Political Jesus

by Herb Montgomery | May 17, 2018

Jesus on a cross with angry bigoted, racist, and homophobic protestors

Artwork Credit: Ali Montgomery

 


“Jesus was political. Neither he nor those whom he cared about could afford to ignore the systems of injustice and oppression damaging real human lives.”


“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15, emphasis added.)

Two weeks ago I stated, “Politics answers the question of who gets what. So Jesus was not a religious figure as much as he was a political one. He did not fundamentally challenge his Jewish religion . . . Jesus’ teachings centered the poor and gave them the entire ‘kingdom.’ Jesus’ teachings were political.” I want to follow up on that statement a bit this week. 

It’s important to define the term “politics.” “When I use the term ‘political,’” I said last week, “I don’t mean partisan. Politics means related to the polis, the members of a community. Whenever you have two or more people doing life together, you have politics. Politics answers the question of who gets what.” So when I say political this week, I don’t mean who’s running for a political office. I’m referring to the question of how, within the polis, means of survival and thriving are justly, equitably distributed—the question of who gets what.  

Jesus’ teachings were deeply political. He didn’t go around getting people to say a special prayer so they can go to heaven when they die. Rather, he taught survival and liberation for those scratching out an existence in a type of living hell here, now, today. His teachings were not exclusively focused on post mortem destinations but threatened the political and economic structures of his society. He was calling for a new social order now. 

We see this present politics in his predecessor, John. John, as our featured text states, was put in prison like the prophets of old, for speaking truth to power. Even today, people are not put in prison for what they believe happens after we die. They are imprisoned for threatening political and economic systems that prop up the privilege and power of the elite. Religious teachings that only focus on the afterlife have been coopted throughout history to legitimate oppressive economic and political structures of subjugation and exploitation. These are the teachings and teachers who “fool” us and leave us passive in the face of injustice, even as we believe ourselves to be religiously faithful. We do not find this type of teaching in either John’s nor Jesus’ teachings.  

John was arrested for his teachings, and Jesus’ death was a political death as well. One commentator states, “Crucifixion was and remained a political and m  ilitary punishment . . . Among the Romans it was inflicted above all on the lower classes, i.e, the slaves, violent criminals, and the unruly [think political protestors] elements in rebellious provinces not least Judea . . . These were primarily people who on the whole had no rights, in other words, groups whose development had to be suppressed by all possible means to safeguard law and order in the state” (Martin Hengel, Crucifixion, p. 86).

Notice that last phrase, “to safeguard law and order.” Things haven’t changed all that much. In the United States, The Anglo-Saxon ethnic origin myth, White supremacy, Manifest Destiny, slavery, and segregation have all evolved despite the US civil rights movement into a system of mass incarceration that targets people of color in the name of ‘law and order’ (see Stand Your Ground by Kelly Brown Douglas, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and White Rage by Carol Anderson).

In Jesus’ society and culture, crucifixion penalized political protest and/or subversive threats to the status quo. In Mark’s version of the Jesus story, Jesus takes his teachings from the margins of Galilee all the way to the center of his own political and economic structure, the door step of Caiaphas the high priest himself—The Temple State.

I understood this a new way last week when the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock spoke on the life of James Hal Cone at Cone’s deeply moving funeral at The Riverside Church in New York City. (If you have not had a chance to watch the service yourself, you can watch the replay online). Dr. Warnock chose Amos 7:10 for his eulogy:

“Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam king of Israel: ‘Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel. The land cannot bear all his words.’”

This passage not only rightly applies to Cone, but also helps us to see Jesus in his own political tradition as well. Jesus stood in the Jewish prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power alongside of and in solidarity with the oppressed. When rescued from domesticated and house-broken interpretations, the Jesus story in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) is deeply political. Jesus wasn’t running for some office within a political party or as a Pharisee or Sadducee seeking a spot on the Sanhedrin. He was political because he lived and taught in deep solidarity with the oppressed of his time and had compassionate concern for those exploited by the politics of his day: 

 “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 [all debts forgiven].” (Luke 4:18-19; cf Isaiah 61.1-3)

Jesus had called for those made last in their political and economic system to be placed first in the new social order he called the kingdom or reign of God: “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ . . . So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:8, 16)

We see Jesus’ politics in the way he related to those labelled sinners, too. As we have discussed, the label of sinner was not used universally as it is in many sectors of Christianity today. In Jesus’ time, it was a label used to religiously define and therefore politically marginalize some individuals or groups. 

Yet these “sinners” were the people who heard Jesus’ message as good news and responded positively. Jesus was excluded and labelled as a sinner himself, too, for standing in solidarity with them:

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1-2)

How this label of sinners was used and Jesus’ solidarity with those being labelled and marginalized will be our topic next week. For now, note that Jesus called his followers to welcome and center the very ones those in power had influenced his society to push to the edges and undersides of their society.

“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” (Luke 14:13)

Jesus was a genuine threat to the social, political and economic order of his day. He was calling for his society to be turned upside down.

The same day I watched the live stream of Cone’s funeral last week, I also happened to be editing the quotations in RHM’s quotation library under the category “God of the Oppressed.”  How appropriate. As I celebrated Cone’s life and teachings and mourned his loss, I was going through quotation after quotation on one of the central themes of his life. In Cone’s book by the same name, he states:

“What has the gospel to do with the oppressed of the land and their struggle for liberation? Any theologian who fails to place that question at the center of his or her work has ignored the essence of the gospel.” (James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, p. 9)

This is why Jesus was political. Neither he nor those whom he cared about could afford to ignore the systems of injustice and oppression damaging real human lives. Today some people’s privilege allows them to ignore all things political. Politics to them is a bother. There are others, though, who do not have this luxury. For them, the political issues of the day impact their lives directly. And for still others, the policies of the day are matters of life and death. They can’t afford to wait for utopia to fall from the sky some day. For them the time is now; they are trying to survive today. For them, politics isn’t just politics. It’s not a theoretical debate. It’s about people’s lives and their very survival. For these people, and for others two millennia ago, the synoptic Jesus was also a political one. 

Ultimately, politics matter because people matter. Following Jesus is not about being apolitical. It’s about endeavoring to apply the politics of Jesus in our context of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation, today.

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, do a little exercise. Since we are defining politics as how we answer the question who gets what, go through Matthew, Mark, and Luke and try to find ten times Jesus answers that question. Write down the verse, who he is referring to, and what he states they should get.  
  2. Share and discuss your list with your entire HeartGroup this upcoming week.  See how long of a list you can make together.
  3. Compare this list with your own political values and discuss how this list impacts them.  Consider what Jesus’ answers challenge or affirm within your own political views. What can you no longer support if you are going to follow Jesus? Lean in to those areas where you are challenged and see what happens. 

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

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

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

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

 

Directed Good News 

by Herb Montgomery | April 12, 2018

sign saying good news is coming

Photo Credit: Jon Tyson on Unsplash


Jesus’ gospel was good news to those who were on the margins. If they were able to shape a safer, more compassionate, just society, this would, in the long run, be good for everyone. Nonetheless, the news that power was about to shift was not good news to those who at that time held the reins of power themselves. To them, it was a threat. It had to be removed.


 

“. . . good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Matthew 11:5)

 

The late Peter Gomes wrote, “Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others.” (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, p. 31)

Jesus declared that in the community he envisioned, those made last in current social structures would be first, and those presently made first, would be last. 

“When the gospel says, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” despite the fact it is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions, it is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first. — Peter Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good about the Good News? p. 42 (emphasis added.)

Over and over within the gospel stories we see good news to some being not so good news for others. In Luke’s gospel, the pronouncement of blessing upon the poor was coupled with woe to those who were rich.

And this leads me to my point this week.

I believe that Jesus’ vision for human community is Good news for all, but not good news to all. 

Jesus’ gospel was directed to those at a certain social location.

“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…” (Luke 4:18)

The gospel is good news to the poor, to the oppressed, and to those who are victims of mass incarceration, for example. These are the people whom our system targets, exploits, or forces to the underside of our society where benefits the rest of us take for granted are kept beyond their reach. 

These were also the people who perceived Jesus’ teachings as good news. Though, if we followed Jesus’ values, they would set us on a path toward a safer, more just, more compassionate world for us all, those in whom those changes sparked fear did not perceive them as good news initially. It was good news for them, too, but they did not perceive it as good news to them.

A world where we embrace our interconnectedness and dependence on one another, where we learn to cooperate with each other rather than individualistically compete against others is a world that will be better for everyone. It’s a world where folks who daily face oppression reclaim their own humanity, and also those dehumanized by the act of being “oppressor” find in their removal from power a returning to their own humanity, too.

Good news to some, and good for all, but not good news to all. As Gomes says in his book:

“… Thus, in the name of fair-mindedness and egalitarianism, the gospel’s claim of a radical reordering, a redistribution, an exercise in almost Gilbertian topsy-turveydom, is an offense, a scandal, and hardly good news.” —in The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, pp. 31, 42).

Today, many sectors of Christianity have abandoned changing systemic injustice here and now in our world. These Christians sing hymns that utter the words, “this world is not my home I’m just a-passin’ through.” Their focus, for better or worse, is not this life, but one they believe will come after this one. For those who suffer, these beliefs work as an opiate and leave them passive. For those who benefit from their suffering, these beliefs work as guilt alleviation, “no-condemnation,” an unconditional love that enables them to sleep better at night and believe that the gospel has little to do with anything here and now.

This type of Christianity adapts Jesus’ teachings to offer the hope of post-mortem bliss to as many people as possible. It makes Jesus’ teachings good news to all, not merely good news for all. And this has produced a myriad of problems, including allowing us to seem to follow a radical Jew like Jesus while we remain mostly moderate or even oppress others.

This “respectable middle” has almost wholly eclipsed the teachings of Jesus. You can attend entire conferences on the gospel without ever hearing the poor mentioned once. Whatever can be said of this kind of gospel, it’s not the same gospel that the Jewish Jesus taught. For the Jesus of the scriptures, the poor and that which was good news to the poor were the centerpiece of his teachings. If Jesus were present today, I can’t imagine he could give a weekend of teachings on the gospel and never mention the poor once. Is the Jesus of this type of Christianity the same as the Jesus in the stories of Mark, Matthew, and Luke?

The bottom line is that the Gospel of Jesus should be good news to the poor, exploited, incarcerated, vulnerable, marginalized, and pushed aside. Someone once warned me, “Herb,” they said, “If it’s not good news, it’s not the gospel.” But social location matters. Jesus came teaching the good news, but those benefitting from the social system perceived Jesus’ teaching as a threat and began to “hate” him, to “exclude” and “insult” him, and to “reject” him as “evil.” They labeled him dangerous. 

So before we write something off as not the gospel because it doesn’t seem good news to us, we need to check our social location. Is it good news to those on the margins? If I don’t feel that it’s good news, is that because it’s bringing attention to an area where people are being hurt and to which I’d rather turn a blind eye? Who is perceiving the gospel as good news and who is feeling threatened by it? If you are in a position of privilege and you aren’t perceiving things as good news, you’re in the right story. And if you, in a specific area of your life, are marginalized or othered, and you don’t feel like what’s being said is good news to you, then chances are, then, it’s really not the gospel.

Recently, we at RHM participated in our local, annual Race Matters summit. (You can read all about it here.) In one of the keynote addresses, Arley Johnson remarked how in the 2040’s, White Americans will be in the minority. (See http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-op-0809-minority-majority-20170808-story.html and https://www.epi.org/publication/the-changing-demographics-of-americas-working-class/)

Stop and consider this for a moment? Is this good news to you? Do you feel threatened by it?

In a different meeting during the weekend, another speaker mentioned that the demographic shift could possibly explain why abortion is such a trigger issue among White conservatives worried about the decreasing White population. Now, political conservatism has been shown to increase when people are afraid. Also, consider that people genuinely concerned about lowering the number of abortions that take place could lower them by making birth control widely available. Making abortions illegal doesn’t lower their numbers, it only makes them more dangerous for vulnerable women. But if your concern is for the White population, then birth control is not a viable option. You’re wanting more births, not fewer unwanted pregnancies. This is not to mention that many who are pro-life are also pro-war, pro-guns, and pro-capitalism. The pro-life movement has historically been more concerned with controlling women’s sex lives than preventing unwanted pregnancies. 

So why is a demographic shift so threatening? Are White people afraid that people of color will act the way White people have? Similarly, many straight, cisgender folks, so clearly in the majority of our world’s population, are threatened by those who identify as LGBTQIA. Queer folks aren’t working to take over. Their goal is not world domination where everyone is forced to be like them. They simply want a world that is safe for them: they are in the minority. But since straight, cisgender folks have historically created closets for LGBTQIA people to hide in and pretend to live like straight, cisgender people, it only makes sense that we who have benefited from the system fear that the tables will be turned. If I have learned anything from my time within marginalized communities, it’s that no fear could be more unfounded. To date, the safest I have ever felt is when I am among my LGBTQ friends. They know firsthand what it’s like to be ill-treated and repressed, and they go to great lengths to ensure they are not treating others in the same way they have been treated.

In Matthew 21, however, Jesus tells a story about power being taken away from those at the center and given to those marginalized and excluded in Judaism. 

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of justice, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. “They will respect my son,” he said. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ ‘So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ ‘He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,’ they replied, ‘and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.’ . . . ‘Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.’ . . . When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.” (Matthew 21:31-45)

Here Jesus is referring to power being taken away from those at the center of their social structure and given back to the people, specifically the people those in power had pushed to the edges (tax collectors and others labeled as sinners.)

Would those on the margins or those disenfranchised do a better job than those who’d oppressed them? Only time could tell. If they failed to form a just society, eventually power would be wrested from them as well. But this leads me back to my point. 

Again: Jesus’ gospel was good news to those who were on the margins. If they were able to shape a safer, more compassionate, just society, this would, in the long run, be good for everyone. Nonetheless, the news that power was about to shift was not good news to those who at that time held the reins of power themselves. To them, it was a threat. It had to be removed. As it says, “they looked for a way to arrest him” for saying such things.

Jesus’ good news is directed. 

It’s good news for all.

It’s only good news to those presently held down by systemic injustice. 

“. . . good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Matthew 11:5)

HeartGroup Application

1. As a group, create a list of ten sayings that could be directed good news, i.e. things that are good news to certain ones but not necessarily good news to someone else.

We began with one: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

2. Discuss how each one makes you feel. Are some of these sayings good news to you? Are there some that are threatening to you? Why? What is the correlation between your social location in each of the ten sayings and your feelings toward each of them?

3. What did this exercise help you understand? What’s the lesson in this for you? Share with your group what it is.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you may be, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, and transformation. 

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 


To support these weekly podcasts and eSights and help us grow, go to renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate.”