Self Affirming Nonviolence and the Myth of Redemptive Suffering (Part 2)

by Herb Montgomery | June 21, 2018

Picture of a cross

Photo Credit: Christoph Schmid on Unsplash


“Taking up one’s cross should not be interpreted as acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse, but rather as the call to stand up, resist, and refuse to let go of life, justice, and the hope that another world is possible—even in a status quo that threatens you for doing so if you do.”


 

 “And lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13)

Last week we considered how Jesus’ nonviolence was not represented by the cross but by his Temple protest: nonviolence is another form of resistance. 

This week I want to build on that idea of nonviolent resistance and discuss what womanist and feminist scholars describe as the myth of redemptive suffering. I am deeply indebted to Joanne Carlson Brown, Rebecca Parker, and Delores Williams for helping me see the idea of redemptive suffering in a new, and what I believe is more just and healthier, and accurate light. 

Let’s begin with Jesus, who challenged his own followers to take up their crosses and follow him. 

“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” (Mark 8:34)

What does it mean to take up one’s cross? 

This passage, without a doubt, has been used to encourage those who suffer abuse and/or injustice to simply remain passive hoping that their suffering will convert their abuser or oppressor. I want to argue that this is a gross misinterpretation. (This is a position I have changed on thanks to womanist scholars speaking out.) Understanding this passage within its socio-political context actually reveals that Jesus was calling his followers to join the crucified community of resisters in their culture. Jesus was not asking them to simply bear with the injustice, abuse, and exploitation that was rife in their time. Crucifixion was the way in which the status quo made an example of those who fought back against injustice and sent a message to others that the same would happen to them if any of them also resisted.

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

In Mark, Jesus was challenging his followers to follow his own example and stand up, resist, protest, just like he was about to do in the courtyard of his own Temple. He was challenging them to resist even in the face of being threatened with a cross. 

This is important. Jesus was not calling his followers to suffer, but to stand up to unjust suffering, oppression, and exploitation. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker rightly remind us, “It is not acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not, Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering. If you believe that acceptance of suffering gives life, then your resources for confronting perpetrators of violence and abuse will be numbed” (For God So Loved The World?, Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, pp. 1-30).

Circles that teach nonviolence sometimes also teach that if we passively endure suffering, then we will win in the end. With all of the enormous good Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplished, he also allowed his teaching of nonviolence to drift into the territory of teaching redemptive suffering. 

Dr. King saw suffering as “a most creative and powerful social force…. The non-violent say that suffering becomes a powerful social force when you willingly accept that violence on yourself, so that self-suffering stands at the center of the non-violent movement and the individuals involved are able to suffer in a creative manner, feeling that unearned suffering is redemptive, and that suffering may serve to transform the social situation.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in Brown and Parker, p. 20)

Delores Williams, Joanne Carlson Brown, and Rebecca Parker all respond to King’s teachings on passive endurance of suffering, stating that the problem “is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoers ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (Brown and Parker, p. 20; see also Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk; p. 161)

And in the foreword of Sisters in the Wilderness, Katie Cannon sternly writes, “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.”

Taking up one’s cross should not be interpreted as acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse, but rather as the call to stand up, resist, and refuse to let go of life, justice, and the hope that another world is possible—even in a status quo that threatens you for doing so if you do.

Let’s plug this understanding back into our passage in Mark and see if it works. 

Mark 8:34-38: “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross [be willing to resist even if you are being threatened with a cross] and follow me. 

‘For whoever wants to save their life [by remaining quiet, passive, keeping their head down] will lose it, but whoever loses their life [being willing to stand up against injustice even if there are consequences for doing so] for me and for the gospel will save it.

‘What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 

‘If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.’”

One phrase kicks me in my gut every time I read it:

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

As a person of immense privilege in this culture, this question hits home. What does it profit me if I gain the whole world by looking the other way if in so doing I lose my humanity? If I “forfeit my soul,” I, too, become a kind of “dehumanized” being as I go along with the dehumanization of the vulnerable among us. 

The Jesus story includes a Roman cross, and we cannot ignore it. That is one of the few historically provable elements of the story: Jesus was executed on a Roman cross. But we must also be careful not to glorify the cross. As Kelly Brown Douglas argues: 

“The cross reflects the lengths that unscrupulous power will go to sustain itself. It is power’s last stand. It is the ‘extinction‘ side of the Manifest Destiny ultimatum: be assimilated or become extinct. The cross reflects power’s refusal to give up its grip on the lives of others. It is the refusal of power to retreat. Essentially, the cross represents the height of humanity’s inhumanity. It shows the extent to which humans defile and disrespect other human bodies. It represents an absolute disregard for life. It reveals “human beings’… extraordinary capacity for evil” (Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 177). 

The cross reveals the violence inherent in the system. And yet, the focus need not be on the fact that Jesus was executed. It should be on the fact that he resisted in the face of a threatened empire that dealt him execution on the cross. The teachings of this Jesus call us to resist in the face of threats too. 

Speaking of what this means specifically for Black women, Delores Williams hits the nail on the head: “Jesus came for life, to show humans a perfect vision of ministerial relation that humans had very little knowledge of. As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred. To do so is to glorify the sin of defilement” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 132).

So what do we do with our featured text this week? Jesus’ model prayer states, “Lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil” (Matthew 6:13)

What is Jesus talking about here? Matthew’s gospel uses the same phrase: “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41, NRSV)

What is the time of trial or temptation? I believe that for the disciples it was to run away the night of Jesus’ arrest, to abandon him, and, when threatened with a cross, to hide. The temptation the disciples faced was to remain passive when threatened with a cross as opposed to standing up and joining the ranks of the crucified community. 

To be sure, there was at least one who did choose to resist, but please notice the form his resistance took:

“With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. ‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’” (Matthew 26:51-52) 

In Luke’s version, Jesus had told them just moments earlier to buy swords (see Luke 22:35-38). Yet here Jesus rebukes Peter for thinking they were to be used for violence. 

“When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’” (Luke 22:49-52)

Jesus taught resistance, but it was nonviolent resistance. It was not a path of self-sacrifice for those whose self was already being sacrificed in their society. It was a means to stand up and claim their sacred dignity. Jesus’ nonviolence was not only non-cooperative and disruptive, but also self affirming. 

Both Peter and his fellow disciples failed their temptations that night in the story. Peter gave into the temptation to rely on violence. The rest gave into the temptation to passively run away. Jesus chose a different path: he refused to let go of life, even when threatened with death. He chose to keep gripping the hope of liberation for all. 

“And lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week, I want to assign some homework for your group. I’d like you to listen to the series on our website, Nonviolence and the Cross.

2. Discuss with your group three things you take away from the series that are meaningful to you. 

3. What difference does it make to see Jesus’ teachings as salvific rather than just his death? Could this change the way you define salvation? What relevance to liberation here and now do you find in this way of viewing Jesus’ life? Discuss with your group.

4. Also I want to ask you to keep calling your representatives and voicing your objection to the atrocities that are happening on our southern border here in the U.S. related to immigration and those seeking refugee status from the atrocities they face in the areas they are fleeing from.  What is being touted as a solution to separating families of asylum seekers now leads to another grave injustice of imprisoning children.  Keep speaking out.

I’m so glad you checked in with us this week. Wherever you are presently, choose love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 


To support these podcasts, weekly eSight articles and to help us grow, go to www.renewedheartministries.com and click “donate.”

Self Affirming Nonviolence and the Myth of Redemptive Suffering (Part 1)

by Herb Montgomery | June 16, 2018

Jesus Cleanses the Temple by Gustave Dore (1832-1883)

Artwork: Jesus Cleanses the Temple by Gustave Dore (1832-1883)

 


“In its own cultural setting, Jesus’ nonviolence was a means of self-affirmation for those who don’t have access to common power, and it is best illustrated not by the cross but by his temple protest. Linking Jesus’ nonviolence to the cross instead is a way to promote the historical myth of redemptive suffering.”


 

“And lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil.” —Matthew 6:13

I want to talk about Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence this week. I have some concerns about them. I’m concerned about how those who benefit from the violence of the status quo continually co-opt nonviolence to condemn those who rise up against injustice while leaving their own use of violence on the vulnerable unaddressed and untouched. I’m also concerned about how some use Jesus’ nonviolence to promote self-sacrifice for those whose self is already being sacrificed. In its own cultural setting, Jesus’ nonviolence was a means of self-affirmation for those who don’t have access to common power, and it is best illustrated not by the cross but by his temple protest. Linking Jesus’ nonviolence to the cross instead is a way to promote the historical myth of redemptive suffering. It centers victimizers at the expense of survivors and victims. 

I want to unpack some of these ideas over the next two weeks and see if we can understand Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence in a healthier, more life-giving and socially transformative way. First let’s talk about the historical backdrop upon which Jesus took up the methods of nonviolence. We are all shaped by the times in which we live. 

Jesus grew up in the wake of the Judas Rebellion, which razed the near-to-Nazareth city of Sepphoris and led to the crucifixion of some 2,000 Jewish people outside Jerusalem. This rebellion and Rome’s violent crushing of it took place in 4 BCE (see Josephus; Jewish Antiquities 17.295) Jesus would have witnessed the aftermath of this rebellion firsthand. 

Within Judaism at that time, there was also some understanding of forms of nonviolent resistance to Rome already being practiced by some Jewish people. In 26 CE, during the time of Jesus, Josephus tells us about a Standards (Ensigns) incident that took place in Jerusalem where Rome sought to place a Roman Standard in Jerusalem itself. Viewing the Standard as a violation of the Torah against “images” or “idols,” Jewish adherents used a form of nonviolent resistance to stop these Standards from being posted. Josephus tells us, “At this the Jews as though by agreement fell to the ground in a body and bent their necks, shouting that they were ready to be killed rather than transgress the Law.” (War 2:175-203)

After Jesus we also see both methods of resistance, violent and nonviolent, being used by the Jewish community in resistance to Rome. 

In 40 CE, Rome attempted to place a statue of Gaius Caligula in the Temple in Jerusalem itself. Again, Josephus tells us that Jewish adherents to Torah used a form of nonviolent resistance. It could be that this was the only form of resistance they had at their disposal. A group, en masse, laid down before the Roman soldiers and cried out, “On no account would we fight, but we will die sooner than violate our laws” (Antiquities 18:261-309). Philo, too, tells us of this incident: “When the Jews at large got to know of the scheme, they staged mass demonstrations of protest before Petronius, who by then was in Phoenicia with an army.” (Legatio ad Gaium)

The result was that the statue of Caligula was not placed. 

Next came the Jewish-Roman War of CE 66-69, which began as a poor people’s revolt and climaxed in 70 CE with the Roman razing of Jerusalem. The Bar Kokhba revolt. which followed, is often referred to as the Third Jewish Revolt between 132-136 CE. As a result of this violent revolt, 580,000 Jews perished and many more died of hunger and disease. Rome sold many survivors into slavery. The Jewish communities of Judea were devastated to the point of genocide.

Jewish violent revolt against Rome seemed to result only in greater devastation, while nonviolent resistance gained short term and partial results. And although Jesus would only have personally witnessed some of this history, it would have been enough to have led him to the conclusion that if liberation were possible, it had the best chances with nonviolence. Rooted in liberation of the oppressed (see Luke 4:18) and a compassionate desire for those being dehumanized to stand in the power of their YHWH-given dignity and worth, Jesus emerged and began to teach: 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 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.” (Matthew 5:38-44)

RHM has several resources on how to understand these words in their own cultural setting according to the research of Walter Wink and scholars like him. Far from teaching passivity, or simply being a door mat, these words teach a type of cheek resistance. They teach a way to shame one’s oppressor and exploitative, unjust, and cruel economic structures. They also teach refusing to play by oppressors’ rules and putting power back in the hands of oppressed people. 

If this interpretation is new to you, read this eSight. This month’s featured presentation also includes relevant details. 

Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence are modeled in his Temple protest. Too often, his nonviolence is, what I believe, wrongly thought to be modeled on the cross. This leads to two mistakes.

The first mistake is that if we use the cross to understand Jesus’ nonviolence, it almost every time leads to defining nonviolence as a passive response to persecution or injustice. But the cross did not demonstrate Jesus’ passivity. The crucifixion happened because those who were protecting the status quo were rightly feeling threatened by Jesus nonviolent resistance toward the Temple state. 

The second mistake, which we’ll cover in detail next week, is that we begin to believe the myth that passive suffering is redemptive. Jesus was teaching a nonviolent form of civil disobedience, direct action and/or resistance. One of my favorite passages in Mark hint at why we should interpret Jesus’ overturning of the Temple tables as a protest against the economic exploitation of the poor:

“Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” (Mark 11:11) 

What we today call Jesus’ “triumphal entry” was originally supposed to have ended with Jesus entering the Temple that Sunday night, dismounting the donkey, and overturning the tables immediately in protest. He was entering the heart of the Temple state to shut it down, to prevent business as usual. 

Instead, he entered, looks around, and “since it was already late”— most people were not present and not much was going on in the temple to shut down—he returned to his friends’ home in Bethany with his twelve disciples and went back to the Temple the following morning when economic exploitation was in full swing. 

This was not a passive plan. Those who respond with passivity to injustice don’t get crucified!

“And he [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.” (Gandhi, Non Violence in Peace and War, Volume I, p. 16

The Jesus we see in the story didn’t teach “peace-keeping” through nonviolent passivity. He taught peace-making through the nonviolent establishment of distributive justice. (See The Lord’s Prayer.) Peace-making is never accomplished through peace-keeping iin an unjust status quo. 

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

Jesus’ followers were continually labeled troublemakers, and disturbers of the peace.

“These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” (Acts 17:6-7)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rightly stated, “Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators” (Letter from Birmingham Jail).

Gandhi again reminds us:

“[Nonviolence] does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means the pitting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save his honour, his religion, his soul and lay the foundation for that empire’s fall or its regeneration.” (Mohandas Gandhi, Young India; January 8, 1920, p.3) 

The value of nonviolent forms of resistance is that they enable those who practice them to not become like their oppressors. In other words, nonviolence can provide a path for oppressed people to not dehumanize oppressors the way oppressors have dehumanized them. Understood as a form of resistance, nonviolence enables us to resist, to stop injustice, while simultaneously maintaining our connectedness to the humanity of those who oppress. As I have often said, I know of no better statement that captures this balance than the “two hands” metaphor used by Barbara Deming in the book Revolution ad Equilibrium: 

“With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised out- stretched – maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not – but always outstretched . . . With this hand we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’” (p. 69)

When understood as resistance, nonviolence must not be used keep people facing oppression and exploitation in a state of passivity. Nonviolence is not a critique of resisters as much as it is a protest first and foremost of the violence that produces the need for resistance.

“First, Jesus’ practice and teaching demand absolutely the unmasking of and a resolute struggle against the form of violence that is the worst and most generative of others because it is the most inhuman and the historical principle at the origin of all dehumanization: structural injustice in the form of institutionalized violence. It follows that we have to unmask the frequent attitude of being scandalized at revolutionary violence and the victims it produces without having been scandalized first and more deeply at its causes.” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, p. 215)

Lastly, when nonviolence becomes synonymous with passivity, or, as we’ll see next week, self-sacrifice rather than resistance, the only other pathway that could lead toward change in response to injustice is violence.

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard . . . in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; 1968; “The Other America”)

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” (John F. Kennedy; Remarks on the first anniversary of the Alliance for Progress, 13 March 1962)

As we move into part 2 of this article, let’s consider ways we might practice the value that is at the heart Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence—resistance.

And lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil. (Matthew 6:13)

HeartGroup Application

Resistance can come in many forms. Yes, there is public, in the streets activism, that should be done. There are other forms of resistance as well. Kneeling at football games is a nonviolent form of resistance for athletes. I know professors who intentionally teach specific methods and content as an expression of resistance. Some people tell stories, some write, some sing, some do theater, some produce films. Some organize educational events, others wash dishes or make sandwiches, have their own garden, and lend help and support anywhere they can. Resistance can begin in a coffee shop or within conversations merely with family and friends. 

As Bayard Rustin said, “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.”

  1. What are some of the ways you resist systemic injustice in your day-to-day life? List them.
  2. What are some of the ways your HeartGroup as a community resists? List them.
  3. Lean into these lists and a living practice of resistance this week. Don’t allow the machine to drive you endlessly through the rat race of the status quo. Resist!

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly. 

I’ll see you next week with part 2.


To support these podcasts, weekly eSight articles and to help us grow, go to www.renewedheartministries.com and click “donate.”

Losing One’s Life

Picture of a Road through the woods

by Herb Montgomery

“Jesus didn’t die because he was a bigot, standing in solidarity with oppressors and justifying the domination of the vulnerable. He died because he stood in solidarity with the vulnerable against the status quo. It’s time we also stood with the oppressed. If there is a God of the oppressed in our sacred text, we can only be standing with that God if we‘re also standing with the oppressed and working toward liberation with them. We will only be able to reclaim the humanity of Christianity if we as Christians are working alongside those who are working to liberate themselves. . . . Resurrection that doesn’t follow standing with those on the undersides and edges of society isn’t authentic resurrection as defined by the Jesus story. If Christianity does not discover how to stand with women, people of color, immigrants, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people, it’s not a Christianity I want to be a part of.”

Featured Text:

“The one who finds one’s life will lose it, and the one who loses one’s life, for my sake‚ will find it.” (Q 17:33)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:39: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

Luke 17:31-35: “On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.”

Context. Context. Context.

If you haven’t read last week’s entry, I strongly recommend you do as a foundation for understanding this week’s saying. This week’s saying, if not understood in the context we discussed last week, could easily be interpreted as Jesus teaching the oppressed a message of self-sacrifice rather than self-affirmation and self-reclamation.

But I don’t believe in the myth of redemptive suffering. Our hope is not in sacrificing our selves, but rather in learning how to reclaim our selves, to regain our own humanity, and to stand in solidarity with those who are doing the same. In a world where people’s selves are already being sacrificed by those who dominate, subjugate, and marginalize, I don’t believe Jesus offered a message of further self-sacrifice; I believe he offered a way for the oppressed to take hold of life in the face of the longest odds. In this world, where people’s existence is threatened or even denied, Audre Lorde reminds us that, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

So what other than self-sacrifice could Jesus have meant when he spoke of losing one’s life and finding one’s life? Remember, when the status quo is confronted, challenged, and threatened, those who have the most to lose to change will threaten some form of a “cross” as an attempt to silence those calling for change.

As we discussed last week, that cross is not intrinsic to following Jesus. It only comes into the picture when those in power and places of privilege use the threat of violence to quiet those they’ve repressed. Only at this point do these words of Jesus become a source of life for the oppressed. The question Jesus is asking is not “Are you willing to suffer,” but “do you desire to fully live?” Will you continue to thrive, even in the face of threats, or will you accept things as they are, reluctantly but without protest letting go of your hold on life? Remaining alive but silent is actually death, and refusing to let go of your hold on life, even when threatened with death, is life.

On March 8, 1965, the day after Bloody Sunday, Dr. King thundered from the pulpit:

“A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. He died . . . A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true. So we’re going to stand up amid horses. We’re going to stand up right here in Alabama, amid the billy-clubs. We’re going to stand up right here in Alabama amid police dogs, if they have them. We’re going to stand up amid tear gas! We’re going to stand up amid anything they can muster up, letting the world know that we are determined to be free!”

It is in this context that this week’s saying is not one of self-sacrifice, but self-affirmation in the face of threat.

“The one who find’s one’s life” is the one preserving their life by remaining silent in response to injustice. Finding one’s life this way is a way of actually losing it. You may keep breathing, but you are in reality dead. But in being willing to lose one’s life, if need be, to stand up for justice, one is not letting go of life, but “finding it.”

This is the self-affirming refusal to be bullied by those in power, a refusal to roll over and just patiently endure, a refusal to become nothing more than a doormat waiting for change to come from the top down. Change never comes from the top down.

That thought reminds me of three quotations.

The first quotation comes from Freire, who estimated oppressors’ inability to use oppression to liberate. He argues that oppressive power is intrinsically antithetical to liberation:

“The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.” (in Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition, Kindle Locations 539-541)

In hierarchal power structures, the same tools used by those at the top to dominate and subjugate cannot be used to liberate.

The second quotation is from a speech Frederick Douglass gave in 1857 that has since been titled “If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress”:

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”

According to Douglass, then, change comes from the bottom up.

Lastly are the words of James H. Cone:

“There will be no change from the system of injustice if we have to depend upon the people who control it and believe that the present order of injustice is the best of all possible societies. It will be changed by the victims whose participation in the present system is against their will.” (in God of the Oppressed, p. 202)

It is not the responsibility of the oppressed to liberate the oppressors. No, theirs is a struggle for their own liberation. Yet the reality is that when the oppressed remove oppressors’ power, change is accomplished for all. Not only are the oppressed reclaiming their own humanity, but also they create the possibility for oppressors to rediscover and embrace their humanity, too. Whether oppressors take hold of their own humanity or pass off the stage of history in bitter, defeated bigotry is up to them.

Christianity must also face this choice, especially evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals’ support of the American establishment is nothing new: Christianity has a long history of being used to legitimize established orders. While enslaved Black people used Christianity as a means to survive and resist, many White people used Christianity to legitimize slavery and resist abolitionism. Today, too, many use Christianity to legitimize their homophobia and transphobia, their patriarchy and misogyny. I attended a conference this past month where many of the speakers voiced concerns for the future of Christianity and what can be done to keep it alive. Some said, “Let it die. Resurrection can only follow death.” But though this sound bite sounds right, it’s ill founded. Jesus didn’t die because he was a bigot, standing in solidarity with oppressors and justifying the domination of the vulnerable. He died because he stood in solidarity with the vulnerable against the status quo.

It’s time we also stood with the oppressed. If there is a God of the oppressed in our sacred text, we can only be standing with that God if we‘re also standing with the oppressed and working toward liberation with them. We will only be able to reclaim the humanity of Christianity if we as Christians are working alongside those who are working to liberate themselves.

I’m not saying Christianity is doomed. I’m saying that we have to stop caring whether we survive and choose instead the all-consuming preoccupation of standing with the vulnerable, alongside them and engaging the work of their liberation. If Christianity ceases to exist doing that work, then maybe there will be a resurrection for it. But a resurrection from any other type of institutional “death” is not a resurrection I’m interested in.

Resurrection that doesn’t follow standing with those on the undersides and edges of society isn’t authentic resurrection as defined by the Jesus story. If Christianity does not discover how to stand with women, people of color, immigrants, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people, it’s not a Christianity I want to be a part of. I’d rather follow Jesus and stand with the oppressed (Luke 4:18) than find a way for Christianity to continue in the old order.

In the Jewish prophetic, justice tradition, we find this ancient call to the Hebrew people:

“Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” (Isaiah 58:9-12)

Maybe we, too, might hear this call to do away with oppressing the vulnerable and live in solidarity with the liberation of the oppressed.

The one who finds one’s life will lose it, and the one who loses one’s life, for my sake [and the sake of the oppressed]‚ will find it. (Q 17:33)

HeartGroup Application

This week, take some time to contemplate Oscar Romero’s poem Taking the Long View:

Taking the Long View
by Oscar Romero

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
Which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything,
And there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
An opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
Between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
Ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Amen.

2. What speaks to you in Romero’s words? Is there encouragement, challenge, affirmation, inspiration?

3. Share your thoughts with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Keep living in love, participating the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation as we, together seek to make our world a safe, compassionate, just home for all.

Tonight, I’m in Asheville for our first 500:25:1 event. Send us lots of well wishes!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Taking One’s Cross

Grave yard full of crossesby Herb Montgomery

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

Featured Text:

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

Companion Texts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.