Jesus, Law and Order

Herb Montgomery | January 31, 2019


“Legality is never the end of the moral discussion. We must also ask if what is being done is right . . . Law and order arguments too often fail to account for whether the laws people are breaking are unjust. Are those breaking such laws practicing a moral responsibility by breaking laws rooted in racist ideology to begin with?”


“Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit?” (Luke 22:52)

I want you to try something that will be difficult for many Christians, and that is to consider Jesus as a law breaker. In Luke’s story, just two days have passed since Jesus engaged a disruptive social protest in the Temple. 

It was not a religious protest: Jesus was not protesting his own religion. He was protesting against the aristocratic elite that was using the Temple state to exploit the poor. His concern was not the temple’s purity, a concern that drove the monastic knights of the historically brutal Christian crusades. Instead Jesus’ concern was the oppression of impoverished people in his own society, people who also bore the image of God and whose situation was worsened by the elite (see Mark 12:42-44). After his last temple protest, Jesus was arrested by the temple police. 

Think back to the statement of Dr. King that we considered last week: “I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” (Letter From A Birmingham Jail, May 1963). Jesus didn’t break just laws for the sake of it. Rather, Jesus chose to break laws that he deemed were unjust.

Let’s consider some examples from our more recent past. The reason King had to even address the issue of lawbreaking was that quite a bit of the civil rights movement’s activism included civil disobedience to unjust and racially discriminatory laws. Even apparently neutral laws were disobeyed because segregationists were using them to obstruct the civil rights movement. 

When slavery became illegal in the United States, “Jim Crow” segregation laws were created in the south. And those who migrated north of the Mason-Dixon line did so only to find hostility there, as well. A racist population used Jim Crow laws to keep Black people entrenched in a type of post-slavery slavery (see Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.  Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016). If an emancipated person broke the law they were re-enslaved through a “justice” system that permitted slavery as a punishment for crimes. Unjust and unreasonable laws almost guaranteed a return to slavery in some form. (See Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2012).

After the gains of the civil rights movement, the powerful responded with a racially biased drug war. “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (John Ehrlichman, Watergate conspirator and top Nixon advisor, quoted in “Legalize it all: How to win the war on drugs” by Dan Baum, Harper’s Magazine).

President Nixon’s drug war took on new vigor and popularity under President Reagan. During the 1980s, we also saw a spike in Hollywood of movies like Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop selling the narrative of hero cops fighting a pervasive and all-pervading drug war in America. 

Today, being incarcerated as a result of America’s drug war has left multitudes of people of color disenfranchised from their political system, unable to find work or housing assistance, and more. 

The story of Jesus has something to teach us here. In Luke’s gospel is a passage from Isaiah that links the liberation of the poor with emancipation of those in prison. Systems of oppression use imprisonment, as Ehrlichman and Nixon did, to silence resistance and opposition under the guise of concern for “law and order.”  

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

Just as “small government” and “fiscally responsible government” rhetoric have a deeply racist past, “law and order” rhetoric does too (see again Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide).

It’s no wonder that in the gospels Jesus identifies not only with the poor, the naked, and the sick, but also with the imprisoned. 

“I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not take care of me.” (Matthew 25:43, emphasis added)

Note that Jesus specifically names the stranger, or immigrant, in this list, too. I find it equally offensive to see many privileged White Christians using “law and order” arguments when discussing immigration and asylum seeking. It’s lawful for anyone to enter a country to seek asylum. No one deserves to have their families separated and children torn from them and placed in inhumane facilities. And we simply do not provide a legal path toward citizenship for far too many. There must be a merciful solution, a compassionate solution for those who are fleeing social violence our global policies directly and indirectly helped to create. If you cannot see this as a matter of justice then for pity’s sake, have mercy. As Jesus taught, “Blessed are the merciful, for they, too, will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). No person is illegal. They are children of God, and share the same image of God as you. They are our human siblings. 

Myers’ groundbreaking commentary on the gospel of Mark offers insight that affirms my deep feelings that it is inconsistent for those of us who identify as Christians to use law and order rhetoric to deny mercy and justice to those who are the victims of unjust and unmerciful laws. 

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

Legality is never the end of the moral discussion. We must also ask if what is being done is right. Last week many in the U.S. celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Dr. King wrote in the same letter quoted above, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ . . . It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers” (Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963).

Law and order arguments too often fail to account for whether the laws people are breaking are unjust. Are those breaking such laws practicing a moral responsibility by breaking laws rooted in racist ideology to begin with? (see No Room in the Inn)

Today, law and order arguments are used to defend police brutality and both the existence of and inhumane actions by agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). There must a better way. A just way. A merciful way. We can debate what those solutions might be. But whatever they are, law and order arguments have a long, oppressive history and I cannot understand, given the Jesus story itself, how Christians continue to promote them. 

When people were suffering, Jesus prioritized people over concern for law and order. As followers of Jesus, we should be practicing the same. Jesus broke the law when those laws contradicted justice and compassion for people. And his refusal to go along with law and order when people were suffering was why he was arrested in the first place. 

“Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him . . .” (Luke 22:52, emphasis added.)


HeartGroup Application

Consider these four stories from our sacred text:

Acts 4:18-20
Acts 5:27-29
Daniel 3:13-18
Daniel 6:6-10

As a group, make a list of laws, either federal, state, or municipal that you believe are good and right.  Discuss why.

Now make a list of laws that you feel are unjust. Discuss why.

Thirdly, make a list of laws, just or unjust, that you feel could be used to discriminate and/or disenfranchise certain vulnerable sectors of our society. Discuss why.

What are some ways you can follow Jesus in putting people first by living in resistance to such laws? What does civil disobedience look like when we choose to put people who are hurt by certain laws first and foremost in our doing? Are there times when we need to be willing to risk arrest for breaking immoral laws in the course of following Jesus? Discus what that could look like? What does it look like to engage the work of changing immoral laws in our society? Consider each level of our civil systems? What does it look like on municipal, state and federal levels? And don’t forget your religious communities as well. Are their unjust laws in your religious communities that you choose to live in noncompliance with? Why?  Have you ever considered how noncompliance can be a spiritual discipline in following Jesus? 

This should give rich ground for discussion and action this week in your HeartGroup.

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

Wherever you are, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.

Another world is possible.

I love each you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Who are the Poor in Spirit?

picture of broken glass

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

Herb Montgomery | August 3, 2018


“The system is intended to break their spirit once and for all, to make them give up and simply cycle through the judicial system indefinitely. Jesus’ vision for human society was that his kingdom would belong to those presently trodden and excluded, those whose spirit has been broken, who don’t have the will to even keep trying.”


 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18; cf. Isaiah 61:1-3)

Luke’s gospel sums up Jesus’ itinerant teaching ministry with  Isaiah’s words of solidarity and liberation for poor, formerly incarcerated, oppressed, indebted, vulnerable, and marginalized people. The Jewish and Christian sacred texts contain passages of liberation and of oppression. You’ll find texts that liberate women from patriarchy and that teach patriarchy itself. You’ll find passages of liberation from slavery (Deuteronomy 23.15) as well as endorsing and approving of slavery. You’ll find passages that teach xenophobic genocide and those that promote care of and generosity toward the “stranger” or “foreigner.” You’ll find passages that describe  wealth as a great blessing and those that praise liberating the exploited poor from the wealthy. And you’ll find texts that teach inclusion and acceptance of the LGBTQ community and those that teach their exclusion. 

Whatever you’re looking for in the scriptures, you can find. .The gospel writers also had those options when they picked passages from the Torah, the Songs, and the Prophets. Luke’s gospel chose a passage from the Prophets that speaks liberation for those who were oppressed by people in positions of power and privilege.

Both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels include variations of these words: 

“Looking at his disciples, he said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.’” (Luke 6:20-26)

In these words, we see Jesus’ solidarity with and liberation of those on the undersides and margins of his society’s status quo. Jesus came to call for change,  changes that would be a “blessing” for those the present structures had caused to be poor, to weep, and to go hungry. These changes would also mean “woe” for those designing and benefiting from those structures. 

Matthew’s version of these words is a little broader. In Matthew, Jesus called for changes for the meek rather than the assertive person, the pure in heart rather than those corrupted by greed, the peacemakers rather than peacekeepers, those hungering and thirsting for the Hebrew prophets’ distributive justice (righteousness) rather than those alleviating guilt with charity, and the merciful rather than the merciless. The one group that stands out to me as I reread this passage is the group that Jesus said would be blessed by the changes he called for in our world—the poor in spirit.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5.3)

I was recently revisiting Michelle Alexander’s masterpiece, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. One section describes the permanent consequences of a person being branded a “felon” after they have served their sentence. From not being allowed to find housing or employment to having your right to vote and serve on a jury forever taken away, these are experiences that break people’s spirits.

Here are just three of the stories that Alexander shares:

Clinton Drake (Veteran)

“I put my life on the line for this country. To me, not voting is not right; it led to a lot of frustration, a lot of anger. My son’s in Iraq. In the army just like I was. My oldest son, he fought in the first Persian Gulf conflict. He was in the Marines. This is my baby son over there right now. But I’m not able to vote. They say I owe $900 in fines. To me, that’s a poll tax. You’ve got to pay to vote. It’s “restitution,” they say. I came off parole on October 13, 1999, but I’m still not allowed to vote. Last time I voted was in ’88. Bush versus Dukakis. Bush won. I voted for Dukakis. If it was up to me, I’d vote his son out this time too. I know a lot of friends got the same cases like I got, not able to vote. A lot of guys doing the same things like I was doing. Just marijuana. They treat marijuana in Alabama like you committed treason or something. I was on the 1965 voting rights march from Selma. I was fifteen years old. At eighteen, I was in Vietnam fighting for my country. And now? Unemployed and they won’t allow me to vote.” (The New Jim Crow; pp. 159-160)

Unnamed Woman:

“When I leave here it will be very difficult for me in the sense that I’m a felon. That I will always be a felon . . . for me to leave here, it will affect my job, it will affect my education . . . custody [of my children], it can affect child support, it can affect everywhere—family, friends, housing. . . People that are convicted of drug crimes can’t even get housing anymore. . . Yes, I did my prison time. How long are you going to punish me as a result of it? And not only on paper, I’m only on paper for ten months when I leave here, that’s all the parole I have. But, that parole isn’t going to be anything. It’s the housing, it’s the credit re-establishing. . . . I mean even to go into the school, to work with my child’s class—and I’m not a sex offender—but all I need is one parent who says, ‘Isn’t she a felon? I don’t want her with my child.’” (The New Jim Crow; pp. 162-163)

Willie Johnson:

“My felony conviction has been like a mental punishment, because of all the obstacles. . . Every time I go to put in a [job] application—I have had three companies hire me and tell me to come to work the next day. But then the day before they will call and tell me don’t come in—because you have a felony. And that is what is devastating because you think you are about to go to work and they call you and say because of your felony we can’t hire [you]. I have run into this at least a dozen times. Two times I got very depressed and sad because I couldn’t take care of myself as a man. It was like I wanted to give up—because in society nobody wants to give us a helping hand. Right now I am considered homeless. I have never been homeless until I left the penitentiary, and now I know what it feels to be homeless. If it was not for my family I would be in the streets sleeping in the cold. . . . We [black men] have three strikes against us: 1) because we are black, and 2) because we are a black male, and the final strike is a felony. These are the greatest three strikes that a black man has against him in this country. I have friends who don’t have a felony—and have a hard time getting a job. But if a black man can’t find a job to take care of himself—he is ashamed that he can’t take care of his children.” (The New Jim Crow; pp. 163-164)

These stories add new meaning to Jesus saying he had been sent “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners,” including people labeled as “felons.”

The opposite of being “poor in spirit” is being “strong in spirit” (see Luke 1:80). This society rewards those who, in addition to being privileged in other ways, are also strong in spirit. They have drive. They have fight. They compete. And they keep going till they win. The stories that Michelle Alexander tells are stories of those who, no matter how hard they try, can’t even survive. The system is intended to break their spirit once and for all, to make them give up and simply cycle through the judicial system indefinitely. Jesus’ vision for human society was that his kingdom would belong to those presently trodden and excluded, those whose spirit has been broken, who don’t have the will to even keep trying. Jesus cast a vision for a world not of charity that leaves the unjust structures in place, but where all oppression, injustice, and violence toward the vulnerable has been put right. 

What does a world look like where people aren’t in need of continual charity or relief and live instead in a just society?

What does a world look like where people who are presently broken and downtrodden are instead given what they need to thrive?

What does a world look like where people who are vulnerable and pushed to the margins by those at the center are instead cared about and cared for?

I believe we have to start with that vision. I’m not preaching utopia. Utopia movements have backfired too many times in the past with very destructive results. But we have at least to begin with the discussion of what a utopia would even look like if we are going to push our present reality in a more just, safe, compassionate direction. We can argue about whether or not a utopia is possible, but as my friend Ash-lee Woodard Henderson of the Highlander Center shared with me recently, “Discovering what our utopias even look like is very often the first step in discovering what we need to be working on in our work of shaping a better world.” 

It was to this work of shaping a better world that I believe Jesus called his disciples. And it’s really only this kind of discipleship that holds any real interest for me. I’ll close with the words of Sam Wells:

“The traditional way of understanding discipleship as one of taking people out of the world because it is a hostile place, promising them a better place in God’s heavenly kingdom, has been radically transformed by this insight. Jesus call us rather to change the world in such a way that it will cease to be the hostile place it is, as we construct the way for God’s reign on earth . . . The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that there’s plenty wrong with the world. There are only two responses to this—either go and put it right yourself, or, if you can’t, make life pretty uncomfortable for those who can until they do. When we take stock of our relationship with the powerful, we ask ourselves, ‘Does the shape of my life reflect my longing to see God set people free, and do I challenge those who keep others in slavery?” (Sam Wells in Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus by Ched Myers)

Here’s to the work of shaping a world that we may be able to look at one day and say:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom…” (Matthew 5:3)

HeartGroup Application

This week, Ron Dellums passed away.  If you are unaware of who he was, here is a link to his wikipedia page: Ron Dellums 

With Mr. Dellums’ death, I’m reminded once again of the work those who have gone before us dedicated their lives to, their importance to us, and our importance to them. It is important that we continue their work of justice, peace and humanity toward all.  They took up the work from those who came before them, and we must continue the work, taking it as far as we can during the time we, together, have.

In honor of Ron Dellums, have your HeartGroup take a few moments and watch an interview with Ron from 2015 and discuss your responses with the group.

You can find the interview here.  It begins at minute marker 26:18.

What it would look like for your HeartGroup to lean more deeply into a dedication to challenging all forms of injustice. Pick something from your discussion and put it into practice, this week. 

Thanks for checking in with us. 

Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


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