Christmas and Liberation from Hate

by Herb Montgomery | December 14, 2018

Picture of snow with article title

“Beauty is about how different shapes, colors, lines, or objects are arranged together. Humanity is varied and richly diverse. We can hold our differences in relationships that are beautiful or in ways that are destructive. We have a choice . . . Let’s spend this holiday season choosing a world where one day, regardless of race, gender, class, creed, orientation, identification or expression, all may positively affirm they have been saved ‘from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.’”


“Salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” (Luke 1:71)

This month for RHM’s annual reading course, we have chosen Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker. In the section on the power that rituals of beauty have to shape us into more compassionate, safe and just people, the authors tell stories of witnessing the life-shaping quality of the Eucharist ritual. I was so moved when I read this passage that I want to share it with you this week.

“In the mid-1980s, a minister in a small Seattle church preached a sermon one Sunday morning about how Christians had once believed that the earth was flat, that women should be kept in their place, and that slavery was ordained by God. But they had been open to the leading of the Spirit of God. When that Spirit challenged traditional interpretations of the Bible, the church had been willing to listen to new ideas. Without openness to truth unfolding through the guidance of the Spirit, the church would become a relic and die. The minister said that the next truth facing the church was that homosexuality was not a sin, not wrong, but one of the many ways human beings loved each other. It was a gift, therefore, of God.

The elder assigned to give the first prayer at the Eucharist table that Sunday was a middle-age woman named Violet, who dyed her hair jet black and was very careful and conscientious about preparing for her church duties. She did not like surprises and left nothing to chance. She always wrote out her prayers ahead of time. As the minister preached, Violet’s face grew angrier and angrier. After the sermon, the congregation sat in shocked silence. Finally, the organist played the scheduled music, during which the elders came to the table. People stood and weakly warbled a hymn. When Violet rose for the hymn, it was not clear whether she would walk up to the chancel or out the rear door.

On the last verse, Violet strode angrily to the altar, a ball of paper in her right fist. As all sat and bowed their heads, she uncrumpled the paper and sputtered her prayer through clenched teeth, “Our heavenly Father, we come before your table this morning to give thanks for the gift of life you have given to us. In partaking of this bread, we are grateful for all it represents, both earthly and spiritual nourishment given to us. We affirm that no one is stranger or alien to you, that all are welcome. Just as you welcome everyone to this table, we too must welcome all who come in faith. For this food of life and for your presence with us at this table, we give eternal thanks. Amen.” After the elements were served and the elders returned to their seats, Violet did not sit down. She picked up her purse and coat and walked out the door.

Two months later, the church board responded to the controversies by voting to affirm the minister’s position. Those who wanted the minister fired left the church, and for the next few months, the church struggled to survive. Not all who remained were comfortable with what the minister had preached, but they chose to stay in their church and grapple with their faith. Slowly, the church grew as gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and parents of gays and lesbians found a welcoming community. The congregation took on the character of a community of people who had stayed at the table with each other, people who were committed to being together in their differences. A few months after the board vote, Violet returned to the church. When the service was over, she stopped on her way out to tell the minister that she had wrestled for a long time with her faith. She had finally decided that what she had written on that wad of paper and prayed to God over the Communion table was what she really believed. She did not understand homosexuals and was uncomfortable with them, but her faith required her to welcome them. As she settled back into church life, she began to ask for prayers for her alcoholic son, something she had never done before. She found herself supported by her pastor and others in the church. She seemed less tense and more open, as if something deep within her had relaxed a little. Members who had previously not much cared for Violet began to reach out to her and added her son to their prayer lists. Other members began to share their personal struggles with depression, fear, addiction, and failure. The community slowly knitted itself together through bonds of honesty about their lives and their willingness to care about each other as members of one diverse community. They became a welcoming community, gathered around the Eucharist table as members of one another. They embraced, with respect and honesty, the disagreements in their midst and their efforts to understand each other. In their willingness to be together in struggle, they achieved a greater openness to the diversity of the world in its heartbreaks and its goodness.”

(Brock and Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p.156-158)

As I’m re-reading portions of this volume, I’m also reading through the Christmas narratives in the gospels. The same morning that I read the story above, I was also reading the prayer of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, as written in Luke. I was struck by the juxtaposition of his prayer with the story in Saving Paradise. See if you catch the connections too:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:68-79, emphasis added.)

This passage speaks of redemption and salvation in terms of liberation. There is nothing in this prayer of being thankful for being saved from God or devils. Rather, this is a prayer of gratitude for humans being redeemed, saved, or liberated from other humans “who hate us.”

The Jewish people in Zechariah’s time were a subjugated and deeply marginalized people within the Roman empire. Their great hope was that their social injustice, exploitation of the poor, denial of justice toward the fatherless and widows, and mistreatment of the foreigners—all which many believe they were being punished for—would be forgiven and that they would be liberated from the empire oppressing them.

This is a very different vision of forgiveness and redemption than many Christians have today. Today forgiveness is typically privatized and about one’s individual, personal sins. Yet in Zechariah’s prayer, and in Violet’s prayer, we encounter the idea of a collective, shared forgiveness for shared, social sins. This echoes back to the collective forgiveness the Hebrew prophets spoke about. Here are a few examples from the prophet Jeremiah:       

“Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares.If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.” (Jeremiah 5:1, emphasis added.)

In Jeremiah’s opinion, this honesty and justice would not be found and empires would subjugate the nation. But he also saw a future hope: one day liberation would come.

“No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34, emphasis added.)

“I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me.” (Jeremiah 33:8, emphasis added.)

“Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I plan to inflict on them, they will turn from their wicked ways; then I will forgive their wickedness and their sin.” (Jeremiah 36:3, emphasis added.)

“‘In those days, at that time,’ declares the LORD, ‘search will be made for Israel’s guilt, but there will be none, and for the sins of Judah, but none will be found, for I will forgive the remnant I spare.’” (Jeremiah 50:20, emphasis added.)

You’ll find this hope for collective forgiveness and liberation in the other Hebrew prophets’ writings as well.

In Jesus’ teachings, the gospel authors perceived a set of values, ethics, and principles that had the potential to totally reshape human community, deconstructing societal domination and subjugation and replacing those harmful social forms for everyone with more egalitarian and distributively just forms of relating to one another. They saw in Jesus a path toward that liberation, even for those being marginalized in Jewish society. (see Matthew 11:19)

The gospel authors believed that not only would Jesus’ ethical teachings guide his fellow Jewish people’s feet into the way of peace, but that they could also guide gentile people’s feet into the way of peace as well. We could learn to stop fearing and hating one another for our differences. We would stop dominating and being subjugated by one another, and follow a path of love, compassion, mutual aid, resource sharing, wealth redistribution and taking care of one another instead. Jesus’ vision was one where everyone had enough and no one had too much while someone else went without. It was an inclusive vision of paradise on earth as it is in heaven and our world as a safe home for all.

As we read in the book of Isaiah,

“The fruit of that righteousness [or distributive justice] will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.” (Isaiah 32:7)

Today we still need saving from hate. We need saving from those who hate us and/or we need saving from hating someone else. Hatred can manifest as misogyny, racism, or classism. In the story I retold earlier, Violet was saved from her hatred of those born with a different sexual orientation than she was. Hatred can also manifest itself in hatred or fear of someone who practices another religion. (All religions nonetheless include a strand of adherents who seek to shape a nonviolent, compassionate, distributively just world.) And we are presently witnessing first-hand here in America our desperate need to be saved from some people’s deep hatred of “foreigners.”

Beauty is about how different shapes, colors, lines, or objects are arranged together.

Humanity is varied and richly diverse. We can hold our differences in relationships that are beautiful or in ways that are destructive. We have a choice.

I belong to a tradition that celebrates the holiday of Christmas each December. Whichever holiday your tradition celebrates this time of year, celebrate this festive season by participating in some kind of work to end the forms of hatred that we still need to be saved from.

For those who do celebrate Christmas, do so in the spirit of the Christmas carol O Holy Night, whichin the John Sullivan Dwight version reads,

“Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease”

Another world is possible.

Let’s spend this holiday season choosing a world where one day, regardless of race, gender, class, creed, orientation, identification or expression, all may positively affirm they have been saved “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” (Luke 1:71)

Happy Holidays to each of you.

A Special Request

This is the time of year when most nonprofits receive the majority of their annual contributions for the year.

Renewed Heart Ministries has been in existence for over a decade now, but over the last four years we have gone through transition. We have become a “welcoming and affirming” ministry. We have also become more intentional and passionate about the intersection of the teachings of Jesus in the gospels and our work today of love, compassion, action and justice in our larger society.  It’s been a time of rebirth and rebuilding here at RHM, and we believe we are a much healthier ministry with a much healthier focus, as a result. 

Yet these changes have not been without deep loss. We’re asking you to help us avoid a budget shortfall for 2018 and be able to plan for 2019. We have many projects in the works for next year that we would love to see come to fruition. We would love to be able to expand both our online presence, as well as the number of free, teaching seminars we conduct across the nation. An initial edit has also been completed for my upcoming book that will be a sequel to Finding the Father. The title for this new, second book will be Finding Jesus. We would love to see this manuscript be able to go through its final stages and go on to publication this next year.  

As many of you already know, to help RHM this year, a very generous donor has pledged to match all donations to this ministry for both this past November and this present December. 

If you have been blessed this year by RHM’s work, take a moment this holiday season and support our work.  

You can do so by going to our website at renewedheartministries.com and clicking “donate” or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries 
P.O. Box 1211 
Lewisburg, WV 24901

If you would like your donation to be matched just make sure it’s postmarked by December 31.

Help us continue to grow this ministry in 2019 as we, together, follow Jesus more deeply in the healing work of love, compassion, action and justice for the marginalized.

Thank you in advance.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Healing Our World, Part 2

Herb Montgomery | November 29, 2018

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


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


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

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

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

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

Nothing could be further from the truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are the salt of the earth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application 

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

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

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

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

Happy Holidays.

I’ll see you next week.

 

Justice, Grace & Charity: Part 2

by Herb Montgomery | November 16, 2018

Fall leaves changing


“While we work toward a better world we must also be about mitigating the damage being done in this one. But do not think for a moment that if we have only offered charity to those this world makes hungry, poor, mournful, or last, we are done with our job of following Jesus. Jesus helped those who were suffering before him, yes. He also rode his donkey into the Temple, the symbolic heart of the Temple state to which he belonged, and disruptively overturned tables to protest the Temple’s economic exploitation of the poor. Christians today excel at charity. We are not so good at justice.”


“But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you.” (Luke 11:41)

My family and I were visiting the Atlantic coast for Crystal’s birthday. Though West Virginia is beautiful, Crystal’s first love is the ocean. We had gone out for a birthday dinner and were walking home with almost a whole pizza in a pizza box. My daughter told us that we didn’t need to keep the pizza and suggested we find someone on the street to share it with. She was speaking my language. While the rest of the family went back to the hotel, my daughter and I began walking down the strip to find someone to share some pizza with. 

We met a wonderfully kind homeless man named Jeff who loved pizza, and spent some time getting to know him, hearing his story. Then we parted ways and headed back to where we were staying. 

On our walk back to the hotel, my daughter asked, “Papa? Why do we have homeless people?” I explained that a very small amount of people choose to revolt against capitalism and conventions about how they should live, but the majority of homelessness is the result of people being on the losing side of capitalism. We then had a long talk about the economy, life, and the Parker Brother’s game Monopoly, and she rightly said, “We don’t need more pizza, we need a different game!”

As we walked, we discussed the difference between charity and justice. Charity does harm mitigation right now, but we must also be engaged with movements working for a world where charity is no longer needed. We talked about how charity can actually empower systemic injustice, although it’s still needed until something more just dismantles and replaces those systems. I shared with her Gene Robinson’s analogy of people drowning in a river: charity pulls people who are drowning out of the river, and is vital. Yet at some point someone has to walk upstream and ask who’s throwing all these people into the river to begin with.  And I would add to the analogy that once we diagnose who it is, stop them. 

We eventually arrived back at our hotel and I completely forgot about our talk. But a few months later, my daughter asked if we could drive about 6 hours east to Baltimore to stand alongside with those protesting the murder of Freddie Gray. During our weekend in Baltimore, we stood on the lawn outside of Baltimore City Hall. A woman came over to where we were standing, sizing up my daughter and I. My daughter was wearing a black t-shirt with white letters that said, “Black. Lives. Matter.” and she carried a sign that said the same. As we were two of the very few White people present, the woman addressed my daughter and very sweetly asked, “Young lady, what are you doing here?”

My daughter looked at me and then back at her. She responded, “Ms., we’re from West Virginia. We wanted to come stand with you today. This isn’t charity. This is about justice.” 

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells his listening audience:

“Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33, Revised English Bible)

In this verse, the Revised English Bible (REB) uses the phrase give to charity. The Greek phrase behind this text is didomi eleemosunen. It can mean giving alms, showing pity, having compassion, or beneficence to the poor.

Luke’s gospel describes Jesus talking to a religious leader who prioritized ritual or religious purity more than compassion toward the vulnerable and marginalized:

“But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” (Luke 11:41)

Charity was a core component of Jesus’ teaching. In the language of the Gospel authors, the Greek root of charity was the word we translate today into mercy. Jesus’s vision for a new world was one where the merciful are not only prioritized but also recipients of the merciful world they had shaped by their own mercy.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

In Matthew’s gospel and in a context where charity was used to further privilege, benefit the givers of charity, and possibly marginalize recipients of charity further, Jesus gave this instruction:

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:2)

The kind of mercy or charity Jesus taught was one where the recipients of the charity weren’t further marginalized or “sacrificed.” It was to steer clear of victim blaming and not condemn the poor. In a world where poverty was not the result of chance but rather a system that created few wealthy winners at the expense of the masses, Jesus said,

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7)

All of this leads me also to critique charity. Certainly there will always be a need for charity that lends a hand to those who are victims of calamity. But what about charity that is needed because of a system that places people in a position of need? Can we work toward a world where this kind of charity is no longer needed because we live in a world of distributive justice, one where no one has too much while others don’t have enough? 

Rebecca Ann Parker’s fantastic book Saving Paradise sheds light on how Rome included charity in its system of oppression:

“To stave off riots and resistance, Roman officials distributed wheat imported from Egypt, North Africa, and Asia throughout the empire. Shipments from the fertile Nile delta were so crucial to Rome that protection of them from piracy was a major function of its navy—the Mediterranean was commonly referred to as the “Roman Lake.” In the miracle of the bread and fish, large crowds flock to Jesus, hungry in spirit and body, and they depart filled. His act of feeding offered compassion for the needy, encouraged generosity for the good of all, even among those with little, and affirmed life abundant for everyone, regardless of status or need. This value system undermined the paternalism of Rome, which was built on an elite and powerful few having so much that they might scatter their largess, distributing 20 percent of their grain as a dole to the vast masses. The poor and powerless were expected to be grateful to the empire for acts of charity that maintained its domination. Jesus, on the other hand, belonged to the peasant class and working poor, and his relentless judgments against the rich and powerful revealed how injustice betrayed God’s desire for all to have abundant life. He challenged this paternalistic system by offering food blessed by heaven and not by Rome.” (pp. 32-33) 

Again, if someone needs help, by all means we should help them. But with our other hand we should be working on a world where economic domination systems have been dismantled. We can work toward a world characterized by an equity that minimizes the need for so much charity. As Marcus Borg used to say, and as my daughter understood, “The prophets didn’t call for charity. They called for justice.” 

“Moses and Amos are not asking the kings to up their charitable giving, they are asking that their contemporary domination system give way to a more just and less violent world.” (Marcus Borg; see Social Justice in the Book of Amos)

Yes, we are called to be good Samaritans to those who have experienced catastrophe, yet even here we must do double work. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his final book:

“We are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.” (Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community? pp. 187-188)

This month at RHM, our annual reading course book is Dorothee Soëlle’s Theology for Skeptics. In this book she states unequivocally:

“Comfort [charity] and justice are not split apart in the Bible such that the church should ease difficult fate for individual persons with the newest psychotherapeutic methods and leave justice to the leading industrial nations. God does not come with cheap consolation, like a comforting lollipop from heaven. God does not console in such a way that we get something shoved into our mouths to quiet us down.” (Kindle Locations 1166-1168)

Here, Soëlle is directly speaking to the kind of charity that merely pacifies the exploited, as the Roman Empire once did. In this context we must take to heart Gustavo Gutierrez’s wise words:

“But 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.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, Power of the Poor In History, p. 44-45)

As we said last week, we need a justice that is distributive, a grace that manifests itself in liberation for the oppressed, and a charity that doesn’t perpetuate economic systems of exploitation and marginalization, making many poor while making many rich beyond their wildest possible use of funds. 

I don’t want to be misunderstood this week. If someone needs help, by all means available, help them! While we work toward a better world we must also be about mitigating the damage being done in this one. But do not think for a moment that if we have only offered charity to those this world makes hungry, poor, mournful, or last (see Luke 6:20-23 and Matthew 20:16) we are done with our job of following Jesus. Jesus helped those who were suffering before him, yes. He also rode his donkey into the Temple, the symbolic heart of the Temple state to which he belonged, and disruptively overturned tables to protest the Temple’s economic exploitation of the poor.  Christians today excel at charity.  We are not so good at justice.

Again, if someone is drowning, pull them out of the river. Let’s also walk upstream and do something about those who are throwing people in the river to begin with. Let’s not blame those who are drowning for someone else throwing them in. Let’s work toward a world of distributive justice and, as we do, let’s also engage Jesus’ other teachings on mutual aid, resource sharing, and taking responsibility for each other’s survival and thriving. 

People matter. 

Another world is possible.

“But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you.” (Luke 11:41)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, share together some more of the differences you see between justice and charity. 
  2. List some of the things your group participates in that could be categorized as either charity or justice.
  3. Are you focusing more on charity? Are you also engaging the activities that lead to systemic justice? Do you need to be stronger in one area, or maybe both?
  4. Name some of the things you’d like to affirm in what you are already doing and list some things you’d like to do more of.  This holiday season, pick one from this list and, together, do it. 

Wherever you are this week, thanks for checking in with us.  Keep living in love, compassion, action, charity, and justice.  

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Forgiving a Sinning Brother or Sister Repeatedly

by Herb Montgomery | November 10, 2017

“Safe spaces” are not spaces where everyone’s opinion is equally valued. Safe spaces are spaces where there is a preferential option practiced for the most vulnerable in the room. Safe spaces are spaces where the voices and experiences of the vulnerable are not only believed and validated, but they are also centered. As Jesus taught, the first shall be last and the last, first (Matthew 20:16).

Featured Text:

“If your brother sins against you rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him. And if seven times a day he sins against you, also seven times shall you forgive him.” (Q 17:3-4)

Let’s jump right in this week with Matthew’s use of this week’s saying.

Matthew 18:15: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.”

Matthew 18:21: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’”

This week’s saying is an in-house teaching: it’s about how Jesus followers were to relate to each other. As Deissmann reminds us, “By its very nature Primitive Christianity stood contrasted with the upper class not first as Christianity, but as a movement of the proletarian lower class” (New Light on the New Testament From the Records of the Graeco-Roman Period, 1907, p. 7). And within this lower class movement, survival was a central concern: “Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed” (Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 29). In this early community of Jesus followers, being divided from within was just as much a threat as being divided from forces that opposed the movement from without. As we look at this week’s saying, however, it’s not about forgiving “oppressors” or “enemies” outside of the community. It’s about how to navigate wrongs committed within the community itself. There are different sayings of Jesus that relate to the subject of enemy love. Our saying this week rather focuses on the community of the oppressed: “if your brother or sister sins against you” (emphasis added).

In the community of the early movement, there were those who used to be former oppressors who had chosen to stand in solidarity with this movement, repenting of their former lives and now choosing Jesus’s preferential option for the poor. Speaking of the internal struggle between predominantly white feminism and the struggle for liberation by women of color, Jacquelyn Grant shares, “From a Black women’s vantage point then, the language of partnership is merely a rewording of the language of reconciliation, which proves empty rhetoric unless it is preceded by liberation” (Jacquelyn Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, p. 191) This week’s saying isn’t empty rhetoric. It values liberation before reconciliation within the early community of Jesus followers. Let’s unpack it a bit.

Internal Divisions

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus states, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25 cf. Luke 11:17). The context in Mark is that Jesus was speaking of the house of one’s oppressors, but it’s a universal truth that applies to any community working for social change as well. Last week, comments by Rev. Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church illustrated once again how internal differences can divide communities engaging the world of survival, resistance and liberation. He reminded me how necessary intersectional resistance is if we are going to make a difference. Those outside of our communities can divide us over our varied identities if we are not careful. “This division creates a kind of fragmented fellowship among progressives with advocates dispersed across a range of issues; income/wealth inequality, workers’ rights, mass incarceration, anti-poverty, education, environmental justice, LGBT rights, anti-violence work, healthcare, voting rights, the list goes on. This dynamic weakens our ability to create a unified front in combating the forces that oppose social and economic justice; forces which are much more unified and better financed than we are” (“The New Abolitionism” – Monetary Reform And The Future Of Social Justice)

We have to work to not allow our differences to divide us. This requires intention. Internal divisions can result from a variety of causes: intention, carelessness, ignorance, and more.

As an example, when I was first introduced to Christian LGBTQ communities, I remember being called on the carpet multiple times by two dear friends in particular. They were committed to the principle of putting liberation first, as a precursor to reconciliation or unity. They were committed to not letting me keep my blind spots or get away with my unintentional but still very real and damaging participation in their oppression.

At the time I believed respectability was required of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people if they were going to make progress in the minds and hearts of straight people. I offered the example of how seeing Christian LGBTQ folks and how that had contradicted every stereo type the kind of Christianity I was raised in had peddled to me of the LGBTQ community.

This respectability, though, was being defined by straight people, specifically certain Christian, straight people, but not required of us, and my friends were quick to call me out on it. Were the only folks of the LGBTQ community worthy of being “counted as human and therefore who get to live in a world that supports their flourishing” the Christian ones? My friends were part of a community that loved me too much to let me get away with treating them differently. It was a community of accountability. And this accountability was vital if our community was to be safe for oppressed people.

We recently covered this when we discussed Jesus’s preferential option for the vulnerable. Jesus’ community practices genuine love that does not allow people to get away with abuse and that prioritizes those to whom abuse would do the greatest damage. This starkly contrasts with the Christian communities I had been accustomed to. I was used to communities of “grace.” I know grace can have different meanings, and too often it means, “We don’t judge people other around here.” It produces an unhealthy environment where anything goes, and forgiveness is prioritized over accountability. Christian communities like that are dangerous for vulnerable people. They are communities where a preferential option for oppressors is practiced, consciously or unconsciously. They use the rhetoric of love but these communities are not loving because they don’t protect those who are most vulnerable.

This is where our saying comes in this week.

“So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” (Luke 17:3-4, emphasis added.)

Jesus’s community practices rebuke and repentance when community members sin against each other. This is a community that seeks to set up healthy boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not. It not only “went out and preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:12), but also required repentance within the community. Repentance is more than saying one is sorry; it is more than apologizing. Repentance also requires someone to change their mind and behavior regarding someone or something. Repentance is a change in how someone thinks about and acts toward someone or something.

And this change in how one thinks about someone or something requires listening, openness, belief, and choice. Examples include White people changing in relation to people of color, men changing in relation to women, straight folks changing in relation to LGB folks, cisgender folks changing in relation to trans folks, and the wealthy changing in relation to the poor. In order to allow one’s thinking to be changed (to allow repentance), you have to be willing to listen to the experiences of those whose lives are unlike your own. You have to be open to believing another person’s experience, and also choose to prioritize that person’s experience in your future choices.

There is a lot of talk today about what is being called “Third Way Spaces,” communities where people simply agree to disagree. Instead of defining community around one of two opposing positions, the community seeks to maintain a unity and cohesiveness without requiring any group to repent or change its mind. These types of communities are fine if we are disagreeing on the “best” flavor of ice cream. But they can be dangerous if the disagreement is over whether a person should exist or not. In matters such as orientation, gender, racial, or economic equality, for example, repentance is the necessary foundation of forgiveness and unity. “Safe spaces” are not spaces where everyone’s opinion is equally valued. Safe spaces are spaces where there is a preferential option practiced for the most vulnerable in the room. Safe spaces are spaces where the voices and experiences of the vulnerable are not only believed and validated, but they are also centered. As Jesus taught, the first shall be last and the last, first (Matthew 20:16).

Seven times

Let’s talk about the part in both Matthew’s and Luke’s use of this saying where it is required to forgive even “seven times.” Understand that if someone makes the same so-called “mistake” seven times, that’s probably indicative that repentance, a change in how someone thinks about something or someone, has not really happened. In Mark’s gospel, we get a hint of what this could mean:

“When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons” (Mark 16:9).

Not the same demon seven time. Seven different demons. These were seven different instances, not the same instance being repeated seven times over and over again. As long as a person is willing to grow, they may have multiple issues they’re going to have to put the work into to deal with. As long as they are willing to do the necessary work intrinsic to repentance, then they can remain in the community. I think of those who were patient with me, who took note of my dedication to growing, my willingness to think differently and do the necessary work on my own, too, in challenging how I thought about things. These friends didn’t give up on me while I was still willing and working to change. I don’t want to be misunderstood. If others don’t bring to your relationship a prevenient willingness and investment in changing, it’s not your job to convince them to. They have to come to this in their own way. Our job is to create communities where reconciliation is built on the preceding foundation of liberation and that possess healthy boundaries of active repentance.

Ignorance is inevitable: our experiences are not all the same. But division is optional. Each of us can choose repentance. And if repentance is genuinely present, forgiveness can be chosen as well.

Unity at the price of silence

What I hope we are seeing this week is that in the early Jesus community, unity was not the highest value. Justice was. Liberation was. Thriving, especially for the vulnerable, was. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail places justice above unity and peace. This letter was Dr. King’s response to several criticisms made by his fellow clergymen who claimed to be allies and “brothers,” but published a letter entitled “A Call for Unity” and asked King to stop his work. King’s letter was the “rebuke” that called them to the kind of “repentance” required by our saying this week.

In my own faith tradition, presently there are those who are calling for ministerial ordination to include women. (I know. It’s 2017 and we’re still having to debate this.) Those opposed to ordaining women are calling for unity. But unity requires a change in how someone thinks about something or someone. There can be no unity while the official position and policy expresses that women are somehow “less than” men. There can be no unity where injustice toward others is not challenged and rejected. There is no genuine unity where injustice is practiced within the community.

I think of the recent interview of Angela Davis by Michelle Alexander hosted by Union Seminary and Riverside Church. In the question and answer session at the end, the dynamic of repentance being prioritized above unity in the relationship between White allies and people of color is discussed. It’s well worth your time to watch the entire interview if you have not already.

Choosing to think and live differently is not always easy, but it is possible. We can choose to center our community in the experiences of the vulnerable. Choosing to forgive is not easy either. Both repentance and forgiveness take work, and it’s worth it. Division only ends up empowering our oppressors.

If your brother or sister sins against you rebuke them, and if they repent forgive them. And if seven times a day they sin against you, also seven times shall you forgive them. Q 17:3-4

HeartGroup Application

  1. Those who feel comfortable sharing, share with the group a time when you found it deeply challenging to listen to another person’s experience, but chose to listen anyway. How did it end up changing the way you thought about something?
  2. Share with the group a time when someone who hurt you chose to change, and how that change impacted your ability to forgive them. Share the result of that forgiveness.
  3. Commit as a group to set up healthy boundaries where we hold each other accountable. Become a group that creates a safe space for the vulnerable among you. Practice Jesus’s preferential option for the vulnerable. Be willing to change.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Wherever you are, keep living in love, love that holds people accountable in our work of survival, resistance, and liberation on our path toward thriving.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

 

The Lost Coin

by Herb Montgomery | November 3, 2017

“Jesus willfully and intentionally transgressed the community boundaries of his day. We should too. Keep in mind, the more ritually pure you were, the more clean you were, the more included, centered and privileged you would be in Jesus’ larger culture. Those who were deemed unclean were labeled “sinners.” And it was these “sinners,” these outsiders, who were embracing Jesus’s teachings.  It was these “sinners,” these outsiders whom Jesus embraced and was living in solidarity with. These were the ones Jesus was always seen with and it was these outsiders who were often seen with Jesus.”

Featured Text:

“Or what woman who has ten coins, if she were to lose o ne coin, would not light a lamp and sweep the house and hunt until she finds? And on finding she calls the friends and neighbors, saying: Rejoice with me, for I found the coin which I lost. Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels over one repenting sinner.” (Q 15:·8-10)

Companion Text:

Luke 15:8-10: “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The term “sinner” is used in the gospels in a very particular sense. It’s not used in the universal “everyone’s a sinner” sense. We see this in Jesus’ socio-political context. Imagine a circle. Those at the center controlled and made the decisions for the circle while those pushed from the center toward the edges had less and less say the further away from the center they found themselves. What determined how close to the center someone operated was an idea that we  now have a difficult time understanding: this was the idea of purity. Those on the edges were pushed there by labelling them “sinners.” Those on the edges of the circle had no power, privilege, or voice. 

Cultural or ritual purity codes in any society are used to bring order to the chaos of our world. Ritual Purity codes are a way of organizing our communities.  What purity cultures are concerned about is found in Bruce Malina’s, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, describes 

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

This way of ordering societies was not just practiced back then. We practice examples of this today. We manage purity in society and smaller communities within society, too! We misuse a person’s gender, race, orientation, gender expression, and gender identity to draw boundary lines in society. Examples might be the transgression of a community defined boundary within some religious groups by having a woman pastor. Or in larger society, examples might be found in how a community responds to the marriage of people from two different races, two men holding hands in public, or how a man in drag is interpreted in certain communities as transgressing or overturning “boundaries,” not fitting the “space in which it is found,” “belonging elsewhere,” or causing “confusion in the arrangement” of a “generally accepted social map.” 

Today we may or may not use the ancient language of “purity” to name something as clean or unclean, but we still in many social settings push those who transgress community boundaries from the center of that community to its edges. We marginalize them because we perceive them as not belonging.

In Jesus’ culture this was done primarily with various interpretations of the Torah. Those whose lives aligned with the community’s interpretation of the Torah were more clean or pure than others; they belonged. Those whose lives did not align were marginalized (pushed to the edges) and labeled “sinners.” The community looked upon them as outsiders even though they were Jewish. Again, in this use of the term “sinner,” not everyone was a sinner. Only those who did not measure up to the community’s definition of “clean” or “pure.” 

First let’s consider the Torah’s rituals about cleansing, and then we’ll consider the various interpretations of the Torah competing for control in Jesus’ day. 

Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo helps us to understand how the Torah’s occupation with purity operated:

“Dirt is the by-product of a systemic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements. This idea of dirt takes us straight into the field of symbolism and promises a link-up with more obviously symbolic systems of purity. We can recognize in our own notions of dirt that we are using a kind of omnibus compendium which includes all the rejected elements of ordered systems. It is a relative idea. Shoes are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on a dining room table; food is not dirty in itself, but it is dirty to leave cooking utensils in the bedroom, or food bespattered on clothing; similarly, bathroom equipment in the drawing room . . . out of door things in doors . . . underclothing appearing where over-clothing should be, and so one. In short, our pollution behavior is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications.” (p. 35)

The Torah’s concept of “clean and unclean” (or think order versus chaos) was not just about individuals but also applied to the community, the body politic, and so created and maintained community boundaries and therefore community identity as well. 

Two contemporary examples of this would be here in the United States during the Jim Crow era. All of life was once segregated based on race. Race separation is still the norm in many parts of the country today, even in the absence of explicit state enforcement. 

Another example could be how elite sectors of society still use etiquette rules today as their own purity code that maintains class separation. 

Purity Cultures historically have also resulted in exceptionalism. The pure community begins to also believe they are the “chosen” or “exceptional” or “superior” ones. Evidence of this today lies in the United States’ patriotic ideologies of global capitalism. We also witnessed it this fall in Charlottesville with white supremacists chanting “blood and soil.” We may not organize our societies around an ancient purity code, but we do follow unspoken community boundaries and practices regarding what belongs and what does not. Mary Douglas also writes, “There are no special distinctions between primitives and moderns: we are all subject to the same rules” (p. 40). As she explains, we need to begin perceiving and naming this destructive way of ordering society and become “aware of the seeds of alienation it contains.” (p. 190) 

In Jesus’s time, the society’s purity codes functioned politically and economically as well as socially. An example was given by William Herzog in 1982 and quoted in Ched Myers’ book Binding the Strong Man:

“According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. The passage, however, does not distinguish between seed planted in the soil and seed detached from the soil . . . In years of poor harvests, a frequent occurrence owing to the poor soil, drought, warfare, locust plaques and poor methods of farming, this text was a source of dispute. Why? During such lean years, grain was imported from Egypt. But the Egyptians irrigated their fields (putting water on seed) so their grain was suspect, perhaps even unclean. The Sadducees judged that such grain was unclean and anyone consuming it also become unclean. They were quite willing to pay sky rocketing prices commanded by the scarce domestic grain because they could afford it . . . One senses economic advantage being sanctioned, since the Sadducees were often large landowners whose crops increased in value during such times. By contrast the Pharisees argued the the Pentateuchal ordinance applied only to seed detached from soil [before being planted]; therefore . . . one could be observant and still purchase Egyptian grain.”

You can see from this example that the Sadducees’ position was not only financially advantageous to them but it also kept them centered in their community as more pure than others. 

By contrast, the Pharisees’ position would have been more liberal and been more popular among the middle and working classes. 

The dispute would have been lost on the poor who had no money to buy either the cheaper Egyptian grain or the more expensive domestic grain of Sadducee land owners. (A similar example can be seen today in how political parties “hire” unpaid interns to work for them. This fills their ranks with young people who come from wealthy families and can afford not to work for wages just to survive. Over time, the worldview supported and promoted by these parties is going to tend toward the interests of the wealthy rather than those of the poor and working classes.)

Jesus, came teaching a preferential option for the poor; a partiality and solidarity with those on the margins.  These would have been those in society who did not resonate with either the teachings of the more liberal Pharisees or the more conservative interpretations of the Sadducee elites. They were marginalized by both of these. I share all of this background to help us understand how the term “sinner” would have been used in Jesus culture by both the Sadducees and Pharisees, and how Jesus willfully and intentionally violated these boundaries. Keep in mind, the more ritually pure you were, the more clean you were, the more included, centered and privileged you would be in Jesus’ larger culture. Those who were deemed unclean were labeled “sinners.” And it was these “sinners,” these outsiders, who were embracing Jesus’s teachings.  It was these “sinners,” these outsiders whom Jesus embraced and was living in solidarity with. These were the ones Jesus was always seen with and it was these outsiders who were often seen with Jesus.

Repent

In Luke, those labeled as “sinners,” included not just the poor but the wealthy tax collectors. They, too, had been marginalized, but for them, their marginalization was based on their collusion with Rome. In Luke, these were the sector of the wealthy that responded to Jesus teachings and changed the course they were on. Jesus’ gospel was good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). Jesus called the rich into a community of shared resources with the poor. His community was a community of distributive justice. No one was to have too much while others had too little. He called the wealthy, who had more than they needed, to share with or give to those exploited by the economics of the temple and whose basic daily needs were unmet.  Jesus called the wealthy to sell their surplus land and give it to the poor from whom they had been stolen. Those who responded to Jesus weren’t those the Sadducees and Pharisees labeled as clean or pure. It was those who were wealthy “sinners,” i.e. the tax collectors, who began heeding Jesus’ call to repent. One example is the story of a tax collector named Zacchaeus:

Luke 19:8-10: “But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘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.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.’”

Wealthy “sinners” like Zacchaeus gravitated toward Jesus’s call of wealth redistribution:

Luke 7:29: “All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right.”

Luke 15:1: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.” 

The question was raised why Jesus was sharing table fellowship with sinners and wealthy tax collectors, these “sinners,” these outsiders. These people were repenting of their participation in the systematic social, economic, and political exploitation of the poor, they were rejecting that system, and they were choosing to walk a radically different, more communal, path of taking responsibility of the care of those being exploited by the wealthy. 

There is a beautiful story truth here. Those who had been pushed to the margins and edges of society and labeled unclean were proving to be more righteous in relation to the poor and exploited than those around whom their society was centered. It’s even possible that the tax collectors sensed a connection between their own marginalization and the marginalization of the poor; that this shared experience of being excluded prepared them to respond compassionately to Jesus’ message and his call to inclusive, distributive justice. 

A Woman

Lastly this week, I love the fact that Jesus uses the story of a woman; a member of another marginalized group in his culture. Jesus lifts up the example of a woman to exemplify a more evolved kind of social righteousness then his male critics were living.  Just as a woman knows the value of rejoicing when that which was “lost” is “found,” Jesus says through this saying, so too you men should be rejoicing right now in the wealthy sinners’ change of direction. Instead, Jesus’ critics were well centered and wealthy themselves, and could not identify with either the marginalized wealthy or the marginalized poor. I think calling Jesus a feminist is anachronistic.  But given his space and time, his treatment of women and the equity of value he saw in them is noteworthy. He lived and taught within a deeply Roman and Jewish patriarchal world, but in holding up this women as an example who was exhibiting qualities that the men he was critiquing should have been more like, we also we catch glimpses of how his valuation of women was progressive for his culture.

What’s the take away this week?

Jesus transgressed the societal rules and boundaries of his day that pushed some people to the edges and excluded them. And we are called to, too! In this inclusion, he also taught a distributive justice for the needs of the poor. Justice is not giving people who have been marginalized or discriminated against simply an equal opportunity to compete in a system that still economically exploits a certain class.  Equity isn’t giving people equal opportunity to climb a ladder that’s leaning up against the wrong wall to begin with. Jesus’ vision for a compassionate society was one where BOTH exclusionary and marginalizing practices and economic exploitation are rejected in favor of including everyone at a shared table. His vision was heterogeneous: everyone’s voice mattered and everyone’s experience was valued. It was also communal: no one had too much while there were those who didn’t have enough.  It was a community of shared values, shared production, and shared consumption.

I’ll close this week with a passage from renowned liberation scholar and theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez:

“But 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.” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition)

There’s a lot in this week’s saying:

Or what woman who has ten coins, if she were to lose one coin, would not light a lamp and sweep the house and hunt until she finds? And on finding she calls the friends and neighbors, saying: Rejoice with me, for I found the coin which I lost. Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels over one repenting sinner.” (Q 15:·8-10)

HeartGroup Application

I referenced the work of Mary Douglass in this week’s article above. Mary explains that the problem with communities rooted in ritual purity is not the ritual part. The solution is not that we should become anti-ritual. The problem is how the purity part functions to marginalize, discriminate against, and exclude. She goes on to say that we must create rituals in our communities that do the opposite. These would be rituals that organize community on something better than other-ing those who are different.These would be rituals that emphasize our interconnectedness where there is no more insider and outsider; rituals that shape us into being people who cooperate and share with one another rather than competing and striving against one another.  

The early Jesus community practices the ritual of a shared meal as the centerpiece of their gatherings together. Today it’s called communion by some and Eucharist by others, but the lessons of this ritual that shapes us into a community of both shared production and shared consumption can be (and has been) lost with all the theology that has come to surround this ritual meal. 

  1. This week I want you to plan a shared meal with your HeartGroup.
  2. During the meal, discuss together how this shared meal is an expression of shared production and shared consumption.
  3. Take some time as a group to dream how you could be a community where everyone’s voice is valued AND where everyone practices the principles of shared production and shared consumption in other areas of their life. 

Keep doing potluck meals together. They can become a ritual for you and your group that over time will shape us into people who practice this shared table philosophy in other areas of our life, too.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Thanks for supporting our work here at RHM. 

I’m just getting back from a month of being on the road, teaching at different events. And now we are entering our year-end season of donor support and this year we need your help. 

You can support our work by going to renewedheartministries.com/donate/

or by mailing your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Keep living in love, engaging the work of Luke 4:18-19 one day at a time. 

We are making a difference!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Replaced by People from East and West

A table with varied people eating

by Herb Montgomery

“When you see who is welcomed and affirmed, when you see how wrong you were about those you thought should be forbidden from sitting at the table with you, it’s going to make you so angry!”

Featured Text:

“And many shall come from Sunrise and Sunset and recline with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God, but you will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Q 13:29, 28)

Companion Text:

Matthew 8:11-12: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Luke 13:28-29: “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

The Sayings Gospel Q scholars titled this week’s saying “Replaced by People from East and West.” If I’d organized the sayings, I wouldn’t have used the term “replaced.” As we’ll see this week, it’s not original to the text and it has a long anti-Semitic history rooted in supersessionism.

By contrast, Jesus’ saying is well centered in the Jewish prophetic tradition of Isaiah:

“And the almighty Yahweh will prepare for all the nations on this mountain a banquet of rich foods, a banquet of preserved wines, of spread out rich foods, and preserved refined wines. And on this mountain he will swallow up the covering that is over all peoples, even the covering woven on all the nations. He will swallow up death forever. And the Lord Yahweh will wipe clean the tears from upon all faces. And the shame of his people he will remove from upon all the earth. For Yahweh has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:6-8)

In the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, the messianic feast is not prepared exclusively for the Hebrew people but includes “all the nations.” The apocalyptic Essenes of Jesus’ society were looking for this banquet in their “end of the age.” They expected it to mark the transition between the present age and the “age to come” (see The Rule of the Congregation 1QSa or The Community Rule 1QS.) And they understood this banquet both literally and metaphorically as definitive of the quality of the messianic age when all violence, injustice, and oppression was to be put right in the earth.

Matthew’s gospel tellingly tacks this saying on to the end of the story about the centurion and his slave (Matthew 8.5-10). For the Matthew’s community, the centurion story could have been seen as an evidence of how “all the nations” were to be included in Isaiah’s feast. If this is true, this would explain much about the inclusivity that this community hoped for.

Replacement versus Exclusion

The Q community did not understand including Gentiles in their feast as an anti-Jewish move. And they did not see “all the nations” being included only to replace the Jewish festival attendants. In this saying, some are being excluded. Yet, there is a vast difference between a party for everyone that some will be shut out of and a party meant exclusively for some and whose original audience would be replaced by others.

Why does this distinction matter?

The Pharisees included two schools of thought. One, the School of Shammai, drew strict lines between Jews and Gentiles, in a effort to preserve their Jewish identity. They also drew strict lines between those who practiced Torah according to the School’s interpretations and fellow Jewish people they labeled as “sinners.”

I t is understandable that a people removed from their original land and held captive in foreign territories or scattered abroad, would re-gather to seek liberation. It’s important to protect others’ heritage and identity as a people when they’re being erased by their oppressors and their oppressors’ heritage and culture.

Just like the indigenous people here on this continent, or the Africans uprooted, enslaved, and removed to colonial lands, the Jewish people were struggling desperately to preserve their own identities and uniquenesses among a people not like themselves and who dominated them. The Jewish people living in the empires that subjugated them were being dehumanized, and in that context, I can understand and applaud the School of Shammai for focusing on their people’s Jewish peculiarity.

How we preserve our identity and heritage matters, though. Subjugators typically preserve and parade their identity through exceptionalism. In the United States, for example, American exceptionalism and the Doctrine of Discovery was the soil out of which grew the destructive weed of Manifest Destiny. These dehumanizing philosophies made genocide possible for the Native peoples across this continent and those who, through slavery, were violently brought here.

Exceptionalism

Exceptionalism can also be a way for oppressed and subjugated peoples to survive: feeling superior to those dominating you can be a way to resist. This form of survival and resistance can also be unhealthy. Those under Roman domination in Jesus’ society who began to look forward to a feast eventually imagined that feast not for “all the nations” but for their own vindication. In that vision, the messianic feast would be an event where oppressors would be excluded or even punished. In Ezekiel, at the messianic banquet feast, YHWH turns the Hebrew people’s enemies into food for predators of both sky and the land.

“As for you, son of man, this is what the sovereign Lord says: Tell every kind of bird and every wild beast: ‘Assemble and come! Gather from all around to my slaughter which I am going to make for you, a great slaughter on the mountains of Israel! You will eat flesh and drink blood. You will eat the flesh of warriors and drink the blood of the princes of the earth – the rams, lambs, goats, and bulls, all of them fattened animals of Bashan. You will eat fat until you are full, and drink blood until you are drunk, at my slaughter which I have made for you. You will fill up at my table with horses and charioteers, with warriors and all the soldiers,’ declares the sovereign Lord.” (Ezekiel 39:17-19)

In our saying this week Jesus seems to be addressing those in his time who were looking for a retributive feast, one more like Ezekiel’s than like Isaiah’s inclusive, distributive, and restorative feast. Those looking forward to a time of retribution, who were so sure they were superior to others around them, would be found not at the places of honor around the festive table, but excluded and shut out from the feast entirely. They would be found “gnashing their teeth.”

This proverbial phrase is key. The gnashing of teeth referred to a level of anger that caused a person to clinch their jaw and grind their teeth (e.g. Acts 7:54).

In other words, Jesus is saying, those of you who are looking for a retributive feast where you are included to the exclusion of those you have deemed unworthy, like this Roman centurion, there will be so many from east to west included in my messianic feast that you’re not going to be able to emotionally cope. When you see who is welcomed and affirmed, when you see how wrong you were about those you thought should be forbidden from sitting at the table with you, it’s going to make you so angry!

In the new world that is coming, he continues, if any are left in “outer darkness,” it won’t be those you believe don’t measure up to your standards of respectability or virtue. It will be you! You cannot accept the welcome, affirmation, and inclusion of those you feel should be excluded. You will be excluded because you cannot accept those who are being accepted.

This was the same point of Luke’s parable of the older brother (Luke 15:1-2; 25-32) and Matthew’s wedding banquet parable where a guest did not want to be dressed the same as those he felt superior to (Matthew 22:8-11).

Conclusion

I’m happy to be able to say that before the end of the first century, the Rabbis choose the School of Hillel’s earlier and more inclusive interpretations of the Torah (see BET HILLEL AND BET SHAMMAI).

One takeaway from this week’s saying is that there are better ways to protect identities and heritages than exclusion. Our differences should be preserved and celebrated, acknowledged, and mutually valued. As each of us finds our place at the table, as we honor each person’s voice in relationships of egalitarianism rather than domination and subjugation, we can learn to listen to one another. And we then can integrate the many experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole: not a new homogenized mass, but a mosaic filled with beauty, diversity, and variations.

Lastly, this week we learn that exclusion is its own self-fulfilling prophecy. To hope for a world where certain ones are no longer there is to create a world where you yourself are no longer welcome. You get the world you always wanted. The only catch is that you’ll be the only one alone, in the “outer darkness,” in a world where exclusion is excluded. Exclusion won’t be included in a world that is characterized by inclusion, distributive justice, and peace.

Does inclusion still provoke anger? You bet. Over the last four years, Renewed Heart Ministries has become a more open, welcoming, affirming, and inclusive ministry, including for those who identify as LGBTQ. And do I have stories to tell. The common thread through all of them is anger from those who are upset that we’ve made this shift.

While I’m saddened by the loss of those who have rejected and now exclude RHM and me, I do take a small portion of comfort in the fact that at least we are in the right story. Solidarity breeds crosses. But the story of Jesus tells me that crosses can also be followed by resurrections.

When you practice inclusion of those whom others have inaccurately deemed as deserving exclusion, will some people get upset and angry with you? Absolutely. But be of courage: this is simply your story becoming more aligned with the Jesus story itself, for:

Many shall come from Sunrise and Sunset and recline with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God [and] there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Q 13:29, 28)

HeartGroup Application

Jesus wasn’t a Christian. He was a Jew. Recently I was introduced to the work of Rabbi Michael Lerner of Beyt Tikkun, a San Francisco Bay area Jewish Renewal Synagogue for Spiritual and Social Transformation. The Jewish Jesus lived life at the intersection of faith and social justice in the 1st Century. In the spirit of tikkun olam, Rabbi Lerner is working today to develop intersections between Jewish faith and social transformation.

Last week, Rabbi Lerner published a meditative piece of writing he titled Ten Commitments. He states, “Many of us find the notion of ‘commandments’ oppressive and hierarchical. Yet we know that a community cannot be built on the principle of only doing what feels right at the moment–it requires a sense of responsibility to each other. So, we encourage our community to take on the following ten commitments, based roughly on a rereading of the Torah’s ten commandments (and incorporating the framework and many specific ideas articulated by Rami Shapiro in his book Minyan).”

HeartGroups are also communities engaged in the work of healing our world. The Jesus we desire to follow grew up hearing teachings on these same ten commandments.

So this week, as a group:

1. As a group, read through Rabbi Lerner’s “Ten Commitments”:

http://www.beyttikkun.org/article.php/what_we_think_ten_commitments

2. Share which commitments spoke most loudly to you and why.

3. For each person in the group, pick one commitment to spend some time contemplating and meditating on this week. Come back the following week ready to share your experiences practicing it.

I’ll let you in on the one I’m practicing: I love the inclusivity and respect of #3 in Lerner’s list.

Which one speaks most loudly to you?

Thank you for checking in this week.

Keep living in love. And may the teaching of this 1st Century prophet of the poor continue to inform your work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. Till the only world that remains, is a world where only love reigns.

As we say each week, thank you to each of you who are supporting this ministry. We could not exist without you.

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I’ll see you next week.