Transparency and the Vilification of Darkness

night sky


“What the passage from John describes is the desire to avoid the light of justice for fear of harmful actions toward others being exposed, actions that benefit some at the expense of others. We read about some hiding in the shadows for fear of being discovered, maybe held accountable, and most definitely being stopped. It’s about them coopting the darkness, which is not inherently evil, and using the darkness not for the life giving purposes of which it is intended, but to hide so they can continue doing harm.”


Herb Montgomery | March 12, 2021

This week’s reading is from the gospel of John,

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. 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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” (John 3:14-21)

The phrase in this passage that speaks most to me now is in verse 20: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” This passage speaks to us of transparency versus hiding. Let’s unpack this a bit with an example from current events.

U.S. President Biden recently released an unclassified version of the National Intelligence report on the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist. The report finds Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved Khashoggi’s killing.

By contrast, the previous administration had refused to release this report. In the language of our passage this week, they had refused to let the report come to light because the deeds it exposed were deeply evil. Bob Woodward reports in his book Rage that Trump even bragged about protecting the Saudi prince. “I saved his ass,” Trump told Woodward, while many in the U.S. were calling for justice after Khashoggi’s murder. Trump continued, “I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop.”

This week’s passage from John’s gospel includes language that has been interpreted to blame Jewish people for Jesus’ death. I reject this anti-semitic interpretation. What the Jesus narrative does demonstrate is a universal dynamic of classism. The elite in Jesus’ society were threatened by his teachings, while most of the people loved his gospel to the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

In Luke’s version of the Jesus story we read,

“When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people. (Luke 20:19, emphasis added, cf. Luke 4:18-19)

In much the same way, Miguel A. De La Torre writes, global elites today see liberation theology as a threat:

“I am amazed at the misinformation surrounding liberation theology . . . Why is this theological perspective deemed so dangerous? Why have governments, including that of the United States, committed so many resources to bring about its obliteration? . . . Liberation theology is so dangerous because it disrupts a religious and political worldview that supports social structures that privilege the few at the expense of the many. Ignorance of the causes of oppression is crucial to maintaining this worldview. But as the consciousness of the oppressed begins to be raised, as they begin to see with their own eyes that their repressive conditions are contrary to the will of God, the power and privilege of the few who benefit from the status quo is threatened.” (Miguel A. De La Torre, Liberation Theology for Armchair Theologians, Introduction)

In Jesus’ society it was not the people in general who rejected light for fear of being exposed, but, certain people, the elites, those in positions of power and privilege who “loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”

In my home state of West Virginia, we are now in the midst of our 2021 legislative session. The Republican party won a supermajority in both houses of the West Virginia legislature in last November’s election. Now an alarming trend is developing.

Over half a dozen bills moving through the halls of legislature either remove all requirements for public disclosure of meetings and information, or make agency information private and not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. That’s not how government that claims to derive its power from the consent of those it represents should work. Government should be transparent. Everyone should be able to know what is being done, and be able to keep those who represent them accountable. It makes one wonder what is being hidden, what is being kept out of the light of public consciousness.

I want to offer a word of caution regarding the phrase in our passage about “loving darkness.”
The vilification of darkness in the gospels is problematic today. However innocent the original intent may have been of the gospel authors, equating darkness with evil has been a deep part of White supremacism. White supremacists have used Biblical passages to equate whiteness with goodness and superiority and blackness with evil or inferiority. Equating blackness with evil is how colonists imagined God and holiness as white and therefore, Black and Brown people as something else. This seed has borne deeply harmful and destructive fruit in the lives of all who are not White. (In different ways it has also damaged White people. One cannot advance supremacism and be unscathed.)

I’ve noticed that the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney uses the language of “gloom” or “shadow” instead of “darkness.” After all, there is nothing inherently evil about darkness and we need a balance of both light and darkness in our lives for health. The darkness of the womb is where we were all given life. Darkness is where we rest and heal, and some forms of life only grow in darkness. Again, it’s about balance: both light and darkness in a dance, so to speak, with neither overcoming the other. We can speak of the goodness of the light without vilifying darkness. Darkness calls us to the goodness of rest and recovery. Light calls us to wake and to get to work. We need both. (For more on this see Rev. Dr. Gafney’s Embracing the Light & the Darkness in the Age of Black Lives Matter and Dark and Light: Wil Gafney on White Supremacy in Biblical Interpretation)

What the passage from John describes is the desire to avoid the light of justice for fear of harmful actions toward others being exposed, actions that benefit some at the expense of others. We read about some hiding in the shadows for fear of being discovered, maybe held accountable, and most definitely being stopped. It’s about them coopting the darkness, which is not inherently evil, and using the darkness not for the life giving purposes of which it is intended, but to hide so they can continue doing harm.

A just society requires accountability, and accountability requires investigation. Those who have something to lose deeply fear investigation. Keep the tax returns hidden, they might say. Don’t set up a committee to investigate January 6, 2021, or broaden an investigation’s scope to dilute its power of discovery and make it more likely that some things stay hidden. Don’t release investigative reports, or at least don’t make them public. Watch for where you see those in positions of power and privilege seeking to keep their actions out of public consciousness in these ways.

In the Jesus story, Jesus emerged as a Galilean prophet of the poor, calling for life giving changes within his own society. He called for the redistribution of wealth, the inclusion of the marginalized, and the politics of compassion and protective justice toward those most vulnerable to being harmed by the then present system. For this reason, the powerful who were benefiting from the harm being done to others tried to hide. After all, when public consciousness is raised, change isn’t very far behind, and change is what those benefiting from the status quo most desperately want to stop.

In John’s story, the powerful elite succeed. Jesus is silenced through execution. Those with too much to lose interrupted his salvific work with a Roman cross, murdering him for earthly, political reasons, not cosmic theological ones. As we near the season of celebrating the resurrection across Christendom, we’ll discuss this further. For now, watch for where you see hiding and obfuscation. Don’t allow the shadows to be used for harm. Call for transparency, and affirm and support it wherever you see it being practiced.

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

2. Share with the group a story from your own experience that teaches the value of transparency, either within secular society or faith communities.

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 Jaundiced Eye Darkens the Body’s Light 

by Herb Montgomery

An eye with rainbow coloring

Featured Text:

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is generous, your whole body is radiant; but if your eye is jaundiced, your whole body is dark. So if the light within you is dark, how great must the darkness be!” (Q 11:34-35)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 6:22-23: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”

Luke 11:34-35: “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness.”

Gospel of Thomas 24:3: “Light exists inside a person of light, and he shines on the whole world. If he does not shine, there is darkness.”

To begin, our saying this week uses metaphors that are rooted in ableism.  Fish don’t know they’re wet.  Able-bodied people often don’t realize how ableist they are being. But acknowledge it we must, for this is a first step toward change. Naming injustice is a primary step toward action that reverses injustice. “In ableist societies, able-bodiedness is viewed as the norm; people with disabilities are understood as those that deviate from that norm. Disability is seen as something to overcome or to fix, for example, through medical intervention. The ableist worldview holds that disability is an error or a failing rather than a consequence of human diversity, akin to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ableism)

With this in mind, let’s look at what this week’s saying was attempting to teach.

Lamp of the Body is the Eye

In 1st Century Jewish culture, people believed that a person possessed either light or darkness within them: “The human spirit is the lamp of YHWH that sheds light on one’s inmost being” (Proverbs 22:27). In our saying this week, Jesus uses the eyes as a symbol for determining whether what is inside his listeners is truly light or really darkness. “Many people believed that light was emitted from the eye, enabling one to see, rather than that light was admitted through the eye. Although here Jesus compares the eye to a lamp, he speaks of ‘diseased’ eyes which fail to admit light.” (IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament; Matthew 6:22-23 cf. 11:34-36)

When one steps back into the cultural context of this week’s saying, the meaning is rather simple: what you see when you look at others determines whether what is inside of you is “light” or “dark.” Two people can look at the same person and see very different things, based on what their eyes are trained to see.

A fun, literary example is found in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about Sherlock Holmes. As a private investigator, Sherlock’s eyes and powers of observation are well trained to see much more than others around him see. In our saying this week, Jesus is teaching his listeners about a specific power of observation that he desired his followers to become proficient in: the ability to look at others who share our world with us through the lens of generosity.

Generosity

When you look at others, what do you see? Is it typically positive by default? Do you give people the benefit of a doubt? Do you assume the best about them? Or is your eye judgmental, maybe critical, or even condemnatory?

Jesus spoke positively of having an eye that was “single,” “generous,” or “healthy.”

A healthy eye sees others generously. And it is singular, too, in the sense that one is persistent in generously extending the image of God to everyone that one encounters. A person with a healthy eye remembers the truth in the Jewish story that an angel walks before each of us declaring “Behold the image of God.” Being disrespectful or to humiliate anyone bearing the Divine image is a denial, in that person, of the Divine whose image they bear. These acts were also seen as a defacement of the Divine image. To lie about another person was to deny the very existence of God. The school of Hillel in the first century taught that murder was both a civil violation and a sacrilege of that which was sacred. The Hebrews’ sacred text taught that when we shed human blood, the act is regarded as diminishing the corporate divine image within humanity. In the Hebrew creation story found in the second chapter of Genesis, humanity begins with the whole of humanity in one person. This was believed to have taught that the taking of a human life is equivalent to annihilating the entire world. The opposite was held to also be true—to save one life was to save the entire world. (Remember the ending scenes of the film Schindler’s List.) This applied to slaves and to non-Jews as well. The Jewish religion of the Rabbis became inseparable from the practice of the golden rule to others and practicing the golden rule became the touchstone of one’s religious worship of the Divine.

This is listening for and seeing God in the Other. According to Genesis, all persons bear the image of God (see Genesis 9:6). In the Christian New Testament we find this passage: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1John 4:20). If every person bears the image of God, I’m called to see and to listen to God in you, whoever you are. If we generously kept in mind the view that every person we meet bears the image of God, how different our world might be.

In addition to this, Matthew’s context builds on this generous view with a focus on economic generosity: Jesus’ vision of a world where people take responsibility for taking care of one another. “Jesus speaks literally of a ‘single’ eye versus a ‘bad‘ or ‘evil‘ one. A ‘single‘ eye normally meant a generous one. A ‘bad‘ eye in that culture could mean either a diseased one or a stingy one. Such eyes become a symbol for the worthlessness of a stingy person.” (IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament; Matthew 6:22-23 cf. Luke 11:34-36)

Luke adds another statement to this emphasis on resources. A few passages later, Jesus states, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” (Luke 11:39-41)

In both of these gospels, this saying refers to serving other people. Again, Jesus’ new world is defined primarily by people taking care of people. Later New Testament letters include these words: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:17)

In addition, Jesus’ generosity goes far beyond economic generosity. It also encompasses the whole person. The media plays a part in this for us. When people of color, especially men, are victims of police brutality, the media goes to work to criminalize them so as to bias how the rest of us see them. (See How News Networks Criminalize Black Victims of Police Violence.) Contrast this with how the media characterized Brock Turner, a rapist, and put the highest possible spin on his character to the masses. Just this week, Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the article My President Was Black, was interviewed on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah. In the interview Cotes contrasted the path it took for Obama to become president and the path Trump took to do the same:

“If I have to jump six feet to get to the same place you have to jump two feet for, that’s how racism works . . . to be president he [Obama] had to be scholarly, intelligent, president of the Harvard Law Review, the product of some of our greatest educational institutions, capable of talking to two different worlds. Donald Trump had to be rich and white. That was it. That’s the difference.” (See the interview here.)

What we chose to see when we look at another person should be more than skin deep. What we choose to see and what we choose to believe about a person will directly impact our thoughts, feelings, opinions and attitudes toward them and ultimately our behavior. This is possibly why in this week’s saying, Jesus says that what we see in another determines whether we truly possess light instead of darkness.

The very first thing we should choose to see and believe in each person we encounter is that they are of inestimable worth simply because they are a part of the human web. This applies not to just individuals, but also to the entire planet. As Oscar Romero taught, “We are not three worlds [First World, Second World, and Third World], we are one world.”

In Jesus’ worldview, God indiscriminately causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall:

“ . . . He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

“ . . . he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” (Luke 6:35)

Jesus called his followers to relate to genuine political and economic enemies with love that seeks to transform them from oppressing the lower classes. Yet some White Christians today still discriminate against others based on their skin color, and some Evangelical business owners discriminate in whom they bake cupcakes and pizzas for.

If the sun shines on a person, if the rain falls on a person, we are called to see them as a bearer of the image of the Divine, to look for God in them, regardless of how much we feel tempted to “Other” them as instead. We are all connected.

Yes, we are different, and those differences should be seen and celebrated, but we are all still part of one another and in this together. When we fail to celebrate each other, when we choose to neglect this basic step in how we are seeing others, it does not matter what we claim to be—light bearer or reflector—the light we claim to possess is actually darkness.

With these thoughts in mind, let us contemplate our saying this week:

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is generous, your whole body is radiant; but if your eye is jaundiced, your whole body is dark. So if the light within you is dark, how great must the darkness be!” (Q 11:34-35)

HeartGroup Application

In the book I wrote over a decade ago now (Finding the Father) I proposed that what a person believes about God determines how they think and feel toward God, especially in the context of the spiritual abuse many theists within Christianity have suffered. I proposed that however we choose to see a God ultimately affects how we choose to behave and what type of a person, as a worshipper of that God, we will become.

This week I want to draw our heads out of the clouds for a moment and place our feet firmly on planet Earth. Apply this week’s principles to how you relate to other people. What we choose to believe about others, what we choose to see when we look at another, will determine our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, opinions, and our behavior in relation to them.

Jesus taught that one cannot live out indiscriminate justice, faith, and love toward others without it impacting how one begins to perceive others. We start with the behavior of simply listening to the experiences of those who are not like us. A Buddhist friend of mine introduced me to this saying, and I believe it teaches the same universal truth that we are seeing in the sayings of Jesus this week:

“Some people live closely guarded lives, fearful of encountering someone or something that might shatter their insecure spiritual foundation. This attitude, however, is not the fault of religion but of their own limited understanding. True Dharma leads in exactly the opposite direction. It enables one to integrate all the many diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole, thereby banishing fear and insecurity completely.” Lama Thubten Yeshe, (Daily Wisdom: 365 Buddhist Inspirations)

Jesus’ saying invites us to do the same, to “integrate all the many diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole, thereby banishing fear and insecurity completely.”

If the sun shines on them, if the rain falls on them, we have a mandate from the saying of Jesus to imitate Jesus’ God as we interact with them.

  1.   List ways that you can begin making space in your life to listen to those who are different from yourself, especially those whom the present status quo does not benefit. If the sun and rain are for all, prioritize listening to those whom society prevents the sun and rain from reaching. Try actual conversations (where your posture is one of simply listening), following people on Twitter, listening to podcasts, and reading books by authors from a different walk through life than your own.
  2. With as much honesty as you can achieve, contrast the ways you now choose to negatively see some people and write the positive assumptions that you could choose instead. Pay close attention to how these assumptions would affect how you think, feel, and relate to those people.
  3. As a group, begin making space for voices that are different. One of the ways HeartGroups can do this well is by asking others to simply come and share their experience with the group. I have been invited to go and share at a very warm and welcoming interfaith fellowship in my home town. HeartGroups can do the same. We can look for things we have in common with others, like the universal values of compassion and justice. And we could benefit from comparing and valuing our differences, viewing them in the light of intrinsic fruit.

What does it mean for you to begin listening for and looking for God in the other?

Wherever this finds you this week, I’m glad you’re here. Keep living in love, loving with the equity of the sun and the rain, with a preferential option of those being prevented from accessing what meant for all equally.

This will be our last eSight/podcast for 2016. We’ll be back in two weeks. Have a happy holidays and we here at RHM wish you a very happy new year.

I love each of you dearly.

See you in 2017.