Misclassifying As Weeds

rainbow heart

Herb Montgomery | June 11, 2021


This weeks reading calls us all to question our classification of trees as weeds. Similarly, the call to affirm, embrace, and include LGBTQ Christians in the church is not a call to affirm things that are intrinsically harmful but a call to help us recognize that the LGBTQ community should not be on the harmful” list in the first place.


Our reading this week is from the Gospel of Mark:

He also said, The reign of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” He also said, With what can we compare the reign of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (Mark 4:26-34)

The society for which the gospel of Mark was written considered mustard seeds an invasive, noxious weed. If a gardener did not uproot it from their garden, theyd soon not have a garden left to tend. Then, as now, weeds should be rooted out to stop them taking over, crowding out intentionally planted crops .

Other gospels describe mustard seed growing into large bushes with branches, or trees. But mustard seed doesn’t actually grow like that. We have negatively labelled as a weed something that ends up growing into a large bush with branches and that positively benefits those around it. Weve classified as a weed something that is actually a fruit-bearing tree.

Let me say it again for clarity. Actual mustard plants dont grow into trees. What we have in this story is something that grows into a tree. Its not mustard weed. Its something entirely different from mustard. Weve made a mistake!

I think that was Jesus’ point.

This weeks reading compares Jesus’ new community of nonviolence, mutual aid, and resource and wealth redistribution to a beneficial tree seen as a weed-like-threat by the privileged, powerful, and propertied. The way 1st Century farmers viewed the mustard plant was the way the privileged and elite viewed Jesus teachings and the community of Jesus-followers centered in those teachings. They were to be rooted out. They were as welcome in society as weeds are in a garden.

But then Jesus takes a hard right turn. What people think is a noxious mustard weed doesnt produce the same results as they all expect mustard to. It doesnt take over the garden like a weed and leave nothing for anyone. No, instead it becomes a tree, a source of shelter and food for all in its vicinity. Its originally viewed as a weed, but it does not bear the same fruit as a weed.

The image Jesus uses to represent his community, the tree mistaken for a weed, is from a story in the Hebrew apocalyptic book of Daniel. In Daniel, Nebuchadnezzars kingdom was likened to a fruit tree that provided food, a resting place, and shelter to all. Jesus adapts this imperial image to describe his non-imperial community that provides for those the present system exploits.  Its imagery also communicates to those opposing Jesus’ work, Youre working so hard to keep me out of your garden as if Im a mustard weed, and are trying to uproot me completely, but you have misjudged me. My fruit is not harmful. It is life and peace and good for all.”

This weeks reading isnt saying that all weeds should be welcomed in the garden or that we shouldnt weed when gardening. Its asking us to check our assumptions about what we have classified as weeds. What if weve made a mistake? What if weve judged something to be a harmful weed, but that judgment is quite incorrect?

The elite in Jesuss society were beginning to view his teachings on nonviolent resistance and wealth redistribution as a weed that must be removed. And so he calls them to see their judgment as a mistake. What Jesus was teaching could lead to justice, liberation and ultimately societal peace, rooted in an expression of distributive justice for all. What they viewed as a weed to be rooted out was actually a tree of life.

Misclassification Today

As I consider the misclassification of the mustard seed in this weeks reading and the misclassification of Jesuss reign of God in the gospels, I cant help but think of the misclassification of my LGBTQ friends today.

This weeks reading calls us all to question our classification of trees as weeds. Similarly, the call to affirm, embrace, and include LGBTQ Christians in the church is not a call to affirm things that are intrinsically harmful but a call to help us recognize that the LGBTQ community should not be on the harmful” list in the first place.

This month is Pride Month, and RHM’s recommended reading for June is Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation by Dale B. Martin. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you have not read it, get a copy and do so. You’ll thank me.

From time to time, I get letters from other Christians asking me to explain how I can claim to follow Jesus while affirming the LGBTQ community. These writers typically use misinformed language such as lifestyle” when they are actually referring to same-sex intimacy. They are often also profoundly certain about how clear the Bibles teachings are, and they compare my LGBTQ friends with those who are “sexually immoral,” and child-molesters.” They want me to explain how I could affirm LGBTQ people’s allegedly sinful behaviors.”

A sexual ethic rooted in the golden rule is a different conversation. I do want to say this loud and clear. Many of my LGBTQ friends are more devoted Christians than I am. I think specifically of a lesbian friend of mine in Ohio. She has been with her wife for over twenty years, and I admire their commitment to each other. It’s absurd to even compare her to those who are “sexually immoral” or child-molesters”.

As a side note, I also want to add that many straight people practice things Christian, ascetic, purity-culture standards don’t approve, yet no one’s going about saying heterosexuals  shouldn’t get married or become pastors. It’s not enough to keep a system in place of making some group an outsider, or less than, while saying LGBTQ people shouldn’t be hurt by it. If this kind of system is still in place, we’re all at risk.  Do we have really to have to measure up to Christian purity culture (which many Christians also reject) to be treated with respect and kindness?

There are two lists in the New Testament that the writers of the letters I receive often mention:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the [arsenokoitai], nor [malakoi] nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (ESV), emphasis added)

Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the [arsenokoitai], enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” (1 Timothy 1:9-11 (ESV), emphasis added)

The term homosexuality” was invented in the late 1800s, but did not appear in any English language Bible before 1946. For most of history, Christians have read 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 very differently than their recent translations suggest they might. The two Greek keywords in these passages are malakoi and arsenokoitai. These words are extremely difficult to translate into English.

Arsenokoitai is found in both 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. Malakoi is found only in 1 Corinthians 6:9. Dale Martin’s book Sex and the Single Savior is extremely helpful here. Martin makes a compelling case that no one living today definitely knows what arsenokoitai meant and at best we are guessing at definitions. Surprisingly, Martin shows that whatever arsenokoitai was, most of the extra-biblical vice lists that include arsenokoitai categorize it with acts of economic exploitation and oppression, not with sexual violations where we would expect to find it if it refered primarily to sexual acts.

Malakoi is much easier to define, yet the definition reveals rank misogyny. Again, Martin makes a compelling case in quoting several extra-biblical sources where malakoi was used. Each time malakoi appears, there is no question the term refers to men directly or indirectly acting in any way that society would have defined as feminine. Some ancient authors go so far as to indicate it would be better to be dead than to be a woman as defined by their society. They list the litany of qualities that that ancient culture considered woman-like”: drinking too much wine, having too much sex, loving gourmet food, hiring a professional cook, being weak in battle, and enjoying luxury all fall into the classification of being unmanly. Malakoi often refers to heterosexual men who wore things like nice clothing, jewelry, wore cologne, shaved, did their hair, and cared for their skin to aid them in appearing attractive in their heterosexual pursuits. It meant being soft” or effeminate. In that patriarchal society, women were degraded as being inferior to men and therefore it was considered to be a vice, malakoi, for a man to act in any way like them. Martins conclusion is “willful ignorance or dishonesty” could allow us to define malakoi so narrowly as to refer to “passive homosexuals” now.

Martins textual scholarship resoundingly agrees with Brownsons conclusion in The Bible, Gender and Sexuality:

When we take the original social context of these vice lists seriously, we again recognize a gap between what these vice lists are rejecting and what is happening in committed same-sex relationships today.” (Brownson, The Bible, Gender and Sexuality, p. 275)

After 1946, however, an obvious homophobic bias enters New Testament English translations, and it is not warranted by the original languages. The original languages address men being “like women,” which is deeply misogynist and produces a whole set of interpretive problems. But translations after 1946 introduce generic homophobia instead.

I have a hunch that some translators may be trying to avoid the misogyny in the original text. Yet these translations produce demonstrable bodily harm to a group of human beings, and that fruit should warn us about their roots.

Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets before him, valued people and interpretations of the Torah that were life-giving rather than destructive. Jesus practiced a kind of Torah obedience that expressed itself in a preferential option for the vulnerable. As a community, LGBTQ people are vulnerable in our time.

Through generations of prejudice and mistranslation, we have misclassified as a weed something that isn’t a weed at all. In fact, our misclassifying the LGBTQ community is whats producing noxious weed-like results including disproportionate homelessness and suicide rates among Christian LGBTQ youth rejected by their religious families and churches. The fruit of our recent translations and misclassification of LGBTQ people is not life, but death.

We must remember:

  • Saying Im sorry” is not enough.
  • An apology that calls straight Christians only to more loving and respectful forms of heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia is not an apology.
  • The language of reconciliation devoid of liberation is empty rhetoric.
  • Kindness and respect are not synonyms for reparation for harm done in the past.
  • Allowing even respectful” disagreement over whether another person should exist is not creating safe space.”

That last one is vital. The debate over LGBTQ people is not merely about theology. It’s really a disagreement over whether LGBTQ people should exist, live openly, and form families in our communities. The lists in Pauls writings are lists of behaviors that can be changed. Sexual orientation is much more like a persons skin color than their actions. Its not something to be changed; its who people are. Reparative therapy, however, is one example of Christian attempts to “weed out” a certain type of person—an LGBTQ person—from existence. Ultimately, its a form of genocide.

Learning to listen to those who are not like us as they share the harm they’ve experienced through misclassification offers us the opportunity to choose between compassion and fear. Our differences can be scary, but they dont have to be. Although we do have differences, there is much we have in common, too. Someone who is different from you is also someones child. They are someones sibling. They are someones best friend.

Remember to breathe. And choose compassion.

And to all my LGBTQ friends who may be reading or listening this week, I offer as encouragement the words of Dr. Katie Cannon of Union Presbyterian Seminary:

Even when people call your truth a lie, tell it anyway. Tell it anyway.” (in Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology)

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Share an experience of how you came to realize you had also misjudged something or someone? Discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

 


Binding the Strong Man

rope

Herb Montgomery | June 4, 2021


Today our strong man could be capitalism, White supremacy, Christian nationalism, cisheterosexism, and more. All of these working separately and together comprise the strong men that we must bind in our time. What does binding the “strong man” as a thief in the night look like for us in our system? What does it look like in the context of working toward justice, compassion, and safety for all who are marginalized and made vulnerable? And how should we go about doing it?”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong mans house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, He has an unclean spirit.” Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:20-35)

Most scholars agree that this section of Mark is a compilation of sayings that were originally separate and were compiled into a compelling narrative. This week, we will review that narrative, looking for anything in it that can speak to our justice work today.

In the story, Jesus has returned home and is again surrounded by controversy. Characteristic of Mark, the Beelzebub narrative is enveloped by a larger story. In other words, Mark begins with one story, interrupts with a related story, and then returns to the story he was telling first.

Our narrative, then, begins with Jesus’ family. Kinship systems in Jesus’ day established a person’s identity, vocation, and social location. Some scholars see in the story evidence of a power struggle in the early church between those who claimed leadership positions based on being related to Jesus (like Jesus’ brother James) and those who were not related but followed Jesus with just as much dedication. The story describes the second group of unrelated followers and a crowd being inside the home, with Jesus’ blood family outside. While this may indeed be an story about blood relationships, there is also a deeper point being made here.

Social change often involves questioning the values and social domestication one has received from one’s family. Outgrowing these values is often part of the work we must do to participate in making our world a safe and equitable home for everyone. We must build on the good we gained from our families and also be willing to evolve beyond the harmful. Speaking out when one’s extended family is aligned with the opposition is difficult. I know this personally. For me, family rejection was especially painful in addition to rejection I was already experiencing as I chose to take definitive stands for those communities I witnessed being harmed.

Jesus’ familys motive in the story could be preserving the family as well as preserving Jesus. Perhaps he was going to get himself in trouble and possibly even them too. But if that was their motive, Jesus’ family was too late. Government officials are already on their way to Jesus to press charges. Our story highlights how one’s family and the state can work together to keep one subordinated to the status quo.

When the Temple state officials arrive, they make their accusation: Jesus is casting out demons not by the power of God, but by the power of the head demon himself. This language may be difficult for many people with our modern worldview, but let’s step into the 1st Century context of the story to understand it better. Hollenbach tells us:

“Witchcraft accusations represent a distancing strategy which seeks to discredit, sever, and deny . . . Upstart controllers of spirits are, by their very power over spirits, suspected of causing what they cure.” (P. Hollenbach, Jesus, Demoniacs, and Public Authorities: A Socio-Historical Study, p. 577)

I think of the way men threatened by strong women have historically marginalized, silenced, removed and murdered those women by accusing them of “witchcraft.” This gives us insight into the dynamics of this story in Mark. These are not just stories of mythical demons and exorcisms. That shallow understanding misses the broader point. These stories are political. As Theissen correctly states, “The mythological events here reflect political ones” (Gerd Theissen, The First Followers of Jesus: A Sociological Analysis of the Earliest Christianity, p. 76), Those benefiting from the status quo in these stories were threatened by Jesus’ calls for change and they tried to delegitimize him.

The theme of leaders accusing Jesus of being out of his mind or under the control of demons is in each of the gospels including John:

“Again the Judeans were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’ (John 10:19-21)

In American society today, this same distancing tactic is used, though not necessarily with the labels of demon-possession. Some Christian communities do still use this language toward those they politically oppose. A local Baptist pastor has accused me of being demon possessed because of my affirmation of LGBTQ folk. Other labels that can be used to delegitimize in our society today include “terrorist,” “socialist,” and “communist.”

In our story, Jesus is engaged in acts of liberation, humanization, and in Jewish language, jubilee! Yet those threatened by his liberation work are working to have him dismissed as a lunatic or a traitor to his Jewish community. I’m reminded of the warning of Malcom X centuries after Jesus: If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing” (in Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, p. 93).

The statement in our passage that arrests my attention the most is:

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’”

In Mark’s story, the leaders’ goal is to make people afraid of those working for their very liberation. I see this happening all the time here in West Virginia, where easily manipulated people in our communities are made to fear those working for their good and so the majority vote against their own interests. We witnessed stark examples of this in the last election here in my state. Fearing and demonizing liberators is not arbitrarily “unpardonable.” It’s intrinsically “unpardonable” because the very social elements and changes that would bring a person concrete liberation are made out to be feared and held suspect.

Juan Luis Segundo speaks to the intrinsically unpardonable nature of this “sin” in Capitalism versus Socialism:

The blasphemy resulting from bad apologetics will always be pardonable . . . The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to recognize, with theologicaljoy, some concrete liberation that is taking place before one’s very eyes.” (p. 254)

Ched Myers describes people not recognizing the Spirit in sterner terms:

“To be captive to the way things are, to resist criticism and change, to brutally suppress efforts at humanization—is to be bypassed by the grace of God.” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 167)

There is evidence that many in the early church took this teaching very seriously. In what was believed to have been an early church manual, the Didache, we read:

“And every prophet who speaks in the Spirit you shall neither try nor judge; for every sin shall be forgiven, but this sin shall not be forgiven.” (Didache Ch. 11)

Let’s close this week with the Jesus saying in our story.

“No one can enter a strong mans house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”

After making this statement, Jesus would later be seen in the Temple state’s “house,” overturning the tables of economic exploitation and resisting the harming of the most vulnerable people. That was his society’s strong man.

Today our strong man could be capitalism, White supremacy, Christian nationalism, cisheterosexism, and more. All of these working separately and together comprise the strong men that we must bind in our time. What does binding the “strong man” as a thief in the night look like for us in our system? What does it look like in the context of working toward justice, compassion, and safety for all who are marginalized and made vulnerable? And how should we go about doing it?

The answers to these questions will only result from conversation and engagement with the communities most harmfully impacted by our status quo. As followers of the Jesus in our story this week, we must be about that work.

Let’s get to it.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What are some “strong men” that need dismantling both within our religious and secular communities? How are false labels used and applied to oppose this work and to create fear in others? How have you experienced this in your own journey? Share with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Spirit of Advocacy

 

dove in stained glass

Herb Montgomery | May 21, 2021


The Jesus of John calls us to not let go of life but to take hold of it, to stand up for that which is life-giving, and to stand alongside the oppressed in our fight against injustice and death in all its expressions. May the same Advocate Spirit that took the side of the oppressed, marginalized, and those pushed to the edges of society in the Jesus story be found again, poured out on us as Jesus followers again today.”


Our readings this week are from John 15 and 16:

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. (John 15:26-27)

“But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, Where are you going? But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:4-15)

As we mentioned last week, these two passages belong to a section of John’s gospel referred to as the farewell discourses. John 16 includes themes repeated throughout farewell addresses: departure and Jesus being on the way to the Father” (cf. John 13:33, 36-37; 14:2-4, 28), Jesus promise to send the Spirit as an advocate (cf. John 14:16, 26; 15:26), the work of the advocated to guide them into truth (cf. John 14:6, 16-17). It’s worth noting how clear and direct Jesus’ speech is in these passages compared to his parables and sayings in the synoptic gospels. In those versions of the Jesus story, Jesus speaks much more cryptically, in parables and metaphors. John does not include that kind of speech.

In the passage this week, Jesus uses the term advocate for the promise of the Spirit. This concept would have held a certain meaning for the original audience, the community of early Jesus followers. By the time John’s gospel was written, the rift between Christians and the Jewish people had become wide, and so John not only includes conflict between these two now-separate communities, but also an alarming amount of anti-Jewish descriptions and antisemitic characterizations of those referred to as “the Jews.” Given how Christians have treated our Jewish siblings throughout Christianity’s history, we must be extremely careful with the gospel of John, and not perpetuate stereotypes or actions that have harmed or even proven lethal to Jewish people. This caution applies to the term “advocate,” too.

Consider the following passages in John’s version of the Jesus story where being removed from the synagogue is a penalty for Jewish people who follow Jesus.

“His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Anointed would be put out of the synagogue.” (John 9:22)

“Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue.” (John 12:42)

John’s Jesus repeats the warning in John 12: “They will put you out of the synagogues.” (John 16:2)

For that first audience, “advocate” would have called to mind actual legal proceedings Jewish leaders initated against Jesus’ followers. The theme of being brought to trial appears in the early synoptic gospels as well:

“When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13:11)

“When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:19-20)

“So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Luke 21:14-15)

“When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11-12)

Can we reclaim this idea of advocacy in life-giving ways within our social context today?

Advocacy means to publicly support a particular community, cause or policy.

In the Hebrew scriptures, advocacy meant perceiving God’s role in our world (God as advocate of the oppressed) as well as the role God’s people were to fulfill.

“God judges in favor of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.” (Psalm 146:7, italics added.)

“Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)

“Happy are those who are concerned for the poor; the Lord will help them when they are in trouble.” (Psalms 41:1)

“Open your mouth for the voiceless, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9)

“How terrible it will be for those who make unfair laws, and those who write laws that make life hard for people. They are not fair to the poor, and they rob my people of their rights. They allow people to steal from widows and to take from orphans what really belongs to them.” (Isaiah 10:1-2)

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6)

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth . . . ” (Isaiah 42:3-4)

Too often, we as Christians have become fixated on helping people reach a post-mortem heaven or escape some mythical hell: our focus is always on tomorrow and never on today. But if we would be humble enough to learn from our Jewish siblings, remembering Jesus himself was a Jew long before the Christian religion ever existed, we would learn how to effectively engage systemic injustice in our world. The Jesus story calls Jesus’ followers to advocacy in the here and now. I so deeply appreciate the words of the late Rev. Dr. James H. Cone on this point:

“The Christian community, therefore, is that community that freely becomes oppressed, because they know that Jesus himself has defined humanity’s liberation in the context of what happens to the little ones. Christians join the cause of the oppressed in the fight for justice not because of some philosophical principle of “the Good” or because of a religious feeling of sympathy for people in prison. Sympathy does not change the structures of injustice. The authentic identity of Christians with the poor is found in the claim which the Jesus-encounter lays upon their own life-style, a claim that connects the word “Christian” with the liberation of the poor. Christians fight not for humanity in general but for themselves and out of their love for concrete human beings.” (James H. Cone; The God of the Oppressed, p. 135)

This weekend, we celebrate Pentecost, which memorializes the pouring out of the Spirit on the early church. What did it look like when this Advocate Spirit was poured out on Jesus? How did that Spirit characterize his life work?

The Spirit [advocate] of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lords favor [cancellation of all debt].” (Luke 4:18-19, cf. Isaiah 61:1-2)

The Jesus story calls to us to have this same Spirit mark our lives today too!

I’ll close this week with words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that still give us much to consider:

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be, and one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. Youre afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or youre afraid that somebody will stab or shoot or bomb your house. So you refuse to take a stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at ninety. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You died when you refused to stand up for justice.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ; Ebenezer Baptist Church; 11/5/67; Atlanta, GA)

This is especially applicable given the recent events in Palestine. The Jesus of John calls us to not let go of life but to take hold of it, to stand up for that which is life-giving, and to stand alongside the oppressed in our fight against injustice and death in all its expressions. May the same Advocate Spirit that took the side of the oppressed, marginalized, and those pushed to the edges of society in the Jesus story be found again, poured out on us as Jesus followers again today.

This Pentecost, may this be not merely our prayer, but our choice as well.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What does advocacy look like for you and how does it inform your own Jesus following? Discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


Hated by the Right People

lonely road

Herb Montgomery | May 14, 2021


“We should first stop and ask if we are genuinely being hated at all. And if we are, we must also realize It’s not enough to be hated. We have to ask ourselves who is it who is hating us and why. If we are hated by the same social groups that hated Jesus and for the same reasons, then we can claim Jesus’ blessing in Luke. But if we find ourselves opposed by the marginalized because we are actually standing between them and justice, obstructing their path toward a society that recognizes their full humanity, then we need to serious address why it is that our story is so fundamentally different from the Jesus story that we hold so dear.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your instructions. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the instructions you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled. I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your instruction and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your instruction is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. (John 17:6-19)

This passage ends Jesus’ farewell discourse in John’s version of the story (John 14-17). This section is unique to John, and many scholars have compared it to Matthew’s sermon on the mount because of its size and centrality to John’s version of the Jesus story. To the original audience of John, the farewell discourse would have been immediately recognized as similar to a last will and testament of a father or leader of a community, like those found in Genesis 49 or in the Judean document Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Discourses like these were often deathbed instructions to children or final instructions to followers before a leader’s departure. And so they were in John.

This segment in John represents the tenets of a distinct group that emerged within the early Christian community referred to as the Johannine community. Some of what this community believed and taught would become part of the gnostic Christian community a hundred years later, and other portions would provide the foundation for the patriarchal orthodoxy established in the fourth and fifth centuries of the new Church.

Just as the sermon on the mount in Matthew contains Matthew’s version of the central teachings of Jesus, these discourses (John 14-17) contain the language and particular perspectives of the Christian Johannine community, which they attributed to Jesus.

John 17:6-19, for instance, is part of Jesus’ farewell prayer. This prayer was hugely influential in the process of defining the orthodox Christian view of the relationship between Jesus and the Father during the debates and eventual creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries. For our purposes this week, the love between the Father and Jesus is the theme of verses 1-5. The hoped-for success of Jesus followers after the crucifixion and resurrection is the theme of verses 6-10. Once we get to verse 11, the focus shifts to concern for the safety of Jesus followers in a world to which the Johannine community believed they didn’t belong (“They are not of the world any more than I am of the world”).

Being hated by the world is a theme in many sectors of Christianity that has been sorely abused since then. So let’s unpack this idea a bit.

First, Jesus’ gospel of liberation for the oppressed was not initially perceived as good news for everyone. I’m reminded of the words of Peter Gomes in his book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus:

Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others. In order that the gospel in the New Testament might be made as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, its rough edges have been shorn off and the radical edge of Jesuspreaching has been replaced by a respectable middle, of which niceness” is now God. When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the end of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed.” (Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, p. 31)

An example of this is Luke’s sermon on the plain in Luke 6:20-26. Certainly the poor, the hungry, those the present system caused to weep, and those hated by the elite felt blessed by Jesus’ gospel of blessing. Yet those who were rich, well-fed, filled with the laughter of luxury, and liked within their fellow elite social class felt cursed. In the story, the characters of Herod, Pilate and Caiaphas did not perceive Jesus’ teachings as good news but as a threat. And in the synoptics, Jesus was loved among the common people but hated by many of those in power and positions of privilege, so much so that it was the people’s love that initially protected Jesus, making him difficult to arrest and silence (see Matthew 21:26, Mark 12:12, Luke 20:19).

So in the gospels, Jesus’ followers were to expect hatred from the powerful and elite for whom Jesus’ teachings threatened (Matthew 10:22; 24:9; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17; John 15:18). In Luke’s gospel, Jesus goes so far as to say, “Blessed are you when people hate you.” (Luke 6:22) And this is where the teaching can be abused.

People hating you doesn’t mean you’re on the right path. You could just be a jerk! Also, too often we can conflate criticism and hate. Someone not liking something doesn’t mean they want it destroyed. And yet, if you find yourself being genuinely hated as a Jesus follower, it’s important to consider how much social location matters: ask yourself who hates you and what their social location is. If you find yourself being hated by the wealthy, the powerful, the privileged, the propertied, and those who put profit before people, then you’re in the right story.

But what if, as is so often the case within so many sectors of Christianity, we find ourselves challenged by LGBTQ folks, or by women who identify as feminists or womanists, or by people who are not White, or by those who daily struggle economically to scratch out an existence, who feel as if they will never enjoy the privileges of being a citizen of this world?

Then we need to reassess why our story looks so differently from the Jesus story. Jesus was hated, yes. But those who hated him were at the center and top of society to the exclusion and marginalization of others. Jesus was hated by many in the privileged and powerful sectors of his society. Those in the story who lived in a marginalized or disempowered social location loved him.

We should first stop and ask if we are genuinely being hated at all. And if we are, we must also realize It’s not enough to be hated. We have to ask ourselves who is it who is hating us and why. If we are hated by the same social groups that hated Jesus and for the same reasons, then we can claim Jesus’ blessing in Luke. But if we find ourselves opposed by the marginalized because we are actually standing between them and justice, obstructing their path toward a society that recognizes their full humanity, then we need to serious address why it is that our story is so fundamentally different from the Jesus story that we hold so dear.

One last word. Unique to the Johaninne community is an idea that we are in this world but not of it. Whatever this meant for the original Johannine community, it’s not a life-giving teaching today: separatist at best and exceptionalism and possibly even supremacism at worst. Today, we can tell the Jesus story in ways that, like the Jesus of the synoptics, engage this world, our families, our communities, our society, and don’t withdraw from them. We are part of this world. It’s not “the” world, it’s our world. We are not just passing through: this world is our home.

And, according to other passages in the Christian scriptures, we are to be about renewing, restoring, and transforming our world into a safe home for everyone (see Revelation 21:3-5).

So this week, let’s get to it! Let’s get to work alongside those working toward a more distributively just society, one where the full humanity of those presently othered is not only recognized, but celebrated, honored and centered.

A just, safe, equitable home for all.

Will we be hated along the way? Maybe.

But let’s make sure our gospel is good news to the same folks Jesus’ gospel was good news for, and then we will at least be able to say that those who hate us hated Jesus, too. If we do, our heads can hit the pillow each night and, whether we are hated or loved, we can know that we are making our world a better place for all.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. How does considering the social location of both marginalized and privileged communities in our society impact how we read and follow the Jesus story? Discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Inherent Relationship of Love and Justice

 

clouds in the sky

by Herb Montgomery | May 7, 2021


“There is a way to teach God’s love that is complicit in oppression and is harmful to marginalized communities. There is another way to teach love that can be foundational to the work of transforming our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone . . . Love that only leaves the privileged in a conscience-appeased state so they can sleep better at night isn’t a love worth having . . . We can explore ways that understanding Universal love that lead us, not to private, assured passivity, but to the work of remaining in that love by shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for each and every one of us.”


Our reading this week is from John’s gospel:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Fathers commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down ones life for ones friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his masters business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.” (John 15:9-17)

The intended audience for this passage is the developing community of Jesus followers, and the central theme of the passage is love. Out of all the canonical gospels, John’s expresses the highest form of Christology since the writing of the gospel of Mark. Since then, the community developed its ideas about the relationship between Jesus and Jesus’ Father (see John 1:1-3). In our passage this week, this relationship and Jesus’ relationship with his followers are models for Jesus followers to emulate in their relationships with one another. Love is one of the central themes in John, more so than in Matthew, Mark, Luke and even the book of Acts where the word love does not appear even once.

Consider, by contrast, how often love is the focus of John’s version of the Jesus story:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, italics added.)

“The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.” (John 3:35,italics added.)

“For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed.” (John 5:20, italics added.)

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34,35, italics added.)

“No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” (John 16:27, italics added.)

“I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23, italics added.)

“I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (John 17:26, italics added.)

See also John 10:17; 14:15, 21-23, 31; 17:24; and 21:15-17.

Each of the synoptic gospels addresses love, but none of them repeats the theme to the degree we see in John’s gospel.

There is a way to teach God’s love that is nothing more than guilt management for the privileged, propertied, and powerful, that does nothing more than help them to silence the background noise of their troubled conscience. I’ve also found over the years that many Christians who live in an empowered or privileged social location also name John’s gospel as their favorite out of the four. I wonder if there is a connection.

There’s also another way to teach God’s love that could be foundational to our work to transform our world into a just, compassionate, safe home for all those who are vulnerable to harm in the present system. I’m reminded of the words of Dr. Emilie M. Townes:

“When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isnt very far behind.” (Dr. Emilie M. Townes; Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology)

In 2010, Dr. Cornel West firmly grounded distributive, societal justice work in the soil of universal love when he said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also relied on his deep belief in a universal love and social justice for the objects of that love:

“When days grow dark [sic] and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice which will lead us through lifes dark [sic] valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, in A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings, p. 9)

Love that only leaves the privileged in a conscience-appeased state so they can sleep better at night isn’t a love worth having. If a belief in universal love is only serves to achieve privatized, individual, internal well-being and doesn’t also move us to work publicly for justice within our communities, then we should abandon that belief and kind of love immediately. I agree with James Baldwin who wrote, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” (James Baldwin; The Fire Next Time, p. 47)

The late Thomas Merton went so far as to equate a theology of love with a theology of resistance and revolution:

“A theology of love cannot afford to be sentimental. It cannot afford to preach edifying generalities about charity, while identifying peace’ with mere established power and legalized violence against the oppressed. A theology of love cannot be allowed merely to serve the interests of the rich and powerful, justifying their wars, their violence and their bombs, while exhorting the poor and underprivileged to practice patience, meekness, longsuffering, and to solve their problems, if at all, nonviolently. A theology of love may also conceivably turn out to be a theology of revolution. In any case, it is a theology of resistance, a refusal of the evil that reduces a brother or sister to homicidal desperation.” (Thomas Merton; Toward a Theology of Resistance found in Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, p.121)

I want to offer one word of caution in relation to our passage this week. As I’ve repeatedly said over the past few weeks, John’s gospel speaks to the myth of redemptive suffering more so than any of the other canonical gospels:

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down ones life for ones friends.”

I’ve also written repeatedly about the harm the myth of redemptive suffering does to vulnerable communities so I will not unpack the whole discussion again here. Instead I will offer Dr. Katie Cannon’s words in the foreword to the 20th Anniversary edition of Delores Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness:

“[Williams] contends that theologians need to think seriously about the real-life consequences of redemptive suffering, God-talk that equates the acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse as the way for true believers to live as authentic Christian disciples. Those who spew such false teaching and warped preaching must cease and desist.” (Kindle location 133)

As I wrote in Imagery of a Good Shepherd, there is a difference between empowered people sacrificing and them teaching disempowered people to sacrifice themselves. (Also see Brown and Parker’s For God So Loved The World?) The early church was largely comprised of those who, as Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas often says, didn’t have a wall to even have their back up against. While the giving of some people in privileged social locations can hardly be called sacrifice (see Mark 12:41-44), teaching disempowered people the myth of redemptive suffering can be destructive or even lethal.

I’ll close with Thomas Merton’s timely words:

“Instead of preaching the Cross for others and advising them to suffer patiently the violence which we sweetly impose on them, with the aid of armies and police, we might conceivably recognize the right of the less fortunate to use force, and study more seriously the practice of nonviolence and humane methods on our own part when, as it happens, we possess the most stupendous arsenal of power the world has ever known.” (Ibid.)

This week, let’s explore ways that understanding God loves everyone can lead us, not to private, assured passivity, but to the work of remaining in God’s love by shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for each and every one of us.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Contrast some of the ways a message of love can be used to impede our justice work along with ways a message of love can be foundational.  Discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


Branches Grafted to a Poisonous Vine

 

grapes attached to a vine

Herb Montgomery | April 30, 2021


“Although the passage we began with focuses on bearing fruit rather than being a dead or withered branch that bears nothing, we see that the kind of fruit one bears matters too. What does it mean for American Christians to live as Jesus did?”


Our reading this week is from John’s gospel:

“I am the true vine, and my Mother is the gardener. She removes every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, and prunes every branch that bears fruit so that it may bear more fruit. You’re already clean because of the message I’ve told you, ‘Remain in me as I remain in you. Just as the branch can’t bear fruit by itself unless it remains in the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you’re the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in them bears much fruit, because you can’t do anything without me. Someone who doesn’t remain in me is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; they are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want to and it will be done for you. My Mother is glorified in this: that you bear much fruit and remain my disciples.’” (John 15:1-8, Divine Feminine Version (DFV) of the New Testament)

I love this translation of John, probably because my late mother was an avid gardener and it reminds me so much of her. It’s important, after almost two centuries of Christian patriarchy gendering God as exclusively male, that we recognize women bear the image of the Divine just as much as men do. Gendering God as male, female, and with nonbinary images gives us an opportunity to break the patriarchal monopoly on the symbols we use for God. As Elizabeth Johnson writes in the classic work She Who Is:

“While officially it is rightly and consistently said that God is spirit and so beyond identification with either male or female sex, the daily language of preaching, worship, catechesis, and instruction conveys a different message: God is male, or at least more like a man than a woman, or at least more fittingly addressed as male than as female… Upon examination it becomes clear that this exclusive speech about God serves in manifold ways to support an imaginative and structural world that excludes or subordinates women. Wittingly or not, it undermines women’s human dignity as equally created in the image of God.” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is, Kindle Location 826)

The symbols used in this week’s reading from John are branches, a vine, and a gardener. These symbols’ function was to encourage the early followers of Jesus to keep Jesus’ sayings in memory and to continue following his teachings. That is what it meant for those early followers to “remain” in Jesus in the context of these specific symbols. 

The symbol of fruit bearing is also curious. The branches were to bear the vine’s fruit. In other writings of the Johannine community, we get a hint as to what kind of fruit the early followers of this Jesus were to bear:

“Whoever claims to remain in him must live as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:6)

Although the passage we began with focuses on bearing fruit rather than being a dead or withered branch that bears nothing, in 1 John 2:6 we see that the kind of fruit one bears matters too. The synoptic gospels make this point :

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers.” (Luke 6:43-44)

So what was the fruit of Jesus’ life? And what should be the fruit of the lives of those who claim to follow that Jesus?

In other words, what does it mean for Christians to live as Jesus did?

A few things come to mind almost immediately. 

The Jesus of the gospel story cared about economic justice for the poor:

“They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers.” (Mark 12:40 cf. Mark 12:42-43)

“Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)

“I needed clothes and you clothed me.” (Matthew 25:36) 

The Jesus of the story was in favor of wealth redistribution:

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” (Luke 12:33)

The Jesus of the story cared about centering those being marginalized:

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)

The Jesus of the story taught for debt forgiveness:

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)

“Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both.” (Luke 7:42 cf. Matthew 18:27)

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me . . . to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

The Jesus of the story cared about incarcerated people:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me . . . to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.” (Luke 4:18-19)

“I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:36)

The Jesus of the story cared about liberating the oppressed:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me . . . to set the oppressed free. (Luke 4:18-19)

The Jesus of the story cared about making sure the sick in society were taken care of:

“I was sick and you looked after me” (Matthew 25:36)

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:23)

“When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” (Matthew 14:14)

The Jesus of the story taught nonviolence:

“‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’” (Matthew 26:52)

And so much more.

Let’s pause, though, for just a moment and look at the little bit we have listed here. 

Concern for economic justice for the poor, wealth redistribution, centering of the marginalized, cancellation of oppressive debt, liberation for incarcerated people, liberation for the oppressed, ensuring people’s health care needs were taken care of, and lastly, nonviolent resistance to systemic injustice. 

What would it look like if this were the platform of Christians today?

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to the for-profit prison industrial complex?

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to the school to prison pipe line for Black people in the U.S.?

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to the demand for universal healthcare when so many people, even those with health insurance, have to file bankruptcy? 

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to police brutality?

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to student loan cancellation?

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to civil rights for our LGBTQ siblings?

What about the industrial war machine that drives our national deficit and diverts funds away from our social good?

What about proposals to defund Social Security and Medicare for the elderly?

The list could go on and on because it’s in these specifics that we see what could it look like for Christians today to live as Jesus lived, to remain in him, and to bear the fruit we all remember the original Vine for.

Today, my concern is not that Christians aren’t producing fruit with our lives. It’s not that we are withered branches. We produce copious amounts of fruit. 

I’m concerned about the type of fruit so many White, straight, cisgender Christians are producing. Is this fruit life-giving or is it poisonous? Does our fruit look like the fruit of the original vine, and if not, what vine have we allowed ourselves to be grafted into instead? If the vine we’re connected to is nationalistic, supremacist, patriarchal, or violent, it’s not the vine Jesus calls us to remain in. 

Does your life bear fruit that resembles the fruit at the heart of the Jesus story? Is it life-giving or life-inhibiting for the vulnerable within our society? Is the fruit of your life a blessing or a curse? Does it ensure life and thriving for those society deems least of these or is it death-dealing?

As the Johaninne community taught:

“Whoever claims to remain in him must live as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:6)

It would be better for branches that bear poisonous fruit to wither, die, and be thrown into the fire by Mother God, then to go on harming others. 

But even better than that would be for those branches to choose to be grafted once again back into the original vine and begin to bear fruit that can feed and heal the nations. (Revelation 22:2; Ezekiel 47:12).

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. What social issues or challenges we are presently facing would you like to see more Christian support for, today? What are some ways you can support these changes and encourage fellow Jesus-followers to do so, as well? Discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


 

Imagery of a Good Shepherd

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shepherd with sheep

Herb Montgomery | April 23, 2021


”This story that so many White Christians hold dear puts God on the side of these lost Black lives. And where we stand, whether in solidarity, neutrality, devil’s advocacy, indifference, or even opposition, reveals where we stand in relation to the God of the Jesus story. We are only with this God when we are with them.“


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” (John 10:11-18)

Our passage focuses on the image of Jesus as a shepherd. This was a popular image of Jesus before Western Christianity became fixated on crucifixes. Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Kashima Brock write in the prologue of their groundbreaking book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire about how they saw early Christians use this imagery over and over:

“It took Jesus a thousand years to die. Images of his corpse did not appear in churches until the tenth century. Why not? This question set us off on a five-year pilgrimage that led to this book. Initially, we didn’t believe it could be true. Surely the art historians were wrong. The crucified Christ was too important to Western Christianity. How could it be that images of Jesus’s suffering and death were absent from early churches? We had to see for ourselves and consider what this might mean. In July 2002, we traveled to the Mediterranean in search of the dead body of Jesus. We began in Rome, descending from the blaze of the summer sun into the catacombs where underground tunnels and tombs are carved into soft tufa rock. The earliest surviving Christian art is painted onto the plaster-lined walls of tombs or carved onto marble sarcophagi as memorials to the interred. In the cool, dimly lit caverns, we saw a variety of biblical images. Many of them suggested rescue from danger. For example, Abraham and Isaac stood side by side in prayer with a ram bound next to them. Jonah, the recalcitrant prophet who was swallowed and coughed up by a sea monster, reclined peacefully beneath the shade of a vine. Daniel stood alive and well between two pacified lions. Other images suggested baptism and healing, such as the Samaritan woman drawing water from a well, John the Baptist dousing Jesus, depicted as a child, and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus also appeared as a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders like Orpheus. We could not find a dead Jesus, not even one. It was just as the angel had said to the women looking for Jesus at his tomb, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5). “He is not here” (Mark 16:6). He most certainly was not.” (Italics added.)

Even today when you do a simple image search for Jesus, you’ll get ten or more images of a Jesus on a cross for every single image of a shepherd. Early Jesus followers had a very different focus: not the cross of Jesus but a living Jesus whose resurrection overcame and reversed everything his death accomplished. (See The Good News of Forceful Nonviolent Resurrection)

In this week’s passage from John, the focus isn’t the death of Jesus but Jesus taking life back up after his death. Even the purpose of Jesus’ laying down of life was that he might take it up again. The focus is not death, but taking hold of life—resurrection.

During this post-Easter season, remember that the cross interrupted Jesus’ life-giving ministry and teaching. The powerful, propertied, and privileged intended it to be permanent. The cross was meant to silence his calls for societal change, but the resurrection overturned that silencing. In the story, the resurrection doesn’t conquer death with more death. It answers death with death-reversing life; it answers death-dealing injustice with life-giving justice. I love this statement by Elizabeth Johnston that squarely defines act of Jesus’ crucifixion as a sin. And if it is a sin, then it is contrary to the will of God:

“Along with other forms of political and liberation theology, feminist theology repudiates an interpretation of the death of Jesus as required by God in repayment for sin . . . Jesus’ death was an act of violence brought about by threatened human men, as sin, and therefore against the will of a gracious God . . . What comes clear in the event, however, is not Jesus’ necessary passive victimization divinely decreed as a penalty for sin, but rather a dialectic of disaster and powerful human love through which the gracious God of Jesus enters into solidarity with all those who suffer . . . The victory of love, both human and divine, that spins new life out of this disaster is expressed in belief in the risen Christ.” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is, Kindle Location 4183)

The resurrection overturns the unjust state-sanctioned violence, and places Divine solidarity on the side of Jesus and all others who have unjustly suffered violence at the hands of the state. Today, that Divine solidarity includes Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Pamela Turner, Korryn Gaines, Yvette Smith, Miriam Carey, Shelley Frey, Darnisha Harris, Malissa Williams, Shantel Davis, Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tarika Wilson, Kathryn Johnston, Kendra James, Tyisha Miller, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and many, many more. This story that so many White Christians hold dear puts God on the side of these lost Black lives. And where we stand, whether in solidarity, neutrality, devil’s advocacy, indifference, or even opposition, reveals where we stand in relation to the God of the Jesus story. We are only with this God when we are with them.

The resurrection places the God of the Jesus story squarely on the side of justice and in the midst of the state-murdered community. The symbol of resurrection sends a message of justice overcoming injustice, love conquering hate, life overcoming death, and an unjust tomb not being able to hold justice back.

Today we need a new story of justice overcoming in the end. I don’t believe justice inevitably overcomes injustice on its own. If the moral arc of the universe is to bend toward justice, we must choose to bend it that way.

In the wake of the outcome of the trial of Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s murder, I have to question if we will bend that arc systemically toward justice? As we daily witness Black lives cut down by police, we have a lot of work still to do.

If things are going to change, we are going to have to choose to change them.

Before we close, I will offer one word of caution concerning our reading this week. I see the image of the Shepherd in this passage held in contrast with the myth of redemptive suffering. The myth of the redemptive suffering teaches those who are abused and oppressed to be willing to suffer in order to change the heart or “redeem” their oppressors. As Brown and Parker rightly state, “The problem with this theology is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoer ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, For God So Loved The World? p. 16)

There is a difference between the self-sacrifice of disempowered people and the self-sacrifice of empowered people for those they love. John’s gospel is believed to be the latest written in our cannon. In John, Jesus has evolved in the story telling into an incarnate, cosmic figure, an empowered figure. The phrase, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord,” indicates that John is placing Jesus in a position of empowerment not disempowerment.

In the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the story is different. Jesus belongs to the community of the disempowered. His death is an act of sanctioned, state violence. His life is taken from him and then his death is powerfully overturned in the symbol of the resurrection. It would be irresponsible and dangerous to hold up the self-sacrifice of Jesus in John’s version of the Jesus story as an example to be followed by the community Jesus belongs to Matthew, Mark and Luke. In synoptic gospels, Jesus is a disempowered person. Jesus, unlike Paul, is not even a Roman citizen. As Howard Thurman so eloquently writes,

“Jesus was not a Roman citizen. He was not protected by the normal guarantees of citizenship—that quiet sense of security which comes from knowing that you belong and the general climate of confidence which it inspires. If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar [as did Paul]; he would be just another Jew in the ditch. Standing always beyond the reach of citizen security, he was perpetually exposed to all the ‘arrows of outrageous fortune,’ and there was only a gratuitous refuge—if any—within the state.”(Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 34)

In the synoptics, Jesus is a non-citizen, a marginalized person, who was in the end executed by the state for standing up to injustice. At minimum we need to perceive the difference between the synoptic’s Jesus and John’s Jesus. As a parent, I understand the imagery of John’s gospel. I have sacrificed for my children throughout their lives. I know what that kind of sacrifice feels like. And that kind of sacrifice is a very different from asking survivors, the abused, the oppressed to sacrifice themselves to change the hearts and minds of their abusers or the laws and policies unjust systems.

However you interpret the shepherd’s willingness to lay his life down for his sheep as contrasted with the commitment level of a “hired hand” here in John, what we don’t read in this passage is a sheep being willing to lay down their life to change the heart of an oppressive shepherd. The self-sacrifice of victims and survivors, people whose self is already being sacrificed and whose humanity is already being denied, only causes further damage. Justice in this context would be achieved by taking hold of one’s humanity, not sacrificing it.

And that leads me to my overall point this week.

Justice only wins in the end if we make it win.

We are in need of new stories of justice overcoming in the end in our context today. And I believe we can create those stories with our choices, here and now. When we choose to make justice ultimately win, not just in isolated occurrences but systemically, we are determining whether our ancient, cherished stories of justice overcoming ring true or are merely desperate, wishful fairytales.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. How does focussing through the lens of a good shepherd rather than a substitutionary, crucified Jesus impact your own Jesus following and your engagement with public social injustice? Contrast and discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


Social Repentance and Change

logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without you.


Urban brick wall

Herb Montgomery | April 16, 2021


“American, Western Christianity, like American society overall, has a long history of focusing on individuals ‘ personal, private sins rather than the public, political, systemic sins of the larger society. If followers of Jesus are only focussed on private or personal, individual sins, then public social injustice that benefits the powerful goes unaddressed, untouched, and unchanged.”


This week’s reading is another post-Easter appearance story. This one is found in the gospel of Luke:

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence. He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:36-48)

The gospels’ post resurrection appearance stories follow a familiar pattern that meets the expectations of the communities each version was written for.

Some of the Greeks’ expectations appear in the Works of Plato:

“So that if any one’s body, while living, was large by nature, or food, or both, his corpse when he is dead is also larger; and if corpulent, his corpse is corpulent when he is dead; and so with respect to other things. And if again he took pains to make his hair grow long, his corpse also has long hair. Again, if any one has been well whipped, and while living had scars in his body, the vestiges of blows, either from scourges or other wounds, his dead body also is seen to retain the same marks. And if the limbs of anyone were broken or distorted while he lived, the same defects are distinct when he is dead. in a word, of whatever character any one has made his body to be while living, such will it distinctly be, entirely or for the most part for a certain time after he is dead.” (The Works of Plato: The Apology of Socrates, Crito, Phaedo, Gorgias, Protagoras, Phaedrus, Theaetetus, Euthyphron, and Lysis by George Burges, p. 229)

Plato goes on to say that this permanence in life and after death also applies to a person’s soul.

I don’t think we can make any conclusions about post-mortem realities from the passage in Luke, but these stories were certainly written to meet the expectations of the communities they were written for. They matched their expectations for what the bodies of any person who had died or been killed would be like.

The section of this week’s passage that I believe holds the most promise for our work today is the part that points to the resurrection of Jesus as offering repentance and forgiveness to the society in which Jesus was crucified.

To perceive what connects the resurrection, repentance, and forgiveness we need to understand the social nature of forgiveness.

For the Hebrew prophets, forgiveness was not merely for personal, private or individual sins, but also for the people’s political, public, social sins. Consider the social sins and the national nature of forgiveness in the following passages:

“ . . . the sins of those who dwell there will be forgiven.” (Isaiah 33:24)

“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)

“No longer will they teach their neighbors, 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)

“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)

“Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.” (Daniel 9:19)

“Take words with you and return to the LORD. Say to him: Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.” (Hosea 14:2)

“When they had stripped the land clean, I cried out, “Sovereign LORD, forgive! How can Jacob survive?” (Amos 7:2)

“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” (Micah 7:18)

Again, the forgiveness written of in each of these passages is a social forgiveness for the sins of systemic injustice and oppression of the vulnerable and marginalized within the writer’s society.

The kind of repentance that leads to that kind of forgiveness, then, is a social rethinking of the current social course of injustice and implies a society, not just a few individuals, choosing to embrace a different path filled with a more just set of policies for the polity.

American, Western Christianity, like American society overall, has a long history of focusing on individuals ‘ personal, private sins rather than the public, political, systemic sins of the larger society. If followers of Jesus are only focussed on private or personal, individual sins, then public social injustice that benefits the powerful goes unaddressed, untouched, and unchanged.

Exchanging the public for the personal, or choosing to focus on the private instead of the political, has had a long history, especially among Christians, of being used by the powerful to protect their privilege.

This past Easter I read a powerful poem by the very talented poet, Kaitlin Shetler. The poem’s title is State. The very first line reads:

“my sins did not
nail him to
the cross
that was the state”

In the poem Shetler goes on to contrast confusing the “personal” for the “principalities,” and the “personal” with “state-sanctioned oppression.”

You can read the poem in its entirety, and I recommend doing so, on Kaitlin’s Facebook page for her poetry: https://www.facebook.com/kaitlinhardyshetler/posts/144155307119366

And now we can put all the pieces of this week’s passage together. The passage states,

“The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day so that repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.”

Remember what we’ve been saying for the past few weeks. The cross interrupted Jesus’ life-giving ministry and teaching, and it was intended to be permanent. It was meant to silence Jesus’ calls for change, but the resurrection overturns it. The resurrection undoes and reverses everything accomplished by Jesus’ death. It overturns the state-sanctioned violence that places Divine solidarity on the side of the Roman state instead of on the side of the kind of society envisioned in the teachings of Jesus. The resurrection causes the vision of that kind of society to be born anew and to live on in the lives of Jesus’ followers. The resurrection doesn’t conquer death with more death, even just one more death, but by resurrecting life. It answers death with death-reversing life. It answers death-dealing injustice with life-giving justice. And it places the God of the Jesus story squarely on the side of justice and in the midst of the crucified community, the marginalized, the excluded, the vulnerable.

The resurrection unequivocally proclaims the solidarity of the God of the Jesus story with the marginalized in any given society. And in this way, I believe, that symbol of resurrection, of love conquering hate, of life overcoming death, of justice not being able to be held by an unjust tomb, has the potential to inspire a kind of social repentance, a rethinking of a society’s current path. The hope is that this rethinking will cause a different doing. That we will choose to shape society differently. And it’s that different doing that, within the justice tradition of the Hebrew prophets, is envisioned as ultimately bringing social change and liberation, i.e. forgiveness of social sins and different path set for the future.

This is a story that is meant to give us pause. It’s a story that is meant to create in us a reassessment of the kind of society we find ourselves surviving in. And it’s a story that is intended to awaken in us the choice to shape a different kind of society, where those presently marginalized are centered, where surviving is replaced with thriving, a society that is a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone.

It may take a more political lens of interpreting the Jesus story for us to arrive at this conclusion and vision of our present society as well as our work toward something better. But it’s a choice that I believe in the end will be worth it.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. How does focussing through the lens of the Jesus story on public, political, systemic sins of our larger society, rather than only our personal, private, individual sins impact your own Jesus following and your engagement with public social injustice? Discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Being Sent for the Work of Justice


logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without you.


city land scape

Herb Montgomery | April 9, 2021


“We must be careful not to spiritualize these elements. Is the good news we cherish also good news to the poor? Is the good news we cherish also good news to the incarcerated? Is the good news we cherish also good news to oppressed and marginalized people? Is the ‘Lord’s favor’ we cherish also good news to those longing for their debt to be cancelled? What does concrete good news look like in our social context today?”


This week’s reading is from John’s version of the Jesus story:

“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’ Now Thomas (also known as Didymus ), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’ A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:19-31)

There is a lot in this passage that would be tempting to focus on this week. Thomas’ doubt. Jesus having a physical body that can be touched and that feels hunger, post-Easter, despite John’s gospel being associated with early gnosticism (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.11.1).

But what jumps out at me most this year is this phrase:

“‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’”

This theme of following Jesus’ example repeats with the Johannine community:

“Whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.” (1 John 2:6)

The Jesus of John’s story doesn’t do things instead of us, as our substitute so we don’t have to do them. This Jesus calls his followers to participate in his actions alongside him.

This idea isn’t only in John’s gospel. Consider this passage from Mark:

“But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.’” (Mark 10:38)

As Marcus Borg and John Crossan write in their book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem:

“For Mark, it [the story] is about participation with Jesus and not substitution by Jesus. Mark has those followers recognize enough of that challenge that they change the subject and avoid the issue every time.” (Kindle location 1592)

Over the last few weeks, we have discussed the harmful teaching that suffering is redemptive. I don’t believe that Jesus invites us into his death but does invite us into following the example of his life, even if unjust oppressive systems threaten us with death for doing so. I understand this is a subtle difference in interpretation but it creates a huge difference in how we response to injustice. Suffering some type of pushback for speaking out against injustice may be part of our story, but not because it is intrinsic to following Jesus. I don’t believe we have to die to reach Jesus’ vision for human society. He showed us a path toward distributively just living, and death only enters the picture when those threatened by a distributively just world choose to threaten death or some other penalty if we keep stirring up trouble and disturbing the unjust status quo.

I believe this is a much healthier alternate interpretation to being willing to take up Jesus’ cross and following him. Rather than calling us to be passive in the face of injustice, Jesus calls us to action, even if that action should end up with us being put on a cross. It’s not about choosing to die, but about choosing life, even in the face of death. Jesus didn’t choose the cross. His social opponents choose to answer him with a cross. Jesus chose a life of calling his society to justice, like the Hebrew prophets within his own Jewish tradition, even if they threatened to kill him.

So what does it mean to follow Jesus’ life and, in the words of our passage this week, to be “sent” as Jesus was “sent”?

I resonate deeply with the characterization we find in Luke’s gospel:

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

So this declaration invites some questions of us:

Is the good news we cherish also good news to the poor?

Is the good news we cherish also good news to the incarcerated?

Is the good news we cherish also good news to oppressed and marginalized people?

Is the Lord’s favor we cherish also good news to those longing for their debt to be cancelled?

We must be careful not to spiritualize these elements. People didn’t get put on Roman crosses for talking about spiritual transformation. Romans killed people who made claims about concrete changes to the status quo, a status quo that benefitted some in society at the expense of the many.

What is does concrete good news look like in our social context today, for those who are materially poor, physically incarcerated, socially and economically oppressed, exploited and marginalized, or so deeply indebted that they feel they will never be free?

Firstly, I think of our current criminal justice system and those in various areas of the U.S. having their charges expunged due to the legalization of cannabis. I think of the calls for universal health care, and how so many families have to file for bankruptcy when they become sick, even if they do have health insurance. I think of the calls to forgive student loans that are so inescapable that they even impact seniors in retirement. Our trans and non-binary siblings also come to mind, especially with Thursday, April 1, being International Transgender Visibility Day. I wonder how good news from Christians to this oppressed and marginalized community could be so very different if we would stop to listen to and believe their experiences including harmful experiences from our hands.

Secondly, there’s a phrase in this week’s passage that is deeply harmful to our Jewish siblings. In one translation, the passage states, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews…” I’m thankful that the translators of the NIV altered their translation to say “Jewish leaders,” a change that lends room for distinguishing between classes in the society where this story took place. The gospel writers are clear that Jewish common people loved Jesus (Mark 14:2). But with each successive version of the Jesus story told—first Mark, then Matthew and Luke, and finally John—antisemitic hatred or fear of the Jewish people grows more and more. It’s barely present in Mark, but by the time we get to John, as in our passage this week, it is full-blown.

We can do better today. “Fear of the Jews” has a long and violent history in the Christian tradition. We can choose to tell the Jesus story in better, more life-giving, different ways, today.

And lastly, I want to draw attention in this passage to the scars of injustice remaining on Jesus’ body. This is not a story that promises all the scars of past injustice will one day disappear. They may not. This story points the way for people to make reparations for past mistakes and make better choices today that move us closer to a more distributively just future, God’s just future.

It’s to the work of creating that just future in our present world that we are sent today.

As he was sent back then, so are we now.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. What are some parallels you notice in Luke 4:18-19 with much needed justice work in our society today? Discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Good News of Forceful Nonviolent Resurrection

Herb Montgomery | April 2, 2021


“The good news was not that Jesus died, or even that he died for you. The good news rather was that this Jesus whom they killed, God has brought back to life! . . . These passages are not without their problems. Yet what is unmistakable in each of them is their emphasis, not on salvific purpose in Jesus’ death, but in how God overcame the injustice of his murder through a life-giving, death-conquering, death-reversing, injustice -overturning resurrection.”


Our reading this week if from Mark’s version of the Jesus story,

“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’

“But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:1-8)

Much of Western Christianity is commemorating Holy Week this week, this coming Sunday being Easter Sunday. (Our Eastern Orthodox siblings will be celebrating Easter on May 2.) Christians spend a lot of energy this time each year reflecting on the closing scenes of the Jesus story: Jesus’ last week, his death, burial, and resurrection. Leaders in many communities will interpret these events this weekend.

The early followers of Jesus varied widely in how they interpreted the closing scenes of Jesus’ life. Some viewed his murder as somehow salvific on a cosmic level, while others focused their attention on how his resurrection overcame, reversed, and undid the interruption Jesus’ death posed to his life-giving ministry and caused that life to live on.

These varied voices and explanations are in our sacred scriptures as well. The canon made room for all of them.

The voices that speak most deeply to me are the voices that emphasize God’s overcoming of the unjust death of Jesus through bringing Jesus back to life rather than those that reframe such an unjust act as having a secret Divine purpose.

The book of Acts offers just one biblical example of this focus and emphasis. In Acts, the good news is not that Jesus died, or even that he died for you. The good news rather is that this Jesus whom they killed, God has brought back to life!

Consider the “good news” identified in each of the following passages:

“With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all.” (Acts 4:33, emphasis added)

“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (Acts 2:22-24, emphasis added)

God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.” (Acts 2:32-33, emphasis added)

“When Peter saw this, he said to them: ‘Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.’” (Acts 3:12-16, emphasis added)

“Then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’” (Acts 4:10-11, emphasis added)

The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:30-32, emphasis added)

“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:36-43, emphasis added)

“We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.” (Acts 13.32-33, emphasis added)

These passages are not without their problems. Yet what is unmistakable in each of them is their emphasis, not on salvific purpose in Jesus’ death, but in how God overcame the injustice of his murder through a life-giving, death-conquering, death-reversing, injustice-overturning resurrection.

Womanist theologians have shaped my thinking and faith journey. I owe them so much.

During the Easter season, for instance, I’m often reminded of statements like this one from Delores Williams in her classic work, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk:

“Matthew, Mark and Luke suggest that Jesus did not come to redeem humans by showing them God’s ‘love’ manifested in the death of God’s innocent child on a cross erected by cruel, imperialistic, patriarchal power. Rather, the texts suggest that the spirit of God in Jesus came to show humans life— to show redemption through a perfect ministerial vision of righting relations between body (individual and community), mind (of humans and of tradition) and spirit. A female-male inclusive vision, Jesus’ ministry of righting relationships involved raising the dead (those separated from life and community), casting out demons (for example, ridding the mind of destructive forces prohibiting the flourishing of positive, peaceful life) and proclaiming the word of life that demanded the transformation of tradition so that life could be lived more abundantly . . . God’s gift to humans, through Jesus, was to invite them to participate in this ministerial vision (“whosoever will, let them come”) of righting relations. The response to this invitation by human principalities and powers was the horrible deed the cross represents—the evil of humankind trying to kill the ministerial vision of life in relation that Jesus brought to humanity. The resurrection does not depend upon the cross for life, for the cross only represents historical evil trying to defeat good. The resurrection of Jesus and the flourishing of God’s spirit in the world as the result of resurrection represent the life of the ministerial vision gaining victory over the evil attempt to kill it. Thus, to respond meaningfully to black women’s historic experience of surrogacy oppression, the womanist theologian must show that redemption of humans can have nothing to do with any kind of surrogate or substitute role Jesus was reputed to have played in a bloody act that supposedly gained victory over sin and/ or evil.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 130)

For Williams, it is the resurrection and the kingdom of God theme in the Jesus story that is life-giving. Not Jesus’ death. Jesus came, not to die, but to show us how to live. “The kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, pp. 130-131)

I also want to lift up the voice of Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, who weaves even nonviolence into the meaning of the resurrection story event. She writes:

“The resurrection is God’s definitive victory over crucifying powers of evil. Ironically, the power that attempts to destroy Jesus on the cross is actually itself destroyed by the cross. The cross represents the power that denigrates human bodies, destroys life, and preys on the most vulnerable in society. As the cross is defeated, so too is that power. The impressive factor is how it is defeated. It is defeated by a life-giving rather than a life-negating force. God’s power, unlike human power, is not a ‘master race’ kind of power. That is, it is not a power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is resurrecting power. Therefore, God’s power never expresses itself through the humiliation or denigration of another. It does not triumph over life. It conquers death by resurrecting life. The force of God is a death-negating, life-affirming force . . . God does not fight death with death. God does not utilize the violence exhibited in the cross to defeat deadly violence itself . . . through the resurrection, God responds to the violence of the cross–the violence of the world—in a nonviolent forceful manner. It is important to understand that nonviolence is not the same as passivity or accommodation to violence. Rather it is the forceful response the protects the integrity of life. Violence seeks to do another harm, while nonviolence seeks to rescue others from harm. It seeks to break the very cycle of violence itself. The forces of nonviolence actually reveal the impotence of violent force. That God could defeat the unmitigated violence of the cross reveals the consummate power of the nonviolent, life-giving force that is God.” (Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 178-180)

This weekend, for those of us who choose to commemorate the resurrection event in the Jesus story and all the meaning that story event symbolizes, I hope that our easter rituals will further shape us into death-negating, life-giving people. That we will commit more deeply to life-affirming work in our world. That together we will continue to work toward a world that is a safe, compassionate, and distributively just home for everyone.

Happy upcoming Easter to each of you.

Love can conquer hate.

Equity can conquer fear and greed.

Inclusion can conquer exclusion and marginalization.

Life-affirmation can conquer death-dealing.

Forceful nonviolence can conquer life-negating violence.

The golden rule is this way of life.

Jesus is risen.

He is risen indeed.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. How does focussing on injustice-overturning resurrection in the Jesus story inform, inspire, and empower you in your own participation in justice work today? Share with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week