Salvation as Liberation, Reparation, and Societal Healing

Herb Montgomery | January 11, 2019

Picture of earth with this week's article title.

“Jesus’ vision for this world was not to condemn it, wipe it out, and make a new one. Jesus pictured a God who loved our world: a God who dreamed of this world’s healing, reparation, and transformation. Jesus’ vision wasn’t to wipe our world out and start all over, but to see our world healed . . . Salvation is understood in the gospels not in terms of penalty and payment but in terms of restoration and healing in the context of the violence, injustice, and oppression faced by multitudes in our present world. Salvation as a post mortem fire insurance policy finds no place in the gospels.”

“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)

My wife and I purchased a home almost fifteen years ago now. It’s an American foursquare from the turn of the 20th Century. We thought it would be a beautiful adventure to restore an old home together. We wanted to do all the work ourselves, slowly, as we could afford it. So today, we live in an ongoing construction. The journey has hardly been what we thought it would be.

Some people look at our home today alongside the before pictures and say, “Herb, why didn’t you just condemn the building, bulldoze it, and build a new house?” That would have been easier, but it wasn’t the choice we made. The house, though in need of restoration, had great “bones.” But getting it into shape has been a lot of work.

John’s gospel includes an interesting story. Nicodemus comes to talk to Jesus in the night. And in the middle of their conversation, Jesus tells him:

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)

Contrary to many “end-time” preachers, Jesus’ vision for this world was not to condemn it, wipe it out, and make a new one. Jesus pictured a God who loved our world: a God who dreamed of this world’s healing, reparation, and transformation. Jesus’ vision wasn’t to wipe our world out and start all over, but to see our world healed.

The word in the passage most translated as “saved,” sozo, can just as easily and accurately be translated as healed. Salvation is understood in the gospels not in terms of penalty and payment but in terms of restoration and healing in the context of the violence, injustice, and oppression faced by multitudes in our present world. Salvation as a post mortem fire insurance policy finds no place in the gospels. 

John’s gospel defines salvation more holistically. What do we see Jesus doing with the majority of his time in all four of the canonical gospels? We see him going from place to place to place bringing healing and liberation. When I began to look at our world through the lens of healing and liberation rather than the lens of a fire insurance it shifted something in me.

In Luke 19, we find the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector. He was responsible for participating in a system that benefited the wealthy, including himself, while impoverishing many. 

The next thing the story tells us about Zacchaeus is the tree he had climbed. As in his own life, he had climbed higher and higher but as he sits in the tree, he realizes that the ladder he’d been climbing was leaning against the wrong wall. 

Jesus comes to the spot where Zacchaeus is lodged in the tree and tells him to climb down. “I’m going to go to your house today.” 

Everyone begins to whisper, “He’s going to the house of a sinner!” 

The masses disdained tax collectors like Zacchaeus and labelled them “sinners.” 

In Jewish society at this time, the label of “sinner” was not universal. It was a label the political elite used to marginalize and exclude people. There were two distinct groups: the righteous and the sinners. A Jewish person had to be living outside either the Pharisees’ or the Sadducees’ interpretations of the teachings of Moses to be labelled a “sinner” or “unclean.” Though they were born into the community of Abraham’s covenant, they could be labelled as living in such a way that excluded them from the hope and promises of their Jewish heritage.

(The Sadducees were much more conservative than the Pharisees, which served to marginalize more people as sinners. The Pharisees used more liberal interpretations and therefore were more popular.) 

This pattern of marginalization was Zacchaeus’ story. He was a Jew by birth, and so a son of Abraham, but on the basis of his complicity with the Romans, he was labelled a “sinner,” an Other, an outsider. 

This is why the people in the story were upset that Jesus planned to go to Zacchaeus’ house. Up to this point in Luke, Jesus had practiced a preferential option for the poor, yet here he was now, associating with someone responsible for making many people poor. 

Grace doesn’t mean letting someone off the hook. Genuine grace transforms oppressors, just as it liberates the oppressed. Did Jesus care that Zacchaeus was responsible for a system that was repressing so many? Absolutely. Yet something had already changed inside of Zacchaeus; we aren’t told how, and we aren’t told when. 

Before Jesus could respond to the crowd’s accusation that Jesus was going to the home of a sinner, though, Zacchaeus interrupts:

“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)

Zacchaeus was changing. As he climbed down from the tree, he was also climbing down from his position of power, prestige, and public privilege. Also, he was not seeking simple forgiveness. 

Zacchaeus understood that following Jesus would involve him making reparations to those he had exploited. It would also involve him going beyond direct reparations to a kind of wealth redistribution to the poor because of his role in an economic system that drove many into poverty. I’m reminded of the words of Nelson Mandela who stated, “Like slavery, like apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade and it can be overcome by the actions of human beings.” (Address at the Make Poverty History campaign, London, England, February 3, 2005.) The father of Latin liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez, wrote: 

“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.” (The Power of the Poor in History, p. 44) 

Today, in a world where poverty is not the product of scarcity because we produce more than we can possibly need, and poverty results from unwillingness to embrace our interconnectedness and share, these words ring true: “There was a time when poverty was considered to be an unavoidable fate, but such a view is no longer possible or responsible. Now we know that poverty is not simply a misfortune; it is an injustice.” (Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutiérrez)

 Zacchaeus followed Jesus. He didn’t only believe another world was possible. He actually moved toward that world. Jesus responded to him by saying:

“Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:9)

Right there, then, at that very moment “salvation”—healing—had come to Zacchaeus’ house. 

What would it mean for salvation or healing to come to your house right now? Would it come in the form of liberation for you and the community you belong to? Or would it, like it did for Zacchaeus, come in the form of your transformation: you taking up the work of liberation with others working for their freedom and regaining your own humanity as you go? In our world where inequality and injustice are most often rooted in disparities based on race, gender, education, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, class, ability, and more, what would Zacchaeus-like salvation look like for you?

“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to [heal] the world through him.” (John 3:17)

HeartGroup Application

Healing our world can take a myriad of different forms. This week, here in the U.S. we find ourselves in the midst of a heated debate over our treatment of Jesus’ “strangers” and what, if not ended by this Saturday, could be the longest government shutdown in the history of the U.S. I’ver heard from many of you who follow RHM who are federal employees. I’ve heard the stories of how you feel as if you are being held for ransom as you continue to go without pay, some of you expected to show up to work regardless.

Last April our book of the month for RHM’s annual suggested reading course was Rev. Kelly Brown Douglass Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.  In the very first chapter, in the section titled The Making of Cherished Property: The Immigration Paradox, Douglass lays out the history of racism that has ever been at the heart of our immigration debates.  This week I would like to return to this chapter. Read and discuss this chapter as a group. How does this history inform how you consider what happening presently along the southern border of the U.S.?

Just this week, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, a Christian magazine dedicated to Jesus and societal justice, implored his readers: “Right now, it’s important that you tell your senator to pass funding bills to restore the operation of government agencies, without approving Donald Trump’s 2,200-mile monument to racism.” I agree on both counts.  Right now, it is important to be contacting your Congressional representatives.  And Wallis’ is correct in naming Trump’s wall as a “2,200-mile monument to racism,” especially in the context of the history of our immigration debate here in the U.S.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus condemns the choices of his followers who failed to follow his teachings in moments such as these. “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” (Matthew 25:43) Besides contacting your representatives, what else can you as a HeartGroup do to be a source of healing in your community presently?  Sharing an informed summary of our history to those who are misinformed in our daily discussions with others? Providing support for those seeking asylum in this country either directly if you live in an area along the souther border or through supporting an organization that is providing help? Do you have any federal workers in your HeartGroup that you can surround and come under and support during this difficult time for them, as well?  Come up with something you can do as a group and do it. 

Rev. John Dorhaur, who is the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, said it rightly this week, “We are faced with a moral crisis as a country, not a border crisis, nor a national emergency.” History is being made.  Let’s make sure we are on the right side of it. 

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

Next weekend I will be in Arizona officiating the wedding of two friends of mine, but I’m going to try and get out next week’s podcast/eSight before I go. 

Until then, remember, another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

John’s Inquiry about the One to Come

(Healing versus Destruction)

woman helping homeless man on park benchby Herb Montgomery

“And John, on hearing about all these things, sending through his disciples, said to him: ‘Are you the one to come, or are we to expect someone else?’ And in reply he said to them: ‘Go report to John what you hear and see: The blind regain their sight and the lame walk around, the skin-diseased are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised, and the poor are given good news. And blessed is whoever is not offended by me.’” (Q 7:18-23)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11.2-6: “When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’ Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.’”

Luke 7.18-23: “John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’ When the men came to Jesus, they said, ‘John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”’ At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.’”

Isaiah 35.5-6: Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.  Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.”

As we discussed briefly last week, the story of the centurion, Jesus as a healer, and the liberation sayings of Jesus in the gospel narratives all led up to embracing Jesus as the “one to come.”

The blind regain their sight.

The lame walk around.

The skin-diseased are cleansed.

The deaf hear.

The dead are raised.

The poor receive good news. 

Jesus is the proof of these liberatory hopes and expectations. Yet there are two kinds of liberation here. One is physical, and the other is economic. Understanding this is one of the hooks that prevents me from simply throwing out the Jesus story. Yes, the Jesus story includes supernatural healing stories. Yet its primary focus is not Jesus the miracle worker, nor Jesus the magician, but rather the Jesus the liberator of the suffering, the poor, the oppressed, the disinherited, and the marginalized. Liberation is the genus of his ministry, and physical healing and economic healing are two distinct species.

It’s worth noting that the original Jesus followers were not postmodern, modern, or post Enlightenment people as we are. They were a product of their own times, and the Jewish world view they subscribed to most was a Jewish apocalyptic worldview. (I have written on the tenets of Jewish apocalypticism; please see An End of the World Savior versus Present Liberator.) As we’ve shared before, the apocalyptic worldview, influenced by Zoroastrianism, saw this world as the visible expression of a much larger, behind-the-scenes, cosmic conflict between forces of good and evil: earthly political and physical forces were only the extension of that cosmic conflict. Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome would all have been viewed by Jewish apocalypticists as simply the puppet-empires of YHWH’s and Israel’s cosmic enemies.

They applied this belief in cosmic war to physical illness and disabilities as well. They had no understanding of germ theory or physiology, or even the insight modern people have into anatomy. If someone was sick, for example, it was the work of unseen cosmic forces from which the person’s need was liberation. Healing, was not supernatural, but rather liberating, about an assumed relationship between a seen effect and its unseen cause.

For Jesus to be a liberator in the way that his original audience would have understood it, Jesus’ liberation had to include economic and political liberation. The fact that it also included physical healing classified Jesus as a complete liberator in an apocalyptic dualist sense as well. This would have been deeply significant in their 1st Century setting.

A Noteworthy Transition

There is a noteworthy difference between the traditional apocalyptic liberator and the Jesus of the Jesus story, however.

Sayings Gospel Q begins with John announcing a coming judgment.

“He said to the crowds coming to be‚ baptized: ‘Snakes’ litter! Who warned you to run from the impending rage? So bear fruit worthy of repentance, and do not presume to tell yourselves: We have as forefather Abraham! For I tell you: God can produce children for Abraham right out of these rocks! And the ax already lies at the root of the trees. So every tree not bearing healthy fruit is to be chopped down and thrown on the fire. I baptize you in water, but the one to come after me is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to take off. He will baptize you in Spirit and fire. His pitchfork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn on a fire that can never be put out.’” (Q 3:7-9; 16b-17)

Just as the apocalyptic world view viewed visible agents on earth as conduits of cosmic good or evil forces, John’s statement also looked forward to a dualistic judgment where the earthly oppressed conduits of cosmic good would be vindicated and liberated while their earthly oppressors, viewed as conduits of cosmic evil, would be judged, punished and destroyed. He foresaw liberation for the oppressed but vengeance on oppressors.

Sayings Gosepl Q shows a transition from John’s more punitive liberating judgment to Jesus’s restorative liberation: for Jesus, the humanity of both the oppressed and the oppressors would be restored. (See last week’s eSight to recall how this story relates to the story of the centurion.)

The liberation represented in the sayings of Jesus was not simply justice for the disinherited and vengeance on their enemies, but also a liberation marked by the healing or restoration of both sides, the subjugated as well as the subjugators. Jesus’s liberation called people away from the dehumanizing way of domination, where we endlessly create more and more effective ways of achieving power and control over others. He instead cast before our imaginations a world of mutual aid and resource sharing, where we together work to survive and then thrive as members of an interconnected human family.

When one couples this description of what the liberation of Jesus looked like—healing, restoration, liberation, and good news to the poor—with last week’s section of the gospel narrative, the point becomes stark. Jesus emerges not as a liberator wielding mass destruction on enemies, but as a liberator who works through restoration, healing, and even the nonviolent transformation of one’s enemies. It’s a humanizing liberation for all.

Granted, those who benefit from the way of domination (i.e. the dominators or those who participate in some way) don’t see this as good news today and didn’t in Jesus’s time either. As Peter Gomes stated in his book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Jesus’s statement that “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” “is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions [but] is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first” (p. 42). What is good news to the people at the bottom of the social pyramid will never be perceived as good news to those at the top.

Jesus’s liberation was also problematic to those among the people who thought violent revolution was their only hope. A nonviolent revolution did not seem very promising in the 1st Century; remember, this was before Gandhi and others demonstrated nonviolence. Though it may seem otherwise, liberation rooted in enemy love and transformation rather than the mass destruction of one’s enemies is good news.

Matthew and Luke both use the narrative of John’s disciples to connect Jesus’ liberation of the poor and oppressed with the liberation Isaiah looked forward to. Matthew includes this theme in his expansion of Mark, and Luke expands this theme even more so in his own gospel. An example of Luke’s greater emphasis on liberation is the story only found in Luke from Luke 4:16-20 where Jesus (who by all cultural expectation should have been illiterate) actually reads from Isaiah itself (cf. Isaiah 61.1-2).

For Q, Matthew and Luke, Jesus is the long awaited arrival of the liberation that Israel had been looking forward to since the days of Isaiah. Isaiah 35.5-6 states, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” But the nature or character of Isaiah’s liberation brought its own set of challenges, some of which we have mentioned this week. One element of the liberation found in Isaiah, which would have been and still is very puzzling for many, was the image of the suffering servant.

It’s important to realize that the Jesus of the gospels is not inventing nonviolence. He is simply taking the nonviolence in Isaiah seriously. He is leaning into it, exploring where it could lead if skillfully and intentionally applied to his own day and the dynamics between Rome and the Jewish poor.

Healing Versus Destruction

Today, we must be careful in both religious and secular settings not to describe the liberation we’re working toward as a vision of destroying people who oppose our work. Our goal is not to destroy our enemies but to transform them by winning them. John the Baptist’s “one to come” was a destroyer, separating humanity and bringing fire upon the chaff. But Jesus doesn’t quite line up with that description, and it causes John to question whether the people should be “looking for another.”Jesus teaches John that his liberation was quite different: it was to be a different “recompense.” Jesus’s liberating ministry is characterized by the healing, restoration and a radical change in the lives of those the status quo impoverished, for sure, but it was also to be a radical change in humanizing even the oppressors.

Rome had already made life a desert for the majority of Jewish citizens through violent oppression. Jesus did not come as another destroyer promising peace, but as a teacher showing the path toward liberation, life, and healing. He pointed the way to a world where, as Isaiah and Micah had hoped, there was enough for everyone.

“Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ The law will go out from Zion, the word of the YWHW from Jerusalem. He will govern between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2.3-4)

“Many nations will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid for the LORD Almighty has spoken. (Micah 4.2-4, emphasis added.)

This is a world that can be characterized as a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all where all injustice, oppression and violence has been put right.

The question we’re returning to in this series is whether that vision cast by the Jewish Jesus in the 1st Century has any relevance to our world of corporatism, militarism, bigotry, and fear. Many in Jesus’s Galilean audience desperately longed for a change from Roman imperialist tyranny. And Jesus offered a path rooted in our interconnectedness with each other; a subversive way that called us to take up the work of making our world a safer home for us all.

To each of you on this path of healing and restoration as opposed to the path of destruction: may this week’s section of Q encourage and confirm you in the energy you invest in those around you:

“ . . . the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor . . . ” (Sayings Gospel Q 7:18-23)

Whatever portion of the work you are investing your time in, be of courage. Together we are making a difference in bringing liberation to the lives of those who are suffering.

HeartGroup Application

This week, go back and review John’s description of what he thought Jesus would be and the gospel writers’ description of what Jesus actually was.

  1. Try listing at least five contrasts between the two.
  2. Do you see these contrasting visions in contemporary religious groups of people who value the Jesus story? Which some communities do you see continuing John the Baptist’s work, warning of a coming destruction, living an ascetic life, and crying out repent? Which communities do you sense are focused on healing and liberation from suffering today? Which communities, like the one I grew up, are a hybrid of both?
  3. Discuss with your HeartGroup how you can lean into being a community centered in healing and restoration, and pick at least one action step from your discussion to begin implementing.

We are in this together, and there’s still so much work to do. Thank you for being on this journey of transformation and restoration, too. Keep living in love till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

Is Transformative Justice Enough?

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“Those who are well have no need of a physician.” (Mark 2.17)

This week, we continue exploring the passage that we looked at last week. Last week we said that the inclusive table of Jesus made room for “tax collectors” and “sinners,” and indicted the religious leaders who looked down on both. There is something else taking place in this passage as well.

Jesus perceived himself as a liberating physician who came not to condemn but to heal. His focus was transformation, not punishment. Tax collectors and sinners were being transformed (see Luke 19.1-9), and yet some of the people, for whatever reason, wanted to see these tax collectors and sinners suffer some chastisement for violating the Torah’s purity laws or for being unfaithful to the political interests of the Jewish people and collaborating with Rome.

I also want to be clear. The tax collectors and sinners were not changing in the ways the scribes and Pharisees wanted them to change, but they were changing. They were abandoning their participation in the systemic oppression of the poor and embracing Jesus’s teachings on the redistribution of their riches to those they had previously robbed.

There are two things to consider.

First: the tax collectors’ and sinners’ changes didn’t match the changes the scribes and Pharisees prescribed. Those who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus will be changed, but those changes may not look anything like the changes that religious onlookers expect.

This is not an “Anything goes if you turn to Jesus” approach. This is the reality that the changes that happen when we decide to follow the teachings of Jesus rarely reflect the values of religions that support and empower the status quo. The tax collectors and sinners who ate with Jesus were embracing Jesus’s bias toward the poor, but not necessarily the purity laws that the scribes and Pharisees passionately defended. And we have no indication that they were being indoctrinated into the mainstream definition of the Romans as the enemy.

Today the same is true. When someone turns to Jesus’s teachings, they may not change in all the ways others may think they need to. Change does occur. But the Jesus story offers transformation and a change in values as well. It is this values change that threatens the onlookers.

Just recently, I was accused of preaching a gospel that doesn’t produce change in the lives of those who embrace it: “Herb is preaching a gospel that tells people they can be saved in their sins.” Nothing could be further than the truth. What this claim misses is that radical change is in fact occurring, just not the changes some critics prescribe. Jesus’s gospel liberates us from both personal and systemic sin, and yet what you define as sin and what Jesus defined as sin may be radically different. We can miss ways people are changing right before our eyes because we don’t have Jesus’ tailor made plan of change for those people. Some status quo-supporting religions define as sin things that aren’t sin but are simply things that the status quo wants to suppress to maintain their societal  position. The personal and systemic transformation that Jesus’s teachings call for is transformation that will ultimately turn the status quo on its head.

Second: Jesus is much more concerned with transformation than with chastisement.

The stories of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah told of the ancient judges who guided the Hebrews before the days of the kings. These Judges were the people’s liberators, not their punishers.

In the books of the Old Testament prophets, justice is primarily restorative and transformative. They do speak of charity, but charity only helps with the immediate needs of those at the bottom of our societies. When justice works personal and systemic transformation, it works at the root of the system itself, and it produces no more societal tops or bottoms. It produces equity.

It may always be important to pull people out of the water who are drowning. But at some point, as Martin Luther King, Jr., taught us, somebody has to ask the question, “Who keep throwing these people in the water?”

When people benefit from the status quo, their gospel tends to define justice as punishment or retribution. These definitions work to preserve the status quo and the benefits that some can draw from it.

By contrast, Jesus’s teachings focus on justice transforming the status quo rather than a justice defined punishing those who violate the rules that preserve the status quo. Both the Old Testament prophets and Jesus taught a justice that invites transformation and not mere penal chastisement.

Hear Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ BUT I say to you, Do not retaliate against an evildoer…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, LOVE YOUR ENEMIES and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:38-39, 43-44, emphasis added.)

The cheek defiance and enemy love that Jesus taught affirmed those being violated, and it also sought creative ways to transform those violating them. (See the presentation entitled The Way of Enemy Love here.) Jesus’s enemy love was not in the least bit passive. It was nonviolent, and it lovingly confronted for the sake of transforming those at the helm of a harmful status quo.

The question I want to ask today is, “Is transformation enough?”

This question is for those who have already been hurt. Is it enough for those who have wronged you to be radically transformed, or do you need them to suffer something punitive as well? Can transformation take the place of retribution? Or is retribution necessary even when transformation has taken place? In my studies over the last five years, I’ve learned that there are two qualities of punishment (For more this see the presentation Do I Have To Believe in Hell? here.): One kind of punishment is transformative, and disciplines for the purpose of awakening and changing those who have hurt others. A second type of punishment is not concerned with transformation, but only seeks to satisfy the claim in the heart of the one who was hurt that says the guilty party needs to suffer.

If the Heart of the Universe is anything like the heart we see in the story and teachings of Jesus, it is primarily concerned with transformation, not penal, retributive punishment. And this insight should challenge all of us.

“An eye for an eye will leave everyone blind”.—frequently attributed to Mahatma Gandhi

 

HeartGroup Application

When I consider the intrinsic value of the shared table, the transformation of those who share the table is, for me, its greatest quality.

As I share here, another indispensable quality of the shared table is the room it makes for those around the table who are unlike us. As we listen to each voice around the table share their stories and experiences, we are challenged to see the world through a different lens than our own and we start out on the beautiful journey of integrating these diverse experiences into a meaningful and coherent whole. We’re each called to choose and work hard at creating a safer more compassionate world for us all.

This week:

  1. Sit down with your HeartGroup and list the similarities and the differences that exist among your group.
  2. Discuss together the differences you feel are missing within your group, what those differences would create if they were present, and active ways you could enlarge your group to include and embrace those differences.
  3. Select one of those ways to put into practice during the week.

Our differences have the potential to scare us, because when we come together, all of us walk away from the table different than when we arrived. But this is just the point of coming together—transformation. When we come to a table such as the one Jesus has set, if we will only listen to each other, every one of us gets up a different person.

It truly is a beautiful journey!

Many voices, one new world.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you, and I’ll see you next week.

 Jesus—Liberator of the Oppressed, Physician of the Sick

IMG_0283BY HERB MONTGOMERY

As Jesus was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Mark 2:14-17

I want to begin this week by thanking you for your patience over the last couple weeks. We’ve been moving our oldest daughter into college. She is our first-born child, and we’ve felt a mixture of bittersweet emotions: business, grief, excitement, joy and sorrow. I was not prepared for what I’ve been feeling about her leaving home. Please pray for me and for us as family.

We started by reading from Mark’s gospel, chapter 2. Let’s take a look at Jesus and the dinner he attended at Levi’s house.

In Mark’s gospel, salvation is defined as Jesus’ liberation from all that oppresses. Mark’s Jesus is not preoccupied with getting people through life in moral condition so their post-mortem, disembodied soul is eligible for the pearly gates. Mark’s Jesus is busy liberating those he encounters from whatever oppresses them today, right now.

Mark’s gospel also draws from the apocalyptic, dualistic world view that connects everything here on earth with a fight between good cosmic forces and evil cosmic forces. In other words, if someone is being oppressed, their oppressors are the puppets of cosmic evil. Jesus envisioned himself as a conduit of cosmic good, here to liberate those oppressed on earth. This is why Mark jumps into supernatural acts of liberation this early in the Jesus story.

Mark shows us that Jesus possessed a preferential option for the poor. Jesus wasn’t working for the equal opportunity of all to compete in a system of winners and losers. He aimed instead at a radical restructuring of human communities where there are no more winners and losers. Jesus pointed us toward communities of mutual aid, where we each strove to take care of one another rather than competing against each other. In Mark 10, Jesus tells the man, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.” He envisioned community not rooted in win/lose survival, but win/win cooperation.

In the second chapter of Mark, we see the wealthy tax collectors and “sinners” responding to Jesus’ call to wealth redistribution and the wealthy Pharisees not responding well. We begin here to see in Mark’s gospel a Jesus who prioritizes liberating the oppressed over religiously defined purity and fidelity to religious ritual.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus makes his mission clear:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to those with prison-blindness,
to let the oppressed go free.”
Jesus, Luke 4:18

The Pharisees in Mark are upset that Jesus is eating with “tax-collectors and sinners.”  Jewish tax-collectors were viewed as unfaithful to the national interests of their own people and collaborators with the oppressive political and economic power of Rome. A sinner in the gospels was someone perceived to be living contrary to the Pharisees’ and teachers’ interpretation of the Torah.

Notice that those who were thought to be guilty of nationally infidelity and/or religiously disobedient were responding to Jesus’ economic teachings, yet the Pharisees, who valued national faithfulness and strict obedience to the Torah’s ritual and purity laws, were not.

Mark offers another clue to understanding what’s happening in Mark 2. In the next two stories in his gospel, Mark focuses on the Pharisees and the rituals of fasting and the Sabbath. Asked about the Sabbath, Jesus responds, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food” (Mark 2:25). The Torah declared it was not lawful for anyone but the priests to eat the bread of the Presence. But when it came to feeding the hungry and strict adhering to the ritual laws, Jesus chose to labor for the oppressed and to prioritize feeding the hungry over the Torah rule. The people were a weightier matter than the law.

Jesus’ teaching matches something that Judaism refers to as pikuach nefesh, the principle that the preservation of human life overrides other religious considerations. The Pharisees in our story this week subscribed to a different way of interpreting the Torah; their principle was that ritual and purity laws may not be violated, even when a life is in danger. (You can see this principle at work in Mark 3 as well. Some members of every religion still argue for this approach to religious obedience today.)

Mark’s Jesus prioritizes the lives of those who are being economically oppressed.

Following Jesus is not about greater patriotism to nationalistic interests, nor is it primarily about religious observances. Following Jesus means defining salvation not as getting to heaven but as liberating humanity today from all things that oppress and using the principles Jesus taught himself.

Those who participate in this liberation work are, by definition, following Jesus in his work. Those who don’t may be very religious, yet are not following him in the way he walked while here on earth.

Our story ends with Jesus responding, “Those that are well don’t need a physician. I came to call not the righteous, but the sinners.”

I believe Jesus was using the religious leaders’ own paradigm here. They felt they were “righteous,” and called those Jesus embraced “sinners.” Yet Jesus took on the role of a liberating physician, and those labeled “sinners” and “sick” were responding to him. They were the ones seeing the sickness of the system they’d participated in. They were the ones choosing to move in a different direction. Jesus hadn’t come to affirm or reward those who were “righteous.” He had come to heal the sick, to liberate the oppressed.

Jesus suggests to the religious leaders that even if they were more politically “righteous” than the tax collectors and more ritually “righteous” than those they referred to as “sinners,” they were just as much economic “sinners” as the wealthy tax-collectors, and just as much in need of liberation as the people they condemned. As long as they refused to consider this reality, they could have no part in and no understanding of Jesus’ work for the poor and oppressed.

This week, don’t ask yourself how successful you are in the merely religious aspects of your life. Ask yourself what you and those around you need to be liberated from so you can be fully human. Ask what you are doing in your own sphere to live out Jesus’ liberation.

Just recently, someone responded to one of my critiques of social political and economic abuses.  “What are you, Herb,” they asked me. “A minister or a politician?” My response is that I’m neither. I am simply a human being endeavoring to obediently follow Jesus. And it is that obedience that dictates that I must concern myself with more than the afterlife. I must also concern myself with whatever people need liberation from today in order to be what the great Heart at the center of the universe brought them into existence to be.

To the degree that we’re living out Jesus’ ministry of liberation from all things that oppress, to that same degree we’re working alongside Jesus. Unless we live out the wisdom of the Jesus story, we may still possess some assurance that helps us sleep at night, but we’re not following Jesus’ way.

If our Jesus today is not first and foremost a liberator of the oppressed as he declared in Luke 4:18, then we must at least ask whether our Jesus is the same one the gospels describe.

HeartGroup Application

The Jesus story calls us to fundamentally rethink theology from the standpoint of the poor and oppressed, to envision a God who is on the side of the poor and the oppressed of our world. The Jesus story calls us away from being preoccupied with getting people through life in good religious or moral condition so that when they die they can be admitted into heaven. Hope of a post-mortem Heaven, dear as it may be, cannot be our cause for excluding or ignoring the basic conditions anyone lives in today. The Jesus story calls us to ask, “What do we need to be fully liberated from in order to be fully human?”—and that liberation is physical, economic, political, religious, and social.

What do we and those around us need to be fully liberated from?

This week:

  1. Sit down with your HeartGroup and take inventory: what in your everyday lives do each of you need to be liberated from? List the issues, experiences, or needs.
  1. Brainstorm ways the group can come together along side of those needs, and live out the liberation values of the Jesus story. Write them down.
  1. Pick three things you have written down in number 2, and coordinate the carrying out of the actions previously discussed.

Charity addresses our immediate needs, but justice gets at the root of what is causing the oppression. Again, the Jesus story defines salvation as liberation from all things that oppress. Within the teachings of Jesus are the seeds of how we can embody Jesus’ work of healing in this world (see John 3:17). His teachings are where a Jesus follower begins to discover how we live out this gospel in our community and incarnate the values of this story which we hold dear.

Till the only world that remains, is a world where love reigns. 

Here’s to Jesus’ safer, more compassionate home for us all. I wish each of you much love, peace and liberation this week.

I love each one of you and I’ll see you next week.

The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 6 of 9

Part 6 of 9

Woman, Here Is Your Son

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Wooden RosaryMeanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (John 19:25-27)

This week we begin to move into John’s telling of the Jesus story.

John’s telling is unique among the four canonical gospels. John’s is the latest written, and his Jesus story shows high Christology (Jesus as fully Divine). Unlike other writers in the New Testament whose Christology is more ethically centered (Jesus is defined by what he did and taught), John’s Christology seeks to define who Jesus was ontologically and cosmologically. It it in John’s gospel that the idea of a divine Jesus is most fully developed among the four gospels.

Ever since I read Irenaeus’s Against Heresies, the parallels between Irenaeus and John’s gospel have lead me to believe John was seeking to tell the Jesus story in such a way as to intersect and inform what he felt was the threat of early first-century Gnosticism.

Many aspects of John’s gospel make more sense when we place them in this cultural context. Many regard Gnosticism as the first great Christian heresy. It took the focus of Jesus’ followers off of a renewed and restored earth to an escapist goal of attaining heaven instead. Scholars today see Gnosticism’s dualism between the body and the soul (body or nature is evil/soul is good; body or nature is mortal/soul is immortal) and Gnosticism’s abandonment of the body and the good world around us as evil to have caused a significant shift in the focus of historic Christianity. This shift, coupled with other influences, is why, to a large degree, some Christians today focus on post-mortem bliss rather than the liberation of the oppressed and healing of injustices in our present world. An example of this is how White Christians in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s were committed to “getting to heaven” while ignoring and even perpetrating a very “present hell” here on earth. Ida B. Wells once wrote, “Our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.” [1]

John’s method then needs to be understood. His intent was to show Jesus to be fully Divine (Holy, from above) and then show how integrated he was in humanity, his body, the earth, and the dirt. He also portrayed Jesus as genuinely human.

This is the controversy John refers to in 1 John 4:2, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” (Emphasis added.)

The Gnostics taught that for Jesus to have truly been Divine or Holy, he could not have genuinely possessed a physical body but only the appearance or “impression” of a body. Therefore to show Jesus as also fully human would have taken the focus of those affected by gnosticism off of their post-mortem bliss, and back onto the work of restoration and healing that we see so markedly evidenced in Jesus’ own life and work.

Reread John’s gospel and see how much John emphasizes Jesus’ body and Jesus’ genuine bodily functions. (We’ll look at this more next week when we look at John’s words of Jesus on the cross, “I thirst.”)

What John wants us to encounter first about Jesus’ experience on cross, unlike any other gospel author, is Jesus’ very human relationship with and concern for his mother. This is the humanity of Jesus that Gnostics would be confronted by and need to address.

Womanism and The Jesus Story

I also want to draw attention to a womanist reading of this passage in John this week.

In James Cone’s phenomenal book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone recounts the experiences of what it was like for African Americans during America’s post slavery era in relation to the lynching being carried out by White Christians.

Cone writes, “The fear of lynching was so deep and widespread that most blacks were too scared even to talk publicly about it. When they heard of a person being lynched in their vicinity, they often ran home, pulled down shades, and turned out lights—hoping the terror moment would pass without taking the lives of their relatives and friends.” [2]

Cone retells the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father, who witnessed a lynching at a very young age. Daddy King states, “All I could do was to run on home, keep silent, never mentioning what I’d seen to anyone, until many, many years later, when I understood it better.” [3]

The parallels between the lynching of African Americans in America and the lynching of Jesus in the first century are astounding. [4] The horror of crucifixion by Rome and the nightmarish atrocity of lynching in America by White Christians served very similar purposes within their perspective cultures. Both were forms of terrorism used by the dominant system of the day.

The fact that John tells us there were those who didn’t “run home” when Jesus was lynched is a testament to the Jewish women John lists, a testament we come to understand and appreciate more deeply when seen through the lens of what Black women experienced in America’s lynching history. These women did not run home, as did most of the followers of Jesus, but stood by, not abandoning Jesus when the dominant system “strung him up.”

Black women should not be made invisible in America’s lynching history. They were not exempt to White Christian mob violence in America. Not only were Black women lynched as well, but those who were not, “not only suffered the loss of their sons, husbands, brothers, uncles, nephews, and cousins but also endured public insults and economic hardship as they tried to carry on, to take care of their fatherless children in a patriarchal and racist society in which whites could lynch them or their children with impunity, at the slightest whim or smallest infraction of the southern racial etiquette.” [5]

Jewish women belonged to a similarly patriarchal society. For Mary, the mother of Jesus, to lose Jesus, the specific male she was economically dependent on, to mob violence in her day also meant economic hardship and poverty as she would be left to try and carry on.

Yet John’s Jesus is no victim. John’s Jesus will leave behind no orphans [6], and as we also see here, no widows.

John’s Jesus looks down from the cross and, much to the dismay of the Gnostics of John’s time, the first thing Jesus attends to is the human, intimately familial relationship between himself and his mother.

Again, we get a window into the reality of the necessity of Jesus’ connecting his mother to a new son through womanist perspectives today.

What we also receive from looking at this narrative detail of the interchange between Jesus and Mary through the lens of womanist theology is the knowledge that we do not have to interpret

Jesus’ death as some sort of righteous surrogacy or surrogate suffering. Remember, the cross is not the salvific act, according to the book of Acts, as much as the resurrection is [7], for it is the resurrection that undoes and reverses everything accomplished by the lynching of Jesus by the dominant system. The death of Jesus was the temporary victory of the oppression and injustice that Jesus was confronting and resisting. Far from understanding Jesus’ death as the glorification and justification of innocent suffering, the death of Jesus was a travesty of justice. It was the unjust response of evil and oppression to the threat of Jesus as he sought to heal and liberate.

Jesus in John’s gospel is not a victim. Nor is he passive. Jesus is an activist whose advocacy for the marginalized and outcast resulted in suffering. Jesus’ death was the natural result of Jesus’ confrontation of the dominant system. And as followers of Jesus we, too, are to actively oppose evil rather than passively submit to it. Yes, Jesus taught nonviolence, but we are not to interpret this as Jesus’ teaching passivity. Jesus taught a nonviolent, direct confrontation of injustice, oppression, and violence as the means of changing the world around us.

Jacquelyn Grant in her book White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response rightly states, “The significance of Christ is not found in his maleness, but in his humanity,” [8] and the history of Black women today, “the oppressed of the oppressed,” can inform and educate our understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection in life- transforming, world-transforming, ways.

What we see in John’s interchange between Jesus and Jesus’ mother is Jesus’ humanity first and foremost. We see the cultural need for making sure his mother was provided for in a patriarchal society oppressive to women. We begin to understand Jesus’ death for what it is, not an act by which justice was satisfied but an act of inhumane injustice that was the result of Jesus’ confrontation with injustice. And last, we see Jesus’ death as that which the Divine Being of the Jesus story would reverse and undo. The dominant system does not have the last world in this narrative. The story does not end with a lynching but with a Divine Being standing in solidarity not simply with Jesus but with all who have been lynched (directly or indirectly) throughout history, whispering that this is not where our stories have to end. The climax of the Jesus story is that over and against those at whose hands Jesus was lynched, stands a Voice, calling the world, both oppressed and the oppressors, to a better way.

Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black body swinging in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree.
—“Strange Fruit,” Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allen)

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 10:39)

Perhaps nothing about the history of mob violence in the United States is more surprising than how quickly an understanding of the full horror of lynching has receded from the nation’s collective historical memory.—W. Fitzhugh Brundage

HeartGroup Application

We are getting closer to when the western Christian world celebrates Easter with each passing week.

This week I want you to dedicate some time to contemplating what a difference it makes to see Jesus’ death not as the appeasement of an angry God so that those who have sinned can escape this world and be let into heaven, with the resurrection being a neat little affirmation of post- mortem bliss, but as the lynching that it was, a result of Jesus’ standing up to the injustice, oppression, and violence of the dominant system of his day. Try to see Jesus’ resurrection not as a tidy ending but as a Divine Being’s solidarity with all those who have been oppressed, violated, and affected by injustice throughout time, whispering to us that in this Jesus and the values he espoused and taught, a new world is coming. In fact, as a result of the resurrection, it has already arrived.

1. As an aid in helping you shift in your contemplation of Jesus’ death this week, I recommend you watch Billie Holiday’s performance of Strange Fruit. One free way to do this would be to simply go to YouTube here. Allow Billie to inform your understanding of the Jesus narrative as you overlay Jesus’ lynching on one of the most effective teaching moments in America’s recent history. Allow Billie’s performance to help you step back into and understand anew the death—and resurrection—of Jesus.

2. Journal what you discover.

3. Share what you discover with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

As Jesus followers, we subscribe to a narrative that does not end in the defeat of Jesus by the lynching mob. The narrative ends with Jesus’ God standing in solidarity with him in his confrontation of injustice, even to the undoing and reversing of their murderous actions. Jesus’ death is not his nonviolent protest to injustice. It was the fatal result of this nonviolent protest. The resurrection is Jesus’ God’s having the last word over the lynching mob. This should give us pause to reflect.

Our narrative is one of hope. Hope that injustice does not have the last word, ever. A new day has dawned. A light is shining from an empty tomb.

Keep living in love, loving like Jesus, until the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

One shared table, many voices, one new world.

I’m praying for your hearts to be enlarged and liberated as you move more deeply into the contemplation of Jesus’ death and resurrection and their implications for us today.

I love each of you deeply. I’ll see you next week.


 

1. Wells, Ida B. Crusade for Justice, pp. 154-55

2. Cone, James H. (2011-09-01). The Cross and the Lynching Tree (p. 15). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

3. Daddy King, p. 30.

4. Acts 5:30—The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree; Acts 10:39—They put him to death by hanging him on a tree. (Emphasis added.)

5. Cone, James H. (2011-09-01). The Cross and the Lynching Tree (pp. 122–123). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

6. John 14:18—“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”
7. Acts 13:32-33—And we bring you the gospel that what God promised to our ancestors God has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.

8. Jacquelyn Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response