Healing Our World, Part 2

Herb Montgomery | November 29, 2018

Christmas ornament of earth with ribbon that says, "Peace on earth."


“Exclusion, whether racism, misogyny, homophobia, or whatever, is already within many us. What are our faith traditions doing to challenge and change us so that we can participate in making our larger society more compassionate, inclusive, just and safe for everyone? Are they helping us be more just, or are they embedding injustice more deeply into our souls?”


“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.” (Matthew 12:33)

Before we begin this week, I want to take a moment and thank all of you for support during this year’s #GivingTuesday.  With all of our matching-funds donors we raised just under $6000 to help Renewed Heart Ministries grow and I can’t thank you enough. Our work resonates with so many of you and I’m so thankful for your support. We are looking forward to doing even more in this coming new year.

This last October, we ran an article entitle Healing the World. Shortly afterward my friend Joel Avery sent me a story about deep racist medical neglect and abuse in a healthcare facility then owned by the Christian denomination I grew up in. If we are to be agents of healing and change, we must admit where we have been the source of injustice rather than healing.

“I think sometimes we believe that the very nature of the healthcare industry, and the particular view of healthcare that we have here at Advent Health University insulates us from the ills of society.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Lucy Byard is a name not often remembered inside or outside of the Seventh-day Adventist Church – understandably so. She arrived at Washington Sanitarium and Hospital (an Adventist Hospital) on October 14, 1943, in critical condition.

Because of her condition, the hospital admitted her immediately. There was just one problem – she was Black and Washington Sanitarium did not admit Black people. Once they discovered her ethnicity, they removed her from the room they had given her and made her wait in the hallway in a robe. 

Hospital managers made arrangements to transfer Byard from the Maryland-based hospital to Freedman’s Hospital, the Black hospital in Washington, DC. No one at Washington Sanitarium examined or treated her before they transferred her. 

They eventually transported Byard to Washington, DC not in an ambulance but in a car. 

Unfortunately, she died at Freedman’s Hospital before doctors could treat her there. 

Lucy Byard died after being rejected from an Adventist hospital. On that day in 1943, healthcare workers decided to exemplify the worst that society has to offer. 

Byard’s death incensed African-American Adventists in the Washington, DC area. As a result, African-Americans created an advocacy group and sought equality of treatment in the Adventist Church. 

In response the church created a half measure not requested by those who protested—a segregated church structure. [To this day Adventism in North America has both Black and White Conferences.]

I wish the Lucy Byard incident had a more Hollywood ending. I wish some white knight at Washington Sanitarium rode in on his trusty steed to stand up to racism and save the day. I know this story makes us uncomfortable. However, it is important for the Lucy Byards of the world to be remembered and for their stories to be told, despite how much it hurts us to tell them, and to remember that we live in a world where these things can happen.

Black History Month is not only about celebrating the accomplishments and societal contributions of a particular group of people. It is also about the recognition that part of what makes those achievements so extraordinary is the pain and anguish overcome in order to make those accomplishments a reality.

Moreover, to remember Lucy Byard is to be fully cognizant of the fact that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ 

Equality, justice, and fair treatment do not happen by accident and are not transferred through osmosis. It requires effort on our part to make the decision every day to do the right thing. Let us resolve to use this ministry to move the world forward.” (Dr. Jason Hines)

For more background about Lucy Byard and her story see Black History Month: Lucy Byard; Death in D.C. and Lucy Byard (1877-1943).)

Christians have a long history of reflecting the social ills of their society rather than being a part of movements for change. In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963), Dr. King wrote, “Here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.” 

Race is not the only issue where many faith traditions are on the wrong side of history. The same denomination whose hospital turned Byard away is today faltering on the path to gender equality with a century-too-late debate on whether or not women can be ordained as pastors. They also, with most faith traditions today, are still the source of much of the exclusion, pain and damage experienced by many of my LGBTQ family, friends and neighbors. 

Yet it, like others, is a religious tradition that has grown out of the teachings of the same Jewish teacher that taught:

“You are the salt of the earth.

“You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:13-14)

It is perfectly appropriate, given Christianity’s long history, to ask Jesus’ question:

“But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)

I’m often embarrassed to be associated with Christianity. The salt really has lost its saltiness. We can be added over and over to whatever issue, and rather than changing the flavor toward justice, we instead take on the flavor of the social ills around us. When it comes to justice, inclusion, or equity, often the outcry is that the church is being negatively influenced by culture. Truth be told, it always has been. 

We are people living within time, space, and cultures. And we must ask: are we adding the flavor of justice, inclusion, and equity to our society or are we are taking on the bigotry, fear and exclusion we see in our culture around us? Exclusion, whether racism, misogyny, homophobia, or whatever, is already within many us. What are our faith traditions doing to challenge and change us so that we can participate in making our larger society more compassionate, inclusive, just and safe for everyone? Are they helping us be more just, or are they embedding injustice more deeply into our souls?

A few weeks ago I shared with friends a Washington Post article on the historic level of diversity we are now seeing in among incoming Congressional freshmen in Washington, D.C.. While several of my Christian friends know how much representation matters and saw the news as a sign of hope, a few of my other Christian friends saw it as bad news, as slander against White people. I had to shake my head. 

Large sectors of Christianity here in North America today are primarily focused on individuals attaining postmortem bliss rather than engaging a present and local work in harmony with Jesus’ prayer for people’s quality of life to become “on earth as it is in heaven.” (see Matthew 6:10, Luke 4:18, and 6:20-21) This is a problem! A faith tradition focused on attaining heaven with very little emphasis on participating in liberating societal change is extremely vulnerable to glossing over oppression, marginalization, and exploitation in the present. I’m at a loss to understand how such an escapist tradition could be built on the Jesus who taught about liberating the oppressed in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who spoke truth to power and called for societal injustice, oppression and violence be put right. (See Amos 5:24)

The kind of Christianity that’s focused on postmortem bliss is too easily co-opted by those at the top of social structures. It becomes complicit in oppression, whether it be in matters of economics, race, gender or sexual equity, or other issues. Mainstream Christianity has played a role, sometimes the central role, in damaging marginalized groups, and the idea of getting to heaven has been used to keep marginalized people pacified. In the gospels, we don’t read of Jesus going from place to place trying to get people to say a special prayer so that they could go to heaven when they die. He brought liberation into people’s lives in the here-and-now, today.

This is not easy to hear if, like me, you identify with the Christian tradition, but I imagine that non-Christians might positively resonate with much of it.

As followers of Jesus we’re called to bring economic healing, racial healing, gender-inequity healing, political healing, religious healing. We are called to bring healing. Full stop. 

But how? Where do we start when we have such a history of quite the opposite?

First, we must be willing to name or admit societal ills, and we must own where we have played a part in those ills in the past. 

We must learn from those affected most by our past actions, including those whose have lived experiences as survivors. Then, where we are able, we must work for reparation, transformation, and healing alongside those who have been hurt. 

The story and teachings of Jesus can inform each step of this process, too. 

But we must first learn to listen to those we’ve hurt.

I believe we can change. I believe we as Christians can be re-introduced to our Jesus and his teachings. This process will be challenging. I know. For some it will be deeply unsettling. For others it will be a welcomed relief! I encourage us to lean into whatever challenges we may find rather than away from them. It’s worth it. Jesus once contrasted letting go of the present to take hold of the new. A world of inclusion and connectedness will become a reality when we are fully willing to let go of the one we already created:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46 )

Another world is possible. It’s not easy. It is work. But it’s possible, and worth it. 

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.” (Matthew 12:33)

HeartGroup Application 

Hunger Summit Advertising PosterLast night I attended the Hunger Summit event here in Lewisburg sponsored by the Greenbrier County branch of the National Poor People’s Campaign, a Call for Moral Revival.  This event was designed to increase public understanding of the challenges encountered by those who live in poverty here in Appalachia. Those who spoke relayed firsthand experiences with poverty and then we all were invited to participate in creating and implementing possible solutions.

This week, as we begin the holiday season, as a Heartgroup, choose some avenue in your community to become involved in and engage in the work of healing our world.

This is a time of year when want is not only felt, but hearts become more open to caring for one another.  I want to encourage you to get involved in your community as a group and make a difference.

Write in and share your experience with us here at RHM. I can’t wait to hear from you!

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Keep living in love, compassion action and justice. Keep following the one whom many celebrate this time of year “in whose name all oppression shall cease.” (John Sullivan Dwight, O Holy Night.)

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

Happy Holidays.

I’ll see you next week.

 

Storing up Treasures in Heaven 

Multiracial Group of Friends with World Globe Map

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Do not treasure for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and gnawing deface and where robbers dig through and rob, but treasure for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor gnawing defaces and where robbers do not dig through nor rob. For where your treasure is, there will also be your heart.” (Q 12:33-34)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 6:19-21: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Luke 12:33-34: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Gospel of Thomas 76:3: “You too look for his treasure, which does not perish, (and) which stays where no moth can reach it to eat it, and no worm destroys it.”

This week’s saying tells us to focus on storing up “treasure” in heaven rather than on earth. I want to offer a word of caution about that. Karl Marx correctly wrote that religion focused on heaven or afterlife bliss rather than survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation of our world now tends to leave oppressed people passive.

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” (Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Collected Works, vol. 3)

James H. Cone pushes back on Marx’s blanket condemnation of all religion in his landmark book God of the Oppressed. This is a rather long quotation, but one worth considering: Cone is not addressing Marx’s critique from the perspective of someone trying to preserve the status quo. He addresses the critique as someone in an oppressed community who’s working for societal change and the dismantling of the status quo.

“The vision of the future and of Jesus as the Coming Lord is the central theme of black religion. This theme is expressed with the idea of heaven, a concept that has been grossly misunderstood in black religion. For any people the idea of heaven, in the songs and sermons of black people, is proof of Marx’s contention that religion is the opiate of the people. Unfortunately, many uninformed young blacks, hearing this Marxian analysis in college, have accepted this criticism as true without probing deeper into the thought forms of black people. To be sure, white missionaries and preachers used Jesus Christ and heaven to make black slaves obedient and docile. But in reality, the opposite happened more often than not. For any black slaves, Jesus became the decisive Other in their lives who provided for them a knowledge of themselves, not derived from the value system of slave masters. How could black slaves know that they were human beings when they were treated like cattle? How could they know that they were somebody when everything in their environment said that they were nobody? How could they know that they had a value that could not be defined by dollars and cents, when the symbol of the auction block was an ever present reality? Only because they knew that Christ was present with them and that his presence included the divine promise to come again and to take them to the ‘New Jerusalem.’ Heaven, therefore, in black religion was inseparably connected with Jesus’ promise to liberate the oppressed from slavery. It was black people’s vision of a new identity for themselves which was in sharp contradiction to their present status as slaves. This vision of Jesus as the Coming One who will take them back to heaven held black people together mentally as they struggled physically to make real the future in their present.” (pp. 119-120)

Cone continues:

“The past and present history of Jesus are incomplete without affirmation of the ‘not yet’ that ‘will be.’ The power of Christ’s future coming and the vision that it bestows upon the people is the key to why the oppressed can ‘keep on keepin’ on’ even when their fight seems fruitless. The vision of Christ’s future that breaks into their slave existence radically changes their perspective on life; and to others who stand outside the community where the vision is celebrated, black people’s talk about “long white robes” and “golden slippers” in heaven seems to be proof that black religion is an opium [sic] of the people. But in reality it is a radical judgment which black people are making upon the society that enslaved them. Black religion, therefore, becomes a revolutionary alternative to white religion. Jesus Christ becomes the One who stands at the center of their view of reality, enabling slaves to look beyond the present to the future, the time when black suffering will be ended. The future reality of Jesus means that what is contradicts what ought to be. When Jesus is understood as the Coming One who will establish divine justice among people, then we will be able to understand why black slaves’ religion emphasized the other world. They truly believed the story of Jesus’ past existence with the poor as told in the Bible. (pp. 120-121)

As someone who does not speak from Cone’s social location, I want to acknowledge Cone’s critique of Marx. When religion leaves us waiting for a future time when justice comes rather than working for distributive justice in our world today, then Marx is correct: religion is an opiate. Cone is also right that a religion that identifies God as the God of the oppressed doesn’t have to pacify people.

Yet Cone drifts awfully close to using religion as an opiate himself in the following paragraph:

“People get tired of fighting for justice and the political power of oppressors often creates fear in the hearts of the oppressed. What could a small band of slaves do against the armed might of a nation? Indeed what can the oppressed blacks today do in order to break the power of the Pentagon? Of course, we may “play” revolutionary and delude ourselves that we can do battle against the atomic bomb. Usually when the reality of the political situation dawns upon the oppressed, those who have no vision from another world tend to give up in despair. But those who have heard about the coming of the Lord Jesus and have a vision of crossing on the other side of Jordan, are not terribly disturbed about what happens in Washington, D. C., at least not to the extent that their true humanity is dependent on the political perspective of government officials.” (p. 121, emphasis added)

With this tension between Marx and Cone in mind this week, I ask the question: what did the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q mean when he asked us to place our focus on heaven rather than earth, especially when such a focus has historically proved detrimental to the victims of oppression, injustice and violence?

James Robinson offered a possible answer in his book on Sayings Gospel Q.

“Some people get confused by the fact that in the Gospel of Matthew the ‘kingdom of God’ is usually referred to as the “kingdom of heaven,” leading them to think that the kingdom is in heaven—something one can experience only in the afterlife or at the end of time. But Jesus was talking about God reigning in the here and now. Use of the idiom “kingdom of heaven” is due to the fact that Matthew is the Gospel most closely related to Judaism and so still reflects its sensitivities. Jews have been so committed to not taking God’s name in vain, which, after all, is one of the Ten Commandments, that they have thought it best not to “take” God’s name at all. That is, they do not pronounce Yahweh out loud at all. Sometimes they carry this so far that they not only avoid pronouncing Yahweh; they even avoid pronouncing “God” and instead simply refer to the “name,” by which everyone in the Jewish community knows what they mean—God. (The Gospel of Jesus; Kindle Locations 2722-2730).

The kingdom of heaven is not a kingdom in heaven, but a new social arrangement that Jesus announced had come from heaven to earth. It was the reign of God and it was emerging from the community of the oppressed in Jesus’ day on earth. It was a social vision where people took care of people, where people practiced mutual aid and resource sharing, and where wealth inequality was met with wealth redistribution (see Acts 4:33-35). Jesus’ “kingdom of heaven” was a Jewish way of referring to the kingdom or reign of God, which had arrived here on earth in the present life, now.

This reign of God called people to trust in a God who would send other people to take care of them in the future to the degree that they would loosen their grip on hoarded wealth that insulated them from future risk so they could  be the one God sent to help those who are in need today. As Robinson points out: “This hardly means that as surely as a human parent gives bread and fish in the here and now, the heavenly Father will give ‘pie in the sky by-and-by.’ It clearly means that God will answer the petition ‘Our day’s bread give us today’ in the here and now, daily. (Ibid. Kindle Locations 2789-2791) Together, we could face the insecurity of the future, because no matter what the future brought, we could make it because we had each other.

What Jesus may be saying in this week’s Q statement is this: don’t store up material treasure on Earth, which always involves some level of risk. Invest your resources in the kingdom of heaven that has arrived here on earth, which is made manifest in people taking care of people. “Lay up treasure” in the lives of people, especially the vulnerable, the poor, those on the underside and edges of our societies. Invest in a compassionate, safe, just world for people. Put your treasure in them, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

People are often not comfortable with their religion becoming this down-to-earth. They are much more comfortable with religion being about investing in a post-mortem retirement program for themselves. But I don’t think that approach to interpreting Jesus’ saying is consistent with what we have witnessed about the Jesus of sayings Q so far. His teachings are not about you gaining heavenly bliss later; they’re about bringing the liberation of heaven into people’s lives here, now, today.

What does it mean to lay up treasure in heaven? The kingdom of heaven for Jesus was the reign of God that had arrived here on earth. It called people to stop solving the challenges of survival for themselves at the expense of others around them. It called them to take responsibility for making sure one another had what they needed.

This week’s saying is not a matter of location (heaven versus earth). Nor is it a matter of timing (post mortem versus now). It is a matter of seeking plenty “for yourself” on earth now, versus seeking “the kingdom of heaven” with others on earth now. Storing up treasure in heaven means people taking care of people here.

At home, one of my projects is storing some of my daughter’s favorite belongings in our attic while she’s away at college. When she comes home, she won’t go up to the attic to enjoy her belongings. She will take those belongings out of the attic and bring them down to enjoy them in her home.

When we take care of other people, even if we use the language of “storing treasure in heaven,” we must not forget that our home is here. When we choose to take care of people, we’re transforming our home here. We’ll be able to take out and enjoy the treasures we have stored in each other in a transformed world that is a safe, just, and compassionate home for us all, on earth “as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6.10).

Do not treasure for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and gnawing deface and where robbers dig through and rob, but treasure for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor gnawing defaces and where robbers do not dig through nor rob. For where your treasure is, there will also be your heart.” (Q 12:33-34)

HeartGroup Application

1.  How does choosing to take responsibility for one another’s survival and care transform our world today? In what ways does doing so affirm how the world already is?

2.  List some ways that your group could lean more deeply into taking care of each other. Then list some of the ways that your group could lean more deeply into taking care of those in your neighborhood.

Separate both lists into two categories: actions that may help people today yet leave in place a system that will cause them to need help again tomorrow; and actions that will impact the systemic problems and transform society at the root as well. It is important to do both, not just one or the other. If a person is drowning, they need pulling out of the river. And those throwing people into the river need to be stopped as well. Renewed Heart Ministries’ book for March is James H. Cone’s God of the Oppressed. In that book, Cone writes, “For the oppressed, justice is the rescue from hurt; and for the oppressors it is the removal of the power to hurt others—even against their will—so that justice can be realized for all” (p. 159).

3 .  Pick two items from your group’s lists and begin putting it into practice this week. This is how we begin storing up treasure in heaven, transforming our world.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Keep living in love, a love that bears the fruit of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.