Social Justice, Jesus and Hell

flames

Herb Montgomery | September 24, 2021


“I want to be clear: I reject the common Evangelical doctrine of eternal torment, including a belief in a literal, eternally burning hell. If we take all the descriptions of a post-mortem ‘hell’ that we find in the scriptures, they are filled with internal incongruencies and contradictions, let alone with each other. So I want to offer an alternative, especially for those attracted to the ethical teachings of Jesus but who rightly have no tolerance for the evangelical Christian belief in a literal, eternally burning hell.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark,

Teacher,” said John, we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Do not stop him,” Jesus said. For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “ ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched. Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.” (Mark 9:38-50)

There is a lot in this week’s reading to unpack.

First, this week’s passage is connected to the debate among Jesus scholars about whether or not the historical Jesus actually believed he was the Messiah and ways Christians have long used that title for Jesus in damaging and destructive ways toward the Jewish community.

Second, the passage references a curse against those who cause “little ones” to stumble. This title could apply to children, the most subjugated and marginalized population in many of our social systems. And yet limiting this phrase only to children enables those who benefit by oppressive systems to escape the scrutiny of this passage as well. In truth, children in 1st Century Mediterranean societies lived at the bottom of the political, economic, and social hierarchical system. We have to ask whether Jesus simply loved children and thus spoke in their defense, or whether he stood in solidarity with all who were at the bottom of their social structures and all those pushed to the edges or margins of his society, of which children were the foremost. If this second option is right, then this passage warns everyone who structures society to push some people to the bottom or edges, and those who make life even more difficult for those on the bottom or edges after they have been pushed there. Much to ponder here.

Third, the passage uses the deeply ableist language about entering into the kingdom “maimed,” “crippled,” or having “one eye.” This is more than a translation problem, and more than language that was once acceptable falling out of vogue. It has always been damaging to deem people with disabilities as less than abled people. Jesus’ overt argument is that righteous disabled people are better off than unrighteous abled people. Passages that provide a subtext of a hierarchy lead us into territory of interpretations that are ableist. We can do better than this today. We don’t have to repeat ableist language as we tell the Jesus story and we can also find better ways to tell the story than to imply anyone is inferior because of their differences.

Lastly there are the verses about being “thrown into” or “going to hell.”

I want to be clear: I reject the common Evangelical doctrine of eternal torment, including a belief in a literal, eternally burning hell. If we take all the descriptions of a post-mortem “hell” that we find in the scriptures, they are filled with internal incongruencies and contradictions, let alone with each other.

So I want to offer an alternative, especially for those attracted to the ethical teachings of Jesus but who rightly have no tolerance for the evangelical Christian belief in a literal, eternally burning hell.

First, the language that the gospels used here would not have conjured a vision of post-mortem, eternal torment for the original Jewish audience. The word translated into English as “hell” is the Greek word, gehenna. That word already had a history and association for Mark’s original Jewish audience. Gehenna is the Greek form of the Hebrew/Aramaic valley of Gehinnom, or Ge Ben (son of) Hinnom. It named a valley on the south and east of Jerusalem, which was so called from the cries of the little children who were thrown into the fiery arms of Moloch” (Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. American Book Company, 1889; read stories about Gehenna in 2 Chronicles 28:1-4, 2 Chronicles 33:1, and Jeremiah 7:31-32).

In the Hebrew scriptures, Gehenna evolves from the location of horrific atrocities to the symbol of the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem at the hands of foreign, Gentile powers. Consider these examples:

Thus said the LORD: Go and buy a potters earthenware jug. Take with you some of the elders of the people and some of the senior priests and go out to the valley of the son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter. And in this place, I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem and will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth.” (Jeremiah 19:1-7)

But if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying any load as you come through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses.’” (Jeremiah 17:27)

Edoms streams will be turned into pitch,

her dust into burning sulfur;

her land will become blazing pitch!

It will not be quenched night or day;

its smoke will rise forever.

From generation to generation it will lie desolate;

no one will ever pass through it again.” (Isaiah 34:9-10)

The voice of the LORD will shatter Assyria;

with his rod he will strike them down.

Every stroke the LORD lays on them

with his punishing club

will be to the music of timbrels and harps,

as he fights them in battle with the blows of his arm.

His Topheth [the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna] has long been prepared;

it has been made ready for the king.

Its fire pit has been made deep and wide,

with an abundance of fire and wood;

the breath of the LORD,

like a stream of burning sulfur,

sets it ablaze.” (Isaiah 30:31-33)

“‘As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,declares the LORD, so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,says the LORD. And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.’” (Isaiah 66:22-24)

Jeremiah uses the phrase unquenchable fire” to refer to destruction by an outside empire. In Isaiah, the language of Assyrias Topheth” focuses on events happening in this life. In light of this, both Jeremiah’s language of eternally burning fire and Isaiah’s language of worms not dying (quoted in this week’s reading from Mark’s gospel) are highly metaphorical and to be taken seriously, not literally.

These prophetic warnings about Gehenna pointed to Gentile empires destroying people in this life, not after death. This destruction was consistently threatened as punishment for systemic injustice, oppression and violence done to the vulnerable and marginalized.

No wonder it was to be taken seriously.

It makes sense that Jesus would use this language taken from his Hebrew scriptures to speak to those who cause “little ones” to stumble. It is also quite possible that the author of Mark used this language to be connected to the destruction of Judea and Jerusalem by the Roman Empire in the 1st Century. Again, Jerusalem was being destroyed by a foreign, Gentile power.

I’ll end this week with some thoughts on Jesus’ command not to forbid people outside of his own disciples and followers from doing things in his name. Just because they were not part of the community of Jesus’ disciples didn’t mean they were to be stopped. I want to go a step further, though.

Within the Jesus story we find universal values that have proven life-giving. These values and ethics are in many more cultures and religions than mere Christianity—including those with no connection to the historical Jesus whatsoever. I encourage Christians to honor those traditions and values because of their intrinsic, life-giving quality. I’m reminded of a statement we at RHM shared as a meme a few weeks ago now:

“There was an ancient prophetic tradition in which God insisted not on justice and worship, but on justice over worship. God had repeatedly said, “I reject your worship because of your lack of justice,” but never, ever, ever, “I reject your justice because of your lack of worship.” (Borg and Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, Kindle Location 767) (cf. Amos 5:21-24; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; Isaiah 1:11-17)

For me, it’s not about making sure that we attach “Jesus” as a label to things, but that I value those things the Jesus of the Jesus story has taught me in my life. These things are valuable to me, and not merely because Jesus taught them but because I’ve experienced their intrinsic fruit for myself. Again, I don’t believe these things are valuable simply because Jesus taught them. Instead, I believe Jesus taught them because they were intrinsically valuable. We can honor these values when we see them in others without trying to make them somehow “Christian” and so worthy of our approval. We can simply honor the good they do in our world.

Something is good, remember, based on the kind of fruit it produces, whether it is life-giving or death-dealing. And that fruit is either enough of an argument in its favor, or a sign of something it’s time for us to leave behind.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. However one interprets Jesus’ words on Gehenna, how does Jesus’ teachings on social justice impact your own Jesus following? Discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.



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A Gospel About Jesus Versus the Gospel Jesus Taught

Herb Montgomery | November 15, 2019

Jesus Christ wall decor

Photo by Paul Zoetemeijer on Unsplash


“One thread in Jewish tradition enlarged this hope and applied it not only to the Jewish people, but also to the rest of humanity with a much more universal end to all oppression, violence, and injustice. It was to this Jewish hope for justice and liberation that the authors of the gospels sought to connect the Jesus story.


“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, TNIV).

There is a stark difference between a gospel about Jesus and the gospel that Jesus himself taught in the gospel stories. Let’s take a look this week at what these stories record Jesus taught.

Mark’s gospel begins its version of the Jesus story with the gospel Jesus preached (Mark 1:14-15). Let’s break this passage down by looking at four elements found here:

1) The Time has come!
2) The Kingdom has come!
3) Repent!
4) Believe the euangelion!

The Time Has Come

The hope of the Hebrew people during the time of Jesus was that one day YHWH would intervene in Jewish history, and all oppression, injustice, and violence toward the Jewish people would be put right. One thread in Jewish tradition enlarged this hope and applied it not only to the Jewish people, but also to the rest of humanity with a much more universal end to all oppression, violence, and injustice.

It was to this Jewish hope for justice and liberation that the authors of the gospels sought to connect the Jesus story when they used phrases such as “the time has come.”

The Kingdom Has Come

Some Christian feminists, rightly naming the patriarchal nature of the term kingdom, have preferred the term kin-dom for our interrelated connectedness. As part of the human family, we are all connected to each other. We are all part of one another. We are all “kin” or “kindred.”

According to Pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler, the term kin-dom originated from a Franciscan nun named Georgene Wilson. [1]

I agree with Christian feminist Reta Haltemen Finger who states, “I think kin-dom is a good word and better reflects the kind of society Jesus envisions—as a shared community of equals who serve each other. But in the political context of that day, and in the literary context of the sentence, the term ‘kingdom’ was easily understood—as well as in the 1600s when the King James Bible was translated.” [2]

The gospels describe the kingdom of God as an alternative way to structure human community as compared with the kingdom of Rome, the Roman empire.

Our problem is that “kingdom” is patriarchal and too easily co-opted by geopolitical kingdoms, empires, and oligarchies, as European Christian history proves. A kingdom has both a hierarchy and those that will inevitably be pushed to the edges or margins of that society.

But Jesus’ vision was of a human community choosing a life-giving way of structuring itself and choosing to live out the values that shape the world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone. Wherever we see these values happening, love is reigning. Whatever we name it, it’s a human community rooted in love, compassion, safety, equity, and justice. Jesus’ gospel was not instruction on how to arrive at bliss after one died, but rather how to establish justice on the earth in the here and now, today! (See Isaiah 42:4.)

Repentance

Repentance is a religiously charged word with a history of deep emotional abuse. But it has very little to with guilt trips. In the context of what Jesus taught in the gospels, repentance has much more to do with rethinking how one views and practices politics, economics, society, and community. It’s a call to rethink how society is shaped and begin working toward shaping a world that is a distributively just, safe and compassionate home for everyone. In global and local societies of oppression, marginalization, exclusion, and exploitation, Jesus’ gospel invites us to rethink how human communities are shaped today and to imagine a world where everyone has enough to thrive rather than some have more than they could possibly need while most either scrape by or simply don’t have enough to live.

Believe the Good News

The term “gospel” itself didn’t originate in Judaism but in the Roman empire. Whenever Rome conquered a new territory, it would send out Roman “evangelists” to proclaim that the newly conquered inhabitants were now going to be living under the imperial umbrella of the Roman empire and to explain what in their society would change.

Here are three examples of how Rome used the term “gospel,” “glad tidings,” or “good news.”

“Even after the battle at Mantinea, which Thucydides has described, the one who first announced the victory had no other reward for his gospel [glad tidings] 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 gospel [glad tidings] 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 gospel [glad tidings] 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 [euangelion] are indebted for a pleasing retelling of them” (Plutarch; Moralia (Glory of Athens), p. 347, 1st Century).

The gospel authors lifted this language straight out of Roman lexicons and applied it to the social changes Jesus’ teachings could make if we chose to embrace them. The society they described would be a human society based on the golden rule above all else. It embraced the interconnectedness of us all and our responsibility to take care of one another.

The authors of the Jesus stories coupled this Roman word “gospel” with the very Jewish hope of a restored “kingdom”:

“I must preach the good news of the KINGDOM OF GOD to the other towns also because that is why I was sent.” (Luke 4:43, emphasis mine)

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of THE KINGDOM and healing every disease and sickness.” (Matthew 9:35, emphasis mine)

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of THE KINGDOM.” (Matthew 4:23, emphasis mine)

Many see the New Testament book of Acts as an apologetic book for introducing the work of Paul as an accepted apostle into the Christian stream of communities in the first and second centuries. And in Acts, even Paul must also be presented as teaching a gospel of “the kingdom” too:

“For two whole years, Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed THE KINGDOM OF GOD and taught about THE LORD JESUS CHRIST—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28.30–31, emphasis mine)

A gospel about Jesus has historically been about how Jesus offers us a way out of this world to a better one. Jesus instead taught us how to make the world we are living in a home that is better for everyone. A gospel about Jesus too often is about alleviating personal guilt. Jesus’ gospel instead was about rethinking how we are structuring the human communities and societies we belong to. A gospel about Jesus tends to be about post-mortem heaven in contrast to a post-mortem hell. Jesus’ gospel instead announced the arrival of a different way to shape our human communities, in this world, our world, here and now, today.

To many people today, the idea of a human society where wealth is justly and equitably distributed, where people are not marginalized, excluded or treated less-than on the bases of race, color, gender, national origin, age, religion, creed, disability, veteran’s status, sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression is a pie-in-the-sky dream. Our present structure seems just as eternal and unchangeable as feudalism did in the 1600s.

Maybe this is why, in a world where it seems like nothing will ever change, the gospel stories tell of a Jesus who says:

It’s time.

A new way of being human is ours for the choosing.

Rethink how society is shaped.

And I believe, despite appearances, the good news is that another world is possible, here, now in our lifetime, if we choose it.

HeartGroup Application

Discuss with your group the differences you see between the gospel being taught by some sectors of Christianity today and the gospel Jesus teaches in the gospel stories.
Discuss with your group what significant differences this makes for you in the choice you make in your daily life.
Discuss how your group can also have a more present engagement in life and society right now. How can your HeartGroup work in your local community to make our world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Don’t forget, to take advantage of RHM’s Shared Table fundraiser going on during the months of November and December. Remember, all donations to support our work during these final two months of 2019 are being matched dollar-for-dollar enabling you to make your support go twice as far!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


[1] Read more from Melissa in her article “The Kin-Dom of Christ.” Florer-Bixler, M. (2018, November 20). “The Kin-Dom of Christ.” Sojourners. Retrieved from https://sojo.net/articles/kin-dom-christ

[2] 2018, December 26). “From Kingdom to Kin-Dom-and Beyond.” Christian Feminism Today. Retrieved from https://eewc.com/kingdom-kindom-beyond/

Biblical Inclusion Versus Biblical Exclusion

by Herb Montgomery | November 8, 2019

white printed paper

Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash


“What is our relation, as followers of Jesus, to the marginalized of our day? To what degree are we marginalized in our own lives? Are we standing in solidarity with others who are marginalized or are we participating in their continued marginalization?”


Very early in Luke’s gospel, we read:

“He [Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘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 4:16-19)

Of all the passages in the Hebrew scriptures that the author of Luke could have chosen to summarize his portrayal of Jesus, it’s telling that this gospel points to Isaiah 61. For Luke, Jesus proclaims good news, announcing liberation, reparations, and recovery. He promotes distributive, transformative and reparative justice, especially for the marginalized.

The story continues:

“Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they asked.
Jesus said to them, ‘Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ Truly I tell you,’ he continued, ‘prophets are not accepted in their hometowns. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.’
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” (Luke 4:20-30)

This story summarizes what Luke will share in this gospel. Jesus’ inclusion of those whom others exclude will ultimately lead to his rejection and attempted execution. Luke will have Jesus overcome that opposition not through escape but through the discovery of an “empty tomb.”

Luke’s connection of Jesus to Hebrew prophets like Elijah and Elisha is also telling. In each of the canonical gospels, Jesus is not part of the system in his society that is perpetuating injustice against vulnerable people. He does not emerge as one of the wealthy, powerfully positioned elite, seeking to reform society from the inside, nor is he fully abandoning society like the Essenes or even John the Baptist.

Jesus stands in solidarity with those to whom harm is being done, rolls up his sleeves, gets involved, and engages his society. He doesn’t come in the tradition of kings or priests. In Luke, Jesus comes in the traditions of the prophets of the poor. He is from the twice-marginal region of Galilee: marginal in relation to both Rome and Jerusalem. The fact that he appears in Galilee and Judea as a prophet of the poor and marginalized instead of as a member of the elite in his society speaks volumes to us. What is our relation, as followers of Jesus, to the marginalized of our day? To what degree are we marginalized in our own lives? Are we standing in solidarity with others who are marginalized or are we participating in their continued marginalization?

The story we began with in Luke mentions the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. This is important because our sacred texts have two categories of passages: passages of exclusion and passages of inclusion. I’ll give examples of both.

First, here is an example of an exclusionary passage:

No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you. However, the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loves you. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live. Do not despise an Edomite, for the Edomites are related to you. Do not despise an Egyptian, because you resided as foreigners in their country. The third generation of children born to them may enter the assembly of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 23:3–8)

In Isaiah, we find the exact opposite: an example of an inclusive passage.

“For my house will be called a house of prayer for ALL NATIONS” (Isaiah 56:7).

Immediately after the Jewish people return from exile, Nehemiah inspires a fascinating, conscientious, and meticulous return to a more exclusionary practice of their faith. To give Nehemiah the benefit of the doubt, I see in him a sincere desire to preserve Jewish culture. Yet his fidelity becomes “zeal without knowledge.” I see it as xenophobic, ethnically nationalistic. Change is always scary, and Nehemiah was likely preoccupied with doing whatever it took to make sure events like the Babylonian captivity would never happen again. But fear often clouds clear judgment.

Nehemiah deliberately rejects the inclusion found in Isaiah and returns to the opposite trajectory of exclusion.

It’s not by whim that Luke’s Jesus begins by quoting Isaiah rather than Nehemiah. Jesus embraces Isaiah’s inclusion. He mentions the widow in Zarephath and Naaman, who would previously have been excluded, receiving the prophets’ favor in the days of Elijah and Elisha.

Jesus looked at people excluded by one set of passages in the sacred texts as those marginalized and in need of distributive and inclusive justice. We find this pattern over and over again in the Jesus story. In John 8 a woman is caught in adultery. One set of texts demanded her exclusion and execution. Yet another set spoke of God no longer requiring sacrificing and scapegoating, but rather requiring mercy, inclusion, and justice (see Hosea 6:6; cf. Matthew 12:7).

Jesus did not follow the exclusionary passages in John 8’s story but chose instead much more inclusive passages. This pattern applies to the woman at the well in John 4 and the woman with the issue of blood in Luke 8. In all these stories Jesus takes the same trajectory away from exclusion. Whatever the reasons that these exclusionary passages are present in our scriptures, Jesus perceived the more life-giving passages to be those of inclusion instead.

Did this lead some to accuse Jesus as being a lawbreaker? Of course. Yet I believe he was prioritizing the inclusive sections of his sacred text over the exclusionary ones.

Today, too, Christians have a choice. Certainly one can find texts to exclude whichever sector of society one is afraid of. The Bible has been used against women, Black people, Indigenous people, the LGBTQ community, and more. Yet, as Jesus followers, we have to do more than ask whether our exclusion is biblical. We also have to ask whether we’re practicing the same inclusion and affirmation that Jesus practiced.

This juxtaposition between the two types of passage within the same sacred text may be disconcerting. But I want to clarify: following Jesus does not mean disregarding or disrespecting the sacred text. It means prioritizing our sacred texts in the life-giving ways as Jesus also did.

If you are wrestling to get your head around this, I encourage you to read the book of James. The new followers of Jesus were being accused of doing away with the old interpretations of the scriptures and living lawless lives. James points out that though they were violating parts of their sacred texts, they were not “lawless” but were prioritizing other values in those texts. James refers to Abraham’s attempted murder and Hagar’s false testimony because their actions were strictly condemned (Exodus 20:13, 16), yet these two were heroes because they prioritized a different set of values!

Will this approach bother those who interpret the scriptures in exclusive ways? Of course. When Jesus first introduced it in Luke’s story, people wanted to throw him off a cliff.

What does this all mean to us today?

Are there people in your life whom compassion calls you to include and affirm despite how you interpret other texts in your scriptures?

What should you do?

Choose compassion.

Choose justice.

You don’t need permission to show compassion. The fruit of compassion is its own justification: “Wisdom is proved right by all her children” (Luke 7:35).

But who knows? One day, you might find different ways to interpret those passages. Even if you don’t, remember the words of both Jesus and the Hebrew prophet Hosea:

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6)

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

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

Another world is possible if we choose it. 

Don’t forget to take advantage of RHM’s Shared Table Fundraiser during the months of November and December, and remember all donations during these two months are also being matched dollar for dollar so you can make your support go twice as far!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Challenging Exclusion

Herb Montgomery | June 21, 2019

Picture of board game pieces with one being excluded.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

It’s not enough to simply offer a gospel that only offers divine forgiveness of sins. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include people forgiving people. It must include a redistribution of power and resources so that everyone has what they need not simply to survive but also to thrive. It must include reparations alongside reconciliation. It must include access and inclusion where the vulnerable have been excluded. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include material, holistic liberation.


“Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.” (Mark 2:4)

In the worldview of the gospel authors and their intended audience, healing was normal. Whereas most healing stories in that era tended to bolster the way society was organized, the healing stories in the gospels challenged, subverted, and even threatened the status quo.

One such resistance/healing story is found very early in the gospel of Mark:

“A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, ‘Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ So he said to the man, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’” (Mark 2:1-12)

Message of Inclusion

The first thing we bump into in this story is a lack of room. The crowd could have made room for the paralyzed man to get through. They could have practiced a preferential option for the one with the disability. Yet they didn’t. They were each focused on making sure there was a place for themselves, even if it came at the expense of someone else. 

I used to fly a lot. Those two options—a preferential option for others or making a place for oneself—always played out during the boarding practice. Before airlines started overselling flights, there was enough room for everyone. The plane was going to leave at the same time for everyone and seats were even already assigned. Yet you could see passengers who only thought of themselves from a concourse away. 

Saving ourselves at others’ expense has a long evolutionary history for humans. Yet I contend that our salvation as a race lies not in what works for some at the expense of others but in what makes our world safe, just, and compassionate for all. We will survive together or we will perish together. What once worked for the survival of some, will not ensure the survival of us all in the context of global climate break down. 

I also want to address the gospel author’s use of a person with a disability. In the culture of the gospel writers, there were religious teachings that explained disabilities as the result of sin, either one’s own or one’s parents (see John 9:1-2). This teaching added a basis for further exclusion in a world that already left those with disabilities on the margins. But in Mark’s story, Jesus rejects that teaching and declares that this paralytic has been forgiven. Jesus does not offer the man a plan or program: do this and your sins will be forgiven. Jesus declares that this man already was forgiven. 

His teaching challenged those who believed that those with disabilities were being punished for some sin. It challenged them to view this man as their equal regardless of his ability. Jesus here juxtaposes disability and the culture’s definition of right standing, and calls people  to rethink.

Similarly, one could challenge non-affirming Christians’ definition of what’s normative in relation to the LGBTQ community. Last week, Renewed Heart Ministries posted a meme for Pride Month juxtaposing LGBTQ identity and LGBTQ people’s being in the image of God. This deeply challenges Christian cis-heterosexism.

Again, though, Jesus does not offer the man a plan or program to follow. Jesus declared that this man already was forgiven, and so challenges many Christian stories that teach a God who must be moved by some action on our part first.

Holistic Liberation

Just like in any work of affirmation or liberation, there will always be pushback by those who feel threatened by such inclusivity and equity. The objection in Mark’s story is “only God can forgive sins.” Jesus doesn’t respond by stating that he is divine. The gospel writers instead identify Jesus with a “a human being” or the “son of man.” This language is from the Maccabean era Jewish resistance literature.

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man.” (Daniel 7.13, NIV, emphasis added.) 

“As I continued to watch this night vision of mine, I suddenly saw one like a human being . . .” (Daniel 7.13, CEB, emphasis added.)

The “human being” in Daniel 7 was a symbol of liberation from oppressive empires and putting the world to right. 

Forgiveness in Mark’s story is also a human act. It’s not something left only to a god or cosmic being that leaves us off the hook. Forgiveness as something we should practice as humans was part of Jesus’s message. Yet I don’t believe Jesus taught reconciliation without reparation and liberation. Jesus message of forgiveness was primarily aimed at wealthy, elite creditors and called them to “forgive” the debts of their poor debtors. Jesus’ message of forgiveness included a deep economic implication. It was a call for debt forgiveness, the Jewish Jubilee. (See A Prayer for Debts Cancelled)

Jesus’ gospel included material liberation. And not only was the man with the disability told he had already been forgiven, but the story also includes him being liberated from his inability to walk. Honestly, I don’t like this story as I read it from our vantage point today. It can be too easily coopted to make people with disabilities feel less than those without. I’m thankful that the story author challenged the crowd’s bias against this man before he removes the group’s actual reason for marginalizing him. Otherwise the marginalized would be simply kept marginalized.

If the gospel writer had written the story differently, the solution to marginalized women would be to make women men.

The solution to marginalized Black, brown and other people of color would be to  make them White. 

The solution to marginalized LGBTQ people would be make them straight and/or cisgender. (Conversion therapy is harmful and is outlawed in 18 states, Maine and Colorado being the latest to ban such practices.)

Rather than using various disabilities as metaphors for social evils (as the gospels do), we can do better and name specific social evils instead.

Being gay is not a social evil.

Being a woman is not a social evil.

Being non-white is not a social evil.

Being a migrant is not a social evil.

Being disabled is not a social evil.

How the social system treats these folks is a social evil.

Poverty is a social evil.

Keeping people uneducated is a social evil. 

Keeping people indebted is a social evil.

Keeping people without adequate access to health care is a social evil.

And that is what I believe Mark’s story is trying to teach. In holistic liberation, everyone receives what they need. When we apply this to people with disabilities, we arrive at the lesson of removing the barriers that keep people with disabilities excluded. We are to remove the barriers that keep people with disabilities from accessing what they need to thrive.

Actual social evils are what we as followers of Jesus must work against today. This story doesn’t stop at forgiveness. We can’t afford to either. It’s not enough to simply offer a gospel that only offers divine forgiveness of sins. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include people forgiving people. It must include a redistribution of power and resources so that everyone has what they need not simply to survive but also to thrive. It must include reparations alongside reconciliation. It must include access and inclusion where the vulnerable have been excluded. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include material, holistic liberation.

This story calls us to work toward an inclusive, just, safe society for everyone.

“Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.” (Mark 2:4)

HeartGroup Application

  1. What are some of the ways you either experience or witness others experiencing discrimination and exclusion, either in your faith community or our larger society today?
  2. Make a list of practices your HeartGroup can engage that express inclusion, justice, and create a safe space for those mentioned in number 1.
  3. Pick something from the list and put it into action this week.

Thanks for checking in with us. I’m so glad you’re here. 

Wherever you are today, keep living in love. Choose compassion, justice and action. Till the only world that remains is a world where love and justice reigns.  

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


Want to start a HeartGroup in your area? 

Contact us here and just write “HeartGroup” in the “details” box and we’ll get you started!

The Jaundiced Eye Darkens the Body’s Light 

by Herb Montgomery

An eye with rainbow coloring

Featured Text:

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is generous, your whole body is radiant; but if your eye is jaundiced, your whole body is dark. So if the light within you is dark, how great must the darkness be!” (Q 11:34-35)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 6:22-23: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”

Luke 11:34-35: “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness.”

Gospel of Thomas 24:3: “Light exists inside a person of light, and he shines on the whole world. If he does not shine, there is darkness.”

To begin, our saying this week uses metaphors that are rooted in ableism.  Fish don’t know they’re wet.  Able-bodied people often don’t realize how ableist they are being. But acknowledge it we must, for this is a first step toward change. Naming injustice is a primary step toward action that reverses injustice. “In ableist societies, able-bodiedness is viewed as the norm; people with disabilities are understood as those that deviate from that norm. Disability is seen as something to overcome or to fix, for example, through medical intervention. The ableist worldview holds that disability is an error or a failing rather than a consequence of human diversity, akin to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ableism)

With this in mind, let’s look at what this week’s saying was attempting to teach.

Lamp of the Body is the Eye

In 1st Century Jewish culture, people believed that a person possessed either light or darkness within them: “The human spirit is the lamp of YHWH that sheds light on one’s inmost being” (Proverbs 22:27). In our saying this week, Jesus uses the eyes as a symbol for determining whether what is inside his listeners is truly light or really darkness. “Many people believed that light was emitted from the eye, enabling one to see, rather than that light was admitted through the eye. Although here Jesus compares the eye to a lamp, he speaks of ‘diseased’ eyes which fail to admit light.” (IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament; Matthew 6:22-23 cf. 11:34-36)

When one steps back into the cultural context of this week’s saying, the meaning is rather simple: what you see when you look at others determines whether what is inside of you is “light” or “dark.” Two people can look at the same person and see very different things, based on what their eyes are trained to see.

A fun, literary example is found in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about Sherlock Holmes. As a private investigator, Sherlock’s eyes and powers of observation are well trained to see much more than others around him see. In our saying this week, Jesus is teaching his listeners about a specific power of observation that he desired his followers to become proficient in: the ability to look at others who share our world with us through the lens of generosity.

Generosity

When you look at others, what do you see? Is it typically positive by default? Do you give people the benefit of a doubt? Do you assume the best about them? Or is your eye judgmental, maybe critical, or even condemnatory?

Jesus spoke positively of having an eye that was “single,” “generous,” or “healthy.”

A healthy eye sees others generously. And it is singular, too, in the sense that one is persistent in generously extending the image of God to everyone that one encounters. A person with a healthy eye remembers the truth in the Jewish story that an angel walks before each of us declaring “Behold the image of God.” Being disrespectful or to humiliate anyone bearing the Divine image is a denial, in that person, of the Divine whose image they bear. These acts were also seen as a defacement of the Divine image. To lie about another person was to deny the very existence of God. The school of Hillel in the first century taught that murder was both a civil violation and a sacrilege of that which was sacred. The Hebrews’ sacred text taught that when we shed human blood, the act is regarded as diminishing the corporate divine image within humanity. In the Hebrew creation story found in the second chapter of Genesis, humanity begins with the whole of humanity in one person. This was believed to have taught that the taking of a human life is equivalent to annihilating the entire world. The opposite was held to also be true—to save one life was to save the entire world. (Remember the ending scenes of the film Schindler’s List.) This applied to slaves and to non-Jews as well. The Jewish religion of the Rabbis became inseparable from the practice of the golden rule to others and practicing the golden rule became the touchstone of one’s religious worship of the Divine.

This is listening for and seeing God in the Other. According to Genesis, all persons bear the image of God (see Genesis 9:6). In the Christian New Testament we find this passage: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1John 4:20). If every person bears the image of God, I’m called to see and to listen to God in you, whoever you are. If we generously kept in mind the view that every person we meet bears the image of God, how different our world might be.

In addition to this, Matthew’s context builds on this generous view with a focus on economic generosity: Jesus’ vision of a world where people take responsibility for taking care of one another. “Jesus speaks literally of a ‘single’ eye versus a ‘bad‘ or ‘evil‘ one. A ‘single‘ eye normally meant a generous one. A ‘bad‘ eye in that culture could mean either a diseased one or a stingy one. Such eyes become a symbol for the worthlessness of a stingy person.” (IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament; Matthew 6:22-23 cf. Luke 11:34-36)

Luke adds another statement to this emphasis on resources. A few passages later, Jesus states, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” (Luke 11:39-41)

In both of these gospels, this saying refers to serving other people. Again, Jesus’ new world is defined primarily by people taking care of people. Later New Testament letters include these words: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:17)

In addition, Jesus’ generosity goes far beyond economic generosity. It also encompasses the whole person. The media plays a part in this for us. When people of color, especially men, are victims of police brutality, the media goes to work to criminalize them so as to bias how the rest of us see them. (See How News Networks Criminalize Black Victims of Police Violence.) Contrast this with how the media characterized Brock Turner, a rapist, and put the highest possible spin on his character to the masses. Just this week, Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the article My President Was Black, was interviewed on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah. In the interview Cotes contrasted the path it took for Obama to become president and the path Trump took to do the same:

“If I have to jump six feet to get to the same place you have to jump two feet for, that’s how racism works . . . to be president he [Obama] had to be scholarly, intelligent, president of the Harvard Law Review, the product of some of our greatest educational institutions, capable of talking to two different worlds. Donald Trump had to be rich and white. That was it. That’s the difference.” (See the interview here.)

What we chose to see when we look at another person should be more than skin deep. What we choose to see and what we choose to believe about a person will directly impact our thoughts, feelings, opinions and attitudes toward them and ultimately our behavior. This is possibly why in this week’s saying, Jesus says that what we see in another determines whether we truly possess light instead of darkness.

The very first thing we should choose to see and believe in each person we encounter is that they are of inestimable worth simply because they are a part of the human web. This applies not to just individuals, but also to the entire planet. As Oscar Romero taught, “We are not three worlds [First World, Second World, and Third World], we are one world.”

In Jesus’ worldview, God indiscriminately causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall:

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

“ . . . he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” (Luke 6:35)

Jesus called his followers to relate to genuine political and economic enemies with love that seeks to transform them from oppressing the lower classes. Yet some White Christians today still discriminate against others based on their skin color, and some Evangelical business owners discriminate in whom they bake cupcakes and pizzas for.

If the sun shines on a person, if the rain falls on a person, we are called to see them as a bearer of the image of the Divine, to look for God in them, regardless of how much we feel tempted to “Other” them as instead. We are all connected.

Yes, we are different, and those differences should be seen and celebrated, but we are all still part of one another and in this together. When we fail to celebrate each other, when we choose to neglect this basic step in how we are seeing others, it does not matter what we claim to be—light bearer or reflector—the light we claim to possess is actually darkness.

With these thoughts in mind, let us contemplate our saying this week:

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is generous, your whole body is radiant; but if your eye is jaundiced, your whole body is dark. So if the light within you is dark, how great must the darkness be!” (Q 11:34-35)

HeartGroup Application

In the book I wrote over a decade ago now (Finding the Father) I proposed that what a person believes about God determines how they think and feel toward God, especially in the context of the spiritual abuse many theists within Christianity have suffered. I proposed that however we choose to see a God ultimately affects how we choose to behave and what type of a person, as a worshipper of that God, we will become.

This week I want to draw our heads out of the clouds for a moment and place our feet firmly on planet Earth. Apply this week’s principles to how you relate to other people. What we choose to believe about others, what we choose to see when we look at another, will determine our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, opinions, and our behavior in relation to them.

Jesus taught that one cannot live out indiscriminate justice, faith, and love toward others without it impacting how one begins to perceive others. We start with the behavior of simply listening to the experiences of those who are not like us. A Buddhist friend of mine introduced me to this saying, and I believe it teaches the same universal truth that we are seeing in the sayings of Jesus this week:

“Some people live closely guarded lives, fearful of encountering someone or something that might shatter their insecure spiritual foundation. This attitude, however, is not the fault of religion but of their own limited understanding. True Dharma leads in exactly the opposite direction. It enables one to integrate all the many diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole, thereby banishing fear and insecurity completely.” Lama Thubten Yeshe, (Daily Wisdom: 365 Buddhist Inspirations)

Jesus’ saying invites us to do the same, to “integrate all the many diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole, thereby banishing fear and insecurity completely.”

If the sun shines on them, if the rain falls on them, we have a mandate from the saying of Jesus to imitate Jesus’ God as we interact with them.

  1.   List ways that you can begin making space in your life to listen to those who are different from yourself, especially those whom the present status quo does not benefit. If the sun and rain are for all, prioritize listening to those whom society prevents the sun and rain from reaching. Try actual conversations (where your posture is one of simply listening), following people on Twitter, listening to podcasts, and reading books by authors from a different walk through life than your own.
  2. With as much honesty as you can achieve, contrast the ways you now choose to negatively see some people and write the positive assumptions that you could choose instead. Pay close attention to how these assumptions would affect how you think, feel, and relate to those people.
  3. As a group, begin making space for voices that are different. One of the ways HeartGroups can do this well is by asking others to simply come and share their experience with the group. I have been invited to go and share at a very warm and welcoming interfaith fellowship in my home town. HeartGroups can do the same. We can look for things we have in common with others, like the universal values of compassion and justice. And we could benefit from comparing and valuing our differences, viewing them in the light of intrinsic fruit.

What does it mean for you to begin listening for and looking for God in the other?

Wherever this finds you this week, I’m glad you’re here. Keep living in love, loving with the equity of the sun and the rain, with a preferential option of those being prevented from accessing what meant for all equally.

This will be our last eSight/podcast for 2016. We’ll be back in two weeks. Have a happy holidays and we here at RHM wish you a very happy new year.

I love each of you dearly.

See you in 2017.