Taking One’s Cross

Grave yard full of crossesby Herb Montgomery

“Taking up one’s cross is not a call to patiently, passively endure, but to take hold of life and stand up against injustice even if there is a cost for doing so.”

Featured Text:

The one who does not take one’s cross and follow after me cannot be my disciple. Q 14:27

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:38: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Luke 14:27: “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Gospel of Thomas 55:2: “Jesus says: ‘And whoever . . . will not take up his cross as I do, will not be worthy of me.’”

Before we begin, and given the events of this past week here in the U.S., we at Renewed Heart Ministries reaffirm our commitment to stand with our transgender and gender nonconforming family and friends. We will continue working alongside each of you to end discrimination, transphobia and false gender constructs within our society. We value you and we are glad you are here. You are not alone. You are loved. You are worthy. And you Matter.

I have been waiting for months for us to get to this week’s saying.

Last fall, I was invited to a conference on nonviolence and the atonement. I chose to speak on violent forms of nonviolence: how atonement theories that treat the violent death of Jesus as salvific don’t bear nonviolent fruit toward the survivors of violence. We considered how penal substitution has produced violence, and we also weighed the violence that has come from more “nonviolent” theories such as moral influence and Christus Victor. I wish the recordings of those talks had been published. I will be giving a very similar presentation again this October and I will make sure that RHM publishes the recording.

This week’s saying is related to all of this. “Taking up one’s cross” has been used over and over to prioritize oppressors over survivors and to encourage the oppressed to passively and patiently endure. These ways of interpreting our saying this week have proven very convenient for oppressors and those who don’t want to disrupt the power imbalance of the status quo.

When one spouse suffers physical or emotional abuse at the hands of another, for example, how many times have Christian pastors counseled the abused spouse to “bear their cross,” be “like Jesus,” and simply “turn the other cheek”? We have covered previously in this series how turning the other cheek was for Jesus a call to creative, nonviolent forms of disruption, protest and resistance. It gave those pushed to the undersides and edges of society a way to reclaim and affirm themselves despite being dehumanized. This week, I want to suggest, as feminist and womanist scholars also do, that “taking up one’s cross” is not a call to patiently, passively endure, but to take hold of life and stand up against injustice even if there is a cost for doing so. This saying is not a call to passively suffer, but to protest even if the status quo threatens suffering.

There is a subtle difference, but the implications are huge. What we are discussing this week is called the myth of redemptive suffering. We have repeated Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker statement in their essay God So Loved The World? that by now most of you should have it memorized.  I have repeatedly used it this year to lead up to what our saying that are considering this week.

It is not acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not, Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? 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. If you believe that acceptance of suffering gives life, then your resources for confronting perpetrators of violence and abuse will be numbed.” (Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, pp. 1-30)

What was Jesus talking about, then, when he said “take up your own cross?”

First, Borg and Crossan’s correctly remind us that Jesus’ cross in the gospels was about participation, not substitution:

“For Mark, it is about participation with Jesus and not substitution by Jesus. Mark has those followers recognize enough of that challenge that they change the subject and avoid the issue every time. (Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem (Kindle Locations 1589-1593)

While I agree with Borg and Crossan’s about participation rather than substitution, I disagree with their interpretation that a cross (suffering) was an intrinsic part of following him. I do not subscribe to the idea that suffering is an intrinsic precursor of triumph or success. Suffering only enters into the picture of following Jesus if those benefitting from the status quo feel threatened by the changes that Jesus’ new social vision would make and threaten Jesus’ followers with a cross. In other words, being willing to take up one’s cross is not the call to be passive in the face of suffering, but to protest and resist in the face of being threatened with a cross.

Jesus could have very well said, “Anyone who is not willing to protest and resist, even in the face of a threatened cross, is not worthy of me.” “The cross” in this context does not mean remaining passive. It means being willing to endure the results of disrupting, confronting, resisting, and protesting injustice. The cross is not a symbol of passivity but of the consequences of resistance: it is a symbol of the suffering that those in power threaten protestors with to scare them into remaining passive. Remember, the question is not how much am I willing to suffer, but how badly do I want to live!

If those in power threaten you with a cross, then it become necessary for you to take up a cross to stand up against injustice. Otherwise, the cross never comes into the pictures. Protesting, for instance, does not always involve being arrested, but if it does, protest anyway! Just two weeks ago, Rev. Dr. William Barber II was arrested during a healthcare bill protest. Actor James Cromwell is in jail now for participating with others in an environmental protest in upstate New York.

The goal in scenarios like these is not to suffer, but to refuse to let go of life. Again, the question is not are you willing to suffer, but do you desire to fully live?

How one interprets this week’s saying has deep implications for survivors of relational violence, and for all who are engaging any form of social justice work. When those who feel threatened try to intimidate and silence your voice through fear of an imposed “cross,” this week’s saying calls us to count the cost and then refuse to let go of life. Do not be silenced. Reject death.

For clarity, let’s return to relational violence to illustrate. First there is the relational violence itself. Then we have a choice in our response:

Too often, Jesus’ teaching of taking up the cross has been interpreted so that the abuse itself is the cross.

Instead, consider that the abuse is not the cross but an initial injustice. In this model, the cross is the threats one receives for standing up to or resisting injustice.

 

My interpretation of this week’s saying is that Jesus is not encouraging his followers to remain passive, but to resist. And if a cross comes into the picture, then resist anyway. Jesus’ nonviolence was rooted in resistance, and sometimes change happens before there is a cross. So bearing a cross is not intrinsic to following Jesus. It only enters the picture when those who are threatened choose to add it.

Jesus was proposing a new social vision, a way of doing life as a community, that threatened those most benefited by systems of domination and exploitation. The way of Jesus was rooted in resource-sharing, wealth redistribution, and bringing those on the edges of society into a shared table where their voices could be heard and valued too. Did the early Jesus movement threaten those in positions of power and privilege? You bet. Jesus, this week, seems to be saying, when those in power choose to threaten crosses for those standing up to systemic injustice, don’t let go. Keep holding on to hope even in the face of impossible odds. Keep holding on to life—life to the full.

“The one who does not take one’s cross and follow after me cannot be my disciple.” Q 14:27

HeartGroup Application

This week, take time to thoughtfully read and consider Brown and Parker’s entire essay For God So Loved the World?

  1. Read the essay.
  2. Take notes. Journal thoughts, questions, challenges, new insights.
  3. Pick three things from your notes to share and discuss with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.
  4. Share!

I agree with Brown and Parker. Their interpretation may be subtle, but it makes all the difference in the world in how we respond to suffering and oppression.

Next weekend is our first 500:25:1weekend event in Asheville, NC. And we’re scheduling many more after this one. I’m so excited to be moving in this new direction with our community. If you haven’t signed up to be part of making these events happen you can do so at http://bit.ly/RHM500251. There you can also find out why we are making these changes, how support these new weekend events, and most importantly, how you can have us come to your community too.

I’m so glad you checked in with us this week.

Keep living love right there where you are. And know you are not alone.  As we are engaging the teachings of Jesus, seek out ways you, too, can participate in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. 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.

Confessing or Denying

woman holding drawing of zipper over her mouthby Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Anyone who may speak out for me in public the son of humanity will also speak out for him before the angels. But whoever may deny me in public will be denied before the angels.” (Q 12:8-9)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:32-33: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”

Luke 12:8-9: “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God.”

Not Remaining Silent

The context of this week’s saying is Jesus teachings to his followers to:

This week’s saying repeats the encouragement not to remain silent that we saw three sayings ago. What could Jesus have meant by the phrase, “Speaking out for me?” I grew up believing this was about being proud to be a Christian, about boldly engaging others in a conversation about whether they had accepted Jesus as their “personal Lord and Savior” so that they could enjoy assurance about an other-worldly post-mortem life. Nothing could be further from the social context of this saying in Sayings Gospel Q.

Jesus message in Q announced the arrival of the reign of God in the hearts of people. This reign, in Q, made itself manifest in a person’s newly embraced commitment to take responsibility for the care of the people around them—especially those pushed to the underside and margins of society by the status quo. The “kingdom” in its simplest form is people helping people. It critiqued the present system, which privileged elite at the expense of the dominated and subjugated class. It called people to dismantle society’s present arrangements and replace them with the community Jesus modeled in his shared table. 

Why would Jesus need to encourage his followers to speak out and refuse to keep silent? Because whenever you begin speaking truth to power, whenever you begin speaking out against the way things are, those benefited by societal bias will always feel threatened. Equity to those who are disproportionately privileged always feels like a threat to their way of life. And rightly so, because it is! Those who benefit push back against critiques, endeavoring to silence those who speak out against injustice. To those whom others are trying to silence, the Jesus of Sayings Q encourages, “Speak out for me and the societal vision we are casting before the imaginations of any who will listen.” Adolf Deissmann in his classic volume, New Light on the New Testament From The Records of the Graeco-Roman Period, tell us that archaeological evidence indicates that the primitive Jesus community was “ a movement of the proletarian middle class.” (p. 7) Jesus was a community organizer teaching his disinherited and oppressed proletariat followers how to speak up for and work towards the changes they wanted.

Apocalyptic Worldview

Whether Jesus subscribed to an apocalyptic world view or that was the worldview of those who preserved his story, the dualism of apocalypticism is in plain view in this saying. As we covered before, this ancient worldview assumed that there were cosmic forces of good and evil connected to earthy conduits of good and evil.

Jesus accesses the cosmic imaginations of his listeners by referencing “angels” on the Day of Judgment, one of the events where those who subscribed to this worldview believed injustice, violence and oppression in our world would be put right. Jesus’ gospel was an announcement that this long awaited “putting right” had come and it was theirs if they would embrace the reign of God manifested in people choosing to take care of people. It was a deeply held belief that the Day of Judgment was a breaking in of the cosmic world into this world: a day of reckoning, a day of reward and punishment, a day of reversal, when the oppressed would be liberated and oppressors would be removed from their places of domination. The last would be first and the first would be last. In our saying this week, this vision of a future day of judgment is used to motivate the early followers of Jesus. Jesus says that those who speak out would be spoken for on that day, and those who remained silent in the face of injustice would be repudiated.

This may have been a deeply motivating idea for the first audience of the Jesus story. Today, we can use other motives to inspire one another to take care of each other. We are interconnected. We are each other’s fate, and what affects you, affects me. Whether one subscribes to the apocalyptic worldview of the 1st Century, or a more naturalistic 21st Century worldview, the truth of our interconnectedness is universal. We are in this life together. If I do not speak out for those being marginalized and pushed under, it will come back to negatively affect me as well. The world we create for others is the world we are creating also for ourselves.

Son of Humanity

I trace the “Son of man” title for Jesus back to the political imagery of Daniel 7. In this piece of Jewish apocalyptic sacred resistance literature, the Son of Man is seen:

“Coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)

“Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.” (Daniel 7:27)

This is not imagery where the rulers or destroyed or annihilated, but rather they are gathered into Jesus’s ethical vision for the world, and they follow it.

This imagery is picked up in the Christian scriptures in the apocalyptic book of Revelation:

“All nations will come

and worship before you,

for your righteous acts have been revealed.” (Revelation 15:4)

“The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.” (Revelation 21:24)

We could reclaim some of this imagery today, but not in the way that the colonial nations or modern Christian Right have used it. We don’t imagine a world where everyone embraces the evangelical Christian religion and its Western White theology—or else. We could reclaim this imagery in a much more compassionate, holistic way: a vision of human societies being transformed as they embrace the universal truth that Jesus taught: we are connected. In the “everlasting dominion that will not pass way,” human society chooses to end racism, to end classism, to end sexism, to end heterosexism, and more. Humans cease their endless efforts to gain power over others in order to preserve a world that’s safe for them, but not safe, compassionate, or just for others. Our differences are not met with fear but embraced as part of the beautiful human kaleidoscope that we all are.

Taking Hold of Life

The saying of Jesus we are considering this week is Jesus’ repeated call to “speak out.” A statement that I have referenced before and will be referencing repeatedly over the next few weeks is Joanne Carlson Brown’s and Rebecca Parker’s statement on the myth of redemptive suffering. I can’t get this statement out of my head. It deeply challenges the way I have applied the teachings of nonviolence in the past as a person who benefits from the status quo.

“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)

In our saying this week, Jesus calls those being intimidated into remaining silent to speak out anyway. He calls them to take hold of life and keep holding onto life even if they are threatened with a cross for doing so.

This strikes home for me. Recently I was shut out of a network of Christian churches in North Dakota, a region that has been experiencing a gold-rush like financial boon over the last few years. I was told that because of my solidarity with and support of Native people’s NoDAPL movement, they do not want me speaking in their churches at this time and so my meetings in North Dakota for this month have been cancelled.

When I heard this, I had a choice to make. Do I let go of my solidarity with Native people to be able to speak, or do I maintain my hold on life (and my humanity for that matter) in spite of the negative consequences? Many people have written to me over the past few weeks having experienced social media silencing, on Twitter and Facebook. They’ve shared stories of friends telling them they are being “too political” when they have spoken out or acted in defense of people being made vulnerable in the U.S. today.

To those experiencing that silencing, I would say, keep speaking out. People matter, and therefore politics matter. Politics is much more than arguing over individual candidates, too. Don’t misunderstand me: the character and policies of politicians matter. Yet these policies and how they affect the most vulnerable among us also matters.

The subject of politics is the discussion of how power is distributed and who gets access to resources. Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets, spoke of distributive justice and an order where power and resources are distributed in a way that ensures a world that is safe, compassionate and just for all, including the most vulnerable, and the vulnerable are no longer exploited, evicted, or excluded.

While I was in Canada a couple of weekends ago, I heard stories of Canadian citizens being refused entrance to the United States just because they are Muslim. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/another-canadian-citizen-refused-entry-united-states-border-1.3976230) A sports team was allowed past the border to an event being held in Boston, except for their one Muslim team member. This week mothers who were brought to the U.S. as children and are now adults with a husband and children being ripped away from their kids and shipped to a country they have never lived in. People matter, and therefore we should be speaking out.

Jesus’ gospel, as we have defined over and over again, was people taking care of people. This is what it means to speak out for Jesus. When we speak out, it isn’t in defense of Christianity, but in defense of Jesus’ vision of a world where people matter and we choose to take care of each other rather than being afraid of one another.

Over the past three years, I’ve repeatedly experienced backlash for affirming the lives of my LGBTQ and Black siblings. And the small pushback I’ve encountered as an ally isn’t even to be compared with the real and genuine crosses that LGBTQ community members and people of color face themselves for having the courage to “take hold of life,” stand up for themselves and stand up against bigotry and racism. As someone whose starting point in theology is Jesus’s gospel to the poor, I’m reminded too of how the Occupy movement was also demonized by those in power and those benefiting from the present structure. They, too, were threatened, and those who sympathize with their “taking hold of life” were misrepresented and became the focus of misinformed prejudice.

But to every group seeking to affirm their God-given selves and thrive in life, to those who are tired of the sun and rain God sends on all being systemically prevented from reaching them too, speak up and stand up.Whether you realize it or not, you are accessing the same courage that the Jewish Jesus sought to have his first followers find and take hold of as well.

Last week, Now Toronto reported around 1,300 Torontonians joined MILCK to sing the unofficial protest anthem I Can’t Keep Quiet. You can watch it here. Speaking out has a long tradition, and the Jesus of the gospels belongs to that tradition. These historical moments give us pause and a possible way to reclaim and reframe the sayings of Jesus:

Anyone who may speak out for me [and my egalitarian social vision for society] in public the son of humanity will also speak out for him before the angels. But whoever may deny me in public will be denied before the angels. (Q 12:8-9)

Heart Group Application

This week I want you to engage in a group activity. I’m hoping at least one person in your HeartGroup is a Netflix subscriber. I’d like you to sit down together as a group and watch the documentary The 13th.

  1. Watch the documentary.
  2. Afterward list 2-3 paradigm shifts you experienced during the film. Depending on your social location you could experience more than this, but start with 2-3.
  3. As many as feel comfortable, discuss as a group each person’s reaction to the film.

Lastly, spread the word. Share this film with others and have them watch it as well.

Embracing the courage to speak out, either for oneself, or in solidarity alongside others who are speaking out, is a significant step in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. To each of you who are speaking out, keep at it! You are not alone. Countless millions both now and throughout history are standing with you.

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.