Justice, Grace & Charity: Part 2

by Herb Montgomery | November 16, 2018

Fall leaves changing


“While we work toward a better world we must also be about mitigating the damage being done in this one. But do not think for a moment that if we have only offered charity to those this world makes hungry, poor, mournful, or last, we are done with our job of following Jesus. Jesus helped those who were suffering before him, yes. He also rode his donkey into the Temple, the symbolic heart of the Temple state to which he belonged, and disruptively overturned tables to protest the Temple’s economic exploitation of the poor. Christians today excel at charity. We are not so good at justice.”


“But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you.” (Luke 11:41)

My family and I were visiting the Atlantic coast for Crystal’s birthday. Though West Virginia is beautiful, Crystal’s first love is the ocean. We had gone out for a birthday dinner and were walking home with almost a whole pizza in a pizza box. My daughter told us that we didn’t need to keep the pizza and suggested we find someone on the street to share it with. She was speaking my language. While the rest of the family went back to the hotel, my daughter and I began walking down the strip to find someone to share some pizza with. 

We met a wonderfully kind homeless man named Jeff who loved pizza, and spent some time getting to know him, hearing his story. Then we parted ways and headed back to where we were staying. 

On our walk back to the hotel, my daughter asked, “Papa? Why do we have homeless people?” I explained that a very small amount of people choose to revolt against capitalism and conventions about how they should live, but the majority of homelessness is the result of people being on the losing side of capitalism. We then had a long talk about the economy, life, and the Parker Brother’s game Monopoly, and she rightly said, “We don’t need more pizza, we need a different game!”

As we walked, we discussed the difference between charity and justice. Charity does harm mitigation right now, but we must also be engaged with movements working for a world where charity is no longer needed. We talked about how charity can actually empower systemic injustice, although it’s still needed until something more just dismantles and replaces those systems. I shared with her Gene Robinson’s analogy of people drowning in a river: charity pulls people who are drowning out of the river, and is vital. Yet at some point someone has to walk upstream and ask who’s throwing all these people into the river to begin with.  And I would add to the analogy that once we diagnose who it is, stop them. 

We eventually arrived back at our hotel and I completely forgot about our talk. But a few months later, my daughter asked if we could drive about 6 hours east to Baltimore to stand alongside with those protesting the murder of Freddie Gray. During our weekend in Baltimore, we stood on the lawn outside of Baltimore City Hall. A woman came over to where we were standing, sizing up my daughter and I. My daughter was wearing a black t-shirt with white letters that said, “Black. Lives. Matter.” and she carried a sign that said the same. As we were two of the very few White people present, the woman addressed my daughter and very sweetly asked, “Young lady, what are you doing here?”

My daughter looked at me and then back at her. She responded, “Ms., we’re from West Virginia. We wanted to come stand with you today. This isn’t charity. This is about justice.” 

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells his listening audience:

“Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33, Revised English Bible)

In this verse, the Revised English Bible (REB) uses the phrase give to charity. The Greek phrase behind this text is didomi eleemosunen. It can mean giving alms, showing pity, having compassion, or beneficence to the poor.

Luke’s gospel describes Jesus talking to a religious leader who prioritized ritual or religious purity more than compassion toward the vulnerable and marginalized:

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

Charity was a core component of Jesus’ teaching. In the language of the Gospel authors, the Greek root of charity was the word we translate today into mercy. Jesus’s vision for a new world was one where the merciful are not only prioritized but also recipients of the merciful world they had shaped by their own mercy.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

In Matthew’s gospel and in a context where charity was used to further privilege, benefit the givers of charity, and possibly marginalize recipients of charity further, Jesus gave this instruction:

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:2)

The kind of mercy or charity Jesus taught was one where the recipients of the charity weren’t further marginalized or “sacrificed.” It was to steer clear of victim blaming and not condemn the poor. In a world where poverty was not the result of chance but rather a system that created few wealthy winners at the expense of the masses, Jesus said,

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7)

All of this leads me also to critique charity. Certainly there will always be a need for charity that lends a hand to those who are victims of calamity. But what about charity that is needed because of a system that places people in a position of need? Can we work toward a world where this kind of charity is no longer needed because we live in a world of distributive justice, one where no one has too much while others don’t have enough? 

Rebecca Ann Parker’s fantastic book Saving Paradise sheds light on how Rome included charity in its system of oppression:

“To stave off riots and resistance, Roman officials distributed wheat imported from Egypt, North Africa, and Asia throughout the empire. Shipments from the fertile Nile delta were so crucial to Rome that protection of them from piracy was a major function of its navy—the Mediterranean was commonly referred to as the “Roman Lake.” In the miracle of the bread and fish, large crowds flock to Jesus, hungry in spirit and body, and they depart filled. His act of feeding offered compassion for the needy, encouraged generosity for the good of all, even among those with little, and affirmed life abundant for everyone, regardless of status or need. This value system undermined the paternalism of Rome, which was built on an elite and powerful few having so much that they might scatter their largess, distributing 20 percent of their grain as a dole to the vast masses. The poor and powerless were expected to be grateful to the empire for acts of charity that maintained its domination. Jesus, on the other hand, belonged to the peasant class and working poor, and his relentless judgments against the rich and powerful revealed how injustice betrayed God’s desire for all to have abundant life. He challenged this paternalistic system by offering food blessed by heaven and not by Rome.” (pp. 32-33) 

Again, if someone needs help, by all means we should help them. But with our other hand we should be working on a world where economic domination systems have been dismantled. We can work toward a world characterized by an equity that minimizes the need for so much charity. As Marcus Borg used to say, and as my daughter understood, “The prophets didn’t call for charity. They called for justice.” 

“Moses and Amos are not asking the kings to up their charitable giving, they are asking that their contemporary domination system give way to a more just and less violent world.” (Marcus Borg; see Social Justice in the Book of Amos)

Yes, we are called to be good Samaritans to those who have experienced catastrophe, yet even here we must do double work. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his final book:

“We are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.” (Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community? pp. 187-188)

This month at RHM, our annual reading course book is Dorothee Soëlle’s Theology for Skeptics. In this book she states unequivocally:

“Comfort [charity] and justice are not split apart in the Bible such that the church should ease difficult fate for individual persons with the newest psychotherapeutic methods and leave justice to the leading industrial nations. God does not come with cheap consolation, like a comforting lollipop from heaven. God does not console in such a way that we get something shoved into our mouths to quiet us down.” (Kindle Locations 1166-1168)

Here, Soëlle is directly speaking to the kind of charity that merely pacifies the exploited, as the Roman Empire once did. In this context we must take to heart Gustavo Gutierrez’s wise words:

“But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, Power of the Poor In History, p. 44-45)

As we said last week, we need a justice that is distributive, a grace that manifests itself in liberation for the oppressed, and a charity that doesn’t perpetuate economic systems of exploitation and marginalization, making many poor while making many rich beyond their wildest possible use of funds. 

I don’t want to be misunderstood this week. If someone needs help, by all means available, help them! While we work toward a better world we must also be about mitigating the damage being done in this one. But do not think for a moment that if we have only offered charity to those this world makes hungry, poor, mournful, or last (see Luke 6:20-23 and Matthew 20:16) we are done with our job of following Jesus. Jesus helped those who were suffering before him, yes. He also rode his donkey into the Temple, the symbolic heart of the Temple state to which he belonged, and disruptively overturned tables to protest the Temple’s economic exploitation of the poor.  Christians today excel at charity.  We are not so good at justice.

Again, if someone is drowning, pull them out of the river. Let’s also walk upstream and do something about those who are throwing people in the river to begin with. Let’s not blame those who are drowning for someone else throwing them in. Let’s work toward a world of distributive justice and, as we do, let’s also engage Jesus’ other teachings on mutual aid, resource sharing, and taking responsibility for each other’s survival and thriving. 

People matter. 

Another world is possible.

“But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you.” (Luke 11:41)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, share together some more of the differences you see between justice and charity. 
  2. List some of the things your group participates in that could be categorized as either charity or justice.
  3. Are you focusing more on charity? Are you also engaging the activities that lead to systemic justice? Do you need to be stronger in one area, or maybe both?
  4. Name some of the things you’d like to affirm in what you are already doing and list some things you’d like to do more of.  This holiday season, pick one from this list and, together, do it. 

Wherever you are this week, thanks for checking in with us.  Keep living in love, compassion, action, charity, and justice.  

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Justice, Grace & Charity: Part 1

by Herb Montgomery | November 9, 2018

Autumn path in the woods


“We need justice that is distributive.
We need grace which is liberating.
Only with both will we see far enough to have a life-giving discussion about charity.”


 

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.” (Matthew 12:18)

My younger daughter came home recently, visibly upset about misogyny in her high school. While she was speaking out against some of the structural, systemic privilege that boys receive at her school, one of her close male friends made a very patronizing, anti-feminist remark. She was shocked and disappointed. 

Later, she told me she couldn’t believe that one of her friends could have said and thought such a thing. She then repeated a saying I used to tell her when she was in elementary school. “Fish don’t know they’re wet,” she said. “He’s regurgitating only what he’s heard from the men in his life.” 

She wanted her friend to be a better human. She believed he could be a better human. She didn’t want to believe her friend could genuinely be so patriarchal. “He must not know any better,” she decided, and the next day she was determined to enlighten him. 

The following night she reported that her friend did apologize and had been open to listening. I wondered whether he was only trying to pacify her in order to keep her friendship, or was sincerely open to seeing another’s perspective. My daughter wanted to believe he was being sincere. “Oh this, by far, doesn’t fix things,” she said. “But it’s a start. We’ll see. Time will tell.”

Time will tell. For all of us.

This week I want to begin a two-week discussion of three words: Justice, grace and charity.

How we define each of these words makes a significant difference in whether we act as mere pacifiers for people’s or communities’ suffering or whether we go further and work as agents of change.

Justice

In the Hebrew scriptures, justice was understood not as retributive but as distributive. It was not about punishment but about resources and power being distributed fairly to all, so that everyone possessed what they needed to thrive. When justice prevailed, people would not thrive as individuals only: survival would not come at another’s expense. Instead, they were to thrive together. That’s the kind of justice that we find in the Jesus story. Matthew’s gospel refers to Jesus by quoting the book of Isaiah: 

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory.” (Matthew 12:20)

“Bringing justice to victory.” I love that imagery. It captures the idea of distributive justice being presently obstructed, yet eventually overcoming through our choices for a more just world. Justice will one day be victorious.

Too often within Christian communities, justice is defined as retributive punishment or vengeance. This kind of justice then becomes seen as negative, something to be overcome by grace (another of our words this week that we’ll discuss in a moment). It becomes something that is escaped when grace prevails. But the hope of the gospels, like the hope of the Hebrew prophets, is not that justice will be overcome by grace, but that injustice, violence, and oppression will be overcome by justice—a distributive justice.

These same prophets do talk about punishment, too, but in the prophets’ writings and the gospels, the idea of punishment is restorative, not retribuitve. There were two Greek words for punishment in the cultures from which the gospels were written: timoria and kolasis. Both are translated in our English Bibles as “punishment.” Yet consider the ideas behind these two words.

Timoria implies causing people to suffer retributively. It’s very retributive and its purpose is penal. It refers to satisfying a need in the one who inflicts the punishment. Stop and consider that for a moment. The purpose of this kind of punishment is to satisfy a need not in the one receiving the punishment, but in the one inflicting or demanding it. That is retribution. (See Louw & Nida Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains and Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.)

Yet, as we know, there are other types of punishments—disciplines—that are not for the purpose of satisfying something in the punisher. When a parent rightly and healthfully disciplines a child, they don’t do so to satisfy their own retributive, punitive desire that demands payment from the child. Life-giving discipline is transformative, reparative, and/or restorative. It’s still a form of punishment. Yet the goal of restorative punishment is to win the child away from the behavior they have chosen to a different course. We should note at the same time that one of the perverse things about fundamentalism is how it teaches folks to inflict retributive, punitive pain and reframe it as restorative.

Kolasis implies this kind of reparative punishment, and Plato describes it in Protagoras:

“If you will think, Socrates, of the nature of punishment, you will see at once that in the opinion of mankind virtue may be acquired; no one punishes [kolasis] the evil-doer under the notion, or for the reason, that he has done wrong,—only the unreasonable fury of a beast acts in that manner. But he who desires to inflict rational punishment [kolasis] does not retaliate for a past wrong which cannot be undone; he has regard to the future, and is desirous that the man who is punished [kolasis], and he who sees him punished [kolasis], may be deterred from doing wrong again. He punishes for the sake of prevention, thereby clearly implying that virtue is capable of being taught.”

Various Greek lexicons and modern commentaries define kolasis similarly: 

  • “chastisement, punishment” (A Greek-English Lexicon To The New Testament, William Greenfield)
  • “the trimming of the luxuriant branches of a tree or vine to improve it and make it fruitful” (Graecum Lexicon Manuale, Benjamin Hedericus and Johann August Ernesti)
  • “the act of clipping or pruning, restriction, restraint, reproof, check, chastisement” (A New Greek and English Lexicon, James Donnegan) 
  • “pruning, checking, punishment, chastisement, correction” (A Greek-English Lexicon, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, Franz Passow) 

On later translations from Greek into Latin, Max Müller writes, “Do we want to know what was uppermost in the minds of those who formed the word for punishment, the Latin pæna or punio, to punish, the root pu in [Sanskrit], which means to cleanse, to purify, tells us that the Latin derivation was originally formed, not to express mere striking or torture, but cleansing, correcting, delivering from the stain of sin” (in Chips from a German Workshop, p. 259). For still more on the differences between timoria and kolasis see William Barclay, The Apostle’s Creed, p. 189, and J.W. Hanson’s Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine Of the Christian Church During Its First Five-Hundred Years, pp. 39-41)

What kind of punishment is kolasis then? It’s restorative, redemptive, and transformative. It’s the kind of punishment or discipline that a loving and functional parent gives a wayward child hoping to help them see the intrinsically destructive consequences of their choices so that they will turn from those choices and make better ones. It’s restorative justice, not retributive justice. 

What’s most important: whenever Jesus speaks of punishment in the gospels, the gospel authors use the word kolasis and never timoria! Jesus’ punishment is not a retributive punishment. It’s restorative, transformative punishment designed to reform the recipients.  

Yet, again, in the gospels and in the prophets, when they speak of “justice,” it’s not about punishment, but about a restoring a just distribution of resources. 

Consider this story in Luke’s gospel:

“Jesus said: ‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!”’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.’” (Luke 18:3-8)

In the gospels, then, the story of distributive justice is carried onward toward victory.

Grace

Grace is another word we find in the gospels. Consider how it is used in Luke:

“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.” (Luke 2:40, emphasis added)

Grace in the gospels is “favor that manifests itself in deliverance” (see Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible). It’s favor that works out liberation from oppression. 

In Christian circles, however, grace is too often defined as letting someone off the hook from punitive, punishing justice. In this context, grace becomes victorious over justice rather than justice being victorious over injustice, violence, oppression, marginalization, exploitation, subjugation, etc. When it’s all about grace, the discussion is about guilt alleviation rather than systemic change. The discussion is about a grace or unmerited favor that doesn’t condemn oppressors rather than a grace, a favor, that manifests itself in liberation for the oppressed. In the gospels, grace is expressed as a preferential option for the oppressed, for the vulnerable, for the marginalized. It’s favor or solidarity on the side of those hungering and thirsting for distributive justice or “righteousness.” (See Matthew 5:6.)

One of my favorite stories of Gandhi is how when he bumped into the idea of grace as simply being let of the hook. Gandhi tells of interacting with a Christian he refers to as “one of the Plymouth Brethren.”

The Plymouth Brother says to Gandhi: 

“How can we bear the burden of sin? We can but throw it on Jesus. He is the only sinless Son of God. It is His word that those who believe in Him shall have everlasting life. Therein lies God’s infinite mercy. And as we believe in the atonement of Jesus, our own sins do not bind us. Sin we must. It is impossible to live in this world sinless. And therefore Jesus suffered and atoned for all the sins of mankind. Only he who accepts His great redemption can have eternal peace. Think what a life of restlessness is yours, and what a promise of peace we have.’ 

Gandhi responded, 

“The argument utterly failed to convince me. I humbly replied: ‘If this be the Christianity acknowledged by all Christians, I cannot accept it. I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin. Until I have attained that end, I shall be content to be restless.’” 

(Gandhi, Mohandas K. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth, pp. 63-64)

Favor that manifests itself in liberation of the oppressed is miles away from favor that lets oppressors off the hook without discussing reparations or making things right.

Next week we’ll connect this to how the gospels speak of charity.

For now,

We need justice that is distributive.

We need grace which is liberating.

Only with both will we see far enough to have a life-giving discussion about charity.

We don’t need charity that is only temporary and leaves injustice not only untouched but also supported. We need a kind of justice and grace that shapes our world into one where charity is no longer necessary.

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.” (Matthew 12:18)

HeartGroup Application

This week, take some time together as a group and make a gratitude list.  There are plenty of things that still need changed in our larger communities. Yet progress is being made, too!  

  1. Each person write down three things you are thankful for this week.
  1. Go around the room, and from those who are willing to share, share why these items are valuable to you.
  1. Take a moment to bask in your gratitude and then name one area in which you see work still needs to be done.

picture of woman holding up two fingersAlso, don’t forget all contributions to RHM this month are being matched dollar for dollar.  You can make your support go twice as far during the month of November. [Find out more.]

 

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

Justice and the Love of God

Herb Montgomery | November 2, 2018

Pink clover from Horton Hears a Who


“To believe in universal love is to work for a distributive, societal justice for those who are the objects of that universal love.”


“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42)

All of my children love being involved in our local theater here in town. A few years ago my elder daughter auditioned for the high school musical. She was cast as Gertrude McFuzz in Seussical, an adorable retelling of Seuss’ most popular tales. As a result, our son, who was five or six years old at the time, took up reading many Seuss books. Horton Hears a Who became his favorite. 

In this story, Horton the elephant hears a call for help coming from a speck of dust. Though he endures much derision from his neighbors as a result of hearing something they can’t, he chooses to respond. He eventually learns that the call for help he hears is coming from a group of small creatures named Whos that live on this speck of dust. Horton is disbelieved, ridiculed, harassed, thought crazy, and eventually tied up. Horton’s neighbors also take the speck away from him and almost destroy it, but Horton convinces its inhabitants to begin making noise in hopes that they will be heard. The noise isn’t loud enough until one last Who named JoJo is found not participating. JoJo’s voice added at the very end gives the Whos enough volume to be heard by Horton’s fellow jungle animals and convinces them to join Horton in protecting the Who community. The catchphrase that Horton repeats throughout the story is, “A person is a person, no matter how small.”

Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote Horton Hears a Who after visiting Japan after World War II. (See Morgan & Morgan, pp. 144–145, and Richard Minear, Dr. Seuss Goes to War.) Geisel had held deeply racist and anti-Japanese prejudices before and during the war, but his visit to Japan, with other events, caused a dramatic reversal in Geisel. He wrote Horton Hears a Who as an allegory. The book includes veiled references to the war and the U.S.’ bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki like “When the black-bottomed birdie let go and we dropped, We landed so hard that our clocks have all stopped.” Geisel also dedicated Horton Hears a Who to a Japanese friend, Nakamura. He commented in interviews that when one considers Japan’s size as a country the theme becomes obvious, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

Shortly after the local performances of this play ended in our town, a dear family friend met with Crystal and me. They shared with us that they were trans and that they would be taking steps in the near future to live into their gender identity. Our friend had seen some of the beginning steps Crystal and I had taken to become affirming allies of the trans community, and she had decided to trust our family with her story and invite us to continue being part of her life. 

As we shared the news with our children, I knew my two eldest kids well enough to know their responses would be affirming and positive. It was my son, the youngest, who I was most curious about. As our friend shared with him as much of her story as was appropriate for his age, I could see him processing this new information. She was the first trans person he would ever know. After a moment, she asked what he thought. He reached up and took her hand. He looked into her face, said the new name she had just told him, and said, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

This week I want to talk about two values that are juxtaposed for us in Luke’s gospel: justice and love. In the short film Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology, which I watched last year, Dr. Emile M. Townes states, “When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.” This statement resonated so deeply for me that it brought tears to my eyes. 

Before I became an ally to trans people, and before all the fallout with our early followers, I had spent years speaking, writing, and teaching on the universal love of God for everyone! (See Finding the Father.) But one response I repeatedly heard during our transition as a ministry was people’s inability to understand what made us shift from God’s love to God’s justice. I spent countless hours trying to help folks understand that love means justice! They aren’t separate! One is the fruit of the other, and you can’t genuinely have one without the other. As Cornel West famously stated, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” 

What do we at RHM mean by the term justice?

Justice is distributive. Speaking of how the Hebrew scriptures define justice, John Dominic Crossan writes, “The primary meaning of ‘justice’ is not retributive, but distributive. To be just means to distribute everything fairly.” (John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, p. 2) 

If we believe in universal love then why wouldn’t that belief lead us toward compassion, action, and ensuring a distributive justice for all?

Distributive justice is the outgrowth of Jesus’ belief in a God that offers universal love.

“Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!” (Luke 12:24)

“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!” (Luke 12:27-28)

“[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

Jesus’ God universally loved even the ravens and lilies, therefore Jesus envisions God as also concerning Godself with distributive justice for us as well. For Jesus, God’s love was at the root of God’s radical vision for a world in which all had enough.

A God who indiscriminately loves is also a God who indiscriminately and justly sends rain and sunshine on the objects of that love. Jesus is standing firmly in his own Jewish tradition when he connects love and distributive justice. Consider the following passages from the Hebrew prophets where love and distributive justice are intrinsically connected.

“In love a throne will be established;
in faithfulness a man will sit on it—
one from the house of David—
one who in judging seeks justice
and speeds the cause of righteousness.” (Isaiah 16:5, emphasis added.)

“But you must return to your God;
maintain love and justice,
and wait for your God always. (Hosea 12:6, emphasis added.)
Calling for distributive justice was a way in which the Hebrew prophets spoke truth to power.

“For I, the LORD, love justice;
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people 
and make an everlasting covenant with them.” (Isaiah 61:8)

“Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph.” (Amos 5:15)

“Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.” (Isaiah 1:17)

As we mentioned last week, it is this preoccupation with distributive justice that defines whether someone in the Hebrew culture “knew God.”

“He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
declares the LORD (Jeremiah 22:16)

Jeremiah states that someone’s picture of the Divine will inevitably work its way out in whether they defend the oppressed and vulnerable or whether they drive oppression, marginalization, and/or exploitation. According to Jeremiah, to know the Hebrew God accurately is to defend the vulnerable. Gustavo Gutierrez confirms this interpretation: 

“For the prophets this demand was inseparable from the denunciation of social injustice and from the vigorous assertion that God is known only by doing justice. (A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 134) 

Gutierrez also writes, “To know God is to work for justice. There is no other path to reach God.” (Ibid., p. 156) 

The Hebrew sacred text is repeatedly concerned with a societal, distributive justice. See Exodus 21:2; Exodus 22:21-23; Exodus 22:25; Exodus 23:9; Exodus 23:11, Exodus 23:12; Leviticus 19:9-10; Leviticus 19:34; Leviticus 23:22; Leviticus 25:2-7; Leviticus 25:10; Leviticus 25:23; Leviticus 25:35-37; Leviticus 26:13; Leviticus 26:34-35; Deuteronomy 5:14; Deuteronomy 5:15; Deuteronomy 10:19; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; Deuteronomy 15:1-18; Deuteronomy 24:19-21; Deuteronomy 26:12; 2 Kings 23:35; Nehemiah 5:1-5; Job 24.2-12, 14; Isaiah 3:14; Isaiah 5:23; Isaiah 10:1-2; Jeremiah 5:27; Jeremiah 5:28; Jeremiah 6:12; Jeremiah 22:13-17; Ezekiel 22:29; Hosea 12:6-8; Amos 2.6-7; Amos 4:1; Amos 5:7; Amos 5:11-12; Amos 8:5-6; Micah 2:1-3; Micah 3:1-2; Micah 3:9-11; Micah 6:10-11; Micah 6.12; Habakkuk 2:5-6 . This tradition is carried on in the more Jewish portions of the New Testament texts, see Luke 6:24-25; Luke 12:13-21 ; Luke 16:19-31; Luke 18:18-26; James 2:5-9.

It makes perfect sense, then, that a Jewish prophet of the poor from Galilee who in the first century traversed the region teaching about a God who universally loved ravens, lilies, and all people, too, would live, teach, minister, protest, and be crucified in profound solidarity with those who were suffering from injustice in his society.

If we define politics as we did last week, as the distribution of resources and power, the gospel has real political implications that we must not hide or hide from. The portions of the New Testament believed to have been written by the Johannine community are the portions of the New Testament most preoccupied with defining God as “Love.” They don’t miss this connection between love and justice either:

“How can the love of God be in anyone who has material goods and sees a sibling in need and yet refuses help? . . . Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:17-18)

I want to close this week with one more statement by Gutierrez that I believe it would be well for us to spend this coming week contemplating:

“This does not detract from the Gospel news; rather it enriches the political sphere. Moreover, the life and death of Jesus are no less evangelical because of their political connotations. His testimony and his message acquire this political dimension precisely because of the radicalness of their salvific character: to preach the universal love of the Father is inevitably to go against all injustice, privilege, oppression, or narrow nationalism. (A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 135, emphasis added).

Those who believe they genuinely possess an understanding of God’s character should be the loudest in the room opposing the injustices of classism, racism, misogyny, patriarchy, bigotry toward and erasure of our LGBTQ siblings, and more. To believe in universal love is to work for a distributive, societal justice for those who are the objects of that universal love.

After all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue, and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42)

HeartGroup Application

Main Sanctuary Stained Glass Windows at Tree of Life* Or L'Simcha Congregation

Last weekend, a deadly mass shooting occurred at Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburg, PA.  Eleven people were killed. Nine people were injured.  The Anti-Defamation League has stated that the shooting is the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States. For Renewed Heart Ministries response to this attack, see Tree of Life* Or L’Simcha Congregation.

Renewed Heart Ministries stands in solidarity with our Jewish friends, neighbors and loved ones as we condemn and oppose Anti-Semitism in all its varied forms. Our hearts are with the families of the victims and the survivors.  We at Renewed Heart Ministries choose the resistance of love rather than hate. We will continue to daily take up the work of engaging the intersection of faith, love, compassion and justice. We will continue educating followers of Jesus, especially, in regards to the role Christianity has played in harming the Jewish community as well as other communities who have also been marginalized and harmed by us. We will continue to work together alongside targeted communities to heal our world, reshaping it into a compassionate, just and safe home for all; or, as our Jewish friends say, “the work of Tikkun Olam.”

This week, I want to invite all of our HeartGroups to take a moment and send the Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha Congregation a message of support or a prayer and to recommit to just action in you daily lives. 

Last Saturday’s attack was connected to more than a thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism as well as to White supremacist murders of Black people and Sikh people and breaches of sacred space in Birmingham, in Charleston, at Pulse, and more. (See Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s thread as well as Charleston to Tree of Life: White nationalism is a threat to us all ) My wife Crystal commented, “The truth is this country was built on the premise that some lives matter more than others. Racism has been woven into the very fabric of our existence. Othering is in our very foundation. We stole this country from it’s native people and claimed it for our own, based on the idea that we were more worthy than they, calling them savages when we murdered and stripped them of everything. We brutally enslaved races of people and claimed we somehow deserved to own and abuse them based on nothing more than the pigment of our skin and the fact that we could overpower them. Now we are shocked when a racist leader barely scratches the surface and all of this vile evil rises to the surface. It has always existed. We have to be honest with our past if we are going to do better in the future.”

Take a moment this weekend, and, as a HeartGroup, send this congregation a message of love and solidarity through this link: 

In Solidarity with the Tree of Life Synagogue, We Pray and We Pledge! 

This project was created by Auburn Seminary’s Senior Fellows. A friend of mine who works at Auburn Seminary along with her colleagues will be collecting and delivering these prayers and notes of support.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.  

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Healing Our World

by Herb Montgomery | October 26, 2018 

picture of snowflake


“’The separation between Church and State is different from the separation of faith and public life.’ . . .  The separation of church and state is about keeping the state out of matters of religious conscience. Separation of church and state is also about keeping the church from wielding the power of the state to enforce its own articles of faith. It does not mean that people of faith and goodwill cannot follow Jesus in advocating alongside vulnerable communities, engaging social good, and calling for just distribution of resources and power.”


“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to heal the world through him.” (John 3:17, personal translation)

This week I want to begin with a fable familiar to many who daily do the work of healing our world. To the best of my knowledge, this story was originally told by Kurt Kauter but I cannot find the original source. 

The fable tells of a conversation between a wild dove and a coalmouse.

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a coalmouse asked a wild dove.

“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.

“In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the coalmouse said.

“I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow – not heavily, not in a raging blizzard – no, just like in a dream, without a wound and without any violence. Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,742,952. When the 3,742,953rd dropped onto the branch, nothing more than nothing, as you say – the branch broke off.”

Having said that, the coalmouse flew away.

The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for a while, and finally said to herself, “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”

In Matthew’s gospel we read these words:

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news [euangelion] of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:23)

This passage begins with Jesus going throughout “Galilee, teaching in [Jewish] synagogues.” It’s important to make a couple of things clear. 

First, the gospels were originally written within a Jewish context: they are Jewish written works. The Jesus of these stories was never a Christian; nor did he promote a new religion. This Jesus was a Jewish man seeking to make change and challenge injustice within his own Jewish culture. These stories have been historically used for anti-Jewish purposes, but I would argue that we should not freeze Jewish people in our minds as the gospel writers framed them two thousand years ago. The gospels are not a reflection of Jewish culture today, and injustice is injustice in any place and in any time.

I believe that we can derive insight from these stories of resistance into how to address injustice in our culture today. Yet we must not use them as tools of oppression toward Jewish people. And this leads me to my second point. 

I want to recognize and name how these stories of resistance have also been used, sometimes even unintentionally, as tools of oppression against people with disabilities. Certain interpretations of Jesus’ healing stories (like we find in this week’s passage where Jesus heals “every disease and sickness among the people”) have been deeply harmful to people with disabilities. Through these stories, people with disabilities have been dehumanized and used as symbols or metaphors that promote ableism. So I begin this week by affirming the full humanity of both Jewish people and people with disabilities. I push back against interpretations of these healing stories that support an idea of “normal” that creates for some of our siblings the perception or feeling that they’re less than. We’ll address this further as we continue. 

As well as telling us that Jesus healed, this passage also tells us that what Jesus was teaching in the synagogues was “the good news (or gospel) of the kingdom.” The term gospel or good news was not originally a religious term about being saved from post mortem torment. It was instead a deeply political term. When the Roman Empire conquered a new territory, it would send out evangelists whose job was to proclaim to the newly conquered territory the euangelion (gospel or good news) that the empire had come and the people of that territory were now part of the Roman Empire. Here are a few examples:

“Even after the battle at Mantinea, which Thucydides has described, the one who first announced the victory had no other reward for his glad tidings [euangelion-singular] than a piece of meat sent by the magistrates from the public mess” (Plutarch; Agesilaus, p. 33, 1st century).

“Accordingly, when [Aristodemus] had come near, he stretched out his hand and cried with a loud voice: ‘Hail, King Antigonus, we have conquered Ptolemy in a sea-fight, and now hold Cyprus, with 12,800 soldiers as prisoners of war.’ To this, Antigonus replied: ‘Hail to thee also, by Heaven! but for torturing us in this way, thou shalt undergo punishment; the reward for thy good tidings [euangelion – plural] thou shalt be some time in getting’” (Plutarch; Demetrius, p. 17, 1st century).

“Why, as we are told, the Spartans merely sent meat from the public commons to the man who brought glad tidings [euangelion] of the victory in Mantineia which Thucydides describes! And indeed the compilers of histories are, as it were, reporters of great exploits who are gifted with the faculty of felicitous speech, and achieve success in their writing through the beauty and force of their narration; and to them those who first encountered and recorded the events [εὐαγγέλιον – euangelion] are indebted for a pleasing retelling of them” (Plutarch; Moralia [Glory of Athens], p. 347, 1st century).

The gospel authors take this language from Rome to tell the story of Jesus who came preaching an alternative vision for human society.

“But he said, ‘I must proclaim the good news [euangelion] of the kingdom of God [as opposed to Rome] to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’” (Luke 4:43, emphasis added.)

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

Jesus’ good news was the proclamation of an alternative vision for human society where people carried out God’s will for distributive justice, mutual aid, and caretaking rather than subjugation. In the following passages we see that the gospel authors tied this proclamation to healing narratives as well.

“As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:7-8, emphasis added.)

“Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Luke 10:9)

“So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news [euangelion] and healing people everywhere.” (Luke 9:6)

These are parts of the gospels that have been used in deeply problematic ways for people who live with disabilities. I believe the gospels were intended to be stories of survival, resistance and liberation, but have been used oppressively toward many. Rather than using healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing leapers, and driving out demons as ableist metaphors for societal injustices, which I believe they were in the stories, I want to instead concretely name some injustices that we, as Jesus followers, can address in our culture today: racism, sexism and misogyny, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, queerphobia, xenophobia, etc. By concretely naming these issues we can better understand passages like this in John’s gospel:

“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)

The Greek word here translated “saved” could just as accurately be translated as “healed.” What makes this passage special to me is that it is not referencing individuals being saved but the world being saved. It’s not a privatized or personal healing, which too often proves vulnerable to the above type of abusive interpretations, but a collective, societal, communal healing. It’s a call to allow your faith to influence how we relate to one another! It’s a call to allow your faith to move you to engage public life not just your own personal life. This is a very Jewish understanding of faith: our beliefs call us not only to personal piety, but also to public engagement with the work of healing the world. Jesus practices this kind of societal confrontation and healing in his protest in the Temple, the heart of the Temple State of his society.

Tikkun olam (Healing the world) is the Jewish idea of one’s obligation to engage in social action. Seeing Jesus in this tradition leads us to the same conclusion as Latin Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez who saw in Jesus’ “kingdom” teachings a commitment to creating a just society. This commitment means being on the side of oppressed, marginalized, and exploited classes of people. A belief in the healing love spoken of in John 3:16-17 should lead one to “inevitably to go against all injustice, privilege, [and] oppression” (Gustavo Gutiérrez. A Theology of Liberation, p. 135). 

The radical changes we need in our society can only take place through movement building. Yet, while we are building and participating in those long-term movements, we must also be engaged in what my friend Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-executive director at Highlander Center, refers to as damage mitigation. How do we do this? One way is through our votes.

Because people matter, voting matters. Here in America, we make a mistake in how we define politics. For far too many, politics means “parties, partisanship, lobbying, or law.” And while politics can include those things, I prefer how my friend Dr. Keisha McKenzie recently defined politics in a Facebook conversation: as “the distribution of resources and power among people and groups of people.” She went on to say, therefore, “There’s no opting out of it.” Either we become targets of others’ political engagement or we choose to help shape how resources are distributed. Jesus taught distributive justice, and as followers of Jesus, we, too, should care about how power and resources are distributed because their distribution can concretely help or hurt people. Our beliefs and values should move us to engage our public life. As McKenzie explained, wherever we share space with other people and “there are norms governing how you interact with them or a budget governing common resources,” there is simply no way to be apolitical. There is no such thing as political neutrality that doesn’t help the powerful or hurt the vulnerable. When we understand this we can see readily why the late theologian and activist Dorothee Sölle stated, “Every theological statement is a political statement as well.” Believing in a Universal Love leads us to work toward a universal distributive justice for the objects of that love. Being one who “knows the Lord,” in the book of the prophet Jeremiah is defined as “defend[ing] the cause of the poor and needy”:

“Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.’ So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red. ‘Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the LORD. ‘But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion.’”(Jeremiah 22.13-17)

Recently I received an email from Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, President of Auburn Seminary, that said, “The separation between Church and State is different from the separation of faith and public life.” I could not agree more. The separation of church and state is about keeping the state out of matters of religious conscience. Separation of church and state is also about keeping the church from wielding the power of the state to enforce its own articles of faith. It does not mean that people of faith and goodwill cannot follow Jesus in advocating alongside vulnerable communities, engaging social good, and calling for just distribution of resources and power. 

This is why we here at RHM believe that healing the world is not simply about voting but does include voting. The late Ron Dellums used to remind folks that we need both movement building and people in office that can help support those movements. I’ve witnessed this first-hand here in West Virginia. We spend countless hours building movements for social change here in this state, only to have people in office obstruct those changes. The opposite is also true, we can elect solid people as public servants, but if there is not a movement for them to act on, they have nothing to advocate for from the “will of the people.” Those who desire an unjust distribution of resources are putting people in office who will act on their wishes. Again, there is simply no way to opt out. We are either participants in the discussion or we are the targets of others’ agenda. It’s been said that we are either seated at the table or we are on the menu. Given our current social mess, voting, especially for marginalized communities, is only a part of the process of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all, yet it is a part of that process. 

So this week, I want to encourage you to vote your values this November remembering that people matter and will be concretely affected by the outcome. (For some of you early voting is already open.) Also encourage others to participate and vote to ensure all of our communities are truly represented.

Another world is possible. And as Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson says, our work is to “trouble the waters” and “heal the world.”

I’ll close this week with the words of Anne Frank:

“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment, we can all start now, start slowly changing the world! How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make their contribution toward introducing justice straightaway… And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!” (The Diary of Anne Frank)

How can you engage the work of healing the injustice in our world? Who knows? As the story we began with this week reminds us, you may be the last “snowflake” needed. “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”

“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to heal the world through him.” (John 3:17, personal translation)

HeartGroup Application

This week, how can your HeartGroup be a source of healing in your surrounding community?

  1. Take some time to dream up some ways you can be a positive influence for change in your area. 
  2. Discuss what it would take to make some of those dreams a reality. What concrete steps would you need to take?
  3. Pick one of those dreams that you believe the steps to make it a reality are possible and make a plan.  Divide up the tasks that need to be done and start on them.  Before long, that dream will begin to take shape and the healing changes in your area will be closer to coming to fruition.  

Each of us had a sphere of influence. Each of us has something we can do. And we combine those things and work together, it’s amazing what we can actually accomplish. 

Again, to believe in a Universal Love is to work toward a distributive justice for all of the objects of that love.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. 

Picture of a pottery bowlDon’t forget this is the last week for our Shared Table Fundraiser.  You can find out all about it at renewedheartministries.com.  You won’t want to miss out on it.

I love each of you dearly.

Again, another world is possible.

I’ll see you next week.

Deliverance From Evil

Herb Montgomery | October 19, 2018

Silhouette of woman with upraised fist.

Photo credit: Miguel Bruna


“What does it mean to be delivered from economic oppression and ecological oppression as well? The U.N. reported this last week that we have only twelve years left to address climate change, and if we don’t we face dire consequences.”


“And lead us not into the time of testing, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13)

As we wrap up our look at what we call the Lord’s Prayer, I want to begin with a story of a dear West Virginian woman, her children, and her husband in context of deliverance from evil. There is a type of coal mining here in West Virginia called mountain top removal. It’s legal here and is happening in much of the southwestern region of the state. Many of our elected representatives are financially supported by coal mine owners who profit from how those representatives structure our laws. This is the story of a family involved in trying to change these laws. Listen to how the mother of this family tells her story:

“Coal miners work in the coal mines because they have no other choice, others because they enjoy that type of work. Most coal miners have college degrees in many things, yet Coal mining is the only thing we have to offer them.

My husband has a degree in electronics engineering and 1080 [credit hours] in industrial electronics, but his only choice was to become a Coal miner. He worked in the mines for two years, the toll it took on his body… that was heartbreaking. When he would come home from work he looked like death in the face. He worked twelve hours a day six days a week — the kids and I only saw him on Saturdays and half a day on Sundays. His skin was stained black, he coughed constantly as if he had the flu.

I was 8 months pregnant with our son the day the UBB mine disaster happened. I had laid down to take a nap. When I got up my cell phone had 10 missed calls and 20 text messages on it. The calls and messages were from my two oldest daughters and my sister, asking if my husband was working. I called my 15-yr-old first and asked what was wrong. She was in a total panic and crying wanting to know if her step-dad was ok, that a mine just blew up and 12 (at the time) miners were trapped. The news didn’t report which mine or [its] location until later. When I informed her he was ok and was getting ready for work, she responded ‘NO, do not let him go back to work mommy, Please!’ I got her to calm down then called my 19-yr-old and got the same response. ‘Mommy, please don’t let him go.’ It broke my heart in two knowing he had to go to work to pay bills and take care of our babies. But what hurt the most was the fear and heartbreak that my children were feeling.

Anyway, I turned on CNN and started to watch the heartbreaking events unfold. I knew that come 9:00 pm my miner would be walking out the door to go to work. But somehow this night was different than all the other nights I told him goodbye. I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that I had never felt before in my life. The mining pay was great, it gave us tons of nice things and plenty of money to provide for our family. But at that moment, I didn’t care if we had a dime in the bank and had to live in a tent. I was sending the love of my life, my best friend and my children’s father out the door not knowing if he would ever be back. He was killing his body and he was risking his life to provide us with worldly things, things that could be replaced. After he left, I sat and watched CNN until daylight waiting on his morning call letting me know he was coming home. Thank God in heaven I received that call.

As the evening went on I continued to watch the events at UBB unfold. As I watched the [miners’] families standing, praying and waiting on the news of their miner, it broke my heart. I will never forget the look on one young man’s face when a reporter [asked] him how he was feeling (stupid question). His response was ‘it feels like I’m getting punched over and over in the stomach.’ I knew at that moment, I didn’t want my son or daughters to ever experience that feeling… Two days later, he decided to leave the mines.

It has been 8 months now since he quit, we are all doing fine. We may not have as much money as before, but we do have the most important thing to our family and that’s DADDY!

I just wish our elected officials would see that West Virginia’s most valuable resource is our Miners themselves and not the Coal. But I’m afraid that they will continue to fight for the Coal Barons’ wallets and the campaign funding, as long as they ‘Keep Them in the Coal’ our politicians will be fine. Please keep our West Virginia Coal Miners in your thoughts and prayers. Never forget the ones we have lost in Sago, UBB and other places.” (Source)

Jesus envisioned a world where people were valued over profit, property and power. That’s where this week’s portion of the Lord’s Prayer comes in.

This is a prayer for liberation. This week’s portion of the prayer begins with “Lead us, not into the time of testing.”

A time of testing was a familiar concept in the Jewish tradition. 

“Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.” (Deuteronomy 8:2, cf. Exodus 16:4, Ecclesiastes 3:18, Isaiah 48:10, and Zechariah 13:9)

In the Psalms we read:

“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did.” (Psalms 95:8-9, emphasis added., cf. Psalms 106:14)

It seems from these passages that in the Jewish tradition both humans and God could be tested. Yet, regardless of who was testing whom, people in Jesus’ day understood the idea of a time of testing. First century Zealots (see Faith Like a Mustard Seed) also used this phrase.

Josephus tells us how how the zealots used this idea of a test for one’s faith. He writes of incidents during the mid-1st Century, when revolutionary prophets/zealots would lead large groups of people into a desert outside Jerusalem on the premise that, if they took the first step, if they submitted to testing, God would see their faith and respond by bringing them liberation from Roman oppression. 

Felix, the Roman procurator, regarded these gatherings as the first stage of revolt, and so sent cavalry and heavy infantry to cut the mob into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 147). The most infamous of the revolutionary prophets who promised the people reward if they would first step out in faith (the test) was a militaristic messiah referred to as “the Egyptian” (Acts 21:38). 

Josephus describes the event as follows:

“Arriving in the country, this man, a fraud who posed as a seer, collected about 30,000 dupes, led them round from the desert to the Mount of Olives and from there was ready to force an entry into Jerusalem, overwhelm the Roman garrison, and seize supreme power with his fellow-raiders as bodyguard.” (Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 147)

Josephus believed the future of the Jewish people depended on the elites collaborating with Rome rather than rebelling against Rome. Most scholars think he exaggerated the numbers of people involved: “30,000 dupes” as compared with the book of Acts’ “4,000 assassins.” But the fact that he mentions the event at all is important. In a parallel account, Josephus includes the “sign” that this rebel had claimed would be shown to the people if they passed the test of going out to assemble. It was supposed to be a sign like Joshua’s at the Battle of Jericho: at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down so that his followers could enter and seize the city. However, before he could make his signal, the Roman cavalry and infantry slew and captured hundreds and put the rest to flight, including the militaristic messiah himself. (Josephus, Antiquities, pp. 170-172). Liberation prophets like the Egyptian framed the people’s act of taking an initiative despite hopeless odds as a test of faith that their God would honor with liberation from Rome.

Jesus grew up in Galilee in the wake of a similar destruction that Rome had wrought on revolutionaries in Sepphoris. I believe this played a role in Jesus seeking a different path toward liberation than violence, one that incorporated the best odds of survival and would not just be about the liberation of Jerusalem, Galilee or Judea, but also be about an end to socio-political structures of domination for humanity as a whole.

Gustavo Gutiérrez writes about this at length:

“This universality and totality touch the very heart of political behavior, giving it its true dimension and depth. Misery and social injustice reveal ‘a sinful situation,’ a disintegration of fellowship and communion; by freeing us from sin, Jesus attacks the roots of an unjust order. For Jesus, the liberation of the Jewish people was only one aspect of a universal, permanent revolution. Far from showing no interest in this liberation, Jesus rather placed it on a deeper level, with far-reaching consequences. The Zealots were not mistaken in feeling that Jesus was simultaneously near and far away. Neither were the leaders of the Jewish people mistaken in thinking that their position was imperiled by the preaching of Jesus, nor the oppressive political authorities when they sentenced him to die as a traitor. They were mistaken (and their followers have continued to be mistaken) only in thinking that it was all accidental and transitory, in thinking that with the death of Jesus the matter was closed, in supposing that no one would remember it. The deep human impact and the social transformation that the Gospel entails is permanent and essential because it transcends the narrow limits of specific historical situations and goes to the very root of human existence: relationship with God in solidarity with other persons. The Gospel does not get its political dimension from one or another particular option, but from the very nucleus of its message. If this message is subversive, it is because it takes on Israel’s hope: the Kingdom as ‘the end of domination of person over person; it is a Kingdom of contradiction to the established powers and on behalf of humankind.’ And the Gospel gives Israel’s hope its deepest meaning; indeed it calls for a ‘new creation.’ The life and preaching of Jesus postulate the unceasing search for a new kind of humanity in a qualitatively different society. Although the Kingdom must not be confused with the establishment of a just society, this does not mean that it is indifferent to this society. Nor does it mean that this just society constitutes a “necessary condition” for the arrival of the Kingdom nor that they are closely linked, nor that they converge. More profoundly, the announcement of the Kingdom reveals to society itself the aspiration for a just society and leads it to discover unsuspected dimensions and unexplored paths. The Kingdom is realized in a society of fellowship and justice; and, in turn, this realization opens up the promise and hope of complete communion of all persons with God. The political is grafted into the eternal. This does not detract from the Gospel news; rather it enriches the political sphere. Moreover, the life and death of Jesus are no less evangelical because of their political connotations. His testimony and his message acquire this political dimension precisely because of the radicalness of their salvific character: to preach the universal love of the Father is inevitably to go against all injustice, privilege, oppression, or narrow nationalism.” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, pp. 134-135, emphasis added.)

Jesus promoted a path toward liberation that parted ways with the methods of the Zealots and the elite Sadducees who wanted to cooperate with Rome hoping for greater representation in a system of exploitation. Jesus presented a restructuring of the norms we use to interact with one another, and at the heart of these new norms was a preferential option for the vulnerable, exploited, and marginalized.  

“What does it mean for Jesus’ followers today to follow that path? What does it mean for coal mining families here in West Virginia to be delivered from the evil of corporate oppression where the owners continue to gain more and more while the majority of the people struggle without being able to make ends meet? What does it mean to be delivered from economic oppression and ecological oppression as well? The U.N. reported this last week that we have only twelve years left to address climate change, and if we don’t we face dire consequences. A prayer for deliverance from evil also has its application for the evil of bigotry that many in the LGBTQ face. We might expect to be delivered from the evils of racism, sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, and more.”

Jesus, whose teachings we follow, stood in the Jewish tradition that traced its roots all the way back to the liberation story of Moses’s alignment with toiling masses of slaves. So what is our work, today? 

What injustice or evil are you staring at this week?

What does it mean to work toward deliverance from evil in your context? 

What does it meant to work in solidarity with other communities affected most deeply by these evils as they also work toward their deliverance?

I’ll close this week with a statement by Dorothy Day that encourages me when I feel like our small efforts are insignificant, and I feel like a world structured in a way that answers Jesus’ prayer in Matthew is so far, far away:

“One of the greatest evils of the day is the sense of futility. Young people say, ‘What can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we can only lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform these actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.” (Catholic Worker, September 1957)

This week choose something to do, no matter how large or small, that aligns with Jesus’ prayer in Matthew:

“And lead us not into the time of testing, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6.13)

HeartGroup Application

Sharing our stories is how we heal the world. Hearing one another’s stories empowers us to let go of our fear of one another and enter into compassion. Listening to the diverse experiences of one another’s lives leads us to replace insecurity with a much broader understanding of each other and our larger world.  

1. This week I want you to take some time in your HeartGroup and let those who wish to share tell their story to the group.  

2. We here at Renewed Heart Ministries also want to hear your story.  We are asking our followers to share their stories with us. How has this ministry impacted your life for the better?  How have you been blessed by Renewed Heart Ministries?  How has journeying alongside RHM inspired you or made a difference for you? We want to hear your story! And if you give us permission, we may feature your story in one of our upcoming newsletter issues so your story can help others, too! (But only if you give us permission.) Send your story of how you have been positively impacted by the ministry of Renewed Heart Ministries by emailing info@renewedheartministries.com.

3. Consider making story-telling a part of HeartGroup experience on some type of ongoing basis, either monthly, quarterly, or even weekly.

We believe every person’s story matters and every person’s voice has value. The Jesus of the gospels spent the majority of his time teaching by telling stories. Author Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) states, “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” 

I’m looking forward to hearing from you, with much gratitude and excited anticipation.

Picture of a pottery bowlAlso, don’t forget about our Share Table Fundraiser for the month of October.  Find out how you can participate and get your own Share Table Pottery Bowl as representation of Jesus’ shared table philosophy of doing life together. If someone wanted to actually use it, they by all means could. Each time you eat from your bowl or use it as a serving dish, you can be reminded of Jesus’ shared table, mutual aid, and philosophy of resource sharing as a means of restructuring our communities and healing the hurts in our world. You can also place it on your coffee table or desk at work as a conversation starter. When asked about it you can share with them about the Shared Table philosophy, and even direct them to Renewed Heart Ministries to find out more. That way you can partner with us in even more ways to spread the message of love, compassion, justice, sharing and taking care of one another.

Find out more here:  A Shared Table: A Fundraiser for RHM

Thanks for checking in with us with week. Keep living in love, resistance, survival, liberation, reparation and transformation.

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

 

A Prayer for Debts Cancelled

by Herb Montgomery | October 11, 2018

Brick wall with stenciled "Until Debt Tear Us Apart"

Photo Credit: Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash


“‘Politics is really about how we as a community choose to distribute resources and power among people and groups of people.’  She goes on to say, therefore, ‘There’s no opting out of it.’  We are either a target of others’ political engagement or we are choosing to instead help shape that distribution. Jesus taught distributive justice.”


“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)

This week I want to look at a portion of this prayer that has evolved: the portion on forgiveness. To the best of our knowledge, Matthew’s version is much earlier than Luke’s. We’ll see the significance of this in a moment. And before Matthew’s version, many scholars believe the earliest version of the prayer was:

“When you pray, say‚ Father — may your name be kept holy! — let your reign come: Our day’s bread give us today; and cancel our debts for us, as we too have cancelled for those in debt to us.” (Saying Gospel Q 11:2-4, emphasis added.)

In this earliest version of the prayer, notice the specific economic quality. It’s about cancelling the debts of those who are indebted to us. There is quite a bit of history behind this. 

The Torah taught that every seventh year in Jewish society, all debts were to be cancelled:

“At the end of every seventh year you must make a remission of debts. This is how it is to be made: everyone who holds a pledge shall return the pledge of the person indebted to him. He must not press a fellow- countryman for repayment, for the Lord’s year of remission has been declared . . . There will never be any poor among you if only you obey the Lord your God by carefully keeping these commandments which I lay upon you this day.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-4) (REB)

There were also strict warnings to lenders as they watched the seventh year approaching, in case they thought they could not make loans at all rather than make loans that would soon be cancelled:

“Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: ‘The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,’ so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to.” (Deuteronomy 15:9-10)

We’ve discussed Rabbi Hillel’s prozbul as a way to solve money lenders’ reluctance (see Renouncing One’s Rights and The Golden Rule). The prozbul was a loophole where a loan made just before the seventh year could be declared exempt from cancellation. This loophole was Hillel’s solution to the wealthy not wanting to make loans that less affluent farmers needed for survival whenever the seventh year was near. Although Jesus taught similar ethics to Hillel in other areas, in this area Jesus parted ways with Hillel and taught what the Torah had stated in Deuteronomy:

“Do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42, cf. Deuteronomy 15:1-5, 9-10)

And

“And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” (Luke 6:34-35; Deuteronomy 15:1-5, 9-10)

Debt in the ancient world led to slavery, poverty and death.  In short, debt was a conduit of oppression. Jesus choose to stand in the stream of Jewish tradition that called for the liberation of the oppressed.  In Luke’s gospel Jesus’ liberation is tied directly the cancelling of all debts, or to put it in the language of his Jewish culture, “the year of the Lord’s favor.”

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

The year of the Lord’s favor was “the year for canceling debts” (Deuteronomy 15:9), the year where there was to be a “remission” of all debts (Deuteronomy 15:1). That year was a type of wealth redistribution. It was a check on any system where the wealthy could just keep on getting wealthier while the poor kept on getting poorer. It was a safeguard against some having too much while many went without enough. If the Torah’s economic teachings were followed, poverty could have been eliminated: “There need be no poor people among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4).

In Jesus’ time, this aspect of the Torah was being disregarded and violated outright or through Hillel’s prozbul. Jesus was calling for a return to a deeply Jewish practice.

You can understand why many of the wealthy elites of Jesus’ society and others of privilege and power combined their efforts to have Jesus and his movement silenced. 

If this is the early form of the language of this prayer, which makes sense given its Jewish roots in the Torah, there is a telling evolution in the language.

In Matthew’s gospel, the word “forgive” replaces the word “cancel,” yet the economic word of “debt” remains. 

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)

Once we get to Luke’s gospel, written much latter, the economic element of this prayer is wholly removed, and the prayer’s application has been universalized instead of referencing a specific economic situation.

“Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” (Luke 11:2-4)

Crossan also sees this evolution of language:

“I have three conclusions from all of that textual activity. One is that ‘debts’ was originally intended quite literally. Jesus meant that eternal peasant dyad of enough bread for today and no debt for tomorrow. Were it originally and clearly metaphorical—‘debts’ meaning ‘sins’—everyone would have understood that intention and the progression in terminology from ‘debts’ to ‘trespasses’ to ‘sins’ would not have been necessary. Another is that, from Mark through Matthew and into Luke, ‘debts’ change to ‘trespasses’ and then to ‘sins. ’ In its present format, therefore, it seems advisable to read Matthew’s text as including both debt and sin—not debt alone, not sin alone, and certainly not sin instead of debt, but both together. Indeed, the ultimate challenge may be to ponder their interaction. And, at least for the biblical tradition, when debt creates too much inequality, it has become sinful.” (John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, pp. 159-160)

Debt can become exploitative. To curb this exploitation, the Torah did not permit debts to extend past seven years.

The language in the prayer changes as the followers of Jesus change. As the early movement of Jesus followers changes from illiterate to more literate, from marginalized and impoverished to more centralized and more affluent, this prayer also changes from the wealthy cancelling debts to the violated forgiving perpetrators for sins committed against them.

These changes transfer responsibility from those in power to those in a very different social location from them. When we consider the societal cone that privileges and empowers some at the center and top of society and pushes others to the margins and undersides of society (see Pyramids, Circles and a Shared Table: Jesus’ Vision for Human Community, Part 1 and 2), the original language of this prayer makes those at the center and top responsible for canceling the debts of those on the peripheries or further down the social hierarchy. As the language evolves, it risks being coopted by the elite, and the responsibility is now placed on those on the margins and undersides to forgive the injustice of their violators and exploiters so that they too might be forgiven. This removes the responsibility of creating a more egalitarian world, cancelling actual debts, and redistributing wealth from those who will lose with these changes. It also asks those exploited by debt to simply forgive without the world or its structure being challenged or changed. 

There is a lot to consider here and much room for pause. Putting the world right includes not just forgiveness but also reparations. To call for reconciliation without reparations, to call for reconciliation solely on the basis of forgiveness being exercised on the part of those who have been harmed, is a special kind of oppression. It fails to hold perpetrators accountable. It fails to value and protect survivors. It fails to work towards the transformation and re-humanization of perpetrators, and genuine healing for those who have been sinned against. Certainly Jesus taught forgiveness. Jesus also called the wealthy, like Zacchaeus and others, to make reparations. To focus solely on only one of these is move away from a safer, just, compassionate world rather than towards it. 

To reemphasize what we focused on last week, the original language of this prayer shows a concern the early Jesus followers had for people’s temporal needs as well as the spiritual and relational well being of all. It sees humanity as whole beings again in a very Hebraic fashion, rather than as divided people only impacted by the gospel in one aspect of life. It’s a holistic prayer.

I want to close this week with a story from Matthew, where the focus on monetary debt cancellation still remains:

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.” (Matthew 18:23-34)

Today, we live in a world where most of the globe is indebted to so-called developed counties with debts that are impossible to pay off. Six people possess more wealth than the entire lower 50% of the world’s population. But we have come to the end of the monopoly game. It’s time for a reset. It’s time for a Jubilee. It’s time for debts to be cancelled. 

One way or another, history proves this reset will come. We can choose a gentler path of debt cancellation and wealth redistribution now, or a more volatile path where many are hurt in the process will be chosen for us in the future. Historical resets are cyclical. We can choose whether they come in life-giving or destructive form. What is clear is that our current path is not sustainable, economically, socially, or ecologically. What does it mean to live in this world in such a way that the answer to Jesus’ prayer is realized?

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6.12)

HeartGroup Application

I have a unique request of all those in our HeartGroups. I believe everyone reading this would agree with me when I say people matter.  And that’s why this week I want to share with you why politics also matter. But hang on! How we define politics also matters. Here in America, we make what I believe is a mistake in how we define politics. Politics for too many means parties, partisanship, lobbying, or law. And while politics can include those things, I prefer how my friend Dr. Keisha McKenzie defines politics. “Politics is really about how we as a community choose to distribute resources and power among people and groups of people.”  She goes on to say, therefore, “There’s no opting out of it.”  We are either a target of others’ political engagement or we are choosing to instead help shape that distribution. Jesus taught distributive justice.  And as follower of Jesus, we, too, should care about how power and resources are distributed, because this distribution can concretely hurt people. Wherever we share space with other people and “there are norms governing how you interact with them or a budget governing common resources,” (McKenzie) there is simply no way to be apolitical.  There is no such thing as a political neutrality that doesn’t help the powerful or doesn’t hurt the vulnerable. When we understand this we can see readily why the late theologian and activist Dorothee Sölle stated, “Every theological statement must be a political statement as well.”

Recently I received an email from Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, President of Auburn Seminary where she made the statement, “The separation between Church and State is different from the separation of faith and public life.” I could not agree more.  The separation of church and state is about keeping the state out matters of religious conscience. Separation of church and state also is about keeping the church from welding the power of the state to enforce its own articles of faith. It does not mean that people of faith and goodwill cannot, in following Jesus, advocate along side vulnerable communities calling for a just distribution of resources and power. 

This is why we here at RHM believe that politics in not simply about voting. It also must be combined with movement building. The late Ron Dellums used to remind folks that we need both movement building and people in office that can help support those movements.  I’ve witnessed this first hand here in West Virginia. We spend countless hours building a movement for social change here in this state, only to have people in office obstruct those changes. The opposite is also true, we can elect solid people as public servants, but if there is not a movement for them to act on, they have nothing to advocate for from the “will of the people.”  Those who desire an unjust distribution of resources are putting people in office who will act on their wishes.  Again, there is simply no way to opt out. We are either a participant in the discussion or we are the target of another’s agenda.

Which leads me to say, that voting, given our current structure, and especially for marginalized communities, yes, is only a part of the process of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all, yet it is a part of that process. So this week, I want you to do something simple. Check your voter registration to make sure it’s current. If you’re not registered, do so.  This November, vote your values remembering that at the end of the day people matter and they will be concretely affected by the outcome. Also encourage others to participate and vote to ensure all of our communities are truly represented.

Another world is possible.  As Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson shared, our work is to “trouble the waters” and “heal the world.”

Picture of a pottery bowlRemember, too, there’s still time to participate in RHM’s Shared Table Fundraiser for the month of October.  We’ve had a good response so far.  To find how you, too, can join in click:

A Shared Table: A Fundraiser for RHM

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Right where you are, keep living in love, justice, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. Keep engaging the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate home for everyone.

I love each of you dearly. 

I’ll see you next week.

Give Us Today Our Daily Bread

by Herb Montgomery | September 28, 2018 


“‘When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.’ How many times have we witnessed traditional White Christianity emphasize religiousness, puritanical morality, and even the ‘love of God,’ but justice, justice for the oppressed, marginalized and exploited is neglected at best and at worst, obstructed? We have neglected the more important matters of the law! As Jesus prioritized people’s temporal needs, those temporal needs were also to be a priority for Jesus’ disciples.”


“Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:11-12)

Last week we began considering the prayer in Matthew’s gospel often referred to today as The Lord’s Prayer. This week we’re continuing with the portion, “Give us today our daily bread.” 

In the previous verse, Jesus prays for the reign of God, the will of God, to be done here on earth as it is in heaven. But just what is that will? We must exercise caution and care whenever we presume to speak of the will of the Divine. Good can be done from these discussions for the marginalized and oppressed, and great harm can also be done to the most vulnerable among us.  So let’s proceed this week with caution.

Let’s begin with a story found a little later in Matthew’s gospel: the feeding of the multitude.

“As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.’ Jesus replied, ‘They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.’ ‘We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,’ they answered.” (Matthew 14:15-17)

What I want us to notice first about this story is that Jesus objected to the disciples sending the multitude away to meet their own concrete, physical needs. Too often, some Christians today promote the dualistic idea that a person’s temporal needs is categorically separate from their spiritual needs. Some faith communities therefore focus purely on the spiritual, believing that a person’s temporal needs are of lesser importance. 

This story strikes at the heart of this kind of dualistic thinking.

The disciples want to send the crowd away to find their temporal nourishment elsewhere. Jesus stops them and says, “They don’t need to go away. You feed them.”

This month, the book to read for RHM’s annual reading course is Gustavo Gutiérrez’ book A Theology of Liberation. It’s timely that we would also look at this passage in Matthew’s gospel this month, because Gutiérrez addresses this dualistic thinking too. While the temporal and spiritual are distinct, he writes, “there is a close relationship between temporal progress and the growth of the Kingdom” (p. 99). 

The liberation we find in the gospels stories is an integral liberation. It’s not about mere post-mortem escape, or private retreat into isolated, personal piety. This liberation integrates all aspects of each person’s being, including the temporal! It embraces the whole person. This is especially relevant to the question of what Jesus’ teachings have to offer us today in the way of resistance, survival, liberation, reparation and transformation. Again, Gutiérrez states, “The struggle for a just world in which there is no oppression, servitude, or alienated work will signify the coming of the Kingdom. The Kingdom and social injustice are incompatible (cf. Isa. 29:18-19 and Matt. 11:5; Lev. 25:10ff. and Luke 4:16-21). ‘The struggle for justice,’ rightly asserts Dom Antonio Fragoso, ‘is also the struggle for the Kingdom of God.’” (Ibid, p. 97)

The struggle for a just society is very much a part of following Jesus. People’s temporal needs matter, and Jesus teaches a whole liberation that goes beyond the individual person to include transforming and replacing oppressive structures and exploitative social systems. Gutiérrez calls for an expanded view of Jesus’ liberation gospel: even politically liberating events in history can be seen as part of the growth of what Jesus referred to as “the Kingdom.” Every event that leads to humans becoming liberated to experience full humanness can be seen as a salvific event.

“Nothing escapes this process, nothing is outside the pale of the action of Christ and the gift of the Spirit. This gives human history its profound unity. Those who reduce the work of salvation are indeed those who limit it to the strictly ‘religious’ sphere and are not aware of the universality of the process. It is those who think that the work of Christ touches the social order in which we live only indirectly or tangentially, and not in its roots and basic structure. It is those who in order to protect salvation (or to protect their interests) lift salvation from the midst of history, where individuals and social classes struggle to liberate themselves from the slavery and oppression to which other individuals and social classes have subjected them. It is those who refuse to see that the salvation of Christ is a radical liberation from all misery, all despoliation, all alienation. It is those who by trying to ‘save’ the work of Christ will ‘lose’ it.” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, p. 104)

In Matthew, Jesus tells his listeners of a God who clothes the lilies, feeds the ravens, and “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). This is a picture of everyone’s temporal needs being meet, and not merely their needs for survival, but also what they need in order to thrive. Everyone has enough.

Our present structure doesn’t look like that at all. Some are growing increasingly wealthy while others are in an ever-increasing struggle just to survive.

In Matthew 19:21-2 Jesus tells a wealthy person, “If you wish to be whole, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in the kingdom of heaven; then come, follow me.”

The wholeness I believe Jesus was speaking of here is a rediscovery or a reclaiming of one’s humanity. As we discussed in Another World is Possible (Parts 1-3), the narrative of scarcity, anxiety, accumulation, competition, and violence is dehumanizing whether you are made poor by this narrative or made wealthy by it. Instead of poverty or wealth, Jesus offers a narrative of enough. This is a narrative where there is enough for every person’s need. As in the story of the loaves and fish, even when we are tempted to embrace the narrative of scarcity, if we will in the moment choose a narrative of sharing, sharing our resources in distributive justice produces enough for everyone. It ends in gratitude, in cooperation, in connectedness. We begin to face the future with a different posture when we realize that we are in this life together and if we will choose to take responsibility for caring for one another, we can face whatever may come. It’s a collective stance more than an individualistic stance. It’s a vision of a distributively just world that gives birth to peace, where no one has too little or too much and everyone has enough.

It was this aspect of Jesus’ teachings that led the early church to hold “everything in common.” As Luke reports, “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 daily 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)

Salvation is not a post mortem life insurance policy. People were being saved from starving to death right then and there! Two chapters later in Acts we read, “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 . . . 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 4:32-34, emphasis added.)

Can you imagine a world where there is enough bread for every person each day? Where world hunger is no more? This is why Jesus proclaimed, “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.” (Luke 6:21) This is a world that is especially in the favor of those the present world causes to go hungry. Those made last by the present structures are made first. 

Last week, we read from Amos about those who valued religiosity more than social justice. This week, Jesus stands in that same Jewish prophetic tradition. Consider this from Luke’s gospel:

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42)

Luke’s and Matthew’s versions of this exchange (see Matt. 23:23) put justice in the family of “the more important matters of the law.” Justice and the love of God are intimately, intrinsically connected. As Dr. Emilie Townes says in the short film Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology, “When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.” How many times have we witnessed traditional White Christianity emphasize religiousness, puritanical morality, and even the ‘love of God,’ but justice, justice for the oppressed, marginalized and exploited is neglected at best and at worst, obstructed? We have neglected the more important matters of the law! As Jesus prioritized people’s temporal needs, those temporal needs were also to be a priority for Jesus’ disciples. 

Antonio Fragoso drives this point home in Evangile et Revolution Sociale (The Gospel and Social Revolution): 

“The struggle for justice, is also the struggle for the Kingdom of God. The Gospel should strike the conscience of Christians and stimulate an understanding among all persons of good will regarding the liberation of all, especially the poorest and most abandoned.” (p. 15)

We are not to dualistically divide a person’s spiritual needs and their temporal needs. We are whole people. Jesus’ liberation in each gospel included the whole person. This is the example set for us to follow. I long for the day when Jesus’ name is not immediately associated with the supernatural and a disconnected privatized understanding of religion, but with relief work and social transformation/justice work for the vulnerable and marginalized that would make relief work unnecessary. 

Next week we’ll consider Jesus’ phrase, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). This week, what does it mean to live and work in harmony with these words of Jesus’ prayer for all?

“Give us today our daily bread.”

HeartGroup Application

Again this week, in the context of Supreme Court Confirmation hearings here in the U.S., we are hearing a lot of rhetoric that supports attitudes and a worldview that results in violence against women. This is the rhetoric of what has been defined as rape culture. Tolerance of jokes and excusing of behavior supports a normalization of a whole spectrum of behavior of which the other side results in violence, degradation and assault. 

Jesus stood in defense of women within his own culture.  What does it mean for Jesus followers to do the same today?

1. This week, if you are unfamiliar with what is meant by the phrase rape culture I’m providing four links that can start you on a better understanding:

http://www.southernct.edu/sexual-misconduct/facts.html

http://www.wavaw.ca/what-is-rape-culture/

http://www.dayofthegirl.org/rape_culture

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_culture

2. Take time this week, again, to affirm the women in your HeartGroup. Discuss as a group what you learned from engaging the information in links above.

3. It is from making our smaller communities safer that I believe we create a larger world that comes safer for the vulnerable as well.  What can you do as a group to practice a preferential option for women and the vulnerable in your midst that makes your HeartGroup a safe place for them.  Make a list.  This next week, pick something from this list and implement it. Keep doing so each week till you’ve completed your list.

4. Don’t just stop with your HeartGroup. Engage the work of making our larger communities safer as well. Call your Representatives and share your concerns, too.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Right where you are, keep living in love, justice, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. Keep engaging the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate home for everyone.

And one last thing, as we approach Autumn, this is the time of year when Renewed Heart Ministries especially needs your support. Not only are we are planning for events next year, but we are working to prevent a budget shortfall for the present year. If you have been blessed by our work, please consider making a one-time contribution or becoming one of our monthly supporters. Go to renewedheartministries.com and click “donate.” Any amount helps. And thank you in advance for your support.

I love each of you dearly. 

I’ll see you next week. 

God the Father, Exclusive Othering, and a Distributive Justice for All

Herb Montgomery | September 21, 2018


“And if Amos were alive this week, he might have said, ‘I hate, I despise your endless religious statements that make you feel pious, protecting your phobias about those whose experiences in life are so different than your own. Away with your worthless statement and drafted expressions of bigotry. Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’” 


“This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’” (Matthew 6:9-13)

This week, we begin a series of articles on Jesus’ revolutionary prayer in Matthew’s gospel, the prayer we label today as “the Lord’s prayer.” This prayer  frames an outline we can use to consider the themes in Jesus’ teachings in Matthew’s gospel. There’s much in it that I believe speaks to our work today of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

The outline of this prayer is:

Our Father in Heaven:
Be hallowed Your Name
Be come Your Kingdom
Be done Your Will

As in Heaven, so on Earth: 
Daily Bread
Debt Cancellation
Deliverance from temptation to evil

Those are the themes that we’ll be looking at. Now, let’s dive right in. 

Our Father in Heaven

Historically, the exclusive image of God as “Father” has borne bad fruit for those who are neither male nor fathers. Some in the dominant social position have weaponized it against those whose differences are “Othered” and then dominated, exploited, and destroyed them. One example aptly laid out by Grace Ji-Sun Kim is how these images of God have been used against Asian American women. In her book Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love, she writes:

“As a poor Jewish peasant teacher from Nazareth, Jesus was marginalized and stood in solidarity with the marginalized throughout the Roman Empire. Jesus’ incarnate life, kingdom teaching, and crucifixion on a Roman cross unveil God as a lover of justice, peace, and liberation.

While Jesus was a revolutionary, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Jesus becomes reimagined as a supporter of empire. Classical theism in the West often emphasizes God as an Almighty Father. This patriarchal concept of God has often been wielded in destructive ways throughout the history of Western Christianity. Through European colonization, too often guided by a patriarchal image of God, indigenous cultures have been dominated and destroyed, Africans have been enslaved, Asians exploited, women have been abused, and the poor have been economically exploited. The male God image mediated through the Almighty Father has often had negative conscious and unconscious effects on women, especially women of color. God the Almighty Father has often been a theological tool used by white men of European descent to subjugate woman and people of color.” (p. 116)

This title for God, “Almighty Father,” has proven extremely vulnerable to being coopted by sexism, racism, colonialism, imperialism, and binary heterosexism for the abuse of those who, though not male and not fathers, are nonetheless bearers of the image of the Divine. For many, the phrase “Our Father” in such a transformative prayer as this is not an appropriate place to begin but a trigger of pain and suffering.

But for those also dedicated to contemplating and following the teachings of Jesus, this first portion of this prayer presents no small challenge. After all, Jesus was Jewish, and  Jewish tradition encourages practicing care with picturing  God in one’s mind’s eye. In the Torah we read, 

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14)

This cryptic description of the Divine within the Hebrew sacred scriptures provides for a universality in bearing the image of the Divine. “I am who I am” is left cryptically defined.  The question could be asked, “Who are you?” We must practice caution against answering the question definitely, for any word that comes next will undoubtedly limit the Divine.  

There is a rich diversity within the human race. And to believe that all of humanity, every member of the human family, all of our human siblings, are made in the image of God speaks to the rich complexity of God, too (See Genesis 1:26).  Our concept of the Divine must become more expansive and inclusive. It is okay to speak of God as male and as female. It’s okay to speak of God as nonbinary and ungendered, too!  God is not just White, but also Black, Asian, and more. God has traditionally been defined within the imagery of heteropatriarchy. We must be careful to allow every person to see themselves reflected in an expansive image of the Divine because “in the image of God has God made humankind.” (Genesis 9:6). And to the degree we exclude anyone from God’s image today, history shows we will exterminate them tomorrow. 

There are many ways to respond to this in prayer. Some of those who understand and practice this way of addressing the Divine in prayer use “Mother-Father God” or “Paternal God.” I’ve prayed, “Dearest Heart at the Center of the Universe.” I’ve also heard “Source of Light and Love,” “God of all nations,” “God of all peoples,” “Faithful One,” “Source of Wisdom,” or “Source of Goodness, Grace, Mercy and Justice.” On June 22, 2017, Rev. Kevin Kitrell Ross, addressed his prayer in the U.S. House of Representatives to the “Loving Presence,” and concluded with “In the name of a love supreme we pray.” 

The Jewish tradition seems to encourage not limiting God with our images of Divinity:

“You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below.” (Deuteronomy 4:15-18)

I will admit that the authors’ intent in this passage was most likely to discourage people from using creation as any kind of referent at all, but I would also argue that this passage, therefore, leaves our image of the Divine as cryptic which also allows for an expansive and inclusive imaging that embraces the rich diversity of everyone. Jesus’ Jewish tradition would have given him sufficient grounds to have addressed his prayer in much more inclusive ways.

So why does this prayer in Matthew begin with “Father”?

We cannot ignore the reality that, like many of the cultures around it, Jesus’ culture was deeply patriarchal. Householders were almost exclusively men. Householders were “fathers.” In rare exceptions, widowed women might become householders. 

But there are some hints of another worldview in the rest of the prayer. It is a deeply economic prayer. Of all the things Jesus could teach his followers to pray for, he teaches them here to pray for enough bread for today, for all indebtedness to be forgiven in Jubilee fashion, and for liberation from evil as a violation from Israel’s covenant with YHWH. I believe, given the other content of this prayer, that deliverance from temptation to evil could have been a direct reference to the way the rich were exploiting the poor in violation of the economic teachings of the Torah. 

 “However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.” (Deuteronomy 15:4-5)

But back to our quest for understanding this prayer’s address, “Our Father.” Given that this prayer is grounded in economic realities, and in the Jewish patriarchal family the father was the householder, the one responsible for ensuring no one in the family had too much while others  didn’t have enough, John Dominic Crossan offers this fitting and possible explanation:

“[The prayer’s] vision derives from the common experience of a well-run home, household, or family farm. If you walked into one, how would you judge the householder? Are the fields well tended? Are the animals properly provisioned? Are the buildings adequately maintained? Are the children and dependents well fed, clothed, and sheltered? Are the sick given special care? Are responsibilities and returns apportioned fairly? Do all have enough? Especially that: Do all have enough? Or, to the contrary, do some have far too little while others have far too much?

“It is that vision of the well-run household, of the home fairly, equitably, and justly administered, that the biblical tradition applies to God. God is the Householder of the world house, and all those preceding questions must be repeated on a global and cosmic scale. Do all God’s children have enough? If not—and the biblical answer is “not”—how must things change here below so that all God’s people have a fair, equitable, and just proportion of God’s world? The Lord’s Prayer proclaims that necessary change as both revolutionary manifesto and hymn of hope. Do not, by the way, let anyone tell you that is Liberalism, Socialism, or Communism. It is—if you need an -ism—Godism, Householdism or, best of all, Enoughism. We sometimes name that biblical vision of God’s World-Household as Egalitarianism but, actually, Enoughism would be a more accurate description.” (John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, p. 3).

Given the cultural context as well as the content fo the rest of the prayer, it could be synonymous to pray, “Our Householder in Heaven.” And Jesus’ point is that the will of the World Householder is that everyone have enough.  Within a Jewish worldview, the responsibility for carrying out that will has been delegated to humans. We have to ask ourselves what kind of world have we made with this responsibility. Jesus is calling for a community of people (the Kingdom) to come into being where the distributively just will of the World Householder is actually carried out. This is a prayer, within the contradiction of a patriarchal culture, that calls for an economic, distributive justice. How this prayer begins may still remain deeply problematic for many. But the prayer still offers us much. There is much to reclaim and to renew our hearts as we continue to work today toward a world that is safe, distributively just, and compassionate for everyone. 

The God who Jesus pictured for his listeners was a God who causes the sun and rain to fall on all indiscriminately. So if someone is going without, we have to look for the obstruction. It’s being “sent” to all, so who and what are preventing what we need for thriving from reaching all? As is often been stated, there is enough each day for every person’s need, but not for every person’s greed. In teaching this, Jesus was accessing his Jewish tradition:

“The poor and the oppressor have this in common: The LORD gives sight to the eyes of both.” (Proverbs 29:13)

“Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.” (Proverbs 30:8)

This distributive justice spoken of by Jesus also has its roots in the way the Hebrew prophets spoke truth to power.

 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)

Crossan again notes, “the primary meaning of ‘justice’ is not retributive, but distributive. To be just means to distribute everything fairly. The primary meaning of ‘justice’ is equitable distribution” (dIbid., p. 2). This was the great Hebrew hope of a distributive justice whose fruit would be peace.

“Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne 
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it 
with justice [distributive] and righteousness.” (Isaiah 9:7)

“The fruit of that righteousness [distributive] will be peace;
its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.” (Isaiah 32:17) 

Amos names the error of prioritizing religious ritual over concern for justice, especially justice for the vulnerable. Two weeks ago now, the same group of evangelicals that produced The Nashville Statement last year put out another ugly statement entitled The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. I’m not going to link to it. It reveals the drafters’ and signers’ gross ignorance of both the gospel and social justice.   How many times do we see Christians practicing extreme care for their religiosity, while either being totally ignorant of or even opposing people’s cry for justice? Gustavo Gutiérrez reminds us, “The kingdom and social injustice are incompatible” (A Theology of Liberation, 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 97). And if Amos were alive this week, he might have said, “I hate, I despise your endless religious statements that make you feel pious, protecting your phobias about those whose experiences in life are so different than your own. Away with your worthless statement and drafted expressions of bigotry. Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” 

Jesus begins his prayer in a way that would have been heard and understood by his original audience. He paints a picture of the human family where everyone has enough to not only survive, but also thrive. 

I believe prayer, meditation, contemplation, and practices like these shape those who practice them. Over the next few weeks as we continue to contemplate this famous prayer, my hope is that it will shape us, too, into people who work to transform our world into a safe, compassionate home for all, regardless of race, gender, religion, culture, ethnicity, education, economic status, sexuality, gender identity and expression, ability, or whatever —a safe home for all, where everyone has enough.

“This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’” (Matthew 6:9-13)

HeartGroup Application

There is a lot happening this week.  

Women all over the country are, again, hearing through our various news feeds and in private conversations family and friends the rhetoric of “boys will be boys,” “he was young,” “that was high school,” and more. Even before a hearing, the use of this rape culture rhetoric continues to perpetuate prioritizing violators over survivors. There is never an “okay” age for rape.  Teenage boys should not get a pass. To say they are not mature enough to understand consent is disturbing. As a father having discussions this week with both my son and my daughters, I’m deeply concerned about the messages being communicated to them right now. And as human being, I witness how these kinds of statements deeply impact the women in my life. I’m deeply concerned for what this continues to say to women, and survivors, and men.

  1. Take a moment this week in your HeartGroup to go around the room and affirm each of the women in your midst. Tell them that you value them. Be voices in their lives this week saying, “This is not okay.”
  2. If any would like to share, make time for the women in your HeartGroup to share how this week has impacted each of them. Listen to them. Let me repeat that. Men, listen to them.
  3. Lastly, put your feet in motion. What are some of the ways your group can engage the work of making our world a safer place for women? Create a list. Then pick something from the list and put it into practice the following week.

Thank you for checking in with us, this week. Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love, justice and compassion reigns. 

Another world is possible. 

And remember, this is the time of year when Renewed Heart Ministries needs your support.  If you have been blessed by our work, please consider making a one time contribution or becoming one of our monthly supporters.  Go to renewedheartministries.com and click donate.”  Any amount helps.  And thank you in advance for your support.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Salvific Teachings: Womanism and the Gospel

Herb Montgomery | September 7, 2018

 

Picture portraying three Women of Color

Photo Credit: Eloise Ambursley on Unsplash


“Notice that in this passage, which is not at all unique to the gospels, the ‘gospel of God’ is the announcement of the arrival of the reign or kingdom of God, who desires a world that is a safe, distributively just, and compassionate home for everyone. This was indeed, good news to the oppressed, marginalized and exploited of Jesus’ time, and it’s good news in our time as well.”


 

“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)

This week we take our third and final look at Jesus’ crucifixion through the lens of the experiences of members of vulnerable communities who daily face marginalization, domination, exploitation and/or oppression. We are going to listen at the feet of one of the greatest womanist theologians of our time, Delores S. Williams.

 

Last week, we considered how many feminist theologians reject the sufferings of Jesus as redemptive because of the lethal fruit this interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion has produced in the lives of women. Womanist theologians hav e the same concern.

 

“African-American Christian women can, through their religion and its leaders, be led passively to accept their own oppression and suffering — if the women are taught that suffering is redemptive.” (Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 161)

 

Seeking an alternative source of redemption in Jesus other than his sufferings, Williams addresses one the most historically damaging interpretations of Jesus’ death: Substitution, or as Williams calls it “surrogacy.” It doesn’t matter whether a theology represents Jesus standing in the place of God or of people. To the degree that Jesus was a substitute, representative, or “surrogate” sufferer in one’s interpretation of Jesus’ cross, then to that same degree surrogacy takes on “the aura of the sacred” and is divinely validated as an acceptable way for people to relate to each other. After all, if Jesus or God both participated in surrogacy, surrogacy itself cannot be impugned without calling the morality or justice of both Jesus or God into question as well. That has a particular import for Black women, historically forced into surrogacy during and following the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. (For further discussion on the oppression of Black women specifically in the context of surrogacy see Sisters in the Wilderness; The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p 40-60)

 

“In this sense Jesus represents the ultimate surrogate figure; he stands in the place of someone else: sinful humankind. Surrogacy, attached to this divine personage, thus takes on an aura of the sacred. It is therefore fitting and proper for black women to ask whether the image of a surrogate-God has salvific power for black women or whether this image supports and reinforces the exploitation that has accompanied their experience with surrogacy. If black women accept this idea of redemption, can they not also passively accept the exploitation that surrogacy brings?” (Delores S. Williams; Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 127)

 

Some differentiate Jesus’ surrogacy for humanity from the historical surrogacy role of Black women under the subjugation of their oppressors by saying Jesus’ surrogacy was voluntary. Williams finds such rhetoric insufficient:

 

“After emancipation, the coercion associated with antebellum surrogacy was replaced by social pressures that influenced many black women to continue to fill some surrogacy roles. But there was an important difference between antebellum surrogacy and postbellum surrogacy. The difference was that black women, after emancipation, could exercise the choice of refusing the surrogate role, but social pressures often influenced the choices black women made as they adjusted to life in a free world. Thus postbellum surrogacy can be referred to as voluntary (though pressured) surrogacy.” (Ibid., p. 41)

 

Williams offers an alternative interpretation of Jesus as a source of redemption. Jesus, she explains, gave “humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life.” This is, by far, my favorite paragraph from Williams on this subject:

 

“Black women are intelligent people living in a technological world where nuclear bombs, defilement of the earth, racism, sexism, dope and economic injustices attest to the presence and power of evil in the world. Perhaps not many people today can believe that evil and sin were overcome by Jesus’ death on the cross; that is, that Jesus took human sin upon himself and therefore saved humankind. Rather, it seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (Ibid., pp. 130-131) 

 

Now, it is up to us whether or not we will follow Jesus and practice his vision, whether we will follow this “ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life.” If the world doesn’t seem that different after Jesus than it was before, then it’s not that Jesus’ teachings have been tried and found wanting. As Chesterton stated, they have “been found difficult and left untried” (What’s Wrong with the World, Part 1, Chapter 5).

 

To focus on Jesus’ Kingdom of God theme as “the gospel”, the good news, and the source of redemption holds the most weight in the gospels. The gospels do not define the good news as “Jesus died for you.” The good news of the gospels is, every time, the Kingdom among us.

 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel 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)

 

Notice that in this passage, which is not at all unique to the gospels, the “gospel of God” is the announcement of the arrival of the reign or kingdom of God, who desires a world that is a safe, distributively just, and compassionate home for everyone. This was indeed, good news to the oppressed, marginalized and exploited of Jesus’ time, and it’s good news in our time as well.

Consider this statement in Luke’s gospel:

 

“ So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the gospel [euangelion] and healing people everywhere.” (Luke 9:6) 

 

What I love about this passage is that it tells us that followers of Jesus were t preaching the gospel far and wide, but Jesus had not yet died, much less been resurrected. What, then, were his followers telling people when they proclaimed the gospel? Whatever it was, their message was a gospel without a cross and without a resurrection. We have to let that confront us. 

 

According to Luke, it is possible to preach the gospel and never mention the cross or the resurrection. What were they sharing instead? They were announcing the kingdom and it was good news! The good news is always primarily about the kingdom, the new social vision for humanity that Jesus taught was possible here and now.

 

Consider  the book of Acts and take note of the gospel they were proclaiming:

 

“But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God . . .” (Acts 8:12)

 

“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)

 

“Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.” (Acts 20:25)

 

“They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus.” (Acts 28:23)

 

“For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance.” (Acts 28.30-31)

 

I believe Delores Williams is onto something significant.  Survival, liberation, redemption, salvation, and quality of life—in the Jesus story these are the themes that come through what Jesus called the kingdom or reign of God. Again, “The kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” This is what is salvific about Jesus and his teachings.

 

Williams continues, “Humankind is, then, redeemed through Jesus’ ministerial vision of life and not through his death. There is nothing divine in the blood of the cross. God does not intend black women’s surrogacy experience. Neither can Christian faith affirm such an idea. Jesus did not come to be a surrogate. Jesus came for life, to show humans a perfect vision of ministerial relation that humans had very little knowledge of. As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred. To do so is to glorify the sin of defilement. (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 132)

 

As challenging as Williams’ words are to our traditional interpretations, they hold promise, too.y Consider again the book of Acts. Even after Jesus died, the gospel was primarily about the coming of the Kingdom. Jesus had died and was resurrected but the story of the gospel would not include his death  fin its proclamation of the kingdom, and the emphasis when Jesus’ life story was told was not on Jesus’ death but his resurrection. The good news, in other words, was not that Jesus had died, but that he was alive! The Romans couldn’t stop him, and  a rich man’s tomb couldn’t hold this prophet of the poor. He was still out there, still recruiting, still calling people to “follow me.” 

 

Notice the good news now emphasizes his resurrection over his death:

 

“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4:33)

 

“You crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2:22-24)

 

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” (Acts 2:32-33)

 

“You handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, but God raised from the dead.” (Acts 3:12-16)

 

 “. . . Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 4:10-11)

 

“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 5:30-32)

 

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10:36-43)

 

“Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead . . . And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.” (Acts 13:35-38)

 

It is quite possible that atonement theories that focus on explaining how Jesus’ violent death saves us are trying to answer the wrong question. To use Williams’ phrase, a “more intelligent” question might be how do Jesus’ teachings save us? What does salvation mean for us here and now? Why did the proclamation that Jesus was alive inspire such hope among the  oppressed communities of Galilee and the surrounding areas in the 1st Century? However one interprets  the story of Jesus’ resurrection today, we cannot miss that it gave hope as good news to the early followers beyond hope for an afterlife. It gave them hope for this life. The reign of God had come near. The powers that be had tried to stop it, but failed. Another world is possible.

 

If what we learned last week holds any weight, if interpreting suffering as being redemptive is deeply damaging to marginalized and vulnerable communities, then this week we are being offered an alternative interpretation. tThe teachings of Jesus are salvific:  his vision for life and human community, his vision of distributive justice, the golden rule, our loving of one another as the interconnected begins that we are , his call to solidarity with those presently oppressed. These teachings and more point to a way that’s different from the course the status quo is presently pursuing. It’s a way or path to life. And it still calls to Jesus’ followers 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)

 

A Special Request

 

This is the time of year when Renewed Heart Ministries needs your support the most.  If you have been blessed by our work, consider making a one time gift or becoming one of our monthly contributors.  Any amount is deeply appreciated. Your generosity enables our much needed work to continue. 

 

You can do so either online by clicking here: Donate 

 

Or you can mail your support to:

 

Renewed Heart Ministries

PO Box 1211

Lewisburg, WV 24901

 

Thanks in advance for your help.

 

And thank you for checking in with us, this week. Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love, justice and compassion reigns. 

 

Another world is possible. 

 

I love each of you dearly.

 

I’ll see you next week.

 

 

A Refusal to Let Go of Life

Herb Montgomery | August 31, 2018

Statue of crucifixion

Photo credit: Ricky Turner on Unsplash


“Jesus chose to live a life in opposition to unjust, oppressive cultures. Jesus did not choose the cross but chose integrity and faithfulness, refusing to change course because of threat.” (Brown and Parker, For God So Loved the World?; Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.27)


 “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” (Mark 8:34)

In our time, there are two ways to define the cross. One defines it as passive endurance of abuse and injustice, whereas the other defines it as not being cowed by a violent system that  those in power use to threaten people who stand up, resist, and push back against abuse or injustice. (See last week’s article, “The Violence Inherent In The System.”*)

But Jesus’s audience couldn’t miss the meaning in his call to take up one’s cross. Roman crosses had only one connotation: it was used on dissidents. To be passive was to avoid being put on a cross, but to stand against injustice would almost certainly land you on one. 

The cross therefore had a singular political meaning. Some scholars even see evidence that the phrase “take up one’s cross” was used as a rallying cry by Jewish insurgents, a group whose members were constantly  being crucified for their activity (see Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man, p. 245-246). Jesus called his followers to nonviolent resistance, yet also used this specific phrase. hHis priority value in his nonviolence was not passive, patient endurance, but noncooperation, resistance, and dissent. The difference may seem subtle but the results are anything but when one considers the fruit that these interpretations bear in the lives of communities who daily face oppression and injustice.

This week we’re listening to and learning from voices from another marginalized community: women. We are considering the crucifixion event in the closing scenes of the Jesus story from the perspectives of various first wave, feminist theologians and scholars. 

Let’s begin with a classic and favorite article of mine, For God So Loved the World? by Joan Carlson Brown & Rebecca Parker. If you have not read it in its entirety you can do so online. It offers much to contemplate in light of the distinctions we are making this week.

“It is not the acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not am I willing to suffer? but do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 18, eds. Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

When Jesus called for his followers to be willing to take up their crosses, the political context of Roman crosses and their use means that Jesus wasn’t asking them to accept suffering. Rather, he was asking them if they desired “fully to live?” He was calling them to refuse to let go of their desire to live, to stand up to the injustice and join him. Whether Jesus spoke of a cross, or used the more veiled imagery of a “baptism” or drinking a “cup,” he never spoke of these experiences as something he was to do alone. In Mark’s gospel, each time he brings the subject up, he doesn’t preach his action substituting for the disciples’, but calls for their participation right alongside his own.  

“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life [by being passive or silent] will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake [standing up to injustice and abuse], and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world [through their silence] and forfeit their life?’” (Mark 8:34-36; see also The Myth of Redemptive Suffering)

“But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with ?’ They replied, ‘We are able .’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.’” (Mark 10:38-39)

As we saw last week, at this point in the gospels, Jesus is headed to Jerusalem to engage in a temple protest of dissent. He knows what the outcome may be, and he calls his followers to join him. His disciples understand Jesus’ call to participate with him. We know this because every time Jesus brings it up in Mark’s gospel, the disciples quickly change the subject (See Mark 8-10). Had they responded to Jesus positively rather than with denial, Calvary could have included thirteen more crosses in addition to Jesus’. 

This way of interpreting the Jesus story is important. Jesus taught resistance rather than passive acceptance of injustice. He taught self-affirmation rather than self-sacrifice. He taught speaking out rather than remaining silent. As feminist writers have pointed out, these distinctions are especially relevant for oppressed communities. Historically, Christian interpretations that describe Jesus’ teachings as sacrifice of one’s self, patient endurance of abuse, and silent passivity in the face of injustice have produced deeply harmful fruit for women. Consider the following critiques of traditional theology conducted from empowered social locations. Also take note that these comments come from theologians working from the margins.

“Women are acculturated to accept abuse. We come to believe that it is our place to suffer . . . Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive.” (Brown and Parker, For God So Loved the World?; Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 1-2)

“Christian theology has long imposed upon women a norm of imitative self-sacrifice base on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Powerlessness is equated with faithfulness. When the cross is also interpreted as the salvific work of an all-powerful paternal deity, women’s well-being is as secure as that of a child cowering before an abusive father.” (Elizabeth Bettenhausen, Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. xii; edited by Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

“The qualities that Christianity idealizes, especially for women, are also those of a victim: sacrificial love, passive acceptance of suffering, humility, meekness, etc. Since these are the qualities idealized in Jesus ‘who died for our sins,’ his functioning as a model reinforces the scapegoat syndrome for women.” (Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father, p. 77)

These critiques may challenge some of your theologies very deeply. That’s okay. We each need to be willing to consider whether our beliefs are producing life-giving fruit or whether they produce oppression, violence, and injustice. As Jesus-followers, we are called to liberation and solidarity with our fellow humans, even when that challenges us to reassess some of our most deeply held ways of interpreting the Jesus story. Remember, our sacred stories are eternal.  Our interpretations of them are not. Our interpretations can change! We can make our interpretations give way to more life-giving interpretations. And, in the future, if we discover our new interpretations also do harm, we can process them again. The goal of the gospel is always life.

I want to take a moment now to caution some of our followers interested in specific atonement theories. As we read critiques from the margins, we cannot pride ourselves in the fact that we don’t subscribe to more violent interpretations of Jesus’ crucifixion such as penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Two popular, classical replacements for PSA are the Moral Influence theory and Christus Victor. Consider that even these two alternatives are not immune to the critiques we are considering this week from our sister theologians.

First,  consider the interpretation of Jesus’ death as redemptive through moral influence.

“The problem with this theology is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoers ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (Brown and Parker, For God So Loved the World?; Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 20.)

Next consider the interpretation of Jesus’ death as redemptive in the context of the Christus Victor narrative.

“The believer whose thoughts and feelings have been shaped by a tradition that teaches or ritualizes in liturgy the Christus Victor view may interpret her or his suffering in this light. In response to suffering it will be said, Be patient, something good will come of this.” (Brown and Parker, For God So Loved the World?; Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.6 )

Whatever we choose to believe about Jesus’ crucifixion, I believe we must stay grounded in the insights we discussed last week. The cross was the response of those in power to Jesus as he refused to be silent in the face of injustice he saw committed against the vulnerable. He acted for justice and was kille. Remember these wise words from both Brown and Parker:

“Jesus chose to live a life in opposition to unjust, oppressive cultures. Jesus did not choose the cross but chose integrity and faithfulness, refusing to change course because of threat.” (Brown and Parker, For God So Loved the World?; Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.27)

I want to close this week with Elizabeth Bettenhausen’s story of a classroom exercise of changing the genders of the Jesus story. Reading her experience forever changed my own reading of the Jesus story. I’ll share it here with you.

“Several years ago I asked a group of seminarians to choose New Testament stories about Jesus and rewrite them imagining that Jesus had been female. The following recreation of the passion story of Luke 22.54-65 was one woman’s knowing by heart.

‘They arrested the Christ woman and led her away to the Council for questioning. Some of her followers straggled along to find out what was to become of her. There were seven women and two men followers. (The men followers were there mainly to keep watch over their sisters.) Someone from among the crowd asked a question of a man follower, ‘Haven’t I seen you with this woman? Who is she, and what is your relationship with her?’ He replied defensively, ‘She is a prostitute, she has had many men. I have seen her with many!’ The men who were guarding the Christ [woman] slapped her around and made fun of her. They told her to use magic powers to stop them. They blindfolded her and each them in turn raped her and afterward jeered, ‘Now, prophetess, who was in you? Which one of us? Tell us that!’ They continued to insult her. (Kandice Joyce)

After this story was read aloud, a silence surrounded the class and made us shiver. Ever since, I have wondered would women ever imagine forming a religion around the rape of a woman? Would we ever conjure gang-rape as a salvific event for other women? What sort of god would such an event reveal?” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. xi-xii, edited by Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

Kandice Joyce correctly perceives the intensity of rape and the shock of using it in this way as analogous to the intensity of execution by crucifixion and the way the Romans used it in their day. All of these women scholars are calling us to embrace the reality in both our lives and in our interpretations of our sacred stories that suffering is never redemptive. Suffering, even Jesus’s, cannot be redeemed. “The cross is a sign of tragedy. God’s grief is revealed there and everywhere and every time life is thwarted by violence” (Brown and Parker). But violent theologies have had devastating effects on the ives of vulnerable people,  specifically women. The reality is that victimization never leads to triumph, regardless of what our fairytales and interpretations of sacred stories tell us, and victimization, even when survived, can lead to even greater pain if not rejected or stood up to. When we fail to refuse abuse, abuse kills a person’s sense of power, worth, and dignity. Lastly, passive, patient endurance of abuse can lead to actual death.

It is not hyperbole to say that how we choose to interpret Jesus’ words has life or death importance.

“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” (Mark 8:34)

HeartGroup Application

This past week, Jamel Myles, a nine year old boy in the fourth grade at Joe Shoemaker Elementary School in Denver, Colorado committed suicide as a result of being bullied by his classmates for coming out as gay.  I have a 10 year old son who is in fifth grade. This story hits home for me.  I can’t imagine my life without my son.  Leia Pierce, Jamel’s mother spoke out, “We have to stop bullying and teach people it’s OK to love each other. … We have to stop hating each other for differences, differences that make us equal and unique.” (For more of Jamel’s story see https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/28/us/jamel-myles-suicide-denver.html) 

1. This week in your HeartGroup, share some ways that your experience in Heartgroup has challenged you to see our human differences as the rich and diverse variety within a humanity that bears the image of the Divine rather than “less than.” How have you encountered experiences of life that are different than your own?  How have these encounters helped you to move beyond fear and insecurity in relation to those who are different than you?

2.  As a group, list some ways that you can actively lean into the beautiful experiences of seeing each person as made in the image of God, a testament of the rich diversity seen in humanity, and actively move further toward a more meaningful, nonhomogenous, yet coherent view of our world and the life we, together as human siblings, live in it?  How can you more deeply love one another as yourselves?

3. Pick something from that list this week, and do it.

Thank you for checking in with us, this week. Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love, justice and compassion reigns. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

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