Who are the Poor in Spirit?

picture of broken glass

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

Herb Montgomery | August 3, 2018


“The system is intended to break their spirit once and for all, to make them give up and simply cycle through the judicial system indefinitely. Jesus’ vision for human society was that his kingdom would belong to those presently trodden and excluded, those whose spirit has been broken, who don’t have the will to even keep trying.”


 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18; cf. Isaiah 61:1-3)

Luke’s gospel sums up Jesus’ itinerant teaching ministry with  Isaiah’s words of solidarity and liberation for poor, formerly incarcerated, oppressed, indebted, vulnerable, and marginalized people. The Jewish and Christian sacred texts contain passages of liberation and of oppression. You’ll find texts that liberate women from patriarchy and that teach patriarchy itself. You’ll find passages of liberation from slavery (Deuteronomy 23.15) as well as endorsing and approving of slavery. You’ll find passages that teach xenophobic genocide and those that promote care of and generosity toward the “stranger” or “foreigner.” You’ll find passages that describe  wealth as a great blessing and those that praise liberating the exploited poor from the wealthy. And you’ll find texts that teach inclusion and acceptance of the LGBTQ community and those that teach their exclusion. 

Whatever you’re looking for in the scriptures, you can find. .The gospel writers also had those options when they picked passages from the Torah, the Songs, and the Prophets. Luke’s gospel chose a passage from the Prophets that speaks liberation for those who were oppressed by people in positions of power and privilege.

Both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels include variations of these words: 

“Looking at his disciples, he said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.’” (Luke 6:20-26)

In these words, we see Jesus’ solidarity with and liberation of those on the undersides and margins of his society’s status quo. Jesus came to call for change,  changes that would be a “blessing” for those the present structures had caused to be poor, to weep, and to go hungry. These changes would also mean “woe” for those designing and benefiting from those structures. 

Matthew’s version of these words is a little broader. In Matthew, Jesus called for changes for the meek rather than the assertive person, the pure in heart rather than those corrupted by greed, the peacemakers rather than peacekeepers, those hungering and thirsting for the Hebrew prophets’ distributive justice (righteousness) rather than those alleviating guilt with charity, and the merciful rather than the merciless. The one group that stands out to me as I reread this passage is the group that Jesus said would be blessed by the changes he called for in our world—the poor in spirit.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5.3)

I was recently revisiting Michelle Alexander’s masterpiece, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. One section describes the permanent consequences of a person being branded a “felon” after they have served their sentence. From not being allowed to find housing or employment to having your right to vote and serve on a jury forever taken away, these are experiences that break people’s spirits.

Here are just three of the stories that Alexander shares:

Clinton Drake (Veteran)

“I put my life on the line for this country. To me, not voting is not right; it led to a lot of frustration, a lot of anger. My son’s in Iraq. In the army just like I was. My oldest son, he fought in the first Persian Gulf conflict. He was in the Marines. This is my baby son over there right now. But I’m not able to vote. They say I owe $900 in fines. To me, that’s a poll tax. You’ve got to pay to vote. It’s “restitution,” they say. I came off parole on October 13, 1999, but I’m still not allowed to vote. Last time I voted was in ’88. Bush versus Dukakis. Bush won. I voted for Dukakis. If it was up to me, I’d vote his son out this time too. I know a lot of friends got the same cases like I got, not able to vote. A lot of guys doing the same things like I was doing. Just marijuana. They treat marijuana in Alabama like you committed treason or something. I was on the 1965 voting rights march from Selma. I was fifteen years old. At eighteen, I was in Vietnam fighting for my country. And now? Unemployed and they won’t allow me to vote.” (The New Jim Crow; pp. 159-160)

Unnamed Woman:

“When I leave here it will be very difficult for me in the sense that I’m a felon. That I will always be a felon . . . for me to leave here, it will affect my job, it will affect my education . . . custody [of my children], it can affect child support, it can affect everywhere—family, friends, housing. . . People that are convicted of drug crimes can’t even get housing anymore. . . Yes, I did my prison time. How long are you going to punish me as a result of it? And not only on paper, I’m only on paper for ten months when I leave here, that’s all the parole I have. But, that parole isn’t going to be anything. It’s the housing, it’s the credit re-establishing. . . . I mean even to go into the school, to work with my child’s class—and I’m not a sex offender—but all I need is one parent who says, ‘Isn’t she a felon? I don’t want her with my child.’” (The New Jim Crow; pp. 162-163)

Willie Johnson:

“My felony conviction has been like a mental punishment, because of all the obstacles. . . Every time I go to put in a [job] application—I have had three companies hire me and tell me to come to work the next day. But then the day before they will call and tell me don’t come in—because you have a felony. And that is what is devastating because you think you are about to go to work and they call you and say because of your felony we can’t hire [you]. I have run into this at least a dozen times. Two times I got very depressed and sad because I couldn’t take care of myself as a man. It was like I wanted to give up—because in society nobody wants to give us a helping hand. Right now I am considered homeless. I have never been homeless until I left the penitentiary, and now I know what it feels to be homeless. If it was not for my family I would be in the streets sleeping in the cold. . . . We [black men] have three strikes against us: 1) because we are black, and 2) because we are a black male, and the final strike is a felony. These are the greatest three strikes that a black man has against him in this country. I have friends who don’t have a felony—and have a hard time getting a job. But if a black man can’t find a job to take care of himself—he is ashamed that he can’t take care of his children.” (The New Jim Crow; pp. 163-164)

These stories add new meaning to Jesus saying he had been sent “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners,” including people labeled as “felons.”

The opposite of being “poor in spirit” is being “strong in spirit” (see Luke 1:80). This society rewards those who, in addition to being privileged in other ways, are also strong in spirit. They have drive. They have fight. They compete. And they keep going till they win. The stories that Michelle Alexander tells are stories of those who, no matter how hard they try, can’t even survive. The system is intended to break their spirit once and for all, to make them give up and simply cycle through the judicial system indefinitely. Jesus’ vision for human society was that his kingdom would belong to those presently trodden and excluded, those whose spirit has been broken, who don’t have the will to even keep trying. Jesus cast a vision for a world not of charity that leaves the unjust structures in place, but where all oppression, injustice, and violence toward the vulnerable has been put right. 

What does a world look like where people aren’t in need of continual charity or relief and live instead in a just society?

What does a world look like where people who are presently broken and downtrodden are instead given what they need to thrive?

What does a world look like where people who are vulnerable and pushed to the margins by those at the center are instead cared about and cared for?

I believe we have to start with that vision. I’m not preaching utopia. Utopia movements have backfired too many times in the past with very destructive results. But we have at least to begin with the discussion of what a utopia would even look like if we are going to push our present reality in a more just, safe, compassionate direction. We can argue about whether or not a utopia is possible, but as my friend Ash-lee Woodard Henderson of the Highlander Center shared with me recently, “Discovering what our utopias even look like is very often the first step in discovering what we need to be working on in our work of shaping a better world.” 

It was to this work of shaping a better world that I believe Jesus called his disciples. And it’s really only this kind of discipleship that holds any real interest for me. I’ll close with the words of Sam Wells:

“The traditional way of understanding discipleship as one of taking people out of the world because it is a hostile place, promising them a better place in God’s heavenly kingdom, has been radically transformed by this insight. Jesus call us rather to change the world in such a way that it will cease to be the hostile place it is, as we construct the way for God’s reign on earth . . . The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that there’s plenty wrong with the world. There are only two responses to this—either go and put it right yourself, or, if you can’t, make life pretty uncomfortable for those who can until they do. When we take stock of our relationship with the powerful, we ask ourselves, ‘Does the shape of my life reflect my longing to see God set people free, and do I challenge those who keep others in slavery?” (Sam Wells in Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus by Ched Myers)

Here’s to the work of shaping a world that we may be able to look at one day and say:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom…” (Matthew 5:3)

HeartGroup Application

This week, Ron Dellums passed away.  If you are unaware of who he was, here is a link to his wikipedia page: Ron Dellums 

With Mr. Dellums’ death, I’m reminded once again of the work those who have gone before us dedicated their lives to, their importance to us, and our importance to them. It is important that we continue their work of justice, peace and humanity toward all.  They took up the work from those who came before them, and we must continue the work, taking it as far as we can during the time we, together, have.

In honor of Ron Dellums, have your HeartGroup take a few moments and watch an interview with Ron from 2015 and discuss your responses with the group.

You can find the interview here.  It begins at minute marker 26:18.

What it would look like for your HeartGroup to lean more deeply into a dedication to challenging all forms of injustice. Pick something from your discussion and put it into practice, this week. 

Thanks for checking in with us. 

Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


To support these podcasts and weekly eSight articles, go to www.renewedheartministries.comand click “donate.”

Solidarity with the Crucified Community

by Herb Montgomery | June 1, 2018

Pictures of an x on a tree among a forest of trees

Photo by David Paschke on Unsplash

 


“When it’s safe to stand alongside those being marginalized, to amplify their voices, to hand them the mic, you will no longer be needed.”


“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1-2)

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

In recent articles on pyramids, circles, and social structure, I mentioned that the term “sinner” was used in Jesus’ society to push people to the edges and lower sections of their community.

Ched Myers uses the debate between Pharisees and Saducees over whether grain was clean or impure to illustrate how this worked.

“According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. The passage, however, does not distinguish between seed planted in the soil and seed detached from the soil . . . In years of poor harvests, a frequent occurrence owing to poor soil, drought, warfare, locust plagues and poor methods of farming, this text was a source of dispute. Why? During such lean years, grain was imported from Egypt. But the Egyptians irrigated their fields (putting water on seed) so that their grain was suspect, perhaps even unclean. The Sadducees judged that such grain was unclean and anyone consuming it also became unclean. They were quite willing to pay skyrocketing prices commanded by scarce domestic grain because they could afford it. . . . One senses economic advance being sanctioned, since the Sadducees were often the large landowners whose crops increased in value during such times. By contrast the Pharisees argued that the Pentateuchal ordinance applied only to seed detached from the soil; therefore . . . one could be observant and still purchase Egyptian grain.” (in Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p. 76)

I’ve covered this in The Lost Coin and in the presentation Jesus’ Preferential Option for the Marginalized. People used the pejorative label of “sinner” to other another human being and to limit their voice in the community. The writers of the Jesus story go to great length to communicate that the ones the religious and political leaders of that time had labelled as “sinners” were the ones Jesus included and also centered as he called for a new social order that favored them. Here are just a few examples:

Matthew 9:13—“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

[Remember that Jesus is using the labels of “righteous” and “sinner” as they were used in his society, not as many Christians use them today. Those labelled “righteous” by those in power threatened their political and economic structures the least and benefitted from them. The label “sinner” was used to silence the voices of those who would have protested either their own exploitation or another’s.]

Matthew 11:19—“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Mark 2:15-16—“While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”

Luke 5:30—“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

Luke 19:7—“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’”

The people Jesus ate with weren’t sinners ontologically; they were sinners politically, economically, and socially. In this context, therefore, it’s not accurate to respond, “Well, we are all sinners.” We must recognize how the label of sinner was used against some people. When particular human beings are being targeted and marginalized, it’s not enough to call for universal grace. Instead we ought to call for justice. A breach in relationship happens when one person marginalizes another and labels them sinner. A person may be a sinner, but they are labelled that way to religiously legitimate injustice committed against them. Gustavo Gutiérrez reminds us, “All injustice is a breach with God” (in A Theology of Liberation, p.139). It’s a breach with God because it is a breach with our fellow human beings.

In last month’s recommended reading book for RHM, Kelly Brown Douglas’ Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Douglas reminds us:

“In Jesus’ first-century world, crucifixion was the brutal tool of social-political power. It was reserved for slaves, enemy soldiers, and those held in the highest contempt and lowest regard in society. To be crucified was, for the most part, an indication of how worthless and devalued an individual was in the eyes of established power. At the same time, it indicated how much of a threat that person was believed to pose. Crucifixion was reserved for those who threatened the “peace” of the day. It was a torturous death that was also meant to send a message: disrupt the Roman order in any way, this too will happen to you. As there is a lynched class of people, there was, without doubt, a crucified class of people. The crucified class in the first-century Roman world was the same as the lynched class today. It consisted of those who were castigated and demonized as well as those who defied the status quo. Crucifixion was a stand-your-ground type of punishment for the treasonous offense of violating the rule of Roman “law and order.
 . . . That Jesus was crucified affirms his absolute identification with the Trayvons, the Jordans, the Renishas, the Jonathans, and all the other victims of the stand-your-ground-culture war. Jesus’ identification with the lynched/ crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the “crucified class” of his day. (p. 171)

Jesus did not stand in solidarity with the marginalized “crucified class” in secret. He did not do so diplomatically or with an eye toward political expediency. He did so openly, publicly, and transparently. We see this in the following story in Mark’s gospel:

Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. (Mark 3:1-5)

Consider that phrase, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Jesus knew that what he was teaching and whom he was standing with was going to cost him. He could have met the man at the back of the synagogue, or pulled him into a private room where he could “behind the scenes” engage the work of this liberation. But no, Jesus met and healed him right there, in front of everyone, with intention. 

I read this story often when I’m tempted to value protecting my own privilege over the people who today need others to speak alongside them. When it’s safe to stand alongside those being marginalized, to amplify their voices, to hand them the mic, I will no longer be needed. To quote the 1980s synth-pop classic “Take On Me” by A-ha, “It’s not better to be safe than sorry.”

Does open solidarity with those being marginalized come with a cost? You bet it does. According to the story in Mark, the immediate push back for Jesus’ public witness to this man’s liberation was that the religious and political leaders “went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” And this is only in Mark’s third chapter. The leaders are threatened by Jesus’ public and transparent inclusion of those they excluded from the very beginning of Mark’s story.

All of this raises the question: who are we known to stand in solidarity with? The status quo? Or those beloved people who daily face oppression, exploitation, or marginalization within our status quo? 

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1-2)

HeartGroup Application

This past month, on the same day the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem, over 60 nonviolent Palestinian protestors including children in Gaza were murdered by Israeli snipers. (Gaza begins to bury its dead after deadliest day in years)

Here are some things you and your HeartGroup can do:

1. Participate in protests in your area in response to what is taking place in Gaza. Voice your objection publicly. 

2. Use your social media platform to bring awareness to what is happening.

3. Contact your federal, state and local representatives. Write a letter, an email, or better yet, call their office.

4. Donate to charities.

You will need to do your own due diligence and research finding the right charity. Find a charity that has people with feet on the ground who can evidence that your gift will reach the people who need it. One charity that does meet these criteria is UNWRA.

6. Talk to your family and friends.

Talk to your family and friends to raise awareness and have them join you in the above actions.

7. Support peace-building initiatives.

Support Muslim and Jewish organizations that are working to bring peace while practicing a preferential option for the vulnerable. Standing against the violence in Gaza is about standing up against oppression, colonization, discrimination, and inequity.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are, keep living in love.

Keep living in resistance, survival, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.


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

Not Judging

by Herb Montgomery

Multiracial Group of Friends with Hands in Stack, Teamwork

“Do not pass judgment, so you are not judged. For with what judgment you pass judgment, you will be judged. And with the measurement you use to measure out, it will be measured out to you.” (Q 6:37-38)

Luke 6:37: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

The saying we are looking this week teaches against judging (krino).

The verb translated as “judge” in this saying has a rather broad meaning, so the only way we can only narrow it is by looking at its textual context. Over the past few weeks, we have seen the Jesus of the Sayings Gospel Q emphasizing the Golden Rule and our interconnectedness. In this context, then, we can define krino as “to separate” or “to make a distinction between.” (Mounce’s Greek Dictionary) It can be positive or negative. At its heart, though, is to separate another from one’s self. It means to discriminate.

Discrimination is perfectly acceptable when we have two things to choose from: we should strive to discern which choices are harmful and which are compassionate. But discrimination toward choices is not the same thing as discrimination toward people. It is judgment or discrimination toward people that is opposed in this week’s saying.

It’s also helpful to consider this week’s saying through the lens of our social dynamics. Too often I hear those at the top of social pyramids say, “Don’t judge me! Jesus said not to judge.” They are using this saying as a way to avoid accountability for their actions. At the same time, those at the bottom of certain pyramids are judged by those at the top continually.

As I said in the dialogue film Enough Room At The Table, we’re are not talking about creating communities where there is no mutual accountability among community members. Instead, we’re opposing the kind of judgment that would distinguish and separate us from one another. We are affirming communities where we see ourselves as interconnected with each other, and where we can be accountable to one another. Let me tell you a story that will help make this clear.

I’m in community with two friends that self-identify as belonging to the LGBTQ community. Both are people of color. One identifies as gender-nonconforming, and she prefers the pronouns she and they. The other as a cisgender man, though he is involved in activism for the rights of transgender people. Never have I encountered such accountability as I have from being in relationship with these two. They have continually called me to analyze my blind spots as a white, cisgender, straight male. Being in community with them has never meant that “anything goes” and they do not allow me to live unconsciously when it comes to my position in our society’s social pyramid. Each of us is deeply committed to an expression of strict ethics rooted in compassion, interconnectedness, and the golden rule. Each of us is dedicated to a Shared Table world view, and, just like them, I am called to come to that table in a posture of humility and learn about other people’s experiences in our world.

I wouldn’t for a moment ever say that these friends have ever judged me. Yes, they have called me on the carpet for my ignorance at times, and there have been times when these moments were even painful to my misplaced ego. But their feedback has always been in the spirit of connectedness. My friends make it clear that we are in this together.

The community that Jesus is teaching about in this week’s saying is not a community where we throw out all values, as some today wrongly imagine a judgment-free community would. The community Jesus points to, and the community I have experienced with my friends and others, is a community where I have allowed my own values to be informed by members of the community that my previous values had harmed. There’s a world of difference between throwing out all values, and holding strictly to a new set of values that come from embracing our interconnectedness with each other rather than judging and separating from each other. In this community, there is no us-versus-them. There is only us.

This kind of community centers the voices of oppressed and marginalized people. This is not a community that holds on to domination or subjugation in any form. Religious communities characterized by heterosexism, racism, or sexism sometimes claim to be simply trying to hold to account those who don’t align with their values, and disciplining those others “out of love.” So it is very difficult to get these communities to see that what they are really engaging in is not love, but discrimination. They claim to be, in love, pointing out the self-destructive “sin” of others. But they fail to see that by disconnecting (krino) themselves from those they claim to love, they risk developing a false feeling of moral superiority, and they also risk failing to listen. Listening is a way to allow our values to be shaped by other people, and is essential for people accustomed to harming other people.

By contrast, it is acceptable to for those receiving this type of unjust or prejudicial treatment to respond to would-be judges with Jesus’s teaching “Do not judge.” For those at the bottom of a social pyramid, even one claiming the authority of the Bible, asking for an end to discriminatory judgment is survival. They aren’t crying out for a community without boundaries; rather, they are desperately longing for a community characterized by a posture of listening and not one of judgment, a community that embraces the interconnectedness of humanity rather than sharply drawn lines between kinds of people.

Remember, like the sayings last week, this saying of Jesus was written during a time when the rabbinical school of Shammai was dominant. The school of Shammai drew sharp lines between Jew and Gentile, but didn’t stop there. It never does. Before long, lines were also drawn between what we might call today “fundamentalist” Jews and Jewish people who were more all-embracing.

In his book, Laying Down The Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, Philip Jenkins shows how the conquest narratives of Canaan have fueled and justified Christianity’s violence through history. Jenkins then looks at today’s headlines in Palestine. I believe what we see happening today illustrates the trajectory Jesus challenged in his own social context.

Jenkins writes: “Jewish extremists do not confine their campaigns to attacking Arabs and Muslims. As Rabbi Lamm observed, in trying to show the moral and intellectual perils of the Amalek doctrine, the concept is infinitely expandable . . . Next would come the turn of religious Jews whose faith is not quite what the strictest Orthodox think it should be. Actually, in terms of their condemnations, rather than of actual violence, that is a fair description of how some extremists have escalated the biblical commands. As the ultra-Orthodox have grown, so they have become ever more strident in denouncing mainstream or secular Jews who, they believe, fall short of the theocratic standards that are demanded of the new Israel.”

The entire book is really worth your reading. It is an excellent critique of Bible-based segregation, what we would call “judging” others, and the violence that results from both. In Sayings Gospel Q, Jesus stands in the spirit of Hillel against this human tendency and teaches instead “do not judge.” Do not engage in the game of “us and them.” Ultimately, there is no “them.” There is no “other.” There is only “us.” And our future depends on seeing and embracing this reality.

For the same measures that we use for others will be used for us. We will reap the intrinsic results of what we sow. Jesus lays the choice before us: the way of discrimination, segregation, extirpation, and global annihilation, or the way of compassion, interrelation, integration, cooperation, restoration, and peace. The way of judgment will not stop at your own doorstep. The law of reciprocation will work either for or against all of us.

We have the power to set in motion the kind of world we would like to live in. Choosing to live in harmony with the type of world we desire is choosing to take the first step toward it.

As Jesus says: “Do not pass judgment, so you are not judged. For with what judgment you pass judgment, you will be judged. And with the measurement you use to measure out, it will be measured out to you.” (Q 6:37-38)

HeartGroup

This week,

  1. List the changes you would like to see in your world.
  1. List the values associated with those changes as well as discussing both of your lists (changes and values) with your HeartGroup to help you with any of your potential blindspots within both lists.
  1. Choose to put at least one of those values into practice this week.

Do not judge.

Do not look at others as separate from yourself.

Embrace our interconnectedness with each other, and keep living in love; till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

The Beatitude for the Persecuted

by Herb Montgomery

Illustration depicting a green roadsign with a rejection concept. Sunset with clouds background.Blessed are you when they insult and persecute you, and say every kind of evil against you because of the son of humanity. Be glad and exult‚ for vast is your reward in heaven. For this is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Sayings Gospel Q 6:22-23)

Let’s begin this week by taking a look at this passage in our companion texts.

Luke 6.22-23: “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.”

Matthew 5.11-12: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Gospel of Thomas 69.1: “Jesus says: “Blessed are those who have been persecuted in their heart. They are the ones who have truly come to know the Father.”

Gospel of Thomas 68.1: “Blessed are you whenever they hate you and persecute you.”

If you have ever been insulted, ill-treated, had evil things said about you, hated, excluded, or suffered rejection for trying to effect social change, then the sayings of Jesus we’re are looking at this week are for you.

There are a few things I need to say first. Experiencing ill treatment or exclusion doesn’t necessarily mean you are in the right. You could be being “persecuted” simply because you are a jerk! Keep this in mind.

It’s equally true that any time people endeavor to effect the same social changes that Jesus taught in the 1st Century, they will be persecuted by whomever has the most to lose from those changes.

As we mentioned last week, societies rooted in domination are structured in the shape of a hierarchical pyramid: the privileged elite lives at the top of the pyramid while the subjugated live at the bottom. This domination structure isn’t always based on population: it is not always the elite few benefiting from the masses’ oppression. Sometimes a majority subjugates and oppresses a minority, a marginalized group pushed out to the social fringe by those that most deem as “normal.”

Friedrich Engels commented on this pattern: “(Ever since the dissolution of the primaeval communal ownership of land) all history has been a history of class struggles, of struggles between exploited and exploiting, between dominated and dominating classes at various stages of social evolution; [this] struggle, however, has now reached a stage where the exploited and oppressed class (the proletariat) can no longer emancipate itself from the class which exploits and oppresses it (the bourgeoisie), without at the same time forever freeing the whole of society from exploitation, oppression, class struggles—this basic thought belongs solely and exclusively to Marx.” (Preface to the 1883 German edition of the The Communist Manifesto; London)

What we see in the teachings of Jesus in Sayings Gospel Q is recognition that every person is a version of the Sacred Divine. Every one of us is of inestimable worth. We are, every one of us, deserving of the same sunshine and rain that falls on all life. Through this collection of sayings, Jesus is casting before our imagination a world where no one in our society is privileged at the expense of others. No more oppressed people, no more subjugated people. No more hierarchy.

Yet a world where the sun and rain are equally shared, where all the ravens and lilies are fed and clothed, can be very threatening to those who benefit from the presently imbalanced arrangement.

When balance is promoted, when redistribution of wealth is suggested, don’t rush to claim persecution. First ask yourself, “From what position in our society am I feeling like I’m experiencing persecution?”

“Am I in a favored position? Do I feel like I am losing some of my comfort and ease?”

If your answers to these questions are “Yes,” then you’re likely not experiencing the persecution that Jesus refers to in the sayings we’re reading this week.

But if instead you are pushing for greater justice and equity in our world, and intimately feeling pushback from those who have much to lose by moving in this direction, you are who Jesus is speaking to in our scriptures for the week.

In other words, are you at the top of the social pyramid and feeling like the entire world is changing around you? (see Acts 17.6). Or are you closer to the bottom of our society and feeling pushback from those higher on the hierarchy as you call for a more balanced world?

Where you are in the hierarchy of our society?

Which end of the pyramid do you feel “persecution” coming from?

Today, in my daily life as an American, I continue to bump into a group of Christians crying out that they are being “persecuted.” There are places around the globe where Christians are legitimately being persecuted. But here where I live, in America? Fearmongers have stirred up well-meaning people with the claim that their freedoms are being taken away. There are “Religious Freedom Acts” cropping up all over the nation, but they are about religious freedom in name only. Too often, these acts are actually ways of creating loopholes for some Christians to practice discrimination against those who don’t share their religious beliefs. We saw this in the 1960s as well: at that time, private Christian schools began popping up all over the south, not to protect Christianity, but to enable White segregationists to opt out of the integration of the public schools in the name of “religious freedom.

What the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q proposes instead is a society that eliminates all domination hierarchies, regardless of their ideological basis. It matters little if the hierarchy is economic, racial, gendered, based on orientation, or whatever! Jesus has a vision for human society that mimics the indiscriminate shining of the sun and pitter-patter-pit of the rain.

People, who have the most advantages to lose by an equal society that looks like Jesus’s vision, too often cry persecution to stop it from becoming reality. (See Matthew 20.11-16) I’ve witnessed here locally Christian folks, too, claiming persecution, exclaiming, “unfair” in recent movements in our little town toward the direction of equality. (“Lewisburg is trying to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance, and all anyone can talk about is bathrooms.) The irony is that they are the ones actually persecuting those calling for change.

Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who, as a result of following his vision for humanity, are insulted, ill-treated, have evil things said about them, are hated, excluded, or suffered rejection. And he tells us to take courage. If you are experiencing any of these judgments, you are following in the footsteps of the Jewish prophets.

For your homework this week, please engage in a exercise with me. It’s based on the book of Amos. Marcus Borg used to say he wished every Christian would read the book of Amos, and so, this week, I’d like you to read it.

In the margins, every time you see Amos speaking about justice place a J. Every time you see Amos speaking equity for the poor, place a P. The rich? Jot down a money sign, $. And lastly, every place you see Amos predicting the future, put an F.

What you’ll discover is that the heart of Jewish prophecy isn’t whether a prophet can predict the future correctly. Jewish prophecy has a social justice dynamic. A true Jewish prophet spoke on behalf of Yahweh, critiquing the monarchy (the social pyramid of their day), and calling for justice and equity for the oppressed and marginalized. (See also Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions.)

Jewish prophets stood up to the status quo’s exploitation or subjugation of others. They called those at the top of social pyramids to grant the oppressed justice. They did not call it charity; it was rather the restoration of that which was just in an exploitative system. A false prophet, by contrast, would proclaim that the subjugation and oppression of the poor was the will of God or by God’s design.

Jesus stood in the same Jewish prophetic tradition as Amos, but he wasn’t alone: he called his disciples to join him. When you and I follow the teachings of Jesus and stand up against oppressive systems in our own day, Hebrew tradition teaches that we are speaking with a prophetic voice as well.

Today, Jesus’s teachings call us to work for systemic change in favor of the marginalized, those pushed to the fringes, those subjugated, and those who find themselves bumping their heads against glass ceilings and feel their backs against invisible walls. We follow Jesus’s teachings when we work for these changes, either as members of oppressed and marginalized groups, or in areas where we find ourselves among privileged groups and able to work alongside the oppressed and marginalized.

Remember: all those who join in this work will be insulted, ill-treated, have evil things said about you, be hated, excluded, and suffer rejection. You may even be banned from certain circles. It’s okay. You’re in the right story!

Next week, we’ll look at how Jesus taught his disciples to respond to the pushback of those who feel threatened by social changes. But for today, Jesus says to you:

Blessed are you when they insult and persecute you, and say every kind of evil against‚ you because of the son of humanity. Be glad and exult‚ for vast is your reward in heaven. For this is how they persecuted‚ the prophets who were before you. (Q 6:22-23)

HeartGroup Application

It never feels good to be on the receiving end of ill treatment. Some of us simply cannot cope with conflict of any kind. But working toward a safer more compassionate world for us all will initially cause conflict. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of those who are “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” (1963).

All who desire peace must work for justice. Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the presence of justice and equity for everyone, and it’s as indiscriminate as sunshine and rain fall.

  1. When you begin to feel pushback from others, discuss as a group how each one of you, individually, can engage in some “self-care”?
  2. Discuss how the group itself can come under and around those who at times experience ill treatment in their work for a more just world.
  3. Discuss together how Jesus’s words encourage you in these movements. Do they comfort you? Do you feel as if you are in the right story? Certainly, these insights do not take away the pain of rejection, but at the least, they tell us that pushback is to be expected and part of the process.

I remember my thirteen year old daughter was working for certain social changes in her school three years ago. Some of the teachers at her school became quite upset and lashed out at her as a result. She came home in tears. Her personality is such that she becomes very quiet and inward in moments like these. At dinner that night she quietly asked how people responded to Gandhi and King when they were working toward change. As Crystal and I shared with her the heart breaking stories of the push back both received, I saw comfort and peace come over her face. “This is just part of it I guess.” I assured it that as painful as it was, she was not in the wrong: It was okay to get in trouble for the right reasons; she was in the right story. A few minutes later she looked at us and resolutely stated, “Change is worth it.”

I was never so proud of her. She is older now, but she still has a heart for others.

May the same be said of all of us.

Next week we’ll look at how Jesus teaches us to respond to our “persecutors.”

Until then, 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.