Peace, Be Still.

 

calm sea scape

Herb Montgomery | June 18, 2021


I need a Jesus that can challenge the great windstorm and the waves of deep homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in the Christian church that threatens to capsize the lives of LGBTQ young people — not just the winds and waves of a Galilean lake. These young people wonder if anyone cares that they are perishing. They need a Jesus to speak to their Christian families and, in the face of bigotry, speak in the name of inclusion, affirmation, celebration, and love, saying, ‘Peace be still.’”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)

The story of Jesus calming the storm is the first nature miracle in the gospel of Mark. Until this point, the author of this gospel has been structuring narratives that subverted Jesus’ society. Jesus is an exorcist or healer in stories that subtly call into question the social power structures and who they benefited and marginalized.

But with this story, the author introduces a new side of Jesus. Now Jesus is also seen as having authority in relation to nature itself.

The first “sea” (lake) crossing in Mark’s gospel is part of a pattern in Mark of pairing important narratives. The second sea crossing is in Mark 6:45-53. The two feedings of the multitudes are another example.

Most scholars believe that the gospel of Mark was intended for both Jewish and non-Jewish Jesus followers. In the early church, making the Christian tent large enough to bring together both Jewish followers of Jesus (in Galilee and Judea) and Gentile followers of Jesus (from Paul’s travels and ministry) was a top priority. So in this first sea crossing, the author of Mark is invoking narratives that would have been meaningful to both groups of Jesus followers. By calling the lake “sea” this gospel recalls Hebrew narratives about Yahweh and the sea,” such as the ark of Noah, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the reference to storms in the Psalms:

“By his power he stilled the Sea; by his understanding he struck down Rahab [mythical sea monster, symbol for Egypt].” (Job 26:12)

“He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. (Psalms 107.29)

“He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry; he led them through the deep as through a desert.” (Psalms 106:9)

For Hellenistic Jesus followers, Jesus’ ability to command the wind and the sea would have been one of the few acts in the gospel of Mark comparable to the stories of Hellenistic miracle workers. Having the ability to command wind and sea associated a person with the powers attributed to Zeus (wind) and Poseidon (sea).

There may be another apologetic association being made in this story as well. Many scholars throughout the centuries have noticed in this story parallels with stories told about a contemporary of Jesus, Apollonius of Tyanna. Placing Jesus on the level of Apollonius and other wonder-workers in that world highly honored Jesus. Because of classism, for those who favored the miracle narratives of Apollonius, Jesus was the imposter, a miracle worker for the uneducated, the poor, and those on the margins of society. (Mark’s Christology had not yet evolved to the levels we see in the much later gospel of John.)

Also noteworthy are parallels between this story and the stories told during the Flavian dynasty of Roman emperors’ miraculous powers over nature. The Flavian era was the time period most scholars believe the gospel of Mark was written. Jesus commands the winds and waves of the body of water referred to as Lake Tiberius (after Tiberius Caesar Augustus). All four canonical gospels compare Jesus with Roman imperialism and contrast the Pax Romana with the peace resulting from Jesus’ teachings on including the marginalized, community resource-sharing, and redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor.

As we’ve found in the gospels, if Jesus is to be a superior choice to other options in the world of the gospel writers and their audiences, the authors must first portray Jesus on equal ground with others competing for followers in that time.

But what does this story say to us today? How can the Jesus story inform our work of justice, love and compassion in our various contexts and social settings?

I don’t think that we now have to portray Jesus as superior to everything else around us to follow the teachings of that Jewish prophet of the poor from Galilee. Superiority, supremacy, exceptionalism, and/or a “chosen” status’ have only proved to divide us within the human family. These ways of telling our stories have been harmful at best and lethal at worst. I believe it’s enough to consider the values, ethics, and teachings within the Jesus story and determine whether the fruit of those teachings still have anything of intrinsic value to offer us and can inform our work of making our world a safe, compassionate just home form everyone. If they can, then following the Jesus of the gospel stories in our context of the 21st century will be life-giving, too.

These are the questions we should be wrestling with as Jesus followers two thousand years removed from these stories’ beginnings. And I believe there is a lot within the Jesus stories that is still worth listening to. The golden rule, certain themes found in the Sermon on the Mount, the value of love above all else—these alone are worthy of our practice.

I don’t believe Jesus still needs to “command the wind and the waves” in our postmodern, post-enlightenment world to still be worthy of being following. In fact, the supernatural story elements that were persuasive in the 1st Century are too often now obstacles in our 21st Century.

I don’t need a Jesus who supernaturally commands our natural forces. I need a Jesus who can speak into our racial struggle for justice today. I need a Jesus who speaks into our economic crisis alongside the poor and in the face of those made richer in this pandemic. I need a Jesus who can speak into our ecological crisis and humanity’s threatened existence on our planet. I need a Jesus who can speak into women’s struggle for an equitable society where misogyny in all its ugliness still threats to capsize their thriving. I need a Jesus that can challenge the great windstorm and the waves of deep homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in the Christian church that threatens to capsize the lives of LGBTQ young people — not just the winds and waves of a Galilean lake. These young people wonder if anyone cares that they are perishing. They need a Jesus to speak to their Christian families and, in the face of bigotry, speak in the name of inclusion, affirmation, celebration, and love, saying, “Peace be still.”

What storms of injustice in your world, in your society, in your community, in your family do you need someone to add their voice to, alongside yours, and speak peace, love, compassion, “peace, be still?” We don’t need a peace that is only a passive lull in our struggle for equality. We need a peace that is the fruit of an established justice; a peace where we can do more than just survive, but find what we need to thrive. It’s not a stilling of the voice of those crying out for justice that we need; we need a stilling of the forces that threaten those lives daily.

The Jesus who speaks that peace is the Jesus I need and I would guess you do, too.

As Jesus followers in our contexts today, the peace in these gospel stories that can speak most loudly to us and our present, concrete, material need in our natural world and bring genuine peace rooted in established justice?

The Jesus that speaks that peace is the kind of Jesus I want sleeping in the bow of our society’s boat today.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Where would you like to see a societal peace that is rooted in distributive justice end the tempest of injustice and exclusion that threatens to capsize people’s thriving, today? Discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Misclassifying As Weeds

rainbow heart

Herb Montgomery | June 11, 2021


This weeks reading calls us all to question our classification of trees as weeds. Similarly, the call to affirm, embrace, and include LGBTQ Christians in the church is not a call to affirm things that are intrinsically harmful but a call to help us recognize that the LGBTQ community should not be on the harmful” list in the first place.


Our reading this week is from the Gospel of Mark:

He also said, The reign of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” He also said, With what can we compare the reign of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (Mark 4:26-34)

The society for which the gospel of Mark was written considered mustard seeds an invasive, noxious weed. If a gardener did not uproot it from their garden, theyd soon not have a garden left to tend. Then, as now, weeds should be rooted out to stop them taking over, crowding out intentionally planted crops .

Other gospels describe mustard seed growing into large bushes with branches, or trees. But mustard seed doesn’t actually grow like that. We have negatively labelled as a weed something that ends up growing into a large bush with branches and that positively benefits those around it. Weve classified as a weed something that is actually a fruit-bearing tree.

Let me say it again for clarity. Actual mustard plants dont grow into trees. What we have in this story is something that grows into a tree. Its not mustard weed. Its something entirely different from mustard. Weve made a mistake!

I think that was Jesus’ point.

This weeks reading compares Jesus’ new community of nonviolence, mutual aid, and resource and wealth redistribution to a beneficial tree seen as a weed-like-threat by the privileged, powerful, and propertied. The way 1st Century farmers viewed the mustard plant was the way the privileged and elite viewed Jesus teachings and the community of Jesus-followers centered in those teachings. They were to be rooted out. They were as welcome in society as weeds are in a garden.

But then Jesus takes a hard right turn. What people think is a noxious mustard weed doesnt produce the same results as they all expect mustard to. It doesnt take over the garden like a weed and leave nothing for anyone. No, instead it becomes a tree, a source of shelter and food for all in its vicinity. Its originally viewed as a weed, but it does not bear the same fruit as a weed.

The image Jesus uses to represent his community, the tree mistaken for a weed, is from a story in the Hebrew apocalyptic book of Daniel. In Daniel, Nebuchadnezzars kingdom was likened to a fruit tree that provided food, a resting place, and shelter to all. Jesus adapts this imperial image to describe his non-imperial community that provides for those the present system exploits.  Its imagery also communicates to those opposing Jesus’ work, Youre working so hard to keep me out of your garden as if Im a mustard weed, and are trying to uproot me completely, but you have misjudged me. My fruit is not harmful. It is life and peace and good for all.”

This weeks reading isnt saying that all weeds should be welcomed in the garden or that we shouldnt weed when gardening. Its asking us to check our assumptions about what we have classified as weeds. What if weve made a mistake? What if weve judged something to be a harmful weed, but that judgment is quite incorrect?

The elite in Jesuss society were beginning to view his teachings on nonviolent resistance and wealth redistribution as a weed that must be removed. And so he calls them to see their judgment as a mistake. What Jesus was teaching could lead to justice, liberation and ultimately societal peace, rooted in an expression of distributive justice for all. What they viewed as a weed to be rooted out was actually a tree of life.

Misclassification Today

As I consider the misclassification of the mustard seed in this weeks reading and the misclassification of Jesuss reign of God in the gospels, I cant help but think of the misclassification of my LGBTQ friends today.

This weeks reading calls us all to question our classification of trees as weeds. Similarly, the call to affirm, embrace, and include LGBTQ Christians in the church is not a call to affirm things that are intrinsically harmful but a call to help us recognize that the LGBTQ community should not be on the harmful” list in the first place.

This month is Pride Month, and RHM’s recommended reading for June is Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation by Dale B. Martin. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you have not read it, get a copy and do so. You’ll thank me.

From time to time, I get letters from other Christians asking me to explain how I can claim to follow Jesus while affirming the LGBTQ community. These writers typically use misinformed language such as lifestyle” when they are actually referring to same-sex intimacy. They are often also profoundly certain about how clear the Bibles teachings are, and they compare my LGBTQ friends with those who are “sexually immoral,” and child-molesters.” They want me to explain how I could affirm LGBTQ people’s allegedly sinful behaviors.”

A sexual ethic rooted in the golden rule is a different conversation. I do want to say this loud and clear. Many of my LGBTQ friends are more devoted Christians than I am. I think specifically of a lesbian friend of mine in Ohio. She has been with her wife for over twenty years, and I admire their commitment to each other. It’s absurd to even compare her to those who are “sexually immoral” or child-molesters”.

As a side note, I also want to add that many straight people practice things Christian, ascetic, purity-culture standards don’t approve, yet no one’s going about saying heterosexuals  shouldn’t get married or become pastors. It’s not enough to keep a system in place of making some group an outsider, or less than, while saying LGBTQ people shouldn’t be hurt by it. If this kind of system is still in place, we’re all at risk.  Do we have really to have to measure up to Christian purity culture (which many Christians also reject) to be treated with respect and kindness?

There are two lists in the New Testament that the writers of the letters I receive often mention:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the [arsenokoitai], nor [malakoi] nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (ESV), emphasis added)

Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the [arsenokoitai], enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” (1 Timothy 1:9-11 (ESV), emphasis added)

The term homosexuality” was invented in the late 1800s, but did not appear in any English language Bible before 1946. For most of history, Christians have read 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 very differently than their recent translations suggest they might. The two Greek keywords in these passages are malakoi and arsenokoitai. These words are extremely difficult to translate into English.

Arsenokoitai is found in both 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. Malakoi is found only in 1 Corinthians 6:9. Dale Martin’s book Sex and the Single Savior is extremely helpful here. Martin makes a compelling case that no one living today definitely knows what arsenokoitai meant and at best we are guessing at definitions. Surprisingly, Martin shows that whatever arsenokoitai was, most of the extra-biblical vice lists that include arsenokoitai categorize it with acts of economic exploitation and oppression, not with sexual violations where we would expect to find it if it refered primarily to sexual acts.

Malakoi is much easier to define, yet the definition reveals rank misogyny. Again, Martin makes a compelling case in quoting several extra-biblical sources where malakoi was used. Each time malakoi appears, there is no question the term refers to men directly or indirectly acting in any way that society would have defined as feminine. Some ancient authors go so far as to indicate it would be better to be dead than to be a woman as defined by their society. They list the litany of qualities that that ancient culture considered woman-like”: drinking too much wine, having too much sex, loving gourmet food, hiring a professional cook, being weak in battle, and enjoying luxury all fall into the classification of being unmanly. Malakoi often refers to heterosexual men who wore things like nice clothing, jewelry, wore cologne, shaved, did their hair, and cared for their skin to aid them in appearing attractive in their heterosexual pursuits. It meant being soft” or effeminate. In that patriarchal society, women were degraded as being inferior to men and therefore it was considered to be a vice, malakoi, for a man to act in any way like them. Martins conclusion is “willful ignorance or dishonesty” could allow us to define malakoi so narrowly as to refer to “passive homosexuals” now.

Martins textual scholarship resoundingly agrees with Brownsons conclusion in The Bible, Gender and Sexuality:

When we take the original social context of these vice lists seriously, we again recognize a gap between what these vice lists are rejecting and what is happening in committed same-sex relationships today.” (Brownson, The Bible, Gender and Sexuality, p. 275)

After 1946, however, an obvious homophobic bias enters New Testament English translations, and it is not warranted by the original languages. The original languages address men being “like women,” which is deeply misogynist and produces a whole set of interpretive problems. But translations after 1946 introduce generic homophobia instead.

I have a hunch that some translators may be trying to avoid the misogyny in the original text. Yet these translations produce demonstrable bodily harm to a group of human beings, and that fruit should warn us about their roots.

Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets before him, valued people and interpretations of the Torah that were life-giving rather than destructive. Jesus practiced a kind of Torah obedience that expressed itself in a preferential option for the vulnerable. As a community, LGBTQ people are vulnerable in our time.

Through generations of prejudice and mistranslation, we have misclassified as a weed something that isn’t a weed at all. In fact, our misclassifying the LGBTQ community is whats producing noxious weed-like results including disproportionate homelessness and suicide rates among Christian LGBTQ youth rejected by their religious families and churches. The fruit of our recent translations and misclassification of LGBTQ people is not life, but death.

We must remember:

  • Saying Im sorry” is not enough.
  • An apology that calls straight Christians only to more loving and respectful forms of heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia is not an apology.
  • The language of reconciliation devoid of liberation is empty rhetoric.
  • Kindness and respect are not synonyms for reparation for harm done in the past.
  • Allowing even respectful” disagreement over whether another person should exist is not creating safe space.”

That last one is vital. The debate over LGBTQ people is not merely about theology. It’s really a disagreement over whether LGBTQ people should exist, live openly, and form families in our communities. The lists in Pauls writings are lists of behaviors that can be changed. Sexual orientation is much more like a persons skin color than their actions. Its not something to be changed; its who people are. Reparative therapy, however, is one example of Christian attempts to “weed out” a certain type of person—an LGBTQ person—from existence. Ultimately, its a form of genocide.

Learning to listen to those who are not like us as they share the harm they’ve experienced through misclassification offers us the opportunity to choose between compassion and fear. Our differences can be scary, but they dont have to be. Although we do have differences, there is much we have in common, too. Someone who is different from you is also someones child. They are someones sibling. They are someones best friend.

Remember to breathe. And choose compassion.

And to all my LGBTQ friends who may be reading or listening this week, I offer as encouragement the words of Dr. Katie Cannon of Union Presbyterian Seminary:

Even when people call your truth a lie, tell it anyway. Tell it anyway.” (in Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology)

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Share an experience of how you came to realize you had also misjudged something or someone? Discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

 


Binding the Strong Man

rope

Herb Montgomery | June 4, 2021


Today our strong man could be capitalism, White supremacy, Christian nationalism, cisheterosexism, and more. All of these working separately and together comprise the strong men that we must bind in our time. What does binding the “strong man” as a thief in the night look like for us in our system? What does it look like in the context of working toward justice, compassion, and safety for all who are marginalized and made vulnerable? And how should we go about doing it?”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong mans house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, He has an unclean spirit.” Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:20-35)

Most scholars agree that this section of Mark is a compilation of sayings that were originally separate and were compiled into a compelling narrative. This week, we will review that narrative, looking for anything in it that can speak to our justice work today.

In the story, Jesus has returned home and is again surrounded by controversy. Characteristic of Mark, the Beelzebub narrative is enveloped by a larger story. In other words, Mark begins with one story, interrupts with a related story, and then returns to the story he was telling first.

Our narrative, then, begins with Jesus’ family. Kinship systems in Jesus’ day established a person’s identity, vocation, and social location. Some scholars see in the story evidence of a power struggle in the early church between those who claimed leadership positions based on being related to Jesus (like Jesus’ brother James) and those who were not related but followed Jesus with just as much dedication. The story describes the second group of unrelated followers and a crowd being inside the home, with Jesus’ blood family outside. While this may indeed be an story about blood relationships, there is also a deeper point being made here.

Social change often involves questioning the values and social domestication one has received from one’s family. Outgrowing these values is often part of the work we must do to participate in making our world a safe and equitable home for everyone. We must build on the good we gained from our families and also be willing to evolve beyond the harmful. Speaking out when one’s extended family is aligned with the opposition is difficult. I know this personally. For me, family rejection was especially painful in addition to rejection I was already experiencing as I chose to take definitive stands for those communities I witnessed being harmed.

Jesus’ familys motive in the story could be preserving the family as well as preserving Jesus. Perhaps he was going to get himself in trouble and possibly even them too. But if that was their motive, Jesus’ family was too late. Government officials are already on their way to Jesus to press charges. Our story highlights how one’s family and the state can work together to keep one subordinated to the status quo.

When the Temple state officials arrive, they make their accusation: Jesus is casting out demons not by the power of God, but by the power of the head demon himself. This language may be difficult for many people with our modern worldview, but let’s step into the 1st Century context of the story to understand it better. Hollenbach tells us:

“Witchcraft accusations represent a distancing strategy which seeks to discredit, sever, and deny . . . Upstart controllers of spirits are, by their very power over spirits, suspected of causing what they cure.” (P. Hollenbach, Jesus, Demoniacs, and Public Authorities: A Socio-Historical Study, p. 577)

I think of the way men threatened by strong women have historically marginalized, silenced, removed and murdered those women by accusing them of “witchcraft.” This gives us insight into the dynamics of this story in Mark. These are not just stories of mythical demons and exorcisms. That shallow understanding misses the broader point. These stories are political. As Theissen correctly states, “The mythological events here reflect political ones” (Gerd Theissen, The First Followers of Jesus: A Sociological Analysis of the Earliest Christianity, p. 76), Those benefiting from the status quo in these stories were threatened by Jesus’ calls for change and they tried to delegitimize him.

The theme of leaders accusing Jesus of being out of his mind or under the control of demons is in each of the gospels including John:

“Again the Judeans were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’ (John 10:19-21)

In American society today, this same distancing tactic is used, though not necessarily with the labels of demon-possession. Some Christian communities do still use this language toward those they politically oppose. A local Baptist pastor has accused me of being demon possessed because of my affirmation of LGBTQ folk. Other labels that can be used to delegitimize in our society today include “terrorist,” “socialist,” and “communist.”

In our story, Jesus is engaged in acts of liberation, humanization, and in Jewish language, jubilee! Yet those threatened by his liberation work are working to have him dismissed as a lunatic or a traitor to his Jewish community. I’m reminded of the warning of Malcom X centuries after Jesus: If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing” (in Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, p. 93).

The statement in our passage that arrests my attention the most is:

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’”

In Mark’s story, the leaders’ goal is to make people afraid of those working for their very liberation. I see this happening all the time here in West Virginia, where easily manipulated people in our communities are made to fear those working for their good and so the majority vote against their own interests. We witnessed stark examples of this in the last election here in my state. Fearing and demonizing liberators is not arbitrarily “unpardonable.” It’s intrinsically “unpardonable” because the very social elements and changes that would bring a person concrete liberation are made out to be feared and held suspect.

Juan Luis Segundo speaks to the intrinsically unpardonable nature of this “sin” in Capitalism versus Socialism:

The blasphemy resulting from bad apologetics will always be pardonable . . . The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to recognize, with theologicaljoy, some concrete liberation that is taking place before one’s very eyes.” (p. 254)

Ched Myers describes people not recognizing the Spirit in sterner terms:

“To be captive to the way things are, to resist criticism and change, to brutally suppress efforts at humanization—is to be bypassed by the grace of God.” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 167)

There is evidence that many in the early church took this teaching very seriously. In what was believed to have been an early church manual, the Didache, we read:

“And every prophet who speaks in the Spirit you shall neither try nor judge; for every sin shall be forgiven, but this sin shall not be forgiven.” (Didache Ch. 11)

Let’s close this week with the Jesus saying in our story.

“No one can enter a strong mans house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”

After making this statement, Jesus would later be seen in the Temple state’s “house,” overturning the tables of economic exploitation and resisting the harming of the most vulnerable people. That was his society’s strong man.

Today our strong man could be capitalism, White supremacy, Christian nationalism, cisheterosexism, and more. All of these working separately and together comprise the strong men that we must bind in our time. What does binding the “strong man” as a thief in the night look like for us in our system? What does it look like in the context of working toward justice, compassion, and safety for all who are marginalized and made vulnerable? And how should we go about doing it?

The answers to these questions will only result from conversation and engagement with the communities most harmfully impacted by our status quo. As followers of the Jesus in our story this week, we must be about that work.

Let’s get to it.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What are some “strong men” that need dismantling both within our religious and secular communities? How are false labels used and applied to oppose this work and to create fear in others? How have you experienced this in your own journey? Share with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Spirit of Advocacy

 

dove in stained glass

Herb Montgomery | May 21, 2021


The Jesus of John calls us to not let go of life but to take hold of it, to stand up for that which is life-giving, and to stand alongside the oppressed in our fight against injustice and death in all its expressions. May the same Advocate Spirit that took the side of the oppressed, marginalized, and those pushed to the edges of society in the Jesus story be found again, poured out on us as Jesus followers again today.”


Our readings this week are from John 15 and 16:

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. (John 15:26-27)

“But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, Where are you going? But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:4-15)

As we mentioned last week, these two passages belong to a section of John’s gospel referred to as the farewell discourses. John 16 includes themes repeated throughout farewell addresses: departure and Jesus being on the way to the Father” (cf. John 13:33, 36-37; 14:2-4, 28), Jesus promise to send the Spirit as an advocate (cf. John 14:16, 26; 15:26), the work of the advocated to guide them into truth (cf. John 14:6, 16-17). It’s worth noting how clear and direct Jesus’ speech is in these passages compared to his parables and sayings in the synoptic gospels. In those versions of the Jesus story, Jesus speaks much more cryptically, in parables and metaphors. John does not include that kind of speech.

In the passage this week, Jesus uses the term advocate for the promise of the Spirit. This concept would have held a certain meaning for the original audience, the community of early Jesus followers. By the time John’s gospel was written, the rift between Christians and the Jewish people had become wide, and so John not only includes conflict between these two now-separate communities, but also an alarming amount of anti-Jewish descriptions and antisemitic characterizations of those referred to as “the Jews.” Given how Christians have treated our Jewish siblings throughout Christianity’s history, we must be extremely careful with the gospel of John, and not perpetuate stereotypes or actions that have harmed or even proven lethal to Jewish people. This caution applies to the term “advocate,” too.

Consider the following passages in John’s version of the Jesus story where being removed from the synagogue is a penalty for Jewish people who follow Jesus.

“His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Anointed would be put out of the synagogue.” (John 9:22)

“Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue.” (John 12:42)

John’s Jesus repeats the warning in John 12: “They will put you out of the synagogues.” (John 16:2)

For that first audience, “advocate” would have called to mind actual legal proceedings Jewish leaders initated against Jesus’ followers. The theme of being brought to trial appears in the early synoptic gospels as well:

“When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13:11)

“When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:19-20)

“So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Luke 21:14-15)

“When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11-12)

Can we reclaim this idea of advocacy in life-giving ways within our social context today?

Advocacy means to publicly support a particular community, cause or policy.

In the Hebrew scriptures, advocacy meant perceiving God’s role in our world (God as advocate of the oppressed) as well as the role God’s people were to fulfill.

“God judges in favor of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.” (Psalm 146:7, italics added.)

“Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)

“Happy are those who are concerned for the poor; the Lord will help them when they are in trouble.” (Psalms 41:1)

“Open your mouth for the voiceless, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9)

“How terrible it will be for those who make unfair laws, and those who write laws that make life hard for people. They are not fair to the poor, and they rob my people of their rights. They allow people to steal from widows and to take from orphans what really belongs to them.” (Isaiah 10:1-2)

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6)

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth . . . ” (Isaiah 42:3-4)

Too often, we as Christians have become fixated on helping people reach a post-mortem heaven or escape some mythical hell: our focus is always on tomorrow and never on today. But if we would be humble enough to learn from our Jewish siblings, remembering Jesus himself was a Jew long before the Christian religion ever existed, we would learn how to effectively engage systemic injustice in our world. The Jesus story calls Jesus’ followers to advocacy in the here and now. I so deeply appreciate the words of the late Rev. Dr. James H. Cone on this point:

“The Christian community, therefore, is that community that freely becomes oppressed, because they know that Jesus himself has defined humanity’s liberation in the context of what happens to the little ones. Christians join the cause of the oppressed in the fight for justice not because of some philosophical principle of “the Good” or because of a religious feeling of sympathy for people in prison. Sympathy does not change the structures of injustice. The authentic identity of Christians with the poor is found in the claim which the Jesus-encounter lays upon their own life-style, a claim that connects the word “Christian” with the liberation of the poor. Christians fight not for humanity in general but for themselves and out of their love for concrete human beings.” (James H. Cone; The God of the Oppressed, p. 135)

This weekend, we celebrate Pentecost, which memorializes the pouring out of the Spirit on the early church. What did it look like when this Advocate Spirit was poured out on Jesus? How did that Spirit characterize his life work?

The Spirit [advocate] of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lords favor [cancellation of all debt].” (Luke 4:18-19, cf. Isaiah 61:1-2)

The Jesus story calls to us to have this same Spirit mark our lives today too!

I’ll close this week with words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that still give us much to consider:

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be, and one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. Youre afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or youre afraid that somebody will stab or shoot or bomb your house. So you refuse to take a stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at ninety. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You died when you refused to stand up for justice.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ; Ebenezer Baptist Church; 11/5/67; Atlanta, GA)

This is especially applicable given the recent events in Palestine. The Jesus of John calls us to not let go of life but to take hold of it, to stand up for that which is life-giving, and to stand alongside the oppressed in our fight against injustice and death in all its expressions. May the same Advocate Spirit that took the side of the oppressed, marginalized, and those pushed to the edges of society in the Jesus story be found again, poured out on us as Jesus followers again today.

This Pentecost, may this be not merely our prayer, but our choice as well.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What does advocacy look like for you and how does it inform your own Jesus following? Discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


Hated by the Right People

lonely road

Herb Montgomery | May 14, 2021


“We should first stop and ask if we are genuinely being hated at all. And if we are, we must also realize It’s not enough to be hated. We have to ask ourselves who is it who is hating us and why. If we are hated by the same social groups that hated Jesus and for the same reasons, then we can claim Jesus’ blessing in Luke. But if we find ourselves opposed by the marginalized because we are actually standing between them and justice, obstructing their path toward a society that recognizes their full humanity, then we need to serious address why it is that our story is so fundamentally different from the Jesus story that we hold so dear.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your instructions. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the instructions you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled. I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your instruction and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your instruction is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. (John 17:6-19)

This passage ends Jesus’ farewell discourse in John’s version of the story (John 14-17). This section is unique to John, and many scholars have compared it to Matthew’s sermon on the mount because of its size and centrality to John’s version of the Jesus story. To the original audience of John, the farewell discourse would have been immediately recognized as similar to a last will and testament of a father or leader of a community, like those found in Genesis 49 or in the Judean document Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Discourses like these were often deathbed instructions to children or final instructions to followers before a leader’s departure. And so they were in John.

This segment in John represents the tenets of a distinct group that emerged within the early Christian community referred to as the Johannine community. Some of what this community believed and taught would become part of the gnostic Christian community a hundred years later, and other portions would provide the foundation for the patriarchal orthodoxy established in the fourth and fifth centuries of the new Church.

Just as the sermon on the mount in Matthew contains Matthew’s version of the central teachings of Jesus, these discourses (John 14-17) contain the language and particular perspectives of the Christian Johannine community, which they attributed to Jesus.

John 17:6-19, for instance, is part of Jesus’ farewell prayer. This prayer was hugely influential in the process of defining the orthodox Christian view of the relationship between Jesus and the Father during the debates and eventual creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries. For our purposes this week, the love between the Father and Jesus is the theme of verses 1-5. The hoped-for success of Jesus followers after the crucifixion and resurrection is the theme of verses 6-10. Once we get to verse 11, the focus shifts to concern for the safety of Jesus followers in a world to which the Johannine community believed they didn’t belong (“They are not of the world any more than I am of the world”).

Being hated by the world is a theme in many sectors of Christianity that has been sorely abused since then. So let’s unpack this idea a bit.

First, Jesus’ gospel of liberation for the oppressed was not initially perceived as good news for everyone. I’m reminded of the words of Peter Gomes in his book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus:

Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others. In order that the gospel in the New Testament might be made as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, its rough edges have been shorn off and the radical edge of Jesuspreaching has been replaced by a respectable middle, of which niceness” is now God. When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the end of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed.” (Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, p. 31)

An example of this is Luke’s sermon on the plain in Luke 6:20-26. Certainly the poor, the hungry, those the present system caused to weep, and those hated by the elite felt blessed by Jesus’ gospel of blessing. Yet those who were rich, well-fed, filled with the laughter of luxury, and liked within their fellow elite social class felt cursed. In the story, the characters of Herod, Pilate and Caiaphas did not perceive Jesus’ teachings as good news but as a threat. And in the synoptics, Jesus was loved among the common people but hated by many of those in power and positions of privilege, so much so that it was the people’s love that initially protected Jesus, making him difficult to arrest and silence (see Matthew 21:26, Mark 12:12, Luke 20:19).

So in the gospels, Jesus’ followers were to expect hatred from the powerful and elite for whom Jesus’ teachings threatened (Matthew 10:22; 24:9; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17; John 15:18). In Luke’s gospel, Jesus goes so far as to say, “Blessed are you when people hate you.” (Luke 6:22) And this is where the teaching can be abused.

People hating you doesn’t mean you’re on the right path. You could just be a jerk! Also, too often we can conflate criticism and hate. Someone not liking something doesn’t mean they want it destroyed. And yet, if you find yourself being genuinely hated as a Jesus follower, it’s important to consider how much social location matters: ask yourself who hates you and what their social location is. If you find yourself being hated by the wealthy, the powerful, the privileged, the propertied, and those who put profit before people, then you’re in the right story.

But what if, as is so often the case within so many sectors of Christianity, we find ourselves challenged by LGBTQ folks, or by women who identify as feminists or womanists, or by people who are not White, or by those who daily struggle economically to scratch out an existence, who feel as if they will never enjoy the privileges of being a citizen of this world?

Then we need to reassess why our story looks so differently from the Jesus story. Jesus was hated, yes. But those who hated him were at the center and top of society to the exclusion and marginalization of others. Jesus was hated by many in the privileged and powerful sectors of his society. Those in the story who lived in a marginalized or disempowered social location loved him.

We should first stop and ask if we are genuinely being hated at all. And if we are, we must also realize It’s not enough to be hated. We have to ask ourselves who is it who is hating us and why. If we are hated by the same social groups that hated Jesus and for the same reasons, then we can claim Jesus’ blessing in Luke. But if we find ourselves opposed by the marginalized because we are actually standing between them and justice, obstructing their path toward a society that recognizes their full humanity, then we need to serious address why it is that our story is so fundamentally different from the Jesus story that we hold so dear.

One last word. Unique to the Johaninne community is an idea that we are in this world but not of it. Whatever this meant for the original Johannine community, it’s not a life-giving teaching today: separatist at best and exceptionalism and possibly even supremacism at worst. Today, we can tell the Jesus story in ways that, like the Jesus of the synoptics, engage this world, our families, our communities, our society, and don’t withdraw from them. We are part of this world. It’s not “the” world, it’s our world. We are not just passing through: this world is our home.

And, according to other passages in the Christian scriptures, we are to be about renewing, restoring, and transforming our world into a safe home for everyone (see Revelation 21:3-5).

So this week, let’s get to it! Let’s get to work alongside those working toward a more distributively just society, one where the full humanity of those presently othered is not only recognized, but celebrated, honored and centered.

A just, safe, equitable home for all.

Will we be hated along the way? Maybe.

But let’s make sure our gospel is good news to the same folks Jesus’ gospel was good news for, and then we will at least be able to say that those who hate us hated Jesus, too. If we do, our heads can hit the pillow each night and, whether we are hated or loved, we can know that we are making our world a better place for all.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. How does considering the social location of both marginalized and privileged communities in our society impact how we read and follow the Jesus story? Discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Inherent Relationship of Love and Justice

 

clouds in the sky

by Herb Montgomery | May 7, 2021


“There is a way to teach God’s love that is complicit in oppression and is harmful to marginalized communities. There is another way to teach love that can be foundational to the work of transforming our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone . . . Love that only leaves the privileged in a conscience-appeased state so they can sleep better at night isn’t a love worth having . . . We can explore ways that understanding Universal love that lead us, not to private, assured passivity, but to the work of remaining in that love by shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for each and every one of us.”


Our reading this week is from John’s gospel:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Fathers commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down ones life for ones friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his masters business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.” (John 15:9-17)

The intended audience for this passage is the developing community of Jesus followers, and the central theme of the passage is love. Out of all the canonical gospels, John’s expresses the highest form of Christology since the writing of the gospel of Mark. Since then, the community developed its ideas about the relationship between Jesus and Jesus’ Father (see John 1:1-3). In our passage this week, this relationship and Jesus’ relationship with his followers are models for Jesus followers to emulate in their relationships with one another. Love is one of the central themes in John, more so than in Matthew, Mark, Luke and even the book of Acts where the word love does not appear even once.

Consider, by contrast, how often love is the focus of John’s version of the Jesus story:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, italics added.)

“The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.” (John 3:35,italics added.)

“For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed.” (John 5:20, italics added.)

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34,35, italics added.)

“No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” (John 16:27, italics added.)

“I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23, italics added.)

“I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (John 17:26, italics added.)

See also John 10:17; 14:15, 21-23, 31; 17:24; and 21:15-17.

Each of the synoptic gospels addresses love, but none of them repeats the theme to the degree we see in John’s gospel.

There is a way to teach God’s love that is nothing more than guilt management for the privileged, propertied, and powerful, that does nothing more than help them to silence the background noise of their troubled conscience. I’ve also found over the years that many Christians who live in an empowered or privileged social location also name John’s gospel as their favorite out of the four. I wonder if there is a connection.

There’s also another way to teach God’s love that could be foundational to our work to transform our world into a just, compassionate, safe home for all those who are vulnerable to harm in the present system. I’m reminded of the words of Dr. Emilie M. Townes:

“When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isnt very far behind.” (Dr. Emilie M. Townes; Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology)

In 2010, Dr. Cornel West firmly grounded distributive, societal justice work in the soil of universal love when he said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also relied on his deep belief in a universal love and social justice for the objects of that love:

“When days grow dark [sic] and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice which will lead us through lifes dark [sic] valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, in A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings, p. 9)

Love that only leaves the privileged in a conscience-appeased state so they can sleep better at night isn’t a love worth having. If a belief in universal love is only serves to achieve privatized, individual, internal well-being and doesn’t also move us to work publicly for justice within our communities, then we should abandon that belief and kind of love immediately. I agree with James Baldwin who wrote, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” (James Baldwin; The Fire Next Time, p. 47)

The late Thomas Merton went so far as to equate a theology of love with a theology of resistance and revolution:

“A theology of love cannot afford to be sentimental. It cannot afford to preach edifying generalities about charity, while identifying peace’ with mere established power and legalized violence against the oppressed. A theology of love cannot be allowed merely to serve the interests of the rich and powerful, justifying their wars, their violence and their bombs, while exhorting the poor and underprivileged to practice patience, meekness, longsuffering, and to solve their problems, if at all, nonviolently. A theology of love may also conceivably turn out to be a theology of revolution. In any case, it is a theology of resistance, a refusal of the evil that reduces a brother or sister to homicidal desperation.” (Thomas Merton; Toward a Theology of Resistance found in Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, p.121)

I want to offer one word of caution in relation to our passage this week. As I’ve repeatedly said over the past few weeks, John’s gospel speaks to the myth of redemptive suffering more so than any of the other canonical gospels:

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down ones life for ones friends.”

I’ve also written repeatedly about the harm the myth of redemptive suffering does to vulnerable communities so I will not unpack the whole discussion again here. Instead I will offer Dr. Katie Cannon’s words in the foreword to the 20th Anniversary edition of Delores Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness:

“[Williams] contends that 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.” (Kindle location 133)

As I wrote in Imagery of a Good Shepherd, there is a difference between empowered people sacrificing and them teaching disempowered people to sacrifice themselves. (Also see Brown and Parker’s For God So Loved The World?) The early church was largely comprised of those who, as Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas often says, didn’t have a wall to even have their back up against. While the giving of some people in privileged social locations can hardly be called sacrifice (see Mark 12:41-44), teaching disempowered people the myth of redemptive suffering can be destructive or even lethal.

I’ll close with Thomas Merton’s timely words:

“Instead of preaching the Cross for others and advising them to suffer patiently the violence which we sweetly impose on them, with the aid of armies and police, we might conceivably recognize the right of the less fortunate to use force, and study more seriously the practice of nonviolence and humane methods on our own part when, as it happens, we possess the most stupendous arsenal of power the world has ever known.” (Ibid.)

This week, let’s explore ways that understanding God loves everyone can lead us, not to private, assured passivity, but to the work of remaining in God’s love by shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for each and every one of us.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Contrast some of the ways a message of love can be used to impede our justice work along with ways a message of love can be foundational.  Discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


Branches Grafted to a Poisonous Vine

 

grapes attached to a vine

Herb Montgomery | April 30, 2021


“Although the passage we began with focuses on bearing fruit rather than being a dead or withered branch that bears nothing, we see that the kind of fruit one bears matters too. What does it mean for American Christians to live as Jesus did?”


Our reading this week is from John’s gospel:

“I am the true vine, and my Mother is the gardener. She removes every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, and prunes every branch that bears fruit so that it may bear more fruit. You’re already clean because of the message I’ve told you, ‘Remain in me as I remain in you. Just as the branch can’t bear fruit by itself unless it remains in the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you’re the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in them bears much fruit, because you can’t do anything without me. Someone who doesn’t remain in me is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; they are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want to and it will be done for you. My Mother is glorified in this: that you bear much fruit and remain my disciples.’” (John 15:1-8, Divine Feminine Version (DFV) of the New Testament)

I love this translation of John, probably because my late mother was an avid gardener and it reminds me so much of her. It’s important, after almost two centuries of Christian patriarchy gendering God as exclusively male, that we recognize women bear the image of the Divine just as much as men do. Gendering God as male, female, and with nonbinary images gives us an opportunity to break the patriarchal monopoly on the symbols we use for God. As Elizabeth Johnson writes in the classic work She Who Is:

“While officially it is rightly and consistently said that God is spirit and so beyond identification with either male or female sex, the daily language of preaching, worship, catechesis, and instruction conveys a different message: God is male, or at least more like a man than a woman, or at least more fittingly addressed as male than as female… Upon examination it becomes clear that this exclusive speech about God serves in manifold ways to support an imaginative and structural world that excludes or subordinates women. Wittingly or not, it undermines women’s human dignity as equally created in the image of God.” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is, Kindle Location 826)

The symbols used in this week’s reading from John are branches, a vine, and a gardener. These symbols’ function was to encourage the early followers of Jesus to keep Jesus’ sayings in memory and to continue following his teachings. That is what it meant for those early followers to “remain” in Jesus in the context of these specific symbols. 

The symbol of fruit bearing is also curious. The branches were to bear the vine’s fruit. In other writings of the Johannine community, we get a hint as to what kind of fruit the early followers of this Jesus were to bear:

“Whoever claims to remain in him must live as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:6)

Although the passage we began with focuses on bearing fruit rather than being a dead or withered branch that bears nothing, in 1 John 2:6 we see that the kind of fruit one bears matters too. The synoptic gospels make this point :

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers.” (Luke 6:43-44)

So what was the fruit of Jesus’ life? And what should be the fruit of the lives of those who claim to follow that Jesus?

In other words, what does it mean for Christians to live as Jesus did?

A few things come to mind almost immediately. 

The Jesus of the gospel story cared about economic justice for the poor:

“They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers.” (Mark 12:40 cf. Mark 12:42-43)

“Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)

“I needed clothes and you clothed me.” (Matthew 25:36) 

The Jesus of the story was in favor of wealth redistribution:

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” (Luke 12:33)

The Jesus of the story cared about centering those being marginalized:

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)

The Jesus of the story taught for debt forgiveness:

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)

“Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both.” (Luke 7:42 cf. Matthew 18:27)

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me . . . to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

The Jesus of the story cared about incarcerated people:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me . . . to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.” (Luke 4:18-19)

“I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:36)

The Jesus of the story cared about liberating the oppressed:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me . . . to set the oppressed free. (Luke 4:18-19)

The Jesus of the story cared about making sure the sick in society were taken care of:

“I was sick and you looked after me” (Matthew 25:36)

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

“When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” (Matthew 14:14)

The Jesus of the story taught nonviolence:

“‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’” (Matthew 26:52)

And so much more.

Let’s pause, though, for just a moment and look at the little bit we have listed here. 

Concern for economic justice for the poor, wealth redistribution, centering of the marginalized, cancellation of oppressive debt, liberation for incarcerated people, liberation for the oppressed, ensuring people’s health care needs were taken care of, and lastly, nonviolent resistance to systemic injustice. 

What would it look like if this were the platform of Christians today?

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to the for-profit prison industrial complex?

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to the school to prison pipe line for Black people in the U.S.?

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to the demand for universal healthcare when so many people, even those with health insurance, have to file bankruptcy? 

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to police brutality?

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to student loan cancellation?

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to civil rights for our LGBTQ siblings?

What about the industrial war machine that drives our national deficit and diverts funds away from our social good?

What about proposals to defund Social Security and Medicare for the elderly?

The list could go on and on because it’s in these specifics that we see what could it look like for Christians today to live as Jesus lived, to remain in him, and to bear the fruit we all remember the original Vine for.

Today, my concern is not that Christians aren’t producing fruit with our lives. It’s not that we are withered branches. We produce copious amounts of fruit. 

I’m concerned about the type of fruit so many White, straight, cisgender Christians are producing. Is this fruit life-giving or is it poisonous? Does our fruit look like the fruit of the original vine, and if not, what vine have we allowed ourselves to be grafted into instead? If the vine we’re connected to is nationalistic, supremacist, patriarchal, or violent, it’s not the vine Jesus calls us to remain in. 

Does your life bear fruit that resembles the fruit at the heart of the Jesus story? Is it life-giving or life-inhibiting for the vulnerable within our society? Is the fruit of your life a blessing or a curse? Does it ensure life and thriving for those society deems least of these or is it death-dealing?

As the Johaninne community taught:

“Whoever claims to remain in him must live as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:6)

It would be better for branches that bear poisonous fruit to wither, die, and be thrown into the fire by Mother God, then to go on harming others. 

But even better than that would be for those branches to choose to be grafted once again back into the original vine and begin to bear fruit that can feed and heal the nations. (Revelation 22:2; Ezekiel 47:12).

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. What social issues or challenges we are presently facing would you like to see more Christian support for, today? What are some ways you can support these changes and encourage fellow Jesus-followers to do so, as well? Discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


 

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.

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.