A Refusal to Let Go of Life

Herb Montgomery | August 31, 2018

Statue of crucifixion

Photo credit: Ricky Turner on Unsplash


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

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

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

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

Not Fearing the Body’s Death

protest crowd

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.” (Q 12:4-5)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”

Luke 12:4-5: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”

4 Maccabees 13:14-15: “Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.”

This week’s saying is rooted in a Jewish text that precedes the gospels. 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees tell the story of the martyrdom of seven Jewish brothers, their mother, and their teacher. During the time of the Maccabee family, the Seleucid Empire through Antiochus Epiphanies was threatening fundamentalist Hebrew people with death if they refused to become Hellenized.

In 4 Maccabees 13:14-15, one of the Jewish brothers says, “Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.” This was the rallying cry they used to strengthen Jewish resolve to resist their Hellenistic oppressors.

Fast forward two centuries to the time of Jesus. In Galilee, Samaria, and Judea, we know that there were continual efforts to spark revolution by following violent messiahs rising up against Rome. Rome also had a brutal history of lashing back against all violent uprisings. Josephus tells us how Varus responded to one of these attempts in Galilee:

“Upon this, Varus sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt; and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty, and some he dismissed: now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand.” (Antiquities 17: Book 10) [1]

It was in this same region, in the wake of memories like these, that Jesus grew up.

Jesus rephrases the Maccabean saying, and warns the people not to follow violent messiahs because complete annihilation from Rome would result. Let see how.

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.”

In order to see what Jesus was saying, we have to step away from the Christian myth of hell and step back into a Jewish understanding of the term Gehenna.

Gehenna is a term that the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah uses regarding the deeds of Judean king Ahaz.

“And he [Ahaz, King of Judah] made offerings in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel. [Since his legitimate son by the daughter of the High Priest Hezekiah succeeded him as king, this is assumed to mean children by unrecorded pagan wives or concubines.]” (2 Chronicles 28:3)

“He [Manasseh, Ahaz’ grandson] made his son pass through fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom, practiced soothsaying and augury and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.” (2 Chronicles 33:6)

“And they go on building the high place of TOPHETH, which is in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called TOPHETH, or THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER: for they will bury in TOPHETH until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 7:31-32)

“And go out to THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER. [Emphasis Added.] (Jeremiah 19:2-6; see also Jeremiah 19:11-15)

Jeremiah repurposed a literal landmark, the valley of the son of Hinnom (Gehenna), as a symbol of Hebrew annihilation at the hands of foreign powers. In Jeremiah’s day, the foreign power would have been Babylon; in the time of Jesus, it was Rome. Jesus takes the same language Jeremiah used, and he makes it a metaphor for Roman destruction of Judea if the Jews follow a violent messiah.

In the original Maccabean phrase, a faithful Jewish worshiper risked losing his life for remaining faithful but was warned of a worse post mortem fate (eternal punishment) if he did not stay faithful. Jesus repurposes this warning but removes the post-mortem warning. Instead he adds a very this-world, this life, concrete warning: Gehenna, destruction by a foreign power.

Remember that Jesus has just been teaching nonviolent forms of resistance. In this week’s saying, he is saying do not allow fear of the violent Romans to push you to abandon nonviolent forms of resistance as futile, naive, or ineffective. He warns his followers not to fear him who can “destroy the body,” but to fear instead the one who will end up destroying both “body and soul.” “Body and soul” is a phrase that means complete annihilation in the worldview of Hellenized, Galilean, Jewish listeners, and physical violence like the violence of the Romans was a very real fear for those worried about nonviolent forms of resistance.

How would a violent messiah destroy both body and soul? The same way they had in the past. If Galilean impoverished followers took over Jerusalem’s temple (as they did in the Jewish Roman war) and lashed out violently against Rome, they would not only lose their lives (“destroy the body”), but also Jerusalem, the Temple itself, and the surrounding areas would be totally obliterated (“Gehenna”). Jesus isn’t saying that nonviolence revolution won’t fail. He saying that even if it does fail, it won’t fail to the same catastrophic degree that violent revolution will.

The Maccabees didn’t worry about what could happen to their bodies if they remained faithful. They worried about what would happen to their souls if they didn’t. Unlike the Maccabees, Jesus told his followers to fear the complete annihilation of their entire world, obliterated by Rome if they took up violent resistance in Jerusalem.

Jesus was concerned for the survival and liberation of his people. And, keeping survival and liberation in tension, he called his society to embrace nonviolent forms of resistance that allowed oppressors to be overcome through the transformation of society, and which also provided the best possible probabilities of them living to enjoy that liberation once it was achieved. Nonviolence offers no guarantees, but even when it fails it produces fewer losses.

This is a rather long passage from Walter Wink’s work, Jesus and Nonviolence. Yet I believe it is extremely relevant to this week’s saying.

“Once we determine that Jesus’ Third Way is not a perfectionistic avoidance of violence but a creative struggle to restore the humanity of all parties in a dispute, the legalism that has surrounded this issue becomes unnecessary. We cannot sit in judgment over the responses of others to their oppression. Gandhi continually reiterated that if a person could not act nonviolently in a situation, violence was preferable to submission. ‘Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.’ But Gandhi believed that a third way can always be found, if one is deeply committed to nonviolence.

Jesus’ way, which is the way of the cross, means voluntarily taking on the violence of the Powers That Be, and that will mean casualties. But they will be nowhere near the scale that would result from violent revolution.

Britain’s Indian colony of three hundred million people was liberated nonviolently at a cost of about eight thousand lives. The British apparently suffered not a single casualty, dead or wounded. It took twenty-seven years (1919-46). France’s Algerian colony of about ten million was liberated in seven years (1955-1961) by violence, but it cost almost one million lives.

The staggering differential in lives lost certainly cannot be ascribed to the French being more barbaric or determined to keep their colony than the British. And most of the French were fighting merely to keep a colony, not their native soil.

Solidarity in Poland nonviolently stood up to the ruthless power of a Communist government and lost about three hundred lives over a period of ten years. About the same time Argentina, in a violent but fruitless effort to take the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, lost approximately one thousand lives in two weeks against the British.

The armed revolt in Hungary was crushed by the Soviets at the cost of five to six thousand Hungarian lives; forty thousand were imprisoned, tortured or detained. In Czechoslovakia, where a spontaneous nonviolent resistance was mounted, seventy died, and political prisoners were released.

In the Unites States civil rights struggle, about fifty thousand demonstrators were jailed, but fewer than one hundred of those engaged in campaigns were killed. By contrast, armed revolution in Cuba and Nicaragua cost twenty thousand lives each. In El Salvador, sixty thousand civilians died, quite apart from military casualties. Over the past thirty years one hundred thousand Guatemalans have lost their lives, out of a population of only 7.8 million. We cannot ignore the implications of these statistics, for the comparative degree of carnage is a moral issue.

We need to be very clear that this is in the interest of the Powers to make people believe that nonviolence doesn’t work. To that end they create a double standard. If a single case can be shown where nonviolence doesn’t work, nonviolence as a whole can then be discredited. No such rigorous standard is applied to violence, however, which regularly fails to achieve its goals. Close to two-thirds of all governments that assume power by means of coups d etat are ousted by the same means; only 1 in 20 post-coup governments give way to a civil government.

The issue, however, is not just which works better, but also which fails, better. While a nonviolent strategy also does not always “work” in terms of present goals—though in another sense it always “works”—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe.” (Chapter 4)

I disagree with Wink’s statement that the way of the cross is synonymous with nonviolence: we must be careful not to glorify the cross or promote the myth of redemptive suffering, and we’ll discuss both at length when we get to Jesus’ saying on taking up a cross. For now, it’s worth considering that both violent resistance and nonviolent resistance come with a price tag. I believe that Jesus was seeking to help his fellow Jewish, oppressed people stand up to violent Rome in a way that allowed them to survive the encounter rather than being annihilated by it whether it succeeded or failed.

Wink states in the same volume, “Jesus was no less committed to opposing evil than the anti-Roman Roman resistance fighters. The only difference was over the means to be used: how one should fight evil. There are three general responses to evil: (1) passivity, (2) violent opposition, and 3) the third way of militant non-violence articulated by Jesus.”

It is this militant nonviolence that we see Jesus encouraging his followers to embrace. What we also see in this week’s saying is Jesus warning the people not to go down the path that they ultimately chose.

I wonder how far we can apply this militant nonviolence in our time.

The LGBTQ community has made great strides without great violence. Though I respect that many LGBTQ people no longer wish to be associated with Jesus because Jesus has been used to do much damage to them, they have nonetheless demonstrated how much society can be transformed positively by raising collective consciousness. Changing society from the inside out has borne positive fruit. Through relationships, marketing, lobbying, television media, and other nonviolent methods, this community has changed society not with a sword but by influence.

I remember being told by a friend when we were working for LGBTQ nondiscrimination here in my local town that here in Appalachia, once a person who was prejudiced against the LGBTQ community has five friends who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, they can see common stereotypes as the destructive falsifications that they are. When they’ve released those stereotypes, people become allies and change how they vote for the protection of their friends’ rights. The discussion ceases to be about “issues” and rather becomes about human beings they know, are in community with, and actually care about. As someone who is always looking for modern examples of Jesus’ teachings on militant nonviolence, I believe this community’s experiences offer rich lessons.

This week, let’s consider the warning in Jesus’ saying. What might Gehenna—total destruction—look like in our society? We are to oppose injustice and resist oppression. But let’s do it together in a way that isn’t suicidal but could allow us to survive to enjoy liberation. There are no guarantees, and remaining passive is not an acceptable option.

And do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.” (Q 12:4-5)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you as a group to spend some time together considering the statements above from Wink. Wink ends his first chapter with some tough questions and I think they are appropriate for HeartGroups, too.

  1. What objections do you have to non-violence? What objections do you have to violence?
  2. Do you think you could be nonviolent during a specific demonstration or vigil, if not consistently across your life?
  3. What reasons can you find for choosing to be nonviolent?

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, a love manifested through solidarity in the work of survival, liberation, resistance, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


 

[1] Josephus writes of revolutionary prophets leading large groups of people into the desert around 50 C.E. These prophets told the people that once they were in the desert, God would show them signs of coming freedom. The Roman procurator, Felix, regarded these gatherings as the first stage of revolt, and sent cavalry and heavy infantry into the desert to cut the crowds into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147). The most infamous of these prophets who promised “signs to be observed” was a violent messiah known as “the Egyptian” and mentioned in Acts 21:38: “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”

Josephus describes the event as follows:

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

In a parallel account of this event, Josephus includes the “sign” that this “Egyptian” had claimed would be shown to the people in the course of their liberating Jerusalem. It would be a sign like Joshua’s sign at the Battle of Jericho. At the “Egyptian’s” command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down so that his followers could enter and seize the city. However, before any such a sign could be attempted, the Roman cavalry and infantry slew and captured hundreds and put the rest to flight, including the violent messiah, the Egyptian (Josephus, Antiquities, 170-172).

These were not lunatic leaders, but hopeful violent messiahs, action prophets who contemporary scholars see as attempting to lead movements of Jewish peasants in active engagements of specifically violent human effort that would be accompanied by divine acts of empowerment and deliverance. The logic went something like, “Success is dependent on combining human effort with divine power. If they wanted divine deliverance, they must first present the violent human effort for Yahweh to bless. God would meet their efforts if they acted.”  The necessity of our action is the truth to be found the above logic. That our action has to be violent is short sighted. The rhetoric of these violent messiahs was steeped in the symbols of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan.

Josephus also describes another event where Romans massacred a thousand Jewish women and children who were acting in obedience to another Jewish violent messiah “prophet.” This violent messiah had declared to the people in Jerusalem that God had commanded them to go up to the Temple to receive the signs of deliverance (Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 360). Elsewhere, Josephus describes a “Samaritan prophet” who was a contemporary “messiah” of Jesus during the time of Pontius Pilate. This prophet’s “sign” was to lead the people up the sacred Mount Gerizim to find holy vessels left there by Moses. Instead, the armed crowd was attacked and overwhelmed by Pilate’s troops at the foot of the mountain (Josephus, Antiquities, 85-87).

Proclaiming What Was Whispered

Women's March on Washington 2017

by Herb Montgomery

#SilenceIsViolence
Why We Cannot Be Silent

Featured Text:

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

Companion Texts:

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

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

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

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

Matthew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

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

“good news to the poor”

“freedom for the prisoners”

“recovery of sight for those in darkness”

“setting the oppressed free”

“year of all debts cancelled.”

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

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

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

I love each one of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Light on the Lampstand 

by Herb Montgomery

a man lassoing a light bulb

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

Companion Texts:

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

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

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

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

Matthew’s Focus

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

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

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

But we have the power to think and to do.

We have the power to make choices.

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

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

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

“It seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (pp. 130-131, emphasis added)

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

Luke’s Emphasis

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

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

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

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

“It is not the acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (p. 18)

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

Your Light 

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

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

I love each one of you dearly.

Keep living in love.

I’ll see you next week.