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

by Herb Montgomery | June 16, 2018

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

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

 


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


 

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

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

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

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

Within Judaism at that time, there was also some understanding of forms of nonviolent resistance to Rome already being practiced by some Jewish people. In 26 CE, during the time of Jesus, Josephus tells us about a Standards (Ensigns) incident that took place in Jerusalem where Rome sought to place a Roman Standard in Jerusalem itself. Viewing the Standard as a violation of the Torah against “images” or “idols,” Jewish adherents used a form of nonviolent resistance to stop these Standards from being posted. Josephus tells us, “At this the Jews as though by agreement fell to the ground in a body and bent their necks, shouting that they were ready to be killed rather than transgress the Law.” (War 2:175-203)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” (Mark 11:11) 

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

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

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

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

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

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

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

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

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

Gandhi again reminds us:

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

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

“With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised out- stretched – maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not – but always outstretched . . . With this hand we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’” (p. 69)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly. 

I’ll see you next week with part 2.


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

Solidarity with the Crucified Community

by Herb Montgomery | June 1, 2018

Pictures of an x on a tree among a forest of trees

Photo by David Paschke on Unsplash

 


“When it’s safe to stand alongside those being marginalized, to amplify their voices, to hand them the mic, you will no longer be needed.”


“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)

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

In recent articles on pyramids, circles, and social structure, I mentioned that the term “sinner” was used in Jesus’ society to push people to the edges and lower sections of their community.

Ched Myers uses the debate between Pharisees and Saducees over whether grain was clean or impure to illustrate how this worked.

“According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. The passage, however, does not distinguish between seed planted in the soil and seed detached from the soil . . . In years of poor harvests, a frequent occurrence owing to poor soil, drought, warfare, locust plagues and poor methods of farming, this text was a source of dispute. Why? During such lean years, grain was imported from Egypt. But the Egyptians irrigated their fields (putting water on seed) so that their grain was suspect, perhaps even unclean. The Sadducees judged that such grain was unclean and anyone consuming it also became unclean. They were quite willing to pay skyrocketing prices commanded by scarce domestic grain because they could afford it. . . . One senses economic advance being sanctioned, since the Sadducees were often the large landowners whose crops increased in value during such times. By contrast the Pharisees argued that the Pentateuchal ordinance applied only to seed detached from the soil; therefore . . . one could be observant and still purchase Egyptian grain.” (in Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p. 76)

I’ve covered this in The Lost Coin and in the presentation Jesus’ Preferential Option for the Marginalized. People used the pejorative label of “sinner” to other another human being and to limit their voice in the community. The writers of the Jesus story go to great length to communicate that the ones the religious and political leaders of that time had labelled as “sinners” were the ones Jesus included and also centered as he called for a new social order that favored them. Here are just a few examples:

Matthew 9:13—“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

[Remember that Jesus is using the labels of “righteous” and “sinner” as they were used in his society, not as many Christians use them today. Those labelled “righteous” by those in power threatened their political and economic structures the least and benefitted from them. The label “sinner” was used to silence the voices of those who would have protested either their own exploitation or another’s.]

Matthew 11:19—“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Mark 2:15-16—“While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”

Luke 5:30—“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

Luke 19:7—“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’”

The people Jesus ate with weren’t sinners ontologically; they were sinners politically, economically, and socially. In this context, therefore, it’s not accurate to respond, “Well, we are all sinners.” We must recognize how the label of sinner was used against some people. When particular human beings are being targeted and marginalized, it’s not enough to call for universal grace. Instead we ought to call for justice. A breach in relationship happens when one person marginalizes another and labels them sinner. A person may be a sinner, but they are labelled that way to religiously legitimate injustice committed against them. Gustavo Gutiérrez reminds us, “All injustice is a breach with God” (in A Theology of Liberation, p.139). It’s a breach with God because it is a breach with our fellow human beings.

In last month’s recommended reading book for RHM, Kelly Brown Douglas’ Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Douglas reminds us:

“In Jesus’ first-century world, crucifixion was the brutal tool of social-political power. It was reserved for slaves, enemy soldiers, and those held in the highest contempt and lowest regard in society. To be crucified was, for the most part, an indication of how worthless and devalued an individual was in the eyes of established power. At the same time, it indicated how much of a threat that person was believed to pose. Crucifixion was reserved for those who threatened the “peace” of the day. It was a torturous death that was also meant to send a message: disrupt the Roman order in any way, this too will happen to you. As there is a lynched class of people, there was, without doubt, a crucified class of people. The crucified class in the first-century Roman world was the same as the lynched class today. It consisted of those who were castigated and demonized as well as those who defied the status quo. Crucifixion was a stand-your-ground type of punishment for the treasonous offense of violating the rule of Roman “law and order.
 . . . That Jesus was crucified affirms his absolute identification with the Trayvons, the Jordans, the Renishas, the Jonathans, and all the other victims of the stand-your-ground-culture war. Jesus’ identification with the lynched/ crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the “crucified class” of his day. (p. 171)

Jesus did not stand in solidarity with the marginalized “crucified class” in secret. He did not do so diplomatically or with an eye toward political expediency. He did so openly, publicly, and transparently. We see this in the following story in Mark’s gospel:

Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. (Mark 3:1-5)

Consider that phrase, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Jesus knew that what he was teaching and whom he was standing with was going to cost him. He could have met the man at the back of the synagogue, or pulled him into a private room where he could “behind the scenes” engage the work of this liberation. But no, Jesus met and healed him right there, in front of everyone, with intention. 

I read this story often when I’m tempted to value protecting my own privilege over the people who today need others to speak alongside them. When it’s safe to stand alongside those being marginalized, to amplify their voices, to hand them the mic, I will no longer be needed. To quote the 1980s synth-pop classic “Take On Me” by A-ha, “It’s not better to be safe than sorry.”

Does open solidarity with those being marginalized come with a cost? You bet it does. According to the story in Mark, the immediate push back for Jesus’ public witness to this man’s liberation was that the religious and political leaders “went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” And this is only in Mark’s third chapter. The leaders are threatened by Jesus’ public and transparent inclusion of those they excluded from the very beginning of Mark’s story.

All of this raises the question: who are we known to stand in solidarity with? The status quo? Or those beloved people who daily face oppression, exploitation, or marginalization within our status quo? 

“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)

HeartGroup Application

This past month, on the same day the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem, over 60 nonviolent Palestinian protestors including children in Gaza were murdered by Israeli snipers. (Gaza begins to bury its dead after deadliest day in years)

Here are some things you and your HeartGroup can do:

1. Participate in protests in your area in response to what is taking place in Gaza. Voice your objection publicly. 

2. Use your social media platform to bring awareness to what is happening.

3. Contact your federal, state and local representatives. Write a letter, an email, or better yet, call their office.

4. Donate to charities.

You will need to do your own due diligence and research finding the right charity. Find a charity that has people with feet on the ground who can evidence that your gift will reach the people who need it. One charity that does meet these criteria is UNWRA.

6. Talk to your family and friends.

Talk to your family and friends to raise awareness and have them join you in the above actions.

7. Support peace-building initiatives.

Support Muslim and Jewish organizations that are working to bring peace while practicing a preferential option for the vulnerable. Standing against the violence in Gaza is about standing up against oppression, colonization, discrimination, and inequity.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are, keep living in love.

Keep living in resistance, survival, 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.”

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.”

 

Pyramids, Circles and a Shared Table: Jesus’ Vision for Human Community (Part 2)

Jesus’ shared table community was an expression of voluntary “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

by Herb Montgomery | May 10, 2018

photo of rustic table set for many people

Photo credit: Hanna Busing; Unsplash


“Yet too often, historically, economic reforms have come at the expense of those barely getting by while the wealthy find new ways to profit. Jesus’ teachings are about breaking the cycle.”


 

“Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’” (Mark 10:17-21)

Last week we looked at various shapes that human societal structures can take and compared them to Jesus’ vision for human community, a shared table. We considered that Jesus’ teachings were political, with an economic emphasis on distributive justice, not merely distant, purely religious theology.

I also want to be careful not to spiritualize Jesus’ vision. Jesus wasn’t telling us how to structure churches or worship services. His vision for human community was much larger: concerned with the structures of human community that create systemic oppression and social, political, and economic exploitation.

Jesus spoke about economics more than any other topic. He did not propose a system of charity, with the haves giving to the have-nots and leaving the system that creates haves and have-nots untouched. No. The vision of Jesus that we get from the stories was of an entirely different social order, one where no one has too much while others don’t have enough, where “sun” and “rain” were distributed justly on all. (See Matthew 5:45)

As he taught his followers in Luke: 

“‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven [by giving to the poor] that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is [in the poor], there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:32-34)

It is appropriate for Jesus to address his audience’s fear here. Fear is the primary emotion that causes us to hoard more than we need for today. Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid.” He then reassures his followers, “It’s the Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This is not a world where the haves have all their possessions stripped away and given to the have nots. This is not a reversal of fortunes, but a redistribution that makes sure everyone has enough. Our fear of the future is replaced by a trust in our community—that we will take care of each other. 

Jesus was calling those who had more than they needed to liquidate those properties and give to those whom the system had impoverished. This was a kind of wealth redistribution: sharing. Poverty is not the result of chance. It’s is the end result of how economic systems are structured. Chance and accidents will happen, but Jesus was offering a way to include everyone rather than benefit a few at the expense of the many. At its foundation, Jesus’ vision was a call to redistribute hoarded wealth, and his shared table taught shared economics.

Any time we speak of wealth redistribution, those who barely have enough start getting upset. They clutch the little they have and say you’re not going to take it away from me and give it to someone else. This is understandable. But Jesus wasn’t speaking to people who were just breaking even. In Luke, Jesus is speaking to those who have considerably more than what they needed. Jesus’ vision was a social and economic order that benefitted everyone, together, where everyone took care of one another. Yet too often, historically, economic reforms have come at the expense of those barely getting by while the wealthy find new ways to profit. Jesus’ teachings are about breaking the cycle. Jesus’ shared table was rooted in equity. Everyone might not necessarily have the same, but no one would go without.

In 1902, a Russian naturalist and anarchist philosopher named Peter Kropotkin wrote an essay collection titled Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. In these essays, Kropotkin described mutually beneficial cooperation and reciprocity in both the animal world and human society. What he discovered was contrary to social Darwinism. The societies and species that were the “fittest” were not necessarily the strongest, where the strong ate the weak. The fittest communities practiced mutual aid. The strong took care of the weak. These species had the highest rates of “survival.”

What developed out of Jesus’ teachings was a community that sought to practice that kind of voluntary, non authoritarian, mutual aid. 

Ability and Need

In the book of Acts, which is believed to have been written by the same author as Luke’s gospel, we find that the very first fruit of embracing Jesus’ vision for human society, his shared table, was economic. The very first change that followers made when they were baptized into the Jesus community of the 1st Century was to sell your extra so others would have enough or receive from others so that you had enough.

“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:41-47, emphasis added.)

Two chapters later we discover that these believers had completely eliminated poverty within their growing but small community.

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32-35, emphasis added.)

In this community, each person contributed “as each one was able” (Acts 11:29). And within this community, each person was given to “according to their need.” (Acts 2:45; 4:35)  Jesus’ shared table community was an expression of voluntary “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

The Jewish Sayings of Jesus contain the earliest version of Jesus’ instructions to those who creating these community structures. We spent an entire two years on this collection of sayings found in both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels (see Sayings Gospel Q: A Two Year Journey Reaches Its End)

If you are new to Q, an excellent place to begin is James Robinson’s The Gospel of Jesus: A Historical Search for the Original Good News. I want to share two sections from Robinson that give insight on what we are discussing this week: 

“His basic issue, still basic today, is that most people have solved the human dilemma for themselves at the expense of everyone else, putting them down so as to stay afloat themselves. This vicious, antisocial way of coping with the necessities of life only escalates the dilemma for the rest of society. All of us know the result all too well, for we have experienced it ourselves in one form or another: the breakdown of mutually supportive human relations that results in the distinction between the haves and have-nots; the ruling class subjugating serfs, sharecroppers, and blue-collar workers; the battle of the sexes; dictatorships of one kind or the other; exploitation in the workplace; and on and on. (The Gospel of Jesus: A Historical Search for the Original Good News; Kindle Locations 138-142)

“By using the ‘kingdom of God,’ Jesus put his ideal for society in an antithetical relation both to other political and social systems and to individual self-interest (“looking out for number one”). The human dilemma is, in large part, that we are each other’s fate. We become the tool of evil that ruins another person as we look out for ourselves, having long abandoned any youthful idealism we might once have cherished. But if we each would cease and desist from pushing the other down to keep ourselves up, then the vicious cycle would be broken. Society would become mutually supportive rather than self-destructive. This is what Jesus was up to . . . Put in language derived from his sayings: I am hungry because you hoard food. You are cold because I hoard clothing. Our dilemma is that we all hoard supplies in our backpacks and put our trust in our wallets! Such “security” should be replaced by God reigning, which means both what I trust God to do (to activate you to share food with me) and what I hear God telling me to do (to share clothes with you). We should not carry money while bypassing the poor or wear a backpack with extra clothes and food while ignoring the cold and hungry lying in the gutter. 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”).” (Kindle Locations 56-77) 

Equity often feels like oppression to those who have more than they need. Many have solved the problem of future uncertainty by hoarding for themselves today, others be damned. For them, this is not about possessions as much as it about surviving if something bad should happen to them in the future. I believe Jesus realized this. His vision for human society was to create a community where people will care for you if some ill fate should impact you in the future, and, right now, you provide for someone devastated by ill fate today. 

Consider the ravens. Consider the lilies. The system Jesus taught where we take care of one another is a much better solution for the future than fear. Why not give it a try?

“Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’” (Mark 10.17-21)

HeartGroup Application

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells one of the wealthy, religious and political elites, “But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you” (Luke 11:41).

1. What does this mean for us today? Did Jesus really mean that “everything” is tied to our generosity toward those our present system impoverishes? It doesn’t matter why someone is othered and marginalized, whether because of race, gender, education, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion, ability or whatever! Everything is connected to our attitudes toward those who face exclusion and/or exploitation: whether we are generous and compassionate or participate in the exploitative status quo. Discuss this with your HeartGroup.

2. Over the past few weeks, we’ve discussed Jesus’ preferential option for the marginalized and vulnerable. What does it look like to learn to listen to and believe the experiences of those the present structure disadvantages and exploits? Discuss this with your HeartGroup.

3. Is it enough to grant everyone an equal opportunity to compete in a system that still produces haves and have-nots? Did Jesus envision a different social structure where no one became a have-not? What examples do we have of attempts to create societies like that in the past? What prevented these societies from being successful? What external or internal challenges were involved? Discuss these questions with your HeartGroup.

Pick a practice you shared in number 2 above and practice it this week. What difference does it makes in your “generosity” toward the marginalized. Experiment with it. See if it’s true that in creating a world where generosity and compassion are exercised toward those exploited, “everything becomes clean.”

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

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.”

Pyramids, Circles and a Shared Table: Jesus’ Vision for Human Community (Part 1)

by Herb Montgomery | May 3, 2018

Pyramid of Capitalism


“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, at least not much more than his predecessor Hillel did. He did challenge the Jewish elites of his time, much more than Hillel did. As we’ve discussed before, Hillel made concessions, such as the prozbul, that centered the wealthy while endeavoring to take care of the poor. Jesus’ teachings centered the poor and gave them the entire “kingdom.” Jesus’ teachings were political.”


Luke 6:20-26: “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.
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.’”

The domination structure of Jesus’ society was similar to ours today. Its structure was a combination of two two-dimensional shapes, a triangle and a circle. 

Let’s talk about the circle first. 

Circles have an inside and an outside. Societies shaped in the form of a circle can have a strongly defined border that distinguishes between insiders and outsiders. They can also have certain tests to decide who’s in and who’s out. Societal circles can also have people whose job it is to patrol the border to make sure no one from the outside is included and everyone knows when someone who was previously an insider no longer should be.

Control for circular social structures rests in the center of the circle. The more one adheres to the rules and identity of the circle, the closer one is to the center. The more someone varies, the more they are pushed to the margins of the circle. Even within the circle, among those who are insiders, some people will find themselves somewhere between the center of the circle and the edges.

What about the triangle?

The circle and the triangle are both hierarchical structures. Where the hierarchy in the circle is from the center out toward the margins, triangular societies have a top comprised of a few elites and a base composed of the majority. In triangles that practice domination and control, the closer one is to the top, the more power, privilege, control and ability to dominate others one also possesses. Your social location in the triangle determines the level to which you experience these privileges, and you can find yourself closer to the top in some areas of your life but closer to the bottom of the triangle in others. The triangle typically is structured to benefit those at the top at the expense and exploitation of those at the bottom. 

What happens when we combine these structures?

The combination of these ways of structuring human society is a cone. Within this cone, the closer one is to the center, the closer one also is to the top. The more one is marginalized, the more one finds themselves at the bottom of their society.

This hybrid of the circle and triangle shapes, the cone, is the shape of the society Jesus lived in in the 1st Century. It’s also the shape of many of our religious and civil societies today. In Luke’s version of the Jesus story, Jesus states that people his society structure had made poor, hungry, or weep would be specifically “blessed” by his vision for transforming human society. Jesus wasn’t saying it’s a blessing to be on the margins or at the bottom of society. He was saying that if you’re on the margins, you who his gospel was especially for. As we discussed in Directed Good News, those on the margins in Jesus’ society heard his gospel as good news. 

Matthew’s version of the Jesus story backs this up too. As we discussed last month in A Preferential Option for the Vulnerable, people the system had left too broken and impoverished in their spirit to keep trying, those whom the system had steamrolled over, those who hungered and thirsted for the world to be put right—these were the ones Jesus’ vision for humanity was especially targeted at (see Matthew 5:3; Luke 1:80; Matthew 5:5 and 5:6.[1]) These were the ones who had been labeled as “sinners” by those at the center/top of their society, and who, because of that labelling, had been pushed to the edges and underside of their community. They were drawn to the hope for change in Jesus’ gospel: “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) The term “sinners” is not a universal term here. It is used pejoratively to push some to the margins and bottom of the cone. It was a label those in power used to other people. 

Jesus’ vision for human community, his shared table, specifically inclused those his cone-shaped society had excluded. It also had an economic component. Consider the reversal of economic exploitation and reparation found in Luke’s story of an oppressor who embraced Jesus’ teachings.

“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’ But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’” (Luke 19:7-8)

Jesus’ shared table required those at the top/center of their societal cone to pay reparations to those whom they had exploited and pushed down. Tax collectors were economically part of the elite, but socially and politically within Jewish culture they were pushed to the outside and labeled as sinners because of their occupational cooperation with the Empire subjugating Judea and Galilee. They were privileged in certain areas of their lives but marginalized in others.

Jesus’ shared table was also political.

When I use the term “political,” 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 Jesus was not a religious figure as much as he was a political one. He did not fundamentally challenge his Jewish religion, at least not much more than his predecessor Hillel did. He did challenge the Jewish elites of his time, much more than Hillel did. As we’ve discussed before, Hillel made concessions, such as the prozbul, that centered the wealthy while endeavoring to take care of the poor. Jesus’ teachings centered the poor and gave them the entire “kingdom.” Jesus’ teachings were political.

Recently, while chatting with a friend, I bumped into an often repeated misconception of how things worked in Jesus’ society. My friend claimed that Jesus never challenged the Roman civil government but only challenged the religious establishment of Judea. My friend went on to state that Jesus’ followers should ignore the state and simply focus on bringing about religious reform within their own traditions. 

This is far from how Jewish society actually functioned in the 1st Century. Today our culture believes that church and state should be separated. But Jesus’ society didn’t have these distinctions. My friend claimed that Jesus was only focused on impacting the religious views of his community, especially as they related to the temple. But this simply isn’t true, historically. 

First, the temple was not solely religious, and it was not merely the center of the Jewish “church.” The temple was the center of the Jewish state. The priests and the Sanhedrin were civil authorities, not only religious ones. In 1st Century Judea, there was not a separation between “church and state” or religious and civil duty as we understand either today. The Torah governed both, and they were not two distinct areas of life. They were just life. 

The temple received taxes that were to be redistributed to the poor. That’s why the temple functioned as a centralized banking system through which money lenders lent their monies. When the poor took over the temple in the 60s CE, the very first thing they did was to burn the debt ledgers of the temple, which until then recorded all loans. By storming the temple, they forced political and economic change: a year of Jubilee and the forgiveness of all debts. 

Secondly, Jesus was a Jewish laborer, not a Roman citizen. He didn’t have access to Rome to protest for change. But he did have access to his own state authority, the temple in Jerusalem. Note that even this distinction between the temple and Rome is not completely accurate either. Rome governed Judea through the temple. Rome determined who would be High Priest each year, and it was the temple that funneled collected tribute back to Rome. The Jewish aristocracy gained privilege and power by cooperating with Rome, and Rome received a degree of control over Judea by using the Jewish temple state in Jerusalem. 

So when Jesus overturned tables in the temple-state, this was not only a religious protest; it was political protest as well. Jesus staged his demonstration in the temple with the money changers in solidarity with and on behalf of the poor who were being economically exploited by the Temple-state. Jesus was indicting both Rome and his own state. This is why his execution in response to the temple demonstration was at the hand of Rome, on a Roman cross. 

Ched Myers confirms this in his commentary on the book of Mark, and notes the deep implications for all who should choose to follow this political Jesus.

“Jesus has revealed that his messiahship means political confrontation with, not rehabilitation of, the imperial state. Those who wish to ‘come after him’ will have to identify themselves with his subversive program. The stated risk is that the disciple will face the test of loyalty under interrogation by state authorities.” (Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, p. 247)

When answering the question of who should get what, Jesus stated his political views:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is [in people not profit], there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12.32-34)

The poor, the marginalized, the pushed down, these were those to whom Jesus’ political views were good news. What he taught them was the gospel of hope. Gustavo Gutierrez accurately reminded us that this hope is more than a forward expectation of charity. This hope is for the creation of an entirely different social order:

“Love of neighbor is an essential component of Christian life. But as long as I apply that term only to the people who cross my path and come asking me for help, my world will remain pretty much the same. Individual almsgiving and social reformism is a type of love that never leaves its own front porch . . . On the other hand my world will change greatly if I go out to meet other people on their path and consider them as my neighbor, as the good Samaritan did… The gospel tells us that the poor are the supreme embodiment of our neighbor. It is this option that serves as the focus for a new way of being human and Christian in today’s Latin America. But the existence of the poor . . . is not neutral on the political level or innocent of ethical implications. Poor people are by-products of the system under which we live and for which we are responsible . . . That is why the poverty of the poor is not a summons to alleviate their plight with acts of generosity but rather a compelling obligation to fashion an entirely different social order.” (Gustavo Gutiérrez; Liberation Praxis and Christian Faith, p. 14)

When we follow Jesus, we don’t build a pyramid, a circle, or a cone. We build a shared table.

“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 6:20-22)

HeartGroup Application

  1. Go through the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and find five of Jesus’ political views.
  2. What difference does it make to see Jesus not simply as a religious figure but as a political figure as well? What difference does it make to see Jesus’ temple protest not only as a religious protest but also as a political protest of those in power in response to their economic exploitation of the poor?
  3. Is there a difference between working toward a politic of distributive justice where everyone is safe and has enough, and there is equity, protection and compassion, and Christians wanting to co-opt political power in the spirit of domination and subjugation to legislate their moral views? Discuss this with your HeartGroup.

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

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

I love each you dearly.

Another world is possible. 

I’ll see you next week.


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

[1]
Matthew 5:3—“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Luke 1:80—And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.

Matthew 5:4-5— Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

Matthew 5:6—Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

It’s Easier to Build a Religion than to Build a Better World.

by Herb Montgomery | April 20, 2018

Picture of Cathedral

Photo by Alexander Watts on Unsplash


“Yet, it is far easier for those with power and privilege to merely worship Jesus, to preach a gospel about Jesus, and build a religion around Jesus, than it is for them to hear the gospel to the marginalized and pushed down that Jesus taught and build a better world now.” 


“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46)

On April 4, many people around the world observed the 50-year anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One poem that I return to each year on both April 4 and January 21 (MLK Day) is Carl Wendell Hines, Jr.’s poem “A dead man’s dream.” It’s quoted in full by Vincent Harding in Martin Luther King: An Inconvenient Hero:

“A dead man’s dream”

by Carl Wendell Hines Jr.

“Now that he is safely dead, 
Let us praise him.
Build monuments to his glory.
Sing Hosannas to his name.
Dead men make such convenient heroes.
For they cannot rise to challenge the images 
That we might fashion from their lives.
It is easier to build monuments 
Than to build a better world.
So now that he is safely dead, 
We, with eased consciences will 
Teach our children that he was a great man,
Knowing that the cause for which he 
Lived is still a cause
And the dream for which he died is still a dream.
A dead man’s dream.”

(Carl Wendell Himes, Jr., “Now That He Is Safely Dead,” in Drum Major for a Dream, p. 23.; quoted by Vincent Harding, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero , rev. ed., Kindle Edition Locations 2430-2431)

Why do we turn those who threatened their social order into revered or even worshipped heroes after they’ve died? Why do so many of us praise these controversial figures from our history rather than following them? Today those in power ignore King’s radicalness, especially from 1965 to 1968, and his ideas during those years are still not taught to new generations. Yet King is lifted up by those in power as an American hero. If the King of 1968 were still alive today, he would be one of the loudest critiques of America’s capitalism, continued racism, and militarism (both domestic and foreign). The line in Hines’ poem that jumps out at me each time I read it is “it is easier to build monuments than to build a better world.”

The pattern of turning into heroes those who once spoke unpopular truth to power is part of the Jesus story as well. In both Matthew’s and Luke’s version of the story, those in power who were threatened by Jesus’ gospel to the poor and marginalized, built monuments to the prophets of old even though their actions repeated the very history that killed the prophets who critiqued those in power within their own society to an early death.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31)

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

In this week’s featured text above, the question is asked, “Why do you call me Lord (worship or revere me) and not do what I say?” This could be said about those who have revered the Hebrew prophets, Dr. King, Jesus, and many more in history, but not followed their teaching.

Consider just three areas of Dr. King’s teachings that are not ignored but profoundly contradicted by those in power today who publicly revere his memory.

King’s Anti Capitalism

“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.” (Speech to the Negro American Labor Council, 1961)

“We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.” (Report to SCLC staff, May 1967)

“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.” (Speech to SCLC Board, March 30, 1967)

When King was saying these things he wasn’t labelled as an American hero to be celebrated with an American federal holiday. King was labelled as the greatest threat to America. One of many reasons being King’s critique of the U.S. economic order that makes a few in our society inconceivably wealthy while forcing others into poverty. The head of the F.BI.’s domestic intelligence division, J. Edgar Hoover, labelled King “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.” (Aug. 30, 1963, post-speech memo: “Communist Party, USA, Negro Question.”)

King’s Anti Militarism

Again In the book, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, Vincent Harding writes about how Martin Luther King, Jr. Day originally included the pomp of the very military King decried and was instituted by the very government whose global policies he denounced. 

“Now that King seems safely dead, now that he has been properly installed in the national pantheon—to the accompaniment of military bands, with the U.S. Marine Corps chorus singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and the cadenced marching of the armed forces color guards— we think we know the man’s impact and influence. Didn’t President Reagan sign a bill authorizing a national holiday honoring this teacher of nonviolence (shortly after the president had sent the comrades of the singers and musicians to carry out an armed attack on Grenada, one of the smallest countries in the world)? And didn’t Vice-President Bush go to Atlanta to help inaugurate the King national holiday in January 1986 (presumably taking time off from his general oversight of the murderous Nicaraguan counterrevolutionary forces who were being brutally manipulated in this government’s cynical attempt to destroy what was one of the most hopeful revolutions for the poor in the Americas)? [Harding, Vincent. Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, rev. ed. (Kindle Edition Locations 1271-1278).

King’s Anti-Racism

The actions of the current US administration have given rise to hate speech and the expression of a myriad of violent phobias. Dog whistles have caused those like David Duke to see in the administration a champion for making America White again, and those in the administration have repeated and publicly condemned those who walk in the path of King’s legacy (Colin Kaepernick is just one example) and protest modern expressions of the very same injustices King protested. 

Yet on the fiftieth anniversary of King’s assassination, both the American President and the Vice President tweeted:

“Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Earlier this year I spoke about Dr. King’s legacy of justice and peace, and his impact on uniting Americans. #MLK50 Proclamation: 45.wh.gov/DrKing50th” —President Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 4, 2018

“50 years ago today, Dr. King’s life was tragically cut short – but that did not stop his immortal words, his courageous example and his faith from inspiring generations of Americans. Today we honor the man and the Dream. #MLK50” — Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) April 4, 2018

(An article worth reading on this is Dave Zirin’s article, “Donald Trump and Mike Pence Have No Business Speaking About Martin Luther King Jr.”)

In this context, read again Jesus’ words in Matthew:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31)

Jesus

This brings me to another thought this year that weighs heavily on me: We have done a very similar thing to the historical Jesus that we have done with Dr. King. Today we could, in Hines’ fashion, say about Jesus and the religion that has been created around him, “It is easier to build a world religion than to build a better world.”

Recently I sat in my local town hall and listened to a panel of young people including my daughter representing our local March For Our Lives campaign. These young people posed questions to those who are currently running for political election in our May 8 primary. 

One of the candidates had me on the floor. In a pious yet uninformed spirit, this candidate said that the problem in our societies is not that we need more laws but that we need a “return to God.” They said they were a “Christian” and that they felt the way to solve’ our social challenges was for “our society to return to the path” of Jesus—by implication the way or teachings of Jesus.

While I agree that Jesus’ teachings of liberation from systemic oppression, and survival, resistance, reparation, and transformation can still speak to society’s challenges, I was concerned about the contradiction between the candidate’s statement and everything else they stated. If I had to choose between someone who religiously worshiped Jesus as they passed through this world on their way to “heaven” and a secular candidate, atheist or agnostic like Kurt Vonnegut, for example, who was genuinely aligned with Jesus’ actual ethics and teachings and wrestling with how to apply them to our life with the marginalized and oppressed, I’d have to pick the latter. There are many sectors of the Christian religion that deeply contradict Jesus’ actual teachings. Consider just the following passages from the early church.

Anti Capitalism

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33)

“The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea.” (Acts 11:29, emphasis added)

“They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:45, emphasis added)

“And put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:35, emphasis added)

“That there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales.” (Acts 4:34)

Nonviolence, Mutual Aid and Enemy Love

“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)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even gentiles do that?” (Matthew 5:38-48)

Solidarity with the Societally Marginalized

“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Luke 5:30)

 “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

Conclusion

Some who called Jesus “Lord” did also embrace his teachings. And there are some today who embrace him, too. The story of Zacchaeus represents them:

“But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’” (Luke 19:8)

Yet, it is far easier for those with power and privilege to merely worship Jesus, to preach a gospel about Jesus, and build a religion around Jesus, than it is for them to hear the gospel to the marginalized and pushed down that Jesus taught and build a better world now.

Both King and Jesus were radicals and both have been moderated or muted since their deaths.

Both leave us with the call to engage, apply, and live out their teachings—to “follow” them—not simply build monuments to them.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven . . . Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

HeartGroups Application 

1. Which teachings of Jesus’ do you find challenging, if any?

2. Which teachings of Jesus do you think challenge the pursut of justice today, and which teachings do you see as supporting our justice work today?

3. Discuss your answers with your HeartGroup this upcoming week. How can your group more deeply engage the teachings found in the Jesus story as we make our world a safer, just, more compassionate world for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly.

Another world is possible.

I’ll see you next week.


To support these weekly podcasts and eSights and help us grow, go to 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.”

A Preferential Option for the Vulnerable

by Herb Montgomery | March 30, 2018

City at night behind a fence

Photo by Zac Ong on Unsplash


“To have a preference is to have a greater liking for one alternative over another or others. This is not exclusive, but rather points to who should first have our solidarity.”


Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

This week I want to discuss what liberation theologians such as Gustav Gutierrez call Jesus’ “preferential option for the poor.” Let’s consider a broader preferential option that includes all who are vulnerable: people who are vulnerable economically and also people vulnerable because of their race, gender, orientation, ability, age, gender identity and expression, their level of education, or any other basis for oppression.

I remember standing on the lawn of Baltimore’s city hall with my daughter when she was in sixth grade, the weekend after Baltimore police murdered Freddie Grey. She stood holding a sign she had made while I looked up at snipers who lined the upper ledges of the building surrounding that lawn.

As we lined to the speakers addressing the crowd, I saw that much of what was being said was not registering with her, but for me it was resonating deeply. With the clarity that only comes from experiencing oppression for oneself, speakers repeatedly drew the connection between economic and racial oppression in the U.S. and around the globe. It’s not enough to solve poverty for some people and exclude others from that solution, especially if your economic solutions exclude some based on their race or ethnicity. We can’t afford to solve economic exploitation for some if those solutions come at the price of exploitating others whom we deem as different. It’s also not enough to simply teach a preferential option for some who are poor. We must enlarge our preferential option to include all who are targeted and made vulnerable by the status quo.

But before we do that, let’s unpack what is meant by this phrase preferential option for the poor.

The Poor 

Although there are many different types of poverty, the “poor” in this phrase first addresses people who experience material poverty. We must be careful not to romanticize the reality of poverty. For most of those who are materially poor around the world, poverty means death. As Gustav Gutiérrez says, “It is death, death before one’s time.” For theists who believe in a God who is life, or the giver of life, this death, and thus this poverty, is contrary to a God who is life.

Material poverty can take different forms and result from many different causes. At its core, though, material poverty is an expression of marginalization. Many people view those who are materially poor as insignificant, objectify them, and consider them non-persons. This marginalization calls us to consider the connection between marginalization based on poverty and other forms of marginalization such as those based on gender, race, sexual identity/orientation, etc. Addressing the complex nature of poverty can include charity for  mitigating harm while we work toward a just society, but it is vital that we don’t stop at charity and think our work is done. We must also identify and resist the structures that create poverty, and we need philosophical, social, and scientific tools to analyze what makes people poor systemically and institutionally.

Option 

The word “option” in our phrase does not mean that it is optional, something we could do without. It implies that we can make an intentional choice from a range of possibilities. It means making a commitment to stand in solidarity with and work alongside the poor. This does not mean we become the “savior” of the poor or do-gooders. The “option” is to recognize that we reclaim our own humanity as others reclaim theirs, and we begin to see our connectedness. We live into that connection. We begin to see, love, and engage others as ourselves.

Preferential

To have a preference is to have a greater liking for one alternative over another or others. This is not exclusive, but rather points to who should first have our solidarity. Jesus taught this with this famous phrase, “Last shall be first. And the first shall be last.” (Matthew 20:16) He demonstrated this in his favor toward poor, hungry, weeping, and hated people in Luke’s sermon on the plain and the woes he proclaimed against their exploiters. Think of imbalanced scales. To rectify an imbalance one has to apply greater weight to the side that’s up in the air to bring the scales back to center. Jesus’ enemies also repeatedly critiqued his table fellowship with those who were socially marginalized. Jesus modeled a bias or preference that chose the side of the poor.

Let’s look at several examples in Mark and Luke.

In Mark, Jesus also calls the wealthy to follow him in his preferential option for the poor:

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21; cf. Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22)

Jesus took the side of a poor widow over even the central structure of his society’s political and ideological life—the Temple:

But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. (Mark 12:42-43; cf. Luke 21:2-3)

As Ched Myers explains, this widow was being “impoverished by her obligations to the temple cultus . . . The temple has robbed this woman of her very means of livelihood. Like the scribal class, it no longer protects widows, but exploits them” (in Binding the Strong Man, p. 321-322). Another author states, “Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it” (A. Wright; The Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament? A Matter of Context, p. 262).

In Matthew, Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and vulnerable is the sign of confirmation to be shared with the imprisoned John the Baptist:

The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. (Matthew 11:5; cf. Luke 7.22)

In Luke, it sums up Jesus’ entire ministry:

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)

Jesus calls the Pharisees to embrace this option to the degree that everything else about their morality would depend on it:

But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you. (Luke 11:41)

In Mark, this teaching is given to a single wealthy person, but in Luke, Jesus’ call to sell excess possessions and redistribute wealth to the poor is a universal teaching for all of his followers:

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. (Luke 12:33)

We see Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and vulnerable in his teaching and story on who is to be invited to the banquet:

But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,…

The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ (Luke 14:13, 21)

In one of Jesus’ best known encounters, we meet a wealthy tax collector who embraces Jesus’ preferential option for the poor as his own ethic too:

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8)

This preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable determined whom Jesus’ reign or kingdom of God belonged to:

Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)

In Luke, Jesus refers to people who are materially poor, whereas in Matthew, the blessing is for the poor “in spirit.” One interpretation of this difference spiritualizes or privatizes what it means to be poor “in spirit.” It has arbitrarily been defined as an attitude of dependence or reliance on God as opposed to reliance on oneself. The fruit of this interpretation has been to divert attention away from the liberation of those who are materially poor. But Jesus isn’t holding up some spiritual poverty or dependence on God as a character quality to strive for in this passage, and that interpretation has too often been used to subvert Jesus’ call for us to stand in solidarity with materially poor people. Jesus is speaking, just like in Luke, to those the present structure has left poor in spirit. Note that Luke describes John not as poor in spirit himself, but as strong in spirit.

And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel. (Luke 1:80, emphasis added.)

When Jesus describes those who are poor in spirit, he is describing those who are experiencing a poverty of the spirit or will to keep fighting against oppression. Their spirit has been broken. They are worn down. They have no more spirit with which to fight. Just this week, it was announced that the police who murdered Alton Sterling will not face any chargers. Repeated occurrences as this have a way of breaking ones will or spirit to keep trying. HealingJustice.org posted a quotation from @fancisca_porchas on social media this week and commented, “In the wake of no justice for #AltonSterling , this one goes out to @blklivesmatter & all allies. You don’t have to hold this political fight or all that pain alone. All of us are with you. Check on your people & show up for action this week, fam. The quotation read, “Organizers have to do so much spiritual work every day just to get up and fight the state, fight ferocious systems, and hold so much pain at scale.”  Jesus’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable envisioned a world where the poor in spirit were given the kingdom (Matthew 5:3) This does not mean spiritually poor.

Just two verses later in Matthew 5:5, Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” In our present world structure the meek are not given the earth but rather walked on, walked over, and bullied. Jesus calls us to create another kind of world where even the meek, the most vulnerable among us, are taken care of and ensured a safe world to call their home as well. A preferential option for the meek 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, so pushed down, they simply don’t have any spirit left to try. Jesus calls us to a preferential option that creates a world where those who don’t have anything left to give are taken care of as well

The passage between these two texts in Matthew is the verse,  “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” Those who mourn are those whom the present structure so disenfranchises, disinherits, and marginalizes. Despite their present heartbreak and loss, this new world will bring reparative, restorative, and transformative comfort as they gain hope that another world is possible. Lastly, in verse 6 of Matthew 5 Jesus, speaking of this same demographic states, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This word “righteousness” is not persona or private. It’s not a meritorious credit that admits them to the afterlife. The verse describes those who hunger for righteousness or justice here, now.

The Hebrew concept of righteousness included distributive justice, structural justice, systemic justice, and societal justice. Those who hunger for this world to be put right are those Jesus calls us to a preferential option for, to ensure that they will be filled!

All Who Are Vulnerable 

All those who desire to genuinely follow Jesus must create communities that center the most vulnerable people at the table. Not only are the vulnerable to be seated at the table but the table is also to practice a preferential option for them. Examples today might include those who are vulnerable on the basis of their race, identity as LGBTQ, or their gender as a woman. Applying Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and vulnerable today means prioritizing these communities.

Jesus’ table is not one where where every person’s opinion is of equal worth and we simply agree to disagree and still get along. Such a table leaves the status quo untouched, doesn’t challenge the balance of power, and still leaves these communities vulnerable. Instead, Jesus’ table is a table where there is a preference for the vulnerable. As the saying goes, “The voice of the oppressed does not always call out for what is just, but we will not arrive at justice without listening to them.” This is what it means to practice a preferential option for the vulnerable: choosing the side of the most vulnerable.

Christians are called to look at the world from the perspective of the marginalized and to work with them in solidarity for justice. Practicing the preferential option for the poor today might include advocating for LGBTQ rights; opposing racial red lining still being practiced today (red-lining stops people of color from accessing home ownership); or organizing with young people who are repeatedly victimized by gun violence.

The good news is we can do this. We can choose to create a world that practices a preferential option for the vulnerable. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the story of a man who did just this.

When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:46)

This is the same “sell everything” language as we read previously—“sell everything you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21). It’s about selling out and going all-in toward a vision for a different kind of world, one that practices a preferential option for people who face oppression daily. It’s also about taking action and believing that another world is possible now. The man in Jesus’ teaching sold everything he had for the kingdom. And we can, too! In the words of someone I deeply respect, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” (Angela Davis; Southern Illinois University, February 13, 2014)

“Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor . . . “ (Mark 10:21)

HeartGroup Application

University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns defines the preferential option for poor and vulnerable as looking “at the world from the perspective of the marginalized and [working] in solidarity for justice.”

  1. This week, take time to read their page on the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. Engage the discussion and reflection sections.

2. Discuss as a group what a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable could look like for your HeartGroup.

3. Choose a way to put your ideas into practice.

Wherever you are this week, thank you for checking in with us.

Remember, 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.


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

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.


To support RHM’s podcasts and e-Sight articles, click “donate.”

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.