The Kingdom of God within You

by Herb Montgomery

“Today, Jesus’s ‘Kingdom of God,’ a community that centers and puts first those our present society places as last, is within our ability. We can choose to do life differently. When it comes to the subject of immigration, we can put migrants first. When it comes to indigenous people’s rights, we can put Native lives first. When we talk about poverty and creating a new world where poverty is no more, we can put the poor first and center their voices in the discussion. When we speak of what it’s like to be a woman in our society, we can put women first. When we consider racial inequalities, we can choose to put people of color first. And in a world still largely shaped by homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, we can center the discussion in the voices, stories and experiences of those within our community who are LGBTQ.”

 

Featured Text:

“But on being asked when the kingdom of God is coming, he answered them and said: The kingdom of God is not coming visibly. Nor will one say: Look, here! There! For look, the kingdom of God is within you!” (Q 17:20-21)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 24:23: “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.”

Luke 17:20-21: “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Gospel of Thomas 3:1-3: “Jesus says, ‘If those who lead you say to you: “Look, the kingdom is in the sky!”
then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you: “It is in the sea,” then the fishes will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and outside of you.’”

Gospel of Thomas 113: “His disciples said to him: ‘The kingdom – on what day will it come?’ ‘It will not come by watching (and waiting for) it. They will not say: “Look, here!“ or “Look, there!” Rather, the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.’”

The Privatized Individual Interpretation of this Saying

I want to begin this week by critiquing a popular privatized, internal, individualistic interpretation of this passage. One proponent of this individualistic interpretation is Eckhart Tolle. Here is a sample from his work, and then I’ll offer my response from a liberation perspective.

“Jesus was once asked when the kingdom of God would come. The kingdom of God, Jesus replied, is not something people will be able to see and point to. Then came these striking words: ‘Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.’ (Luke 17:21) With these words, Jesus gave voice to a teaching that is universal and timeless. Look into every great religious, spiritual, and wisdom tradition, and we find the same precept — that life’s ultimate truth, its ultimate treasure, lies within us. As Jesus made unambiguously clear, we can experience this inner treasure — and no experience could be more valuable. ‘But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” he declared, “and all these things shall be added unto you’ (Matthew 6:33). From this interior plane of life, he is saying, we will gain all that is needful.” (https://www.tm.org/blog/enlightenment/kingdom-of-god-is-within-you/)

“What you see, hear, feel, touch, or think about is only one half of reality, so to speak. It is form. In the teaching of Jesus, it is simply called ‘the world,’ and the other dimension is ‘the kingdom of heaven or eternal life.’” (Eckhart Tolle; A New Earth)

“When you hear of inner space, you may start seeking it, and because you are seeking it as if you were looking for an object or for an experience, you cannot find it. This is the dilemma of all those who are seeking spiritual realization or enlightenment. Hence, Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!” or “There!” for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.’” (Ibid.)

“No inner baggage, no identifications. Not with things, nor with any mental concepts that have a sense of self in them. And what is the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is. The simple but profound joy of Being that is there when you let go of identifications and so become ‘poor in spirit.’” (Ibid.)

“I think if [Jesus] lived nowadays, instead of ‘kingdom,’ he would have said, ‘dimension.’ And ‘heaven’ refers to a sense of vastness or spaciousness. So if we retranslate the words of Jesus into modern terms [it would be] ‘the dimension of spaciousness is within you.’ And then Jesus said — when they asked him, ‘Where is the kingdom of heaven and when is it going to come?’ — he said, ‘The kingdom of heaven does not come with signs to be perceived. You cannot say, ah, it’s over here or look, it’s over there, for I tell you the kingdom of heaven is within you.’” Eckhart Tolle (Lecture, February 12, 2013, Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education)

Three Critiques from a Liberation Perspective

My first critique is to the idea that you can find this kingdom within yourself as an individual rather than within yourselves as in a community. This individualistic interpretation stands in contrast with the majority of Jesus’ teachings that taught a form of communalism. The “kingdom” in the gospels is a community of people who are committed to putting into action God’s distributively just vision for the world.

Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino critiques theologies in first world countries where “the Kingdom” can be reduced to “the purely personal dimension” (Jesus the Liberator, pp 110-121). The “you” that Jesus’ kingdom is “within” or in “the midst of” is not singular. It’s not singular! The “you” where Jesus locates the Kingdom is plural: “among you” as a collective—a community.

When Angela Davis speaks on community, she speaks of a community that includes not just those who are alive now but also those who have gone before us in our work, our ancestors in social change movements. This community also includes those who will who come after us, who stand on the shoulders of our work the way we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. She speaks of our need to contradict “the neoliberal individualism that persuades us that we are single solitary individuals in the world. We have lost so much as a result of capitalism and not just in terms of material goods. We’ve lost a sense of our connectedness to one another” (SPIRIT OF JUSTICE: A CONVERSATION BETWEEN MICHELLE ALEXANDER AND ANGELA DAVIS, 1:11:30-1:12:30)

This communal interpretation should lift the hopes of someone coming in contact with Jesus’ kingdom as an individual who is part of a larger community, not alone.

My second critique is that this individualistic interpretation makes the kingdom abstract. It does not address systemic injustice, oppression, or violence in concrete ways. This might explain why this interpretation resonates largely with the elites. It allows them to supposedly find Jesus’ kingdom inside of them through personal disciplines without being called to confront their own complicity in injustice or the benefit they derive from their social location in the status quo.

My third critique is that one can read an entire volume expounding this interpretation of the kingdom as an internal level of consciousness and never encounter a mention of the poor. Not one! This is a huge red flag, a denial of the gospel Jesus taught. Jesus called his followers in the Kingdom to practice a preferential option for the poor, those this world makes last.

In Jesus’s “kingdom of God,” whomever the status quo places last becomes first. They are the ones to whom the kingdom belongs (see Luke 6:20). It is their experiences of life, facing marginalization, oppression, exploitation and/or discrimination, in which the community is centered and dedicated to the practice of bringing change in the larger society.

An Alternative

So how are we to understand Jesus’ response to the inquiring Pharisee, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst”?

This response has a social/historical context that the writings of Josephus explain. Josephus writes of incidents that occurred around the mid-1st Century when revolutionary prophets would lead large groups of people into a desert outside Jerusalem on the premise that, once there, God would show them signs of approaching freedom. The Roman procurator, Felix, regarded one of these gatherings as the first stage of revolt, and so sent cavalry and heavy infantry to cut the mob into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147). The most infamous of the revolutionary prophets who promised “signs to be observed” was a militaristic messiah referred to as “the Egyptian.” He’s mentioned in Acts 21:38: “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?” Josephus describes the event as follows:

“Arriving in the country, this man, a fraud who posed as a seer, collected about 30,000 dupes, led them round from the desert to the Mount of Olives and from there was ready to force an entry into Jerusalem, overwhelm the Roman garrison, and seize supreme power with his fellow-raiders as bodyguard.” (Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147)

Josephus wasn’t a neutral reporter. Josephus believed the future of the Jewish people depended on the elites collaborating with Rome. He was definitely biased in favor of Rome. You can see it in the difference between the “4,000 assassins” mentioned in Acts and the “30,000 dupes” mentioned in Josephus’ account. But the fact that he mentions the event is still important, even if his account possesses potentially exaggerated numbers. In a parallel account of this event, Josephus includes the “sign” that this “Egyptian” had claimed would be shown to the people. It would be a sign like Joshua’s sign at the Battle of Jericho. At the “Egyptian’s” command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down so that his followers could enter and seize the city. However, before any such a sign could be attempted, the Roman cavalry and infantry slayed or captured hundreds and put the rest to flight, including the militaristic messiah himself. (Josephus, Antiquities, 170-172) These were not irrational leaders, but hopeful militarist messiahs, liberation prophets who tried to lead movements of Jewish peasants in action that would be accompanied by YHWH’s power and deliverance.

Josephus gives other examples of the people seeking God’s deliverance and meeting death instead. Roman soldiers massacred a thousand Jewish women and children who followed another Jewish militaristic messiah “prophet.” This man had declared to the people in Jerusalem that God had commanded them to go up to the Temple to receive the signs of deliverance (Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 360). Josephus also describes a “Samaritan prophet” who was a contemporary “messiah” of Jesus during the time of Pontius Pilate. This prophet’s “sign” was to lead the people up the sacred Mount Gerizim to find holy vessels left there by Moses. Instead, the armed crowd was attacked and overwhelmed by Pilate’s troops at the foot of the mountain (Josephus, Antiquities, 85-87).

When Jesus says “the Kingdom is not coming with signs to be observed,” he is emphatically rejecting the specific way in which popular prophets led masses of Jewish people to their deaths at the hands of Roman soldiers. The reference to such leaders becomes more specific when he warns, “They will say to you, ‘Lo there!’ or ‘Lo, here!’ Do not go, do not follow them” (Luke 17:23). Those who followed these messiahs and their methods of liberation would perish needlessly in horrific slaughters by Rome.

Jesus instead offered a new vision for human society in the form of a community that practiced survival, nonviolent resistance, liberation, and reparation, with the hope of both personal and societal transformation. This kingdom was within their grasp. Where other approaches were revolutionary suicide, Jesus gave them a methodology that was within their ability to accomplish. When Jesus says “It’s within you,” he’s quoting Moses in Deuteronomy.

“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart [‘within you’] so you may obey it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, emphasis added).

Preferential Option for the Last

Today, Jesus’s “Kingdom of God,” a community that centers and puts first those our present society places as last, is within our ability. We can choose to do life differently. When it comes to the subject of immigration, we can put migrants first. When it comes to indigenous people’s rights, we can put Native lives first. When we talk about poverty and creating a new world where poverty is no more, we can put the poor first and center their voices in the discussion. When we speak of what it’s like to be a woman in our society, we can put women first. When we consider racial inequalities, we can choose to put people of color first. And in a world still largely shaped by homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, we can center the discussion in the voices, stories and experiences of those within our community who are LGBTQ.

We can believe, validate, and center each of these experiences. And although we may separate them for the purpose of discussion and understanding, often all of these experiences can be experienced by the same people. For example, a person can be a trans woman of color, and daily bump into multiple ways in which society seeks to place them as last rather than first. To the degree that that person fights oppressions in our world, a community seeking to follow Jesus’s vision for human society according will center their voice at the shared table, making first those the present structures place as last, and making last those the present structure places as first (see Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30)

Lastly, as our sayings states, the community of the Kingdom can be manifesting itself among a group of people right in front of us, and we can still miss it like the inquiring Pharisee in the story. The more invested we are in the present structures that marginalize others, the greater the likelihood of our missing it altogether. What are some of the characteristics we should look for? Jesus’ kingdom of God was communal rather than individualistic. It addressed the private/personal and also located each person within a larger community. It endeavored to address the injustice, oppression, marginalization and violence faced by those the world of the first century placed as last. And it practiced the one praxis the community of God must possess in every generation to be genuine: a preferential option for the last.

It’s not too difficult for us. It’s within our grasp. It starts with the choice to listen to those who traverse this world as last, and believing in their experiences when they tell you.

“But on being asked when the kingdom of God is coming, he answered them and said: The kingdom of God is not coming visibly. Nor will one say: Look, here! There! For look, the kingdom of God is within you!” (Q 17:20-21)

HeartGroup Application

As a group:

  1. Think about the various expressions of injustice, oppression and violence certain people face in our society. What worries, if any, come to mind when you consider centering their voices in your own community?
  2. Worries tell us a lot about ourselves. They tell us about what we attach importance to and what we are focusing our energies on. What would it look like to attach importance to “the last” instead, to focus on them, to place them as first?
  3. Schedule a HeartGroup time when anyone who would like to share their story of how they have been made to feel “last” can do so with the group. When these stories are shared, follow up each story with a no-talk-back rule. Spend time listening, believing, and validating one another.

Then see where that leads.

Also, this week, if your reading this on Friday, call your Senators. Today they are voting an a tax bill that multiple nonpartisan sources including the CBO tell us will that this will leave poorer Americans worse off, the while top earners and corporations would benefit. Making the rich richer and the poor poorer.

If you want an easy way to do it, use ResistBot. Text “Resist” to 50409.

Here is a sample script if you need it. This was written by a Facebook friend of mine Emily Timbol.

“As your constituent I am asking and demanding that you vote NO on the Tax bill currently being debated on the Senate floor. In addition to adding $1.7 TRILLION to the deficit, it will be paid for primarily by $473 million in Medicare cuts, or over one trillion dollars in cuts to Medicaid, which is beyond unacceptable. This is a redistribution of wealth, only instead of wealth, since the people who depend on Medicare & Medicaid often are the poorest Americans, it’s making the rich richer at the expense of poor people’s lives.
Average, middle class Americans who make less than $75,000 will likely pay MORE in taxes, while the most benefit will go to corporations and individuals who make multi-millions. Any gains that “trickle down” to low level employees (if any actually manifest) will be outweighed by the losses they feel from an economy reeling from the effect of this tax cut after 2018. Furthermore, according to multiple polls released today by Quinnipiac, ABC News, and the Washington Post, only 1/3 or 25% of American voters support this wildly unpopular bill. Do the smart, right thing, that your constituents want, and vote NO.”

Thanks so much for checking in with us this week.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. And remember, the Kingdom of God is within your midst, it’s within your grasp. It’s not too difficult for you.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Against Enticing Little Ones

“Cristo de la Liberacion” (Christ of the Liberation) by Maximino Cerezo Barredo, who’s been dubbed “liberation painter.”

Photo Credit: “Cristo de la Liberacion” (Christ of the Liberation) by Maximino Cerezo Barredo, who’s been dubbed “liberation painter.”

“Our experiences determine not only the questions we ask, but also the answers we get back. Plain readings are not plain but are read through the lens of our own paradigms and fears. And this is one reason why it is so vital, if we are going to make our world safe and just for everyone, that we learn to listen to stories, experiences, and interpretations of our sacred texts from the most vulnerable communities in our society.”

by Herb Montgomery | October 20, 2017

Featured Text:

“It is necessary for enticements to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It is better for him if a millstone is put around his neck and he is thrown into the sea, than that he should entice one of these little ones.” Q 17:1-2

Companion Texts:

Matthew 18:6-7: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!”

Luke 17:1, 2: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.’”

We stumble when we’re learning to walk. This week, we are focusing on those who are walking toward a safer, more just, and compassionate world, and we’ll be considering how as they move forward, others will actively obstruct their path rather than smoothing it out. Obstructionists place stumbling blocks in the way of those moving forward, causing their advance to be harder than it should be.

We are, again, considering one of Jesus’ sayings about “little ones.” As I wrote in Thanksgiving that God Reveals Only to Children:

“The family structure in Palestine in the first century was a hierarchical pyramid with the male patriarch at the top. On the bottom rung of the social ladder, below slaves, were children (see Galatians 4:1).

Social status is typically evaluated by the degree to which one has both power and resources. Those with large measures of control over power and resources operate in higher social positions, while those with very little access to power and resources live at the bottom.

Children have access to neither power nor resources. The typical avenues to power and control of resources are education, income, or work. In our societies, children have none of these, and they are vulnerable to abuse and neglect so child advocacy and children’s rights are much needed. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability, color, or ethnicity are also compounded when they apply to children.”

Our focus in this week’s saying is directed toward the “little ones” Jesus spoke of—the most vulnerable sectors of society. In the Greek, “little ones” (mikros) can not only refer to children, but also any who are vulnerable to exploitation by the status quo. It doesn’t have to mean a young person; it can also refer to a person’s “rank or influence” within a society. Christianity has a long history in doing damage to our most vulnerable and most marginalized.

Native People 

One example in this history is the way Christian preachers and missionaries used the Canaanite conquest and genocide stories in the Bible to legitimize the genocide of Native peoples here in the U.S.:

“Biblical notions of extirpation influenced colonial America from the earliest days of the settlement. In a tract publicizing the new Virginia settlement, Robert Gray expressed the hope that Indians might accept Christianity, but if they did not, biblical commands were clear: ‘Saul had his kingdom rent from him and his posterity because he spared Agag . . . whom God would not have spared; so acceptable a service is it to destroy idolaters, whom God hateth.’” (Philip Jenkins, in Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, p. 133)

During the colonial era, many New England preachers such as Cotton Mather compared Pequot Indians to modern Ammonites and New England to a modern Israel (see Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, vol. 1, p. 553). With this interpretation, if Saul had had his kingdom taken away because he failed to utterly destroy the Ammonites, the new American Christians were not to fail in the complete annihilation of their modern, native “Ammonites” if they wanted ensure their place on this continent, their “promised land.” The genocide of Native people was rooted in Christians’ lethal interpretation of violent Bible passages; it was a genocide they believed God had commanded them to execute.

Slavery

During the abolitionist years leading up to the American Civil War, many Christian preachers quoted Leviticus’ passages affirming slavery and claimed that neither Paul nor Jesus had reversed those passages. One famous preacher, ironically named Moses Stuart, wrote:

“Not one word has Christ said, to annul the Mosaic law while it lasted. Neither Paul nor Peter have uttered one. Neither of these have said to Christian masters: ‘Instantly free your slaves.’ Yet they lived under Roman laws concerning slavery, which were rigid to the last degree. How is it explicable on any ground, when we view them as humane and benevolent teachers, and especially as having a divine commission-how is it possible that they should not have declared and explicitly [so] against a malum in se [something evil in itself]?”

He confidently pronounced that those calling for the end of slavery “must give up the New Testament authority, or abandon the fiery course which they are pursuing” (Moses Stuart, Conscience and the Constitution; with Remarks on the Recent Speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster in the Senate of the United States on the Subject of Slavery, 1850).

Another minister, a Southern Methodist named J.W. Tucker, proclaimed to his Confederate audience fighting for their right to own slaves, “Your cause is the cause of God, the cause of Christ, of humanity. It is a conflict of truth with error-of Bible with Northern infidelity-of pure Christianity with Northern fanaticism.” (Kurt O. Berends, “Confederate Sacrifice and the ‘Redemption’ of the South,” in Religion and the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture, ed. Beth Barton Schweiger and Donald G. Mathews, p. 105.) Tucker’s rhetoric sounds almost identical to the rhetoric of Christians today as they condemn movement in many faith traditions toward the affirmation of LGBTQ people.

Against Women

Christianity also has a long history with patriarchy and misogyny. Roman Catholic writer John Paul Boyer explains in Some thoughts on the Ordination of Women: 

Being a Jew, being a Palestinian, being a first century man—all these are what we might call, in the language of Aristotelian metaphysical, the ‘accidents of Christ’s humanity;’ but his being a man rather than a woman is of the ‘substance’ of his humanity. He could have been a twentieth-century Chinese and been, cultural differences notwithstanding, much the same person he was, but he could not have been a woman without having been a different sort of personality altogether.” (A Monthly Bulletin of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, ())

Womanist scholar Jacqueline Grant rightly states in her book White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus that “the most significant use of this argument” came from Pope Paul VI on October 15, 1976, when he approved and published the following declaration:

“The Christian priesthood is therefore of a sacramental nature: the priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease. The whole sacramental economy is in fact based up on natural signs, or symbols imprinted up on the human psychology: ‘Sacramental signs’, says Saint Thomas, ‘represent what they signify by natural resemblance.’ The same natural resemblance is required for personas as for things: when Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally there would not be this ‘natural resemblance’ which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man. In such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.” (Franjo Cardinal Seper, Vatican Declaration, Feb 6, 1977, p. 6)

Never mind that the church’s own creation story states clearly that both male and female were made in the image of God. There have long been interpretations of these stories that have marginalized, wholly excluded, and damaged women personally and institutionally. Because of the patriarchal nature of many sectors of Christianity, and despite the fact that there are feminist and womanist Christians, some have gone so far as to say that Christianity is a man’s religion.

LGBTQ Fear

Anyone who lived through the 1980s here in the U.S. knows all too well how Christianity has done untold damage to the LGBTQ community, legitimizing the inmate homophobia of straight parishioners through interpretations that are trans-, bi-, genderqueer-, and homo-phobic. For a history that reaches back into the 1970s, the Southern Poverty Law Center offers an excellent history of the modern Christian anti-gay movement, starting with Anita Bryant in 1977. Just a quick read demonstrates how monstrously Christians have mischaracterized this community and used damaging interpretations of the Bible to bolster their mischaracterization. Jay Grimstead, a founder of The Coalition on Revival, bluntly stated that “Homosexuality makes God vomit”. Many similar arguments are rhetorically identical to those Christians in the 1800’s used in their opposition to ending slavery. The Christian Moral Majority didn’t get its start opposing abortion or gay people, but by opposing integration after Brown v. Board of Education. They began a network of private Christian schools to make sure their White children did not have to attend school with Black and Brown children.

I’ve given you four examples of how interpretations of our sacred text have done and continue to do damage to those who are most vulnerable within our society. I also, wrote two weeks ago:

“Interpretations are not eternal. They change with time. As we see the harmful fruit of present interpretations, we can make those interpretations give way to new ones, in the hope that new interpretations will bear the fruit of life. And if we see that our new interpretations also do harm, we will challenge them too. The goal is to continue to seek life-giving interpretations for all, work with people’s well-being and thriving in our hearts, and transform our world into a safe, just, compassionate home for us all. Anything less is not faithful to Jesus or the Spirit of our various sacred texts. Every time you’re tempted to mistake your interpretation for the sacred text itself, remember that interpretations are temporary. It’s okay for them to change, as long as what they change to is life-giving for all.”

In each of the above examples, you can come up with Bible interpretations to oppose valuing and protecting Native people and lands, ending slavery, promoting equity for women, and seeking justice for the LGBTQ community. Some claim they are just reading the Bible plainly. But we never see things objectively. As the saying goes, we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.

Our experiences determine not only the questions we ask, but also the answers we get back. Plain readings are not plain but are read through the lens of our own paradigms and fears. And this is one reason why it is so vital, if we are going to make our world safe and just for everyone, that we learn to listen to stories, experiences, and interpretations of our sacred texts from the most vulnerable communities in our society. This is how liberation theology was born: those in South America read the Bible very differently than their colonial Christian exploiters. It’s how Black liberation theology was born: Black Christians in the U.S. read the Bible radically differently than white Christians read it. It’s how feminist and womanist theologies were born and how queer theology was born. We need these voices and perspectives if we are to arrive at interpretations of our sacred text that cease to do harm.

Today we have a broad swathe of people who want nothing to do with Jesus because of the history of the church as the largest stumbling block in the path of the vulnerable in their work toward a world of justice and compassion. They see a Christianity that seems to habitually do harm, ever landing on the wrong side of history. They don’t see a Jesus who taught survival, resistance, liberation, and justice. They don’t see a Jewish Jesus on the side of the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). Rather, that Jesus is eclipsed by a religion that was formed in his name. This is gives me great reason to pause. I know first-hand how my own faith has been fractured by watching Christian racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia just in my local community here in West Virginia. I love Jesus, but I have zero tolerance for the kind of Christianity my family seems to be surrounded by where we live.

I do not apologize for this week’s eSight. And I don’t believe the truth of our history to be too harsh to share. As someone who loves the historic, first-century Jewish Jesus, I have simply  become disillusioned with the most vocal sectors of Christianity in our culture. Just this week I’ve endured disappointment again as Christians who should have been passionately living out the value of compassionate listening to the voices of the vulnerable, who claim to believe God love’s everyone, were passionate instead to protect their own cherished theology that has been shown to be hurtful to the vulnerable. Does your God love the vulnerable or your theology? Which is it that should be given a priority of worth? As Emilie Townes states, “When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.”  But what happens when you believe God loves everyone and that doesn’t lead to justice? What about when the ones preaching “God loves everyone” are the stumbling block for those working toward a safer, just, more compassionate world for the vulnerable?

As a Christian myself, I take this week’s saying seriously. It was said to Jesus’ followers, and we who take his name today must allow this week’s saying to confront us:

“Woe to the one through [whom stumbling blocks] come! It is better for them if a millstone is put around their neck and they are thrown into the sea, than that they should cause one of the vulnerable to stumble.” Q 17:1-2 

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you to spend some time with the above article.

  1. As a group discuss what challenges this week’s eSight creates for you.
  2. Discuss together where you feel encouraged by this week’s eSight. Maybe encouragement comes just from hearing that you’re not alone in your feelings of frustration toward your Christianity being a stumbling block to so many people.
  3. What are some ways you can move toward interpretations of our sacred texts that are not damaging and don’t create stumbling blocks for those pushed to the edges of our society? Which interpretations can also move you to take tangible, concrete actions as an individual and as a group to stand in solidarity with those walking toward a more just world? How can you smooth out another person’s way toward liberation? As it states in Isaiah:

“Every valley shall be raised up,

every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,

the rugged places a plain.” (Isaiah 40.4)

Thank you for checking in with us this week. Wherever this finds you, keep living in love engaging the work of transforming our world.

And to each of you who are supporting the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, we simply could not do this without you. We have a lot of educational events lined up for this fall. If you’d like to support our work you can do so by going to:

https://renewedheartministries.com/donate/

Or you can always mail your support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Every amount helps. Thank you!

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

Since John the Kingdom of God

Picture of protestorsby Herb Montgomery

“It’s one thing to mistake something bad as good. It’s quite another to mistake the Sprit’s work of liberating and re-humanizing those who have been dehumanized and objectified as an evil that should be opposed. This is the sin that is ‘unpardonable.’”

Featured Text:

“The law and the prophets were until John. From then on the kingdom of God is violated and the violent oppose it.” (Q 16:16)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:12-13: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.”

Luke 16:16: “The law and the prophets were until John; from that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every one useth violence towards it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fall.” (Douay-Rheims)

The Law and the Prophets

I have to confess that I used to interpret this passage differently than I do today. Growing up in a sector of Christianity that taught replacement theology, I interpreted this passage to mean that the Kingdom superseded the “Law and the Prophets.” I no longer believe that. Jesus was a Jew. He was never a Christian. As my friend Charlie Kraybill is fond of saying:

“Where did Jesus get his inspiration? From the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, of course. Little of what Jesus said was original with him. His genius was not so much in the substance of his sayings as in the way he curated his source material, the methodology he used for selecting what to highlight and what to leave on the shelf. And Jesus left a lot on the shelf. He ignored the negative qualities attributed to Yahweh: the wrath, the retribution, the jealousy, the rage, the pettiness. He also ignored Yahweh’s military exploits, the occasions where God was portrayed as siding with one tribe over other tribes on the battlefield. Jesus knew, intuitively, that stories of Yahweh behaving badly were projections of the humans who had written the texts. He understood that “Yahweh the Warrior” is a literary character, created by the scribes for their patriotic tales of Israel’s glorious past. At the same time, Jesus resonated with Yahweh’s noblest qualities: mercy, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, non-judgment, etc. He scoured the scrolls for passages where God is shown in the best light. These became Jesus’s favorite passages. They inspired his philosophy of conciliation, affirmation, and pacifism. Because Jesus was confident that the God who really exists — the Source of All Truth and Beauty in the Universe — is conciliatory, affirming, and non-violent. All the time. Any teachings or texts that contradict the mercy and compassion of God carry no weight. It was a radical perspective for a marginal Jew from the Galilean hinterlands, yet it’s the perspective that has made Jesus such a provocative and inspirational figure for the past two millennia.” (Marginal Mennonite Society)

The teachings that have been attributed to the historical Jesus are deeply Jewish. Here are a few examples of where we see Jesus’s teachings directly influenced by his Judaism:

Leviticus 19:17: “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.

Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge, but rather love your neighbor as yourself.”

Deuteronomy 4:31: “God is merciful. God will neither abandon you nor destroy you.”

Deuteronomy 15:11: “Open your hand to the poor and needy.”

Psalms 37:26: “The righteous are always giving liberally and lending.”

Psalms 103:8: “God is merciful, gracious, and abounding in steadfast love.”

Psalms 145:9: “God is good to All. God’s compassion is over all that God has made.”

Psalms 147:9: “God gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry.”

Proverbs 20:22: “Do not say ‘I will repay evil.’ Wait for God and God will help you.”

Proverbs 23:4-5: “Don’t wear yourself out to get rich. Be wise enough to desist. When your eyes light upon it, it is gone, for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven.”

Proverbs 25:21: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat. If they are thirsty, water to drink.”

Proverbs 29:13: “The poor and the oppressor have this in common: God gives light to the eyes of both.”

Isaiah 44:22: “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist.”

Isaiah 49:15: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I won’t forget you.”

Jeremiah 31:34: “I will forgive your iniquities, and remember your sins no more.”

Lamentations 3:30: “It is good to give one’s cheek to the smiter and be filled with insults.”

These verses show that Jesus’s vision for humanity (the kingdom) grew from these seeds found in the Law and the Prophets.

The Violation of Violence

In the second phrase of this week’s saying, “the kingdom of God is violated and the violent plunder it,” I hear Jesus speaking of the violence of the establishment’s opposition. In every version of the Jesus story in the gospels, the established social and political order responded violently to Jesus’s social vision. Mark, held by many as the earliest gospel, also describes violence as an early response to Jesus. In chapter three, “the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus” (Mark 3:6).

Ched Myers explains that this violence is “the bottom line of the power of the state.”

“Fear of [the threat of death] keeps the dominant order intact. By resisting this fear and pursuing kingdom practice even at the cost of death, the disciple contributes to the shattering of the power’s reign of death in history. To concede the state’s sovereignty in death is to refuse its authority in life.” (Binding the Strong Man, A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus)

This may sound like fatalistic nihilism, but it’s not. It’s the realization that sometimes protest and resistance come at the very high price of having to endure violence from the establishment.

Rome used crucifixion as political or military punishment inflicted on the lower classes and the unruly elements in rebellious provinces like Galilee and Judea. Crucifixion was reserve primarily for people who, in Roman society, had no rights. These were groups whose organizing had to be suppressed by whatever means necessary to ensure law and order within the state. As we have often said in this series, those in power will use violence when they feel threatened. Stand up anyway.

Reassurance

Luke assures Jesus’s followers facing the threat of violence: it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fall. Luke harmonizes Jesus’s teachings with the Torah, especially his teachings on debt cancellation and wealth redistribution. Jesus’s “kingdom” teachings were not anti-Torah, and in the 1st Century, assurances rooted in comparisons to the endurance of the earth held more meaning than they do today.

Today we are living in the midst of climate breakdown and realizing that the moral arc of the universe only bends toward justice if we choose to bend it that way. So today I would use different rhetoric than Jesus did to inspire people to keep hoping and to keep working despite the fact that there is violent pushback. We must work for justice anyway. The fact that we are all connected and share each other’s fate should make us engage with more intent, not less. As Alice Walker has said, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Contemporary Displays of Violence Against Liberation

Those in positions of power and privilege accused Jesus’s liberation ministry of being demonic. He responded by defining that accusation as blasphemy. Juan Luis Segundo writes, “Blasphemy resulting from bad apologetics will always be pardonable . . . What is not pardonable is using theology to turn real human liberation into something odious. The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to recognize, with ‘theological’ joy, some concrete liberation that is taking place before one’s very eyes” (in Capitalism Versus Socialism: Crux Theologica).

It’s one thing to mistake something bad as good. It’s quite another to mistake the Sprit’s work of liberating and re-humanizing those who have been dehumanized and objectified as an evil that should be opposed. This is the sin that is “unpardonable.” Ched Myers echoes Segundo when he writes, “To be captive to the way things are, to resist criticism and change, to brutally suppress efforts at humanization—is to be bypassed by the grace of God.”

This past week, Evangelical Christians once again engaged in violence against fellow Image-bearers. As in the days of Christian genocide of Native peoples, or enslavement of Africans, or objections to equal treatment of women, a group of Christians are again on the wrong side of history. The Coalition for Biblical Sexuality has repeated the anti-LGBT activism of the 1980s with a 14-article statement of bigotry signed by Evangelical Christian leaders including James Dobson, John Piper, John MacArthur, and Francis Chan. This document has been titled the Nashville Statement, although the Mayor of Nashville has made it clear that Nashville had absolutely nothing to do with it.

You can read it if you’d like, but you also don’t need to. It’s the same fear-driven, hateful rhetoric that has inspired violence toward the LGBTQ community throughout history. The Christian privileged elite has never been short of Biblical justifications for their oppression, exclusion, marginalization and dehumanization of socially vulnerable people.

Renewed Heart Ministries rejects the Nashville Statement in its entirety. We recognize and affirm our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender nonconforming community members as fellow image-bearers, as sacred, as being fully human and deserving our respect, of love, and justice. Objectification and dehumanization is violence. And in response to this violence we join our voices and our actions with all those saying “No” to efforts such as these.

If you are reading this and are part of the LGBTQ community, you are holy. You are worthy. You are valuable. And you are not alone.

The outcry against this document on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook was swift and stern demonstrating a turning of the tide in our society. These are steps that must be taken as we together work to make our world a just, safe, compassionate home for us all. There is still a lot of work to be done. And I am committed to that work.

Maybe this week’s saying can offer us some encouragement as we stand up to violence, bigotry and fear. The narrative of violence has been repeated over and over throughout history. We learn from the stories of Jesus in the gospels that God was not aligned with those placing others on crosses but in solidarity with the one they crucified for standing with the marginalized and calling for change.

We are not alone today. We are in the right story. If nothing else, may this give a little comfort, and encourage you to keep going.

“The law and the prophets were until John. From then on the kingdom of God is violated and the violent oppose it.” (Q 16:16)

Heart Group Application

This week I want you to do something simple. As Oscar Romero wrote in The Long View, “That is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.” Gandhi also wrote similarly, “It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”

In times like this, we must remember we are each other’s keeper.

This week at your HeartGroup meeting, go around the room and say something you value and appreciate about each person in the group. Make sure no person is left out, and encourage one another. When there are those who are continually endeavoring to tear us down, we must take the time to build each other back up.
Go home and journal some of the things that others said to you during this exercise and read from those pages when you need to be reminded how valuable you really are.

Wherever you are this week, know you are loved, you are fully human, and you are worthy. I’m so glad you checked in with us. Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

We are making a difference and weeks like last week only demonstrate that. If there weren’t folks threatened by change, they wouldn’t be acting out of such desperation.

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Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
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So glad you’re journeying with us.
I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.