Challenging Exclusion

Herb Montgomery | June 21, 2019

Picture of board game pieces with one being excluded.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

It’s not enough to simply offer a gospel that only offers divine forgiveness of sins. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include people forgiving people. It must include a redistribution of power and resources so that everyone has what they need not simply to survive but also to thrive. It must include reparations alongside reconciliation. It must include access and inclusion where the vulnerable have been excluded. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include material, holistic liberation.


“Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.” (Mark 2:4)

In the worldview of the gospel authors and their intended audience, healing was normal. Whereas most healing stories in that era tended to bolster the way society was organized, the healing stories in the gospels challenged, subverted, and even threatened the status quo.

One such resistance/healing story is found very early in the gospel of Mark:

“A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, ‘Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ So he said to the man, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’” (Mark 2:1-12)

Message of Inclusion

The first thing we bump into in this story is a lack of room. The crowd could have made room for the paralyzed man to get through. They could have practiced a preferential option for the one with the disability. Yet they didn’t. They were each focused on making sure there was a place for themselves, even if it came at the expense of someone else. 

I used to fly a lot. Those two options—a preferential option for others or making a place for oneself—always played out during the boarding practice. Before airlines started overselling flights, there was enough room for everyone. The plane was going to leave at the same time for everyone and seats were even already assigned. Yet you could see passengers who only thought of themselves from a concourse away. 

Saving ourselves at others’ expense has a long evolutionary history for humans. Yet I contend that our salvation as a race lies not in what works for some at the expense of others but in what makes our world safe, just, and compassionate for all. We will survive together or we will perish together. What once worked for the survival of some, will not ensure the survival of us all in the context of global climate break down. 

I also want to address the gospel author’s use of a person with a disability. In the culture of the gospel writers, there were religious teachings that explained disabilities as the result of sin, either one’s own or one’s parents (see John 9:1-2). This teaching added a basis for further exclusion in a world that already left those with disabilities on the margins. But in Mark’s story, Jesus rejects that teaching and declares that this paralytic has been forgiven. Jesus does not offer the man a plan or program: do this and your sins will be forgiven. Jesus declares that this man already was forgiven. 

His teaching challenged those who believed that those with disabilities were being punished for some sin. It challenged them to view this man as their equal regardless of his ability. Jesus here juxtaposes disability and the culture’s definition of right standing, and calls people  to rethink.

Similarly, one could challenge non-affirming Christians’ definition of what’s normative in relation to the LGBTQ community. Last week, Renewed Heart Ministries posted a meme for Pride Month juxtaposing LGBTQ identity and LGBTQ people’s being in the image of God. This deeply challenges Christian cis-heterosexism.

Again, though, Jesus does not offer the man a plan or program to follow. Jesus declared that this man already was forgiven, and so challenges many Christian stories that teach a God who must be moved by some action on our part first.

Holistic Liberation

Just like in any work of affirmation or liberation, there will always be pushback by those who feel threatened by such inclusivity and equity. The objection in Mark’s story is “only God can forgive sins.” Jesus doesn’t respond by stating that he is divine. The gospel writers instead identify Jesus with a “a human being” or the “son of man.” This language is from the Maccabean era Jewish resistance literature.

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man.” (Daniel 7.13, NIV, emphasis added.) 

“As I continued to watch this night vision of mine, I suddenly saw one like a human being . . .” (Daniel 7.13, CEB, emphasis added.)

The “human being” in Daniel 7 was a symbol of liberation from oppressive empires and putting the world to right. 

Forgiveness in Mark’s story is also a human act. It’s not something left only to a god or cosmic being that leaves us off the hook. Forgiveness as something we should practice as humans was part of Jesus’s message. Yet I don’t believe Jesus taught reconciliation without reparation and liberation. Jesus message of forgiveness was primarily aimed at wealthy, elite creditors and called them to “forgive” the debts of their poor debtors. Jesus’ message of forgiveness included a deep economic implication. It was a call for debt forgiveness, the Jewish Jubilee. (See A Prayer for Debts Cancelled)

Jesus’ gospel included material liberation. And not only was the man with the disability told he had already been forgiven, but the story also includes him being liberated from his inability to walk. Honestly, I don’t like this story as I read it from our vantage point today. It can be too easily coopted to make people with disabilities feel less than those without. I’m thankful that the story author challenged the crowd’s bias against this man before he removes the group’s actual reason for marginalizing him. Otherwise the marginalized would be simply kept marginalized.

If the gospel writer had written the story differently, the solution to marginalized women would be to make women men.

The solution to marginalized Black, brown and other people of color would be to  make them White. 

The solution to marginalized LGBTQ people would be make them straight and/or cisgender. (Conversion therapy is harmful and is outlawed in 18 states, Maine and Colorado being the latest to ban such practices.)

Rather than using various disabilities as metaphors for social evils (as the gospels do), we can do better and name specific social evils instead.

Being gay is not a social evil.

Being a woman is not a social evil.

Being non-white is not a social evil.

Being a migrant is not a social evil.

Being disabled is not a social evil.

How the social system treats these folks is a social evil.

Poverty is a social evil.

Keeping people uneducated is a social evil. 

Keeping people indebted is a social evil.

Keeping people without adequate access to health care is a social evil.

And that is what I believe Mark’s story is trying to teach. In holistic liberation, everyone receives what they need. When we apply this to people with disabilities, we arrive at the lesson of removing the barriers that keep people with disabilities excluded. We are to remove the barriers that keep people with disabilities from accessing what they need to thrive.

Actual social evils are what we as followers of Jesus must work against today. This story doesn’t stop at forgiveness. We can’t afford to either. It’s not enough to simply offer a gospel that only offers divine forgiveness of sins. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include people forgiving people. It must include a redistribution of power and resources so that everyone has what they need not simply to survive but also to thrive. It must include reparations alongside reconciliation. It must include access and inclusion where the vulnerable have been excluded. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include material, holistic liberation.

This story calls us to work toward an inclusive, just, safe society for everyone.

“Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.” (Mark 2:4)

HeartGroup Application

  1. What are some of the ways you either experience or witness others experiencing discrimination and exclusion, either in your faith community or our larger society today?
  2. Make a list of practices your HeartGroup can engage that express inclusion, justice, and create a safe space for those mentioned in number 1.
  3. Pick something from the list and put it into action this week.

Thanks for checking in with us. I’m so glad you’re here. 

Wherever you are today, keep living in love. Choose compassion, justice and action. Till the only world that remains is a world where love and justice reigns.  

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


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Social Sins, Social Justice, and the Jesus Stories

Herb Montgomery | April 19, 2019

Photo credit: Jason Betz on Unsplash

“Understood in this light, Jesus’ story offers rich fields for exploration and discovery as we learn to hear a gospel that calls us not to simply be ‘a good person,’  but also to stop shaping, maintaining, enforcing and benefiting from socially sinful systems. The gospel stories call us to follow this social Jesus . . .”


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

Last week we compared the social focus of Jesus’ kingdom theme with the private, personal gospel that characterizes much of Christianity today. Preparing for Palm Sunday last week, I ran across this statement from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan on how Jesus rebuked the social elite in his day: “The issue is not their individual virtue or wickedness, but the role they played in the domination system. They shaped it, enforced it. and benefited from it.” (The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, p. 22)

Jesus’ life and teachings do far more than save us from personal sins. They also provide an alternative social path that addresses social sins and so provides social salvation. In the words of Walter Rauschenbusch, “If our theology is silent on social salvation, we compel [people], to choose between an unsocial system of theology and an irreligious system of social salvation.” (A Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 7).

Consider how each of the gospels begins, not by emphasizing a person’s personal salvation from their private/public individual sins, but by emphasizing Jesus as a catalyst for addressing social sins and social change.

Let’s look at each of the synoptic gospels beginning with Mark.

Mark

In Mark, the Jesus story begins with Jesus calling fishermen to a different kind of fishing.

“As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” Mark 1:16-17

Ched Myers’ work reveals that, although evangelical Christians have largely interpreted this saying to be about saving individual souls for heaven after they die, a look at the Jewish prophetic tradition suggests that this language would have had a much different implication and meaning in Jesus’ 1st Century Jewish culture.

“An apt paraphrase of Jesus’ invitation is: “Follow me and I will show you how to catch the Big Fish!” (1:17). In the Hebrew Bible, the metaphor of “people like fish” appears in prophetic censures of apostate Israel and of the rich and powerful: “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) Jesus is, in other words, summoning working folk to join him in overturning the structures of power and privilege in the world!” (in Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 10, emphasis mine.)

From the very beginning, then, Mark’s Jesus is focused on overturning tables: overturning social structures of power and privilege. Mark’s gospel is a social gospel.

Matthew 

To the best of our knowledge, Matthew’s gospel was the first gospel to begin with a birth narrative about Jesus. It’s remarkable to me that Matthew seems to have been shaping his birth narratives about Jesus based on popular midrashim about the birth of Moses. (See Borg and Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth. United States, HarperOne, 2009.) If this is true, thenMatthew was painting Jesus to be a new Moses: not a replacement for Moses, but one who stood in the Jewish prophetic lineage of Moses. The images of Moses that Matthew chose to emulate in his Jesus story were those related to themes of liberation from the oppressive domination of Egypt. Again, the liberation in Exodus is not a concern for individual Israelite’s personal salvation without a changed their social situation, but for the social liberation or social salvation of the community as a whole as the Exodus narrative states:

“Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’” (Exodus 5:1)

Characterizing Jesus’ work as similar to Moses’, Matthew points to a social understanding of Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus addresses the social sins of his own time and place and offers an alternative path for his Jewish society. The social liberation characterizing Jesus’ teaching from the very beginning of Matthew’s gospel (See Matthew 5) lays the foundation to understand everything that is to follow in the stories. Including the social liberation found in Jewish folk stories of the Exodus from the very beginning of Matthew’s telling is purposeful for Matthew. Like Mark, Matthew’s gospel is first and foremost a social gospel announcing social salvation. Any personal or private view of salvation in Matthew only adds to this foundation.

Luke

If Mark and Matthew have a social emphasis, Luke does even more so. At the beginning of Luke’s gospel that we read Mary’s Magnificat:

“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 1:51-55)

This is not a prayer/proclamation of personal change for individuals within a society that is left untouched. These words communicate society-wide change from the bottom up and the outside in. 

Just three chapters later, when Luke has Jesus begin his teaching ministry in a synagogue near Nazareth, Jesus finds these words in the scroll of Isaiah to read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) 

Out of all the passages in the Hebrew scriptures the author of Luke’s gospel could have chosen to summarize Jesus’ ministry, the choice of these words from Isaiah helps us to understand the entirety of the rest of Luke’s gospel. This is the story of an itinerant Jewish teacher, a prophet of the poor from Galilee, calling out social sins, and offering a path of social salvation, social reparations, and social redemption. (See Luke 6.)

In the early 20th Century, the Social Gospel movement recaptured attention for these larger social themes in the gospels. In the 60s and 70s in both North and South America, liberation theologians adopted a more global context and focused on those who faced oppression and exploitation across each continent as a result of the gospel’s social themes.  

During that same time, Black Liberation theologians took these social themes in the gospels seriously, as well, and from their context called White Christians to take action in the context of white supremacy and racial justice. 

Today, some contemporary feminist and womanist Christians also see deep harmony between this social emphasis in the Jesus story and their work today of survival and liberation. This vision encourages them as they strive for social change. 

Today, too, many LGBTQ Christians find a wellspring of wisdom in the gospels’ emphasis on social salvation from social sins, and that wisdom keeps them going as they work toward inclusion and equality in their faith communities and the wider secular society.

The call to hear the gospel stories as naming social sins and systemic injustice is being heard in our time. Today, the gospel stories tell of a Jesus whose teachings and solidarity with the oppressed in his day led him to the political demonstration we now call “the triumphal entry” (which many Christians today religiously and ritually celebrated last weekend). Jesus publicly demonstrated and overturned tables, he cried out for social change and social salvation. And that call is being heard more and more.

Understood in this light, Jesus’ story off ers rich fields for exploration and discovery as we learn to hear a gospel that calls us not to simply be “a good person,” but also to stop shaping, maintaining, enforcing and benefiting from socially sinful systems. The gospel stories call us to follow this social Jesus, as we, too, in the words of Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, refuse “to be consoled until the justice that is God’s is made real in the world.” (Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 229)

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

HeartGroup Application

Last weekend to get a JFE Podcast Tee.

This past month we have been offering our listeners this special, premium t-shirt as a way of supporting the JFE podcast, showing others you’re a fan of our podcast, and helping to spread the word so others can enjoy each episode as well. The availability for these ends this Monday , April 22.

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Thanks for supporting our work of participating in making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

I’m so glad you are here.  

Today, right where you are, choose love. Choose compassion, take action and seek the path of distributive justice we find in the teachings of Jesus. 

Another world is possible.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Christmas and Liberation from Hate

by Herb Montgomery | December 14, 2018

Picture of snow with article title

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As we read in the book of Isaiah,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another world is possible.

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

Happy Holidays to each of you.

A Special Request

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you in advance.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

No Room In The Inn

Herb Montgomery | December 7, 2018


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


 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Douglass continues,

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

2. Journal your experiences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week. 

Deliverance From Evil

Herb Montgomery | October 19, 2018

Silhouette of woman with upraised fist.

Photo credit: Miguel Bruna


“What does it mean to be delivered from economic oppression and ecological oppression as well? The U.N. reported this last week that we have only twelve years left to address climate change, and if we don’t we face dire consequences.”


“And lead us not into the time of testing, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13)

As we wrap up our look at what we call the Lord’s Prayer, I want to begin with a story of a dear West Virginian woman, her children, and her husband in context of deliverance from evil. There is a type of coal mining here in West Virginia called mountain top removal. It’s legal here and is happening in much of the southwestern region of the state. Many of our elected representatives are financially supported by coal mine owners who profit from how those representatives structure our laws. This is the story of a family involved in trying to change these laws. Listen to how the mother of this family tells her story:

“Coal miners work in the coal mines because they have no other choice, others because they enjoy that type of work. Most coal miners have college degrees in many things, yet Coal mining is the only thing we have to offer them.

My husband has a degree in electronics engineering and 1080 [credit hours] in industrial electronics, but his only choice was to become a Coal miner. He worked in the mines for two years, the toll it took on his body… that was heartbreaking. When he would come home from work he looked like death in the face. He worked twelve hours a day six days a week — the kids and I only saw him on Saturdays and half a day on Sundays. His skin was stained black, he coughed constantly as if he had the flu.

I was 8 months pregnant with our son the day the UBB mine disaster happened. I had laid down to take a nap. When I got up my cell phone had 10 missed calls and 20 text messages on it. The calls and messages were from my two oldest daughters and my sister, asking if my husband was working. I called my 15-yr-old first and asked what was wrong. She was in a total panic and crying wanting to know if her step-dad was ok, that a mine just blew up and 12 (at the time) miners were trapped. The news didn’t report which mine or [its] location until later. When I informed her he was ok and was getting ready for work, she responded ‘NO, do not let him go back to work mommy, Please!’ I got her to calm down then called my 19-yr-old and got the same response. ‘Mommy, please don’t let him go.’ It broke my heart in two knowing he had to go to work to pay bills and take care of our babies. But what hurt the most was the fear and heartbreak that my children were feeling.

Anyway, I turned on CNN and started to watch the heartbreaking events unfold. I knew that come 9:00 pm my miner would be walking out the door to go to work. But somehow this night was different than all the other nights I told him goodbye. I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that I had never felt before in my life. The mining pay was great, it gave us tons of nice things and plenty of money to provide for our family. But at that moment, I didn’t care if we had a dime in the bank and had to live in a tent. I was sending the love of my life, my best friend and my children’s father out the door not knowing if he would ever be back. He was killing his body and he was risking his life to provide us with worldly things, things that could be replaced. After he left, I sat and watched CNN until daylight waiting on his morning call letting me know he was coming home. Thank God in heaven I received that call.

As the evening went on I continued to watch the events at UBB unfold. As I watched the [miners’] families standing, praying and waiting on the news of their miner, it broke my heart. I will never forget the look on one young man’s face when a reporter [asked] him how he was feeling (stupid question). His response was ‘it feels like I’m getting punched over and over in the stomach.’ I knew at that moment, I didn’t want my son or daughters to ever experience that feeling… Two days later, he decided to leave the mines.

It has been 8 months now since he quit, we are all doing fine. We may not have as much money as before, but we do have the most important thing to our family and that’s DADDY!

I just wish our elected officials would see that West Virginia’s most valuable resource is our Miners themselves and not the Coal. But I’m afraid that they will continue to fight for the Coal Barons’ wallets and the campaign funding, as long as they ‘Keep Them in the Coal’ our politicians will be fine. Please keep our West Virginia Coal Miners in your thoughts and prayers. Never forget the ones we have lost in Sago, UBB and other places.” (Source)

Jesus envisioned a world where people were valued over profit, property and power. That’s where this week’s portion of the Lord’s Prayer comes in.

This is a prayer for liberation. This week’s portion of the prayer begins with “Lead us, not into the time of testing.”

A time of testing was a familiar concept in the Jewish tradition. 

“Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.” (Deuteronomy 8:2, cf. Exodus 16:4, Ecclesiastes 3:18, Isaiah 48:10, and Zechariah 13:9)

In the Psalms we read:

“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did.” (Psalms 95:8-9, emphasis added., cf. Psalms 106:14)

It seems from these passages that in the Jewish tradition both humans and God could be tested. Yet, regardless of who was testing whom, people in Jesus’ day understood the idea of a time of testing. First century Zealots (see Faith Like a Mustard Seed) also used this phrase.

Josephus tells us how how the zealots used this idea of a test for one’s faith. He writes of incidents during the mid-1st Century, when revolutionary prophets/zealots would lead large groups of people into a desert outside Jerusalem on the premise that, if they took the first step, if they submitted to testing, God would see their faith and respond by bringing them liberation from Roman oppression. 

Felix, the Roman procurator, regarded these gatherings as the first stage of revolt, and so sent cavalry and heavy infantry to cut the mob into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 147). The most infamous of the revolutionary prophets who promised the people reward if they would first step out in faith (the test) was a militaristic messiah referred to as “the Egyptian” (Acts 21:38). 

Josephus describes the event as follows:

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

Josephus believed the future of the Jewish people depended on the elites collaborating with Rome rather than rebelling against Rome. Most scholars think he exaggerated the numbers of people involved: “30,000 dupes” as compared with the book of Acts’ “4,000 assassins.” But the fact that he mentions the event at all is important. In a parallel account, Josephus includes the “sign” that this rebel had claimed would be shown to the people if they passed the test of going out to assemble. It was supposed to be a sign like Joshua’s at the Battle of Jericho: at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down so that his followers could enter and seize the city. However, before he could make his signal, the Roman cavalry and infantry slew and captured hundreds and put the rest to flight, including the militaristic messiah himself. (Josephus, Antiquities, pp. 170-172). Liberation prophets like the Egyptian framed the people’s act of taking an initiative despite hopeless odds as a test of faith that their God would honor with liberation from Rome.

Jesus grew up in Galilee in the wake of a similar destruction that Rome had wrought on revolutionaries in Sepphoris. I believe this played a role in Jesus seeking a different path toward liberation than violence, one that incorporated the best odds of survival and would not just be about the liberation of Jerusalem, Galilee or Judea, but also be about an end to socio-political structures of domination for humanity as a whole.

Gustavo Gutiérrez writes about this at length:

“This universality and totality touch the very heart of political behavior, giving it its true dimension and depth. Misery and social injustice reveal ‘a sinful situation,’ a disintegration of fellowship and communion; by freeing us from sin, Jesus attacks the roots of an unjust order. For Jesus, the liberation of the Jewish people was only one aspect of a universal, permanent revolution. Far from showing no interest in this liberation, Jesus rather placed it on a deeper level, with far-reaching consequences. The Zealots were not mistaken in feeling that Jesus was simultaneously near and far away. Neither were the leaders of the Jewish people mistaken in thinking that their position was imperiled by the preaching of Jesus, nor the oppressive political authorities when they sentenced him to die as a traitor. They were mistaken (and their followers have continued to be mistaken) only in thinking that it was all accidental and transitory, in thinking that with the death of Jesus the matter was closed, in supposing that no one would remember it. The deep human impact and the social transformation that the Gospel entails is permanent and essential because it transcends the narrow limits of specific historical situations and goes to the very root of human existence: relationship with God in solidarity with other persons. The Gospel does not get its political dimension from one or another particular option, but from the very nucleus of its message. If this message is subversive, it is because it takes on Israel’s hope: the Kingdom as ‘the end of domination of person over person; it is a Kingdom of contradiction to the established powers and on behalf of humankind.’ And the Gospel gives Israel’s hope its deepest meaning; indeed it calls for a ‘new creation.’ The life and preaching of Jesus postulate the unceasing search for a new kind of humanity in a qualitatively different society. Although the Kingdom must not be confused with the establishment of a just society, this does not mean that it is indifferent to this society. Nor does it mean that this just society constitutes a “necessary condition” for the arrival of the Kingdom nor that they are closely linked, nor that they converge. More profoundly, the announcement of the Kingdom reveals to society itself the aspiration for a just society and leads it to discover unsuspected dimensions and unexplored paths. The Kingdom is realized in a society of fellowship and justice; and, in turn, this realization opens up the promise and hope of complete communion of all persons with God. The political is grafted into the eternal. This does not detract from the Gospel news; rather it enriches the political sphere. Moreover, the life and death of Jesus are no less evangelical because of their political connotations. His testimony and his message acquire this political dimension precisely because of the radicalness of their salvific character: to preach the universal love of the Father is inevitably to go against all injustice, privilege, oppression, or narrow nationalism.” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, pp. 134-135, emphasis added.)

Jesus promoted a path toward liberation that parted ways with the methods of the Zealots and the elite Sadducees who wanted to cooperate with Rome hoping for greater representation in a system of exploitation. Jesus presented a restructuring of the norms we use to interact with one another, and at the heart of these new norms was a preferential option for the vulnerable, exploited, and marginalized.  

“What does it mean for Jesus’ followers today to follow that path? What does it mean for coal mining families here in West Virginia to be delivered from the evil of corporate oppression where the owners continue to gain more and more while the majority of the people struggle without being able to make ends meet? What does it mean to be delivered from economic oppression and ecological oppression as well? The U.N. reported this last week that we have only twelve years left to address climate change, and if we don’t we face dire consequences. A prayer for deliverance from evil also has its application for the evil of bigotry that many in the LGBTQ face. We might expect to be delivered from the evils of racism, sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, and more.”

Jesus, whose teachings we follow, stood in the Jewish tradition that traced its roots all the way back to the liberation story of Moses’s alignment with toiling masses of slaves. So what is our work, today? 

What injustice or evil are you staring at this week?

What does it mean to work toward deliverance from evil in your context? 

What does it meant to work in solidarity with other communities affected most deeply by these evils as they also work toward their deliverance?

I’ll close this week with a statement by Dorothy Day that encourages me when I feel like our small efforts are insignificant, and I feel like a world structured in a way that answers Jesus’ prayer in Matthew is so far, far away:

“One of the greatest evils of the day is the sense of futility. Young people say, ‘What can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we can only lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform these actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.” (Catholic Worker, September 1957)

This week choose something to do, no matter how large or small, that aligns with Jesus’ prayer in Matthew:

“And lead us not into the time of testing, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6.13)

HeartGroup Application

Sharing our stories is how we heal the world. Hearing one another’s stories empowers us to let go of our fear of one another and enter into compassion. Listening to the diverse experiences of one another’s lives leads us to replace insecurity with a much broader understanding of each other and our larger world.  

1. This week I want you to take some time in your HeartGroup and let those who wish to share tell their story to the group.  

2. We here at Renewed Heart Ministries also want to hear your story.  We are asking our followers to share their stories with us. How has this ministry impacted your life for the better?  How have you been blessed by Renewed Heart Ministries?  How has journeying alongside RHM inspired you or made a difference for you? We want to hear your story! And if you give us permission, we may feature your story in one of our upcoming newsletter issues so your story can help others, too! (But only if you give us permission.) Send your story of how you have been positively impacted by the ministry of Renewed Heart Ministries by emailing info@renewedheartministries.com.

3. Consider making story-telling a part of HeartGroup experience on some type of ongoing basis, either monthly, quarterly, or even weekly.

We believe every person’s story matters and every person’s voice has value. The Jesus of the gospels spent the majority of his time teaching by telling stories. Author Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) states, “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” 

I’m looking forward to hearing from you, with much gratitude and excited anticipation.

Picture of a pottery bowlAlso, don’t forget about our Share Table Fundraiser for the month of October.  Find out how you can participate and get your own Share Table Pottery Bowl as representation of Jesus’ shared table philosophy of doing life together. If someone wanted to actually use it, they by all means could. Each time you eat from your bowl or use it as a serving dish, you can be reminded of Jesus’ shared table, mutual aid, and philosophy of resource sharing as a means of restructuring our communities and healing the hurts in our world. You can also place it on your coffee table or desk at work as a conversation starter. When asked about it you can share with them about the Shared Table philosophy, and even direct them to Renewed Heart Ministries to find out more. That way you can partner with us in even more ways to spread the message of love, compassion, justice, sharing and taking care of one another.

Find out more here:  A Shared Table: A Fundraiser for RHM

Thanks for checking in with us with week. Keep living in love, resistance, survival, liberation, reparation and transformation.

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

 

JESUS FROM THE EDGES

hand holding circle of light

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Herb Montgomery | August 10, 2018


“These societal structures all function based on the variables of race, gender, sexuality, gender identity and expression, current economic status, ability, age, education, ethnicity, religion, criminal record, and more . . . What does it mean for a Jesus follower to take seriously Jesus’ solidarity with those relegated to the margins and/or undersides of his society?”


“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call [those you call] righteous, but [those you call] sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

In previous series, we have discussed how people in Jesus’ society used the labels of “righteous” or “sinner”  to politically, socially, economically, and religiously gain power and privilege for themselves or to marginalize and exploit those who were vulnerable. (You can review this in The Lost Coin and Solidarity with the Crucified Community.) This week I want to build on this idea.

In that society, how well a person conformed to popular interpretations of the Torah determined where they fell on al spectrum between righteous/sinner or clean/unclean. The more righteous or “pure” one was deemed to be, the more their society centered them. They were more privileged. They had power. They were the elite. 

Two groups in the Sanhedrin that competed for power were the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees interpreted the Torah more conservatively than the Pharisees. This made conforming to their interpretation much more difficult. In many cases, their definition of “righteous” was only viable for those who had the economic means to conform, i.e. those with money who could afford to live the way the Sadducees deemed pure. This ensured that the Sadducees remained in power under the guise of fidelity to the Torah. 

The second group, the Pharisees , was much more liberal in interpreting the Torah. This made them much more popular with the masses. Under the Pharisees’ teaching, it was easier to be righteous and avoid being labeled a sinner and thus marginalized. The Pharisees were the popular interpreters of the “teachings of Moses.” Being favored by the majority of the people gave them social power, yet they also preserved their position as the ones who set the standard of “clean” and “unclean.” 

This was a social, political, economic and religious system that produced winners and losers. In this context, an itinerant Jewish teacher from Galilee named Jesus emerged. He stood apart from both schools of interpretation and came preaching a gospel where the “kingdom” belonged to those left out of both the Sadducees’ and Pharisees’ determination of who was righteous. With this in mind, read carefully the following passages. 

Luke 5:30—“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’”

Matthew 9:13—“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Luke 14:13—“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind . . .”

Matthew 11:19—“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Mark 2:15-16—“While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Luke 19:7—“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

Today in the U.S., our system creates winners and losers, too. Politically, we also have two parties that compete for popular approval while gaining power in a system that still privileges the elites. Economically, our system produces enormous wealth disparity, with those who “have not” being the natural result of creating those who “have.” Socially and religiously, we have complex systems that create an us versus them worldview and label those who are in and those who are out. 

These societal structures all function based on the variables of race, gender, sexuality, gender identity and expression, current economic status, ability, age, education, ethnicity, religion, criminal record, and more. Our interconnectedness, our part-of-one-another is continually ignored. Rather than seeing every person’s differences as a testament to the rich variety we possess as a human family, we use these differences to “other” in ways that label some as “righteous” and others as “sinner.” Those of us whose differences place them in a minority category are still members of the human race, and still part of us.

What does it mean for a Jesus follower to take seriously Jesus’ solidarity with those relegated to the margins and/or undersides of his society? How can we live out that kind of solidarity in our context today? What does it mean to stand and work alongside those who are pushed to the edges of our society?

In the 1960s and 1970s, Christians developed a keen awareness of Jesus’ solidarity with those labeled as outsiders, oppressed, marginalized and/or exploited. This emergence was global. In South America, Latin Liberation theology was born. In North America, other liberation theologies, such as Black Liberation theology, Feminist theology, Amerindian theology, womanist theology, and queer theology arose. In the east, Asian theologies of liberation were born. Gustavo Gutierrez comments on the importance of this rising consciousness.

“Black, Hispanic, and Amerindian theologies in the United States, theologies arising in the complex contexts of Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific, and the especially fruitful thinking of those who have adopted the feminist perspective—all these have meant that for the first time in many centuries theology is being done outside the customary European and North American centers. The result in the so-called First World has been a new kind of dialogue between traditional thinking and new thinking. In addition, outside the Christian sphere efforts are underway to develop liberation theologies from Jewish and Muslim perspectives.  We are thus in the presence of a complex phenomenon developing on every side and representing a great treasure for the Christian churches and for their dialogue with other religions. The clarification I mentioned earlier is thus not limited to the Latin American context but affects a process and a search that are being conducted on a very broad front today. These considerations should not make us forget, however, that we are not dealing here solely with an intellectual pursuit. Behind liberation theology are Christian communities, religious groups, and peoples, who are becoming increasingly conscious that the oppression and neglect from which they suffer are incompatible with their faith in Jesus Christ (or, speaking more generally, with their religious faith). These concrete, real-life movements are what give this theology its distinctive character; in liberation theology, faith and life are inseparable. This unity accounts for its prophetic vigor and its potentialities. (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation [15th Anniversary Edition])

Womanist scholar and theologian Jacquelyn Grant comments, “Theology as developed in Europe and America is limited when it approaches the majority of human beings…  nns Liberation theologies including Christian feminists, charge that the experience out of which Christian theology has emerged is not universal experience but the experience of the dominant culture . . . liberationists therefore, propose that theology must emerge out of particular experiences of the oppressed people of God.” (in White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, pp. 1, 10)

Making space for these voices and attending to their insights is so very important. Here at Renewed Heart Ministries we believe that the teachings of Jesus —a 1st Century Jewish prophet of the poor from Galilee—can still speak into and inform our work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation today. For that to be life giving, we must consider those teachings through the lens of the experiences of the people Jesus would have been addressing if he were walking among us today. As Ched Myers states in Binding the Strong Man, “The fact remains that those on the peripheries will have ‘eyes to see’ many things that those at the center do not.” 

From the experiences of those now in a social location similar to the social location of those Jesus taught  we can see how those teachings help us in our work of making our world a safe, just, compassionate home for everyone. As someone who has been engaged in ministry for over twenty years, these perspectives, voices, stories of people fighting to reclaim their humanity in the context of their faith traditions have been the key to helping me rediscover and reclaim my own humanity as well. I resonate deeply with the words of Aboriginal elder Lilla Watson, “If you have come to help me, please go home. But if you have come because your liberation is somehow bound with mine, then we may work together.”  I don’t work alongside communities working for survival and liberation out of charity. It is beside them that I rediscover my own humanity, too.

If one is new to these perspectives, where does one start? One place to begin is by exposing yourself to the writings and works of those who belong to these communities. An easy way to do this is to follow our yearly reading course at RHM. We announce each month’s book at the beginning of each month. You can sign up to be notified of each month’s book by signing up for our weekly news and eSights emails here. The point is not so much where one begins as it is to simply begin. One resource will lead you to another, and over time, you’ll see the difference these voices make to you.

Jesus did not call those who the status quo places “first.” He instead stood alongside those his culture relegated to “last” place (see Matthew 20:8-16). He came not calling the insiders, but the people those in power had labeled as “sinners.” 

What does it look like for us to do the same in our time?

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call [those you call] righteous, but [those you call] sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

HeartGroup Application 

  1. Pick a book from our book list at RHM that you as a group can read and discus together. 
  2. Read a chapter a week and determine a time each week you can meeting to discuss together what you have read.
  3. Discuss how you can put what you’ve read each week into practice and do so.

I’m so glad you checked in with us, this week. Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


To support these podcasts and weekly eSight articles, go to www.renewedheartministries.com and click “donate.”

A Preferential Option for the Vulnerable

by Herb Montgomery | March 30, 2018

City at night behind a fence

Photo by Zac Ong on Unsplash


“To have a preference is to have a greater liking for one alternative over another or others. This is not exclusive, but rather points to who should first have our solidarity.”


Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

This week I want to discuss what liberation theologians such as Gustav Gutierrez call Jesus’ “preferential option for the poor.” Let’s consider a broader preferential option that includes all who are vulnerable: people who are vulnerable economically and also people vulnerable because of their race, gender, orientation, ability, age, gender identity and expression, their level of education, or any other basis for oppression.

I remember standing on the lawn of Baltimore’s city hall with my daughter when she was in sixth grade, the weekend after Baltimore police murdered Freddie Grey. She stood holding a sign she had made while I looked up at snipers who lined the upper ledges of the building surrounding that lawn.

As we lined to the speakers addressing the crowd, I saw that much of what was being said was not registering with her, but for me it was resonating deeply. With the clarity that only comes from experiencing oppression for oneself, speakers repeatedly drew the connection between economic and racial oppression in the U.S. and around the globe. It’s not enough to solve poverty for some people and exclude others from that solution, especially if your economic solutions exclude some based on their race or ethnicity. We can’t afford to solve economic exploitation for some if those solutions come at the price of exploitating others whom we deem as different. It’s also not enough to simply teach a preferential option for some who are poor. We must enlarge our preferential option to include all who are targeted and made vulnerable by the status quo.

But before we do that, let’s unpack what is meant by this phrase preferential option for the poor.

The Poor 

Although there are many different types of poverty, the “poor” in this phrase first addresses people who experience material poverty. We must be careful not to romanticize the reality of poverty. For most of those who are materially poor around the world, poverty means death. As Gustav Gutiérrez says, “It is death, death before one’s time.” For theists who believe in a God who is life, or the giver of life, this death, and thus this poverty, is contrary to a God who is life.

Material poverty can take different forms and result from many different causes. At its core, though, material poverty is an expression of marginalization. Many people view those who are materially poor as insignificant, objectify them, and consider them non-persons. This marginalization calls us to consider the connection between marginalization based on poverty and other forms of marginalization such as those based on gender, race, sexual identity/orientation, etc. Addressing the complex nature of poverty can include charity for  mitigating harm while we work toward a just society, but it is vital that we don’t stop at charity and think our work is done. We must also identify and resist the structures that create poverty, and we need philosophical, social, and scientific tools to analyze what makes people poor systemically and institutionally.

Option 

The word “option” in our phrase does not mean that it is optional, something we could do without. It implies that we can make an intentional choice from a range of possibilities. It means making a commitment to stand in solidarity with and work alongside the poor. This does not mean we become the “savior” of the poor or do-gooders. The “option” is to recognize that we reclaim our own humanity as others reclaim theirs, and we begin to see our connectedness. We live into that connection. We begin to see, love, and engage others as ourselves.

Preferential

To have a preference is to have a greater liking for one alternative over another or others. This is not exclusive, but rather points to who should first have our solidarity. Jesus taught this with this famous phrase, “Last shall be first. And the first shall be last.” (Matthew 20:16) He demonstrated this in his favor toward poor, hungry, weeping, and hated people in Luke’s sermon on the plain and the woes he proclaimed against their exploiters. Think of imbalanced scales. To rectify an imbalance one has to apply greater weight to the side that’s up in the air to bring the scales back to center. Jesus’ enemies also repeatedly critiqued his table fellowship with those who were socially marginalized. Jesus modeled a bias or preference that chose the side of the poor.

Let’s look at several examples in Mark and Luke.

In Mark, Jesus also calls the wealthy to follow him in his preferential option for the poor:

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21; cf. Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22)

Jesus took the side of a poor widow over even the central structure of his society’s political and ideological life—the Temple:

But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. (Mark 12:42-43; cf. Luke 21:2-3)

As Ched Myers explains, this widow was being “impoverished by her obligations to the temple cultus . . . The temple has robbed this woman of her very means of livelihood. Like the scribal class, it no longer protects widows, but exploits them” (in Binding the Strong Man, p. 321-322). Another author states, “Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it” (A. Wright; The Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament? A Matter of Context, p. 262).

In Matthew, Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and vulnerable is the sign of confirmation to be shared with the imprisoned John the Baptist:

The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. (Matthew 11:5; cf. Luke 7.22)

In Luke, it sums up Jesus’ entire ministry:

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

Jesus calls the Pharisees to embrace this option to the degree that everything else about their morality would depend on it:

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

In Mark, this teaching is given to a single wealthy person, but in Luke, Jesus’ call to sell excess possessions and redistribute wealth to the poor is a universal teaching for all of his followers:

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. (Luke 12:33)

We see Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and vulnerable in his teaching and story on who is to be invited to the banquet:

But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,…

The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ (Luke 14:13, 21)

In one of Jesus’ best known encounters, we meet a wealthy tax collector who embraces Jesus’ preferential option for the poor as his own ethic too:

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8)

This preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable determined whom Jesus’ reign or kingdom of God belonged to:

Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)

In Luke, Jesus refers to people who are materially poor, whereas in Matthew, the blessing is for the poor “in spirit.” One interpretation of this difference spiritualizes or privatizes what it means to be poor “in spirit.” It has arbitrarily been defined as an attitude of dependence or reliance on God as opposed to reliance on oneself. The fruit of this interpretation has been to divert attention away from the liberation of those who are materially poor. But Jesus isn’t holding up some spiritual poverty or dependence on God as a character quality to strive for in this passage, and that interpretation has too often been used to subvert Jesus’ call for us to stand in solidarity with materially poor people. Jesus is speaking, just like in Luke, to those the present structure has left poor in spirit. Note that Luke describes John not as poor in spirit himself, but as strong in spirit.

And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel. (Luke 1:80, emphasis added.)

When Jesus describes those who are poor in spirit, he is describing those who are experiencing a poverty of the spirit or will to keep fighting against oppression. Their spirit has been broken. They are worn down. They have no more spirit with which to fight. Just this week, it was announced that the police who murdered Alton Sterling will not face any chargers. Repeated occurrences as this have a way of breaking ones will or spirit to keep trying. HealingJustice.org posted a quotation from @fancisca_porchas on social media this week and commented, “In the wake of no justice for #AltonSterling , this one goes out to @blklivesmatter & all allies. You don’t have to hold this political fight or all that pain alone. All of us are with you. Check on your people & show up for action this week, fam. The quotation read, “Organizers have to do so much spiritual work every day just to get up and fight the state, fight ferocious systems, and hold so much pain at scale.”  Jesus’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable envisioned a world where the poor in spirit were given the kingdom (Matthew 5:3) This does not mean spiritually poor.

Just two verses later in Matthew 5:5, Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” In our present world structure the meek are not given the earth but rather walked on, walked over, and bullied. Jesus calls us to create another kind of world where even the meek, the most vulnerable among us, are taken care of and ensured a safe world to call their home as well. A preferential option for the meek is what Jesus means by “poor in spirit.” Today’s world belongs to those who have a fighting, competitive spirit, a drive to succeed. But some have had their spirit so broken, so pushed down, they simply don’t have any spirit left to try. Jesus calls us to a preferential option that creates a world where those who don’t have anything left to give are taken care of as well

The passage between these two texts in Matthew is the verse,  “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” Those who mourn are those whom the present structure so disenfranchises, disinherits, and marginalizes. Despite their present heartbreak and loss, this new world will bring reparative, restorative, and transformative comfort as they gain hope that another world is possible. Lastly, in verse 6 of Matthew 5 Jesus, speaking of this same demographic states, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This word “righteousness” is not persona or private. It’s not a meritorious credit that admits them to the afterlife. The verse describes those who hunger for righteousness or justice here, now.

The Hebrew concept of righteousness included distributive justice, structural justice, systemic justice, and societal justice. Those who hunger for this world to be put right are those Jesus calls us to a preferential option for, to ensure that they will be filled!

All Who Are Vulnerable 

All those who desire to genuinely follow Jesus must create communities that center the most vulnerable people at the table. Not only are the vulnerable to be seated at the table but the table is also to practice a preferential option for them. Examples today might include those who are vulnerable on the basis of their race, identity as LGBTQ, or their gender as a woman. Applying Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and vulnerable today means prioritizing these communities.

Jesus’ table is not one where where every person’s opinion is of equal worth and we simply agree to disagree and still get along. Such a table leaves the status quo untouched, doesn’t challenge the balance of power, and still leaves these communities vulnerable. Instead, Jesus’ table is a table where there is a preference for the vulnerable. As the saying goes, “The voice of the oppressed does not always call out for what is just, but we will not arrive at justice without listening to them.” This is what it means to practice a preferential option for the vulnerable: choosing the side of the most vulnerable.

Christians are called to look at the world from the perspective of the marginalized and to work with them in solidarity for justice. Practicing the preferential option for the poor today might include advocating for LGBTQ rights; opposing racial red lining still being practiced today (red-lining stops people of color from accessing home ownership); or organizing with young people who are repeatedly victimized by gun violence.

The good news is we can do this. We can choose to create a world that practices a preferential option for the vulnerable. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the story of a man who did just this.

When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:46)

This is the same “sell everything” language as we read previously—“sell everything you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21). It’s about selling out and going all-in toward a vision for a different kind of world, one that practices a preferential option for people who face oppression daily. It’s also about taking action and believing that another world is possible now. The man in Jesus’ teaching sold everything he had for the kingdom. And we can, too! In the words of someone I deeply respect, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” (Angela Davis; Southern Illinois University, February 13, 2014)

“Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor . . . “ (Mark 10:21)

HeartGroup Application

University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns defines the preferential option for poor and vulnerable as looking “at the world from the perspective of the marginalized and [working] in solidarity for justice.”

  1. This week, take time to read their page on the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. Engage the discussion and reflection sections.

2. Discuss as a group what a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable could look like for your HeartGroup.

3. Choose a way to put your ideas into practice.

Wherever you are this week, thank you for checking in with us.

Remember, another world is possible!

Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.


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

You Will Judge the Twelve Tribes of Israel

A long table set for a meal

Photo by Francois Pistorius on Unsplash

by Herb Montgomery | February 8, 2018


“Our saying this week tells us that another world is possible . . . Our challenge is to shape a society that reflects a set of values that shape our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for us all—a world where each of us has a seat at the table, regardless of our ability, age, race, gender, orientation, gender identity or expression; each of us seated at the table, each person having a say in the world we are creating, all with a preferential option for the most vulnerable among us.”


Featured Text:

“You who have followed me will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Q 22:28, 30)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 19:28: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’”

Luke 22:28-30: “You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

In the book of Judges, judges were liberating revolutionaries.

In this week’s saying, the “judging” indicates governance. The ancient Hebrew hope was not the same as the hope of many sectors of Christianity today. Many Christians today have their hearts fixed on one day becoming a disembodied soul in some distant realm of heavenly bliss. The ancient Hebrews were much more concerned with this life than with an afterlife. They hoped that someday Messiah would come and all oppression, all injustice, all violence, and the earth would be put right. Our saying this week reflects this earthly hope.

What also strikes me about this week’s saying is the use of the word “thrones.” Few other words would seem more out of harmony with the ethical teachings we have looked at in the gospels so far. But just two verses earlier we find these words:

Luke 22:25-26: “Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.’”

I, like some of you, am not interested in thrones, in having another person on a throne over me or being on one myself over others. What I do resonate with are more egalitarian, democratic, nonhierarchical, voluntary, non coercive forms of organizing human communities. As I’ve often remarked in this series, one of Jesus’ most foundational solutions to the individualism we face in our society today is community. His community is not one where someone sits on a throne and others bow. It’s a community where we each take responsibility for taking care of each other.

As I contemplated this week’s saying a bit further, however, it hit me. Jesus doesn’t use the singular word “throne.” He uses the plural word “thrones.” Now the idea behind this saying could have been akin to the model in Deuteronomy where the Hebrew men were to “choose some wise, understanding and respected men [sic] from each of your tribes, and I [Moses] will set them over you.” So the men did just that. The men they chose were appointed to have authority over the people at large “as commanders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens and as tribal officials” (see Deuteronomy 1:13-15). The gospel of Matthew seems to agree with this model in that it mentions twelve specific thrones, sat on by twelve male disciples, over twelve Jewish tribes.

But in Luke we get a different image for this word “thrones,” one not limited to a hierarchal twelve. In Luke, these thrones are associated with eating and drinking and having a seat at Jesus’ table. This calls us to consider Jesus’ table fellowship in Luke’s gospel.

Luke 5:29-30: “Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’”

Luke 14:12-14: “Then Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.’”

Luke 15:2: “But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus shares a table with people who faced religious, political and economic exclusion every day and were pushed to the margins and undersides of their society. Jon Sobrino, referring to how religion is used to do the same today, writes:

“The name of God is used as religious justification for oppressing others, and this is what must be unmasked . . . It is not difficult, then, to understand Jesus’ anger at the way religious people manipulate his God. (And maybe here is the place to think about the manipulation of theology, its ideologizing role, in tolerating—not to mention encouraging—the oppression of others in the name of God.) . . . When piety is used to go against creatureliness, religion becomes an oppressive mechanism. The creator who comes in conflict with creatures is a false God and false gods make even the pious inhuman.” (Jesus the Liberator, p. 168-170)

Jesus welcomed to the table those who were being denied a place there. Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first black woman in the U.S. Congress, often chided, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” She, being “unbought and unbossed,” was a force to be reckoned with in New York City as she advocated for the disenfranchised people in her district during her 14 years in Congress. We see that same solidarity with people who face various forms of oppression in the Jesus of the gospels.

Jesus associates with the marginalized, seats them at a table where they were welcomed to “eat and drink,” and also gives them thrones. Luke describes many thrones, an image that would make much more sense if we are called to care for each other. Each of us, in our own way, sits on a throne from which we set in motion the kind of world we will all experience together. Today we might use the word democracy. In Luke, we don’t find a king on a throne, but a people on many thrones, together determining a world where the meek are not walked over and where the poor are given the kingdom, the hungry are fed, and poverty is eliminated (see Acts 4:34).

This is a world described from the bottom up. Every person welcome at the table. Every person on a throne. Every person’s voice heard. Every person’s story valued. Every person experiencing worth.

Our society still associates the seat at the table with power today. One of the reasons people are excluded from the table in our society is to limit their say in the kind of world that those in power are shaping. Take the history of voting in the U.S. as an example. Originally only men who owned property were allowed to vote. Thomas Paine was one of the earliest voices stating that this was not right, and that the vote should also include those who did not own property, too. Eventually White women won the ability to vote. We still see efforts to exclude people of color from voting today.

If history teaches us anything, it’s that those whom we exclude today are those we will seek to exterminate tomorrow. Whatever world we create out of that exclusive table will invariably be unsafe, unjust, and heartless for those not allowed to sit at the table from the start. Consider the vote again. The U.S. out of all many-throned (democratic) nations has the lowest voter turnout. We don’t have a holiday so that working people can vote. And there are numerous other efforts made to “intrinsically” limit who gets a say. Noam Chomsky has repeatedly stated over the last few years that the poorest 70% of society is “literally disenfranchised.”

 “Their political representatives simply pay no attention to them, so it doesn’t matter what they think…This is a plutocracy, not a democracy . . . As you move up the [income] scale, you get a little bit more influence. When you get to the very top, [that’s where] policy’s made.”

This helps explain why most of the economic gains made over the past three decades have gone to the top 1%. The number of those who get a “throne” or seat at the table, a say in how things operate, is very limited. The top 1% are making the decisions.

Our saying this week tells us that another world is possible. Even anarchists, who are anti-hierarchy, believe that social society should have some form of voluntary organization. Our challenge is to shape a society that reflects a set of values that shape our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for us all—a world where each of us has a seat at the table, regardless of our ability, age, race, gender, orientation, gender identity or expression; each of us seated at the table, each person having a say in the world we are creating, all with a preferential option for the most vulnerable among us. In this world, there are self-determining “thrones” for everyone.

“You who have followed me will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Q 22:28, 30)

HeartGroup Application

Last summer I had the pleasure of meeting of Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ. Each week, this historic community sends out a weekly email devotional and this past week’s devotional moved me deeply. It’s a reminder of the importance of community. It begins with the African proverb, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” It continues, “One of the great tragedies of our time is that we live in an individualistic culture that teaches us that our ultimate value is not in what we give to the world, but in what we have and what we achieve. Our value must be derived from individual hard work, persistence, and determination! Then, along our path we find that this is a myth. We discover that we need others, and that ‘to go far,’ we must travel together . . . We all have the sacred responsibility to support one another. We all share the divine responsibility of ensuring that everyone in our community is growing, thriving, and prospering.”

I want to share with you Trinity UCC’s Prayer and weekly action with you as well, because I think that they have intrinsic value for you as well.

1. For the next seven days, I want you to take time each day to pray this very simple but profound prayer:

“Lord, help us to realize that our lives are dependent on each other. Help us to use the gifts You have given us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with You. Amen.”

Also, I’d like you to journal how this prayer changes your own focus throughout the week.

2. Share with your HeartGroup how this prayer impacted your week.

3. Lastly, their weekly action:

“Find an organization that is engaged in work that you feel is important, and join them.”

Do this in your local community and share with your HeartGroup what you experience by doing so.

Another world is possible.

Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

The Kingdom of God within You

by Herb Montgomery

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

 

Featured Text:

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

Companion Texts:

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

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

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

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

The Privatized Individual Interpretation of this Saying

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Critiques from a Liberation Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Alternative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preferential Option for the Last

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

As a group:

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

Then see where that leads.

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

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

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

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

Thanks so much for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

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.