Self Affirming Nonviolence and the Myth of Redemptive Suffering (Part 2)

by Herb Montgomery | June 21, 2018

Picture of a cross

Photo Credit: Christoph Schmid on Unsplash


“Taking up one’s cross should not be interpreted as acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse, but rather as the call to stand up, resist, and refuse to let go of life, justice, and the hope that another world is possible—even in a status quo that threatens you for doing so if you do.”


 

 “And lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13)

Last week we considered how Jesus’ nonviolence was not represented by the cross but by his Temple protest: nonviolence is another form of resistance. 

This week I want to build on that idea of nonviolent resistance and discuss what womanist and feminist scholars describe as the myth of redemptive suffering. I am deeply indebted to Joanne Carlson Brown, Rebecca Parker, and Delores Williams for helping me see the idea of redemptive suffering in a new, and what I believe is more just and healthier, and accurate light. 

Let’s begin with Jesus, who challenged his own followers to take up their crosses and follow him. 

“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” (Mark 8:34)

What does it mean to take up one’s cross? 

This passage, without a doubt, has been used to encourage those who suffer abuse and/or injustice to simply remain passive hoping that their suffering will convert their abuser or oppressor. I want to argue that this is a gross misinterpretation. (This is a position I have changed on thanks to womanist scholars speaking out.) Understanding this passage within its socio-political context actually reveals that Jesus was calling his followers to join the crucified community of resisters in their culture. Jesus was not asking them to simply bear with the injustice, abuse, and exploitation that was rife in their time. Crucifixion was the way in which the status quo made an example of those who fought back against injustice and sent a message to others that the same would happen to them if any of them also resisted.

As I shared two weeks ago from the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, “In Jesus’ first-century world, crucifixion was the brutal tool of social-political power. It was reserved for slaves, enemy soldiers, and those held in the highest contempt and lowest regard in society. To be crucified was, for the most part, an indication of how worthless and devalued an individual was in the eyes of established power. At the same time, it indicated how much of a threat that person was believed to pose. Crucifixion was reserved for those who threatened the “peace” of the day. It was a torturous death that was also meant to send a message: disrupt the Roman order in any way, this too will happen to you. As there is a lynched class of people, there was, without doubt, a crucified class of people. The crucified class in the first-century Roman world was the same as the lynched class today. It consisted of those who were castigated and demonized as well as those who defied the status quo. Crucifixion was a stand-your-ground type of punishment for the treasonous offense of violating the rule of Roman “law and order.” (Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171)

In Mark, Jesus was challenging his followers to follow his own example and stand up, resist, protest, just like he was about to do in the courtyard of his own Temple. He was challenging them to resist even in the face of being threatened with a cross. 

This is important. Jesus was not calling his followers to suffer, but to stand up to unjust suffering, oppression, and exploitation. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker rightly remind us, “It is not 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. If you believe that acceptance of suffering gives life, then your resources for confronting perpetrators of violence and abuse will be numbed” (For God So Loved The World?, Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, pp. 1-30).

Circles that teach nonviolence sometimes also teach that if we passively endure suffering, then we will win in the end. With all of the enormous good Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplished, he also allowed his teaching of nonviolence to drift into the territory of teaching redemptive suffering. 

Dr. King saw suffering as “a most creative and powerful social force…. The non-violent say that suffering becomes a powerful social force when you willingly accept that violence on yourself, so that self-suffering stands at the center of the non-violent movement and the individuals involved are able to suffer in a creative manner, feeling that unearned suffering is redemptive, and that suffering may serve to transform the social situation.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in Brown and Parker, p. 20)

Delores Williams, Joanne Carlson Brown, and Rebecca Parker all respond to King’s teachings on passive endurance of suffering, stating that the problem “is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoers ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (Brown and Parker, p. 20; see also Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk; p. 161)

And in the foreword of Sisters in the Wilderness, Katie Cannon sternly writes, “Theologians need to think seriously about the real-life consequences of redemptive suffering, God-talk that equates the acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse as the way for true believers to live as authentic Christian disciples. Those who spew such false teaching and warped preaching must cease and desist.”

Taking up one’s cross should not be interpreted as acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse, but rather as the call to stand up, resist, and refuse to let go of life, justice, and the hope that another world is possible—even in a status quo that threatens you for doing so if you do.

Let’s plug this understanding back into our passage in Mark and see if it works. 

Mark 8:34-38: “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross [be willing to resist even if you are being threatened with a cross] and follow me. 

‘For whoever wants to save their life [by remaining quiet, passive, keeping their head down] will lose it, but whoever loses their life [being willing to stand up against injustice even if there are consequences for doing so] for me and for the gospel will save it.

‘What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 

‘If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.’”

One phrase kicks me in my gut every time I read it:

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

As a person of immense privilege in this culture, this question hits home. What does it profit me if I gain the whole world by looking the other way if in so doing I lose my humanity? If I “forfeit my soul,” I, too, become a kind of “dehumanized” being as I go along with the dehumanization of the vulnerable among us. 

The Jesus story includes a Roman cross, and we cannot ignore it. That is one of the few historically provable elements of the story: Jesus was executed on a Roman cross. But we must also be careful not to glorify the cross. As Kelly Brown Douglas argues: 

“The cross reflects the lengths that unscrupulous power will go to sustain itself. It is power’s last stand. It is the ‘extinction‘ side of the Manifest Destiny ultimatum: be assimilated or become extinct. The cross reflects power’s refusal to give up its grip on the lives of others. It is the refusal of power to retreat. Essentially, the cross represents the height of humanity’s inhumanity. It shows the extent to which humans defile and disrespect other human bodies. It represents an absolute disregard for life. It reveals “human beings’… extraordinary capacity for evil” (Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 177). 

The cross reveals the violence inherent in the system. And yet, the focus need not be on the fact that Jesus was executed. It should be on the fact that he resisted in the face of a threatened empire that dealt him execution on the cross. The teachings of this Jesus call us to resist in the face of threats too. 

Speaking of what this means specifically for Black women, Delores Williams hits the nail on the head: “Jesus came for life, to show humans a perfect vision of ministerial relation that humans had very little knowledge of. As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred. To do so is to glorify the sin of defilement” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 132).

So what do we do with our featured text this week? Jesus’ model prayer states, “Lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil” (Matthew 6:13)

What is Jesus talking about here? Matthew’s gospel uses the same phrase: “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41, NRSV)

What is the time of trial or temptation? I believe that for the disciples it was to run away the night of Jesus’ arrest, to abandon him, and, when threatened with a cross, to hide. The temptation the disciples faced was to remain passive when threatened with a cross as opposed to standing up and joining the ranks of the crucified community. 

To be sure, there was at least one who did choose to resist, but please notice the form his resistance took:

“With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. ‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’” (Matthew 26:51-52) 

In Luke’s version, Jesus had told them just moments earlier to buy swords (see Luke 22:35-38). Yet here Jesus rebukes Peter for thinking they were to be used for violence. 

“When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’” (Luke 22:49-52)

Jesus taught resistance, but it was nonviolent resistance. It was not a path of self-sacrifice for those whose self was already being sacrificed in their society. It was a means to stand up and claim their sacred dignity. Jesus’ nonviolence was not only non-cooperative and disruptive, but also self affirming. 

Both Peter and his fellow disciples failed their temptations that night in the story. Peter gave into the temptation to rely on violence. The rest gave into the temptation to passively run away. Jesus chose a different path: he refused to let go of life, even when threatened with death. He chose to keep gripping the hope of liberation for all. 

“And lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week, I want to assign some homework for your group. I’d like you to listen to the series on our website, Nonviolence and the Cross.

2. Discuss with your group three things you take away from the series that are meaningful to you. 

3. What difference does it make to see Jesus’ teachings as salvific rather than just his death? Could this change the way you define salvation? What relevance to liberation here and now do you find in this way of viewing Jesus’ life? Discuss with your group.

4. Also I want to ask you to keep calling your representatives and voicing your objection to the atrocities that are happening on our southern border here in the U.S. related to immigration and those seeking refugee status from the atrocities they face in the areas they are fleeing from.  What is being touted as a solution to separating families of asylum seekers now leads to another grave injustice of imprisoning children.  Keep speaking out.

I’m so glad you checked in with us this week. Wherever you are presently, choose love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 


To support these podcasts, weekly eSight articles and to help us grow, go to www.renewedheartministries.com and click “donate.”

Self Affirming Nonviolence and the Myth of Redemptive Suffering (Part 1)

by Herb Montgomery | June 16, 2018

Jesus Cleanses the Temple by Gustave Dore (1832-1883)

Artwork: Jesus Cleanses the Temple by Gustave Dore (1832-1883)

 


“In its own cultural setting, Jesus’ nonviolence was a means of self-affirmation for those who don’t have access to common power, and it is best illustrated not by the cross but by his temple protest. Linking Jesus’ nonviolence to the cross instead is a way to promote the historical myth of redemptive suffering.”


 

“And lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil.” —Matthew 6:13

I want to talk about Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence this week. I have some concerns about them. I’m concerned about how those who benefit from the violence of the status quo continually co-opt nonviolence to condemn those who rise up against injustice while leaving their own use of violence on the vulnerable unaddressed and untouched. I’m also concerned about how some use Jesus’ nonviolence to promote self-sacrifice for those whose self is already being sacrificed. In its own cultural setting, Jesus’ nonviolence was a means of self-affirmation for those who don’t have access to common power, and it is best illustrated not by the cross but by his temple protest. Linking Jesus’ nonviolence to the cross instead is a way to promote the historical myth of redemptive suffering. It centers victimizers at the expense of survivors and victims. 

I want to unpack some of these ideas over the next two weeks and see if we can understand Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence in a healthier, more life-giving and socially transformative way. First let’s talk about the historical backdrop upon which Jesus took up the methods of nonviolence. We are all shaped by the times in which we live. 

Jesus grew up in the wake of the Judas Rebellion, which razed the near-to-Nazareth city of Sepphoris and led to the crucifixion of some 2,000 Jewish people outside Jerusalem. This rebellion and Rome’s violent crushing of it took place in 4 BCE (see Josephus; Jewish Antiquities 17.295) Jesus would have witnessed the aftermath of this rebellion firsthand. 

Within Judaism at that time, there was also some understanding of forms of nonviolent resistance to Rome already being practiced by some Jewish people. In 26 CE, during the time of Jesus, Josephus tells us about a Standards (Ensigns) incident that took place in Jerusalem where Rome sought to place a Roman Standard in Jerusalem itself. Viewing the Standard as a violation of the Torah against “images” or “idols,” Jewish adherents used a form of nonviolent resistance to stop these Standards from being posted. Josephus tells us, “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.” (War 2:175-203)

After Jesus we also see both methods of resistance, violent and nonviolent, being used by the Jewish community in resistance to Rome. 

In 40 CE, Rome attempted to place a statue of Gaius Caligula in the Temple in Jerusalem itself. Again, Josephus tells us that Jewish adherents to Torah used a form of nonviolent resistance. It could be that this was the only form of resistance they had at their disposal. A group, en masse, laid down before the Roman soldiers and cried out, “On no account would we fight, but we will die sooner than violate our laws” (Antiquities 18:261-309). Philo, too, tells us of this incident: “When the Jews at large got to know of the scheme, they staged mass demonstrations of protest before Petronius, who by then was in Phoenicia with an army.” (Legatio ad Gaium)

The result was that the statue of Caligula was not placed. 

Next came the Jewish-Roman War of CE 66-69, which began as a poor people’s revolt and climaxed in 70 CE with the Roman razing of Jerusalem. The Bar Kokhba revolt. which followed, is often referred to as the Third Jewish Revolt between 132-136 CE. As a result of this violent revolt, 580,000 Jews perished and many more died of hunger and disease. Rome sold many survivors into slavery. The Jewish communities of Judea were devastated to the point of genocide.

Jewish violent revolt against Rome seemed to result only in greater devastation, while nonviolent resistance gained short term and partial results. And although Jesus would only have personally witnessed some of this history, it would have been enough to have led him to the conclusion that if liberation were possible, it had the best chances with nonviolence. Rooted in liberation of the oppressed (see Luke 4:18) and a compassionate desire for those being dehumanized to stand in the power of their YHWH-given dignity and worth, Jesus emerged and began to teach: 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” (Matthew 5:38-44)

RHM has several resources on how to understand these words in their own cultural setting according to the research of Walter Wink and scholars like him. Far from teaching passivity, or simply being a door mat, these words teach a type of cheek resistance. They teach a way to shame one’s oppressor and exploitative, unjust, and cruel economic structures. They also teach refusing to play by oppressors’ rules and putting power back in the hands of oppressed people. 

If this interpretation is new to you, read this eSight. This month’s featured presentation also includes relevant details. 

Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence are modeled in his Temple protest. Too often, his nonviolence is, what I believe, wrongly thought to be modeled on the cross. This leads to two mistakes.

The first mistake is that if we use the cross to understand Jesus’ nonviolence, it almost every time leads to defining nonviolence as a passive response to persecution or injustice. But the cross did not demonstrate Jesus’ passivity. The crucifixion happened because those who were protecting the status quo were rightly feeling threatened by Jesus nonviolent resistance toward the Temple state. 

The second mistake, which we’ll cover in detail next week, is that we begin to believe the myth that passive suffering is redemptive. Jesus was teaching a nonviolent form of civil disobedience, direct action and/or resistance. One of my favorite passages in Mark hint at why we should interpret Jesus’ overturning of the Temple tables as a protest against the economic exploitation of the poor:

“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) 

What we today call Jesus’ “triumphal entry” was originally supposed to have ended with Jesus entering the Temple that Sunday night, dismounting the donkey, and overturning the tables immediately in protest. He was entering the heart of the Temple state to shut it down, to prevent business as usual. 

Instead, he entered, looks around, and “since it was already late”— most people were not present and not much was going on in the temple to shut down—he returned to his friends’ home in Bethany with his twelve disciples and went back to the Temple the following morning when economic exploitation was in full swing. 

This was not a passive plan. Those who respond with passivity to injustice don’t get crucified!

“And he [Jesus] has been acclaimed in the West as the prince of passive resisters. I showed years ago in South Africa that the adjective ‘passive’ was a misnomer, at least as applied to Jesus. He was the most active resister known perhaps to history. His was non-violence par excellence.” (Gandhi, Non Violence in Peace and War, Volume I, p. 16

The Jesus we see in the story didn’t teach “peace-keeping” through nonviolent passivity. He taught peace-making through the nonviolent establishment of distributive justice. (See The Lord’s Prayer.) Peace-making is never accomplished through peace-keeping iin an unjust status quo. 

“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)

Jesus’ followers were continually labeled troublemakers, and disturbers of the peace.

“These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” (Acts 17:6-7)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rightly stated, “Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators” (Letter from Birmingham Jail).

Gandhi again reminds us:

“[Nonviolence] does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means the pitting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save his honour, his religion, his soul and lay the foundation for that empire’s fall or its regeneration.” (Mohandas Gandhi, Young India; January 8, 1920, p.3) 

The value of nonviolent forms of resistance is that they enable those who practice them to not become like their oppressors. In other words, nonviolence can provide a path for oppressed people to not dehumanize oppressors the way oppressors have dehumanized them. Understood as a form of resistance, nonviolence enables us to resist, to stop injustice, while simultaneously maintaining our connectedness to the humanity of those who oppress. As I have often said, I know of no better statement that captures this balance than the “two hands” metaphor used by Barbara Deming in the book Revolution ad Equilibrium: 

“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 out- stretched – 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.’” (p. 69)

When understood as resistance, nonviolence must not be used keep people facing oppression and exploitation in a state of passivity. Nonviolence is not a critique of resisters as much as it is a protest first and foremost of the violence that produces the need for resistance.

“First, Jesus’ practice and teaching demand absolutely the unmasking of and a resolute struggle against the form of violence that is the worst and most generative of others because it is the most inhuman and the historical principle at the origin of all dehumanization: structural injustice in the form of institutionalized violence. It follows that we have to unmask the frequent attitude of being scandalized at revolutionary violence and the victims it produces without having been scandalized first and more deeply at its causes.” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, p. 215)

Lastly, when nonviolence becomes synonymous with passivity, or, as we’ll see next week, self-sacrifice rather than resistance, the only other pathway that could lead toward change in response to injustice is violence.

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard . . . in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; 1968; “The Other America”)

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” (John F. Kennedy; Remarks on the first anniversary of the Alliance for Progress, 13 March 1962)

As we move into part 2 of this article, let’s consider ways we might practice the value that is at the heart Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence—resistance.

And lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil. (Matthew 6:13)

HeartGroup Application

Resistance can come in many forms. Yes, there is public, in the streets activism, that should be done. There are other forms of resistance as well. Kneeling at football games is a nonviolent form of resistance for athletes. I know professors who intentionally teach specific methods and content as an expression of resistance. Some people tell stories, some write, some sing, some do theater, some produce films. Some organize educational events, others wash dishes or make sandwiches, have their own garden, and lend help and support anywhere they can. Resistance can begin in a coffee shop or within conversations merely with family and friends. 

As Bayard Rustin said, “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.”

  1. What are some of the ways you resist systemic injustice in your day-to-day life? List them.
  2. What are some of the ways your HeartGroup as a community resists? List them.
  3. Lean into these lists and a living practice of resistance this week. Don’t allow the machine to drive you endlessly through the rat race of the status quo. Resist!

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly. 

I’ll see you next week with part 2.


To support these podcasts, weekly eSight articles and to help us grow, go to www.renewedheartministries.com and click “donate.”

Storing up Treasures in Heaven 

Multiracial Group of Friends with World Globe Map

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Do not treasure for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and gnawing deface and where robbers dig through and rob, but treasure for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor gnawing defaces and where robbers do not dig through nor rob. For where your treasure is, there will also be your heart.” (Q 12:33-34)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 6:19-21: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Luke 12:33-34: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Gospel of Thomas 76:3: “You too look for his treasure, which does not perish, (and) which stays where no moth can reach it to eat it, and no worm destroys it.”

This week’s saying tells us to focus on storing up “treasure” in heaven rather than on earth. I want to offer a word of caution about that. Karl Marx correctly wrote that religion focused on heaven or afterlife bliss rather than survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation of our world now tends to leave oppressed people passive.

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” (Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Collected Works, vol. 3)

James H. Cone pushes back on Marx’s blanket condemnation of all religion in his landmark book God of the Oppressed. This is a rather long quotation, but one worth considering: Cone is not addressing Marx’s critique from the perspective of someone trying to preserve the status quo. He addresses the critique as someone in an oppressed community who’s working for societal change and the dismantling of the status quo.

“The vision of the future and of Jesus as the Coming Lord is the central theme of black religion. This theme is expressed with the idea of heaven, a concept that has been grossly misunderstood in black religion. For any people the idea of heaven, in the songs and sermons of black people, is proof of Marx’s contention that religion is the opiate of the people. Unfortunately, many uninformed young blacks, hearing this Marxian analysis in college, have accepted this criticism as true without probing deeper into the thought forms of black people. To be sure, white missionaries and preachers used Jesus Christ and heaven to make black slaves obedient and docile. But in reality, the opposite happened more often than not. For any black slaves, Jesus became the decisive Other in their lives who provided for them a knowledge of themselves, not derived from the value system of slave masters. How could black slaves know that they were human beings when they were treated like cattle? How could they know that they were somebody when everything in their environment said that they were nobody? How could they know that they had a value that could not be defined by dollars and cents, when the symbol of the auction block was an ever present reality? Only because they knew that Christ was present with them and that his presence included the divine promise to come again and to take them to the ‘New Jerusalem.’ Heaven, therefore, in black religion was inseparably connected with Jesus’ promise to liberate the oppressed from slavery. It was black people’s vision of a new identity for themselves which was in sharp contradiction to their present status as slaves. This vision of Jesus as the Coming One who will take them back to heaven held black people together mentally as they struggled physically to make real the future in their present.” (pp. 119-120)

Cone continues:

“The past and present history of Jesus are incomplete without affirmation of the ‘not yet’ that ‘will be.’ The power of Christ’s future coming and the vision that it bestows upon the people is the key to why the oppressed can ‘keep on keepin’ on’ even when their fight seems fruitless. The vision of Christ’s future that breaks into their slave existence radically changes their perspective on life; and to others who stand outside the community where the vision is celebrated, black people’s talk about “long white robes” and “golden slippers” in heaven seems to be proof that black religion is an opium [sic] of the people. But in reality it is a radical judgment which black people are making upon the society that enslaved them. Black religion, therefore, becomes a revolutionary alternative to white religion. Jesus Christ becomes the One who stands at the center of their view of reality, enabling slaves to look beyond the present to the future, the time when black suffering will be ended. The future reality of Jesus means that what is contradicts what ought to be. When Jesus is understood as the Coming One who will establish divine justice among people, then we will be able to understand why black slaves’ religion emphasized the other world. They truly believed the story of Jesus’ past existence with the poor as told in the Bible. (pp. 120-121)

As someone who does not speak from Cone’s social location, I want to acknowledge Cone’s critique of Marx. When religion leaves us waiting for a future time when justice comes rather than working for distributive justice in our world today, then Marx is correct: religion is an opiate. Cone is also right that a religion that identifies God as the God of the oppressed doesn’t have to pacify people.

Yet Cone drifts awfully close to using religion as an opiate himself in the following paragraph:

“People get tired of fighting for justice and the political power of oppressors often creates fear in the hearts of the oppressed. What could a small band of slaves do against the armed might of a nation? Indeed what can the oppressed blacks today do in order to break the power of the Pentagon? Of course, we may “play” revolutionary and delude ourselves that we can do battle against the atomic bomb. Usually when the reality of the political situation dawns upon the oppressed, those who have no vision from another world tend to give up in despair. But those who have heard about the coming of the Lord Jesus and have a vision of crossing on the other side of Jordan, are not terribly disturbed about what happens in Washington, D. C., at least not to the extent that their true humanity is dependent on the political perspective of government officials.” (p. 121, emphasis added)

With this tension between Marx and Cone in mind this week, I ask the question: what did the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q mean when he asked us to place our focus on heaven rather than earth, especially when such a focus has historically proved detrimental to the victims of oppression, injustice and violence?

James Robinson offered a possible answer in his book on Sayings Gospel Q.

“Some people get confused by the fact that in the Gospel of Matthew the ‘kingdom of God’ is usually referred to as the “kingdom of heaven,” leading them to think that the kingdom is in heaven—something one can experience only in the afterlife or at the end of time. But Jesus was talking about God reigning in the here and now. Use of the idiom “kingdom of heaven” is due to the fact that Matthew is the Gospel most closely related to Judaism and so still reflects its sensitivities. Jews have been so committed to not taking God’s name in vain, which, after all, is one of the Ten Commandments, that they have thought it best not to “take” God’s name at all. That is, they do not pronounce Yahweh out loud at all. Sometimes they carry this so far that they not only avoid pronouncing Yahweh; they even avoid pronouncing “God” and instead simply refer to the “name,” by which everyone in the Jewish community knows what they mean—God. (The Gospel of Jesus; Kindle Locations 2722-2730).

The kingdom of heaven is not a kingdom in heaven, but a new social arrangement that Jesus announced had come from heaven to earth. It was the reign of God and it was emerging from the community of the oppressed in Jesus’ day on earth. It was a social vision where people took care of people, where people practiced mutual aid and resource sharing, and where wealth inequality was met with wealth redistribution (see Acts 4:33-35). Jesus’ “kingdom of heaven” was a Jewish way of referring to the kingdom or reign of God, which had arrived here on earth in the present life, now.

This reign of God called people to trust in a God who would send other people to take care of them in the future to the degree that they would loosen their grip on hoarded wealth that insulated them from future risk so they could  be the one God sent to help those who are in need today. As Robinson points out: “This hardly means that as surely as a human parent gives bread and fish in the here and now, the heavenly Father will give ‘pie in the sky by-and-by.’ It clearly means that God will answer the petition ‘Our day’s bread give us today’ in the here and now, daily. (Ibid. Kindle Locations 2789-2791) Together, we could face the insecurity of the future, because no matter what the future brought, we could make it because we had each other.

What Jesus may be saying in this week’s Q statement is this: don’t store up material treasure on Earth, which always involves some level of risk. Invest your resources in the kingdom of heaven that has arrived here on earth, which is made manifest in people taking care of people. “Lay up treasure” in the lives of people, especially the vulnerable, the poor, those on the underside and edges of our societies. Invest in a compassionate, safe, just world for people. Put your treasure in them, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

People are often not comfortable with their religion becoming this down-to-earth. They are much more comfortable with religion being about investing in a post-mortem retirement program for themselves. But I don’t think that approach to interpreting Jesus’ saying is consistent with what we have witnessed about the Jesus of sayings Q so far. His teachings are not about you gaining heavenly bliss later; they’re about bringing the liberation of heaven into people’s lives here, now, today.

What does it mean to lay up treasure in heaven? The kingdom of heaven for Jesus was the reign of God that had arrived here on earth. It called people to stop solving the challenges of survival for themselves at the expense of others around them. It called them to take responsibility for making sure one another had what they needed.

This week’s saying is not a matter of location (heaven versus earth). Nor is it a matter of timing (post mortem versus now). It is a matter of seeking plenty “for yourself” on earth now, versus seeking “the kingdom of heaven” with others on earth now. Storing up treasure in heaven means people taking care of people here.

At home, one of my projects is storing some of my daughter’s favorite belongings in our attic while she’s away at college. When she comes home, she won’t go up to the attic to enjoy her belongings. She will take those belongings out of the attic and bring them down to enjoy them in her home.

When we take care of other people, even if we use the language of “storing treasure in heaven,” we must not forget that our home is here. When we choose to take care of people, we’re transforming our home here. We’ll be able to take out and enjoy the treasures we have stored in each other in a transformed world that is a safe, just, and compassionate home for us all, on earth “as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6.10).

Do not treasure for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and gnawing deface and where robbers dig through and rob, but treasure for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor gnawing defaces and where robbers do not dig through nor rob. For where your treasure is, there will also be your heart.” (Q 12:33-34)

HeartGroup Application

1.  How does choosing to take responsibility for one another’s survival and care transform our world today? In what ways does doing so affirm how the world already is?

2.  List some ways that your group could lean more deeply into taking care of each other. Then list some of the ways that your group could lean more deeply into taking care of those in your neighborhood.

Separate both lists into two categories: actions that may help people today yet leave in place a system that will cause them to need help again tomorrow; and actions that will impact the systemic problems and transform society at the root as well. It is important to do both, not just one or the other. If a person is drowning, they need pulling out of the river. And those throwing people into the river need to be stopped as well. Renewed Heart Ministries’ book for March is James H. Cone’s God of the Oppressed. In that book, Cone writes, “For the oppressed, justice is the rescue from hurt; and for the oppressors it is the removal of the power to hurt others—even against their will—so that justice can be realized for all” (p. 159).

3 .  Pick two items from your group’s lists and begin putting it into practice this week. This is how we begin storing up treasure in heaven, transforming our world.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Keep living in love, a love that bears the fruit of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Not Fearing the Body’s Death

protest crowd

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.” (Q 12:4-5)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”

Luke 12:4-5: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”

4 Maccabees 13:14-15: “Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.”

This week’s saying is rooted in a Jewish text that precedes the gospels. 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees tell the story of the martyrdom of seven Jewish brothers, their mother, and their teacher. During the time of the Maccabee family, the Seleucid Empire through Antiochus Epiphanies was threatening fundamentalist Hebrew people with death if they refused to become Hellenized.

In 4 Maccabees 13:14-15, one of the Jewish brothers says, “Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.” This was the rallying cry they used to strengthen Jewish resolve to resist their Hellenistic oppressors.

Fast forward two centuries to the time of Jesus. In Galilee, Samaria, and Judea, we know that there were continual efforts to spark revolution by following violent messiahs rising up against Rome. Rome also had a brutal history of lashing back against all violent uprisings. Josephus tells us how Varus responded to one of these attempts in Galilee:

“Upon this, Varus 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 17: Book 10) [1]

It was in this same region, in the wake of memories like these, that Jesus grew up.

Jesus rephrases the Maccabean saying, and warns the people not to follow violent messiahs because complete annihilation from Rome would result. Let see how.

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.”

In order to see what Jesus was saying, we have to step away from the Christian myth of hell and step back into a Jewish understanding of the term Gehenna.

Gehenna is a term that the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah uses regarding the deeds of Judean king Ahaz.

“And he [Ahaz, King of Judah] made offerings in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel. [Since his legitimate son by the daughter of the High Priest Hezekiah succeeded him as king, this is assumed to mean children by unrecorded pagan wives or concubines.]” (2 Chronicles 28:3)

“He [Manasseh, Ahaz’ grandson] made his son pass through fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom, practiced soothsaying and augury and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.” (2 Chronicles 33:6)

“And they go on building the high place of TOPHETH, which is in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called TOPHETH, or THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER: for they will bury in TOPHETH until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 7:31-32)

“And go out to THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER. [Emphasis Added.] (Jeremiah 19:2-6; see also Jeremiah 19:11-15)

Jeremiah repurposed a literal landmark, the valley of the son of Hinnom (Gehenna), as a symbol of Hebrew annihilation at the hands of foreign powers. In Jeremiah’s day, the foreign power would have been Babylon; in the time of Jesus, it was Rome. Jesus takes the same language Jeremiah used, and he makes it a metaphor for Roman destruction of Judea if the Jews follow a violent messiah.

In the original Maccabean phrase, a faithful Jewish worshiper risked losing his life for remaining faithful but was warned of a worse post mortem fate (eternal punishment) if he did not stay faithful. Jesus repurposes this warning but removes the post-mortem warning. Instead he adds a very this-world, this life, concrete warning: Gehenna, destruction by a foreign power.

Remember that Jesus has just been teaching nonviolent forms of resistance. In this week’s saying, he is saying do not allow fear of the violent Romans to push you to abandon nonviolent forms of resistance as futile, naive, or ineffective. He warns his followers not to fear him who can “destroy the body,” but to fear instead the one who will end up destroying both “body and soul.” “Body and soul” is a phrase that means complete annihilation in the worldview of Hellenized, Galilean, Jewish listeners, and physical violence like the violence of the Romans was a very real fear for those worried about nonviolent forms of resistance.

How would a violent messiah destroy both body and soul? The same way they had in the past. If Galilean impoverished followers took over Jerusalem’s temple (as they did in the Jewish Roman war) and lashed out violently against Rome, they would not only lose their lives (“destroy the body”), but also Jerusalem, the Temple itself, and the surrounding areas would be totally obliterated (“Gehenna”). Jesus isn’t saying that nonviolence revolution won’t fail. He saying that even if it does fail, it won’t fail to the same catastrophic degree that violent revolution will.

The Maccabees didn’t worry about what could happen to their bodies if they remained faithful. They worried about what would happen to their souls if they didn’t. Unlike the Maccabees, Jesus told his followers to fear the complete annihilation of their entire world, obliterated by Rome if they took up violent resistance in Jerusalem.

Jesus was concerned for the survival and liberation of his people. And, keeping survival and liberation in tension, he called his society to embrace nonviolent forms of resistance that allowed oppressors to be overcome through the transformation of society, and which also provided the best possible probabilities of them living to enjoy that liberation once it was achieved. Nonviolence offers no guarantees, but even when it fails it produces fewer losses.

This is a rather long passage from Walter Wink’s work, Jesus and Nonviolence. Yet I believe it is extremely relevant to this week’s saying.

“Once we determine that Jesus’ Third Way is not a perfectionistic avoidance of violence but a creative struggle to restore the humanity of all parties in a dispute, the legalism that has surrounded this issue becomes unnecessary. We cannot sit in judgment over the responses of others to their oppression. Gandhi continually reiterated that if a person could not act nonviolently in a situation, violence was preferable to submission. ‘Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.’ But Gandhi believed that a third way can always be found, if one is deeply committed to nonviolence.

Jesus’ way, which is the way of the cross, means voluntarily taking on the violence of the Powers That Be, and that will mean casualties. But they will be nowhere near the scale that would result from violent revolution.

Britain’s Indian colony of three hundred million people was liberated nonviolently at a cost of about eight thousand lives. The British apparently suffered not a single casualty, dead or wounded. It took twenty-seven years (1919-46). France’s Algerian colony of about ten million was liberated in seven years (1955-1961) by violence, but it cost almost one million lives.

The staggering differential in lives lost certainly cannot be ascribed to the French being more barbaric or determined to keep their colony than the British. And most of the French were fighting merely to keep a colony, not their native soil.

Solidarity in Poland nonviolently stood up to the ruthless power of a Communist government and lost about three hundred lives over a period of ten years. About the same time Argentina, in a violent but fruitless effort to take the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, lost approximately one thousand lives in two weeks against the British.

The armed revolt in Hungary was crushed by the Soviets at the cost of five to six thousand Hungarian lives; forty thousand were imprisoned, tortured or detained. In Czechoslovakia, where a spontaneous nonviolent resistance was mounted, seventy died, and political prisoners were released.

In the Unites States civil rights struggle, about fifty thousand demonstrators were jailed, but fewer than one hundred of those engaged in campaigns were killed. By contrast, armed revolution in Cuba and Nicaragua cost twenty thousand lives each. In El Salvador, sixty thousand civilians died, quite apart from military casualties. Over the past thirty years one hundred thousand Guatemalans have lost their lives, out of a population of only 7.8 million. We cannot ignore the implications of these statistics, for the comparative degree of carnage is a moral issue.

We need to be very clear that this is in the interest of the Powers to make people believe that nonviolence doesn’t work. To that end they create a double standard. If a single case can be shown where nonviolence doesn’t work, nonviolence as a whole can then be discredited. No such rigorous standard is applied to violence, however, which regularly fails to achieve its goals. Close to two-thirds of all governments that assume power by means of coups d etat are ousted by the same means; only 1 in 20 post-coup governments give way to a civil government.

The issue, however, is not just which works better, but also which fails, better. While a nonviolent strategy also does not always “work” in terms of present goals—though in another sense it always “works”—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe.” (Chapter 4)

I disagree with Wink’s statement that the way of the cross is synonymous with nonviolence: we must be careful not to glorify the cross or promote the myth of redemptive suffering, and we’ll discuss both at length when we get to Jesus’ saying on taking up a cross. For now, it’s worth considering that both violent resistance and nonviolent resistance come with a price tag. I believe that Jesus was seeking to help his fellow Jewish, oppressed people stand up to violent Rome in a way that allowed them to survive the encounter rather than being annihilated by it whether it succeeded or failed.

Wink states in the same volume, “Jesus was no less committed to opposing evil than the anti-Roman Roman resistance fighters. The only difference was over the means to be used: how one should fight evil. There are three general responses to evil: (1) passivity, (2) violent opposition, and 3) the third way of militant non-violence articulated by Jesus.”

It is this militant nonviolence that we see Jesus encouraging his followers to embrace. What we also see in this week’s saying is Jesus warning the people not to go down the path that they ultimately chose.

I wonder how far we can apply this militant nonviolence in our time.

The LGBTQ community has made great strides without great violence. Though I respect that many LGBTQ people no longer wish to be associated with Jesus because Jesus has been used to do much damage to them, they have nonetheless demonstrated how much society can be transformed positively by raising collective consciousness. Changing society from the inside out has borne positive fruit. Through relationships, marketing, lobbying, television media, and other nonviolent methods, this community has changed society not with a sword but by influence.

I remember being told by a friend when we were working for LGBTQ nondiscrimination here in my local town that here in Appalachia, once a person who was prejudiced against the LGBTQ community has five friends who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, they can see common stereotypes as the destructive falsifications that they are. When they’ve released those stereotypes, people become allies and change how they vote for the protection of their friends’ rights. The discussion ceases to be about “issues” and rather becomes about human beings they know, are in community with, and actually care about. As someone who is always looking for modern examples of Jesus’ teachings on militant nonviolence, I believe this community’s experiences offer rich lessons.

This week, let’s consider the warning in Jesus’ saying. What might Gehenna—total destruction—look like in our society? We are to oppose injustice and resist oppression. But let’s do it together in a way that isn’t suicidal but could allow us to survive to enjoy liberation. There are no guarantees, and remaining passive is not an acceptable option.

And do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.” (Q 12:4-5)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you as a group to spend some time together considering the statements above from Wink. Wink ends his first chapter with some tough questions and I think they are appropriate for HeartGroups, too.

  1. What objections do you have to non-violence? What objections do you have to violence?
  2. Do you think you could be nonviolent during a specific demonstration or vigil, if not consistently across your life?
  3. What reasons can you find for choosing to be nonviolent?

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, a love manifested through solidarity in the work of survival, liberation, resistance, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


 

[1] Josephus writes of revolutionary prophets leading large groups of people into the desert around 50 C.E. These prophets told the people that once they were in the desert, God would show them signs of coming freedom. The Roman procurator, Felix, regarded these gatherings as the first stage of revolt, and sent cavalry and heavy infantry into the desert to cut the crowds into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147). The most infamous of these prophets who promised “signs to be observed” was a violent messiah known as “the Egyptian” and mentioned in Acts 21:38: “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”

Josephus describes the event as follows:

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

In a parallel account of this event, Josephus includes the “sign” that this “Egyptian” had claimed would be shown to the people in the course of their liberating Jerusalem. It would be a sign like Joshua’s sign at the Battle of Jericho. At the “Egyptian’s” command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down so that his followers could enter and seize the city. However, before any such a sign could be attempted, the Roman cavalry and infantry slew and captured hundreds and put the rest to flight, including the violent messiah, the Egyptian (Josephus, Antiquities, 170-172).

These were not lunatic leaders, but hopeful violent messiahs, action prophets who contemporary scholars see as attempting to lead movements of Jewish peasants in active engagements of specifically violent human effort that would be accompanied by divine acts of empowerment and deliverance. The logic went something like, “Success is dependent on combining human effort with divine power. If they wanted divine deliverance, they must first present the violent human effort for Yahweh to bless. God would meet their efforts if they acted.”  The necessity of our action is the truth to be found the above logic. That our action has to be violent is short sighted. The rhetoric of these violent messiahs was steeped in the symbols of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan.

Josephus also describes another event where Romans massacred a thousand Jewish women and children who were acting in obedience to another Jewish violent messiah “prophet.” This violent messiah had declared to the people in Jerusalem that God had commanded them to go up to the Temple to receive the signs of deliverance (Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 360). Elsewhere, Josephus describes a “Samaritan prophet” who was a contemporary “messiah” of Jesus during the time of Pontius Pilate. This prophet’s “sign” was to lead the people up the sacred Mount Gerizim to find holy vessels left there by Moses. Instead, the armed crowd was attacked and overwhelmed by Pilate’s troops at the foot of the mountain (Josephus, Antiquities, 85-87).

Woes against the Exegetes of the Law

King monument in D.C.

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And woe to you exegetes of the Law for you bind burdens and load on the backs of people, but you yourselves do not want to lift your finger to move them. Woe to you, exegetes of the Law, for you shut the kingdom of God from people; you did not go in, nor let in those trying to get in. Woe to you for you built the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of your forefathers.” (Q 11:46b, 52, 47-48)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:4: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

Matthew 23:29-32: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your ancestors!”

Luke 11:46: “Jesus replied, ‘And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.’”

Luke 11:52: “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

Luke 11:47-48: “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs.”

Gospel of Thomas 39:1-2: “Jesus says: The Pharisees and the scribes have received the keys of knowledge, but they have hidden them. Neither have they entered, nor have they allowed to enter those who wish to.’”

A century before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Hillel the Elder, a Pharisee, described the entire Torah in terms of the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary” (Shab. 31a). Hillel’s contemporary, Shammai, sought to protect Jewish identity through strict interpretations of the Torah and its purity codes that shored up divisions between Jews and Gentiles.

After Hillel’s death and during the days when Jesus taught, the school of Shammai had the upper hand among the working class’s religious teachers in Galilee and Judea. Jesus’ teachings have few parallels with Shammai and have much in common with Hillel, but some elements, in solidarity with the poorer sectors of Jewish society, are unique to Jesus himself. The Pharisees resonated deeply with the working class in Jesus’ day. And I believe that much of Jesus’ critique of the teachers and leaders was directed toward the school of Shammai, not the school of Hillel. Jesus’ critique of the Shammai Pharisees in the saying we’re considering this week could just as easily have been made by Hillel a generation before.

This week, also keep in mind Matthew’s use of phrase “Kingdom of Heaven.” Luke prefers the phrase “keys to knowledge.” Either way, what we have witnessed from the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q is a focus on the here and now, not the hereafter. Matthew’s gospel is a very Jewish, Galilean telling of the Jesus story, and many today have noticed that rather than using the phrase “Kingdom of God”, Matthew’s gospel replaces the word “God” with “Heaven.” Remember this: the Jesus of Q is concerned much less with people gaining access to a post mortem cosmic heavenly realm that keeps them passive in the face of injustice now, and much more passionate about announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth today. This Jesus is less concerned with getting people to heaven at some point in the future and much more focused on bringing the liberation of heaven into people’s lives now.

We must critique versions of Christianity that are radically privatized and/or intentionally removed from all social politics, and we must also critique interpretations of Jesus’ teachings that are opiates for the oppressed and encourage them to be passive in the face of injustice.

The most striking potential connection between our sayings this week and the Pharisees’ view of the school of Shammai is the warning about “exegetes of the Law” who “bind burdens and load on the backs of people” and “do not want to lift your finger to move them.” The exegetes of the school of Shammai were meticulous in adhering to the purity codes (as we saw last week, cf. Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42), but not very concerned about the economic burdens facing the poor among their constituents. Actually, that’s a bit of a misnomer. They were very concerned about the poverty of the poor, but attached moral significance and value to it. If you were poor, you must have broken the purity codes somewhere and YHWH was punishing you. This was a way of interpreting Deuteronomy 28: if you were poor, you weren’t being exploited by the wealthy, you were morally inferior to those whom YHWH was blessing for adhering to the Torah.

This jumps out at me in three ways. First, it is blames people for their oppression. Second, as many today do in relation to America’s economic and military status on our globe, religious people often attribute wealth to being “blessed by God” rather than reaping the fruit of stolen or hoarded resources gained by exploiting others. Manifest destiny and the long continuing history of colonialism are examples. And third, Christianity has done both social good and social harm, like the school of Shammai. All religions can be a powerful force for good, survival, resistance, and liberation, or they can be used instead to oppress, marginalize, exclude, and extricate. The choice is ours.

I’m happy to be able to say that the Pharisees and rabbis later rejected the school of Shammai as harmful and chose Hillel’s golden-rule-based interpretation of the Torah instead. The internal struggle among the Pharisees that we glimpse in our saying this week was resolved on the side of compassion and love rather than sacrifice in the first century (cf. Hosea 6:6).

Jesus and the Pharisees of the school of Hillel had much in common. Consider the interaction between Jesus and a follower of Hillel in Mark’s gospel:

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:32-34 cf. Hosea 6:6 & Matthew 9:13; 12:7)

Those who subscribed to the school of Shammai’s Torah interpretations would have been very put off, and perhaps even angered, by some of Jesus’ more inclusive choices (such as Luke 15). They were refusing to enter into what Jesus called the reign of God and they did their best to use their influence to obstruct the way for everyone around them and call that way dangerous as well.

Jesus’ last rebuke about being the children of those who killed the prophets calls to mind the work of Vincent Harding about the national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Reagan Administration co-opting his memory. In Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, Vincent Harding uses Carl Wendell Hines, Jr.’s poem:

Now that he is safely dead

Let us praise him

build monuments to his glory

sing hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient heroes: They

cannot rise

to challenge the images

we would fashion from their lives

And besides,

it is easier to build monuments

than to make a better world.

So, now that he is safely dead

we, with eased consciences

will teach our children

that he was a great man… knowing

that the cause for which he lived

is still a cause

and the dream for which he died

is still a dream,

a dead man’s dream.

These words, first written about Malcolm X, and then applied to King, could also be applied to the Hebrew prophets and to Jesus as well.  And they offer much to consider in the context of Monday being Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day.

This year, let’s not simply build monuments for those whom the system has silenced and we have silenced too. Let’s instead make the choice to engage in the hard work of making a better world.

And woe to you exegetes of the Law for you bind burdens and load on the backs of people, but you yourselves do not want to lift your finger to move them. Woe to you, exegetes of the Law, for you shut the kingdom of God from people; you did not go in, nor let in those trying to get in. Woe to you for you built the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of your forefathers. (Q 11:46b, 52, 47-48)

HeartGroup Application

Last week, I asked your groups to re-center your focus on compassion and justice, and to pick a practice that would facilitate this refocusing. This week, lean further into that same exercise.

  1. Brainstorm another activity you can engage this week as a group in that promotes justice and compassion within your group and in your surrounding community.
  2. Map out what this will require of each of you and commit to action between this week and next.
  3. When you come back together, share with each other your experiences from following through.

This year, like every year, is packed with our potential to make our world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for all of us. Each of us can do something big or small in our circles of influence. Reach out this week and make action your choice.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, and in the words of our saying last week, a love that finds expression through living in justice, mercy and faithfulness to the marginalized and exploited, as well.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Sayings Gospel Q: Sheep Among Wolves

by Herb Montgomery

sheepwolves“Be on your way! Look, I send you like sheep in the midst of wolves” (Q 10:3) .

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10.16: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

Luke 10.3: “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.”

The image of this week’s saying is one of risk. In the last saying, we prayed for laborers. In the saying for this week, we encounter Jesus sending forth fellow laborers and being honest and frank about the risk involved.

I want to point out the participatory nature of this week’s saying. And lastly we’ll look closely at the imagery of sheep versus wolves and consider what this might have meant given Jesus teachings on changing the status quo with self-affirming nonviolent confrontation. Let’s talk about risk first.

An Ethic of Risk Not Sacrifice

When people interpret Jesus’s message for victims and survivors of injustice as requiring them to embrace an ethic of passive self-sacrifice in the face of injustice, there are harmful results..Karen Baker-Fletcher has gone to significant, convincing lengths to show that Jesus’s message was of self-affirmation, the affirmation of living not dying, and that, although his message was nonviolent, it was nonetheless a message that confronted with nonviolent direct action those who perpetuate injustice.

Jesus’s message of choosing life also involved an “ethic of risk.” This “risk” was not intrinsic to choosing life but was the imposed result of the elite who felt threatened by the subjugated people’s life choice. The way of life is only a way that involves a cross when the status quo threatens the work of social justice with a cross.

In other words, when we follow Jesus, we are not primarily choosing a cross: we are choosing the way of life. But because the powers that be threaten those who choose the way of life with a cross, the way of life also becomes the way of the cross. It need not be thus.

The way of the cross is simply the choice to hold onto life (not suffering), even when threatened with pushback from the dominant party that may result in suffering. It’s choosing life and stubbornly refusing to relinquish that life even when the choice confronts the powers of death and the death (cross) they would silence you with. Jesus taught a message of life, survival and liberation. It was the society around him that determined that his message should also involve a cross. For Jesus and for us, the cross is the result of working for justice and transformation within oppressive systems and social orders.

“Persecution and violence suffered by those who resist evil and injustice is the result of an ethic of risk. The assassination of a Martin King or the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is part of the risk involved in actively struggling for social justice. But such people daily resist the very power of systemic injustice that may crucify or assassinate them.” —Karen Baker-Fletcher and Garth Baker-Fletcher in My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God-Talk, p. 79

Rosemary Ruether also elaborates:

“Jesus did not ‘come to suffer and die’. Rather Jesus conceived of his mission as one of ‘good news to the poor, the liberation of the captive’, that is, experiences of liberation and abundance of life shared between those who had been on the underside of dominant systems of religion and state of his time . . . He did not seek to be killed by the powers that be, but rather to convert them into solidarity with those they had formerly despised and victimized.” (Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism, p. 104)

“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 to fully live? The distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering. If you believe that acceptance of suffering gives life, than your resources for confronting perpetrators of violence and abuse will be numbed.” —Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 18

When we talk about the way of the cross, or our being “lambs among wolves,” we must be careful not to understand or communicate these images as an admonishment to be passive “lambs” on the way to sacrificial “slaughter.” The lamb/wolf dichotomy is a reference to methods of seeking social change. Self-affirmation and self-giving are involved, but not self-sacrifice. We are lambs only in the sense that our efforts are nonviolent in the face of wolves that use violent means to establish and maintain their position of control in society. Through nonviolent confronting means, after the example and teachings of Jesus and the early Jewish Jesus-community, we challenge privilege and favor that is enforced by violence.

Hero Liberator or Participatory Mutualism

Another element we encounter in this week’s saying is Jesus being more than an isolated hero liberator and forming a community. He not only went out himself, but also empowered a community to go out as well. This community was influenced by him, and also influenced him in a mutual give and take relationship. One example of this is found in Mark’s story, which Matthew includes in his narrative, of the Syrophoenician woman. Rita Nakashima Brock, in her fantastic work Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, contrasts the difference between viewing Jesus as a individual, isolated, hero-liberator and viewing him rather as a pioneer or center of a participator community where each member is participating in envisioning and creating a new social order:

“Jesus is the hero and liberator… The relationship of liberator to oppressed is unilateral. Hence the liberator must speak for victims. The brokenhearted do not speak to the strong [in] a unilateral, heroic model.” (p. 65)

What we see in this week’s saying is very different than that unilateral, heroic model. Brock would refer to it as a community participating in the work of liberation with Jesus rather than an individual Jesus doing the work of liberation alone on the community’s behalf.

“I believe the above views of Christ tend to rely on unilateral views of power and too limited understanding of the power of community. They present a heroic Jesus who alone is able to achieve an empowering self-consciousness through a solitary, private relationship with God/dess. If Jesus is reported to have been capable of profound love and concern for others, he was first loved and respected by the concrete persons of his life. If he was liberated, he was involved in a community of mutual liberation… the Gospel narratives give us glimpses of the mutuality of Jesus’ relationships… Jesus’ vision of basileia [kingdom] grew to include the disposed, women and non-Jewish . . . ‘the marginal,” because of his encounter and interaction with the real presence of such people. They co-create liberation and healing from brokenheartedness.” (p.67)

We should not underestimate that the power of the early Jewish Jesus-community was that it was a community. It was not a group rooted in the unilateral dominance of a lone, hierarchical leader, but rather in the power of community centered on the values, teachings, and ethics taught by Jesus and resonant with community members.

Even the collections of the community’s sayings, which we now recognize as our scriptures, bears witness itself to this. These writings are a manifestation of a mutually participatory group, not just a lone prophet of social change. Jesus never wrote anything down himself. The community that formed around his teachings did, and it’s because of that community that we have accounts of his ministry. We cannot simply gloss over this. We are not waiting for a heroic savior: We are the community he anticipated.

I had the privilege of witnessing two contemporary, practical examples of participatory mutualism this week in the form of two podcasts.

Both of these are community responses to the massacre of LGBTQ people in Orlando on June 12. The first is from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Young Adults Live Webcast. You can find it at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZetBq0vJEWE

The second is The Adventist Podcast: Pulse Massacre Orlando which you can download and listen to at:

http://spectrummagazine.org/article/2016/06/20/adventist-podcast-pulse-massacre-orlando

In each of these examples, those affected, the brokenhearted, are speaking to the dominant society. Rather than waiting for unilateral heroism, the community members are working themselves for survival, liberation, and thriving.

The examples are exactly what what I envision happening among those in whom Jesus’s sayings first began to resonate in the 1st Century.

Sheep Among Wolves

As we covered in Renouncing One’s Rights, Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence were not that victims should embrace passive self-sacrifice or self-denial in a world where oppressors already denied the selves of the oppressed. Jesus gave his listeners a vision of nonviolence that confronted and discomforted those in positions of dominance and gave those being subjugated a way to affirm themselves in a social order where they were being dehumanized.

Yet to choose to only use nonviolently confronting means of challenging injustice when those you are standing up to have not made those same choices is risky. It’s a choice to be a lamb among wolves. Yet it cannot be forgotten: the goal of Jesus’ new social vision is not to replace an old hegemony with a new one. His goal was not peace through victory, the victory of slaughtering our enemies, but peace through restored justice. He was not teaching a new social pyramid to replace the old, but a shared table where victims were not passively complicit in their oppression and their oppressors were not continuing oppression in more subtle ways. Victims were confronting injustice, not in order to become oppressors themselves, but, in the words of Ruether, to “convert” oppressors “into solidarity with those they had formerly despised and victimized.”

Too often the sheep among wolves imagery of nonviolence is used to keep victims passive in the face of injustice. Making sure those being oppressed remain passive co-opts the nonviolence that Jesus and others have taught. Martin Luther Kings’ nonviolence was trouble making. Gandhi’s nonviolence became feared and avoided. Those who use violence themselves will always desire their opposition to “remain nonviolent” if one defines that nonviolence as simply rolling over. Yet true nonviolence is a force more powerful. It is not passive. It confronts, awakens, at times even shames those it is seeking, but not to defeat them, to win and convert to a new paradigm of seeing and a new set of behaviors. To use Jesus, MLK, or Gandhi to induce the subjugated to remain passive and calm is a gross way to use their teachings.

We are sheep in the midst of wolves because our methods of action and the goals we hope to achieve by those actions are radically different from the wolves we seek to transform or change. The Jewish community that cherished Jesus’s imagery was a community that held the Jewish vision of a new social order described by the words:

Isaiah 11:1-9: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit . . . Justice will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain. (Emphasis added.)

Isaiah 65.25: “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain.” (Emphasis added.)

Isaiah 58.6, TEV: “The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free.”

In this week’s saying, those who believe Jesus’s teachings have intrinsic value and inform the work of nonviolently confronting, liberating, and transforming our world into a safe, more just, more compassionate home for us all, are reminded that this vision involves embracing an ethic of risk. As I have said before, Jesus was not giving us a hard way to get to heaven, but a risky way to heal the earth. We are also reminded that our hope is not in following heroic, unilateral liberators but in discovering and applying the power of mutual, participatory, nonviolent communities.  And lastly, we are reminded that we are up against “wolves.” But we also hold the hope that wolves can be converted, and destruction and harm can be become, by our continued choice, a thing of the past.

A new world is coming, if we choose it. And today, while we make those choices, we find ourselves often in this story . . .

“. . . like sheep in the midst of wolves.” (Q 10:3)

 

HeartGroup Application

This week, discuss three sets of contrasts with your HeartGroup as you work together toward clarity.

  1. What are the significant differences you feel need to be communicated clearly between nonviolence direct action and merely being passive?
  2. What are the differences between a hero model of liberation and a community model rooted in mutual participation?
  3. What difference does it make for you to define the way of the cross we choose as Jesus followers as a refusal to let go of life rather than a way of merely sacrificing yourself with no change to the status quo around you?

Thank you for joining us this week. Keep living in love, working toward Justice, 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.