Solidarity with the Crucified Community

by Herb Montgomery | June 1, 2018

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

Photo by David Paschke on Unsplash

 


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


“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1-2)

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1-2)

HeartGroup Application

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

Here are some things you and your HeartGroup can do:

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

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

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

4. Donate to charities.

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

6. Talk to your family and friends.

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

7. Support peace-building initiatives.

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are, keep living in love.

Keep living in resistance, survival, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.


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

Sayings Gospel Q: Sheep Among Wolves

by Herb Montgomery

sheepwolves“Be on your way! Look, I send you like sheep in the midst of wolves” (Q 10:3) .

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10.16: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

Luke 10.3: “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.”

The image of this week’s saying is one of risk. In the last saying, we prayed for laborers. In the saying for this week, we encounter Jesus sending forth fellow laborers and being honest and frank about the risk involved.

I want to point out the participatory nature of this week’s saying. And lastly we’ll look closely at the imagery of sheep versus wolves and consider what this might have meant given Jesus teachings on changing the status quo with self-affirming nonviolent confrontation. Let’s talk about risk first.

An Ethic of Risk Not Sacrifice

When people interpret Jesus’s message for victims and survivors of injustice as requiring them to embrace an ethic of passive self-sacrifice in the face of injustice, there are harmful results..Karen Baker-Fletcher has gone to significant, convincing lengths to show that Jesus’s message was of self-affirmation, the affirmation of living not dying, and that, although his message was nonviolent, it was nonetheless a message that confronted with nonviolent direct action those who perpetuate injustice.

Jesus’s message of choosing life also involved an “ethic of risk.” This “risk” was not intrinsic to choosing life but was the imposed result of the elite who felt threatened by the subjugated people’s life choice. The way of life is only a way that involves a cross when the status quo threatens the work of social justice with a cross.

In other words, when we follow Jesus, we are not primarily choosing a cross: we are choosing the way of life. But because the powers that be threaten those who choose the way of life with a cross, the way of life also becomes the way of the cross. It need not be thus.

The way of the cross is simply the choice to hold onto life (not suffering), even when threatened with pushback from the dominant party that may result in suffering. It’s choosing life and stubbornly refusing to relinquish that life even when the choice confronts the powers of death and the death (cross) they would silence you with. Jesus taught a message of life, survival and liberation. It was the society around him that determined that his message should also involve a cross. For Jesus and for us, the cross is the result of working for justice and transformation within oppressive systems and social orders.

“Persecution and violence suffered by those who resist evil and injustice is the result of an ethic of risk. The assassination of a Martin King or the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is part of the risk involved in actively struggling for social justice. But such people daily resist the very power of systemic injustice that may crucify or assassinate them.” —Karen Baker-Fletcher and Garth Baker-Fletcher in My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God-Talk, p. 79

Rosemary Ruether also elaborates:

“Jesus did not ‘come to suffer and die’. Rather Jesus conceived of his mission as one of ‘good news to the poor, the liberation of the captive’, that is, experiences of liberation and abundance of life shared between those who had been on the underside of dominant systems of religion and state of his time . . . He did not seek to be killed by the powers that be, but rather to convert them into solidarity with those they had formerly despised and victimized.” (Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism, p. 104)

“It is not the acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not, Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire to fully live? The distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering. If you believe that acceptance of suffering gives life, than your resources for confronting perpetrators of violence and abuse will be numbed.” —Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 18

When we talk about the way of the cross, or our being “lambs among wolves,” we must be careful not to understand or communicate these images as an admonishment to be passive “lambs” on the way to sacrificial “slaughter.” The lamb/wolf dichotomy is a reference to methods of seeking social change. Self-affirmation and self-giving are involved, but not self-sacrifice. We are lambs only in the sense that our efforts are nonviolent in the face of wolves that use violent means to establish and maintain their position of control in society. Through nonviolent confronting means, after the example and teachings of Jesus and the early Jewish Jesus-community, we challenge privilege and favor that is enforced by violence.

Hero Liberator or Participatory Mutualism

Another element we encounter in this week’s saying is Jesus being more than an isolated hero liberator and forming a community. He not only went out himself, but also empowered a community to go out as well. This community was influenced by him, and also influenced him in a mutual give and take relationship. One example of this is found in Mark’s story, which Matthew includes in his narrative, of the Syrophoenician woman. Rita Nakashima Brock, in her fantastic work Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, contrasts the difference between viewing Jesus as a individual, isolated, hero-liberator and viewing him rather as a pioneer or center of a participator community where each member is participating in envisioning and creating a new social order:

“Jesus is the hero and liberator… The relationship of liberator to oppressed is unilateral. Hence the liberator must speak for victims. The brokenhearted do not speak to the strong [in] a unilateral, heroic model.” (p. 65)

What we see in this week’s saying is very different than that unilateral, heroic model. Brock would refer to it as a community participating in the work of liberation with Jesus rather than an individual Jesus doing the work of liberation alone on the community’s behalf.

“I believe the above views of Christ tend to rely on unilateral views of power and too limited understanding of the power of community. They present a heroic Jesus who alone is able to achieve an empowering self-consciousness through a solitary, private relationship with God/dess. If Jesus is reported to have been capable of profound love and concern for others, he was first loved and respected by the concrete persons of his life. If he was liberated, he was involved in a community of mutual liberation… the Gospel narratives give us glimpses of the mutuality of Jesus’ relationships… Jesus’ vision of basileia [kingdom] grew to include the disposed, women and non-Jewish . . . ‘the marginal,” because of his encounter and interaction with the real presence of such people. They co-create liberation and healing from brokenheartedness.” (p.67)

We should not underestimate that the power of the early Jewish Jesus-community was that it was a community. It was not a group rooted in the unilateral dominance of a lone, hierarchical leader, but rather in the power of community centered on the values, teachings, and ethics taught by Jesus and resonant with community members.

Even the collections of the community’s sayings, which we now recognize as our scriptures, bears witness itself to this. These writings are a manifestation of a mutually participatory group, not just a lone prophet of social change. Jesus never wrote anything down himself. The community that formed around his teachings did, and it’s because of that community that we have accounts of his ministry. We cannot simply gloss over this. We are not waiting for a heroic savior: We are the community he anticipated.

I had the privilege of witnessing two contemporary, practical examples of participatory mutualism this week in the form of two podcasts.

Both of these are community responses to the massacre of LGBTQ people in Orlando on June 12. The first is from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Young Adults Live Webcast. You can find it at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZetBq0vJEWE

The second is The Adventist Podcast: Pulse Massacre Orlando which you can download and listen to at:

http://spectrummagazine.org/article/2016/06/20/adventist-podcast-pulse-massacre-orlando

In each of these examples, those affected, the brokenhearted, are speaking to the dominant society. Rather than waiting for unilateral heroism, the community members are working themselves for survival, liberation, and thriving.

The examples are exactly what what I envision happening among those in whom Jesus’s sayings first began to resonate in the 1st Century.

Sheep Among Wolves

As we covered in Renouncing One’s Rights, Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence were not that victims should embrace passive self-sacrifice or self-denial in a world where oppressors already denied the selves of the oppressed. Jesus gave his listeners a vision of nonviolence that confronted and discomforted those in positions of dominance and gave those being subjugated a way to affirm themselves in a social order where they were being dehumanized.

Yet to choose to only use nonviolently confronting means of challenging injustice when those you are standing up to have not made those same choices is risky. It’s a choice to be a lamb among wolves. Yet it cannot be forgotten: the goal of Jesus’ new social vision is not to replace an old hegemony with a new one. His goal was not peace through victory, the victory of slaughtering our enemies, but peace through restored justice. He was not teaching a new social pyramid to replace the old, but a shared table where victims were not passively complicit in their oppression and their oppressors were not continuing oppression in more subtle ways. Victims were confronting injustice, not in order to become oppressors themselves, but, in the words of Ruether, to “convert” oppressors “into solidarity with those they had formerly despised and victimized.”

Too often the sheep among wolves imagery of nonviolence is used to keep victims passive in the face of injustice. Making sure those being oppressed remain passive co-opts the nonviolence that Jesus and others have taught. Martin Luther Kings’ nonviolence was trouble making. Gandhi’s nonviolence became feared and avoided. Those who use violence themselves will always desire their opposition to “remain nonviolent” if one defines that nonviolence as simply rolling over. Yet true nonviolence is a force more powerful. It is not passive. It confronts, awakens, at times even shames those it is seeking, but not to defeat them, to win and convert to a new paradigm of seeing and a new set of behaviors. To use Jesus, MLK, or Gandhi to induce the subjugated to remain passive and calm is a gross way to use their teachings.

We are sheep in the midst of wolves because our methods of action and the goals we hope to achieve by those actions are radically different from the wolves we seek to transform or change. The Jewish community that cherished Jesus’s imagery was a community that held the Jewish vision of a new social order described by the words:

Isaiah 11:1-9: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit . . . Justice will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain. (Emphasis added.)

Isaiah 65.25: “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain.” (Emphasis added.)

Isaiah 58.6, TEV: “The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free.”

In this week’s saying, those who believe Jesus’s teachings have intrinsic value and inform the work of nonviolently confronting, liberating, and transforming our world into a safe, more just, more compassionate home for us all, are reminded that this vision involves embracing an ethic of risk. As I have said before, Jesus was not giving us a hard way to get to heaven, but a risky way to heal the earth. We are also reminded that our hope is not in following heroic, unilateral liberators but in discovering and applying the power of mutual, participatory, nonviolent communities.  And lastly, we are reminded that we are up against “wolves.” But we also hold the hope that wolves can be converted, and destruction and harm can be become, by our continued choice, a thing of the past.

A new world is coming, if we choose it. And today, while we make those choices, we find ourselves often in this story . . .

“. . . like sheep in the midst of wolves.” (Q 10:3)

 

HeartGroup Application

This week, discuss three sets of contrasts with your HeartGroup as you work together toward clarity.

  1. What are the significant differences you feel need to be communicated clearly between nonviolence direct action and merely being passive?
  2. What are the differences between a hero model of liberation and a community model rooted in mutual participation?
  3. What difference does it make for you to define the way of the cross we choose as Jesus followers as a refusal to let go of life rather than a way of merely sacrificing yourself with no change to the status quo around you?

Thank you for joining us this week. Keep living in love, working toward Justice, 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.

Confronting Potential Followers 

by Herb Montgomery

Candle with rainbowBefore we begin this week, I want to take a moment to pause and remember the forty-nine victims of the Orlando Shooting. This tragic event took place at the gay nightclub Pulse, where our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning siblings within our human family were targeted.  Fifty-three others were injured.  That’s 102 beautiful lives either gone or at minimum will never be the same.

Within the Jewish wisdom tradition it is said, “Whosoever sheds human blood diminishes the divine image; destroying only one human life is equivalent to annihilating the entire world.”  In this instance it was a specific demographic within our world that was purposely, hatefully, and senselessly singled out.  This was the largest targeted mass killing of LGBT people in the Western world since the Holocaust.

Our hearts at Renewed Heart Ministries are with the families and loved ones of those who were both injured and lost.  Our hearts are with the LGBTQ community at large who daily live in fear, afraid to drop their guard, constantly aware they are at some level of risk; ever performing habitual safety-checks assessing their surroundings when in public.  You are not alone.  We grieve with you.  And we at RHM will continue to stand along side you in the work to end homophobia, heterosexism, and the violence through which they most often find their expression.  We acknowledge and affirm your presence within our human family.  You deserve dignity, respect and life. And to all the critics, our time among the LGBTQ community has taught us that there really is only one, as is so called, “gay agenda” and that too often, sadly, is simply to survive. If history has proven anything it is that those who are excluded today will be eliminated and exterminated tomorrow.  To the LGBTQ community, we love you. We are standing with you, and when needed, we pledge to stand between them and you.  The names of those lost will not be forgotten.  Varied is the image of God.  Our work will continue.

As the sun continues to rise, so will our efforts till the day comes when our world is a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all.

 


 

Jesus Facebook popularity graph

Image from my friend David Hayward at NakedPastor.com

“And someone said to him: ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the sky have nests; but the son of humanity does not have anywhere he can lay his head.’ But another said to him: ‘Master, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ But he said to him: ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’” (Q 9:57-60)

Companion Texts:

Luke 9:57-60: “As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man  has no place to lay his head.’ He said to another man, ‘Follow me.’ But he replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’”

Matthew 8:19-22: “Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ Another disciple said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’”

Gospel of Thomas 86: “Jesus says: ‘Foxes have their holes and birds have their nest. But the son of man has no place to lay his head down and to rest.’”

Jesus wasn’t a politician, and Jesus wasn’t a pastor.

Too often diplomacy, peace-keeping (as opposed to peace-making), and efforts to appeal to the largest number of people are the modus operandi of those working for social change while also trying to obtain or maintain a position of privilege in the status quo. But this wasn’t Jesus’s method in Sayings Gospel Q. I’m reminded of the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s song Like a Rolling Stone: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

Jesus wasn’t trying to win at popularity. One of my favorite quotations from Peter Gomes’ book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus is this: 

“Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others. In order that the gospel in the New Testament might be made as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, its rough edges have been shorn off and the radical edge of Jesus’ preaching has been replaced by a respectable middle, of which “niceness” is now God. When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the end of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed.”(p. 31)

It seems that just about every time a crowd of followers begins to amass behind Jesus, he does something to ground them, making sure they understand exactly what they are signing up for. And what is their response? He loses that large numbers of followers every time.

Jesus wasn’t trying to get as many people to go to a post-mortem heaven as possible when they died. He was working to create change here, now, today, and he realized that lip-service wouldn’t change anything. I don’t think that Jesus would have been against large membership lists. I think he just understood that numbers are meaningless when the people that the numbers represent aren’t significantly challenging the injustice, violence and oppression of our world in their deeds.

Homelessness

This week’s statement is one of the most haunting statements that Jesus makes; at least it is for me personally. I am not homeless, and in my lifestyle here in America, I do not reflect Jesus much at all. I have a family. Crystal and I have children. We look more like foxes and birds than we do like Jesus. I do wrestle with this. I wonder: how much does my privilege, and my reluctance to jeopardize that privilege, hold me back from following Jesus’ teachings more deeply?

Also, I think of Christianity as a whole. Ever since the days of Constantine, the Church has become one of the greatest holders of land and property on Earth, all while claiming to be following the homeless Jesus. The Church’s land holdings have been at the root of poverty and complicit in economic structures that cause poverty.

Yet one of the elements of ancient Jewish hope was a vision of a day where “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.” (Micah 4.4, emphasis added.) The vision didn’t include large land holdings exclusively owned by a small oligarchy. This ancient hope saw everyone with a secure place to live and provide for themselves.

Yet it seems that Jesus abandoned the pursuit of “property” as long as that property meant joining a coalition with a domination system that exploited the poor, transformed small independent farmers into debt-ridden indentured slaves under the Roman system, and pressured the Temple leadership to religiously legitimize the system. As a means of working toward the Jewish hope of property to all as a human right, Jesus chose solidarity with the property-less, rather than pursuing a propertied institution to establish his movement’s permanence.

The Christian Church has not done what Jesus did. This gives me much cause to pause and contemplate.

Studies of U.S. capitalism, English enclosures, Soviet collectivization, and South American latifundia have shown that there is a deep connection between the creation of a dependent labor force for the Western industrial revolution and the majority of the population’s loss of land ownership. In the United States, land was concentrated into the hands of a few and the majority of the population became dependent on working for industrialists just to scratch out a living. The same happened in state-enforced capitalism, state Soviet socialism, and colonial capitalism. (Land ownership is different from property ownership, though owning even a small home can leave people dependent on working for industrialists to pay a mortgage.) Much has been written on this history, and I recommend Joseph R. Stromberg’s English Enclosures and Soviet Collectivization

I wrestle with how to work toward Micah’s vision of everyone having their own safe vineyard. But I take that wrestling as a call to lean more deeply into experimentation to find things that work, and not stop at futility or throwing up my hands. As Dorothy Day once wrote in her journal, “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”

At bare minimum, we might begin, as Tolstoy stated in his book The Kingdom of God is Within You, with being honest about what is transpiring around us. We can begin to tell the truth.

“And therefore you cannot but reflect on your position as landowner, manufacturer, judge, emperor, president, minister, priest, and soldier, which is bound up with violence, deception, and murder, and recognize its unlawfulness. I do not say that if you are a landowner you are bound to give up your lands immediately to the poor; if a capitalist or manufacturer, your money to your workpeople; or that if you are Tzar, minister, official, judge, or general, you are bound to renounce immediately the advantages of your position; or if a soldier, on whom all the system of violence is based, to refuse immediately to obey in spite of all the dangers of insubordination. If you do so, you will be doing the best thing possible. But it may happen, and it is most likely, that you will not have the strength to do so. You have relations, a family, subordinates and superiors; you are under an influence so powerful that you cannot shake it off; but you can always recognize the truth and refuse to tell a lie about it. You need not declare that you are remaining a landowner, manufacturer, merchant, artist, or writer because it is useful to mankind; that you are governor, prosecutor, or tzar, not because it is agreeable to you, because you are used to it, but for the public good; that you continue to be a soldier, not from fear of punishment, but because you consider the army necessary to society. You can always avoid lying in this way to yourself and to others, and you ought to do so; because the one aim of your life ought to be to purify yourself from falsehood and to confess the truth. And you need only do that and your situation will change directly of itself. There is one thing, and only one thing, in which it is granted to you to be free in life, all else being beyond your power: that is to recognize and profess the truth.” (pp. 263-264, emphasis added.)

I have found this to be true in my own life: Just keep “telling the truth”; “you need only do that and your situation will change directly of itself.” Maybe this is why Jesus was unlike foxes and birds himself. He chose to speak the truth in a society that exploited the many for the elite and marginalized an other-ed few. Jesus chose not to be silent, even knowing it could cost him his life; he saw what Desmond Tutu and others said much later on about silence and neutrality: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality” (in Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (1984) by Robert McAfee Brown, p. 19)

Jesus chose not to be silent, even if it would cost him his life, and it did.

The Dead

Last week’s eSight helped us to understand that Jesus would refer to the lethargic, passive, complicity larger society around him as “dead.” Some scholars believe that he made this statement about the dead burying their dead about a year after the would-be disciple’s father’s death.

In that era, the burial process sometimes had two parts. It involved an initial interment in caves, hewn tombs, sarcophagi, or catacombs. Then a secondary burial of the remains into ossuaries sometimes took place about one year after the original burial, after the body had decomposed and the only remains were the bones of the deceased loved one (see Death & Bereavement in Judaism: Ancient Burial Practices).

But it is difficult to tell for sure whether Jesus’s conversation with the follower was about their request to take part in a first interment or a second. It would be impossible for me to defend this saying if it was the first interment. Both within Jewish culture and according to Torah, denying someone burial was the most humiliating indignity that could be shown to the deceased (see Jewish Encyclopedia: Burial). Also, Jesus’s social vision was rooted in people taking care of people. I have a hard time believing Jesus would be so callous (as well as non-Jewish) as to not let grieving people bury and properly grieve the loss of their loved ones. (Especially in the wake of the events of this week.)  If the context of this saying was the second interment, however, this would have been a year later, a year removed from the grief, and although still difficult to accept, the saying does contrast a Hellenistic-Jewish ceremony related to what a loved one was experiencing in their “afterlife” (see Jewish Burials), and the priority of a movement focused on taking care of those still alive. Sectors of modern Christianity place a high priority on obtaining entrance to a post mortem heaven or avoiding a hell while grossly ignoring the hell that many are living in now. It could be that, to them, the Jesus of this saying replies, “Let the dead bury their dead.”

This saying challenges me. I don’t see taking care of the living and honoring the dead as mutually exclusive; I see them as connected. However one interprets this saying of Jesus, whether one justifies this statement or believes Jesus went too far in prioritizing his revolution above what is decent and compassionate, this saying must be held in tension with a Jesus who elsewhere defined his vision for human society as people taking care of one another rather than disregarding them.

Either way, the confrontation in this week’s sayings is hard. It’s a serious wake-up call to us to genuinely understand what we are signing up for when we choose to lean more deeply into and begin following the teachings of the historical Jesus. This journey is not for those who desire to remain comfortable. It’s not about a post-mortem destination that has little to do with this present life. This journey is about change. It’s about liberation. It’s a path, sometimes very difficult, of compassionate work toward systemically resolving those things that presently cause humans suffering. It means embracing the “way of the cross,” not as “sacrifice” but, as Karen Baker-Fletcher and Garth Baker-Fletcher in My Sister, My Brother say, “actively struggling for social justice” (pp. 79-80). Make no mistake: the conventional domesticated Jesus of the American Christian religion is not the Jesus we find in the Jewish Sayings Gospel Q. And this is a difference that is worth recognizing.

Take some time this week to meditate on what this saying may mean for you:

“And someone said to him: ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the sky have nests; but the son of humanity does not have anywhere he can lay his head.’ But another said to him: ‘Master, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ But he said to him: ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’ (Q 9:57-60)

HeartGroup Application

It is much easier to face the challenges of societal change as a community. In fact, to follow Jesus’s teachings regarding social change, it’s impossible to do so outside of community. Jesus’s method of subverting domination systems was community.

  1. This week, to honor your community, sit down with your HeartGroup and share with each other ways you can support one another in your private and communal efforts to follow the teachings of Jesus.
  2. Actually write them out and discuss ways you can come underneath and support one another. Note what that looks like, what it doesn’t look like, and what supporting one another would cost the group, as well as what it would cost the individual.
  3. Choose at least one other person in the group to affirm and support in tangible ways this week. Begin taking responsibility for taking care of each other personally.

As we have said before, we don’t want to make following Jesus difficult. We want to be honest about where following Jesus is difficult. This is not an easy, feel-good way to arrive at a celestial shore. This is a honest and compassionate way of healing and transforming our world, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  Again, our hearts are with all those grieving the tragedy in Orlando.

Keep living in love.

I love each of you.

And I’ll see you next week.