Salvific Teachings: Womanism and the Gospel

Herb Montgomery | September 7, 2018

 

Picture portraying three Women of Color

Photo Credit: Eloise Ambursley on Unsplash


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


 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Consider this statement in Luke’s gospel:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1.14-15)

 

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

 

Another world is possible. 

 

I love each of you dearly.

 

I’ll see you next week.

 

 

Losing One’s Life

Picture of a Road through the woods

by Herb Montgomery

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

Featured Text:

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

Companion Texts:

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

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

Context. Context. Context.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That thought reminds me of three quotations.

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

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

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

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

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”

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

Lastly are the words of James H. Cone:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

Taking the Long View
by Oscar Romero

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

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

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

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

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Disciple and the Teacher 

by Herb Montgomery

Road leading to a cross

“A disciple is not superior to one’s teacher. It is enough for the disciple that he become‚ like his teacher.” (Q 6:40)

Luke 6:40: The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.

Matthew 10:24-25: The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!

This week’s saying is the age-old adage, “Like teacher, like student.” We take on the characteristics of our teachers. This is why choosing an appropriate mentor or instructor is an important step in becoming who you want to be: your teachers shape the kind of person you become.

An example is a few years ago I wanted to learn how to throw pottery.  I didn’t just go out an sit at the feet of any one who does pottery. I choose teachers who throw pottery well and whose style I also appreciate.  Find teachers who, themselves, resonate with what you want to become.

This translates into every area of life.  If I want to become something different than I already am, then I need to increase the diversity of those I allow to teach me. If I want to stay the same and never risk changing, then I need to choose teachers that are just like me. If I do the latter, though, it’s not likely that genuine, revolutionary learning can take place. It is likely that my old ways of thinking will only be reinforced and more deeply ingrained.

The saying of Jesus that we’re looking at this week appears in two different contexts in Matthew and Luke. A majority of scholars believe that Luke follows the Q text more closely, so we will begin with that.

Luke

Luke‘s version follows the passage we looked at last week where Jesus asks, “Can the blind lead the blind?” The passage invites us to choose teachers with developed senses of perception. If you choose teachers who are ignorant rather than aware,, you will share in their ignorance. As Jesus taught, fully trained students are like their teachers. So if you want keen perception for yourself, stop giving the seat of instruction in your life to those who cannot see. This could be one of the most revolutionary things some of us can do to change our lives: simply choose a different set of teachers.

This seems to me to be Luke’s emphasis as he shares Jesus’s saying. In this statement, Jesus is contrasting his teaching with the popular teachings of his time. Examples of contemporary teachings include the Pharisees’ drift away from Hillel to Shammai, and the idea that violent revolution was needed to overthrow Rome. For Luke, however the strongest teachings that Jesus competed with are the economic models of his day. Luke, much like Sayings Gospel Q, presented a world based on the economics of care. The Reign of God to Jesus is people taking care of people, a world where people come before profits, and where exploitation and subjugation give way to the predominant need, as opposed to being the means of an elite’s greed.

Matthew 

Matthew’s gospel has a different focus: Jesus encouraging his disciples. When the disciples are mistreated, Jesus says, they are simply receiving the same treatment Jesus was faced with. This teaching has been helpful to me personally.

Whenever I am being lied about, misrepresented, or slandered because I’m teaching something found in the sayings of Jesus, I go back and reread the entire chapter of Matthew 10. It doesn’t make the treatment any more comfortable, but it does encourage me that I’m not alone. I’m standing in a stream that stretches far back before me and will continue on long after me. It helps me to think of all who have been ill-treated for standing up for what is right. I remember the saying, “Worse things have happened to better people.” And most of all, I realize that I’m in the right story. What I’m experiencing is nothing new, and Jesus was here before me.

Being like Jesus

Recently my friend David Hayward at NakedPastor.com drew a sketch that sums up this teaching nicely!

http://i0.wp.com/nakedpastor.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/more-like-jesus.jpg

What does it mean to be like Jesus? Do we really understand all that it means to become like the teacher we read about in the gospels?

Being like Jesus involves learning how to love, how to embrace those at the bottom of our society’s various pyramids of domination, oppression, and subjugation. It also means learning how to work alongside those being marginalized and embracing accusation, rejection and possibly execution. There are many who have lived that kind of life. In history, that includes Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but there are countless others who have also lost their lives for standing up to the status quo and working to make this world a safer home for all.

I’ve learned over the last few years that following Jesus doesn’t only mean trying to teach the same things he taught. It also means standing in solidarity with those Jesus stood in solidarity with and having the courage Jesus had to keep standing with them even when threats arise from those who benefit from the way things are and who feel threatened by change.

Lucretia Mott, a historical figure I look up to, was fond of quoting William Penn’s statement, “Men are to be judged by their likeness to Christ, rather than their notions of Christ.” [1]

I’ve noticed that many of my fellow U.S. Christians have developed very strong notions about Christ at the same time that others perceive them as unlike him. (A fantastic read to understand this dynamic deeper is unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters.) We may think we’re being faithful by defending strong beliefs about Jesus and yet we miss that being faithful to him includes being faithful to the people he was faithful to. Faithfulness to Jesus means standing in solidarity with those in our day who are discriminated against and marginalized as the Jesus we see in the gospels stood in solidarity with his marginalized peers.

Will this faithfulness come with accusations? Will we, like Jesus, also be accused of doing the work of Beelzebul? Quite possibly.

I appreciate Edersheim’s comments on what Beelzebul meant.

“This charge, brought of course by the Pharisaic party of Jerusalem, had a double significance . . . We almost seem to hear the coarse Rabbinic witticism in its play on the word Beelzebul. For Zebhul (Hebrew) means in Rabbinic language, not any ordinary dwelling, but specifically the Temple, and Beel-Zebul would be the Master of the Temple. On the other hand, Zibbul (Hebrew) means sacrificing to idols; and hence Beel-zebul would, in that sense, be equivalent to lord or chief of idolatrous sacrificing – the worst and chiefest of demons, who presided over, and incited to, idolatry.” (Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah)

Edersheim connects the name Beelzebul to Jesus’s activity at Jerusalem’s temple. Where I part ways with Edersheim is that I see Jesus’s temple protest as being much more economic and not just religious. Jesus was protesting an economically exploitative system of which the Temple had become the center.

Don’t miss that calling Jesus Beelzebul (the “chiefest of demons”) was a response to his standing up to the status quo religiously legitimizing the subjugation and marginalization of a certain sector of society. When your choices align with this type of action, people today might call you the chiefest of demons too.

Last week I mentioned a public hearing on a nondiscrimination ordinance in my town. At the hearing, I introduced myself as a husband, father, and director of a faith-based nonprofit in West Virginia. It was the “faith-based” part of my statement that some Christians in favor of discrimination latched on to. Those watching the hearing at home later told me that in one group’s live streaming video, the commentator referred to me as a traitor, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and lastly “the devil.” Jesus’ words in Matthew are quite on point.

Losing much, but gaining much as well. 

Over the last two years, I have lost much. I have also gained much. I used to preach about the love of a God in a way that anesthetized consciences and made my audiences passive about those who were being hurt. I regret that.

My path changed as I began to listen. Choosing to listen was not an intellectual choice; it was an intuition based on empathy. Others shared their hurt with me, and I chose to hear them. When we encounter the pain of others, pain that a system that benefits us causes, we have choices to make. We can choose to make excuses or blame the victims. We can choose to justify the way things are, as if change is not possible. Or we can stop and choose instead to listen, to be humble, and to be honest.

My personal “disciples are like their teachers” journey, began for me two years ago with a post on Facebook about those who self-identify as LGBTQ. Today, after a lot more listening, I would say things differently, but this is where my most recent journey began.

I initially lost a lot of friends over that statement, and this ministry also lost a substantial amount of support from readers and donors. Two years on, we have almost recovered from those losses, and I have also gained new friends. These new friends are some of the most beautiful people that I had no idea shared this rock with me, and yet I still miss my old friends.

I haven’t and couldn’t “replace” my old friends, and wish that they would also choose a posture of listening. As my circle of friends has gotten larger, I often wish it still included some of the people who used to love me and my work. I’m learning that they may have liked what I said or how I made them feel, but they weren’t able to grow with me.

Where I stand today is where any student eventually stands: at the choice to focus on what I understand Jesus of Nazareth taught and to promote and apply those same things in my life. I’m not trying to simply make people feel good. Rather I’m now working with others to make our world a safer, more compassionate world for us all, to make our world a place where people take care of people and only Love reigns. 

Peter Maurin co-founded The Catholic Worker with Dorothy Day, and wrote in 1936: “I want a change, and a radical change. I want a change from an acquisitive society to a functional society, from a society of go-getters to a society of go-givers.”

And I’m grateful I’ve found a community of friends who are working toward the same goals. We don’t always answer some of the smaller questions the same way, but on the big ticket items, we are teammates. I’ve only gained this community by becoming more like “the Teacher.” It is exponentially more rewarding and satisfying.

It was sometimes very scary to watch old friends change their opinions about me, sometimes publicly. But much happened in addition to that too. Jesus said that unless the seed falls into the ground and dies, it can’t produce fruit. Death is necessary for resurrection. One of my favorite quotations from James Perkinson is from his book White Theology: “A theologian—speaking of resurrection, in a body not bearing the scars of their own ‘crucifixion’? Impossible!”

To be like our teacher, Jesus, in rising to life means embracing the things that our teacher taught and the ill treatment that comes from people pushing back against those teachings as well.

So for all who have suffered push-back from teaching or living the values and ethics you have learned from Jesus of Nazareth:

A disciple is not superior to one’s teacher. It is enough for the disciple that he [or she] become‚ like his [or her] teacher. (Q 6:40)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, as a group, make two lists. First list the positive ways you hope to become like the Jesus of the Jesus story. On the second list, write out some negative ways you might become like Jesus. These could be similarities you would not necessarily want but that would also come with the more positive parallels.
  2. Discuss as a group whether the items on the two lists can be separated and ways in which you don’t think they can. Your answers may vary.
  3. Choose one of the similarities from the first list to lean into this coming week, knowing that it may produce a similarity from the second list.

Above all, keep living in love, 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 .

 


 

1. Faulkner, Carol. Lucretia Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (p. 43)

Humanizing the Monsters 

by Herb Montgomery

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” (Mark 16:6)

Tomorrow is Halloween so let’s talk about that first. Halloween has roots in the Western Christian tradition of All Saints’ Day or All Hallows. In the Eastern Orthodox community, Christians celebrate All Saints Day on the first Sunday after Pentecost during the spring, not the fall. But the West has observed it on November 1 since the 8th Century CE, which makes October 31 its eve and thus All Saints’ Day Eve, All Hallows Eve, or “Halloween” as pronounced by the Scots. Over time, Halloween became influenced by Gaelic and Welsh harvest festival traditions and folklore. It is important to keep Celtic Fall Festivals and the Christian roots of Halloween separate in our thinking. They are related; they are not the same.

In these festivals, humanity’s fascination with and fear of death is invoked. Whether we are memorializing the lives of “saints” who have died (in the spring or the fall), or Celtic fall festivals marking the transition from summer to winter, we’re tracing the transitions from light to darkness, plenty to paucity, life to death.

Humanity and Death

Death is at the heart of all our discussions about morality and ethics. That which leads to life is seen as good and right, and that which leads to death is seen as evil or wrong. Our entire moral compass as a race is dictated by how certain behaviors relate to life and death, the continuance of humanity or its end.

Historically, religion has held out hope for some type of existence beyond death (e.g. Egyptian religion, Christianity, Islam) or a more mystical resignation with death (e.g. Buddhism and Ancient Judaism).

The Jesus Story and the Resurrection

The resurrection is the most potent force in the early Jesus movement. The original followers believed they had witnessed Jesus, whom the status quo had executed, alive again, and it was his resurrection event that liberated them from the fear of death. Because of that event, they could stand up to domination systems and threats of execution if they stepped out of line, because death had become a conquered enemy.

Notice how the letter to the Hebrews, in true apocalyptic fashion, states this:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14, 15, emphasis added.)

These early Jesus followers could stand against the violence, injustice and oppression of earthly principalities and powers whom they viewed as conduits of cosmic evil Powers, because they no longer feared death and no longer feared what these earthly powers could do to them.

Through Jesus, death had been overthrown and so if his followers were executed by the domination systems as their Jesus had been, they believed they would also follow him in being resurrected at the time of universal restoration (see Acts 3.21; 1 Thessalonians 4.16-18, 1 Corinthians 15.22-23)

As a side note, I find it fascinating when humanists and secularists who do not believe in life after death but are resigned about death are still willing to lay down their lives unselfishly for those who may come after them. The gift of their life is genuinely selfless but is given purely for betterment of others. (Some researchers think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. may have been such a humanist in his later years.)

Humanizing Monsters

Regardless of how we arrive at that point, from my own experience, being liberated from one’s fear of dying is a breathtakingly beautiful thing, especially when it has the potential to change how we relate to each other.

Morality rooted in our fear of dying influences the way in which we view one another: those who threaten our lives are viewed, too often, as evil. And those who significantly threaten our lives in ways that terrify us the most—those people we deem monsters.

The first step in ridding someone from society is to villainize them. If we can cease to see someone or a group as human and begin to see them as monsters, then we are well on our way to imagining an existence without them. These people must be seen to threaten the “good” —the life—of a society. And if they are, then fear drives out compassion, just as perfect love drives out all fear.

Tomorrow, millions of children will don masks and costumes, and go from door to door asking for cheap chocolate and industrially produced sweets. But underneath each mask is a child. I wonder if there is a deeper lesson in this.

Could the masks we see over the faces of those we fear simply hide children of a divine being, children just like you and I? Whether it’s fear of someone of a different culture or race than you, fear of someone from a different economic status than you, fear of a person with a different gender than you, or fear of someone whose orientation and sexuality is different than yours, our challenge is to pull back the mask that we have fixed upon them in our own hearts, and see that person as the genuine human being that they are. They are a child, just like you, of God, a sibling of yours within the divine/human family. It takes effort to humanize our monsters. Yet it’s only by doing so that we can fully to embody the value of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Our choices are fear or compassion, death or life.

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to take inventory of the people on this planet that you are afraid of. They can be specific people or simply types of people. I want you actually write down a list. I want you to name your fear this week.

2. Secondly I want you to do some research on your similarities with those you fear. This may be difficult for some, but it will be well worth it. Write down ten ways that those you are afraid of are like you: where do you not differ from them?

3. Journal the insights you gain from this exercise and share your results with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

We are all children of divinity. We are all siblings of the same divine/human family. Our hope lies in learning how to sit beside one another at the same family table once again. There are no monsters! There are only people, who feel, who love, who hurt, who, like us, are scared. Everyone has a story, and it’s time we give those we are afraid of an opportunity to share theirs.

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

I love each of you dearly, and I’ll see you next week.

A Liberation For Those Who Mourn

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)

IMG_0464(Top to bottom; left to right.): Ethel Lance, 70; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49; The Rev. Clement Pinckney, 41; Susie Jackson, 87; Myra Thompson, 59; The Rev. Dr. Daniel Simons Sr., 74; The Rev. Sharon Coleman-Singleton, 45.

I’m in Brazil this week sharing two separate series of presentations. The first series was in Manaus and the next will be hosted in Novo Airão.

My heart was torn in two directions as I started to write this article. Since my arrival in Brazil, I’ve wanted to share with you the gross economic disparity I see between so-called “first world” countries and “third world” countries. I’ve noticed how developed countries have harnessed developing countries and I’d like to talk more about that.

But my heart also breaks for what has taken place back at home in the US, with the violent, anti-Black, mass murder in Charleston resulting from white, xenophobic hatred.

As a white male in American society, whose voice is often heard and listened to, I’ve wrestled with whether my comments on Charleston will benefit or harm those who we should be making room to listen to in this moment.

I hope that w hat I am about to share will contribute to a safer and more compassionate world for all. This is what’s on my heart.

What I’m sharing are my feelings—how I feel and not just what I think. I believe and teach enemy-transforming, restorative forgiveness, which is vastly different than simply letting someone off the hook. Yet there is a sick feeling in my gut when people of color are murdered by White people and I hear White people affirming the victims for forgiving their murderers and not killing White people in return. When I share this feeling, some of my White friends retort, “But I thought you believed in nonviolence, Herb?”

Yes, I do believe in nonviolence. And I don’t think that what I believe is the most important question we could ask at times like this.

So I want to qualify what I’m about to say. This piece is primarily for those White people who want to understand how I apply my teachings about Christological nonviolence. I am in no way critiquing members of the Black community about whether they should be nonviolent or what form their nonviolence should take. African-Americans are entirely free to self-determine their responses, and it is not for me, or any other than that community, to decide for them.

If you’ve followed my work over the last few years, you’ll know that I have said a number of times that Christological nonviolence is not passive in the face of evil; instead, it is disruptive and that’s the very reason it can be effective. If nonviolence is passive and does not subvert or transform white racial violence, it simply empowers that violence. Whatever form nonviolence takes, it must carry with it a distinctive and profound “no” to the violence it’s responding to.

I’m on the wrong side of the tracks to be thankful that another racist white murderer is being publicly forgiven by relatives of the people he killed. If these family members would like to do that, that is their prerogative. But I do not feel comfortable being thankful for it. The business of racism, the business of oppression, the business of violent, anti Black, xenophobic hatred must not continue as usual, and for me to ask victims of racial violence to be peaceful according to my standards when I belong to the group that still controls the status quo would be a subtle form of violence in the name of nonviolence: nonviolence in name only.

Think back to our study of the Jesus story itself. Only a poor Jewish outcast could tell poor Jewish followers to nonviolently confront their oppressors. For a Roman citizen to tell a Jew to be nonviolent just after a violent Roman massacre of Jews would’ve been a special, blinkered breed of violence. Those in white society are in no position morally to approve or reject the choices made by those in communities of color, whether those choices be forgiveness or revolt, nonviolence or violence. As someone who belongs to the group still in control of our societies, I have no ground to judge those whose humanity the status quo is denying. As the nonviolent Jesus taught, it’s not for me to focus on the dust that may or may not be in someone else’s eyes. I need to “first take the beam out of [my] own eye.” These are the kinds of feelings I am navigating today.

When we consider the historical context of the Jesus story, we see the wealthy classes economically abusing the poor. Herod’s plan was to deliver Israel through economic wealth at the expense of the poor; Pilate oversaw Roman political oppression of the Jewish people; and the High Priest Caiaphas monetarily benefited from both of these abusive structures. He added “God’s” blessing to the abuse and allowed the Temple to be co-opted in the stronger’s domination of the weaker. Jesus threatens this trifecta and is executed on a Roman cross.

James Cone’s monumental book, A Black Theology of Liberation, affirms how Jürgen Moltmann describes the resurrection. Cone writes, “Moltmann is correct when he speaks of the resurrection as the ‘symbol of protest.’”

The resurrection is God’s “NO” to the systems of oppression that lynched Jesus. Yes, Jesus forgave. And the resurrection is God’s further response—a decided NO to the violence Jesus was victim to on the cross. The status quo executed Jesus because he stood in solidarity with the oppressed and those who had been “Othered.” In the resurrection, God stood in solidarity with Jesus in this and stood against the violence meted out through the cross.  Everything accomplished in the cross was undone and reversed in the resurrection.

Whenever the status quo desires people of color to remain passive in the wake of horrific white violence, Martin Luther King, Jr. is always drug out of the grave and co-opted. If only the system knew how subversive and critical of the system King really was, I do not think they would tout him so readily. Listen to King speaking at the funeral service of three of the four children killed as a result of racist violence in a church in 1963. Speaking of three of these children, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, and Cynthia Diane Wesley, King said:

“They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly . . .”.(emphasis added.)

So what about what Jesus taught in Matthew 5? What he taught and demonstrated in his life is not a nonviolence of self-denial that he imposed on the victims of his day. It was oppressors who he called to deny their lust to victimize others. Jesus’ nonviolence for the victims is not self-denying, it is self-affirming. Their “selves” were already being denied by their oppressors. Rather than harnessing the oppressed with an enemy embrace, or demanding they reconcile with their “enemy” before their “enemy” becomes a friend, Jesus’ nonviolence empowers those being dehumanized with a way to affirm their humanity through nonviolent, enemy confrontation. Reconciliation may happen down the road, yet it is a reconciliation that follows enemy transformation.

As I have said in previous weeks, the Jewish people faced disproportionate violence from Rome. If they reacted to Rome with violence, Rome would raze Jerusalem to the ground, much as white Charleston residents burned down Emmanuel AME church in the 1800s after Denmark Vesey’s attempted slave revolt. Jesus empowered the oppressed to choose a nonviolence that they could apply even if they were grossly outnumbered. Its primary goal was not reconciliation but the transformation of the enemy.  Again, any reconciliation would only come after their enemies were transformed. Ultimately, Jesus’ nonviolence has the goal of liberation for everyone. King called this the “double victory” of liberating both the oppressed and the oppressors. But we must note that liberation for the oppressors is radically different from the liberation of the oppressed. The oppressors choose to perpetuate dehumanization, whereas the oppressed have dehumanization chosen for them. Both need to be set free from injustice, but liberation means very different things to each side.

Lastly, Jesus’ nonviolence is not concerned whether we make waves or “remain peaceful.” It is not about maintaining the society of the oppressors. Jesus’ nonviolence is grounded in solidarity with the oppressed and a solid rejection of the oppression of the oppressor. Jesus’ nonviolence offers the oppressed a self-affirming, enemy-confronting, non-peaceful nonviolence. Scholars such as Walter Wink, Marcus Borg, and others have shown that, culturally understood, the three examples of nonviolent protest Jesus gives in Matthew chapter 5 are nothing less than “cheek” defiance, public nakedness, and a refusal to follow the oppressors’ rule. (See Jesus and Nonviolence by Walter Wink, chapter 2; as well as the presentation The Way of Enemy Love). Jesus’ nonviolent protest in the Temple flipped tables and scattered livestock. It most certainly disrupted “business,” and it might have even involved some damage to the property of those who were facilitating oppression in the temple. Jesus’ nonviolence was not passive. Jesus’ nonviolence shut down the business of oppression in the Temple. Jesus’ nonviolence is rooted in love, even enemy love, yet it is enemy love with the goal of liberation, and it will neither settle for nor stop at anything less.

This week, I don’t have much more than this to share: this is what’s on my heart. My heart hurts for the nine families whose loved ones were taken from them much too soon. I don’t have a neat little HeartGroup Application, I don’t have a quippy ending, and I’m asking the followers of Renewed Heart Ministries to simply do this:

Engage and listen to those whose existence in our societies is elementally different from your own, because they don’t share the privileges that most of us are oblivious to. This is not the time for censure or smug approval. It is the time to listen to those whom we have failed to hear.

This week more than ever,

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. One shared table, many voices, one new world.

I love each of you and I’ll see you next week.

Baltimore, Black Lives Matter, and Jesus

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

images-3Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.Matthew 10:34

Before you imagine that Jesus is endorsing taking up a sword here, understand that he’s describing a sword raised against himself and his followers for calling for a change in the status quo. Those benefitting from the current social order would raise their swords against the changes Jesus came to make. If we simply keep reading, Jesus implores his followers not to take up a sword in response to others, but to instead embrace the cross:

“For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ 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. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:35-39, emphasis added.)

The nonviolence Jesus taught here would create disruption. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice. Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence not only included passive noncooperation; they also included nonviolent direct action. Nonviolent direct action disrupts the status quo, the domination system. It confronts oppression, yet at the same time seeks to win oppressors away from their systems of oppression.

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” —Nonviolent direct action, Letter from a Birmingham Jail

IMG_0339This past weekend I had the privilege of traveling to Baltimore with my daughter Emarya to participate with many others in a rally against Police Brutality. Some stand in solidarity with #blacklivesmatter and others stand in solidarity with #policeofficersmatter, yet most should be able to agree that police brutality is dehumanizing and damaging both to officers and to community members.

Emarya and I left home at 5 a.m. on Saturday morning to embark on a four-and-a-half hour journey to the lawn outside of Baltimore City Hall. We arrived just before lunch, and, after a quick bite to eat, we grabbed a parking place and Emarya’s poster, and began our four-block hike to the rally.

My experience at the #blacklivesmatter rally in Baltimore took me right back to the Jesus story. Allow me to recount that narrative for a few minutes.

Jesus shut it down.

The Temple stood as a domination system of oppression toward the poor. The system sacrificed those who were innocent for the benefit of those in power. The Presence had long departed this system that demanded the sacrifice of innocents. Yet the cursing of the fig tree in Matthew and Mark, which marks the end of the Temple, is more than the end of Jerusalem as the city of the “elect” and more than the end of animal sacrifice in religious worship.

Through this story, Matthew and Mark are whispering to us about the end of a way of life founded on sacrifice.  This end began with Jesus’ exposure of the sacrificial system in the Temple, and his uncovering of a larger reality where we see that it is the marginalized, disinherited and subjugated who are the actual innocent victims of the slaughter. The Temple in Jesus’ day not only promoted the way of sacrifice, but placed it at the very heart of Jerusalem’s religion and worship. (When we add Divine affirmation to any system of oppression, the abuse becomes decisively compounded.) Jesus had come to bring an end to domination systems’ way of life here on Earth, and he initiated the commencement of an entirely new, radically different way of life. Jesus announced a radically new social order that he referred to as “the kingdom.” Though it looked nothing like any kingdom that had ever existed throughout history, it was not imperial. Jesus’ new social order took the form and shape of a shared, heterogeneous table.

The rest of the Jesus story flows from cause to effect. Jesus’ nonviolent direct action in the Temple leads to his ultimate arrest by the Temple Police. Jesus is then subjected to multiple trials from the Powers that benefit from the way of life that his kingdom threatens to take away. These three sacrificial systems, which we will cover in a moment, unite to crucify Jesus in a supreme act of injustice. But then the injustice of the Domination Systems is overturned and conquered by the resurrection of Jesus, the glorifying of him as the founder of a new healed world.

The resurrection marks the end of all domination systems that demand the sacrifice of innocent victims for the benefit of the masses. It doesn’t matter whether the domination system is political, represented by Pilate. A political domination system depends on violence against political enemies and a “religion of war” in which the present generation is sacrificed, like lambs to the slaughter, to sustain the belief that citizens are worthy of the sacrifices of past wars. It doesn’t matter whether the domination system is religious, represented by Caiaphas. A religious domination system is rooted in fear of divine repercussions. Adherents are threatened if those deemed as “sinners” are not shunned, marginalized, scapegoated, and ultimately sacrificed to maintain the favor of God or the gods. And it doesn’t matter whether the domination system is economic, represented by Herod. An economic domination system, driven by greed, sacrifices the poor at the bottom of society’s pyramid structures to maintain the lifestyle of the few positioned at the top (see Luke 6:20, 24).

The story of the Resurrected One shows that the presence of God is not found in the most exclusive “holy places” belonging to those “dirty rotten systems” as Dorothy Day called them (see Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45). The Jesus story teaches us that the Presence truly dwells in the ones shamefully lynched on the orders of the united, threatened Powers-that-be. And the story of the Resurrected One proclaims the beginning of a whole new world in which we need not fear the consequences of our nonviolent engagement against those political, religious, and economic systems and powers, engagement rooted in transformative love for both the oppressed and the oppressors. We stand in the victory of Christ over each of these domination systems, a victory that has already been won. We are people standing in the light streaming from the empty tomb, and we are following the Resurrected One.

Seen in their own context, the stories of Jesus’ nonviolent direct action, arrest, trial, execution by crucifixion, and victory through resurrection converge to produce a worldview paradigm-shift. This shift was too significant and too exposing for political, religious, and economic systems based on violence, fear, and greed to tolerate.

The story of the Resurrected One offers the same challenge for us today. The resurrection invites each of us to align our own stories with the story of Jesus, to cleanse Temples, and, if need be, to embrace our crosses to expose and disarm the dominations systems of our day.

Yes, Jerusalem was teetering on the precipice of destruction in her relations to Rome. But Jesus wasn’t arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. He was offering Jerusalem the chance to participate in a whole new way of life and a different future from the events of A.D. 70. When we follow Jesus in our world today, we’re not arranging deck chairs on the Titanic either. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be healed. And this is true of us as well.

If we would simply be open to learning how to recognize and then speak the truth about the systemic evils of oppression, violence, fear, and greed, a new awareness of, and an honesty about, could lead to a decided action toward change.

Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many more, far from seeing Jesus’ actions in the Temple as contradicting nonviolence, saw in his actions the first step of nonviolent direct action. Jesus shut it down. Nonviolent direct action is, at minimum, is a three-step process. First, the systemic oppression must be confronted. Second, wait for the violent response that the domination system metes out when it feels threatened. Third, bear that violent response with enemy-transforming love to awaken those who perpetuate the system and who, by perpetuating the injustice, tie their own victimhood to systemic evil.

Gandhi, King, and others saw in Jesus’ nonviolent direct Temple action hints for how we can and should engage the domination systems of our own day. Each follower of Jesus is called to engage as well. Whether we drive out livestock and overturn money-changers’ tables (Jesus), tear up a passport in South Africa or lead a salt march in India (Gandhi), or join sit-ins, freedom rides, and marches in the white, evangelical, “Christian” South (King), the Jesus story calls us to align our stories with the story of Jesus: to embrace and even to subvert our “temples,” to face, if need be, a cross, and if so, also a resurrection. The Jesus story calls us to act redemptively and transformatively toward those who benefit from the current structure and systems even when they mock, threaten, insult, accuse, and hate us for engaging them. We are to respond transformatively as we name or expose the injustice of the present systems and display the radical whole new world rooted in and centered around Jesus’ teachings. His story whispers to us that a new world is here, if only we have eyes to see it.

The Resurrection of Jesus is God’s endorsement of Jesus, his teachings, his critique, and his way. When we participate in nonviolent direct action as a method of transforming our world, again, we are simply aligning our stories with the Jesus in the Temple, putting on display, come what may, the truth that a new world has arrived. Again, we stand in the Victory of Christ over each of these domination systems—a Victory that has already been won. We are people standing in the light streaming from the empty tomb, following the Resurrected One.

Last weekend, we followed him to Baltimore City Hall

While at City Hall, I quickly saw there a broad spectrum of people who were also taking part in the events of the day. Folks came from the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam to those who self identified as disciples of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and everyone in between.

I want to say, upfront and unequivocally, that I was blessed by everyone I met at this rally. And it was a paradigm-shifting experience for me. What struck me most was not that I was a white life in the midst of many black lives, but that mine was a lower-middle-class life immersed in a world where so many precious lives were fettered to inner city poverty.

Racism and economics go hand in hand in America. We live in the shadow of a capitalist system that has been fueled by racism and enforced by militarism. Today, it is different, but not wholly corrected. Think of it in terms of Hasbro’s game Monopoly. 

During the Reconstruction era in America, Jim Crow laws significantly limited how much and how easily black people could compete in the game of capitalism. Not only has black life still not fully recovered from those limitations, but, from what I witnessed in Baltimore, the limitations themselves have also not been fully corrected. Today, for many black lives to escape inner city poverty, they have to possess a higher than average level of talent in areas such as sports, music, entertainment, general academics, or medicine. There are artificial limitations still placed on their ability to play the game, imitations that I simply never have to face. Those who live daily in the desperation of trying to survive while trapped in inner city poverty will live in ways that those in middle and upper classes simply cannot understand.

Before last weekend, I knew the intersection of race and economics in theory. And then Saturday submerged me in a community where I witnessed people still experiencing the reality of an economic system where race is a significant factor.

It was through watching these people that Jesus’ liberation work for the poor clicked for me.

Jesus’ work for the poor is the ideal point for us to start applying Jesus’ gospel to the lives of all those who are disinherited by our domination system today. Whether it be in matters of race, gender, or orientation, Jesus’ systemic change, his good news to the poor, is where we must begin.  As James Cone wrote, “Accordingly any understanding of the Kingdom in Jesus’ teachings that fails to make the poor and their liberation its point of departure is a contradiction of Jesus’ presence.” (God of the Oppressed.)

In other words, if our gospel is not first and foremost systemic good news for the poor—fatally undermining all other forms of discrimination—then we have to at least wonder whether our Jesus is the same Jesus in the story. It’s not enough to enable black lives, women’s lives, and LGBTQ lives to advance in a “dirty rotten system.” It is not enough to enable all with the same opportunity to thrive in the status quo of haves and have-nots. Jesus was not preaching equality in regards to equal “opportunity” for all. Jesus’ new social order is one where there are no more haves and have-nots, where the last are the same as the first, and where those who gather much share with those who gathered little. The system is not to be cleansed. It is to be dismantled. The status quo is not to be simply critiqued. It’s to be deconstructed. Jesus didn’t cleanse the temple and its way of sacrifice, he ended it. 

On my way home from the march, I picked up a copy of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. This was the book that MLK took with him when he travelled and read from before each march.

What I began to see as I stood in the midst of America’s disinherited last Saturday was that Jesus was not someone from the upper or middle class who chose to help the poor. There is a world of difference in picturing Jesus as the helper OF the poor and a Jesus who WAS poor. He WAS the disinherited. He emerged out of the very people I was standing in the midst of. These were his roots.

The significance of seeing Jesus as one of the disinherited can’t be overestimated. This shift breathes new life into his teachings and their practical implications for how we can follow Jesus nonviolently, confronting and transforming domination systems in our day. Jesus was not lecturing the upper and middle class on how they should help the people beneath them. Jesus spoke to his disinherited peers and equipped them with the means to subvert the entire system.

Yes, this was good news to those the present system left poor, hungry, and weeping. Jesus’ message was also deeply troubling to those benefiting from the present system, who didn’t want things to change.

Broderick Greer tweeted this statement this week: “If your ‘gospel’ isn’t good news to people mourning state-sanctioned police violence and the loss of black life, then it’s not the gospel.”

And I could not agree more.

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 liberation for the slaves, and recovery of sight to the blind in order to set the oppressed free. — Jesus (Luke 4.18)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to take time each day contemplate the following statement:

“Righteous wealth can only exist where no one is in need.”

2. Journal any thoughts, questions, agreements and disagreements, or insights you have as you reflect each day.

3. Share your notes with your HeartGroup and discuss them this upcoming week.

Till the only world that remains, is a world where Love reins.

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

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The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 9 of 9

Part 9 of 9

by Herb Montgomery

 

The Gospel of an Unstoppable Liberation

Wooden Rosary

“We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.” (Acts 13:32-33)

I want to end this series on the seven last sayings of Jesus, not on Jesus’ execution by the domination systems of his day, but with the reversal and undoing of that execution by the resurrection. This is what the early church proclaimed as the gospel.

Notice that the early church did not preach that Jesus had died to pay a divinely demanded penalty so that you can go to heaven instead of hell when you die. It was not that Jesus had died, but that Jesus had been executed and that his execution had been reversed. Remember that the great Hebrew hope was not of one day becoming some disembodied soul in some far distant heaven. No. The hope of the Hebrew people, that which had been promised to their ancestors, is that the Messiah would come and put right all oppression, violence and injustice.

Salvation, to the early church, was liberation from oppression. And this had been accomplished by God’s resurrection of the one who had been executed by their oppressors.

Notice the following passages.

“And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus…. Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.” [Liberation and a New Social Order] (Acts 13:23-38)

You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—this man, given to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power…. This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses…. Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:22-36)

The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” (Acts 3:12-16)

Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’” (Acts 4:10-11)

“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Founder and Healer that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” (Acts 5:30-32)

“We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day…. He is the one ordained by God as LIBERATOR of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:36-43)

The good news was not that Rome had executed someone or that someone had died. That happened all the time. The good news was that this Jesus, whose teachings offered such radical hope for a transformed world, and who had been executed by the systems his teachings threatened, had been brought back to life. This Jesus had triumphed over the religious, political and economic systems of their day, for his execution had been reversed!

In this great reversal, a new world had begun. Those systems, even the religious one that had claimed to house “God” at its heart, had been exposed, shamed and shown to be what they truly were.

The Presence was not found to be with them, but with the One they had shamefully suspended on a Roman cross.

What I want you to notice is that what liberates us, what “saves” us, for the early church, was not Jesus’ execution, but his resurrection, the undoing and reversal of Jesus’ execution by the powers, but the solidarity of The Sacred (i.e. “God”), The Divine, not simply with Jesus, but will all that had been, or would be the recipients of Oppression.

“And having disarmed the powers and authorities [i.e. religious, social, economic, and political oppression], a public spectacle of them was made, triumphing over them by him.” (Colossians 2:15)

The Sacred Dream of the Divine is of a different world, here and now, where everybody has enough, not as a product of charity, but as a result of the way the world is put together. The present way of assembling the world has been exposed and shamed by the way it executed Jesus. And it has been rendered impotent. The power by which the present systems subordinate others–using “the fear of death” and the threat of being executed at the hands of the present domination systems, what I call the “do what we say, or else” system–has been triumphed over and made of no more consequence. Through Jesus’ execution by the powers and then being resurrected by The Divine, Jesus has liberated “those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)

Why Do I Love Easter?

It’s not because of its co-opted pagan roots of celebrating fertility and the rebirth of spring, though I genuinely appreciate both. It’s because this is the one time Christianity remembers, though I think many have forgotten what it means, why Christianity, as a revolution (as opposed to a religion) came into being.

The story of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is of an itinerant teacher from prophetic lineage (just like the prophets of old), who travelled the countryside giving a passionate indictment of the religious, political, economic and social systems of his day and putting on display the beauty of a world assembled in the form of a shared nonhomogenous table where every voice is valued and every story heard. A world where we all, from the varied experiences of life that we each represent, learn together how to integrate our differences into a coherent and meaningful whole.

The old order of things was to be deconstructed. Both the voiceless minorities that had been marginalized to the fringes of their society and the voiceless masses that had been oppressed were to find space at this new shared table. Transformed oppressors and the liberated oppressed  were going to have to learn how to sit beside (neither above nor below) one another, recognizing each other as the image of God, both children of the same Divine Parents, welcomed to the same family table.

This was good news to the outsiders, the disadvantaged and the dispossessed. THIS was the gospel! But to insiders, and those in top positions of privilege in the current domination system (the Pharisees, the Priests and the Scribes), this was seen as anything but “good news.”

Jesus’ nonviolent confrontation and disruption of the system in the Temple (Jesus shut it down) was the last straw. Who did he think he was? They had had enough. The priestly aristocracy and the Pharisees combined efforts to manipulate the economic systems of Herod and the political system of Pilate to create a cooperative act of lynching this radical named Jesus.

The torn veil in the temple [1] revealed the Sacred was not dwelling in the most holy places of those institutions, as they claimed. No, the Divine, as was mentioned previously, was dwelling in the One shamefully suspended on a Roman cross at the hands of those combined domination forces. [2]

THIS is the good news: Liberation has come. And it is a liberation that is unstoppable. Yes, for those placed in the position of “last” by the present system this is good news, as they learn how they are to be treated as those who had arrived “first.” And for those who had arrived “first,” well, it is at least problematic as they discover they will now be treated equally with those who had arrived “last.” The point is that each person will be “paid the same,” as the parable teaches, or treated simply as equal. [3]

This liberation could not be stopped. And I dare say, it cannot be stopped today.

They tried to kill it. But even that didn’t work.

I want to close this week with Mark’s telling of the resurrection. Very early versions of Mark’s manuscript ended at Mark 16:8. I want to highlight the value of those manuscripts. Notice the open-ended way that these Jesus stories would have concluded.

“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’ But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here.’” (Mark 16.2-6)

Then Mark’s gospel ends with:

“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)

What is the unspoken point Mark is endeavoring to make? What is the impression he is trying to leave?

Just as Luke’s gospel would later do, Mark is whispering, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Yes, those in charge killed him—but they couldn’t stop him. They crucified him and buried him in a rich man’s tomb. But imperial lynching and a tomb couldn’t hold him. He’s still loose in the world. He’s still out there, still here, still recruiting people to share, to participate in his mustard seed subversively planted in the garden, his leaven placed within the dough, his pearl of great price revolution toward a radically new social order that he called ‘the Kingdom of God’—a transformed world here and now.”

What Mark is whispering to us is the good news that yes, they killed our Jesus, but… it’s… not… over. This liberation is unstoppable, for it possesses the solidarity of The Divine.

“You killed the author of this way of life, but God raised him from the dead.” — Peter; (Acts 3:15)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week as Easter is approaching for the West, take a moment and contemplate what the resurrection actually means for us. Lots of people have been killed for standing up against the status quo. Lots of people have suffered for attempting to dismantle the status quo. But Jesus was one with whom the Divine stood in solidarity and brought back to life.
  2. I want you, as you are contemplating the resurrection and its meaning, to also ponder what it means to follow this resurrected One. What is the most important thing you could be doing right now to further the work of healing, restoration, transformation, liberation and redemption that this Jesus began here on earth?
  3. Share what you discover with your HeartGroup.

I want to thank each one of you who has checked in each week for this nine-part series. It is my prayer that you have been inspired and encouraged to put on display, as a community, the beauty of what a world changed by that radical Jesus looks like. And who knows? It may do just that. It may change the world.

I love each of you dearly. And for those of you who will be celebrating Easter this coming weekend, The Lord Is Risen! He Is Risen Indeed!

Keep living in love, loving like Jesus, ’til the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I’ll see you next week.


1. “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Mark 15:38)

2. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world…” (2 Corinthians 5:19)

3. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1-15)

 

The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 6 of 9

Part 6 of 9

Woman, Here Is Your Son

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Wooden RosaryMeanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (John 19:25-27)

This week we begin to move into John’s telling of the Jesus story.

John’s telling is unique among the four canonical gospels. John’s is the latest written, and his Jesus story shows high Christology (Jesus as fully Divine). Unlike other writers in the New Testament whose Christology is more ethically centered (Jesus is defined by what he did and taught), John’s Christology seeks to define who Jesus was ontologically and cosmologically. It it in John’s gospel that the idea of a divine Jesus is most fully developed among the four gospels.

Ever since I read Irenaeus’s Against Heresies, the parallels between Irenaeus and John’s gospel have lead me to believe John was seeking to tell the Jesus story in such a way as to intersect and inform what he felt was the threat of early first-century Gnosticism.

Many aspects of John’s gospel make more sense when we place them in this cultural context. Many regard Gnosticism as the first great Christian heresy. It took the focus of Jesus’ followers off of a renewed and restored earth to an escapist goal of attaining heaven instead. Scholars today see Gnosticism’s dualism between the body and the soul (body or nature is evil/soul is good; body or nature is mortal/soul is immortal) and Gnosticism’s abandonment of the body and the good world around us as evil to have caused a significant shift in the focus of historic Christianity. This shift, coupled with other influences, is why, to a large degree, some Christians today focus on post-mortem bliss rather than the liberation of the oppressed and healing of injustices in our present world. An example of this is how White Christians in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s were committed to “getting to heaven” while ignoring and even perpetrating a very “present hell” here on earth. Ida B. Wells once wrote, “Our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.” [1]

John’s method then needs to be understood. His intent was to show Jesus to be fully Divine (Holy, from above) and then show how integrated he was in humanity, his body, the earth, and the dirt. He also portrayed Jesus as genuinely human.

This is the controversy John refers to in 1 John 4:2, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” (Emphasis added.)

The Gnostics taught that for Jesus to have truly been Divine or Holy, he could not have genuinely possessed a physical body but only the appearance or “impression” of a body. Therefore to show Jesus as also fully human would have taken the focus of those affected by gnosticism off of their post-mortem bliss, and back onto the work of restoration and healing that we see so markedly evidenced in Jesus’ own life and work.

Reread John’s gospel and see how much John emphasizes Jesus’ body and Jesus’ genuine bodily functions. (We’ll look at this more next week when we look at John’s words of Jesus on the cross, “I thirst.”)

What John wants us to encounter first about Jesus’ experience on cross, unlike any other gospel author, is Jesus’ very human relationship with and concern for his mother. This is the humanity of Jesus that Gnostics would be confronted by and need to address.

Womanism and The Jesus Story

I also want to draw attention to a womanist reading of this passage in John this week.

In James Cone’s phenomenal book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone recounts the experiences of what it was like for African Americans during America’s post slavery era in relation to the lynching being carried out by White Christians.

Cone writes, “The fear of lynching was so deep and widespread that most blacks were too scared even to talk publicly about it. When they heard of a person being lynched in their vicinity, they often ran home, pulled down shades, and turned out lights—hoping the terror moment would pass without taking the lives of their relatives and friends.” [2]

Cone retells the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father, who witnessed a lynching at a very young age. Daddy King states, “All I could do was to run on home, keep silent, never mentioning what I’d seen to anyone, until many, many years later, when I understood it better.” [3]

The parallels between the lynching of African Americans in America and the lynching of Jesus in the first century are astounding. [4] The horror of crucifixion by Rome and the nightmarish atrocity of lynching in America by White Christians served very similar purposes within their perspective cultures. Both were forms of terrorism used by the dominant system of the day.

The fact that John tells us there were those who didn’t “run home” when Jesus was lynched is a testament to the Jewish women John lists, a testament we come to understand and appreciate more deeply when seen through the lens of what Black women experienced in America’s lynching history. These women did not run home, as did most of the followers of Jesus, but stood by, not abandoning Jesus when the dominant system “strung him up.”

Black women should not be made invisible in America’s lynching history. They were not exempt to White Christian mob violence in America. Not only were Black women lynched as well, but those who were not, “not only suffered the loss of their sons, husbands, brothers, uncles, nephews, and cousins but also endured public insults and economic hardship as they tried to carry on, to take care of their fatherless children in a patriarchal and racist society in which whites could lynch them or their children with impunity, at the slightest whim or smallest infraction of the southern racial etiquette.” [5]

Jewish women belonged to a similarly patriarchal society. For Mary, the mother of Jesus, to lose Jesus, the specific male she was economically dependent on, to mob violence in her day also meant economic hardship and poverty as she would be left to try and carry on.

Yet John’s Jesus is no victim. John’s Jesus will leave behind no orphans [6], and as we also see here, no widows.

John’s Jesus looks down from the cross and, much to the dismay of the Gnostics of John’s time, the first thing Jesus attends to is the human, intimately familial relationship between himself and his mother.

Again, we get a window into the reality of the necessity of Jesus’ connecting his mother to a new son through womanist perspectives today.

What we also receive from looking at this narrative detail of the interchange between Jesus and Mary through the lens of womanist theology is the knowledge that we do not have to interpret

Jesus’ death as some sort of righteous surrogacy or surrogate suffering. Remember, the cross is not the salvific act, according to the book of Acts, as much as the resurrection is [7], for it is the resurrection that undoes and reverses everything accomplished by the lynching of Jesus by the dominant system. The death of Jesus was the temporary victory of the oppression and injustice that Jesus was confronting and resisting. Far from understanding Jesus’ death as the glorification and justification of innocent suffering, the death of Jesus was a travesty of justice. It was the unjust response of evil and oppression to the threat of Jesus as he sought to heal and liberate.

Jesus in John’s gospel is not a victim. Nor is he passive. Jesus is an activist whose advocacy for the marginalized and outcast resulted in suffering. Jesus’ death was the natural result of Jesus’ confrontation of the dominant system. And as followers of Jesus we, too, are to actively oppose evil rather than passively submit to it. Yes, Jesus taught nonviolence, but we are not to interpret this as Jesus’ teaching passivity. Jesus taught a nonviolent, direct confrontation of injustice, oppression, and violence as the means of changing the world around us.

Jacquelyn Grant in her book White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response rightly states, “The significance of Christ is not found in his maleness, but in his humanity,” [8] and the history of Black women today, “the oppressed of the oppressed,” can inform and educate our understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection in life- transforming, world-transforming, ways.

What we see in John’s interchange between Jesus and Jesus’ mother is Jesus’ humanity first and foremost. We see the cultural need for making sure his mother was provided for in a patriarchal society oppressive to women. We begin to understand Jesus’ death for what it is, not an act by which justice was satisfied but an act of inhumane injustice that was the result of Jesus’ confrontation with injustice. And last, we see Jesus’ death as that which the Divine Being of the Jesus story would reverse and undo. The dominant system does not have the last world in this narrative. The story does not end with a lynching but with a Divine Being standing in solidarity not simply with Jesus but with all who have been lynched (directly or indirectly) throughout history, whispering that this is not where our stories have to end. The climax of the Jesus story is that over and against those at whose hands Jesus was lynched, stands a Voice, calling the world, both oppressed and the oppressors, to a better way.

Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black body swinging in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree.
—“Strange Fruit,” Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allen)

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 10:39)

Perhaps nothing about the history of mob violence in the United States is more surprising than how quickly an understanding of the full horror of lynching has receded from the nation’s collective historical memory.—W. Fitzhugh Brundage

HeartGroup Application

We are getting closer to when the western Christian world celebrates Easter with each passing week.

This week I want you to dedicate some time to contemplating what a difference it makes to see Jesus’ death not as the appeasement of an angry God so that those who have sinned can escape this world and be let into heaven, with the resurrection being a neat little affirmation of post- mortem bliss, but as the lynching that it was, a result of Jesus’ standing up to the injustice, oppression, and violence of the dominant system of his day. Try to see Jesus’ resurrection not as a tidy ending but as a Divine Being’s solidarity with all those who have been oppressed, violated, and affected by injustice throughout time, whispering to us that in this Jesus and the values he espoused and taught, a new world is coming. In fact, as a result of the resurrection, it has already arrived.

1. As an aid in helping you shift in your contemplation of Jesus’ death this week, I recommend you watch Billie Holiday’s performance of Strange Fruit. One free way to do this would be to simply go to YouTube here. Allow Billie to inform your understanding of the Jesus narrative as you overlay Jesus’ lynching on one of the most effective teaching moments in America’s recent history. Allow Billie’s performance to help you step back into and understand anew the death—and resurrection—of Jesus.

2. Journal what you discover.

3. Share what you discover with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

As Jesus followers, we subscribe to a narrative that does not end in the defeat of Jesus by the lynching mob. The narrative ends with Jesus’ God standing in solidarity with him in his confrontation of injustice, even to the undoing and reversing of their murderous actions. Jesus’ death is not his nonviolent protest to injustice. It was the fatal result of this nonviolent protest. The resurrection is Jesus’ God’s having the last word over the lynching mob. This should give us pause to reflect.

Our narrative is one of hope. Hope that injustice does not have the last word, ever. A new day has dawned. A light is shining from an empty tomb.

Keep living in love, loving like Jesus, until the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

One shared table, many voices, one new world.

I’m praying for your hearts to be enlarged and liberated as you move more deeply into the contemplation of Jesus’ death and resurrection and their implications for us today.

I love each of you deeply. I’ll see you next week.


 

1. Wells, Ida B. Crusade for Justice, pp. 154-55

2. Cone, James H. (2011-09-01). The Cross and the Lynching Tree (p. 15). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

3. Daddy King, p. 30.

4. Acts 5:30—The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree; Acts 10:39—They put him to death by hanging him on a tree. (Emphasis added.)

5. Cone, James H. (2011-09-01). The Cross and the Lynching Tree (pp. 122–123). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

6. John 14:18—“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”
7. Acts 13:32-33—And we bring you the gospel that what God promised to our ancestors God has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.

8. Jacquelyn Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response

The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 5 of 9

Part 5 of 9

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

by Herb Montgomery

Wooden Rosary

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last (Luke 23.46).

Out of all the last sayings of Jesus in the four versions of the Jesus story, this one, this week, has come to be my favorite.

When Constantine elevated Christianity from disadvantaged to privileged in the fourth century, the apparent failure of Jesus’ revolution on the cross became a source of embarrassment.  Then, coupled with the guilt-ridden consciences of the crusaders in the 11th century, the cross took on a wholly different meaning than it had for early Jesus followers.  It is no coincidence that just as Christian soldiers of the crusades returned from the violence of war with bloodstained hands, Christianity, for the first time, began to interpret the cross as God’s doing, God’s violent punishment of humanity’s sins in Jesus, and as Jesus paying for those sins, freeing humans from their deep sense of guilt.  An interpretation of Jesus death that today is labelled as a “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” arises for the first time in Christian history just when Christian military soldiers need some way of dealing with the post-traumatic stress of the merciless slaughter of Jews, Muslims, and heretics.  These soldiers, just like all soldiers exposed to the ugliness of war, were wrestling with the weight of what they had done.  Therefore, the message that Jesus had mercifully paid for their sins came as a great relief.

This interpretation of Jesus’ death, in addition to doing untold damage to Christian theists’ understanding of the character of their God, simply did not exist in the early church.

To the early followers of Jesus, the cross was the failure of Jesus’ revolution.  It was seen as the triumph of the dominating system, both political and religious, of Rome and the Temple aristocracy, over the prophetic ministry of Jesus. [1]

The victory of Jesus was not on the cross, but in his resurrection, which triumphed over and undid his unjust execution.

We will look at this more historically, and more deeply, in the ninth and final installment of this series, but for now, we must hold in mind that the good news to the early followers of Jesus was not that Jesus died, nor was it that someone had come back to life, but that this specific Jesus, who was executed by the dominating system, had been resurrected by God and that this resurrection marked the beginning of a new age when God was not in solidarity with those on the top of the pyramid’s social structures, but in solidarity with those subordinated, marginalized, and oppressed by those social structures.

In order to see and appreciate the resurrection of Jesus as a triumph, we must first see the execution of Jesus for the temporary failure that it was.  We must understand that Jesus’ death is not the victory of God, but the victory of those who opposed Jesus and his radical revolution.

This is why Jesus’ final saying in Luke holds such meaning for me.

When someone chooses to align their story with the Jesus story, when one chooses to stand up for the marginalized, those on the social fringes, and to embrace those whose society has rejected them, a “cross” of some sort will always loom in their near future.

Whether their community is political, economic, social, or religious, when one chooses to stand in solidarity with those whose community has labeled as “sinners,” the threatening nature of that solidarity to the community itself cannot be ignored.

If I could be transparent for a moment, I know something of what I’m writing about here.

This past year (2014), I chose to make some significant shifts in who I was going to stand in solidarity with.  Believing that the Jesus of Luke’s Jesus story was seeking to change the world by, one “table” after another, modeling a “shared meal” (with all its cultural implications in the first century) with those his religious, political, economic, and social community had defined as “other,” as “outsider, as the “marginalized,” I chose to position myself in a way that was intentionally standing in solidarity those whom, today, I perceive my communities treats, at times, as “other.” As a white Jesus follower, I chose to position myself in such a way that was standing in solidarity with those of us who are non-white. As a male Jesus follower, I chose to position myself in such a way that was standing in solidarity with those of us who are non-male. As someone who identifies as cisgender, I made decisions that intentionally positioned me into a space of solidarity with those of us who identify as non-cisgender.  As someone who identifies as straight, I made decisions that intentionally positioned me into a space of solidarity with those of us who identify as non-straight.  There is a Jewish blessing that states that before every person there marches an angel proclaiming, “behold the image of God.”  A Jewish blessing that a friend of mine is very fond of and recently shared with me is, “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who varies Your creation.”

I have chosen to embrace every person I meet as the “image of God” [2] and thus deserving of compassion.

This has had consequences for me.

To make a very long story short, as the director of a nonprofit ministry, the words Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount have become intensely meaningful to me, now more than ever:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? … if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ … your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God [Jesus’ new way of arranging the world; Jesus’ new social order] and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:25–32, emphasis added)

I have begun to see how it was that Jesus’ ministry, by its nonviolent yet confrontational nature, ended on a Roman cross.  This was a death reserved for the enemies of the dominating system of his day.  This was how Rome, which maintained control of Judaism through its Temple, treated those whom they viewed as a threat.  Jesus’ revolution was a threat to both the Temple as well as the Empire’s control:

If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation. (John 11:48)

You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed. (John 11:50)

In Luke’s version of the gospel, as a result of Jesus’ teachings and demonstration (overturning the tables) in the Temple, Jesus’ ministry had finally reached a climax and had to be addressed: “The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him” (Luke 19:47).

They found their way.

Very quickly, before the next Sabbath even, Jesus was suspended on a Roman cross by their doing.

To all appearances, they had triumphed over this Jesus.  He was getting what every person receives when they color outside of their community’s defined lines.

And yet, Jesus was not dying at their hands without hope.  Jesus was incredibly courageous in the very moment when I am tempted to despair.  This week, Fr. Shay Kerns sent this quotation from Richelle E. Goodrich out via email:

Courage to me is doing something daring, no matter how afraid, insecure, intimidated, alone, unworthy, incapable, ridiculed or whatever other paralyzing emotion you might feel.  Courage is taking action … no matter what.  So you’re afraid?  Be afraid.  Be scared silly to the point you’re trembling and nauseous, but do it anyway.

Although Jesus stood alone, he had a courageous confidence that he had done the right thing.  The cross did not rob Jesus of his assurance that his life and teachings had not been in vain.  He died believing that even his death would be ultimately triumphed over.  In his most “defeated” moment, he committed to his Father the bringing of his revolution to triumphant fruition.  Jesus’ last words in Luke were, “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.”

There are multiple things that could be said about this dying statement. One is that it shows the confidence that Jesus had that his cause was on the side of what is right. Next, we should discuss  the title Jesus chose to use: “Father.” We are not to derive from this that the God of the Jesus story has male genitalia.  No no!  Calling God “Father” was deeply political within first century Judaism.  “Father” is not a title for the Hebrew God in the Old Testament that could be used by just anyone.  This is directly from Psalms 89.  Calling God “Father” was a right reserved only for Israel’s King [3]:

The enemy shall not outwit him, the wicked shall not humble him.   I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him.  My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him; and in my name his horn shall be exalted.  I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers.  He shall cry to me, “You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation! I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. (verses 22–27, emphasis added)

This psalm harkens back to Psalm 2 where David retells the decree of this same God:

I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.  Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. (Psalms 2.7–8, emphasis added)

Of King David’s royal offspring, the Hebrew God had declared, “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me” (2 Samuel 7.13–14).

Lastly, to a Hebrew, death was the moment when the body returned to the earth from which it came and one’s spirit returned to God. [4]  For those Hebrews who believed in a resurrection at the end of the age, one’s spirit rests in God’s safe keeping, awaiting the resurrection when it will be reunited with a restored body.

Jesus had stated earlier to his disciples in Luke, “The Son of Man [5] must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Luke 9.22, emphasis added).  What Jesus is saying to his disciples here in Luke is that the way to the new world he was inaugurating would be through rejection, crucifixion, and resurrection. This was Jesus’ confidence:  resurrection! Yet resurrection required crucifixion, and crucifixion required rejection.

Do you feel rejected, at times, by your community because you have chosen to follow Jesus in confronting the dominating system of your day?

Jesus, in his final moment, still believed in the intrinsic value of what he had taught and demonstrated throughout his life.  “Seek first God’s new social order and its justice and all these things (and more) will be given back to you.” [6]  This is Jesus, dying in full confidence that, although it looked like the dominating system was winning, this was not going to be the end of the story.  His revolution would not end this way.

What does this mean for us today?

In Luke chapter 9, just after Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, be rejected by the Temple aristocracy, be executed on a Roman cross, and then be resurrected, he turns to his disciples and says, “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9:23, emphasis added).

Christianity is the only major religion whose central figure was executed by society’s dominant power structure.  And yet our Jesus died in full confidence, committing the keeping of his mission, in his dying moment, to the promise of his Father: “I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” (Psalms 89.27) [7]

The cross would not be the end for Jesus, and a cross will not be the end for us as well.

When we, too, embrace the way of the cross, we are at our bleakest moment; when we, too, are rejected as a result of practicing Jesus’ radical inclusivity of those our community deems as “other”; when our sky is “brass over our head and iron under our feet,” we can have that same assurance, knowing that, although this moment looks dark, the heart of the dominating system is being “torn in two” [8] and it is not the end.  We too can, in full assurance of faith, whisper: Father God, Mother God [9], into your safe keeping, “I commit my spirit.”

We need not fear our confrontation of the dominating systems of our day for we stand in the victory of Jesus over all injustice, oppression, violence, subordination, “other-ing,” privileging some while excluding and marginalizing others who are also made in “the image of God” to the fringes of our societies.  This is a victory that has already been won.  Though Jesus’ shared table and Temple confrontation lead him to being put on a cross, that was not the end of the story.

“You won’t find Jesus in the land of the dead.  He is still with us.  

The powers killed him—but they couldn’t stop him.  They crucified him and buried him in a rich man’s tomb.   But imperial execution and a tomb couldn’t hold him. 

He’s still loose in the world.  He’s still out there, still here, still recruiting people to share his passion for the Kingdom of God—a transformed world here and now.  It’s not over.”

—Marcus Borg

HeartGroup Application

  1. What is it that holds you back from standing in solidarity with those who are being excluded from a “shared table” in our world today?  This week, I would ask that you simply spend some time in contemplation, allowing this last statement by Jesus, “into your hands I commit my spirit,” to challenge whatever fears you may be entertaining.
  2. Journal what you discover.  Write down your fears, your concerns, and any breakthroughs you experience through this contemplation.
  3. Share what you experience through this exercise with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

Whenever I became discouraged as a child, my mother, when she was alive, would always remind me, “You can gauge the size of the victory by the size of the battle.  It is always darkest just before the dawn.”

A new world is coming.  In fact, for those who have eyes to see it, it is already here, growing subversively like a mustard seed in a garden.

Keep living in love till the only world that remains is a world where love alone reigns.

Many voices, one new world.

I love each of you, and I’ll see you next week.

 


1. See Part 1 on the prophetic lineage of Jesus.

2.  Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in God’s own image God made humankind. (Genesis 9.6)

3.  “He [David’s offspring] shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings” (2 Samuel 7.13-14).

4.  “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave
it” (Ecclesiastes 12.7; NRSV). “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12.2; NRSV).

5.  “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed” (Daniel 7.13-14, emphasis added). What Jesus is saying to his disciples in Luke is that the way in which this promise in Daniel would come to fruition would be through rejection, crucifixion, and resurrection.

6.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6.33)

7. Remember that Jesus would redefine Kingdom away from hierarchical authority structures to egalitarian mutuality ones in their place. “But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22.25-27)

8.  “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Luke 23:44–45).

9.  “So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them” (Genesis 1:27, emphasis added).

The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 1 of 9

Part 1 of 9

Two Definitions of Holiness

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Wooden Rosary

This week I want to begin a nine-part series leading up to this year’s Easter season. Beginning next week, we will take a look at each of the last sayings we are given in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We will begin with Mark and Matthew and progress from there. We will finally take a look at what relevance the narrative element of the Resurrection may have for us in our world today in the week leading up to Easter.

In the interest of being transparent, this series has come out of an exercise I was engaged in personally throughout 2014. As each week is composed of seven days, I took one of the last sayings of Jesus each day as the subject of contemplation—one saying, every day, for the whole year. What I’m about to share, very humbly, is simply the fruit of that year-long contemplation.

I want to begin this week by taking a look at what actually put Jesus on the cross.

Jesus’ crucifixion (and resurrection) in the gospels comes at the end of a long history of contention that began between the privileged/oppressive priesthood (Levitical) and prophets who spoke up as advocates for those the priests were oppressing. For dominating priests, holiness was defined by the purity codes attributed to Moses (sometimes referred to as holiness codes). For the prophets, holiness was defined not by ritualistic or religious “purity” but justice for the oppressed; mercy for the poor, fatherless children, and widows (within a patriarchal culture); and humility. [1]

The struggle between these two groups began, by most scholars’ reckoning, with Amos and Isaiah (Isaiah Chapters 1–39) in the eighth century BCE.

Here is just a sampling:

Amos

This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name.” (Amos 2.6–7)

There are those who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground. (Amos 5.7)

You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. (Amos 5.11–12)

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5.21–24)

Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”— skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat. (Amos 8.4–6)

Notice the meticulous keeping of the New Moon and Sabbath (ritual purity codes) but utter disregard for justice toward the poor and oppressed.

Isaiah

Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! [2] “The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1.10–17)

She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her—but now murderers! (Isaiah 1.21)

Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them. (Isaiah 1.23)

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. (Isaiah 10.1–2)

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD—and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with justice he will govern the needy, with equity he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Justice will be his belt and integrity the sash around his waist. (Isaiah 11.1-5) [3]

LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you and praise your name . . . You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress . . . (Isaiah 25.1-4)

The Maccabean Revolt

During the time of the Maccabean Revolt, there was a revival in fidelity to the purity codes and the definition of holiness as fidelity to those codes. It was during this time that we see the birth of the Pharisees. This group was more liberal in their theology (angels, resurrection, etc.) yet more strict in their adherence to the purity codes. They stood in alliance with the privileged class of priests, placing the blame for their captivity and foreign oppression on ritual or religious impurity in not keeping the purity codes of Moses. Yet it must be remembered that the prophets stood in direct conflict with this explanation of Israel’s history, expressing that the captivity was rather a result of the abuses of the priestly domination culture over the poor, fatherless, and widowed—of the privileged over the oppressed.

Jesus

By the time Jesus comes on the scene, the priests (along with the Pharisees) are well entrenched again within a politically and economically oppressive system consisting of the temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, and Jerusalem/Judea at its heart. Jesus comes not as a teacher out of Judea, or the priesthood, but was rather from the northern region of Galilee, far removed. Galileans, according to the Pharisees and priestly class of Judea, were considered less faithful to the ritual purity/holiness codes as a result, not only because of their proximity to their surrounding Hellenistic culture, but also their distance from Jerusalem, the temple, and the theological leadership of the Pharisees and priestly class themselves.

When one understands this history, along with the political and economic privileges of the priestly class in Judea in the first century, the fact that Jesus takes up the heritage of the prophets in advocating for the oppressed is breathtaking.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” (Luke 4.18)

Just like the prophets before him, in response to the privileged, priestly ruling class of his day, Jesus denounces economic oppression. [4] Just like the prophets before him, in response to the Pharisees defining of holiness as strict adherence to the ritual purity codes of Moses, Jesus stands in solidarity with those the Pharisees label as unclean and defines holiness rather as justice/mercy for those the Pharisees are marginalizing. [5] Remember, the Pharisees defined a “sinner” as a Jew who was not observing the ritual purity codes. That Jesus embraced and ate with these “sinners” infuriated the Pharisees. Holiness to a Pharisee was exclusive and punitive. Holiness to Jesus was inclusive and restorative. Holiness to a Pharisee was defined as strict adherence to ritual purity codes including the Sabbath, the New Moon, the sacrifices, etc. [6] Holiness to Jesus was justice for those the priestly class, along with the Pharisees, were oppressing based on their non-adherence to the purity codes. Jesus would offer a way of worshiping their God that completely bypassed the temple, the sacrifices, and the purity codes. [7]

If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. (Matthew 12.7)

But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matthew 9.13) [8]

Jesus would take his final stand against the political and economic oppression of the priests, temple tax and its rituals. His effort was not to “cleanse” the temple but to dismantle the entire system.

For those who believed that holiness was defined as adherence to the ritual purity codes, with the temple and sacrifices at its heart, Jesus’ acts would invite greater foreign oppression. In their opinion, contrary to the prophets, it was laxness in adherence to the purity codes that had caused foreign captivity originally. Jesus’ opposition to the Pharisees and priests, along with his doing away with the temple and its rituals would surely bring the destruction of the nation at the hands of foreign enemies once again.

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin . . . “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11.47–50, emphasis added)

It was the priests, along with the temple police, who arrested Jesus. [9] Their privileged way of life was at risk. And yet how twisted it was.

Their perception was thus:

  1. They defined holiness as adherence to ritual purity.
  2. The stricter the people were in following the purity codes, the more privileged their political and economic place in their society became.
  3. Failure to follow strict ritual purity would invite the punishment of their God.

Jesus proclaimed the very opposite:

  1. Holiness, like previous prophets proclaimed, is justice and equity for the marginalized,   oppressed, subordinated, and disadvantaged.
  2. The dominance system of the present social order, where some are privileged at the subordination and oppression of others, must be abandoned.
  3. Failure to advocate for the marginalized and the oppressed would be at the heart of all that would eventually result in the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Rome.

How did the ruling class of priests along with the political party of the Pharisees respond to Jesus’ teachings?

Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death. (Matthew 27.1, emphasis added)

I’ll close this week with a small insight we get from John’s version of the story of Jesus.

Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. (John 19.31)

It’s as if, right here, we step all the way back into the days of Amos and Isaiah. Once again, there are those who are more concerned with strict adherence to the ritual purity and holiness codes of Moses than this gross act of injustice against one they had just lynched. The story does not end with the success of the Pharisees and the priests in murdering Jesus. In the narrative element of the Resurrection, Jesus’ God stands victoriously against the God of the oppressors. Jesus’ God stands in solidarity with Jesus, as well as the prophets of old, bringing him back to life and overturning and undoing the lynching of Jesus over and against the political and economic oppression of Jesus’ day. The resurrection is God’s “yes” to Jesus and God’s “no” to the established authority. But we will get there. I’ll save that part for Part 9. First, let’s take a look at each of the seven last sayings of Jesus on the cross and see what those statements are whispering to us today.

Marcus Borg once stated, “”Christianity is the only major religion whose central figure was executed by established authority.” As we begin, it would be good to remember that our society today holds, in principle, the same dynamics that existed in Jesus’ day. Whether we are talking about the rich subordinating the poor, the educated subordinating the uneducated, whites subordinating nonwhites, men subordinating women, white women subordinating nonwhite women, straight people subordinating and/or extirpating those who are LGBQ, or cisgender extirpating those who self-identify as transgender, we are living in the Jesus narrative every day. Therefore, if you are a theist, you have to ask yourself how your God defines holiness. Does your God look like Jesus’ God, or does your God look like the God of the priests and Pharisees?

Jesus had a definition of holiness that radically attracted and was embraced by those who were repelled by or steered clear of the definition of holiness put forth by the priestly ruling class of Jesus’ day.

I guess what I’m asking is this: If you are a theist, does your God look like Jesus?

The answer to this question is at the heart of everything. Is your theism destructive or restorative? Inclusive or exclusive? Attractive and inspiring or repulsive? One leads to annihilation and the other to a whole new world.

HeartGroup Application

1. I’d like you to go back and reread all four Gospels. They won’t take you that long. They are shorter than you think. Watch for the dynamics I’ve put forth this week and see if you see them at work in the narrative as well. Look for why the narratives themselves tell us that Jesus’ ministry ended up on a Roman cross. Then we’ll go from there next week.

2. Journal what you discover.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what you write down this upcoming week.

Until the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. Many voices, one new world.

I love each of you.
I’ll see you next week.


1. Micah 6.8—He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

2. Two centuries later, Ezekiel would define the sins of Sodom (and Gomorrah) as violations of social justice. Ezekiel 16.49—“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”

3. It is most interesting to read the rest of Isaiah 11 as a metaphorical description of a new social order where the present dominance order is replaced with a world where oppressors no longer oppress and victims are no longer victimized, but both, transformed, peacefully coexist.

4. Luke 6.20, 24—Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Mark 12.40—They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely. Mark 12.43—Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. Luke 18.3—And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

5. Matthew 9.11—When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Matthew 11.19—The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions.” Luke 15.1–2—Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

6. John 9.16—Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” It is interesting to read the whole of chapter 9 with the redefinition of “holiness” and “sinner” away from the ritual purity codes to the restoration of justice and mercy toward the oppressed.

7. Mark 7.19—“For it doesn’t go into your heart but into your stomach, and then out of your body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

8. Remember, Jesus is using the Pharisee’s definition of sinner here as someone who was living outside the ritual purity codes of Moses. Jesus defined holiness and the term “sinner” much more like the prophets of old did, which was radically different than the Pharisees, priests, and experts in the purity codes (“experts in the law”).

9. Luke 22.52—Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?