Gun Culture, School Shootings, Racial Disparity, Militarized Police and Jesus

A preferential option for two vulnerable communities in the gun control debate.

Photo credit: Bodyguard Blanket

by Herb Montgomery | March 1, 2018


There is wisdom in his words, ‘All who draw the sword will die by the sword.’ It’s as true for societies as for individuals, as well. A society that lives by the sword will die by the sword. If we don’t learn alternatives, we will, as a society, be destroyed by these guns we love so much.”


“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Matthew 26:52 

Last week, as Crystal and I drove our kids and the kids we carpool with to school, these children had a conversation on the best escape routes at their schools in case a gunman showed up at their school and began firing.

Stop and let that sink in.

Instead of chatting about an upcoming test, a high school sports game, or an after-school event, they were talking about what they could do to stay alive if a shooter showed up at their school.

This is not the world I want my kids to be growing up in.

And I believe another world is possible.

Gun Culture and School Shootings

In Splendid Literarium: A Treasury of Stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays, the author Aberjhani eloquently states: “Democracy is not simply a license to indulge individual whims and proclivities. It is also holding oneself accountable to some reasonable degree for the conditions of peace and chaos that impact the lives of those who inhabit one’s beloved extended community.”

The two words that jump out at me from Aberjhani’s statement are “accountable” and “reasonable.” Community involves balancing individual rights and the well being of community. The tension between these two can be challenging. Our context this week, though, is protecting the lives of our children.

I want to echo what Deshanne Stokes tweeted last June after a mass shooting in Virginia: “Violence isn’t a Democrat or Republican problem. It’s an American problem, requiring an American solution.” Violence is not a Left versus Right debate. Both sides of the aisle should be motivated to ensure no more children die.

My country, the U.S., is obsessed with guns. Many people in my own neighborhood value their individual rights to own guns over the lives of our community’s children. This is not hyberbole.

As Emma Gonzalez, Parkland High School shooting survivor, said in her now-famous speech on February 17, 2018 in Fort Lauderdale, FL:

 “I read something very powerful [today]. It was from the point of view of a teacher. And I quote: ‘When adults tell me, “I have the right to own a gun,’ all I can hear is “My right to own a gun outweighs your students’ right to live.” All I can hear is  “Mine, mine, mine, mine.”’” (Speech Transcript)

The loudest voices right now in my neighborhood promoting individual gun rights are Christians. I Two years ago I stood across the aisle from many of these people as our town debated an inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance. Then, they wore t-shirts and held signs about bathrooms and keeping children safe. So it resonated with me last week when Dana Simpson tweeted: “Hearing Republicans say that, look, massacres of kids are very sad but we just can’t limit people’s basic freedoms is weird if you’re a trans person who’s been listening to a years-long debate about whether you need to be banned from public bathrooms TO KEEP CHILDREN SAFE.”

It seems that keeping children safe is only a concern for some Christians when that serves their personal biases or prejudices. Studies debunk the bathroom myth yet mass shootings are becoming commonplace. Mass shootings now so common in schools that some entrepreneurs are seeing an opportunity to capitalize on them. According to Business Insider, you can now purchase a school nap time pad/blanket for your small child that doubles as a bullet proof shield.

Really?

Do we really value the lives of the children in our community that little? Gun regulations can operate just like speed limits, car inspections, and driver licensing. We title and tag cars at each sale and mandate universal driver education and training. My younger daughter is studying for her driving test presently. She must complete a written test and also sit behind a wheel and demonstrate her ability to drive a car safely. My other daughter has to wear her glasses when she drives. All of us must carry liability insurance, and here in West Virginia, we must have our cars inspected every year too. All of these rules exist and anyone who complies with them can still have and drive their car. Yet the rules drive home the point that when you drive a car, you share the road with everyone else, with others who would like to stay alive themselves and keep their children alive.

Gun regulations do work. Australia is a good example. More than 130 other studies offer powerful evidence that common sense gun regulations do save lives.

In Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives, Gary Younge states,

“So long as you have a society with a lot of guns—and America has more guns per capita than any other county in the world—children will be at risk of being shot. The questions are how much risk, and what, if anything, is being done to minimize it? If one thinks of various ways in which commonplace items, from car seats to medicine bottle tops, have been childproofed, it’s clear that society’s general desire has been to eliminate as many potential dangers from children as possible, even when the number of those who might be harmed is relatively small. If one child’s death is preventable, then the proper question isn’t “Why should we do this” but rather “Why shouldn’t we?” It would be strange for that principle to apply to everything but guns.”

Adam Winkler argues that even the Wild West had more gun regulations than many of our states do today. “When you entered a frontier town, you were legally required to leave your guns at the stables on the outskirts of town or drop them off with the sheriff, who would give you a token in exchange. You checked your guns then like you’d check your overcoat today at a Boston restaurant in winter. Visitors were welcome, but their guns were not.” (Did the Wild West Have More Gun Control Than We Do Today? See also Ross Collins’ Gun Control and the Old West)

Racial Disparity and the Militarization of the Police

This is not just a current news topic. It’s also an area where we can apply the teachings of Jesus. A key part of living out the shared table philosophy with a preferential option for the vulnerable that Jesus’ modeled is learning to listen to other vulnerable voices around the table. Children are not the only vulnerable people involved in the gun control debate. White, straight, cisgender paranoid males raised in an environment of toxic masculinity and claiming that they’re being oppressed and their right to own assault weapons are being infringed are not vulnerable in this world.

But gun regulations have too often been used to disproportionately target communities of color. Sameer Rao cautions, “Gun control in America won’t work for all Americans unless advocates push to demilitarize police departments and advance measures that don’t disproportionately impact people of color. Gun control reform that does not go this route will end in laws that further empower police to seize weapons and use them against whomever they choose. History shows who they’ll target first.” (Gun Control Advocates Cannot Win Without Fighting Their Own Racism.)

If this history is unfamiliar to you, Creed Newton’s article on how calls for strict gun control after mass shootings overlook how regulations have been used to disarm people of color is a fantastic read and a great place to start. In this article, Newton quotes Saul Cornell of Fordham University: “Saying gun laws are always racist is just false. Saying that gun laws have never been racist is also just wrong.”

Can we protect our children from mass shootings and also not disproportionately target people of color? Can we, like other countries, demilitarize our police so that citizens and non-citizens don’t face unilateral gun regulations that would leave them even more vulnerable?

I believe “another world” here in the U.S. is possible. Like other countries, we can keep our children safe. Regulations can be carried out democratically and with care so as to not target some vulnerable communities while we seek to protect others. I believe we can choose a path that leads to a safer, more compassionate, just society without sacrificing those who are vulnerable.

And this leads me to my final thoughts on our passage this week.

These words are about weapons.  I believe we can apply them to our modern  weapons today.

Jesus

In the gospel of Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples pulls out a sword and strikes another person in an endeavor to protect Jesus. Jesus then turns and responds,

“‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’” (Matthew 26:52)

To be clear, the Bible is not a nonviolent book. Nor does it consistently teach nonviolence. But Jesus’ teachings in the gospels are consistently nonviolent. Even in Luke’s gospel, where Jesus tells his disciples to “go buy swords” the context reveals that these swords were not to be used.

There is wisdom in his words, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword.” It’s as true for societies as for individuals, as well. A society that lives by the sword will die by the sword. If we don’t learn alternatives, we will, as a society, be destroyed by these guns we love so much.

The constitution is not a moral counter-argument. The U.S. constitution gave White people the right to own other people until 1865. That leeway wasn’t right even though it was written.

Some also argue, “But it’s a heart matter. People need to learn how to deal with their anger without resorting to guns. You can’t change people’s hearts with laws.” I hear this argument whenever laws are proposed to protect vulnerable, minority groups from the majority.  Rules do train and change people. Rules train my children. Rules also shape people’s hearts and teach them to listen to others whose experience is unlike their own. Both Dr. Martin Luther King and Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) address this argument, convincingly for me.

King said:

“Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion.

Well, there’s half-truth involved here.

Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart.

But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.

It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless.

It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.

So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.” (Address at Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963)

Ture, who was staunchly opposed to racist gun control measures, argued:

“If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power.”

I believe there is a way to reach hearts while simultaneously limiting people’s power to hurt others. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Gun regulations are a matter of power, and we must engage the work of balancing that power for all lives involved. I believe this can be done democratically if we as a society choose to do it. Representatives who are bought and owned by the gun industry probably won’t do it for us.

It’s time to lay down and let go of the guns.

“‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

HeartGroup Application

This week

1. Google “Nonviolent Conflict Resolution Resources.”

2. Find two to three nonviolent conflict resolution practices that resonate with you.

3. Bring these two or three practices to your HeartGroup this coming week and discuss how you might begin implementing them as a group. Conflict is inevitable, but violence is optional. Nonviolence can begin with community practice.

4. Call your representatives. Share how you feel about the mass shootings and measures you hope lawmakers will take.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Another world is possible!

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.


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The One not with Me 

by Herb Montgomery
Fast moving train

The one not with me is against me, and the one not gathering with me scatters. (Q 11:23)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 12.30: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

Luke 11.23: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

To begin this week, I have three words for us to keep in mind as we consider this week’s saying:

Context.
Context.
Context.

Anyone taking this passage out of its context in Q, Matthew and Luke, and applying it to just any cause or work that they may be involved with is overreaching and assuming too much of themselves, their work, and the actions and attitudes of others. We must also add to our discussion this week what this saying might mean for a non-Christian humanist to hear Jesus (and the Christians who speak for him now) say “You’re either with me or against me.” I think it is a mistake for Christians today to characterize non-Christians as necessarily being “against Jesus” just because they may disagree on the subjects of cosmology, ontology, religion, and practice. This may sound out of step with what has been typical of Christians throughout history. But I don’t believe one has to embrace a 1st Century worldview, as Jesus had, to find much in Jesus’ teachings from his own time and place that can inform our work in our own contexts today. Christians and non-Christians alike are working toward humanity’s survival, holistic ways of resisting oppression, liberation of those who are being subjugated and marginalized, concrete, material restoration of and reparation toward peoples who have systemically had everything taken from them, and the transformation of our world into a safer, just, and more compassionate world for us. (For a history of how secularists and certain tolerant “believers” have worked together in pioneering societal reforms in America’s past see Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.) A person may find their own goals and even their methods have much in common with the Jewish Jesus of long ago, and yet they may not answer the larger more philosophical and religious questions the way many Christians around them do today. I think it would be very sad for Christians and non-Christians both to hear this week’s saying in an excluding, religious context rather than a societally transformative, liberating one.

Is there a context in which the above statement could be a true statement?

I want to offer just such an example. On April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned the now famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.  This letter was written after King had been jailed in response to the Birmingham campaign which had begun on April 3, 1963.  The Birmingham campaign was a series of marches and sit-ins Birmingham, Alabama. On April 10 a Circuit Judge in Birmingham (Jenkins) ordered all “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing” to be illegal. In the spirit of nonviolent noncooperation and resistance King and the other leaders of the campaign refused to obey.  King was arrested along with Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth on April 12.

In Rieder’s Gospel of Freedom, in the chapter titled Meet Me in Galilee Rieder states, ”King was placed alone in a dark cell, with no mattress, and denied a phone call. Was Connor’s aim, as some thought, to break him?” Also on April 12, “A Call for Unity” was published in a local newspaper by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods.  The Letter from Birmingham Jail is King’s response.

While the whole letter is very much worth your contemplation, there is a section that is applicable to this week’s saying:

“I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

In this context, it would be perfectly appropriate for King to say, “the one who is not with me is against me.”

Remember, in the context of our saying this week, Jesus is being accused of being evil while all along he is actually engaged in the work of liberation for the oppressed. (See Luke 4.18-19.)  He has just been accused of being a conduit of Beelzubul.  His work of ending the suffering for so many is being labelled as dangerous and of “the satan” in an effort to prevent their position of power and privilege within their society from being threatened.  This would have been a perfectly appropriate context for a first century Jewish liberation rabbi of the people to make the above statement.

Today, I hear comments such as, “I simply want to stay neutral.  I don’t want to take sides.”  And certainly there are cases where that would be acceptable.  But in the case of oppression, where the status quo empowers injustice, neutrality IS taking a side.  It’s taking the side of oppression.  Robert McAfee Brown, in his book Unexpected News : Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, quotes Desmond Tutu as saying, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” (p.19)  Tutu’s statement reminds me of the title of Howard Zinn’s 2002 book You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times. We fail to realize that neutrality is an illusion when one is already complicit and benefiting from systems of injustice.  Jesus, in this week’s saying, is forcing those in possessions of power and privilege to actively pick a side. The deception that one can just stay neutral in matters of injustice is a lie.

Matthew, Luke and Q

In all three texts (Matthew, Luke and the derived text of Q) this statement comes in the context Jesus efforts toward the liberation of the oppressed within his society and the religious leaders of his day claiming that he was actually an agency of evil.  As I wrote two weeks ago, it is one thing to be deceived and mistake something evil to be something good. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many. From a desire to preserve the status quo, this same dynamic has been repeated over and over again, especially within the history of very vocal sectors of Christianity here in America

I want to emphasize that this is only within sectors of Christianity.  Those Christians who are typically in position of societal power and privilege are the ones we see this dynamic repeated in.  An example is in the white Bible belt of the South.  White Christianity fought hard against the civil rights movement.  Christian schools begin, their history is rooted in, an attempt at beginning an alternative education choice to avoid having to embrace integration.  The history of Christian education in the south is deeply mired in attempts by White Christians to not have to have their white children going to school alongside of black children.  The Black Christian tradition on the other hand was on the receiving end of this bigotry.  So I want to be careful to state, typically in prominent sectors of Christianity specifically sectors where we find those who are in positions of power and benefit, it is these sectors that we have witnessed this dynamic most often.

Whether it be:

  • White Christians resisting social change for black lives,
  • Male Christians, both black and white, resisting social change for women,
  • White Female Christians resisting change for black men and women,
  • Upper class Christians resisting change of the lower economic classes,
  • Or Straight, Cisgender Christians resisting change for those whose sexuality is fluid and who identify as being gender nonconforming.

This history has been repeated over and over again.

Over the past few months, I again have been overwhelmed with White Christian critiques of Colin Kaepernick’s justified protest.  I was aghast at the white voices which have spoken out against him.  I have also been amazed by the white voices which may not have been speaking out against Kaepernick, but have remained silent nonetheless in the wake of police brutality, the two recent occurrences that are in my mind as I write this are the killings of Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher.  This silence is compounded by that fact that these same white voices finally did speak out.  They finally chose to put their voices to something that did concern them deeply.  They chose to voice their disapproval of the property being damaged in protests such as in Charlotte, NC.  Where are the voices of white Christians to speak out against the futility many lives face as a result of the way we are presently structuring and policing our society? We desire to follow a Jesus who placed people above property, yet our silence regarding the destruction of black lives, broken only when property is destroyed betrays a priority of concern regarding property over a concern regarding people that would have been wholly unrecognizable by the Jesus we desire to follow.

Another example in the sectors of Christianity I typically find myself surrounded by (I’m a white, straight, cisgender male), I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve been told about the evils of the U.S. Supreme Court finally recognizing the validity of same sex marriages. I will admit that these statements are usually made to me by Christians who don’t know me or aren’t familiar with my journey over the past four years.  What is also standard is that these comments are typically made within the context of gross ignorance of the actual injustice and suffering this recognition seeks to bring to an end for so so many.  They come from a demographic, for me, from folks who don’t have a sweet clue what it’s like to live on this planet as anyone other than a person just like themselves.  They haven’t stopped to listen to what its like to experience life for those they have in their hearts, minds, speech and actions, othered.  This is why, typically, among Christians, the ones who have a change of perspective are the very ones who have a close friend or family member who musters up the courage within that environment to “come out.”

Again, it is one thing to be deceived and mistake something that is actually evil to be something good. We’ve all made that mistake. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, and accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many.

It is in contexts such as these that even moderate neutrality is opposition.  It is in contexts such as these that one’s silence is complicity. It is in contexts such as these that calls for nonviolence are themselves violent. It is in contexts such as these that calls for unity are simply veiled attempts at maintaining a status quo.

It is in contexts like these that one could justly and rightly say:

The one not with me is against me, and the one not gathering with me scatters. (Q 11:23)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you to:

1.  As a group, together sit down and read aloud both the public statement by eight Alabama clergymen entitled A Call for Unity side by side with King’s response Letter From Birmingham Jail

2.  What lessons can you learn from contrasting and comparing these two letters about how societal justice is accomplished in our communities and the characteristics as well as the rhetoric of the pushback these efforts are met with. List at least three.

3.  What are the parallels between A Call for Unity and much of the critiques and pushback we are witnessing in our time today in response to movements, of varied types and concerns, that are engaged in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration and transformation interdependently working toward a making our world a safer, just, compassionate home for us all.

I remember the first time I read “A Call for Unity.”  It taught me how to recognized when these tactics repeatedly show up again. For some of you, like me, this will be review.  But for others, you are about to experience a paradigm shift.  I’m so excited for you.

Thank you, again, for checking in with us this week.  Wherever you find yourself right now, choose a life of 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.

The Centurion’s Faith in Jesus’ Word

(Who Are Our Centurions?)

by Herb MontgomeryRoman Centurion

“And it came to pass when‚ he ended these sayings, he entered Capernaum. There came to him a centurion exhorting him and saying: ‘My‚ boy is doing badly.’ And he said to him: ‘Am I‚ by coming, to heal him?’ And in reply the centurion said: ‘Master, I am not worthy for you to come under my roof; but say a word, and let my boy be healed. For I too am a person under authority, with soldiers under me, and I say to one: Go, and he goes, and to another: Come, and he comes, and to my slave: Do this, and he does it.’ But Jesus, on hearing, was amazed, and said to those who followed: ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’” (Q 7:1, 3, 6-9, 10)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 7.28-29: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.”

Matthew 8.5-10: “When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Shall I come and heal him?’ The centurion replied, ‘Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, “Go,” and he goes; and that one, “Come,” and he comes. I say to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, ‘Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.’”

Luke 7.1, 3-10: “When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum . . . The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, ‘This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.’ So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: ‘Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, “Go,” and he goes; and that one, “Come,” and he comes. I say to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.’” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, ‘I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.’ Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.”

To understand this week’s portion of Sayings Gospel Q we have to look ahead in Q and see what this story prepares us for. When we first read this story, it feels out of place because Q is a collection of Jesus’s cherished sayings, not stories of his healings. In fact, this is the only healing story in Q. So why was this narrative included among the sayings? Why would the early Jewish community of Jesus followers have included this singular healing story?

But the story actually sets up the very next section of Sayings Gospel Q, which we will be looking at next week.

“And John, on hearing about all these things‚ sending through his disciples, said to him: ‘Are you the one to come, or are we to expect someone else?’ And in reply he said to them: ‘Go report to John what you hear and see: The blind regain their sight and the lame walk around, the skin-diseased are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised, and the poor are given good news.’ And blessed is whoever is not offended by me.’” (Q 7:18-23)

The early Jesus community saw Jesus as connected to the ancient prophet Isaiah. This passage draws from statements in Isaiah’s writings including this section:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me; he has sent me to preach glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken in heart, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind; to declare the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of recompense; to comfort all that mourn.” (Isaiah 61.1-2, LXX)

This passage sums up the initial structure of Sayings Gospel Q. First, the Spirit anoints Jesus at his baptism (Q 3:21-22). Then Jesus proclaims good news and blessings on the poor, broken, and captive (Q6.20-49). Overall, about the first third of Sayings Gospel Q supports the early community’s claim that Jesus fulfilled the hopes of Isaiah.

In this week’s saying, Jesus appears in Isaiah-like fashion as a liberating healer and also as one who included those who had followed John before Jesus emerged. At this early stage of the Jesus community, Jesus’s followers and John’s followers would have comprised partially overlapping constituencies.

This saying also presents a very Jewish picture of Jesus. A Galilean centurion would have known quite well how a Jew would feel about entering a Gentile’s home, and this tension is part of the centurion’s comments in this story. Jewish sensibilities are respected, and yet the Gentile’s servant is still healed.

For the early Jewish followers of Jesus to have included this story in their record of Jesus’s Gospel shows that they embraced the ethic of enemy love. Centurions, most of all, would have been the people that Jewish citizens least expected to receive Isaiah’s favors. The more politically radical of the Jewish community would likely have gone further and judged Centurions as worthy of YHWH’s vengeance or punishment. That sentiment could have been quite popular among the less radical as well.

Luke’s Softening 

Luke seems to soften this tension between Jews and Gentiles. Notice that Luke’s story differs from Matthew’s in that the centurion sends a delegation to Jesus rather than coming himself.

Next Luke’s narrative emphasizes that this is not a normal centurion: he is different and worthy of an exception, not to be looked at in the same way as most centurions would have been:

“When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, ‘This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.’”

In Matthew and Sayings Gospel Q, on the other, hand, the centurion describes himself “unworthy.”

Perhaps Luke’s version was quite a bit less jarring to those who whose loved ones had been crucified, executed, or arrested by soldiers and centurions. But the Sayings Gospel Q version is much harder to swallow. It demonstrates Jesus’ ethic of compassion, even compassion for one’s enemy.

This material prepares the audience of Sayings Gospel Q to embrace the Jesus communities’ teaching that Jesus is the “one to come.” Yet this last section ran the risk of being quite offensive, possibly polarizing, and stirring up pushback.

It’s worth mentioning that Luke’s version of this story parallels Luke’s story in Acts 10, where Peter is invited to go and visit another centurion.

Matthew

Scholars believe that Matthew was written before Luke, and reflects a Jewish Galilean populace rather than the Jerusalem community addressed in Luke. John Shelby Spong in his book Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World reminds us that Matthew is the most Jewish of the canonical gospels. “Within about a decade, Matthew wrote the first expansion of Mark and aimed his story at the disciples of Jesus who worshiped in rather traditional Jewish synagogues. Recall once again that the split between the church and the synagogue would not occur until near the end of the ninth decade, so when Mark and Matthew were written, they and their readers were still in the traditional synagogue” (pp. 329-330). The interchange between John’s disciples and Jesus, which we will cover in detail next week, calls listeners to embrace Jesus’s ministry as the one expected in the scroll of Isaiah. Matthew’s call expands Q and is not found in Mark.

Yet if Matthew is going to use the Q story about John’s disciples, then he also has to build up to it just like the Q community did. Unlike the Q community, however, he chooses not to only use the story of the centurion but also to substantiate the claim with more healing stories. Matthew adds the story of Jesus healing a leper between the Sermon on the Mount and the story of the centurion’s boy to reinforce Jesus as healing liberator.

Yet in true Matthean fashion, Jesus is more than simply healer. He is even the healer of enemies. The text still emphasizes the unworthiness of this Gentile and Roman because enemy love was central to teachings found in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Matthew incorporates the centurion story to illustrate this teaching and to characterize before Matthew’s audience just what type of a liberation Jesus was announcing. He wasn’t simply announcing the overthrowing of a Roman hegemony and a Jewish one in its place. No, this was a restoration of the humanity of both oppressed and oppressor. A favorite passage of mine in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed illustrates what I think is the reason for Q’s and Matthew’s inclusion of the centurion story:

“In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.” (p. 44) 

Who are our centurions today? 

That’s the million dollar question. Jesus offered neither a way of assimilating into Roman oppression nor a path that led to destruction by the Romans. His path was nonviolent resistance and the challenging ethic of genuine enemy love. This love doesn’t seek vengeance against one’s enemies; it seeks the transformation of that enemy. Through imagination and in whichever situations arise, this love seeks to meet our enemies on the terms of a shared humanity. Take away the system of domination and we are very much the same, and more, we are also connected. You and I both are part of this interwoven family called humanity. Barbara Deming, lesbian, poet, American feminist, and advocate of nonviolent social change, writes in her book Revolution and Equilibrium:

“With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised out-stretched—maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not—but always outstretched. With this hand we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’ Active nonviolence is a process that holds these two realities—of noncooperation with violence but open to the humanity of the violator—in tension. It is like saying to our opponent: On the one hand (symbolized by a hand firmly stretched out and signaling, ‘Stop!’) ‘I will not cooperate with your violence or injustice; I will resist it with every fiber of my being’. And, on the other hand (symbolized by the hand with its palm turned open and stretched toward the other) ‘I am open to you as a human being.’” (p.16)

As our enemies have lost sight of our humanity, we must fight, for our own sake, to not lose sight of theirs. The Jesus who healed the centurion’s servant showed us the way.

HeartGroup Application

  1. Take time this week to contemplate who the centurions in your life are. Who might fit this role for you?
  2. What does enemy love look like for you with this person? Enemy love can take a myriad of forms. How could Deming’s “first hand” change the way you relate to them? What about the “second hand” approach?
  3. Discuss with your HeartGroup what you discover.

To each of you who face the challenge of affirming your own humanity while simultaneously refusing to dehumanize those who do so toward you, keep fighting. The path is not easy and maybe this is why it’s referred to as “narrow.”

Refuse to become like those who subjugate you. Call them to recognize you, and instead of becoming like them, call them to become more like you.

“He [or she] who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself [or she herself] does not become a monster.” —Friedrich Nietzsche

Thank you again for being alongside us on this journey.

I love each of you dearly.

Keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I’ll see you next week.