The Violence Inherent in the System

by Herb Montgomery | August 24, 2018

Mosaic of Jesus carrying a cross


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When one interprets what we call Jesus’ “triumphal entry” as climaxing in his temple protest, it makes a lot of sense to understand the cross as the response of the powers in control at that time. “Crucifixion was and remains a political and military punishment . . . Among the Romans it was inflicted above all on the lower classes, i.e., slaves, violent criminals, and the unruly elements in rebellious provinces, not least Judea . . . These were primarily people who on the whole had no rights, in other words, groups whose development had to be suppressed by all possible means to safeguard law and order in the state ” (Martin Hengel, Crucifixion, p. 87, emphasis added).

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

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

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

In Mark’s gospel, we read: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


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Taking One’s Cross

Grave yard full of crossesby Herb Montgomery

“Taking up one’s cross is not a call to patiently, passively endure, but to take hold of life and stand up against injustice even if there is a cost for doing so.”

Featured Text:

The one who does not take one’s cross and follow after me cannot be my disciple. Q 14:27

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:38: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Luke 14:27: “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Gospel of Thomas 55:2: “Jesus says: ‘And whoever . . . will not take up his cross as I do, will not be worthy of me.’”

Before we begin, and given the events of this past week here in the U.S., we at Renewed Heart Ministries reaffirm our commitment to stand with our transgender and gender nonconforming family and friends. We will continue working alongside each of you to end discrimination, transphobia and false gender constructs within our society. We value you and we are glad you are here. You are not alone. You are loved. You are worthy. And you Matter.

I have been waiting for months for us to get to this week’s saying.

Last fall, I was invited to a conference on nonviolence and the atonement. I chose to speak on violent forms of nonviolence: how atonement theories that treat the violent death of Jesus as salvific don’t bear nonviolent fruit toward the survivors of violence. We considered how penal substitution has produced violence, and we also weighed the violence that has come from more “nonviolent” theories such as moral influence and Christus Victor. I wish the recordings of those talks had been published. I will be giving a very similar presentation again this October and I will make sure that RHM publishes the recording.

This week’s saying is related to all of this. “Taking up one’s cross” has been used over and over to prioritize oppressors over survivors and to encourage the oppressed to passively and patiently endure. These ways of interpreting our saying this week have proven very convenient for oppressors and those who don’t want to disrupt the power imbalance of the status quo.

When one spouse suffers physical or emotional abuse at the hands of another, for example, how many times have Christian pastors counseled the abused spouse to “bear their cross,” be “like Jesus,” and simply “turn the other cheek”? We have covered previously in this series how turning the other cheek was for Jesus a call to creative, nonviolent forms of disruption, protest and resistance. It gave those pushed to the undersides and edges of society a way to reclaim and affirm themselves despite being dehumanized. This week, I want to suggest, as feminist and womanist scholars also do, that “taking up one’s cross” is not a call to patiently, passively endure, but to take hold of life and stand up against injustice even if there is a cost for doing so. This saying is not a call to passively suffer, but to protest even if the status quo threatens suffering.

There is a subtle difference, but the implications are huge. What we are discussing this week is called the myth of redemptive suffering. We have repeated Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker statement in their essay God So Loved The World? that by now most of you should have it memorized.  I have repeatedly used it this year to lead up to what our saying that are considering this week.

It is not acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not, Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering. If you believe that acceptance of suffering gives life, then your resources for confronting perpetrators of violence and abuse will be numbed.” (Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, pp. 1-30)

What was Jesus talking about, then, when he said “take up your own cross?”

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

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

While I agree with Borg and Crossan’s about participation rather than substitution, I disagree with their interpretation that a cross (suffering) was an intrinsic part of following him. I do not subscribe to the idea that suffering is an intrinsic precursor of triumph or success. Suffering only enters into the picture of following Jesus if those benefitting from the status quo feel threatened by the changes that Jesus’ new social vision would make and threaten Jesus’ followers with a cross. In other words, being willing to take up one’s cross is not the call to be passive in the face of suffering, but to protest and resist in the face of being threatened with a cross.

Jesus could have very well said, “Anyone who is not willing to protest and resist, even in the face of a threatened cross, is not worthy of me.” “The cross” in this context does not mean remaining passive. It means being willing to endure the results of disrupting, confronting, resisting, and protesting injustice. The cross is not a symbol of passivity but of the consequences of resistance: it is a symbol of the suffering that those in power threaten protestors with to scare them into remaining passive. Remember, the question is not how much am I willing to suffer, but how badly do I want to live!

If those in power threaten you with a cross, then it become necessary for you to take up a cross to stand up against injustice. Otherwise, the cross never comes into the pictures. Protesting, for instance, does not always involve being arrested, but if it does, protest anyway! Just two weeks ago, Rev. Dr. William Barber II was arrested during a healthcare bill protest. Actor James Cromwell is in jail now for participating with others in an environmental protest in upstate New York.

The goal in scenarios like these is not to suffer, but to refuse to let go of life. Again, the question is not are you willing to suffer, but do you desire to fully live?

How one interprets this week’s saying has deep implications for survivors of relational violence, and for all who are engaging any form of social justice work. When those who feel threatened try to intimidate and silence your voice through fear of an imposed “cross,” this week’s saying calls us to count the cost and then refuse to let go of life. Do not be silenced. Reject death.

For clarity, let’s return to relational violence to illustrate. First there is the relational violence itself. Then we have a choice in our response:

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

Instead, consider that the abuse is not the cross but an initial injustice. In this model, the cross is the threats one receives for standing up to or resisting injustice.

 

My interpretation of this week’s saying is that Jesus is not encouraging his followers to remain passive, but to resist. And if a cross comes into the picture, then resist anyway. Jesus’ nonviolence was rooted in resistance, and sometimes change happens before there is a cross. So bearing a cross is not intrinsic to following Jesus. It only enters the picture when those who are threatened choose to add it.

Jesus was proposing a new social vision, a way of doing life as a community, that threatened those most benefited by systems of domination and exploitation. The way of Jesus was rooted in resource-sharing, wealth redistribution, and bringing those on the edges of society into a shared table where their voices could be heard and valued too. Did the early Jesus movement threaten those in positions of power and privilege? You bet. Jesus, this week, seems to be saying, when those in power choose to threaten crosses for those standing up to systemic injustice, don’t let go. Keep holding on to hope even in the face of impossible odds. Keep holding on to life—life to the full.

“The one who does not take one’s cross and follow after me cannot be my disciple.” Q 14:27

HeartGroup Application

This week, take time to thoughtfully read and consider Brown and Parker’s entire essay For God So Loved the World?

  1. Read the essay.
  2. Take notes. Journal thoughts, questions, challenges, new insights.
  3. Pick three things from your notes to share and discuss with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.
  4. Share!

I agree with Brown and Parker. Their interpretation may be subtle, but it makes all the difference in the world in how we respond to suffering and oppression.

Next weekend is our first 500:25:1weekend event in Asheville, NC. And we’re scheduling many more after this one. I’m so excited to be moving in this new direction with our community. If you haven’t signed up to be part of making these events happen you can do so at http://bit.ly/RHM500251. There you can also find out why we are making these changes, how support these new weekend events, and most importantly, how you can have us come to your community too.

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

Keep living love right there where you are. And know you are not alone.  As we are engaging the teachings of Jesus, seek out ways you, too, can participate in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.