Excluded by Exclusion

color spectrum

Herb Montgomery | March 25, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


This week’s parable calls us to question whom we are excluding and the basis for our exclusion. And it’s calling us to question the practice of marginalizing and excluding others regardless of the basis . . . There is no conclusion. The elder brother who would exclude his younger brother is left alone by himself in the night, outside the party going on inside, not because he himself wasn’t welcome, but because he could not affirm the one being celebrated. And maybe that’s the point.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable . . . Jesus continued: There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, How many of my fathers hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Lets have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. Your brother has come,’ he replied, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound. The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, Look! All these years Ive been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ ‘My son,’ the father said, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ (Luke 15:1-3, 11–32)

In this week’s story, Jesus is not answering his listeners’ questions about who gets to heaven or not. The context of the narrative isn’t about an afterlife at all. It’s about social and political dynamics in this life, in Jesus’ society. Within that context, the narrative addresses the exclusion of certain ones, tax collectors and those labelled as “sinners”, by those privileged in their society.

I want to note that I do not believe this story accurately represents the Pharisees or Jewish scholars of that time. It might represent some leaders within those social groups, such as the Pharisees of the school of Shammai. But this story does not rightly characterize the more inclusive Pharisees of the school of Hillel. Lumping all Pharisaical and later Rabbinical schools into a monolith and then to use that group perjoratively is deeply antisemitic and has an long history. (See https://truah.org/antisemitism/)

We must also address the label of “sinner.” I’ve written at length about this before:

“The term ‘sinner’ is used in the gospels in a very particular sense. Its not used in the universal ‘everyones a sinner’ sense. We see this in Jesussocio-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.” (See The Lost Coin)

It would help us in our context today to read “marginalized” where the text reads “sinner.” Sinner was the pejorative religious label that those at the center of Jesus society used to marginalize whomever they chose.

This all leads us to the central point, I believe, of this week’s reading. Jesus’ parable was originally aimed at those who excluded or marginalized others and then disparaged Jesus because of the people he embraced, affirmed, and included.

Within Christian faith communities today, many exclude and marginalize LGBTQ people of faith, and then label and exclude as dangerous allies who embrace, affirm and include them. I have firsthand experience with this.

I’m also reminded of patriarchal traditions that exclude women from certain ministerial roles or credentials and then label those who don’t exclude them as dangerous. White churches have practiced similar exclusion over matters of race and multiracial diversity, not only in their congregations, but in who is allowed and supported to take on certain leadership roles.

In our larger society, there are inclusions and exclusions, too. We at Renewed Heart Ministries have condemned Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine and our hearts are with all being harmed by this action. We continue to maintain that the road to peace is not war, but distributive justice, safety and compassion, and we affirm Ukraine’s rights of self-determination and self-defense.

I also notice the disparity in the global support for Ukraine now compared to other humanitarian crises. Journalists have even compared Putin’s problems with Ukraine to the U.S’ historical treatment of other countries. I wondered if they realized what they’re admitting about imperialism, because that is a level of truth-telling I don’t think we in the U.S. are willing to embrace. News reporters have betrayed their own racism when speaking of this conflict and their surprise at the plight of Ukrainian refugees. They use rhetoric as “relatively civilized,” “relatively European,” “blue eyes,” “blonde hair,” “not a developing, third-world nation, but Europe,” “well-dressed people.”

We should care about our Ukrainian siblings and other people living in that country as part of our human family, but we shouldn’t care about them or base our involvement or help on whether we perceive them to be White or European. Refugees from other parts of the world deserve our care and concern just as much.

The U.S. shows these patterns, too. Those who are working toward this country’s high ideals for an inclusive, multi-racial democracy or those working to transform society into a place of equity for women are characterized as dangerous. There are hundreds of legislative attacks against trans people and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in states like Texas and Florida right now, including efforts to exclude children who belong to the LGBTQ community or have parents who do. Children this age are often asked by grandparents, aunts and uncles, and others, “Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend yet?” Or their teachers ask them at school to “Share about your family.” But some of those children are being excluded now.

This week’s parable calls us to question whom we are excluding and the basis for our exclusion. And it’s calling us to question the practice of marginalizing and excluding others regardless of the basis.

Jesus’ story ends open-endedly. There is no conclusion. The elder brother who would exclude his younger brother is left alone by himself in the night, outside the party going on inside, not because he himself wasn’t welcome, but because he could not affirm the one being celebrated. And maybe that’s the point. As we are working toward a more inclusive, safe, compassionate, just society for everyone, if any are left out in the end, it won’t because they themselves aren’t welcome, but because they can’t accept other people.

As we consider our own practices of exclusion, this week’s story warns each of us that those we exclude may end up enjoying God’s party, while we, because of our exclusionary practices, may find ourselves outside the party, alone, in the night.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. We have many examples today of folks who have been excluded because of whom they include. Share some examples of how people or communities, today, are being, excluded because of their own exclusion? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


March is Donor Appreciation Month at RHM

During the month of March, we want to do something special to thank you for supporting the work of Renewed Heart Ministries.

Renewed Heart Ministries provides deeply needed resources that help enable Christians to discover the intersection of their love for Jesus and their work of healing our world through actions of love, justice and compassion; actions Jesus modeled and called us to follow.

Engaging our communities in ways that shape our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone is often hard work and its worth it. We appreciate the actions, big and small, each of you take each day to engage this work.

This month, we are partnering with Watchfire Media to offer a free thank you gift, shipping included. We want to offer you Watchfire Media’s absolutely beautiful Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints 2022 Wall Calendar to everyone who makes a special one-time donation of $50 or more through the following special link during the month of March to support RHM’s work.

The online donation link to use is https://bit.ly/RHMCalendar.

(Or you donate by mail by sending your donation to

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

*If donating by mail, simply make sure that your donation is specially marked indicating you would like a HolyTroublemakers & Unconventional Saints 2022 Wall Calendar as a thank you.)

If you are unfamiliar with this special calendar, The Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints 2022 Wall Calendar features 12 “holy troublemakers,” people of faith from different faiths and different eras who worked for more love, kindness, and justice in their corner of the world. Each of them did the right thing even when it was the hard thing, and even when it rocked the religious boat.

Like the book Holy Trouble­makers & Unconventional Saints, this calendar centers holy troublemakers who are women, LGBTQ, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who have too often been written out of religious narratives. Their stories inspire, educate, challenge, encourage, and move us all towards more love and a faith that works for the common good of everyone.

Packed with original artwork, short bios, and inspiring quotes, the calendar also includes important holidays from diverse faith traditions, social justice movement anniversaries, and dates that help us remember that joy is an essential part of holy troublemaking.

Thank you in advance for supporting the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. Together we will continue being a voice for change. And thank you to Watchfire Media, as well, for partnering with RHM this month to be able to share this special thank you gift with our supporters. We appreciate all you do, too!

Product details:

2022 Wall Calendar: 24 pages

Publisher: Watchfire Media
Language: English
Product Dimensions: 12” x 13”
Shipping Weight: 1 lb.
ISBN: 978-1-7340895-1-6

 Injustice is Not Sustainable

 

fig tree at dusk

Herb Montgomery | March 18, 2022

 

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.

 


Democratic societies must be made to birth a distributively just society where the needs of everyone and not only an elite few are collectively met. The alternative is not sustainable, and ends with that society falling into the rubbish bin of history.”


 

Our reading this week is from the book of Luke:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Then he told this parable: A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, For three years now Ive been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and havent found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ ‘Sir,the man replied, leave it alone for one more year, and Ill dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” (Luke 13:1-9)

No other ancient writing describes the incidents that begin our passage this week. Quite honestly, we do not know what the phrases “the Galileans” or “those on whom the tower in Siloam fell” refer to. The message to the audience, though is one found often in sacred texts: repent or perish.

But repent of what? What about their present course points to self-destruction?

While we have no definite proof of what these two examples are referring to, some scholars connect them to a failed Galilean revolt where Roman soldiers surprised and slaughtered Galilean insurgents as they made sacrifices in preparation for their revolt.

In this week’s story, the religiopolitical elite question whether the people revolting had been morally upright or whether their sinfulness was to blame for their lack of success. Jesus says to them, Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Similarly, a few scholars identify the tower of Siloam as a tower where Rome stored its weapons. Galilean insurgents might have tried to dig a tunnel under the tower to seize the weapons for a violent revolt. But the tunneling compromised the towers foundation, the entire structure suddenly collapsed, and several of these Galileans died. Jesus again denies they are responsible for their deaths: No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

When Jesus calls for repentance in our story, I dont hear the moralistic idea of repentance so many of us are used to today. I hear a Jewish prophet of the poor calling for social change. The elites would blame the insurgents’ failures on their lack of moral uprightness, but Jesus rather points to an unjust economic structure that oppresses folks and creates insurgents who long to experience the distributive justice that the Hebrew prophets called for (see the book of Amos).

Jesus isn’t preaching in the vein of the Christian fire and brimstone preachers who have cried “repent or perish” from their pulpits. He’s teaching much more like the Hebrew prophets who saw the intrinsic connection between an exploitative system and its lack of sustainability. “Injustice is not sustainable” is the message we are encountering here.

This is a good time to pause and reflect on how injustice is unsustainable in our day as well. I think of those who long for the days of White, straight, cisgender and male privilege or domination in contrast to the multiracial, multicultural, varied, heterogeneous democracy that many are working toward today. This doesn’t just apply to our secular society. It applies to our faith communities, too.

Our faith traditions include voices that bemoan a society they have judged as morally corrupt. Yet they are merely witnessing those in society calling for equality and ways to make our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone. I think of those who see the end of patriarchy in faith communities as an evil rather than a good, and those who see LGBTQ inclusion and affirmation as a sign of the times, rather than as a change where life is overcoming death and love is overcoming fear, bigotry, and hate.

Again, so many of us, like those in our story, are quick to judge as inferior those who are different than ourselves. Instead, the Jesus of our story this week would tell us the reality: that unless we change and become more just, we will perish.

Lastly, this week’s passage uses a common metaphor for the condition of Israel’s society, one that appears in both the Hebrew scriptures and the rabbinic literature (see Isaiah 5). A healthy, distributively just society was a healthy fig tree that produced much fruit for all to enjoy. Fig trees, after all, were an important source of food in the Ancient Middle East. But a sickly, desolate, or barren fig tree was an unhealthy society that benefitted only a select few through exploiting the masses. The fruitful fig tree symbolized a blessed society where everyone’s needs were being met: there was enough for everyone. A barren fig tree was cursed and under judgement from the Hebrew prophets for trampling the vulnerable.

Our story this week answers the cry to immediately cut the fig tree down by encouraging the gardener or owner to keep trying to make it healthy for one more year, to fertilize it and see if things turn around before giving up on it.

There is a love of the fig tree seen here in the desire to make it healthy.

This has applications for us today, too, in our faith communities, and in our larger society as well.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve scratched my head in wonder at LGBTQ people of faith who keep trying to change their homophobic, transphobic, biphobic faith communities. I’ve often asked myself, why don’t they just shake the dust from their feet and say good riddance! I wonder if they’d be better off. But the reality is these faith traditions are their homes. Many have grown up in them and there is love for these faith traditions rooted in their hearts. They’d rather endure pain from continued effort than grief of leaving the barren fig tree of their faith tradition to die. I see their stories in our story this week.

In our larger society, as well, so many have said that how many minorities have been treated within the “American dream” has been a nightmare. Yet so many people from minoritized communities genuinely love the principles that the United States is supposed to embody and want to see America genuinely live out its highest ideals. They live in hope that their choices to keep at it will help this country become “that more perfect union” one day.

Recently my daughter introduced me to the play Indecent by Paula Vogel. It is a deeply moving story of the lives of Jewish immigrant actors and how they were mistreated here in America while involved with the beautiful, life-changing Yiddish Broadway play The God of Vengeance: Drama in Three Acts by Sholem Asch. Censors unjustly shut down the play, accusing it of being indecent. All the actors were arrested and thrown in jail. But in fact, the play was shut down as a result of antisemitism.

In the story, finally coming to the end of his patience, one of the central characters, Lemml, bursts out, “I’m done being in a country that laughs at the way I speak. They say America is free? What do you know here is free? All over Europe we did this play with no Cossacks shutting us down. Berlin, Moscow, Odessa—everywhere there is theater! You don’t have money for a ticket? Tickets over there cost less than a cup of tea. Then you dress up nice in your best coat and maybe you stand up in the second gallery, but you can say to your grandchildren: ‘I saw the great Rudolph Schildkraut in Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance!’ I am leaving this country!”

The sad end for Lemml is that he leaves America and returns to his homeland in the midst of the Holocaust and ends up dying at the hands of the Nazi’s.

At this spot in the play, I could not help but hear the echo of those for whom America has not been a blessing but a curse. Not a fruitful fig tree, but a barren one.

To all who are working for change, keep digging. Keep fertilizing. Perhaps it will ultimately bear fruit for all those who live here. But my own country is the context for how I hear the message in this week’s reading.

Democratic societies must be made to birth a distributively just society where the needs of everyone and not only an elite few are collectively met. The alternative is not sustainable, and ends with that society falling into the rubbish bin of history.

Injustice is not sustainable.

 

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What are some examples of how you see injustice as unsustainable in our various communities, both our faith communities and our larger society, today? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone? 

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


 

 


 

March is Donor Appreciation Month

During the month of March, we want to do something special to thank you for supporting the work of Renewed Heart Ministries.

Renewed Heart Ministries provides deeply needed resources that help enable Christians to discover the intersection of their love for Jesus and their work of healing our world through actions of love, justice and compassion; actions Jesus modeled and called us to follow.

Engaging our communities in ways that shape our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone is often hard work and its worth it. We appreciate the actions, big and small, each of you take each day to engage this work.

This month, we are partnering with Watchfire Media to offer a free thank you gift, shipping included. We want to offer you Watchfire Media’s absolutely beautiful Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints 2022 Wall Calendar to everyone who makes a special one-time donation of $50 or more through the following special link during the month of March to support RHM’s work.

The online donation link to use is https://bit.ly/RHMCalendar.

(Or you donate by mail by sending your donation to

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

*If donating by mail, simply make sure that your donation is specially marked indicating you would like a HolyTroublemakers & Unconventional Saints 2022 Wall Calendar as a thank you.)

If you are unfamiliar with this special calendar, The Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints 2022 Wall Calendar features 12 “holy troublemakers,” people of faith from different faiths and different eras who worked for more love, kindness, and justice in their corner of the world. Each of them did the right thing even when it was the hard thing, and even when it rocked the religious boat.

Like the book Holy Trouble­makers & Unconventional Saints, this calendar centers holy troublemakers who are women, LGBTQ, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who have too often been written out of religious narratives. Their stories inspire, educate, challenge, encourage, and move us all towards more love and a faith that works for the common good of everyone.

Packed with original artwork, short bios, and inspiring quotes, the calendar also includes important holidays from diverse faith traditions, social justice movement anniversaries, and dates that help us remember that joy is an essential part of holy troublemaking.

Thank you in advance for supporting the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. Together we will continue being a voice for change. And thank you to Watchfire Media, as well, for partnering with RHM this month to be able to share this special thank you gift with our supporters. We appreciate all you do, too!

Product details:

2022 Wall Calendar: 24 pages

Publisher: Watchfire Media
Language: English
Product Dimensions: 12” x 13”
Shipping Weight: 1 lb.
ISBN: 978-1-7340895-1-6

Taking Up Our Crosses, Injustice, and Abuse

rosary with cross

Herb Montgomery | September 10, 2021

[To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast click Episode 388:Taking Up Our Crosses, Injustice, and Abuse]


“Oppressors throughout history have used the concept of ‘taking up one’s cross’ to prioritize themselves over survivors and to encourage oppressed people to passively and patiently endure violence rather than resist . . . This story is, on the other hand, encouraging Jesus’ followers to resist as he did flipping tables in the temple courtyard, even though it resulted in the state violence of a cross.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, Who do people say I am?” They replied, Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. Get behind me, Satan!” he said. You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Fathers glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:27-38)

In this week’s reading, we encounter Jesus’ admonition to his followers that they also “take up their cross.” This saying has a long history of religious abuse, so I want to give a word of caution about it.

Years ago now, I was invited to a conference on nonviolence and the atonement. I chose to speak on the violence of interpreting the cross event itself as salvific—how atonement theories that treat the violent death of Jesus as salvific have borne death dealing fruit to oppressed communities and/or those who belong to marginalized communities. I explained how the atonement theory of penal substitution has historically produced various forms of social abuse, and how abuse has also been the fruit of alternative atonement theories such as moral influence theory and Christus Victor.

Oppressors throughout history have used the concept of taking up ones cross” to prioritize themselves over survivors and to encourage oppressed people to passively and patiently endure violence rather than resist. This interpretation has proven very convenient for oppressors and those who dont want to disrupt the power imbalance of the status quo. It also impacts intimate relationships as well. When one spouse suffers physical or emotional abuse at the hands of another, for example, how many times have Christian pastors counseled the abused spouse to bear their cross,” be like Jesus,” and simply turn the other cheek”? I have written at length on other ways to interpret Jesus’ turning of the other cheek as a call to creative, nonviolent forms of disruption, protest, and resistance (see A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence Parts 1-10). I interpret the turn-the-other-cheek passages as did the late Walter Wink, who understood them to give those pushed to the undersides and edges of Jesus’ society a way to reclaim and affirm themselves despite being dehumanized.

This week, alongside the feminist and womanist scholars who have deeply influenced my thinking, I want to suggest that taking up ones cross” is not a call to patiently, passively endure the violence of systemic or relational oppression and abuse, but rather is a call to take hold of life and stand up against injustice even if there is a threat for doing so. This saying is not a call to passively suffer, but to protest even if the status quo threatens suffering if you speak out.

The implications are huge. What we are discussing this week is called the myth of redemptive suffering. I have often repeated Joanne Carlson Brown’s and Rebecca Parker’s statement in their essay God So Loved The World?:

It is not acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not, Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering. If you believe that acceptance of suffering gives life, then your resources for confronting perpetrators of violence and abuse will be numbed.” (also in Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, p. 18)

So what did Jesus mean, then, when he said take up your own cross?”

First, Borg and Crossan correctly remind us that Jesus’ cross in the gospels was about participation, not substitution:

For Mark, it is about participation with Jesus and not substitution by Jesus. Mark has those followers recognize enough of that challenge that they change the subject and avoid the issue every time. (Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesuss Final Days in Jerusalem; Kindle Locations 1589-1593)

While I agree with Borg and Crossan about the theme of participation rather than substitution, I disagree with their interpretation that suffering on a cross was intrinsic to following Jesus, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that suffering is an intrinsic precursor to triumph or success. Suffering only enters the story of following Jesus if those benefitting from the status quo feel threatened by changes that Jesus’ new social vision would make, and threaten his followers with a cross. Being willing to take up ones cross is not a call to be passive in the face of suffering, but a call to protest and resist even in the face of being threatened with a cross.

“Taking up one’s cross” in this context means being willing to endure the results of disrupting, confronting, resisting, and protesting injustice. The cross in the Jesus story is a symbol of the state violence that those in power threaten protestors with to scare them into remaining passive. Remember, as Carlson Brown and Parker wrote, the question is not how much am I willing to suffer, but how badly do I want to live!

If those in power threaten you with a cross, then and only then it becomes necessary for you to “take up a cross” and stand up against injustice. Protesting, for instance, does not always involve being arrested, but if it does, protest anyway!

The goal in scenarios like these is not to suffer, but to refuse to let go of life.

How one interprets taking up one’s cross has deep implications for survivors of relational violence, and for all who are engaging any form of social justice work. When those who feel threatened try to intimidate and silence your voice through fear of an imposed cross,” this week’s reading calls us to count the cost and refuse to let go of life. Do not be silenced! Though it may sound like an oxymoron on the surface, speaking out in the face of a threat is a form of rejecting death.

Let’s take relational violence as an example. First there is the relational violence itself. Then we have a choice in our response:

illustration

Too often, Jesus’ teaching of taking up the cross is interpreted so that the abuse itself is the cross.

illustration

But the abuse is not the cross but an initial injustice, and the cross is the threats one receives for standing up to or resisting injustice.

Illustration

Jesus is encouraging his followers to resist as he did flipping tables in the temple courtyard, even though it resulted in the state violence of a cross.

If a cross comes into the picture, then resist anyway. Jesus’ nonviolence was rooted in resistance, and sometimes change happens before oppressors send a cross. At other times, change happens after the cross. In both cases, suffering may come, but it is not redemptive.

Jesus emerged in his Jewish society as someone calling for the just distribution of food and land and the inclusion of those presently marginalized. His way of structuring human community threatened imperial Roman society and those who most benefited from the Roman system. And the early Jesus movement that grew out of an encounter with this Jesus resulted in a way of doing life together that was also seen as a threat to those in positions of power and privilege.

When those in power choose to threaten crosses for those standing up to systemic injustice, dont let go. Keep holding on to the hope of change even in the face of impossible odds. Keep holding on to life! For, Jesus says, what does it profit if you gain the whole world by your silence and yet lose your humanity?

Whoever wants to save their life through remaining silent in the face of injustice will actually be letting go of life. But whoever is willing to fight for life, for equity and equality, for love and compassion, for inclusion, for a just and safe world that is home for everyone, even if you’re threatened with death and death-dealing for doing so—all who refuse to let go of life and those things that are life-giving are the ones through whom life is saved, life is found, and another world is not only seen as possible but created in those moments of refusal.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What difference does it make for you to define ‘taking up your cross’ as a possible response to your speaking out and resistance, rather than passively bearing abuse and injustice? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



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A Just Future Begins Today

Herb Montgomery | February 28, 2020

globe


“Change can scare those benefitting from the present system no matter how unjust that system may be for others. Sadly the moderates in any given society typically side with the establishment, not with those being most marginalized.”


In Luke’s gospel, Jesus was asked when “the kingdom” or Jesus’ vision of God’s just future was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:20–21).

What energized the early Jesus movement was that Jesus counterintuitively denied that the just future they anticipated was coming at some point in the future. No, he declared: it had arrived! A new way of shaping human society toward justice, compassion, and inclusion had come, and it was theirs for the choosing. A movement had risen around Jesus’ egalitarian teachings and they were being invited to participate in it. A movement toward the just future they longed for had arrived. The question was what they were going to do about it. Notice the following passages:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven HAS come near.” (Matthew 3:2)

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven HAS come near.’” (Matthew 4:17)

“As you go, proclaim the good NEWS, ‘The kingdom of heaven HAS come near.’” (Matthew 10:7)

“ . . . the kingdom of God HAS come to you.” (Matthew 12:28)

“ . . . Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes ARE GOING into the kingdom of God ahead of you.’” (Matthew 21:31)

“And saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God HAS come near . . .” (Mark 1:15)

Jesus was not announcing that His kingdom would arrive soon, in the future. He proclaimed that the time had already come. He saw his purpose as traveling from one city to the next, proclaiming its arrival!

“But he said to them, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’” (Luke 4:43)

“Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.” (Luke 8:1)

Reconsider the passage we began with in Luke 17:

“Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” for, in fact, the kingdom of God IS AMONG YOU.’” (v. 20-21, emphasis added.)

The gospel authors used the rhetoric of “kingdom” or “empire” in their own Jewish culture and Roman societal context. Today we have better language to use: the language of kingdom is now rightly seen as authoritarian, hierarchical, and rooted in patriarchy. Jesus’ teachings on the “kingdom” were egalitarian, and his vision for ordering human society didn’t look anything like a kingdom. Let’s simply call it Jesus’ vision of God’s just future. This just future had actually arrived and Jesus contrasted it with the Roman Empire. Its treatment of the poor, inclusion of the marginalized, nonviolent obstruction of present systems of injustice, liberation of the incarcerated, and calls for reparations for those harmed in the present system confronted those listening to Jesus with the difference between the kind of society they were living in and the kind of society that could be, if they chose it.

Notice the contrast in these two verses:

“So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is NEAR.” (Luke 21:31)

“For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God COMES.” (Luke 22:18)

Had the time come, yes. Was it near? Yes. Had the beginning already begun? Yes. Could it also be stopped and prevented from coming in its fullness? Absolutely.

The time for change had come, but, as with all movements, positive momentum could be obstructed, slowed, and even halted. The time for a just future may have come, but change can scare those benefitting from the present system no matter how unjust that system may be for others.

Would the established elite be able to stop this movement or would the proletariat that comprised the early Jesus movement actually be able to make the changes they resonated with in the teachings of Jesus? Sadly the moderates in any given society typically side with the establishment, not with those being most marginalized.

In the gospels, Jesus announced that the beginning of God’s just future had arrived. He called his followers to enlarge this beginning, and it was obstructed almost immediately.

That obstruction is the meaning we can safely take from the cross of Jesus. The cross was the establishment’s no to Jesus’ vision of God’s just future. The cross interrupted Jesus’ salvific work, while the resurrection reversed the interruption and inspired Jesus’ early followers to live out his vision of a just future.

I’m reminded of how Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas phrases it in her powerfully written book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.

“The resurrection is God’s definitive victory over the crucifying powers of evil . . . As the cross is defeated, so too is that power. The impressive factor is how it is defeated. It is defeated by a life-giving rather than life-negating force. God’s power, unlike human power, is not a ‘master race’ kind of power. That is, it is not the power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is a resurrecting power. Therefore, God’s power never expresses itself through humiliation or denigration of another. It does not triumph over life. It conquers death by resurrecting life. The force of God is a death-negating, life affirming force.” (p. 187)

Douglas goes on to reference Audre Lorde’s phrase, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Douglass then responds to Lorde:

“What the crucifixion-resurrection event reveals is that God does not use the master’s tools. God does not fight death with death. God does not utilize the violence exhibited in the cross to defeat deadly violence itself . . . [God’s resurrecting] power is nonviolent . . . God enters into this world of violence, yet God does not take [violence] into God’s self. Thus, God responds to the violence of the world not in an eye-for-an-eye manner. Instead God responds in a way that negates and denounces the violence that perverts and demeans the integrity of human creation. Thus, through the resurrection, God responds to the violence of the cross—the violence of the world—in a nonviolent but forceful manner.”

One of the uses of the threat of a cross in Roman society was to prevent rebellion or resistance. It was used to keep oppressed communities silent or passive. To stand up to injustice was to embrace the possibility that one might also end up on a cross for doing so. This context of standing up and speaking out, fully knowing what the repercussions may be, is the context I believe it’s most life-giving to read these words in Luke’s gospel from Jesus:

“Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’” (Luke 9:22–24)

Those who choose to save their life by remaining passively silent in the face of injustice are the ones who end up losing their life and humanity, even if they live on with their privilege and position untouched.

God’s just future is both future and present. The future/present paradox is not either/or, but both/and. God’s just future begins every time someone chooses justice over injustice, liberation over subjugation, equity over exploitation, and thriving over extinction. It also can be obstructed.

Every time we choose to stand with those most vulnerable to injustice, the beginning of God’s just future is here, now, obstructed though it may be. We get to choose which way the moral arc of the universe bends. The status quo either bends us, or we bend it. It shapes us, or we shape it.

And this leads me to a question I get asked a lot. But what about when we feel like our taking a stand isn’t making much of a difference? I have to admit, I too am wrestling with those feelings this week after spending Monday at my state Capital talking to our representatives. I’m reminded of the story of A.J. Muste.

A.J. Muste was an organizer in the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s. Standing at a candlelight vigil/protest in front of the White House, a reporter asked Muste, “Do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night in front of the White House with a candle?”

A.J. Muste replied softly: “Oh I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.”

I believe that when we choose to take a stand, the beginning of God’s just future has arrived.

Will it grow to fruition? That is for us, collectively, to decide.

When we see movements toward a more just, more compassionate, safe society at work, we can oppose them, choosing a more moderate, less-threatening-to-the-establishment path, or we can come alongside those movements, pitching in our own energy and resources to work for change.

If we do that, we can confidently say with Jesus, God’s just future, though obstructed, is already “among you.”

HeartGroup Application

  1. Where do you see fear of a more just society being stoked today? Discuss with your group.
  2. What movements for justice do you see being obstructed? Have your group make a list.
  3. What can your group do collectively to stand with and work alongside such movements? Pick something and put it into practice.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see next week

When Doing the Right Thing Is Illegal

Herb Montgomery | June 14, 2019

Picture of a wall with writing that says, "No one is illegal."
Photo by Miko Guziuk on Unsplash

“What happens when we have to choose between saving life and abiding by the law? Jesus’ healings call us to take a side either with the marginalized and liberator (with Jesus) or to interpret his acts as lawless defiance. How we choose is determined by which value we hold most dear.”


“Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent.” (Mark 3:4)

In this story in Mark’s gospel, Jesus contrasts that which is lawful and that which is life-saving, and calls our values and priorities into question. Among the values and principles we hold dear and seek to live out in our daily lives, which values hold our highest priority? Let’s look at the story in its entirety:

“Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’ Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” (Mark 3:1-6)

Each of the gospels interprets the Sabbath work-prohibition and includes acts of healing in the category of labor that was forbidden during Sabbath.

“He said to them, ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11-12)

“Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, ‘There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.’” (Luke 13:14)

“Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath . . . Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.’” (John 9:14-16)

This interpretation of what it meant to be faithful to the Sabbath prohibitions was an interpretation by those who did not need healing, those in power and positions of privilege. It was an interpretation by those most prone to underestimate the damage of their interpretation because it did not affect them negatively. 

We must also remember, as we read these stories in our context today, that people in the 1st Century didn’t look at healings the same way most people do today. Healing wasn’t considered exceptional as it is in our post-enlightenment scientific age. Healing was normative. 

The point of these stories was not that Jesus healed, but about who was being healed and when. Jesus continually healed and restored those who were being socially marginalized. He stood with those being pushed to the edges of his society by the elite. 

Every story of healing in the gospels questions the legitimacy of the status quo, and subverts the myths on which the status quo was based. These are stories of resistance, survival, and liberation as well as stories of healing.

Ched Myers in his book “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship correctly states: 

“In contrast to Hellenistic literature, in which miracle-workers normally function to maintain the status quo, gospel healings challenge the ordering of power. Because Jesus seeks the root causes of why people are marginalized, there is no case of healing and exorcism in Mark that does not also raise a larger question of social oppression.” (“Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 14)

Law and Order

And this brings us to the point of the passage we are considering this week. What happens when we have to choose between saving life and abiding by the law? Jesus’ healings call us to take a side either with the marginalized and liberator (with Jesus) or to interpret his acts as lawless defiance. How we choose is determined by which value we hold most dear—standing alongside the vulnerable over and against harm being done or being committed to the status quo above all else.

This is nothing new. White clergy in the South used the legality argument to try to silence Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the Civil Rights movement. King responded, 

“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.” (Read Letter from a Birmingham Jail)

Today we can still feel the tension between what is legal and what is compassionate, just, or right. Consider the example of Scott Warren and others volunteering for the humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths. No More Deaths provides food and water along migrant trails in Arizona. Right now, Warren is on trial for offering humanitarian aid to migrants in some of the most lethal terrains of their migration. Humanitarian aid is deemed a crime, legally, but the No More Deaths organization is arguing back “that humanitarian aid is never a crime” (see CNN). NPR also reported on these actions last week: “Extending ‘Zero Tolerance’ To People Who Help Migrants Along The Border.” I can hear the echo of Jesus’ question, “Is it lawful to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”

Faith Communities and Noncompliance

Within faith communities, there are also times when people have to choose between complying with what their institution’s policies allow versus doing what is right. I think of many leaders in the faith tradition I grew up in having to face compliance committees set up to enforce policies prohibiting the ordination of women, excluding LGBTQ members, and silencing scholars who hold scientific views about Earth’s geological record.

In the United Methodist tradition, there are leaders standing against policy, or what is legal, to do what is right. Just last week I read how two US conferences are ordaining and commissioning LGBTQ clergy despite their institution’s ban. (Read the entire story at https://www.umnews.org/en/news/two-us-conferences-ordain-commission-lgbtq-clergy.)

Taking both their noncompliance and their commitment to doing what is right very seriously, Bishop Sally Dyck, resident bishop of the Chicago Area, stated, “My prayer is that the church will grow in grace so as to fully give its blessing to every child of God who is called to ministry.”

Those being ordained and commissioned are experiencing firsthand the tension between standing for what one believes is right over and against the legality of continued institutional evils. The Revs. Elizabeth Evans who was commissioned as a provisional deacon rightly stated that she doesn’t believe the church can “transform the world” while upholding the same unjust structures as the world does.

It is difficult to make these types of choices. I know this firsthand, too. 

In the gospels, Jesus sided with the vulnerable and marginalized over and against the institutions of his day when they practiced injustice.

He disregarded legality in favor of doing what was right until it escalated to a Roman cross—the punishment for “violating the rule of Roman law and order.” (See Kelly Brown Douglass, Stand Your Ground Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171)

Jesus’ noncompliance in the gospels challenges us with this question:

Which side of the story would our actions have placed us on?

“Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful . . . to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent.” (Mark 3:4)

HeartGroup Application

  1. What are some examples of when you had to choose between doing what’s right and doing what was compliant? Discuss these experiences among your group.
  2. What examples of this same tension have you experienced or witnessed within either your former faith community or your present faith community? Discuss.
  3. What examples do you presently see in our larger society where people are having to choose between what is right and what is legal? Discuss.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  Wherever you are today, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.  Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. 

I’m so glad you’re journeying with us. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Catching Big Fish

Herb Montgomery | June 7, 2019

Photo by Chris Bair on Unsplash

“The fishing metaphor was a way to denounce injustice against the vulnerable, and looks forward to social change.”


“‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will show you how to catch big fish.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” Mark 1:17-18 (Personal translation)

Last week I was reminded of the hymn, How Can I Keep From Singing. Although this hymn has been around for quite some time in a minority of hymnals, Pete Seeger popularized it in the folk music of the 60’s. Seeger incorporated an additional verse from Doris Penn (from whom he’d learned the song) and modified the lyrics to have broader reach, much like we today can speak of “the reign of love” where the gospel writers used “kingdom. I want to share with you Seeger’s version as we begin this week. 

“My life flows on in endless song

Above earth’s lamentation.

I hear the real, thought far off hymn

That hails the new creation

Above the tumult and the strife,

I hear the music ringing;

It sounds an echo in my soul

How can I keep from singing?

What through the tempest loudly roars,

I hear the truth, it live’th.

What through the darkness round me close,

Songs in the night it give’th.

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that rock I’m clinging.

Since love is lord of Heaven and earth

How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,

And hear their death-knell ringing,

When friends rejoice both far and near,

How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile

Our thoughts to them are winging.

When friends by shame are undefiled,

How can I keep from singing?”

(For a live version of Seeger’s rendition, see Pete Seeger: How Can I Keep from Singing? – Live, 1982)

These lyrics inspire me to keep believing change is possible: another world is possible. Faith communities characterized by a different set of values than what I was raised with are possible. Societies that are just, safe, and compassionate are possible. 

And this leads me to our text about fishing this week. I briefly shared in Social Sins, Social Justice, and the Jesus Stories how the Hebrew prophets’ original use of the “fishing” metaphor in the gospels was more political than religious. During the Christian Revival era in the 1950-60s here in the United States, “fishing” language was popularized and transformed to mean bringing people into the Christian faith. 

But Jesus’ audience, especially the working, fishing people of Galilee and Judea, would have had a different association with this metaphor. Consider again how this metaphor is used by the Hebrew prophets:

“I am now sending for many fishermen, says God, and they shall catch [the people of Israel]…” (Jeremiah 16:16) 

“The time is surely coming upon you when they shall take you away with fishhooks…” (Amos 4:2) 

“Thus says God: I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt…. I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your channels stick to your scales…” (Ezekiel 29:3f)

This language of catching the big fish was used as a symbol of disrupting and overturning unjust power structures both within Israel and within gentile empires. As Doris Penn wrote, “How can I keep from singing? When tyrants tremble, sick with fear, And hear their death-knell ringing.” I love how Myers sums up the Jewish background of this fishing metaphor: Jesus might have been using this language with the fisher folk in our text. 

“Jesus is, in other words, summoning working folk to join him in overturning the structures of power and privilege in the world!” (Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 10)

The fishing metaphor is a way to denounce injustice against the vulnerable, and looks forward to social change. This impacts those who endeavor to follow Jesus today in relation to Christianity’s complicity in unjust power structures. As Guitierrez writes, “The denunciation of injustice implies the rejection of the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 69) Christianity has often been used to legitimize unjust established orders like patriarchy, white supremacy, slavery, colonialism, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. 

In each of the synoptic gospels, what finally got Jesus executed was his overturning tables, challenging the established order of economic and political injustice being bolstered by religion. That’s still happening in Christianity today.

What I also find intriguing about the Jesus stories is that although this is a story of overturning unjust structures of power and privilege, it is also a story about alternative ways of doing so. This is a story of alternative “fishing” methods, if you will. From Jesus’ teachings on reparations, nonviolence, and wealth distribution among the poor to the stories’ ending with a resurrection after a violent death, the stories about Jesus are stories where resurrection is the means of overthrowing the crucifying power of evil and injustice. 

As I’ve said so many times before, the Jesus story does not say that the cross was Jesus’ saving work. If anything, the cross was an attempted interruption of Jesus’ saving work and was overcome through the resurrection. The resurrection reversed everything accomplished by Jesus’ execution, and it did so as an alternative, life-giving method of overcoming the evil and unjust use of the violence of a cross. 

Speaking of unjust structures of power and privilege being overturned in this story, Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglass in her book Stand Your Ground, Black Bodies and the Justice of God reminds us:

“[God’s power] is not a power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is a resurrecting power. Therefore God’s power never expresses itself through the humiliation or denigration of another. It does not triumph over life. It conquers death by resurrecting life. The force of God is a death negating, life-affirming force.” (pp. 182-183)

The Jesus story does not overturn injustice, hierarchies and exclusion by adding death to death. 

Douglass goes on to quote Audre Lorde:

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider, p. 12)

We need more than temporary solutions. We must not underestimate how much damage mitigation temporary solutions can accomplish as we work for more lasting change. Ultimately, we must work to end structures that kill marginalized people. Methods that may have worked to keep us alive at one stage of our human evolution, enabling some to survive at the expense of others, must give way to life-giving methods whose goal is the inclusion, survival and thriving of all. 

We can evolve further.

The challenges in our text this week are: 

The gospel, the good news, is about the potential for change in the status quo. 

This should cause us to question and let go of the status quo if we benefit from it, rather than continuing to give the established order continued religious legitimization.

The gospels also challenge some of the means and ways that unjust established orders are changed and overthrown. 

And lastly: a change in the status quo must not end in adding death to death. It must overcome death. It must be an overthrowing, a reversal, a rejection of death that results in life and respect for the sanctity of life of all. It must be a refusal to let go of life and life for all.

As I shared last week, if the language of “gospel,” “Jesus,” “God,” “heaven,” or other Christian terms are associated in your experience with abuse, call them love instead. Seeger had to change the lyrics of the hymn we began with this week from “Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?” to “Since love is lord of Heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?” and that’s okay. (More blood has been shed in the name of “Christ” than almost any other name in human history. I would have changed the word “lord,” too.) 

What we are talking about is the reign of love as our established social order. And if the word “love” is also associated with abuse in your experience, we are still working toward a world that is just, safe, equitable and compassionate for you and for us all. 

“‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will show you how to catch big fish.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” Mark 1:17-18 (Personal translation)

HeartGroup Application

This week in your HeartGroups, engage this exercise together. 

1. Name a few unjust power structures that you see in our present social arrangements today, both in larger society and within your faith community. Write them down. 

2. Thinking of Jesus’ actions with the Temple money changers, describe how you would imagine Jesus would engage some of these unjust power structures today.

3. RHM’s book of the month for June is A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. If you’re reading this volume with us this month discuss as group how you see the power structures you’ve named play into larger systems of injustice. 

Exercises like these are useful because they begin challenging the way we look at both our world and our faith in following Jesus.   Next week, we’ll build on this. 

Thanks for checking in with us. 

Wherever you are today, choose love.  Keep living in compassion, action and justice. 

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

I love each of you dearly.

Another world is possible. 

I’ll see you next week. 

Mary, Jesus, King, and Us

by Herb Montgomery | January 18, 2019

Picture of the Black Madonna, Jesus /crucifix and police booking picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“This is a much different take on women’s virginity than I was raised with. It would also allow a different interpretive lens through which to view Mary who raised a son who modeled, taught, and was crucified for being a political rebel as well.”


“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)

Many have struggled with Mary’s story in the birth narratives for Jesus in Matthew and Luke. This makes sense to me. Growing up in Evangelical Christian purity culture, women’s virginity symbolized their submission to patriarchy and male dominance over women. Mary as the holy virgin triggers such religious abuse and Christians often interpret that image of Mary in ways that perpetuate the non-egalitarian treatment of women. 

This past December while I was re-reading Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives, though, I was struck by how non-compliant Mary sounds. Consider what we refer to today as Mary’s Magnificat:

“My soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has been mindful 

of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

holy is his name.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,

from generation to generation.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones 

but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty. 

He has helped his servant Israel,

remembering to be merciful

to Abraham and his descendants forever,

just as he promised our ancestors.” 

(Luke 1:46-55)

Patriarchal cultures use virginity as a symbol of submission, yet here is a young girl who sounds more like a rebel. The lines “He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty” are not the words of a model submissive or someone who demonstrates how not to make waves. Proclaim these words today and see what kind of trouble they stir up. Christianity has a long history of trying to explain away the edge to these words, and something doesn’t add up. 

This week, I want to suggest that the story element of Mary’s virginity in the gospel narrative may have actually been written as a nod to resistance movements in the culture of that time, not to promote purity culture’s submission.

Researchers in RHM’s suggested book of the month for December 2018 explain how virginity was used by dissident groups in the 1st Century. 

“About a decade before the birth of Jesus, Rome passed marriage laws that inflicted severe tax penalties on citizens who refused to marry and to generate offspring. With an infant mortality rate of more than 60 percent and life expectancy at age twenty-five, Rome needed every woman to begin reproducing at the onset of puberty and bear five children to keep the empire’s population at a replacement rate. A shrinking population meant a declining tax base and fewer sons to serve in the military and guard the empire’s vast frontiers. The standard marriage involved an adult male, who had proven his ability to provide for a family, and an adolescent female a decade or more younger. People joined dissident religious groups to resist conscription and overtaxation, and asceticism and virginity emerged as ways to defy imperial pressures to reproduce and marry.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker in Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 195)

For two of the four Gospels that characterize Mary as a virgin, this may have been in the authors’ thinking when they chose to characterize Mary as a virgin. (Although she is still written as being engaged.) The elements of Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives show the Jesus story was resistance literature responding to Roman rule. (See The Subversive Narratives of Advent (Parts 1 – 3))

Later Christians who lived in the context of the Roman empire also used virginity and refusing to marry as a means of resisting Rome.

“In resisting domination, many early Christian women rejected the curse of women’s subordination to men, a status based on heterosexual sex. Engaging in sex with men required women to accept a subjugated role. Virginity and chastity gave them power. Virgins chose to remain so by refusing to marry, and married women left their husbands to live in women’s communities. Sex was legally regulated and restricted and socially fraught by gender and power, as it still is today. However, today many tend to regard virginity as a sign of conformity to patriarchal double standards and the disempowerment of women. The popular novel The DaVinci Code, which suggests that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife and carried his bloodlines through her descendants, might appear to elevate Mary’s importance to Christianity. However, early Christians would not have regarded making her Mrs. Jesus as an improvement over her role as a preeminent apostle and teacher with her own divinity. The virginity of early Christian women was a radical statement against male dominance and in favor of women’s own power. The only legitimate virgin in a pater familias was a daughter, who was owned by her father until she could be transferred to a husband, at which point she was no longer a virgin. For daughters to refuse to marry may have aggravated Roman opposition to Christianity. As a spiritual practice, women’s abstinence from marriage granted freedom from male sexual domination. Abstinence ended the curse inflicted upon Eve when she was exiled from the Garden, “your desire shall be for your husband and he shall lord it over you” (Gen. 3:16). Therefore, Christian virginity defied the core power system upon which Rome was built, the pater familias.” (Ibid, p.193-194)

This is a much different take on women’s virginity than I was raised with. It would also allow a different interpretive lens through which to view Mary who raised a son who modeled, taught, and was crucified for being a political rebel as well. 

And this leads me to my question for us this week.

How can we, too, rebel against injustice in our society?

Seeing Mary, Jesus, and early Christian women as those who rebelled against injustice and considering the upcoming annual celebration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought to mind Dr. King’s words in his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail. These words paint a very different view of King from the domesticated picture that we typically get today. In this section, King defends his resistance and rebellion against injustice:

“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’” (Letter From Birmingham Jail, May 1963)

So again, how might we rebel against injustice in our society? Which injustices are especially galling to your heart? How might you resist and rebel? What difference does it make for you to view Mary, King, and even Jesus as a rebel rather than as compliant? Does it give you courage? Do you feel as if you are in good company? Are you less alone than you might think? 

Resistance to injustice is a river that stretches far back before you and will continue long after you are gone. How deeply we might wade into its waters today?

Given the details in the stories of Jesus’ mother and Jesus himself, rebelling against injustice, oppression, and violence was a staple of what it meant to follow Jesus in the first few generations of the Jesus movement. May it become a staple for us today as we follow Jesus.

“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)



HeartGroup Application

Compose three lists this week together as a group.

First make a list of injustices that you feel should be opposed.  Allow time for discussion as this process can be lengthy.

Second make a list of ways you could possibly exercise opposition to injustices on the first list as individuals.

Third make a list of ways you could possibly exercise resistance as a group. 

Lastly, pick some actions from the last two lists and begin putting them into practice.

I’m glad you checked in with us this week. 

Where you are this week, keep living in love, justice, compassion and action. 

Another world is possible. 

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. 

Justice, Grace & Charity: Part 1

by Herb Montgomery | November 9, 2018

Autumn path in the woods


“We need justice that is distributive.
We need grace which is liberating.
Only with both will we see far enough to have a life-giving discussion about charity.”


 

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.” (Matthew 12:18)

My younger daughter came home recently, visibly upset about misogyny in her high school. While she was speaking out against some of the structural, systemic privilege that boys receive at her school, one of her close male friends made a very patronizing, anti-feminist remark. She was shocked and disappointed. 

Later, she told me she couldn’t believe that one of her friends could have said and thought such a thing. She then repeated a saying I used to tell her when she was in elementary school. “Fish don’t know they’re wet,” she said. “He’s regurgitating only what he’s heard from the men in his life.” 

She wanted her friend to be a better human. She believed he could be a better human. She didn’t want to believe her friend could genuinely be so patriarchal. “He must not know any better,” she decided, and the next day she was determined to enlighten him. 

The following night she reported that her friend did apologize and had been open to listening. I wondered whether he was only trying to pacify her in order to keep her friendship, or was sincerely open to seeing another’s perspective. My daughter wanted to believe he was being sincere. “Oh this, by far, doesn’t fix things,” she said. “But it’s a start. We’ll see. Time will tell.”

Time will tell. For all of us.

This week I want to begin a two-week discussion of three words: Justice, grace and charity.

How we define each of these words makes a significant difference in whether we act as mere pacifiers for people’s or communities’ suffering or whether we go further and work as agents of change.

Justice

In the Hebrew scriptures, justice was understood not as retributive but as distributive. It was not about punishment but about resources and power being distributed fairly to all, so that everyone possessed what they needed to thrive. When justice prevailed, people would not thrive as individuals only: survival would not come at another’s expense. Instead, they were to thrive together. That’s the kind of justice that we find in the Jesus story. Matthew’s gospel refers to Jesus by quoting the book of Isaiah: 

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory.” (Matthew 12:20)

“Bringing justice to victory.” I love that imagery. It captures the idea of distributive justice being presently obstructed, yet eventually overcoming through our choices for a more just world. Justice will one day be victorious.

Too often within Christian communities, justice is defined as retributive punishment or vengeance. This kind of justice then becomes seen as negative, something to be overcome by grace (another of our words this week that we’ll discuss in a moment). It becomes something that is escaped when grace prevails. But the hope of the gospels, like the hope of the Hebrew prophets, is not that justice will be overcome by grace, but that injustice, violence, and oppression will be overcome by justice—a distributive justice.

These same prophets do talk about punishment, too, but in the prophets’ writings and the gospels, the idea of punishment is restorative, not retribuitve. There were two Greek words for punishment in the cultures from which the gospels were written: timoria and kolasis. Both are translated in our English Bibles as “punishment.” Yet consider the ideas behind these two words.

Timoria implies causing people to suffer retributively. It’s very retributive and its purpose is penal. It refers to satisfying a need in the one who inflicts the punishment. Stop and consider that for a moment. The purpose of this kind of punishment is to satisfy a need not in the one receiving the punishment, but in the one inflicting or demanding it. That is retribution. (See Louw & Nida Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains and Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.)

Yet, as we know, there are other types of punishments—disciplines—that are not for the purpose of satisfying something in the punisher. When a parent rightly and healthfully disciplines a child, they don’t do so to satisfy their own retributive, punitive desire that demands payment from the child. Life-giving discipline is transformative, reparative, and/or restorative. It’s still a form of punishment. Yet the goal of restorative punishment is to win the child away from the behavior they have chosen to a different course. We should note at the same time that one of the perverse things about fundamentalism is how it teaches folks to inflict retributive, punitive pain and reframe it as restorative.

Kolasis implies this kind of reparative punishment, and Plato describes it in Protagoras:

“If you will think, Socrates, of the nature of punishment, you will see at once that in the opinion of mankind virtue may be acquired; no one punishes [kolasis] the evil-doer under the notion, or for the reason, that he has done wrong,—only the unreasonable fury of a beast acts in that manner. But he who desires to inflict rational punishment [kolasis] does not retaliate for a past wrong which cannot be undone; he has regard to the future, and is desirous that the man who is punished [kolasis], and he who sees him punished [kolasis], may be deterred from doing wrong again. He punishes for the sake of prevention, thereby clearly implying that virtue is capable of being taught.”

Various Greek lexicons and modern commentaries define kolasis similarly: 

  • “chastisement, punishment” (A Greek-English Lexicon To The New Testament, William Greenfield)
  • “the trimming of the luxuriant branches of a tree or vine to improve it and make it fruitful” (Graecum Lexicon Manuale, Benjamin Hedericus and Johann August Ernesti)
  • “the act of clipping or pruning, restriction, restraint, reproof, check, chastisement” (A New Greek and English Lexicon, James Donnegan) 
  • “pruning, checking, punishment, chastisement, correction” (A Greek-English Lexicon, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, Franz Passow) 

On later translations from Greek into Latin, Max Müller writes, “Do we want to know what was uppermost in the minds of those who formed the word for punishment, the Latin pæna or punio, to punish, the root pu in [Sanskrit], which means to cleanse, to purify, tells us that the Latin derivation was originally formed, not to express mere striking or torture, but cleansing, correcting, delivering from the stain of sin” (in Chips from a German Workshop, p. 259). For still more on the differences between timoria and kolasis see William Barclay, The Apostle’s Creed, p. 189, and J.W. Hanson’s Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine Of the Christian Church During Its First Five-Hundred Years, pp. 39-41)

What kind of punishment is kolasis then? It’s restorative, redemptive, and transformative. It’s the kind of punishment or discipline that a loving and functional parent gives a wayward child hoping to help them see the intrinsically destructive consequences of their choices so that they will turn from those choices and make better ones. It’s restorative justice, not retributive justice. 

What’s most important: whenever Jesus speaks of punishment in the gospels, the gospel authors use the word kolasis and never timoria! Jesus’ punishment is not a retributive punishment. It’s restorative, transformative punishment designed to reform the recipients.  

Yet, again, in the gospels and in the prophets, when they speak of “justice,” it’s not about punishment, but about a restoring a just distribution of resources. 

Consider this story in Luke’s gospel:

“Jesus said: ‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!”’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.’” (Luke 18:3-8)

In the gospels, then, the story of distributive justice is carried onward toward victory.

Grace

Grace is another word we find in the gospels. Consider how it is used in Luke:

“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.” (Luke 2:40, emphasis added)

Grace in the gospels is “favor that manifests itself in deliverance” (see Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible). It’s favor that works out liberation from oppression. 

In Christian circles, however, grace is too often defined as letting someone off the hook from punitive, punishing justice. In this context, grace becomes victorious over justice rather than justice being victorious over injustice, violence, oppression, marginalization, exploitation, subjugation, etc. When it’s all about grace, the discussion is about guilt alleviation rather than systemic change. The discussion is about a grace or unmerited favor that doesn’t condemn oppressors rather than a grace, a favor, that manifests itself in liberation for the oppressed. In the gospels, grace is expressed as a preferential option for the oppressed, for the vulnerable, for the marginalized. It’s favor or solidarity on the side of those hungering and thirsting for distributive justice or “righteousness.” (See Matthew 5:6.)

One of my favorite stories of Gandhi is how when he bumped into the idea of grace as simply being let of the hook. Gandhi tells of interacting with a Christian he refers to as “one of the Plymouth Brethren.”

The Plymouth Brother says to Gandhi: 

“How can we bear the burden of sin? We can but throw it on Jesus. He is the only sinless Son of God. It is His word that those who believe in Him shall have everlasting life. Therein lies God’s infinite mercy. And as we believe in the atonement of Jesus, our own sins do not bind us. Sin we must. It is impossible to live in this world sinless. And therefore Jesus suffered and atoned for all the sins of mankind. Only he who accepts His great redemption can have eternal peace. Think what a life of restlessness is yours, and what a promise of peace we have.’ 

Gandhi responded, 

“The argument utterly failed to convince me. I humbly replied: ‘If this be the Christianity acknowledged by all Christians, I cannot accept it. I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin. Until I have attained that end, I shall be content to be restless.’” 

(Gandhi, Mohandas K. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth, pp. 63-64)

Favor that manifests itself in liberation of the oppressed is miles away from favor that lets oppressors off the hook without discussing reparations or making things right.

Next week we’ll connect this to how the gospels speak of charity.

For now,

We need justice that is distributive.

We need grace which is liberating.

Only with both will we see far enough to have a life-giving discussion about charity.

We don’t need charity that is only temporary and leaves injustice not only untouched but also supported. We need a kind of justice and grace that shapes our world into one where charity is no longer necessary.

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.” (Matthew 12:18)

HeartGroup Application

This week, take some time together as a group and make a gratitude list.  There are plenty of things that still need changed in our larger communities. Yet progress is being made, too!  

  1. Each person write down three things you are thankful for this week.
  1. Go around the room, and from those who are willing to share, share why these items are valuable to you.
  1. Take a moment to bask in your gratitude and then name one area in which you see work still needs to be done.

picture of woman holding up two fingersAlso, don’t forget all contributions to RHM this month are being matched dollar for dollar.  You can make your support go twice as far during the month of November. [Find out more.]

 

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.