by Herb Montgomery | October 26, 2018
“’The separation between Church and State is different from the separation of faith and public life.’ . . . The separation of church and state is about keeping the state out of matters of religious conscience. Separation of church and state is also about keeping the church from wielding the power of the state to enforce its own articles of faith. It does not mean that people of faith and goodwill cannot follow Jesus in advocating alongside vulnerable communities, engaging social good, and calling for just distribution of resources and power.”
“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to heal the world through him.” (John 3:17, personal translation)
This week I want to begin with a fable familiar to many who daily do the work of healing our world. To the best of my knowledge, this story was originally told by Kurt Kauter but I cannot find the original source.
The fable tells of a conversation between a wild dove and a coalmouse.
“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a coalmouse asked a wild dove.
“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.
“In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the coalmouse said.
“I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow – not heavily, not in a raging blizzard – no, just like in a dream, without a wound and without any violence. Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,742,952. When the 3,742,953rd dropped onto the branch, nothing more than nothing, as you say – the branch broke off.”
Having said that, the coalmouse flew away.
The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for a while, and finally said to herself, “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”
In Matthew’s gospel we read these words:
“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news [euangelion] of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:23)
This passage begins with Jesus going throughout “Galilee, teaching in [Jewish] synagogues.” It’s important to make a couple of things clear.
First, the gospels were originally written within a Jewish context: they are Jewish written works. The Jesus of these stories was never a Christian; nor did he promote a new religion. This Jesus was a Jewish man seeking to make change and challenge injustice within his own Jewish culture. These stories have been historically used for anti-Jewish purposes, but I would argue that we should not freeze Jewish people in our minds as the gospel writers framed them two thousand years ago. The gospels are not a reflection of Jewish culture today, and injustice is injustice in any place and in any time.
I believe that we can derive insight from these stories of resistance into how to address injustice in our culture today. Yet we must not use them as tools of oppression toward Jewish people. And this leads me to my second point.
I want to recognize and name how these stories of resistance have also been used, sometimes even unintentionally, as tools of oppression against people with disabilities. Certain interpretations of Jesus’ healing stories (like we find in this week’s passage where Jesus heals “every disease and sickness among the people”) have been deeply harmful to people with disabilities. Through these stories, people with disabilities have been dehumanized and used as symbols or metaphors that promote ableism. So I begin this week by affirming the full humanity of both Jewish people and people with disabilities. I push back against interpretations of these healing stories that support an idea of “normal” that creates for some of our siblings the perception or feeling that they’re less than. We’ll address this further as we continue.
As well as telling us that Jesus healed, this passage also tells us that what Jesus was teaching in the synagogues was “the good news (or gospel) of the kingdom.” The term gospel or good news was not originally a religious term about being saved from post mortem torment. It was instead a deeply political term. When the Roman Empire conquered a new territory, it would send out evangelists whose job was to proclaim to the newly conquered territory the euangelion (gospel or good news) that the empire had come and the people of that territory were now part of the Roman Empire. Here are a few examples:
“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-singular] 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 – plural] 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] 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 gospel authors take this language from Rome to tell the story of Jesus who came preaching an alternative vision for human society.
“But he said, ‘I must proclaim the good news [euangelion] of the kingdom of God [as opposed to Rome] to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’” (Luke 4:43, emphasis added.)
“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news [euangelion] of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news [euangelion – gospel]!’” (Mark 1:14-15, emphasis added.)
Jesus’ good news was the proclamation of an alternative vision for human society where people carried out God’s will for distributive justice, mutual aid, and caretaking rather than subjugation. In the following passages we see that the gospel authors tied this proclamation to healing narratives as well.
“As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:7-8, emphasis added.)
“Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Luke 10:9)
“So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news [euangelion] and healing people everywhere.” (Luke 9:6)
These are parts of the gospels that have been used in deeply problematic ways for people who live with disabilities. I believe the gospels were intended to be stories of survival, resistance and liberation, but have been used oppressively toward many. Rather than using healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing leapers, and driving out demons as ableist metaphors for societal injustices, which I believe they were in the stories, I want to instead concretely name some injustices that we, as Jesus followers, can address in our culture today: racism, sexism and misogyny, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, queerphobia, xenophobia, etc. By concretely naming these issues we can better understand passages like this in John’s gospel:
“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)
The Greek word here translated “saved” could just as accurately be translated as “healed.” What makes this passage special to me is that it is not referencing individuals being saved but the world being saved. It’s not a privatized or personal healing, which too often proves vulnerable to the above type of abusive interpretations, but a collective, societal, communal healing. It’s a call to allow your faith to influence how we relate to one another! It’s a call to allow your faith to move you to engage public life not just your own personal life. This is a very Jewish understanding of faith: our beliefs call us not only to personal piety, but also to public engagement with the work of healing the world. Jesus practices this kind of societal confrontation and healing in his protest in the Temple, the heart of the Temple State of his society.
Tikkun olam (Healing the world) is the Jewish idea of one’s obligation to engage in social action. Seeing Jesus in this tradition leads us to the same conclusion as Latin Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez who saw in Jesus’ “kingdom” teachings a commitment to creating a just society. This commitment means being on the side of oppressed, marginalized, and exploited classes of people. A belief in the healing love spoken of in John 3:16-17 should lead one to “inevitably to go against all injustice, privilege, [and] oppression” (Gustavo Gutiérrez. A Theology of Liberation, p. 135).
The radical changes we need in our society can only take place through movement building. Yet, while we are building and participating in those long-term movements, we must also be engaged in what my friend Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-executive director at Highlander Center, refers to as damage mitigation. How do we do this? One way is through our votes.
Because people matter, voting matters. Here in America, we make a mistake in how we define politics. For far too many, politics means “parties, partisanship, lobbying, or law.” And while politics can include those things, I prefer how my friend Dr. Keisha McKenzie recently defined politics in a Facebook conversation: as “the distribution of resources and power among people and groups of people.” She went on to say, therefore, “There’s no opting out of it.” Either we become targets of others’ political engagement or we choose to help shape how resources are distributed. Jesus taught distributive justice, and as followers of Jesus, we, too, should care about how power and resources are distributed because their distribution can concretely help or hurt people. Our beliefs and values should move us to engage our public life. As McKenzie explained, wherever we share space with other people and “there are norms governing how you interact with them or a budget governing common resources,” there is simply no way to be apolitical. There is no such thing as political neutrality that doesn’t help the powerful or hurt the vulnerable. When we understand this we can see readily why the late theologian and activist Dorothee Sölle stated, “Every theological statement is a political statement as well.” Believing in a Universal Love leads us to work toward a universal distributive justice for the objects of that love. Being one who “knows the Lord,” in the book of the prophet Jeremiah is defined as “defend[ing] the cause of the poor and needy”:
“Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.’ So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red. ‘Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. 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. ‘But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion.’”(Jeremiah 22.13-17)
Recently I received an email from Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, President of Auburn Seminary, that said, “The separation between Church and State is different from the separation of faith and public life.” I could not agree more. The separation of church and state is about keeping the state out of matters of religious conscience. Separation of church and state is also about keeping the church from wielding the power of the state to enforce its own articles of faith. It does not mean that people of faith and goodwill cannot follow Jesus in advocating alongside vulnerable communities, engaging social good, and calling for just distribution of resources and power.
This is why we here at RHM believe that healing the world is not simply about voting but does include voting. The late Ron Dellums used to remind folks that we need both movement building and people in office that can help support those movements. I’ve witnessed this first-hand here in West Virginia. We spend countless hours building movements for social change here in this state, only to have people in office obstruct those changes. The opposite is also true, we can elect solid people as public servants, but if there is not a movement for them to act on, they have nothing to advocate for from the “will of the people.” Those who desire an unjust distribution of resources are putting people in office who will act on their wishes. Again, there is simply no way to opt out. We are either participants in the discussion or we are the targets of others’ agenda. It’s been said that we are either seated at the table or we are on the menu. Given our current social mess, voting, especially for marginalized communities, is only a part of the process of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all, yet it is a part of that process.
So this week, I want to encourage you to vote your values this November remembering that people matter and will be concretely affected by the outcome. (For some of you early voting is already open.) Also encourage others to participate and vote to ensure all of our communities are truly represented.
Another world is possible. And as Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson says, our work is to “trouble the waters” and “heal the world.”
I’ll close this week with the words of Anne Frank:
“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment, we can all start now, start slowly changing the world! How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make their contribution toward introducing justice straightaway… And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!” (The Diary of Anne Frank)
How can you engage the work of healing the injustice in our world? Who knows? As the story we began with this week reminds us, you may be the last “snowflake” needed. “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”
“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to heal the world through him.” (John 3:17, personal translation)
This week, how can your HeartGroup be a source of healing in your surrounding community?
- Take some time to dream up some ways you can be a positive influence for change in your area.
- Discuss what it would take to make some of those dreams a reality. What concrete steps would you need to take?
- Pick one of those dreams that you believe the steps to make it a reality are possible and make a plan. Divide up the tasks that need to be done and start on them. Before long, that dream will begin to take shape and the healing changes in your area will be closer to coming to fruition.
Each of us had a sphere of influence. Each of us has something we can do. And we combine those things and work together, it’s amazing what we can actually accomplish.
Again, to believe in a Universal Love is to work toward a distributive justice for all of the objects of that love.
Thanks for checking in with us this week. Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation.
I love each of you dearly.
Again, another world is possible.
I’ll see you next week.