Change from the Edges

Herb Montgomery | May 24, 2019

Photo by Yeshi Kangrang on Unsplash

“One of the first steps of hope for people in such wilderness places is to understand that their situation reflects social and political forces, not the divine will . . .”


“And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness.” (Mark 1:4)

Syracuse University’s Counseling Center defines marginalization as “the process of pushing a particular group or groups of people to the edge of society by not allowing them an active voice, identity, or place in it . . . Some individuals identify with multiple marginalized groups, and may experience further marginalization as a result of their intersecting identities.”

This week I ask what the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have to say to those who live disenfranchised, disadvantaged, marginalized, and underprivileged in our society.

Mark’s storytelling about Jesus begins very early on with the character of John the Baptist, who emerges as a Hebrew prophet in the wilderness calling for social change. The much later gospel Luke emphasizes this wilderness location by explaining that John’s father is a priest (See Luke 1:5, 8-10). John’s lineage allowed him to be a priest in the temple like his father, so it is telling that we instead see a John who isn’t a priest but a prophet like Isaiah’s voice “crying out” in the “wilderness.” 

The wilderness represents a marginal location in the Jesus stories: the edges of the Jewish society. It contrasts with Jerusalem, the temple state, and the elite who held positions of power and privilege in Jewish society. This is a Jewish story, and a story of Jewish voices in conflict with each other. It is the story of social tensions between those at the center of their society and those on the margins. It’s also a very human story. Every society includes a tension between those who are marginalized and those at the top and center of their social structure. When the status quo depends on marginalizing “a particular group or groups of people” Jesus’ time in the wilderness reflects the power dynamics we find in that society.

After Jesus interacted with John in the wilderness, Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus went straight away into the wilderness himself. 

“At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness.” (Mark 1:12)

Some Christian preachers use this passage to parallel Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness with the Hebrew people’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Mark does not explain how long Jesus spent there, and this parallel is often used to teach supersessionism. I do not read it this way.

I believe Jesus is making a social choice. He, like John, is choosing the wilderness as his starting point. From the marginalized region of Galilee, Jesus enters the wilderness after John, possibly to get in touch with his Jewish roots. His is a people whose origin stories were of enslavement, oppression, liberation, and brutal colonization of others. Jesus attempts to ground himself in his story as a Jew, within their wilderness origin story, and figure out how they got to where they are today. 

So both Jesus and John emerge from a place of “wilderness.” Ched Myers reminds us about the truth inthis story detail for those who today find themselves in “wilderness” locations.

“One of the first steps of hope for people in such wilderness places is to understand that their situation reflects social and political forces, not the divine will . . . While the margin has a primarily negative political connotation as a place of disenfranchisement, Mark ascribes to it a primarily positive theological value. It is the place where the sovereignty of God is made manifest, where the story of liberation is renewed, where God’s intervention in history occurs.” (Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 12)

Mark explains that when John is arrested, Jesus comes out of this wilderness location and does not straightway begin preaching in the more centrally located Jerusalem and Judea. Instead, Jesus enters the marginal region of Galilee. 

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)

If Judea is a marginal region within the larger Roman empire, Galilee is a marginal region on the edges of Jewish society. In Jesus’ day, it was the buffer region between the Jewish population and the largely non-Jewish population beyond Galilee. In Mark, Jesus begins his work here, among those who would have been the marginalized in his society. Consider his teaching as well. Whom does he speak in solidarity with in his teachings?

“Blessed are the poor [broken] in spirit . . . 

Blessed are those who mourn . . .

Blessed are the meek . . .

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [distributive justice] . . .

Blessed are the merciful . . .

Blessed are the pure in heart . . .

Blessed are the peacemakers . . .

Blessed are those who are persecuted . . . 

Blessed are you when people insult you . . . 

Blessed are you when people persecute you . . . 

Blessed are you when people falsely say all kinds of evil against you . . . 

You are the salt of the earth . . .

You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:3-14)

In this teaching, Jesus is in solidarity with those who have been pushed to the edges and undersides of his society and are trying to survive there.  

Notice, too, those final two statements I quoted from Matthew 5. Jesus states that those on the margins of society are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. This was centuries before refrigeration and the harnessing of electricity. Salt preserved food. 

I want to offer a word of caution about the imagery of light in our context today. RHM’s book of the month for May is Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne by Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney. In a statement circulating the internet this past Easter season which was attributed to Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney (which I still cannot for the life of me find where she said this, but this does sound like her) we read, “We can celebrate the light of Easter without demonizing darkness and reinscribing a white supremacist dialectic on Christ and the resurrection. My blackness is radiant, luminous and will not and does not need to be made white as snow. The blood of Jesus will not make me white. We must learn to talk about brokenness in the world with our reducing evil to darkness and goodness to light. Blackness is God’s good gift.” (From more from Gafney go to www.wilgafney.com

We can celebrate light without demonizing darkness. Today we understand that life requires both light and dark. What’s important is balance, a life-giving equity, rather than one or the other. I can understand the original use of this language and also understand that that use is no longer appropriate today. 

Yet in the Jesus stories both images point to the marginalized of Jesus’ society. That’s the point Myers is making above. In the Jesus stories, the edges of society hold a “primarily positive theological value. It is the place where the sovereignty of God is made manifest, where the story of liberation is renewed, where God’s intervention in history occurs.”

Change happens from the outside in, from the bottom up, from grassroots movements. It is the voices sharing the experiences of those surviving on the edges of our society that tell us whether the status quo is just or unjust, life-giving or lethal. We can choose to listen to these voices or not. We can choose the way of life or not. We can choose those things that preserve society, like salt, or that which cause societies to self-destruct. Those who are in power and privileged have very little insight into how systems enfranchise some and disenfranchise others. At best they continually risk underestimating the damage done to those who do not share their social location. Change, renewal, intervention, salvation, often emerges from the edges, the “wilderness” locations. And this is one of the first truths we bump into in the Jesus story.

Today, a person can be marginalized on the basis of their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, education, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, ability, and more. Many marginalized people face exclusion for multiple intersecting traits, too. In whatever area of your life where you face marginalization, contrary to narratives of those at the top or the center of society, the Jesus story tells us that God is with those on the margins, those working in “the wilderness.” And we are working with God when we are working in solidarity with them.

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Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are today, choose to keep living in love. Choose compassion. Take action. Seek justice. Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. 

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

The Exalted Humbled and the Humble Exalted

Person with green hair at Pride event

by Herb Montgomery

 

“There is a vast difference between the kind of pride that exalts self over others as if you were the normal or ideal and others were somehow less than, and the kind of pride that rejects the social shame others have tried to impose on you for being different. Pride that simply lifts oneself to a place of equality with others is not a sin!”

 

Featured Text:

“Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted.” (Q 14:11)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:12: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 14:11: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Purity Circles

This week we once again face one of Jesus’ sayings that we must be careful not to apply to everyone. Jesus specifically pointed the saying at those who had lifted themselves up to be above their peers.

In Matthew’s story of Jesus, this saying is in the context of Matthew’s critique of the scribes and the Pharisees. A little background will help us understand.

In The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, Bruce Malina tells us how the purity cultures of the ancient world like the Hebrew tradition gave their members a sense of order from the chaos of the material world around us.

Specifically about the general cultural map of social time and space, about arrangements wishing the space thus defined, and especially about the boundaries separating the inside from the outside. The unclean or impure is something that does not fit the space in which it is found, that belongs elsewhere, that causes confusion in the arrangement of the generally accepted social map because it overruns boundaries.” (p. 125)

Notions of ritual cleanness or uncleanness were connected to a sense of belonging: in certain communities, well-defined boundaries marked insiders from outsiders. Within such cultures there was also a spectrum of cleanness. The greater your ability to remain clean, the purer you were. The opposite was also true. These notions of purity were not simply religious; they were but also social, economic, and political.

Think of a circle for a moment. If the circle represented the community, the purer you were, the closer you were to the center of the circle. The more unclean you were, the more you were pushed to the edges or margins. And guess who made the decisions for the group as a whole? You guessed it: those at the center. Those closer to the center had greater political, economic, and societal control. They maintained the status quo, a status quo that benefitted and privileged those at the center over those on the edges.

William Herzog once commented on the political struggle for the center in 1st Century Jewish society. His thoughts shed insight on why Matthew would have included this week’s saying.

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

The Pharisees were the religious teachers of the masses, while the Sadducees were the elites who desired above all else to maintain their control on society. The Pharisees appeared to want to make purity more accessible to the masses, so in that context, they were considered the “liberals” while the Sadducees were the “conservatives.” Yet they were not really concerned with empowering the masses, but with placing power in their own hands, a power that the masses would legitimize. They did not dismantle the system; they only sought to co-opt it and hold the socio-political power and a populous base over the Sadducee elites in Jerusalem.

On the contrary, Jesus wanted to, proverbially, “burn the whole system down.” He repeatedly transgressed purity boundaries, bringing in those who had been pushed down and to the margins of his culture. He didn’t do this because he was anti-Jewish or anti-Torah. I believe he did this because he saw the purity model of societal order as deeply damaging to those of his Jewish siblings who were forced by those at the center to live on society’s fringes and edges.

In our saying this week, we see a Jesus who challenged and subverted the model of organizing society as a purity circle with insiders and outsiders. Jesus challenged this way of organizing society not just with his words, but also with his table, body, and temple/synagogue practices in the gospels.

We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Tax Collector Versus Pharisee 

Matthew describes a horizontal model, a circle, Luke uses a vertical image: a pyramid. The circle has a center and margins, but a pyramid has a few at the top who wield control or power over the masses below them. The lower one goes in a social pyramid, the greater the number of people and the less those people have any say about the world in which they live.

Luke places our saying this week in the context of a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both of these groups were closer to the top of Jesus’ social, economic, and political pyramid. Both were typically well-to-do financially. But where one of these groups responded positively to Jesus’s teachings, the other did not. As we have already discussed, Sayings Gospel Q 7:23-30 includes the statement, “For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him.” Luke adds this parable:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In Luke’s telling of the story, “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus” and his economic vision (Luke 16:14). By contrast, the hated tax-collector responded, “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” (Luke 19:8).

The tax-collectors were the last ones expected to respond to Jesus’ economic teachings of mutual aid and wealth redistribution. Yet they came to Jesus’s shared table, while others did not, and Jesus welcomed them (see Luke 15:1-2).

In Luke, the Pharisees continued to compete with the temple elite for the exalted position of political control over the masses while the tax-collectors humbled themselves and embraced a world where there is enough for everyone. I’m sure there were exceptions; stories are often told with generalizations. What remains is the truth that when we seek to exalt ourselves over others, it leads to disastrous results for everyone.

How Not To Use This Passage

There is a difference between someone at the center or top of a group having their self-exaltation challenged, and those on the periphery and bottom working to lift themselves up to a equitable shared position. Let me explain.

I just finished reading Carol Anderson’s book White Rage. Over and over it recounted the history of how whiteness and structural racism have functioned in American society to impede social progress upward or toward the center for people of color. Sayings like ours this week have been aimed at people of color to try and silence or shame their efforts at equality.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that there is a difference between those who would exalt themselves over others and those who simply are seeking to lift themselves up to level ground. One group seeks to maintain an unjust status quo, and the other simply works toward equality. Our saying this week is not about those lifting themselves up toward equality. It’s about those who continually impede their work, who have exalted themselves over others, who are called to humility, equity and solidarity with those lower or on the periphery.

This month I also was blessed to be able to participate with SDA Kinship International in D.C.’s Capital Pride parade. June is Pride month for the LGBTQ community. It is also a month when I see a lot of Evangelical Christians critiquing the idea of “pride” itself. “Pride is a sin!” they say. And they quote our saying this week, “Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted.”

But social location matters. There is a vast difference between the kind of pride that exalts self over others as if you were the normal or ideal and others were somehow less than (think heterosexism) and the kind of pride that rejects the social shame others have tried to impose on you for being different. Pride that simply lifts oneself to a place of equality with others is not a sin! And our saying this week isn’t critiquing that kind of pride.

If a person is already being shamed and humiliated, they don’t need to humble themselves further. They are already experiencing humiliation from those who endeavor to marginalize them and their voices. Those who really need to humble themselves in that situation are those who think that just because someone is different they are broken or less than.

There was a time when those who were left-handed were considered less than, too. We don’t know why some are born one way and others are born another, but these differences do exist. Jesus subverted systems that push people to the margins or undersides of society, and that should challenge any Christian who believes cisgender heterosexuals are the ideal and all other people should stay on the margins of society. It is for them that this saying was given. They are the ones our saying this week is speaking to.

I’ve been reading Ched Myers’ book Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. I’m enjoying it immensely. It has been quite affirming and confirming for me personally, and I recommend the book highly if you have not read it. In the introduction, which I quoted from earlier, Ched shows how social pyramids and circles functioned in Jesus’ day and how they call those of us who want to follow Jesus to challenge similar models today.

These two statements resonated deeply inside me this week:

“White North American Christians, especially those of us from the privileged strata of society, must come to terms with the fact that our reading site for the Gospel of Mark is empire, locus imperium . . . The ‘irreducible meaning’ of empire is the geopolitical control of the peripheries by the center . . . the fact remains that those on the peripheries will have ‘eyes to see’ many things that those of us at the center do not.”

And

“The ancient Mediterranean world was dominated by the rule of imperial Rome [center]. However, whereas I read from the center, Mark wrote from the Palestinian periphery. His primary audience [was] those whose daily lives bore the exploitative weight of colonialism, whereas mine [is] those who are in a position of enjoy the privileges of the colonizer. In this sense, Third World liberation theologians, who today also write from the perspective of the collided periphery have the advantage of a certain ‘affinity of site’ in their reading of the Gospels.”

Whether we use the vertical model of a pyramid where the few at the top control everyone beneath them, or the horizontal model of a circle where those closer to the center have control of the body, our saying this week offers a critique and warning to all who push others from a position of input and influence to the margins, edges, or periphery:

Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted. (Q 14:11)

HeartGroup Application

Jesus sought to change the way communities were organized. Where there were pyramids with people on top and closed circles with people outside, Jesus sought to form a shared table.

So this week I want you to do something a little different. Each of you, take time to listen to a presentation I gave in the fall of 2015 in southern California entitled, A Shared Table.

Then after listening,

  1. Discuss your responses together as a group.
  2. Brainstorm how your group can become more of a shared table experience rather than in a pyramid or closed circle. Write these strategies out.
  3. Pick something from what you’ve written and put it into practice this week.

Something that may be helpful to you in your brainstorming is our newly updated HeartGroups page.

Together we can make choices that continue to transform our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone. The teachings of Jesus don’t call us to escape from a hostile world. Radical discipleship, radical Jesus-following, calls us to engage the world so that it becomes a less hostile place. In the words of Sam Wells, “The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that there’s plenty wrong with the world. There are only two responses to this—either go and put it right yourself, or, if you can’t, make life pretty uncomfortable for those who can until they do. When we take stock of our relationship with the powerful, we ask ourselves, ‘Does the shape of my life reflect my longing to see God set people free, and do I challenge those who keep others in slavery?’” (in Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus by Ched Myers)

Remember, we are in this together. We are each other’s fate.

Also remember to check out our new 500:25:1 project at http://bit.ly/RHM500251. There you can find out more about why we’re launching weekend events around the country, how you can help to make these events happen, and, best of all, how you can have us come and teach in your area.

Thanks for checking in with us this week!

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, transformation and thriving! Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.