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.

Hating One’s Family

by Herb Montgomery

“We don’t have to reject members of our own family. Rather, this week’s saying tells us that when we do take a stand for justice, we may be rejected by mother, father, daughter, son, brother, or sister, and we should stand up anyway.”

Featured Text:

“The one who‚ does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple; and the one who does not hate son and daughter cannot be my disciple.” —Q 14:26

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:37: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”

Gospel of Thomas 55: “Jesus says: ‘Whoever does not hate his father and his mother cannot become a disciple of mine. And whoever does not hate his brothers and his sisters (and) will not take up his cross as I do, will not be worthy of me.’”

Gospel of Thomas 101:1-2: “Whoever does not hate his father and his mother as I do will not be able to be a disciple of mine. And whoever does not love his father and his mother as I do will not be able to be a disciple of mine.”

Of all the sayings of Jesus that I dislike and could be most easily misunderstood, misused, or abused, this week’s saying tops my list. I don’t like it at all. I’ve seen too many young people, especially LGBTQ young people, thrown out of their homes and cut off or shunned by their family on the basis of this week’s saying to have fond feelings about it. Whatever the saying, one must always judge its ethic on its fruit. What is the fruit of practicing one’s interpretation of the saying—life or death? If the fruit of your interpretation is death, I say change your interpretation!

What could Jesus have been thinking as he gave this teaching and made hate a core part of what it meant to follow him?

First, let’s understand that the socio-economic context of this saying is very different than our context today. We in the modern West belong to very individualistic societies. Socially and economically, we are individualists, not communalists. For middle-to-upper class people, there are retirement programs, insurance policies, and other programs and vehicles for one to take care of oneself rather than need a world where people take care of people.

These economic structures are designed to work as each individual seeks their own self-interest. Those at the top of society have structured the world to benefit them, and every act of those at the bottom of society does benefit those at the top. People desperate enough to become dependent on the system will work their lives away to survive, and their survival makes those at the top who benefit from their labor very wealthy.

In the 1st Century, Judea and Galilee was more communal. People in that region practiced a redistributive and reciprocal economy. Redistributive economies are economies where third parties (kings or aristocracies) collect the surplus from producers and then distribute that surplus to others who are not producers. This third party typically redistributes by directing and controlling labor, taxing people, or having officials make decisions rather than the people themselves. An example is an economy where rural producers feed urban dwellers. Redistribution can be done justly or unjustly: the book of Acts characterizes the early church as a redistribute economy based on voluntary giving, whereas the gospels characterize the Temple as a redistributive economy based on taxation and market selling.

Reciprocal economies are different. These types of economies are where those who belong to families or even communities freely give goods or services to each other. Yet as these gifts are given, community members keep an eye on the general ebb and flow of giving to make sure there is balance or fairness. People eventually become characterized as givers or takers. Those who give much are entitled to receive back, while those who are known to be takers are eventually starved out.

Families, in Jesus’ Jewish culture, especially in rural Galilee, practiced a more reciprocal economy. Jerusalem, through taxation, practiced a more redistributive economy. So when the gospels portray Jesus as saying, “The one who‚ does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple; and the one who does not hate son and daughter cannot be my disciple,” this saying involved the economic aspects of these relationships.

If following Jesus caused a person to lose economic support from their parents or their children, Jesus asks his followers to prioritize his vision for society: everyone is taken care of based on their needs, not based on their family’s, clan’s or tribe’s reciprocal system.

So perhaps Jesus’ saying was much more about communal economics than individual relationships with one’s family or tribe. Ched Myers explains the connection:

“It is important to recognize that in antiquity, much more so than today, the social fabric of the rural extend family was bound to the workplace. Thus the break demanded by Jesus is not only with economic but social security as well.” (in Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, p. 132)

But what if that interpretation isn’t the whole story? What if Jesus actually was telling us to hate our parents or children for not lining up with what we deem is morally appropriate? Should we hate our moms, dads, or kids because Jesus told us to?

Religiously fueled hatred or cold-hearted rejection of one’s own family has a long history in our sacred text. In Deuteronomy we find this command against daughters believed to not be virgins:

“If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.” (Deuteronomy 22:20)

This passage reflects the authors’ unjust patriarchal economy that relegated women to the level of property. Yet we must also be clear. It would be wrong for me as a father to read Deuteronomy’s injunction and seek to apply it to my children. There is no way around it. Our interpretations of our sacred texts must be held subject to love, compassion, and their fruit in our lives. As a friend of mine, Alicia Johnston, recently shared with me, “All teachings must be harmonized with love and compassion. Teachings that are inherently damaging, unhealthy, or unloving, cannot make people’s lives better. They, inherently, are not gospel.”

As we covered in Children against Parents, Matthew’s context is telling because it’s not the Jesus follower who is rejecting their family, but the family that is rejecting the Jesus follower. It makes much more sense to interpret this week’s saying as Jesus calling his followers to prioritize participating in his revolution over the rejection of family members. Matthew borrows from the Hebrew scriptures:

“For a son dishonors his father,

a daughter rises up against her mother,

a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—

a man’s enemies are the members of his own household.” (Micah 7.6)

The social location of the intended audience for this week’s saying really does make a difference. Is this saying telling parents to reject their children (or vice versa) who do not align with their definition of right and wrong? Or does this saying tell children who are being rejected by their parents (or vice versa) to remain committed to following Jesus’ revolution even in the face of such rejection?

Again, we don’t have to reject members of our own family. Rather, this week’s saying tells us that when we do take a stand for justice, we may be rejected by mother, father, daughter, son, brother, or sister, and we should stand up anyway.

Standing with and speaking out alongside the vulnerable often creates conflict, and often it’s conflict within one’s own family. (I know something of this myself.) I don’t believe that this suffering is good and I don’t believe that we must pass through fire and sword to get to a world that is safe, just, and compassionate for everyone.

I do believe that when those threatened by a just world do raise their swords or threaten us with a cross, we should stand up anyway, even if those opposing us are relatives. We are not to patiently submit. Rather, we are to take hold of life and, following Jesus, resist.

This is the only interpretation of this week’s saying that makes sense to me. More hate will not heal the world. Prioritizing a just, safe, and compassionate world over systems of domination and privilege, even if those at the helm of such systems are one’s own family, makes much more sense. I still would not have used the word “hate” as these translators did. But then again, I’m reading this saying two millennia and cultures away from its original time and place.

What can we glean from this week’s saying?

Reclaim your own humanity and stand alongside others who are reclaiming theirs. As we have stated so often, we are each other’s fate.

I choose to see this week’s saying as a matter, not of hate, but of priority. The difference may be subtle, but we don’t need more hate. We need compassion, justice, and equity. We don’t need more silence, even if those pressuring us to be silent are our family members. We don’t need more “submissive patience.” Take a strong position for yourself, for compassion and justice, even if that stand puts you at odds with those you still hold dear. I know it’s not easy.

“The one who‚ does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple; and the one who does not hate son and daughter cannot be my disciple.” (Q 14:26)

HeartGroup Application

On August 16, 1967, at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, GA, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the address, ”Where Do We Go From Here?” In this address he made the now famous declaration:

“Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that. And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love.”

In the excellent piece God So Loved the World?, Parker and Brown remind us, “It is not acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not, Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? ….If you believe that acceptance of suffering gives life, then your resources for confronting perpetrators of violence and abuse will be numbed.”

Next week we will discuss Jesus’ saying to take up our crosses. In Christianity, European and North American theologies have mostly interpreted this saying as calling us to passive acceptance of suffering. We’ll be discussing different ways that some oppressed communities have interpreted this saying.

In light of this week, and in preparation for next,

  1. What does it mean for you to insist on compassion and justice even when those closest to you would rather you remain silent?
  2. Share with your group an experience where you had to prioritize justice and compassion over the pressure you felt from people you cared about deeply.
  3. How can your group support each other when one of your group is experiencing pushback as a result of standing up for compassion and justice?

In a world that benefits some at the expense of others, it’s not always easy to hold up the vision of a world where justice, violence and oppression are put right. It’s even more difficult when doing so is compounded by rejection from those you care for. In moments like these, we need each other.

Wherever this finds you this week, right where you are, choose love, not hate. Choose a life of compassion and justice. Remember, you’re not alone. We are in this together, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

 

For all of you who are in or near the Asheville, N.C. area, registration for our free event this August 4-5 is now open! Find out more about this event at http://bit.ly/SayingsOfJesusAsheville.

Space is limited. We are using Eventbrite to make it super easy for you to register and reserve your place. Our Eventbrite page is:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-sayings-of-jesus-the-intersection-of-faith-and-social-justice-tickets-36048274359

The location is:

First Congregational United Church of Christ
20 Oak Street
Asheville, NC 28802

The session dates and times are:

Session 1: Friday evening, August 4 at 7 p.m.

Session 2: Saturday afternoon, August 5 at 2 p.m.

Session 3: Saturday evening, August 5 at 7 p.m.

 

Light refreshments will be served, and there will be discussion time at the end of each session.

500:24:1 LogoWe are so excited to be moving forward with our first 500:25:1 event. We’ll keep you posted on where we’ll be teaching next!

Remember we are taking requests for weekends all across the nation. You can request a weekend in your area at http://bit.ly/RHMSeminar Find out more about these events at http://bit.ly/RHM500251 and learn how you, too, can participate in making these events happen.

To fund our new events, go to http://bit.ly/RHM500Support.

Remember, if you are in the Asheville area, make sure you register at http://bit.ly/SayingsOfJesusAsheville. Space will be filling up quickly.

I love each of you dearly.

Thanks for checking in with us.

I’ll see you next week.

The Parable of the Invited Dinner Guests

Earth from space

by Herb Montgomery

Karen Baker-Fletcher writes: “If Jesus is on the side of the least of these, as Matthew 25 suggests and womanist liberation theologians emphasize, then this includes the earth. It too is hungry for nourishment. It too is increasingly impoverished.” 

Featured Texts:

“A certain person prepared a large dinner and invited many. And he sent his slave at the time of the dinner to say to the invited: Come, for it is now ready. One declined because of his farm. Another declined because of his business. And the slave, on coming, said these things to his master. Then the householder, enraged, said to his slave, ‘Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled.’” (Q 14:16-21, 23)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 22:2-3: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.”

Matthew 22:5: “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business.”

Matthew 22:7: “The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Luke 14:16-19: “Jesus replied: ‘A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, “Come, for everything is now ready.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, “I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.” Another said, “I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.”’”

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

Luke 14:23: “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.’”

Gospel of Thomas 64: “Jesus says: ‘A person had guests. And when he had prepared the dinner, he sent his servant, so that he might invite the guests. He came to the first and said to him: “My master invites you.” He said: “I have bills for some merchants. They are coming to me this evening. I will go and give instructions to them. Excuse me from the dinner.” He came to another and said to him: “My master has invited you.” He said to him: “I have bought a house, and I have been called away for a day. I will not have time.” He went to another and said to him: “My master invites you.” He said to him: ‘My friend is going to marry, and I am the one who is going to prepare the meal. I will not be able to come. Excuse me from the dinner.” He came up to another and said to him: “My master invites you.” He said to him: “I have bought a village. Since I am going to collect the rent, I will not be able to come. Excuse me.” The servant went away. He said to his master: “Those whom you invited to the dinner have asked to be excused.” The master said to his servant: “Go out on the roads. Bring back whomever you find, so that they might have dinner.” Dealers and merchants will not enter the places of my Father.’”

As we have stated before, even though Luke sums up Jesus’ gospel in Luke 4:18 with the phrase “to set the oppressed free,” this week’s saying again presents one of the challenges with elevating Jesus and his teachings for our society today: the normalization of slavery.

Jesus never spoke one word against slavery, in fact, as we see this week, he uses the institution in his own stories. This has been used by Christians in the U.S. to justify Christians holding tight to slavery, especially in the South. (See Mark Noll’s, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis)

It is interesting to note what appears to be an attempt at the softening of “slave” to “servant” from the “Q” texts to the more modern translations of the gospels, including Thomas. Regardless of how one explains Jesus’ references to slavery and servanthood, the reality remains the same: an enslavement culture is at the heart of some of Jesus’ strongest parables about a new social order, and we must be honest about how problematic this has been and continues to be.

Also, Matthew and Luke use this week’s saying differently. We’ll begin with Luke, and then look at how Matthew frames it.

Inclusivity

One of Luke’s burdens, which we see in Acts, is to explain how a community that began as a Jewish poor people’s movement came to be so populated by Gentiles. Luke places this week’s saying in the context of the “banquet in the Kingdom of God.” We discussed popular views of this banquet in 1st Century Galilee and Judea a couple of week’s ago.

In Luke’s version of the Jesus story, Jesus challenged the more exclusive interpretation of the eschatological banquet where purity standards in that culture prevented some from being allowed to sit at the table. Jesus had just stated, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-13).

Someone offended by what they interpreted as reckless inclusion and abandonment of the cultural purity taboos of the day responded by objecting, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” For those who held the more exclusive interpretation of this feast/banquet, those who would be specifically excluded from that feast would be the “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” While some would have the least honorable seats at the table, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” would not be invited at all as some believed their state was the result of their transgression. Jesus then responds by telling a story that includes this week’s saying.

Jesus’ story is of a householder who simply wants his “house to be full.” He doesn’t lower the purity standards; he completely ignores them. He invites, welcomes, and effectively affirms all those who would have been excluded under the more selective interpretation. The motive of the householder is what Luke places in the forefront. A full house is priority number one. Everyone is invited and if someone is not there, the onus is on those invited, not rumors of exclusiveness on the part of the householder. He simply wants a full house.

Connectedness and Equality

Matthew’s story includes two elements we’ll look at in turn: the king’s rage as well as the guest’s refusal to be identified with everyone else at the banquet. We’ll discuss the second item first.

Matthew’s story ends:

“‘So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (Matthew 22:9-13)

This parable makes no sense to me if attire for the banquet was not included in the invitation. How can a host invite “all the people they could find” so that the hall could be “filled with guests” and then get upset that someone in there was not wearing the proper attire, if such attire was not also provided? Did the host really think that everyone they found on the streets, even the poor and barely-scratching-by artisans, would have fine clothing for a wedding banquet of the wealthy?

I’ll freely admits that this is taking an interpretive liberty, but let’s assume for a moment that attire was provided as an option for those who needed such, so that no matter how poor you were, you had no excuse not to attend. If that’s the case, that gives us an entirely different ending. Who is the parable being told to in Matthew? This cluster of parables is aimed at “the chief priests and Pharisees” (Matthew 21.45) and the political place of privilege they held. In the story, someone refuses to wear clothing appropriate for the event. Whether this is a wealthy person refusing to be associated with the poor, or the poor refusing to be seen along side the exploitative rich, it’s a show of arrogance or separateness. It’s possibly an expression of one’s exceptionalism in protest to the inclusion of those he feels are “Other” or beneath him. For him to don the same attire as everyone else would be to intimate that there was no difference, at least at this banquet, between himself and those he feels should not be present. He is better than the others around him here and he will not be included on their same level. For him this is a rejection of the reality that we are all interconnected, we are part of one another. We are not as separate from one another as we often think.  We share each other’s fate. In fact, we are each other’s fate. It could be because of the guest’s desire to be seen as separate, or as reluctantly participating with everyone else, that the host so angrily responds to his lack of attire.

The context is the eschatological banquet that some people in Galilee and Judea believed symbolized the distinction between this age of violence, injustice, and oppression and the coming age where all injustice, violence, and oppression would be put right. But this new age in Jesus’ world view is egalitarian: everyone receives what is distributively just. No one has too much and no one has too little, we all, together have enough. So garments could have been justly distributed, making everyone equal. But if a person has spent their life working to be “first,” few things could be worse than to be faced with a world of equity and equality and being thrown into the same group with everyone else. They believe they are better, chosen, extraordinary, or exceptional. They are not like everyone else and they refuse to embrace our connectedness. But whether we acknowledge the truth of our reality or not, we are already in this together.

Those who choose the path of exclusion are themselves eventually excluded from a world that’s being put right through inclusive egalitarianism. As we discussed previously, exclusionary thinking is a self-fulfilling ethic. Again, when you see who is welcomed and affirmed, when you see how wrong you were about those you thought should be forbidden from attending the same “banquet” with you, it’s going to make you so angry! This is the gnashing of teeth Jesus and Luke describe (cf. Acts 7:54) So if any end up in outer darkness, it will not be because they could not accept their own invitation. It will be because they could not accept the inclusion and equal affirmation of those they feel should be excluded.

Now about the king’s rage.

Matthew includes the historic treatment of Hebrew social prophets. As I shared last year, in the Jewish tradition, the role of a prophet was to be a gadfly for those at the top of the Jewish domination system, both priests and kings. The common thread in their work was a call for justice for the oppressed, marginalized, vulnerable, and exploited. The clearest example of this focus is Amos. Hebrew prophets were not prognosticators. Rather they cast an imaginative vision of a future where all violence, injustice, and oppression were put right. These prophets were often rejected and executed by those in power.

Matthew’s Jesus story locates both John the Baptist and Jesus in this tradition of prophets silenced by execution. I would note that in this tradition, Jesus’ execution is not unique and not hard to explain. Execution as the response of those in power to those who critique and speak truth to power is nothing new or strange. Nor is it peculiar to one culture. It happens all the time in every culture. It was not too long in our own culture that Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. and Robert Kennedy were all assassinated in five years.

And it’s this treatment of the Hebrew prophets (including John and Jesus) that I believe Matthew is using to explain to his community and perhaps even make sense to himself (like Jeremiah of old) how such a catastrophe could have befallen Jerusalem in his lifetime. People explain tragedy differently. People try to make sense of our suffering differently. Matthew’s gospel assumes that if the outcry against social injustice would have been heeded, the Jewish poor-peoples revolt, the Jewish-Roman war, and the razing of Jerusalem itself, could have possibly been avoided.

“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” (Matthew 22:4-7)

What I would be quick to point out is Matthew’s use of the plural “them.” Matthew was a Jewish Jesus follower trying to make sense of his entire world ending as he had known it. But even then, unlike many Christian supersessionists, he did not isolate Jesus’ rejection as the sole reason for the events of 70 C.E. Matthew wasn’t a Christian blaming “the Jews” for their “rejection” of Jesus as the Messiah. Matthew included the rejection of Jesus and John in a long list of many “servants,” from Amos, Jeremiah, Micah, Isaiah, and Hosea, all the way back. In other words, Jesus’ rejection was not unique to Matthew but part of a much longer trajectory. Ched Myers in what Walter Wink states is “quite simply the most important commentary on a book of scriptures since Barth’s Romans,” reminds us of the “prophetic script”:

“The ‘true prophets’ are not identified by ‘proof’ of miraculous signs, but by their stand on the side of the poor, pressing a ‘covenantal suit’ against the exploitative ‘shepherds’ of Israel. From Elijah to Jeremiah the result is always the same: opposition from the ruling class and a threat to the prophet’s life.”

Matthew’s use of this week’s saying seems to be indicating that, once again, in the life of Jesus, the prophetic script has been fulfilled in human society.

Today

Today we have to ask which voices are we refusing to listen to? Which voices are we not heeding? Who are we in our stubbornness ignoring; what could, by ignoring, like in 70 C.E. for Jerusalem, wipe out everything for everyone? There are many voices that come to mind for me, but at the top of my list are those seeking to raise our consciousness of the connection between corporatism and the climate changes that threaten humanity’s continued existence. Karen Baker-Fletcher, womanist theologian and co-author of My Sister, My Brother; Womanist and Xodus God Talk, writes:

“If Jesus is on the side of the least of these, as Matthew 25 suggests and womanist liberation theologians emphasize, then this includes the earth. It too is hungry for nourishment. It too is increasingly impoverished.”

A couple weeks ago, I caught an insightful interview of Naomi Klein on what she feels many on both sides of the political debate about climate change are refusing to acknowledge as we look to our planet’s future. Again, we have a choice of whether to refuse or embrace our connectedness. Whether we acknowledge the truth of our reality or not, we are already, all of us, in this together. We as a whole will survive or we will all, together, face the results.

There is much to be gleaned in this week’s saying. Whose voices are you reminded to pay attention to this week?

A certain person prepared a large dinner and invited many. And he sent his slave at the time of the dinner to say to the invited: Come, for it is now ready. One declined because of his farm. Another declined because of his business. And the slave, on coming, said these things to his master. Then the householder, enraged, said to his slave, “Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled.” (Q 14:16-21, 23)

HeartGroup Application

  1. Before your group meets this next week, write down three things that speak to you in either Luke’s or Matthew’s use of our saying.
  2. Why do these things resonate with you and what do they mean to you?
  3. When you do come together, take some time to go around the room and share with each other what this week’s saying is saying to you, and what the implications could be for your HeartGroup as a whole.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Where this finds you, keep engaging in the work of love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, transformation on our way toward thriving. We are in this together.

Also don’t forget to check out the new 500:25:1 project we are launching this August. Go to http://bit.ly/RHM500251 where you can find out more about why we’re launching new weekend events around the country, how you can help to make these events happen, and, best of all, how you can have us come and teach in your area.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Exalted Humbled and the Humble Exalted

Person with green hair at Pride event

by Herb Montgomery

 

“There is a vast difference between the kind of pride that exalts self over others as if you were the normal or ideal and others were somehow less than, and the kind of pride that rejects the social shame others have tried to impose on you for being different. Pride that simply lifts oneself to a place of equality with others is not a sin!”

 

Featured Text:

“Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted.” (Q 14:11)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:12: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 14:11: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Purity Circles

This week we once again face one of Jesus’ sayings that we must be careful not to apply to everyone. Jesus specifically pointed the saying at those who had lifted themselves up to be above their peers.

In Matthew’s story of Jesus, this saying is in the context of Matthew’s critique of the scribes and the Pharisees. A little background will help us understand.

In The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, Bruce Malina tells us how the purity cultures of the ancient world like the Hebrew tradition gave their members a sense of order from the chaos of the material world around us.

Specifically about the general cultural map of social time and space, about arrangements wishing the space thus defined, and especially about the boundaries separating the inside from the outside. The unclean or impure is something that does not fit the space in which it is found, that belongs elsewhere, that causes confusion in the arrangement of the generally accepted social map because it overruns boundaries.” (p. 125)

Notions of ritual cleanness or uncleanness were connected to a sense of belonging: in certain communities, well-defined boundaries marked insiders from outsiders. Within such cultures there was also a spectrum of cleanness. The greater your ability to remain clean, the purer you were. The opposite was also true. These notions of purity were not simply religious; they were but also social, economic, and political.

Think of a circle for a moment. If the circle represented the community, the purer you were, the closer you were to the center of the circle. The more unclean you were, the more you were pushed to the edges or margins. And guess who made the decisions for the group as a whole? You guessed it: those at the center. Those closer to the center had greater political, economic, and societal control. They maintained the status quo, a status quo that benefitted and privileged those at the center over those on the edges.

William Herzog once commented on the political struggle for the center in 1st Century Jewish society. His thoughts shed insight on why Matthew would have included this week’s saying.

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

The Pharisees were the religious teachers of the masses, while the Sadducees were the elites who desired above all else to maintain their control on society. The Pharisees appeared to want to make purity more accessible to the masses, so in that context, they were considered the “liberals” while the Sadducees were the “conservatives.” Yet they were not really concerned with empowering the masses, but with placing power in their own hands, a power that the masses would legitimize. They did not dismantle the system; they only sought to co-opt it and hold the socio-political power and a populous base over the Sadducee elites in Jerusalem.

On the contrary, Jesus wanted to, proverbially, “burn the whole system down.” He repeatedly transgressed purity boundaries, bringing in those who had been pushed down and to the margins of his culture. He didn’t do this because he was anti-Jewish or anti-Torah. I believe he did this because he saw the purity model of societal order as deeply damaging to those of his Jewish siblings who were forced by those at the center to live on society’s fringes and edges.

In our saying this week, we see a Jesus who challenged and subverted the model of organizing society as a purity circle with insiders and outsiders. Jesus challenged this way of organizing society not just with his words, but also with his table, body, and temple/synagogue practices in the gospels.

We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Tax Collector Versus Pharisee 

Matthew describes a horizontal model, a circle, Luke uses a vertical image: a pyramid. The circle has a center and margins, but a pyramid has a few at the top who wield control or power over the masses below them. The lower one goes in a social pyramid, the greater the number of people and the less those people have any say about the world in which they live.

Luke places our saying this week in the context of a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both of these groups were closer to the top of Jesus’ social, economic, and political pyramid. Both were typically well-to-do financially. But where one of these groups responded positively to Jesus’s teachings, the other did not. As we have already discussed, Sayings Gospel Q 7:23-30 includes the statement, “For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him.” Luke adds this parable:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In Luke’s telling of the story, “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus” and his economic vision (Luke 16:14). By contrast, the hated tax-collector responded, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).

The tax-collectors were the last ones expected to respond to Jesus’ economic teachings of mutual aid and wealth redistribution. Yet they came to Jesus’s shared table, while others did not, and Jesus welcomed them (see Luke 15:1-2).

In Luke, the Pharisees continued to compete with the temple elite for the exalted position of political control over the masses while the tax-collectors humbled themselves and embraced a world where there is enough for everyone. I’m sure there were exceptions; stories are often told with generalizations. What remains is the truth that when we seek to exalt ourselves over others, it leads to disastrous results for everyone.

How Not To Use This Passage

There is a difference between someone at the center or top of a group having their self-exaltation challenged, and those on the periphery and bottom working to lift themselves up to a equitable shared position. Let me explain.

I just finished reading Carol Anderson’s book White Rage. Over and over it recounted the history of how whiteness and structural racism have functioned in American society to impede social progress upward or toward the center for people of color. Sayings like ours this week have been aimed at people of color to try and silence or shame their efforts at equality.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that there is a difference between those who would exalt themselves over others and those who simply are seeking to lift themselves up to level ground. One group seeks to maintain an unjust status quo, and the other simply works toward equality. Our saying this week is not about those lifting themselves up toward equality. It’s about those who continually impede their work, who have exalted themselves over others, who are called to humility, equity and solidarity with those lower or on the periphery.

This month I also was blessed to be able to participate with SDA Kinship International in D.C.’s Capital Pride parade. June is Pride month for the LGBTQ community. It is also a month when I see a lot of Evangelical Christians critiquing the idea of “pride” itself. “Pride is a sin!” they say. And they quote our saying this week, “Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted.”

But social location matters. There is a vast difference between the kind of pride that exalts self over others as if you were the normal or ideal and others were somehow less than (think heterosexism) and the kind of pride that rejects the social shame others have tried to impose on you for being different. Pride that simply lifts oneself to a place of equality with others is not a sin! And our saying this week isn’t critiquing that kind of pride.

If a person is already being shamed and humiliated, they don’t need to humble themselves further. They are already experiencing humiliation from those who endeavor to marginalize them and their voices. Those who really need to humble themselves in that situation are those who think that just because someone is different they are broken or less than.

There was a time when those who were left-handed were considered less than, too. We don’t know why some are born one way and others are born another, but these differences do exist. Jesus subverted systems that push people to the margins or undersides of society, and that should challenge any Christian who believes cisgender heterosexuals are the ideal and all other people should stay on the margins of society. It is for them that this saying was given. They are the ones our saying this week is speaking to.

I’ve been reading Ched Myers’ book Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. I’m enjoying it immensely. It has been quite affirming and confirming for me personally, and I recommend the book highly if you have not read it. In the introduction, which I quoted from earlier, Ched shows how social pyramids and circles functioned in Jesus’ day and how they call those of us who want to follow Jesus to challenge similar models today.

These two statements resonated deeply inside me this week:

“White North American Christians, especially those of us from the privileged strata of society, must come to terms with the fact that our reading site for the Gospel of Mark is empire, locus imperium . . . The ‘irreducible meaning’ of empire is the geopolitical control of the peripheries by the center . . . the fact remains that those on the peripheries will have ‘eyes to see’ many things that those of us at the center do not.”

And

“The ancient Mediterranean world was dominated by the rule of imperial Rome [center]. However, whereas I read from the center, Mark wrote from the Palestinian periphery. His primary audience [was] those whose daily lives bore the exploitative weight of colonialism, whereas mine [is] those who are in a position of enjoy the privileges of the colonizer. In this sense, Third World liberation theologians, who today also write from the perspective of the collided periphery have the advantage of a certain ‘affinity of site’ in their reading of the Gospels.”

Whether we use the vertical model of a pyramid where the few at the top control everyone beneath them, or the horizontal model of a circle where those closer to the center have control of the body, our saying this week offers a critique and warning to all who push others from a position of input and influence to the margins, edges, or periphery:

Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted. (Q 14:11)

HeartGroup Application

Jesus sought to change the way communities were organized. Where there were pyramids with people on top and closed circles with people outside, Jesus sought to form a shared table.

So this week I want you to do something a little different. Each of you, take time to listen to a presentation I gave in the fall of 2015 in southern California entitled, A Shared Table.

Then after listening,

  1. Discuss your responses together as a group.
  2. Brainstorm how your group can become more of a shared table experience rather than in a pyramid or closed circle. Write these strategies out.
  3. Pick something from what you’ve written and put it into practice this week.

Something that may be helpful to you in your brainstorming is our newly updated HeartGroups page.

Together we can make choices that continue to transform our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone. The teachings of Jesus don’t call us to escape from a hostile world. Radical discipleship, radical Jesus-following, calls us to engage the world so that it becomes a less hostile place. In the words of Sam Wells, “The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that there’s plenty wrong with the world. There are only two responses to this—either go and put it right yourself, or, if you can’t, make life pretty uncomfortable for those who can until they do. When we take stock of our relationship with the powerful, we ask ourselves, ‘Does the shape of my life reflect my longing to see God set people free, and do I challenge those who keep others in slavery?’” (in Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus by Ched Myers)

Remember, we are in this together. We are each other’s fate.

Also remember to check out our new 500:25:1 project at http://bit.ly/RHM500251. There you can find out more about why we’re launching weekend events around the country, how you can help to make these events happen, and, best of all, how you can have us come and teach in your area.

Thanks for checking in with us this week!

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, transformation and thriving! Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Hearings before Synagogues

Slaves liberation, Goree Island, Dakar, Best of Senegal

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“When they bring you before synagogues, do not be anxious about how or what you are to say; for the holy Spirit will teach you in that hour what you are to say.” Q 12:11-12 

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:19: “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say.”

Luke 12:11-12: “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”

Synagogues

Rome referred to the synagogue as a Jewish “public school” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 16.6.2). The book of Acts describes synagogues of places of religious worship and instruction. These were places for the local community to assemble for social, intellectual and spiritual reasons. Today, Jewish synagogues are overseen by rabbis. While 1st Century synagogues did have leadership, rabbinical leadership did not become universal till some time in the Middle Ages.

One of the ways Rome kept the peace in the territories it conquered was by working closely through the territories’ religious institutions. So the synagogues, though much more local than the temple in Jerusalem, would have played a part in the Roman occupation.

Also keep in mind that in 1st Century Jewish society, strict divisions between political/civil and religious life did not exist. These were intertwined as they are often in our time.

This week’s saying is an encouragement to followers of Jesus who got arrested for following him. In the U.S. today. Christians don’t get arrested for following Jesus. We’ll discuss a few possible reasons for this in a moment.

First, rather than pointing a finger at how the Jewish elites joined religious and civil authorities to oppose the threat of Jesus’ vision for Jewish societies, I’d like to consider our history: how most of Christianity has witnessed this same opposition to Jesus’ societal vision.

Christianity

Most scholars point to the conversion of Constantine as the period when Christianity began colluding with empire. Feminist scholars point back to patriarchal abuses of women, which have always plagued Christianity. (See Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, edited by Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn.) Christianity, embracing the violent use of the sword as justifiable in the face of Rome’s enemies, grew to become the political head of most of Europe. Christianity then became the empire itself. As the right arm of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant countries in Europe, imperial Christianity laid the foundation for the church’s endorsement and use of colonialism in the 15th Century during the so-called “age of discovery.” In my twenties, I visited Trinidad and Tobago as young, naive Christian “preacher.” Much to my horror I discovered history my Christian education had conveniently left out. I heard stories from the people there of how, rather than condemning colonialism as the genocidal rape of indigenous lands and people, Christianity and the name of Jesus was part and parcel of colonialism. Colonialism was viewed as an acceptable and even preferable means of carrying the “gospel” around the globe, making “disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” with the Bible in one hand and a sword in the other (see Matthew 18:29).

Christian Colonialism took lands and resources from indigenous people viewing them as “modern Canaanites,” treating indigenous people themselves as capitalist resources that could be taken forcefully from their lands as slaves. (See Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, pp.123-142) Christians participated with clear consciences in the slave trade. (See Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness, pp. 66-68) After all, their sacred text had given them permission:

“However, you may purchase male and female slaves from among the nations around you. You may also purchase the children of temporary residents who live among you, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat them as slaves, but you must never treat your fellow Israelites this way.” (Leviticus 25:44-46)

This moral stain still rests with Christianity today. The end of slavery in the U.S. was brought about by secularists partnering with a minority of Christians derogatorily labeled “radical Christians.” (See Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and Carol Faulkner’s Lucreitta Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America.) Jim Crow, too, was ended by secular federal legislation opposed by the majority of white Christians in the southern states. (The Real Origins of the Religious Right)

Today, Christianity again has raised its head to support the most outspokenly misogynist, racist, xenophobic American administration in modern history.  For most of my socially conscious friends, Christianity is seen not just as out of touch with Jesus’ societal vision, but actively opposed to a world that resembles what Jesus was working so tirelessly to inspire among his 1st Century followers.

Today

In the 1960s and 1970s, in North and South America, a different Christian movement was born. Latin voices in South and Central America, and Black voices here in the U.S. developed differently focused theologies that would come to be known as liberation theologies:

“If theological speech is based on the traditions of the Old Testament, then it must heed their unanimous testimony to Yahweh’s commitment to justice for the poor and the weak. Accordingly it cannot avoid taking sides in politics, and the side that theology must take is disclosed in the side that Yahweh has already taken. Any other side, whether it be with the oppressors or the side of neutrality (which is nothing but a camouflaged identification with the rulers), is unbiblical. If theology does not side with the poor, then it cannot speak for Yahweh who is the God of the poor.” (James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, p. 65)

“Under these circumstances, can it honestly be said that the Church does not interfere in ’the temporal sphere’? Is the Church fulfilling a purely religious role when by its silence or friendly relationships it lends legitimacy to a dictatorial and oppressive government? We discover, then, that the policy of nonintervention in political affairs holds for certain actions which involve ecclesiastical authorities, but not for others. In other words, this principle is not applied when it is a question of maintaining the status quo, but it is wielded when, for example, a lay apostolic movement or a group of priests holds an attitude considered subversive to the established order.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 40)

Both statements reveal a challenge to Christianity’s historic complicity with and empowerment of the status quo. Christian liberation movements were born in solidarity with oppressed. This marked a significant shift in theology away from North American and European centered interpretations and toward theologies being done from within oppressed communities.

These theologies were labeled “radical” expressions of Christianity and they have yet to become popularly emphasized in status quo, White, patriarchal, heterosexist Christianity. These theologies have not gone beyond the halls of academia in order to reach the people in the pew listening to most of North America’s weekly evangelical preaching.

Today, U.S. society is markedly a secular society with a plurality of religious beliefs, and the religion with the most followers is Christianity. Too often, this kind of Christianity is simply concerned with spiritual and/or post-mortem matters that prove to leave systemic oppression unchallenged for those in positions of privilege. It also leaves those underprivileged in a state of pious passivity.

Yet, if liberation theologies rooted in the experience of the oppressed and informed by their sacred texts are a reflection of what early Christianity possibly was in the first century, they sound a clarion call for Christianity to wrest itself free of its historical failures, to make reparations for the damage it has done, and to begin charting a new course where the poor, women, people of color, and those of varied orientations and gender identities are no longer the victims of Christianity but the community Jesus would call us to stand in solidarity with instead. This is not a “liberal agenda,” or “gay agenda” threatening the gospel of Jesus Christ. This IS the gospel of Jesus Christ: liberation for the oppressed. (Luke 4:18-19)

As I mentioned above, Christians are not getting arrested in the U.S. today. Is that because society has become just, safe, and compassionate for everyone so that Christianity has no opposition to a status quo to mount? Or is it because Christianity, as it has done historically, is being complicit in systemic injustices, exploitation, and harm being perpetrated out of societal fear of those who are different?

American Christians have a long way to go before they are being brought before “rulers and authorities” for standing up against injustice and a lack of compassion in our world today. It’s more likely that if one is “arrested” and brought to trial today, it will be the Christians who comprise the prosecutors.

“When they bring you before synagogues, do not be anxious about how or what you are to say; for the holy Spirit will teach you in that hour what you are to say.” Q 12:11-12 

HeartGroup Application

This week I have some passages from the Hebrew scriptures that I’d like you to contemplate together. James H. Cone in our book of the month for March, God of the Oppressed, wrote:

“For theologians to speak of this God, they too must become interested in politics and economics, recognizing that there is no truth about Yahweh unless it is the truth of freedom as that event is revealed in the oppressed people’s struggle for justice in this world.” (p. 57)

  1. Consider the following passages:

“Yahweh ’heard their groaning, and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; he saw the plight of Israel, he took heed of it’” (Exodus 2:24—25 NEB).

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has risen up in triumph; the horse and his rider he has hurled into the sea.” (Exodus 15:1 NEB)

“The Lord is my refuge and my defense, he has shown himself my deliverer.” (Exodus 15:2 NEB)

“You have seen with your own eyes what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you here to me. If only you will now listen to me and keep my covenant, then out of all peoples you shall become my special possession; for the whole earth is mine. You shall be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4—5 NEB)

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21; cf. 23:9 RSV)

“You shall not ill-treat any widow or fatherless child. If you do, be sure that I will listen if they appeal to me; my anger will be roused and I will kill you with the sword.” (Exodus 22:23—24 NEB)

What do these passages tell us about the Hebrew God’s relationship to the oppressed?

2. The narrative states that the liberated people eventually became oppressors of the vulnerable. Consider these passages from the Hebrew prophets:

“For you alone have I cared among all the nations of the world; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:2 NEB)

“Shall not the earth shake for this?  Shall not all who live on it grieve? All earth shall surge and seethe like the Nile and subside like the river of Egypt. Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, the Aramaeans from Kir? Behold, I, the Lord God, have my eyes on this sinful kingdom, and I will wipe it off the face of the earth. (Amos 8:6-8; 9:7-8 NEB)

“For among my people there are wicked men.. . Their houses are full of fraud, as a cage is full of birds. They grow rich and grand, bloated and rancorous; their thoughts are all of evil, and they refuse to do justice, the claims of the orphan they do not put right nor do they grant justice to the poor.” (Jeremiah 5:26-28 NEB)

“God has told you what is good; and what is it that the Lord asks of you? Only to act justly, to love loyally, to walk wisely before your God. (Micah 6:8 NEB)

“Put away the evil of your deeds, away out of my sight. Cease to do evil and learn to do right, pursue justice and champion the oppressed; give the orphan his rights, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:16–17 NEB)

3. The Davidic Kingly narrative texts teach us that the king was to rescue the needy from their rich oppressors:

“May he have pity on the needy and the poor, deliver the poor from death; may he redeem them from oppression and violence and may their blood be precious in his eyes.” (Psalm 72:12-14 NEB)

Yet we don’t see this being the ultimate outcome:

“The Lord comes forward to argue his case and stands to judge his people. The Lord opens the indictment against the elders of his people and their officers: They have ravaged the vineyard, and the spoils of the poor are in your houses. Is it nothing to you that you crush my people and grind the faces of the poor?” (Isaiah 3:13–15 NEB)

God’s people were to stand with the oppressed, like their God did:

“He who is generous to the poor lends to the Lord.” (Proverbs 19:17 NEB)

“He who oppresses the poor insults his Maker; he who is generous to the needy honors him.” (Proverbs 14:31 NEB)

“Do not move the ancient boundary-stone or encroach on the land of orphans: they have a powerful guardian who will take their cause against you.” (Proverbs 23:10-11 NEB)

In the book of Luke, we find these two descriptions of the work of Jesus:

“His name is Holy; his mercy sure from generation to generation toward those who fear him; the deeds his own right arm has done disclose his might: the arrogant of heart and mind he has put to rout, he has brought down monarchs from their thrones, but the humble have been lifted high. The hungry he has satisfied with good things, the rich sent empty away.” (Luke 1:49-53 NEB)

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me, he has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NEB)

What does it mean to see Jesus as part of a Jewish liberation tradition?

What does it mean for us today who desire to follow this Jewish, liberative Jesus?

What if you belong to the community of the oppressed?

What if you don’t belong to the community of the oppressed?

Does this liberative Jesus call us each to stand in solidarity with those on the undersides and edges of our society?

As I mentioned a moment ago, I believe much of Western Christianity has a long way to go before this week’s saying holds any relevance to it. At most right now it is a strong rebuke of how far we have drifted from being a community of the oppressed rather than a community of oppressors.

But that doesn’t mean things are hopeless. The choice is yours today. As a follower of Jesus, whom are you being called to stand in solidarity with? Who knows, you may find yourself standing before “rulers and authorities” for living like the Jesus community of old.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Wherever this finds you, keep living in love. Keep up the good work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. We have our work cut out for us. Let’s get to it.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Speaking against the holy Spirit 

White dove in the cage, Pigeon locked in a cage.by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And whoever says a word against the son of humanity, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him.” Q 12:10 

Companion Texts:

Matthew 12:32: “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

Luke 12:10: “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”

Gospel of Thomas 44: “Jesus says: ‘Whoever blasphemes against the Father, it will be forgiven him. And whoever blasphemes against the Son, it will be forgiven him. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, neither on earth nor in heaven.’”

Womanism and Spirit

For those unfamiliar with the womanist school of thought, Alice Walker writes, “Womanist to feminist is as purple is to lavender” (In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, pp. xii). Womanism’s origins are among Black women of the African diaspora. And within our context this week, I love the emphasis womanist writers place on Spirit.

Karen Baker-Fletcher, a Christian womanist, explains, “The Spirit is the all-encompassing, inclusive force in which God/Creator, Jesus and all of creation are inextricably entombed.” (My Sister, My Brother, p. 31). She quotes Igbo theologian Okechukwu Ogbannaya: “[Spirit] is like the amniotic fluids—the waters of the womb—that encompasses a child before it is born, and accompany it, flowing out with it as it makes its way into the world as we know it. It surrounds the child and forms the first environment out of which it is born.”

Christian womanists view Jesus as the “human embodiment of Spirit” (ibid.). Spirit is the source of strength and courage to both survive and stand up to individual and systemic oppression. Womanists join love with justice in their discussion of Spirit. Emilie Townes, for example, reminds us that we see the evidence of the Spirit at work when we see justice as the demands of love (see In a Blaze of Glory, p. 143-144). Within a womanist understanding, whenever we see love as engagement of the world of justice for the oppressed, marginalized, or subjugated, we are seeing the Spirit at work.

So a womanist would read our saying this week assuming that the Spirit expresses love through restorative, liberative, transformative, and distributive justice.

I remember an evangelical fourth of July celebration I had to attend once in California where supporters of the Christian Right repeated quoted Paul’s statement, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom [liberty]” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Too often, however, this “freedom” or “small government” rhetoric has not been freedom for the oppressed, nor liberty for those imprisoned and exploited (Luke 4:18). Rather it has been about individual freedom, or state’s freedom to oppress, segregrate, imprison, and exploit.  (For an example read here.)

In other words, for those at the top of an exploitative social pyramid who are privileged, advantaged, and benefited by the status quo, freedom and liberty means something fundamentally different than it does for those at the bottom. One is fixated on the freedom of the individual to do whatever they desire. The other sees that in nature, we are not truly free from one another. As we said last week, we are interconnected. We are part of one another. We are each other’s fate, and what one does affects others. What the individual does affects the community as much as what the community does affects the individual. We are not genuinely free from one another.

The Spirit’s work in Luke is especially helpful for us to remember now:

“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 for the cancelling of all debts [or “of the Lord’s favor.”]” (Luke 4:18-19, emphasis added.)

The Spirit works in solidarity with those on the undersides and margins of our societies. It calls those among the elite to abandon their advantage, join the rank and file, and work for a society marked by equity, fairness, compassion, and safety for all.

This week, I want to encourage you to think of the Spirit in the context of distributive justice, justice that makes an environment where each person not only survives but also thrives. This is one of the most devastating critiques of capitalism for Jesus followers because capitalism creates wealth disparity between winners and losers.

The U.S., the wealthiest nation in history, is also home to the greatest wealth disparity in history. Today six people possess as much wealth as the bottom 50% of society. Despite being so wealthy, the U.S. is still home to 43 million people who live below the poverty line. As I often say, the game Monopoly is fun for the first two rounds, but the last two rounds are only fun for one person at the table. For everyone else, it’s a slow painful death.

I want to speak for a moment to the middle class in our society. Here in the U.S., we do have a class structure. Below many of us is the lower class. Above us is the upper class, and there are large portions of the middle class of people who have drunk the upper classes’ Kool-aid. These are people who look at the upper class and long to be where they are, who subscribe to their economic philosophies and their societal “solutions.”

Even within Christianity, many people here in Appalachia think that if the poor can simply be taught how to play the upper class’s game of gaining and keeping individual wealth, this will solve poverty. (An example are churches who promote programs such as Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University).

What I want us to stop and consider is whether the game itself has moral ramifications. Is it enough to teach people how to succeed in an exploitative system? In Sayings Gospel Q we rather see a Jesus who critiques the exploitative system itself and casts before his listeners’ imagination a world that plays by a different set of values and priorities.

But I continue to bump into a certain resistance in Christian churches when I speak of Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. Just recently a gentleman came up to me after one of my presentations, stuck his finger on my chest, and said, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let someone else take my hard earned money away from me and give it to lazy poor people.”

I want to try and break down what I see happening here. First within the U.S. the higher one traverses up the class structure the more tax loopholes one can use to legally avoid paying taxes. The U.S. president admitted in the third presidential debate, “I haven’t paid taxes in nineteen years. That makes me smart.”

This legal tax avoidance means that the middle class pays most for social programs that go to alleviate the economic hardships that capitalism produces for the poor. The lower middle class—those who have worked really hard just to eek across the line from lower class to middle class—pays most. They have worked really hard to get to where they are, and I get that frustration.

But what I want us to see this week is that they, too, are being played by the upper class that doesn’t pay any taxes. They get out of paying taxes, unlike us, and they place the majority of the tax burden on others. This predisposes middle class people, even in Christian congregations, to have knee-jerk negative reactions whenever helping the poor is brought up.

Most of the Christians I have the pleasure of giving presentations to are middle class Christians. They are not exempt from what I’ve described above. When Christians hear their Jesus speak of selling everything the have and giving it to the poor, they hear it from their social location and they respond, “But then we all will be poor.”

I would like us to consider that Jesus’ message to the upper class was “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” To the middle class Jesus would instead say, “Do not be afraid little flock, it’s the Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom, too. Seek first Jesus’s new social order,” which the gospels refer to as “the Kingdom.” This is a social order marked by no more classism, mutual-aid among those in the lower class, resource-sharing for those in the middle class, and radical wealth redistribution for those in the upper class. Jesus envisioned class structures being replaced by a shared table with enough for everyone. Every person’s needs are met in the Kingdom, and not in the sense of “just scratching by.” No, no. This is world where everyone is thriving together!

But here is the catch: How does this relate to our saying this week on “speaking against the Spirit.” The spirit Jesus spoke of is the Spirit of liberation and restoration and transformation. It calls those who are in the middle class to stop their love affair with the upper class. Stop standing in solidarity with the rich. Stop making preferential options for the wealthy. Enter instead into a love affair with the poor. Stand in solidarity with the economically exploited. Embrace Jesus’ preferential option for the poor! When we do this, “all these things will be added unto you” intrinsically, because within a community that embraces the values and priorities of Jesus’s social vision, all these things are added to everybody!

“But seek first his kingdom and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

And yet the upper class continually has us think, speak, feel, and act against this “Spirit” that anoints one to bring good news to the poor. Some, in an attempt to delegitimize a world that looks like Jesus’s, use as slurs such labels as “leftist,” “socialism,” “communism” because they know that many people find these words emotionally charged. Some of those who use these terms derogatorily don’t even know what they mean! And others do know and use them accurately, but genuinely want an oligarchy where the world is ruled by the elites.

Stop falling for their fear-mongering.

Stop drinking their Kool-aid!

Recently I watched two documentaries back to back. The first was The 13th, an in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality. Then, at the request of a friend, I watched the documentary Occupy UnMasked, which is an Alt-Right spin on the Occupy Movement written by Steven Bannon and hosted by the late Andrew Breitbart.

Watching these two films back to back is what produced a spontaneous combustion in my heart. There are people today who buy hook, line, and sinker popular misrepresentations of the Occupy Movement. (The movement did have flaws, as all movements do, but was nowhere what Breitbart accuses it of being.)

When the masses have been made solely dependent on corporate elites for survival, this has been massively detrimental to them. And yet, I have family and friends who think that documentaries like Unmasked represent the truth, while documentaries like The 13th are spin. It is calling evil good and good evil. The Hebrew prophets pointed out the same phenomena within their societies:

“Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20)

The term “fake news” was originally used to call out conspiracists whose reporting was without foundation. I have family now who calls news agencies like The Washington Post “fake news.” They are saying things like “I’m simply choosing to believe in the alternative facts.”

Each of these family members also claims to be Christian. And though they might not realize it today, their Jesus stood in solidarity with the oppressed. He taught a gospel that did have a preference, for the poor, the outcast, those forced to live on the edges of society.

Stop standing with those who once were in the driver seat of abuse and want to be restored to that place of power over others once again. Stand in solidarity with and be informed by the voices of those who historically have been abused. Equity will always feel oppressive to those with privilege. Their privilege over others is being removed. Their advantage over others is being removed. But we are making a world that is safe for everyone, including them. They rarely perceive it this way.

Wherever the liberating, holy Spirit is believed to be evil, where it is accused of being dangerous, as it was by Jesus’ enemies among the elite in his own society, these words call us to reconsider:

“And whoever says a word against the son of humanity, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him.” Q 12:10 

HeartGroup Application

Who is telling the truth? Which side should one listen to in the uphill work of making our world a safer, more compassionate, just home for us all? Jesus’ gospel calls us to make a preferential option for the voices of the vulnerable and oppressed, all of them. We cannot afford to make a world that solves the human dilemma at the expense of any group.

Sit down with your HeartGroup this week and

  1. Discuss what difference it makes to define Jesus’ holy Spirit as liberation for the poor, marginalized, and disinherited?
  2. Those in positions of privilege within the status quo will always have a different side to the story. Of course they will, because even if only subconsciously, they want to preserve their social location. What difference will it make to base your preferential option on the perspectives of underprivileged people in our society?
  3. This week choose some well respected news outlets to read and begin asking yourself which side is this person’s perspective making a preferential option for: those with privilege or the underprivileged? Then come back to your group next week and discuss any changes in the “Spirit’s work” that you began to perceive this week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Keep living in love, loving like Jesus, and following the gospel Jesus modeled for us by making a preferential option for the least of these. Wherever this finds you this week, keep up the good work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. We are in this together.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Proclaiming What Was Whispered

Women's March on Washington 2017

by Herb Montgomery

#SilenceIsViolence
Why We Cannot Be Silent

Featured Text:

“Nothing is covered up that will not be exposed, and hidden that will not be known. What I say to you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in the ear, proclaim on the housetops.” Q 12:2-3

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:26-27: “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.”

Luke 12:2-3: “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.”

Gospel of Thomas 5:2; 6:4-6; 33:1: “Jesus says: For there is nothing hidden that will not become revealed for everything is disclosed in view of the truth . . . For there is nothing hidden that will not become revealed. And there is nothing covered that will remain undisclosed . . . Jesus says: What you will hear with your ear proclaim from your rooftops.”

Our saying for this week is one that I return to often. I find great encouragement in the words of Thomas Carlyle: “For if there be a Faith, from of old, it is this, as we often repeat, that no Lie can live for ever” (The French Revolution, A History; Part 1, Book 6, Chapter 3). I truly do hope that truth and light will ultimately win, and I think Matthew’s and Luke’s use of this saying has much to offer us this week.

Matthew

In Matthew’s gospel, this week’s saying is in chapter 10, where Jesus is seeking to inspire his followers as opposition mounts and their courage is starting to wane. At this moment, Jesus calls them not to fear but to boldly speak out “from the rooftops.” The recent federal holiday, Martin Luther King Day, reminded me of how often King spoke negatively about “keeping silent.”

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail [1963])

“And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.” (Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence [1967])

“There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.” (Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam [1967])

“Now, of course, one of the difficulties in speaking out today grows the fact that there are those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty. It’s a dark day in our nation when high-level authorities will seek to use every method to silence dissent. But something is happening, and people are not going to be silenced. The truth must be told . . .” (Ibid.)

“Deep down in our non-violent creed is the conviction there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, some great truth stands before the door of his life — some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right. A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. He died . . . A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true. So we’re going to stand up amid horses. We’re going to stand up right here in Alabama, amid the billy-clubs. We’re going to stand up right here in Alabama amid police dogs, if they have them. We’re going to stand up amid tear gas! We’re going to stand up amid anything they can muster up, letting the world know that we are determined to be free!” (Sermon in Selma, Alabama; March 8, 1965; the day after “Bloody Sunday,” on which civil rights protesters were attacked and beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.)

In the 1st Century, Jesus emerged among the Jewish economically impoverished and politically oppressed. He came in the wake of Hillel’s golden rule, and applied it to the poor. He came announcing the “rule of God” which Jesus repeatedly defined as people taking care of people. He called the rich to redistribute their wealth, and inspired the poor to share or pool what meager resources they had among themselves for their survival. People were to prioritize each other over and above power, property, profits, possessions, prosperity, and privilege.

This message always produces enemies. Over the Christmas holidays, I shared what I considered to be a very mild presentation on our responsibility to the poor. However, I was speaking to a very wealthy congregation, and repeatedly I received the question of whether or not I found the topic of helping the poor to be very popular. My response was that popularity is irrelevant. Popular or not, helping the poor is what our Jesus taught. If our gospel is not good news to the poor, then we must question whether our Jesus is the same as the one in the biblical story.

We must get this right. Jesus’ preferential option for the economically oppressed of his day is our springboard as we apply his teachings to our lives today and to all who are oppressed, marginalized, subjugated, and disinherited. Today, whether it’s age, ability, education, gender, sex, orientation, race, gender identity and expression, or whatever that becomes a basis for oppression, marginalization, exclusion, or discrimination, Jesus’ followers are called to solidarity. We’re called to walk alongside whomever is being subjugated and do the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation with them.

Yes, breaking our silence in these areas is at times very unpopular. The social pressure may be immensely strong to just avert one’s gaze, shut one’s mouth, and go along to get along, but as Dr. King said the day after Bloody Sunday, the moment we begin to be silent about the oppression that any part of the human family faces, that is the moment something inside of us begins to die. For me, solidarity is not purely altruistic. It is not what reclaims the humanity of those on the undersides of our society; it also reclaims my own humanity. We are part of each other. And that is the reality I desire to lean into.

I do get feedback from time to time—some may call it hate-mail; I think that’s a little too strong—questioning why I speak out with the groups I choose to stand in solidarity with. I speak out because I cannot keep silent. The personal cost is great, yes, but I would rather lose acquaintances than be the shell of a dead person, or, as we heard from Jesus a couple weeks ago, like the “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27).

So I take this week’s saying very seriously. Come what may, we simply cannot keep silent.

Luke

Luke’s encouragement is a little different from Matthew’s. What Luke does is to point Jesus’ words toward the hypocrisy of the religious teachers of that day. He encourages Jesus’ followers with the hope that others’ hypocrisy will one day be uncovered. Luke’s saying isn’t a call to speak out. It’s rather a call to endure and to keep holding on. One day, Luke says, the truth will come to light.

Luke’s version of the saying brings to mind King’s own optimism and Carlyle’s statement that “No lie can live forever”:

“Somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: ‘No lie can live forever.’ We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: ‘Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.’ With this faith we will be able to hue out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day. And in the words of prophecy,

‘Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’

“This will be a great day. This will be a marvelous hour. And at that moment, figuratively speaking in biblical words: ‘The morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.’” (Second sermon at Temple of Israel of Hollywood; February 26, 1965)

What I believe we must guard against in King’s words as well as Luke’s is the mistake of embracing inevitability in all of this. Not all truth rises. Some truths are lost forever. And when truth does rise, it doesn’t rise on its own. Truth rises when others choose to resurrect it and lies fade when we choose to pursue the truth.

Human progress does not roll on the “wheels of inevitability.” It can be delayed; it can be prevented. It can be abandoned, and it can be chosen. We can choose whether to become a compassionate, just people who live healthy, mutually interdependent lives with one another and our planet, or take a path of extinction. We can choose to embrace truth, justice, and compassion, or we can choose the path of individualistic, independent survival in a zero-sum system, one where for one to win another must lose.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus describes two paths: “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction . . . But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life . . .” (Matthew 7:13,14) The redactors of the Torah chose similar language: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Today, we too must choose between a path of life or death. Shaping this world into a just, compassionate, safe, home for us all is only an impossible task if we choose to believe it to be! This world is what we collectively choose to make it and each of us has a part to play. This is where I believe Jesus’ teachings still hold relevance for us today. The world has changed since he taught his followers, but we still tend to dominate one another rather than care for each another. Jesus envisioned a world where people take care of people and that world is still available for us to choose. He showed the way, and the results of our choice will be seen in our collective future and the future of our children. We are in this together, along with the generations that have come before us and the generations who will come after us.

In light of this week’s saying, seek truth, compassion, and justice. Then make the choice not to remain silent. Name truth. What you have discovered in the dark, bring out into the light so that others may hear and speak it, too. Proclaim it from the rooftops! It is in our “speaking in the light” what we have “heard in the dark” that we make true the statement, “Nothing is covered up that will not be exposed.”

Nothing is covered up that will not be exposed, and hidden that will not be known. What I say to you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in the ear, proclaim on the housetops. Q 12:2-3

HeartGroup Application

In the gospels, Jesus spends his life resisting and teaching others how to resist those elements in his society that marginalize, discriminate, and push down vulnerable people. James H. Cone in his classic volume God of the Oppressed correctly states:

“Any interpretation of the gospel in any historical period that fails to see Jesus as the Liberator of the oppressed is heretical. Any view of the gospel that fails to understand the Church as that community whose work and consciousness are defined by the community of the oppressed is not Christian and is thus heretical. Within this context the issue of heresy must be debated.” (p. 35)

In Luke 4:18-19, we find this claim:

“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.”

  1. This week, together, pick one of the themes in the above passage and commit the next week to exploring what it meant in its original cultural context.

“good news to the poor”

“freedom for the prisoners”

“recovery of sight for those in darkness”

“setting the oppressed free”

“year of all debts cancelled.”

2. As you explore on your own throughout the week, also explore what possible application these themes may hold today. What does the theme you are exploring mean in today’s socio-economic-political context?

3. As you come back together, discuss what you have discovered with each other and decide what action, you can take as a group and as followers of Jesus today. How can you make the world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for everyone?

Thank you for joining us this week. Wherever this finds you, my hope is that your heart is encouraged and renewed to engage with others in our continuing work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. Keep living in love, a love characterized by justice for the oppressed, mercy for the subjugated and marginalized, and faithfulness in our commitment to be people who choose to take care of people. (cf. Matthew 23:23)

I love each one of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Wisdom’s Judgment on This Generation

Memorial candlesby Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Therefore also Wisdom said: I will send them prophets and sages, and some of them they will kill and persecute, so that a settling of accounts for the blood of all the prophets poured out from the founding of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, murdered between the sacrificial altar and the House. Yes, I tell you, an accounting will be required of this generation!” (Q 11:49-51)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:34-36: “Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.”

Luke 11:49-51: “Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.”

Context! Context! Context!

As we begin this week, we must not remove this week’s saying from its context. This week’s saying has a long, anti-Semitic history with Christians using it to persecute, marginalize, and even execute Jewish people. But Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew standing firmly in the long line of Jewish prophets who pronounced judgments for societal injustice on their generations. So first we must see the Jewishness of this week’s saying. Only then will we be able to rightly critique how Christianity has co-opted it and sorely abused it.

We must also keep in mind that Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of this saying were both written after the catastrophic events that took place in their generation in Jerusalem. These are post-trauma writings designed to explain and understand what has just happened for the Jewish people.

I do not believe that the Romans destroyed Jerusalem because the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah. I believe that all human civilizations give themselves an expiration date when the elites’ abuses of the proletariat become the policy of the day. Social abuse eventually catches up with us, and all empires that become characterized by exploitation and economic disparity eventually meet their demise. People long abused rise up. Revolutions occur. Power shifts. The path toward this end for Jerusalem (that would later happen with Rome, as well) is what we are witnessing in this week’s saying.

We know from Josephus that ultimately the lower, poorer classes in Judea and Galilee did rise up and violently revolt. First they revolted against oppression from their own people, and took over the elite’s centralized control of the temple. Then they revolted against Rome in the Jewish-Roman war. This overreach led to Rome’s inhumane backlash in the annihilation of Jerusalem.

In this week’s saying, Jesus warns that if the people continue their socio-economic exploitative path, then just as the prophets had warned before him, that generation would see catastrophic results.

This week’s saying connects us with the Hebrew economic prophets (e.g. Isaiah, Amos, Ezekiel, Jeremiah), who were rejected and in some cases murdered because of their societal critiques. Here in America, during the 1960s, we saw a similar history of repressing calls for change from those whose voices threatened the status quo and those in positions of power and privilege. Some historians refer to the 60s as the era of assassinations. Among those who were murdered were President John F. Kennedy (1963), el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X; 1965), and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968).

Our world has a long history of removing those who threaten our societal structures and the exploitation and injustice that those structures enable. Jesus’ societal structure had its own victims, as ours does. His generation was once again rejecting the call to change, and Jesus was about to have his name added to the long list of prophets and poets who weren’t afraid to name the oppressions of their time or stand in solidarity with those being marginalized and subjugated—even if they ended up losing their life for the dream of an world that is a safe, just, compassionate home for us all.

In the Hebrew scriptures, Abel is the first voice in the narratives to be silenced. He represented the nomadic class in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Northern Africa. His social group was a minority: itinerant shepherd wanderers who moved from place to place as herdsmen. Cain, Abel’s brother, belonged to a larger, more established, and more powerful class of tillers of the soil. They represented those who sought to control land ownership because of their need to work the land. They were the ones who chased off vagabond herdsmen like Abel. In a time when civilization transitioned from wandering hunters and gatherers to more centralized, localized cities, the tillers of the ground were the pivotal population. Abel would have represented the people oppressed by the tillers of the ground, and at the end of this story, Cain is made to wander like his brother to learn what the wanderers’ life was like. His banishment gives him firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to walk a mile in the shoes of those whom the society was pressing down so that others might find a way up. (For more on this, see the article I wrote at the end of 2014 entitled No More Sacrifice.)

Thousands of years later, Zechariah is the last prophetic voice in the Hebrew Masoretic text to be silenced for speaking out against those in positions of power. (The Masoretic collection of Hebrew scriptures ends with 2 Chronicles; see 2 Chronicles 24:20) Zechariah’s history is complex and so is the political agenda of the narratives his name is mentioned in. For our saying this week, it’s enough to recognize that he was one of the bookends of those within Jewish history who had the courage to critique those in power.

As 2016 closed, the book on my nightstand was My Sister, My Brother; Womanist and Xodus God Talk by Karen Baker-Fletcher and Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher. In the chapter entitled “Womanist Reflections on Jesus as Dust and Spirit,” Karen writes:

“The only way to erase those who have died unjustly is to erase memory, but not even memory can be erased permanently” (p. 90).

It is important to remember and never forget the names of those who have given their lives to the work of transforming our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all. Author Susan Jacoby tells us that early 19th Century freethinkers observed the birthdays of freethinkers in the century before them as a ritual that shaped them and inspired them to continue the causes and dreams of those who had travelled that path before them. They remembered them together.

A friend of mine, Charlie Kraybill, curates the Marginal Mennonite Society (MMS) in New York. One thing I appreciate about MMS is their continual work to keep alive the memory of Anabaptists and other historical figures who have worked toward societal transformation. They continually commemorate the dates on which Anabaptists were executed in the 1600s and the dates on which relevant historical figures were either born or died. This is a way of keeping both their memory and our common work alive.

Karen Baker-Fletcher, as a Christian womanist, reflects on Toni Morrison’s text Beloved and its characters’ belief that Jesus is the greatest “ancestor”:

“Whoever Beloved is, Stamp Paid observes that she is a reminder that people ‘who die bad won’t stay in the ground’ — not ‘Jesus Christ Himself.’ Reflecting African pre-Christian and African American Christian worldviews, he suggests Jesus is one of many who will not stay buried because they have died violently. Jesus is one of millions of persecuted ancestors who live in the margins of everyday consciousness. Moving beyond Morrison’s text, one might consider that the ground itself will not hold the blood of murder. Just as the earth cried out at Cain’s slaying of Abel, so it continues to cry out across the centuries against injustice.

Christian womanists might argue that in the ancestral community of Moses, Zipporah, Jethro, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, Christ perfectly embodies the power of the God of Moses, ‘I Am,’ Being-Itself. Jesus Christ as the greatest of the ancestors sustains community.” (p. 91)

Keeping alive the memories of those who have died violently at the hands of unjust systems throughout scriptures and history, and remembering not just the Hebrew Prophets but also more contemporary figures and Jesus as the greatest of them can impact how we engage the ritual of communion.

Communion is a shared meal around an egalitarian table, not a hierarchical structure as is the case in too many churches today. It is not a social pyramid or exclusive circle, but a shared table where we keep alive the memory of those who have been broken and spilled out by unjust systems. This ritual motivates and shapes us today. The very elements of the broken bread and spilled wine, the food we share with one another, could be reclaimed into a very powerful transforming ritual of memory.

Co-opting Memory

Lastly this week, I want to talk about co-opting memory. We spoke last week of unjust systems that make memorials to those they have killed: making memorials is much easier than doing the hard work of actually transforming our world. There is a difference between us keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us and the systems we seek to change co-opting the memory of those it has executed.

Vincent Harding’s book Martin Luther King: An Inconvenient Hero is a great read on how the United States has done this with the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King Day is complicated. On one side, we see the work of those such as Coretta Scott King to preserve Martin’s memory. On the other hand, we see the system King critiqued co-opting him while keeping the changes he called for at arms’ length.

During his life, King called for an abandonment of capitalism and a move toward democratic socialism. He called for the rejection of militarism and violence as the weapons of a global economic capitalist agenda. He fought tirelessly against systemic racism in its many forms. The FBI deemed him to be the greatest domestic threat to America. And yet today he is one of America’s heroes. Not much has changed economically since the days of King’s critiques, and precious little has changed racially. Yet King is memorialized by a government that would still be voicing the loudest criticism of him if he were still alive.

I do believe King should be kept alive in our memory as one of our great transformative ancestors. I also believe that his memory has been co-opted by the very system he sought and failed to change. The next time social protest erupts, watch how quickly critics pull Dr. King off the shelf to try and silence those speaking out.

Martin Luther King Day has just been celebrated by the most violent, militaristic, and capitalist power on the globe and the wealth disparity between the rich and poor and between White people and people of color continues to grow steadily. Last week’s and this week’s saying give us much to consider today.

“Therefore also Wisdom said: I will send them prophets and sages, and some of them they will kill and persecute, so that a settling of accounts for the blood of all the prophets poured out from the founding of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, murdered between the sacrificial altar and the House. Yes, I tell you, an accounting will be required of this generation!” (Q 11:49-51)

HeartGroup Application

This week, I’d like your group to read this article first published in 2013:

Now That He Is Safely Dead: Silencing the Voice of Martin Luther King, Jr.

  1. Discuss the article with your group.
  2. Discuss how the article relates to last week’s saying and this week’s saying, and possible applications to events transpiring in our world today.
  3. What new ways of perceiving has this awakened for you and what actions do you feel called to engage in? Pick one of those actions and do it this week.

Wherever this week finds you, press close to your community. We are in this together. As we preserve the memories of those who have gone before us and these memories spur us onto action in our lives today, together we can sustain the work needed to make those changes happen.

Thank you for checking in this week.

Keep living love, justice, faithfulness, and mercy, transforming our world in both small and large ways into a safer, more compassionate home for us all.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Jaundiced Eye Darkens the Body’s Light 

by Herb Montgomery

An eye with rainbow coloring

Featured Text:

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is generous, your whole body is radiant; but if your eye is jaundiced, your whole body is dark. So if the light within you is dark, how great must the darkness be!” (Q 11:34-35)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 6:22-23: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”

Luke 11:34-35: “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness.”

Gospel of Thomas 24:3: “Light exists inside a person of light, and he shines on the whole world. If he does not shine, there is darkness.”

To begin, our saying this week uses metaphors that are rooted in ableism.  Fish don’t know they’re wet.  Able-bodied people often don’t realize how ableist they are being. But acknowledge it we must, for this is a first step toward change. Naming injustice is a primary step toward action that reverses injustice. “In ableist societies, able-bodiedness is viewed as the norm; people with disabilities are understood as those that deviate from that norm. Disability is seen as something to overcome or to fix, for example, through medical intervention. The ableist worldview holds that disability is an error or a failing rather than a consequence of human diversity, akin to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ableism)

With this in mind, let’s look at what this week’s saying was attempting to teach.

Lamp of the Body is the Eye

In 1st Century Jewish culture, people believed that a person possessed either light or darkness within them: “The human spirit is the lamp of YHWH that sheds light on one’s inmost being” (Proverbs 22:27). In our saying this week, Jesus uses the eyes as a symbol for determining whether what is inside his listeners is truly light or really darkness. “Many people believed that light was emitted from the eye, enabling one to see, rather than that light was admitted through the eye. Although here Jesus compares the eye to a lamp, he speaks of ‘diseased’ eyes which fail to admit light.” (IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament; Matthew 6:22-23 cf. 11:34-36)

When one steps back into the cultural context of this week’s saying, the meaning is rather simple: what you see when you look at others determines whether what is inside of you is “light” or “dark.” Two people can look at the same person and see very different things, based on what their eyes are trained to see.

A fun, literary example is found in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about Sherlock Holmes. As a private investigator, Sherlock’s eyes and powers of observation are well trained to see much more than others around him see. In our saying this week, Jesus is teaching his listeners about a specific power of observation that he desired his followers to become proficient in: the ability to look at others who share our world with us through the lens of generosity.

Generosity

When you look at others, what do you see? Is it typically positive by default? Do you give people the benefit of a doubt? Do you assume the best about them? Or is your eye judgmental, maybe critical, or even condemnatory?

Jesus spoke positively of having an eye that was “single,” “generous,” or “healthy.”

A healthy eye sees others generously. And it is singular, too, in the sense that one is persistent in generously extending the image of God to everyone that one encounters. A person with a healthy eye remembers the truth in the Jewish story that an angel walks before each of us declaring “Behold the image of God.” Being disrespectful or to humiliate anyone bearing the Divine image is a denial, in that person, of the Divine whose image they bear. These acts were also seen as a defacement of the Divine image. To lie about another person was to deny the very existence of God. The school of Hillel in the first century taught that murder was both a civil violation and a sacrilege of that which was sacred. The Hebrews’ sacred text taught that when we shed human blood, the act is regarded as diminishing the corporate divine image within humanity. In the Hebrew creation story found in the second chapter of Genesis, humanity begins with the whole of humanity in one person. This was believed to have taught that the taking of a human life is equivalent to annihilating the entire world. The opposite was held to also be true—to save one life was to save the entire world. (Remember the ending scenes of the film Schindler’s List.) This applied to slaves and to non-Jews as well. The Jewish religion of the Rabbis became inseparable from the practice of the golden rule to others and practicing the golden rule became the touchstone of one’s religious worship of the Divine.

This is listening for and seeing God in the Other. According to Genesis, all persons bear the image of God (see Genesis 9:6). In the Christian New Testament we find this passage: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1John 4:20). If every person bears the image of God, I’m called to see and to listen to God in you, whoever you are. If we generously kept in mind the view that every person we meet bears the image of God, how different our world might be.

In addition to this, Matthew’s context builds on this generous view with a focus on economic generosity: Jesus’ vision of a world where people take responsibility for taking care of one another. “Jesus speaks literally of a ‘single’ eye versus a ‘bad‘ or ‘evil‘ one. A ‘single‘ eye normally meant a generous one. A ‘bad‘ eye in that culture could mean either a diseased one or a stingy one. Such eyes become a symbol for the worthlessness of a stingy person.” (IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament; Matthew 6:22-23 cf. Luke 11:34-36)

Luke adds another statement to this emphasis on resources. A few passages later, Jesus states, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” (Luke 11:39-41)

In both of these gospels, this saying refers to serving other people. Again, Jesus’ new world is defined primarily by people taking care of people. Later New Testament letters include these words: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:17)

In addition, Jesus’ generosity goes far beyond economic generosity. It also encompasses the whole person. The media plays a part in this for us. When people of color, especially men, are victims of police brutality, the media goes to work to criminalize them so as to bias how the rest of us see them. (See How News Networks Criminalize Black Victims of Police Violence.) Contrast this with how the media characterized Brock Turner, a rapist, and put the highest possible spin on his character to the masses. Just this week, Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the article My President Was Black, was interviewed on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah. In the interview Cotes contrasted the path it took for Obama to become president and the path Trump took to do the same:

“If I have to jump six feet to get to the same place you have to jump two feet for, that’s how racism works . . . to be president he [Obama] had to be scholarly, intelligent, president of the Harvard Law Review, the product of some of our greatest educational institutions, capable of talking to two different worlds. Donald Trump had to be rich and white. That was it. That’s the difference.” (See the interview here.)

What we chose to see when we look at another person should be more than skin deep. What we choose to see and what we choose to believe about a person will directly impact our thoughts, feelings, opinions and attitudes toward them and ultimately our behavior. This is possibly why in this week’s saying, Jesus says that what we see in another determines whether we truly possess light instead of darkness.

The very first thing we should choose to see and believe in each person we encounter is that they are of inestimable worth simply because they are a part of the human web. This applies not to just individuals, but also to the entire planet. As Oscar Romero taught, “We are not three worlds [First World, Second World, and Third World], we are one world.”

In Jesus’ worldview, God indiscriminately causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall:

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

“ . . . he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” (Luke 6:35)

Jesus called his followers to relate to genuine political and economic enemies with love that seeks to transform them from oppressing the lower classes. Yet some White Christians today still discriminate against others based on their skin color, and some Evangelical business owners discriminate in whom they bake cupcakes and pizzas for.

If the sun shines on a person, if the rain falls on a person, we are called to see them as a bearer of the image of the Divine, to look for God in them, regardless of how much we feel tempted to “Other” them as instead. We are all connected.

Yes, we are different, and those differences should be seen and celebrated, but we are all still part of one another and in this together. When we fail to celebrate each other, when we choose to neglect this basic step in how we are seeing others, it does not matter what we claim to be—light bearer or reflector—the light we claim to possess is actually darkness.

With these thoughts in mind, let us contemplate our saying this week:

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is generous, your whole body is radiant; but if your eye is jaundiced, your whole body is dark. So if the light within you is dark, how great must the darkness be!” (Q 11:34-35)

HeartGroup Application

In the book I wrote over a decade ago now (Finding the Father) I proposed that what a person believes about God determines how they think and feel toward God, especially in the context of the spiritual abuse many theists within Christianity have suffered. I proposed that however we choose to see a God ultimately affects how we choose to behave and what type of a person, as a worshipper of that God, we will become.

This week I want to draw our heads out of the clouds for a moment and place our feet firmly on planet Earth. Apply this week’s principles to how you relate to other people. What we choose to believe about others, what we choose to see when we look at another, will determine our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, opinions, and our behavior in relation to them.

Jesus taught that one cannot live out indiscriminate justice, faith, and love toward others without it impacting how one begins to perceive others. We start with the behavior of simply listening to the experiences of those who are not like us. A Buddhist friend of mine introduced me to this saying, and I believe it teaches the same universal truth that we are seeing in the sayings of Jesus this week:

“Some people live closely guarded lives, fearful of encountering someone or something that might shatter their insecure spiritual foundation. This attitude, however, is not the fault of religion but of their own limited understanding. True Dharma leads in exactly the opposite direction. It enables one to integrate all the many diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole, thereby banishing fear and insecurity completely.” Lama Thubten Yeshe, (Daily Wisdom: 365 Buddhist Inspirations)

Jesus’ saying invites us to do the same, to “integrate all the many diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole, thereby banishing fear and insecurity completely.”

If the sun shines on them, if the rain falls on them, we have a mandate from the saying of Jesus to imitate Jesus’ God as we interact with them.

  1.   List ways that you can begin making space in your life to listen to those who are different from yourself, especially those whom the present status quo does not benefit. If the sun and rain are for all, prioritize listening to those whom society prevents the sun and rain from reaching. Try actual conversations (where your posture is one of simply listening), following people on Twitter, listening to podcasts, and reading books by authors from a different walk through life than your own.
  2. With as much honesty as you can achieve, contrast the ways you now choose to negatively see some people and write the positive assumptions that you could choose instead. Pay close attention to how these assumptions would affect how you think, feel, and relate to those people.
  3. As a group, begin making space for voices that are different. One of the ways HeartGroups can do this well is by asking others to simply come and share their experience with the group. I have been invited to go and share at a very warm and welcoming interfaith fellowship in my home town. HeartGroups can do the same. We can look for things we have in common with others, like the universal values of compassion and justice. And we could benefit from comparing and valuing our differences, viewing them in the light of intrinsic fruit.

What does it mean for you to begin listening for and looking for God in the other?

Wherever this finds you this week, I’m glad you’re here. Keep living in love, loving with the equity of the sun and the rain, with a preferential option of those being prevented from accessing what meant for all equally.

This will be our last eSight/podcast for 2016. We’ll be back in two weeks. Have a happy holidays and we here at RHM wish you a very happy new year.

I love each of you dearly.

See you in 2017.

The Light on the Lampstand 

by Herb Montgomery

a man lassoing a light bulb

“No one lights a lamp and puts it in a hidden place‚ but on the lampstand, and it gives light for everyone in the house.” Q 11:33

Companion Texts:

Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Luke 11:33: “No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light.”

Gospel of Thomas 33:2-3: “For no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel, nor does he put it in a hidden place. Rather, he puts it on a lampstand, so that everyone who comes in and goes out will see its light.”

This week’s saying appears in all three of the gospels we have been using as our companion texts this year. Matthew and Thomas both focus on the followers of Jesus’ teachings being light. Luke, as we will see next week, warns about what we call light really being the spreading of darkness. We’ll discuss the relevance of Luke’s saying to today’s western Christianity in more detail in our next eSight.

Matthew’s Focus

What I want us to notice first this week is an emphasis that some would be uncomfortable with. The focus of the saying is not on Jesus being the light of the world, but rather on Jesus’ followers being a source of light for the world (John 8:12; Matthew 5:14). In Luke, Jesus is warning about those who claim to be light becoming a source of darkness in the world. How often have status quo complicit Christians been found on the wrong side of history!

The statement is just as troubling for those who object, “Jesus is the light of the world, not us.” This objection comes from a desire to uplift Jesus to hero status, a position some people feel is threatened if we focus on being the light rather than pointing to Jesus as light.

Another possible root of discomfort with this saying is the belief that we are incapable of doing anything good and that Jesus has to do it all. This is a destructive belief taught in some sectors of Christianity that, too often, is used to lull Christians back to a position of passivity after they have been convicted or moved to action. I witnessed this recently when speaking on the Sermon on the Mount. After my presentation, the pastor got up and told the congregation that everything I had just spoken of (what Jesus taught in the Sermon the Mount) was impossible for any of us to do and Jesus must do it for us.

But we have the power to think and to do.

We have the power to make choices.

I have wondered why many atheists accomplish more in societal justice than some fundamentalist Christians do. Womanist writers such as Alice Walker have rightly captured the same universal truth that the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q also taught: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting on.”

Jesus in Sayings Gospel Q is not preaching “Sit back and let me do everything.”

Jesus focuses on creating a community rooted in ethics and values that center the experiences of the vulnerable and marginalized in his own society and that call his community to make better choices. He believes that those following him can actually do better. They can be different. He shows them the way, casting before their mind’s eye what a path that is genuinely, holistically better can look like. In her volume Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God- Talk, writes:

“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.” (pp. 130-131, emphasis added)

This way Jesus showed his followers is a way of survival, resistance, liberation, transformation, and restoration. In short, it is salvation. Not a post-mortem non-smoking section salvation, but a present, concrete, life-right-now salvation rooted in the context of community, together.

Luke’s Emphasis

Luke doesn’t focus exclusively on Jesus’ followers being the light of the world. Luke jumps straight to the absurdity of hiding a recently lit lamp when the obvious intent of lighting the lamp in the first place is to share the light with everybody.

At this stage of Luke’s version of the Jesus story, pressure is beginning to mount. The number of those positively resonating with Jesus’ teachings continues to grow, and the elite class in society begins to feel the threat of the momentum among the economically exploited. This saying may also reflect a temptation growing in Jesus himself to hide his own light. When those in places of privilege begin to feel threatened, they can be quite effective at threatening those they deem responsible.

Jesus was choosing life, and encouraging and showing others how to thrive, survive, and transform the world into a just and compassionate home for all. And his vision of life involved changes for those benefiting by the way life was structured in Jerusalem. Jesus was choosing life, and he was about to be threatened with death if he did not lie down, roll over, and go back into the shadows.

In the volume Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse edited by Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker wrote:

“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.” (p. 18)

Jesus was not choosing a path of death. Jesus was choosing life. And when beginning to feel threatened and pressured to hide his light, Jesus made the courageous choice to hold on, to not let go. The cross was not Jesus’ path to life. The cross was what the status quo responded to Jesus with. It was the cross and the fear of death that the elites used to intimidate Jesus into letting go of his hold on life. And Jesus kept holding on. He could see where what he was teaching and the sector of society he was choosing to side with would lead, and he had the courage to keep doing it. He choose not to hide his light, but share light, just like he spoke of power and resources, with everyone.

Your Light 

Luke and Matthew both ask: What does taking hold of life look like to you? Does your taking hold of life cause others around you to feel their own place of privilege in society is threatened? Jesus shared his vision of a world where everyone thrives with equity, with justice, with compassion. The Jewish concept of shalom describes a wholeness that involves everyone. Genuine shalom is not present till we all together have shalom, and not just us, but also every living thing. But in a world where one believes only a limited number of people can thrive, someone else taking hold of life threatens one’s own thriving because resources are limited. Someone in this position does not believe the earth provides enough for every person’s need, as Gandhi taught. They believe that there is not enough to go around, and that if we each let go of our hoarded power and possessions, we will go without. Jesus instead imagined a world where we all have enough together.

Does a fear of loss keep you from shining your light? Is there something that intimidates you into hiding your light under a basket rather than sharing unquantifiable light with everyone?

While recently reading Stephen Greenebaum’s The Interfaith Alternative: Embracing Spiritual Diversity, I was moved by these words and I share them with you this week:

“The truth is that none of us can control what kind of splash we will make in the world, let alone how big or small that splash will be. Perhaps our coming and our passing will cause no splash at all, just the smallest of ripples. To be a human being is to have an opportunity. But as we well know, it is not an ‘equal opportunity.’ Some people are born with great wealth and some in devastating poverty. Some are born with robust health and some must fight just to live from the moment they enter the world. And sometimes we stumble, no matter how hard we try. But life, all life, is an opportunity nonetheless. And it is what we do, or do not do, with that opportunity that defines us. For me, the clouds parted and I could make at least some sense of meaning when I could visualize a great scale with compassion and justice forming one side and self-centeredness and injustice the other. None of us knows how much we’ll be able to add to the scales, for that, to a large extent, is a matter of chance. But we do control, we alone, each of us, every day, to which side of the scale we will make that day’s contribution. It may be a mote of dust, a twig, a pebble or a huge boulder — again, the size of our contribution may be beyond our control — but whatever the size of our contribution, every day we add something to those scales: compassion and justice, or self-centeredness and injustice. I deeply believe that in the end it is not how much we add to the scales, but to which side of the scale we have added it.” (pp. 100-101)

This week, in the name of advancing compassion and justice in our world, may this week’s saying encourage you, even if others threaten you and attempt to silence your voice, to let your light shine.

“No one lights a lamp and puts it in a hidden place‚ but on the lampstand, and it gives light for everyone in the house.” Q 11:33

HeartGroup Application

Last week I asked you to brainstorm and to make a list as a group some of the goals you would like to accomplish in the coming year. In our work of compassion and justice, consider Greenebaum’s words above. Whatever the size of your group’s contribution, ensure that you’re contributing on the right side of the scales.

  1. Pick three goals from your list last week.
  2. Begin getting informed regarding each one. This could involve coming alongside those already at work in those areas of justice/compassion work.
  3. Once you feel comfortable with your level of understanding about each goal, to the degree that you feel you can, define what meeting each goal would look like in tangible, concrete ways.

    This last step may lead you to go back and pick another goal as well. That’s okay. However your list takes shape, make sure these are goals you are well informed about and that these are goals that can be defined by your group as a whole once that goal is met.

As this year is drawing to a close and another year is before us, I’m overwhelmed by how many of you are journeying with us. Thank you for showing up. I’m grateful to be on this journey with you, and know that together we can make a difference.

Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each one of you dearly.

Keep living in love.

I’ll see you next week.