A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Part 3)

Herb Montgomery | August 16, 2019

Textured Rugs
Photo by Trang Nguyen on Unsplash

“Jesus was teaching the rejection of violent responses to this world’s evil. Yet he was not teaching that we should simply do nothing! Jesus was teaching nonviolent ways for oppressed people to take the initiative, to affirm their humanity, to expose and neutralize exploitative circumstances. Jesus was teaching nonviolent ways in which people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of exploitative domination systems can demonstrate their humanity.”


Before we begin, I want to pause for a moment and ask for your support. Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice. We need your support to bring the kind of resources and analysis that RHM provides.

Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed now more than ever.  

Help Christians be better humans. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Renewed Heart Ministries, today.  To do so just go to our website at renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate” on the top right or if you prefer to make a donation by mail, our address is:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, I want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without your support.

“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. . . .
I tell you, love your enemies.”
— Jesus (Matthew’s gospel)

Jesus never taught passive nonresistance. Nor did he teach survivors a path of self-sacrifice. Yet when we read the above quotation from Matthew’s gospel from our own context, it sure sounds like he did. Jesus taught his followers the difference between violent retaliation and nonviolent resistance. While some interpret this passage to teach passive nonresistance, I believe it teaches us nonviolent resistance. There is a huge difference between the two.

I am indebted to the late scholar Walter Wink for his insights and cultural research on this section of Jesus’ teachings, especially in the book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Fortress, 2003). Wink is dearly missed and his influence will long continue.

Not only did Jesus teach the theory of nonviolence. He also gave us real-life examples of how to apply it and modeled his teachings throughout his entire life.

In Matthew, Jesus says:

“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:39)

What did this mean? In Jesus’ culture, the use of the left hand in interpersonal interactions was strictly forbidden. Since most people are right handed, they only used the left hand for unclean tasks. To even gesture at another person with the left hand carried the penalty of exclusion and ten day’s penance (see Martínez, Florentino García, and Watson in The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: the Qumran Texts in English [2007], p. 11). Therefore, one would not hit someone’s right cheek with the left hand. 

One would also never strike an equal on the right cheek. A blow between equals would always be delivered with a closed right fist to the left cheek of the other. The only natural way to land a blow with the right hand on someone’s right cheek was with a backhanded slap. This kind of blow was a show of insult from a superior to an inferior—master to slave, man to woman, adult to child, Roman to Jew—and it carried no penalty. But anyone who struck a social equal this way risked an exorbitant fine of up to 100 times the fine for common violence. Four zuz (a Jewish silver coin) was the fine for a blow to a social peer with a fist, but 400 zuz was the fine for backhanding them. Again, to strike someone you viewed as socially inferior to yourself with a backhanded slap, was perfectly acceptable (see Goodman in Jews in a Graeco-Roman World [2004], p. 189). A backhanded blow to the right cheek had the specific purpose of humiliating and dehumanizing the other.

What did Jesus command the dehumanized victim to do? A retaliatory blow would only invite retribution and set in motion escalating violence. Instead, Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, the left cheek, to the supposed superior to be stricken correctly—as an equal. This would demonstrate that the supposed inferior refused to be humiliated, and with the left cheek now bared, the striker would be left with two options—a left-handed blow with the back of the hand (and its penalty) or a blow to the left cheek with a right fist, signifying equality. Since the first option was culturally not an option and the second option would challenge the striker’s supposed superiority, the aggressor lost the power to dehumanize the other. 

For someone attacked in this way, turning the other cheek would be an act of nonviolent resistance.

Next we read:

“And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” (Matthew 5:40)

A court of law constituted the setting for this injunction from Jesus. Many of the very poor of his day had only two articles of clothing to their name. The law allowed a creditor to take either the inner garment (chiton) or the outer garment (himation) from a poor person as a promise of future payment if they lacked means to pay a debt. However, the wealthy creditor had to return the garment each evening for the owner to sleep in: 

“If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it by sunset, because that cloak is the only covering your neighbor has. What else can they sleep in? When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.” (Exodus 22:25–27)

“When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, do not go into their house to get what is offered to you as a pledge. Stay outside and let the neighbor to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you. If the neighbor is poor, do not go to sleep with their pledge in your possession. Return their cloak by sunset so that your neighbor may sleep in it. Then they will thank you, and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 24:10–13)

“Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.” (Deuteronomy 24:17).

In that society, before the invention of modern underwear, it was more shameful to look upon someone’s nakedness than to be naked. Remember Noah’s son Ham?

“Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.” (Genesis 9:22-23)

Because of this context, a debtor stripping off their chiton (if the creditor was suing for the himation) or their himation (if the creditor was suing for the chiton) in public court would turn the tables on the wealthy creditor and put the poor person in control of the moment. Compare Matthew 5:40 and Luke 6:29: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt [chiton], hand over your coat [himation] as well” (Matthew 5:40). “If someone takes your coat, [himation] do not withhold your shirt [chiton] from them” (Luke 6:29).

A debtor exposing their body would also expose the exploitative system and shame the wealthy and powerful person who took the last object of value from them. Here, Jesus was endorsing public nudity as a valid form of nonviolent protest or nonviolent resistance. It was an act of protest, and nonviolent: Jesus recommended nakedness in protest over returning violence with more violence.

The third example of nonviolence that Jesus gives is:

“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” (Matthew 5:41)

Roman law allowed soldiers to conscript at will those occupied and require them to carry burdens for up to one mile. This limit provided some protection for the occupied people. But if one followed Jesus’ words and cheerfully carried a burden beyond the required first mile, it put the soldier making the requirement in the awkward position of not complying with the limit imposed by his superior. As a result, the soldier could end up being disciplined if the situation were made known. Imagine the discussion between the Jewish Jesus follower and the soldier, who was a representative of the Roman power deeply despised by the Jewish people, for the entire second mile. Going the second mile would have placed the Jewish subservient in a position of power and held the soldier’s attention.

In these cases, Jesus’ instructions were not commands of passive nonresistance; they were ways of putting nonviolent resistance into practice, enabling the oppressed to affirm their selves or their humanity, and place them in a certain position of power. Gandhi once said that Jesus, “has been acclaimed in the west as the prince of passive resisters. I showed years ago in South Africa that the adjective ‘passive’ was a misnomer, at least as applied to Jesus. He was the most active resister known perhaps to history. His was non-violence par excellence.” (in Gandhi and Prabhu. What Jesus Means to Me [1959], p.18.)

Now let’s turn back to the phrase found at the beginning of these three examples in Matthew’s gospel:

“I tell you, do not resist an evil person.” (Matthew 5:39)

The Greek word translated into English as “resist” in this verse is anthistemi, which means to answer violence with violence, evil with evil, like for like, an eye for an eye. “Do not retaliate” is a far better translation. The Scholars Version of the Bible translates Jesus’ words as, “Don’t react violently against one who is evil.” The context of the statement makes clear that Jesus was teaching non-retaliation: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you. . .” Don’t let evil spread! Don’t add more death to death. Stand up against death by refusing to let go of life, by turning the other cheek, stripping down to nakedness, refusing to only go one mile! 

Yes, Matthew’s Jesus was teaching rejection of violent responses to this world’s evil. Yet he was not teaching that we should simply do nothing! Jesus was teaching nonviolent ways for oppressed people to take the initiative, to affirm their humanity, to expose and neutralize exploitative circumstances. Jesus was teaching nonviolent ways in which people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of exploitative domination systems can demonstrate their humanity. 

Jesus then concludes this instruction with the most difficult injunction of all:

“Love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:40)

We’ll discuss this statement in more detail soon: this saying has been coopted and used against oppressed people, and we need to understand it. Jesus’ nonviolence was not simply a way to overthrow our enemies. It also held open the option for our enemies to choose to change. Jesus’ teachings preserved the humanity of those whose humanity was being denied while holding on to the humanity of the oppressor. And because violent reaction to Rome’s violence in the first century had a greater chance of resulting in annihilation than liberation, Jesus offered a path toward liberation that included survival.

As Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock and Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker write in their landmark book, Saving Paradise, “Violence can beget fear, stalemate, annihilation, dominance, or more violence, but it cannot beget love, justice, abundant life, community, or peace” (Brock and Parker, Saving Paradise: Recovering Christianity’s Forgotten Love for This Earth [2012], p. 13). Through the nonviolent resistance that Jesus taught, however, followers of Jesus can witness to the truth that another world is possible. They can challenge the present social order that does not recognize their full humanity and create a unique opportunity to witness to a new way of living, a new way of organizing and doing life.

Rejection of violence, again, ought not be interpreted as passivity. Far from teaching nonresistance, Jesus’ statements about turning the other cheek, giving also the outer garment, and the going of the second mile, all teach an assertive and confrontational nonviolence that provides an opponent with an opportunity for transformation. If one genuinely follows the instruction of Jesus regarding how to practice nonviolent resistance, the oppressed person, far from being a passive doormat, can seize the initiative, confront the offender nonviolently, and strip the offender of the power to dehumanize, while challenging the offender to reject their own participation in larger systemic evil.

This, I believe, was how followers of Jesus understood what it meant to follow Jesus for the first few hundred years of the Jesus movement. It was nonviolent resistance, not passive non-resistance. It was how they saw themselves as being part of society’s healing rather than participating in its harm.

I believe Jesus saw this as a means of liberation and surviving to thrive in that liberation in the context of Rome. But before we cover that material, I want to address first how what we’ve described here is really a means of self-affirmation for the marginalized, not sacrifice.

That’s where we are headed next.

HeartGroup Application

  1. What difference does it make to you to see Jesus as a teacher of nonviolence?
  2. How does it affect both your understanding and beliefs about eschatological events as well as Jesus’ own death? 
  3. How does it affect your practice in relation to others personally as well as your opinion on how we collectively relate to others in our social/political systems?

Discuss each of these as a group.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

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

Another world is possible if we choose it. 

Don’t forget, we need your support here at RHM to continue making a difference.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Part 2)

“Destruction,” 1836, part of the “Course of Empire” series, by Thomas Cole

“Today we live in the wake of these changes. Christianity and its Jesus fell in the same way as all the other religions taken in by Rome . . . If the bloody violence of Christianity’s history has taught us anything, it is that we must question the Christian theory of justified violence including redemptive violence.”


Before we begin, I want to stop for a moment and ask for your support. Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice. We need your support to bring the kind of resources and analysis RHM provides.

Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed now more than ever.

Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Renewed Heart Ministries, today.  To do so just go to our website at renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate” on the top right or if you prefer to make a donation by mail, our address is:

Renewed Heart Ministries, PO Box 1211, Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, I want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without your support.

This week we’re continuing the series we began last week on the self-affirming, nonviolent resistance of Jesus. 

In this second part, we’ll consider the shift from what Christians originally taught about nonviolence (see A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Part 1), and what they began to teach after their social location changed when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Later in the series I will critique the Church Fathers’ self-sacrificial nonviolence and compare it to what I believe is Jesus’ self-affirming nonviolence. For now, I want you to note the contrast between early Christian nonviolence and the later use of violence, not as a periodic exception to Jesus’ teaching, but as the preferred method of converting non-Christians. Let’s again read from Christian teachers writing before the change:

“We [Christians] no longer take up sword against nation, nor do we learn war any more, but we have become the children of peace.” — Origin

“And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?” — Tertullian

“Anyone who has the power of the sword, or who is a civil magistrate wearing the purple, should desist or he should be rejected.”—Hippolytus

Hippolytus recommended that the Church excommunicate those who enlisted in the military or took a political office where they were responsible for wielding Rome’s sword.

“Rather, it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it. We would rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another.” —Arnobius

“It makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited.”—Arnobius 

Again, with “by word,” Arnobius, like Hippolytus above, is referring to holding a political office where one commands state violence.

“When God forbids killing, he doesn’t just ban murder (some translations read ‘brigandage’), which is not permitted under the law even; He is also recommending us not to do certain things which are treated as lawful among men…whether you kill a man with a sword or a word makes no difference, since killing itself is banned.”—Lactantius, the tutor of Emperor Constantine’s son.

“…no exceptions at all ought to be made to the rule that it is always wrong to kill a man, whom God has wished to be regarded as a sacrosanct creature.”—Lactantius

Yet about a hundred years after Rome embraced the Christian religion, it was illegal not to be a Christian (there was an exception for Jews), and you could not serve in the military unless you were a Christian: You were not trusted as loyal unless you were a Christian. 

How did Christianity get to that point?

On October 28, 312, Constantine was engaged in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge against his rival, Roman Emperor Maxentius. Lactantius recounts that, on the evening of October 27, just prior to the battle, Constantine had had a vision of the Christian God promising victory if his soldiers daubed the sign of the cross on their shields. (The details of the vision differ among sources reporting it. Lactantius reports that the vision promised victory if Constantine would delineate “the heavenly sign [‘the letter X, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of CHRIST’] on the shields of his soldiers” (On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Chap. 44). Eusebius also reports that the sign God instructed them to use on their shields was the Chi Rho symbol. These reports of Constantine’s vision state that he saw a cross of light with the inscription, “through this sign you shall conquer.”

There are various theories today about these reports. Some view the vision as legend with no historical basis. Others believe Constantine made up the story after the fact: he was a great political strategist and saw a way to coopt Christianity’s influence by uniting Christianity and Rome. Each theory is speculation, including the popular historical interpretation that the vision was genuine and that Jesus actually supported Roman conquests. What we know for sure is what happened within Christianity after this period. The Christian church’s social location changed dramatically, and what happens to individuals and communities that transition from “Have-not” to “Have” continues to amaze me.

Constantine declared Christianity a religio licita (a legal religion) through the Edict of Milan. He lavished gifts upon all Church leaders, increasing their salaries, exempting them from paying taxes, building church buildings, and funding Bible copying. Through this support, Church became centered in a building rather than in a group of people and crucifixion and gladiatorial games were abolished because of their connection with Christian victimization and trauma. The first day of the week was also declared a weekly holiday for all people and the Christian calendar absorbed pagan holidays. Pagan temples were converted into Christian churches, with statues of Roman gods replaced by statues of the Apostles and other biblical characters.

Eventually, Christianity’s becoming the official religion of the Roman empire would lead to new theological and ethical interpretations as well as new practices. Augustine, Eusebius, and others began to see Christianity’s new social location and its political power as having been handed to them by God Himself, and for the first time in history, Christians began wielding a sword in Jesus’ name. In the subsequent centuries we would get a brand new Christian norm:

“When people falsely assert that you are not allowed to take up the physical sword or fight bodily against the enemies of the Church, it is the devil trying to attack the fabric of your Order.”—Jacques de Vitry 

Notice that the non-violent teachings of Jesus had come to be redefined as of the “devil.”

“Do not ever be ashamed, O Bride of Heaven, to take up the sword against heretics; for the God still lives who sanctified such action through the arms of David.”—John of Mantua

Jesus’ nonviolence would be sidelined and the example of more violent figures from the scriptures would began to take center stage. Military leaders such as David and Joshua and others became the models of the Christian faith, and Christians, like the majority of evangelicals today, even embraced bodily torture. As Pope Innocent IV once wrote, “Bodily torture has been found the most salutary and efficient means of leading to spiritual repentance.”

Through the Church and State becoming unified, violence in defense of both became justified. 

Some of the greatest minds in Christianity would come up with Biblical support for this turn. Augustine (354–430 C.E.) and, later, Aquinas (1225–1274 C.E.) made significant interpretive changes. Augustine, a bright theological mind in his time, developed and defended a “justified violence” theory for Christians based upon existing Roman and Greek thought. Christians were now encouraged to join the army and to become involved in government. Violence could be used as God’s instrument to “punish” evildoers (e.g., Romans 13:1- 7), and Augustine saw punishment as a more justifiable motive than self-defense. By 416 C.E., all Roman soldiers were required to be Christians. Up until this time, “pagan” had simply meant civilian as opposed to soldier. It came to mean non-Christian as opposed to believer.

Here is a sampling of the new Augustinian teaching:

“War is waged to serve the peace. You must, therefore, be a peacemaker even to waging war, so that by your conquest, you may lead those you subdue to the enjoyment of peace.”— Augustine

Peace as an end was separated from peace as the means. War was doing others a favor.

“What, indeed, is wrong with war? That people die who will eventually die anyway so that those who survive may be subdued in peace? A coward complains of this but it does not bother religious people.”— Augustine

“Does anyone doubt that it is preferable for people to be drawn to worship God by teaching rather than forced by fear of punishment or by pain? But because the one type of people is better, it does not mean that the others, who are not of that type, ought to be ignored.”— Augustine

Augustine taught that, yes, it’s better for people to come to worship the Christian God on their own rather than being tortured or threatened with violence, but just because some will choose the Christian God on their own doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t force others to worship. Thisis a complete disconnect from the teachings of Jesus. Augustine’s writing turns more and more to the Bible and to desperate attempts to find some clue in Jesus’ teachings that Jesus really didn’t mean what He taught on nonviolence and enemy love. 

Augustine also exhibited dualistic Platonic (Hellenistic/Greek) thinking, which sees the body as separate from an immortal soul. This was in contrast to the more holistic philosophy of ancient Hebrew culture. With a dualist view, you could do whatever was necessary to someone’s body if it saved their soul. So killing someone could be justified if that was how you saved their soul. Augustine taught that it was acceptable to run your enemies through with the sword, as long as you did not kill them with hatred in your heart, for Jesus taught us to love our enemies.

Augustine developed and systematized a religious philosophy that justified saving souls at any cost, even by means of torture and violence. Augustine taught that the Christian should respond to torturing confessions out of others by crying “fountains of tears” for this “necessary state of affairs.” But never did he stop to consider that torture itself might be wrong. This was the origin of Christianity embracing “justified violence” in the form of the “just war” theory supported by the contemporary, Americanized, evangelical worldview.

Today we live in the wake of these changes. Christianity and its Jesus fell in the same way as all the other religions taken in by Rome. When Rome embraced the Greek gods, their appearance in pictures and statues changed. Under Roman influence, for example, Zeus (Greek) became Jupiter (Roman). But it wasn’t just their names that changed; their attributes changed too. Under Rome, the Greek gods became more warlike, and more distant, not mingling with mortals as much. They became harsher and more powerful. They came to stand for discipline, honor, strength, and violence. For instance, Hypnos, Greek god of sleep, didn’t do much until Romanized. The Romans called him Somnus, and he liked killing people who didn’t stay alert at their jobs: if they nodded off at the wrong time, they never woke up. This same pattern took place as Rome remade the Christian God, Jesus.

If the bloody violence of Christianity’s history has taught us anything, it is that we must question the Christian theory of justified violence including redemptive violence.

Next week we will begin unpacking our first passage in this series from the Gospels. What could Jesus have meant when he taught turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, and the stripping off of one’s under garment? Thank you for staying with us.

HeartGroup Application

  1. What value do you see in Christians specifically returning to an ethic of nonviolence within our society today? Explain with you group.
  2. In what ways do you see American values today influencing sectors of Christianity and Christian rhetoric as Roman values did in the above history?
  3. Where do you see the values and ethics of the Jesus story as being in contradiction with current practices of the American empire today or it’s leadership?

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

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

Another world is possible, if we choose it. 

Don’t forget, we need your support here at RHM to continue making a difference.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Part 1)

Herb Montgomery | July 26, 2019

gray bird cutout decor on brown plank symbolizing nonviolence
Photo by Tamara Menzi on Unsplash

We need your support to bring the kind of resources and analysis RHM provides.
Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed now more than ever.
Click here to make a tax-deductible donation.

“But today most of Christianity either rejects Jesus’ nonviolence outright or embraces nonviolence in a way that leaves marginalized and exploited people passive in the face of injustice and harms them. There are alternatives . . . I want to offer an interpretative lens that I refer to as Self-Affirming Nonviolent Resistance.” 


Seven years ago I wrote a series on Nonviolence.  Much has changed for me since then.  Originally, my understanding of nonviolence had been deeply influenced by those who define nonviolence  in a way that is rooted in self-sacrifice.  I’ve grown to understand nonviolence differently. I’ve grown to see that this way of defining nonviolence is itself violent.  A healthier, more life-giving form of nonviolence is needed. This is significant enough for me that I believe a rewrite of that series seven years ago on nonviolence is important.  In the words of Katie Cannon from the introduction of Delores Williams’ classic Sisters in the Wilderness, “Theologians need to think seriously about the real-life consequences of redemptive suffering, God-talk that equates the acceptance of pain, misery and abuse as the way for true believers to live as authentic Christian disciples. Those who spew such false teaching and warped preaching must cease and desist.” I have so much gratitude for Cannon and others for helping me see this. I have thought seriously in response to womanist and feminist critiques of defining nonviolence in ways that are rooted in self-sacrifice and the myth of redemptive suffering. It is as a result of listening to these critiques that I feel that this revision is needed.  

Let’s begin.

In Matthew’s Gospel we read these words:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too. And if someone takes you to court to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles. When someone asks you for something, give it to him; when someone wants to borrow something, lend it to him. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’ But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun to shine on bad and good people alike, and gives rain to those who do good and to those who do evil. Why should God reward you if you love only the people who love you? Even the tax collectors do that! And if you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary? Even the gentiles do that! You must be perfect—just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)

When it comes to nonviolence in general, it seems to me that Western, Americanized Christianity has lost its way. Maybe we’ve forgotten what the road we’re supposed to be on even looks like. Since Jesus spoke the above words two millennia ago, followers and non-followers alike have read them and struggled to interpret and apply them in life-giving ways.

I want to offer an interpretative lens that I refer to as Self-Affirming Nonviolent Resistance.

The first word I want to focus on is “Nonviolent.”

Today, many Christians say that Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence is only for certain groups, certain time periods, or certain cultural circumstances. Even so it is obvious that Jesus taught a form of nonviolence.

Further, too often Christians who do teach nonviolence teach a self-sacrificing form of nonviolence rather than a self-affirming form. I once did this myself because during the first 300 years of Christian history, many Christians interpreted Jesus’ teaching as self-sacrificing nonviolence too. But listening to marginalized communities and their experiences with nonviolence opens up new understandings of what Jesus may have originally taught.

I am fully aware that some supporters of Renewed Heart Ministries who are wonderful Christians have a different opinion from me on this topic and do not subscribe to nonviolence. Thank you for tracking with us on this series anyway. It would be easier for you to focus on things that don’t pull you out of your comfort zone. Through this series, we will look at this subject again, secure and confident in our love, respect and consideration of each other.

I want to also speak to those who subscribe to self-sacrificial nonviolence. Our social structures already deny justice and full humanity to so many people. They’re forced to deny their selves. For this sector of society, I don’t believe Jesus would teach them to further sacrifice themselves in a society that already requires that. I believe Jesus’ form of nonviolence gave marginalized people a way to affirm themselves, affirm their humanity, to hold on to their selves in a world that would either prefer they did not exist or demand that they “go back to where they came from.”

Nonviolence, even self-affirming nonviolent resistance, is a disposition, an attitude, and a way of life where the means and the ends are aligned. We do not choose the way of violence in order to maintain peace: Jesus’ way of peace disrupted unjust systems. Jesus’ way arrived at peace through resistance, by establishing distributive justice for all, especially those our communities push to the edges and margins.

Today we have overwhelming evidence that the early followers of Jesus were nonviolent. Over the church’s first three centuries, those who held onto nonviolence drifted into more self-sacrificing forms of it. Yet their testimony for some form of nonviolence is still relevant and challenging to Christians today who reject nonviolence completely, regardless of its form. The U.S. Christian church has become something that early Christians wouldn’t recognize. The statements that follow are representative of the voices in Christianity for its first 300 years.

“We (Christians) no longer take up sword against nation, nor do we learn war any more, but we have become the children of peace.” —Origin

“And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?” —Tertullian

“Anyone who has the power of the sword, or who is a civil magistrate wearing the purple, should desist, or he should be rejected.”—Hippolytus

“Rather, it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it. We would rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another.” —Arnobius

“It makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited.”—Arnobius

“When God forbids killing, he doesn’t just ban murder, which is not permitted under the law even; he is also recommending us not to do certain things which are treated as lawful among men.”—Lactanius

In some of these statements we see love and nonviolence defined by the early church leaders as self-sacrifice, the willingness to suffer for the benefit of someone else. We’ll discuss this at greater lengths in this series when we listen to feminist and womanist voices and their critique. For now, Marcus J. Borg sums up the concern of self-sacrifice in his book The Heart of Christianity:

“Oppressed people, in society and in the family, have often been told to put their own selves last out of obedience to God. When thus understood, the message of the cross becomes an instrument of oppressive authority and self-abdication.” (p. 112)

Defining nonviolence as self-sacrifice for the oppressed has proven itself to be a violent form of nonviolence.

In this series I hope to offer an alternative view.

I interpret Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence similarly to Walter Wink who states that Jesus’ nonviolence gave oppressed communities, a way to “assert [their] own humanity and dignity . . . refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position [and] expose the injustice of the system.” (in Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way)

But today most of Christianity either rejects Jesus’ nonviolence outright or embraces nonviolence in a way that leaves marginalized and exploited people passive in the face of injustice and harms them.

There are alternatives.

In this series, we will consider Jesus’ sayings on the subject of nonviolence. We will then address frequently asked questions about applying nonviolence. Lastly we will listen to objections and critiques, not from those who would use violence to dominate or subjugate others, but from communities for whom a form of nonviolence has left them further oppressed, exploited and subjugated. 

My hope is that we will arrive at a form of nonviolence that’s not only faithful to the Jesus story but that’s also life-giving and that bears the fruit of liberation, too. 

This series is going to be a wonderful journey of discovery for us, regardless of where we begin. Whether we agree at the end of this series or not, our understanding will be greater as we explore what we believe and why. 

We’ll begin next week. For now, it will be enough for us to contemplate what this passage may hold for us today:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too. And if someone takes you to court to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles. When someone asks you for something, give it to him; when someone wants to borrow something, lend it to him. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’ But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun to shine on bad and good people alike, and gives rain to those who do good and to those who do evil. Why should God reward you if you love only the people who love you? Even the tax collectors do that! And if you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary? Even the pagans do that! You must be perfect—just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week, discuss whether or not you subscribe, at least in principle, to some form of nonviolence. 

2. In what areas of your life are you practicing nonviolence?  What do these practices look like?

3. What questions do you have about nonviolence?  Have your group email some of those questions in to us here at Renewed Heart Ministers and they may just end up in this new series!  I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.

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. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Checking Your Privilege

Herb Montgomery | July 19, 2019

hand holding glasses
Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash

“We can do better than defensiveness. In this story of Jesus I hear the call to lay mine down . . . Another world is possible. But we’re going to have to learn to listen to those whose experiences are less privileged and end the very system of privilege if we are to get there.”


In Luke’s gospel we read a story of Jesus rebuking his disciples:

“As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.” (Luke 9:51-56)

Let’s get a little background on who the Samaritans were. To the best of our knowledge, this 1st Century group had Hebrew roots and focused on Mt. Gerizim rather than Jerusalem. The traced their lineage back to Ephraim and Manasseh of the northern tribes of Israel. When Israel returned from captivity and attempted to rebuild the temple, Jewish people in Jerusalem refused to allow Samaritans to join them in rebuilding the temple. This was a time when Jewish people feared their identity was at risk of being lost. During periods like this, hard lines are often drawn between insiders and outsiders. Jewish rejection of Samaritans thus led to open animosity, resentment, and even hostile violence between the communities. Samaritans erected their own temple on Mount Gerizim, which Jewish people destroyed in 130 BCE. The Samaritans built a second temple at Shechem. 

Bitter hatred between Jews and Samaritans continued to escalate, and the gospel stories were written during this period. It was dangerous for Jewish travelers to travel through Samaria. According to Josephus, “Now there arose a quarrel between the Samaritans and the Jews on the occasion following. It was the custom of the Galileans, when they came to the holy city at the festivals, to take their journeys through the country of the Samaritans. And at this time there lay in the road they took, a village that was called Ginea: which was situated in the limits of Samaria, and the great plain; where certain persons thereto belonging fought with the Galileans, and killed a great many of them.” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 6)

Reparation and reconciliation efforts between adherents of Samaritanism and Judaism throughout the centuries have been attempted. (For an excellent summary of the Samaritans and the challenges in understanding who they were in the 1st Century, see “Samaritans” in Craig A. Evans, et al. Dictionary of New Testament Background, InterVarsity Press, 2005, and Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, WB Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2019.)

Given this history, I find fascinating the story of Jesus rebuking his disciples’ violent attitude toward the Samaritans. 

I live in a predominantly White area of West Virginia. I was born and raised here, and though we moved away when I became an adult, we moved back to take care of my mother who since passed away. I remember a time when a dear friend of mine who is Black visited us. As we walked through the grocery store together, she blurted out, “Two.” 

“Two?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s how many non-White people I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”

Europeans first settled in my little town in the mid 1700s, and we just elected our first Black mayor. We still have a long way to go in my area of this state in the work of racial justice.

From time to time I hear people attempting to define justice efforts as “reverse racism” and getting upset whenever White privilege is even brought up. Crystal and I were standing with other parents at my daughter’s high school and talking about privilege and racial injustice. One of the dads blurted out, “I’m never gonna apologize for being born White!” I shook my head. Crystal tried to help him understand. He didn’t get it and I don’t think he really wanted to.

In the story we began with, Jesus doesn’t take a defensive stance when the Samaritans refuse him lodging. In fact, he rebukes his disciples for their desire to retaliate against what they deemed as inhospitality. For crying out loud! Did the disciples actually think the Samaritans should offer thirteen Jewish men lodging given all that Jewish men had done to them? 

I want to imagine that Jesus understood. That he didn’t fault the Samaritans. That he knew the Samaritans had a right to set the healthy boundaries they needed. I find it interesting that he didn’t lecture the Samaritans on their need to show him, a Jewish man, some enemy-love. I want to believe that Jesus understood the Samaritans’ right to self-determine whom they would and wouldn’t offer lodging to. Social location matters, and I want to believe that Jesus is not just rebuking his own disciples for being offended but also taking the side of the Samaritans. 

I’ve worked with multiple organizations in my town that are engaged in racial justice work here, and I continually have to choose to check my privilege. Sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I screw up and have to make things right. I’ve learned that what is okay for someone in one social location to do is not always okay for those in other social locations and vice versa. At a Christian conference event a couple years ago, a very popular, Christian preacher and author shut me out of the conversation and challenged my call to build egalitarian, mutual participation in Christian circles. Later that week, a friend who is queer and Latinx told me that another White straight male, an invited speaker, needed to bow out of a panel they were on to allow room for other voices and other perspectives. My beliefs about egalitarian, mutual participation in Christian circles were challenged again, but differently. Some would see these as the same thing, but, no, social location matters. It is perfectly right for people whose social location is less privileged and whose voices are typically excluded to demand a seat at the table instead. This is very different from someone whose social location is privileged demanding their voice be the only one heard.

If these thoughts are new to you, a great discussion of the principles of racial justice is Teaching Tolerance’s White Anti-Racism: Living the Legacy. Answering the question, “What are the common mistakes white activists make when trying to be allies to people of color?” Yvette Robles, a Chicana and Community Relations Manager in Los Angeles, responds, “Not acknowledging that they have power and privilege by the mere fact that they are white. That is not to say that other parts of their identity can’t lead them to feel powerless, for example, being white and gay, or being white and working class. Another mistake I see is when white activists try to emulate a different culture by changing how they act, their speech or style of dress. It’s one thing to appreciate someone else’s culture; it’s quite another to adopt it.” 

Georgette Norman, an African American woman and director of the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, adds, “The most common mistakes white activists make are setting an agenda with the illusion of inclusion, and having to have a franchise on comfort. God forbid a person of color says or does anything to make white activists feel uncomfortable. That means there can be no discussion of race and no challenge to their privilege, which means no challenge to their power.” 

Sejal Patel, a South Asian American woman and community organizer in South Asian immigrant communities answers the same question: “White anti-racists make a mistake when they shut out the poor and uneducated and keep in those ‘in the know’ to decide what’s good for people of color. No movement can work where there is divisiveness. Also, if people of color want to have their own space and place in certain aspects of society — say for a weekend or a month — they shouldn’t have to feel like they are being exclusive for doing this. White activists need to understand that society is their space and place every single day, and they shouldn’t feel threatened or left out.”

I interpret Jesus in this story as acknowledging the degree of Jewish power and privilege he held in contrast with the Samaritans in his society. He respected their space. Jesus wasn’t offended by them protecting their space. In fact he rebukes his fellow Jewish male disciples for taking offense and becoming defensive (offensive).

The disciples could have found biblical examples to use to justify their retaliation of “calling fire down from heaven.” They could have used Elijah’s words in 2 Kings 1:10: “If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” They could have appealed to other stories like the tale of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, where even “the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the LORD out of the heavens.” (Genesis 19:24)

Jesus could have become defensive and chosen to use any of these stories against those who received Jewish violence, and he didn’t.

So what can people of privilege learn from this story?

Check your defensiveness.

I just finished reading the late James H. Cone’s posthumously published book, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of A Black Theologian. In one portion, Cone recounts how many of his white listeners responded when he spoke out on loving his own blackness and embracing Black Power: 

“When I spoke of loving blackness and embracing Black Power, they heard hate toward white people. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and James Baldwin confronted similar reactions. Any talk about the love and beauty of blackness seemed to arouse fear and hostility in whites.” (James H. Cone, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, Orbis Books. Kindle Edition, Kindle Location 592)

We can do better than defensiveness. In this story of Jesus I hear the call to lay mine down. 

Straight people can choose to listen to LGBTQ people rather than be defensive. 

White people can choose to listen to people of color rather than be defensive.

Cis men can choose to listen to women, cis and trans, rather than be defensive. 

Cis folk can choose to listen to trans folk rather than be defensive.

Non-disabled folk can choose to listen to disabled folk rather than be defensive. 

Wealthy people can choose to listen to the poor and working classes rather than be defensive. 

Wisdom is not the sole property of those who are most widely read or who have gained the most academic accomplishments.

Another world is possible. 

But we’re going to have to learn to listen to those whose experiences are less privileged and end the very system of privilege if we are to get there.

“When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” (Luke 9:54-55)

HeartGroup Application

  1. Can you name a time when listening to someone else’s experience made a significant change in your own understanding?
  2. Share with the group what it was that actually changed.
  3. How can we make a practice out of learning to listen to others? Be creative.
  4. Choose something from this discussion and put it into practice this week.

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

Today, choose love, compassion, taking action and seeking justice. 

Together we can choose to take steps toward a world that is a safe, compassionate, just home for us all. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Privilege and Power

Herb Montgomery | June 28, 2019

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

“Today, certain Christians are still trying to use the power of the state, not to side with the people and protect the vulnerable . . . to push their own agenda regardless of the real harm such actions do to real people. As long as there is a state, it should side with the vulnerable against those who would seek to do harm. Christians must choose to learn from their destructive history. The Jesus story calls us to side with ‘the people,’ not the agendas of the powerful, privileged, and elite.”


“The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people. Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.” (Luke 20:19-20)

This passage juxtaposes the mass of Jewish people who favored Jesus, the elites in that society who were threatened by Jesus’ populist teachings, and Roman power and authority. The reference to the authority of the governor is a political story detail through and through. The story reminds us of how those in positions of power and privilege use the power of the state to protect their own social position, especially when their agenda is contrary to the masses’. 

For those who have been reading this month’s book of the month for RHM, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet by Jason W. Moore and Raj Pate, you’ve read how historically our capitalist society has not been based on equality, win-win, and cooperation, but on competition, inequity, and the kind of “winning” that requires someone somewhere else to lose. The economic and political elite has continually used the power of the state to accomplish their goals. In Luke, this method is chosen because the elite “fears the people.” 

Jesus’ teachings are represented here as being popular among the people. The elite does not have the people’s best interest in mind, but looks for how best to manipulate them and preserve the status quo. Jesus was popular with large sectors of the have-nots in the story: the haves have always used the system’s “authority” to preserve themselves.

In a more just and compassionate structure the state could protect the vulnerable from being exploited by the powerful and privileged. Yet the times when there has been a more regulatory form of state power on the side of the masses have been the exception to the history of state power in capitalist/colonialist society, not the rule.

As long as we have classes and other social locations where some have power and others don’t, the state should protect the vulnerable. I think of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a talk he gave at Western Michigan University in 1963: he spoke against the idea that the power of the state is useless in our work toward a just society:

“Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963)

When we consider the “authority of the governor” in our passage this week, it was not on the side of the people, but contrary to the will of the people, within the context of the conflict between Jesus and the political elite of his day. 

I want to stop here and ask you to dream with me for a moment . What is your image of a perfect world? I’m not saying the world will ever be perfect. The exercise of dreaming about what a perfect world would be though is a practice that helps us in our work of moving toward a world that is less unjust, less exploitative, less unsafe.

Does your image of a perfect world include the need for the vulnerable to be protected from the strong? Or does your image of a perfect world make even this obsolete? Is your image of a perfect world one where some take responsibility for caring for those who are vulnerable?

Jesus envisioned a world where even the meek inherit the earth.

“And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24 -27)

Jesus here contrasts systems of dominion and systems of service. Humanity’s hope for the future is not in devising more efficient ways of dominating one another, but in creating more effective ways of caring for one another. 

The tragedy is when those who claim to represent Jesus today use the same method as is in our original story in Luke 20. Privileged and powerful Christian Evangelicals view Trump as their Messiah because he will enforce their political agenda. At the foundation of this delusion is the Christian Right’s long struggle to overturn Roe vs Wade, the law that affirmed legal access to a safe abortion. Just this week, someone commented on a post of mine that if Planned Parenthood was defunded it would protect “thousands” of lives of the vulnerable.

“Vulnerable?” I thought. I assumed they were speaking of the unborn. But what about the vulnerability of women, especially those in a certain social location, who will die as a result of overturning Roe vs. Wade? Those who are informed understand that lowering abortion rates has nothing to do with the legality of abortion. It does have to do with the availability of education and birth control, and child and youth advocacy. Abortions have actually increased when outlawed. In the end, this is yet another example of those in power, mostly men, using state power to control the lives and bodies of women who should have autonomy over their own bodies. Pro-choice is not pro-abortion. There are genuinely effective ways of lowering the rate of abortions in society that do not escalate the fatality rate for women nor seek to remove women’s bodily autonomy. (For more seeHow I Lost Faith in the “Pro-Life” Movement)

Since Trump’s election, we have seen a surge in Evangelical, American Christianity’s desire to influence our state and federal governments to enforce its dogmas under the misapplied label of “religious freedom.”

Here in West Virginia, we are in the midst of a battle over education, where for-profit charter schools are using Christians as pawns. I understand that some nonprofit charter schools have been a tremendous help to some minority Black and Brown communities. That’s not what is happening here. Christians are lifting their voices alongside for-profit corporations against what the majority of “the people” here in WV want. These Christians want to use the power of the state to protect them from the fear that they will have to send their children to public schools where they will sit in a classroom beside nonwhite, migrant, Muslim and LGBTQ kids. 

Christianity has a long history of being on the wrong side of the use of state power. On October 28, 312 C.E., Constantine defeated his rival to become sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Constantine attributed his victory to Jesus Christ. He allegedly received a vision just prior to the battle that promised him victory if his soldiers marched with the sign of Christ on their shields. It was the first time in history that the name of Jesus was aligned with the nationalistic, violent power of the state. This set a precedent and Christianity’s social location changed dramatically to make it the official state religion. Eusebius, Augustine, and other church leaders interpreted Constantine’s vision and the consolidation of power that his victory engendered to be from God. The power of the state has been used for centuries to crush Christianity’s enemies to exploit and/or execute heretics, Jews, Muslims, women accused of “witchcraft,” indigenous populations, those whom we today identify as LGBTQ, and more.

Today, certain Christians are still trying to use the power of the state, not to side with the people and protect the vulnerable, but, sometimes ignorantly, sometimes knowingly, to push their own agenda regardless of the real harm such actions do to real people. 

As long as there is a state, it should side with the vulnerable against those who would seek to do harm. Christians must choose to learn from their destructive history. The Jesus story calls us to side with “the people,” not the agendas of the powerful, privileged, and elite.

A misuse of the power of the state executed Christianity’s Jesus.

And misuse of the power of the state is still harming the most vulnerable groups today.

“. . . but they were afraid of the people. Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.” Luke 20:19-20

HeartGroup Application

Here are a few things to discuss with your group.

  1. List examples you have seen the power of the state used to protect the interests of the have’s against the have nots?
  2. Think of the Jesus story for a moment.  What are some examples in the gospels of where you see Jesus taking the side of the vulnerable, excluded, or marginalized over against the powerful and privileged of his day.
  3. As we work toward a more just world, damage mitigation along that journey is also important. How could the power of the state be transformed and reimagined along this process to protect the have nots from the elite? Be imaginative. 

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

Wherever you are today, choose love, take action, choose compassion, work toward justice, title the only world that remains is a world where love and justice reigns. 

Another world is possible. 

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!

Catching Big Fish

Herb Montgomery | June 7, 2019

Photo by Chris Bair on Unsplash

“The fishing metaphor was a way to denounce injustice against the vulnerable, and looks forward to social change.”


“‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will show you how to catch big fish.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” Mark 1:17-18 (Personal translation)

Last week I was reminded of the hymn, How Can I Keep From Singing. Although this hymn has been around for quite some time in a minority of hymnals, Pete Seeger popularized it in the folk music of the 60’s. Seeger incorporated an additional verse from Doris Penn (from whom he’d learned the song) and modified the lyrics to have broader reach, much like we today can speak of “the reign of love” where the gospel writers used “kingdom. I want to share with you Seeger’s version as we begin this week. 

“My life flows on in endless song

Above earth’s lamentation.

I hear the real, thought far off hymn

That hails the new creation

Above the tumult and the strife,

I hear the music ringing;

It sounds an echo in my soul

How can I keep from singing?

What through the tempest loudly roars,

I hear the truth, it live’th.

What through the darkness round me close,

Songs in the night it give’th.

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that rock I’m clinging.

Since love is lord of Heaven and earth

How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,

And hear their death-knell ringing,

When friends rejoice both far and near,

How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile

Our thoughts to them are winging.

When friends by shame are undefiled,

How can I keep from singing?”

(For a live version of Seeger’s rendition, see Pete Seeger: How Can I Keep from Singing? – Live, 1982)

These lyrics inspire me to keep believing change is possible: another world is possible. Faith communities characterized by a different set of values than what I was raised with are possible. Societies that are just, safe, and compassionate are possible. 

And this leads me to our text about fishing this week. I briefly shared in Social Sins, Social Justice, and the Jesus Stories how the Hebrew prophets’ original use of the “fishing” metaphor in the gospels was more political than religious. During the Christian Revival era in the 1950-60s here in the United States, “fishing” language was popularized and transformed to mean bringing people into the Christian faith. 

But Jesus’ audience, especially the working, fishing people of Galilee and Judea, would have had a different association with this metaphor. Consider again how this metaphor is used by the Hebrew prophets:

“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)

This language of catching the big fish was used as a symbol of disrupting and overturning unjust power structures both within Israel and within gentile empires. As Doris Penn wrote, “How can I keep from singing? When tyrants tremble, sick with fear, And hear their death-knell ringing.” I love how Myers sums up the Jewish background of this fishing metaphor: Jesus might have been using this language with the fisher folk in our text. 

“Jesus is, in other words, summoning working folk to join him in overturning the structures of power and privilege in the world!” (Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 10)

The fishing metaphor is a way to denounce injustice against the vulnerable, and looks forward to social change. This impacts those who endeavor to follow Jesus today in relation to Christianity’s complicity in unjust power structures. As Guitierrez writes, “The denunciation of injustice implies the rejection of the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 69) Christianity has often been used to legitimize unjust established orders like patriarchy, white supremacy, slavery, colonialism, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. 

In each of the synoptic gospels, what finally got Jesus executed was his overturning tables, challenging the established order of economic and political injustice being bolstered by religion. That’s still happening in Christianity today.

What I also find intriguing about the Jesus stories is that although this is a story of overturning unjust structures of power and privilege, it is also a story about alternative ways of doing so. This is a story of alternative “fishing” methods, if you will. From Jesus’ teachings on reparations, nonviolence, and wealth distribution among the poor to the stories’ ending with a resurrection after a violent death, the stories about Jesus are stories where resurrection is the means of overthrowing the crucifying power of evil and injustice. 

As I’ve said so many times before, the Jesus story does not say that the cross was Jesus’ saving work. If anything, the cross was an attempted interruption of Jesus’ saving work and was overcome through the resurrection. The resurrection reversed everything accomplished by Jesus’ execution, and it did so as an alternative, life-giving method of overcoming the evil and unjust use of the violence of a cross. 

Speaking of unjust structures of power and privilege being overturned in this story, Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglass in her book Stand Your Ground, Black Bodies and the Justice of God reminds us:

“[God’s power] is not a power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is a resurrecting power. Therefore God’s power never expresses itself through the humiliation or denigration of another. It does not triumph over life. It conquers death by resurrecting life. The force of God is a death negating, life-affirming force.” (pp. 182-183)

The Jesus story does not overturn injustice, hierarchies and exclusion by adding death to death. 

Douglass goes on to quote Audre Lorde:

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider, p. 12)

We need more than temporary solutions. We must not underestimate how much damage mitigation temporary solutions can accomplish as we work for more lasting change. Ultimately, we must work to end structures that kill marginalized people. Methods that may have worked to keep us alive at one stage of our human evolution, enabling some to survive at the expense of others, must give way to life-giving methods whose goal is the inclusion, survival and thriving of all. 

We can evolve further.

The challenges in our text this week are: 

The gospel, the good news, is about the potential for change in the status quo. 

This should cause us to question and let go of the status quo if we benefit from it, rather than continuing to give the established order continued religious legitimization.

The gospels also challenge some of the means and ways that unjust established orders are changed and overthrown. 

And lastly: a change in the status quo must not end in adding death to death. It must overcome death. It must be an overthrowing, a reversal, a rejection of death that results in life and respect for the sanctity of life of all. It must be a refusal to let go of life and life for all.

As I shared last week, if the language of “gospel,” “Jesus,” “God,” “heaven,” or other Christian terms are associated in your experience with abuse, call them love instead. Seeger had to change the lyrics of the hymn we began with this week from “Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?” to “Since love is lord of Heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?” and that’s okay. (More blood has been shed in the name of “Christ” than almost any other name in human history. I would have changed the word “lord,” too.) 

What we are talking about is the reign of love as our established social order. And if the word “love” is also associated with abuse in your experience, we are still working toward a world that is just, safe, equitable and compassionate for you and for us all. 

“‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will show you how to catch big fish.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” Mark 1:17-18 (Personal translation)

HeartGroup Application

This week in your HeartGroups, engage this exercise together. 

1. Name a few unjust power structures that you see in our present social arrangements today, both in larger society and within your faith community. Write them down. 

2. Thinking of Jesus’ actions with the Temple money changers, describe how you would imagine Jesus would engage some of these unjust power structures today.

3. RHM’s book of the month for June is A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. If you’re reading this volume with us this month discuss as group how you see the power structures you’ve named play into larger systems of injustice. 

Exercises like these are useful because they begin challenging the way we look at both our world and our faith in following Jesus.   Next week, we’ll build on this. 

Thanks for checking in with us. 

Wherever you are today, choose love.  Keep living in compassion, action and justice. 

Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. 

I love each of you dearly.

Another world is possible. 

I’ll see you next week. 

A Kingless Kingdom

Herb Montgomery | May 31, 2019

Photo by Mario Purisic on Unsplash

“ . . . and for those who associate abuse with the terms ‘God,’ or ‘heaven,’ or anything Christian, the kingdom even doesn’t have to be associated with religious dogma. Jesus demonstrated for us how to love and care for one another. This realization alone can produce big enough questions for us.”


“‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near!’” (Mark 1:15)

This week we’re going to discuss the term “Kingdom” in the gospels and its relevance to us today.

In early Hebrew scriptures, we find two opposing narratives about having a king. The book of Judges is a pro-king narrative, but in the book of Samuel, we read this story:

“But when they said, ‘Give us a king to lead us,’ this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.’ Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, ‘This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.’ But the people refused to listen to Samuel. ‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.’ When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the LORD. The LORD answered, ‘Listen to them and give them a king.’” (1 Samuel 8:8-21)

In this story we read a warning about the transition from a representative social structure to imperialism, militarism, and something akin to early feudalism, the predecessor of today’s capitalist structures. We also read a warning that, for the author of that narrative, to choose a king would be to return to slavery.

Our passage from Mark this week suggests that the authors of the Jesus story may have sided with anti-king narratives. The passage promotes a return to the “kingdom of God” or the “reign of God.” Reading the gospel narratives of embracing God as king alongside Samuel’s narrative of God expressing the people’s rejection of him as king opens some very interesting interpretive possibilities. 

We shouldn’t read into the gospel’s “Kingdom of God” language the Christian theocratic language that the U.S. Christian Right has proposed since the 1970s. The values of Jesus’ “Kingdom of God” can still speak to us today without our having to refer to kings or stoke fear in the hearts of those who have suffered harm from Christian theocracy. 

Jesus’ Reign of God was characterized not by enforcing dogmatic religious beliefs, but by structuring society to practice distributive justice, nonviolence, mutual care, resource-sharing, wealth redistribution and equity, reparations, reconciliation, inclusion of marginalized people, and egalitarianism.

The Beloved Community

Dr. Martin Luther King preferred to call this way of organizing society the “Beloved Community.” According to The King Center:

“‘The Beloved Community’ is a term that was first coined in the early days of the 20th Century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. However, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term and invested it with a deeper meaning which has captured the imagination of people of goodwill all over the world.” (For more see https://thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy/)

For King, the “Beloved Community” was rooted in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence. It envisioned economic equity in which wealth was shared by the human community. This was a community where all discrimination, specifically racism, would give way to new inclusive ways of living together that recognized our connectedness as humans, each of us a part of one another within the human family.  King’s vision was also global, and looked to a future where “love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred,” and “peace and justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”  When conflicts arise between individuals, groups and even nations, which they inevitably do, these conflicts would be resolved peacefully and justly through the spirit fo kinship and goodwill.

The Kin-dom

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 Melissa Florer-Bixler, the term “kin-dom” originated from a Franciscan nun named Georgene Wilson. (See https://sojo.net/articles/kin-dom-christ)

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.” (https://eewc.com/kingdom-kindom-beyond/)

The gospels describe the “kingdom of God” as an alternative way of structuring human community as compared with the “kingdom of Rome” or the Roman empire. 

The problem for us is that “kingdom” is patriarchal. And it’s too easily co-opted by actual 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 listed above. Wherever we see these values happening, love is reigning. However we name it, it’s a human community rooted in love, compassion, safety, equity, and justice.

For those who associate abuse with the name of Jesus, it’s a community where only love and justice reigns, socially, politically, economically, and personally.

For those who find the term “kingdom” problematic, it’s a community rooted in a more democratic structure where each group has a seat at the table, and the voices of the most marginalized are centered and prioritized. 

And for those who associate abuse with the terms “God,” or “heaven,” or anything Christian, the kingdom even doesn’t have to be associated with religious dogma. Jesus demonstrated for us how to love and care for one another. This realization alone can produce big enough questions for us. Until we answer how we are to best care for each other, we’ll have to remain content defining God as love as we seek to shape our human community after the universal truth of the Golden Rule

Lastly, Jesus didn’t say this community or kin-dom was far off. It wasn’t something we would only experience after death, or at some distant point in the future. He called his listeners to rethink the status quo and believe that another world was possible, now. (See Mark 1:15.) He said this kin-dom was “near.” Here. Now. Near us, for us to choose today. We can choose to keep it at arm’s distance, or we can choose to embrace it. But it’s still there waiting for us to choose it. The question still remains. Will we?

A Special Request

In response to last week’s special request, I received a message from one of our supporters that made my eyes tear up as I read it. 

“Your work is wonderful, and I count it a privilege to help in my small way.”

What makes this message so touching to me is that this is from a person who daily seeks to survive on our present society’s margins. It drove home to me how our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries is needed more than ever, especially with all that is happening in Christianity and our larger society.

As I shared last week, most things have cycles. And ministries have cycles, too. This is our twelfth year, and as we head into summer, this is one of the two times each year when RHM both keenly feels and deeply appreciates the need for your support of RHM.

As many of you already know, all of our resources and services are provided free of charge. When we speak at events, we do not charge a seminar fee. And all of the resources we offer are available for free, in one form or another, on our website. This enables us to speak into spaces that more expensive educational ministries simply cannot reach. 

In order to do this, though, we depend on your support. We could not exist or continue our work without the generous support of our sustaining donors and partners. 

We at Renewed Heart Ministries believe that a different kind of Christianity is possible. 

We believe another world is possible as well. 

Will you partner with us in the work of following Jesus’ teachings (Luke 4:18-19), participating in his work of love, compassion, inclusion, justice and action? Together we are making a difference, one heart, one mind, one life at a time. Together we are engaging a world that we believe can be shaped into a just, compassionate, and safe home for all (Matthew 6:10, cf. Matthew 5:5).

To support our work click DONATE to make a contribution online,

or you can mail your gift to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

You can make your contribution a one-time gift, or consider becoming one of our continuing monthly sustainers and select the option to make your gift reoccurring.

Any amount helps, regardless of the size. 

Thank you in advance for your support. 

We aren’t going anywhere. We are here for the long haul! Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. 

From all of us here at RHM, thank you.

With much love and gratitude for each of you, 

Herb Montgomery

Director 

Renewed Heart Ministries

Change from the Edges

Herb Montgomery | May 24, 2019

Photo by Yeshi Kangrang on Unsplash

“One of the first steps of hope for people in such wilderness places is to understand that their situation reflects social and political forces, not the divine will . . .”


“And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness.” (Mark 1:4)

Syracuse University’s Counseling Center defines marginalization as “the process of pushing a particular group or groups of people to the edge of society by not allowing them an active voice, identity, or place in it . . . Some individuals identify with multiple marginalized groups, and may experience further marginalization as a result of their intersecting identities.”

This week I ask what the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have to say to those who live disenfranchised, disadvantaged, marginalized, and underprivileged in our society.

Mark’s storytelling about Jesus begins very early on with the character of John the Baptist, who emerges as a Hebrew prophet in the wilderness calling for social change. The much later gospel Luke emphasizes this wilderness location by explaining that John’s father is a priest (See Luke 1:5, 8-10). John’s lineage allowed him to be a priest in the temple like his father, so it is telling that we instead see a John who isn’t a priest but a prophet like Isaiah’s voice “crying out” in the “wilderness.” 

The wilderness represents a marginal location in the Jesus stories: the edges of the Jewish society. It contrasts with Jerusalem, the temple state, and the elite who held positions of power and privilege in Jewish society. This is a Jewish story, and a story of Jewish voices in conflict with each other. It is the story of social tensions between those at the center of their society and those on the margins. It’s also a very human story. Every society includes a tension between those who are marginalized and those at the top and center of their social structure. When the status quo depends on marginalizing “a particular group or groups of people” Jesus’ time in the wilderness reflects the power dynamics we find in that society.

After Jesus interacted with John in the wilderness, Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus went straight away into the wilderness himself. 

“At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness.” (Mark 1:12)

Some Christian preachers use this passage to parallel Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness with the Hebrew people’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Mark does not explain how long Jesus spent there, and this parallel is often used to teach supersessionism. I do not read it this way.

I believe Jesus is making a social choice. He, like John, is choosing the wilderness as his starting point. From the marginalized region of Galilee, Jesus enters the wilderness after John, possibly to get in touch with his Jewish roots. His is a people whose origin stories were of enslavement, oppression, liberation, and brutal colonization of others. Jesus attempts to ground himself in his story as a Jew, within their wilderness origin story, and figure out how they got to where they are today. 

So both Jesus and John emerge from a place of “wilderness.” Ched Myers reminds us about the truth inthis story detail for those who today find themselves in “wilderness” locations.

“One of the first steps of hope for people in such wilderness places is to understand that their situation reflects social and political forces, not the divine will . . . While the margin has a primarily negative political connotation as a place of disenfranchisement, Mark ascribes to it a primarily positive theological value. It is the place where the sovereignty of God is made manifest, where the story of liberation is renewed, where God’s intervention in history occurs.” (Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 12)

Mark explains that when John is arrested, Jesus comes out of this wilderness location and does not straightway begin preaching in the more centrally located Jerusalem and Judea. Instead, Jesus enters the marginal region of Galilee. 

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)

If Judea is a marginal region within the larger Roman empire, Galilee is a marginal region on the edges of Jewish society. In Jesus’ day, it was the buffer region between the Jewish population and the largely non-Jewish population beyond Galilee. In Mark, Jesus begins his work here, among those who would have been the marginalized in his society. Consider his teaching as well. Whom does he speak in solidarity with in his teachings?

“Blessed are the poor [broken] in spirit . . . 

Blessed are those who mourn . . .

Blessed are the meek . . .

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [distributive justice] . . .

Blessed are the merciful . . .

Blessed are the pure in heart . . .

Blessed are the peacemakers . . .

Blessed are those who are persecuted . . . 

Blessed are you when people insult you . . . 

Blessed are you when people persecute you . . . 

Blessed are you when people 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)

In this teaching, Jesus is in solidarity with those who have been pushed to the edges and undersides of his society and are trying to survive there.  

Notice, too, those final two statements I quoted from Matthew 5. Jesus states that those on the margins of society are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. This was centuries before refrigeration and the harnessing of electricity. Salt preserved food. 

I want to offer a word of caution about the imagery of light in our context today. RHM’s book of the month for May is Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne by Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney. In a statement circulating the internet this past Easter season which was attributed to Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney (which I still cannot for the life of me find where she said this, but this does sound like her) we read, “We can celebrate the light of Easter without demonizing darkness and reinscribing a white supremacist dialectic on Christ and the resurrection. My blackness is radiant, luminous and will not and does not need to be made white as snow. The blood of Jesus will not make me white. We must learn to talk about brokenness in the world with our reducing evil to darkness and goodness to light. Blackness is God’s good gift.” (From more from Gafney go to www.wilgafney.com

We can celebrate light without demonizing darkness. Today we understand that life requires both light and dark. What’s important is balance, a life-giving equity, rather than one or the other. I can understand the original use of this language and also understand that that use is no longer appropriate today. 

Yet in the Jesus stories both images point to the marginalized of Jesus’ society. That’s the point Myers is making above. In the Jesus stories, the edges of society hold a “primarily positive theological value. It is the place where the sovereignty of God is made manifest, where the story of liberation is renewed, where God’s intervention in history occurs.”

Change happens from the outside in, from the bottom up, from grassroots movements. It is the voices sharing the experiences of those surviving on the edges of our society that tell us whether the status quo is just or unjust, life-giving or lethal. We can choose to listen to these voices or not. We can choose the way of life or not. We can choose those things that preserve society, like salt, or that which cause societies to self-destruct. Those who are in power and privileged have very little insight into how systems enfranchise some and disenfranchise others. At best they continually risk underestimating the damage done to those who do not share their social location. Change, renewal, intervention, salvation, often emerges from the edges, the “wilderness” locations. And this is one of the first truths we bump into in the Jesus story.

Today, a person can be marginalized on the basis of their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, education, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, ability, and more. Many marginalized people face exclusion for multiple intersecting traits, too. In whatever area of your life where you face marginalization, contrary to narratives of those at the top or the center of society, the Jesus story tells us that God is with those on the margins, those working in “the wilderness.” And we are working with God when we are working in solidarity with them.

A Special Request

If you have been blessed by our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries, please support our work. 

This is a time of the year when we keenly feel and deeply appreciate your support. 

Click on the donate page on our website or mailing your gift to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

You can make a one-time gift, or, alternatively, consider becoming a monthly sustainer by selecting the option to make your gift recurring.

All amounts help, regardless of the size. 

Thank you in advance for your support. 

We simply could not exist nor continue our important work without you. Earlier this month, after a presentation I had just given, one of those in audience approached me and said, “Thank you. If we had more messages like this, my church would be a different place.”

I believe another Christianity is possible. 

I also believe another world is possible.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

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

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

Social Salvation

by Herb Montgomery | May 17, 2019

Photo by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash

“Here in the West we are shaped by a deeply individualistic culture, and some Christian communities rarely address Jesus’ social salvation, if ever. The form of Christianity that most people experience focuses heavily on a person’s individual (personal) salvation and leaves the idea of social salvation unspoken. We must also be honest: many of those who lead this form of Christianity are those in privileged social locations and with a degree of power in our society. It’s very convenient for this part of American Christianity to focus on an individual salvation that leaves social injustice untouched and emphasizes attaining heaven after death rather than a more earthly focus of working for things now to be ‘on earth as they are in heaven.’”

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

We’ve been getting a lot of questions over the past few weeks about our articles on a more social reading of the gospels. Again, I’m not saying that Jesus never addressed an individual’s personal salvation. In the stories of the gospels, he does. But he also worked toward society’s salvation too. 

Here in the West we are shaped by a deeply individualistic culture, and some Christian communities rarely address Jesus’ social salvation, if ever. The form of Christianity that most people experience focuses heavily on a person’s individual (personal) salvation and leaves the idea of social salvation unspoken. We must also be honest: many of those who lead this form of Christianity are those in privileged social locations and with a degree of power in our society. It’s very convenient for this part of American Christianity to focus on an individual salvation that leaves social injustice untouched and emphasizes attaining heaven after death rather than a more earthly focus of working for things now to be “on earth as they are in heaven” (see Matthew 6:10).

So where do we find examples of Jesus working toward social salvation in the gospel stories?

The most familiar story is of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we have labeled as Palm Sunday and his Temple protest the following day. Both of these events were public demonstrations calling for social change. His entry into Jerusalem that day competed with Rome’s entry into Jerusalem going on at the same time. (See chapter 1 of Borg’s and Crossan’s The Last Week.) Jesus was protesting Rome’s vision for society, the Pax Romana. 

Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple courtyard was an even more pointed social protest. I want to be clear though: Jesus’ actions must be understood within Judaism, not outside or against it. Remember, Jesus was never a Christian. He was a Jew. Jesus was not against Judaism; nor was Judaism against Jesus. Jesus’ voice was one of many Jewish voices in his own society: there was a spectrum of positions among the Essenes, the Zealots, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. Each of these groups had ideas and interpretations about what it meant for Jewish society to live in faithfulness to the Torah. Christianity grew out of an early group of Jewish Jesus followers who resonated with Jesus’ vision for Jewish society. It was later, when the Jesus movement became populated by more nonJewish adherents and adherents from the upper classes of Gentile society that anti-Semitism enters the telling of the Jesus story. Originally the Jesus story was not read this way. 

Let me also say, on the flip side, that the context Jesus was in was also not a uniquely Jewish story. The dynamics and social tensions of that society happen in all societies, Jewish and non-Jewish. When Jesus flipped the tables in the Temple (see Matthew 21:12) at the beginning of his final week, he was not protesting Judaism! Far from it. He was protesting political oppression and exclusion in his society. He was protesting the economic exploitation of the vulnerable in his society. And he was protesting the religious legitimization and complicity of the priests in the Temple. His actions were not against the Temple because it was the Jewish Temple. His actions were in solidarity with the Jewish poor in his Jewish society. 

Political oppression and exclusion, economic exploitation, and religious legitimization are not uniquely Jewish by any means. They are universal social evils that take place in all societies. Christians should not rush to point fingers at their Jewish neighbors, because Christianity’s history and present offer many examples of these social sins as well. Elite Christians who benefit from these sins could have just as easily and surely executed a prophet of the poor, and they have. Rome executed Jesus because he threatened an unjust status quo. People have been removed from society in one way or another in every generation when they have stood up to an unjust status quo.

With this in mind, here is one more example of Jesus addressing social evils, not mere personal/individual ones:

“Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’ He said to them, ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” (Mathew 12:9-14)

Plotting to kill Jesus seems like a pretty extreme response if we only read this story as Jesus healing one individual with a “shriveled hand.” But if we read this story as Jesus attacking a socially unjust power structure—a religious interpretation that was the foundation for a social evil that marginalized the vulnerable, and the authority of those who perpetuated this interpretive foundation—their response of feeling threatened and feeling an immediate need to silence or remove Jesus begins to make sense. Speaking of the healing stories in the gospel of Mark, Ched Myers points out: 

“In contrast to Hellenistic literature, in which miracle-workers normally function to maintain the status quo, gospel healings challenge the ordering of power. Because Jesus seeks the root causes of why people are marginalized, there is no case of healing and exorcism in Mark that does not also raise a larger question of social oppression. (Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 14.)

In the Jesus stories, then, we see a Jesus who continually took a stand with the marginalized sectors of his society even when that stand pitted him against more popular religious teachers and their authority. (See Solidarity with the Crucified Community.) This should give us some pause today when we encounter ways of interpreting our sacred texts that either side with religious institutional positions that harm others or give a sacred foundation for inclusion, compassion, centering the vulnerable, and justice. For example, in Christianity today, there are multiple ways to interpret Biblical texts that have been applied to the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ youth who belong to non-accepting Christian families demonstrate disproportionately higher rates of suicide. It would be far better for these children to belong to a non-Christian family that accepted them than a Christian family whose interpretive lens does them such harm.

This is just one example. Interpretations of the Bible are also used to harm women as well, as we are seeing in the Southern portions of the U.S. presently.

Here not Heaven

Another contrast between personal salvation and social salvation is that personal salvation tends to focus one’s attention on the afterlife, gaining heaven, a pessimistic patience for how things are now, and a hope for change only at some point in the distant future.

However, notice how within the story of Lazarus in John’s gospel Jesus rejects this future focus and calls Martha to the present, now and not later. When Jesus finally arrives to Lazarus’ tomb, he assures Martha that her brother will live again. 

“Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’” (John 11:24) 

Here Martha exemplifies this far distant future hope. Jesus contradicts her, calling her to focus her hope for change in the present. 

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’” (John 11:25)

Individual salvation places a person’s hope in the future, either at death or in Jesus’ return to this earth. Social salvation says, no, “I am the resurrection and the life” now. Change can take place now. Another world is possible, if we would choose it, now. Jesus taught the meek will inherit the earth, not a post-mortem heaven (see Matthew 5:5).

And this leads me to my third contrast this week.

Today Not Later

Private and personal salvation focuses on a future hope while leaving the present’s social structures largely untouched. In Luke’s gospel, we read the story of Zacchaeus whose personal transformation or salvation came as a result his embracing Jesus’ vision for social salvation from the social evil of wealth disparity. Jesus had been preaching a more distributively just vision for society. Jesus envisioned a society without disparity, where everyone has enough and no one has too much while others are suffering and going without. In Luke, Jesus had also called his followers to sell their surplus possessions, and give them to the poor (Luke 12:18, 33; cf. Acts 2:44-45; Acts 4:33-34).

Zacchaeus embraces Jesus vision and states, “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).

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

“Today.” Stop and ponder that. Some equate salvation with eternal life. Zacchaeus entered into what makes life eternal in the gospels that day Jesus spoke. He didn’t enter at his death. He entered that day, because eternal life is social. Societies can follow paths that will eventually bring about their own ruin and destruction, or they can follow the path of life. Humanity as a species has to choose between these options as well. 

I’m reminded of Brock and Parker’s insight into how eternal life is defined in the gospels:

“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.” (Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 29) 

That day Zacchaeus embraced an offer from Jesus, but it was not an offer of post-mortem bliss. Zacchaeus embraced Jesus’ social vision for societal change—Jesus’ social gospel.

Yes, Jesus engaged a person’s personal salvation, always in the context of that person embracing Jesus social teachings. This means that divorcing a person’s private salvation from their larger participation in Jesus’ vision for social salvation is being unfaithful to the story. Jesus didn’t just change individual lives. He changed individual lives when they chose to participate in Jesus’ challenge to the status quo and his call for social change.

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

A Special Request

If you have been blessed by our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries, I want to take the opportunity this month to reach out to you and ask you to support our work.  

This is a time of the year when the need for your support is keenly felt as well as deeply appreciated.  

You can support our work either by clicking on the donate page on our website or by mailing your support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

You can make a one time gift, or please consider becoming one of our continuing monthly sustainers by selecting the option to make your gift reoccurring.

All amounts help, regardless of the size. 

Thank you in advance for your support.  

We simply could not exist nor continue our important work without you. Earlier this month, after a presentation I had just given, one of those in audience approached me and said, “Thank you. If we had more messages like this, my church would be a different place.”

I believe another Christianity is possible. 

I also believe another world is possible.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  

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

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

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

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.