Privilege and Power

Herb Montgomery | June 28, 2019

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

Here are a few things to discuss with your group.

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

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

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

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

God the Father, Exclusive Othering, and a Distributive Justice for All

Herb Montgomery | September 21, 2018


“And if Amos were alive this week, he might have said, ‘I hate, I despise your endless religious statements that make you feel pious, protecting your phobias about those whose experiences in life are so different than your own. Away with your worthless statement and drafted expressions of bigotry. Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’” 


“This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’” (Matthew 6:9-13)

This week, we begin a series of articles on Jesus’ revolutionary prayer in Matthew’s gospel, the prayer we label today as “the Lord’s prayer.” This prayer  frames an outline we can use to consider the themes in Jesus’ teachings in Matthew’s gospel. There’s much in it that I believe speaks to our work today of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

The outline of this prayer is:

Our Father in Heaven:
Be hallowed Your Name
Be come Your Kingdom
Be done Your Will

As in Heaven, so on Earth: 
Daily Bread
Debt Cancellation
Deliverance from temptation to evil

Those are the themes that we’ll be looking at. Now, let’s dive right in. 

Our Father in Heaven

Historically, the exclusive image of God as “Father” has borne bad fruit for those who are neither male nor fathers. Some in the dominant social position have weaponized it against those whose differences are “Othered” and then dominated, exploited, and destroyed them. One example aptly laid out by Grace Ji-Sun Kim is how these images of God have been used against Asian American women. In her book Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love, she writes:

“As a poor Jewish peasant teacher from Nazareth, Jesus was marginalized and stood in solidarity with the marginalized throughout the Roman Empire. Jesus’ incarnate life, kingdom teaching, and crucifixion on a Roman cross unveil God as a lover of justice, peace, and liberation.

While Jesus was a revolutionary, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Jesus becomes reimagined as a supporter of empire. Classical theism in the West often emphasizes God as an Almighty Father. This patriarchal concept of God has often been wielded in destructive ways throughout the history of Western Christianity. Through European colonization, too often guided by a patriarchal image of God, indigenous cultures have been dominated and destroyed, Africans have been enslaved, Asians exploited, women have been abused, and the poor have been economically exploited. The male God image mediated through the Almighty Father has often had negative conscious and unconscious effects on women, especially women of color. God the Almighty Father has often been a theological tool used by white men of European descent to subjugate woman and people of color.” (p. 116)

This title for God, “Almighty Father,” has proven extremely vulnerable to being coopted by sexism, racism, colonialism, imperialism, and binary heterosexism for the abuse of those who, though not male and not fathers, are nonetheless bearers of the image of the Divine. For many, the phrase “Our Father” in such a transformative prayer as this is not an appropriate place to begin but a trigger of pain and suffering.

But for those also dedicated to contemplating and following the teachings of Jesus, this first portion of this prayer presents no small challenge. After all, Jesus was Jewish, and  Jewish tradition encourages practicing care with picturing  God in one’s mind’s eye. In the Torah we read, 

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14)

This cryptic description of the Divine within the Hebrew sacred scriptures provides for a universality in bearing the image of the Divine. “I am who I am” is left cryptically defined.  The question could be asked, “Who are you?” We must practice caution against answering the question definitely, for any word that comes next will undoubtedly limit the Divine.  

There is a rich diversity within the human race. And to believe that all of humanity, every member of the human family, all of our human siblings, are made in the image of God speaks to the rich complexity of God, too (See Genesis 1:26).  Our concept of the Divine must become more expansive and inclusive. It is okay to speak of God as male and as female. It’s okay to speak of God as nonbinary and ungendered, too!  God is not just White, but also Black, Asian, and more. God has traditionally been defined within the imagery of heteropatriarchy. We must be careful to allow every person to see themselves reflected in an expansive image of the Divine because “in the image of God has God made humankind.” (Genesis 9:6). And to the degree we exclude anyone from God’s image today, history shows we will exterminate them tomorrow. 

There are many ways to respond to this in prayer. Some of those who understand and practice this way of addressing the Divine in prayer use “Mother-Father God” or “Paternal God.” I’ve prayed, “Dearest Heart at the Center of the Universe.” I’ve also heard “Source of Light and Love,” “God of all nations,” “God of all peoples,” “Faithful One,” “Source of Wisdom,” or “Source of Goodness, Grace, Mercy and Justice.” On June 22, 2017, Rev. Kevin Kitrell Ross, addressed his prayer in the U.S. House of Representatives to the “Loving Presence,” and concluded with “In the name of a love supreme we pray.” 

The Jewish tradition seems to encourage not limiting God with our images of Divinity:

“You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below.” (Deuteronomy 4:15-18)

I will admit that the authors’ intent in this passage was most likely to discourage people from using creation as any kind of referent at all, but I would also argue that this passage, therefore, leaves our image of the Divine as cryptic which also allows for an expansive and inclusive imaging that embraces the rich diversity of everyone. Jesus’ Jewish tradition would have given him sufficient grounds to have addressed his prayer in much more inclusive ways.

So why does this prayer in Matthew begin with “Father”?

We cannot ignore the reality that, like many of the cultures around it, Jesus’ culture was deeply patriarchal. Householders were almost exclusively men. Householders were “fathers.” In rare exceptions, widowed women might become householders. 

But there are some hints of another worldview in the rest of the prayer. It is a deeply economic prayer. Of all the things Jesus could teach his followers to pray for, he teaches them here to pray for enough bread for today, for all indebtedness to be forgiven in Jubilee fashion, and for liberation from evil as a violation from Israel’s covenant with YHWH. I believe, given the other content of this prayer, that deliverance from temptation to evil could have been a direct reference to the way the rich were exploiting the poor in violation of the economic teachings of the Torah. 

 “However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.” (Deuteronomy 15:4-5)

But back to our quest for understanding this prayer’s address, “Our Father.” Given that this prayer is grounded in economic realities, and in the Jewish patriarchal family the father was the householder, the one responsible for ensuring no one in the family had too much while others  didn’t have enough, John Dominic Crossan offers this fitting and possible explanation:

“[The prayer’s] vision derives from the common experience of a well-run home, household, or family farm. If you walked into one, how would you judge the householder? Are the fields well tended? Are the animals properly provisioned? Are the buildings adequately maintained? Are the children and dependents well fed, clothed, and sheltered? Are the sick given special care? Are responsibilities and returns apportioned fairly? Do all have enough? Especially that: Do all have enough? Or, to the contrary, do some have far too little while others have far too much?

“It is that vision of the well-run household, of the home fairly, equitably, and justly administered, that the biblical tradition applies to God. God is the Householder of the world house, and all those preceding questions must be repeated on a global and cosmic scale. Do all God’s children have enough? If not—and the biblical answer is “not”—how must things change here below so that all God’s people have a fair, equitable, and just proportion of God’s world? The Lord’s Prayer proclaims that necessary change as both revolutionary manifesto and hymn of hope. Do not, by the way, let anyone tell you that is Liberalism, Socialism, or Communism. It is—if you need an -ism—Godism, Householdism or, best of all, Enoughism. We sometimes name that biblical vision of God’s World-Household as Egalitarianism but, actually, Enoughism would be a more accurate description.” (John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, p. 3).

Given the cultural context as well as the content fo the rest of the prayer, it could be synonymous to pray, “Our Householder in Heaven.” And Jesus’ point is that the will of the World Householder is that everyone have enough.  Within a Jewish worldview, the responsibility for carrying out that will has been delegated to humans. We have to ask ourselves what kind of world have we made with this responsibility. Jesus is calling for a community of people (the Kingdom) to come into being where the distributively just will of the World Householder is actually carried out. This is a prayer, within the contradiction of a patriarchal culture, that calls for an economic, distributive justice. How this prayer begins may still remain deeply problematic for many. But the prayer still offers us much. There is much to reclaim and to renew our hearts as we continue to work today toward a world that is safe, distributively just, and compassionate for everyone. 

The God who Jesus pictured for his listeners was a God who causes the sun and rain to fall on all indiscriminately. So if someone is going without, we have to look for the obstruction. It’s being “sent” to all, so who and what are preventing what we need for thriving from reaching all? As is often been stated, there is enough each day for every person’s need, but not for every person’s greed. In teaching this, Jesus was accessing his Jewish tradition:

“The poor and the oppressor have this in common: The LORD gives sight to the eyes of both.” (Proverbs 29:13)

“Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.” (Proverbs 30:8)

This distributive justice spoken of by Jesus also has its roots in the way the Hebrew prophets spoke truth to power.

 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)

Crossan again notes, “the primary meaning of ‘justice’ is not retributive, but distributive. To be just means to distribute everything fairly. The primary meaning of ‘justice’ is equitable distribution” (dIbid., p. 2). This was the great Hebrew hope of a distributive justice whose fruit would be peace.

“Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne 
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it 
with justice [distributive] and righteousness.” (Isaiah 9:7)

“The fruit of that righteousness [distributive] will be peace;
its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.” (Isaiah 32:17) 

Amos names the error of prioritizing religious ritual over concern for justice, especially justice for the vulnerable. Two weeks ago now, the same group of evangelicals that produced The Nashville Statement last year put out another ugly statement entitled The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. I’m not going to link to it. It reveals the drafters’ and signers’ gross ignorance of both the gospel and social justice.   How many times do we see Christians practicing extreme care for their religiosity, while either being totally ignorant of or even opposing people’s cry for justice? Gustavo Gutiérrez reminds us, “The kingdom and social injustice are incompatible” (A Theology of Liberation, 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 97). And if Amos were alive this week, he might have said, “I hate, I despise your endless religious statements that make you feel pious, protecting your phobias about those whose experiences in life are so different than your own. Away with your worthless statement and drafted expressions of bigotry. Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” 

Jesus begins his prayer in a way that would have been heard and understood by his original audience. He paints a picture of the human family where everyone has enough to not only survive, but also thrive. 

I believe prayer, meditation, contemplation, and practices like these shape those who practice them. Over the next few weeks as we continue to contemplate this famous prayer, my hope is that it will shape us, too, into people who work to transform our world into a safe, compassionate home for all, regardless of race, gender, religion, culture, ethnicity, education, economic status, sexuality, gender identity and expression, ability, or whatever —a safe home for all, where everyone has enough.

“This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’” (Matthew 6:9-13)

HeartGroup Application

There is a lot happening this week.  

Women all over the country are, again, hearing through our various news feeds and in private conversations family and friends the rhetoric of “boys will be boys,” “he was young,” “that was high school,” and more. Even before a hearing, the use of this rape culture rhetoric continues to perpetuate prioritizing violators over survivors. There is never an “okay” age for rape.  Teenage boys should not get a pass. To say they are not mature enough to understand consent is disturbing. As a father having discussions this week with both my son and my daughters, I’m deeply concerned about the messages being communicated to them right now. And as human being, I witness how these kinds of statements deeply impact the women in my life. I’m deeply concerned for what this continues to say to women, and survivors, and men.

  1. Take a moment this week in your HeartGroup to go around the room and affirm each of the women in your midst. Tell them that you value them. Be voices in their lives this week saying, “This is not okay.”
  2. If any would like to share, make time for the women in your HeartGroup to share how this week has impacted each of them. Listen to them. Let me repeat that. Men, listen to them.
  3. Lastly, put your feet in motion. What are some of the ways your group can engage the work of making our world a safer place for women? Create a list. Then pick something from the list and put it into practice the following week.

Thank you for checking in with us, this week. Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love, justice and compassion reigns. 

Another world is possible. 

And remember, this is the time of year when Renewed Heart Ministries needs your support.  If you have been blessed by our work, please consider making a one time contribution or becoming one of our monthly supporters.  Go to renewedheartministries.com and click donate.”  Any amount helps.  And thank you in advance for your support.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Hearings before Synagogues

Slaves liberation, Goree Island, Dakar, Best of Senegal

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“When they bring you before synagogues, do not be anxious about how or what you are to say; for the holy Spirit will teach you in that hour what you are to say.” Q 12:11-12 

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:19: “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say.”

Luke 12:11-12: “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”

Synagogues

Rome referred to the synagogue as a Jewish “public school” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 16.6.2). The book of Acts describes synagogues of places of religious worship and instruction. These were places for the local community to assemble for social, intellectual and spiritual reasons. Today, Jewish synagogues are overseen by rabbis. While 1st Century synagogues did have leadership, rabbinical leadership did not become universal till some time in the Middle Ages.

One of the ways Rome kept the peace in the territories it conquered was by working closely through the territories’ religious institutions. So the synagogues, though much more local than the temple in Jerusalem, would have played a part in the Roman occupation.

Also keep in mind that in 1st Century Jewish society, strict divisions between political/civil and religious life did not exist. These were intertwined as they are often in our time.

This week’s saying is an encouragement to followers of Jesus who got arrested for following him. In the U.S. today. Christians don’t get arrested for following Jesus. We’ll discuss a few possible reasons for this in a moment.

First, rather than pointing a finger at how the Jewish elites joined religious and civil authorities to oppose the threat of Jesus’ vision for Jewish societies, I’d like to consider our history: how most of Christianity has witnessed this same opposition to Jesus’ societal vision.

Christianity

Most scholars point to the conversion of Constantine as the period when Christianity began colluding with empire. Feminist scholars point back to patriarchal abuses of women, which have always plagued Christianity. (See Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, edited by Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn.) Christianity, embracing the violent use of the sword as justifiable in the face of Rome’s enemies, grew to become the political head of most of Europe. Christianity then became the empire itself. As the right arm of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant countries in Europe, imperial Christianity laid the foundation for the church’s endorsement and use of colonialism in the 15th Century during the so-called “age of discovery.” In my twenties, I visited Trinidad and Tobago as young, naive Christian “preacher.” Much to my horror I discovered history my Christian education had conveniently left out. I heard stories from the people there of how, rather than condemning colonialism as the genocidal rape of indigenous lands and people, Christianity and the name of Jesus was part and parcel of colonialism. Colonialism was viewed as an acceptable and even preferable means of carrying the “gospel” around the globe, making “disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” with the Bible in one hand and a sword in the other (see Matthew 18:29).

Christian Colonialism took lands and resources from indigenous people viewing them as “modern Canaanites,” treating indigenous people themselves as capitalist resources that could be taken forcefully from their lands as slaves. (See Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, pp.123-142) Christians participated with clear consciences in the slave trade. (See Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness, pp. 66-68) After all, their sacred text had given them permission:

“However, you may purchase male and female slaves from among the nations around you. You may also purchase the children of temporary residents who live among you, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat them as slaves, but you must never treat your fellow Israelites this way.” (Leviticus 25:44-46)

This moral stain still rests with Christianity today. The end of slavery in the U.S. was brought about by secularists partnering with a minority of Christians derogatorily labeled “radical Christians.” (See Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and Carol Faulkner’s Lucreitta Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America.) Jim Crow, too, was ended by secular federal legislation opposed by the majority of white Christians in the southern states. (The Real Origins of the Religious Right)

Today, Christianity again has raised its head to support the most outspokenly misogynist, racist, xenophobic American administration in modern history.  For most of my socially conscious friends, Christianity is seen not just as out of touch with Jesus’ societal vision, but actively opposed to a world that resembles what Jesus was working so tirelessly to inspire among his 1st Century followers.

Today

In the 1960s and 1970s, in North and South America, a different Christian movement was born. Latin voices in South and Central America, and Black voices here in the U.S. developed differently focused theologies that would come to be known as liberation theologies:

“If theological speech is based on the traditions of the Old Testament, then it must heed their unanimous testimony to Yahweh’s commitment to justice for the poor and the weak. Accordingly it cannot avoid taking sides in politics, and the side that theology must take is disclosed in the side that Yahweh has already taken. Any other side, whether it be with the oppressors or the side of neutrality (which is nothing but a camouflaged identification with the rulers), is unbiblical. If theology does not side with the poor, then it cannot speak for Yahweh who is the God of the poor.” (James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, p. 65)

“Under these circumstances, can it honestly be said that the Church does not interfere in ’the temporal sphere’? Is the Church fulfilling a purely religious role when by its silence or friendly relationships it lends legitimacy to a dictatorial and oppressive government? We discover, then, that the policy of nonintervention in political affairs holds for certain actions which involve ecclesiastical authorities, but not for others. In other words, this principle is not applied when it is a question of maintaining the status quo, but it is wielded when, for example, a lay apostolic movement or a group of priests holds an attitude considered subversive to the established order.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 40)

Both statements reveal a challenge to Christianity’s historic complicity with and empowerment of the status quo. Christian liberation movements were born in solidarity with oppressed. This marked a significant shift in theology away from North American and European centered interpretations and toward theologies being done from within oppressed communities.

These theologies were labeled “radical” expressions of Christianity and they have yet to become popularly emphasized in status quo, White, patriarchal, heterosexist Christianity. These theologies have not gone beyond the halls of academia in order to reach the people in the pew listening to most of North America’s weekly evangelical preaching.

Today, U.S. society is markedly a secular society with a plurality of religious beliefs, and the religion with the most followers is Christianity. Too often, this kind of Christianity is simply concerned with spiritual and/or post-mortem matters that prove to leave systemic oppression unchallenged for those in positions of privilege. It also leaves those underprivileged in a state of pious passivity.

Yet, if liberation theologies rooted in the experience of the oppressed and informed by their sacred texts are a reflection of what early Christianity possibly was in the first century, they sound a clarion call for Christianity to wrest itself free of its historical failures, to make reparations for the damage it has done, and to begin charting a new course where the poor, women, people of color, and those of varied orientations and gender identities are no longer the victims of Christianity but the community Jesus would call us to stand in solidarity with instead. This is not a “liberal agenda,” or “gay agenda” threatening the gospel of Jesus Christ. This IS the gospel of Jesus Christ: liberation for the oppressed. (Luke 4:18-19)

As I mentioned above, Christians are not getting arrested in the U.S. today. Is that because society has become just, safe, and compassionate for everyone so that Christianity has no opposition to a status quo to mount? Or is it because Christianity, as it has done historically, is being complicit in systemic injustices, exploitation, and harm being perpetrated out of societal fear of those who are different?

American Christians have a long way to go before they are being brought before “rulers and authorities” for standing up against injustice and a lack of compassion in our world today. It’s more likely that if one is “arrested” and brought to trial today, it will be the Christians who comprise the prosecutors.

“When they bring you before synagogues, do not be anxious about how or what you are to say; for the holy Spirit will teach you in that hour what you are to say.” Q 12:11-12 

HeartGroup Application

This week I have some passages from the Hebrew scriptures that I’d like you to contemplate together. James H. Cone in our book of the month for March, God of the Oppressed, wrote:

“For theologians to speak of this God, they too must become interested in politics and economics, recognizing that there is no truth about Yahweh unless it is the truth of freedom as that event is revealed in the oppressed people’s struggle for justice in this world.” (p. 57)

  1. Consider the following passages:

“Yahweh ’heard their groaning, and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; he saw the plight of Israel, he took heed of it’” (Exodus 2:24—25 NEB).

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has risen up in triumph; the horse and his rider he has hurled into the sea.” (Exodus 15:1 NEB)

“The Lord is my refuge and my defense, he has shown himself my deliverer.” (Exodus 15:2 NEB)

“You have seen with your own eyes what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you here to me. If only you will now listen to me and keep my covenant, then out of all peoples you shall become my special possession; for the whole earth is mine. You shall be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4—5 NEB)

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21; cf. 23:9 RSV)

“You shall not ill-treat any widow or fatherless child. If you do, be sure that I will listen if they appeal to me; my anger will be roused and I will kill you with the sword.” (Exodus 22:23—24 NEB)

What do these passages tell us about the Hebrew God’s relationship to the oppressed?

2. The narrative states that the liberated people eventually became oppressors of the vulnerable. Consider these passages from the Hebrew prophets:

“For you alone have I cared among all the nations of the world; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:2 NEB)

“Shall not the earth shake for this?  Shall not all who live on it grieve? All earth shall surge and seethe like the Nile and subside like the river of Egypt. Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, the Aramaeans from Kir? Behold, I, the Lord God, have my eyes on this sinful kingdom, and I will wipe it off the face of the earth. (Amos 8:6-8; 9:7-8 NEB)

“For among my people there are wicked men.. . Their houses are full of fraud, as a cage is full of birds. They grow rich and grand, bloated and rancorous; their thoughts are all of evil, and they refuse to do justice, the claims of the orphan they do not put right nor do they grant justice to the poor.” (Jeremiah 5:26-28 NEB)

“God has told you what is good; and what is it that the Lord asks of you? Only to act justly, to love loyally, to walk wisely before your God. (Micah 6:8 NEB)

“Put away the evil of your deeds, away out of my sight. Cease to do evil and learn to do right, pursue justice and champion the oppressed; give the orphan his rights, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:16–17 NEB)

3. The Davidic Kingly narrative texts teach us that the king was to rescue the needy from their rich oppressors:

“May he have pity on the needy and the poor, deliver the poor from death; may he redeem them from oppression and violence and may their blood be precious in his eyes.” (Psalm 72:12-14 NEB)

Yet we don’t see this being the ultimate outcome:

“The Lord comes forward to argue his case and stands to judge his people. The Lord opens the indictment against the elders of his people and their officers: They have ravaged the vineyard, and the spoils of the poor are in your houses. Is it nothing to you that you crush my people and grind the faces of the poor?” (Isaiah 3:13–15 NEB)

God’s people were to stand with the oppressed, like their God did:

“He who is generous to the poor lends to the Lord.” (Proverbs 19:17 NEB)

“He who oppresses the poor insults his Maker; he who is generous to the needy honors him.” (Proverbs 14:31 NEB)

“Do not move the ancient boundary-stone or encroach on the land of orphans: they have a powerful guardian who will take their cause against you.” (Proverbs 23:10-11 NEB)

In the book of Luke, we find these two descriptions of the work of Jesus:

“His name is Holy; his mercy sure from generation to generation toward those who fear him; the deeds his own right arm has done disclose his might: the arrogant of heart and mind he has put to rout, he has brought down monarchs from their thrones, but the humble have been lifted high. The hungry he has satisfied with good things, the rich sent empty away.” (Luke 1:49-53 NEB)

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me, he has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NEB)

What does it mean to see Jesus as part of a Jewish liberation tradition?

What does it mean for us today who desire to follow this Jewish, liberative Jesus?

What if you belong to the community of the oppressed?

What if you don’t belong to the community of the oppressed?

Does this liberative Jesus call us each to stand in solidarity with those on the undersides and edges of our society?

As I mentioned a moment ago, I believe much of Western Christianity has a long way to go before this week’s saying holds any relevance to it. At most right now it is a strong rebuke of how far we have drifted from being a community of the oppressed rather than a community of oppressors.

But that doesn’t mean things are hopeless. The choice is yours today. As a follower of Jesus, whom are you being called to stand in solidarity with? Who knows, you may find yourself standing before “rulers and authorities” for living like the Jesus community of old.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Wherever this finds you, keep living in love. Keep up the good work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. We have our work cut out for us. Let’s get to it.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Woes against the Exegetes of the Law

King monument in D.C.

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And woe to you exegetes of the Law for you bind burdens and load on the backs of people, but you yourselves do not want to lift your finger to move them. Woe to you, exegetes of the Law, for you shut the kingdom of God from people; you did not go in, nor let in those trying to get in. Woe to you for you built the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of your forefathers.” (Q 11:46b, 52, 47-48)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:4: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

Matthew 23:29-32: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your ancestors!”

Luke 11:46: “Jesus replied, ‘And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.’”

Luke 11:52: “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

Luke 11:47-48: “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs.”

Gospel of Thomas 39:1-2: “Jesus says: The Pharisees and the scribes have received the keys of knowledge, but they have hidden them. Neither have they entered, nor have they allowed to enter those who wish to.’”

A century before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Hillel the Elder, a Pharisee, described the entire Torah in terms of the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary” (Shab. 31a). Hillel’s contemporary, Shammai, sought to protect Jewish identity through strict interpretations of the Torah and its purity codes that shored up divisions between Jews and Gentiles.

After Hillel’s death and during the days when Jesus taught, the school of Shammai had the upper hand among the working class’s religious teachers in Galilee and Judea. Jesus’ teachings have few parallels with Shammai and have much in common with Hillel, but some elements, in solidarity with the poorer sectors of Jewish society, are unique to Jesus himself. The Pharisees resonated deeply with the working class in Jesus’ day. And I believe that much of Jesus’ critique of the teachers and leaders was directed toward the school of Shammai, not the school of Hillel. Jesus’ critique of the Shammai Pharisees in the saying we’re considering this week could just as easily have been made by Hillel a generation before.

This week, also keep in mind Matthew’s use of phrase “Kingdom of Heaven.” Luke prefers the phrase “keys to knowledge.” Either way, what we have witnessed from the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q is a focus on the here and now, not the hereafter. Matthew’s gospel is a very Jewish, Galilean telling of the Jesus story, and many today have noticed that rather than using the phrase “Kingdom of God”, Matthew’s gospel replaces the word “God” with “Heaven.” Remember this: the Jesus of Q is concerned much less with people gaining access to a post mortem cosmic heavenly realm that keeps them passive in the face of injustice now, and much more passionate about announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth today. This Jesus is less concerned with getting people to heaven at some point in the future and much more focused on bringing the liberation of heaven into people’s lives now.

We must critique versions of Christianity that are radically privatized and/or intentionally removed from all social politics, and we must also critique interpretations of Jesus’ teachings that are opiates for the oppressed and encourage them to be passive in the face of injustice.

The most striking potential connection between our sayings this week and the Pharisees’ view of the school of Shammai is the warning about “exegetes of the Law” who “bind burdens and load on the backs of people” and “do not want to lift your finger to move them.” The exegetes of the school of Shammai were meticulous in adhering to the purity codes (as we saw last week, cf. Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42), but not very concerned about the economic burdens facing the poor among their constituents. Actually, that’s a bit of a misnomer. They were very concerned about the poverty of the poor, but attached moral significance and value to it. If you were poor, you must have broken the purity codes somewhere and YHWH was punishing you. This was a way of interpreting Deuteronomy 28: if you were poor, you weren’t being exploited by the wealthy, you were morally inferior to those whom YHWH was blessing for adhering to the Torah.

This jumps out at me in three ways. First, it is blames people for their oppression. Second, as many today do in relation to America’s economic and military status on our globe, religious people often attribute wealth to being “blessed by God” rather than reaping the fruit of stolen or hoarded resources gained by exploiting others. Manifest destiny and the long continuing history of colonialism are examples. And third, Christianity has done both social good and social harm, like the school of Shammai. All religions can be a powerful force for good, survival, resistance, and liberation, or they can be used instead to oppress, marginalize, exclude, and extricate. The choice is ours.

I’m happy to be able to say that the Pharisees and rabbis later rejected the school of Shammai as harmful and chose Hillel’s golden-rule-based interpretation of the Torah instead. The internal struggle among the Pharisees that we glimpse in our saying this week was resolved on the side of compassion and love rather than sacrifice in the first century (cf. Hosea 6:6).

Jesus and the Pharisees of the school of Hillel had much in common. Consider the interaction between Jesus and a follower of Hillel in Mark’s gospel:

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:32-34 cf. Hosea 6:6 & Matthew 9:13; 12:7)

Those who subscribed to the school of Shammai’s Torah interpretations would have been very put off, and perhaps even angered, by some of Jesus’ more inclusive choices (such as Luke 15). They were refusing to enter into what Jesus called the reign of God and they did their best to use their influence to obstruct the way for everyone around them and call that way dangerous as well.

Jesus’ last rebuke about being the children of those who killed the prophets calls to mind the work of Vincent Harding about the national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Reagan Administration co-opting his memory. In Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, Vincent Harding uses Carl Wendell Hines, Jr.’s poem:

Now that he is safely dead

Let us praise him

build monuments to his glory

sing hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient heroes: They

cannot rise

to challenge the images

we would fashion from their lives

And besides,

it is easier to build monuments

than to make a better world.

So, now that he is safely dead

we, with eased consciences

will teach our children

that he was a great man… knowing

that the cause for which he lived

is still a cause

and the dream for which he died

is still a dream,

a dead man’s dream.

These words, first written about Malcolm X, and then applied to King, could also be applied to the Hebrew prophets and to Jesus as well.  And they offer much to consider in the context of Monday being Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day.

This year, let’s not simply build monuments for those whom the system has silenced and we have silenced too. Let’s instead make the choice to engage in the hard work of making a better world.

And woe to you exegetes of the Law for you bind burdens and load on the backs of people, but you yourselves do not want to lift your finger to move them. Woe to you, exegetes of the Law, for you shut the kingdom of God from people; you did not go in, nor let in those trying to get in. Woe to you for you built the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of your forefathers. (Q 11:46b, 52, 47-48)

HeartGroup Application

Last week, I asked your groups to re-center your focus on compassion and justice, and to pick a practice that would facilitate this refocusing. This week, lean further into that same exercise.

  1. Brainstorm another activity you can engage this week as a group in that promotes justice and compassion within your group and in your surrounding community.
  2. Map out what this will require of each of you and commit to action between this week and next.
  3. When you come back together, share with each other your experiences from following through.

This year, like every year, is packed with our potential to make our world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for all of us. Each of us can do something big or small in our circles of influence. Reach out this week and make action your choice.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, and in the words of our saying last week, a love that finds expression through living in justice, mercy and faithfulness to the marginalized and exploited, as well.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Whoever Takes You in Takes Me in

Church front

Both the positive and negative implications.

by Herb Montgomery

“Whoever takes you in takes me in, and whoever takes me in takes in the one who sent me.” (Q 10:16)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:40-42: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

Luke 10:16: “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me*; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.”

Since the 11th Century (1094 C.E. to be exact), thanks to Anselm of Canterbury, some Christians have thought that Jesus’s death was a vicarious substitution that satisfied something in God that needs us to die. The seeds of Anselm’s views existed before him, and his views were further developed by Calvin and Luther, but Anselm was the first to systematize this way of “believing in” Jesus and not just “believing” him.

This week, Jesus’ saying from Q describes a different kind of vicarious substitution. Jesus isn’t standing in for you: you are standing in for Jesus! Jesus was so committed to this idea that he taught his disciples that the way a village responded to the community Jesus sent out was a response not just to them but to Jesus as well.

Oppressive History of Christendom

When we look back at what we have been seeing this year in Sayings Gospel Q, it seems clear to me that the version of Christianity I was raised in and Jesus could not be more different. Religion, including Christianity, is so often employed to offer security rather than what is true.

And because of the way we Christians have acted, great swaths of the human populous immediately shut down any time we even mention the name “Jesus.”

Whomever received the people Jesus sent into the world received Jesus, and also, whomever, in the two thousand year since, witnesses racism, exploitative wealth, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, violence, or any form of oppression by Jesus’ followers witnesses it being done by “Jesus.”

For many, only when they discover for themselves the Jesus we are seeing in Sayings Gospel Q do they realize there is a Jesus that’s radically different than the Jesus they encountered in the religion that formed around him.

This discovery is an ongoing process for South Americans, Africans, African Americans, Women, Transgender people, and those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning. In those encounters, Jesus of Nazareth is often reclaimed. That looks very different than how we originally presented Jesus to them.

There is a difference between how those with power and resources present Jesus and how those on the fringes and the underside of our societies experience him. That difference must not be dismissed.

Continuing Need for Rediscovering the Jesus of the Disinherited

Today, I often meet folks who resonate with what I believe Jesus taught. They subscribe to inclusivity, nondiscrimination, nonviolence, interdependence, and radical resource-sharing as their way of life. They see the ugliness of many of Christianity’s various forms. And as soon as I mention Jesus or they find out that I teach the Bible, the walls between us immediately go up.

I long to be able to help people see a Jesus who is not just for the religious, but for the non-religious too. Because Jesus has been so abused, part of reclaiming Jesus is simply agreeing on the set of values and ethics attributed to him in the gospels.

This love for a set of values, the same values taught by Jesus, in combination with a low tolerance for any mention of Jesus is the fruit of the dynamic that the author of Matthew’s gospel saw in his own day. For a millennia or two, those who’ve called Jesus “Lord” have not “done” or “practiced” Jesus’ actual teachings (see Matthew 7:21-24).

This is the inverse of the reality in this week’s saying: the community formed around Jesus and Jesus himself are so connected with each other that what happens to one also happens to the other, and what happens to Jesus’ followers happens to him.

Positive Connection

There’s also a positive side to the connection between Jesus and the Jesus community that we read in this week’s saying. When we are promoting the teachings of Jesus, and people respond, it is not only us that they’re responding to. They’re also responding to Jesus!

The early Jesus community talked about “the kingdom” or the “empire of God.” More contemporary folks who have uncovered its egalitarian quality have referred to it as the beloved community. Whatever we call it, we are a part of something that includes us and is also much bigger than our individual efforts. As with all power, whether isolated in one individual or shared by all alike, power can be used for great evil or great good.

This week, let’s use our community power for good, using our choices to put on display the beauty of a world transformed by Jesus’ teachings, teachings that include non-discrimination, inclusivity, egalitarianism, nonviolence, social justice, love, healing, and more in our present world today.

Remember that when we choose these teachings, when we embrace and practice them, not just as individuals but also as communities centered around these values and the value of listening to the most vulnerable, we too are listening to and embracing Jesus. Those who resonate with these values and choose to join us, they too embrace Jesus as they embrace us. This is about becoming a part of what has the potential to heal our world. What Jesus taught can heal the world we are living, moving, and breathing in today.

As we press together this week, as our relationships with each other continue to reflect the values and teachings we have been looking at this year, others will take notice. They may never say a special prayer. They may never become more “religious” than they presently are, and may never join an organization. But if in their hearts and lives, they embrace the beauty of the universal values that the Jewish Jesus also taught, and they strive within community to apply those values in their own context, much more has taken place than what institutional, religious, and too often surface judgments can see. This is a beautiful change, much more substantive than what it means for many today to simply take on the name “Christian.”

Thomas Merton MemeBecause of the classism, sexism, racism, and heterosexism that has become associated with the name of Jesus, some people may never be comfortable referring to themselves as a “Jesus-follower,” either.  I understand.  I, too, wrestle with this. I continually want to disassociate from rather than own my own complicity in injustice. Yet if a person embraces the values we have discussed, for example, methods of nonviolent conflict resolution, voluntary wealth redistribution, mutual aid, and anti-kyriarchical sharing of community power and resources, that’s what Jesus was trying to encourage within his own society as well.

I can’t help but believe that the historical Jesus understood that it was never so much about him as it was about what he taught: the beloved, humanity-affirming community. As his followers went out, sharing the values they had discovered through this Jewish teacher, what people responded to and embraced was a path, a set of values and ethics, informed by the stories of the most vulnerable. It was, in the end, a choice to embrace the risk of what it takes to heal our world. So this week, let’s contemplate both the negative and the positive implications of what it means in our day and multiple contexts to hear the following words:

 Whoever takes you in takes me in, and whoever takes me in takes in the one who sent me. (Q 10:16)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, go back through this year’s eSights and pick a value or principle that we have found in Gospel Sayings Q.
  2. Discuss how this principle was applied in a 1st Century Jewish context under Roman oppression.
  3. Discuss possible applications of this same principle today, and choose one of those applications to lean into together. Begin to put it practice.

Thank you so much for joining us for another week.

Keep living in love, wherever this may find you, together, making the world a safer, more compassionate, more just home for us all.

Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. I love each of you, dearly. I’ll see you next week.

*There is a qualification that must be made with this passage in Luke. Just because someone is rejecting you does not always mean they are rejecting Jesus. At times, that may be true, but at other times it might be your presentation of Jesus that people are actually rejecting, even if you may be claiming Jesus’ name all the while.

The Tree Is Known by its Fruit

Grape VinesBY HERB MONTGOMERY

“No healthy tree bears rotten fruit, nor, on the other hand‚ does a decayed tree bear healthy fruit. For from the fruit the tree is known. Are figs picked from thorns, or grapes from thistles? The good person from one’s good treasure casts up good things, and the evil person‚ from the evil treasure casts up evil things. For from exuberance of heart one’s mouth speaks.” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:43-45)

Companion Texts:

Luke 6.43-45: “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. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

Matthew 7.15-18: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

Matthew 12.33-35: “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”

Gospel of Thomas 45: “Jesus says: Grapes are not harvested from thorns, nor are figs picked from thistles, for they do not produce fruit. A good person brings forth good from his treasure. A bad person brings forth evil from the bad treasure that is in his heart, and in fact he speaks evil. For out of the abundance of the heart he brings forth evil.”

The saying we’re considering this week answers a question that typically arises when I invite people to be open to more theological perspectives and to listen to the marginalized. People want to know, “How do you know which person’s interpretation of the Bible is correct?”

The good thing about this question is that it comes from people who understand that we all interpret the Bible. All sacred texts need to be interpreted, but sometimes, we confuse our interpretations with the text itself and fear that if we come to understand the scriptures in a new way that means the scriptures themselves are being threatened. Over the years, I’ve often been accused of “throwing out the Bible” or “ignoring what the Bible teaches.” But that isn’t the case at all.

I may challenge a certain interpretation of a Bible passage because the interpretation is destructive or harmful and, when applied to the lives of real people, results in death rather than abundant life. But that is very different from throwing out the Bible.

I may embrace a different interpretation of a text than the ones I used to teach or that some of my readers (or accusers) take for granted. But that is very different from ignoring what the Bible teaches. In order to consider interpreting the Bible differently, I first have to take the Bible seriously.

Because I take the scriptures seriously, I believe it is important, as I shared last week, that we learn how people who experience life differently than us read, hear, and understand the scriptures we have in common.

The scriptures shape our lives, and so we don’t just need to know “which person’s interpretation of the text is correct.” We also need to ask “Whose interpretation is not correct? And how can we know?” Jesus teaches us how in the saying we’re looking at this week:

“No healthy tree bears rotten fruit, nor, on the other hand‚ does a decayed tree bear healthy fruit. For from the fruit the tree is known. Are figs picked from thorns, or grapes from thistles? The good person from one’s good treasure casts up good things, and the evil person‚ from the evil treasure casts up evil things. For from exuberance of heart one’s mouth speaks.” (Q 6:43-45)

Jesus invites us to look beyond what teachers say, to look at what is left in the wake of various textual interpretations. Are lives being enriched or destroyed?

European, colonial, and patriarchal theology, which is often privileged by being referred to simply as theology with no adjective, has been the source of much harm in our world. I came to learn this through sitting at a shared table where I could hear non-homogenous voices speaking on their respective experiences. As we learn to listen to those who differ from us, we can understand what consequences scriptural interpretations and policies we’ve built on them have had for different sectors of the human family.

From this posture of listening to the stories of one another, we can begin to discern which interpretations of sacred texts are “healthy trees” bearing “healthy fruit” in people’s lives, and which interpretations are “decayed trees” producing “rotten fruit.”

Jesus’s principle is true of all religions and all of the texts that each religion holds sacred. Again, sacred texts and the interpretations and explanations of those texts are not the same thing. Every religion contains various interpretations of its texts. As followers of Jesus, we must have our blind eyes opened through perceiving the fruit of these different interpretations and having the courage to choose interpretations that are truly life giving rather than “rotten“ for all people.

Wisdom Teachings

This week’s saying from Sayings Gospel Q is included in Matthew, Luke, and the Gospel Thomas. It is classified as part of Jesus’s “wisdom” teachings (as opposed to apocalyptic teachings). We’ll discuss the differences between Wisdom sayings, Apocalypticism, and Platonism in much more detail as we continue along in the teachings of Sayings Gospel Q. For now, though, what you need to know is that the early Jesus communities saw this saying as an ethical teaching that enabled them to find the “way” that leads to life rather than to self-destruction.

It is as true for us today as it was for them. There is no such thing as an “objective” interpretation of sacred texts, and theologies tell us far more about theologians than they can ever tell us about God. As James Cone states in God of the Oppressed, “The assumption that theological thinking is objective or universal is ridiculous” (p. 41).  A few pages before this statement he explains why, “Because Christian theology is human speech about God, it is always related to historical situations, and thus all of its assertions are culturally limited . . . Theology is not universal language; it is interested language and thus is always a reflection of the goals and aspirations of a particular people in a definite social setting.” James H. Cone; God of the Oppressed (p. 36).

When a non-homogenous community can analyze the fruit of various perspectives, when that community includes diversity of race, sex, gender, orientation, and identity, we can begin to create interpretations of sacred texts that are life giving for the whole human family, not just some sectors of it.

As individuals, we do not see things as they are but rather as we ourselves are, not initially, privately, or personally. Does this mean that subjective theologies are without value? No, all theologies have moral value: they either trend toward life, or lead toward death. We determine together the value of interpretations that our communities hold sacred.

Let me give three concrete examples.  There are various interpretations of the Bible texts that some people use to address same-sex relationships and people who identify as transgender and/or gender non-conforming.  Here are the facts.

  1. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people from ages 10 to 24. Suicide is the leading cause of death of LGB youth nationally. LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their peers who report zero to low family rejection. Many of these parents feel they must choose between their faith and their children. (Learn more here.)
  2. LGBT youth are twice as likely to end up homeless than heterosexual youth. 20% of homeless youth are LGBT, yet only 10% of the general youth population are LGBT. And on top of this, once they are thrown out by their families, 58.7% of LGBT homeless youth have been sexually victimized compared to 33.4% of heterosexual homeless youth. No wonder LGBT homeless youth commit suicide at higher rates (62%) than heterosexual homeless youth (29%). (Learn more here.)
  3. Last year, more than 22 transgender women were murdered in the U.S. alone. The number of these hate-crimes continues to grow each year at an alarming rate.  (Learn more here and here.)

When an interpretation of any sacred text in any religion produces this type of fruit, that interpretation must be deemed “destructive.”

We could also use other examples of destructive interpretations.  Interpretations have been used to justify racism, xenophobia, subjugation of women, and the economic creation of poverty.  And that is only a few.

With this in mind, we examine the sayings and teachings of Jesus in their own social setting. Jesus was a poor, Jewish man in a 1st Century Palestine that was under Roman political and economic control. His wisdom teachings helped his followers to create an intentional community that embraced their interconnectedness with and interdependence on each other as a means of survival. Stephen J. Patterson in his book The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins puts it quite nicely.

“To seek the empire of God might just mean seeking out that way of life by which all have access to the means to life, even the poor and the hungry . . . Here is the beginning of a program of shared resources of the most basic sort: food and care. It’s an exchange. If some have food, all will eat; if any get sick, someone who eats will be there to care for them. The empire of God was a way to survive— which is to say, salvation. (p. 74-75)

Ponder that last phrase for a moment, “ A way to survive—which is to say, salvation.”

Liberation and survival are two separate things; thriving is not surviving. And while the ultimate goal is to thrive, the “in between” goal is to survive in the process of getting there.

So for all those working toward a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all, and especially for those who are allowing the teachings of Jesus to matter in their lives and shape their perspectives and behavior, Sayings Gospel Q states:

“No healthy tree bears rotten fruit, nor, on the other hand‚ does a decayed tree bear healthy fruit. For from the fruit the tree is known. Are figs picked from thorns, or grapes from thistles? The good person from one’s good treasure casts up good things, and the evil person‚ from the evil treasure casts up evil things. For from exuberance of heart one’s mouth speaks.” (Q 6:43-45)

 HeartGroup Application

This week, contemplate what it means for you to begin evaluating Biblical interpretations and their effects not just on yourself but also on the most vulnerable communities in our society. One good way to do this is to continue what you started with last week’s HeartGroup application.

  1. Keep reading the book your group chose! Keep listening!
  2. Begin journaling the insights, questions, and feelings that you experience as you work through the material.
  3. Circle in your journal entries what you want to share with your group when you review together next month. Review week is now only three weeks away.

To you who are joining us on this journey through Sayings Gospel Q, thank you! I’m so glad you are tracking with us.

Keep contemplating the “fruits” of your interpretations. Keep listening. And keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only Love reigns.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Subversive Narratives of Advent  (Part 1 of 3)

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.” (Luke 2.10) 

Advent season has begun!

Over the next two weeks I want to look at the birth narratives of Jesus from first century Christian, Jewish, and Roman perspectives. Much has been lost, co-opted, and eclipsed by the Imperial Christianity that began in the fourth century when Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. So in the next two weekly e-Sights, we’ll be looking first at Matthew’s birth narrative and then at Luke’s. Both Matthew and Luke have story elements in common. They also differ greatly on other narrative details. We will be reading each story in the contexts they were each written in. Seen that original context, these narratives are intensely subversive of the military, political, and economic ways of empire as well as imperial theologies, not just in Rome but across time, including our own era.

A useful tool that I want to recommend this holiday season is Marcus Borg’s and Dominic Crossan’s timely volume, The First Christmas. They’ve done invaluable work in compiling information about the historical/cultural setting in which these birth-narratives were originally told. That information helps us rediscover the stories’ meaning not simply to the first century followers of Jesus but also to us today as well. If I were teaching a class on the Christmas narratives this holiday season, not only would each student have a copy of Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives, they’d also have this 244-page volume as an accompanying text book. It is a fantastic overview.

A Preliminary Word about Both Narratives

Something to note before we begin: These narratives are primarily concerned with this world, not with heaven. They are focused on this life. Too often, the birth-narratives of Jesus are read through the lens of salvation defined as entrance into a post-mortem heaven. But that is not how the original Jewish Jesus community would have heard these stories. They were concerned with the whole of life, not merely with an afterlife. A spiritual or afterlife application of these narratives became the dominant interpretation through the cultural influence of the expanding Roman Empire and European colonialism. We’ve talked about the way that reading the gospel narratives with an otherworldly focus has had intensely destructive fruit. Before imperial Christianity, these narratives were understood to be about the transformation of this world. They were not solely theological; they were theological and political! They announced the Divine dream for this world and announced that the fulfillment of that dream had begun in Jesus. They were not about the destruction of this world but about the restoration of it. This restoration, seen in the narratives as they were originally understood, was symbolized by visions of the end of war, violence, injustice, and oppression.

The Importance of Context

A point that I have been harping on for months now (and was happy to see addressed by Borg and Crossan) is the importance of acknowledging the historical context in which the Jesus narratives were created. Two examples that I use regularly to help people see the historical context of the Jesus story are Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was overwhelmingly pleased to see Marcus and Dom use these examples as well:

“What would you think of a book that started with the opener, “I am going to discuss Mahatma Gandhi as a Hindu saint, but I’ll skip all that distracting stuff about British imperial India”? Or another with, “I am going to describe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a Christian saint, but I’ll get right to his biography and skip all that stuff about racism in America as background baggage”? You would know immediately that something is seriously wrong with those authors’ presentations.”—The First Christmas (p. 55)

I couldn’t agree more!

If we’re going to be able to wrest these two narratives from the militaristic, political, economic, and theological eclipse of empire and restore them to their original, deeply imperially subversive character, we must discover their Jewish, Christian, and Roman context.

Once we see the historical context of these stories, we cannot unsee it. Once we know it, we cannot unknow it. And once we experience this context, it will forever change how we read the birth-narratives of Jesus.

Next week, we’ll look again at Matthew’s narrative. The following week, just before Christmas, we will be turning our attention to Luke’s. My hope is that through this short series that you will read the birth-narratives in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels anew, that your heart will be renewed, and that you will be inspired, as a Jesus follower, to more deeply embody the this-world-transforming values taught within these narratives.

Though the early Jesus birth-narratives were originally intended to subvert the Roman Empire, I believe they also hold significance for us today who live in or in the shadow of the American Empire. In our era, these narratives are being eclipsed by the consumerism of our Empire’s economic machine. The early followers’ voices are lost even to Christians who are most familiar with these Christmas stories. Systemic racism continues to thrive, xenophobia toward Syrian refugees and Muslim Americans flourishes, and U.S. militaristic methods of achieving peace are continually touted by those who carry the name of this babe from Bethlehem.

If we are to rediscover the original subversive power of the birth-narratives of Jesus and rightly apply the stories to our lives today, we must begin with reading these narratives in the matrix of Imperial Rome and its grinding clash with the hopes of first-century Judaism.

“Who is the ‘King of the Jews’? That was Herod the Great’s title, but Matthew’s story tells us Herod was more like Pharaoh, the lord of Egypt, the lord of bondage and oppression, violence and brutality. And his son was no better. Rather, Jesus is the true King of the Jews. And the rulers of his world sought to destroy him.

Who is the Son of God, Lord, savior of the world, and the one who brings peace on earth? Within Roman imperial theology, the emperor, Caesar, was all of these. No, Luke’s story says, that status and those titles belong to Jesus. He—not the emperor—is the embodiment of God’s will for the earth.

Who is the light of the world? The emperor, son of Apollo, the god of light and reason and imperial order? Or is Jesus, who was executed by empire, the light in the darkness, the true light to whom the wise of this world are drawn?

Where do we find the fulfillment of God’s dream for Israel and humanity? In the way things are now? Or only beyond death? Or in a very different world this side of death?”

The First Christmas, p. 37.

The Gospel of Rome promised peace through victory achieved by violence. The conquered interpret this kind of peace in a vastly different way than the conquerors do. The Gospel of the Early Jesus Community envisioned a peace through restored justice for all, through a distinctly nonviolent transformation.

Over the next two weeks, I’m looking forward to sharing these two birth-narratives with you and focusing on how the first century Jesus community heard and read them in the context of their era.

What we are about to discover may mean you’ll never read these stories in quite the same way again.

HeartGroup Application

  1. Take time this week to read Matthew 1-2 as well as Luke 1-2. Familiarize yourself with each story. Try to keep them separate, for now, in your reading.
  2. List what each story has in common. Then where each narrative differs from the other.
  3. In preparation for next week, create an outline of Matthew’s birth-narrative as this is the one we will be looking at first. You can do this on your own or as a group in your HeartGroup.

I’m looking forward to next week already! Until then, keep living in the way of love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’m overjoyed that you’re joining us for this small series this year.

Happy Holidays, and I’ll see you next week.

An End of the World Savior versus Present Liberator

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits [read cosmic forces of evil] and they obey him.’ News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. (Mark 1:27-28)

This week we are looking at how some sectors of Christianity focus on the end of the world, to the exclusion of redeeming the present.

Historically, Christians have taken an interest in alleviating human suffering, and have been involved in human rights movements from abolition and temperance to disaster relief and, more recently, Black Lives Matter. Yet some sectors of Christianity are much more concerned with saving people from some end-time-calamity in their future life, than they are with people’s present life, and even those sectors that do alleviate present suffering typically focus on individual change rather than structural change.

The traditional Christian effort in regards to poverty is just one example. The effort usually takes the form of charity such as giving people food for today, yet not addressing the systemic causes that created their hunger to begin with. I’m not saying that charity is wrong. It’s vital. It simply is not enough. More recently, some Christians have begun offering financial education and seminars aimed at enabling and empowering the poor to succeed within the present economic system. But these seminars don’t ever look at the financial system itself and ask whether this system is, in fact, just.

Both the service and education approaches inadvertently place the blame for poverty on the victims themselves, i.e. “It’s your fault you’re poor.” Sometimes a person’s individual choices do cause them to suffer. And sometimes there is a much bigger picture that limits the choices that person can make. Either way, it is victim-blaming to focus on delivering folks from personal sin and leave untouched the sinful social structures that cause their suffering and oppress them. Sin moves both individually and socially, and grace also moves both individually and socially.

Far too many sectors of Christianity don’t even go this far, and focus solely on saving people from affliction at the end of time, without regard to what afflicts them in this right now, today. That is directly opposed to the approach of the gospels’ Jesus.

  • We never see Jesus walking around trying to get people to say a sinner’s prayer so as to either go to heaven when they die or be raptured from global catastrophe in the end of time. (This is not to be confused with Jesus’ call to nonviolence endeavoring to offer Jerusalem a different fate than being destroyed by Rome.)
  • We do see Jesus liberating those he came in contact with from those concrete things that oppressed them in present time.
  • An End-of-the-World focus tends, too often, to allow for laziness in matter of social justice, now.
  • An End-of-the-World focus tends, too often, to preserves the present position of those benefiting at the expense of others from the current status quo.
  • An End-of-the-World focus tends, too often, to leave those presently poor, mourning, and hungry un-blessed by the gospel of Jesus. ( See Luke 6.20-26)

To see Jesus as Present Liberator, not merely End-of-the-World Savior, let’s look at Mark’s stories of the demoniacs. First, a few words about the apocalyptic worldview of the early Gospel authors.

Apocalyptic Worldview

Writers of the early gospel stories subscribed to an apocalyptic worldview, which means that they saw this world as the battleground for the cosmic forces of good and evil.

The apocalyptic world view possessed four tenets: dualism, pessimism, judgment and imminence.[1]

Dualism

Within the Apocalyptic world view the world is dualistic, meaning it has two parts: this world that we see and the cosmic world that we do not see. The cosmic world is composed of good cosmic powers and evil cosmic powers, each power works through earthly participants, and the cosmic forces of evil are the enemies of a good God. For first century apocalyptic Jews, these evil cosmic powers were sin, death, demons, and Beelzebub (or the satan). According to this view, the historical earthly participants with these cosmic powers were Babylon, the Persians, Greece, and Rome: all of these historical earthly powers were oppressors of the weak

Within this worldview, the cosmic evil forces are presently in control of the earth (see 1 John 5:19) Accordingly, those who choose the side of good will suffer and those who choose the side of evil will prosper.

Pessimism

Those who subscribed to this worldview believed in the eventual overthrow of these evil forces, yet also believed there was nothing we can do in the meantime. There were variations on this belief, though. In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees believed they could hasten the eventual overthrow of evil through obedience to the purity laws of the Torah. Their pessimism produced the view that there are two ages: the present age where the forces of evil are in control, and the age to come when these powers would be defeated, Earth would be liberated, and those on the side of good would be vindicated. For now, according to this belief, all we should expect is that the world would get worse and worse until the very end when the suffering of the good would be traded for vindication.

Judgment and Vindication 

The apocalyptic worldview also included the belief that the age to come will arrive with a cataclysmic breakthrough that would usher in utopia. That breakthrough was understood to be the inauguration of God’s Kingdom as spoken of by the prophets here on Earth. It would be accompanied by the bodily resurrection of those who had died previously, and then everyone, those living and those resurrected, would face either a punishment or a reward. (See Daniel 12.2)

Imminence of the End

Those who held to an apocalyptic worldview believed that the age to come, and all of the events associated with it, was just around the corner.

Positives and Negatives

This worldview had positives and negatives. The positives were that it took evil seriously. There are evils that are bigger than any of us individually. And it provided hope that there was a cosmic force for good that would eventually put things in this earth to right. The negative was that it tended to produce a moral complacency in the face of injustice, violence, and oppression here and now. In other words, there really is nothing we can do to change human suffering around us until the age to come, so the best we can do is try and survive.

The Canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)

Today, our culture mostly subscribes to a naturalistic world view, which means that many people see this world as the result of observable, measurable forces that have repeatable impacts on the things and people in the world. This view is not dualistic, but assumes that everything that happens on this planet can be explained by natural causes and effects.

The early canonical gospel authors were not naturalists. They drew from the worldview of their time, the apocalyptic worldview. This is important to understand because it explains much of what we read in the gospel stories they wrote. They believed that in Jesus’ life and teachings, which climaxed in his execution and resurrection, the apocalyptic event they had been looking for in the future had finally arrived. It had happened!  I do not believe that someone has to hold the apocalyptic world view to find benefit in the Jesus story, today.  Someone can hold a naturalistic world view and still gain much from the ethical teachings of the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that will help create a safer more compassionate world for us all.

Most Christians today subscribe purely to neither an apocalyptic nor a naturalist world view, but a hybrid of both which is influenced by the narratives of their religious tradition. On a spectrum of apocalypticism at one end and naturalism at the other, the more fundamentalist a Christian is, the more they will hover near the apocalyptic end of the spectrum; the more progressive a Christian is, the more they will hover near the naturalist end. Both will likely draw at least some elements from the other worldview as well. I’ll be contrasting the naturalistic world view with the apocalyptic world view in next week’s eSight.

What I would like to contrast this week is the apocalypticism of the early church with the apocalypticism of many fundamentalist Christians today.  There is a stark difference between the two.

The Christian apocalyptic world view of today typically holds to some level of dualism (cosmic forces of good and evil working through earthly powers and systems.) It, too, looks toward a future judgment/vindication that is referred to by many who hold this world view as “the end of the world.”  The view also holds that this “end” is imminent.  It is just around the corner.  We do not have much time left.  Lastly, this view also tends toward a pessimistic passivity.  Things are just going to get worse and worse.  There’s nothing we can do until the end, and Jesus comes the second time to set things right.  Things will not any get better till the end of the world arrives.

This contemporary form of the apocalyptic world view, though, is a subtle denial of Jesus.

The authors of the Jesus story did subscribe to an apocalyptic world view as well.  Yet there was a difference.  The difference between their apocalypticism and contemporary apocalypticism is that they believed that in Jesus, the apocalyptic event they had been looking for in the future had finally arrived. It had happened! They were no longer focused on some future event.  The authors of the Jesus story in the New Testament were looking at the present through the lens of the life, teachings, execution, and resurrection of their Jesus.

Christians who hold a contemporary apocalyptic world view today are still looking toward the future event for world change.  Many of those are remaining passive until those events take place.  The writers of the Jesus story believed that in Jesus, the future apocalyptic event, in the form a mustard seed, had arrived and they were actively working to participate in Jesus’ liberation from suffering here and now!  

They were no longer waiting on the future, the Kingdom had come!

They were no longer entrenched in passive pessimism, but active participation in Jesus’ work of liberation now! (see the book of Acts)

Holding to an apocalyptic world view, the gospel writers believed Jesus was their long awaited Messiah who had ushered in the Age to Come. (It had come in the form of leaven placed in dough.)  Jesus was their liberator from all things that oppressed them, both cosmic evils and those force’s earthly collaborators, specifically Rome.  These writers saw Jesus as their Liberator from all things that oppressed them then!

Mark’s stories of Jesus performing demoniac liberation are classic example of earthly acts of liberation from cosmic forces of evil. For those modern readers who subscribe to a more naturalistic world view, the demon stories of Mark (found in Mark 1:32, 34, 39; 3:15, 22; 5:18; 6:13; 7:26, 29-30; 9:38) are intellectually and philosophically troubling to say the least. But when we read them as part of an apocalyptic world view and their view of Jesus as arrival of the fulfillment of that worldview, we see the importance of the demoniac stories to the early Jesus followers.  (As well as the stories of raising people from the dead, forgiving peoples sins, and healing those who were sick).  Jesus, to them, was not a post mortem savior, nor a someone who told them to keep looking toward the future.  Jesus was to them a present liberator from all things that concretely oppressed them now!

These followers saw Jesus as the Earth’s liberator from the cosmic forces of evil. As such, it was important that Jesus demonstrated power over theses cosmic demonic forces.

“The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits [i.e. cosmic forces of evil] and they obey him.’ News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.” (Mark 1:27-28)

Apocalyptic Liberation (the Kingdom) Has Come!

Whether someone subscribes to a more naturalistic worldview or a more apocalyptic world view, the Jesus story can still be relevant. Regardless of how one explains human suffering, whether it be through natural causes or cosmic evil forces, Jesus is the liberator from things that cause oppression, violence, and injustice now!

The gospel is not as much about an afterlife, as it is about freeing people from anything that oppresses them here and now. To follow Jesus means to participate in Jesus’ work of liberating people from things that concretely oppress them in this world.

Whether it be sexism, racism, colonialism, militarism, consumerism, authoritarianism, classism, capitalism, heterosexism, binarism, or whatever, the focal point of the Jesus of the Jesus stories is liberation from all things that concretely oppress people. He started his public ministry with this litany:

“The Spirit 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 [prison blindness],
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor [liberation from oppressors].” (Luke 4.18)

This is the liberation that Jesus referred to in his announcement of the coming near of the kingdom of God. The very material term “kingdom” is rooted in Jesus’ Judaism. Unlike the kyriarchical kingdoms of that age, however, Jesus’ kingdom would be based on sibling relationships and friendships. We see this demonstrated as Jesus, whom the disciples called “Lord,” stooped to wash the feet of those same disciples. A more contemporary term for Jesus’ new social order might be “kinship” rather than an imperial “kingdom” (see Matthew 23:8)

In short, the gospel is the good news of liberation now, not an announcement of good to come one day. The gospel is not a end-of-time fire insurance policy over which Christians must now argue over the amount of the premium to be paid. The gospel is the good news that the seeds of liberation from things that concretely oppress now are to be found in the teachings of this nonviolent, Jewish revolutionary—Jesus.

HeartGroup Application

As we gather together around Jesus’ shared table, the teachings of Jesus call us to live out the values of his gospel in our community, first within our HeartGroups and then within the larger communities outside of our HeartGroups.

A couple of weeks ago I asked you to list what those within your group needed to be liberated from and to practice ways you could come along side each group member in living out the values of the Jesus story.

1. This week, take inventory of how you are doing.

2. Acknowledge areas where you need to make some adjustments. List areas you could be doing more in, things that didn’t work, and things that you choose to do but did not yet follow through with.

3. Adjust you what you have been doing to better meet the needs of those in your HeartGroup. Don’t be afraid of adjusting again whenever you feel that what you used to do is no longer working.

Again, the teachings of Jesus contain the seeds of liberation, now, not later.

Like mustard seeds, they will grow if we choose to water them.

Wherever this finds you this week, keep coming to the shared table. Keep endeavoring to follow the teachings of Jesus. Keep living in love—until the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

Many voices, one new world.

I love each you dearly.

I’ll see you next week when we take of look at the strengths and weaknesses of the naturalistic world view for a Jesus follower.

 


1.  These four tenets are adapted from Bart Ehrman’s The Underlying Tenets of Apocalypticism in his book God’s Problem, pages 214-219 (Kindle Edition)

 

No Such Thing As “Dogs and Pigs” . . . Only “Children.”

How “Listening” is the Cure for our Blindspots

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Happy kids embracing and smiling in the elementary schoolyard. Interracial  friendship.

Lord,she replied, even the dogs under the table eat the childrens crumbs.(Mark 7:28)

This week, I want to place some puzzle pieces on the table for you that may not seem to fit together at first. Once we get them all on the table, though, I hope that we’ll see something fresh and relevant in Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. Let’s begin by defining three terms.

The first term is intersectionality. Intersectionality is the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination, and discrimination. It describes oppression as an interlocking matrix. The model, first developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, helps us to examine how biological, social, and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, species and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels and so contribute to systematic injustice and social inequality.

The second term is kyriarchy. Kyriarchy is a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, economic injustice, colonialism, ethnocentrism, militarism, and other dominating hierarchies that encourage people to internalize and institutionalize the subordination of one person or group to another.

The third term is colonialism, the establishment, exploitation, acquisition, maintenance, and expansion of colonies in one territory by a political power from another territory. Colonialism depends on a set of unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony and between colonists and the territory’s indigenous population.

Let’s use intersectionality, kyriarchy, and colonialism to look at the relationship between Rome and Jerusalem during the life of the itinerant preacher Jesus of Nazareth. Ponder the status of Jerusalem in the world during that time. Consider the Hebrew people and their own history. Jesus emerged from a people who had participated in forms of kyriarchy and colonialism but, under Rome, was now disinherited.

Jesus presents some images in his teachings that are directly related to this oppressive context.

Dogs and Pigs 

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:6) 

Dogs and pigs are both scavengers, and the Hebrews considered them to be unclean. You may have heard that Jews called any non-Jew “dog.” But this is not correct. According to the IVP Background Commentary of the New Testament, Jewish people reserved the slurs of “dogs” and “pigs” only for those gentile foreigners who oppressed the Jewish people, such as the Romans. Today, some use the term “pig” to refer to police constables who have become oppressive.

Jesus’ teaching in this passage critiques how Rome was being permitted to co-opt the sacred and valuable Jewish Temple for Imperial purposes. That’s the most direct interpretation of the passage. Yet I also believe there is something deeper here as well.

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been speaking of inward realities—objectifying women in one’s heart, hatred toward one’s enemies—and not merely outward ones. So I have a hunch that in this passage, Jesus is speaking about the ways that oppressed and disinherited people can allow the sacred and valuable space within them to be co-opted and used for hatred toward their oppressors. Howard Thurman writes about this in his book Jesus and the Disinherited.

Tyre and Sidon

As well as teaching about dogs and pigs, Jesus also taught about Tyre and Sidon. (See Luke 4:25-26; Luke 10.13-14; Matthew 11.21-22)  In our story this week, Jesus had retreated to the region of Tyre and Sidon, ancient Phoenician cities, for a respite.  Yet what many miss is that while Jesus is there, he is met by a woman described as Syro-phoenician.  “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.” (Mark 7.26)  It is the “Syro” part that the gospel authors desire to turn our attention. This woman, being from Syria, was of Seleucid decent. (Syria was the short-hand name used by Rome to refer to the Seleucid Empire.) Why does this matter? These were the ancient oppressors of the Jewish people before Rome! Under the influence of Antiochus Epiphanies, the Seleucids had sought to exterminate the Jewish people. And although the Seleucids and the Hebrews now shared the same fate under Rome, there was a time when the Seleucids conquered and occupied the Hebrew nation. Jesus’ exchange with this woman, a descendant of those how had sought to wipe out the Hebrew people under Antiochus, takes place in a time when this was not yet distant history for the Jewish people.

Syrophoenician Woman

Before I talk about the Syrophoenician woman, I want to turn to Howard Thurman’s insightful comments on Jesus’ exchange with her.

“Opposition to the interpretation which Jesus was giving to the gospel of God had increased, and Jesus and his disciples withdrew from active work into temporary semi-retirement around Tyre and Sidon. The woman broke into his retreat with an urgent request in behalf of her child . . . ‘What mockery is there here? Am I not humiliated enough in being misunderstood by my own kind? And here this woman dares to demand that which, in the very nature of the case, she cannot claim as her due.’” (Thurman, Howard; Jesus and the Disinherited [pp. 90-91] Kindle ed.)

The issue here is not that this woman was a Gentile. Though the most prominent Phoenician woman in the Old Testament was Jezebel, Elijah also helped a Phoenician woman (1 Kings 17:17) So her non-Jewishness is not the point. In addition to being Phoenician, the woman was also of Syrian descent: she was Syro-phoenician. As Mark writes, “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter” (Mark 7:26). Syria was the term Rome used to refer to the historical Seleucid Empire.

The issue in this story is that Jesus understood that his announcement of “the favor of God” was to apply to Gentiles too (see Luke 4:25-29; Matthew 8:5-13). But this Gentile begging him for a blessing was of Seleucid descent. This would be the equivalent of descendants of a Holocaust survivor being asked to share survivor reparations with a descendent of the Nazis who had fallen on hard times. It would be comparable to a White American asking to receive reparations intended for the Native American community here in the United States. It would be as if, two hundred years from now, a same-sex married couple were asked to help the descendent of a fundamentalist-evangelical business-owner from Indiana.

The encounter between Jesus and this women is set up to prick our sense of justice. Jesus came to liberate the oppressed. But now one of the oppressors was asking him to liberate her daughter too! Jesus question is valid:

Is it right to give the childrens (the Hebrew people) bread to the dogs (the Seleucids)?

According to the Torah, there were foods that were not to be eaten by the Hebrews but that could be thrown out as dog food (see Exodus 22:31). Jesus is here asking: is it just to give that which was intended to liberate my people to a person belonging to those who violently oppressed us in the past?

There are two ways I have heard this explained. One explanation is that Jesus is merely play-acting to teach the on-looking disciples an important lesson in generosity. The other explanation, which I think is more plausible, is that Jesus is growing in his own understanding and experience of intersectionality.

Yes, this woman belonged to a people who had endeavored to wipe his people off the face of the earth. But she was also a woman. Where is her husband? Why is her husband or father not making this request as the father does in Mark 5.22? In a patriarchal world, what does it mean for this woman to be speaking for herself and her daughter as if she were a single mother?

Whatever her circumstances, Jesus asks, is it right to help her? Is this how the liberation and reparations for Israel are to be used: not only to benefit those who have been oppressed but also to benefit the suffering oppressors too?

This is where intersectionality comes in. A person can be both oppressor and oppressed simultaneously. After all, the Hebrews were not innocent. Just as the Seleucids had once sought to exterminate the Hebrews from existence, the Hebrews had once engaged in the genocide and colonization of the Canaanites. The Hebrews participated in the cultural patriarchy that those in Hellenistic Tyre and Sydon lived by as well. And although the Jews in Jesus’ time suffered economic poverty under Rome’s high taxes, the Hebrew had also oppressed the poor with their own kings (Amos 2:6; 5:7, 11, 24). Yes, this Seleucid woman belonged to a people who had historically oppressed the Hebrews, but that day, she, too, needed liberation. Was there enough mercy in Jesus’ merciful theism for her as well?

In this story, the compassion of Jesus wins out. It’s worth asking ourselves just how Jesus made even a small space in that room to listen.

Lord,she replied, even the dogs under the table eat the childrens crumbs.(Mark 7:28)

There is theoretical knowledge and then there is experiential knowledge. Jesus understood a love of enemies in theory and gained a deeper understanding of it that day through experience.

I’m thankful for a Jesus who took time to listen. I’m also thankful for a woman who didn’t give up, but persisted in helping Jesus and his disciples see her need and their blind spots. Had Jesus sent her away, a great injustice would have been committed. But he listened. And he entered into a fuller experience of his own ethic that day instead. Henry David Thoreau wrote, ”Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

I cannot fault Jesus for asking the question he asked. Jesus, after all, emerged from the community of the disinherited poor. Jesus faced the same dilemma we face:.how does one embrace enemy love without betraying one’s own people?. How does one stay faithful to both justice for the oppressed and the transformation of the oppressors?

Jesus and his disciples, I believe, left the region of Tyre and Sidon that day with a fuller experience of the truth that there is really no such thing as dogs or pigs.  There are only children. We are all siblings of the same Divine Parents. We all walk this earth side-by-side, and we all wear on our faces the very image of God.

HeartGroup Application

1.  Here are just a few of the categories of intersectional privilege and disadvantage in our society here in the West:

White            Wealthy        Certified Educated       Male        Straight            Cisgender

Non-White     Poor            Uncertified Education   Female     Non-straight     Transgender

 

These categories combine to create intersectional experiences of domination and oppression.

Consider how each of the following experiences simultaneously includes some level of privilege in our society and some level of disadvantage. Name where they are privileged first. Then look for where they are disadvantaged.

a. A White lower-class, cisgender, straight, blue-collar male

b. An African-American male president of the United States

c. A White cisgender gay female living in inner-city America

d. A bisexual cisgender woman of color living in rural poverty

e. A single White father of three living in suburban America

f. A middle-class White fundamentalist-evangelical, transgender female

d. Wealthy highly educated White, cisgender straight female

2.  We need each other. What does it mean for us to trade our dominations systems for Jesus’ heterogeneous shared table? How can we learn to listen to those who are not like us? How can we learn to incorporate each person’s varied life experience into a beautiful and coherent whole that leads to a safer and more compassionate world for all? How can we allow others to show us where our own blind spots are and also share our stories that can help others see their blind spots?

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

I’ll close this week with Howard Thurman’s Three Hounds of Hell that dog the soul of the disinherited—fear, hypocrisy, and hatred. The ethical teachings found in the values of the Jesus story as it has come down to us today, I believe, offer the disinherited in any area of society a way to escape those three hounds nipping at our heels. This week, if nothing more, may we all learn to sit around Jesus shared table and simply listen.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, and listening with compassion, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each one of you,

I’ll see you next week.