Losing One’s Life

Picture of a Road through the woods

by Herb Montgomery

“Jesus didn’t die because he was a bigot, standing in solidarity with oppressors and justifying the domination of the vulnerable. He died because he stood in solidarity with the vulnerable against the status quo. It’s time we also stood with the oppressed. If there is a God of the oppressed in our sacred text, we can only be standing with that God if we‘re also standing with the oppressed and working toward liberation with them. We will only be able to reclaim the humanity of Christianity if we as Christians are working alongside those who are working to liberate themselves. . . . Resurrection that doesn’t follow standing with those on the undersides and edges of society isn’t authentic resurrection as defined by the Jesus story. If Christianity does not discover how to stand with women, people of color, immigrants, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people, it’s not a Christianity I want to be a part of.”

Featured Text:

“The one who finds one’s life will lose it, and the one who loses one’s life, for my sake‚ will find it.” (Q 17:33)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:39: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

Luke 17:31-35: “On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.”

Context. Context. Context.

If you haven’t read last week’s entry, I strongly recommend you do as a foundation for understanding this week’s saying. This week’s saying, if not understood in the context we discussed last week, could easily be interpreted as Jesus teaching the oppressed a message of self-sacrifice rather than self-affirmation and self-reclamation.

But I don’t believe in the myth of redemptive suffering. Our hope is not in sacrificing our selves, but rather in learning how to reclaim our selves, to regain our own humanity, and to stand in solidarity with those who are doing the same. In a world where people’s selves are already being sacrificed by those who dominate, subjugate, and marginalize, I don’t believe Jesus offered a message of further self-sacrifice; I believe he offered a way for the oppressed to take hold of life in the face of the longest odds. In this world, where people’s existence is threatened or even denied, Audre Lorde reminds us that, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

So what other than self-sacrifice could Jesus have meant when he spoke of losing one’s life and finding one’s life? Remember, when the status quo is confronted, challenged, and threatened, those who have the most to lose to change will threaten some form of a “cross” as an attempt to silence those calling for change.

As we discussed last week, that cross is not intrinsic to following Jesus. It only comes into the picture when those in power and places of privilege use the threat of violence to quiet those they’ve repressed. Only at this point do these words of Jesus become a source of life for the oppressed. The question Jesus is asking is not “Are you willing to suffer,” but “do you desire to fully live?” Will you continue to thrive, even in the face of threats, or will you accept things as they are, reluctantly but without protest letting go of your hold on life? Remaining alive but silent is actually death, and refusing to let go of your hold on life, even when threatened with death, is life.

On March 8, 1965, the day after Bloody Sunday, Dr. King thundered from the pulpit:

“A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. He died . . . A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true. So we’re going to stand up amid horses. We’re going to stand up right here in Alabama, amid the billy-clubs. We’re going to stand up right here in Alabama amid police dogs, if they have them. We’re going to stand up amid tear gas! We’re going to stand up amid anything they can muster up, letting the world know that we are determined to be free!”

It is in this context that this week’s saying is not one of self-sacrifice, but self-affirmation in the face of threat.

“The one who find’s one’s life” is the one preserving their life by remaining silent in response to injustice. Finding one’s life this way is a way of actually losing it. You may keep breathing, but you are in reality dead. But in being willing to lose one’s life, if need be, to stand up for justice, one is not letting go of life, but “finding it.”

This is the self-affirming refusal to be bullied by those in power, a refusal to roll over and just patiently endure, a refusal to become nothing more than a doormat waiting for change to come from the top down. Change never comes from the top down.

That thought reminds me of three quotations.

The first quotation comes from Freire, who estimated oppressors’ inability to use oppression to liberate. He argues that oppressive power is intrinsically antithetical to liberation:

“The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.” (in Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition, Kindle Locations 539-541)

In hierarchal power structures, the same tools used by those at the top to dominate and subjugate cannot be used to liberate.

The second quotation is from a speech Frederick Douglass gave in 1857 that has since been titled “If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress”:

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate 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, and 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 measure 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. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay 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.”

According to Douglass, then, change comes from the bottom up.

Lastly are the words of James H. Cone:

“There will be no change from the system of injustice if we have to depend upon the people who control it and believe that the present order of injustice is the best of all possible societies. It will be changed by the victims whose participation in the present system is against their will.” (in God of the Oppressed, p. 202)

It is not the responsibility of the oppressed to liberate the oppressors. No, theirs is a struggle for their own liberation. Yet the reality is that when the oppressed remove oppressors’ power, change is accomplished for all. Not only are the oppressed reclaiming their own humanity, but also they create the possibility for oppressors to rediscover and embrace their humanity, too. Whether oppressors take hold of their own humanity or pass off the stage of history in bitter, defeated bigotry is up to them.

Christianity must also face this choice, especially evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals’ support of the American establishment is nothing new: Christianity has a long history of being used to legitimize established orders. While enslaved Black people used Christianity as a means to survive and resist, many White people used Christianity to legitimize slavery and resist abolitionism. Today, too, many use Christianity to legitimize their homophobia and transphobia, their patriarchy and misogyny. I attended a conference this past month where many of the speakers voiced concerns for the future of Christianity and what can be done to keep it alive. Some said, “Let it die. Resurrection can only follow death.” But though this sound bite sounds right, it’s ill founded. Jesus didn’t die because he was a bigot, standing in solidarity with oppressors and justifying the domination of the vulnerable. He died because he stood in solidarity with the vulnerable against the status quo.

It’s time we also stood with the oppressed. If there is a God of the oppressed in our sacred text, we can only be standing with that God if we‘re also standing with the oppressed and working toward liberation with them. We will only be able to reclaim the humanity of Christianity if we as Christians are working alongside those who are working to liberate themselves.

I’m not saying Christianity is doomed. I’m saying that we have to stop caring whether we survive and choose instead the all-consuming preoccupation of standing with the vulnerable, alongside them and engaging the work of their liberation. If Christianity ceases to exist doing that work, then maybe there will be a resurrection for it. But a resurrection from any other type of institutional “death” is not a resurrection I’m interested in.

Resurrection that doesn’t follow standing with those on the undersides and edges of society isn’t authentic resurrection as defined by the Jesus story. If Christianity does not discover how to stand with women, people of color, immigrants, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people, it’s not a Christianity I want to be a part of. I’d rather follow Jesus and stand with the oppressed (Luke 4:18) than find a way for Christianity to continue in the old order.

In the Jewish prophetic, justice tradition, we find this ancient call to the Hebrew people:

“Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” (Isaiah 58:9-12)

Maybe we, too, might hear this call to do away with oppressing the vulnerable and live in solidarity with the liberation of the oppressed.

The one who finds one’s life will lose it, and the one who loses one’s life, for my sake [and the sake of the oppressed]‚ will find it. (Q 17:33)

HeartGroup Application

This week, take some time to contemplate Oscar Romero’s poem Taking the Long View:

Taking the Long View
by Oscar Romero

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
Which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything,
And there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
An opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
Between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
Ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Amen.

2. What speaks to you in Romero’s words? Is there encouragement, challenge, affirmation, inspiration?

3. Share your thoughts with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Keep living in love, participating the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation as we, together seek to make our world a safe, compassionate, just home for all.

Tonight, I’m in Asheville for our first 500:25:1 event. Send us lots of well wishes!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Taking One’s Cross

Grave yard full of crossesby Herb Montgomery

“Taking up one’s cross is not a call to patiently, passively endure, but to take hold of life and stand up against injustice even if there is a cost for doing so.”

Featured Text:

The one who does not take one’s cross and follow after me cannot be my disciple. Q 14:27

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:38: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Luke 14:27: “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Gospel of Thomas 55:2: “Jesus says: ‘And whoever . . . will not take up his cross as I do, will not be worthy of me.’”

Before we begin, and given the events of this past week here in the U.S., we at Renewed Heart Ministries reaffirm our commitment to stand with our transgender and gender nonconforming family and friends. We will continue working alongside each of you to end discrimination, transphobia and false gender constructs within our society. We value you and we are glad you are here. You are not alone. You are loved. You are worthy. And you Matter.

I have been waiting for months for us to get to this week’s saying.

Last fall, I was invited to a conference on nonviolence and the atonement. I chose to speak on violent forms of nonviolence: how atonement theories that treat the violent death of Jesus as salvific don’t bear nonviolent fruit toward the survivors of violence. We considered how penal substitution has produced violence, and we also weighed the violence that has come from more “nonviolent” theories such as moral influence and Christus Victor. I wish the recordings of those talks had been published. I will be giving a very similar presentation again this October and I will make sure that RHM publishes the recording.

This week’s saying is related to all of this. “Taking up one’s cross” has been used over and over to prioritize oppressors over survivors and to encourage the oppressed to passively and patiently endure. These ways of interpreting our saying this week have proven very convenient for oppressors and those who don’t want to disrupt the power imbalance of the status quo.

When one spouse suffers physical or emotional abuse at the hands of another, for example, how many times have Christian pastors counseled the abused spouse to “bear their cross,” be “like Jesus,” and simply “turn the other cheek”? We have covered previously in this series how turning the other cheek was for Jesus a call to creative, nonviolent forms of disruption, protest and resistance. It gave those pushed to the undersides and edges of society a way to reclaim and affirm themselves despite being dehumanized. This week, I want to suggest, as feminist and womanist scholars also do, that “taking up one’s cross” is not a call to patiently, passively endure, but to take hold of life and stand up against injustice even if there is a cost for doing so. This saying is not a call to passively suffer, but to protest even if the status quo threatens suffering.

There is a subtle difference, but the implications are huge. What we are discussing this week is called the myth of redemptive suffering. We have repeated Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker statement in their essay God So Loved The World? that by now most of you should have it memorized.  I have repeatedly used it this year to lead up to what our saying that are considering this week.

It is not acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not, Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering. If you believe that acceptance of suffering gives life, then your resources for confronting perpetrators of violence and abuse will be numbed.” (Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, pp. 1-30)

What was Jesus talking about, then, when he said “take up your own cross?”

First, Borg and Crossan’s correctly remind us that Jesus’ cross in the gospels was about participation, not substitution:

“For Mark, it is about participation with Jesus and not substitution by Jesus. Mark has those followers recognize enough of that challenge that they change the subject and avoid the issue every time. (Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem (Kindle Locations 1589-1593)

While I agree with Borg and Crossan’s about participation rather than substitution, I disagree with their interpretation that a cross (suffering) was an intrinsic part of following him. I do not subscribe to the idea that suffering is an intrinsic precursor of triumph or success. Suffering only enters into the picture of following Jesus if those benefitting from the status quo feel threatened by the changes that Jesus’ new social vision would make and threaten Jesus’ followers with a cross. In other words, being willing to take up one’s cross is not the call to be passive in the face of suffering, but to protest and resist in the face of being threatened with a cross.

Jesus could have very well said, “Anyone who is not willing to protest and resist, even in the face of a threatened cross, is not worthy of me.” “The cross” in this context does not mean remaining passive. It means being willing to endure the results of disrupting, confronting, resisting, and protesting injustice. The cross is not a symbol of passivity but of the consequences of resistance: it is a symbol of the suffering that those in power threaten protestors with to scare them into remaining passive. Remember, the question is not how much am I willing to suffer, but how badly do I want to live!

If those in power threaten you with a cross, then it become necessary for you to take up a cross to stand up against injustice. Otherwise, the cross never comes into the pictures. Protesting, for instance, does not always involve being arrested, but if it does, protest anyway! Just two weeks ago, Rev. Dr. William Barber II was arrested during a healthcare bill protest. Actor James Cromwell is in jail now for participating with others in an environmental protest in upstate New York.

The goal in scenarios like these is not to suffer, but to refuse to let go of life. Again, the question is not are you willing to suffer, but do you desire to fully live?

How one interprets this week’s saying has deep implications for survivors of relational violence, and for all who are engaging any form of social justice work. When those who feel threatened try to intimidate and silence your voice through fear of an imposed “cross,” this week’s saying calls us to count the cost and then refuse to let go of life. Do not be silenced. Reject death.

For clarity, let’s return to relational violence to illustrate. First there is the relational violence itself. Then we have a choice in our response:

Too often, Jesus’ teaching of taking up the cross has been interpreted so that the abuse itself is the cross.

Instead, consider that the abuse is not the cross but an initial injustice. In this model, the cross is the threats one receives for standing up to or resisting injustice.

 

My interpretation of this week’s saying is that Jesus is not encouraging his followers to remain passive, but to resist. And if a cross comes into the picture, then resist anyway. Jesus’ nonviolence was rooted in resistance, and sometimes change happens before there is a cross. So bearing a cross is not intrinsic to following Jesus. It only enters the picture when those who are threatened choose to add it.

Jesus was proposing a new social vision, a way of doing life as a community, that threatened those most benefited by systems of domination and exploitation. The way of Jesus was rooted in resource-sharing, wealth redistribution, and bringing those on the edges of society into a shared table where their voices could be heard and valued too. Did the early Jesus movement threaten those in positions of power and privilege? You bet. Jesus, this week, seems to be saying, when those in power choose to threaten crosses for those standing up to systemic injustice, don’t let go. Keep holding on to hope even in the face of impossible odds. Keep holding on to life—life to the full.

“The one who does not take one’s cross and follow after me cannot be my disciple.” Q 14:27

HeartGroup Application

This week, take time to thoughtfully read and consider Brown and Parker’s entire essay For God So Loved the World?

  1. Read the essay.
  2. Take notes. Journal thoughts, questions, challenges, new insights.
  3. Pick three things from your notes to share and discuss with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.
  4. Share!

I agree with Brown and Parker. Their interpretation may be subtle, but it makes all the difference in the world in how we respond to suffering and oppression.

Next weekend is our first 500:25:1weekend event in Asheville, NC. And we’re scheduling many more after this one. I’m so excited to be moving in this new direction with our community. If you haven’t signed up to be part of making these events happen you can do so at http://bit.ly/RHM500251. There you can also find out why we are making these changes, how support these new weekend events, and most importantly, how you can have us come to your community too.

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

Keep living love right there where you are. And know you are not alone.  As we are engaging the teachings of Jesus, seek out ways you, too, can participate in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. 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.