No Room In The Inn

Herb Montgomery | December 7, 2018


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


 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Douglass continues,

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

2. Journal your experiences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week. 

Directed Good News 

by Herb Montgomery | April 12, 2018

sign saying good news is coming

Photo Credit: Jon Tyson on Unsplash


Jesus’ gospel was good news to those who were on the margins. If they were able to shape a safer, more compassionate, just society, this would, in the long run, be good for everyone. Nonetheless, the news that power was about to shift was not good news to those who at that time held the reins of power themselves. To them, it was a threat. It had to be removed.


 

“. . . good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Matthew 11:5)

 

The late Peter Gomes wrote, “Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others.” (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, p. 31)

Jesus declared that in the community he envisioned, those made last in current social structures would be first, and those presently made first, would be last. 

“When the gospel says, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” despite the fact it is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions, it is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first. — Peter Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good about the Good News? p. 42 (emphasis added.)

Over and over within the gospel stories we see good news to some being not so good news for others. In Luke’s gospel, the pronouncement of blessing upon the poor was coupled with woe to those who were rich.

And this leads me to my point this week.

I believe that Jesus’ vision for human community is Good news for all, but not good news to all. 

Jesus’ gospel was directed to those at a certain social location.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me 
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free…” (Luke 4:18)

The gospel is good news to the poor, to the oppressed, and to those who are victims of mass incarceration, for example. These are the people whom our system targets, exploits, or forces to the underside of our society where benefits the rest of us take for granted are kept beyond their reach. 

These were also the people who perceived Jesus’ teachings as good news. Though, if we followed Jesus’ values, they would set us on a path toward a safer, more just, more compassionate world for us all, those in whom those changes sparked fear did not perceive them as good news initially. It was good news for them, too, but they did not perceive it as good news to them.

A world where we embrace our interconnectedness and dependence on one another, where we learn to cooperate with each other rather than individualistically compete against others is a world that will be better for everyone. It’s a world where folks who daily face oppression reclaim their own humanity, and also those dehumanized by the act of being “oppressor” find in their removal from power a returning to their own humanity, too.

Good news to some, and good for all, but not good news to all. As Gomes says in his book:

“… Thus, in the name of fair-mindedness and egalitarianism, the gospel’s claim of a radical reordering, a redistribution, an exercise in almost Gilbertian topsy-turveydom, is an offense, a scandal, and hardly good news.” —in The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, pp. 31, 42).

Today, many sectors of Christianity have abandoned changing systemic injustice here and now in our world. These Christians sing hymns that utter the words, “this world is not my home I’m just a-passin’ through.” Their focus, for better or worse, is not this life, but one they believe will come after this one. For those who suffer, these beliefs work as an opiate and leave them passive. For those who benefit from their suffering, these beliefs work as guilt alleviation, “no-condemnation,” an unconditional love that enables them to sleep better at night and believe that the gospel has little to do with anything here and now.

This type of Christianity adapts Jesus’ teachings to offer the hope of post-mortem bliss to as many people as possible. It makes Jesus’ teachings good news to all, not merely good news for all. And this has produced a myriad of problems, including allowing us to seem to follow a radical Jew like Jesus while we remain mostly moderate or even oppress others.

This “respectable middle” has almost wholly eclipsed the teachings of Jesus. You can attend entire conferences on the gospel without ever hearing the poor mentioned once. Whatever can be said of this kind of gospel, it’s not the same gospel that the Jewish Jesus taught. For the Jesus of the scriptures, the poor and that which was good news to the poor were the centerpiece of his teachings. If Jesus were present today, I can’t imagine he could give a weekend of teachings on the gospel and never mention the poor once. Is the Jesus of this type of Christianity the same as the Jesus in the stories of Mark, Matthew, and Luke?

The bottom line is that the Gospel of Jesus should be good news to the poor, exploited, incarcerated, vulnerable, marginalized, and pushed aside. Someone once warned me, “Herb,” they said, “If it’s not good news, it’s not the gospel.” But social location matters. Jesus came teaching the good news, but those benefitting from the social system perceived Jesus’ teaching as a threat and began to “hate” him, to “exclude” and “insult” him, and to “reject” him as “evil.” They labeled him dangerous. 

So before we write something off as not the gospel because it doesn’t seem good news to us, we need to check our social location. Is it good news to those on the margins? If I don’t feel that it’s good news, is that because it’s bringing attention to an area where people are being hurt and to which I’d rather turn a blind eye? Who is perceiving the gospel as good news and who is feeling threatened by it? If you are in a position of privilege and you aren’t perceiving things as good news, you’re in the right story. And if you, in a specific area of your life, are marginalized or othered, and you don’t feel like what’s being said is good news to you, then chances are, then, it’s really not the gospel.

Recently, we at RHM participated in our local, annual Race Matters summit. (You can read all about it here.) In one of the keynote addresses, Arley Johnson remarked how in the 2040’s, White Americans will be in the minority. (See http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-op-0809-minority-majority-20170808-story.html and https://www.epi.org/publication/the-changing-demographics-of-americas-working-class/)

Stop and consider this for a moment? Is this good news to you? Do you feel threatened by it?

In a different meeting during the weekend, another speaker mentioned that the demographic shift could possibly explain why abortion is such a trigger issue among White conservatives worried about the decreasing White population. Now, political conservatism has been shown to increase when people are afraid. Also, consider that people genuinely concerned about lowering the number of abortions that take place could lower them by making birth control widely available. Making abortions illegal doesn’t lower their numbers, it only makes them more dangerous for vulnerable women. But if your concern is for the White population, then birth control is not a viable option. You’re wanting more births, not fewer unwanted pregnancies. This is not to mention that many who are pro-life are also pro-war, pro-guns, and pro-capitalism. The pro-life movement has historically been more concerned with controlling women’s sex lives than preventing unwanted pregnancies. 

So why is a demographic shift so threatening? Are White people afraid that people of color will act the way White people have? Similarly, many straight, cisgender folks, so clearly in the majority of our world’s population, are threatened by those who identify as LGBTQIA. Queer folks aren’t working to take over. Their goal is not world domination where everyone is forced to be like them. They simply want a world that is safe for them: they are in the minority. But since straight, cisgender folks have historically created closets for LGBTQIA people to hide in and pretend to live like straight, cisgender people, it only makes sense that we who have benefited from the system fear that the tables will be turned. If I have learned anything from my time within marginalized communities, it’s that no fear could be more unfounded. To date, the safest I have ever felt is when I am among my LGBTQ friends. They know firsthand what it’s like to be ill-treated and repressed, and they go to great lengths to ensure they are not treating others in the same way they have been treated.

In Matthew 21, however, Jesus tells a story about power being taken away from those at the center and given to those marginalized and excluded in Judaism. 

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of justice, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. “They will respect my son,” he said. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ ‘So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ ‘He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,’ they replied, ‘and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.’ . . . ‘Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.’ . . . When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.” (Matthew 21:31-45)

Here Jesus is referring to power being taken away from those at the center of their social structure and given back to the people, specifically the people those in power had pushed to the edges (tax collectors and others labeled as sinners.)

Would those on the margins or those disenfranchised do a better job than those who’d oppressed them? Only time could tell. If they failed to form a just society, eventually power would be wrested from them as well. But this leads me back to my point. 

Again: Jesus’ gospel was good news to those who were on the margins. If they were able to shape a safer, more compassionate, just society, this would, in the long run, be good for everyone. Nonetheless, the news that power was about to shift was not good news to those who at that time held the reins of power themselves. To them, it was a threat. It had to be removed. As it says, “they looked for a way to arrest him” for saying such things.

Jesus’ good news is directed. 

It’s good news for all.

It’s only good news to those presently held down by systemic injustice. 

“. . . good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Matthew 11:5)

HeartGroup Application

1. As a group, create a list of ten sayings that could be directed good news, i.e. things that are good news to certain ones but not necessarily good news to someone else.

We began with one: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

2. Discuss how each one makes you feel. Are some of these sayings good news to you? Are there some that are threatening to you? Why? What is the correlation between your social location in each of the ten sayings and your feelings toward each of them?

3. What did this exercise help you understand? What’s the lesson in this for you? Share with your group what it is.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you may be, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, and transformation. 

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 


To support these weekly podcasts and eSights and help us grow, go to renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate.”

The Kingdom of God within You

by Herb Montgomery

“Today, Jesus’s ‘Kingdom of God,’ a community that centers and puts first those our present society places as last, is within our ability. We can choose to do life differently. When it comes to the subject of immigration, we can put migrants first. When it comes to indigenous people’s rights, we can put Native lives first. When we talk about poverty and creating a new world where poverty is no more, we can put the poor first and center their voices in the discussion. When we speak of what it’s like to be a woman in our society, we can put women first. When we consider racial inequalities, we can choose to put people of color first. And in a world still largely shaped by homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, we can center the discussion in the voices, stories and experiences of those within our community who are LGBTQ.”

 

Featured Text:

“But on being asked when the kingdom of God is coming, he answered them and said: The kingdom of God is not coming visibly. Nor will one say: Look, here! There! For look, the kingdom of God is within you!” (Q 17:20-21)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 24:23: “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.”

Luke 17:20-21: “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Gospel of Thomas 3:1-3: “Jesus says, ‘If those who lead you say to you: “Look, the kingdom is in the sky!”
then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you: “It is in the sea,” then the fishes will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and outside of you.’”

Gospel of Thomas 113: “His disciples said to him: ‘The kingdom – on what day will it come?’ ‘It will not come by watching (and waiting for) it. They will not say: “Look, here!“ or “Look, there!” Rather, the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.’”

The Privatized Individual Interpretation of this Saying

I want to begin this week by critiquing a popular privatized, internal, individualistic interpretation of this passage. One proponent of this individualistic interpretation is Eckhart Tolle. Here is a sample from his work, and then I’ll offer my response from a liberation perspective.

“Jesus was once asked when the kingdom of God would come. The kingdom of God, Jesus replied, is not something people will be able to see and point to. Then came these striking words: ‘Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.’ (Luke 17:21) With these words, Jesus gave voice to a teaching that is universal and timeless. Look into every great religious, spiritual, and wisdom tradition, and we find the same precept — that life’s ultimate truth, its ultimate treasure, lies within us. As Jesus made unambiguously clear, we can experience this inner treasure — and no experience could be more valuable. ‘But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” he declared, “and all these things shall be added unto you’ (Matthew 6:33). From this interior plane of life, he is saying, we will gain all that is needful.” (https://www.tm.org/blog/enlightenment/kingdom-of-god-is-within-you/)

“What you see, hear, feel, touch, or think about is only one half of reality, so to speak. It is form. In the teaching of Jesus, it is simply called ‘the world,’ and the other dimension is ‘the kingdom of heaven or eternal life.’” (Eckhart Tolle; A New Earth)

“When you hear of inner space, you may start seeking it, and because you are seeking it as if you were looking for an object or for an experience, you cannot find it. This is the dilemma of all those who are seeking spiritual realization or enlightenment. Hence, Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!” or “There!” for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.’” (Ibid.)

“No inner baggage, no identifications. Not with things, nor with any mental concepts that have a sense of self in them. And what is the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is. The simple but profound joy of Being that is there when you let go of identifications and so become ‘poor in spirit.’” (Ibid.)

“I think if [Jesus] lived nowadays, instead of ‘kingdom,’ he would have said, ‘dimension.’ And ‘heaven’ refers to a sense of vastness or spaciousness. So if we retranslate the words of Jesus into modern terms [it would be] ‘the dimension of spaciousness is within you.’ And then Jesus said — when they asked him, ‘Where is the kingdom of heaven and when is it going to come?’ — he said, ‘The kingdom of heaven does not come with signs to be perceived. You cannot say, ah, it’s over here or look, it’s over there, for I tell you the kingdom of heaven is within you.’” Eckhart Tolle (Lecture, February 12, 2013, Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education)

Three Critiques from a Liberation Perspective

My first critique is to the idea that you can find this kingdom within yourself as an individual rather than within yourselves as in a community. This individualistic interpretation stands in contrast with the majority of Jesus’ teachings that taught a form of communalism. The “kingdom” in the gospels is a community of people who are committed to putting into action God’s distributively just vision for the world.

Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino critiques theologies in first world countries where “the Kingdom” can be reduced to “the purely personal dimension” (Jesus the Liberator, pp 110-121). The “you” that Jesus’ kingdom is “within” or in “the midst of” is not singular. It’s not singular! The “you” where Jesus locates the Kingdom is plural: “among you” as a collective—a community.

When Angela Davis speaks on community, she speaks of a community that includes not just those who are alive now but also those who have gone before us in our work, our ancestors in social change movements. This community also includes those who will who come after us, who stand on the shoulders of our work the way we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. She speaks of our need to contradict “the neoliberal individualism that persuades us that we are single solitary individuals in the world. We have lost so much as a result of capitalism and not just in terms of material goods. We’ve lost a sense of our connectedness to one another” (SPIRIT OF JUSTICE: A CONVERSATION BETWEEN MICHELLE ALEXANDER AND ANGELA DAVIS, 1:11:30-1:12:30)

This communal interpretation should lift the hopes of someone coming in contact with Jesus’ kingdom as an individual who is part of a larger community, not alone.

My second critique is that this individualistic interpretation makes the kingdom abstract. It does not address systemic injustice, oppression, or violence in concrete ways. This might explain why this interpretation resonates largely with the elites. It allows them to supposedly find Jesus’ kingdom inside of them through personal disciplines without being called to confront their own complicity in injustice or the benefit they derive from their social location in the status quo.

My third critique is that one can read an entire volume expounding this interpretation of the kingdom as an internal level of consciousness and never encounter a mention of the poor. Not one! This is a huge red flag, a denial of the gospel Jesus taught. Jesus called his followers in the Kingdom to practice a preferential option for the poor, those this world makes last.

In Jesus’s “kingdom of God,” whomever the status quo places last becomes first. They are the ones to whom the kingdom belongs (see Luke 6:20). It is their experiences of life, facing marginalization, oppression, exploitation and/or discrimination, in which the community is centered and dedicated to the practice of bringing change in the larger society.

An Alternative

So how are we to understand Jesus’ response to the inquiring Pharisee, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst”?

This response has a social/historical context that the writings of Josephus explain. Josephus writes of incidents that occurred around the mid-1st Century when revolutionary prophets would lead large groups of people into a desert outside Jerusalem on the premise that, once there, God would show them signs of approaching freedom. The Roman procurator, Felix, regarded one of these gatherings as the first stage of revolt, and so sent cavalry and heavy infantry to cut the mob into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147). The most infamous of the revolutionary prophets who promised “signs to be observed” was a militaristic messiah referred to as “the Egyptian.” He’s mentioned in Acts 21:38: “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?” Josephus describes the event as follows:

“Arriving in the country, this man, a fraud who posed as a seer, collected about 30,000 dupes, led them round from the desert to the Mount of Olives and from there was ready to force an entry into Jerusalem, overwhelm the Roman garrison, and seize supreme power with his fellow-raiders as bodyguard.” (Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147)

Josephus wasn’t a neutral reporter. Josephus believed the future of the Jewish people depended on the elites collaborating with Rome. He was definitely biased in favor of Rome. You can see it in the difference between the “4,000 assassins” mentioned in Acts and the “30,000 dupes” mentioned in Josephus’ account. But the fact that he mentions the event is still important, even if his account possesses potentially exaggerated numbers. In a parallel account of this event, Josephus includes the “sign” that this “Egyptian” had claimed would be shown to the people. It would be a sign like Joshua’s sign at the Battle of Jericho. At the “Egyptian’s” command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down so that his followers could enter and seize the city. However, before any such a sign could be attempted, the Roman cavalry and infantry slayed or captured hundreds and put the rest to flight, including the militaristic messiah himself. (Josephus, Antiquities, 170-172) These were not irrational leaders, but hopeful militarist messiahs, liberation prophets who tried to lead movements of Jewish peasants in action that would be accompanied by YHWH’s power and deliverance.

Josephus gives other examples of the people seeking God’s deliverance and meeting death instead. Roman soldiers massacred a thousand Jewish women and children who followed another Jewish militaristic messiah “prophet.” This man had declared to the people in Jerusalem that God had commanded them to go up to the Temple to receive the signs of deliverance (Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 360). Josephus also describes a “Samaritan prophet” who was a contemporary “messiah” of Jesus during the time of Pontius Pilate. This prophet’s “sign” was to lead the people up the sacred Mount Gerizim to find holy vessels left there by Moses. Instead, the armed crowd was attacked and overwhelmed by Pilate’s troops at the foot of the mountain (Josephus, Antiquities, 85-87).

When Jesus says “the Kingdom is not coming with signs to be observed,” he is emphatically rejecting the specific way in which popular prophets led masses of Jewish people to their deaths at the hands of Roman soldiers. The reference to such leaders becomes more specific when he warns, “They will say to you, ‘Lo there!’ or ‘Lo, here!’ Do not go, do not follow them” (Luke 17:23). Those who followed these messiahs and their methods of liberation would perish needlessly in horrific slaughters by Rome.

Jesus instead offered a new vision for human society in the form of a community that practiced survival, nonviolent resistance, liberation, and reparation, with the hope of both personal and societal transformation. This kingdom was within their grasp. Where other approaches were revolutionary suicide, Jesus gave them a methodology that was within their ability to accomplish. When Jesus says “It’s within you,” he’s quoting Moses in Deuteronomy.

“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart [‘within you’] so you may obey it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, emphasis added).

Preferential Option for the Last

Today, Jesus’s “Kingdom of God,” a community that centers and puts first those our present society places as last, is within our ability. We can choose to do life differently. When it comes to the subject of immigration, we can put migrants first. When it comes to indigenous people’s rights, we can put Native lives first. When we talk about poverty and creating a new world where poverty is no more, we can put the poor first and center their voices in the discussion. When we speak of what it’s like to be a woman in our society, we can put women first. When we consider racial inequalities, we can choose to put people of color first. And in a world still largely shaped by homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, we can center the discussion in the voices, stories and experiences of those within our community who are LGBTQ.

We can believe, validate, and center each of these experiences. And although we may separate them for the purpose of discussion and understanding, often all of these experiences can be experienced by the same people. For example, a person can be a trans woman of color, and daily bump into multiple ways in which society seeks to place them as last rather than first. To the degree that that person fights oppressions in our world, a community seeking to follow Jesus’s vision for human society according will center their voice at the shared table, making first those the present structures place as last, and making last those the present structure places as first (see Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30)

Lastly, as our sayings states, the community of the Kingdom can be manifesting itself among a group of people right in front of us, and we can still miss it like the inquiring Pharisee in the story. The more invested we are in the present structures that marginalize others, the greater the likelihood of our missing it altogether. What are some of the characteristics we should look for? Jesus’ kingdom of God was communal rather than individualistic. It addressed the private/personal and also located each person within a larger community. It endeavored to address the injustice, oppression, marginalization and violence faced by those the world of the first century placed as last. And it practiced the one praxis the community of God must possess in every generation to be genuine: a preferential option for the last.

It’s not too difficult for us. It’s within our grasp. It starts with the choice to listen to those who traverse this world as last, and believing in their experiences when they tell you.

“But on being asked when the kingdom of God is coming, he answered them and said: The kingdom of God is not coming visibly. Nor will one say: Look, here! There! For look, the kingdom of God is within you!” (Q 17:20-21)

HeartGroup Application

As a group:

  1. Think about the various expressions of injustice, oppression and violence certain people face in our society. What worries, if any, come to mind when you consider centering their voices in your own community?
  2. Worries tell us a lot about ourselves. They tell us about what we attach importance to and what we are focusing our energies on. What would it look like to attach importance to “the last” instead, to focus on them, to place them as first?
  3. Schedule a HeartGroup time when anyone who would like to share their story of how they have been made to feel “last” can do so with the group. When these stories are shared, follow up each story with a no-talk-back rule. Spend time listening, believing, and validating one another.

Then see where that leads.

Also, this week, if your reading this on Friday, call your Senators. Today they are voting an a tax bill that multiple nonpartisan sources including the CBO tell us will that this will leave poorer Americans worse off, the while top earners and corporations would benefit. Making the rich richer and the poor poorer.

If you want an easy way to do it, use ResistBot. Text “Resist” to 50409.

Here is a sample script if you need it. This was written by a Facebook friend of mine Emily Timbol.

“As your constituent I am asking and demanding that you vote NO on the Tax bill currently being debated on the Senate floor. In addition to adding $1.7 TRILLION to the deficit, it will be paid for primarily by $473 million in Medicare cuts, or over one trillion dollars in cuts to Medicaid, which is beyond unacceptable. This is a redistribution of wealth, only instead of wealth, since the people who depend on Medicare & Medicaid often are the poorest Americans, it’s making the rich richer at the expense of poor people’s lives.
Average, middle class Americans who make less than $75,000 will likely pay MORE in taxes, while the most benefit will go to corporations and individuals who make multi-millions. Any gains that “trickle down” to low level employees (if any actually manifest) will be outweighed by the losses they feel from an economy reeling from the effect of this tax cut after 2018. Furthermore, according to multiple polls released today by Quinnipiac, ABC News, and the Washington Post, only 1/3 or 25% of American voters support this wildly unpopular bill. Do the smart, right thing, that your constituents want, and vote NO.”

Thanks so much for checking in with us this week.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. And remember, the Kingdom of God is within your midst, it’s within your grasp. It’s not too difficult for you.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.