A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence (Part 10)

Herb Montgomery | October 11, 2019

mountains during golden hour

Photo by Jonny McKenna on Unsplash


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


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

Let’s begin by summarizing nonviolence itself.

Nonviolence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resistance

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

Self-Affirming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus taught the rejection of violence.

Jesus taught self-affirmation for the marginalized.

Jesus taught resistance for those whose humanity was being violated.

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

HeartGroup Application

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self Affirming Nonviolence (Part 9)

Herb Montgomery | October 4, 2019

red and white stop road sign

Photo by Michael Mroczek on Unsplash


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


logo

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

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

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

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The article continues:

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

What we must not gloss over about this history is:

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

One of the most damming pieces of the article follows:

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

Finally:

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

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

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

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

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

We will never know.

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

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

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

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

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

Next week will be our final installment of this series.

HeartGroup Application

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence (Part 8)

Herb Montgomery | September 27, 2019

The Crucifix statue

Photo by Ricky Turner on Unsplash


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


logo

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

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

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

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, the objection.

In John’s gospel we read:

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

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

There are a few things we must keep in mind:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self Affirming Nonviolence (Part 7)

Herb Montgomery | September 20, 2019

selective focus photography of book

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash


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


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

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

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

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josephus tells us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence (Part 6)

Herb Montgomery | September 13, 2019

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

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


I want to take moment again this week and ask for your support. Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice. We are about to hit our 300th podcast next week. The last 12 years has been quite a journey. We need your support to continue bringing the kind of resources and analysis that RHM provides.

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

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

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, there is much to contemplate this week. 

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

HeartGroup Application.

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

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

Another world is possible if we choose it. 

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Mary, Jesus, King, and Us

by Herb Montgomery | January 18, 2019

Picture of the Black Madonna, Jesus /crucifix and police booking picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“This is a much different take on women’s virginity than I was raised with. It would also allow a different interpretive lens through which to view Mary who raised a son who modeled, taught, and was crucified for being a political rebel as well.”


“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)

Many have struggled with Mary’s story in the birth narratives for Jesus in Matthew and Luke. This makes sense to me. Growing up in Evangelical Christian purity culture, women’s virginity symbolized their submission to patriarchy and male dominance over women. Mary as the holy virgin triggers such religious abuse and Christians often interpret that image of Mary in ways that perpetuate the non-egalitarian treatment of women. 

This past December while I was re-reading Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives, though, I was struck by how non-compliant Mary sounds. Consider what we refer to today as Mary’s Magnificat:

“My soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has been mindful 

of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

holy is his name.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,

from generation to generation.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones 

but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty. 

He has helped his servant Israel,

remembering to be merciful

to Abraham and his descendants forever,

just as he promised our ancestors.” 

(Luke 1:46-55)

Patriarchal cultures use virginity as a symbol of submission, yet here is a young girl who sounds more like a rebel. The lines “He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty” are not the words of a model submissive or someone who demonstrates how not to make waves. Proclaim these words today and see what kind of trouble they stir up. Christianity has a long history of trying to explain away the edge to these words, and something doesn’t add up. 

This week, I want to suggest that the story element of Mary’s virginity in the gospel narrative may have actually been written as a nod to resistance movements in the culture of that time, not to promote purity culture’s submission.

Researchers in RHM’s suggested book of the month for December 2018 explain how virginity was used by dissident groups in the 1st Century. 

“About a decade before the birth of Jesus, Rome passed marriage laws that inflicted severe tax penalties on citizens who refused to marry and to generate offspring. With an infant mortality rate of more than 60 percent and life expectancy at age twenty-five, Rome needed every woman to begin reproducing at the onset of puberty and bear five children to keep the empire’s population at a replacement rate. A shrinking population meant a declining tax base and fewer sons to serve in the military and guard the empire’s vast frontiers. The standard marriage involved an adult male, who had proven his ability to provide for a family, and an adolescent female a decade or more younger. People joined dissident religious groups to resist conscription and overtaxation, and asceticism and virginity emerged as ways to defy imperial pressures to reproduce and marry.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker in Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 195)

For two of the four Gospels that characterize Mary as a virgin, this may have been in the authors’ thinking when they chose to characterize Mary as a virgin. (Although she is still written as being engaged.) The elements of Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives show the Jesus story was resistance literature responding to Roman rule. (See The Subversive Narratives of Advent (Parts 1 – 3))

Later Christians who lived in the context of the Roman empire also used virginity and refusing to marry as a means of resisting Rome.

“In resisting domination, many early Christian women rejected the curse of women’s subordination to men, a status based on heterosexual sex. Engaging in sex with men required women to accept a subjugated role. Virginity and chastity gave them power. Virgins chose to remain so by refusing to marry, and married women left their husbands to live in women’s communities. Sex was legally regulated and restricted and socially fraught by gender and power, as it still is today. However, today many tend to regard virginity as a sign of conformity to patriarchal double standards and the disempowerment of women. The popular novel The DaVinci Code, which suggests that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife and carried his bloodlines through her descendants, might appear to elevate Mary’s importance to Christianity. However, early Christians would not have regarded making her Mrs. Jesus as an improvement over her role as a preeminent apostle and teacher with her own divinity. The virginity of early Christian women was a radical statement against male dominance and in favor of women’s own power. The only legitimate virgin in a pater familias was a daughter, who was owned by her father until she could be transferred to a husband, at which point she was no longer a virgin. For daughters to refuse to marry may have aggravated Roman opposition to Christianity. As a spiritual practice, women’s abstinence from marriage granted freedom from male sexual domination. Abstinence ended the curse inflicted upon Eve when she was exiled from the Garden, “your desire shall be for your husband and he shall lord it over you” (Gen. 3:16). Therefore, Christian virginity defied the core power system upon which Rome was built, the pater familias.” (Ibid, p.193-194)

This is a much different take on women’s virginity than I was raised with. It would also allow a different interpretive lens through which to view Mary who raised a son who modeled, taught, and was crucified for being a political rebel as well. 

And this leads me to my question for us this week.

How can we, too, rebel against injustice in our society?

Seeing Mary, Jesus, and early Christian women as those who rebelled against injustice and considering the upcoming annual celebration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought to mind Dr. King’s words in his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail. These words paint a very different view of King from the domesticated picture that we typically get today. In this section, King defends his resistance and rebellion against injustice:

“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. 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. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’” (Letter From Birmingham Jail, May 1963)

So again, how might we rebel against injustice in our society? Which injustices are especially galling to your heart? How might you resist and rebel? What difference does it make for you to view Mary, King, and even Jesus as a rebel rather than as compliant? Does it give you courage? Do you feel as if you are in good company? Are you less alone than you might think? 

Resistance to injustice is a river that stretches far back before you and will continue long after you are gone. How deeply we might wade into its waters today?

Given the details in the stories of Jesus’ mother and Jesus himself, rebelling against injustice, oppression, and violence was a staple of what it meant to follow Jesus in the first few generations of the Jesus movement. May it become a staple for us today as we follow Jesus.

“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)



HeartGroup Application

Compose three lists this week together as a group.

First make a list of injustices that you feel should be opposed.  Allow time for discussion as this process can be lengthy.

Second make a list of ways you could possibly exercise opposition to injustices on the first list as individuals.

Third make a list of ways you could possibly exercise resistance as a group. 

Lastly, pick some actions from the last two lists and begin putting them into practice.

I’m glad you checked in with us this week. 

Where you are this week, keep living in love, justice, compassion and action. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Renouncing One’s Rights

by Herb Montgomery

Picture of Jesus, Gandhi, Dr. King, and Dorothy Day

Left to right: Jesus of Nazareth, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., Dorothy Day

“The one who slaps you on the cheek, offer him the other as well; and to the person wanting to take you to court and get your shirt, turn over to him the coat as well. And the one who conscripts you for one mile, go with him a second. To the one who asks of you, give; and from the one who borrows, do not ask back what is yours.” (Q 6:29-30)

The International Q Project has titled this section of Sayings Gospel QRenouncing One’s Rights.” While I agree that rights are central to this passage, I want to emphasize that this teaching was not instruction to renounce those rights nor to become 1st Century door mats. Rather it was a tactical strategy for them to use in the midst of persecution (we discussed this two eSights ago), respond to their persecutors with love (see last week’s eSight), and actively furthering their work toward a safer, more compassionate world for all. That last item is what this week’s eSight is all about.

Let’s begin, as usual, by looking at our companion texts.

Luke 6.29-30: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.”

Matthew 5.39-42: “But I say to you, Do not [reciprocate evil toward]* an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

Thomas 95: “If you have money, do not lend it out at interest. Rather, give it to the one from whom you will not get it back.”

There is much to unpack in this week’s passage from Sayings Gospel Q. The list of peace activists from the last two centuries is long. This week’s saying has been influential, both directly and non-directly, in many of the nonviolent movements around the globe toward positive social change. Some of the most well known names in the last century were Gandhi in South Africa and India and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. here in America. There are lesser known names, as well, such as Dorothy Day and her nonviolent direct action on behalf of the poor in New York City. So let’s dive right in.

As we have shared repeatedly in the past, in this passage, Jesus is teaching a bold and disruptive expression of nonviolence. It’s a nonviolence that seeks to confront one’s opponent and offer an opportunity for transformation. With each of these three examples, the oppressed person is shown potential ways of taking control of the situation, confronting their subjugator, and stripping them of the power to dehumanize. Let me explain.

First, let me say how deeply indebted I am to Walter Wink’s research on the cultural backdrop of the saying of Jesus we are considering this week.  I’ll place a link to his work at the end of this section for further consideration. I consider his volume Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way to continue to be a revolutionary masterpiece.

Matthew’s version of this passage specifies that the cheek being struck is the “right” cheek. As most people are right-handed, the only natural way for a blow to land on the right cheek was if the striker used the back of their hand. This kind of blow in the culture of 1st Century Palestine was a show of insult from a superior to an inferior: one would not strike an equal in this humiliating way because doing so carried an fine of up to 100 times the normal amount. Four zuz was the fine for a blow to a social peer with a fist, but 400 zuz was the fine for backhanding one’s peer. To strike someone you viewed as socially inferior to yourself with a backhanded slap, was perfectly acceptable and no penalty was attached (see Mishnah Bava Kamma 8.6).

Try to picture the scene in your head. Since the left hand was only used for “unclean” tasks in that culture, people would not strike a person’s right cheek with that hand. At Qumran, even gesturing to another person while speaking using one’s left hand carried a penalty of exclusion from the community accompanied by ten days’ penance. (See The Dead Sea Scrolls, I QS 7, “Whoever has drawn out his left hand to gesticulate with it shall do penance for ten days.”) Any blows would have either been from a closed right fist with one’s right hand on someone’s left cheek, or a back-handed slap with one’s right hand on someone’s right cheek. A closed fisted blow from a person’s right hand on one’s left cheek acknowledged that the striker believed the one they were striking was their social equal.  Someone claiming superiority over another would not want to strike them in this way. They would want to use an open-handed slap with the back of their hand on the other person’s right cheek as an attempt at humiliating the one they were striking. It was the equivalent of saying, “Get back in your place.” Also, keep in mind that any retaliatory blows from the person being struck by a “superior” would have only caused the violence to escalate.

But Jesus is not admonishing the oppressed in this scene to become a doormat or simply do nothing. Turning their left cheek would not be retaliation but defiance, a sign that the one being struck is refusing to be humiliated. The oppressor would now only have two options presented to them: a right-handed punch acknowledging the one being struck was their equal or a left-handed slap with the unclean hand.  Both options would be unthinkable, and so they would lose their power in the situation.  Something I would like to add to Wink’s research is that this would not be an act of self-denial on the part of the person being struck.  The person being struck’s “self” is already being denied by their oppressor.  This is self-affirmation in the face of an attempt by another to dehumanize them.

The next example in the passage involves a serious social problem in 1st Century Palestine: indebtedness. A little background first. The Torah allowed a creditor to take the himation (or outer garment) or chiton (inner garment) as security for loans from the wealthy to impoverished laborers (see Exodus 22:25-27 and Deuteronomy 24:10-13, 17). In this era, poor people had few clothes, and wealthy creditors had to return it daily so the owners could have their cloak to sleep in.

In that culture, debt was not the result of economic incompetence, but of an unjust economic system where the wealthy elite took advantage of rural peasant farmers and poor Jewish craftsmen. In our scenario, a poor laborer has defaulted on their loan and has come under the penalty of losing their next-to-last article of clothing.

Jesus’s saying teaches this laborer to “turn over” not just their next-to-last article of clothing but also their last one as well. This would leave them stark naked in the town square. Wink explains that in that society the shame of nakedness fell not on those whose nakedness was exposed, but on those who looked upon or were the cause of their nakedness.  The honorable response would have been to respectfully help them (see Genesis 9.20-27). In a society where only the wealthy wore something similar to underwear, stripping off the undergarment along with the required outer garment would redirect the shame onto “the entire system by which the debtors are oppressed” as if to say, “Shame on you!” The teaching placed the poor laborer in control of the moment, exposing the system’s exploitation of Jesus’ fellow Jewish craftsmen and rural peasant farmers and shaming the powerful who take the last object of value from a sector of society which should be receiving their help. Here in Sayings Gospel Q, we have a 1st Century endorsement of public nudity as a valid form of radical, nonviolent protest, and the protest is designed by Jesus himself!

In our next example, Jesus teaches the oppressed to refuse to play by the rules of the game dictated by those controlling the society’s domination system.

Roman law allowed soldiers to command people in the occupied territories to carry their burdens for one mile—but only one mile. This limitation provided some protection for the people as one could otherwise find oneself having carried a soldier’s burden for an entire day only to end up now a day’s journey away from one’s home as the sun was going down.

Yet even this limitation was not good enough. We cannot be satisfied with merely accommodating the domination system; we must also refuse to cooperate with it. Remember King’s words from last week: “We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” So, Jesus says, when you reach the end of your first, forced mile and the soldier asks for their burden, don’t give it back! Place the soldier in the position of breaking their own system’s rules and perhaps being disciplined for it.

In each of these examples, the subjugated must make hard choices. They must decide whether they are willing to use possible further personal suffering to change society rather than resort to mere retaliation. Are they willing to accept the consequences for breaking unjust laws or policies? Are they willing to cease cooperating with the present order and its rules? And as we asked last week, do they hope for their oppressors’ transformation, or are they satisfied with the failing practice of tit-for-tat?

If you would like to further understand what may have been involved in this Saying, again, consider reading the late Walter Wink’s book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. In this volume, Wink shows how Jesus’s teaching offered the oppressed ways to:

  • Seize the moral initiative
  • Find a creative alternative to violence
  • Assert [their] own humanity and dignity as a person
  • Meet force with ridicule or humor
  • Break the cycle of humiliation
  • Refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position
  • Expose the injustice of the system
  • Take control of the power dynamic
  • Shame the oppressor into repentance
  • Stand [their] ground
  • Make the Powers make decisions for which they are not prepared
  • Recognize [their] own power
  • Force the oppressor to see [them] in a new light
  • Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective (pp. 186-187)

The last section of this week’s saying reminds us, once again, to trust that God will send people to take care of us when we are in need enough to let go of our self-concerned hoarding, and that we will be the people God may send today to someone else who is in need. People taking care of people, remember, is what Jesus referred to as “the reign of God” (Sayings Gospel Q) or “The Kingdom” (canonical gospels).

This call to trust had its own history with Jesus’s Jewish culture.

Hillel, one of the most important figures in Jewish history, lived somewhere between 110 BCE to 30CE. He was the first within Judaism to teach what today is referred to as the Golden Rule. Karen Armstrong in her excellent work The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions writes this about Hillel:

Perhaps the greatest of the Pharisees was Rabbi Hillel (c. 80 BCE–30 CE), who migrated to Palestine from Babylonia. In his view, the essence of the Torah was not the letter of the law but its spirit, which he summed up in the Golden Rule. In a famous Talmudic story, it was said that one day a pagan approached Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one leg. Hillel replied simply: “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go learn it.” (Kindle Locations 7509-7515)

The most famous of the enactments attributed to Hillel is the Prozbul.

The Torah included a rule of protection for the poor against ever-increasing debt. At the end of every seventh (Sabbatical) year, all debts among the Jewish people were to be cancelled. By the 1st Century, even though it was forbidden to withhold a loan before a Sabbatical year (see Deuteronomy 15.9-11), some members of the wealthy elite were unwilling to lend to poor craftsman and rural peasant farmers who needed loans to survive.

In this context, Hillel created a loophole in the Jewish law. A declaration could be made in court before a loan was executed to the effect that the law requiring the release of debts upon the entrance of the Sabbatical year would not apply to the loan to be transacted. This declaration was called the Prozbul, and it benefitted both the rich and the poor in that the poor could more easily obtain the loans they so desperately needed whenever they needed them, and the rich would more freely lend with the assurance that the capital loaned was exempted from the law’s Sabbatical debt relief. (For more, read the Jewish Encyclopedia’s entry: Prozbul.)

Where Jesus’s teaching on the Golden Rule placed him squarely in the teaching stream of Hillel, Jesus parts ways with Hillel on the Prozbul. (I’ll talk about Jesus’s relationship with the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai next week.)

Jesus taught that his followers should recklessly abandon their capital to aid those who need our help. We will study this in detail in upcoming weeks, but for now, know that to Jesus, a world under the reign of God looked like people trusting in God enough to believe that God would send others to take care of them tomorrow, so they could let go of what they were hoarding for future emergencies and take care of those whose emergencies were transpiring today.

Anxiety about the future can lead us down paths of accumulation, hoarding, greed, covetousness, jealousy, competition, and violence. It can cause us to look the other way and ignore those around us today who may be in need. But Jesus is calling us to let go of that anxiety about the future and all that it brings in its train. Let’s imagine, instead, a world where, rather than individualistically accumulating in order to take care of oneself in the future, everyone trusts that if we all begin taking care of one another today, we will have a future where others take care of us. In other words, if you will take care of someone else today, you will set in motion a world where, tomorrow, someone else will take care of you.

In the words of the sayings of Jesus held dear by those first-century Jewish followers:

“To the one who asks of you, give; and from the one who borrows, do not ask back what is yours” (Q 6:29-30).

HeartGroup Application

There are two parallel narratives we can chose to live by:

Scarcity                     Abundance
Anxiety                      Trust
Accumulation            Sharing
Greed                       Generosity
Monopoly                  Mutual Aid
Violence                    Peace

  1. Ponder the words in the parallel narratives above. Look up the definitions of each word. Consider how each concept leads to the next. We can live in a world where we subscribe to scarcity, believing there is not enough to go around for everyone so we’d better look out for ourselves, or we can live in a world where as Gandhi is thought to have said, there is “enough for every person’s need, but not every person’s greed.”
  2. Discuss with your HeartGroup how the worlds created by these different narratives look. How do they differ? What are their costs? What are their benefits? Which world would you rather be a part of?
  3. Make a choice. This week, make a choice to do something small or large in your life that moves you into the narrative you would rather live in.

Thanks for taking time to journey with us this week as we continue our consideration of Sayings Gospel Q. I’m so glad you are with us.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


* In these cases, Jesus’ instructions are NOT commands of passive nonresistance. The phrase “resist not an evildoer” could be problematic if Jesus did not then demonstrate in these stories exactly what He meant. The underlying Greek word here is anthistemi. It indicates resistance by returning violence for violence, overcoming evil with evil, rather than overcoming evil with good.

7 Reasons Why White Christians Should Be Standing in Solidarity Right Now With Their Brothers And Sisters Of Color by Herb Montgomery

blacklivesmatter

Over the last few weeks, I have witnessed a very disturbing pushback from individuals I respect. This pushback is against the Black Lives Matter movement born out of the stories of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and many more.

I’d like to offer a few reasons why I am convinced that as white Jesus followers, our place is beside our brothers and sisters within the Black Lives Matter movement.

1. Jesus’ New World Is Not Color Blind

Whenever racism is discussed, you will always have a few well-meaning people who seek to dismiss the conversation by saying, “I’m color blind. I don’t see color. There is no such thing as race. We are all part of the human race. The more we talk about this, the more we continue to keep racism alive.” Part of that statement is correct. Yes, we are all part of the human race, but the idea that talking about a problem somehow keeps the problem alive is misinformed at best. We can’t fix a problem without talking about it. Racism will not go away by ignoring it. Not to mention that there is a significant difference between a white person saying, “We are all part of the human race,” in an effort to shut down a discussion on racism, and a person of color saying, “We are all part of the human race,” in an effort to open up the discussion and address the blind spots of privileged white people. One is insensitive and perpetuates racism; the other does not.

My black friends will be the first to tell you that there is nothing wrong with seeing their color or their race. It’s part of who they are, and there is nothing wrong with their race that I shouldn’t see it. It’s a huge part of their identity. The problem is when we treat one another as “less than” based on their race. THAT is racism.

Racism is a social construct created to divide human beings from other human beings in order to privilege some at the cost of others. When monarchies were thrown down and people began to believe that “all men are created equal,” hierarchy could no longer to be rooted in the bloodlines of kings and queens. So hierarchy took a new form. A new idea was created. This idea was that some races are superior to others, and this is how hierarchical privilege lived on.

Jesus’ new world is a world where there will be equity and justice between the races. It will not be a world where race does not exist. And thank goodness we will not all be white.[1]

2. Jesus Was About Liberation

Out of all the Old Testament pictures of Yahweh that Jesus could have chosen, Jesus chose the Advocate God, the Liberator of the Oppressed.[2]

Jesus chose to stand in a deeply oppression-confronting, prophetic lineage.[3] Each of the prophets made his respective privileged class uncomfortable by calling for systemic change as each stood in solidarity with the oppressed.

James Cone, in his book God of the Oppressed, states, “Any interpretation of the gospel in any historical period that fails to see Jesus as the Liberator of the oppressed is heretical.” This has grave implications for us as Jesus followers. We are called to be liberators, too! This is why Cone goes on to say, “Any view of the gospel that fails to understand the Church as that community whose work and consciousness are defined by the community of the oppressed is not Christian and is thus heretical.” (Emphasis added.)

Gustavo Gutiérrez, in his landmark book, A Theology of Liberation wrote, “The gospel itself contains the seed of liberation from all things that oppress.”

3. Jesus’ Liberation Is From Systemic “Sin” As Well As Private

One of the deepest disconnects for many of my white friends is that they still are looking at these stories emerging from the black community as isolated and individual occurrences without connecting the dots. They want to debate the intricacies of each case individually without stepping back and looking at the big picture. If we will stop and listen first, we will discover that our fellow Christians of color overwhelmingly see these cases not as disconnected, but as one example after another of an entire systemic problem. The stories of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice somehow hit the news and caught everyone’s attention, but they are not isolated occurrences. These stories are symbolic of the larger experiences—the daily experiences for people of color.

We follow a Jesus who came to liberate us from systemic sin as well as personal or private. I want to share two more statements from Gustavo Gutiérrez:

“Grace moves individually AND socially.” (Emphasis added.)

“Sin is evident in oppressive structures, in the exploitation of man by man, in the domination and slavery of peoples, races and social classes.”

When we focus on liberating individuals from personal sin while ignoring systemic sin, we create a reality that is deeply problematic. Let me try and illustrate why. Imagine systemic sin within a society as an automated locomotive train racing down the tracks. We are all on this train together. We as individuals may not participate personally in the operation of the train, yet we are still on the train with everyone else as it is moving along.

Someone can choose, privately or personally, to be a Jesus follower, but that person is still a member of a much larger society around him or her that is racing down a track. Just because the person is not racist doesn’t mean he or she is not on an automated train that is. As a white follower of Jesus in society, I may be completely unaware of how vastly unfair the societal structures are. Or, I may know, but choose in my private life to be different. But the train we are on is still moving us all together down the tracks.

Some will ask, “If we just focus just on healing hearts, won’t we heal the systems as well?” It’s a beautiful thought. It’s simply not that automatic. John Newton, the slave trader who wrote “Amazing Grace,” did not look at the slave trade after his conversion and simply say, “Eh, it will take care of itself if we keep converting souls.” No, he intuitively saw the difference between systems and the people who live within those systems. Just because he was converted didn’t mean the system had changed. He immediately went to work changing the social order of slave trading in his society. (*****This paragraph has been corrected here*****.)

If one is privately a follower of Jesus, than one should publicly be involved in ending systems of oppression and privilege. We must purposefully, as Jesus followers, be swimming against the current—swimming upstream, if you will forgive the mixing of metaphors. It’s not enough to be neutral; we must actually be anti-racist. We must be intentionally standing against present racial inequality, while putting on display a world that could be radically and racially different. That the current train is moving down the tracks and remaining neutral or privately non-racist isn’t enough. We must privately and publicly be anti-racists.

Neither is it anti-police to want law enforcement systems to be fair. Today, we live within an automated racist system (train) without racists (conductors). Therefore, if we are going to be following a liberating Jesus, we, like Jesus, must seek to take apart racist systems as well, even if we don’t personally think we ourselves are being racist.

As Peter Gomes stated, “Social sin does not differ from private sin: both stink in God’s nostrils.” Jesus came to heal us from more than individual and private sickness. We must not only embrace the private healing and shun the public healing. Jesus came not only to heal the heart but to heal our sick, social structures as well.[4] (I’ll come back to Jesus’ healing motif in #7.)

4. Jesus Shut It Down

In Mark’s gospel, we get a little tidbit that is most often overlooked.

“Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” (Mark 11.11, emphasis added.)

When Jesus arrived at the temple, it was already too late in the day for his temple protest to accomplish his desired result. So he had to go back to Bethany, spend the night and come back the next day, when there would be a sufficient amount of people to make shutting down the temple sacrifices an effective demonstration. (Imagine if Jesus had had Twitter.)

Luke tells us that as a result of Jesus shutting down the temple, the priests began “looking for a way to put Jesus to death.” And it would not be long before the temple police showed up at night with swords and clubs to arrest Jesus.[5] (Talk about police brutality.) During Jesus’ trial, Jesus was even subjected to police brutality according to John’s gospel.  “When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” (John 18.22 ) We can respond to this two ways. We can either say Jesus should have known how to talk to law enforcement respectfully, or we can see Jesus as not being disrespectful, but that there was a much more deeply systemic problem here with a very long history.

James Cone, again in his book God of the Oppressed, writes, “The only meaningful Christian response is to resist unjust suffering and to accept the painful consequence of that resistance.”

Jesus, in shutting down the temple, had “resisted” the oppression of unjust exploitation and ecclesiastical abuse, and now he must “accept the painful consequence of that resistance.” To their violence, he must respond by turning the other cheek. He must love his enemies—and even seek to restore them. He must do whatever it takes to endeavor to win them away from their own enslavement to systemic evil—even if it is through death and resurrection.

This is where the power, not of Jesus’ death, but of the resurrection of the Jesus narrative, takes center stage. Jesus’ death is nothing more than yet another lynching by those at the top of oppressive systems when their privileged way of life was threatened (economic via Herod, political via Pilate and religious via Caiaphas).

At the moment of Jesus’ lynching, Matthew tells us: “the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matthew 27.51).

The priests claimed God dwelt at the heart of their temple, at the heart of their system of oppression. But when the curtain that covered the central room of their temple, where they said God dwelt, was torn in two, it was seen that the room was empty. No “presence.” No “ark of the covenant.” Only an empty room, uncomfortably announcing the absence of God.

Now, place alongside this the story detail of the resurrection—where the torn curtain tells us where God was not. The resurrection tells us where God actually was. God is not at the heart of that system of oppression. The resurrection reveals that God was in solidarity with the one being lynched. Whether it is civic violence (Pilate), religious violence (Caiaphas) or economic violence (Herod), or what today is racial violence at the hands of law enforcement, the Jesus story puts on display that the presence of God is not found within the most exclusive holy places belonging to those systems of oppression. The true dwelling place of the presence is found in the one shamefully suspended, lynched on the “hanging tree” at the orders of those oppressive systems. In other words, God is standing, and always has stood, in solidarity with those our systemic injustice is oppressing. No matter what white theologians say, oppressive systems are not of divine origin, but actually capable of lynching God, too, if God were come as one among us and be viewed as an intrusive threat to such systems.

We have before us the story of an innocent man, born into poverty, who questioned authority and was unjustly executed because of it. Through religiosity, the story has lost its impact. Yet it is the story that is repeated in every Eric Garner.

“The cross was God’s critique of power—white power—with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.” (The Cross and the Lynching Tree.)

5. Jesus Taught Us How To Protest Civil Justice Issues Effectively

Jesus gave us three examples in the Sermon on the Mount of how to protest injustice both nonviolently and effectively. Please notice that “peaceful protest” and “nonviolent resistance” are not always the same. There is a subtle difference between passive nonresistance taught by those in positions of privilege because they would like to have their lives left undisturbed and what Jesus taught as nonviolent, de-centering and discomforting noncooperation that endeavors to disturb and wake up oppressors to their participation and perpetuation of systemic injustice. Let’s look at those three examples.

The first was the turning of the left cheek to be struck as a social equal instead of being humiliatingly backhandedly slapped on the right. This was a demeaning act whereby a supposed superior (master over slave, husband over wife, parent over a child, Roman over Jew, man over woman) purposed to humiliate and dehumanize. This is especially relevant in matters of race today. At its heart, racism dehumanizes, saying some races are “less human” than others. In Jesus’ example, a blow in retaliation would have most definitely invited escalating retribution. But in offering the left cheek, the one being dehumanized showed that the supposed inferior defiantly REFUSED to be humiliated in such a way. And with the left cheek now bared, the one struck was effectively stating that if a blow was to be given, it would have to be given on the proper cheek with a closed fist, which would have been an acknowledgement that the one struck was the social equal of his or her striker. Jesus is giving the one struck a nonviolent way to protest the intended dehumanization of the oppressor.

The second example was of standing stark naked in a court setting as if to “shame” an oppressor. Whether we like it or not, Jesus is endorsing in this example public nudity as a valid form of nonviolent protest.

And the last example is of putting the Roman soldier in the uncomfortable bind of causing him to break his own law by allowing the voluntary carrying of the conscripted burden a second mile.

In each of these examples, Jesus is putting the oppressed person in charge of the moment while exposing the exploitative system and decentering, shaming and discomforting the oppressors. Jesus was teaching nonviolent ways for oppressed people to take the initiative, to affirm their humanity, to expose and neutralize oppression. Jesus is demonstrating nonviolent ways in which people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of systemic oppression can learn to recover their humanity while at the same time reach out to redeem and restore those who are their “oppressors.” (I have written more about the cultural context of these three examples here. )

These were methods whereby oppressed people (such as the Jews under the Romans) could overthrow systems of injustice through waking their oppressors to their own victimhood to systemic injustice and winning their oppressors away from these systems to standing in solidarity with the oppressed.

This is what Martin Luther King refers to as the “double victory”:

“We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.” (Christmas 1957.)

This is especially why white Christians most of all should be standing alongside people of color at this moment in America. It is time for white Christians to proclaim the liberating power of Jesus in putting on a display of how Jesus woke them up to their own victimhood to systemic injustice as perpetrators of racial inequality. It’s time for white Christians especially to put on display a Jesus who has set them free to now stand in solidarity with those their white forefathers disadvantaged, marginalized and oppressed. THIS is what it means to announce the new world that has arrived in Jesus.

We must not close our ears, as some have done, by saying, “Well, maybe there is something wrong, but they are destroying their own neighborhoods. How does that help?” I want to go on record that, as a Jesus follower, I do believe that nonviolent protest is a force more powerful than violent protest. But it’s not my place as the white person who is benefitting from systems of oppression to dictate how those who feel harmed express their frustration. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Let’s assume King is right. What isn’t being heard? Yes, there are looters, but this happens every day on white Wall Street as well. We cannot use this as an excuse to tune out the legitimate groaning of a group of people who are trying to say that their experience in the world is very different than ours.

Those who benefit from white privilege must take great care not to do more damage by writing off the voice of the protestors because of a few who become violent. It smacks of what Broderick Greer tweeted recently: “So the loss of property is more important than the loss of Michael Brown’s life? #capitalism.” It is not the place of white Jesus followers to critique the voice of the black community who is giving voice to its oppression. A Jesus follower of color may do this, but as a white Jesus follower, I cannot. I am disqualified by my place of privilege within this system. No matter how sincere my critique may be, it comes across as only desiring to have my place of privilege not be made uncomfortable. As white Jesus followers, our place is to mourn with those who are mourning, lament with those who lament, march with those who march nonviolently, and to participate alongside people of color in nonviolent demonstrations. (The sit-ins of the ’60s have now become die-ins.) All the while continuing to ask ourselves, “What are we not hearing?” Before we judge, we must genuinely listen.

Again, I do believe nonviolence is a force more powerful. Yet it is not my place as a person of privilege to critique the oppressed. That only breeds further oppression. I’m not justifying violence protest; I’m simply saying we should care more about the voices who feel they are not being heard, voices who feel that their only option is violence. We should care more about the value of those voices than the value of our property.

6. Jesus’ “Kingdom” Is Not Of A Mere “Spiritual Nature”

When Jesus said to Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18.36), he was not saying that his kingdom is “spiritual” rather than this worldly. This is the tragic mistake of dualism. Jesus’ kingdom is not “OF” this world—meaning, his kingdom is not from this world. It doesn’t operate the way kingdoms of this world operate. It’s a kingdom that is really an upside-down kingdom—an un-kingdom, so to speak.

Jesus also refers to it as the kingdom “of heaven.” He does not say that his kingdom was in heaven; rather, it was of or from heaven, and had come to earth.[6] And its arrival contained significant implications for the present social structures of his day. These implications are outlined in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. With this, Jesus was not telling of a future, post-mortem heaven one could be assured of by experiencing personal, private, individual spiritual renewal now; rather, Jesus announces that if you are hungry, weeping, morning, or hated because of the present system, this new world he had come to found was especially for you. It was a message of liberation now for the presently oppressed. The arrival of Jesus’ un-kingdom marked the beginning of a new world of restoration, liberation, redistribution and a rearrangement of how life on earth was structured. (See Luke 6.20–26.) (I give more detailed explanation of how Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was announcing liberation to the oppressed here.) This is why Jesus’ followers of the first century were seen as such a threat to the elite and privileged of their day. If Jesus’ followers of the first century were endeavoring to only promote a “spiritual” kingdom, Rome would have never given it a second thought. But instead, those at the top of their social conventions felt especially threatened by this new Jesus movement.[7]

Some say, “Well, this all sounds too political.” Let me say “political” doesn’t go far enough. Not only does Jesus’ new world confront political systems, it confronts social systems, ecclesiastical (religious) systems and economic systems as well. Wherever there is oppression, Jesus stands in solidarity with the oppressed being the beacon of liberation from, yes, both private and social evil.

Notice how politically, socially, economically and ecclesiastically challenging the early Jesus movement really was.

In protest to calling Caesar “Lord” they proclaimed Jesus was “Lord.” (Acts 16.31.)

In protest to calling Caesar “Son of God” they proclaimed Jesus as “Son of God.” (Acts 9.20.)

In protest to calling “Pax Romana” (Peace through Rome), they proclaimed the “Pax Jesus Christo” (Peace through Jesus Christ). (Acts 10.36.)

In protest to Rome being called “Savior of the World,” they proclaimed Jesus as the “Savior of the World.” (1 John 4.14.)

Jesus called us to make disciples of the nations. We are not to only call individuals to follow Jesus, but systems, structures of the nations as well.[8]

“All nations” includes America. As Jesus followers, we are to call the nations to abandon their abuse of humanity and follow the teachings of Jesus as well. This is radically different than calling on America to enforce Christian values (often by the sword). This would be an abandonment of the teachings of Jesus by the Christians themselves who called for such. This is a call for America, as well as all nations, to no longer be conduits of oppression, to no longer depend on systems of injustice, but to submit themselves to the liberating new world that has arrived in Jesus, too.

7. Jesus Came To Heal The World

Jesus emphatically taught that his purpose in coming to this world was to heal it.[9]

Nowhere in the gospels do we ever find Jesus going around trying to get people to say a special prayer so they could go to heaven when they died. Jesus wasn’t focused on getting people to heaven later, but on bringing heaven into people’s lives in the here and now, today! For Jesus, salvation meant healing. And when he sent his first followers out themselves, he told them not only to proclaim the good news of a radically new world, but to “heal the sick” as well.[10] There are more sicknesses in this world than mere physical sickness. There is social sickness, ecclesiastical sickness, political sickness and economic sickness. (For more on this, you can check out the presentation I gave, A Time For Change, here.)

Jesus died to liberate us, not from the evils of a future, disembodied age, but to “set us free from the present evil age.” (Galatians 1.4.) White Christians—praise God for the exceptions—historically have been too busy saving people’s souls for eternity to even consider the bondage to social injustices and oppression that their potential converts are under in “the present.”

What Would Jesus Have You Do, Right Here, Right Now?

Some have said, “Why don’t we just focus on Syrian Christians who are suffering at the hands of ISIS in the Middle East, rather than civil, racial equality issues here in America?”

To those I would ask, “Why assume that racial inequality here is not affecting your brother and sister ‘Christians’ here?”

In all actuality, the question itself is born out of an experience only rooted in white theology. White theology is not the standard, default, “real” theology. There is no such thing. There is no such thing as just “theology.” All theology is done from someone’s vantage point. It is time we start naming what has passed as “theology” as really “white theology,” and allow other voices, other theologies that are speaking from different vantage points, to be heard.

ISIS is rebellion against the oppressive empires of the West that are associated with imperial Christiandom. Nonviolent noncooperation or protest was never something Jesus offered to empires as a means of defeating insurrectionists, but something Jesus offered insurrectionists as a powerful means of overthrowing oppressive empires. (I write more about this here.)

But most importantly, the fight with ISIS, for most of us in the States, is far, far away rather than right in front of us. The fact that we would rather identify with Syrian Christians thousands of miles away rather than our fellow black Christians right here is very telling. But Syrian Christians are a safe distance away. We will likely never meet them. We will likely never have to wrestle with their narratives. We can speak about our solidarity with them without ever having to bear a cross (or a lynching tree) with any of them.

Right before us is a very tangible but costly option. The stories of our black brothers and sisters are stories that we cannot project our own stories onto to justify our solidarity with them. These stories call us, like none other presently, to embrace what has too long been labeled, even among Christians, as “other,” as “equal but separate.” It’s time to embrace the liberating narrative of Jesus and to choose, in solidarity, to stand against the systemic racial injustice around us.

We do not look at physical sicknesses such as cancer and refuse to search for a cure, saying, “This will not be solved till Jesus’ return.” Why should we do this with social, political, ecclesiastical or economic sicknesses? Why should we do this with the cancer of systemic racism?

“As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick.”—Jesus, Matthew 10.7–8

“And until the white body writhes with red rage, until the white heart heaves with black tremors, until the white head bows before yellow dreams and tan schemes and olive screams for a different world, any communion claimed will be contrivance of denial. A theologian—speaking of resurrection, in a body not bearing the scars of their own ‘crucifixion’? Impossible!”—James Perkinson, White Theology

“White Christians that refuse to affirm that #BlackLivesMatter are rejecting the concrete option for Christian Solidarity in the way of Jesus.”—Drew G.I. Hart, @druhart on Twitter

“If your success is defined by being well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference, then we don’t want successful leaders. We want great leaders who love the people enough and respect the people enough to be unbought, unbound, unafraid and unintimidated, to tell the truth.”—Dr. Cornel West

“True peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice.”—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The resurrection assures us that we need not fear the consequences of our engagement against systemic injustice, racial or otherwise.  We stand in the victory of Christ over all injustice, a victory that has already been won.

Please accept my humble apology for departing from our Advent series this week. This is on my heart. And, really, isn’t the coming of the one who set the oppressed free really what Advent is all about?

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

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns …

#BlackLivesMatter
#HandsUpDontShoot
#ICantBreathe
#GodCantBreathe
#JesusCantBreathe
#SolidarityJesus
#JesusShutItDown

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[1] “He governs the world in righteousness and judges the peoples with equity.” (Psalms 9.8.)

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7.9, emphasis added.)

[2] “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4.18, emphasis added.)

[3]“Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8–9.)

“God judges in favor of the oppressed.” (Psalms 146:6–7.)

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6.)

“How terrible it will be for those who make unfair laws, and those who write laws that make life hard for people.” (Isaiah 10:1.)

“Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed.” (Isaiah 1.17.)

“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5.21–24.)

[4] “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world [as the political party of the Pharisees were desiring] but that the world, through the son, might be healed.” (John 3.17; sozo means healed, emphasis added.)

[5] “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, emphasis added.)

[6] “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6.10.)

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5.5.)

[7] “While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’” (Acts 17.5–7, emphasis added.)

[8] Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” (Matthew 28.18–17, emphasis added.)

“That night the Lord stood near him and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.’” (Acts 23.11, emphasis added.)

“Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation and tribe and language and people.” (Revelation 14.6, emphasis added.)

“Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All the nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed.” (Revelation 15.3–4, emphasis added.)

“To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all the peoples, the nations and the 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.)

“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb … the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. … On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 21.22–22.2, emphasis added.)

[9] “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world [as the political party of the Pharisees were desiring] but that the world, through the son, might be healed.” (John 3.17; sozo means healed, emphasis added.)

[10] “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10.8, emphasis added.)

“And he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” (Luke 9.2, emphasis added.)

Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10.9, emphasis added.)