A Community of Healing Justice

Herb Montgomery | March 13, 2020

hands together as team


“At its source, it’s not about a lone hero who does something revolutionary on our behalf. It’s a call to participate, with others, in a community of healing justice.


“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:64, emphasis added)

This curious passage in Matthew’s gospel is almost a direct quote from the apocalyptic book of Daniel. Let’s unpack it a bit.

The gospel authors repeatedly use a title to refer to Jesus: the “son of man.” They use it more than 81 times in the four canonical versions of the Jesus story that we have. It is the only phrase the gospel authors used anywhere near as much as they used the phrase “the Kingdom.” What could this phrase have meant to the early Jesus community? I believe the meaning is tied to Daniel 7:13.

“As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a SON OF MAN coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13, 14, emphasis added)

In Daniel this phrase, “son of man,” applies not only to an individual but also to a “community” founded around this individual:

“The kingship and dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to THE PEOPLE of the holy ones of the Most High; THEIR kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom . . .” (Daniel 7:27, emphasis added)

“Son of” is a Semitic idiom meaning “Of or pertaining to the following genus or species.” The “son of man” can therefore be translated as “the offspring of this man” and as a “beloved community” that emerges from that person. I prefer this interpretation myself: communities have more power than heroes.

If you have a few moments, go back through the gospel stories and reread all the times they use the phrase “Son of Man” and try to understand in collective terms what Jesus is saying. In other words, look at this phrase not as the gospel authors talking about Jesus in isolation but as them describing Jesus AND the community organized around his teachings. It’s not Jesus OR the community, but Jesus AND this community: the Son of Man AND the people of the holy ones of the Most High (cf. Daniel 7:27).

The gospel authors referred to the “coming” of the son of man too. Consider our opening passage:

“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: FROM NOW ON you will see the Son of Man [and the community] sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:64)

Here, Jesus is not talking about some event in the future on literal clouds. He is quoting Daniel 7 and saying, “What Daniel is referring to in verse 13 is taking place right now before your very eyes!” This son of man and the community that overcomes the predatory beasts of empire in Daniel 7—Jesus says they’ll see “from now on!”

How does this apply to us today?

The predatory animal nature of the established empire, the status quo, the establishment, however you want to refer to it, ended up crucifying Jesus. This seems to be the common story thread in history each time justice movements threaten the establishment.

But one of the reasons I still love the Jesus story is that this story doesn’t end with yet another crucifixion, but it rather ends with an overcoming of the elite’s efforts to stop the Jesus revolution. The resurrection event brings hope back into the community. The teachings of their Jesus now live on in them. Jesus’ alternative vision for a human community rooted in distributive justice now will live on in them.

Today, as has often been the case throughout history, the establishment still is trying to squelch change. Justice work still meets setbacks daily. I recall the radical words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in The Trumpet of Conscience:

“These are revolutionary times; all over the globe people are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch-antirevolutionaries.” (Quoted in The Radical King by Dr. Cornel West, p. 215)

Ched Myers writes of how afraid the inhabitants of the region of Gerasenes were of the liberation changes Jesus represented and how they “began to plead with Jesus to leave their region” (Mark 5:17):

“Whether personal or political, liberation has a cost, and there will always be those unwilling to risk it. (“Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 60)

When liberation comes to their region, they plead for it to leave and instead choose to return to how things had been up to that point. The risks of change were great. Under Roman imperial rule, calling for change or revolution or even reformation also meant risking the real possibility of deathly retribution from Rome. Rome’s heavy hand toward any hint of uprising or movement toward change showed extreme intolerance for such activity, especially along the marginal regions of its territory. I can understand why those in the region of Gerasenes were not simply reluctant, but also expressed strong opposition to Jesus being in their region. They basically kicked him out.

Followers of this Jesus are also invited to be part of this distributively just way of organizing human society. We are invited to display what a world changed by the ethics of love, compassion, connectedness, and distributive justice could look like, in the here and now. And yet countless Christians today don’t even recognize when modern calls for change echo the values of the Jesus story. (See When Change Feels Too Risky.)

When we fail to recognize the resonance between the Jesus story and modern change movements, Christians become supporters of the status quo and real-life opposers of the societal changes the Jesus story actually calls for.

We too often spiritualize the teachings of Jesus rather than allowing them to challenge our political, economic and societal systems. We mistakenly believe Jesus’ teachings were about gaining post mortem bliss in a future heavenly realm, rather than about bringing liberation from oppression in the here and now, today (see Luke 4:18-19). The early, growing Christian movement, after being met with repeated failure, chose a more spiritualized application to Jesus’ teachings. They gave up hope for present change and begin focusing apocalyptically on change in the future.

Nonetheless, the gospel authors saw Jesus’ teachings as speaking of a new way to organize human life together. This “community” wasn’t about Jesus doing it all for them but was about their participation in Jesus’ vision for human community (cf. Matthew 26:64; Daniel 7:13,14, 27). Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, and scattered throughout each of the gospels, describe the values of this new community.

The gospel authors believed Jesus had given us a way to heal our world. Today, there is still work to do. Our world is right where we belong: this is our home. And we are called to display a world characterized by love, connectedness, compassion and distributive justice. We are called to recognize where this is already happening around us and to stand in solidarity with those already doing it, whether they or their work are “Christian” or not. We are called to humbly learn from those who have been applying these values longer than we personally have. We are called to learn from their experiences and stories. Lastly, we are called to invite those not participating in Jesus’ world-healing-work to this journey alongside us.

The title “son of man” held much meaning for the gospel authors. At its source, it’s not about a lone hero who does something revolutionary on our behalf. It’s a call to participate, with others, in a community of healing justice.


HeartGroup Application

1. Where are you witnessing the kind of community mentioned above already happening? Discuss with your group.

2. How can your HeartGroup stand in solidarity with those where this is happening whether the community is “Christian” or not? How can your HeartGroup posture itself to humbly learn from communities such as these who have been applying these values longer than we personally may have?

3. What actions can your HeartGroup take to invite those not participating in Jesus’ world-healing-work to this journey alongside of us? Make a list and pick something from this list to put into practice this week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

When Change Feels Too Risky

Herb Montgomery | March 6, 2020

two roads


“Are you seeing calls for societal change threatening the status quo today? Are you seeing concern and fear from the establishment toward movements for distributive justice or for a larger swath of people?”


In Matthew’s gospel we read:

“Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” (Matthew 9:35)

This is a picture of Jesus as itinerant teacher: he travels from place to place proclaiming good news of “the kingdom.”

The rhetoric of “kingdom” was meaningful to the original gospel authors and their audience. For us, this language is deeply problematic and we need to find a different language to express the ideas behind it. 

The empire of God contrasted with the empire of Rome. Distilled to its core, the “kingdom” was Jesus’ vision for a just human society here and now. Not everyone in Jesus’ audience was disadvantaged by the Roman system. Many benefitted from how power and privilege operated in Jesus’ society, and they didn’t perceive the gospel or good news of Jesus’ new social vision as “good news.” 

In the gospel stories, Jesus meets deep resistance and anger from the very beginning (see Luke 4:28-29; Luke 13:14). The elites met him with suspicion and accused his teachings of being dangerous. This sector of his society raised “complaints,” and warnings about the change Jesus was calling for. While some saw that what Jesus was sharing was truly good, others felt he was “deceiving” everyone (John 7:12). Consequently, Jesus faced censure and rebuke from the establishment. He endured being labeled as a heretic and outsider, whose views, if adopted, would end the entire nation. This group’s initial response to Jesus’ teaching and popularity was fear.

“The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God has been being proclaimed, and everyone is attacking it. (Luke 16:16, personal translation, emphasis added.)

In Matthew’s version, Jesus assured these leaders:

“Do not think that I have come to nullify or demolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to nullify or demolish the law but to fulfill it. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until the whole is brought into existence. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of the commandments I am about to teach here, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you’re not even going to be able to enter the kingdom. (Matthew 5:17-20)

Mark’s Jesus may have opposed certain popular interpretations of the Torah, but, as in Matthew, he was not nullifying the law and the prophets. Rather he was interpreting in ways that were felt to be a return to them.

 I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me . . .  I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against . . . those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice . . .” (Malachi 3:1-5, cf. Mark 1:2)

Note the crimes in these verses: exploiting workers, oppressing the vulnerable in a patriarchal system, and ill-treating migrants.

The passage in Malachi continues:

“You are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.” (Malachi 3:9-10)

Many believe that the tithe referred to here is the poor tithe, a tithe more like a tax that was collected by the Temple priest for redistribution to the poor, fatherless, widows, and “foreigners.” These are the groups, in context, that are being spoken of in verses 1-5. The instructions for this tithe or tax to be collected and the redistributed to these social groups are found in Deuteronomy:

“At the end of three years you shall bring forth all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall lay it up inside your gates. And the Levite, because he has no part nor inheritance with you, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are inside your gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.” (Deuteronomy 14:28)

“When you have finished tithing all the tithes of your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give them to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that they can eat to satiety in your cities.” (Deuteronomy 26:12)

Not only were the people’s profits to be taxed and the proceeds redistributed to the poor, widows, fatherless, and foreigners—what some folks today call a success tax— the counsel in Deuteronomy 14 also continues into chapter 15 where every seven years all debts were to be cancelled. 

These social policies of the Torah unilaterally restructured accumulated wealth and were designed to prevent the people of the Exodus from ever returning to a system of slavery. They were designed to dismantle inequality, redistribute the wealth, and guarantee enough for everyone. Attempts to hold a surplus and control the forces of production and accumulation of resources would be regularly interrupted. These are the Jewish roots of Jesus’ teachings on debt forgiveness and redistributing wealth.  

Yet no matter how deeply Jesus’ social vision was rooted in his own Jewishness, the social changes embodied in his teachings threatened too much for the elite of his day.

Jesus met the anger of the elite class with determination. He saw people to be won from fear of change to love and compassion for the excluded and exploited.

In John, the elites’ fear is palpable:

“You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:50)

The good news that Jesus proclaimed despite their fear announced his social vision.

In the stories, though those disadvantaged within that system responded positively, misrepresentation and fear followed Jesus’ followers after Jesus had gone. They, too, were met with accusations by those who felt threatened:

“They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” (Acts 17:7, emphasis supplied)

The disciples had experienced something in Jesus’ political, economic, social, and theological teachings. They were proclaiming not the Pax Romana (the Peace of Rome), but the Peace of Jesus and his vision of a just future (Acts 10:36). They were not praising Caesar as Lord, but rather proclaiming a different “Lord” (see Acts 10:31, 36). These believers were not chiming in with all the rest and proclaiming Caesar as “Son of God.” Instead they named Jesus as “Son of God” (Acts 9:20). And they did not proclaim Rome or Caesar as the “savior of the world,” but instead claimed that Jesus and his vision was the “savior of the world.” (1 John 4:14)

What does this mean for us today?

Are you seeing calls for societal change threatening the status quo today? Are you seeing concern and fear from the establishment toward movements for distributive justice or for a larger swath of people?

Well, I’ll tell you a little secret. Change is about just that: change. But the economic changes found in Jesus’ teachings were supposed to lead to life, not to a world where some have more than they could ever use and many go without. We can choose to leave things the way they are. We can also choose to shape our world into a safer, compassionate, just home for everyone. 

I’m watching things unfolding around us today and hoping these words from Luke’s gospel will not also be spoken about us:

“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-42, emphasis added)

If we don’t make changes soon, Mother Nature will make changes for us. But when we leave this level of change to nature, it doesn’t come softly, and it’s hardest on people who are vulnerable and exploited.

It would be much better, for everyone, if we chose change today.

We have choices to make. 

HeartGroup Application

  1. Do you see any parallels in this week’s eSight and what is presently going on in the U.S.? Discuss any parallels you see with your group.
  2. What social, economic or political changes would you like to see made in our present society? Have each person make a list and then prioritize the items on their list from most important to least.  Then compile those lists to get a sense of how your group feel’s collectively.
  3. Pick the top three from the collective list and brainstorm ways your group work toward these changes. Select something from this discussion and begin putting it into practice the coming week. 

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

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

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week

A Just Future Begins Today

Herb Montgomery | February 28, 2020

globe


“Change can scare those benefitting from the present system no matter how unjust that system may be for others. Sadly the moderates in any given society typically side with the establishment, not with those being most marginalized.”


In Luke’s gospel, Jesus was asked when “the kingdom” or Jesus’ vision of God’s just future was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:20–21).

What energized the early Jesus movement was that Jesus counterintuitively denied that the just future they anticipated was coming at some point in the future. No, he declared: it had arrived! A new way of shaping human society toward justice, compassion, and inclusion had come, and it was theirs for the choosing. A movement had risen around Jesus’ egalitarian teachings and they were being invited to participate in it. A movement toward the just future they longed for had arrived. The question was what they were going to do about it. Notice the following passages:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven HAS come near.” (Matthew 3:2)

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven HAS come near.’” (Matthew 4:17)

“As you go, proclaim the good NEWS, ‘The kingdom of heaven HAS come near.’” (Matthew 10:7)

“ . . . the kingdom of God HAS come to you.” (Matthew 12:28)

“ . . . Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes ARE GOING into the kingdom of God ahead of you.’” (Matthew 21:31)

“And saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God HAS come near . . .” (Mark 1:15)

Jesus was not announcing that His kingdom would arrive soon, in the future. He proclaimed that the time had already come. He saw his purpose as traveling from one city to the next, proclaiming its arrival!

“But he said to them, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’” (Luke 4:43)

“Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.” (Luke 8:1)

Reconsider the passage we began with in Luke 17:

“Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” for, in fact, the kingdom of God IS AMONG YOU.’” (v. 20-21, emphasis added.)

The gospel authors used the rhetoric of “kingdom” or “empire” in their own Jewish culture and Roman societal context. Today we have better language to use: the language of kingdom is now rightly seen as authoritarian, hierarchical, and rooted in patriarchy. Jesus’ teachings on the “kingdom” were egalitarian, and his vision for ordering human society didn’t look anything like a kingdom. Let’s simply call it Jesus’ vision of God’s just future. This just future had actually arrived and Jesus contrasted it with the Roman Empire. Its treatment of the poor, inclusion of the marginalized, nonviolent obstruction of present systems of injustice, liberation of the incarcerated, and calls for reparations for those harmed in the present system confronted those listening to Jesus with the difference between the kind of society they were living in and the kind of society that could be, if they chose it.

Notice the contrast in these two verses:

“So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is NEAR.” (Luke 21:31)

“For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God COMES.” (Luke 22:18)

Had the time come, yes. Was it near? Yes. Had the beginning already begun? Yes. Could it also be stopped and prevented from coming in its fullness? Absolutely.

The time for change had come, but, as with all movements, positive momentum could be obstructed, slowed, and even halted. The time for a just future may have come, but change can scare those benefitting from the present system no matter how unjust that system may be for others.

Would the established elite be able to stop this movement or would the proletariat that comprised the early Jesus movement actually be able to make the changes they resonated with in the teachings of Jesus? Sadly the moderates in any given society typically side with the establishment, not with those being most marginalized.

In the gospels, Jesus announced that the beginning of God’s just future had arrived. He called his followers to enlarge this beginning, and it was obstructed almost immediately.

That obstruction is the meaning we can safely take from the cross of Jesus. The cross was the establishment’s no to Jesus’ vision of God’s just future. The cross interrupted Jesus’ salvific work, while the resurrection reversed the interruption and inspired Jesus’ early followers to live out his vision of a just future.

I’m reminded of how Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas phrases it in her powerfully written book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.

“The resurrection is God’s definitive victory over the crucifying powers of evil . . . As the cross is defeated, so too is that power. The impressive factor is how it is defeated. It is defeated by a life-giving rather than life-negating force. God’s power, unlike human power, is not a ‘master race’ kind of power. That is, it is not the power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is a resurrecting power. Therefore, God’s power never expresses itself through humiliation or denigration of another. It does not triumph over life. It conquers death by resurrecting life. The force of God is a death-negating, life affirming force.” (p. 187)

Douglas goes on to reference Audre Lorde’s phrase, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Douglass then responds to Lorde:

“What the crucifixion-resurrection event reveals is that God does not use the master’s tools. God does not fight death with death. God does not utilize the violence exhibited in the cross to defeat deadly violence itself . . . [God’s resurrecting] power is nonviolent . . . God enters into this world of violence, yet God does not take [violence] into God’s self. Thus, God responds to the violence of the world not in an eye-for-an-eye manner. Instead God responds in a way that negates and denounces the violence that perverts and demeans the integrity of human creation. Thus, through the resurrection, God responds to the violence of the cross—the violence of the world—in a nonviolent but forceful manner.”

One of the uses of the threat of a cross in Roman society was to prevent rebellion or resistance. It was used to keep oppressed communities silent or passive. To stand up to injustice was to embrace the possibility that one might also end up on a cross for doing so. This context of standing up and speaking out, fully knowing what the repercussions may be, is the context I believe it’s most life-giving to read these words in Luke’s gospel from Jesus:

“Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’” (Luke 9:22–24)

Those who choose to save their life by remaining passively silent in the face of injustice are the ones who end up losing their life and humanity, even if they live on with their privilege and position untouched.

God’s just future is both future and present. The future/present paradox is not either/or, but both/and. God’s just future begins every time someone chooses justice over injustice, liberation over subjugation, equity over exploitation, and thriving over extinction. It also can be obstructed.

Every time we choose to stand with those most vulnerable to injustice, the beginning of God’s just future is here, now, obstructed though it may be. We get to choose which way the moral arc of the universe bends. The status quo either bends us, or we bend it. It shapes us, or we shape it.

And this leads me to a question I get asked a lot. But what about when we feel like our taking a stand isn’t making much of a difference? I have to admit, I too am wrestling with those feelings this week after spending Monday at my state Capital talking to our representatives. I’m reminded of the story of A.J. Muste.

A.J. Muste was an organizer in the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s. Standing at a candlelight vigil/protest in front of the White House, a reporter asked Muste, “Do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night in front of the White House with a candle?”

A.J. Muste replied softly: “Oh I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.”

I believe that when we choose to take a stand, the beginning of God’s just future has arrived.

Will it grow to fruition? That is for us, collectively, to decide.

When we see movements toward a more just, more compassionate, safe society at work, we can oppose them, choosing a more moderate, less-threatening-to-the-establishment path, or we can come alongside those movements, pitching in our own energy and resources to work for change.

If we do that, we can confidently say with Jesus, God’s just future, though obstructed, is already “among you.”

HeartGroup Application

  1. Where do you see fear of a more just society being stoked today? Discuss with your group.
  2. What movements for justice do you see being obstructed? Have your group make a list.
  3. What can your group do collectively to stand with and work alongside such movements? Pick something and put it into practice.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see next week