Against Enticing Little Ones

“Cristo de la Liberacion” (Christ of the Liberation) by Maximino Cerezo Barredo, who’s been dubbed “liberation painter.”

Photo Credit: “Cristo de la Liberacion” (Christ of the Liberation) by Maximino Cerezo Barredo, who’s been dubbed “liberation painter.”

“Our experiences determine not only the questions we ask, but also the answers we get back. Plain readings are not plain but are read through the lens of our own paradigms and fears. And this is one reason why it is so vital, if we are going to make our world safe and just for everyone, that we learn to listen to stories, experiences, and interpretations of our sacred texts from the most vulnerable communities in our society.”

by Herb Montgomery | October 20, 2017

Featured Text:

“It is necessary for enticements to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It is better for him if a millstone is put around his neck and he is thrown into the sea, than that he should entice one of these little ones.” Q 17:1-2

Companion Texts:

Matthew 18:6-7: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!”

Luke 17:1, 2: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.’”

We stumble when we’re learning to walk. This week, we are focusing on those who are walking toward a safer, more just, and compassionate world, and we’ll be considering how as they move forward, others will actively obstruct their path rather than smoothing it out. Obstructionists place stumbling blocks in the way of those moving forward, causing their advance to be harder than it should be.

We are, again, considering one of Jesus’ sayings about “little ones.” As I wrote in Thanksgiving that God Reveals Only to Children:

“The family structure in Palestine in the first century was a hierarchical pyramid with the male patriarch at the top. On the bottom rung of the social ladder, below slaves, were children (see Galatians 4:1).

Social status is typically evaluated by the degree to which one has both power and resources. Those with large measures of control over power and resources operate in higher social positions, while those with very little access to power and resources live at the bottom.

Children have access to neither power nor resources. The typical avenues to power and control of resources are education, income, or work. In our societies, children have none of these, and they are vulnerable to abuse and neglect so child advocacy and children’s rights are much needed. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability, color, or ethnicity are also compounded when they apply to children.”

Our focus in this week’s saying is directed toward the “little ones” Jesus spoke of—the most vulnerable sectors of society. In the Greek, “little ones” (mikros) can not only refer to children, but also any who are vulnerable to exploitation by the status quo. It doesn’t have to mean a young person; it can also refer to a person’s “rank or influence” within a society. Christianity has a long history in doing damage to our most vulnerable and most marginalized.

Native People 

One example in this history is the way Christian preachers and missionaries used the Canaanite conquest and genocide stories in the Bible to legitimize the genocide of Native peoples here in the U.S.:

“Biblical notions of extirpation influenced colonial America from the earliest days of the settlement. In a tract publicizing the new Virginia settlement, Robert Gray expressed the hope that Indians might accept Christianity, but if they did not, biblical commands were clear: ‘Saul had his kingdom rent from him and his posterity because he spared Agag . . . whom God would not have spared; so acceptable a service is it to destroy idolaters, whom God hateth.’” (Philip Jenkins, in Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, p. 133)

During the colonial era, many New England preachers such as Cotton Mather compared Pequot Indians to modern Ammonites and New England to a modern Israel (see Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, vol. 1, p. 553). With this interpretation, if Saul had had his kingdom taken away because he failed to utterly destroy the Ammonites, the new American Christians were not to fail in the complete annihilation of their modern, native “Ammonites” if they wanted ensure their place on this continent, their “promised land.” The genocide of Native people was rooted in Christians’ lethal interpretation of violent Bible passages; it was a genocide they believed God had commanded them to execute.

Slavery

During the abolitionist years leading up to the American Civil War, many Christian preachers quoted Leviticus’ passages affirming slavery and claimed that neither Paul nor Jesus had reversed those passages. One famous preacher, ironically named Moses Stuart, wrote:

“Not one word has Christ said, to annul the Mosaic law while it lasted. Neither Paul nor Peter have uttered one. Neither of these have said to Christian masters: ‘Instantly free your slaves.’ Yet they lived under Roman laws concerning slavery, which were rigid to the last degree. How is it explicable on any ground, when we view them as humane and benevolent teachers, and especially as having a divine commission-how is it possible that they should not have declared and explicitly [so] against a malum in se [something evil in itself]?”

He confidently pronounced that those calling for the end of slavery “must give up the New Testament authority, or abandon the fiery course which they are pursuing” (Moses Stuart, Conscience and the Constitution; with Remarks on the Recent Speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster in the Senate of the United States on the Subject of Slavery, 1850).

Another minister, a Southern Methodist named J.W. Tucker, proclaimed to his Confederate audience fighting for their right to own slaves, “Your cause is the cause of God, the cause of Christ, of humanity. It is a conflict of truth with error-of Bible with Northern infidelity-of pure Christianity with Northern fanaticism.” (Kurt O. Berends, “Confederate Sacrifice and the ‘Redemption’ of the South,” in Religion and the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture, ed. Beth Barton Schweiger and Donald G. Mathews, p. 105.) Tucker’s rhetoric sounds almost identical to the rhetoric of Christians today as they condemn movement in many faith traditions toward the affirmation of LGBTQ people.

Against Women

Christianity also has a long history with patriarchy and misogyny. Roman Catholic writer John Paul Boyer explains in Some thoughts on the Ordination of Women: 

Being a Jew, being a Palestinian, being a first century man—all these are what we might call, in the language of Aristotelian metaphysical, the ‘accidents of Christ’s humanity;’ but his being a man rather than a woman is of the ‘substance’ of his humanity. He could have been a twentieth-century Chinese and been, cultural differences notwithstanding, much the same person he was, but he could not have been a woman without having been a different sort of personality altogether.” (A Monthly Bulletin of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, ())

Womanist scholar Jacqueline Grant rightly states in her book White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus that “the most significant use of this argument” came from Pope Paul VI on October 15, 1976, when he approved and published the following declaration:

“The Christian priesthood is therefore of a sacramental nature: the priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease. The whole sacramental economy is in fact based up on natural signs, or symbols imprinted up on the human psychology: ‘Sacramental signs’, says Saint Thomas, ‘represent what they signify by natural resemblance.’ The same natural resemblance is required for personas as for things: when Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally there would not be this ‘natural resemblance’ which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man. In such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.” (Franjo Cardinal Seper, Vatican Declaration, Feb 6, 1977, p. 6)

Never mind that the church’s own creation story states clearly that both male and female were made in the image of God. There have long been interpretations of these stories that have marginalized, wholly excluded, and damaged women personally and institutionally. Because of the patriarchal nature of many sectors of Christianity, and despite the fact that there are feminist and womanist Christians, some have gone so far as to say that Christianity is a man’s religion.

LGBTQ Fear

Anyone who lived through the 1980s here in the U.S. knows all too well how Christianity has done untold damage to the LGBTQ community, legitimizing the inmate homophobia of straight parishioners through interpretations that are trans-, bi-, genderqueer-, and homo-phobic. For a history that reaches back into the 1970s, the Southern Poverty Law Center offers an excellent history of the modern Christian anti-gay movement, starting with Anita Bryant in 1977. Just a quick read demonstrates how monstrously Christians have mischaracterized this community and used damaging interpretations of the Bible to bolster their mischaracterization. Jay Grimstead, a founder of The Coalition on Revival, bluntly stated that “Homosexuality makes God vomit”. Many similar arguments are rhetorically identical to those Christians in the 1800’s used in their opposition to ending slavery. The Christian Moral Majority didn’t get its start opposing abortion or gay people, but by opposing integration after Brown v. Board of Education. They began a network of private Christian schools to make sure their White children did not have to attend school with Black and Brown children.

I’ve given you four examples of how interpretations of our sacred text have done and continue to do damage to those who are most vulnerable within our society. I also, wrote two weeks ago:

“Interpretations are not eternal. They change with time. As we see the harmful fruit of present interpretations, we can make those interpretations give way to new ones, in the hope that new interpretations will bear the fruit of life. And if we see that our new interpretations also do harm, we will challenge them too. The goal is to continue to seek life-giving interpretations for all, work with people’s well-being and thriving in our hearts, and transform our world into a safe, just, compassionate home for us all. Anything less is not faithful to Jesus or the Spirit of our various sacred texts. Every time you’re tempted to mistake your interpretation for the sacred text itself, remember that interpretations are temporary. It’s okay for them to change, as long as what they change to is life-giving for all.”

In each of the above examples, you can come up with Bible interpretations to oppose valuing and protecting Native people and lands, ending slavery, promoting equity for women, and seeking justice for the LGBTQ community. Some claim they are just reading the Bible plainly. But we never see things objectively. As the saying goes, we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.

Our experiences determine not only the questions we ask, but also the answers we get back. Plain readings are not plain but are read through the lens of our own paradigms and fears. And this is one reason why it is so vital, if we are going to make our world safe and just for everyone, that we learn to listen to stories, experiences, and interpretations of our sacred texts from the most vulnerable communities in our society. This is how liberation theology was born: those in South America read the Bible very differently than their colonial Christian exploiters. It’s how Black liberation theology was born: Black Christians in the U.S. read the Bible radically differently than white Christians read it. It’s how feminist and womanist theologies were born and how queer theology was born. We need these voices and perspectives if we are to arrive at interpretations of our sacred text that cease to do harm.

Today we have a broad swathe of people who want nothing to do with Jesus because of the history of the church as the largest stumbling block in the path of the vulnerable in their work toward a world of justice and compassion. They see a Christianity that seems to habitually do harm, ever landing on the wrong side of history. They don’t see a Jesus who taught survival, resistance, liberation, and justice. They don’t see a Jewish Jesus on the side of the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). Rather, that Jesus is eclipsed by a religion that was formed in his name. This is gives me great reason to pause. I know first-hand how my own faith has been fractured by watching Christian racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia just in my local community here in West Virginia. I love Jesus, but I have zero tolerance for the kind of Christianity my family seems to be surrounded by where we live.

I do not apologize for this week’s eSight. And I don’t believe the truth of our history to be too harsh to share. As someone who loves the historic, first-century Jewish Jesus, I have simply  become disillusioned with the most vocal sectors of Christianity in our culture. Just this week I’ve endured disappointment again as Christians who should have been passionately living out the value of compassionate listening to the voices of the vulnerable, who claim to believe God love’s everyone, were passionate instead to protect their own cherished theology that has been shown to be hurtful to the vulnerable. Does your God love the vulnerable or your theology? Which is it that should be given a priority of worth? As Emilie Townes states, “When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.”  But what happens when you believe God loves everyone and that doesn’t lead to justice? What about when the ones preaching “God loves everyone” are the stumbling block for those working toward a safer, just, more compassionate world for the vulnerable?

As a Christian myself, I take this week’s saying seriously. It was said to Jesus’ followers, and we who take his name today must allow this week’s saying to confront us:

“Woe to the one through [whom stumbling blocks] come! It is better for them if a millstone is put around their neck and they are thrown into the sea, than that they should cause one of the vulnerable to stumble.” Q 17:1-2 

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you to spend some time with the above article.

  1. As a group discuss what challenges this week’s eSight creates for you.
  2. Discuss together where you feel encouraged by this week’s eSight. Maybe encouragement comes just from hearing that you’re not alone in your feelings of frustration toward your Christianity being a stumbling block to so many people.
  3. What are some ways you can move toward interpretations of our sacred texts that are not damaging and don’t create stumbling blocks for those pushed to the edges of our society? Which interpretations can also move you to take tangible, concrete actions as an individual and as a group to stand in solidarity with those walking toward a more just world? How can you smooth out another person’s way toward liberation? As it states in Isaiah:

“Every valley shall be raised up,

every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,

the rugged places a plain.” (Isaiah 40.4)

Thank you for checking in with us this week. Wherever this finds you, keep living in love engaging the work of transforming our world.

And to each of you who are supporting the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, we simply could not do this without you. We have a lot of educational events lined up for this fall. If you’d like to support our work you can do so by going to:

https://renewedheartministries.com/donate/

Or you can always mail your support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Every amount helps. Thank you!

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

No Serif of the Law to Fall

Aged picture of the Hebrew Bibleby Herb Montgomery

Interpretations are not eternal. They change with time. As we see the harmful fruit of present interpretations, we can make those interpretations give way to new ones, in the hope that new interpretations will bear the fruit of life. And if we see that our new interpretations also do harm, we will challenge them too. The goal is to continue to seek life-giving interpretations for all, work with people’s well-being and thriving in our hearts, and transform our world into a safe, just, compassionate home for us all. Anything less is not faithful to Jesus or the Spirit of our various sacred texts. Every time you’re tempted to mistake your interpretation for the sacred text itself, remember that interpretations are temporary. It’s okay for them to change, as long as what they change to is life-giving for all.

Featured Text:

“But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one iota or one serif of the law to fall.” (Q 16:17)

Companion Text:

Matthew 5:17-18: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

Luke 16:17: “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”

This week we see Jesus’s Jewishness. We see a Jesus who holds the Torah in high regard. For him, the Torah is eternal. The Jesus of this week’s saying is not teaching a new religion or trying to replace a current one. This Jewish Jesus is offering an interpretation of the Torah that includes a preferential option for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized.

Jesus’s interpretation contrasted with the elites in Jerusalem, and also differed from the populist Pharisees’ interpretation. The Pharisees opened the privilege of adhering to the Torah’s purity codes to a wider social group, but still left themselves in the position to control who was centered and who was pushed the margins. Jesus didn’t withdrawal from society and politics like the Essenes, nor did he champion raising the sword in revolt like other Judean Messiah figures during the first half of the 1st Century. His interpretation stood out from all of these.

Jesus’s interpretation of the Torah centered those on the edges of his society and invited them to be seated too alongside others at a shared table. Some have labeled him as radical; others as simply compassionate and just in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. For our purposes this week, we can say that, at minimum, it was still Jewish and the Torah was still central. His teachings appealed to the poor and outcast because he was interpreting the Torah, not because he offered something novel to replace the Torah.

Luke’s use of this week’s saying reassured those who were suffering violence because they followed Jesus’s interpretation and social vision. You can read about that here.

Matthew’s use of this saying is quite different from Luke’s. Luke’s gospel explained how what began as a Jewish movement of the lower class became so populated by Gentiles from the middle and upper classes. Matthew’s gospel, on the other hand, corrects many of the mistakes Mark’s gospel makes about Jewish culture, which leads many scholars to believe Mark’s gospel was primarily for lower class Gentile followers of Jesus. Matthew’s version of the saying is about completion and assures the community that Jesus had not come to supersede the Torah. Two words in the saying that help us understand this are “fulfill” and “accomplished.” Let’s look at both.

The Greek word translated as fulfill is pleroo. Pleroo means to fill to the full like a 1st Century fishing net full of fish, or to level up a hollow place in the ground by filling it with dirt. It means to fill to the very top, to the brim. It’s as if Jesus is saying that contemporary interpretations of the Torah were leaving gaps and weren’t full. Some parts of the Torah made provisions for the poor, that Pharisaical teachings negated. These were hollow places in their caretaking, hollow places that Jesus claimed to be filling up. With Jesus, those being kept on the margins, even by the Pharisees’ interpretations, were to be welcomed, affirmed and included. They were valuable. They, too, were the children of Abraham (cf. Luke 19:9).

The second word is translated as accomplished is ginomai. Ginomai carries with it the idea of becoming: something comes into existence or onto the stage; something appears in public. I hear Jesus saying that his interpretation is not a destruction of the Torah, but simply an interpretation coming onto the stage that sought to re-prioritize the poor and socially vulnerable.

This is a rich teaching for us today.

Not all of the vulnerable sectors of 1st Century Jewish society were addressed by the Torah’s provisions, or even by the teachings of Jesus. I believe we must build on Jesus’s work and include those who today should also be affirmed and valued.

Who are vulnerable among us today? Is it the estimated 2,150 to 10,790 transgender military personnel now being targeted and scapegoated in the U.S.? Is it the DACA Dreamers whom some believe legislators will try to use to bargain for border wall funding? Is it people of color who continue to be the victims of implicit bias and systemic racism in this country? Surely the vulnerable includes Native people still fighting to preserve their right to clean drinking water despite the U.S. and state-protected oil industry. It includes women disproportionally targeted by diminishing access to women’s health services.

What does it mean to stand up for the vulnerable even while being accused of “destroying the Torah?” For Christians today, advocating for the vulnerable is sometimes met with the accusation that we are ignoring, throwing out, or contradicting the Bible. White Christians in antebellum America placed before Christian abolitionists the false choice of holding onto their abolitionism or holding onto the scriptures. Sternly those Christians told abolitionists that they could not continue to hold both. My own faith tradition still struggles to recognize women have equal status as men. Those institutions who are for ordaining women ministers are being given the same ultimatum: “the scriptures or the ordination of women,” it is said, “you can’t hold on to both.” I also know something about this. Over the last two years, I have had cancellation after cancellation from those concerned by my and RHM’s affirmation, welcome, and inclusion of our LGBTQ siblings. These Christians have claimed that we have “abandoned the clear teachings of the Bible.”

But those standing alongside the vulnerable in our society today could follow Jesus’s teaching here and say to those holding on to old and destructive interpretations of sacred texts, “Do not think we are abolishing our sacred text. We aren’t throwing out the scriptures; we are simply interpreting the text in a way that fills up the glaring gaps in interpretations that are destroying vulnerable people. We aren’t destroying the scriptures; we are replacing interpretations that destroy people with interpretations that give life and liberate.”

For those who feel like they must choose between people’s well being and fidelity to a sacred text, that’s not the choice at all. You may have to let go of destructive interpretations of your sacred text. You may have to let go of the way you have viewed your sacred text. But you can still be an affirming Christian and hold your sacred text in a way that understands that text that affirms people. Choose people. Value people. When you do, you’ll see you aren’t destroying your text, but interpreting it in a way that, like Jesus and the Torah, includes those who are presently being harmed.

Interpretations are not eternal. They change with time. As we see the harmful fruit of present interpretations, we can make those interpretations give way to new ones, in the hope that new interpretations will bear the fruit of life. And if we see that our new interpretations also do harm, we will challenge them too. The goal is to continue to seek life-giving interpretations for all, work with people’s well-being and thriving in our hearts, and transform our world into a safe, just, compassionate home for us all. Anything less is not faithful to Jesus or the Spirit of our various sacred texts. Every time you’re tempted to mistake your interpretation for the sacred text itself, remember that interpretations are temporary. It’s okay for them to change, as long as what they change to is life-giving for all.

It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one iota or one serif of the Torah to fall. (Q 16:17)

HeartGroup Application

In the context of working alongside the vulnerable and advocating for their rights, a verse that Jesus would have grown up hearing read in the synagogues is:

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” Proverbs 31:8

I would add today that many of those who can speak up for themselves are speaking up, so add your voice to theirs. The work of reclaiming of your own humanity is bound up with theirs. Speak up in tangible, concrete ways.

I shared this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King some weeks ago:

“The other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.” (Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963)

This week, I want to emphasis that social location matters. Some people can’t afford to wait for an inside-out approach, for a future kingdom or new social order. Some people are dying now.

As I’ve shared, change happens from the outside in, not from the center, but from the edges or margins inward. The same is true for people. It took people outside of me to change me. Spiritual disciplines and community rituals also shape people over time. The gospels portray a Jesus who gave his listeners a list of practices that would change the way they saw, thought, and felt about themselves and the others with whom they shared their world.

Sam Wells, in the introduction of Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man, draws a line in the sand:

“We seem to have picked up the idea that holiness is a trance-like sense of peace and well-being in relation to those all around, an experience of floating on a magic carpet of tranquility. Wherever that picture of holiness came from, it certainly wasn’t Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is constantly having heated debates with everyone who held Israel in check. The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that there’s plenty wrong with the world. There are only two responses to this—either go and put it right yourself, or, if you can’t, make life pretty uncomfortable for those who can until they do. When we take stock of our relationship with the powerful, we ask ourselves, ‘Does the shape of my life reflect my longing to see God set people free, and do I challenge those who keep others in slavery?’”

How do we, in the short term, make life uncomfortable for those who can change things until they do? One way to do that is by connecting with your elected officials.

1. This week, find out the name and phone number of the following and write them down:

Your Federal House Representative
Your Federal Senators
Your State Governor
Your State House Representatives
Your State Senate Members
County Officials
City Mayor and Council members

2. Check out the following two websites. https://www.indivisibleguide.com and https://5calls.org

On these sites, you’ll find helpful instructions for how to connect with your officials in memorable and effective ways to create the changes you’d like to see.

3. If this is new to you, start out by making one phone call a week. Then graduate to two or three.

If you can put something right yourself, then by all means, take action and do so. If you do not have the power to change much larger systems that perpetuate injustice, take stock of your relationship with those in power and make their life pretty uncomfortable until they make those changes. Stand in solidarity with those on the edges and undersides of society. Reclaim your own humanity by working alongside those engaging the work of reclaiming theirs.

Where you are, keep living in love. Keep engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Change is possible. The moral arc of the universe can bend toward justice is we choose to bend it that way.

Thank you, also, to each of you who are supporting our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries. We have multiple events coming up this fall. If you’d like to support our work you can do so at by going to:

https://renewedheartministries.com/donate/

Please consider becoming one of our monthly donors. Together we are making a difference. If you prefer, you can also mail you support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Thank you in advance for your partnership in the world of making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for us all.

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