren’t separate! One is the fruit of the other, and you can’t genuinely have one without the other. As Cornel West famously stated, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” 

What do we at RHM mean by the term justice?

Justice is distributive. Speaking of how the Hebrew scriptures define justice, John Dominic Crossan writes, “The primary meaning of ‘justice’ is not retributive, but distributive. To be just means to distribute everything fairly.” (John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, p. 2) 

If we believe in universal love then why wouldn’t that belief lead us toward compassion, action, and ensuring a distributive justice for all?

Distributive justice is the outgrowth of Jesus’ belief in a God that offers universal love.

“Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!” (Luke 12:24)

“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!” (Luke 12:27-28)

“[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

Jesus’ God universally loved even the ravens and lilies, therefore Jesus envisions God as also concerning Godself with distributive justice for us as well. For Jesus, God’s love was at the root of God’s radical vision for a world in which all had enough.

A God who indiscriminately loves is also a God who indiscriminately and justly sends rain and sunshine on the objects of that love. Jesus is standing firmly in his own Jewish tradition when he connects love and distributive justice. Consider the following passages from the Hebrew prophets where love and distributive justice are intrinsically connected.

“In love a throne will be established;
in faithfulness a man will sit on it—
one from the house of David—
one who in judging seeks justice
and speeds the cause of righteousness.” (Isaiah 16:5, emphasis added.)

“But you must return to your God;
maintain love and justice,
and wait for your God always. (Hosea 12:6, emphasis added.)
Calling for distributive justice was a way in which the Hebrew prophets spoke truth to power.

“For I, the LORD, love justice;
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people 
and make an everlasting covenant with them.” (Isaiah 61:8)

“Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph.” (Amos 5:15)

“Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.” (Isaiah 1:17)

As we mentioned last week, it is this preoccupation with distributive justice that defines whether someone in the Hebrew culture “knew God.”

“He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
declares the LORD (Jeremiah 22:16)

Jeremiah states that someone’s picture of the Divine will inevitably work its way out in whether they defend the oppressed and vulnerable or whether they drive oppression, marginalization, and/or exploitation. According to Jeremiah, to know the Hebrew God accurately is to defend the vulnerable. Gustavo Gutierrez confirms this interpretation: 

“For the prophets this demand was inseparable from the denunciation of social injustice and from the vigorous assertion that God is known only by doing justice. (A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 134) 

Gutierrez also writes, “To know God is to work for justice. There is no other path to reach God.” (Ibid., p. 156) 

The Hebrew sacred text is repeatedly concerned with a societal, distributive justice. See Exodus 21:2; Exodus 22:21-23; Exodus 22:25; Exodus 23:9; Exodus 23:11, Exodus 23:12; Leviticus 19:9-10; Leviticus 19:34; Leviticus 23:22; Leviticus 25:2-7; Leviticus 25:10; Leviticus 25:23; Leviticus 25:35-37; Leviticus 26:13; Leviticus 26:34-35; Deuteronomy 5:14; Deuteronomy 5:15; Deuteronomy 10:19; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; Deuteronomy 15:1-18; Deuteronomy 24:19-21; Deuteronomy 26:12; 2 Kings 23:35; Nehemiah 5:1-5; Job 24.2-12, 14; Isaiah 3:14; Isaiah 5:23; Isaiah 10:1-2; Jeremiah 5:27; Jeremiah 5:28; Jeremiah 6:12; Jeremiah 22:13-17; Ezekiel 22:29; Hosea 12:6-8; Amos 2.6-7; Amos 4:1; Amos 5:7; Amos 5:11-12; Amos 8:5-6; Micah 2:1-3; Micah 3:1-2; Micah 3:9-11; Micah 6:10-11; Micah 6.12; Habakkuk 2:5-6 . This tradition is carried on in the more Jewish portions of the New Testament texts, see Luke 6:24-25; Luke 12:13-21 ; Luke 16:19-31; Luke 18:18-26; James 2:5-9.

It makes perfect sense, then, that a Jewish prophet of the poor from Galilee who in the first century traversed the region teaching about a God who universally loved ravens, lilies, and all people, too, would live, teach, minister, protest, and be crucified in profound solidarity with those who were suffering from injustice in his society.

If we define politics as we did last week, as the distribution of resources and power, the gospel has real political implications that we must not hide or hide from. The portions of the New Testament believed to have been written by the Johannine community are the portions of the New Testament most preoccupied with defining God as “Love.” They don’t miss this connection between love and justice either:

“How can the love of God be in anyone who has material goods and sees a sibling in need and yet refuses help? . . . Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:17-18)

I want to close this week with one more statement by Gutierrez that I believe it would be well for us to spend this coming week contemplating:

“This does not detract from the Gospel news; rather it enriches the political sphere. Moreover, the life and death of Jesus are no less evangelical because of their political connotations. His testimony and his message acquire this political dimension precisely because of the radicalness of their salvific character: to preach the universal love of the Father is inevitably to go against all injustice, privilege, oppression, or narrow nationalism. (A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 135, emphasis added).

Those who believe they genuinely possess an understanding of God’s character should be the loudest in the room opposing the injustices of classism, racism, misogyny, patriarchy, bigotry toward and erasure of our LGBTQ siblings, and more. To believe in universal love is to work for a distributive, societal justice for those who are the objects of that universal love.

After all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue, and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42)

HeartGroup Application

Main Sanctuary Stained Glass Windows at Tree of Life* Or L'Simcha Congregation

Last weekend, a deadly mass shooting occurred at Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburg, PA.  Eleven people were killed. Nine people were injured.  The Anti-Defamation League has stated that the shooting is the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States. For Renewed Heart Ministries response to this attack, see Tree of Life* Or L’Simcha Congregation.

Renewed Heart Ministries stands in solidarity with our Jewish friends, neighbors and loved ones as we condemn and oppose Anti-Semitism in all its varied forms. Our hearts are with the families of the victims and the survivors.  We at Renewed Heart Ministries choose the resistance of love rather than hate. We will continue to daily take up the work of engaging the intersection of faith, love, compassion and justice. We will continue educating followers of Jesus, especially, in regards to the role Christianity has played in harming the Jewish community as well as other communities who have also been marginalized and harmed by us. We will continue to work together alongside targeted communities to heal our world, reshaping it into a compassionate, just and safe home for all; or, as our Jewish friends say, “the work of Tikkun Olam.”

This week, I want to invite all of our HeartGroups to take a moment and send the Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha Congregation a message of support or a prayer and to recommit to just action in you daily lives. 

Last Saturday’s attack was connected to more than a thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism as well as to White supremacist murders of Black people and Sikh people and breaches of sacred space in Birmingham, in Charleston, at Pulse, and more. (See Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s thread as well as Charleston to Tree of Life: White nationalism is a threat to us all ) My wife Crystal commented, “The truth is this country was built on the premise that some lives matter more than others. Racism has been woven into the very fabric of our existence. Othering is in our very foundation. We stole this country from it’s native people and claimed it for our own, based on the idea that we were more worthy than they, calling them savages when we murdered and stripped them of everything. We brutally enslaved races of people and claimed we somehow deserved to own and abuse them based on nothing more than the pigment of our skin and the fact that we could overpower them. Now we are shocked when a racist leader barely scratches the surface and all of this vile evil rises to the surface. It has always existed. We have to be honest with our past if we are going to do better in the future.”

Take a moment this weekend, and, as a HeartGroup, send this congregation a message of love and solidarity through this link: 

In Solidarity with the Tree of Life Synagogue, We Pray and We Pledge! 

This project was created by Auburn Seminary’s Senior Fellows. A friend of mine who works at Auburn Seminary along with her colleagues will be collecting and delivering these prayers and notes of support.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.  

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.