Peace through Nuclear Threat: A peace that put Jesus and numerous others on a cross

 

Picture of fence gate with sign that reads "no path."

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

by Herb Montgomery | February 15, 2018


“Yes, we are to engage in the work of justice alongside those working in matters of labor, race, and the developing world. We are to also engage that work in matters of gender equality, ability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and indigenous people’s rights.  We have an important choice to make. Either we will choose to allow anxiety and frenzied desperation to lead us down a path of mass destruction we wrongly think will create peace, or we can choose to be fiercely loyal to our fellow human siblings, seeing ourselves in their eyes, seeing ourselves in their struggle toward distributive justice. We can choose the beautiful but difficult task of building a world that will eventually thrive through compassion, safety, justice, and peace.”


 

“To shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:79)

I had a smart mouth as a teenager. I was the quintessential little guy with a big mouth and I had a lot of growing up to do. But what kept me out of trouble was that I had a bigger friend whom no one in my school wanted to mess with. Most of the school was afraid of my friend, which ensured no one messed with me. It assured me a certain level of peace and freedom from anxiety as I walked through my school’s halls. I’m not proud of how I abused this social insurance in my public junior high school.

Now consider our global community. At the risk of oversimplification, there are a lot of parallels between junior high and high school and the international climate right now. On February 2, the Trump administration announced its new nuclear weapons strategy. It comes with a price tag of at least $1.2 trillion for upgrading the United States’ nuclear weapons arsenal and developing new nuclear weapons too.

Anti-nuclear advocates have stated this strategy is “radical” and “extreme.” As the climate breaks down around the globe, this new strategy (and the new global arms race it will set in motion) has caused the doomsday clock to be moved up 30 seconds to two minutes to midnight. (Read more at The Guardian.)

Whether I’m thinking back to my school’s locker lined hallways or at our global community today, I see two paths toward peace. One I would argue is not actually a path toward peace, but a lull before the next fight/war. The other path is rooted in what some refer to as enough-ism. I’ll explain.

Jesus lived in a culture where the known world’s peace was later called the Pax Romana (the Roman peace). That peace was similar to how peace is presently attempted in our global community. In a world controlled by capitalists whose primary motive is to protect their present and potential future profit, “peace” is achieved in the way I had peace roaming my school’s hallways: either have the biggest stick yourself, or be friends (allies) with the one who has the biggest stick. Be the biggest bully on the top of the hill yourself, or at least have that bully as a friend you keep happy with you. In this model, pragmatism takes a higher priority than people. Humanity as a whole is considered of less value than the fate of an elite few.

That’s the peace of Rome: achieved through fear of violence. To make waves in the Roman world was to court the possibility that you could end up on a Roman cross. Jon Sobrino refers to this in his evaluation of Jesus as a holy troublemaker who also unmasked injustice, making waves in solidarity with those being pushed to the margins and undersides of his own society:

“Jesus, then suffered persecution, knew why he was suffering it and where it might lead him. This persecution . . . reveals him as a human being who not only announces hope to the poor and curses their oppressors, but persists in this, despite persecution . . . 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)

True to form, like most people who stand up to the system in a way that significantly threatens those in positions of power and privilege, Jesus ended up on a cross. This is how threats are handled on this pathway to this kind of peace.

The Pax Romana, and the kind of peace America attempts to achieve globally, puts many Jesuses on many crosses along the way. Ultimately, it produces Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If Jesus’ cross does nothing else for us, it should at least unmask the results of this strategy. The human price tag alone should be enough to awaken opposition in the lives of Jesus followers. After all, this is the same policy that brought Jesus and many more with him to death before their time.

In the gospels we encounter a Jesus who had a different vision for peace than Rome did. Jesus’ vision was of peace through distributive justice: no one would have too much while others did not have enough. It was a reparative justice, a restorative justice, and a transformative justice. It was enoughism.

“Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.’” (Luke 6:20-21)

Jesus envisioned a world where the poor in spirit were given the kingdom (Matthew 5:3). This phrase does not mean spiritually poor. That interpretation has been used, too often, to circumvent Jesus’ call for us to stand in solidarity with those who are materially poor. It is also not a call to become poor in spirit. In Luke, we are told that Jesus, even as a child, was not poor in spirit, but “strong in spirit” (Luke 1:80).

So what does Jesus mean in Matthew by “poor in spirit”? We get a clue just two verses later in Matthew 5:5 where Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” In our present world, the meek are not given the earth but are rather walked on, walked over, and bullied. Jesus calls us to create another kind of world, one where even the meek, the most vulnerable among us, are taken care of and ensured a safe world to call their home as well. This is what Jesus means by “poor in spirit.”

Today’s world belongs to those who have a fighting, competitive spirit, a drive to succeed. But some have had their spirit so broken that they simply don’t have any spirit left to try. Jesus calls us to create a world where those whose spirits have been broken and who don’t have anything left to give are taken care of. “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” For these people, the new world will bring reparative, restorative, and transformative comfort. A new world is possible!

In verse 6, Jesus speaks of this same demographic when he states, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The word “righteousness” is not personal or private. It’s not a meritorious credit that admits them into postmortem bliss. It’s about righteousness here, now. The Hebrew concept of righteousness includes distributive justice and societal justice: those who hunger for this world to be put right, they will be filled!

That leads me to the differences between the Pax Romana, the kind of global peace America seeks today, and the peace that is the fruit of the world Jesus envisioned. The peace in the gospels is not peace because the biggest bully with the biggest stick is sitting on top of the heap telling everyone to sit down and shut up. The peace we find in the gospels is a peace that is the intrinsic fruit of a world shaped by the values of distributive justice. Everyone has enough.

Two relevant statements from Borg and Crossan in their book, The First Christmas:

“For Augustus and for Rome it was always about peace, but always about peace through victory, peace through war, peace through violence….

“The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world.” (Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, p. 65, 166)

It was this same violent path toward peace that in the end put Jesus on a Roman cross. IAs Sobrino rightly states, it is also the source of “all other violences.”

“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)

Again, there are two paths toward peace. We can work on bigger, more technologically advanced bombs. Or we can work toward reparations, restoration, and redistribution that considers not only what is just for us, but also what is just for those we share the world with and who are the most vulnerable among us.

“It is crucially important for Christians today to adopt a genuinely Christian position and support it with everything they have got. This means an unremitting fight for justice in every sphere—in labor, in race relations, in the ‘third world’ and above all in international affairs.” (Thomas Merton, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, p.133)

There are more spheres than the ones mentioned by Merton, too. Yes, we are to engage in the work of justice alongside those working in matters of labor, race, and the developing world. We are to also engage that work in matters of gender equality, ability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and indigenous people’s rights.

We have an important choice to make. Either we will choose to allow anxiety and frenzied desperation to lead us down a path of mass destruction we wrongly think will create peace, or we can choose to be fiercely loyal to our fellow human siblings, seeing ourselves in their eyes, seeing ourselves in their struggle toward distributive justice. We can choose the beautiful but difficult task of building a world that will eventually thrive through compassion, safety, justice, and peace.

This is the path of peace that the gospels and the teachings of the Jesus we find there call us to:

“To shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:79)

HeartGroup Application

In the book I mentioned above, Borg and Crossan remind us that each path toward peace requires something of us.

“Each requires programs and processes, strategies and tactics, wisdom and patience. If you consider that peace through victory has been a highly successful vision across recorded history, why would you abandon it now? But whether you think it has been successful or not, you should at least know there has always been present an alternative option—peace through justice.” (Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, p. 75)

What does peace through justice look like?

What are some of the programs, processes, strategies, tactics, wisdom and patience that this alternative path toward peace involves? Discuss these with your group and see what you can come up with. And then find a way in your community that your HeartGroup can engage the work of distributive justice. Know that as you do so, you are working toward peace. As the saying goes, if you want peace, work for justice.

Another world is possible.

Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Son of Humanity Like Lightning

by Herb Montgomery

“Any talk of nonviolence today must include an in-depth understanding of structural and systemic violence and oppression or nonviolence will end up being a violent form of nonviolence. It will place upon oppressed people an additional burden to remain nonviolent while the status quo preaches nonviolence to them and simultaneously ignores the violent system they live in. Nonviolence will do violence. It will be a violent nonviolence.”

 

Featured Text:

“If they say to you, ‘Look. He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out; look, he is indoors, do not follow. For as the lightning streaks out from sunrise and flashes as far as sunset, so will be the Son of Humanity on his day.” Q 17:23-24

Companion Texts:

Matthew 24:26-27: “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

Luke 17:23-24: “People will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.”

Gospel of Thomas 3:1-2: “Jesus says: “If those who lead you say to you: ‘Look, the kingdom is in the sky!’ Then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you: ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fishes will precede you.”

Our saying this week is connected to the last two statements about Jesus’ vision for a Jewish future without an exploitative Temple State. In Jesus’s day, the Temple State exploited the vulnerable and messiah movements promoted Temple reform. These movements that grew in Galilee and Judea depended on violent liberation efforts that Jesus believed were suicidal and, because of Rome’s violence, were ultimately catastrophic for those who engaged them.

As we read last week, the messiah figures of these movements implored the people to act first in faith and then YHWH would reveal a sign of confirmation. Josephus gives us examples of followers who did “go out” to the “wilderness” with these charismatic leaders expecting a sign but instead found annihilation at the hands of the Roman empire. We discussed some of these examples last week.

Before we launch into examples of these movements Jesus was warning his followers of following, I want to share a brief word about Jesus’s vision for a Jewish future without a Temple State. Long before Jesus there was a Jewish thread of “no sacrifice” in the tradition.

Hosea 6:6—“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Isaiah 1:11-12—“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?’ says the LORD; ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?’”

Psalms 40:6—“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—my ears you have opened—burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.”

Jeremiah 7:22—“For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Jesus embraced this strand of the tradition in his own teachings:

Matthew 9:13—“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

Matthew 12:7—“But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”

After the devastating experience of the Jewish people in the 1st Century, some rabbis did embrace a future without sacrifice, the Temple, and violence. Karen Armstrong shares a beautiful passage about this in The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions:

“The Golden Rule, compassion, and loving-kindness were central to this new Judaism; by the time the temple had been destroyed, some of the Pharisees already understood that they did not need a temple to worship God, as this Talmudic story makes clear: It happened that R. Johanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem, and R. Joshua followed him and saw the burnt ruins of the Temple and he said: ‘Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.’ Then said R. Johanan, ‘Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, “I desire love and not sacrifice.”’ Kindness was the key to the future; Jews must turn away from the violence and divisiveness of the war years and create a united community with ‘one body and one soul.’ When the community was integrated in love and mutual respect, God was with them, but when they quarreled with one another, he returned to heaven, where the angels chanted with ‘one voice and one melody.’ When two or three Jews sat and studied harmoniously together, the divine presence sat in their midst. Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 132 CE, taught that the commandment ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself‘ was ‘the great principle of the Torah.’ To show disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image was seen by the rabbis as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism. Murder was a sacrilege: ‘Scripture instructs us that whatsoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image.’ God had created only one man at the beginning of time to teach us that destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world, while to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. To humiliate anybody—even a slave or a non-Jew—was equivalent to murder, a sacrilegious defacing of God’s image. To spread a scandalous, lying story about another person was to deny the existence of God. Religion was inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You could not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.” (pp. 454-455, emphasis added.)

Three examples of the kind of liberation efforts Jesus warned his followers about going into the wilderness to meet, and which ended in the most severe failures in the first century, were the Judas Rebellion, the Jewish-Roman War, and the Bar Kochba Revolt.

The Judas Rebellion took place during the reign of Augustus while Varus was the Roman Governor in Syria. You can read Josephus’s account in his Jewish Antiquities 17.288-295. As a result of it, 2,000 Jewish people were crucified in Jerusalem alone. In Galilee, Varus “turned over part of his army to his son and to one of his friends, and sent them out to fight against the Galileans who inhabit the region adjoining Ptolemais. His son attacked all who opposed him and routed them, and after capturing Sepphoris, he reduced its inhabitants to slavery and burnt the city” (17:288–89). Archeology tells a slightly different version of this event (no evidence of burning, for example) but confirms the devastation that resulted for the people nonetheless.

The next war was even worse: the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE after the Roman-Jewish War under Nero (66-69 CE). The Roman legate in Syria at this time was Cestius Gallus. Not only was Jerusalem razed by Titus, one of Cestius’ columns also killed some 2,000 rebels in Galilee as well.

And lastly, the Bar Kochba revolt (the “Third Jewish Revolt”) was met with such violence by Rome that it marks the last attempt at liberation by the Jewish people. According to Cassius Dio, 580,000 Jews perished in this war and many more died of hunger and disease. In addition, many Judean war captives were sold into slavery. The Jewish communities of Judea were devastated to an extent which some scholars describe as genocidal.

Jesus’ nonviolent liberation movement belonged to a different family of 1st Century resistance movements. Two examples of this resistance were the Standards (Ensigns) incident in 26 CE and the Temple episode over the statue of Gaius Caligula in 40 CE.

Josephus writes about both cases of nonviolent noncooperation. First is the Standards incident:

“As procurator [Greek: “hegemon”] of Judaea Tiberius sent Pilate, who during the night, secretly and under cover, 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, emphasis added.)

Now let’s consider the incident with the statue of Caligula:

“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…

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, emphasis added.)

Philo also writes of the statue incident in his Legatio ad Gaium, “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.”

It was in nonviolent resistance movements such as these that Jesus saw the best chances at resistance and surviving such attempts. And this is the context of this week’s saying about not following after other more violent messiah movements.

Jesus again embraced a vision for human society without the Temple. Early Jesus followers associated Jesus’ movement with the image of the son of humanity in an earlier Jewish liberation text, Daniel 7. In that vision, violent predator beasts that symbolize Gentile world empires subjugating the Hebrew people are removed and replaced by the Hebrew hope in liberation. All violence, injustice, and oppression in the world would be put right. Over 80 times, the gospels refer to Jesus as Daniel’s “son of humanity”.

Mark 14:62—“‘I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’” (emphasis added)

What Jesus did was turn this image on its head: change came through nonviolence instead of the violent imagery in Daniel 7. Jesus’ vision for humanity was not like the other movements that went to the wilderness, wanting to be a source of light for the world but only adding more darkness to the darkness. Jesus’ vision for humanity was of a movement that would light up the darkness of oppression in our world as lightning lights up the night sky from the east to the west. His vision was that we would be a source of light in the darkness of domination, oppression, marginalization, and exploitation, not add more darkness to the world. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently stated, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that” (Loving Your Enemies, 1957; in Strength to Love, 1963).

I do want to say a word of caution about nonviolence before we wrap up.

I subscribe to nonviolence. I teach it. Yet nonviolence is also used by the status quo to keep people subjugated. To be of value to the oppressed, nonviolence must be liberatory. If nonviolence is held as the highest value and liberation is secondary, then nonviolence can then be co-opted and used to keep oppressed peoples from ever achieving their liberation. Any talk of nonviolence today must include an in-depth understanding of structural and systemic violence and oppression or nonviolence will end up being a violent form of nonviolence. It will place upon oppressed people an additional burden to remain nonviolent while the status quo preaches nonviolence to them and simultaneously ignores the violent system they live in. Nonviolence will do violence. It will be a violent nonviolence.

Jesus’ nonviolence was also rooted not only in liberation, but also in survival. Jesus’s opposition to the use of violence in the liberation movements of his day was deeply informed by Rome’s heavy response making such movements not only futile but lethal. When deciding whether violence or nonviolence will be the means whereby we strive for liberation, we must consider both their success and failure rates. Both violence and nonviolence, at times, succeed. And both violence and nonviolence, at times, fail. But when violent liberation efforts fail, the results can be catastrophic, so much more than when nonviolent efforts fail. I will address this much further in next week’s saying about the circling vultures, but for now, whether we choose violent resistance or nonviolent resistance, we must consider nonviolence from the viewpoint of the oppressed rather than from the vantage point of the privileged and ask how nonviolence will affect the oppressed’s liberation work. Again, we’ll dive into this much more deeply next week.

I’ll close this week with a word from James Douglass on how this imagery of lightning lighting up the sky from east to west can be used today. In Lightning East to West: Jesus, Gandhi, and the Nuclear Age, James warns of another type of lightning that threatens to end our world as we know it—the threat of nuclear war.

“Lightning east to west can be adopted as the image of our end-time. We live in the final time [that] offers human the clearest choice in history: the kingdom or holocaust. Either end is lightning east to west: the nuclear holocaust of lightning fire or the kingdom of Reality, a lightning spirit . . . Whoever believes in Jesus’ way deeply enough, a way of life and death which is a way of seeking an objective love-force in history, will perform the same works as he did, and even greater works—which are absolutely necessary today for the continuation of human history . . . Every living person is capable, through a particular process, of creating the conditions for the expression of an objective love-force in history, a power of Reality beyond any of us which can raise humankind from the global death of our end-time.” (James Douglas, Lightning East to West: Jesus, Gandhi, and the Nuclear Age, p. 17-23)

The choice is ours: which type of lighting up the darkness will we choose?

Will we be a source of genuine light in our world’s darkness of oppression and exploitation, or will we choose a blinding light that actually results in greater darkness for us all? James Douglass offers hope: “How does one live at the [potential] end of the world? By beginning a new one.”

“If they say to you, ‘Look. He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out; ‘look, he is indoors,’ do not follow. For as the lightning streaks out from sunrise and flashes as far as sunset, so will be the Son of Humanity on his day.” Q 17:23-24

HeartGroup Application

The holiday season is upon us. Whichever holidays you choose to celebrate at this time of year, this is a time where we can choose to replace the values of individualism, consumerism, and capitalism with community, mutual care, and sharing your extra with those who have less.

  1. As a group, take inventory of some things or services you have the ability to share with those who have less during this holiday season.
  1. Make a list of who you’d like your HeartGroup to share with during this holiday season.
  1. Now combine the two lists and put this season of caring and sharing in motion in the coming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Wherever you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. . It matters right now more than ever which values we choose to embrace and live out. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns

Happy Holidays to each of you.

I love you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Children against Parents 

girl spray painting a graffiti heart on wall

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Fire have I come to hurl on the earth, and how I wish it had already blazed up! Do you think that I have come to hurl peace on earth? I did not come to hurl peace, but a sword! For I have come to divide son against father, and daughter against her mother, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Q 12:49‚ 51, 53) 

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:34-38: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 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—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their 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.”

Luke 12:49-53: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Gospel of Thomas 10: “Jesus says: ‘I have cast fire upon the world, and see, I am guarding it until it blazes.’”

Gospel of Thomas 16: “Jesus says: ‘Perhaps people think that I have come to cast peace upon the earth. But they do not know that I have come to cast dissension upon the earth: fire, sword, war. For there will be five in one house: there will be three against two and two against three, father against son and son against father. And they will stand as solitary ones.’”

Micah 7:6: “For a son dishonors his father, a daughter rises up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies are the members of his own household.”

Two Types of Peace Making

There are two types of peace-making. One type uses force of arms. It amounts to being the biggest bully on the hill: if you’re big, strong, and bad enough, no one will mess with you and they’ll do what you say. The other type uses distributive justice. It makes sure everyone is taken care of and everyone has enough so that there can be peace.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan mention these two types of peace in their joint volume, The First Christmas:

“Empire promises peace through violent force. Eschaton promises peace through nonviolent justice. Each requires programs and processes, strategies and tactics, wisdom and patience. If you consider that peace through victory has been a highly successful vision across recorded history, why would you abandon it now? But whether you think it has been successful or not, you should at least know there has always been present an alternative option— peace through justice.” (p. 75)

Later they insightfully contrast the two:

“The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world.” (p. 166)

Nonviolence Isn’t Peaceful

The road to peace isn’t peaceful, however. Even if, like Gandhi, one defines Jesus’ activism as nonviolent resistance, our saying this week indicates that Jesus wasn’t about “keeping the peace” with a lack of conflict.

The Jesus of the gospels came to “bring fire and sword.” But how we understand this saying makes all the difference.

Too often, Christians have misinterpreted these words, chosen to be the ones wielding the sword against others, and literally set heretics, witches, Muslims, and Jews on fire. Let’s look this saying more closely.

In response to an accusation that he was “disturbing the peace” by participating in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King stated:

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” (In Let the Trumpet Sound : A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr by Stephen B. Oates)

As we move toward distributive justice, nonviolent resistance to systems of disparity should disrupt. It should confront, it should disturb, it should prevent the unjust system from continuing on as normal. Unless nonviolence is disruptive, its goal is not achieved. On August 3(4), 1857, Frederick Douglass gave an address on West India Emancipation in Canandaigua, New York:

“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress . . . Men might not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.” (Source)

And although Douglass did not subscribe to the theories of nonviolence as King did, he was right: Whether it be by disruptive violence or disruptive nonviolence, the point is that there has to be disruption to the status quo. Even nonviolence can be disruptive when it isn’t a co-opted nonviolence that passively demonstrates without changing a thing.

Don’t miss that the sword mentioned in this week’s saying is one being raised by the unjust system against Jesus and his followers. It isn’t a sword that Jesus and his followers raise against others. It’s a fire of disruption and a part of resistance that the those benefited by the status quo seek to extinguish. Jesus words about taking up the cross are still ahead of us in this series. They must be understood in a way that does not promote the myth of redemptive suffering.

And before we arrive at that discussion, we must note that Jesus’ followers are not the ones with the swords in their hands in this passage. They’re the ones whom those with swords in their hands threaten with crosses. They’re for standing up to what was unjust. They’re being threatened with death for standing up and taking hold of life.

Remember, Jesus didn’t die so you could go to heaven. Jesus died because he stood up to the status quo. And even if he did so nonviolently, he stood up to injustice while standing alongside the poor and exploited and marginalized (consider the temple incident).

Social Location Matters

This saying is also at the center of why many parents feel religiously compelled to reject their children and grandchildren for being perceived as out of harmony with their own faith. Painful examples are the disproportionate rates of LGBT homeless young people who are turned out of their religiously fundamentalist homes: their parents’ Christianity is a version that would cause them to reject their own children.

What we must see this week is that in the stories about Jesus’ followers, they’re the ones being rejected, not the ones rejecting. They are the ones Jesus encourages to stand up and resist even if their own family rejects them.

This saying is on the side of the youth being kicked out. It’s on the side of the women who stand up to domestic violence. It’s on the side of slaves that stand up against their enslavement. It’s on the side of straight siblings who choose to stand in solidarity with their LGBT siblings over against the fear of experiencing their parents’ rejection too. It’s on the side of the counselors and clergy that stand with survivors of relational violence and tell them not to just passively accept abuse but to leave, even when doing so will bring rejection from those who subscribe to biblical patriarchy.

This week’s saying is on the side of the abolitionists who were accused of having to throw out their Christian faith to stand against White Christian slavery. It’s on the side of people of color and their white allies who stand firm and say “Black Lives Matter” in the face of rejection from their white peers, Christian and non-Christian alike. It’s on the side of those who find themselves opposing both Democrats and Republicans in saying that bombs won’t grant self-determination for those here or in any country where they’re victims of the global economy.

Yes, when you stand up for the vulnerable, there will be push back. Stand up anyway.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated mid-mass, and who stood in solidarity with the poor beyond U.S. backed military repression in El Salvador said:

Christ asks us not to fear persecution, because — believe me, brothers and sisters — whoever has cast his or her lot with the poor will have to endure the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor is: to disappear, to be tortured, to be a prisoner, to be found dead.” (Quoted by James Brockman in The Word Remains: A Life of Oscar Romero, Orbis Books, 1982)

Using the Jewish text of Micah, our saying this week goes on to say, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. (Matthew 10:21)

Jesus message is stand up anyway.

Standing against injustice will produce a sword in the hand of those who are threatened by a more egalitarian world. Standing up will produce a fire storm of criticism: Colin Kaepernick followed all the rules the privileged say defines a legitimate protest and has still been delegitimized and slandered.

Stand up anyway.

If those who are rejecting you for standing with the vulnerable are your own family, biological or religious, stand against injustice, fear, ignorance, violence, and oppression anyway.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who, after his time at Union Theological Seminary in New York, returned to Germany to stand with the vulnerable and against Nazism. He wrote, “There remains an experience of incomparable value… to see the great events of world history from below; from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer” (Letters and Papers from Prison).

One’s social location matters. Reading this week’s saying from the location of those on the undersides and edges of our society makes a difference.

We don’t have to reject members of our own family. Rather, this week’s saying tells us that when we do take a stand for justice, we may be rejected by mother, father, daughter, son, brother, or sister. And it’s encouraging us to stand up anyway.

Standing with and speaking out alongside the vulnerable will create conflict. But from that soil can grow a distributive justice that produces the fruit of peace. I don’t believe that we must pass through fire and sword to get to a world that is safe, just, and compassionate for everyone. But when those threatened by the new world do raise their swords and standing up creates a fire storm, stand up anyway.

Joan Carlson Brown & Rebecca Parker remind us, “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.” (in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.18)

“Fire have I come to hurl on the earth, and how I wish it had already blazed up! Do you‚ think that I have come to hurl peace on earth? I did not come to hurl peace, but a sword! For I have come to divide son against father, and daughter against her mother, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Q 12:49‚ 51, 53)

HeartGroup Application

Gustavo Gutierrez writes in his book We Drink From Our Own Wells:

“The faith and courage of the members of our communities in the face of threats, misunderstandings, and persecution for justice’ sake are sustained and strengthened by the support each individual gives the others, by the support each community gives the others, by our very struggle and activity, by meditation on the word of God, and by the recollection of the witness given by those who have struggled for justice.”

As a group:

  1. List what types of push back you fear you will experience for taking stands against injustice, oppression, and violence?
  2. Discuss how your group can support members if these fears become reality? Make an actual list.
  3. Create an action plan: people to call or reach out to, ways to respond, things to set in motion that each of you can put into practice this week to support each other if and when pushback occurs. And now, having each other’s back, stand up anyway.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Where you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation on our way to thriving!

Again, I want to thank all of you who support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. It’s people like you who enable us to exist and to be a positive resource in our world in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

If you are new to Renewed Heart Ministries, we are a not-for-profit group informed by the sayings and teachings of the historical Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and passionate about centering our values and ethics in the experiences of those on the undersides and margins of our societies. You can find out more about us here.

Everything we do at Renewed Heart Ministries is done with the purpose of making these resources as free as possible. To do so we need the help of people like you.

If you’d like to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, you can make a one-time gift or become a monthly contributor by going to renewedheartministries.com and clicking on the Donate tab at the top right of our home page.

Or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries

PO Box 1211

Lewisburg, WV 24901

Make sure you also sign up for our free resources on the website: we have a monthly newsletter and much, much more.

All of your support helps. Anything we receive beyond our annual budget we pass on to other not-for-profits making systemic and personal differences in the lives of those less privileged in the status quo.

For those of you already supporting our work, again, thank you.

I’m so glad you’re on this journey with us.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Son of Humanity Comes as a Robber

The banner reads: 'Capitalism isn't working: another world is possible'. G20, Meltdown Protest, City of London, Bank of England, 1 April 2009. Credit: Tony Hall.

The banner reads: “Capitalism isn’t working: another world is possible.”
G20, Meltdown Protest, City of London, Bank of England, 1 April 2009.
Credit: Tony Hall.

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“But know this: If the householder had known in which watch the robber was coming, he would not have let his house be dug into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Humanity is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Q 12:39-40)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 24:43-44: “But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Luke 12:39-40: “But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Gospel of Thomas 21:5 “That is why I say: ‘When the master of the house learns that the thief is about to come, he will be on guard before he comes and will not let him break into his house, his domain, to carry away his possessions.’

Gospel of Thomas 103: “Jesus says: ‘Blessed is the person who knows at which point of the house the robbers are going to enter, so that he may arise to gather together his domain and gird his loins before they enter.’”

Not The Second Coming, But The First

Typically when this saying is used in most Christian preaching today, Jesus’ words are interpreted as a prediction of his return to Earth at the end of time. Remember, though, Jesus disciples didn’t yet even understand that he was going to be taken from them, much less that he would come back at some point in the future. At this stage of the story, Jesus would have still been speaking about his unexpected emergence among the people, not about some point in the distant future.

What difference does it make to apply this saying first to Jesus’ emergence among the poor in the 1st Century, before we jump to the Christian second coming? Let’s first allow this saying to relate to the appearing of the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth two thousand years ago and see if there is any message in that for us today. We can get to secondary interpretations later.

Jesus the Thief

In our society, the haves are assumed to be the “good guys.” Law and order protects the haves from the have-nots who step outside the lines the haves set down for them. In this week’s saying, Jesus subversively calls himself a thief whom householders need protection from. He calls himself a bad guy.

Morality is defined quite differently by those at the bottom and edges of society and those who are at the top and the center. Last month’s book of the month at RHM was James Cone’s God of the Oppressed. He describes how morality functioned for black slaves in America:

“The grounding of Christian ethics in the oppressed community means that the oppressor cannot decide what is Christian behavior. Intuitively and experientially black slaves recognized this basic truth, because their mental and physical survival was at stake. They rejected the white masters’ view of morality, but they did not reject law and morality. Rather, they formulated a new law and a new morality that was consistent with black strivings for freedom . . . Thus black slaves made a distinction between ‘stealing’ and ‘taking.’ Stealing meant taking from a fellow slave, and ethics did not condone that. But to take from white folks was not wrong, because they were merely appropriating what was in fact rightfully theirs.” (pp. 191-192)

Cones uses illustrations from Olmsted and a slave named Charles that are well worth your consideration.

Consider also, how the legendary Robin Hood was viewed by the rich and how he was viewed by the exploited poor. Similarly, the “thief” Jesus in Luke preached good news to the poor (Luke 4:18, 6:30) and pronounced woes and curses on the rich (Luke 6:24).

This was in keeping with the Jewish prophetic tradition:

“For he will rescue the needy from their rich oppressors, the distressed who have no protector. He will have pity on the poor and the needy, and deliver the needy from death; he will liberate them from oppression and violence and their blood will be of high value in his eyes.” (Psalm 72:12)

Jesus’ definition of wealth as the exploitation of the poor and his call for wealth redistribution was viewed as thievery in his day. It’s still viewed as theft by many wealthy people today. I wish I had a dime for every time a well-meaning, affluent Christian responded to presentations where I talk about the wealth redistribution Jesus commanded by calling it “stealing” from them and giving to those less deserving.

Test this out yourself: take Luke 6:20 and 6:24 (Blessed are you are poor and woe to you who are rich), post it on Facebook, and see how long it takes for Evangelical Christians to chime in to qualify or condition the text. They won’t be able to let the texts sit there unexplained. They have a desperate need to qualify or censor these sayings of Jesus. And these are Christians, not the secular or nonreligious.

Jesus came preaching a new social order, a great reversal, or as Eliza Gylkison refers to it, The Great Correction. He invited those who had a lot to live in solidarity with those who had little, and he taught them to redistribute their wealth. It’s this idea of redistributing wealth to those who have less that was perceived as thievery.

Yet here is my point. Redistribution of wealth was good news to the poor in Jesus’s day and viewed as “stealing” by the rich. Not much has changed, today.

Those who are benefited and whose lives are bettered by domination systems (the haves) don’t view such an end as good news. Those on the underside of those systems, though, do see it as good news.

In the gospels these systems are replaced by a table where resources are shared wealth is redistributed, and justice is distributive justice: everyone has enough and no one has too much. This is a new humanity where people are prioritized over profit, property, possessions, power, and privilege.

Today, many both here and abroad have suffered and are suffering for the sake of the “American Dream.” America is one of the wealthiest and the most powerful nation in the world. And yet for such wealth and power, there are still 43 million people here who live below the poverty line. The wealth disparities in the American population are vast.

Today, “law and order” is the code phrase for a systemically unjust legal system that targets people of color, men especially, and takes their lives even when they have done nothing wrong. One example that top U.S. advisors to past administrations have admitted is that the “war on drugs” itself was created to target certain populations. People are targeted and arrested for nothing more than the color of their skin. That is “stealing.”

When one adds to this unjust system the capitalization of the prison industry, and the free labor that benefits large corporations from an exploited prison population, one begins to see that slavery really never ended in the U.S. It simply took another form. (To learn more, read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.)

We find ourselves in an exploitative system today that takes from those forced to the underside of society and benefits those for whom the rules are shaped. To talk about reversing that nature of things provokes the accusation of “taking from the rich to give to the poor,” or thievery. For example, socialism (a workers’ movement) is accused of being thievery and capitalism is not. Even democratic forms of socialism are continually erased from the conversation by the haves in our society. Jesus envisioned a system where the strong take care of the weak, not a world where the strong prey on the weak. But, as he said, whenever the son of man appears in every generation, he is seen by the “householders” of the present system as a thief breaking in to “take away their possessions.”

Expectations

I recently traced the title son of man used in the gospels for Jesus back to the Jewish apocalyptic book of Daniel, specifically chapter 7. In this chapter, one like the “son of man” is given a kingdom, a new social order, that ends exploitative systems of domination, subjugation, and violence. The overthrow is violent, and it could be argued that the systems overthrown in this chapter are simply replaced by another subjugating domination system (see Daniel 7:14). This would make perfect sense given the historical context of those who wrote the book of Daniel. Violent overthrow was the only way they could imagine their subjugation by violent empires coming to an end.

In Jesus’ own society, there were also those who could not imagine arriving at a different world in any other way than through violent uprising. But Jesus invited us into the end of domination, subjugation, and exploitative systems not through more domination, but in a way that was deeply unexpected. “Sell your possessions and give to the poor,” he taught (Luke 7:33). This was good news to the poor, and it was thievery to the “householders” within that society. It was counter intuitive, beyond what they had imagined.

I imagine that many who heard Jesus could not connect the dots between following his plan and bringing about a world without domination, subjugation, and exploitation. Jesus invited them into relationship with one another, into a community where they choose to take care of one another. In that community, those who had a lot gave to take care of those whose needs were not being met. As it states in Acts, “all the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:44-45).

In the 1st Century, Jesus was inviting his listeners into a new human society, a beloved community, that the wealthy elites indicted as theft. He was calling the people to voluntarily enter into a community that he felt could avoid the Gehenna that they were heading toward. If they chose relationship, they could avoid the uprising of the exploited, the war against Rome, and the utter destruction of Jerusalem that history now tells us was only three decades ahead of them at that time. The result of ignoring Jesus’ call to wealth redistribution and reparations for past exploitations came in 66-70 C.E. when the exploited poor in Judea rose up, drove out the wealthy from the Temple, and proceeded to take up arms against Rome itself, too. Rome put down what began as a poor people’s rebellion in a way that left nothing for anyone. It was complete destruction for all.

Revolts and revolutions don’t always come. Oppressed communities don’t always rise up. They sometimes just give up. And there aren’t always third parties such as “Rome” that come in and wipe out everyone. I still wonder what lies ahead for us that we could avoid with the choices we are making today.

What lies on our horizon?

What will be the result of our environmental abuses driven by greed?

What will be the result of our military-backed, economic exploitation of countries abroad?

What will be the result of our exploitation of the lower and middle classes here in the U.S.?

What will be the result for our refusal to make reparations for our deeply racist past?

What will be the result of our racist “law and order” and unjust criminal justice system?

What will be the result of our classism, racism, sexism, cis-heterosexism, militarism, and corporatism?

If Jesus walked U.S. streets today, what would he see on America’s horizon? Who would he be calling us into relationship, community and solidarity with? What redistribution of wealth and power in favor of those on the undersides and edges of our society would he be calling us to voluntarily embrace?

Even if one only considers the environmental impact, it will be much less catastrophic to embrace our interconnectedness today, and enter into community with the people we share this planet with and with whom we also call Earth “home.”

We are in this together.

We are each others’ fate.

The choice is ours.

“But know this: If the householder had known in which watch the robber was coming, he would not have let his house be dug into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Humanity is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Q 12:39-40)

Heart Group Application

Jesus’ gospel calls us repeatedly to look at the world through the lens of those on the undersides and edges of our societies. This past week marks the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. One of the news outlets I follow this week played a portion of the sermon he gave one year before his assignation, Beyond Vietnam, written by Vincent Harding.

  1. As a group, read the entire transcript of this sermon:

http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_beyond_vietnam/

2. Considering this week’s saying and its historical context, a statement leaps out from for me from the transcript of King’s sermon, “It is with such activity that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, ‘Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.’ [applause] Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”

What does engaging the work of transitioning from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society look like your area? Which local organizations can you partner with? Here in WV our work may look very different from the work in other states, for example. We have the same -isms as exist nationwide, yet they work uniquely in Appalachia from how they express themselves in larger cities.

3. Pick one of the options you discovered this week, and as a group put it into practice.

Thank you, each of you, for checking in with us this week.

Also, I want to take a moment to thank all of you who support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. It’s people like you who enable us to exist and to be a positive resource in our world in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

If you are new to Renewed Heart Ministries, we are a not-for-profit group informed by the sayings and teachings of the historical Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and passionate about centering our values and ethics in the experiences of those on the undersides and margins of our societies. You can find out more about us here.

Everything we do at Renewed Heart Ministries is done with the purpose of making these resources as free as possible. To do so we need the help of people like you.

If you’d like to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, you can make a one-time gift or become a monthly contributor by going to renewedheartministries.com and clicking on the Donate tab at the top right of our home page.

Or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries

PO Box 1211

Lewisburg, WV 24901

Make sure you also sign up for our free resources on the website: we have a monthly newsletter and much, much more.

Remember, everything we do here is free. And all your support helps. Anything we receive beyond our annual budget we pass on to other not-for-profits making systemic and personal differences in the lives of those less privileged in the status quo.

For those of you already supporting our work, again, thank you.

Together, we are making a difference, and making our world a safer, just, more compassionate home for us all.

Keep living in love.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Free from Anxiety like Ravens and Lilies

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you are to eat, nor about your body, with what you are to clothe yourself. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? Consider the ravens: They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. Are you not better than the birds? And who of you by being anxious is able to add to one’s stature a cubit? And why are you anxious about clothing Observe‚ the lilies, how they grow: They do not work nor do they spin. Yet I tell you: Not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these. But if in the field the grass, there today and tomorrow thrown into the oven, God clothes thus, will he not much more clothe you, persons of petty faith! So‚ do not be anxious, saying: What are we to eat? Or: What are we to drink? Or: What are we to wear? For all these the Gentiles seek; for your Father knows that you need them all. But seek his kingdom, and all these shall be granted to you.” (Q 12:22b-31)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 6:25-33: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Luke 12:22-31: “Then Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.’”

Gospel of Thomas 36:1, 4, 2–3: “Jesus said, ‘Do not fret, from morning to evening and from evening to morning, about your food–what you’re going to eat, or about your clothing, what you are going to wear. You’re much better than the lilies, which neither card nor spin. As for you, when you have no garment, what will you put on? Who might add to your stature? That very one will give you your garment.’”

We can best understand this week’s saying by looking at an interesting detail in Luke’s version of this saying. At the very beginning of this discourse in Luke, we read:

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ Jesus replied, ‘Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?’” (Luke 12:13,14)

In Jesus’ audience is a man arguing with his brother over their inheritance from their father. One brother asks for Jesus to speak to the other brother on his behalf and Jesus flatly refuses to arbitrate between them.

Arguments over inheritances aren’t common among the poor or lower middle classes. These are problems that exist among the affluent. My own mother passed away in 2014, a typical Appalachian woman with nothing. I remember having to sort through mail and having to speak with creditors. There was no inheritance to try and figure out; there was only debt to be cleared or written off.

Jesus didn’t see settling disputes between the rich as his purpose. He was a prophet of the poor and called his audience to solidarity with the poor. One example of this is Jesus call’ for the rich to “sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” It was a call for radical wealth redistribution.

It’s possible that those who heard Jesus teach believed that there would not be enough for everyone if we actually did share. This is a narrative of scarcity. It leads people to feel anxious about the future and preoccupied with accumulating as much as they think will insulate them from any negative future events. Accumulating resources and anxiety can grow into the drive to monopolize resources, exploit others and their resources, and uphold this exploitation through violence. However we label this narrative, we must learn to recognize it for what it is: a narrative of scarcity.

Jesus, on the contrary, taught a different narrative, a narrative more like the one Gandhi later taught, that “every day the earth produces enough for each person’s need, but not each person’s greed.” Jesus called us to embrace a narrative of enough or abundance, the belief that there is enough to share. This sharing replaces anxiety with gratitude, generosity, connectedness, community, and hospitality. Rather than monopolies and exploitation, abundance brings distributive justice and replaces violence with peace.

Let’s look at this week’s saying again with these two narratives in mind:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you are to eat, nor about your body, with what you are to clothe yourself. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? Consider the ravens: They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. Are you not better than the birds? And who of you by being anxious is able to add to one’s stature a cubit? And why are you anxious about clothing Observe‚ the lilies, how they grow: They do not work nor do they spin. Yet I tell you: Not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these. But if in the field the grass, there today and tomorrow thrown into the oven, God clothes thus, will he not much more clothe you, persons of petty faith! So‚ do not be anxious, saying: What are we to eat? Or: What are we to drink? Or: What are we to wear? For all these the Gentiles seek; for your Father knows that you need them all. But seek his kingdom, and all these shall be granted to you. (Q 12:22b-31)

Jesus’ “Kingdom,” the “reign of God,” was his way of using the language of his own time and culture to share his social vision of people taking care of each other. James M. Robinson reminds us in The Gospel of Jesus, “This is why the beggars, the hungry, the depressed are fortunate: God, that is, those in whom God rules, those who hearken to God, will care for them. The needy are called upon to trust that God’s reigning is there for them (“Theirs is the kingdom of God”) . . . Jesus’ message was simple, for he wanted to cut straight through to the point: trust God to look out for you by providing people who will care for you, and listen to him when he calls on you to provide for them.”

This is what Pëtr Kropotkin called mutual aid:

“While [Darwin] was chiefly using the term [survival of the fittest] in its narrow sense for his own special purpose, he warned his followers against committing the error (which he seems once to have committed himself) of overrating its narrow meaning. In The Descent of Man he gave some powerful pages to illustrate its proper, wide sense. He pointed out how, in numberless animal societies, the struggle between separate individuals for the means of existence disappears, how struggle is replaced by co-operation, and how that substitution results in the development of intellectual and moral faculties which secure to the species the best conditions for survival. He intimated that in such cases the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community. ‘Those communities,’ he wrote, ‘which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring’ (2nd edit., p. 163). The term, which originated from the narrow Malthusian conception of competition between each and all, thus lost its narrowness in the mind of one who knew Nature.” (Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution)

In the New Testament book of James, the writer comments on Jesus’ teachings in the sermon on the mount and the narrative of anxiety that leads to exploiting others: “But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?” (James 2:6-7)

Like the gospels do, James gives a scathing, prophetic pronouncement to those who live by the old narrative of scarcity and accumulation:

“Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.” (James 1:9-11)

Even in 1 Timothy, believed to have been written quite a bit later than James, there is a call away from the narrative of scarcity, anxiety, and individualistic trust in one’s own accumulated wealth to insulate one from future harm:

“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their trust in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (1 Timothy 6:17)

Remember, putting one’s “hope in God” according the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q meant trusting God enough that God would send people to take care of you as you share what you’ve accumulated with those God calls you to give to today.

“Ravens and lilies do not seem to focus their attention on satisfying their own needs in order to survive, and yet God sees to it that they prosper. Sparrows are sold a dime a dozen and, one might say, who cares? God cares! Even about the tiniest things—he knows exactly how many hairs are on your head! So God will not give a stone when asked for bread or a snake when asked for fish, but can be counted on to give what you really need. You can trust him to know what you need even before you ask. This utopian vision of a caring God was the core of what Jesus had to say and what he himself put into practice. It was both good news—reassurance that in your actual experience good would happen to mitigate your plight—and the call upon you to do that same good toward others in actual practice. This radical trust in and responsiveness to God is what makes society function as God’s society. This was, for Jesus, what faith and discipleship were all about. As a result, nothing else had a right to claim any functional relationship to him . . . [Jesus] sought to focus attention on trusting God for today’s ration of life, and on hearing God’s call to give now a better life to neighbors . . . All this is as far from today’s Christianity as it was from the Judaism of Jesus’ day. Christians all too often simply venerate the “Lord Jesus Christ” as the “Son of God” and let it go at that. But Jesus himself made no claim to lofty titles or even to divinity. Indeed, to him, a devout Jew, claiming to be God would have seemed blasphemous! He claimed “only” that God spoke and acted through him.” (James Robinson, The Gospel of Jesus, Kindle Location 102)

This is the vision Jesus cast before his listeners of what human society could look like: People taking care of people. In Jesus’ theological language, that was God taking care of people through people. It’s through us, through our choice to be compassionate and just or turn away, that we determine one another’s fate. We have a choice to make. Will we care for someone today, trusting that someone will care for us tomorrow if we have a need?

“Seeking first the Kingdom” is not seeking an artificial quid pro quo where if I help people, I expect God to supernaturally bless me. This isn’t the prosperity gospel. This is more intrinsic. As I take care of others when they need care, I’m setting in motion a world where I’ll have folks that take care of me if I need care. Like we discussed last week, I’m investing in people today. And that will intrinsically create a reality where others will share “all these things” with me if I experience a crisis.

Jesus’ teaching means the creation of human society in which we change the nature of the world we live in, where care and cooperation solve the dilemmas of survival rather than competition, domination, subjugation, and exploitation. This world is not based on a win-lose closed system, but a win-win where we learn to be each other’s keeper. Our world is what we, collectively, choose to make it. For my part, I’m choosing compassion.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you are to eat, nor about your body, with what you are to clothe yourself. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? Consider the ravens: They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. Are you not better than the birds? And who of you by being anxious is able to add to one’s stature a cubit? And why are you anxious about clothing Observe‚ the lilies, how they grow: They do not work nor do they spin. Yet I tell you: Not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these. But if in the field the grass, there today and tomorrow thrown into the oven, God clothes thus, will he not much more clothe you, persons of petty faith! So‚ do not be anxious, saying: What are we to eat? Or: What are we to drink? Or: What are we to wear? For all these the Gentiles seek; for your Father knows that you need them all. But seek his kingdom, and all these shall be granted to you. (Q 12:22b-31)

HeartGroup Application

This week, I’d like you to sit down with your HeartGroup and compile a list of needs and abilities that exist among you. Here’s how.

  1. Divide a piece of paper into two columns.
  2. Go around the room and list the needs that members presently have in one column
  3. Next, list in the second column the abilities and talents that people in the room have.
  4. Drawing lines between the two columns, linking needs and group members’ ability to help take care of those needs.

As you do this exercise, not all of the needs will be met, but some of them will. And as we become aware of the needs with each group, we will discover ways to meet those needs. Each group is a microcosm of a world where everyone contributes and everyone’s needs are being met. It’s people taking responsibility for one another. It’s people taking care of people. And once you begin engaging your HeartGroup in this practical, tangible way, it also really becomes fun.

Jesus’ solution to challenges we face was each one of us. Jesus’ hope for our world is us.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Sayings Gospel Q: What to Do in Houses and Towns

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

People sharing food“Into whatever house you enter, first say:  ‘Peace to this house!’ And if a son of peace be there, let your peace come upon him; but if not, let‚ your peace return upon you. And at that house remain, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the worker is worthy of one’s reward. Do not move around from house to house. And whatever town you enter and they take you in, eat what is set before you, and cure the sick there, and say to them: The kingdom of God has reached unto you.” (Q 10:5-9)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:7-13: “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give. Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts—no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you.”

Luke 10:5-9: “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’”

Gospel of Thomas 14:4: “And if you go into any land and wander from place to place, and if they take you in, then eat what they will set before you. Heal the sick among them!”

Last week we discussed the interdependence in the mission instructions that Sayings Gospel Q emphasized. This week, we’ll look at the way of mutual sharing or exchange of resources and abilities found in this saying.

Survival versus Liberation

A great summary of this section of Sayings Gospel Q comes from the work of Stephen J. Patterson:

“What does it actually mean for the empire of God to come? It begins with a knock at the door. On the stoop stand two itinerant beggars, with no purse, no knapsack, no shoes, no staff. They are so ill-equipped that they must cast their fate before the feet of a would-be host. This is a point often made by historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan. These Q folk are sort of like ancient Cynics, but their goal is not the Cynic goal of self-sufficiency; these itinerants are set only for dependency. To survive they must reach out to other human beings. They offer them peace—this is how the empire arrives. And if their peace is accepted, they eat and drink—this is how the empire of God is consummated, in table fellowship. Then another tradition is tacked on, beginning with the words ‘Whenever you enter a town.’ This is perhaps the older part of the tradition, for this, and only this, also has a parallel in the Gospel of Thomas (14). There is also an echo of it in Paul’s letter known as 1 Corinthians (10: 27). Here, as in the first tradition, the itinerants are instructed, ‘Eat what is set before you.’ Again, the first move is to ask. The empire comes when someone receives food from another. But then something is offered in return: care for the sick. The empire of God here involves an exchange: food for care.

This warrants pause. Food for care. In the ancient world, those who lived on the margins of peasant life were never far from death’s door. In the struggle to survive, food was their friend and sickness their enemy. Each day subsistence peasants earn enough to eat for a day. Each day they awaken with the question: Will I earn enough to eat today? This is quickly followed by a second: Will I get sick today? If I get sick, I won’t eat, and if I don’t eat, I’ll get sicker. With each passing day the spiral of starvation and sickness becomes deeper and deeper and finally, deadly. Crossan has argued that this little snippet of ancient tradition is critical to understanding why the followers of Jesus and their empire of God were compelling to the marginalized peasants who were drawn to it. ‘Eat what is set before you and care for the sick.’ Here is the beginning of a program of shared resources of the most basic sort: food and care. It’s an exchange. If some have food, all will eat; if any get sick, someone who eats will be there to care for them. The empire of God was a way to survive— which is to say, salvation.” (The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins, pp. 74-75)

In Luke’s gospel, the goal of Jesus’ ministry is the liberation of the oppressed:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4.18-19)

This week’s saying describes the way Jesus’ disciples can survive as they work toward that liberation. It reminds me of Delores Williams’ critique of early black liberation theology. Using the Hagar story, Williams explained that “God’s activity” is not always liberation. There are times when, as in the case of Hagar, God provides a way of survival in exploitative situations.

“When our hermeneutical principle is God’s word of survival and quality of life to oppressed communities (or families) living in a diaspora, we put different emphasis upon biblical texts and identify with different biblical stories than do black liberation theologians.” (Sisters in the Wilderness, p. 194)

This week’s saying, seen through the lens of mutual resource-sharing, is a plan of survival. It can also be interpreted as creating a new world while the old exploitative one is still present, building a new society within the shell of the old.

Within the Shell of the Old

I read a great article this past week from the Center for a Stateless Society’s website about Alcoholics Anonymous illustrating how people can create structures that meet their communities’ needs today even as they look forward to one day when the present structures are no longer present. For those not familiar with C4SS, one of the senior fellows of this group is Gary Chartier, professor of Law and Business Ethics and Associate Dean of the Zapara School of Business at La Sierra University.

Jesus showed how to build a new world within the shell of the old, and this was valuable in four ways:

First, the mutualism in Jesus’ sharing of resources enabled his impoverished followers to survive and, together, raise their quality of life despite Roman economic exploitation and the religious complicity of the Temple aristocracy.

Second, it empowered Jesus’ followers to speak the truth about the system that they lived in. Often, people subordinated in systems do not have the power to immediately abandon and separate themselves from their oppression. They are forced into participation against their will. So survival at times can include a type of lying about the system in order to placate oneself that it not that bad, it’s not perfect, but they can work with the present system.

Building a new world within the shell of the old does not require an impossible abandonment of the old world. It enables one to tell the truth about the present system, acknowledging one’s inability to fully escape that system, and still dedicate one’s efforts to creating a new society. We may not be able to escape it yet, but as we learned last month from Tolstoy and Gandhi, at least we can be honest about it.

Third, Jesus’ teachings encouraged his followers to direct their energy toward preparing for their liberation. Too often the need to survive is a reason one can’t abandon a present exploitative system. To use Delores Williams’ example again, Hagar had liberated herself from the oppression of Abraham and Sarah, yet she and her son were dying! They had become free, but to what end? She and her son were now alone in the wilderness and starving, and in order to survive, she had to return to the house of her oppressors.

Building a new world within the shell of the old promises that one will in the future be able to abandon present oppression because a more just society provides for the needs of the community and liberation moves everyone toward life rather than starvation.

Fourth and lastly, building a new world within the shell of the old critiques the present world, waking others to the injustices of a system they may still be complicit in. An unconscious person might ask, why build a different world if this one is so perfect, so “number one,” so “God blessed.” To work on a better world while the present world is in motion helps others to see the problems in the present system and provides an option that meets the needs of humanity without domination and subjugation. This method subverts the present world, allowing people to see and freely choose a better option. Thus they accomplish liberation through justice rather than through violence.

“When Power Resides With the Outsiders”

Lastly this week, I want to draw your attention to something in this week’s saying that I hadn’t noticed, and I want to talk about why I hadn’t noticed it. Dr. Keisha McKenzie beautifully pointed out that what we see in Jesus’ instructions to the disciples is a power dynamic working in reverse.

“So often when we talk about who is welcome or received, especially in churches, the congregation or pastor or elders are usually described as blessers. They have legal and sacramental authority, they often own the property, they can expel people or invite them into membership: we imagine the power to ‘bless’ resides with them.

That’s not the dynamic at work in this verse.

In this verse, it’s the itinerant community that blesses. The power to bring peace moves with them, and reluctant or rejecting hosts can resist it.

This is encouragement for people who don’t have conventional power yet may not realize that they aren’t without all power. Families may be icy tundras and congregations may be just as cold. But we have the ability to offer the mainstream ‘peace’ and wholeness, and they have the ability to repel both.” (Family Memories)

I encourage you to read the entire article. It is spot on!

What I also want to point out is that although Keisha gave a shout out to me for directing her attention to Luke 10, she captured an insight from our saying this week that I would never have seen on my own in a million years. Why? Because I’m an insider in most areas of the culture we live in today. I’m White. I’m male. I’m American. I’m straight. I’m cisgender. It never occurred to look at these instructions from the perspective of an outsider. I missed that! But most of Jesus’ disinherited followers were outsiders too. Jesus was empowering the outsiders of his day in a world where they had been religiously, socially, politically and economically kept out.

This illustrates for me once again why we so desperately need more eyes reading the Jesus story than just White, male, European theologians from the Western so-called “First World.” We need South American voices, we need Black voices, we need feminist voices, we need womanist voices, we need queer voices! It’s from the diverse perspectives and voices of those on the outlying edges of our societies that we can regain the original meanings of the Jewish Jesus story, not because of these identities in themselves, but because of the way people in marginal social positions experience life: they experience life differently from people in the dominant positions of our societies.

The Jesus we meet in the Jesus story resonated with the marginalized and oppressed of the 1st Century. It makes perfect sense that those who share that experience today will see within the Jesus story things that others in a more dominant social position will initially miss. In Western history, “ownership” of the Jesus story has most often been claimed by those in positions of power and privilege. This has almost obliterated the original meaning of the Jesus story to a point where we can barely recover it today. So recovering the historical Jesus is difficult for dominant society groups and may be much easier for those who parallel in our society those with whom the original story resonated so long ago. That story has been buried under interpretation after interpretation of those in positions of power, interpretations that protect the status quo, keeping it in place rather than subverting it from underneath. This is why, I believe, if we are to rediscover the historical Jesus, we must listen to the voices of those forced by society to live on the fringes of our world.

This is another example of our interdependence. We need each other. We need the value of all of our voices, and we especially need those whose experience is different from our own. Together we can integrate all of those experiences into a coherent and meaningful whole, choose to abandon our fear and insecurity toward those unlike ourselves, and work toward a world characterized by what Jesus subversively called the “empire” of God: a community of people taking care of people.

As we work toward a world that looks like this, let’s keep in mind those original instructions from Jesus, which emphasized our interdependence in concrete and practical ways:

“Into whatever house you enter, first say: Peace to this house! And if a son of peace be there, let your peace come upon him; but if not, let‚ your peace return upon you. And at that house remain, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the worker is worthy of one’s reward. Do not move around from house to house. And whatever town you enter and they take you in, eat what is set before you, and cure the sick there, and say to them: The kingdom of God has reached unto you.” (Q 10:5-9)

HeartGroup Application

This week I have a very simple exercise for your HeartGroup.

  1. As a group, write down five ways you feel you depend on one another.
  2. Now share what each of these connections means to each of you. Define them.
  3. Now list three ways that this week you can individually and together lean into these five areas of dependence.

None of us come into this life all on our own. We don’t thrive alone either.

Thanks once again for joining us this week.

Keep living in love, 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.

More than a Prophet

(And the Inability of Those in “Fine Clothing”)

by Herb Montgomery

Man in Tux, adjusting cufflinks.“And when they had left, he began to talk to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A person arrayed in finery? Look, those wearing finery are in kings’ houses. But then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet! This is the one about whom it has been written: Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your path in front of you. I tell you: There has not arisen among women’s offspring anyone who surpasses John. Yet the least significant in God’s kingdom is more than he.’” (Q 7:24-28)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:7-11: “As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’”

Luke 7:24-28: “After John’s messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’”

Gospel of Thomas 78: “Jesus says, ‘Why did you go out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind, and to see a person dressed in soft clothing [like your] kings and your great/powerful persons? They are dressed in soft clothing and will not be able to recognize the truth.’”

In the Jewish tradition, the role of a prophet was to be a gadfly to those at the top of the Jewish domination system, both priests and kings. The common thread in their work was a call for justice for the oppressed, marginalized, vulnerable and exploited. The clearest example of this focus is Amos. Hebrew prophets were not prognosticators. Rather they were those who cast a imaginative vision of a future where all violence, injustice, and oppression were put right.

Yet John the Baptist was more than this. He emerged not by casting a vision for a distant hope, but by announcing that the vision long hoped for had arrived. It was here, now, today!

Last week we discussed the differences between the proclamations of John and the actual ministry of Jesus. In our saying this week, however, Jesus reveals deep respect for John and those who followed him. John was the “real deal” calling for social change now! And, he practiced what he preached. He did not come in “fine clothes” and “luxury” bringing good news to the exploited and subjugated. He had abandoned the luxury of the priestly aristocracy (in Luke John’s father was a priest). He was a voice, in solidarity with the exploited, crying out in the wilderness, to prepare the way for the coming that Isaiah had announced.

This connection to Isaiah’s (and Malachi’s) liberation theme was central to the community that cherished Sayings Gospel Q.

Isaiah 40:3: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

Isaiah 57:14: “And it will be said: ‘Build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people.’”

Isaiah 62:10: “Pass through, pass through the gates! Prepare the way for the people. Build up, build up the highway! Remove the stones. Raise a banner for the nations.”

Malachi 3:1: “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.”

 

Inability to Recognize The Truth

This saying appears in Gospel of Thomas as well as in the canonical texts. This gospel captures the inability of those benefited or “privileged” by the status quo to rightly characterize the movements of John and Jesus. Those who represent the institutional establishment, its apologists, and its complicit supporters do not internally resonate with a revolution: they aren’t in a position that enables them to recognize “good news” when it emerges.

In Mark, too, the Jesus movement isn’t perceived as good news by Herod, Caiaphas, or Pilate, but rather as a threat to each. The Gospel of Thomas expresses this universal truth explicitly when it states that these leaders “will not be able” to even “recognize the truth.” The truth could be all around them and they would either miss its significance or proclaim it as dangerous or even heretical. But the oppressed know good news when they hear it.

In matters of theology, and I would now also argue in economics and politics, it is important to listen to the perspectives and interpretations of those who don’t benefit from the present system. In matters of theology, as we have discussed in previous weeks, it is White, colonial, European, and patriarchal theologians that struggle to “recognize” liberating truth, and the Church desparately needs the voices of our liberation, Black liberation, feminist, womanist, and queer theologians. As a result of their places in the present society, they are best positioned to recognize what is genuine good news and what is the same old religious endorsement of exploitative systems that benefit some at the expense of the many or benefit the majority at exclusion and marginalization of a few.

 

Egalitarianism in the “Empire” of God

Also notice that even though John was “more than a prophet,” in Jesus’ subversive “empire,” those considered the most insignificant are esteemed even more than John. Why? This upends the customs of the empire of Rome, but it works because in Jesus’s new world people value and take care of people. Everyone is valued and that which dehumanizes or devalues is systematically dismantled. In Jesus’s new “kingdom,” every person is of equal worth and value. This value is based on their being not on their doing; their essence, not their performance. Their value is rooted in each person’s humanity.

Again, as we have said for the last three weeks, the Q community seemed to place special emphasis on rooting Jesus’s liberation in the “good news” of Isaiah and Malachi, a book written in the same era Isaiah was redacted.

 

What Does This Mean For Us Today?

We’ve discussed the egalitarian nature of Jesus’ social vision at length. What I’d like to focus on this week is the inability of those in “fine clothing” to “recognize the truth.” What does this mean?

This verse reminds me of comments I received the first time I wore blue jeans and a sports coat to a church service I was speaking at: people insisted that my clothes were not quite “fine” enough. It made me wonder whether there was a link between a congregation’s fine clothes and their complicity with a status quo that leaves many impoverished for elite benefits.

The “fine clothing” in this week’s saying represents an economic privilege: it is a symbol. That economic privilege is our spring board to other areas of social, political and religious privilege, too. Today, we can simultaneously exist in positions of privilege and disadvantage in multiple areas of our lives because of the social oppressions that influence our society. A white collar woman has a different set of privileges and disadvantages than a blue collar male. A man of color has a different social position than either White men and women or women of color. A White gay male will experience society differently than a straight man of color and a gay or bisexual man of color.

My most recent encounter with this dynamic was a discussion I had with two LGBT friends. One is a white collar professional while the other is an Appalachian blue collar laborer. Both have the same concerns right now about the protection of their rights in the U.S. Both favor individuals running for office that will stand up for their rights. Yet what surprised me was my professional friend’s inability to see the economic perspective of my blue collar friend. My white collar friend preferred candidates that are pro-LGBT and support corporatism. My blue collar friend supports candidates that are pro-LGBT and have more interventionist, pro-labor policies. I expected that much.

What surprised me was my white collar friend’s inability to understand my other friend’s priorities, even to the point of near insult and derision. Their final parting statement was, “Your candidate would have no significant effect on my life so why should I care about a candidate that won’t affect me at all.”

Politics can get ugly, and this is the season of ugliness here in the States. The intersections of our own privilege and our disadvantage is complex. Our privilege and disadvantage overlap and “intersect” on multiple levels in society and at some point we must ask “What is best for us all?” not just “What is best for me?”

How does this relate to our saying this week? In every area of our lives where we are in a position of privilege, or “wearing fine clothes,” our saying this week states that we are unable to see things as they are for those who are not like ourselves. Someone else’s truth is unrecognizable to us. In that very place, a humble posture of listening becomes important as we labor to transform our world into a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all. We saw this vision last week in the words of Micah, “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). As we each listen to the stories of those whose experience differs from our own, we can learn to build communities where each person receives what is necessary for them to thrive and develop into the best version of themselves that they can be.

But it’s not easy. Our defenses are easily triggered. Listening takes practice.

We typically want to protect and preserve the “fine clothes” areas of our lives, and so listening to the experiences of others can be threatening. In these moments we must make the choice to lean into our discomfort rather than away from it. For it’s in these moments of discomfort that we discover oppressive paradigms and gain an opportunity to reject them.

To each of you who are taking stands and feeling the pressure of being “shaken in the wind,” may this week’s saying be an encouragement to you. Those in “fine clothing” may not recognize the value of what you are doing. But those whom you’re working alongside often will. Together, we can create a world where each of us are equally heard, listened to, valued, and understood.

“And when they had left, he began to talk to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A person arrayed in finery? Look, those wearing finery are in kings’ houses. But then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet! This is the one about whom it has been written: “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your path in front of you.” I tell you: There has not arisen among women’s offspring anyone who surpasses John. Yet the least significant in God’s kingdom is more than he.’” (Q 7:24-28)

HeartGroup Application 

This week, do two things with your group.

  1. First, list all the ways you are different from one another. This list will be rather long!
  2. Second, list all the ways in which you are the same or similar to each other. Then prioritize this list. Which areas of sameness are most important to each of you?
  3. Now, focus on that second list. In the light of the ways in which you’re the same, return to your first list and see if you have more respect for the areas that make your group different as well. Where our differences cause our experiences in society to also differ, maybe, just maybe, we can begin to reach out from our private experiences and stand in solidarity with others.

 

Thank you for joining us this week.

Keep living in love, 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.

Not Judging

by Herb Montgomery

Multiracial Group of Friends with Hands in Stack, Teamwork

“Do not pass judgment, so you are not judged. For with what judgment you pass judgment, you will be judged. And with the measurement you use to measure out, it will be measured out to you.” (Q 6:37-38)

Luke 6:37: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

The saying we are looking this week teaches against judging (krino).

The verb translated as “judge” in this saying has a rather broad meaning, so the only way we can only narrow it is by looking at its textual context. Over the past few weeks, we have seen the Jesus of the Sayings Gospel Q emphasizing the Golden Rule and our interconnectedness. In this context, then, we can define krino as “to separate” or “to make a distinction between.” (Mounce’s Greek Dictionary) It can be positive or negative. At its heart, though, is to separate another from one’s self. It means to discriminate.

Discrimination is perfectly acceptable when we have two things to choose from: we should strive to discern which choices are harmful and which are compassionate. But discrimination toward choices is not the same thing as discrimination toward people. It is judgment or discrimination toward people that is opposed in this week’s saying.

It’s also helpful to consider this week’s saying through the lens of our social dynamics. Too often I hear those at the top of social pyramids say, “Don’t judge me! Jesus said not to judge.” They are using this saying as a way to avoid accountability for their actions. At the same time, those at the bottom of certain pyramids are judged by those at the top continually.

As I said in the dialogue film Enough Room At The Table, we’re are not talking about creating communities where there is no mutual accountability among community members. Instead, we’re opposing the kind of judgment that would distinguish and separate us from one another. We are affirming communities where we see ourselves as interconnected with each other, and where we can be accountable to one another. Let me tell you a story that will help make this clear.

I’m in community with two friends that self-identify as belonging to the LGBTQ community. Both are people of color. One identifies as gender-nonconforming, and she prefers the pronouns she and they. The other as a cisgender man, though he is involved in activism for the rights of transgender people. Never have I encountered such accountability as I have from being in relationship with these two. They have continually called me to analyze my blind spots as a white, cisgender, straight male. Being in community with them has never meant that “anything goes” and they do not allow me to live unconsciously when it comes to my position in our society’s social pyramid. Each of us is deeply committed to an expression of strict ethics rooted in compassion, interconnectedness, and the golden rule. Each of us is dedicated to a Shared Table world view, and, just like them, I am called to come to that table in a posture of humility and learn about other people’s experiences in our world.

I wouldn’t for a moment ever say that these friends have ever judged me. Yes, they have called me on the carpet for my ignorance at times, and there have been times when these moments were even painful to my misplaced ego. But their feedback has always been in the spirit of connectedness. My friends make it clear that we are in this together.

The community that Jesus is teaching about in this week’s saying is not a community where we throw out all values, as some today wrongly imagine a judgment-free community would. The community Jesus points to, and the community I have experienced with my friends and others, is a community where I have allowed my own values to be informed by members of the community that my previous values had harmed. There’s a world of difference between throwing out all values, and holding strictly to a new set of values that come from embracing our interconnectedness with each other rather than judging and separating from each other. In this community, there is no us-versus-them. There is only us.

This kind of community centers the voices of oppressed and marginalized people. This is not a community that holds on to domination or subjugation in any form. Religious communities characterized by heterosexism, racism, or sexism sometimes claim to be simply trying to hold to account those who don’t align with their values, and disciplining those others “out of love.” So it is very difficult to get these communities to see that what they are really engaging in is not love, but discrimination. They claim to be, in love, pointing out the self-destructive “sin” of others. But they fail to see that by disconnecting (krino) themselves from those they claim to love, they risk developing a false feeling of moral superiority, and they also risk failing to listen. Listening is a way to allow our values to be shaped by other people, and is essential for people accustomed to harming other people.

By contrast, it is acceptable to for those receiving this type of unjust or prejudicial treatment to respond to would-be judges with Jesus’s teaching “Do not judge.” For those at the bottom of a social pyramid, even one claiming the authority of the Bible, asking for an end to discriminatory judgment is survival. They aren’t crying out for a community without boundaries; rather, they are desperately longing for a community characterized by a posture of listening and not one of judgment, a community that embraces the interconnectedness of humanity rather than sharply drawn lines between kinds of people.

Remember, like the sayings last week, this saying of Jesus was written during a time when the rabbinical school of Shammai was dominant. The school of Shammai drew sharp lines between Jew and Gentile, but didn’t stop there. It never does. Before long, lines were also drawn between what we might call today “fundamentalist” Jews and Jewish people who were more all-embracing.

In his book, Laying Down The Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, Philip Jenkins shows how the conquest narratives of Canaan have fueled and justified Christianity’s violence through history. Jenkins then looks at today’s headlines in Palestine. I believe what we see happening today illustrates the trajectory Jesus challenged in his own social context.

Jenkins writes: “Jewish extremists do not confine their campaigns to attacking Arabs and Muslims. As Rabbi Lamm observed, in trying to show the moral and intellectual perils of the Amalek doctrine, the concept is infinitely expandable . . . Next would come the turn of religious Jews whose faith is not quite what the strictest Orthodox think it should be. Actually, in terms of their condemnations, rather than of actual violence, that is a fair description of how some extremists have escalated the biblical commands. As the ultra-Orthodox have grown, so they have become ever more strident in denouncing mainstream or secular Jews who, they believe, fall short of the theocratic standards that are demanded of the new Israel.”

The entire book is really worth your reading. It is an excellent critique of Bible-based segregation, what we would call “judging” others, and the violence that results from both. In Sayings Gospel Q, Jesus stands in the spirit of Hillel against this human tendency and teaches instead “do not judge.” Do not engage in the game of “us and them.” Ultimately, there is no “them.” There is no “other.” There is only “us.” And our future depends on seeing and embracing this reality.

For the same measures that we use for others will be used for us. We will reap the intrinsic results of what we sow. Jesus lays the choice before us: the way of discrimination, segregation, extirpation, and global annihilation, or the way of compassion, interrelation, integration, cooperation, restoration, and peace. The way of judgment will not stop at your own doorstep. The law of reciprocation will work either for or against all of us.

We have the power to set in motion the kind of world we would like to live in. Choosing to live in harmony with the type of world we desire is choosing to take the first step toward it.

As Jesus says: “Do not pass judgment, so you are not judged. For with what judgment you pass judgment, you will be judged. And with the measurement you use to measure out, it will be measured out to you.” (Q 6:37-38)

HeartGroup

This week,

  1. List the changes you would like to see in your world.
  1. List the values associated with those changes as well as discussing both of your lists (changes and values) with your HeartGroup to help you with any of your potential blindspots within both lists.
  1. Choose to put at least one of those values into practice this week.

Do not judge.

Do not look at others as separate from yourself.

Embrace our interconnectedness with each other, and keep living in love; till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

Two Visions [or Versions] of Peace (Part 3 of 3)

The Subversive Narratives of Advent: Part 3 of 3 

by Herb Montgomery

“The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth on those God’s favor rests.’” (Luke 2.11-14)

We’ve arrived! This is our final installment of our Christmas series this year at RHM, and we’re looking at Luke’s birth-narrative this week. Again, I want to recommend the volume The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. I believe you’ll find it to be a very user-friendly resource in wresting what we today call “The Christmas Story” from ancient and modern forms of imperialism and their co-opting of these narratives.

Luke’s birth-narrative is quite different from Matthew’s, which we looked at last week. One of the differences is Luke’s narrative centers the voices of women more than Matthew. (Luke’s entire Gospel does this actually.) Luke and Matthew’s birth narratives also differ on geography. Luke progresses from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Nazareth with no time spent in Egypt. Matthew starts in Bethlehem then moves to Egypt, and then moves onto Nazareth. Another difference is that, unlike Matthew’s narrative, which was for Christian Jews in Galilee, Luke’s narrative is for a broader Gentile-Christian audience. This may help to explain the way that Matthew treats the Herodians in Galilee as the tools of Rome while Luke chooses a much more direct aim at Caesar himself.

To quote John Dominic Crossan in a recent panel discussion, what we see in the first century is not “Christianity against Judaism.” Rather we see, “Christian Judaism against Roman Imperialism . . . Of course [the followers of Jesus] are within Judaism, and of course they’re fighting with other groups as they’re elbowing one another for the future of their people in the cauldron that the Romans have created as any empire does to divide and conquer.”

This is the back drop I want us to see behind Luke’s birth narrative. In Luke, we’re not seeing Jesus versus Judaism, but rather Jesus versus Rome. (We can find signs of a growing anti-Semitism in early Christianity in Luke’s gospel: not as much as in John, but certainly more than in Matthew, and most definitely more than in Mark.)

To perceive Luke’s agenda in writing his narrative, we must read the narrative through three filters: 1) first-century Christianity, 2) Christianity in first-century Judaism, and 3) Christianity in Judaism in a context of Roman imperialism. We’ll start with the last one, Roman imperialism, and work our way backwards.

Roman Imperialism

When we speak of Roman imperialism, we’re referring to the integration of military, economic, political, and theological/philosophical layers in Rome. This four-pronged imperialism was a method of economic distribution; a type of human, social organization; a world order and its exercise of (or lack of) social justice; and specifically, Rome’s vision for global peace.

It was Augustus Caesar who, during the time of Luke’s birth-narrative, was entitled Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Here is why.

Rome experienced several civil wars as a democratic republic and had regressed to the point of disintegration when Octavian, later called Augustus, became Rome’s savior. Through Augustus, Rome transitioned from an imperial republic to an imperial monarchy. Augustus, the adopted son of Julius, was like his father deified, or regarded as a god. He was given the title Augustus in Latin (One who is divine) and Sebastos in Greek (One who is to be worshipped). Temples were inscribed to him with the dedication, “The Autocrat Caesar, the Son of God, the God to be worshipped.”

And as with all domination systems, the four imperial aspects produced a society where an elite at the top benefited from the subjugation of the many beneath them. Luke addresses all four of these aspects in his gospel. In response to Rome’s military power, Luke presents the teachings of Jesus on nonviolence. In response to Rome’s economic power, Luke presents Jesus’ teachings on wealth redistribution. In response to Rome’s political power, Luke presents Jesus, not Caesar, as Liberator, Redeemer, the bringer of Peace, Lord, and Savior of the world. And in response to the Rome’s theology of a ruler who was supposedly born to divine-human parents and so was named the Son of God, God from God to be worshiped, Luke presents Jesus and his subversive “kingdom.” Rome’s theology was larger than Caesar and included the worship of deities such as Mars the god of war, but it included the worship of Caesar as the incarnate representation of the Divine.

As theologian Adolf Gustav Deissmann wrote, it’s important for us to recognize the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, ‘lord’” (p. 349)*.

Knowing Augustus’ birth-narratives is also beneficial to us. The story was that on the night of Augustus’ conception, Augustus’ father had a dream in which he saw the sun rising from Atias, his wife’s womb: Caesar Augustus was the coming of light to the world. Augustus was believed to be the “Son of God” fathered by Apollo, and Apollo in turn was the “Son of God” fathered by Zeus, the supreme god of the Roman and Greek pantheon.

Here’s a description from the 2nd Century CE of the divine conception of Augustus Caesar; it cites an Egyptian story about Augustus that dates to 31-29 BCE:

“When Atia [Augustus’ mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified her self, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, p. 94.4, emphasis added)

Propertius’ Elegies quotes the god Apollo as saying:

“O savior of the world… Augustus… now conquer at sea: the land is already yours: my bow battles for you’” (4.6.37– 39).

An ancient inscription in what’s Turkey today refers to Augustus, “divine Augustus Caesar, son of a god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and savior of the whole world.”

So Caesar Augustus, conceived of Apollo, was, in Roman theology, the Savior of the World, and Luke’s gospel responds to that context.

Judaism in Roman Imperialism

Jews in Roman-occupied territory hoped for a world free from injustice and foreign oppression. In the Jewish Sibylline Oracles, a series of fictional prophecies within Judaism and early Christianity, we find this vision:

“The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls or fences. It will then bear more abundant fruits spontaneously. Lives will be in common and wealth will have no division. For there will be no poor man there, no rich, and no tyrant, no slave. Further, no one will be either great or small anymore. No kings, no leaders. All will be on a par together.” (2:319-324)

The hoped-for world in the Jewish vision for the future looked like a family, where YHWH as parent provided equally for all—enough for everyone, always.

There were also two competing strands in Judaism regarding the fate of the Gentiles (including the Romans) in this vision. One strand was violent and retributive:

“In anger and wrath I will execute vengeance on the nations that did not obey . . . Then my enemy will see, and shame will cover her who said to me, “Where is the Lord your God?” My eyes will see her downfall; now she will be trodden down like the mire of the streets . . . The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might; they shall lay their hands on their mouths; their ears shall be deaf; they shall lick dust like a snake, like the crawling things of the earth; they shall come trembling out of their fortresses; they shall turn in dread to the Lord our God, and they shall stand in fear of you.” (Micah 5:15; 7:10, 16-17)

This is actually quite mild compared to some Christian versions of the future of this world that are being touted today. Nevertheless, the other Jewish option was less violent, more restorative, and involved the conversion of the Gentiles:

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah. 4:1-3, cf. Isaiah 2:2-4)

All injustice, oppression and violence would cease. And other prophets envision YHWH providing a rich feast where there was enough for all, Jew and Gentile alike:

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:6-8)

By the 1st Century, this vision also included a Messiah figure through whom this new world would be birthed into existence.

Here are two examples of that pre-Christian Jewish expectation of a Messiah.

“Raise up for them their king, the Son of David . . . to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; to shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth . . . He will judge peoples and nations in the wisdom of his righteousness . . . All shall be holy, and their king shall be the Lord Messiah. (For) he will not rely on horse and rider and bow, nor will he collect gold and silver for war. Nor will he build up hope in a multitude for a day of war.” (Psalms of Solomon 17:21, 23-24, 29, 32-33, emphasis added.)

The other example is from a Dead Sea Scroll fragment found in Cave 4 at Qumran:

“He will be called Son of God, and they will call him Son of the Most High. Like sparks of a vision, so will their kingdom be; they will rule several years over the earth and crush everything; a people will crush another people, and a city another city. Until the people of God arises [or: until he raises up the people of God] and makes everyone rest from the sword. His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom, and all his paths in truth and uprightness. The earth will be in truth and all will make peace. The sword will cease in the earth, and all the cities will pay him homage. He is a great god among the gods [or: The great God will be his strength]. He will make war with him; he will place the peoples in his hand and cast away everyone before him. His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom . . . ” (4Q246, emphasis added.)

From this brief sampling we can see that at the time of Luke’s writing, many within Judaism possessed the hope of restored world where all injustice, violence and oppression would be made right through the emergence of a Messiah figure. There were some who believed this would be accompanied with violent retribution against oppressors, and others who believed it would through more restorative and reconciling means, more nonviolent, retiring justice for everyone.

Christianity within Judaism within Roman Imperialism

Like the Sayings Q and the gospel of Mark, Luke begins the Jesus story with John the Baptist. Like Matthew, he adds a birth narrative rather than starting the story with an adult Jesus. But Luke begins even his birth story with John’s conception before Jesus’s. The experience of John’s parents in Luke’s birth-narratives is curiously parallel to that of Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people (compare Genesis 15-18).

There are also parallels to the stories of Hannah and the birth of the prophet Samuel, who anointed King David (read 1 Samuel 1-2) For Luke, John is the renewed “Samuel” anointing Jesus the renewed “David.” At the baptism in the river Jordan, Jesus, through John, becomes the renewed “anointed one.”

Miraculous conceptions by divine intervention are a staple within Jewish birth-narratives, and especially so in the time of Rome. Within both Judaism and Roman imperialism, birth-narratives were not so much biological explanations as much as they were about the destiny of the children being born. In our story this week, Luke interweaves the birth-narratives of Isaac, Samuel, and Caesar Augustus with those of John the Baptist and Jesus, and he describes Jesus as “the Christ,” the Messiah, the son of David, the renewed “King of Israel” born in David’s city, “Bethlehem.”

Let’s read Luke’s proclamation of the angels to the shepherds through our filters of Judaism and Roman imperialism. Luke skillfully integrates into his story the hopes of Judaism and the subversion of the political theology of the Roman Imperialism. Jesus, for Luke, is simultaneously the fulfillment of one (Judaism) and the subversion of the other (Rome). Again, this is not Jesus against Judaism, but Christian Judaism against Roman imperialism.

I’m going to color code this passage for Christmas.

Green phrases represent fulfillment (of Jewish hopes) and Red represent subversion (of Roman imperialism). Black phrases respond to both.

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and ON EARTH PEACE to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2.10-14)

In Luke’s birth-narrative, Jesus is both the Davidic Messiah in convergence with Judaism and Lord, Savior, and Peace-bringer in divergence with Rome.

As Borg and Crossan state in The First Christmas about using the title of “Lord” for Jesus:

Used simply as “the Lord” it meant the emperor, especially from Caesar Augustus onward, just as, for example, “der Führer” simply means “the leader” in German (where all nouns are capitalized), but eventually designated Adolf Hitler as the supreme and only leader. In that context to have called Christ “der Führer” would have meant death in Dachau. (p. 154)

Two Visions/Versions of Peace

Rome also had its own gospel of peace that Luke responds to in his version of the Jesus story.

By 9 BCE, the Roman province of Asia Minor was making this declaration about Augustus:

“Since the providence that has divinely ordered our existence has applied her energy and zeal and has brought to life the most perfect good in Augustus, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing him upon us and our descendants as a savior—he who put an end to war and will order peace, Caesar, who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who prophesied good tidings [euaggelia-the gospel], not only outdoing benefactors of the past, but also allowing no hope of greater benefactions in the future; and since the birthday of the god first brought to the world the good tidings [euaggelia] residing in him…. For that reason, with good fortune and safety, the Greeks of Asia have decided that the New Year in all the cities should begin on 23rd September, the birthday of Augustus… and that the letter of the proconsul and the decree of Asia should be inscribed on a pillar of white marble, which is to be placed in the sacred precinct of Rome and Augustus.” (Quoted from The First Christmas, p.160, emphasis added.)

In that same year, a magnificent “Altar of Peace” was dedicated in Rome’s Campus Martius. It was consecrated not just to the Pax Romana (peace of Rome) but, more precisely, to the Pax Augustana (peace of Augustus). It was given the name Ara Pacis Augustae, the Altar of Augustan Peace.

The gospel of peace proclaimed through Roman Imperialism was a peace through militaristic victory and the violent overthrow of Rome’s enemies. In Luke’s gospel narrative, however, Luke channels the nonviolent, restorative Jewish visions of peace. Luke’s Jesus shares the vision of peace on earth rooted in restoration of justice for all the oppressed. Even Luke’s choice to describe shepherds as the first recipients of this angelic announcement is significant. Shepherds were from the marginalized peasant class who most acutely experienced Roman oppression and exploitation. Just two chapters after the birth narrative, Luke’s Jesus is announcing “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” and “sight to those with prison blindness.” He has come “to let the oppressed go free” (see Luke 4:18). The angels’ message to the poor shepherds in Luke 2 foreshadows the entire message of Jesus in the gospel of Luke.

For Luke, Rome’s peace gospel and the peace gospel of Jesus come face to face. Jesus and Rome hold out to humanity two alternative transcendental visions for arriving at peace on earth. Rome’s way, peace through the violent forces of militaristic victory and oppression, is the way of all empires. Luke’s Jesus promises peace through nonviolent, restored justice for all people.

Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan write: “The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world” (The First Christmas).

The world has yet to see if choosing the way of nonviolent restoration of Jesus produces lasting peace. First, that way must be chosen.

Contrary to the ways Christian imperialism and colonialism have co-opted the Jesus story throughout history, Luke’s Jesus is a Jesus who points the way to peace based upon justice restored through nonviolent means.

Today, these two “gospels” still grind against one another, even for Christians. Today we still see a conflict, but it is not Rome versus Jesus, it’s Christian imperialism versus Jesus. Imperialism’s effort to produce peace on earth, even today, and even in Christianity, still tries to place weapons in the hands of the “good guys.”

A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of some gross Christian rhetoric (Jerry Falwell Jr.’s speech at Liberty University is an example), I created this satirical meme  and posted it online: “Peter, all that is needed to stop bad guys with swords is a good guy with a sword.” —Jesus peterswardmeme

What Jesus actually said was, “Those who live by the sword will die by it as well.”

It is important for Christians who seek to follow Luke’s Jesus to understand the history of the American empire’s second constitutional amendment. The United States was founded on peace achieved through revolutionary violence. And the American Empire is much like Rome if we substitute the word “freedom” for “peace.” As Rome proclaimed “peace,” so America proclaims “freedom,” but our freedom is not lasting. It is the type of freedom one achieves by being the biggest bully on the top of the hill, and it’s not freedom for everyone. It is a freedom achieved by violence and maintained and preserved by violence, almost identical to the “peace” of Rome that depended on its imperial armies.

This is why the American constitution has a second amendment. If citizens’ freedom were to ever be threatened again, they must have access to violent means to help them achieve it once again.

But today we are seeing the fruit of this unlimited access to violent means to ensure one’s freedom. Jesus could have very well said, “Those who achieve freedom by the sword, will be destroyed as well by the sword.”

Let me at minimum say this. The second amendment is not the standard for a follower of Luke’s Jesus. Jesus shows us a way to peace and freedom rooted in restoration, justice for all, and nonviolent means. In the face of tyranny, American followers of Luke’s Jesus are not permitted to use violence even if a secular constitution permits them to. Luke’s Jesus points out a way to peace and freedom radically different than the path of violence. Jesus taught of two paths: the broad path, though it seems right to most people, is the path that leads to death. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword. There is another path that Jesus told us leads to life, and he modeled that path for us.

Luke’s gospel is the gospel of peace achieved through the nonviolent restoration of justice and equity for everyone. Peace on earth means no more oppressed and oppressor, no more dominant and subjugated, just equity and peace for all.

“The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people . . . peace on earth on those God’s favor rests.” (Luke 2.11-14)

HeartGroup Application

This week:

  1. List at least three paradigm shifts you’ve had this year from Matthew’s and Luke’s birth-narratives either by reading The First Christmas or by going through this series. Share these insights with your HeartGroup.
  2. Discuss as a group how understanding the cultural matrix of Judaism and Roman imperialism changes your reading of the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke.
  3. How can you apply the values in these narratives, especially in relation to peace, freedom, violence, and nonviolence, as followers of Jesus within our American Empire today?

This will be our last eSight before Christmas, so from all of us here at Renewed Heart Ministries, Happy Holidays to each and every one of you. We wish you also a very merry new year.

It’s our hope that, once again, your heart has been renewed and you’ve been empowered to follow Jesus more deeply in this coming year.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you in two weeks.

*1910, Light from the ancient East. The New Testament illustrated by recently discovered texts of the Graeco-Roman world, L.R.M. Strachan, transl., London

The Subversive Narratives of Advent  (Part 1 of 3)

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.” (Luke 2.10) 

Advent season has begun!

Over the next two weeks I want to look at the birth narratives of Jesus from first century Christian, Jewish, and Roman perspectives. Much has been lost, co-opted, and eclipsed by the Imperial Christianity that began in the fourth century when Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. So in the next two weekly e-Sights, we’ll be looking first at Matthew’s birth narrative and then at Luke’s. Both Matthew and Luke have story elements in common. They also differ greatly on other narrative details. We will be reading each story in the contexts they were each written in. Seen that original context, these narratives are intensely subversive of the military, political, and economic ways of empire as well as imperial theologies, not just in Rome but across time, including our own era.

A useful tool that I want to recommend this holiday season is Marcus Borg’s and Dominic Crossan’s timely volume, The First Christmas. They’ve done invaluable work in compiling information about the historical/cultural setting in which these birth-narratives were originally told. That information helps us rediscover the stories’ meaning not simply to the first century followers of Jesus but also to us today as well. If I were teaching a class on the Christmas narratives this holiday season, not only would each student have a copy of Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives, they’d also have this 244-page volume as an accompanying text book. It is a fantastic overview.

A Preliminary Word about Both Narratives

Something to note before we begin: These narratives are primarily concerned with this world, not with heaven. They are focused on this life. Too often, the birth-narratives of Jesus are read through the lens of salvation defined as entrance into a post-mortem heaven. But that is not how the original Jewish Jesus community would have heard these stories. They were concerned with the whole of life, not merely with an afterlife. A spiritual or afterlife application of these narratives became the dominant interpretation through the cultural influence of the expanding Roman Empire and European colonialism. We’ve talked about the way that reading the gospel narratives with an otherworldly focus has had intensely destructive fruit. Before imperial Christianity, these narratives were understood to be about the transformation of this world. They were not solely theological; they were theological and political! They announced the Divine dream for this world and announced that the fulfillment of that dream had begun in Jesus. They were not about the destruction of this world but about the restoration of it. This restoration, seen in the narratives as they were originally understood, was symbolized by visions of the end of war, violence, injustice, and oppression.

The Importance of Context

A point that I have been harping on for months now (and was happy to see addressed by Borg and Crossan) is the importance of acknowledging the historical context in which the Jesus narratives were created. Two examples that I use regularly to help people see the historical context of the Jesus story are Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was overwhelmingly pleased to see Marcus and Dom use these examples as well:

“What would you think of a book that started with the opener, “I am going to discuss Mahatma Gandhi as a Hindu saint, but I’ll skip all that distracting stuff about British imperial India”? Or another with, “I am going to describe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a Christian saint, but I’ll get right to his biography and skip all that stuff about racism in America as background baggage”? You would know immediately that something is seriously wrong with those authors’ presentations.”—The First Christmas (p. 55)

I couldn’t agree more!

If we’re going to be able to wrest these two narratives from the militaristic, political, economic, and theological eclipse of empire and restore them to their original, deeply imperially subversive character, we must discover their Jewish, Christian, and Roman context.

Once we see the historical context of these stories, we cannot unsee it. Once we know it, we cannot unknow it. And once we experience this context, it will forever change how we read the birth-narratives of Jesus.

Next week, we’ll look again at Matthew’s narrative. The following week, just before Christmas, we will be turning our attention to Luke’s. My hope is that through this short series that you will read the birth-narratives in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels anew, that your heart will be renewed, and that you will be inspired, as a Jesus follower, to more deeply embody the this-world-transforming values taught within these narratives.

Though the early Jesus birth-narratives were originally intended to subvert the Roman Empire, I believe they also hold significance for us today who live in or in the shadow of the American Empire. In our era, these narratives are being eclipsed by the consumerism of our Empire’s economic machine. The early followers’ voices are lost even to Christians who are most familiar with these Christmas stories. Systemic racism continues to thrive, xenophobia toward Syrian refugees and Muslim Americans flourishes, and U.S. militaristic methods of achieving peace are continually touted by those who carry the name of this babe from Bethlehem.

If we are to rediscover the original subversive power of the birth-narratives of Jesus and rightly apply the stories to our lives today, we must begin with reading these narratives in the matrix of Imperial Rome and its grinding clash with the hopes of first-century Judaism.

“Who is the ‘King of the Jews’? That was Herod the Great’s title, but Matthew’s story tells us Herod was more like Pharaoh, the lord of Egypt, the lord of bondage and oppression, violence and brutality. And his son was no better. Rather, Jesus is the true King of the Jews. And the rulers of his world sought to destroy him.

Who is the Son of God, Lord, savior of the world, and the one who brings peace on earth? Within Roman imperial theology, the emperor, Caesar, was all of these. No, Luke’s story says, that status and those titles belong to Jesus. He—not the emperor—is the embodiment of God’s will for the earth.

Who is the light of the world? The emperor, son of Apollo, the god of light and reason and imperial order? Or is Jesus, who was executed by empire, the light in the darkness, the true light to whom the wise of this world are drawn?

Where do we find the fulfillment of God’s dream for Israel and humanity? In the way things are now? Or only beyond death? Or in a very different world this side of death?”

The First Christmas, p. 37.

The Gospel of Rome promised peace through victory achieved by violence. The conquered interpret this kind of peace in a vastly different way than the conquerors do. The Gospel of the Early Jesus Community envisioned a peace through restored justice for all, through a distinctly nonviolent transformation.

Over the next two weeks, I’m looking forward to sharing these two birth-narratives with you and focusing on how the first century Jesus community heard and read them in the context of their era.

What we are about to discover may mean you’ll never read these stories in quite the same way again.

HeartGroup Application

  1. Take time this week to read Matthew 1-2 as well as Luke 1-2. Familiarize yourself with each story. Try to keep them separate, for now, in your reading.
  2. List what each story has in common. Then where each narrative differs from the other.
  3. In preparation for next week, create an outline of Matthew’s birth-narrative as this is the one we will be looking at first. You can do this on your own or as a group in your HeartGroup.

I’m looking forward to next week already! Until then, keep living in the way of love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’m overjoyed that you’re joining us for this small series this year.

Happy Holidays, and I’ll see you next week.