Great Joy for All People (Part 1)

by Herb Montgomery | December 13, 2019

picture of gold glitter on blue background


“Seen in their original context, Luke’s birth narratives for Jesus subvert the Roman economic, political, social, and theological systems of their day. Do these stories offer anything to our justice work today and if they do, what?”


 

“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.” (Luke 2:10)

Advent season has begun!

Seen in their original context, Luke’s birth narratives for Jesus subvert the Roman economic, political, social, and theological systems of their day. Do these stories offer anything to our justice work today and if they do, what?

To answer these questions, we have to go back and try to read the story from the social locations of its intended audience. These narratives are primarily concerned with this world and this life, not with heaven. Too often, the birth narratives of Jesus are read through the lens of salvation defined as an entrance into post-mortem heaven. But that is not how the original Jewish Jesus community would have heard these stories.

That community was concerned with the whole of life, not merely with an afterlife. A “spiritual” or afterlife application of these narratives became the dominant interpretation through the expanding Roman Empire’s culture and European colonialism. Reading the gospel narratives with an otherworldly focus has had intensely destructive fruit since then. Before imperial Christianity, people understood these narratives as being about the transformation of this world. They were not solely theological; they were political, economic, and social, as well as theological! And they pointed toward the hope of the end of violence, injustice, and oppression: good news, of great joy, for all people.

First, acknowledging the political context in which Jesus-narratives were written is important. Borg and Crossan, speaking of their own books’ focus on the political context of the Jesus stories, remind us:

“What would you think of a book that started with the opener, ‘I am going to discuss Mahatma Gandhi as a Hindu saint, but I’ll skip all that distracting stuff about British imperial India’? Or another with, ‘I am going to describe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a Christian saint, but I’ll get right to his biography and skip all that stuff about racism in America as background baggage’? You would know immediately that something is seriously wrong with those authors’ presentations.”— Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, p. 55

The political context of the Jesus stories could forever change how we read the birth narratives of Jesus. In Luke, these narratives were originally intended to subvert the systemic injustice in the Roman Empire. They speak to our time too. Systemic racism continues to thrive, xenophobia toward refugees and Muslim Americans flourishes, and U.S. militaristic methods of achieving peace are continually touted by those who carry the name of this babe from Bethlehem.

If we are to rediscover the original subversive power of these stories and rightly apply them to our justice work today, we must begin by reading them in the matrix of Imperial Rome alongside the hopes of many in first-century Judaism. The titles given to that babe in a manger were, in the Roman world, titles given to the emperor, Caesar. The Gospel of Rome promised peace through victory achieved by violence. The conquered interpret this kind of peace in a vastly different way than their conquerors do. The Gospel of the Early Jesus Community envisioned a peace through a restored distributive justice for all, through a distinctly nonviolent transformation.

Luke’s birth narrative is quite different from Matthew’s. One difference is that Luke’s narrative centers the voices of women more than Matthew’s does. Luke and Matthew’s birth narratives also differ in geography: Luke progresses from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Nazareth with no time spent in Egypt. Matthew starts in Bethlehem then moves to Egypt, and then from there moves onto Nazareth. Finally, unlike Matthew’s narrative, which was for Jewish, Jesus-followers in Galilee, Luke’s narrative is for a broader Gentile Jesus-following audience. This may help to explain why Matthew treats the Herodians in Galilee as the tools of Rome while Luke takes a much more direct aim at Caesar himself.

These stories are not about a debate between Christianity and Judaism. We do see an early hybrid Christian-and-Jewish move against Roman imperialism. Early Jewish Jesus-followers lived within Judaism and while they were in dialogue and even compete with the other Jewish voices, they were still Jewish.

This is the backdrop I want us to see behind Luke’s birth narrative. In Luke, we’re not seeing Jesus versus Judaism, but rather Jesus versus Rome. We can find signs of a growing anti-Semitism in early Christianity in Luke’s gospel, not as much in Luke as we find in John. Yet Luke contains more than Matthew, and definitely, more than we find in Mark.

We can explore Luke’s agenda when we read Luke’s birth-narratives of Jesus through these filters:

  1. First-century Christianity,
  2. Christianity within first-century Judaism; and
  3. Judaism within the systemic injustice and oppression of Roman imperialism.

We’ll start with Roman imperialism, and work our way backward.

Roman Imperialism

When we speak of Roman imperialism, we’re referring to the integration of military, economic, political, and theological/philosophical layers in Rome. This four-pronged imperialism was a method of economic distribution; a type of human, social organization; a social order and its exercise of (or lack of) distributive justice; and specifically, Rome’s vision for peace within its empire.

During the time of Luke’s birth narrative, it was Augustus Caesar who received the titles Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Rome had experienced several civil wars as a democratic republic and had regressed to the point of disintegration when Octavian, later called Augustus, became Rome’s savior. Through Augustus, Rome transitioned from an imperial republic to an imperial monarchy, and Augustus was regarded as a god. In addition to his other titles, he was dubbed Augustus in Latin (one who is divine) and Sebastos in Greek (one who is to be worshipped). Temples were inscribed to him with the dedication, “The Autocrat Caesar, the Son of God, the God to be worshipped.”

And as with all domination systems, the four imperial aspects of Rome produced a society where an elite at the top benefited from the subjugation of the many beneath them. Luke addresses all four imperial aspects in his gospel.

In response to Rome’s military power, Luke presents Jesus teaching nonviolence. In response to Rome’s economic power, Luke presents Jesus teaching wealth redistribution. In response to Rome’s political power, Luke presents Jesus, not Caesar, as Liberator, Redeemer, the bringer of Peace, Lord, and Savior of the world. And in response to Rome’s theology of a ruler who was supposedly born to divine-human parents and so was named the Son of God, God from God to be worshiped, Luke presents Jesus and his subversive “kingdom.”

Scholar Adolf Gustav Deissmann once wrote of “the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, ‘lord’” (Light from the Ancient East, p. 349). Rome’s theology was larger than Caesar and included the worship of deities like Mars the god of war, but Caesar was worshipped as the incarnate representation of the Divine.

Knowing Augustus’ birth-narratives reinforces this. The story was that on the night of Augustus’ conception, his father dreamed that the sun rose from his wife Atias’ womb: Caesar Augustus was the coming of light to the world. Augustus was believed to be the “Son of God” fathered by Apollo, and Apollo in turn was the “Son of God” fathered by Zeus, the supreme god of the Roman and Greek pantheon.

This description of Augustus Caesar’s conception is from the 2nd Century CE and cites an Egyptian story about Augustus that dates to 31-29 BCE:

“When Atia [Augustus’ mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden, a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified her self, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, p. 94.4, emphasis added)

Propertius’ Elegies quotes the god Apollo as saying:

“O savior of the world… Augustus… now conquer at sea: the land is already yours: my bow battles for you’” (4.6.37– 39).

An ancient inscription in modern Turkey refers to Augustus as “divine Augustus Caesar, son of a god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and savior of the whole world.” So Caesar Augustus, conceived of Apollo, was, in Roman theology, the Savior of the World, and Luke’s gospel responds to that context.

This is why the Christmas stories for Luke’s gospel are significant: Luke’s birth narratives allow the author to draw a deep contrast between Rome’s vision for society (the Pax Romana) and Jesus’ vision for a society of distributive justice, especially for the presently marginalized. This contrast provides rich insights for us today who are also working toward a world characterized by distributive justice for all.

We’ll see this more deeply as we discuss Judaism within the systemic injustice and oppression of Roman imperialism next week. I wanted to start this series by showing how deeply Luke’s birth narratives about Jesus are political contrasts between Jesus and his vision for society and Caesar and Rome’s vision for society.

Those who allow the Jesus story to speak into their lives today as we all work together to shape our world into a safe, compassionate, distributively just home for everyone will have lots to consider.

HeartGroup Application

  1. What are some of the political implications that you see in Luke’s birth narratives in the context of the above contrasts of Luke’s gospel between Jesus (and his vision for society) and imperial Rome? Discuss with your group. (One example of where to start is Mary’s declarations beginning in Luke 1:46)
  2. Discuss with your group what applications can be drawn from these narratives in our work of making society more just, today.
  3. Pick something from your discussion that you can implement or practice as a group in the coming year.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, taking action, and reparative and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Remember, all donations to Renewed Heart Ministries, this month, are being matched dollar for dollar. Through this generous offer, you can your support go twice as far here at the end of the year. Also, we are offering a special thank you gift to all our sustaining partners. To find out more and how you too can become a sustaining partner go to renewedheartministries.com and click the Shared Table Fundraiser image.

I love each of you dearly.

Happy holidays to you all.

I’ll see you next week.

A Christmas Story for the Marginalized

Herb Montgomery | December 6, 2019

Ethiopian Orthodox Church Nativity Scene painted in traditional style

Ethiopian Orthodox Church Nativity Scene painted in traditional style


“The question for those presently at the center is not whether they will include the presently marginalized at their table, but whether they will participate in the socially transformative work that is already taking place on the margins of their society.”


“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.'” (Luke 2:8–10)

We have entered the holiday season and I want to begin by wishing each of you a very happy one. In the Christian calendar, this is the season of Advent. In Luke’s version of the narratives about Jesus’ birth, the author chooses to center an unlikely community to receive the first announcement of “good news to all people.” This was the community of “shepherds living in the fields nearby.”

In Luke’s society, socially, politically and economically, shepherding filled one of the lowest occupational roles and shepherds bore the brunt of their lower social location. Shepherds were considered untrustworthy, and their work—according to some then-popular interpretations of Torah—made them continually unclean.

The most obvious implication is that the “good news” of the Jesus story first came to a community on the edges of Jesus’ society. His story was going to be first for those on society’s edges, not those in positions of privilege and power.

This narrative contradicts the one that modern, Westernized Christianity has so long used to equate Christianity with social respectability. Today, with few exceptions, the church has often missed out on building relationships and community with people pushed to the fringes of our larger society. I’m being generous when I say it this way: to simply say that Christian communities have “missed out” ignores the reality that the marginalized have been more than simply “missed.” The church has in many cases driven these folks to society’s fringes so that they’re marginalized by the very ones who carry the name of Jesus.

It matters how we understand each version of the stories of Jesus’ birth and what social, economic, political and even religious implications these stories would’ve had for their original listeners and contexts. When we read contextually today, we begin to see a rich field of insights for our work of social justice. Historically, Christians have spent countless hours on apologetics defending certain details in Jesus’ birth narratives but ignored the more socially relevant implications of these stories. One example of a detail we’ve historically focused on is Matthew’s gospel’s virgin birth. This story element would have meant something to those living in Galilee continually bumping up against the Roman myths about the birth of Caesar Augustus. It says little to us today in our scientific age. Yet other elements of Jesus’ birth narratives in both Matthew and Luke still can offer much to us who are working for a world of love and justice today.

How we as Christians hear the Christmas story, read the Christmas story, and interpret the Christmas story matters! Reclaimed interpretations of the Christmas story emphasize details that we can’t afford to miss. Jesus being born into immense poverty, being announced to the socially outcast, bypassing the politically, economically, socially and religiously of the day, and his parents becoming violence-fleeing refugees for the wellbeing of their child—there is an entire foundation here on which to build a framework for Christians who are working toward social justice today.

The story whispers to us of the need for communities to prioritize the poor, the insignificant, forgotten, and the marginalized. These are the people who gathered at this lowly manger and dared to believe that the babe who lay there, this good news, really belonged to them.

The message to the shepherds was, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.” (Luke 2:8–10)

The babe in a manger would not affirm the dominant structure of society of inequity, oppression, exploitation (See Luke 4:18-19). Instead, he would grow up to gather the outcast, the socially marginalized, those labeled and treated as less than by the privileged and powerful. He called for a society that did this, too, and it began with his early followers. Early communities of Jesus-followers were almost wholly comprised of people from society’s edges.

At the heart of Luke’s retelling of the Jesus story (and I believe it was the reason he—unlike Mark and John—included the details of Jesus’ birth) is a desire to contrast Jesus’ vision for human community of no more oppression, exploitation or marginalization with the much larger Roman society they lived in.

We’ll cover these contrasts in Luke in the upcoming weeks leading up to Christmas. I believe they hold wonderful encouragement for those working within or alongside marginalized communities today, especially for Christians who allow Jesus’ teachings to speak into their lives.

And lastly, during this holiday season, in the midst of all that is taking place in the news presently, we must not forget what these stories say to those who are marginalized in our society. We’ll talk about all of this, too. For now, it is enough to meditate on the fact that in the gospels’ birth-narratives about Jesus, it is the marginalized who are centered. It is foreigners, shepherds, the poor, the marginalized, so-called “nobodies,” and even the animals of a stable that gather around the manger to symbolize, I believe, the human community this newborn babe will grow up to speak about. The good news is for them.

People are of infinite value in this story. In these stories, people and communities marginalized by their present society are, especially of immeasurable worth. When I was born, my parents printed and sent out baby announcements to all their family and friends. I don’t know if many parents still do this, but I still have my birth announcement. To think of Jesus’ birth stories in this light, it is the marginalized who are the ones to whom the birth announcements of Jesus’ birth are first sent.

In the hustle and bustle of this season’s celebrations, traditions, and revelry, Christians who still subscribe to various forms of exclusion (xenophobia, racism, homo-, bi-, and transphobias, sexism, etc.) must allow the universal truths this story tells to confront them. If you are a Christian setting out nativity scenes in your home, stop for a moment and look at each of the figurines you’re placing. Who do these figures represent today? How are they represented in your life? Are you one of them? If not, are you living in solidarity with those represented in this scene?

Your nativity scene hints to us that this babe lying in a manger, born into poverty, and surrounded by those on edges of his society, will grow up to cast before the imagination of his listeners a vision for human society and those society considers less-than. His is a story for the powerless, the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized, the unclean, the judged, and the labeled, and excluded, the insignificant, and forgotten. These are the very ones that can gather around this lowly manger and dare to believe that the babe who lies there really is for them.

This last year, one of the RHM recommended reading books was Miguel A. De La Torre’s Reading the Bible from the Margins. Speaking of our nativity scene reminds me of this passage:

“Jesus’s audience was primarily the outcasts of society. This is why it is important to understand the message of Jesus from the perspective of the disenfranchised. The marginalized of Jesus’ time occupied the privileged position of being the first to hear and respond to the gospel. By making the disenfranchised recipients of the Good News, Jesus added a political edge to his message.” (Kindle Location 629)

Jesus’ birth narratives are not calling for societally privileged Christians today to begin including those presently marginalized. On the contrary, the Christmas stories call these specific Christians to recognize that God is already working in the margins of their society. The question for those presently at the center is not whether they will include the presently marginalized at their table, but whether they will participate in the socially transformative work that is already taking place on the margins of their society.

The stories of Jesus are not stories of inclusion where those presently centered maintain their positions of privilege. These are stories about a fundamental change in the way we shape our human communities. And it begins with recognizing the universal truths of the manger scene. Change always happens from the grassroots up, from the margins inward. The question for those at the center is whether they will obstruct those working for a safer, just society, or work in harmony with them.

This is what these stories are saying to me this year. What are they saying to you?

HeartGroup Application

  1. Where do you see transformative work being already engaged within communities that are societally marginalized today?
  2. Pick one of these communities. Reach out to the community you have chosen and find out the needs of those in this community who are doing transformative work.
  3. Discuss with your HeartGroup how your group can help to alleviate the needs you discovered. Picks something from your discussion and put it into practice. Note your experiences. Then share with your group what you’re learning.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative, and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

And don’t forget, all donations to Renewed Heart Ministries this month are being matched dollar for dollar. Through this generous offer, you can your support go twice as far here at the end of the year. Also, we’d like you to invite you to become one of our monthly supporters through our Shared Table fundraiser going on right now. You’ll receive a special gift from us for doing so. To find out more go to renewedheartministries.com and click on the “Share Table Fundraiser” image.

I love each of you dearly.

Happy holidays to you all.

I’ll see you next week.

Jesus’ Enoughism

by Herb Montgomery | November 22, 2019

green corn field under sunrise
Photo by AK¥N Cakiner on Unsplash

“Some will say, ‘This sounds like socialism!’ I’m reminded of the words of historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan, ‘Do not, by the way, let anyone tell you that is Liberalism, Socialism, or Communism. It is, if you need an -ism, . . . Enoughism . . . Enoughism would be a more accurate description.’”


This passage in Luke has been on my mind this week:

“‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’” (Luke 18:29, 30)

Many Christians today read these words and hear Jesus saying that if we give up something for Christianity, we will somehow have more materially in this life than we could possibly imagine. This has led some to embrace what others have labeled a “prosperity gospel”: if someone follows Jesus and becomes a Christians they will have the best life now. I believe these interpretations are mistaken.

First, this passage is not about embracing Jesus in name. Nor is it about things, including religions, that have Jesus’ name attached to them. In Luke, Jesus’s gospel is about embracing “the kingdom,” Jesus’s vision for human society. This was a human community founded on the golden rule and love of others as connected and part of oneself. It also involved material, distributive justice, wealth redistribution, and mutual aid or resource-sharing. This society’s members committed to care for one another, to make sure everyone had what they needed to thrive.

This passage is not a magic formula: sending a TV preacher money does not mean that you will be materially successful. Jesus’s assurance is that if following Jesus’ vision for human community causes one to lose privilege, power, security, and family affirmation, then the intrinsic return of belonging to a society rooted in love and caring cooperation rather than survivalist competition is distributive justice. No one has too much while others don’t have enough, and we all gain a better human society or community.

It may be helpful to look at Mark’s record of these words:

“Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.’” (Mark 10:29,30, emphasis added.)

Did you catch it?

“Along with persecutions!”

This isn’t a promise that the road to the equitable society Jesus imagined will be smooth, but that the end quality of community we’re creating is worth the struggle and difficulty to get there. Whenever we begin to critique the status quo, those who benefit from wealth, power and privilege inequalities will fight back. Those who mistakenly feel they have the most to lose will be the most threatened. At the end of the beatitudes in Matthew where Jesus calls us to envision what human society could look like, he encourages those who reach out to begin shaping these communities with the words:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-11)

Consider how the book of Acts describes the early Jesus community beginning to take shape:

“All the believers were together and HAD EVERYTHING IN COMMON. They sold property and possessions TO GIVE TO ANYONE WHO HAD NEED. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They BROKE BREAD IN THEIR HOMES AND ATE TOGETHER with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:44-47)

Jesus’s followers formed tightly knit communities where people took care of each other. If someone suffered great material or relational losses for following Jesus, they became part of a community that cared for them in this life.

This is hard for many today to visualize because our culture is so individualistic. First-Century followers of Jesus held all things in common. If someone suffered loss for following Jesus, within their own Jesus community they would be cared for.

It is vital that we break out of our individualism to see this.

Consider these words from Matthew:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19-20)

If we remain individualistic in our thinking and living, taking care of ourselves is a matter of survival. What if we were to actually begin to create communities where we committed to taking care of each other? Our current means of surviving would become obsolete.

Some will say, “This sounds like socialism!”

I’m reminded of the words of historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan:

“Do not, by the way, let anyone tell you that is Liberalism, Socialism, or Communism. It is—if you need an -ism—Godism, Householdism or, best of all, Enoughism. We sometimes name that biblical vision of God’s World-Household as Egalitarianism but, actually, Enoughism would be a more accurate description.” (The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, p. 3)

It would also be wise to remember Paul’s words to the Corinthian church:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be EQUALITY. At the present time, your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. THE GOAL IS EQUALITY, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15, emphasis added.)

Helping someone pushed to the edges of society today means creating the type of world I’d prefer to live in for tomorrow. I agree with Gareth Higgins and Brian McLaren who recently wrote, “Most of us would rather not live in a kill-or-be-killed world, an enslave-or-be-enslaved world, a dominate-or-be-dominated world, an impoverish-or-be-impoverished world. If we had the chance to build a live-and-let-live world, a world of generosity and justice and neighborliness where we do to others as we’d have them do to us . . . we would gladly choose that option . . . A less violent future is available. It’s within reach.” (The Seventh Story: Us, Them, & the End of Violence, p. 61)

Stop for a moment and dream with me. What would a society shaped by “enoughism” look like? Would a few have more than they could ever need while a majority of others barely scratch out enough to exist? What would a world where everyone has enough to thrive be like? What would most of our collective resources or taxes be spent on? How would we choose to use our personal resources? How would power and responsibility be distributed, and how would we structure our communities?

Where we can begin today is creating communities where we abandon staunch, individualistic survival and begin viewing each other, with our differences, as connected, as part of one another. We aren’t simply passing through. Another world is possible, here and now, if we choose it.

I’ll end with these words from James Robinson in his classic volume The Gospel of Jesus: A Historical Search for the Original Good News:

“[Jesus’] basic issue, still basic today, is that most people have solved the human dilemma for themselves at the expense of everyone else, putting them down so as to stay afloat themselves. This vicious, antisocial way of coping with the necessities of life only escalates the dilemma for the rest of society. All of us know the result all too well, for we have experienced it ourselves in one form or another: the breakdown of mutually supportive human relations that results in the distinction between the haves and have-nots; the ruling class subjugating serfs, sharecroppers, and blue-collar workers; the battle of the sexes; dictatorships of one kind or the other; exploitation in the workplace; and on and on.” (Kindle Locations 138-142)

The world we live in presently doesn’t have to look the way it does.

We can do better.

We may not be able to change the entire world overnight, but we can, right now, today, and in our lives, begin with displaying the beauty of what a world shaped by Jesus’ teachings could look like.

And in the end, isn’t the world of “enough” the kind of world we really want?

HeartGroup Application

  1. Discuss with your group the difference between equality and equity. If this is a new discussion for you, a quick Google search will give you plenty of places to start. Why is it that in our striving for equitable equality some folks must be treated with a preferential option or differently than others?
  2. How does this difference impact your personal life in how you relate to others who may also be less privileged or marginalized?
  3. Does this difference also impact the way your HeartGroup is structured and operates? How does this impact how your HeartGroup relates to your larger community and society?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative, and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

And don’t forget, all donations for the months of November and December are being matched dollar for dollar. Through this generous offer, you can make your support go twice as far during these final two months of 2019. Also, we’d like you to consider becoming one of our monthly supporters through our Shared Table fundraiser going on right now. You can find out more about this special offer to our supporters by going to renewedheartministries.com.

I love each of you dearly.

Have a wonderful weekend.

I’ll see you next week.

A Gospel About Jesus Versus the Gospel Jesus Taught

Herb Montgomery | November 15, 2019

Jesus Christ wall decor

Photo by Paul Zoetemeijer on Unsplash


“One thread in Jewish tradition enlarged this hope and applied it not only to the Jewish people, but also to the rest of humanity with a much more universal end to all oppression, violence, and injustice. It was to this Jewish hope for justice and liberation that the authors of the gospels sought to connect the Jesus story.


“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14–15, TNIV).

There is a stark difference between a gospel about Jesus and the gospel that Jesus himself taught in the gospel stories. Let’s take a look this week at what these stories record Jesus taught.

Mark’s gospel begins its version of the Jesus story with the gospel Jesus preached (Mark 1:14-15). Let’s break this passage down by looking at four elements found here:

1) The Time has come!
2) The Kingdom has come!
3) Repent!
4) Believe the euangelion!

The Time Has Come

The hope of the Hebrew people during the time of Jesus was that one day YHWH would intervene in Jewish history, and all oppression, injustice, and violence toward the Jewish people would be put right. One thread in Jewish tradition enlarged this hope and applied it not only to the Jewish people, but also to the rest of humanity with a much more universal end to all oppression, violence, and injustice.

It was to this Jewish hope for justice and liberation that the authors of the gospels sought to connect the Jesus story when they used phrases such as “the time has come.”

The Kingdom Has Come

Some Christian feminists, rightly naming the patriarchal nature of the term kingdom, have preferred the term kin-dom for our interrelated connectedness. As part of the human family, we are all connected to each other. We are all part of one another. We are all “kin” or “kindred.”

According to Pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler, the term kin-dom originated from a Franciscan nun named Georgene Wilson. [1]

I agree with Christian feminist Reta Haltemen Finger who states, “I think kin-dom is a good word and better reflects the kind of society Jesus envisions—as a shared community of equals who serve each other. But in the political context of that day, and in the literary context of the sentence, the term ‘kingdom’ was easily understood—as well as in the 1600s when the King James Bible was translated.” [2]

The gospels describe the kingdom of God as an alternative way to structure human community as compared with the kingdom of Rome, the Roman empire.

Our problem is that “kingdom” is patriarchal and too easily co-opted by geopolitical kingdoms, empires, and oligarchies, as European Christian history proves. A kingdom has both a hierarchy and those that will inevitably be pushed to the edges or margins of that society.

But Jesus’ vision was of a human community choosing a life-giving way of structuring itself and choosing to live out the values that shape the world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone. Wherever we see these values happening, love is reigning. Whatever we name it, it’s a human community rooted in love, compassion, safety, equity, and justice. Jesus’ gospel was not instruction on how to arrive at bliss after one died, but rather how to establish justice on the earth in the here and now, today! (See Isaiah 42:4.)

Repentance

Repentance is a religiously charged word with a history of deep emotional abuse. But it has very little to with guilt trips. In the context of what Jesus taught in the gospels, repentance has much more to do with rethinking how one views and practices politics, economics, society, and community. It’s a call to rethink how society is shaped and begin working toward shaping a world that is a distributively just, safe and compassionate home for everyone. In global and local societies of oppression, marginalization, exclusion, and exploitation, Jesus’ gospel invites us to rethink how human communities are shaped today and to imagine a world where everyone has enough to thrive rather than some have more than they could possibly need while most either scrape by or simply don’t have enough to live.

Believe the Good News

The term “gospel” itself didn’t originate in Judaism but in the Roman empire. Whenever Rome conquered a new territory, it would send out Roman “evangelists” to proclaim that the newly conquered inhabitants were now going to be living under the imperial umbrella of the Roman empire and to explain what in their society would change.

Here are three examples of how Rome used the term “gospel,” “glad tidings,” or “good news.”

“Even after the battle at Mantinea, which Thucydides has described, the one who first announced the victory had no other reward for his gospel [glad tidings] than a piece of meat sent by the magistrates from the public mess.” (Plutarch; Agesilaus, p. 33, 1st Century)

“Accordingly, when [Aristodemus] had come near, he stretched out his hand and cried with a loud voice: ‘Hail, King Antigonus, we have conquered Ptolemy in a sea-fight, and now hold Cyprus, with 12,800 soldiers as prisoners of war.’ To this, Antigonus replied: ‘Hail to thee also, by Heaven! but for torturing us in this way, thou shalt undergo punishment; the reward for thy gospel [glad tidings] thou shalt be some time in getting.’” (Plutarch; Demetrius, p. 17, 1st Century)

“Why, as we are told, the Spartans merely sent meat from the public commons to the man who brought gospel [glad tidings] of the victory in Mantineia which Thucydides describes! And indeed the compilers of histories are, as it were, reporters of great exploits who are gifted with the faculty of felicitous speech, and achieve success in their writing through the beauty and force of their narration; and to them those who first encountered and recorded the events [euangelion] are indebted for a pleasing retelling of them” (Plutarch; Moralia (Glory of Athens), p. 347, 1st Century).

The gospel authors lifted this language straight out of Roman lexicons and applied it to the social changes Jesus’ teachings could make if we chose to embrace them. The society they described would be a human society based on the golden rule above all else. It embraced the interconnectedness of us all and our responsibility to take care of one another.

The authors of the Jesus stories coupled this Roman word “gospel” with the very Jewish hope of a restored “kingdom”:

“I must preach the good news of the KINGDOM OF GOD to the other towns also because that is why I was sent.” (Luke 4:43, emphasis mine)

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of THE KINGDOM and healing every disease and sickness.” (Matthew 9:35, emphasis mine)

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of THE KINGDOM.” (Matthew 4:23, emphasis mine)

Many see the New Testament book of Acts as an apologetic book for introducing the work of Paul as an accepted apostle into the Christian stream of communities in the first and second centuries. And in Acts, even Paul must also be presented as teaching a gospel of “the kingdom” too:

“For two whole years, Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed THE KINGDOM OF GOD and taught about THE LORD JESUS CHRIST—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28.30–31, emphasis mine)

A gospel about Jesus has historically been about how Jesus offers us a way out of this world to a better one. Jesus instead taught us how to make the world we are living in a home that is better for everyone. A gospel about Jesus too often is about alleviating personal guilt. Jesus’ gospel instead was about rethinking how we are structuring the human communities and societies we belong to. A gospel about Jesus tends to be about post-mortem heaven in contrast to a post-mortem hell. Jesus’ gospel instead announced the arrival of a different way to shape our human communities, in this world, our world, here and now, today.

To many people today, the idea of a human society where wealth is justly and equitably distributed, where people are not marginalized, excluded or treated less-than on the bases of race, color, gender, national origin, age, religion, creed, disability, veteran’s status, sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression is a pie-in-the-sky dream. Our present structure seems just as eternal and unchangeable as feudalism did in the 1600s.

Maybe this is why, in a world where it seems like nothing will ever change, the gospel stories tell of a Jesus who says:

It’s time.

A new way of being human is ours for the choosing.

Rethink how society is shaped.

And I believe, despite appearances, the good news is that another world is possible, here, now in our lifetime, if we choose it.

HeartGroup Application

Discuss with your group the differences you see between the gospel being taught by some sectors of Christianity today and the gospel Jesus teaches in the gospel stories.
Discuss with your group what significant differences this makes for you in the choice you make in your daily life.
Discuss how your group can also have a more present engagement in life and society right now. How can your HeartGroup work in your local community to make our world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative, and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Don’t forget, to take advantage of RHM’s Shared Table fundraiser going on during the months of November and December. Remember, all donations to support our work during these final two months of 2019 are being matched dollar-for-dollar enabling you to make your support go twice as far!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


[1] Read more from Melissa in her article “The Kin-Dom of Christ.” Florer-Bixler, M. (2018, November 20). “The Kin-Dom of Christ.” Sojourners. Retrieved from https://sojo.net/articles/kin-dom-christ

[2] 2018, December 26). “From Kingdom to Kin-Dom-and Beyond.” Christian Feminism Today. Retrieved from https://eewc.com/kingdom-kindom-beyond/

Biblical Inclusion Versus Biblical Exclusion

by Herb Montgomery | November 8, 2019

white printed paper

Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash


“What is our relation, as followers of Jesus, to the marginalized of our day? To what degree are we marginalized in our own lives? Are we standing in solidarity with others who are marginalized or are we participating in their continued marginalization?”


Very early in Luke’s gospel, we read:

“He [Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’” (Luke 4:16-19)

Of all the passages in the Hebrew scriptures that the author of Luke could have chosen to summarize his portrayal of Jesus, it’s telling that this gospel points to Isaiah 61. For Luke, Jesus proclaims good news, announcing liberation, reparations, and recovery. He promotes distributive, transformative and reparative justice, especially for the marginalized.

The story continues:

“Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they asked.
Jesus said to them, ‘Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ Truly I tell you,’ he continued, ‘prophets are not accepted in their hometowns. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.’
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” (Luke 4:20-30)

This story summarizes what Luke will share in this gospel. Jesus’ inclusion of those whom others exclude will ultimately lead to his rejection and attempted execution. Luke will have Jesus overcome that opposition not through escape but through the discovery of an “empty tomb.”

Luke’s connection of Jesus to Hebrew prophets like Elijah and Elisha is also telling. In each of the canonical gospels, Jesus is not part of the system in his society that is perpetuating injustice against vulnerable people. He does not emerge as one of the wealthy, powerfully positioned elite, seeking to reform society from the inside, nor is he fully abandoning society like the Essenes or even John the Baptist.

Jesus stands in solidarity with those to whom harm is being done, rolls up his sleeves, gets involved, and engages his society. He doesn’t come in the tradition of kings or priests. In Luke, Jesus comes in the traditions of the prophets of the poor. He is from the twice-marginal region of Galilee: marginal in relation to both Rome and Jerusalem. The fact that he appears in Galilee and Judea as a prophet of the poor and marginalized instead of as a member of the elite in his society speaks volumes to us. What is our relation, as followers of Jesus, to the marginalized of our day? To what degree are we marginalized in our own lives? Are we standing in solidarity with others who are marginalized or are we participating in their continued marginalization?

The story we began with in Luke mentions the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. This is important because our sacred texts have two categories of passages: passages of exclusion and passages of inclusion. I’ll give examples of both.

First, here is an example of an exclusionary passage:

No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you. However, the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loves you. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live. Do not despise an Edomite, for the Edomites are related to you. Do not despise an Egyptian, because you resided as foreigners in their country. The third generation of children born to them may enter the assembly of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 23:3–8)

In Isaiah, we find the exact opposite: an example of an inclusive passage.

“For my house will be called a house of prayer for ALL NATIONS” (Isaiah 56:7).

Immediately after the Jewish people return from exile, Nehemiah inspires a fascinating, conscientious, and meticulous return to a more exclusionary practice of their faith. To give Nehemiah the benefit of the doubt, I see in him a sincere desire to preserve Jewish culture. Yet his fidelity becomes “zeal without knowledge.” I see it as xenophobic, ethnically nationalistic. Change is always scary, and Nehemiah was likely preoccupied with doing whatever it took to make sure events like the Babylonian captivity would never happen again. But fear often clouds clear judgment.

Nehemiah deliberately rejects the inclusion found in Isaiah and returns to the opposite trajectory of exclusion.

It’s not by whim that Luke’s Jesus begins by quoting Isaiah rather than Nehemiah. Jesus embraces Isaiah’s inclusion. He mentions the widow in Zarephath and Naaman, who would previously have been excluded, receiving the prophets’ favor in the days of Elijah and Elisha.

Jesus looked at people excluded by one set of passages in the sacred texts as those marginalized and in need of distributive and inclusive justice. We find this pattern over and over again in the Jesus story. In John 8 a woman is caught in adultery. One set of texts demanded her exclusion and execution. Yet another set spoke of God no longer requiring sacrificing and scapegoating, but rather requiring mercy, inclusion, and justice (see Hosea 6:6; cf. Matthew 12:7).

Jesus did not follow the exclusionary passages in John 8’s story but chose instead much more inclusive passages. This pattern applies to the woman at the well in John 4 and the woman with the issue of blood in Luke 8. In all these stories Jesus takes the same trajectory away from exclusion. Whatever the reasons that these exclusionary passages are present in our scriptures, Jesus perceived the more life-giving passages to be those of inclusion instead.

Did this lead some to accuse Jesus as being a lawbreaker? Of course. Yet I believe he was prioritizing the inclusive sections of his sacred text over the exclusionary ones.

Today, too, Christians have a choice. Certainly one can find texts to exclude whichever sector of society one is afraid of. The Bible has been used against women, Black people, Indigenous people, the LGBTQ community, and more. Yet, as Jesus followers, we have to do more than ask whether our exclusion is biblical. We also have to ask whether we’re practicing the same inclusion and affirmation that Jesus practiced.

This juxtaposition between the two types of passage within the same sacred text may be disconcerting. But I want to clarify: following Jesus does not mean disregarding or disrespecting the sacred text. It means prioritizing our sacred texts in the life-giving ways as Jesus also did.

If you are wrestling to get your head around this, I encourage you to read the book of James. The new followers of Jesus were being accused of doing away with the old interpretations of the scriptures and living lawless lives. James points out that though they were violating parts of their sacred texts, they were not “lawless” but were prioritizing other values in those texts. James refers to Abraham’s attempted murder and Hagar’s false testimony because their actions were strictly condemned (Exodus 20:13, 16), yet these two were heroes because they prioritized a different set of values!

Will this approach bother those who interpret the scriptures in exclusive ways? Of course. When Jesus first introduced it in Luke’s story, people wanted to throw him off a cliff.

What does this all mean to us today?

Are there people in your life whom compassion calls you to include and affirm despite how you interpret other texts in your scriptures?

What should you do?

Choose compassion.

Choose justice.

You don’t need permission to show compassion. The fruit of compassion is its own justification: “Wisdom is proved right by all her children” (Luke 7:35).

But who knows? One day, you might find different ways to interpret those passages. Even if you don’t, remember the words of both Jesus and the Hebrew prophet Hosea:

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6)

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7)

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative, and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it. 

Don’t forget to take advantage of RHM’s Shared Table Fundraiser during the months of November and December, and remember all donations during these two months are also being matched dollar for dollar so you can make your support go twice as far!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence (Part 10)

Herb Montgomery | October 11, 2019

mountains during golden hour

Photo by Jonny McKenna on Unsplash


“Jesus’ form of nonviolence was an act of self-affirmation in a society where one’s self was already being sacrificed. When we interpret nonviolence as self-sacrifice, irreparable harm, even lethal harm, is done to those who survive and those who are victims of violation.”


Thank you for journeying with us through this series on self-affirming, nonviolent resistance. This is our tenth and final installment. Leaving the objections we’ve addressed, I want to wrap up our time together by summarizing what we’ve learned. I believe that understanding the Jesus of the gospels as teaching self-affirming, nonviolent resistance is a life-giving interpretation.

Let’s begin by summarizing nonviolence itself.

Nonviolence

In Jesus’ vision for social change (what the gospel authors refer to as “the kingdom”), Jesus had certain options. He had seen the results of both violent and nonviolent resistance to Roman oppression. As he weighed the success and failure rates of both approaches, Jesus rejected violence. As the late Walter Wink reminds us:

“The issue, however, is not just which [violence or nonviolence] works better, but also which fails better. While a nonviolent strategy also does not always “work” in terms of preset goals-though though in another sense it always “works”—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe.” (Walter Wink. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Facets, Kindle Locations 316-318).

Also, the social goals that Jesus was endeavoring to plant the seeds for in his own community cannot be achieved through violence: “Violence can beget fear, stalemate, annihilation, dominance, or more violence, but it cannot beget love, justice, abundant life, community, or peace.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Parker; Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 13)

Others have also recognized the impossibility of using means that contradict the ends we are trying to achieve. As Audre Lorde wrote:

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, p. 112)

The 1st Century Judea and Galilee had both seen violent and nonviolent acts of resistance. Jesus’ gospel was not only a gospel of liberation but also one of surviving and being able to achieve a quality of life once that liberation was accomplished. What good is liberation if your entire people and culture and way of life are wiped out in the process?

Jesus’ supreme value was not simply the rejection of violence but, more, the goal of arriving at a just society. Correcting the societal roots of systemic injustice was his passion. This is important. If rejecting violence is your highest moral goal, and justice is secondary, this has too often led to a passive response to injustice rather than acts of resistance and nonviolent noncooperation.

“Violence is not an absolute evil to be avoided at all costs. It is not even the main problem, but only the presenting symptom of an unjust society. And peace is not the highest good; it is rather the outcome of a just social order.” (Walter Wink. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Facets; Kindle Locations 493-495).

Lastly, nonviolence is rooted in the value of maintaining a love for one’s enemy. Love for one’s enemy should not be interpreted as accepting enemies’ behavior, actions, or choices. Love of enemy is the choice to hold on to your enemy’s humanity. As human beings, we are all still part of one another. We still belong to each other. Nonviolence enables us to find a balance where we stop or obstruct our enemy’s actions but remain characteristically unlike our enemies in our methods. Love of one’s enemy also holds space for and adds pressure towards our enemies making better decisions than they are presently making:

“With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand, I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised outstretched – maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not – but always outstretched . . . With this hand, we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’” (Barbara Deming, Revolution & Equilibrium, page 224)

Resistance

As we covered in Part 4, Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence were rooted in an attempt to provide nonviolent forms of protest, noncooperation, and resistance to injustice, both personal and systemic. Culturally, turning the cheek was a refusal to accept one’s marginalized or lower social class position and treatment. Handing over your remaining article of clothing was using public nudity as a form of protest, and going the second mile was a refusal to play by the rules of one’s oppressors. Today, ignoring tone-policing or respectability politics is a similar refusal to play by the rules of an unjust status quo.

Self-Affirming

Finally, Jesus’ form of nonviolence was an act of self-affirmation in a society where one’s self was already being sacrificed. When we interpret nonviolence as self-sacrifice, irreparable harm, even lethal harm, is done to those who survive and those who are victims of violation. As we’ve said, defining Jesus’ nonviolence as self-sacrificial is rooted in interpreting Jesus’ cross as an act of self-sacrifice, as a submission to death rather than a defiant refusal to let go of life.

Remember, those in positions of power and privilege use both metaphorical and literal crosses to keep those who are being violated silent. Jesus taught us not to remain silent, but to speak our truth even if threatened with a cross. Far from being passive or submissive, Jesus’ call to take up the cross was the call to join him in self-affirming resistance to injustice regardless of dire threats. Again, to quote Brown and Parker:

“It is not the acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (Brown & Parker, Patriarchy, Christianity and Abuse, p. 18)

Jesus’ cheek defiance, naked protest, and refusal to play by the rules of oppressors were not self-sacrificial, but a means of reclaiming and affirming one’s humanity when those in power ignored or denied it.

Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence should not be interpreted as self-sacrifice but as self-affirmation in the face of violence.

Over the last ten installments, I’ve shared my belief that Jesus’ form of nonviolence is much more life-giving when we interpret it as self-affirming, nonviolent resistance. Thank you to each of you who read, listened, wrote in, or commented online about how this series was making a difference for you. I’m so glad you have been here.

We must allow more destructive interpretations of Jesus to give way to more life-giving interpretations. This I believe is in harmony with the spirit of his life and teachings. The movement born out of his life once gave hope to the most marginalized and discarded of his society. May all those who take his name today reject violence, including the violent forms of religiosity that have been created in his name. May we work toward healing and reparations for all those whom certain strands of Christianity have harmed.

Jesus taught the rejection of violence.

Jesus taught self-affirmation for the marginalized.

Jesus taught resistance for those whose humanity was being violated.

May those who follow this Jewish Galilean prophet of the poor today do the same.

HeartGroup Application

Share with your group how this series has affirmed, challenged, or deepened how you presently follow Jesus.
Are there any new practices that this series has brought to your attention that you are implementing in how you live out the ethics of love, justice, and compassion? Share with your group.
How has your HeartGroup itself grown in its collective understanding of nonviolence? Has it changed even some of the ways you communicate with each other?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action, and reparative and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Don’t forget, we need your support here at RHM to continue making a difference. To do so, go to renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate.”

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self Affirming Nonviolence (Part 9)

Herb Montgomery | October 4, 2019

red and white stop road sign

Photo by Michael Mroczek on Unsplash


“Self-defense, in and of itself, is not violence. Violation is violence. Oppression is violence. Injustice is violence. Protecting one’s privilege and power over others is violence. Self-defense or self-affirmation in the face of all of these things is not, in and of itself, violence. Although one can employ violence, one can also reject it.”


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Before we wrap up this series on self-affirming nonviolent resistance, I want to address a topic that often comes up when we speak of nonviolence. That topic is self-defense.

When Peter uses the sword in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells him “Put your sword back in its place, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Some Christians use this passage to say that if we take Jesus’ nonviolence seriously we also have to reject all self-defense. I do not agree. I interpret this story of Peter as pointedly rejecting the use of violence to accomplish the kind of human community (“the kingdom”) that Jesus envisioned. I do not interpret this passage as a rejection of marginalized people’s self-defense: rejecting their self-defense has produced harmful and even lethal fruit for victims of violence.

Jesus taught violated people ways to resist violation and to stand up and to affirm their selves when their humanity, their selves, were being denied (see Part 4). As we’ve discussed repeatedly in this series, Jesus did not teach his followers to be passive or submissive in the face of injustice, oppression, and violation.

There is a difference between using lethal force in self-defense and using non-lethal, yet violation-halting force. I do not mean to imply that just because something is nonlethal it is nonviolent. Yet some forms of self-defense follow Deming’s illustration of stopping the perpetrator while refusing to let go of their humanity and leaving open the possibility of transformation, of the perpetrator making better choices:

“With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised outstretched – maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not – but always outstretched . . . With this hand we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’” (Revolution & Equilibrium, 1971, p. 224)

Self-defense, in and of itself, is not violence. Violation is violence. Oppression is violence. Injustice is violence. Protecting one’s privilege and power over others is violence. Self-defense or self-affirmation in the face of all of these things is not, in and of itself, violence. Although one can employ violence, one can also reject it.

There are countless examples that we have today of nonviolent forms of self-defense. But does nonviolent self-defense only apply to individuals or can nonviolent forms of self-defense be used globally? Just war theory is a violent form of self-defense on a global scale. Are there other options?

I want to bring up an event in history that is usually used to illustrate the limitations of nonviolence and accuse nonviolence advocates as naive. The question is usually phrased, “Would nonviolence have stopped Hitler in World War II?”

First, to say that America entered World War II to defend the Jewish people against Hitler’s holocaust romanticizes the history at best and reconstructs it at worst. The U.S. knew what Hitler was doing long before it entered the war and it still chose to remain on the sidelines. Not until the Japanese government attacked the United States’ interests in Pearl Harbor did the U.S. entered the war.

America could have ended Hitler’s holocaust without firing a single shot.

The following is from A People’s History of the United States:

“By 1941 Standard Oil of New Jersey [Exxon] was the largest oil company in the world, controlling 84 percent of the U.S. petroleum market. Its bank was Chase and its owners were the Rockefellers. J.D. Rockefeller had always argued that two things were essential to the oil industry’s survival: checking ‘ruinous competition’ and ‘cooperation.’ Given the success of his monopoly at making enormous profits for its investors while at the same time destroying any form of competition and keeping prices artificially high, it seems quite clear whose survival he was really talking about.

“After the Rockefellers, the next largest stockholder in Standard Oil was I.G. Farben, the giant German chemical company. This investment was part of a pattern of reciprocal investments between the U.S. and Germany during the Nazi years. During the Great Depression, Germany was viewed as a hot area in which to invest.”

The article continues:

“A brief aside is required here to explain what type of company I.G. Farben actually was. At the time, it was the world’s largest chemical company and through the talents of its scientists and engineers, it secured the vital self-sufficiency that was to enable Germany to maneuver in the world of power politics. From its laboratories and factories flowed the strategic raw materials that Germany’s own territory could not supply, the synthetics of oil, gasoline, rubber, nitrates, and fibers. In addition, I.G. produced vaccines and drugs such as Salvarsan, aspirin, Atabrine, and Novocain, along with sulfa drugs, as well as poison gases and rocket fuels. The depth of I.G. Farben’s connection to Nazi policy was finally realized at Auschwitz, the extermination center where four million people were destroyed in accordance with Hitler’s ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’. Drawn by the seemingly limitless supply of death camp labor [free labor by those in concentration/extermination camps], Farben built I.G. Auschwitz, a huge industrial complex designed to produce synthetic rubber and oil. This installation used as much electricity as the entire city of Berlin, and more than 25,000 camp inmates died during its construction. I.G. Farben eventually built its own concentration camp, known as Monowitz, which was closer to the site of the complex than Auschwitz was, in order to eliminate the need to march prisoners several miles to and from the plant every day.”

What we must not gloss over about this history is:

“This [I.G. Farben] was the company enthusiastically embraced by Standard Oil [Exxon] as well as other major American corporations like Du Pont and General Motors. I do not, however, state that Standard Oil [Exxon] collaborated with the Nazis simply because I.G. Farben was its second largest shareholder. In fact, without the explicit help of Standard Oil, the Nazi air force would never have gotten off the ground in the first place. The planes that made up the Luftwaffe needed tetraethyl lead gasoline in order to fly. At the time, only Standard Oil, Du Pont, and General Motors had the ability to produce this vital substance. In 1938, Walter C. Teagle, then president of Standard Oil, helped Hermann Schmitz of I.G. Farben to acquire 500 tons of tetraethyl lead from Ethyl, a British Standard subsidiary. A year later, Schmitz returned to London and obtained an additional 15 million dollars worth of tetraethyl lead which was to be turned into aviation gasoline back in Germany.” (Emphasis added.)

One of the most damming pieces of the article follows:

‘After the war began in Europe, the English became angry about U.S. shipments of strategic materials to Nazi Germany. Standard Oil immediately changed the registration of their entire fleet to Panamanian to avoid British search or seizure. These ships continued to carry oil to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, where they refueled and siphoned oil to German tankers for shipment to Hamburg.” (Emphasis added.)

Finally:

“This deception was exposed on March 31, 1941 when the U.S. State Department issued a detailed report on refueling stations in Mexico and Central and South America that were suspected of furnishing oil to Italian and German merchant vessels. The report listed Standard Oil of New Jersey and Standard Oil of California among those fueling enemy ships, but there is no record of any action being taken as a result of this discovery. Similar deals between Standard Oil and the Japanese government for the purchase of tetraethyl lead have also been uncovered, but no direct action was ever taken against Standard Oil for its dealings with America’s enemies. A brief side note, however, is that on April 17, l945 the Chase National Bank was placed on trial in federal court on charges of having violated the Trading With the Enemy Act by converting German marks into U.S. dollars. Because many countries refused to accept German currency during the war, the Nazis used foreign banks like Chase National to change the currency into money that would be accepted, and thus allowed them to purchase much need materials to prolong the war. The closer one looks, the more ties one finds between American business and Nazi Germany, many of which remained strong well into and beyond the war.” (Emphasis added.)

In other words, had U.S. corporations valued people over profit, especially people who were being exterminated over war profiteering, Hitler would never have had the resources (gasoline, oil, rubber, nitrates, and fibers) needed for the war and holocaust of Jewish and other marginalized people (see Ford and GM Scrutinized for Alleged Nazi Collaboration):

“Although [Henry] Ford later renounced his antisemitic writings, he remained an admirer of Nazi Germany and sought to keep America out of the coming war. In July 1938, four months after the German annexation of Austria, he accepted the highest medal that Nazi Germany could bestow on a foreigner, the Grand Cross of the German Eagle. The following month, a senior executive for General Motors, James Mooney, received a similar medal for his ‘distinguished service to the Reich.’” German trucks driven by the Nazis were manufactured by the Ford Motor Company and by Opel [GM] which also built German war planes.”

This entanglement lasted until America declared war on Germany in December 1941, and when contact with the German subsidiaries of these companies became illegal.

All companies involved denounce their activities with the Nazis, today. But closing their free labor camps and blocking the Nazi’s extermination of Jews and others could have brought Hitler’s efforts to its knees without a shot ever being fired.

We will never know.

Lastly in this treatment of self-defense, I want to address home invasion. I want to disclose that I have had my own home broken into, and I understand this violation firsthand.

I also know that we live in a system that creates winners and losers, and sometimes losers become desperate in their attempts to survive. We must understand when someone is stealing “a loaf of bread just to be able to eat.” I’m reminded of Hugo’s Les Miserables where a priest responds to Val Jean’s theft of the silver by giving him the additional silver candlesticks.

We must learn to distinguish between those in a more marginalized social location defending their right to live, to survive, and those from a more centered social location defending their privilege, power, and property over others who are subjugated. One is self-defense. The other is not self-defense but continued oppression.

Are we really defending ourselves? Or are we simply defending our privilege or “standing our ground?” Self-defense does not have to violate the principle of self-affirming, nonviolent, resistance, but defending one’s privilege against a more egalitarian world is itself an act of violence.

I want to be clear. Anyone who violates another person should be stopped, regardless of social location. We must learn to mercifully and justly hold their humanity too.

Next week will be our final installment of this series.

HeartGroup Application

  1. List some forms of nonviolent self-defense other than those found in Matthew 5 of cheek defiance, naked protest, and refusing to play by one’s oppressor’s rules. Use google to help you. Discuss what you found with your group.
  2. How can self-defense be the opposite of violence?
  3. Discuss how you can apply these principles in your own life as we work together toward a safer, compassionate, and just world.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative, and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Don’t forget, we need your support here at RHM to continue making a difference.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence (Part 8)

Herb Montgomery | September 27, 2019

The Crucifix statue

Photo by Ricky Turner on Unsplash


“As followers of Jesus, especially ones who choose to embrace Jesus’ rejection of violence, we must remember that Jesus did not stand up to injustice, and suffer for it, on our behalf. He calls us to do the same.”


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Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice. We need your support to continue bringing the kind of resources and analysis that RHM provides.

Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed now more than ever.

Help Christians be better humans. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Renewed Heart Ministries, today. To do so just go to our website at renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate” on the top right or if you prefer to make a donation by mail, our address is:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
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And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, I want to say thank you. We could not continue being a voice for change without your support.

In all four canonical gospels, Jesus disrupts and, in protest, shuts down the economic activity of the Temple courtyards. For some, this conflicts with interpreting Jesus as teaching nonviolence.

Let’s look at all four versions of the story first. Then we’ll look at the objection.

“Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” (Mark 11:11)

“On reaching [returning to] Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.” (Mark 11:15-16)

“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12)

“When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling.” (Luke 19:45)

“In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. (John 2:14-15)

Mark’s version of this event quickly takes us to the next chapter for Jesus’ explanation of his disruption and protest:

“They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” (Mark 12:40)

“But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.” (Mark 12:42)

Jesus considers the temple tax and the temple state’s failure to redistribute funds raised among the poor as economic exploitation that takes everything from those who have nothing to give in the first place.

Jesus’ reason for protesting in Mark is economic and political if one defines politics as the discussion about how power and resources are divided among the polis or people.

It was also religious inasmuch as the Jewish prophets’ similar critiques were, too:

“The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the LORD.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths, and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:11-17)

We must be clear that it’s harmful to interpret Jesus’ actions as Christianity versus Judaism. All of the early followers of Jesus were Jewish. Jesus himself was a Jew and never a Christian. In protesting exploitation, Jesus is not opposed to the Torah, nor to Judaism in general. Jesus’ voice was rather one of many Jewish voices within Judaism in the 1st Century defining what it meant to be faithful to their God, the God of Torah.

I do not believe Jesus’ actions in the temple were anti-Semitic, as some Christians would later interpret them. They were much more about how Jesus saw his own Jewish society and the Jewish Temple State relating to the poor. As both Borg and Crossan remind us, “The issue is not [the Temple state elites member’s] individual virtue or wickedness, but the role they played in the domination system. They shaped it, enforced it, and benefited from it.” (Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, p. 28)

This explains the lethal backlash from Rome and the societal elite of Jerusalem to Jesus’ temple protest. We’ll discuss that in a moment.

First, the objection.

In John’s gospel we read:

“In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. (John 2:14-15)

To some, Jesus with a whip in-hand contradicts their understanding of nonviolence.

There are a few things we must keep in mind:

Jesus’ nonviolence is not passivity, it was a way to resist injustice.

Jesus could have made his whip of cords solely to drive out the livestock. It seems to me that he used the whip to drive out the livestock and the turning over of tables drove out the money changers.

Even with this, Jesus’ actions still fall within the parameters of nonviolent action. What must also be held in tension is that none of the force used was lethal. No one’s life was being threatened in his protest.

Add to this that all nonlethal force used was in protest of the ruling classes oppression of the poor. This was not nonlethal force being used to oppressor or marginalize those who were societally vulnerable. Social location matters.

Jesus was not losing his temper. His protest was calculated and well-thought. As we covered in Part 6, Mark’s gospel reveals that Jesus intended this temple state protest to be the climax of his entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. But when he arrived, it was already late in the day and the temple was empty. There was no crowd of people to witness his demonstration and disruption. Therefore he retired to Bethany for the night and returned the next day to disrupt the economic activity of the courtyards:

“Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” (Mark 11:11)

If we allow Jesus’ nonviolence to inform our own nonviolent protests today, we must also consider whether it is ever appropriate for the property of the economic elite to be damaged during a nonviolent protest. Jesus valued people, especially poor people, above property. Some level of property damage was involved when he protested in the temple that day. If we have ever been more concerned about property being damaged in protests than we are about the injustice to people at the heart of those protests, we may need to reassess which side of the gospel story we would have been on.

By the time of Jesus’s protest, his actions had economic and political implications and the number of his followers was growing, especially among the poor and destitute. Property damage could not go without both Rome and the social elite making an example of Jesus in their own demonstration. Those who engage in protests like this will suffer what follows. Before the end of that week, Jesus was hanging on a cross.

Howard Thurman explains why the elite of Jesus’ society may have been complicit with Rome in opposing property damage:

“[The Sadducees] represented the ‘upper’ class. From their number came the high priests, and most of the economic security derived from contemporary worship in the temple was their monopoly. They did not represent the masses of the people. Any disturbance of the established order meant upsetting their position. They loved Israel, but they seem to have loved security more. They made their public peace with Rome and went on about the business of living. They were astute enough to see that their own position could be perpetuated if they stood firmly against all revolutionaries and radicals. Such persons would only stir the people to resist the inevitable, and in the end, everything would be lost. Their tragedy was in the fact that they idealized the position of the Roman in the world and suffered the moral fate of the Romans by becoming like them. They saw only two roads open before them— become like the Romans or be destroyed by the Romans. They chose the former.” (In Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 24)

When one begins to understand how Jesus’ disruption in the Temple threatened the Temple State’s survival in the Roman empire and how Rome viewed all public disruptions, it becomes quite easy to understand how the week ended with Jesus being crucified. Consider the following statements on the specific purpose for which Rome used crucifixion:

“In first-century Christianity, the cross had a twofold meaning. On the one hand, it represented execution by the empire; only the empire crucified, and then for only one crime: denial of imperial authority. The cross had not yet become a generalized symbol for suffering as it sometimes is today when one’s illness or other hardship can be spoken of as ‘the cross I’ve been given to bear.’ Rather, it meant risking imperial retribution.” (Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, Kindle location 519)

“Jesus then suffered persecution, knew why he was suffering it and where it might lead him. This persecution, consciously accepted, is the measure of this faithfulness to God. It reveals him as a human being who not only announces hope to the poor and curses their oppressors but persists in this, despite persecution because this is God’s will. The final violent death does not come as an arbitrary fate, but as a possibility always kept in mind.” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, p. 201.)

Crucifixion was the political punishment for “violating the rule of Roman law and order.” (See Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171.)

“Crucifixion was and remains a political and military punishment . . . Among the Romans, it was inflicted above all on the lower classes, i.e., slaves, violent criminals, and the unruly elements in rebellious provinces, not least Judea . . . These were primarily people who on the whole had no rights, in other words, groups whose development had to be suppressed by all possible means to safeguard law and order in the state.” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, p. 372)

Ched Myers reminds us that what got Jesus crucified was not a religious protest, but a protest of the entire political edifice of the Temple state and the Roman empire too.

“As in the modern practice of civil disobedience, which might break the law in order to raise deeper issues of its morality and purpose, so Jesus, just before ‘crossing the line,’ issues a challenge to his audience. Pitting his mission of compassion and justice to the poor against the imperatives of the dominant order, Jesus calls the entire ideological edifice of the law to account.” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, p. 162)

As followers of Jesus, especially ones who choose to embrace Jesus’ rejection of violence, we must remember that Jesus did not stand up to injustice, and suffer for it, on our behalf. He calls us to do the same. As Rustin said, “We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers.” (Bayard Rustin, ORGANIZING MANUAL NO. 2; FINAL PLANS FOR MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS AND FREEDOM, AUGUST 28, 1963)

This is not about redemptive suffering or a call to suffering (see Part 4). Suffering does not bring life. Refusing to let go of life, brings life. Jesus calls us, not to die, but to resist injustice even if threatened with death for doing so. The difference can be subtle, but it results in a world of difference in how we respond to suffering and injustice. As the late liberation theologian James Cone stated, “The only meaningful Christian response is to resist unjust suffering and to accept the painful consequence of that resistance” (James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed). Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino adds: “Suffering in itself has no meaning; the only suffering that has any meaning is the suffering we accept in the fight against suffering.” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator)

Jesus’ actions in the temple don’t contradict his nonviolence. Rather, his actions embody his teachings on nonviolent, self-affirming resistance to injustice. Next week we’ll consider one more clarification regarding nonviolence before we conclude. I’m so glad you’ve journeyed with us through this series.

HeartGroup Application

  1. Discuss with your group what injustices today you feel particularly passionate about. What kinds of resistance or protest would you find effective or useful in standing up to those injustices?
  2. Does Jesus’ example of standing up to injustice in his own setting encourage you to do the same in yours? If so, discuss how.
  3. How can your group reach out to and help those who are the objects of injustice while also working for systemic change?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative, and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Don’t forget, we need your support here at RHM to continue making a difference.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self Affirming Nonviolence (Part 7)

Herb Montgomery | September 20, 2019

selective focus photography of book

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash


If Jesus taught nonviolence, why does the rest of the Bible seem to endorse or even command violence?


This week’s episode is quite a milestone. This is our 300th episode! I want to take this opportunity to ask for your support so we can continue our work. Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice. We need your support to continue bringing the kind of resources and analysis that RHM provides.

Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed now more than ever.

Help Christians be better humans. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Renewed Heart Ministries, today. To do so just go to our website at renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate” on the top right or if you prefer to make a donation by mail, our address is:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

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

This week I want to begin with another common objection to interpreting Jesus as teaching nonviolence. If Jesus taught nonviolence, why does the rest of the Bible seem to endorse or even command violence?

I agree with Philip Jenkins, author of Laying Down the Sword, that we must not “ignore the Bible’s violent verses.” Christians have repeatedly used the violent passage and commands of the Bible as a basis for their actions during the last two millennia, making Christianity the most violent world religion to date. Yet before the Roman empire embraced the Christian religion, Christianity was a religion of pacifists who believed Jesus taught his followers to practice some form of nonviolence. (See Part 1 and Part 2).

So what do we do with the violence of the Bible? First, we need to be honest about it. The Bible, to which the Jesus story belongs, is a very violent book overall. From Genesis to Revelation we are accosted with violence, both human and Divine.

Second, we need to understand the social-political context of Jesus’ nonviolence was Jewish society under a very heavy-handed Roman control.

Jesus had options for what form his resistance to injustice would take. He chose nonviolent, self-affirming resistance as his means of change. Jesus chose to embrace and teach his followers nonviolent forms of resistance that some first-century Jewish resistance efforts were already using.

In his volume The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, John Dominic Crossan shares a brief history of violent and nonviolent Jewish resistance movements within the culture of the gospel stories. Three significant Jewish rebellions stand out in that context:

The first was the Judas Rebellion under the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus. It took place in Sepphoris in 4 BCE. Josephus tells us how Rome responded to this rebellion. The Roman Governor in Syria, Varus, had first “committed part of [the soldiers] to his son, and to a friend of his; and sent them upon an expedition into Galilee: which lies in the neighbourhood of Ptolemais. Who made an attack upon the enemy, and put them to flight, and took Sepphoris, and made its inhabitants slaves, and burnt the city.” (Antiquities of the Jews, 17.288–89). Varus then marched on to Jerusalem. He “sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt: and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty; and some he dismissed. Now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand.” (Antiquities of the Jews, 17.295)

Think of the psychological damage to the rest of the population of seeing 2,000 crosses with rebels crucified on them along the Jewish countryside. What message would this have sent? Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas reminds us that “Crucifixion was a stand-your-ground type of punishment for the treasonous offense of violating the rule of Roman ‘law and order’” (in Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171).

The second major Jewish rebellion during the time the gospels were written was the Roman Jewish War of 66-69 CE under the Roman emperor Nero. This ended in the destruction of the Jewish Temple and in Jerusalem being burned to the ground.

The third rebellion was the BarKokba Revolt from 132-136 CE. Rome killed more than half a million Jews in this war, and more died from starvation and disease. Rome also sold Jewish war captives into slavery. (Menaḥem Mor, The Second Jewish Revolt the Bar Kokhba War, Page 471) So great was the devastation from Rome’s backlash after this third rebellion that Joan Taylor states “the crucial date for what can only be described as genocide, and the devastation of Jews and Judaism within central Judea, was 135 CE and not, as usually assumed, 70 CE, despite the siege of Jerusalem and the Temple’s destruction” (in The Essenes, the Scrolls, and the Dead Sea. Oxford University Press, 2014. Page 243)

We must understand Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence in terms of the historical reality that the Jewish people picking up the sword against Rome would not have been an act of liberation but an act of suicide. Jesus would have grown up in the wake of the destruction of the first Jewish rebellion we discussed above, and his nonviolence held thriving, surviving, and liberation in tension.

But what about those 1st Century nonviolent resistance movements we spoke about earlier? Nonviolent resistance movements, though less popular, were also used by the Jewish people during this time. We’ll consider two that we have a record of.

The first is the Ensigns Incident in 26 CE. If Jesus had been on the fence before emerging in Galilee as a teacher of nonviolence, the incident would have taken place just before his ministry began and could have influenced his thinking on the potential success of nonviolent resistance.

Josephus tells us:

“As procurator [Greek: “hegemon”] of Judaea Tiberius sent Pilate, who during the night, secretly and undercover, conveyed to Jerusalem the images of Caesar known as standards. When day dawned this caused great excitement among the Jews; for those who were near were amazed at the sight, which meant that their laws had been trampled on — they do not permit any graven image to be set up in the City — and the angry City mob was joined by a huge influx of people from the country. They rushed off to Pilate in Caesarea, and begged him to remove the standards from Jerusalem and to respect their ancient customs. When Pilate refused, they fell prone all round his house and remained motionless for five days and nights.
The next day Pilate took his seat on the tribunal in the great stadium and summoned the mob on the pretext that he was ready to give them an answer. Instead he gave a pre-arranged signal to the soldiers to surround the Jews in full armour, and the troops formed a ring three deep. The Jews were dumbfounded at the unexpected sight, but Pilate, declaring that he would cut them to pieces unless they accepted the images of Caesar, nodded to the soldiers to bare their swords. At this the Jews as though by agreement fell to the ground in a body and bent their necks, shouting that they were ready to be killed rather than transgress the Law. Amazed at the intensity of their religious fervour, Pilate ordered the standards to be removed from Jerusalem forthwith.” War 2:175-203

The second example of Jewish nonviolent resistance is the incident over the statue of Gaius Caligula that Caligula attempted to erect in the Temple in 40 CE.

The following is Josephus’ account of the mass demonstration in response:

“Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Jews came to Petronius at Ptolemais with petitions not to use force to make them transgress and violate their ancestral code. They said, ‘If you propose at all costs to set up the image, slay us first before you carry out these resolutions. For it is not possible for us to survive and to behold actions that are forbidden us by the decision both of our lawgiver and of our ancestors. … In order to preserve our ancestral code, we shall patiently endure what may be in store for us… for God will stand by us; Fortune, moreover, is wont to veer now toward one side, now toward the other in human affairs.’ Petronius saw that they were determined and that it would be impossible to carry out Gaius’ order without great conflict and slaughter. He went to Tiberias to determine the situation of the Jews there. Again, many tens of thousands faced Petronius on his arrival. They besought him to not put up the statue. ‘Will you then go to war with Caesar, regardless of his resources and of your own weakness?’ he asked. ‘On no account would we fight,’ they said, ‘but we will die sooner than violate our laws.’ And falling on their faces and baring their throats, they declared that they were ready to be slain. They continued to make these supplications for forty days. Furthermore, they neglected their fields even though this was the time to sow the seed. For they showed a stubborn determination and readiness to die rather than to see the image erected.

“Then members of the royal family and civic leaders appealed to Petronius to refrain from the plan and instead to write to Gaius telling how incurable was their opposition to receiving the statue and how they had left their fields to sit as a protest, and that they did not choose war, since they could not fight a war, but would be glad to die sooner than transgress their customs, and that since the land was unsown there would be no harvest and no tribute. They brought pressure to bear upon him in every way and employed every device to make their plea effective. Petronius was influenced by their plea, and saw the stubborn determination of the Jews, and thought it would be terrible to bring death on so many tens of thousands of people. He thought it best to risk sending a letter to Gaius. Perhaps he might even convince him to cancel the order. If not, he would undertake war against the Jews. And thus Petronius decided to recognize the cogency of the plea of the petitioners.” Antiquities 18:261-309

Again, this is the landscape upon which the gospels were written. The early Jesus community, which wrote the gospels, chose the path of nonviolence.

How did early Christianity reconcile this ethic of nonviolence with the rest of their sacred text? Let’s stop for a moment and first ask that question of ourselves.

Have you ever felt that in order to do what was right and ethical you had to go against your understanding of what you believed your sacred text taught? Remember, our sacred texts can be eternal while our interpretations are temporary. We must learn to distinguish between our sacred texts and our interpretations of them. We can choose to allow older destructive interpretations that do harm to marginalized communities to give way to new life-giving interpretations for everyone, the marginalized especially.

This is the story of early Christianity. To do what they believed was right, early Christians had to go against their understanding of what they believed their sacred text had previously taught. They created or discovered new ways of interpreting their sacred text, informed by the teachings of Jesus.

We see another illustration of this in the first verses of the New Testament book of Hebrews:

“Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various forms by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by a son [who is the] radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” (Hebrews 1:1-3)

New ways of interpreting their sacred texts emerged to replace the old. I’m sure this was just as unsettling for those back then who did not like change as it is for certain Christians today.

I have to confess, too, that I deeply wrestle with the violence I see in our sacred text, the Bible. A lot of Christian authors try and justify the violence in the Bible, conflating it with punitive or preventive justice. Their goal is to make that violence look fair or the lesser of two evils. While I admire their efforts to make these passages look less ugly, they really don’t solve my problem with Biblical violence. There is a world of difference between reconciling the violence of the Bible with justice and reconciling the violence of the Bible with Jesus and his teachings on nonviolence. One may be able to justify an example of violence in our sacred text, but the Jesus of the gospels didn’t teach justified violence or what is today called just war theory. The Jesus of the gospels taught resistance that was self-affirming and nonviolent.

The moral standard for a follower of Jesus is not the Bible. It’s not the ten commandments. It’s not even our interpretations of the Gospels. The Jesus we claim to follow taught that “a tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33 cf. Luke 6:44). This means that we can know whether we are interpreting our sacred texts in harmful or life-giving ways by the fruit that interpretation produces. Is our understanding certain stories and passages producing life, especially for the “least of these,” or is it harming others? The moral standard for a Jesus follower, according to Jesus, is to do no harm and to treat others the way you yourself would like to be treated.

This series is a call to all of those who claim to follow the Jesus of the gospels to return to what he taught about our relation to violence. When we bump into what we could interpret as a Biblical endorsement of violence or as Biblically mandated violence, we must hold those passages as secondary to Jesus and his rejection of violence in the gospels.

Last week, as the U.S. remembered the events of 9/11, a friend of mine who is a pastor, Daniel Wysong, posted this relevant reminder on Facebook:

“My hope in remembering 9/11 is that we would learn the lesson that killing people is horrible. The 2996 people who died on 9/11/2001 shouldn’t have. Nor should the 7000 US service members that died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor should the ~100,000 police and guard members. Nor should the ~300,000 Iraqi and Afghani civilians. Every single one of those lives lost is a tragedy of equal proportion.
If we wish to honor the memory of those who have been killed, it can only be by remembering that violence is horrible. And remembering that violence begets violence. And intentionally moving towards a world with less killing.
We honor their lives by learning and remembering that we will never create the world we all want to live in by killing enough people.” (https://www.facebook.com/danwysong7/posts/10219666062303603)

May followers of Jesus come to be known in our society as those who reject violence, once again.

HeartGroup Application

1. In what ways has used the gospel stories of Jesus caused you to have to reinterpret other parts of your sacred text? Share with the group.
2. Are there passages or stories in the Bible that you feel you cannot redeem or reclaim? Share these with the group as well as why these passages trouble you.
3. How has reinterpreting the Bible through the lens of the Jesus story changed the ethics by which you live or affirmed ethics of peace you are already living? Share with your group.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative, and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Don’t forget, we need your support here at RHM to continue making a difference.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence (Part 6)

Herb Montgomery | September 13, 2019

grayscale photo of group of people
Photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash

“Jesus was not about peace-keeping but peace-making. He was not about keeping the peace, not disturbing the status quo, but about calling for justice, the justice that in the Jewish tradition was to be the foundation of peace. Peace was not the absence of conflict but about the fruit of distributive, societal justice.”


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This week let’s look at another text in the gospels that some Christians use when they object to Jesus’ teaching of nonviolence: 

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

Christians have used this passage to justify picking up the sword to “enlarge the Kingdom.” When you read the context of this passage, though, that seems more a determined, intentional effort to interpret Jesus’ words in any other way than as part of the ethic of nonviolence Jesus taught. Mahatma Gandhi reportedly said, “The only people on earth who do not see Christ and his teachings as non-violent are Christians.” There was a time in my life, too, when I genuinely felt that Jesus’ teachings on non-violence were tangential, but I must confess that I believe I was wrong. I have begun to see that Jesus’ teachings on non-violence are central to the kind of human community Jesus envisioned his society could grow into. That vision involved surviving any liberation attempt against Roman oppression, but it wasn’t just about individuals surviving. Nonviolence was also to characterize the community’s quality of life, as well.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus continues the above passage with these words:

“For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter–in–law against her mother–in–law—your enemies will be the members of your own household.’ Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:35-38)

What did Jesus mean by the statement that He came to bring a sword? Did he want his followers to take up the sword? Or was he saying that the social changes he came to bring would quite likely bring pushback from those empowered with a sword?

The Greek word translated as sword in these verses is machaira. It can be translated figuratively to denote strife or warfare. I do not believe Jesus is saying that those who follow Him should engage in violent warfare in “Jesus’ name” as Christians have historically done. I see them instead as saying that those who chose to follow him should expect to receive strife or warfare for standing up against societal injustice and calling for change. In Jesus’ statement, the strife being created is between parents and children. This is significant, because it meant the power and authority within the social structures of the family being challenged. John Dominic Crossan comments on this:

“Imagine the standard Mediterranean family with five members: mother and father, married son with his wife, and unmarried daughter, a nuclear extended family all under one roof. Jesus says he will tear it apart. The usual explanation is that families will become divided as some accept and others refuse faith in Jesus. But notice where and how emphatically the axis of separation is located. It is precisely between the generations. But why should faith split along that axis? Why might faith not separate, say, the women from the men or even operate in ways far more random? The attack has nothing to do with faith but with power. The attack is on the Mediterranean family’s axis of power, which sets father and mother over son, daughter, and daughter-in-law. That helps us to understand all of those examples. The family is society in miniature, the place where we first and most deeply learn how to love and be loved, hate and be hated, help and be helped, abuse and be abused. It is not just a center of domestic serenity; since it involves power, it invites the abuse of power, and it is at that precise point that Jesus attacks it.” (in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 67)

Jesus then states that His followers are not to take up the sword in response to those who wield the sword against them; rather, Jesus’ followers are to take up “the cross.” This is a far cry from Jesus encouraging his followers to practice “justified violence.” Instead this is a call to keep standing up against abuse of power and promote a more egalitarian distribution of power even if you are being threatened with a cross for doing so. (See A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence, Part 4.)

Consider this passage about Jesus not bringing peace but a sword through the lens of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1955, King responded to an accusation that he was “disturbing the peace” through his activism during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King wrote, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” 

Jesus was not about peace-keeping but peace-making. He was not about keeping the peace, not disturbing the status quo, but about calling for justice, the justice that in the Jewish tradition was to be the foundation of peace. Peace was not the absence of conflict but about the fruit of a distributive, societal justice:

“Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end . . . establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness . . .” (Isaiah 9:7)

“The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths.” (Isaiah 59:8)

“Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4)

An example in the synoptic gospels that illustrate Jesus’ willingness to disturb the peace is his final entry into Jerusalem. He disrupted the Temple activity in protest of the economic system’s exploitation and oppression of the poor. 

In Mark 12:40, Jesus states how those benefiting from the system “devour widows’ houses” while “for a show make lengthy prayers.” Immediately Mark then gives an example of a poor widow paying the Temple tax (see Mark 12:41-13:2).

In Mark, Mathew, and Luke we read of Jesus entry into Jerusalem and his temple protest. My favorite is Mark’s version:

“They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, ‘’What are you doing, untying that colt?’ They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” (Mark 11:4-11)

The events of entering Jerusalem and overturning the tables in the Temple seem to have originally been planned as one combined event. Yet by the time Jesus gets to the temple, it is “already late” and most of the people there have returned home. For a demonstration to be effective there have to be people to witness the demonstration. You can’t protest and raise awareness without witnesses, and “business as usual” has to actually take place for one to disrupt. 

So Mark’s story states that Jesus went back to Bethany (most likely the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus) and stayed there for the night, then returned the next day to finish his protest. 

Ultimately I believe Jesus was seeking the peace that comes through everyone having enough not only to survive but also to thrive. A world where no one has too much while others don’t even have enough. Yet to do that, we must be willing to disrupt and disturb the status quo. Jesus did so nonviolently, yet his actions were disruptive nonetheless. And yes, it did bring a “sword.” Before the week of his protest was over, he was crucified for the economic and political implications of his Temple disruption and the ever growing crowd of Jewish working and peasant poor who were following him. His action of disturbing the peace brought the sword as he’d taught it would. This is, I believe, a much more life-giving interpretation of our passage then the teaching that Christians should not oppose violence.

Christian history would look very different if Christians had refused to take up the sword in Jesus’ name. The world, too, might even look very different had the church not abandoned Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence. Today, however, Christianity stands as the world religion with the most violent history. It is to the end of repairing that damage, especially to marginalized communities, that Christians must work toward today. 

Again, there is much to contemplate this week. 

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

HeartGroup Application.

1. Discuss with your group the differences between peace enforced by a sword and peace that is the fruit of distributive justice where everyone has enough.

2. What difference does it make for you personally to believe that the Jesus you follow was a disturber of the peace and invited his followers to be disturbers and disruptors of the peace in response to systemic injustice?

3. Discuss how you, too, both personally and collectively, can become a disturber of the peace in response to injustice. Pick something from your discussion and begin putting it into practice this week. 

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it. 

Don’t forget, we need your support here at RHM to continue making a difference.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.