Privilege and Power

Herb Montgomery | June 28, 2019

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

“Today, certain Christians are still trying to use the power of the state, not to side with the people and protect the vulnerable . . . to push their own agenda regardless of the real harm such actions do to real people. As long as there is a state, it should side with the vulnerable against those who would seek to do harm. Christians must choose to learn from their destructive history. The Jesus story calls us to side with ‘the people,’ not the agendas of the powerful, privileged, and elite.”


“The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people. Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.” (Luke 20:19-20)

This passage juxtaposes the mass of Jewish people who favored Jesus, the elites in that society who were threatened by Jesus’ populist teachings, and Roman power and authority. The reference to the authority of the governor is a political story detail through and through. The story reminds us of how those in positions of power and privilege use the power of the state to protect their own social position, especially when their agenda is contrary to the masses’. 

For those who have been reading this month’s book of the month for RHM, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet by Jason W. Moore and Raj Pate, you’ve read how historically our capitalist society has not been based on equality, win-win, and cooperation, but on competition, inequity, and the kind of “winning” that requires someone somewhere else to lose. The economic and political elite has continually used the power of the state to accomplish their goals. In Luke, this method is chosen because the elite “fears the people.” 

Jesus’ teachings are represented here as being popular among the people. The elite does not have the people’s best interest in mind, but looks for how best to manipulate them and preserve the status quo. Jesus was popular with large sectors of the have-nots in the story: the haves have always used the system’s “authority” to preserve themselves.

In a more just and compassionate structure the state could protect the vulnerable from being exploited by the powerful and privileged. Yet the times when there has been a more regulatory form of state power on the side of the masses have been the exception to the history of state power in capitalist/colonialist society, not the rule.

As long as we have classes and other social locations where some have power and others don’t, the state should protect the vulnerable. I think of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a talk he gave at Western Michigan University in 1963: he spoke against the idea that the power of the state is useless in our work toward a just society:

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

When we consider the “authority of the governor” in our passage this week, it was not on the side of the people, but contrary to the will of the people, within the context of the conflict between Jesus and the political elite of his day. 

I want to stop here and ask you to dream with me for a moment . What is your image of a perfect world? I’m not saying the world will ever be perfect. The exercise of dreaming about what a perfect world would be though is a practice that helps us in our work of moving toward a world that is less unjust, less exploitative, less unsafe.

Does your image of a perfect world include the need for the vulnerable to be protected from the strong? Or does your image of a perfect world make even this obsolete? Is your image of a perfect world one where some take responsibility for caring for those who are vulnerable?

Jesus envisioned a world where even the meek inherit the earth.

“And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24 -27)

Jesus here contrasts systems of dominion and systems of service. Humanity’s hope for the future is not in devising more efficient ways of dominating one another, but in creating more effective ways of caring for one another. 

The tragedy is when those who claim to represent Jesus today use the same method as is in our original story in Luke 20. Privileged and powerful Christian Evangelicals view Trump as their Messiah because he will enforce their political agenda. At the foundation of this delusion is the Christian Right’s long struggle to overturn Roe vs Wade, the law that affirmed legal access to a safe abortion. Just this week, someone commented on a post of mine that if Planned Parenthood was defunded it would protect “thousands” of lives of the vulnerable.

“Vulnerable?” I thought. I assumed they were speaking of the unborn. But what about the vulnerability of women, especially those in a certain social location, who will die as a result of overturning Roe vs. Wade? Those who are informed understand that lowering abortion rates has nothing to do with the legality of abortion. It does have to do with the availability of education and birth control, and child and youth advocacy. Abortions have actually increased when outlawed. In the end, this is yet another example of those in power, mostly men, using state power to control the lives and bodies of women who should have autonomy over their own bodies. Pro-choice is not pro-abortion. There are genuinely effective ways of lowering the rate of abortions in society that do not escalate the fatality rate for women nor seek to remove women’s bodily autonomy. (For more seeHow I Lost Faith in the “Pro-Life” Movement)

Since Trump’s election, we have seen a surge in Evangelical, American Christianity’s desire to influence our state and federal governments to enforce its dogmas under the misapplied label of “religious freedom.”

Here in West Virginia, we are in the midst of a battle over education, where for-profit charter schools are using Christians as pawns. I understand that some nonprofit charter schools have been a tremendous help to some minority Black and Brown communities. That’s not what is happening here. Christians are lifting their voices alongside for-profit corporations against what the majority of “the people” here in WV want. These Christians want to use the power of the state to protect them from the fear that they will have to send their children to public schools where they will sit in a classroom beside nonwhite, migrant, Muslim and LGBTQ kids. 

Christianity has a long history of being on the wrong side of the use of state power. On October 28, 312 C.E., Constantine defeated his rival to become sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Constantine attributed his victory to Jesus Christ. He allegedly received a vision just prior to the battle that promised him victory if his soldiers marched with the sign of Christ on their shields. It was the first time in history that the name of Jesus was aligned with the nationalistic, violent power of the state. This set a precedent and Christianity’s social location changed dramatically to make it the official state religion. Eusebius, Augustine, and other church leaders interpreted Constantine’s vision and the consolidation of power that his victory engendered to be from God. The power of the state has been used for centuries to crush Christianity’s enemies to exploit and/or execute heretics, Jews, Muslims, women accused of “witchcraft,” indigenous populations, those whom we today identify as LGBTQ, and more.

Today, certain Christians are still trying to use the power of the state, not to side with the people and protect the vulnerable, but, sometimes ignorantly, sometimes knowingly, to push their own agenda regardless of the real harm such actions do to real people. 

As long as there is a state, it should side with the vulnerable against those who would seek to do harm. Christians must choose to learn from their destructive history. The Jesus story calls us to side with “the people,” not the agendas of the powerful, privileged, and elite.

A misuse of the power of the state executed Christianity’s Jesus.

And misuse of the power of the state is still harming the most vulnerable groups today.

“. . . but they were afraid of the people. Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.” Luke 20:19-20

HeartGroup Application

Here are a few things to discuss with your group.

  1. List examples you have seen the power of the state used to protect the interests of the have’s against the have nots?
  2. Think of the Jesus story for a moment.  What are some examples in the gospels of where you see Jesus taking the side of the vulnerable, excluded, or marginalized over against the powerful and privileged of his day.
  3. As we work toward a more just world, damage mitigation along that journey is also important. How could the power of the state be transformed and reimagined along this process to protect the have nots from the elite? Be imaginative. 

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

Wherever you are today, choose love, take action, choose compassion, work toward justice, title the only world that remains is a world where love and justice reigns. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

The Faithful or Unfaithful Slave

piece of pie going to man, while rest of the pie goes to one

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Who then is the faithful and wise slave whom the master put over his household to give them food on time? Blessed is that slave whose master, on coming, will find so doing. Amen‚ I tell you, he will appoint him over all his possessions. But if that slave says in his heart: My master is delayed, and begins to beat his fellow slaves‚ and eats and drinks with the drunkards‚ the master of that slave will come on a day he does not expect and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him to pieces and give him an inheritance with the faithless.” (Q 12:42-46)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 24:45-51: “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Luke 12:42-46: The Lord answered, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.

A Word about Slavery and Jesus

Luke sums up Jesus’ gospel in Luke 4:18 with the phrase “to set the oppressed free.” Jesus was a prophet of the poor who called those who exploited them to radical wealth redistribution and to embrace solidarity with them. He called those at the helm of an exploitative economic system to account, speaking truth to power to the degree that the elites ultimately worked to see Jesus executed.

And yet, this week’s saying foregrounds one of the challenges with elevating Jesus and his teachings for our society today: Jesus never spoke one word against slavery. This silence was used by Christians in the U.S. to justify Christianity while they held tight to slavery. Moses Stuart of Andover Seminary in Massachusetts wrote that abolitionists “must give up the New Testament authority, or abandon the fiery course which they are pursuing.” [See Mark Noll’s, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (The Steven and Janice Brose Lectures in the Civil War Era)][1].

Regardless of how one explains Jesus’ references to slavery and servanthood, the reality remains the same: an enslavement culture is at the heart of some of Jesus’ strongest parables about a new social order.

What Can We Glean From This Week’s Saying?

As we covered last week, much is lost when we immediately apply sayings such as these to a future second coming of Jesus rather than to the unexpected nature of the social vision Jesus shared during his life.

Jesus emerged among the exploited, poor class in his society announcing the return of YHWH’s liberating Presence among them (i.e. the kingdom or reign of God). He called for the evidence of this Presence to be expressed in his listeners taking responsibility for each other’s care. This is the centerpiece of this parable in the regrettable context of slavery:

“The master put [the slave] over his household to give” the rest of the household “food.”

The slave’s job was to distribute justice; to make sure everyone had enough, and to make sure no one had too much if someone else would go without.

The Jewish tradition is full of rich veins of calls for distributive justice.

Distributive justice is what the prophets called for.

Distributive justice is what Jesus also called for.

Distributive justice is the choice that lies before us still today.

Distributive justice calls us to become a people-oriented society. John Dominic Crossan writes in The Greatest Prayer:

“[Jesus’ distributive justice] vision derives from the common experience of a well-run home, household, or family farm. If you walked into one, how would you judge the householder? Are the fields well tended? Are the animals properly provisioned? Are the buildings adequately maintained? Are the children and dependents well fed, clothed, and sheltered? Are the sick given special care? Are responsibilities and returns apportioned fairly? Do all have enough? Especially that: Do all have enough? Or, to the contrary, do some have far too little while others have far too much? It is that vision of the well-run household, of the home fairly, equitably, and justly administered, that the biblical tradition applies to God. God is the Householder of the world house, and all those preceding questions must be repeated on a global and cosmic scale. Do all God’s children have enough? If not—and the biblical answer is “not”—how must things change here below so that all God’s people have a fair, equitable, and just proportion of God’s world? The Lord’s Prayer proclaims that necessary change as both revolutionary manifesto and hymn of hope.” (p. 3)

Today, we live in a global society right now where six men have as much wealth as half the world’s population. This past week, American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist Noam Chomsky released a new book on this topic: Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power. This is Chomsky’s first major book on the subject of income inequality and I’m looking forward to reading it.

The statement we considered in our HeartGroups last week from Dr. King applies:

“Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives, and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” (Beyond Vietnam, April 4, 1967)

Jesus called us into relationship with each other in a way that makes a tangible difference in how privilege, power, resources, profits, property, and anything else we need for survival and thriving are distributed justly. Jesus’ worldview was one where God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on all alike (Matthew 5:45). Today, we must learn to recognize, name, and work to reverse systems that preventrain” and “sunshine” from reaching some people while being funneled off to others.

Violent Ending

This week’s saying unequivocally ends quite violently and I find it troubling. I don’t believe in a God who is going to “cut people into pieces” if they don’t do what that God says. I do believe Jesus was reasoning from cause to effect in parable form.

What history now tells us is that the exploited poor of Jesus’ day did violently revolt against the elites in Jerusalem, and they went on to take up arms and revolt against Rome itself as well.

The Roman backlash was merciless. Jerusalem in its entirety was destroyed: the entire “household” was laid waste. If Jesus saw this coming, I can understand his trying to warn them.

But here is the catch. The catch wasn’t that the poor were finally able to take back what had been taken from them. No, poor and the rich alike were annihilated by Rome in 70 C.E., so threats of violence didn’t motivate those who dominated them to change.

What motivates me today to live into the teachings of Jesus is seeing my interconnectedness with others and heeding the call to engage in relationship with others. Compassion is a far greater motivator, for me, than fear of future loss or hope of gain.

And this may be the point of this week’s saying: We are all in this together. The choices we make affect us all. And although they affect us differently, we all have to share this planet we call home. As a dear friend of mine said to me recently, “We all get clean air or we all get dirty air.” We all inescapably share space with each other. We have the choice to share this space in a way that makes sure everyone is taken care of.

Who then is the faithful and wise slave whom the master put over his household to give them food on time? Blessed is that slave whose master, on coming, will find so doing. Amen‚ I tell you, he will appoint him over all his possessions. But if that slave says in his heart: My master is delayed, and begins to beat his fellow slaves‚ and eats and drinks with the drunkards‚ the master of that slave will come on a day he does not expect and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him to pieces and give him an inheritance with the faithless.” (Q 12:42-46)

 

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, as a group, consider the following statement made by Dr. King at Western Michigan University:

“Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion.

Well, there’s half-truth involved here.

Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart.

But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.

It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless.

It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.

So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.” (December 18, 1963)

Discuss:

1. What do you perceive as the interim goals and long term goals in King’s statement?

2. What do the methods of working toward the interim goals involve?

3. What does engaging the work toward the long term goals look like?

4. Pick an interim and long term method and practice it this week.

Thank you, each of you, for checking in with us this week.

Also, I want to take a moment to thank all of you who support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. It’s people like you who enable us to exist and to be a positive resource in our world in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

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Together, we are making a difference, and making our world a safer, just, more compassionate home for us all.

Keep living in love.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


[1] Noll’s volume is especially helpful in understanding what happens today when people calling for social change for minorities are accused of being “against the clear teachings of scripture.”

“On the other front, nuanced biblical attacks on American slavery faced rough going precisely because they were nuanced. This position could not simply be read out of any one biblical text; it could not be lifted directly from the page. Rather, it needed patient reflection on the entirety of the Scriptures; it required expert knowledge of the historical circumstances of ancient Near Eastern and Roman slave systems as well as of the actually existing conditions in the slave states; and it demanded that sophisticated interpretative practice replace a commonsensically literal approach to the sacred text.”

Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Kindle Locations 647-649).