Misclassifying As Weeds

rainbow heart

Herb Montgomery | June 11, 2021


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


Our reading this week is from the Gospel of Mark:

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

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

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

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

I think that was Jesus’ point.

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

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

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

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

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

Misclassification Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must remember:

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

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

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

Remember to breathe. And choose compassion.

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

 


Binding the Strong Man

rope

Herb Montgomery | June 4, 2021


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


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s get to it.

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Spirit of Advocacy

 

dove in stained glass

Herb Montgomery | May 21, 2021


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


Our readings this week are from John 15 and 16:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


Hated by the Right People

lonely road

Herb Montgomery | May 14, 2021


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


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A just, safe, equitable home for all.

Will we be hated along the way? Maybe.

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Inherent Relationship of Love and Justice

 

clouds in the sky

by Herb Montgomery | May 7, 2021


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


Our reading this week is from John’s gospel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“[Williams] contends that theologians need to think seriously about the real-life consequences of redemptive suffering, God-talk that equates the acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse as the way for true believers to live as authentic Christian disciples. Those who spew such false teaching and warped preaching must cease and desist.” (Kindle location 133)

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week