A Christmas Story for the Marginalized

Herb Montgomery | December 6, 2019

Ethiopian Orthodox Church Nativity Scene painted in traditional style

Ethiopian Orthodox Church Nativity Scene painted in traditional style


“The question for those presently at the center is not whether they will include the presently marginalized at their table, but whether they will participate in the socially transformative work that is already taking place on the margins of their society.”


“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.'” (Luke 2:8–10)

We have entered the holiday season and I want to begin by wishing each of you a very happy one. In the Christian calendar, this is the season of Advent. In Luke’s version of the narratives about Jesus’ birth, the author chooses to center an unlikely community to receive the first announcement of “good news to all people.” This was the community of “shepherds living in the fields nearby.”

In Luke’s society, socially, politically and economically, shepherding filled one of the lowest occupational roles and shepherds bore the brunt of their lower social location. Shepherds were considered untrustworthy, and their work—according to some then-popular interpretations of Torah—made them continually unclean.

The most obvious implication is that the “good news” of the Jesus story first came to a community on the edges of Jesus’ society. His story was going to be first for those on society’s edges, not those in positions of privilege and power.

This narrative contradicts the one that modern, Westernized Christianity has so long used to equate Christianity with social respectability. Today, with few exceptions, the church has often missed out on building relationships and community with people pushed to the fringes of our larger society. I’m being generous when I say it this way: to simply say that Christian communities have “missed out” ignores the reality that the marginalized have been more than simply “missed.” The church has in many cases driven these folks to society’s fringes so that they’re marginalized by the very ones who carry the name of Jesus.

It matters how we understand each version of the stories of Jesus’ birth and what social, economic, political and even religious implications these stories would’ve had for their original listeners and contexts. When we read contextually today, we begin to see a rich field of insights for our work of social justice. Historically, Christians have spent countless hours on apologetics defending certain details in Jesus’ birth narratives but ignored the more socially relevant implications of these stories. One example of a detail we’ve historically focused on is Matthew’s gospel’s virgin birth. This story element would have meant something to those living in Galilee continually bumping up against the Roman myths about the birth of Caesar Augustus. It says little to us today in our scientific age. Yet other elements of Jesus’ birth narratives in both Matthew and Luke still can offer much to us who are working for a world of love and justice today.

How we as Christians hear the Christmas story, read the Christmas story, and interpret the Christmas story matters! Reclaimed interpretations of the Christmas story emphasize details that we can’t afford to miss. Jesus being born into immense poverty, being announced to the socially outcast, bypassing the politically, economically, socially and religiously of the day, and his parents becoming violence-fleeing refugees for the wellbeing of their child—there is an entire foundation here on which to build a framework for Christians who are working toward social justice today.

The story whispers to us of the need for communities to prioritize the poor, the insignificant, forgotten, and the marginalized. These are the people who gathered at this lowly manger and dared to believe that the babe who lay there, this good news, really belonged to them.

The message to the shepherds was, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.” (Luke 2:8–10)

The babe in a manger would not affirm the dominant structure of society of inequity, oppression, exploitation (See Luke 4:18-19). Instead, he would grow up to gather the outcast, the socially marginalized, those labeled and treated as less than by the privileged and powerful. He called for a society that did this, too, and it began with his early followers. Early communities of Jesus-followers were almost wholly comprised of people from society’s edges.

At the heart of Luke’s retelling of the Jesus story (and I believe it was the reason he—unlike Mark and John—included the details of Jesus’ birth) is a desire to contrast Jesus’ vision for human community of no more oppression, exploitation or marginalization with the much larger Roman society they lived in.

We’ll cover these contrasts in Luke in the upcoming weeks leading up to Christmas. I believe they hold wonderful encouragement for those working within or alongside marginalized communities today, especially for Christians who allow Jesus’ teachings to speak into their lives.

And lastly, during this holiday season, in the midst of all that is taking place in the news presently, we must not forget what these stories say to those who are marginalized in our society. We’ll talk about all of this, too. For now, it is enough to meditate on the fact that in the gospels’ birth-narratives about Jesus, it is the marginalized who are centered. It is foreigners, shepherds, the poor, the marginalized, so-called “nobodies,” and even the animals of a stable that gather around the manger to symbolize, I believe, the human community this newborn babe will grow up to speak about. The good news is for them.

People are of infinite value in this story. In these stories, people and communities marginalized by their present society are, especially of immeasurable worth. When I was born, my parents printed and sent out baby announcements to all their family and friends. I don’t know if many parents still do this, but I still have my birth announcement. To think of Jesus’ birth stories in this light, it is the marginalized who are the ones to whom the birth announcements of Jesus’ birth are first sent.

In the hustle and bustle of this season’s celebrations, traditions, and revelry, Christians who still subscribe to various forms of exclusion (xenophobia, racism, homo-, bi-, and transphobias, sexism, etc.) must allow the universal truths this story tells to confront them. If you are a Christian setting out nativity scenes in your home, stop for a moment and look at each of the figurines you’re placing. Who do these figures represent today? How are they represented in your life? Are you one of them? If not, are you living in solidarity with those represented in this scene?

Your nativity scene hints to us that this babe lying in a manger, born into poverty, and surrounded by those on edges of his society, will grow up to cast before the imagination of his listeners a vision for human society and those society considers less-than. His is a story for the powerless, the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized, the unclean, the judged, and the labeled, and excluded, the insignificant, and forgotten. These are the very ones that can gather around this lowly manger and dare to believe that the babe who lies there really is for them.

This last year, one of the RHM recommended reading books was Miguel A. De La Torre’s Reading the Bible from the Margins. Speaking of our nativity scene reminds me of this passage:

“Jesus’s audience was primarily the outcasts of society. This is why it is important to understand the message of Jesus from the perspective of the disenfranchised. The marginalized of Jesus’ time occupied the privileged position of being the first to hear and respond to the gospel. By making the disenfranchised recipients of the Good News, Jesus added a political edge to his message.” (Kindle Location 629)

Jesus’ birth narratives are not calling for societally privileged Christians today to begin including those presently marginalized. On the contrary, the Christmas stories call these specific Christians to recognize that God is already working in the margins of their society. The question for those presently at the center is not whether they will include the presently marginalized at their table, but whether they will participate in the socially transformative work that is already taking place on the margins of their society.

The stories of Jesus are not stories of inclusion where those presently centered maintain their positions of privilege. These are stories about a fundamental change in the way we shape our human communities. And it begins with recognizing the universal truths of the manger scene. Change always happens from the grassroots up, from the margins inward. The question for those at the center is whether they will obstruct those working for a safer, just society, or work in harmony with them.

This is what these stories are saying to me this year. What are they saying to you?

HeartGroup Application

  1. Where do you see transformative work being already engaged within communities that are societally marginalized today?
  2. Pick one of these communities. Reach out to the community you have chosen and find out the needs of those in this community who are doing transformative work.
  3. Discuss with your HeartGroup how your group can help to alleviate the needs you discovered. Picks something from your discussion and put it into practice. Note your experiences. Then share with your group what you’re learning.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative, and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

And don’t forget, all donations to Renewed Heart Ministries this month are being matched dollar for dollar. Through this generous offer, you can your support go twice as far here at the end of the year. Also, we’d like you to invite you to become one of our monthly supporters through our Shared Table fundraiser going on right now. You’ll receive a special gift from us for doing so. To find out more go to renewedheartministries.com and click on the “Share Table Fundraiser” image.

I love each of you dearly.

Happy holidays to you all.

I’ll see you next week.

Jesus’ Enoughism

by Herb Montgomery | November 22, 2019

green corn field under sunrise
Photo by AK¥N Cakiner on Unsplash

“Some will say, ‘This sounds like socialism!’ I’m reminded of the words of historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan, ‘Do not, by the way, let anyone tell you that is Liberalism, Socialism, or Communism. It is, if you need an -ism, . . . Enoughism . . . Enoughism would be a more accurate description.’”


This passage in Luke has been on my mind this week:

“‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’” (Luke 18:29, 30)

Many Christians today read these words and hear Jesus saying that if we give up something for Christianity, we will somehow have more materially in this life than we could possibly imagine. This has led some to embrace what others have labeled a “prosperity gospel”: if someone follows Jesus and becomes a Christians they will have the best life now. I believe these interpretations are mistaken.

First, this passage is not about embracing Jesus in name. Nor is it about things, including religions, that have Jesus’ name attached to them. In Luke, Jesus’s gospel is about embracing “the kingdom,” Jesus’s vision for human society. This was a human community founded on the golden rule and love of others as connected and part of oneself. It also involved material, distributive justice, wealth redistribution, and mutual aid or resource-sharing. This society’s members committed to care for one another, to make sure everyone had what they needed to thrive.

This passage is not a magic formula: sending a TV preacher money does not mean that you will be materially successful. Jesus’s assurance is that if following Jesus’ vision for human community causes one to lose privilege, power, security, and family affirmation, then the intrinsic return of belonging to a society rooted in love and caring cooperation rather than survivalist competition is distributive justice. No one has too much while others don’t have enough, and we all gain a better human society or community.

It may be helpful to look at Mark’s record of these words:

“Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.’” (Mark 10:29,30, emphasis added.)

Did you catch it?

“Along with persecutions!”

This isn’t a promise that the road to the equitable society Jesus imagined will be smooth, but that the end quality of community we’re creating is worth the struggle and difficulty to get there. Whenever we begin to critique the status quo, those who benefit from wealth, power and privilege inequalities will fight back. Those who mistakenly feel they have the most to lose will be the most threatened. At the end of the beatitudes in Matthew where Jesus calls us to envision what human society could look like, he encourages those who reach out to begin shaping these communities with the words:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 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.” (Matthew 5:10-11)

Consider how the book of Acts describes the early Jesus community beginning to take shape:

“All the believers were together and HAD EVERYTHING IN COMMON. They sold property and possessions TO GIVE TO ANYONE WHO HAD NEED. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They BROKE BREAD IN THEIR HOMES AND ATE TOGETHER with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:44-47)

Jesus’s followers formed tightly knit communities where people took care of each other. If someone suffered great material or relational losses for following Jesus, they became part of a community that cared for them in this life.

This is hard for many today to visualize because our culture is so individualistic. First-Century followers of Jesus held all things in common. If someone suffered loss for following Jesus, within their own Jesus community they would be cared for.

It is vital that we break out of our individualism to see this.

Consider these words from Matthew:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19-20)

If we remain individualistic in our thinking and living, taking care of ourselves is a matter of survival. What if we were to actually begin to create communities where we committed to taking care of each other? Our current means of surviving would become obsolete.

Some will say, “This sounds like socialism!”

I’m reminded of the words of historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan:

“Do not, by the way, let anyone tell you that is Liberalism, Socialism, or Communism. It is—if you need an -ism—Godism, Householdism or, best of all, Enoughism. We sometimes name that biblical vision of God’s World-Household as Egalitarianism but, actually, Enoughism would be a more accurate description.” (The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, p. 3)

It would also be wise to remember Paul’s words to the Corinthian church:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be EQUALITY. At the present time, your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. THE GOAL IS EQUALITY, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15, emphasis added.)

Helping someone pushed to the edges of society today means creating the type of world I’d prefer to live in for tomorrow. I agree with Gareth Higgins and Brian McLaren who recently wrote, “Most of us would rather not live in a kill-or-be-killed world, an enslave-or-be-enslaved world, a dominate-or-be-dominated world, an impoverish-or-be-impoverished world. If we had the chance to build a live-and-let-live world, a world of generosity and justice and neighborliness where we do to others as we’d have them do to us . . . we would gladly choose that option . . . A less violent future is available. It’s within reach.” (The Seventh Story: Us, Them, & the End of Violence, p. 61)

Stop for a moment and dream with me. What would a society shaped by “enoughism” look like? Would a few have more than they could ever need while a majority of others barely scratch out enough to exist? What would a world where everyone has enough to thrive be like? What would most of our collective resources or taxes be spent on? How would we choose to use our personal resources? How would power and responsibility be distributed, and how would we structure our communities?

Where we can begin today is creating communities where we abandon staunch, individualistic survival and begin viewing each other, with our differences, as connected, as part of one another. We aren’t simply passing through. Another world is possible, here and now, if we choose it.

I’ll end with these words from James Robinson in his classic volume The Gospel of Jesus: A Historical Search for the Original Good News:

“[Jesus’] basic issue, still basic today, is that most people have solved the human dilemma for themselves at the expense of everyone else, putting them down so as to stay afloat themselves. This vicious, antisocial way of coping with the necessities of life only escalates the dilemma for the rest of society. All of us know the result all too well, for we have experienced it ourselves in one form or another: the breakdown of mutually supportive human relations that results in the distinction between the haves and have-nots; the ruling class subjugating serfs, sharecroppers, and blue-collar workers; the battle of the sexes; dictatorships of one kind or the other; exploitation in the workplace; and on and on.” (Kindle Locations 138-142)

The world we live in presently doesn’t have to look the way it does.

We can do better.

We may not be able to change the entire world overnight, but we can, right now, today, and in our lives, begin with displaying the beauty of what a world shaped by Jesus’ teachings could look like.

And in the end, isn’t the world of “enough” the kind of world we really want?

HeartGroup Application

  1. Discuss with your group the difference between equality and equity. If this is a new discussion for you, a quick Google search will give you plenty of places to start. Why is it that in our striving for equitable equality some folks must be treated with a preferential option or differently than others?
  2. How does this difference impact your personal life in how you relate to others who may also be less privileged or marginalized?
  3. Does this difference also impact the way your HeartGroup is structured and operates? How does this impact how your HeartGroup relates to your larger community and society?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative, and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

And don’t forget, all donations for the months of November and December are being matched dollar for dollar. Through this generous offer, you can make your support go twice as far during these final two months of 2019. Also, we’d like you to consider becoming one of our monthly supporters through our Shared Table fundraiser going on right now. You can find out more about this special offer to our supporters by going to renewedheartministries.com.

I love each of you dearly.

Have a wonderful weekend.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence (Part 10)

Herb Montgomery | October 11, 2019

mountains during golden hour

Photo by Jonny McKenna on Unsplash


“Jesus’ form of nonviolence was an act of self-affirmation in a society where one’s self was already being sacrificed. When we interpret nonviolence as self-sacrifice, irreparable harm, even lethal harm, is done to those who survive and those who are victims of violation.”


Thank you for journeying with us through this series on self-affirming, nonviolent resistance. This is our tenth and final installment. Leaving the objections we’ve addressed, I want to wrap up our time together by summarizing what we’ve learned. I believe that understanding the Jesus of the gospels as teaching self-affirming, nonviolent resistance is a life-giving interpretation.

Let’s begin by summarizing nonviolence itself.

Nonviolence

In Jesus’ vision for social change (what the gospel authors refer to as “the kingdom”), Jesus had certain options. He had seen the results of both violent and nonviolent resistance to Roman oppression. As he weighed the success and failure rates of both approaches, Jesus rejected violence. As the late Walter Wink reminds us:

“The issue, however, is not just which [violence or nonviolence] works better, but also which fails better. While a nonviolent strategy also does not always “work” in terms of preset goals-though though in another sense it always “works”—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe.” (Walter Wink. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Facets, Kindle Locations 316-318).

Also, the social goals that Jesus was endeavoring to plant the seeds for in his own community cannot be achieved through violence: “Violence can beget fear, stalemate, annihilation, dominance, or more violence, but it cannot beget love, justice, abundant life, community, or peace.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Parker; Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 13)

Others have also recognized the impossibility of using means that contradict the ends we are trying to achieve. As Audre Lorde wrote:

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, p. 112)

The 1st Century Judea and Galilee had both seen violent and nonviolent acts of resistance. Jesus’ gospel was not only a gospel of liberation but also one of surviving and being able to achieve a quality of life once that liberation was accomplished. What good is liberation if your entire people and culture and way of life are wiped out in the process?

Jesus’ supreme value was not simply the rejection of violence but, more, the goal of arriving at a just society. Correcting the societal roots of systemic injustice was his passion. This is important. If rejecting violence is your highest moral goal, and justice is secondary, this has too often led to a passive response to injustice rather than acts of resistance and nonviolent noncooperation.

“Violence is not an absolute evil to be avoided at all costs. It is not even the main problem, but only the presenting symptom of an unjust society. And peace is not the highest good; it is rather the outcome of a just social order.” (Walter Wink. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Facets; Kindle Locations 493-495).

Lastly, nonviolence is rooted in the value of maintaining a love for one’s enemy. Love for one’s enemy should not be interpreted as accepting enemies’ behavior, actions, or choices. Love of enemy is the choice to hold on to your enemy’s humanity. As human beings, we are all still part of one another. We still belong to each other. Nonviolence enables us to find a balance where we stop or obstruct our enemy’s actions but remain characteristically unlike our enemies in our methods. Love of one’s enemy also holds space for and adds pressure towards our enemies making better decisions than they are presently making:

“With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand, I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised outstretched – maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not – but always outstretched . . . With this hand, we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’” (Barbara Deming, Revolution & Equilibrium, page 224)

Resistance

As we covered in Part 4, Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence were rooted in an attempt to provide nonviolent forms of protest, noncooperation, and resistance to injustice, both personal and systemic. Culturally, turning the cheek was a refusal to accept one’s marginalized or lower social class position and treatment. Handing over your remaining article of clothing was using public nudity as a form of protest, and going the second mile was a refusal to play by the rules of one’s oppressors. Today, ignoring tone-policing or respectability politics is a similar refusal to play by the rules of an unjust status quo.

Self-Affirming

Finally, Jesus’ form of nonviolence was an act of self-affirmation in a society where one’s self was already being sacrificed. When we interpret nonviolence as self-sacrifice, irreparable harm, even lethal harm, is done to those who survive and those who are victims of violation. As we’ve said, defining Jesus’ nonviolence as self-sacrificial is rooted in interpreting Jesus’ cross as an act of self-sacrifice, as a submission to death rather than a defiant refusal to let go of life.

Remember, those in positions of power and privilege use both metaphorical and literal crosses to keep those who are being violated silent. Jesus taught us not to remain silent, but to speak our truth even if threatened with a cross. Far from being passive or submissive, Jesus’ call to take up the cross was the call to join him in self-affirming resistance to injustice regardless of dire threats. Again, to quote Brown and Parker:

“It is not the acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (Brown & Parker, Patriarchy, Christianity and Abuse, p. 18)

Jesus’ cheek defiance, naked protest, and refusal to play by the rules of oppressors were not self-sacrificial, but a means of reclaiming and affirming one’s humanity when those in power ignored or denied it.

Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence should not be interpreted as self-sacrifice but as self-affirmation in the face of violence.

Over the last ten installments, I’ve shared my belief that Jesus’ form of nonviolence is much more life-giving when we interpret it as self-affirming, nonviolent resistance. Thank you to each of you who read, listened, wrote in, or commented online about how this series was making a difference for you. I’m so glad you have been here.

We must allow more destructive interpretations of Jesus to give way to more life-giving interpretations. This I believe is in harmony with the spirit of his life and teachings. The movement born out of his life once gave hope to the most marginalized and discarded of his society. May all those who take his name today reject violence, including the violent forms of religiosity that have been created in his name. May we work toward healing and reparations for all those whom certain strands of Christianity have harmed.

Jesus taught the rejection of violence.

Jesus taught self-affirmation for the marginalized.

Jesus taught resistance for those whose humanity was being violated.

May those who follow this Jewish Galilean prophet of the poor today do the same.

HeartGroup Application

Share with your group how this series has affirmed, challenged, or deepened how you presently follow Jesus.
Are there any new practices that this series has brought to your attention that you are implementing in how you live out the ethics of love, justice, and compassion? Share with your group.
How has your HeartGroup itself grown in its collective understanding of nonviolence? Has it changed even some of the ways you communicate with each other?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action, and reparative and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Don’t forget, we need your support here at RHM to continue making a difference. To do so, go to renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate.”

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Social Sins, Social Justice, and the Jesus Stories

Herb Montgomery | April 19, 2019

Photo credit: Jason Betz on Unsplash

“Understood in this light, Jesus’ story offers rich fields for exploration and discovery as we learn to hear a gospel that calls us not to simply be ‘a good person,’  but also to stop shaping, maintaining, enforcing and benefiting from socially sinful systems. The gospel stories call us to follow this social Jesus . . .”


“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice [social justice] through to victory.” (Matthew 12:20)

Last week we compared the social focus of Jesus’ kingdom theme with the private, personal gospel that characterizes much of Christianity today. Preparing for Palm Sunday last week, I ran across this statement from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan on how Jesus rebuked the social elite in his day: “The issue is not their individual virtue or wickedness, but the role they played in the domination system. They shaped it, enforced it. and benefited from it.” (The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, p. 22)

Jesus’ life and teachings do far more than save us from personal sins. They also provide an alternative social path that addresses social sins and so provides social salvation. In the words of Walter Rauschenbusch, “If our theology is silent on social salvation, we compel [people], to choose between an unsocial system of theology and an irreligious system of social salvation.” (A Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 7).

Consider how each of the gospels begins, not by emphasizing a person’s personal salvation from their private/public individual sins, but by emphasizing Jesus as a catalyst for addressing social sins and social change.

Let’s look at each of the synoptic gospels beginning with Mark.

Mark

In Mark, the Jesus story begins with Jesus calling fishermen to a different kind of fishing.

“As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” Mark 1:16-17

Ched Myers’ work reveals that, although evangelical Christians have largely interpreted this saying to be about saving individual souls for heaven after they die, a look at the Jewish prophetic tradition suggests that this language would have had a much different implication and meaning in Jesus’ 1st Century Jewish culture.

“An apt paraphrase of Jesus’ invitation is: “Follow me and I will show you how to catch the Big Fish!” (1:17). In the Hebrew Bible, the metaphor of “people like fish” appears in prophetic censures of apostate Israel and of the rich and powerful: “I am now sending for many fishermen, says God, and they shall catch [the people of Israel]…” (Jeremiah 16:16) “The time is surely coming upon you when they shall take you away with fishhooks…” (Amos 4:2) “Thus says God: I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt…. I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your channels stick to your scales…” (Ezekiel 29:3f) Jesus is, in other words, summoning working folk to join him in overturning the structures of power and privilege in the world!” (in Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 10, emphasis mine.)

From the very beginning, then, Mark’s Jesus is focused on overturning tables: overturning social structures of power and privilege. Mark’s gospel is a social gospel.

Matthew 

To the best of our knowledge, Matthew’s gospel was the first gospel to begin with a birth narrative about Jesus. It’s remarkable to me that Matthew seems to have been shaping his birth narratives about Jesus based on popular midrashim about the birth of Moses. (See Borg and Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth. United States, HarperOne, 2009.) If this is true, thenMatthew was painting Jesus to be a new Moses: not a replacement for Moses, but one who stood in the Jewish prophetic lineage of Moses. The images of Moses that Matthew chose to emulate in his Jesus story were those related to themes of liberation from the oppressive domination of Egypt. Again, the liberation in Exodus is not a concern for individual Israelite’s personal salvation without a changed their social situation, but for the social liberation or social salvation of the community as a whole as the Exodus narrative states:

“Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’” (Exodus 5:1)

Characterizing Jesus’ work as similar to Moses’, Matthew points to a social understanding of Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus addresses the social sins of his own time and place and offers an alternative path for his Jewish society. The social liberation characterizing Jesus’ teaching from the very beginning of Matthew’s gospel (See Matthew 5) lays the foundation to understand everything that is to follow in the stories. Including the social liberation found in Jewish folk stories of the Exodus from the very beginning of Matthew’s telling is purposeful for Matthew. Like Mark, Matthew’s gospel is first and foremost a social gospel announcing social salvation. Any personal or private view of salvation in Matthew only adds to this foundation.

Luke

If Mark and Matthew have a social emphasis, Luke does even more so. At the beginning of Luke’s gospel that we read Mary’s Magnificat:

“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:51-55)

This is not a prayer/proclamation of personal change for individuals within a society that is left untouched. These words communicate society-wide change from the bottom up and the outside in. 

Just three chapters later, when Luke has Jesus begin his teaching ministry in a synagogue near Nazareth, Jesus finds these words in the scroll of Isaiah to read:

“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 4:18-19) 

Out of all the passages in the Hebrew scriptures the author of Luke’s gospel could have chosen to summarize Jesus’ ministry, the choice of these words from Isaiah helps us to understand the entirety of the rest of Luke’s gospel. This is the story of an itinerant Jewish teacher, a prophet of the poor from Galilee, calling out social sins, and offering a path of social salvation, social reparations, and social redemption. (See Luke 6.)

In the early 20th Century, the Social Gospel movement recaptured attention for these larger social themes in the gospels. In the 60s and 70s in both North and South America, liberation theologians adopted a more global context and focused on those who faced oppression and exploitation across each continent as a result of the gospel’s social themes.  

During that same time, Black Liberation theologians took these social themes in the gospels seriously, as well, and from their context called White Christians to take action in the context of white supremacy and racial justice. 

Today, some contemporary feminist and womanist Christians also see deep harmony between this social emphasis in the Jesus story and their work today of survival and liberation. This vision encourages them as they strive for social change. 

Today, too, many LGBTQ Christians find a wellspring of wisdom in the gospels’ emphasis on social salvation from social sins, and that wisdom keeps them going as they work toward inclusion and equality in their faith communities and the wider secular society.

The call to hear the gospel stories as naming social sins and systemic injustice is being heard in our time. Today, the gospel stories tell of a Jesus whose teachings and solidarity with the oppressed in his day led him to the political demonstration we now call “the triumphal entry” (which many Christians today religiously and ritually celebrated last weekend). Jesus publicly demonstrated and overturned tables, he cried out for social change and social salvation. And that call is being heard more and more.

Understood in this light, Jesus’ story off ers rich fields for exploration and discovery as we learn to hear a gospel that calls us not to simply be “a good person,” but also to stop shaping, maintaining, enforcing and benefiting from socially sinful systems. The gospel stories call us to follow this social Jesus, as we, too, in the words of Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, refuse “to be consoled until the justice that is God’s is made real in the world.” (Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 229)

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice [social justice] through to victory.” (Matthew 12:20)

HeartGroup Application

Last weekend to get a JFE Podcast Tee.

This past month we have been offering our listeners this special, premium t-shirt as a way of supporting the JFE podcast, showing others you’re a fan of our podcast, and helping to spread the word so others can enjoy each episode as well. The availability for these ends this Monday , April 22.

Don’t miss out on these!

Get yours today for only $24.99!

Go to: https://www.bonfire.com/love-and-justice-tee/

You’ll receive your JFE Podcast Tee the first part of May.

Thanks for supporting our work of participating in making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

I’m so glad you are here.  

Today, right where you are, choose love. Choose compassion, take action and seek the path of distributive justice we find in the teachings of Jesus. 

Another world is possible.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

A Social Jesus

Herb Montgomery | April 12, 2018

picture of man standing before a wall with "Jesus" graffitied behind him.
Photo Credit: Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

“Today, sectors of Christianity that only teach a personal Jesus deeply need a reintroduction to the gospels’ social Jesus. They need to rediscover and understand social salvation contrasted with personal salvation. They need a gospel that impacts the here and now and that isn’t just about the premium they must pay in this life to get a post-mortem fire insurance policy.”


“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15)

“Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?” he shouted at me. I was at the grocery store one evening trying to grab some missing ingredients for dinner. As I left the store I passed a table on the way to the parking lot. There, a group of Christians sat or stood behind the table, trying raising money for their organization. 

I politely smiled in his direction and said, “No thank you.” I was still walking as I heard him call out, “If you die on the way home do you know for sure where you’ll end up next?”

I couldn’t believe there were still Christians who talked like this, with these well-worn phrases as conversation starters. But again, this is Appalachia and as someone born and having grown up here, if you can still find this kind of talk anywhere, you can find it here.

This month at RHM, we are featuring Walter Rauschebusch’s classic work A Theology for the Social Gospel as April’s book of the month. One of the things I appreciate about the early 20th Century Social Gospel movement is that it drew attention to Jesus’ vision for social salvation, not individual, private, personal salvation.

I recently posted this quotation from Rauschenbusch on Facebook: “If our theology is silent on social salvation, we compel [people] to choose between an unsocial system of theology and an irreligious system of social salvation” (Ibid. p. 7). Immediately one person asked, “What is social salvation?” This question reveals more than it asks. 

Firstly, contemporary, privatized, and individually focused forms of Christianity focus their adherents so much on personal salvation and Jesus as a “personal Savior” from post-mortem punishment that those who only encounter this kind of Christianity may have never even heard of the social salvation described in the gospels. 

Seeing Jesus as a social savior is the oldest Christian message. It can be argued that interpreting Jesus as a personal savior, an individual savior, or a private savior is a later interpretive addition not found until Christianity became populated with middle- to upper-class people centered in their culture. 

Secondly, how nice it must be to belong to a social class that’s so privileged that it doesn’t even know what social salvation is, much less imagine it needs it. Countless people face discrimination, marginalization, and exclusion each day and don’t need a textbook definition for the phrase “social salvation” because they know the system all too well. They know what it is to need salvation from societal and social injustice and oppression.

Let’s dive in.

Kingdom

Each author of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke-Acts) place the theme of “the kingdom” at the center of their stories about Jesus.

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15)

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

“But he said, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’” (Luke 4:43)

“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)

“He proclaimed thekingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:31)

I have my own theories about why the author of Acts ties Paul’s teaching to Jesus’ “kingdom” but the fact is that the Kingdom is the focus in the gospels and Paul must come to be associated with it in the book of Acts. Nowhere in the book of Acts is the goal to escape postmortem hell or enter into a cosmic heaven. The coming kingdom is the central theme.

The kingdom theme in the gospel stories served a twofold purpose: it hearkened back to the Maccabean era of hope in restored Jewish independence and it contrasted with the Roman empire (see Daniel 7). Matthew’s use of kingdom is more in line with the first purpose, and Luke’s is more about the second. Mark’s use can be argued to be a hybrid of both. Neither view of kingdom was about saving individuals. Instead they were about restoring distributive justice for a whole community, including all the individuals that made the community. The hope of the kingdom went beyond the personal to the social: it was about social salvation.

Gospel

In the canonized Jesus stories we have today, the term gospel meant the announcement of the coming of this kingdom. It’s important to note that the term “gospel” or “glad tidings” was originally a political term, not a religious one. The Roman empire used it to refer to announcements made when the empire annexed a new territory. The gospel was public announcement, or tidings, of the newly arrived rule of Rome. So the word “gospel” itself was not about privatized, individual, personal change but rather a fundamental social change.

Here are three examples that we have still today of contemporary, secular uses of the term gospel in the 1st Century.

“Even after the battle at Mantinea, which Thucydides has described, the one who first announced the victory had no other reward for his glad tidings [euangelion-gospel] than a piece of meat sent by the magistrates from the public mess” (Plutarch, Agesilaus, p. 33, 1st Century).

“Accordingly, when [Aristodemus] had come near, he stretched out his hand and cried with a loud voice: ‘Hail, King Antigonus, we have conquered Ptolemy in a sea-fight, and now hold Cyprus, with 12,800 soldiers as prisoners of war.’ To this, Antigonus replied: ‘Hail to thee also, by Heaven! but for torturing us in this way, thou shalt undergo punishment; the reward for thy good tidings [euangelion-gospel] thou shalt be some time in getting’” (Plutarch, Demetrius, p. 17, 1st Century).

“Why, as we are told, the Spartans merely sent meat from the public commons

to the man who brought glad tidings [euangelion-gospel] of the victory in Mantineia which Thucydides describes! And indeed the compilers of histories are, as it were, reporters of great exploits who are gifted with the faculty of felicitous speech, and achieve success in their writing through the beauty and force of their narration; and to them those who first encountered and recorded the events [εὐαγγέλιον– euangelion] are indebted for a pleasing retelling of them” (Plutarch, Moralia (Glory of Athens), p. 347, 1st Century).

The phrase “glad tidings/gospel of the kingdom” as the gospels’ authors used it was a way to signal that Jesus and his teachings held a new vision for structuring society. Those who were last in the present arrangement would now be first. Those being marginalized were to be included and centered. Those who were hungry and thirsted for a distributive, social righteousness would be filled (see Matthew 5 and Luke 6). The authors of the Jesus story used “gospel” to mean a change in society or human community that went beyond mere personal nor private change. It was about social change here, social change now. 

Eternal Life

Even when we consider the way eternal life was framed in the gospel stories, an argument can be made that even eternal life is not private, personal, or individual, but communal and social. Eternal life meant the continuance of a community as a whole, not merely continuance for individuals within that community. The path Jesus was pointing toward is a path by which the human race can continue, a path that leads to life rather than extinction for our race and not simply life for individual humans. Eternal life is about having our quality of life rooted in what Parker and Brock call an “ethical grace” lived here on earth, a path of living differently as a society today, here, now. 

“The Gospel defines three dimensions of this eternal life: knowing God; receiving the one sent by God to proclaim abundant life to all; and loving each other as he had loved them. Eternal life, in all three meanings, relates to how life is lived on earth. The concrete acts of care Jesus has shown his disciples are the key to eternal life. By following his example of love, the disciples enter eternal life now. Eternal life is thus much more than a hope for postmortem life: it is earthly existence grounded in ethical grace.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 22)

Death by Crucifixion

Lastly, people don’t get jailed (like John the Baptist) and don’t get crucified (like Jesus) for teaching personal, private, post-mortem salvation. They get in trouble, as we saw last week, when they call out social injustice and call for social change, societal reparations, social redemption, and social salvation. Private change threatens no one, but social change threatens those privileged in the present way of organizing society who would have much to lose if the status quo changed.

Today, sectors of Christianity that only teach a personal Jesus deeply need a reintroduction to the gospels’ social Jesus. They need to rediscover and understand social salvation contrasted with personal salvation. They need a gospel that impacts the here and now and that isn’t just about the premium they must pay in this life to get a post-mortem fire insurance policy. 

There is a need to understand how the life modeled and teachings taught by Jesus have the potential to socially save. They aren’t a myth of redemptive violence and suffering that saves us from divine satisfaction. We can be deeply revived by following the teachings of Jesus, and not merely mentally assenting or believing story details about him. We need a gospel that recaptures the story truth of a resurrection, and not endless gospels that only offer people a cross.

It is to this end that we’ll be turning our attention over the next few weeks. I’m so glad you’re with us on this journey. 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15)


Heart Group Application

From now through April 22, we’re offering our listeners and readers this special, premium t-shirt to support our work, show others you’re a fan of our podcast, and help spread the word so others can enjoy each episode as well.

Don’t miss out on these! They’ll only be available for a limited time.

Get yours today for only $24.99 and support the JFE Podcast in making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone.

Go to:

https://www.bonfire.com/love-and-justice-tee/

All Tees will be shipped out the beginning of May.

Get Your JFE Podcast Tee Today!

Thank you for checking in with us this week.  I’m so glad you did. 

Wherever you are today, choose love, choose compassion, take action and seek justice. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Lightening the Burden of Others

Herb Montgomery | December 21, 2018


“This Christmas, we may not all have someone whose economic debt we can cancel. But are there other types of forgiveness we could embrace? Are there reparations for past wrongs we still need to make? Does someone else’s peace and reconciliation depend on my apology? Can I participate in restoring Jesus’ distributive justice, especially for the marginalized?”


“To give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven.” (Luke 1:77-78)

Since I was young, my all-time favorite Christmas story has been Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I don’t think it’s really possible for me to even get into the festive spirit every year without partaking of this story in some form. 

This year, I sat down with my younger daughter to watch the film The Man Who Invented Christmas. I wanted to see it last year when it came out, but we live in such a small town that it never screened at our local theater. When I was finally able to watch it at home, I loved it. In the movie, one line from Dickens comes when Charles’ father reminds him, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of another.” I love the transformation of Scrooge in the story where he learns this lesson.

I hope this is how I will be remembered when my time here is up: as one who lightened burdens. But why should we stop at lightening burdens? Many burdens are made and could be eliminated entirely! This line in the film made me think about similar words from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus says:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

The Gospels’ Christmas stories are rooted in liberating people from the weariness and burden-bearing that any form of oppression places on them. This teaching is in every gospel. In Luke’s gospel, for example, we read of Zechariah who speaks prophetically of John the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus. According to Zechariah, John’s role would be:

“To give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven.” (Luke 1:77-78)

There is an order here that struck me. First, “salvation” here could just as easily be translated as “liberation.” “Salvation” was not a preoccupation with an afterlife.  Salvation in first century Jewish culture was much more about participating in making this world a better place in the here and now. Many of the Jewish people in Jesus’ day longed to be liberated from Roman occupation and oppression, and they tied this liberation to the idea of forgiveness. As we covered last week, the Hebrew concept of Divine forgiveness included collective forgiveness for the social sins of injustice and exploitation of the vulnerable. This forgiveness was not privatized, and not about individuals and their personal morality. Some believed these social wrongs explained their repeated occupation by Gentile Empires: foreign occupation was seen as a punishment that would end when the people had made reparations for collective wrongs and Divine forgiveness resulted. Liberation would result from “the tender mercy of our God” forgiving social exploitation. 

Please notice the order here. Forgiveness would not result from Divine wrath being appeased by a violent death on a cross. An already existing mercy in the heart of the Divine is the cause of the forgiveness. Following this, humans who chose to mirror this forgiveness toward one another would then be participating in a wealth redistribution (debt cancellation) toward shaping a distributive justice society which would include those who were previously being marginalized. 

In the gospels, when forgiveness isn’t from the Divine to humans but between humans, the concept has an economic context. (See A Prayer for Debts Cancelled.) Forgiveness wasn’t initially about people facing oppression unconditionally forgiving their oppressors. Instead the call to forgiveness was originally aimed at the economic elite, and meant a Jubilee-like cancelling of debts. It was a cry for the privileged and powerful to forgive all debts on behalf of those living under debt burdens. Talk about lightening the burdens of another. What would your life be like if every one of your debts were forgiven in one day?

Human-to-human debt forgiveness was to be rooted in the already-existing forgiveness in the heart of the Divine, the One whose heart was already full of mercy. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus explains it like this:

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35)

Notice that the original forgiveness was rooted in the creditor’s tender mercy. When the debtor could not pay, the creditor simply forgave the debt. There were no conditions and no contingencies. Initial forgiveness should have awakened a spirit of forgiveness in the debtor. Just as the saying goes that hurt people hurt people, forgiven people should forgive people. 

But that’s not how Jesus’ story goes. The debtor in the story didn’t internalize the lesson and becoming more forgiving. Instead, he turned to his own debtors and exacted payment. His own forgiveness had no conditions but was given freely in mercy. But if the forgiven person failed to internalize the ethics of forgiveness and apply them to how they related to others, they would forfeit the forgiveness so freely given to them. There was no contingency in obtaining freely given forgiveness. But there was a condition for keeping the freely given forgiveness. One could lose liberating forgiveness if they failed to forgive toward their own debtors.

It’s also very important to note that Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness included reparations. Those who followed him would not only forgive debts, but also offer reparations for past exploitations. Consider the story of the wealthy tax collector, Zacchaeus. 

“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’ But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’” (Luke 19:7-8)

Forgiveness in Jesus’ paradigm was not individualistic freedom from condemnation, but liberation from debt, reparation for exploitation, and yes, letting go of past abuses in the context of those reparations. To call for reconciliation without liberation or reparation is to perpetuate injustice, violence, and oppression. Peace and reconciliation are to be the fruit of forgiveness and also the fruit of justice restored and reparations made. Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness included all of these elements.

A community initiative was to set in motion a change in the world: the forgiven were to become forgiving.

All of this is implied in our text this week:

“To give his people the knowledge of salvation [or liberation] through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven.” (Luke 1:77-78)

The myth of redemptive suffering destructively teaches that Jesus’ cross makes possible the forgiveness of God, but this text teaches the opposite. Knowing salvation or liberation was to come from forgiveness rooted not in a violent death, but in an already existing tender mercy in the heart of God. God’s mercy, leading to forgiveness, leading to liberation from oppression and transforming people becoming a collectively just and safe society would be like the rising of the sun on a brand new day. It would bring new life and a new hope. It would be a dayspring to us from heaven. 

This language harks back to Jeremiah’s words in Lamentations:

“Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22)

Discussions on forgiveness today are almost always directed toward survivors, calling for them to give even more. But in the Jesus story, forgiveness was initiated by a wealthy creditor or oppressor toward those in their debt. These types of debt cancellations have been more common throughout history then you might guess. An especially insightful and relevant article was written by Mehreen Khan back in 2015 explains this history. I would encourage everyone to contemplate it: The biggest debt write-offs in the history of the world. In it Khan rightly states:

“Loans were less a way to make money than they were a means to help one’s fellow man. Given that all worldly wealth and property belonged ultimately to God, a creditor’s rights over it were temporary rather than absolute.”

Khan goes on to speak about the ancient Babylonian practice of smashing debt tablets and modern European and other global examples. These examples are inspiring as we consider present and future possibilities for debt forgiveness. 

This Christmas, we may not all have someone whose economic debt we can cancel. But are there other types of forgiveness we could embrace? Are there reparations for past wrongs we still need to make? Does someone else’s peace and reconciliation depend on my apology? Can I participate in restoring Jesus’ distributive justice, especially for the marginalized?

Let’s keep the spirit of this festive time of year in these ways, and so set in motion a more beautiful world today and for tomorrow.

“To give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven.” (Luke 1:77-78)

     

HeartGroup Application

Last month, we asked our HeartGroups to participate in a show of love initiated by Auburn Seminary in New York toward the Tree of Life* Or L’Simcha Congregation.

I’m happy to share that this generated nearly 2,000 messages of love and support!  You can read these messages at: http://bit.ly/treeoflifethanks

Take a moment this week and together as a group read through some of these.

     

A Special Request

Also we would like to remind each of you our special request from you as the end of 2018 approaches.

Renewed Heart Ministries has been in existence for over a decade now, but over the last four years we have gone through transition. We have become a “welcoming and affirming” ministry. We have also become more intentional and passionate about the intersection of the teachings of Jesus in the gospels and our work today of love, compassion, action and justice in our larger society.  It’s been a time of rebirth and rebuilding here at RHM, and we believe we are a much healthier ministry with a much healthier focus, as a result. 

Yet these changes have not been without deep loss. We’re asking you to help us avoid a budget shortfall for 2018 and be able to plan for 2019. We have many projects in the works for next year that we would love to see come to fruition. We would love to be able to expand both our online presence, as well as the number of free, teaching seminars we conduct across the nation. An initial edit has also been completed for my upcoming book that will be a sequel to Finding the Father. The title for this new, second book will be Finding Jesus. We would love to see this manuscript be able to go through its final stages and go on to publication this next year.  

As many of you already know, to help RHM this year, a very generous donor has pledged to match all donations to this ministry for both this past November and this present December. 

If you have been blessed this year by RHM’s work, take a moment this holiday season and support our work.  

You can do so by going to our website at renewedheartministries.com and clicking “donate” or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
P.O. Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

If you would like your donation to be matched just make sure it’s postmarked by December 31.

Help us continue to grow this ministry in 2019 as we, together, follow Jesus more deeply in the healing work of love, compassion, action and justice for the marginalized.

Thank you in advance.

I love each of you, dearly.

There will not be an eSight next week due to the holidays.  

Merry Christmas and a happy new year!

We’ll see you in 2019.

Christmas and Liberation from Hate

by Herb Montgomery | December 14, 2018

Picture of snow with article title

“Beauty is about how different shapes, colors, lines, or objects are arranged together. Humanity is varied and richly diverse. We can hold our differences in relationships that are beautiful or in ways that are destructive. We have a choice . . . Let’s spend this holiday season choosing a world where one day, regardless of race, gender, class, creed, orientation, identification or expression, all may positively affirm they have been saved ‘from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.’”


“Salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” (Luke 1:71)

This month for RHM’s annual reading course, we have chosen Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker. In the section on the power that rituals of beauty have to shape us into more compassionate, safe and just people, the authors tell stories of witnessing the life-shaping quality of the Eucharist ritual. I was so moved when I read this passage that I want to share it with you this week.

“In the mid-1980s, a minister in a small Seattle church preached a sermon one Sunday morning about how Christians had once believed that the earth was flat, that women should be kept in their place, and that slavery was ordained by God. But they had been open to the leading of the Spirit of God. When that Spirit challenged traditional interpretations of the Bible, the church had been willing to listen to new ideas. Without openness to truth unfolding through the guidance of the Spirit, the church would become a relic and die. The minister said that the next truth facing the church was that homosexuality was not a sin, not wrong, but one of the many ways human beings loved each other. It was a gift, therefore, of God.

The elder assigned to give the first prayer at the Eucharist table that Sunday was a middle-age woman named Violet, who dyed her hair jet black and was very careful and conscientious about preparing for her church duties. She did not like surprises and left nothing to chance. She always wrote out her prayers ahead of time. As the minister preached, Violet’s face grew angrier and angrier. After the sermon, the congregation sat in shocked silence. Finally, the organist played the scheduled music, during which the elders came to the table. People stood and weakly warbled a hymn. When Violet rose for the hymn, it was not clear whether she would walk up to the chancel or out the rear door.

On the last verse, Violet strode angrily to the altar, a ball of paper in her right fist. As all sat and bowed their heads, she uncrumpled the paper and sputtered her prayer through clenched teeth, “Our heavenly Father, we come before your table this morning to give thanks for the gift of life you have given to us. In partaking of this bread, we are grateful for all it represents, both earthly and spiritual nourishment given to us. We affirm that no one is stranger or alien to you, that all are welcome. Just as you welcome everyone to this table, we too must welcome all who come in faith. For this food of life and for your presence with us at this table, we give eternal thanks. Amen.” After the elements were served and the elders returned to their seats, Violet did not sit down. She picked up her purse and coat and walked out the door.

Two months later, the church board responded to the controversies by voting to affirm the minister’s position. Those who wanted the minister fired left the church, and for the next few months, the church struggled to survive. Not all who remained were comfortable with what the minister had preached, but they chose to stay in their church and grapple with their faith. Slowly, the church grew as gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and parents of gays and lesbians found a welcoming community. The congregation took on the character of a community of people who had stayed at the table with each other, people who were committed to being together in their differences. A few months after the board vote, Violet returned to the church. When the service was over, she stopped on her way out to tell the minister that she had wrestled for a long time with her faith. She had finally decided that what she had written on that wad of paper and prayed to God over the Communion table was what she really believed. She did not understand homosexuals and was uncomfortable with them, but her faith required her to welcome them. As she settled back into church life, she began to ask for prayers for her alcoholic son, something she had never done before. She found herself supported by her pastor and others in the church. She seemed less tense and more open, as if something deep within her had relaxed a little. Members who had previously not much cared for Violet began to reach out to her and added her son to their prayer lists. Other members began to share their personal struggles with depression, fear, addiction, and failure. The community slowly knitted itself together through bonds of honesty about their lives and their willingness to care about each other as members of one diverse community. They became a welcoming community, gathered around the Eucharist table as members of one another. They embraced, with respect and honesty, the disagreements in their midst and their efforts to understand each other. In their willingness to be together in struggle, they achieved a greater openness to the diversity of the world in its heartbreaks and its goodness.”

(Brock and Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p.156-158)

As I’m re-reading portions of this volume, I’m also reading through the Christmas narratives in the gospels. The same morning that I read the story above, I was also reading the prayer of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, as written in Luke. I was struck by the juxtaposition of his prayer with the story in Saving Paradise. See if you catch the connections too:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:68-79, emphasis added.)

This passage speaks of redemption and salvation in terms of liberation. There is nothing in this prayer of being thankful for being saved from God or devils. Rather, this is a prayer of gratitude for humans being redeemed, saved, or liberated from other humans “who hate us.”

The Jewish people in Zechariah’s time were a subjugated and deeply marginalized people within the Roman empire. Their great hope was that their social injustice, exploitation of the poor, denial of justice toward the fatherless and widows, and mistreatment of the foreigners—all which many believe they were being punished for—would be forgiven and that they would be liberated from the empire oppressing them.

This is a very different vision of forgiveness and redemption than many Christians have today. Today forgiveness is typically privatized and about one’s individual, personal sins. Yet in Zechariah’s prayer, and in Violet’s prayer, we encounter the idea of a collective, shared forgiveness for shared, social sins. This echoes back to the collective forgiveness the Hebrew prophets spoke about. Here are a few examples from the prophet Jeremiah:       

“Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares.If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.” (Jeremiah 5:1, emphasis added.)

In Jeremiah’s opinion, this honesty and justice would not be found and empires would subjugate the nation. But he also saw a future hope: one day liberation would come.

“No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34, emphasis added.)

“I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me.” (Jeremiah 33:8, emphasis added.)

“Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I plan to inflict on them, they will turn from their wicked ways; then I will forgive their wickedness and their sin.” (Jeremiah 36:3, emphasis added.)

“‘In those days, at that time,’ declares the LORD, ‘search will be made for Israel’s guilt, but there will be none, and for the sins of Judah, but none will be found, for I will forgive the remnant I spare.’” (Jeremiah 50:20, emphasis added.)

You’ll find this hope for collective forgiveness and liberation in the other Hebrew prophets’ writings as well.

In Jesus’ teachings, the gospel authors perceived a set of values, ethics, and principles that had the potential to totally reshape human community, deconstructing societal domination and subjugation and replacing those harmful social forms for everyone with more egalitarian and distributively just forms of relating to one another. They saw in Jesus a path toward that liberation, even for those being marginalized in Jewish society. (see Matthew 11:19)

The gospel authors believed that not only would Jesus’ ethical teachings guide his fellow Jewish people’s feet into the way of peace, but that they could also guide gentile people’s feet into the way of peace as well. We could learn to stop fearing and hating one another for our differences. We would stop dominating and being subjugated by one another, and follow a path of love, compassion, mutual aid, resource sharing, wealth redistribution and taking care of one another instead. Jesus’ vision was one where everyone had enough and no one had too much while someone else went without. It was an inclusive vision of paradise on earth as it is in heaven and our world as a safe home for all.

As we read in the book of Isaiah,

“The fruit of that righteousness [or distributive justice] will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.” (Isaiah 32:7)

Today we still need saving from hate. We need saving from those who hate us and/or we need saving from hating someone else. Hatred can manifest as misogyny, racism, or classism. In the story I retold earlier, Violet was saved from her hatred of those born with a different sexual orientation than she was. Hatred can also manifest itself in hatred or fear of someone who practices another religion. (All religions nonetheless include a strand of adherents who seek to shape a nonviolent, compassionate, distributively just world.) And we are presently witnessing first-hand here in America our desperate need to be saved from some people’s deep hatred of “foreigners.”

Beauty is about how different shapes, colors, lines, or objects are arranged together.

Humanity is varied and richly diverse. We can hold our differences in relationships that are beautiful or in ways that are destructive. We have a choice.

I belong to a tradition that celebrates the holiday of Christmas each December. Whichever holiday your tradition celebrates this time of year, celebrate this festive season by participating in some kind of work to end the forms of hatred that we still need to be saved from.

For those who do celebrate Christmas, do so in the spirit of the Christmas carol O Holy Night, whichin the John Sullivan Dwight version reads,

“Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease”

Another world is possible.

Let’s spend this holiday season choosing a world where one day, regardless of race, gender, class, creed, orientation, identification or expression, all may positively affirm they have been saved “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” (Luke 1:71)

Happy Holidays to each of you.

A Special Request

This is the time of year when most nonprofits receive the majority of their annual contributions for the year.

Renewed Heart Ministries has been in existence for over a decade now, but over the last four years we have gone through transition. We have become a “welcoming and affirming” ministry. We have also become more intentional and passionate about the intersection of the teachings of Jesus in the gospels and our work today of love, compassion, action and justice in our larger society.  It’s been a time of rebirth and rebuilding here at RHM, and we believe we are a much healthier ministry with a much healthier focus, as a result. 

Yet these changes have not been without deep loss. We’re asking you to help us avoid a budget shortfall for 2018 and be able to plan for 2019. We have many projects in the works for next year that we would love to see come to fruition. We would love to be able to expand both our online presence, as well as the number of free, teaching seminars we conduct across the nation. An initial edit has also been completed for my upcoming book that will be a sequel to Finding the Father. The title for this new, second book will be Finding Jesus. We would love to see this manuscript be able to go through its final stages and go on to publication this next year.  

As many of you already know, to help RHM this year, a very generous donor has pledged to match all donations to this ministry for both this past November and this present December. 

If you have been blessed this year by RHM’s work, take a moment this holiday season and support our work.  

You can do so by going to our website at renewedheartministries.com and clicking “donate” or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries 
P.O. Box 1211 
Lewisburg, WV 24901

If you would like your donation to be matched just make sure it’s postmarked by December 31.

Help us continue to grow this ministry in 2019 as we, together, follow Jesus more deeply in the healing work of love, compassion, action and justice for the marginalized.

Thank you in advance.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

No Room In The Inn

Herb Montgomery | December 7, 2018


“In the Hebrew sacred text we read an ancient story of a town’s xenophobic refusal to show hospitality out of a desire to protect it’s own affluence from the threat of having to be shared with others . . . The laser beam of convicting story truth possessed in these ancient tales should rather be directed toward the kinds of actions being chosen on our southern border presently.”


 

“Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  (Luke 2. 4-7)

 

Last week, I witnessed many of my friends argue the wrongness of tear gassing women and children at the U.S.’s southern border.  I watched online as many of the people they attend church with argued the rightness of the U.S.’s actions as such.  I read thin arguments which did little to veil the bigotry from which those arguments flowed.  At the same time many of those arguments are being made by people who will put up nativities soon to celebrate the birth of their Jesus whom the Inn Keeper also turned away.  They will celebrate a narrative that also later speaks of Jesus as a child and his parents escaping violence in their own region to seek asylum in a foreign county. The irony this time is painful. The recent acts by the U.S. at it’s southern border not only should not be defended by Christians or any person of goodwill, the acts themselves are deeply inhumane.

“Tear gas has been outlawed as a method of warfare on the battlefield by almost every country in the world, that prohibition does not apply to domestic law enforcement officers using tear gas on their own citizens. The use of this chemical agent, which can cause physical injury, permanent disability and even death, is often excessive, indiscriminate and in violation of civil and human rights. Studies suggest that children are more vulnerable to severe injuries from chemical toxicity: Infants exposed to tear gas can develop severe pneumonitis and require weeks of hospitalization. Using it on a crowd of people who were exercising their right to seek asylum at an international border indeed violated human rights norms.” (See Tear gas should never have been used at the border. It doesn’t belong at protests, either.)

In the Hebrew sacred text we read an ancient story of a town’s xenophobic refusal to show hospitality out of a desire to protect it’s own affluence from the threat of having to be shared with others.  The city of Sodom was located in a coveted region because of its agricultural fertility. They, also as the U.S. is presently attempting, soon developed an effective strategy of terror to keep foreigners away.

For those familiar with the story, Lot, by contrast, saw the two foreigners in his town and invited them to his home for the evening to keep them safe, hoping to send them secretly send them on their way at the first light of dawn the next day. What happened that night was terrifying and intentional to send the message to all foreigners to stay away!

“The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.” “No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.” But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” (Genesis 19.1-5)

Typically, Christians use this story to marginalize those who are born with same sex attraction/orientation or same sex loving relationships.  I believe these interpretations miss the mark in a most destructive way for those who identify as LGBTQ. This story has nothing to do with sexual orientation and instead is about responding to strangers with violence, in this case sexual violence, in times where their lives depend on your welcome and hospitality. (See Judges 19:11-30; Ezekiel 16.49, see also “Rape of Menin Wartime Sexual Violence) In this story/culture male rape was intended to inflict the worst possible humiliation rooted in the social constructs of their ingrained, patriarchal gender roles. The laser beam of convicting story truth possessed in these ancient tales should rather be directed toward the kinds of actions being chosen on our southern border presently.  

The tradition of hospitality toward strangers is carried on by the Jewish followers of Jesus in the New Testament scriptures.  There we find the call to hospitality toward migrant strangers, too:

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13.2)

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus, too, names hospitality toward strangers as a mark of distinction between those who are genuinely following him and those who do so in name only.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” (Matthew 25.35)

Jesus here is standing in the Jewish, hospitality-to-strangers tradition of both the Torah and the Hebrew prophets. 

“When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.” (Deuteronomy 26.12, emphasis added.)

“When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.” (Deuteronomy 24.19-21, emphasis added.)

“At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” (Deuteronomy 14.28-29, emphasis added.)

“And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10.19, emphasis added.)

Today, many in the U.S. (not all) are participating in the same irony of being decedents of immigrants themselves, while participating in present day xenophobia toward contemporary immigrants, including those seeking asylum.  

“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”  Leviticus 19.34, emphasis added.)

Even the cherish Sabbath commandments include the foreigner. (As well as the problematic mention of those born slaves.):

“Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed.” (Exodus 23.12, emphasis added.)

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.”  (Exodus 23.9, emphasis added.)

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 22.21, emphasis added.)

“Do not oppress a foreigner.” (Exodus 23.9, emphasis added.)

“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner.” (Exodus 22.21, emphasis added.)

“’Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.’ Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’” (Deuteronomy 27:19, emphasis added.)

“Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.” (Deuteronomy 24:17, emphasis added.)

“YHWH defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:18, emphasis added.)

“The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice.”  (Ezekiel 22.29, emphasis added.)

Those who are presently migrating from Honduras are trying to escape a destabilized society that we created. The U.S. has a long history of destabilizing any society that leans toward either socialism or possesses resources we desire. These people are migrating away from a horrific societal state that we helped create. 

On top of this, we also have a long history creating immigration policies out of the intent of maintaining a White majority, a concern born from the myth of White supremacy. (Or rather, the Anglo-Saxon Mythology.) In Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglass’ book Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Dr. Douglass rightly shows how the same stand your ground values that lead to the murder of citizens of color (like Trevon Martin) is the same set of values that is at the heart of our racist immigration policies as well.  She quotes those in our history like President Theodor Roosevelt who “became so obsessed with the number of ‘new stock’ immigrants compared to the low birthrate of ‘old stock’ Anglo-Saxons that he feared ‘race suicide.’” And President Woodrow Willson who wrote “our Saxon habits of government” are threatened by the “corruption of foreign blood.”  In 1882, Henry Cabot Lodge, addressing the panic immigration was causing wrote, “The question of foreign immigration has of late engaged the most serious attention of the country, and in a constantly increasing degree. The race changes which have begun during the last decade among the immigrants to this country, the growth of the total immigration, and the effects of it upon . . . the quality of our citizenship, have excited much apprehension and aroused a very deep interest.”

Dr Douglass continues,

“In an article titled “Whose Country Is This?” President Calvin Coolidge provided a lengthy rationale for restrictive immigration laws. He argued that even though America was an immigrant nation, it could not allow sentimentality to get in the way of it accepting the ‘right kind’ of immigrant. He explained that it was in the nation’s best interest ‘to require of all those aliens who come here that they have a background not inconsistent with American institutions.’ By now we know, as Coolidge’s readers surely knew, that ‘American’ meant Anglo-Saxon. Coolidge made this clear when he said, ‘Such a background might consist either of a racial tradition or national experience.’ He went on to say that just as there was no room in the country for the importation of cheap goods, there was ‘no room either for cheap men.’ Thus, America was obliged ‘to maintain that citizenship at its best.’ This meant, for Coolidge, erecting some kind of quota system. He substantiated his bigotry with science. He said, ‘Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides . . . Observance of ethnic law is as great a necessity to a nation as immigration law.’ The argument put forth by President Coolidge reflected the longstanding fear that was sweeping across the country, one expressed by presidents before him. It was the fear that the Anglo-Saxon would be wiped out in America.

(From Brown, Kelly Brown Douglas,  Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God, pp. 29-30.)

Racist xenophobia is at the heart of what we are presently witnessing on the southern border of the United States. And yet we are about to celebrate a holiday centered around the narrative of a baby boy born in a dirty stable out back, because an inn keeper took one look at a poor man and his wife seated on a ragged donkey, strangers, and even though she was nine months pregnant, would not so much as give up his own bed to her for only one night, and instead looked at their state and inhospitably said, “We have no room.” Thank goodness he didn’t have any tear-gas.

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  (Luke 2.7)

HeartGroup Application

You don’t have to live on the southern border of the U.S. to welcome the stranger, include those who are marginalized, or provide community for those in need of a little love this holiday season.

1. Wherever your HeartGroup is located, wherever you meet, find was to practice hospitality this week.

2. Journal your experiences.

3. Next week, share what you’ve learned with your group. 

Thank you for checking in with us. We here at RHM are thankful to be journeying alongside you. 

And remember, right now we have an anonymous and very kind supporter who wants to extend the rare opportunity of matching each contribution made to support RHM’s work throughout the rest of  December, including all year-end contributions. As we approach the end of 2018, all contributions through December 31 are continuing to be matched. Help us reach our budget goals for 2018, avoiding a potential budget shortfall for this year, and be able to plan for 2019.

Yes, I want to help RHM’s work continue to grow.

We are beyond thankful for every one of you who support our work.

Right where you are, keep living in the beauty of love, compassion, action and justice. 

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week. 

Justice, Grace & Charity: Part 2

by Herb Montgomery | November 16, 2018

Fall leaves changing


“While we work toward a better world we must also be about mitigating the damage being done in this one. But do not think for a moment that if we have only offered charity to those this world makes hungry, poor, mournful, or last, we are done with our job of following Jesus. Jesus helped those who were suffering before him, yes. He also rode his donkey into the Temple, the symbolic heart of the Temple state to which he belonged, and disruptively overturned tables to protest the Temple’s economic exploitation of the poor. Christians today excel at charity. We are not so good at justice.”


“But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you.” (Luke 11:41)

My family and I were visiting the Atlantic coast for Crystal’s birthday. Though West Virginia is beautiful, Crystal’s first love is the ocean. We had gone out for a birthday dinner and were walking home with almost a whole pizza in a pizza box. My daughter told us that we didn’t need to keep the pizza and suggested we find someone on the street to share it with. She was speaking my language. While the rest of the family went back to the hotel, my daughter and I began walking down the strip to find someone to share some pizza with. 

We met a wonderfully kind homeless man named Jeff who loved pizza, and spent some time getting to know him, hearing his story. Then we parted ways and headed back to where we were staying. 

On our walk back to the hotel, my daughter asked, “Papa? Why do we have homeless people?” I explained that a very small amount of people choose to revolt against capitalism and conventions about how they should live, but the majority of homelessness is the result of people being on the losing side of capitalism. We then had a long talk about the economy, life, and the Parker Brother’s game Monopoly, and she rightly said, “We don’t need more pizza, we need a different game!”

As we walked, we discussed the difference between charity and justice. Charity does harm mitigation right now, but we must also be engaged with movements working for a world where charity is no longer needed. We talked about how charity can actually empower systemic injustice, although it’s still needed until something more just dismantles and replaces those systems. I shared with her Gene Robinson’s analogy of people drowning in a river: charity pulls people who are drowning out of the river, and is vital. Yet at some point someone has to walk upstream and ask who’s throwing all these people into the river to begin with.  And I would add to the analogy that once we diagnose who it is, stop them. 

We eventually arrived back at our hotel and I completely forgot about our talk. But a few months later, my daughter asked if we could drive about 6 hours east to Baltimore to stand alongside with those protesting the murder of Freddie Gray. During our weekend in Baltimore, we stood on the lawn outside of Baltimore City Hall. A woman came over to where we were standing, sizing up my daughter and I. My daughter was wearing a black t-shirt with white letters that said, “Black. Lives. Matter.” and she carried a sign that said the same. As we were two of the very few White people present, the woman addressed my daughter and very sweetly asked, “Young lady, what are you doing here?”

My daughter looked at me and then back at her. She responded, “Ms., we’re from West Virginia. We wanted to come stand with you today. This isn’t charity. This is about justice.” 

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells his listening audience:

“Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33, Revised English Bible)

In this verse, the Revised English Bible (REB) uses the phrase give to charity. The Greek phrase behind this text is didomi eleemosunen. It can mean giving alms, showing pity, having compassion, or beneficence to the poor.

Luke’s gospel describes Jesus talking to a religious leader who prioritized ritual or religious purity more than compassion toward the vulnerable and marginalized:

“But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” (Luke 11:41)

Charity was a core component of Jesus’ teaching. In the language of the Gospel authors, the Greek root of charity was the word we translate today into mercy. Jesus’s vision for a new world was one where the merciful are not only prioritized but also recipients of the merciful world they had shaped by their own mercy.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

In Matthew’s gospel and in a context where charity was used to further privilege, benefit the givers of charity, and possibly marginalize recipients of charity further, Jesus gave this instruction:

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:2)

The kind of mercy or charity Jesus taught was one where the recipients of the charity weren’t further marginalized or “sacrificed.” It was to steer clear of victim blaming and not condemn the poor. In a world where poverty was not the result of chance but rather a system that created few wealthy winners at the expense of the masses, Jesus said,

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7)

All of this leads me also to critique charity. Certainly there will always be a need for charity that lends a hand to those who are victims of calamity. But what about charity that is needed because of a system that places people in a position of need? Can we work toward a world where this kind of charity is no longer needed because we live in a world of distributive justice, one where no one has too much while others don’t have enough? 

Rebecca Ann Parker’s fantastic book Saving Paradise sheds light on how Rome included charity in its system of oppression:

“To stave off riots and resistance, Roman officials distributed wheat imported from Egypt, North Africa, and Asia throughout the empire. Shipments from the fertile Nile delta were so crucial to Rome that protection of them from piracy was a major function of its navy—the Mediterranean was commonly referred to as the “Roman Lake.” In the miracle of the bread and fish, large crowds flock to Jesus, hungry in spirit and body, and they depart filled. His act of feeding offered compassion for the needy, encouraged generosity for the good of all, even among those with little, and affirmed life abundant for everyone, regardless of status or need. This value system undermined the paternalism of Rome, which was built on an elite and powerful few having so much that they might scatter their largess, distributing 20 percent of their grain as a dole to the vast masses. The poor and powerless were expected to be grateful to the empire for acts of charity that maintained its domination. Jesus, on the other hand, belonged to the peasant class and working poor, and his relentless judgments against the rich and powerful revealed how injustice betrayed God’s desire for all to have abundant life. He challenged this paternalistic system by offering food blessed by heaven and not by Rome.” (pp. 32-33) 

Again, if someone needs help, by all means we should help them. But with our other hand we should be working on a world where economic domination systems have been dismantled. We can work toward a world characterized by an equity that minimizes the need for so much charity. As Marcus Borg used to say, and as my daughter understood, “The prophets didn’t call for charity. They called for justice.” 

“Moses and Amos are not asking the kings to up their charitable giving, they are asking that their contemporary domination system give way to a more just and less violent world.” (Marcus Borg; see Social Justice in the Book of Amos)

Yes, we are called to be good Samaritans to those who have experienced catastrophe, yet even here we must do double work. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his final book:

“We are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.” (Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community? pp. 187-188)

This month at RHM, our annual reading course book is Dorothee Soëlle’s Theology for Skeptics. In this book she states unequivocally:

“Comfort [charity] and justice are not split apart in the Bible such that the church should ease difficult fate for individual persons with the newest psychotherapeutic methods and leave justice to the leading industrial nations. God does not come with cheap consolation, like a comforting lollipop from heaven. God does not console in such a way that we get something shoved into our mouths to quiet us down.” (Kindle Locations 1166-1168)

Here, Soëlle is directly speaking to the kind of charity that merely pacifies the exploited, as the Roman Empire once did. In this context we must take to heart Gustavo Gutierrez’s wise words:

“But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, Power of the Poor In History, p. 44-45)

As we said last week, we need a justice that is distributive, a grace that manifests itself in liberation for the oppressed, and a charity that doesn’t perpetuate economic systems of exploitation and marginalization, making many poor while making many rich beyond their wildest possible use of funds. 

I don’t want to be misunderstood this week. If someone needs help, by all means available, help them! While we work toward a better world we must also be about mitigating the damage being done in this one. But do not think for a moment that if we have only offered charity to those this world makes hungry, poor, mournful, or last (see Luke 6:20-23 and Matthew 20:16) we are done with our job of following Jesus. Jesus helped those who were suffering before him, yes. He also rode his donkey into the Temple, the symbolic heart of the Temple state to which he belonged, and disruptively overturned tables to protest the Temple’s economic exploitation of the poor.  Christians today excel at charity.  We are not so good at justice.

Again, if someone is drowning, pull them out of the river. Let’s also walk upstream and do something about those who are throwing people in the river to begin with. Let’s not blame those who are drowning for someone else throwing them in. Let’s work toward a world of distributive justice and, as we do, let’s also engage Jesus’ other teachings on mutual aid, resource sharing, and taking responsibility for each other’s survival and thriving. 

People matter. 

Another world is possible.

“But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you.” (Luke 11:41)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, share together some more of the differences you see between justice and charity. 
  2. List some of the things your group participates in that could be categorized as either charity or justice.
  3. Are you focusing more on charity? Are you also engaging the activities that lead to systemic justice? Do you need to be stronger in one area, or maybe both?
  4. Name some of the things you’d like to affirm in what you are already doing and list some things you’d like to do more of.  This holiday season, pick one from this list and, together, do it. 

Wherever you are this week, thanks for checking in with us.  Keep living in love, compassion, action, charity, and justice.  

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Justice and the Love of God

Herb Montgomery | November 2, 2018

Pink clover from Horton Hears a Who


“To believe in universal love is to work for a distributive, societal justice for those who are the objects of that universal love.”


“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42)

All of my children love being involved in our local theater here in town. A few years ago my elder daughter auditioned for the high school musical. She was cast as Gertrude McFuzz in Seussical, an adorable retelling of Seuss’ most popular tales. As a result, our son, who was five or six years old at the time, took up reading many Seuss books. Horton Hears a Who became his favorite. 

In this story, Horton the elephant hears a call for help coming from a speck of dust. Though he endures much derision from his neighbors as a result of hearing something they can’t, he chooses to respond. He eventually learns that the call for help he hears is coming from a group of small creatures named Whos that live on this speck of dust. Horton is disbelieved, ridiculed, harassed, thought crazy, and eventually tied up. Horton’s neighbors also take the speck away from him and almost destroy it, but Horton convinces its inhabitants to begin making noise in hopes that they will be heard. The noise isn’t loud enough until one last Who named JoJo is found not participating. JoJo’s voice added at the very end gives the Whos enough volume to be heard by Horton’s fellow jungle animals and convinces them to join Horton in protecting the Who community. The catchphrase that Horton repeats throughout the story is, “A person is a person, no matter how small.”

Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote Horton Hears a Who after visiting Japan after World War II. (See Morgan & Morgan, pp. 144–145, and Richard Minear, Dr. Seuss Goes to War.) Geisel had held deeply racist and anti-Japanese prejudices before and during the war, but his visit to Japan, with other events, caused a dramatic reversal in Geisel. He wrote Horton Hears a Who as an allegory. The book includes veiled references to the war and the U.S.’ bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki like “When the black-bottomed birdie let go and we dropped, We landed so hard that our clocks have all stopped.” Geisel also dedicated Horton Hears a Who to a Japanese friend, Nakamura. He commented in interviews that when one considers Japan’s size as a country the theme becomes obvious, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

Shortly after the local performances of this play ended in our town, a dear family friend met with Crystal and me. They shared with us that they were trans and that they would be taking steps in the near future to live into their gender identity. Our friend had seen some of the beginning steps Crystal and I had taken to become affirming allies of the trans community, and she had decided to trust our family with her story and invite us to continue being part of her life. 

As we shared the news with our children, I knew my two eldest kids well enough to know their responses would be affirming and positive. It was my son, the youngest, who I was most curious about. As our friend shared with him as much of her story as was appropriate for his age, I could see him processing this new information. She was the first trans person he would ever know. After a moment, she asked what he thought. He reached up and took her hand. He looked into her face, said the new name she had just told him, and said, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

This week I want to talk about two values that are juxtaposed for us in Luke’s gospel: justice and love. In the short film Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology, which I watched last year, Dr. Emile M. Townes states, “When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.” This statement resonated so deeply for me that it brought tears to my eyes. 

Before I became an ally to trans people, and before all the fallout with our early followers, I had spent years speaking, writing, and teaching on the universal love of God for everyone! (See Finding the Father.) But one response I repeatedly heard during our transition as a ministry was people’s inability to understand what made us shift from God’s love to God’s justice. I spent countless hours trying to help folks understand that love means justice! They aren’t separate! One is the fruit of the other, and you can’t genuinely have one without the other. As Cornel West famously stated, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” 

What do we at RHM mean by the term justice?

Justice is distributive. Speaking of how the Hebrew scriptures define justice, John Dominic Crossan writes, “The primary meaning of ‘justice’ is not retributive, but distributive. To be just means to distribute everything fairly.” (John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, p. 2) 

If we believe in universal love then why wouldn’t that belief lead us toward compassion, action, and ensuring a distributive justice for all?

Distributive justice is the outgrowth of Jesus’ belief in a God that offers universal love.

“Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!” (Luke 12:24)

“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!” (Luke 12:27-28)

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

Jesus’ God universally loved even the ravens and lilies, therefore Jesus envisions God as also concerning Godself with distributive justice for us as well. For Jesus, God’s love was at the root of God’s radical vision for a world in which all had enough.

A God who indiscriminately loves is also a God who indiscriminately and justly sends rain and sunshine on the objects of that love. Jesus is standing firmly in his own Jewish tradition when he connects love and distributive justice. Consider the following passages from the Hebrew prophets where love and distributive justice are intrinsically connected.

“In love a throne will be established;
in faithfulness a man will sit on it—
one from the house of David—
one who in judging seeks justice
and speeds the cause of righteousness.” (Isaiah 16:5, emphasis added.)

“But you must return to your God;
maintain love and justice,
and wait for your God always. (Hosea 12:6, emphasis added.)
Calling for distributive justice was a way in which the Hebrew prophets spoke truth to power.

“For I, the LORD, love justice;
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people 
and make an everlasting covenant with them.” (Isaiah 61:8)

“Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph.” (Amos 5:15)

“Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.” (Isaiah 1:17)

As we mentioned last week, it is this preoccupation with distributive justice that defines whether someone in the Hebrew culture “knew God.”

“He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
declares the LORD (Jeremiah 22:16)

Jeremiah states that someone’s picture of the Divine will inevitably work its way out in whether they defend the oppressed and vulnerable or whether they drive oppression, marginalization, and/or exploitation. According to Jeremiah, to know the Hebrew God accurately is to defend the vulnerable. Gustavo Gutierrez confirms this interpretation: 

“For the prophets this demand was inseparable from the denunciation of social injustice and from the vigorous assertion that God is known only by doing justice. (A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 134) 

Gutierrez also writes, “To know God is to work for justice. There is no other path to reach God.” (Ibid., p. 156) 

The Hebrew sacred text is repeatedly concerned with a societal, distributive justice. See Exodus 21:2; Exodus 22:21-23; Exodus 22:25; Exodus 23:9; Exodus 23:11, Exodus 23:12; Leviticus 19:9-10; Leviticus 19:34; Leviticus 23:22; Leviticus 25:2-7; Leviticus 25:10; Leviticus 25:23; Leviticus 25:35-37; Leviticus 26:13; Leviticus 26:34-35; Deuteronomy 5:14; Deuteronomy 5:15; Deuteronomy 10:19; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; Deuteronomy 15:1-18; Deuteronomy 24:19-21; Deuteronomy 26:12; 2 Kings 23:35; Nehemiah 5:1-5; Job 24.2-12, 14; Isaiah 3:14; Isaiah 5:23; Isaiah 10:1-2; Jeremiah 5:27; Jeremiah 5:28; Jeremiah 6:12; Jeremiah 22:13-17; Ezekiel 22:29; Hosea 12:6-8; Amos 2.6-7; Amos 4:1; Amos 5:7; Amos 5:11-12; Amos 8:5-6; Micah 2:1-3; Micah 3:1-2; Micah 3:9-11; Micah 6:10-11; Micah 6.12; Habakkuk 2:5-6 . This tradition is carried on in the more Jewish portions of the New Testament texts, see Luke 6:24-25; Luke 12:13-21 ; Luke 16:19-31; Luke 18:18-26; James 2:5-9.

It makes perfect sense, then, that a Jewish prophet of the poor from Galilee who in the first century traversed the region teaching about a God who universally loved ravens, lilies, and all people, too, would live, teach, minister, protest, and be crucified in profound solidarity with those who were suffering from injustice in his society.

If we define politics as we did last week, as the distribution of resources and power, the gospel has real political implications that we must not hide or hide from. The portions of the New Testament believed to have been written by the Johannine community are the portions of the New Testament most preoccupied with defining God as “Love.” They don’t miss this connection between love and justice either:

“How can the love of God be in anyone who has material goods and sees a sibling in need and yet refuses help? . . . Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:17-18)

I want to close this week with one more statement by Gutierrez that I believe it would be well for us to spend this coming week contemplating:

“This does not detract from the Gospel news; rather it enriches the political sphere. Moreover, the life and death of Jesus are no less evangelical because of their political connotations. His testimony and his message acquire this political dimension precisely because of the radicalness of their salvific character: to preach the universal love of the Father is inevitably to go against all injustice, privilege, oppression, or narrow nationalism. (A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 135, emphasis added).

Those who believe they genuinely possess an understanding of God’s character should be the loudest in the room opposing the injustices of classism, racism, misogyny, patriarchy, bigotry toward and erasure of our LGBTQ siblings, and more. To believe in universal love is to work for a distributive, societal justice for those who are the objects of that universal love.

After all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue, and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42)

HeartGroup Application

Main Sanctuary Stained Glass Windows at Tree of Life* Or L'Simcha Congregation

Last weekend, a deadly mass shooting occurred at Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburg, PA.  Eleven people were killed. Nine people were injured.  The Anti-Defamation League has stated that the shooting is the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States. For Renewed Heart Ministries response to this attack, see Tree of Life* Or L’Simcha Congregation.

Renewed Heart Ministries stands in solidarity with our Jewish friends, neighbors and loved ones as we condemn and oppose Anti-Semitism in all its varied forms. Our hearts are with the families of the victims and the survivors.  We at Renewed Heart Ministries choose the resistance of love rather than hate. We will continue to daily take up the work of engaging the intersection of faith, love, compassion and justice. We will continue educating followers of Jesus, especially, in regards to the role Christianity has played in harming the Jewish community as well as other communities who have also been marginalized and harmed by us. We will continue to work together alongside targeted communities to heal our world, reshaping it into a compassionate, just and safe home for all; or, as our Jewish friends say, “the work of Tikkun Olam.”

This week, I want to invite all of our HeartGroups to take a moment and send the Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha Congregation a message of support or a prayer and to recommit to just action in you daily lives. 

Last Saturday’s attack was connected to more than a thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism as well as to White supremacist murders of Black people and Sikh people and breaches of sacred space in Birmingham, in Charleston, at Pulse, and more. (See Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s thread as well as Charleston to Tree of Life: White nationalism is a threat to us all ) My wife Crystal commented, “The truth is this country was built on the premise that some lives matter more than others. Racism has been woven into the very fabric of our existence. Othering is in our very foundation. We stole this country from it’s native people and claimed it for our own, based on the idea that we were more worthy than they, calling them savages when we murdered and stripped them of everything. We brutally enslaved races of people and claimed we somehow deserved to own and abuse them based on nothing more than the pigment of our skin and the fact that we could overpower them. Now we are shocked when a racist leader barely scratches the surface and all of this vile evil rises to the surface. It has always existed. We have to be honest with our past if we are going to do better in the future.”

Take a moment this weekend, and, as a HeartGroup, send this congregation a message of love and solidarity through this link: 

In Solidarity with the Tree of Life Synagogue, We Pray and We Pledge! 

This project was created by Auburn Seminary’s Senior Fellows. A friend of mine who works at Auburn Seminary along with her colleagues will be collecting and delivering these prayers and notes of support.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.  

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.