Checking Your Privilege

Herb Montgomery | July 19, 2019

hand holding glasses
Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash

“We can do better than defensiveness. In this story of Jesus I hear the call to lay mine down . . . Another world is possible. But we’re going to have to learn to listen to those whose experiences are less privileged and end the very system of privilege if we are to get there.”


In Luke’s gospel we read a story of Jesus rebuking his disciples:

“As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.” (Luke 9:51-56)

Let’s get a little background on who the Samaritans were. To the best of our knowledge, this 1st Century group had Hebrew roots and focused on Mt. Gerizim rather than Jerusalem. The traced their lineage back to Ephraim and Manasseh of the northern tribes of Israel. When Israel returned from captivity and attempted to rebuild the temple, Jewish people in Jerusalem refused to allow Samaritans to join them in rebuilding the temple. This was a time when Jewish people feared their identity was at risk of being lost. During periods like this, hard lines are often drawn between insiders and outsiders. Jewish rejection of Samaritans thus led to open animosity, resentment, and even hostile violence between the communities. Samaritans erected their own temple on Mount Gerizim, which Jewish people destroyed in 130 BCE. The Samaritans built a second temple at Shechem. 

Bitter hatred between Jews and Samaritans continued to escalate, and the gospel stories were written during this period. It was dangerous for Jewish travelers to travel through Samaria. According to Josephus, “Now there arose a quarrel between the Samaritans and the Jews on the occasion following. It was the custom of the Galileans, when they came to the holy city at the festivals, to take their journeys through the country of the Samaritans. And at this time there lay in the road they took, a village that was called Ginea: which was situated in the limits of Samaria, and the great plain; where certain persons thereto belonging fought with the Galileans, and killed a great many of them.” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 6)

Reparation and reconciliation efforts between adherents of Samaritanism and Judaism throughout the centuries have been attempted. (For an excellent summary of the Samaritans and the challenges in understanding who they were in the 1st Century, see “Samaritans” in Craig A. Evans, et al. Dictionary of New Testament Background, InterVarsity Press, 2005, and Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, WB Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2019.)

Given this history, I find fascinating the story of Jesus rebuking his disciples’ violent attitude toward the Samaritans. 

I live in a predominantly White area of West Virginia. I was born and raised here, and though we moved away when I became an adult, we moved back to take care of my mother who since passed away. I remember a time when a dear friend of mine who is Black visited us. As we walked through the grocery store together, she blurted out, “Two.” 

“Two?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s how many non-White people I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”

Europeans first settled in my little town in the mid 1700s, and we just elected our first Black mayor. We still have a long way to go in my area of this state in the work of racial justice.

From time to time I hear people attempting to define justice efforts as “reverse racism” and getting upset whenever White privilege is even brought up. Crystal and I were standing with other parents at my daughter’s high school and talking about privilege and racial injustice. One of the dads blurted out, “I’m never gonna apologize for being born White!” I shook my head. Crystal tried to help him understand. He didn’t get it and I don’t think he really wanted to.

In the story we began with, Jesus doesn’t take a defensive stance when the Samaritans refuse him lodging. In fact, he rebukes his disciples for their desire to retaliate against what they deemed as inhospitality. For crying out loud! Did the disciples actually think the Samaritans should offer thirteen Jewish men lodging given all that Jewish men had done to them? 

I want to imagine that Jesus understood. That he didn’t fault the Samaritans. That he knew the Samaritans had a right to set the healthy boundaries they needed. I find it interesting that he didn’t lecture the Samaritans on their need to show him, a Jewish man, some enemy-love. I want to believe that Jesus understood the Samaritans’ right to self-determine whom they would and wouldn’t offer lodging to. Social location matters, and I want to believe that Jesus is not just rebuking his own disciples for being offended but also taking the side of the Samaritans. 

I’ve worked with multiple organizations in my town that are engaged in racial justice work here, and I continually have to choose to check my privilege. Sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I screw up and have to make things right. I’ve learned that what is okay for someone in one social location to do is not always okay for those in other social locations and vice versa. At a Christian conference event a couple years ago, a very popular, Christian preacher and author shut me out of the conversation and challenged my call to build egalitarian, mutual participation in Christian circles. Later that week, a friend who is queer and Latinx told me that another White straight male, an invited speaker, needed to bow out of a panel they were on to allow room for other voices and other perspectives. My beliefs about egalitarian, mutual participation in Christian circles were challenged again, but differently. Some would see these as the same thing, but, no, social location matters. It is perfectly right for people whose social location is less privileged and whose voices are typically excluded to demand a seat at the table instead. This is very different from someone whose social location is privileged demanding their voice be the only one heard.

If these thoughts are new to you, a great discussion of the principles of racial justice is Teaching Tolerance’s White Anti-Racism: Living the Legacy. Answering the question, “What are the common mistakes white activists make when trying to be allies to people of color?” Yvette Robles, a Chicana and Community Relations Manager in Los Angeles, responds, “Not acknowledging that they have power and privilege by the mere fact that they are white. That is not to say that other parts of their identity can’t lead them to feel powerless, for example, being white and gay, or being white and working class. Another mistake I see is when white activists try to emulate a different culture by changing how they act, their speech or style of dress. It’s one thing to appreciate someone else’s culture; it’s quite another to adopt it.” 

Georgette Norman, an African American woman and director of the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, adds, “The most common mistakes white activists make are setting an agenda with the illusion of inclusion, and having to have a franchise on comfort. God forbid a person of color says or does anything to make white activists feel uncomfortable. That means there can be no discussion of race and no challenge to their privilege, which means no challenge to their power.” 

Sejal Patel, a South Asian American woman and community organizer in South Asian immigrant communities answers the same question: “White anti-racists make a mistake when they shut out the poor and uneducated and keep in those ‘in the know’ to decide what’s good for people of color. No movement can work where there is divisiveness. Also, if people of color want to have their own space and place in certain aspects of society — say for a weekend or a month — they shouldn’t have to feel like they are being exclusive for doing this. White activists need to understand that society is their space and place every single day, and they shouldn’t feel threatened or left out.”

I interpret Jesus in this story as acknowledging the degree of Jewish power and privilege he held in contrast with the Samaritans in his society. He respected their space. Jesus wasn’t offended by them protecting their space. In fact he rebukes his fellow Jewish male disciples for taking offense and becoming defensive (offensive).

The disciples could have found biblical examples to use to justify their retaliation of “calling fire down from heaven.” They could have used Elijah’s words in 2 Kings 1:10: “If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” They could have appealed to other stories like the tale of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, where even “the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the LORD out of the heavens.” (Genesis 19:24)

Jesus could have become defensive and chosen to use any of these stories against those who received Jewish violence, and he didn’t.

So what can people of privilege learn from this story?

Check your defensiveness.

I just finished reading the late James H. Cone’s posthumously published book, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of A Black Theologian. In one portion, Cone recounts how many of his white listeners responded when he spoke out on loving his own blackness and embracing Black Power: 

“When I spoke of loving blackness and embracing Black Power, they heard hate toward white people. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and James Baldwin confronted similar reactions. Any talk about the love and beauty of blackness seemed to arouse fear and hostility in whites.” (James H. Cone, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, Orbis Books. Kindle Edition, Kindle Location 592)

We can do better than defensiveness. In this story of Jesus I hear the call to lay mine down. 

Straight people can choose to listen to LGBTQ people rather than be defensive. 

White people can choose to listen to people of color rather than be defensive.

Cis men can choose to listen to women, cis and trans, rather than be defensive. 

Cis folk can choose to listen to trans folk rather than be defensive.

Non-disabled folk can choose to listen to disabled folk rather than be defensive. 

Wealthy people can choose to listen to the poor and working classes rather than be defensive. 

Wisdom is not the sole property of those who are most widely read or who have gained the most academic accomplishments.

Another world is possible. 

But we’re going to have to learn to listen to those whose experiences are less privileged and end the very system of privilege if we are to get there.

“When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” (Luke 9:54-55)

HeartGroup Application

  1. Can you name a time when listening to someone else’s experience made a significant change in your own understanding?
  2. Share with the group what it was that actually changed.
  3. How can we make a practice out of learning to listen to others? Be creative.
  4. Choose something from this discussion and put it into practice this week.

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

Today, choose love, compassion, taking action and seeking justice. 

Together we can choose to take steps toward a world that is a safe, compassionate, just home for us all. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Jaundiced Eye Darkens the Body’s Light 

by Herb Montgomery

An eye with rainbow coloring

Featured Text:

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is generous, your whole body is radiant; but if your eye is jaundiced, your whole body is dark. So if the light within you is dark, how great must the darkness be!” (Q 11:34-35)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 6:22-23: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”

Luke 11:34-35: “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness.”

Gospel of Thomas 24:3: “Light exists inside a person of light, and he shines on the whole world. If he does not shine, there is darkness.”

To begin, our saying this week uses metaphors that are rooted in ableism.  Fish don’t know they’re wet.  Able-bodied people often don’t realize how ableist they are being. But acknowledge it we must, for this is a first step toward change. Naming injustice is a primary step toward action that reverses injustice. “In ableist societies, able-bodiedness is viewed as the norm; people with disabilities are understood as those that deviate from that norm. Disability is seen as something to overcome or to fix, for example, through medical intervention. The ableist worldview holds that disability is an error or a failing rather than a consequence of human diversity, akin to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ableism)

With this in mind, let’s look at what this week’s saying was attempting to teach.

Lamp of the Body is the Eye

In 1st Century Jewish culture, people believed that a person possessed either light or darkness within them: “The human spirit is the lamp of YHWH that sheds light on one’s inmost being” (Proverbs 22:27). In our saying this week, Jesus uses the eyes as a symbol for determining whether what is inside his listeners is truly light or really darkness. “Many people believed that light was emitted from the eye, enabling one to see, rather than that light was admitted through the eye. Although here Jesus compares the eye to a lamp, he speaks of ‘diseased’ eyes which fail to admit light.” (IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament; Matthew 6:22-23 cf. 11:34-36)

When one steps back into the cultural context of this week’s saying, the meaning is rather simple: what you see when you look at others determines whether what is inside of you is “light” or “dark.” Two people can look at the same person and see very different things, based on what their eyes are trained to see.

A fun, literary example is found in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about Sherlock Holmes. As a private investigator, Sherlock’s eyes and powers of observation are well trained to see much more than others around him see. In our saying this week, Jesus is teaching his listeners about a specific power of observation that he desired his followers to become proficient in: the ability to look at others who share our world with us through the lens of generosity.

Generosity

When you look at others, what do you see? Is it typically positive by default? Do you give people the benefit of a doubt? Do you assume the best about them? Or is your eye judgmental, maybe critical, or even condemnatory?

Jesus spoke positively of having an eye that was “single,” “generous,” or “healthy.”

A healthy eye sees others generously. And it is singular, too, in the sense that one is persistent in generously extending the image of God to everyone that one encounters. A person with a healthy eye remembers the truth in the Jewish story that an angel walks before each of us declaring “Behold the image of God.” Being disrespectful or to humiliate anyone bearing the Divine image is a denial, in that person, of the Divine whose image they bear. These acts were also seen as a defacement of the Divine image. To lie about another person was to deny the very existence of God. The school of Hillel in the first century taught that murder was both a civil violation and a sacrilege of that which was sacred. The Hebrews’ sacred text taught that when we shed human blood, the act is regarded as diminishing the corporate divine image within humanity. In the Hebrew creation story found in the second chapter of Genesis, humanity begins with the whole of humanity in one person. This was believed to have taught that the taking of a human life is equivalent to annihilating the entire world. The opposite was held to also be true—to save one life was to save the entire world. (Remember the ending scenes of the film Schindler’s List.) This applied to slaves and to non-Jews as well. The Jewish religion of the Rabbis became inseparable from the practice of the golden rule to others and practicing the golden rule became the touchstone of one’s religious worship of the Divine.

This is listening for and seeing God in the Other. According to Genesis, all persons bear the image of God (see Genesis 9:6). In the Christian New Testament we find this passage: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1John 4:20). If every person bears the image of God, I’m called to see and to listen to God in you, whoever you are. If we generously kept in mind the view that every person we meet bears the image of God, how different our world might be.

In addition to this, Matthew’s context builds on this generous view with a focus on economic generosity: Jesus’ vision of a world where people take responsibility for taking care of one another. “Jesus speaks literally of a ‘single’ eye versus a ‘bad‘ or ‘evil‘ one. A ‘single‘ eye normally meant a generous one. A ‘bad‘ eye in that culture could mean either a diseased one or a stingy one. Such eyes become a symbol for the worthlessness of a stingy person.” (IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament; Matthew 6:22-23 cf. Luke 11:34-36)

Luke adds another statement to this emphasis on resources. A few passages later, Jesus states, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” (Luke 11:39-41)

In both of these gospels, this saying refers to serving other people. Again, Jesus’ new world is defined primarily by people taking care of people. Later New Testament letters include these words: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:17)

In addition, Jesus’ generosity goes far beyond economic generosity. It also encompasses the whole person. The media plays a part in this for us. When people of color, especially men, are victims of police brutality, the media goes to work to criminalize them so as to bias how the rest of us see them. (See How News Networks Criminalize Black Victims of Police Violence.) Contrast this with how the media characterized Brock Turner, a rapist, and put the highest possible spin on his character to the masses. Just this week, Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the article My President Was Black, was interviewed on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah. In the interview Cotes contrasted the path it took for Obama to become president and the path Trump took to do the same:

“If I have to jump six feet to get to the same place you have to jump two feet for, that’s how racism works . . . to be president he [Obama] had to be scholarly, intelligent, president of the Harvard Law Review, the product of some of our greatest educational institutions, capable of talking to two different worlds. Donald Trump had to be rich and white. That was it. That’s the difference.” (See the interview here.)

What we chose to see when we look at another person should be more than skin deep. What we choose to see and what we choose to believe about a person will directly impact our thoughts, feelings, opinions and attitudes toward them and ultimately our behavior. This is possibly why in this week’s saying, Jesus says that what we see in another determines whether we truly possess light instead of darkness.

The very first thing we should choose to see and believe in each person we encounter is that they are of inestimable worth simply because they are a part of the human web. This applies not to just individuals, but also to the entire planet. As Oscar Romero taught, “We are not three worlds [First World, Second World, and Third World], we are one world.”

In Jesus’ worldview, God indiscriminately causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall:

“ . . . He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

“ . . . he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” (Luke 6:35)

Jesus called his followers to relate to genuine political and economic enemies with love that seeks to transform them from oppressing the lower classes. Yet some White Christians today still discriminate against others based on their skin color, and some Evangelical business owners discriminate in whom they bake cupcakes and pizzas for.

If the sun shines on a person, if the rain falls on a person, we are called to see them as a bearer of the image of the Divine, to look for God in them, regardless of how much we feel tempted to “Other” them as instead. We are all connected.

Yes, we are different, and those differences should be seen and celebrated, but we are all still part of one another and in this together. When we fail to celebrate each other, when we choose to neglect this basic step in how we are seeing others, it does not matter what we claim to be—light bearer or reflector—the light we claim to possess is actually darkness.

With these thoughts in mind, let us contemplate our saying this week:

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is generous, your whole body is radiant; but if your eye is jaundiced, your whole body is dark. So if the light within you is dark, how great must the darkness be!” (Q 11:34-35)

HeartGroup Application

In the book I wrote over a decade ago now (Finding the Father) I proposed that what a person believes about God determines how they think and feel toward God, especially in the context of the spiritual abuse many theists within Christianity have suffered. I proposed that however we choose to see a God ultimately affects how we choose to behave and what type of a person, as a worshipper of that God, we will become.

This week I want to draw our heads out of the clouds for a moment and place our feet firmly on planet Earth. Apply this week’s principles to how you relate to other people. What we choose to believe about others, what we choose to see when we look at another, will determine our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, opinions, and our behavior in relation to them.

Jesus taught that one cannot live out indiscriminate justice, faith, and love toward others without it impacting how one begins to perceive others. We start with the behavior of simply listening to the experiences of those who are not like us. A Buddhist friend of mine introduced me to this saying, and I believe it teaches the same universal truth that we are seeing in the sayings of Jesus this week:

“Some people live closely guarded lives, fearful of encountering someone or something that might shatter their insecure spiritual foundation. This attitude, however, is not the fault of religion but of their own limited understanding. True Dharma leads in exactly the opposite direction. It enables one to integrate all the many diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole, thereby banishing fear and insecurity completely.” Lama Thubten Yeshe, (Daily Wisdom: 365 Buddhist Inspirations)

Jesus’ saying invites us to do the same, to “integrate all the many diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole, thereby banishing fear and insecurity completely.”

If the sun shines on them, if the rain falls on them, we have a mandate from the saying of Jesus to imitate Jesus’ God as we interact with them.

  1.   List ways that you can begin making space in your life to listen to those who are different from yourself, especially those whom the present status quo does not benefit. If the sun and rain are for all, prioritize listening to those whom society prevents the sun and rain from reaching. Try actual conversations (where your posture is one of simply listening), following people on Twitter, listening to podcasts, and reading books by authors from a different walk through life than your own.
  2. With as much honesty as you can achieve, contrast the ways you now choose to negatively see some people and write the positive assumptions that you could choose instead. Pay close attention to how these assumptions would affect how you think, feel, and relate to those people.
  3. As a group, begin making space for voices that are different. One of the ways HeartGroups can do this well is by asking others to simply come and share their experience with the group. I have been invited to go and share at a very warm and welcoming interfaith fellowship in my home town. HeartGroups can do the same. We can look for things we have in common with others, like the universal values of compassion and justice. And we could benefit from comparing and valuing our differences, viewing them in the light of intrinsic fruit.

What does it mean for you to begin listening for and looking for God in the other?

Wherever this finds you this week, I’m glad you’re here. Keep living in love, loving with the equity of the sun and the rain, with a preferential option of those being prevented from accessing what meant for all equally.

This will be our last eSight/podcast for 2016. We’ll be back in two weeks. Have a happy holidays and we here at RHM wish you a very happy new year.

I love each of you dearly.

See you in 2017.

The Beatitude for the Eyes that See (God in the Othered)

Picture of an eye

“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you: Many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see, but never saw it, and to hear what you hear, but never heard it.” (Q 10:23-24)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 13:10-17: “The disciples came to him and asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?’ He replied, ‘Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’ In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”

Luke 10:21-22: “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ Then he turned to his disciples and said privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.’”

This week’s saying is given two different contexts in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. For Luke, this is the third portion of the much larger saying that we have been considering over the last two weeks: the community that Jesus sent out returns and share their testimonies of success. But in Matthew, the context is different, part of Jesus’ response to why he taught using parables. Let’s take a look at both.

Matthew’s Setting

Matthew, which many scholars today believe was written to a predominantly Jewish Jesus-following audience, seems to be trying to do two things:

  1. Affirm (and possibly explain) Jesus’ teachings to that audience in the face of their larger community’s rejection; and
  2. Affirm that Jesus, his teachings, and the path his followers walked because of those teachings were all rooted in the long-held hope that injustice, oppression, and violence against Israel would be put right. Jesus fulfilled that hope.

In the early 2nd Century, Irenaeus tells us that those in the Jesus community who were Jewish Jesus followers, the Ebionites, exclusively used Matthew’s gospel (Against Heresies, Book 3, chapter 11, paragraph 7).

These Jewish-Jesus followers, holding on to the great Hebrew hope of survival, liberation, and restoration, would have been deeply encouraged to hear that Jesus and his teachings were what their ancestors had been looking forward to.

Luke’s Setting

Luke, on the other hand, is believed to have been written with a predominantly Gentile Jesus-following audience. Luke preserves the Q context of:

  1. God’s wisdom given to the most vulnerable, as opposed to those in control of the status quo.
  2. Jesus’ testimony that he received this wisdom by direct revelation and was choosing to share it.
  3. Our saying this week for Jesus’ disciples who were encountering a “God-given” wisdom from the excluded and marginalized that not many kings and prophets were privileged to know. Through following Jesus, they entered into deeper compassion and a posture of humble listening.

This setting from Luke is very important. The “kings” would have been in positions of power within exploitative systems. And the “prophets,” those of the school of the prophets, would have spoken on behalf of the exploited but not necessarily as part of the exploited community. (Exceptions to this include prophets like Amos, who was a sheep herder and farmer.)

What we are encountering this week is a wisdom seen by children, the most vulnerable among us; a wisdom directly related to their experiences from living and being marginalized in our world. This is the wisdom and perspective that the disciples were encountering. It’s as if Luke’s Jesus leans over to his followers and whispers, “You are blessed! The wisdom you are seeing, this wisdom gained through listening to the experiences and voices of those at the lowest sectors of our society is wisdom that those in other sectors of society are not able to see (see Matthew 18:2).

Today

I run into this dynamic more often than I’d like to. Recently, after I gave a presentation on Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence, I was struck once again by the resistant response of some in my audience.

I’d been careful to explain that Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence were specifically targeted at the lowest classes of his society, the poor and disinherited, as wisdom about survival and nonviolent resistance. I pointed out that it was through this nonviolent resistance that Jesus taught them they would be liberated and their enemies would be transformed.

Afterward, a couple of audience members came up to me and asked, “But what do you do if someone is breaking into your home?”

What I want you to notice is what this question reveals. My audience members were encountering Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence not from the position of the lowest class, but from the middle classes, and maybe even the upper class. Jesus’ message of nonviolence would have instead addressed those who would be breaking into homes as a method of survival, not the ones whose homes were being broken into. To the poor, Jesus taught nonviolent forms of resistance, ways for them to reclaim their humanity. To those whose homes were being broken into, Jesus would have shared a very different message: he would have told this demographic to take our extra, the stuff of which luxury is made, put the needs of our fellow human siblings above our own comfort, and share. He would have told us to take our superfluous or hoarded wealth and share it with the poor.

Just as nonviolence might not have been received well by those who felt violent means were their only means of survival, I’m sure Jesus’ teachings about mutual aid, resource sharing, and voluntary wealth redistribution was also met with resistance from the middle and upper classes.

Middle to upper class church members I recently spoke to spent the first half of our week together struggling to get their heads around the Jesus they were encountering in Matthew and Luke. This Jesus really didn’t sound like the way they were used to thinking about him.

The Jesus story’s themes of survival and liberation from the human suffering caused by systems of injustice simply don’t mean as much to those whose position in society protects them from that suffering. Those in a different societal position prefer themes that focus on their personal forgiveness, God’s love for them, and promised post mortem bliss.

I’ve been preparing a talk for this weekend on nonviolence and what Christian theologians call the atonement. One of the points I’ll be making is the importance of listening to those who have been victimized by various atonement theories. To illustrate what I’m saying, let me share the experience of Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher. I mentioned him last week:

“Whenever I preached this passage [God is love] as a pastor, I could always expect to gain at least one new convert! There is something inviting about such love, a love which has been poured out toward us human beings first, by GOD. For no earthly rhyme or reason the GOD of the universe has ‘loved us first,’ sending an ‘only Son’ to die for us and become ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10b), that through the death and resurrection of GOD’s Son, we might die to our sins and live in the reassurance of God’s mighty love. Such is the standard ‘atonement-love doctrine’ preached weekly in Christian churches throughout the world. Abiding in this sacrificial love of GOD as expressed through the death and resurrection of ‘His’ Son Jesus is posited as the consummate experience and expression a GODly life.

“The strengths of this position are time-honored. When one conforms one’s life to a model of love-as-atoning sacrifice, then the complication of prioritizing are greatly simplified. Life becomes one’s individual sense of a calling by GOD. Life unfolds as a conflictual, strenuous, and yet not unmanageable series of testings, temptations, victories, and occasional failures to do GOD’s ‘will.’ The important norm for such a life is obedience to the will of GOD, and the GOD adored and followed is regularly consulted for guidance. GOD’s love, in such a view of love-as-atoning sacrifice, enables one to become ‘Christ-like’ because of one’s willingness to die to self and rise in Christ. There is a galvanizing power in believing that even if one dies for a particular ‘cause,’ all things will be all right because it is a redeeming and atoning sacrifice, a sacrifice of love, freely given. Such a view of love conflates sacrificial acts, all such acts, with GOD’s Christ-like love. The conflationary energy of such enables one to be Christ in situations of conflict, trial, oppression, and even abuse. It is precisely in the confectionary energies of love-as-atoning sacrifice that its greatest danger and weakness resides.” (My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God Talk, by Karen Baker-Fletcher and Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher.)

Kasimu goes on to demonstrate the detriment this gospel has brought to women in domestically violent situations who are desiring to be simply “Christ-like.” He then states, “Being ‘like Christ’ or imitating Christ by sacrificing one’s self for another is dangerous.”

He contrasts the above private, individual, and personal way of seeing Jesus with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “reformulation” of GOD’s love. King saw God’s love in the Jesus narrative as including not simply his death but also the elements of “justice, social power, hope, sacrifice, and a vision of the telos of community that has great potential for a healthier view of GOD’s love.” But all of this drives home the point.

This reformulation is the result of what the vulnerable see! Those in positions of privilege and power in our society are so indoctrinated and socialized that they don’t even see what is so wrong and dangerous about the traditional description of love-as-atoning sacrifice. Not being able to see it yet is a strong indication of one’s need to begin looking at the Jesus story from the perspective of those to whom our society’s present structure is doing the greatest harm. As we stated last week, this means looking for God in those that we and our society today have “othered.” When you do finally see it, it will be as if Jesus himself is leaning over to you, saying to you as he did his disciples long ago:

“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you: Many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see, but never saw it, and to hear what you hear, but never heard it.” (Q 10:23-24)

HeartGroup Applications

Matthew seems to describe what the disciples see as from Jesus himself. Luke seems to define it as the wisdom we gain from the most vulnerable. Both Matthew and Luke can be right. Let’s make some time this week to put what Jesus taught into practice by listening to those who are not like ourselves. Let’s look for God in the Othered.

July’s book for RHM’s annual reading course was J. Denny Weaver’s Nonviolent Atonement. Beginning on page 129 and then on through page 217, Weaver dialogues with the various theologies that arise out of the experiences of black liberation, feminism, and womanism.

1. I’d like you to pick one of those chapters and either through Weaver’s book or in the books that Weaver refers to (many are available from Amazon in a digital format), begin listening to various perspectives of Jesus from experiences that are unlike your own.

2.  Over the next few weeks, discuss with your HeartGroup what you are discovering and how your own beliefs are being challenged and affirmed. Share how you have been encouraged, and also discuss how some of your own cherished beliefs have not borne positive fruit for people with experiences unlike yours.

3. Discuss with your HeartGroup how each of you can move toward healthier ways of interpreting and understanding the Jesus story, ways that do not produce victims, but that bring healing for the entire human family. Lean into those changes. Choose to see the Jesus story through these new lenses and allow those changes to impact the decisions you make in your daily lives.

Learning how to listen for God in the Othered is a life changing experience for so many who have the courage and openness to engage in the process. It can be deeply challenging, deeply confronting, and deeply affirming all at once. I’m wishing you all the best.

Thank you for joining us this week.

And thank you for your decision to live in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Knowing the Father through the Son 

by Herb Montgomerypicture of a father and son
“Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son and to whomever the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Q 10:22)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:27: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Luke 10:22: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Gospel of Thomas 61:3: “Jesus said to her: ‘I am he who comes from the one who is always the same. I was given some of that which is my Father’s.’”

Jesus’ Substantiation of the God of the Vulnerable

Last week we discussed how the God Jesus called his followers to envision was committed to the most vulnerable ones in society. The very next saying shows Jesus appealing to direct revelation to substantiate his claim that God was a God for the vulnerable and not just the strong and well-placed. Consider the possible responses to Jesus’ saying from last week—that God had actually revealed truth to those on the margins of their society rather than to their religious sages and learned leaders. Pairing that saying with this week’s implies that the Jesus community attributed this truth to direct revealation.

How did Jesus know that God was the revealer of truth for the vulnerable? That this God belonged to the marginalized and excluded in his own society? This knowledge had been given to him directly from God and he was choosing to reveal it to his followers.

And while this defense of direct and unique revelation may have established the credibility of the Jesus community in their society in the first century, it leaves some big questions untouched in our context today.  In this saying, Jesus says that what he knows was “entrusted to him by his father” and that he also chooses to “reveal” things to the folks he chooses to.

That opens up questions like:

  •                 How do we know we’re getting insights from God or Jesus?
  •                 Are there any other possible sources?
  •                 Does direct revelation have to be validated by the authorities (in Jesus’ case, it wasn’t even though he appealed to and reinterpreted the prophets)?
  •                 How can we distinguish healthy insight/revelation from destructive insight/revelation?

Some modern people worry about whether their interpretations are valid or they are self-deceiving, especially if they’ve been taught that nothing the Holy Spirit reveals will contradict scripture. Could it be that the best way to know whether or not you’re on the right track is to actually follow what Jesus is teaching in this section of the sayings and listen to the voices of the most vulnerable and how they are affected by your “revelation?” This method, which my friend Keisha McKenzie calls Listening for God in the Othered, is a way to test “revelation” by its fruit.

Jesus’ direct revelation was not attested to by the status quo authorities, but he spoke of his father entrusting insight to him as he taught that we need to listen the revelation God has given to the lowest sector of our society: we need to listen to “the children.”

There is a danger in claiming direct revelation and ending the discussion there. Direct revelation is not a method that is reproducible and that we can use ourselves at will.  But we can lean into the truth that Jesus is attesting to in this saying. We can listen to the most vulnerable. We can hear from their experiences whether or not our “revelations” or interpretations of sacred texts produce good fruit.

It’s a hermeneutical method of testing by considering results. (See Matthew 7.16-20.)

My Father

I want to discuss for a moment Jesus’ referring to God as his “Father” because of the problematic nature of gendering Divinity. There are a number of things we must take into consideration.

First, Jesus lived and taught within two deeply patriarchal cultures: Roman and Jewish. We cannot escape the reality that Jesus and those he ministered to moved about within a patriarchal world.

Second, Jesus naming God as Father was less parental and more political. This way of naming God had a historical context in Judaism.

Referring to God as “Father” and having God referring to someone as “son” was a special relationship attributed to Judah’s king and YHWH. In the Psalms, this title was applied to David and it was also extended to Solomon.

Psalms 2:7: “I will proclaim the LORD’S decree: He said to me [David], ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.’”

Psalms 89:26: “He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.’”

2 Samuel 7:12-14: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He [Solomon] is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son.

Matthew’s gospel, a very Jewish version of the Jesus story, identifies Jesus with this language. It makes perfect sense. Matthew’s gospel continually employs imagery of Jesus and God as Father and son, and it is impossible to determine whether this unique rhetoric was original to Jesus or was created by the Jewish community who loved and followed him. What is clear is that this rhetoric was part of the hope for the liberation and restoration of Israel in the first century. At minimum, the followers of Jesus claimed that Jesus’ coming marked the start of this restoration.

Luke’s Gentile community would have used this rhetoric as well, not to associate Jesus with a past Jewish leader but for the purposes of contrast with a present Roman one.

As we covered last December in Two Visions [or Versions] of Peace (Part 3 of 3), this language was also used in the Roman empire to refer to Caesar’s supposed divine ancestry:

“It was Augustus Caesar who, during the time of Luke’s birth-narrative, was entitled Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Here is why.

Rome 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. Augustus, the adopted son of Julius, was like his father deified, or regarded as a god. He was given the title 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 produced a society where an elite at the top benefited from the subjugation of the many beneath them. Luke addresses all four of these aspects in his gospel. In response to Rome’s military power, Luke presents the teachings of Jesus on nonviolence. In response to Rome’s economic power, Luke presents Jesus’ teachings on 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.’ Rome’s theology was larger than Caesar and included the worship of deities such as Mars the god of war, but it included the worship of Caesar as the incarnate representation of the Divine.

As theologian Adolf Gustav Deissmann wrote, it’s important for us to recognize 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”’ (p. 349).

Knowing Augustus’ birth-narratives is also beneficial to us. The story was that on the night of Augustus’ conception, Augustus’ father had a dream in which he saw the sun rising from Atias, his wife’s 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.

Here’s a description from the 2nd Century CE of the divine conception of Augustus Caesar; it 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 herself, 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)”

Our Father

Gendering God as Father creates negative problems in human society but we must also consider the positive shift in Jesus’ teachings. God as Father was no longer an isolated privilege of one king at the top of a hierarchical societal structure. Jesus stands in his own prophetic tradition in affirming the communal nature of this title. The prophets had also shifted away from calling only the king the “son” of YHWH, and spoke of the entire nation as equal claimants to the parentage of YHWH.

Isaiah 63:16: “But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.”

Isaiah 64:8: “Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Jeremiah 31:9: “They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son.”

Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”

Malachi 2:10: “Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another?”

And Jesus, when asked in Matthew to give instruction about prayer, like the prophets before him, taught his followers to address God as “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:9, emphasis added)

Jesus’s teaching affirmed within a deeply patriarchal society that being able to refer to God as a parent was not the privilege of an isolated hero or king, but an egalitarian privilege that the entire community could enjoy. We are all children of Jesus’ God. We are all siblings (cf. Luke 19:9). We are all bearers of the image of God.

Luke also includes some evidence that Jesus used some feminine images for the Sacred Divine. For our time, some think it problematic that these images are domestic, but for Jesus to associate this imagery with God in his society would have been very provocative.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10, emphasis added)

Jesus is accessing portions of his own Jewish tradition in using these feminine images for God. As Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher so aptly points out in the book My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God-talk, within the Torah, God is likened to a Mother Eagle:

Like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft. (Deuteronomy 32:11)

This imagery is both earthy and transcendent, nurturing and independent; it is strong, powerful, and compassionate. The motherly love of the eagle as an image of the Divine holds much promise, specifically for women. (For further discussion, please see My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God-talk, pp. 49-51, 64-65.)

Jesus also used the Mother Hen image as well. Yet, as Karen Baker-Fletcher points out in the same volume, this image reemphasizes in patriarchal cultures negative stereotypes of women as “old hens,” “hen pecking,” and overprotectiveness.

I would strongly argue, though, that in the Jesus stories, we do not see Jesus applying the mother hen imagery to God, but to himself. He states “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” (Matthew 23:37, emphasis added.) For a man in Jesus’ context to have embraced using the mother hen language for himself could deeply affirm men as they strive to abandon harmful stereotypes of masculinity and strive toward becoming more nurturing and tender, as men, just as Jesus was.

We don’t always remember that Jesus grew up with a mother who was likely a widow for most of his adulthood. Jesus would have witnessed firsthand the struggles that women in his society faced. I think it is also telling that Luke includes a statement that women were supporting Jesus’ ministry from their own means (Luke 8:3). As the director of a nonprofit, I can attest that folks don’t financially support you unless they resonate with something you are saying or doing. In Jesus’ teachings, these women must have seen something that liberated them, too.

So what we see this week is Jesus gendering God. We must pair with his references to God as Father examples of him using female imagery for God as well. Jesus used imagery that affirmed patriarchal structure and stereotypes as well as imagery that challenged patriarchal structures and stereotypes. He did both. Like the Jewish prophets before him, Jesus enlarged the image of the divine as parent and saw the whole community having the same equal relationship. And lastly, his reference to his Father in this week’s saying substantiates a relationship where, through direct revelation, YHWH had revealed that to him that YHWH is a God who possesses a preferential option for the most vulnerable, not the “sages” and “leaders” of their society. This could have been deeply subversive in his time.

We’re considering all of these things as we contemplate this week’s saying and its possible application to our work of survival, resistance, liberation, transformation and restoration. Jesus claimed that God, in the patriarchal terms of his own place and time, is a “Father to the fatherless,” and we could add a “Mother to the motherless.” God parents the most vulnerable among us. Jesus calls us to imagine this “God” ourselves, and begin centering the most vulnerable as we seek to understand societal truths from their experiences. I’ll place both last week’s and this week’s saying together for your meditation, as we close. The title that the Q scholars give this section is Knowing the Father through the Son. What does the son reveal to us about the Father? That God is the God of the most vulnerable among us.

“At that time he said: I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for you hid these things from sages and the learned, and disclosed them to children. Yes, Father, for that is what it has pleased you to do. Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son and to whomever the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Q 10:2122, emphasis added.)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, contemplate on your own and as a group the implications of affirming God as both Mother and Father. According to Genesis 1, God made us all in God’s image. How does this shift to a more inclusive image of God challenge the boundaries our culture has created? What does God as both Mother and Father say to you about the value of men and women?
  2. For the next seven days, try something new in your prayer time. If you address the Divine in your prayers, simply try using the phrase “Mother-Father God.” See what this does inside of you. What of your own prejudices and stereotypes does it push against? What might it begin to free you from?
  3. Lastly, journal your experiments with praying like this and share what positive and negative things you discover with your HeartGroup next week for discussion.

Thank you again for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

More than a Prophet

(And the Inability of Those in “Fine Clothing”)

by Herb Montgomery

Man in Tux, adjusting cufflinks.“And when they had left, he began to talk to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A person arrayed in finery? Look, those wearing finery are in kings’ houses. But then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet! This is the one about whom it has been written: Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your path in front of you. I tell you: There has not arisen among women’s offspring anyone who surpasses John. Yet the least significant in God’s kingdom is more than he.’” (Q 7:24-28)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:7-11: “As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’”

Luke 7:24-28: “After John’s messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’”

Gospel of Thomas 78: “Jesus says, ‘Why did you go out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind, and to see a person dressed in soft clothing [like your] kings and your great/powerful persons? They are dressed in soft clothing and will not be able to recognize the truth.’”

In the Jewish tradition, the role of a prophet was to be a gadfly to those at the top of the Jewish domination system, both priests and kings. The common thread in their work was a call for justice for the oppressed, marginalized, vulnerable and exploited. The clearest example of this focus is Amos. Hebrew prophets were not prognosticators. Rather they were those who cast a imaginative vision of a future where all violence, injustice, and oppression were put right.

Yet John the Baptist was more than this. He emerged not by casting a vision for a distant hope, but by announcing that the vision long hoped for had arrived. It was here, now, today!

Last week we discussed the differences between the proclamations of John and the actual ministry of Jesus. In our saying this week, however, Jesus reveals deep respect for John and those who followed him. John was the “real deal” calling for social change now! And, he practiced what he preached. He did not come in “fine clothes” and “luxury” bringing good news to the exploited and subjugated. He had abandoned the luxury of the priestly aristocracy (in Luke John’s father was a priest). He was a voice, in solidarity with the exploited, crying out in the wilderness, to prepare the way for the coming that Isaiah had announced.

This connection to Isaiah’s (and Malachi’s) liberation theme was central to the community that cherished Sayings Gospel Q.

Isaiah 40:3: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

Isaiah 57:14: “And it will be said: ‘Build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people.’”

Isaiah 62:10: “Pass through, pass through the gates! Prepare the way for the people. Build up, build up the highway! Remove the stones. Raise a banner for the nations.”

Malachi 3:1: “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.”

 

Inability to Recognize The Truth

This saying appears in Gospel of Thomas as well as in the canonical texts. This gospel captures the inability of those benefited or “privileged” by the status quo to rightly characterize the movements of John and Jesus. Those who represent the institutional establishment, its apologists, and its complicit supporters do not internally resonate with a revolution: they aren’t in a position that enables them to recognize “good news” when it emerges.

In Mark, too, the Jesus movement isn’t perceived as good news by Herod, Caiaphas, or Pilate, but rather as a threat to each. The Gospel of Thomas expresses this universal truth explicitly when it states that these leaders “will not be able” to even “recognize the truth.” The truth could be all around them and they would either miss its significance or proclaim it as dangerous or even heretical. But the oppressed know good news when they hear it.

In matters of theology, and I would now also argue in economics and politics, it is important to listen to the perspectives and interpretations of those who don’t benefit from the present system. In matters of theology, as we have discussed in previous weeks, it is White, colonial, European, and patriarchal theologians that struggle to “recognize” liberating truth, and the Church desparately needs the voices of our liberation, Black liberation, feminist, womanist, and queer theologians. As a result of their places in the present society, they are best positioned to recognize what is genuine good news and what is the same old religious endorsement of exploitative systems that benefit some at the expense of the many or benefit the majority at exclusion and marginalization of a few.

 

Egalitarianism in the “Empire” of God

Also notice that even though John was “more than a prophet,” in Jesus’ subversive “empire,” those considered the most insignificant are esteemed even more than John. Why? This upends the customs of the empire of Rome, but it works because in Jesus’s new world people value and take care of people. Everyone is valued and that which dehumanizes or devalues is systematically dismantled. In Jesus’s new “kingdom,” every person is of equal worth and value. This value is based on their being not on their doing; their essence, not their performance. Their value is rooted in each person’s humanity.

Again, as we have said for the last three weeks, the Q community seemed to place special emphasis on rooting Jesus’s liberation in the “good news” of Isaiah and Malachi, a book written in the same era Isaiah was redacted.

 

What Does This Mean For Us Today?

We’ve discussed the egalitarian nature of Jesus’ social vision at length. What I’d like to focus on this week is the inability of those in “fine clothing” to “recognize the truth.” What does this mean?

This verse reminds me of comments I received the first time I wore blue jeans and a sports coat to a church service I was speaking at: people insisted that my clothes were not quite “fine” enough. It made me wonder whether there was a link between a congregation’s fine clothes and their complicity with a status quo that leaves many impoverished for elite benefits.

The “fine clothing” in this week’s saying represents an economic privilege: it is a symbol. That economic privilege is our spring board to other areas of social, political and religious privilege, too. Today, we can simultaneously exist in positions of privilege and disadvantage in multiple areas of our lives because of the social oppressions that influence our society. A white collar woman has a different set of privileges and disadvantages than a blue collar male. A man of color has a different social position than either White men and women or women of color. A White gay male will experience society differently than a straight man of color and a gay or bisexual man of color.

My most recent encounter with this dynamic was a discussion I had with two LGBT friends. One is a white collar professional while the other is an Appalachian blue collar laborer. Both have the same concerns right now about the protection of their rights in the U.S. Both favor individuals running for office that will stand up for their rights. Yet what surprised me was my professional friend’s inability to see the economic perspective of my blue collar friend. My white collar friend preferred candidates that are pro-LGBT and support corporatism. My blue collar friend supports candidates that are pro-LGBT and have more interventionist, pro-labor policies. I expected that much.

What surprised me was my white collar friend’s inability to understand my other friend’s priorities, even to the point of near insult and derision. Their final parting statement was, “Your candidate would have no significant effect on my life so why should I care about a candidate that won’t affect me at all.”

Politics can get ugly, and this is the season of ugliness here in the States. The intersections of our own privilege and our disadvantage is complex. Our privilege and disadvantage overlap and “intersect” on multiple levels in society and at some point we must ask “What is best for us all?” not just “What is best for me?”

How does this relate to our saying this week? In every area of our lives where we are in a position of privilege, or “wearing fine clothes,” our saying this week states that we are unable to see things as they are for those who are not like ourselves. Someone else’s truth is unrecognizable to us. In that very place, a humble posture of listening becomes important as we labor to transform our world into a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all. We saw this vision last week in the words of Micah, “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). As we each listen to the stories of those whose experience differs from our own, we can learn to build communities where each person receives what is necessary for them to thrive and develop into the best version of themselves that they can be.

But it’s not easy. Our defenses are easily triggered. Listening takes practice.

We typically want to protect and preserve the “fine clothes” areas of our lives, and so listening to the experiences of others can be threatening. In these moments we must make the choice to lean into our discomfort rather than away from it. For it’s in these moments of discomfort that we discover oppressive paradigms and gain an opportunity to reject them.

To each of you who are taking stands and feeling the pressure of being “shaken in the wind,” may this week’s saying be an encouragement to you. Those in “fine clothing” may not recognize the value of what you are doing. But those whom you’re working alongside often will. Together, we can create a world where each of us are equally heard, listened to, valued, and understood.

“And when they had left, he began to talk to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A person arrayed in finery? Look, those wearing finery are in kings’ houses. But then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet! This is the one about whom it has been written: “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your path in front of you.” I tell you: There has not arisen among women’s offspring anyone who surpasses John. Yet the least significant in God’s kingdom is more than he.’” (Q 7:24-28)

HeartGroup Application 

This week, do two things with your group.

  1. First, list all the ways you are different from one another. This list will be rather long!
  2. Second, list all the ways in which you are the same or similar to each other. Then prioritize this list. Which areas of sameness are most important to each of you?
  3. Now, focus on that second list. In the light of the ways in which you’re the same, return to your first list and see if you have more respect for the areas that make your group different as well. Where our differences cause our experiences in society to also differ, maybe, just maybe, we can begin to reach out from our private experiences and stand in solidarity with others.

 

Thank you for joining us this week.

Keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Blind Leading the Blind

by Herb Montgomery

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Can a blind person show the way to a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? (Q 6:39)

Luke 6:39: “He also told them this parable: ‘Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit?’

Matthew 15:14: “Leave  them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

Gospel of Thomas 34: Jesus says: “If a blind person leads a blind person, both will fall into a pit.”

The earliest record of a saying like the one we’re considering today is more than 200 years older than the time of Jesus:

Abiding in the midst of ignorance, thinking themselves wise and learned, fools go aimlessly hither and thither, like blind led by the blind. (Katha Upanishad; The Upanishads written between 800 BCE-200 BCE.) [1]

Two other early references to this metaphor appear in North India and Rome during the first century BCE. In North India, the Buddhist Pali Canon recorded an oral tradition story in 29 BCE:

Suppose there were a row of blind men, each holding on to the one in front of him: the first one doesn’t see, the middle one doesn’t see, the last one doesn’t see. In the same way, the statement of the Brahmans turns out to be a row of blind men, as it were: the first one doesn’t see, the middle one doesn’t see, the last one doesn’t see. (Canki Sutta) [2]

In Rome, a similar phrase is found in the writings of Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace), a leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus, who lived from 65 BCE to 8 BCE:

Caecus caeco dux” [“the blind leader of the blind”]. Epistles 1.17.3-4

The Jewish community that treasured the sayings of Jesus in Sayings Gospel Q included this metaphor as one Jesus used. We’ll look at Luke’s and Matthew’s versions of this saying in just a moment.

First, Jesus wasn’t talking about physical vision.  He was talking about perception, ignorance, and an unwillingness to learn, and the danger this becomes when one is in a position of influence. I’ve experienced this personally this year. In my small town of Lewisburg and statewide here in West Virginia, I’ve witnessed ignorant leaders influencing the masses that follow them, inciting them to be afraid of those they are unwilling to genuinely “see” for who they are.

At the end of last year, our local city council began the process of updating the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance. Lewisburg’s nondiscrimination ordinance already included discrimination based on race, gender, sex, and religion. The city felt the need to also include gender identification and sexual orientation, to broaden the current nondiscrimination ordinance to include members of the LGBTQ community. This effort came when a coal miner with over a decade of employment was hazed, vehicle vandalized, and fired after getting married when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last summer. In West Virginia, a person can be evicted from their housing or fired from their job because of their orientation.

During the campaign to change this ordinance, one of the council members asked my wife and me, “Every person is somebody’s child. How would you like your child to be treated?” Regardless of what differences may exist among people, everyone should have a fair chance to qualify for work, to provide for themselves, and have a safe roof over their head at night. My family believes that, and not just for our own children.

Not long after that conversation, a local minister of the largest Baptist church in Lewisburg began to incite his congregation to fear. Choosing not to perceive members of the LGBTQ community for who they are, he began a campaign of dehumanization and mischaracterization. Out-of-town lobbyists we invited, rallies were held, signs were placed all over town. The message, like Seth Brundle’s in the 1986 horror film The Fly was, “Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.” Some of the most moral, ethically upstanding people I know belong to our local LGBTQ community, so the minister’s campaign was nothing short of slander. But the folks here in small town West Virginia don’t have the exposure or education to be able to “see” people unlike them for themselves. This was a classic example of the blind leading the blind.”

Despite that rampant misinformation, in February of this year, our city council unanimously voted to update our city’s nondiscrimination policy. I’m also happy to say that it has been over a month now in our sleepy little town and the world has not come to an end.

After this decision though, many of the people who were working locally to incite fear and misinformation moved their effort to thestate level to try to undo the local vote. Lobbyists got legislators to introduce a new bill that was a West Virginia version of the “religious freedom” bills that have been popping up all over the U.S. Over and over again, those responsible for this bill denied their bill was connected to the discrimination ordinance but was simply designed to “restore” religious freedom they claimed had been lost (yet they could not show where or how).

This new bill passed in the state House but was voted down in the Senate. What made the difference? The Senate amended the bill to state that its provisions could not be used to undermine nondiscrimination ordinances in the name of religious liberty. Legislators then dropped the bill, proving that it had nothing to do with religious liberty, but was rather designed to give people a legal loop hole for continuing discrimination against others in the name of their  “sincerely held religious belief.”

Yes, each person should be free in matters between themselves and their God, with at least one exception. When one’s sincerely held religious beliefs endanger another human being, one is never free to practice those beliefs. Once, child sacrifice was a sincerely held religious belief. For some people, racism is still a sincerely held religious belief. Subjugation of women is a sincerely held religious belief, and homophobia and heterosexism are also sincerely held religious beliefs.

Religion has done good. And religion has done great harm. We must encourage the good while we limit the harm. The freedom to practice what one believes is a value that must be held subject to the greater value of “do no harm to one’s neighbor.” Anyone our religious beliefs would endanger has the right to be protected from our sincerely held religious beliefs. While we possess freedom of religion, they also possess the right to live in freedom from our religion.

So what does this have to do with the blind leading the blind?

I took a day to go and visit my state capitol and speak directly with my local representatives in both the House and the Senate about our religious freedom bill. What I was overwhelmed with as I left that day, beside disillusionment of the system, was how “blind” two of my three local representatives had been to understanding what was really behind this bill. Only one of the three understood. The truth did eventually come out, but in the meantime, the depth of ignorance and lack of exposure of my local and state leaders left me speechless.

In both secular civil governance and religious faith and worship, the metaphor of the blind leading the blind is, at times, overwhelmingly appropriate.

Now, there are plenty of instances in first-century Palestine where Jesus could have applied this metaphor.

  • The faithful, radical Zealots who felt the only way to liberate Palestine from Roman domination was through violence.
  • The Jerusalem-centered aristocracy who, in order to preserve their own place in society, copted the Temple to add religious legitimacy to Rome’s imperialism.
  • The wealthy elite who failed to share their surplus with the poor and instead used their capital to exploit the poor and make greater wealth.
  • The group of Pharisees and Sanhedrin members who subscribed to the teachings of the school of Shammai, and who not only drew strict lines between Jew and Gentile but also drew lines between themselves and other Jewish people they perceived as not orthodox enough.

How do Matthew and Luke show Jesus using this parable?

Luke includes this as one of Jesus’s sayings in the body of teachings scholars call The Sermon on the Plain.

He also told them this parable: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher. (Luke 6:39-40)

Matthew does something quite different, and his use of the saying begins with Mark’s underlying narrative.

In Mark 7, Jesus contrasts physical “defilement” with ritual “defilement.” The author of text mistakenly claims that “all the Jews” do not eat without first washing their hands. This is historically untrue, and the later Matthew and Luke, knowing this to be untrue, correct the error by leaving it out. (Compare Mark 7, Matthew 15, and Luke 11:37-41) In fact, among the Pharisees, only Pharisees of the school of Shammai would have washed their hands before eating, and only the priests (according to both Hillel and Shammai) were required to wash their hands before eat their food. That is, the rest of the people who were not priests were not legally required to wash their hands. But the stricter Pharisees chose to conduct themselves like the priests, believing that they also held a scholarly position in Jerusalem’s religious hierarchy. So it was not a requirement for all Jews during Jesus’s time.

By refusing to wash his hands in the presence of the Pharisees, Jesus was making a political statement. I believe he was aligning himself with the “common” people of his day as opposed to the religious “elite.” In all three gospels, Jesus turns the discussion from washing hands to the religiously-justified oppression of the poor by the wealthy, religious elite of his day. As we’ve discussed in previous weeks, the religious elite included the priests and some wealthy Pharisees.

This is where our saying from Matthew comes in this week:

Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15.12-14)

The context of this saying in our most Jewish gospel is Jesus’s preferential option for the poor, the common people, and even those judged as unorthodox.

We can pair this week’s metaphor, “blindness,” to the one we discussed last week, “deafness.” The inability or unwillingness to listen to the stories of those whose experience is different than your own is what these metaphors are describing. Could it be that the cure for socio-political “blindness” is using our ears to listen to the stories of those unlike ourselves? By listening, our eyes can be opened and we can begin to “hear with our ears” “see with our eyes” and “understand with our hearts” and our blindness can be “healed.” (Compare Isaiah 6:10; Matthew 13:14-17; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40.)

I believe that those who desire to follow the teachings of the 1st century Jewish Jesus of Nazareth must learn to listen to each other. Especially, we must learn to listen to those who, as in Jesus’s time, are presently being marginalized and subjugated by social structures of privilege.

We must learn to stop debating about people who are being oppressed by the status quo, and begin listening to them instead. Those interested in leaning into this exercise of listening, consider beginning with listening to the experience of people of color. There are other demographics that you could start with, but this would be an excellent first step. Three books that I can recommend to get you started on your journey of listening are:

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

God of the Oppressed by James H. Cone

A Black Liberation Theology (Fortieth Anniversary Edition) by James H. Cone

As we use our ears, our eyes become opened. The cure for healing our eyes is in letting others have our ears and thereby access our hearts.

In the words of the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q:

Can a blind person show the way to a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? (Q 6:39)

HeartGroup Application

One of the purposes of HeartGroups is to facilitate a space where we can begin to learn how to listen to each other. Yet even this is not enough. Too often the groups we listen to are the ones we most identify with. In other words, we listen to people who are most like ourselves. This can create a ideological feedback loop that becomes precious little more than philosophical inbreeding. The type of listening that cures our blindness is when we listen to those who are unlike us, especially those harmed by the way things are.

This week, I invite your HeartGroups to:

  1. Together, watch the recently released film Enough Room at the Table. You can access the film here. It will only cost your group $0.99 to watch together. That’s unbelievably affordable.
  2. Discuss with your group, after watching the film, how your group could begin taking steps to become more diverse. List the steps you discuss.
  3. Pick one item on your list to practice.

Thank you for joining us this week. We’ll continue with Sayings Gospel Q next week.

Until then, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

  1. Juan Mascaró. The Upanishads (Penguin Classics, 1965) p. 58
  2. Canki Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 95), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Not Judging

by Herb Montgomery

Multiracial Group of Friends with Hands in Stack, Teamwork

“Do not pass judgment, so you are not judged. For with what judgment you pass judgment, you will be judged. And with the measurement you use to measure out, it will be measured out to you.” (Q 6:37-38)

Luke 6:37: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

The saying we are looking this week teaches against judging (krino).

The verb translated as “judge” in this saying has a rather broad meaning, so the only way we can only narrow it is by looking at its textual context. Over the past few weeks, we have seen the Jesus of the Sayings Gospel Q emphasizing the Golden Rule and our interconnectedness. In this context, then, we can define krino as “to separate” or “to make a distinction between.” (Mounce’s Greek Dictionary) It can be positive or negative. At its heart, though, is to separate another from one’s self. It means to discriminate.

Discrimination is perfectly acceptable when we have two things to choose from: we should strive to discern which choices are harmful and which are compassionate. But discrimination toward choices is not the same thing as discrimination toward people. It is judgment or discrimination toward people that is opposed in this week’s saying.

It’s also helpful to consider this week’s saying through the lens of our social dynamics. Too often I hear those at the top of social pyramids say, “Don’t judge me! Jesus said not to judge.” They are using this saying as a way to avoid accountability for their actions. At the same time, those at the bottom of certain pyramids are judged by those at the top continually.

As I said in the dialogue film Enough Room At The Table, we’re are not talking about creating communities where there is no mutual accountability among community members. Instead, we’re opposing the kind of judgment that would distinguish and separate us from one another. We are affirming communities where we see ourselves as interconnected with each other, and where we can be accountable to one another. Let me tell you a story that will help make this clear.

I’m in community with two friends that self-identify as belonging to the LGBTQ community. Both are people of color. One identifies as gender-nonconforming, and she prefers the pronouns she and they. The other as a cisgender man, though he is involved in activism for the rights of transgender people. Never have I encountered such accountability as I have from being in relationship with these two. They have continually called me to analyze my blind spots as a white, cisgender, straight male. Being in community with them has never meant that “anything goes” and they do not allow me to live unconsciously when it comes to my position in our society’s social pyramid. Each of us is deeply committed to an expression of strict ethics rooted in compassion, interconnectedness, and the golden rule. Each of us is dedicated to a Shared Table world view, and, just like them, I am called to come to that table in a posture of humility and learn about other people’s experiences in our world.

I wouldn’t for a moment ever say that these friends have ever judged me. Yes, they have called me on the carpet for my ignorance at times, and there have been times when these moments were even painful to my misplaced ego. But their feedback has always been in the spirit of connectedness. My friends make it clear that we are in this together.

The community that Jesus is teaching about in this week’s saying is not a community where we throw out all values, as some today wrongly imagine a judgment-free community would. The community Jesus points to, and the community I have experienced with my friends and others, is a community where I have allowed my own values to be informed by members of the community that my previous values had harmed. There’s a world of difference between throwing out all values, and holding strictly to a new set of values that come from embracing our interconnectedness with each other rather than judging and separating from each other. In this community, there is no us-versus-them. There is only us.

This kind of community centers the voices of oppressed and marginalized people. This is not a community that holds on to domination or subjugation in any form. Religious communities characterized by heterosexism, racism, or sexism sometimes claim to be simply trying to hold to account those who don’t align with their values, and disciplining those others “out of love.” So it is very difficult to get these communities to see that what they are really engaging in is not love, but discrimination. They claim to be, in love, pointing out the self-destructive “sin” of others. But they fail to see that by disconnecting (krino) themselves from those they claim to love, they risk developing a false feeling of moral superiority, and they also risk failing to listen. Listening is a way to allow our values to be shaped by other people, and is essential for people accustomed to harming other people.

By contrast, it is acceptable to for those receiving this type of unjust or prejudicial treatment to respond to would-be judges with Jesus’s teaching “Do not judge.” For those at the bottom of a social pyramid, even one claiming the authority of the Bible, asking for an end to discriminatory judgment is survival. They aren’t crying out for a community without boundaries; rather, they are desperately longing for a community characterized by a posture of listening and not one of judgment, a community that embraces the interconnectedness of humanity rather than sharply drawn lines between kinds of people.

Remember, like the sayings last week, this saying of Jesus was written during a time when the rabbinical school of Shammai was dominant. The school of Shammai drew sharp lines between Jew and Gentile, but didn’t stop there. It never does. Before long, lines were also drawn between what we might call today “fundamentalist” Jews and Jewish people who were more all-embracing.

In his book, Laying Down The Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, Philip Jenkins shows how the conquest narratives of Canaan have fueled and justified Christianity’s violence through history. Jenkins then looks at today’s headlines in Palestine. I believe what we see happening today illustrates the trajectory Jesus challenged in his own social context.

Jenkins writes: “Jewish extremists do not confine their campaigns to attacking Arabs and Muslims. As Rabbi Lamm observed, in trying to show the moral and intellectual perils of the Amalek doctrine, the concept is infinitely expandable . . . Next would come the turn of religious Jews whose faith is not quite what the strictest Orthodox think it should be. Actually, in terms of their condemnations, rather than of actual violence, that is a fair description of how some extremists have escalated the biblical commands. As the ultra-Orthodox have grown, so they have become ever more strident in denouncing mainstream or secular Jews who, they believe, fall short of the theocratic standards that are demanded of the new Israel.”

The entire book is really worth your reading. It is an excellent critique of Bible-based segregation, what we would call “judging” others, and the violence that results from both. In Sayings Gospel Q, Jesus stands in the spirit of Hillel against this human tendency and teaches instead “do not judge.” Do not engage in the game of “us and them.” Ultimately, there is no “them.” There is no “other.” There is only “us.” And our future depends on seeing and embracing this reality.

For the same measures that we use for others will be used for us. We will reap the intrinsic results of what we sow. Jesus lays the choice before us: the way of discrimination, segregation, extirpation, and global annihilation, or the way of compassion, interrelation, integration, cooperation, restoration, and peace. The way of judgment will not stop at your own doorstep. The law of reciprocation will work either for or against all of us.

We have the power to set in motion the kind of world we would like to live in. Choosing to live in harmony with the type of world we desire is choosing to take the first step toward it.

As Jesus says: “Do not pass judgment, so you are not judged. For with what judgment you pass judgment, you will be judged. And with the measurement you use to measure out, it will be measured out to you.” (Q 6:37-38)

HeartGroup

This week,

  1. List the changes you would like to see in your world.
  1. List the values associated with those changes as well as discussing both of your lists (changes and values) with your HeartGroup to help you with any of your potential blindspots within both lists.
  1. Choose to put at least one of those values into practice this week.

Do not judge.

Do not look at others as separate from yourself.

Embrace our interconnectedness with each other, and keep living in love; till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

Jesus and Naturalism

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

science“Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life . . . instruct them in the practice of all I have [taught] you” (Matthew 28:17, 18-19, The Message, emphasis added).

Last week, we talked about one of the worldviews that informed the writers of the gospels. We learned about the traits of the ancient apocalyptic worldview and how it differs from the modern Christian focus on the end-times. This week, let’s talk about another worldview that influences how we read the gospels: naturalism. It is important to understand how the beliefs that we take for granted in our time mirror and differ from the worldview of the Jesus of the gospels and the disciples who wrote about him.

What is Naturalism?

Naturalism seeks to explain what happens in this world by natural causes (natural laws) rather than appealing to supernatural explanations. In its purest form, it assumes that this world is a closed system, which means that nothing that isn’t already a part of this world can be looked to as a cause to explain why something in this world is happening.

Not all naturalists are pure naturalists, however. Many people in the West would much rather look for a natural cause and cure for conditions like lupus than assume a person’s lupus is caused by a supernatural demon and they should see the exorcist. They’re not going to the doctor for prayer. They’re going to the doctor for medicine. Yet many of these same naturalists are also theists and still accept the possibility of supernatural intervention. They still believe in the healing Jesus.

Naturalism in its purest form leaves a person with three options when it comes to a Divine being.

  1. No God exists. (Atheism)
  2. God exists but is disconnected from and uninvolved in this world. (Deism)
  3. Nature is God (Pantheism)

The atheist, deist, and pantheist naturalists can also be referred to as metaphysical naturalists: they agree that the supernatural does not exist. But there are other naturalists, like the theists who seek natural medical explanations for illness, who are merely methodological naturalists: they prioritize natural causes, effects, and explanations for things that happen on this planet. Scientific research and discovery is possible whether one is a metaphysical naturalist or a methodological one. Many of my theist friends who are naturalists still maintain a belief in a personal God from whom these natural laws of cause and effect originated. And recent surveys of professional scientists have shown that more than half conduct their research and also believe in a higher power.

Strengths of Naturalism

Discovery of Actual Causation

Naturalism began with the ancient Greek philosophers’ attempts to explain this world without appealing to “the gods.” Naturalism as we know it today made its first significant inroads into Christianity during the 12th Century Renaissance thanks to Christian natural philosophers. It then picked up steam in the 16th Century where Christian scientists referred to the study of nature as the study of God’s secondary causes. Galileo promoted naturalism during this time, and the approach allowed early scientists to discover some of the basic laws of nature.

Prevention and Cure

If one can discover and predict the causes of things that promote human suffering, then one can discover ways to prevent and/or cure human suffering as well. Over the last several centuries, scientific naturalism has significantly lessened human suffering and increased quality of life for the beneficiaries of its discoveries.

Deliverance from Superstition

Using a scientific basis, Christian naturalist scientists like Galileo began noticing the observable and measurable forces that have repeatable results on things in the world. They found causes for the things that were happening around them rather than appealing to the existence of devils or angels behind every bush and event.

This is significant on a religious level. As people began to discover natural reasons for their suffering through science, they lost fear of provoking the anger of the church’s God and fear of varying from the teachings and explanations of church officials. The Black Death, for example, was not the result of God’s wrath; it was the result of germs. Lightning strikes were not the sign of an angry God; they were the product of observable changes in the atmosphere.

Connectedness

Naturalists believe that all of the natural world is connected in a network of causes and effects. This connectedness we share with one another can lead to concern and care for others besides just ourselves or those like us. Ultimately naturalism has empowered human compassion with tangible methods and means to make a difference in the lives of those hurting.

Responsibility and Accountability

Naturalism may have more benefits than what I’ve listed here, but another that is meaningful to me is the emphasis on human responsibility for the things that happen on this planet: the worldview encourages people to embrace accountability toward each another and not excuse themselves by blaming supernatural forces. A pastor friend of mine who is deeply concerned with climate change also lives in the fundamentalist Bible-belt. Each time a natural disaster occurs, he is fond of saying, “When bad things happen, God gets blamed for things God didn’t do. A devil gets blamed for things a devil didn’t do. And people continue to not take responsibility for the things we are setting in motion.”

Weakness of Naturalism

The naturalist worldview has some beautiful strengths and a few weaknesses as well.

Dependence on Rationalism

Science has no explanation for many of the things that happen on this planet. Although my metaphysical naturalist friends would be quick to say, “Science has no explanation, YET…”, time will tell whether everything on this planet can truly be explained by only appealing to nature without accounting for the supernatural. We can’t yet know.

Addiction to Explanations

While we can explain most things, we sometimes have a tendency to have to explain everything. Naturalism can produce an intolerance of mystery. I do agree that many mysteries need solving and some things that become more beautiful as they are explained. I also believe some things become less beautiful once their mystery is removed and they become explainable. Life must not only be explainable, it must also possess enough beauty and mystery that it’s still worth living.

Meaninglessness, Absence of Compassion, Lack of Ethics

There are a number of popular Christian critiques of the naturalistic world view. First, some Christians say that naturalism produces a meaningless existence. I have found this to be untrue: instead life takes on new and different meanings. Second, some Christians say the naturalistic world view robs humanity of any compassion because it doesn’t root service to humans in service to God. I have also found this to be untrue.  Human compassion results from our discovery of our connectedness. Naturalists and supernaturalists differ in the explanation of why we are connected.  Yet they agree with each other that we are all connected.  In many naturalists, that discovery has deepened their compassion and empowered them with the tools to make a difference in others’ lives. Finally, some Christians warn that if the naturalistic world view is embraced it will produce a world devoid of ethics. I have yet to meet an amoral naturalist. Their ethics may have a different basis than an apocalypticist’s, but it is unfair to say naturalism ultimately removes our ethics.

 

Jesus Followers and Naturalism

Although the writers of the early Jesus story were not naturalists, the Jesus we find in the story offered a wisdom teaching that I believe can be relevant even for contemporary naturalists today.

Notice what is said in our feature text this week, Matthew 28:17-19. Jesus invited his disciples to produce other Jesus followers. A Jesus follower is not someone who has embraced the worldview of the 1st Century people who first heard Jesus speak. What it meant to be a Jesus follower then was to be “trained” in a “way of life,” in the “practice” of the ethics and values of the 1st Century, Jewish, revolutionary Jesus.  Many in that era embraced a Jewish Apocalyptic world view, yet they were not followers of Jesus. That worldview and discipleship were not the same thing. The question we must wrestle with today is whether someone must embrace a 1st Century Jewish apocalyptic worldview to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. And I don’t believe they do.

The Jesus of the Jesus story offered alternative wisdom to the social norms of his own day. He valued every human being as a being of inestimable worth, and so he contrasted with the way the culture used purity codes to marginalize some of the people. He taught within his context, and his teachings had a political dimension. Jesus opposed arranging human society according to domination systems. He challenged the Roman domination system and its religious legitimization in the Jewish temple at that time, especially among the priesthood and some of the Jewish leaders. (We can gain much from paying attention to the religious legitimization of political domination in our own time and culture. For more on this aspect of Jesus’ teachings, please see Borg’s and Crossan’s The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem)

In addition, Jesus taught nonviolent noncooperation and nonviolent confrontation in response to unjust domination systems. This nonviolence can be tested, observed, and seen to have tangible and repeatable results in the lives of those such as Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jesus’ teachings had an economic dimension that called to account systems that produce poverty. He offered a preferential option for the poor in our societies, and his stories, like the good Samaritan and the prodigal son, called his audience to look at themselves and others in a different way.

Jesus made original contributions for his own place and time within Jewish culture. He was offering a transformative and restorative justice for all based on a universal and non-discriminatory love for all.

As we said last week, since the 4th Century, Christianity has transitioned away from Earth and begun focusing on how people might enter a post-mortem heaven. This focus was not the focus of the early Jesus’ community. Jesus offered the people teachings on matters directly related to this world, not another. And although the Jesus in the story spoke of supernatural entities, his teachings primarily offer a set of values and ethics that we can test to discern whether they help us find The Way to a safer more compassionate world for us all. As he taught, we can “know by their fruit” whether they have value.

A naturalistic worldview is common in our time. It may remodel our cosmology, and it may adjust our understanding of history, yet I do not believe it requires us to remove our sense of a Heart at the center of the Universe or relegate the 1st Century Jesus to irrelevance.

Science and Jesus can be good neighbors to each other! Again, there is not one Jesus follower I know today who subscribes to a purely apocalyptic or a purely naturalist worldview. We subscribe to a hybrid of both, and I believe there is room in the human family for us all. As we learn to listen to each other, even with our differences, we will together find our way to Jesus’ safer, more compassionate world. (Those of you who are further down the naturalist spectrum than me and are curious to see ways that other naturalists embrace Jesus: check out these four articles—Christian naturalism is possible: Naturalistic Christianity 101, Christian Naturalism, A Christian Naturalism: Developing the Thinking of Gordon Kaufman, and Christianity Without Religion.)

I’ll close this week with a statement by Arthur G Broadhurst, a Christian naturalist:

“Once we get beyond the mythological language [in the gospels], it is clear that the disciples had a life-transforming experience that resulted in a re-ordering of their priorities toward a new way of thinking… and led to their commitment to carry on with Jesus’ teachings… [Being] a Christian does not require a simultaneous belief in gods or theological propositions, in magic or superstition… Anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus should be seen standing with the weak against the powerful and the rich, feeding the hungry, comforting the sick, bandaging the wounded, holding the hand of a child, standing with the oppressed against the oppressor. It means humility rather than arrogance and pride. It means becoming fully human.”

HeartGroup Application

This week we are learning to listen to those who may see things differently than we do. HeartGroups are intended to help us experience what Jesus modeled at his own shared table.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche once wrote, “Some people live closely guarded lives, fearful of encountering someone or something that might shatter their insecure spiritual foundation. This attitude, however, is not the fault of religion but of their own limited understanding.”

The beauty of Jesus’ shared table is that it enables us to begin integrating various and diverse perspectives into a meaningful and consistent whole, each of us discovering our own blind spots as we chose to listen to another. Jesus is calling us to choose love for one another over the fear of one another.

  1. This week, take Matthew chapters 5-7 and list the teachings of Jesus there that you find meaningful and maybe even challenging for you personally.
  2. List the teachings you have questions about or don’t readily understand.
  3. Present both lists to your HeartGroup and then invite anyone who is willing to share from their own perspectives what the teachings in your second list may mean.

I’ve witnessed some amazingly beautiful moments emerge from members of a diverse group following these three simple steps. The purpose is not for everyone to see everything the same. These are moments for us to practice listening: difference is inevitable but division is optional.

Till the only world that remains is Jesus’ safe and compassionate world where Love reigns.

I love each of you, and I’ll see you next week.

Is Transformative Justice Enough?

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“Those who are well have no need of a physician.” (Mark 2.17)

This week, we continue exploring the passage that we looked at last week. Last week we said that the inclusive table of Jesus made room for “tax collectors” and “sinners,” and indicted the religious leaders who looked down on both. There is something else taking place in this passage as well.

Jesus perceived himself as a liberating physician who came not to condemn but to heal. His focus was transformation, not punishment. Tax collectors and sinners were being transformed (see Luke 19.1-9), and yet some of the people, for whatever reason, wanted to see these tax collectors and sinners suffer some chastisement for violating the Torah’s purity laws or for being unfaithful to the political interests of the Jewish people and collaborating with Rome.

I also want to be clear. The tax collectors and sinners were not changing in the ways the scribes and Pharisees wanted them to change, but they were changing. They were abandoning their participation in the systemic oppression of the poor and embracing Jesus’s teachings on the redistribution of their riches to those they had previously robbed.

There are two things to consider.

First: the tax collectors’ and sinners’ changes didn’t match the changes the scribes and Pharisees prescribed. Those who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus will be changed, but those changes may not look anything like the changes that religious onlookers expect.

This is not an “Anything goes if you turn to Jesus” approach. This is the reality that the changes that happen when we decide to follow the teachings of Jesus rarely reflect the values of religions that support and empower the status quo. The tax collectors and sinners who ate with Jesus were embracing Jesus’s bias toward the poor, but not necessarily the purity laws that the scribes and Pharisees passionately defended. And we have no indication that they were being indoctrinated into the mainstream definition of the Romans as the enemy.

Today the same is true. When someone turns to Jesus’s teachings, they may not change in all the ways others may think they need to. Change does occur. But the Jesus story offers transformation and a change in values as well. It is this values change that threatens the onlookers.

Just recently, I was accused of preaching a gospel that doesn’t produce change in the lives of those who embrace it: “Herb is preaching a gospel that tells people they can be saved in their sins.” Nothing could be further than the truth. What this claim misses is that radical change is in fact occurring, just not the changes some critics prescribe. Jesus’s gospel liberates us from both personal and systemic sin, and yet what you define as sin and what Jesus defined as sin may be radically different. We can miss ways people are changing right before our eyes because we don’t have Jesus’ tailor made plan of change for those people. Some status quo-supporting religions define as sin things that aren’t sin but are simply things that the status quo wants to suppress to maintain their societal  position. The personal and systemic transformation that Jesus’s teachings call for is transformation that will ultimately turn the status quo on its head.

Second: Jesus is much more concerned with transformation than with chastisement.

The stories of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah told of the ancient judges who guided the Hebrews before the days of the kings. These Judges were the people’s liberators, not their punishers.

In the books of the Old Testament prophets, justice is primarily restorative and transformative. They do speak of charity, but charity only helps with the immediate needs of those at the bottom of our societies. When justice works personal and systemic transformation, it works at the root of the system itself, and it produces no more societal tops or bottoms. It produces equity.

It may always be important to pull people out of the water who are drowning. But at some point, as Martin Luther King, Jr., taught us, somebody has to ask the question, “Who keep throwing these people in the water?”

When people benefit from the status quo, their gospel tends to define justice as punishment or retribution. These definitions work to preserve the status quo and the benefits that some can draw from it.

By contrast, Jesus’s teachings focus on justice transforming the status quo rather than a justice defined punishing those who violate the rules that preserve the status quo. Both the Old Testament prophets and Jesus taught a justice that invites transformation and not mere penal chastisement.

Hear Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ BUT I say to you, Do not retaliate against an evildoer…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, LOVE YOUR ENEMIES and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:38-39, 43-44, emphasis added.)

The cheek defiance and enemy love that Jesus taught affirmed those being violated, and it also sought creative ways to transform those violating them. (See the presentation entitled The Way of Enemy Love here.) Jesus’s enemy love was not in the least bit passive. It was nonviolent, and it lovingly confronted for the sake of transforming those at the helm of a harmful status quo.

The question I want to ask today is, “Is transformation enough?”

This question is for those who have already been hurt. Is it enough for those who have wronged you to be radically transformed, or do you need them to suffer something punitive as well? Can transformation take the place of retribution? Or is retribution necessary even when transformation has taken place? In my studies over the last five years, I’ve learned that there are two qualities of punishment (For more this see the presentation Do I Have To Believe in Hell? here.): One kind of punishment is transformative, and disciplines for the purpose of awakening and changing those who have hurt others. A second type of punishment is not concerned with transformation, but only seeks to satisfy the claim in the heart of the one who was hurt that says the guilty party needs to suffer.

If the Heart of the Universe is anything like the heart we see in the story and teachings of Jesus, it is primarily concerned with transformation, not penal, retributive punishment. And this insight should challenge all of us.

“An eye for an eye will leave everyone blind”.—frequently attributed to Mahatma Gandhi

 

HeartGroup Application

When I consider the intrinsic value of the shared table, the transformation of those who share the table is, for me, its greatest quality.

As I share here, another indispensable quality of the shared table is the room it makes for those around the table who are unlike us. As we listen to each voice around the table share their stories and experiences, we are challenged to see the world through a different lens than our own and we start out on the beautiful journey of integrating these diverse experiences into a meaningful and coherent whole. We’re each called to choose and work hard at creating a safer more compassionate world for us all.

This week:

  1. Sit down with your HeartGroup and list the similarities and the differences that exist among your group.
  2. Discuss together the differences you feel are missing within your group, what those differences would create if they were present, and active ways you could enlarge your group to include and embrace those differences.
  3. Select one of those ways to put into practice during the week.

Our differences have the potential to scare us, because when we come together, all of us walk away from the table different than when we arrived. But this is just the point of coming together—transformation. When we come to a table such as the one Jesus has set, if we will only listen to each other, every one of us gets up a different person.

It truly is a beautiful journey!

Many voices, one new world.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you, and I’ll see you next week.