Three Paths Toward Change Rejected

Herb Montgomery | July 31, 2020

diverging paths


“And in each of these versions of the story, Jesus announces the arrival of God’s just future (‘the kingdom’) but rejects three methods for bringing justice to fruition. We’ll look at each of them.”


The beginning of Mark’s gospel reads:

“At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” (Mark 1:12)

The story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is believed to have been a part of the earliest Jesus tradition. In each of the next two synoptic gospels written, the story is given more detail.

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’ Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down. For it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is also written: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”’ Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.” (Matthew 4:1-11)

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”’ Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’ Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:1-13)

Jesus rejected the Satan three times. And in each of these versions of the story, Jesus announces the arrival of God’s just future (“the kingdom”) but rejects three methods for bringing justice to fruition. We’ll look at each of them.

Bread

Jesus chose not to justify a system simply because it offered bread. Rome promised sustenance to its inhabitants but at what cost?

In our time, Duke Energy recently abandon its Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, citing costs due to activist obstruction. Some people with power pushed back against this monumental decision by pointing to the jobs that would now be lost. Such people believe placing profit above the planet was justified because, despite the ecological damage, the pipeline produced jobs for the working class and profit to company owners: it produced bread.

Exploitative economic systems create scarcity to create a narrative needed for their survival. The scarcity of things we need produces undercurrents of survival anxiety for us. Our desire for security and assurance that our needs will be met (“bread”) drives us to support systems that promise to fulfill those needs regardless of how people and our planet suffer as a result. And, without fail, those who are most driven by this economic anxiety protect and defend these systems at all costs. This is the essence of exploitative economies, and it comes with a long list of victims upon whom we lay the costs of our hopes that these systems will give us the bread we need.

Jesus’ first temptation was to coerce nature, to “turn stones into bread.” Think of Monsanto, or the meat and dairy industry here in the United States, which has deemed essential workers expendable during this pandemic. Henry Kissinger once said, “Those who control the food supply control the people.” Now and in the times of Jesus, the way to establish an exploitative system economically was to control what supplies people’s “bread” needs. Jesus rejects the use of such methods in establishing God’s just future, quoting from Deuteronomy:

“He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Jesus saw what the temptation really was. He refused to prioritize profit or “bread” over justice, and instead chose the ancient Hebrew narrative of manna: needs will be supplied not by accumulation and exploitation but daily, as needed. There will be more manna tomorrow.

Jesus rejected a narrative of scarcity, anxiety, accumulation, and exploitation for a narrative of trust, gratitude, sharing, and generosity. As Gandhi said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every person’s needs, but not every person’s greed.”

The accumulation of bread is not the highest value of God’s just future. God values how that bread is produced and what its production violates or affirms. Our hope is “not by bread alone.”

Self-Sacrifice

In both Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the story, Jesus is also tempted to sacrifice himself while assuming that he would be spared death. His response is to not “put God to the test.” On the temple mount the devil told him to leap from was the symbol at the core of his society’s political, economic, and religious systems. His temptation was to sacrifice himself in front of this system with the promise that in the end, God’s just future would come through his sacrifice.

This temptation strikes at the heart of the method most pushed on masses who desire social change. I don’t believe the oppressed must sacrifice themselves to achieve social change, but. The sacrifice of innocent victims for achieving social change has a long history.

Speaking of how the idea of sacrifice has impacted women in Christianity, Elizabeth Bettenhausen writes:

“Christian theology has long imposed upon women a norm of imitative self-sacrifice based 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.” (Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, p. xii; edited by Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

In Brown and Parker’s essay in the same volume, “For God So Loved the World?” they write:

“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.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 1-2)

Mary Daly makes a similar comment:
“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.” (Beyond God the Father, p. 77)

Again, Brown and Parker:
“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.” (in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 20.)

Brown and Parker also critique nonviolent movements that use self-sacrifice to drive change. They use some of the methods used by Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example. King saw suffering as:

“‘a most creative and powerful social force’ . . . The non-violent say that suffering becomes a powerful social force when you willingly accept that violence on yourself, so that self-suffering stands at the center of the non-violent movement and the individuals involved are able to suffer in a creative manner, feeling that unearned suffering is redemptive, and that suffering may serve to transform the social situation.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 20)

Finally, Delores Williams’ classic book Sisters in the Wilderness builds on this critique with applications specifically for Black women. These insights have been powerfully transformative for me personally. I want to share them with you here:

“Matthew, Mark and Luke suggest that Jesus did not come to redeem humans by showing them God’s ‘love” manifested in the death of God’s innocent child on a cross erected by cruel, imperialistic, patriarchal power. Rather, the texts suggest that the spirit of God in Jesus came to show humans life— to show redemption through a perfect ministerial vision of righting relations between body (individual and community), mind (of humans and of tradition) and spirit. A female-male inclusive vision, Jesus’ ministry of righting relationships involved raising the dead (those separated from life and community), casting out demons (for example, ridding the mind of destructive forces prohibiting the flourishing of positive, peaceful life) and proclaiming the word of life that demanded the transformation of tradition so that life could be lived more abundantly . . . God’s gift to humans, through Jesus, was to invite them to participate in this ministerial vision (“ whosoever will, let them come”) of righting relations. The response to this invitation by human principalities and powers was the horrible deed the cross represents— the evil of humankind trying to kill the ministerial vision of life in relation that Jesus brought to humanity. The resurrection does not depend upon the cross for life, for the cross only represents historical evil trying to defeat good. The resurrection of Jesus and the flourishing of God’s spirit in the world as the result of resurrection represent the life of the ministerial vision gaining victory over the evil attempt to kill it. Thus, to respond meaningfully to black women’s historic experience of surrogacy oppression, the womanist theologian must show that redemption of humans can have nothing to do with any kind of surrogate or substitute role Jesus was reputed to have played in a bloody act that supposedly gained victory over sin and/ or evil.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 130)

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

“The resurrection of Jesus and the kingdom of God theme in Jesus’ ministerial vision provide black women with the knowledge that God has, through Jesus, shown humankind how to live peacefully, productively and abundantly in relationship.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 132)

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

Again, Brown and Parker:

“Suffering is never redemptive, and suffering 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. God’s grief is as ultimate as God’s love. Every tragedy eternally remains and is eternally mourned. Eternally the murdered scream, Betrayal. Eternally God sings kaddish for the world. To be a Christian means keeping: faith with those who have heard and lived God’s call for justice, radical love, and liberation; who have challenged unjust systems both political and ecclesiastical; and who in that struggle have refused to be victims and have refused to cower under the threat of violence, suffering, and death. Fullness of life is attained in moments of decision for such faithfulness and integrity. When the threat of death is refused and the choice is made for justice, radical love, and liberation, the power of death is overthrown. Resurrection is radical courage. Resurrection means that death is overcome in those precise instances when human beings choose life, refusing the threat of death. Jesus climbed out of the grave in the Garden of Gethsemane when he refused to abandon his commitment to the truth even though his enemies threatened him with death. On Good Friday, the Resurrected One was Crucified.” (“For God So Loved the World?”)

“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.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.18,)

“Such a theology has devastating effects on human life. The reality is that victimization never leads to triumph. It can lead to extended pain if it is not refused or fought. It can lead to destruction of the human spirit through the death of a person’s sense of power, worth, dignity. or creativity. It can lead to actual death.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse)

Jesus did not choose the way of sacrifice. He rejected the way of sacrifice and, instead, “chose to live a life in opposition to unjust, oppressive cultures…. Jesus chose integrity and faithfulness, refusing to change course because of threat.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse)

These insights have grave implications for how some sectors of Christianity have traditionally interpreted the death and resurrection of Jesus. (For more on these implications see my presentation Nonviolence and the Cross)

As Katie Cannon sternly admonishes us, “Theologians need to think seriously about the real-life consequences of redemptive suffering, God-talk that equates the acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse as the way for true believers to live as authentic Christian disciples. Those who spew such false teaching and warped preaching must cease and desist.”

And there is a third path the Jesus of the story rejected, too.

Complicity

Lastly, in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus was tempted to arrive at God’s just future through being complicit with exploitative and oppressive systems. But he resisted that temptation of achieving God’s just future by “bowing down.” He instead worshiped God and God’s just future only. God’s just future cannot be achieved through compromise with exploitation, oppression, and exclusion.

Christianity has a long history with being complicit in systems that oppress, and some adherents still use it to promote White supremacy, neocolonialism, and capitalism today.

Much more needs to be said about this.

I’m reminded of the words that the late Peter Gomes wrote in The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus. When Jesus’ followers choose complicity, he explains, “The church, then, is made an agency of continuity rather than of change, conformity rather than transformation becomes the reigning ideology of the day, and the church that is comfortable with the powers-that-be is no threat to them.”

These early Jesus story narratives give us much to think about as we, too, continue the work of moving toward a more just future today.

Another world is possible. We must reject some common means to get it.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Have you experienced any of the three methods mentioned this week used by sectors of the Christian church? What are some examples? Have you witnessed secular social justice movements or organizations promote any of the above methods? Discuss with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Systems of Sacrifice

Herb Montgomery | July 24, 2020

picture of a classroom


As COVID-19 cases continue to rise and set new records each day, remember that the world that exists post-COVID will be determined by the kind of people we choose to be right now during COVID. Will we be people who sacrifice others, or will we choose a more perfect union, one, this time around, rooted in the golden rule and love of neighbor?


In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says,

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7, emphasis added)

And in John’s gospel, we read,

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be healed through him.” (John 3:17, emphasis added)

The word John uses here, often translated as “saved” in this gospel rather as “healed,” is sozo. In other gospels, translators more often emphasize healing:

She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed [sozo].” Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed [sozo] you.” And the woman was healed [sozo] at that moment. (Matthew 9:21-22)

He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed [sozo] and live.” (Mark 5:23)

And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed [sozo]. (Mark 6:56)

These aren’t just texts where scholars can argue the meaning of a word. This word, sozo, represents the entire story. The story in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is the story of a Jesus who went about “doing good and healing all . . .” (Acts 10:38, emphasis added).

In these gospels, salvation is not about Jesus making a sacrifice that allows a cosmic Being to let us off the hook. Rather, it’s about healing. The Jesus of the canonical gospels brought personal healing, and he also called for societal and systemic healing: a society that included and prioritized the excluded and marginalized.

Jesus’ political and economic protest in the temple courtyard was standing up to systems that sacrifice the vulnerable: the poor widows and fatherless.

“They devour widows’ houses.” (Mark 12:40)

But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.” (Mark 12:42-43)

Religion that God accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress. (James 1:27)

I also want to note, because some people repeatedly bring Jesus’ temple protest to my attention in an attempt to ignore Jesus’ nonviolent teachings, that Jesus’ actions in the Temple were not because of a violent fit of rage or Jesus losing his temper. His protest was premeditated, intentional, and purposeful (Mark 11:11), and it is in perfect harmony with his teachings on nonviolent resistance, even given the property damage involved.

Jesus valued people over profit and the property of the privileged and powerful. His protest shut down the economic activities of the temple that day, making it impossible for things to continue on as normal.

It reminds me of Sam Wells’ introduction to Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus by Ched Myers:

“The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that there’s plenty wrong with the world. There are only two responses to this—either go and put it right yourself, or, if you can’t, make life pretty uncomfortable for those who can until they do. When we take stock of our relationship with the powerful, we ask ourselves, ‘Does the shape of my life reflect my longing to see God set people free, and do I challenge those who keep others in slavery?”

Jesus was making life uncomfortable for the powerful of his day. So the gospel authors attached Jesus’ protest to the words found in Jeremiah.

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Stand in the gate of the LORD’S house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the orphan,, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, THEN I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” (Jeremiah 7:9-11, emphasis added.)

Both Jeremiah’s and Jesus’ society had grown into a system of oppression where those who were vulnerable— the foreigner, the orphan, the widow, the innocent—were sacrificed for the benefit of those in power. This also brings to mind how our working population is being sacrificed today in the name of the economy during this COVID-19 pandemic.

The Jesus story calls us away from a way of life that sacrifices foreigners, orphans, widows, and innocent victims. The gospel story ties social healing to our choice to end systems that sacrifice people and to start a different way of doing life. Economic and political systems of sacrifice that demand the death of innocent victims for the benefit of the masses were the focus of Jesus’ protest that day.

It also does not matter whether the sacrificial system depends on the death of political enemies or patriotic, a religion of war that sacrifices the present generation and assumes that citizens are worthy of their sacrifices. It doesn’t matter whether the sacrificial system is religious, rooted in fear of the Divine, or based on the shunning, marginalization, and scapegoating of those deemed “less than” or “other” to maintain the favor of a god or gods. It doesn’t matter if the sacrificial system is economic, driven by greed, and sacrificing essential workers to maintain the lifestyle of those at the top of the social pyramid.

The Jesus story does not affirm those political, patriotic, religious, or economic “holy places” of sacrifice, those “dirty rotten systems” as Dorothy Day called them. In the Jesus narrative, our future hope is not found in sacrifice but in a more distributively just future where everyone has what they need to thrive. This story calls for a new beginning of a world where we bend our societies’ moral arc toward justice, compassion, inclusion, and equity.

Jesus’ last supper with his disciples invites us to be the kind of people who work toward that world while we continue an ongoing critique of the way our world is sacrificially shaped.

“It is in food and drink offered equally to everyone that the presence of God and Jesus is found. But food and drink are the material bases of life, so the Lord’s Supper is political criticism and economic challenge as well as sacred rite and liturgical worship.” (Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of the World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 31)

The Jesus story calls us first to recognize systems maintained by the sacrifice of others, and then to live our lives in opposition to them. Ultimately systems of sacrifice are not sustainable. As our original passage reminds us, the Jesus story is about healing the brokenness of our world, and that healing begins with saying no to systems of sacrifice.

Earlier this year, many were willing to sacrifice elderly people for the economy. I was deeply alarmed by that rhetoric. Then when Black communities and communities of color were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, their deaths were also a sacrifice many were willing to make. Then came a willingness to sacrifice “essential workers,” but making them more expendable than essential. And people’s obstinate refusal to wear a mask in the name of individual freedom expresses willingness to sacrifice someone else. Most recently, the system is proving willing to sacrifice our children to force local governments to re-open schools. There will be a housing and food crisis if we do not find another way.

All of this doesn’t have to be the case. We can allow COVID to inspire us to create a more life-giving society where the most vulnerable people are prioritized and cared for. If we don’t, this crisis will only deepen our willingness to sacrifice people’s lives and the status quo will remain unchanged.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise and set new records each day, remember that the world that exists post-COVID will be determined by the kind of people we choose to be right now during COVID. Will we be people who sacrifice others, or will we choose a more perfect union, one, this time around, rooted in the golden rule and love of neighbor?

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”—Matthew’s Jesus

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What are some ways can you imagine our society in the U.S. responding to COVID-19 that does not sacrifice the vulnerable, those disproportionally impacted, or deem any human life as expendable? How has politicizing our present pandemic placed vulnerable groups in the path of sacrifice? Discuss with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Refusal of the Older Brother

Herb Montgomery | February 7, 2019

man sitting alone on hill


“If you believe God loves someone, justice for them isn’t far behind. Love for those on the margins is the seed out of which the reality of God’s inclusive, just future sprouts.”


The older brother became angry and refused to go in.” (Luke 15:28)

This story in Luke’s gospel may be the most famous one Jesus ever told: the story of the prodigal son and the older brother. Jesus told this story for a reason.

“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)

In response, Jesus tells three stories, the last of which is the story of the older brother we are considering here.

“But while he [the prodigal son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ THE OLDER BROTHER BECAME ANGRY AND REFUSED TO GO IN. SO HIS FATHER WENT OUT AND PLEADED WITH HIM. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son OF YOURS who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:20-32, emphasis added.)

The context of this story is economic. “Prodigal” is not a synonym for “sinner.” It means someone who spends money and resources recklessly with no thought of the future.

People labeled others sinners in Jesus’ community when they lived outside of certain interpretations of what it meant to be faithful to the teachings of the day. The label “sinner” has always been tied to the social purpose of marginalizing and/or subjugating certain folks while privileging others. I’m not saying that there are no such things as intrinsically destructive choices. I am saying that designating someone as a “sinner” is bound up with social, political, and economic exclusion because it is based on the interpretations of those centered in society.

And in this story, Jesus is including those whom the elite of his day taught should be excluded.

I was once a fundamentalist. I used to believe that the only reason anyone would not be “saved” in the end was that they had rejected God’s love for them. But the longer I ponder the story of the prodigal and his brother, the more I see how mistaken I was.

The context of this story shows that if any are left in “outer darkness” (see Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) if any are left out of Jesus’ vision of God’s just future, it will not be because they could not believe God’s love for them. Rather, like the older brother in this story, it will be that they cannot accept the inclusion of someone else that they feel should be excluded. It’s labeling someone else as other and seeking to exclude them from the table that causes us to be intrinsically out of harmony with Jesus’ vision for God’s just future—a world of safety, compassion, inclusion, justice, and love—a future we can shape.

Again, the elite class of the Jesus story didn’t reject Jesus’ vision of God’s just future because God’s love for them was too good to believe, but rather because God’s love for those they thought should be excluded was too inclusive for them to embrace.

One last example.

“When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. ALL THE PEOPLE SAW THIS AND BEGAN TO MUTTER, ‘HE HAS GONE TO BE THE GUEST OF A SINNER.’” (Luke 19:5-7, emphasis added.)

This is the famous story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, who climbed into a tree to see Jesus pass by (see Luke 19:1-2). As a person who is also of a shorter stature, I know that if you are short, you step up onto the curb to see a parade, and the taller people stand behind you. This works unless some people do not want you there and shut you out from a good view.

But Zacchaeus, being resourceful, knew the procession route, ran ahead and climbed a tree.

When this parade begins, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to confront the economic injustice of the economic, political, and religious elite at the heart of that society. But Jesus stops along the way to include this tax-collector who he perceives is changing his mind about Jesus’ economic teachings on the poor. Imagine the people objecting to Jesus, “But Jesus, this man is a sinner!”

Zacchaeus interrupts them all:

“Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’” (Luke 19:8)

Just a few days earlier, some of the Pharisees had responded to Jesus’ call to give their possessions to the poor by “sneering” at him (see Luke 16:13,14). I can imagine Jesus with tears of joy in his eyes at this chief tax collector responding so differently. “Today,” he says to Zacchaeus, “salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

Not everyone acknowledged that salvation had come.

Those left outside in Jesus’ story about the prodigal and older brother are not those whom the elites had labeled as “sinners” to be excluded. No, the ones outside the party are the ones who cannot handle Jesus modeling a just future where those they feel should be excluded are included instead.

What is the Jesus story whispering to us here?

Those left out of Jesus’ vision of God’s just future won’t be those who couldn’t believe in God’s love for themselves. They’ll be those who could not embrace God’s love for someone else—someone whom they thought should not be included. If you believe God loves someone, justice for them isn’t far behind. Love for those on the margins is the seed out of which the reality of God’s inclusive, just future sprouts.

If in the gospels, God’s just future looks like Jesus, and Jesus looks like the one we find in the Jesus stories, then this should give those who believe in and practice exclusionary forms of Christianity quite a bit to ponder. Some sectors of Christianity today still practice inequality for women. Some sectors of Christianity still practice the bigotry of colonialist, European, and American White supremacy. Sectors of Christianity still practice the same economic classism our society does. Large sectors of Christianity passionately exclude our LGBTQIA siblings. But to the degree that Christianity has practiced and led others in the practice of systemic and private distributive and inclusive justice, it has thrived. To the degree that it has failed to practice justice, it has done much harm to people and to itself.

The question Jesus followers today must ask is this: when we see Jesus’ inclusion being practiced, do we celebrate like those who “went in” in Jesus’ story, or do we mimic the “older brother,” refuse to “go in,” or even threaten schism to protect our practices and sense of superiority?

HeartGroup Application

  1. What movements do you see at work to bring about more inclusion and mutual participation in your faith communities? As a group, make a list.
  2. What movements do you see at work to bring about more inclusion, representation, and equity in our larger society? As a group, make a list.
  3. Brainstorm with your group how you can collectively participate with the work you see being done in both areas. Pick something from what you’ve come up with and put it into practice this coming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see next week

The Ethic of Enemy Love (Part 2)

Herb Montgomery | January 31, 2020


“This I believe is the genius of the ethic of enemy love that Jesus and many others in history have taught. Rightly understood, it enables one to stand up to one’s enemies while not becoming like them.”


“But to you who are listening, I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27)

In Part 1 we discussed what the ethic of enemy love may mean and what it most definitely does not mean.

Socially and historically, one of the most used methods for uniting a society or community has been to rally that community against a common enemy. It’s effective and it’s easy. Produce a common enemy, and people who were once enemies will join together against that enemy. In Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Henry gives this advice to his son, who will become Henry V after him:

“Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out,
May waste the memory of the former days.”
(Henry IV Part II, Act IV, scene V)

Another example is found in Luke’s version of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. Herod and Pilate struck up a friendship, yet until Jesus appeared on the scene, they had been enemies.

“That day Herod and Pilate became friends — before this, they had been enemies.” (Luke 23:12, emphasis added, cf. Job 16:10)

Jesus taught a different way of living life together. One of the ethical threads in the fabric of his community was that members would no longer be united in hatred for a common enemy. Rather they’d be united in the practice of loving their enemies.

Jesus was calling his Jewish community back to its roots of enemy love when he said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:43)

This teaching went back centuries:

“If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” (Proverbs 25:2, cf. 2 Kings 6:21-23)

“If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it.” (Exodus 23:4,5)

“Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.” (Proverbs 24:17, cf. Job 31:29)

At the same time, in both Jewish and Christian scriptures, one can also find support for hating one’s enemy. What made Jesus stand out in his own time and culture was his ability to parse and interpret his community’s teachings in life-giving ways. We are called to do the same.

Jesus’ vision of a just, safe and compassionate society calls us to include those who are presently our enemies, those who oppose a more compassionate society. For Jesus, enemies were to be seen as capable of change. No person was disposable, no matter how wrong they may have been. We are all connected, all of us. And as difficult as it may be, we are in this together.

Evolutionary Survival Ethic of the Past

A few years ago, I placed my 16-year-old daughter on an airplane and she flew from West Virginia to Colorado all by herself to visit her grandmother. Because she was underage, she was assigned a flight attendant to watch over her and get her safely from our care to her grandmother’s.

Before my daughter reached her grandmother, she had to comply with everything the flight attendant asked her to do. But once she was in her grandmother’s company, it would have been foolish for her to cling to the flight attendant. The attendant would want my daughter to go with and listen to her grandmother, even if, over the course of the flight, my daughter and the attendant had become fondly attached.

It could be debated that hatred of one’s enemies has, in the past, worked toward our survival as a human species. Even if that proves true, I would offer that the time for such has passed, we have outgrown its usefulness. The future does not belong to those who hate, but to those who have found a way to love, even their enemies.

Love is Not Naive

Enemy love does not mean we accept our enemies’ behaviors and choices. It means we refuse to allow their actions to change who we are. We remain responsible for our own choices and are able to choose how we respond (response-able) to our enemies’ choices. We act, proactively, out of the kind of person we choose to be. We don”t simply react to the types of people our enemies choose to be. As we said in part one, we’re part of a humanity that also includes our enemies. Yet we choose not to be the same kinds of people our enemies are choosing to be.

James Baldwin, whom I admire greatly, wrote of this principle in his classic The Fire Next Time:

“I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know—we see it around us every day—the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff—and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition.” (p. 83, emphasis added)

Love acknowledges the choices our enemies make. Love even obstructs enemies’ harmful actions. Yet it stops short of allowing a person to become the same type of person as their enemy. Love means choosing not to debase another person in the way they have debased us. We don’t ignore the actions of our enemies. We simply choose to be shaped by something greater than their actions.

This I believe is the genius of the ethic of enemy love that Jesus and many others in history have taught. Rightly understood, it enables one to stand up to one’s enemies while not becoming like them. It breaks the mimetic tendency we as humans have to simply mimic each other, even in violence. It breaks the chain and enables us to be different, to do differently than what has been done to us.

While holding our enemies accountable, we can do so with a transformative, reparative, and restorative perspective rather than with retribution in mind. This approach holds on to our enemies’ humanity and seeks a path toward a just future that includes transformation for them too. Dr. King, who strove to understand and rightfully apply the ethic of enemy love, stated as much in his sermon Loving Your Enemies, delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in November 1957:

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption . . . It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says, love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive.”

So it would seem that there really isn’t a middle ground. We either permit our enemies’ actions to shape us, to determine the kind of people we will be, or we choose a path that has the potential (without guarantee) to shape our enemies as we choose to be the kinds of people we aspire to be.

Liberation theologies today might say we can choose to remain free internally, in our own inmost being, while we work to become free outwardly.

Enemy love is difficult. But most things that are worth it are.

HeartGroup Application

1. Are there stories of enemy love that you find compelling for you, today? Share one with your group.

2. What did you learn from last week’s exercise/practice? Share with your group.

3. How can your HeartGroup deepen its practice of enemy love collectively this coming year?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see next week.

The Ethic of Enemy Love (Part 1)

by Herb Montgomery | January 24, 2020


“I want to be careful with this ethic of enemy love. First, this ethic does not mean that we should expect reconciliation without change or reparations from our enemies . . . To expect the victims of violence to reconcile with their oppressors in the midst of ongoing oppression, even when the injustice is systemic, is in itself violent.”


“But to you who are listening, I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27)

Jesus’ “love your enemy” ethic is one of his most challenging teachings. Along with his economic teachings for the wealthy elites, it remains the dealbreaker for many who initially desire to follow him.

At the heart of Jesus’ ethical teaching about God, ourselves, and others was the principle of loving your enemies. It was as if Jesus were saying, “I know you’ve been taught to love your neighbor. Now I’m going to teach you how to love your enemies.”

This teaching of Jesus has never proven to be popular. In the gospels, many of the rich (outside of those labeled publicans or tax-collectors) could not love the poor, and the poor could not love their oppressors. We have enough evidence to say that it was the poor people’s revolt in Judea during the latter half of the 1st Century that led to the Roman-Jewish war, the razing of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 C.E., and the almost total genocide of the Jewish people in 132-136 C.E. (the Bar Kokhba revolt).

The picture we get of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is that of an itinerant teacher who had enough wisdom to see where his contemporaries’ exploitation and anger/despair would lead them. (Oh, that those who carry the name of Christian could do the same today!) The gospels were written between the Jewish Revolt of the 60s and the destruction of the 130s by Jesus-followers trying to make sense of the devastation that had taken place in Jerusalem. It makes sense that they would write of a death at Rome’s hands and a resurrection that led to a distributively just world where peace reigns in the end.

They characterize Jesus as gathering whoever will join him in a revolutionary, alternative way of living and structuring life. In the gospels, Jesus’ social vision is referred to as “the Kingdom of God,” a phrase that would have resonated deeply in the culture of the gospels’ original audience. This kingdom was not a world someplace out in the heavens that one had to die to reach. Jesus taught that another world was possible, here and now, if we would choose it. Jesus’ teachings were about our communal lives. They radically rearranged how human beings arrange their society, and they involved change by those in positions of power and privilege who were responsible for the systemic injustice they were benefiting from. They also involved some form of love from those who had been deeply hurt by those same people and systems, toward the very ones they were confronting in their calls for change.


Reconciliation Without Change

I want to be careful with this ethic of enemy love. First, this ethic does not mean that we should expect reconciliation without change or reparations from our enemies.

I’m reminded of Jacquelyn Grant’s words in her classic work, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus. In this book, she speaks of the partnership that White women expected from Black women in work that would benefit women of privilege when White women had not engaged the same kind of partnership or involvement in the causes of women disenfranchised much more.

“From a Black women’s vantage point then, the language of partnership is merely a rewording of the language of reconciliation, which proves empty rhetoric unless it is preceded by liberation.” (p. 191)

I don’t believe Jesus taught reconciliation without liberation and reparations. Reconciliation follows liberation, reparation, and systemic change. To expect the victims of violence to reconcile with their oppressors in the midst of ongoing oppression, even when the injustice is systemic, is in itself violent.

Luke’s Jesus, who taught enemy love, also taught reparations by those who were considered to be “the enemy.” Consider these words in Luke’s gospel by Zacchaeus:

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8)

Here Zacchaeus is becoming a follower of Jesus. As a person who would have been considered an enemy of the poor by those he had exploited, becoming a Jesus follower meant reparations toward those he had cheated and to the poor in general. This is telling in regards to what Zacchaeus felt Jesus’ teachings expected of him.

In the face of Zacchaeus’ model, we must be suspicious of theologies of reconciliation that promote either Christian or civil unity at the price of ignoring injustice both past and present.


Holding on to Our Enemy’s Humanity

So what does enemy-love mean?

For me, it is best expressed by Barbara Deming in her book Revolution and Equilibrium. After stating that the practitioner of nonviolent resistance obstructs an enemy’s actions, refusing to “honor the role” that enemy chooses, she then quickly adds that we also say to them:

“‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’” (p. 224)

Consider the prayer Luke’s gospel places on the lips of Jesus in his closing moments on the cross:

“Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’” (Luke 23:34)

I understand there are debates over whether this prayer was genuinely original to Jesus. Even so, I don’t want us to miss the narrative purpose it serves in Luke’s Jesus story.

What is this prayer but Jesus asking his God for his enemies not to be, in Deming’s words, “cast out of the human race.” This is a prayer for his enemies not to be destroyed and not let go of either. It assumes Jesus’ faith in his enemies’ potential to make “better choices than they are making now.”

The cross was the social elites’ violent “no” to God’s just future. The resurrection was God’s nonviolent response, enabling and empowering the hope of that just future to live on. Jesus’ community were to hold on to a vision of the future where enemies are not destroyed so we can get on with paradise, but rather where enemies are transformed and learn to evolve into better humans.

Seeking to shape the world according to distributive justice while choosing to hold the ethic of enemy love is entirely revolutionary. It is a radical break from our deepest instincts. It goes against what we’ve been taught is the way to survive. It calls us to go against how we have been indoctrinated and the narratives we have been handed.

Today, Jesus’ hope for a just future still extends an ongoing invitation. To follow Jesus on this point is most likely the most revolutionary thing a human being can do, not only to change our world but also to do so such that the inhabitants of our world are changed. Jesus offers a vision for a world where distributive justice, love, and compassion reign “on earth” as they do “in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)

We are too skilled at taming revolutions and making them conventional; too skilled at turning things like the Sermon on the Mount and the teachings of enemy love into complicity with society as we have known it. What if the ethic of enemy love and the energy we spend working toward survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation don’t inspire us to accept the injustice of our enemies, but instead inspire hope for genuine, lasting change?

For the next seven days, I want you to engage in a practice that will help you move toward this ethic. Each day, take a few minutes, once a day, to stop and think of the person on this planet you like the least. Then repeat these words as if you are speaking directly to them:

“What you have done or are doing is not right. I refuse to accept your actions. At the same time, I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make better choices than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you choose to do so. Like it or not, we are part of one another.”

Then find someone to share what you experienced through these seven days.

If you’re willing, I’d like to hear your stories too. Drop us a line here.


HeartGroup Application

1. Engage in the above practice throughout this next week
2. Journal what you experience.
3. Share with your HeartGroup your experience.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

When Equality Means Some Are Given More Than Others

Equality, Equity and Jesus’ Preferential Option for the Marginalized
by Herb Montgomery | January 17, 2020

hands together for equality


“Some may cry unfair when others receive more, yet if this ‘more than’ is based on what they need is more than what others may need to thrive, then fairness takes on a more wholistic, less shallow definition.”


“Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’” (Luke 6:22)

This passage in Luke’s gospel marks the beginning of what many refer to as Jesus’ sermon on the plain. When we compare Luke’s version of this sermon to Matthew’s sermon on the mount, what begins to take shape is that Jesus’ gospel was not good news for everyone. In Luke, Jesus uttered blessings on some and woes on others.

Those he spoke blessings to were the marginalized, exploited or oppressed of Jesus’ society. Those he spoke woes to were those in his society who were in positions of privilege and power.

The Poor,
The Hungry,
The Weepers,
The Hated, Excluded, and Insulted,

versus

The Rich,
The Well-Fed,
The Laughers,
The Spoken Well Of.

Some in Jesus’ own society believed that the rich, the well-fed, and those whose lives were filled with laughter had been blessed by God, while those who were poor, hungry, and mourning were being punished by God. In that worldview, they were sinners, not less fortunate and in need of compassion and justice, but rather as morally inferior.

Jesus turned that order of economics, politics, society and even religious exclusion on its head! He challenged people’s preconceived interpretations of God and what fidelity to God looked like. God was actually on the side of those whom society was pushing to the edges and undersides. God was with those who were poor, hungry, heartbroken, hated, excluded, and insulted, and the “kingdom” belonged to them.

But to those who were privileged in an unjust social and economic structure, Jesus spoke woes.

These woes pronounced future sorrow or distress. Jesus spoke to the people of loss, for equity and equality will always feel like threat, loss, or distress to those who have everything to lose within a more just society. They do not understand change as the good news of liberation but as something being taken away from them. Today, some have more than they could ever possibly need. For the wealthiest among us, being less wealthy won’t really affect their daily lives. But someone whose net worth is hundreds of millions of dollars may still feel losing a million of it so that others can eat is still a loss. Is supporting our interconnectedness worth more than our bottom line or net worth?

Jesus began standing in the shadow of the cross as soon as he began to teach this gospel of blessings and woes. Those he blessed were the opposite of those the elites blessed, and those he warned were the opposite of those the powerful thought deserved woes. Jesus called his listeners to look at their society and those within their society in the opposite way they had been taught to.

Nothing destroys one’s empathy for others more completely than seeing them as “less than.” Jesus challenged his listeners’ most cherished assumptions about others. This different lens would cause deep upheaval for people, economically, politically, socially, and even religiously. The vision for human society that Jesus was seeking to inspire would require a paradigm shift after paradigm shift. It would not be a time of blessing for some of them, and they would face deep questioning and change as things turned on their head.

I’m reminded of the words of the late Rev. Peter Gomes:

“It is interesting to note that those who most frequently call for fair play are those who are advantaged by the play as it currently is and that only when that position of privilege is endangered are they likely to benefit from the change required to “play by the rules.” What if the “rules” are inherently unfair or simply wrong, or a greater good is to be accomplished by changing them? When the gospel says, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” despite the fact that it is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions, it is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first.” (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, p. 42)

Equity threatens those who spend their energy striving to have more than others. But it is good news to those who work for a just, compassionate, safe world for everyone. A world becoming more equitable will bless some and be felt as a woe by others.

I want to add a word of clarification:

In both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, Jesus speaks these words:

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

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

In Jesus’ theology, God loves all equally and gives to all the things they need to thrive. We as humans have designed ways for more of these resources to get to some people to the detriment of others. So why in Jesus’ gospel are some blessed, while others receive woes? Why, unlike the rain and sunshine, is the blessing of kingdom pronounced upon certain ones while woes are the only thing promised to others?

A more current conversation of the differences between equity and equality can help us here. (Everyday Feminism had a good article on these differences back in 2014 at https://everydayfeminism.com/2014/09/equality-is-not-enough/)

picture of different people looking over a fenceEquality is often understood as everyone getting exactly the same. But because everyone has a different social, economic, or political starting point, simply giving everyone the same thing would not necessarily create the goal of everyone having enough to thrive. Some would still have more than they need, while others would not. When everyone is different, fairness and success also differ. The image to the right illustrates these points. Equity means making sure each person has enough to thrive, and that may look different for different people.

Some may cry unfair when others receive more, yet if this “more than” is based on what they need is more than what others may need to thrive, then fairness takes on a more wholistic, less shallow definition.

In liberation theology, scholars refer to the deference given to those on the margins as a “preferential option for the oppressed.” It is a choice to center those who are pushed to the edges and undersides of our society, and to place these people and their communities on equal ground with others. The preferential option is required to bring about equality.

In our small group discussions at Renewed Heart Ministries, we often say that whenever we speak of oppression or marginalization, those who are the most affected or most vulnerable are those who get to share their experiences. To the degree that others are less affected by such personal and systemic injustices, they can listen in solidarity. When it comes to discussions on gender inequity, for example, men, especially cisgender men, take a posture of listening. When it comes to racial inequity, those who are White listen to those who are not White. In discussions on immigration justice here in the U.S., those who are documented citizens listen. In discussions of Indigenous people’s lives and equitable treatment, non-Indigenous people listen; and when we speak of LGBTQ justice, those who identify as straight, cisgender, or gender normative listen.

Those most negatively impacted by societal injustice receive the “blessing,” while others in our present society, it could be said, “have already received” theirs (see Luke 6:24).

Go back now and reread the entirety of Luke’s sermon on the plain by Jesus and see if you don’t begin to get a feel for what Jesus in this story is doing:

“Looking at his disciples, he said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.’”
(Luke 6:20-26)

Equity doesn’t have to feel like inequality if we choose to see our differences and how these differences are treated. Equality doesn’t have to feel like oppression even if you are used to privilege. We are all in this together. What lessens one, lessens us all. We are connected to one another. As the adage goes, equality doesn’t mean less for you: it’s not pie. Whether we choose to view it that way or not, is another discussion.

HeartGroup Application

1. Thoughtfully read through Matthew 5.1-11 and Luke 6.17-26. Share with your group anything the engages your attention.

2. Discuss whom these words would be directed toward in our social context today.

3. Share at least one community you would like your group to focus on working alongside with for greater system equity in our larger society.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, choose love, compassion, take action.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

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

Great Joy for All People (Part 3)

Herb Montgomery | January 10, 2020

sparkler on purple background


Luke’s narratives about Jesus, beginning with the Christmas narratives, ultimately offer hope for those society deems less than, and they are still problematic to those in positions of power and privilege. I believe they offer much to those who are working toward a world a love and justice today.


Happy new year! As we begin 2020, let’s take one last look at our series for this recent Advent season and the springboard it provides us for this new year. In Part 1 and 2, we looked at Luke’s birth narratives for Jesus in the social contexts of Rome, Judaism under Roman imperialism, and early Christianity. We asked whether the birth-narratives have anything to offer us in our justice work today, politically, economically, socially and theologically. I want to end our holiday consideration with Luke’s Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1).

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-55)

We have seen that Luke’s birth narratives about Jesus both converged with the social, political, and economic hopes of their day, and diverged from and sometimes subverted the social, political, and economic practices of Rome. Mary’s Magnificat matters because of this context.

The first thing to notice about it is that Mary’s praise contains absolutely no reference to the afterlife in relation to the one she has conceived and the hopes she believes her child will fulfill.

Some Christians may be surprised that Mary’s words of gratitude and praise are not rooted in thankfulness for needed relief from a post-mortem hell and the gift of an eternity in heaven. Line by line, Mary’s words instead express gratitude for relief and liberation from the oppressive realities she and her Jewish society experience in this life, in the here and now.

As Leo Tolstoy wrote in the beginning of his last book, Path of Life, “Genuine religion is not about speculating about God or the soul or about what happened in the past or will happen in the future; it cares only about one thing—finding out exactly what should or should not be done in this lifetime” (p. 3).

Christianity today is deeply focused on attaining heaven in an afterlife and avoiding or escaping hell, but that is not the focus of the Jesus narratives. Christianity’s focus on the afterlife has too often produced profoundly harmful fruit. To the same degree, where Christianity has focused on liberation, justice, and equity in this life, it has produced profoundly life-giving fruit. Walter Rauschenbusch, a leader in the social gospel movement of the early 20th century, commented on this history:

“The non-ethical practices and beliefs in historical Christianity nearly all center on the winning of heaven and immortality. On the other hand, the Kingdom of God can be established by nothing except righteous life and action.” (Walter Rauschenbusch; A Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 15)

Many sectors of Western Christianity still miss this point today. Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Parker give several examples in their beautiful book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. One such example that explains how Evangelical Christianity today has become such an obstruction to matters of social justice is the history of the First Great Awakening:

“Rather than engage people more deeply in the world, the Great Awakening lifted the soul beyond earthly life, to the ‘upper world.’ [Jonathan] Edwards’s earthly loves had always to point beyond themselves—to primary beauty—and, as he said, even the love of other human beings was ‘secondary beauty.’ To look through earth into heaven, through death into eternity, through the beloved into God was the spiritual ideal. To love in this way was always to have your heart, mind, and soul turned elsewhere, perpetually departing the present for something better. Edwards’s beauty did not draw people into ethical engagement with life in this world, but moved them beyond the spirits in trees and clouds, dirt and rain, fish and deer, and bodies and winds. He asked them to dwell with one foot always in another, better world, not here, not now.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 371)

History is littered with other examples of how an otherworldly, afterlife focus in Christianity has brought concrete damage to communities on the margins of their society. Christianity may have begun as a community on the edges of its society, but today, from a position of power and privilege, it has a history of becoming complicit with harm and even participating in pushing others to the edges of society instead.

Jesus’ story, including his Christmas birth narratives, speak of liberation from oppression in this life, the end of injustice in this life, and the end of violence and marginalization in this life. We can glean much from the Jesus story for our justice work today, and the story’s largest focus is economic justice. That foundation allows us to discern applications for the other kinds of distributive, reparative, and restorative justices we have discussed throughout this entire series.

Let’s begin with this phrase found above:

“He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.”

This phrase still offends those who have more than they could ever possibly need in a world where others are barely surviving. But before we alleviate the discomfort of Mary’s words, let’s consider what other types of injustice we could apply them to today.

In matters of racial justice, these words today could read:

“He has filled people of color with good things
but has sent White people away empty.”

In matters of immigrant justice, these words could read:

“He has filled those fleeing violence in their homelands with good things
but has sent privileged citizens away empty.”

In matters of gender inequity, these words could read:

“He has filled cis and trans women with good things
but has sent men away empty.”

In matters of LGBTQIA justice, it could read:

“He has filled Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgender, Asexual, Intersex, Queer, and Questioning people with good things
but has sent straight, heterosexual folks away empty.”

In matters of Indigenous justice, it could read:

“He has filled the First Nations with good things
but has sent the colonialists away empty.”

Like many of Jesus’ words, these words can be perceived as good news by some in society and as problematic by others. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. It’s great news for those ranked last in the present system. It’s at least problematic for those who have worked their entire lives to be privileged as first.

Statements like these from Mary and Jesus help us understand why the elites, privileged, and powerful of Jesus’ concluded that Jesus, his influence, and his teachings must be silenced and removed.

Luke’s narratives about Jesus, beginning with the Christmas narratives, ultimately offer hope for those society deems less than, and they are still problematic to those in positions of power and privilege. I believe they offer much to those who are working toward a world a love and justice today.

One example is in Jesus’ teachings on the tradition of nonviolence. This month, RHM’s featured book of the month is Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. Nonviolent methods are beneficial to those working for interpersonal and social change, and in 2020, we will focus on these teachings of Jesus to discover:

  • How Christians can be better humans
  • How Christians can engage the work of reparations for the harm they have been both complicit in and committed themselves to marginalized groups.
  • How we can work toward a world of love and justice in life-giving ways.

The Jesus story doesn’t end with his teachings being problematic for the powerful and privileged, with his execution for the social problems he was creating/solving, or even Jesus’ murder and resurrection. The story reaches its climax with the early followers of Jesus learning to follow his example and seeing the universal truths they had encountered in Jesus working through themselves.

“The disciples also saw that the spirit that had worked within Jesus continued to work in and through them. In their preaching they extended his critique of domination. They continued his life by advancing his mission. They persisted in proclaiming the domination-free order of God inaugurated by Jesus.” (Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man, p. 153 )

That’s the order we proclaim too. Another world is possible if we choose it, and this new year, this new decade will offer us many opportunities to make it if we wish.

HeartGroup Application

  1. What goals or actions would you like to see your HeartGroup focus on within the group this new year? Discuss with your group and pick something to put into practice.
  2. What goals or actions would you like to see your HeartGroup focus on within your larger faith community this new year? Discuss with your group and pick something to put into practice.
  3. What goals or actions would you like to see your HeartGroup focus on within your larger society this new year? Discuss with your group and pick something to put into practice.

Here’s to a world of love and justice and the work required by each of us to create it.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, taking action, and reparative and distributive justice.

Happy New Year to all of you.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Great Joy for All People (Part 2)

Herb Montgomery | December 20, 2019

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“Luke skillfully integrates into his story the hopes of Judaism and the subversion of the political theology of the Roman Empire. Jesus, for Luke, is simultaneously the fulfillment of one (Judaism) and the subversion of the other (Rome). This is not Jesus against Judaism, but Christianity against Roman imperialism . . . In Luke’s birth-narrative, Jesus is both the Davidic Messiah who converges with Judaism and the Lord, Savior, and Peace-bringer who diverges with Rome.”


We’re picking up where we left off in Part 1.

Judaism in Imperial Rome

Living in Roman-occupied territory, Jewish people hoped for a world free from injustice and foreign oppression. In the Jewish Sibylline Oracles, a series of prophecies valued within first-century Judaism and early Christianity, we find this vision:

“The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls or fences. It will then bear more abundant fruits spontaneously. Lives will be in common and wealth will have no division. For there will be no poor man there, no rich, and no tyrant, no slave. Further, no one will be either great or small anymore. No kings, no leaders. All will be on a par together.” (2:319-324)

The hoped-for world in the Jewish vision of the future looked like a family, where YHWH as parent provided equally for all—enough for everyone, always.

There were also two competing visions of the fate of the Gentiles, including the Romans. One strand was violent and retributive:

“In anger and wrath I will execute vengeance on the nations that did not obey . . . Then my enemy will see, and shame will cover her who said to me, ‘Where is the Lord your God?’ My eyes will see her downfall; now she will be trodden down like the mire of the streets . . . The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might; they shall lay their hands on their mouths; their ears shall be deaf; they shall lick dust like a snake, like the crawling things of the earth; they shall come trembling out of their fortresses; they shall turn in dread to the Lord our God, and they shall stand in fear of you.” (Micah 5:15; 7:10, 16-17)

This is actually quite mild compared to some Christian versions of this world’s future. The other Jewish option was less violent, more restorative, and involved the conversion of the Gentiles:

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:1-3, cf. Isaiah 2:2-4)

All injustice, oppression, and violence would cease. Other prophets also envision YHWH providing a rich feast where there was enough for all, Jew and Gentile alike:

“On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:6-8)

By the 1st Century, this Jewish, pre-Christian vision also included a Messiah figure who would birth this new world into existence:

“Raise up for them their king, the Son of David . . . to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; to shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth . . . He will judge peoples and nations in the wisdom of his righteousness . . . All shall be holy, and their king shall be the Lord Messiah. (For) he will not rely on horse and rider and bow, nor will he collect gold and silver for war. Nor will he build up hope in a multitude for a day of war.” (Psalms of Solomon 17:21, 23-24, 29, 32-33, emphasis added.)

Another example is from a Dead Sea Scroll fragment found in Cave 4 at Qumran:

“He will be called Son of God, and they will call him Son of the Most High. Like sparks of a vision, so will their kingdom be; they will rule several years over the earth and crush everything; a people will crush another people, and a city another city. Until the people of God arises [or: until he raises up the people of God] and makes everyone rest from the sword. His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom, and all his paths in truth and uprightness. The earth will be in truth and all will make peace. The sword will cease in the earth, and all the cities will pay him homage. He is a great god among the gods [or: The great God will be his strength]. He will make war with him; he will place the peoples in his hand and cast away everyone before him. His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom . . . ” (4Q246, emphasis added.)

We can see from these passages that when the book of Luke was written, many within Judaism hoped for a restored world where all injustice, violence, and oppression would be made right through the emergence of a Messiah figure. Some believed this would be accompanied by violent retribution against oppressors, and others believed the Messiah figure would bring more restorative, distributive, nonviolent, and reconciling justice for everyone.

Christianity within Judaism within Roman Imperialism

Luke begins the Jesus story with John the Baptist. Like Matthew, he includes a birth narrative rather than starting the story with an adult Jesus. But Luke begins his birth story with John’s conception, before Jesus’s. The experience of John’s parents in Luke parallels that of Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people (compare Genesis 15-18).

It also parallels the stories of Hannah and the birth of the prophet Samuel, who anointed King David (read 1 Samuel 1-2). For Luke, John is the renewed “Samuel” anointing Jesus, the renewed “David.” At his baptism in the river Jordan, Jesus, through John, becomes the renewed “anointed one.”

Miraculous conceptions by divine intervention are a staple in Jewish birth-narratives and were especially so in the time of Rome. Within both Judaism and Imperial Rome, birth-narratives were not so much biological explanations as much as they were about the destiny of the children being born. In our story this week, Luke interweaves the birth-narratives of Isaac, Samuel, and Caesar Augustus with those of John the Baptist and Jesus, and he describes Jesus as “the Christ,” the Messiah, the son of David, the renewed “King of Israel” born in David’s city, “Bethlehem.”

Let’s read Luke’s proclamation of the angels to the shepherds through our filters of Judaism and Roman imperialism. Luke skillfully integrates into his story the hopes of Judaism and the subversion of the political theology of the Roman Empire. Jesus, for Luke, is simultaneously the fulfillment of one (Judaism) and the subversion of the other (Rome). This is not Jesus against Judaism, but Christianity against Roman imperialism.

I’m going to color code this Christmas passage:

Bold phrases represent the fulfillment of Jewish hopes and Italics represent a subversion of Roman imperialism. Black and Italicized phrases represent both.

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and ON EARTH PEACE to those on whom his favor rests.” ( Luke 2:10-14)

In Luke’s birth-narrative, Jesus is both the Davidic Messiah who converges with Judaism and the Lord, Savior, and Peace-bringer who diverges with Rome.

As Borg and Crossan state in The First Christmas, from the time of Caesar Augustus onward, the title “the Lord” meant the emperor, just as “der Führer” meant “the leader” in German. Eventually, that term designated Adolf Hitler as Germany’s supreme and only leader. In that context, to have called Christ “der Führer” would have meant death in Dachau (p. 154).

Rome also had its own gospel of peace that Luke responds to in his version of the Jesus story.
By 9 BCE, the Roman province of Asia Minor was making this declaration about Augustus:

“Since the providence that has divinely ordered our existence has applied her energy and zeal and has brought to life the most perfect good in Augustus, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing him upon us and our descendants as a savior—he who put an end to war and will order peace, Caesar, who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who prophesied good tidings [euaggelia-the gospel], not only outdoing benefactors of the past, but also allowing no hope of greater benefactions in the future; and since the birthday of the god first brought to the world the good tidings [euaggelia] residing in him… For that reason, with good fortune and safety, the Greeks of Asia have decided that the New Year in all the cities should begin on 23rd September, the birthday of Augustus… and that the letter of the proconsul and the decree of Asia should be inscribed on a pillar of white marble, which is to be placed in the sacred precinct of Rome and Augustus.” (Quoted from The First Christmas, p.160, emphasis added)

That year, a magnificent “Altar of Peace” was dedicated in Rome’s Campus Martius. It was consecrated not just to the Pax Romana (peace of Rome) but, more precisely, to the Pax Augustana (peace of Augustus), and it was named Ara Pacis Augustae, the Altar of Augustan Peace.

The gospel of peace that Rome proclaimed was a peace achieved through militaristic victory and the violent overthrow of Rome’s enemies. In Luke’s gospel narrative, however, Luke channels nonviolent, restorative Jewish visions of peace. Luke’s Jesus shares the vision of peace on earth rooted in the restoration of justice for all the oppressed. Even Luke’s choice to describe shepherds as the first recipients of this angelic announcement is significant. Shepherds were from the marginalized peasant class and most acutely experienced Roman oppression and exploitation. Just two chapters after the birth narrative, Luke’s Jesus is announcing “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” and “sight to those with prison blindness.” He has come “to let the oppressed go free” (see Luke 4:18). The angels’ message to the poor shepherds in Luke 2 foreshadows Jesus’ entire message in the gospel of Luke.

For Luke, Rome’s peace gospel (through violence) and the peace gospel of Jesus (through distributive justice) come face to face. Jesus and Rome hold out to humanity two alternative visions for arriving at peace on earth. Rome’s way, peace through the violent forces of militaristic victory and oppression, is the way of all empires. Luke’s Jesus promises peace through nonviolent, restored distributive justice for all people.

Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan write: “The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world” (The First Christmas, p. 166).

The world has yet to see if choosing the way of nonviolently-achieved, distributive-justice of Jesus produces lasting peace. Christian imperialism and colonialism have co-opted the Jesus story throughout history, but Luke’s Jesus points the way to peace based upon distributive justice achieved through nonviolent means.

Today, these two “gospels” still grind against one another, even for Christians. Today we still see a conflict, but it is not Rome versus Jesus, too often it is certain sectors of Christianity versus Jesus.

Luke’s Christmas story offers more than a private peace of mind for Christians. It points to a path to peace on earth for everyone, and a peace that comes through distributive justice for all, especially those marginalized in the present system. In our next and final installment of this holiday series, we’ll consider this further.

For this week, it’s enough to ponder the words:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:11-14)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week as you gather together before Christmas, take some time to go around the room and say something you appreciate or value about each person.
  2. Next, share with your group something you are grateful for from 2019. Take time to celebrate and be thankful together as this year comes to a close.
  3. Share something you are hopeful for or looking forward to in the coming year.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, taking action, and reparative and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Also, all year-end donations to Renewed Heart Ministries are being matched dollar for dollar. Through this generous offer, you can make your year-end gift go twice as far as we move into the next decade. Also, we are offering a special thank you gift to all our sustaining partners for the coming year. To find out more and how you too can become a sustaining partner go to renewedheartministries.com and click the Shared Table Fundraiser image.

Happy holidays to all of you.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you in the new year.

Great Joy for All People (Part 1)

by Herb Montgomery | December 13, 2019

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“Seen in their original context, Luke’s birth narratives for Jesus subvert the Roman economic, political, social, and theological systems of their day. Do these stories offer anything to our justice work today and if they do, what?”


 

“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.” (Luke 2:10)

Advent season has begun!

Seen in their original context, Luke’s birth narratives for Jesus subvert the Roman economic, political, social, and theological systems of their day. Do these stories offer anything to our justice work today and if they do, what?

To answer these questions, we have to go back and try to read the story from the social locations of its intended audience. These narratives are primarily concerned with this world and this life, not with heaven. Too often, the birth narratives of Jesus are read through the lens of salvation defined as an entrance into post-mortem heaven. But that is not how the original Jewish Jesus community would have heard these stories.

That community was concerned with the whole of life, not merely with an afterlife. A “spiritual” or afterlife application of these narratives became the dominant interpretation through the expanding Roman Empire’s culture and European colonialism. Reading the gospel narratives with an otherworldly focus has had intensely destructive fruit since then. Before imperial Christianity, people understood these narratives as being about the transformation of this world. They were not solely theological; they were political, economic, and social, as well as theological! And they pointed toward the hope of the end of violence, injustice, and oppression: good news, of great joy, for all people.

First, acknowledging the political context in which Jesus-narratives were written is important. Borg and Crossan, speaking of their own books’ focus on the political context of the Jesus stories, remind us:

“What would you think of a book that started with the opener, ‘I am going to discuss Mahatma Gandhi as a Hindu saint, but I’ll skip all that distracting stuff about British imperial India’? Or another with, ‘I am going to describe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a Christian saint, but I’ll get right to his biography and skip all that stuff about racism in America as background baggage’? You would know immediately that something is seriously wrong with those authors’ presentations.”— Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, p. 55

The political context of the Jesus stories could forever change how we read the birth narratives of Jesus. In Luke, these narratives were originally intended to subvert the systemic injustice in the Roman Empire. They speak to our time too. Systemic racism continues to thrive, xenophobia toward refugees and Muslim Americans flourishes, and U.S. militaristic methods of achieving peace are continually touted by those who carry the name of this babe from Bethlehem.

If we are to rediscover the original subversive power of these stories and rightly apply them to our justice work today, we must begin by reading them in the matrix of Imperial Rome alongside the hopes of many in first-century Judaism. The titles given to that babe in a manger were, in the Roman world, titles given to the emperor, Caesar. The Gospel of Rome promised peace through victory achieved by violence. The conquered interpret this kind of peace in a vastly different way than their conquerors do. The Gospel of the Early Jesus Community envisioned a peace through a restored distributive justice for all, through a distinctly nonviolent transformation.

Luke’s birth narrative is quite different from Matthew’s. One difference is that Luke’s narrative centers the voices of women more than Matthew’s does. Luke and Matthew’s birth narratives also differ in geography: Luke progresses from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Nazareth with no time spent in Egypt. Matthew starts in Bethlehem then moves to Egypt, and then from there moves onto Nazareth. Finally, unlike Matthew’s narrative, which was for Jewish, Jesus-followers in Galilee, Luke’s narrative is for a broader Gentile Jesus-following audience. This may help to explain why Matthew treats the Herodians in Galilee as the tools of Rome while Luke takes a much more direct aim at Caesar himself.

These stories are not about a debate between Christianity and Judaism. We do see an early hybrid Christian-and-Jewish move against Roman imperialism. Early Jewish Jesus-followers lived within Judaism and while they were in dialogue and even compete with the other Jewish voices, they were still Jewish.

This is the backdrop I want us to see behind Luke’s birth narrative. In Luke, we’re not seeing Jesus versus Judaism, but rather Jesus versus Rome. We can find signs of a growing anti-Semitism in early Christianity in Luke’s gospel, not as much in Luke as we find in John. Yet Luke contains more than Matthew, and definitely, more than we find in Mark.

We can explore Luke’s agenda when we read Luke’s birth-narratives of Jesus through these filters:

  1. First-century Christianity,
  2. Christianity within first-century Judaism; and
  3. Judaism within the systemic injustice and oppression of Roman imperialism.

We’ll start with Roman imperialism, and work our way backward.

Roman Imperialism

When we speak of Roman imperialism, we’re referring to the integration of military, economic, political, and theological/philosophical layers in Rome. This four-pronged imperialism was a method of economic distribution; a type of human, social organization; a social order and its exercise of (or lack of) distributive justice; and specifically, Rome’s vision for peace within its empire.

During the time of Luke’s birth narrative, it was Augustus Caesar who received the titles Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Rome had experienced several civil wars as a democratic republic and had regressed to the point of disintegration when Octavian, later called Augustus, became Rome’s savior. Through Augustus, Rome transitioned from an imperial republic to an imperial monarchy, and Augustus was regarded as a god. In addition to his other titles, he was dubbed Augustus in Latin (one who is divine) and Sebastos in Greek (one who is to be worshipped). Temples were inscribed to him with the dedication, “The Autocrat Caesar, the Son of God, the God to be worshipped.”

And as with all domination systems, the four imperial aspects of Rome produced a society where an elite at the top benefited from the subjugation of the many beneath them. Luke addresses all four imperial aspects in his gospel.

In response to Rome’s military power, Luke presents Jesus teaching nonviolence. In response to Rome’s economic power, Luke presents Jesus teaching wealth redistribution. In response to Rome’s political power, Luke presents Jesus, not Caesar, as Liberator, Redeemer, the bringer of Peace, Lord, and Savior of the world. And in response to Rome’s theology of a ruler who was supposedly born to divine-human parents and so was named the Son of God, God from God to be worshiped, Luke presents Jesus and his subversive “kingdom.”

Scholar Adolf Gustav Deissmann once wrote of “the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, ‘lord’” (Light from the Ancient East, p. 349). Rome’s theology was larger than Caesar and included the worship of deities like Mars the god of war, but Caesar was worshipped as the incarnate representation of the Divine.

Knowing Augustus’ birth-narratives reinforces this. The story was that on the night of Augustus’ conception, his father dreamed that the sun rose from his wife Atias’ womb: Caesar Augustus was the coming of light to the world. Augustus was believed to be the “Son of God” fathered by Apollo, and Apollo in turn was the “Son of God” fathered by Zeus, the supreme god of the Roman and Greek pantheon.

This description of Augustus Caesar’s conception is from the 2nd Century CE and cites an Egyptian story about Augustus that dates to 31-29 BCE:

“When Atia [Augustus’ mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden, a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified her self, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, p. 94.4, emphasis added)

Propertius’ Elegies quotes the god Apollo as saying:

“O savior of the world… Augustus… now conquer at sea: the land is already yours: my bow battles for you’” (4.6.37– 39).

An ancient inscription in modern Turkey refers to Augustus as “divine Augustus Caesar, son of a god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and savior of the whole world.” So Caesar Augustus, conceived of Apollo, was, in Roman theology, the Savior of the World, and Luke’s gospel responds to that context.

This is why the Christmas stories for Luke’s gospel are significant: Luke’s birth narratives allow the author to draw a deep contrast between Rome’s vision for society (the Pax Romana) and Jesus’ vision for a society of distributive justice, especially for the presently marginalized. This contrast provides rich insights for us today who are also working toward a world characterized by distributive justice for all.

We’ll see this more deeply as we discuss Judaism within the systemic injustice and oppression of Roman imperialism next week. I wanted to start this series by showing how deeply Luke’s birth narratives about Jesus are political contrasts between Jesus and his vision for society and Caesar and Rome’s vision for society.

Those who allow the Jesus story to speak into their lives today as we all work together to shape our world into a safe, compassionate, distributively just home for everyone will have lots to consider.

HeartGroup Application

  1. What are some of the political implications that you see in Luke’s birth narratives in the context of the above contrasts of Luke’s gospel between Jesus (and his vision for society) and imperial Rome? Discuss with your group. (One example of where to start is Mary’s declarations beginning in Luke 1:46)
  2. Discuss with your group what applications can be drawn from these narratives in our work of making society more just, today.
  3. Pick something from your discussion that you can implement or practice as a group in the coming year.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, taking action, and reparative and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Remember, all donations to Renewed Heart Ministries, this month, are being matched dollar for dollar. Through this generous offer, you can your support go twice as far here at the end of the year. Also, we are offering a special thank you gift to all our sustaining partners. To find out more and how you too can become a sustaining partner go to renewedheartministries.com and click the Shared Table Fundraiser image.

I love each of you dearly.

Happy holidays to you all.

I’ll see you next week.

A Christmas Story for the Marginalized

Herb Montgomery | December 6, 2019

Ethiopian Orthodox Church Nativity Scene painted in traditional style

Ethiopian Orthodox Church Nativity Scene painted in traditional style


“The question for those presently at the center is not whether they will include the presently marginalized at their table, but whether they will participate in the socially transformative work that is already taking place on the margins of their society.”


“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.'” (Luke 2:8–10)

We have entered the holiday season and I want to begin by wishing each of you a very happy one. In the Christian calendar, this is the season of Advent. In Luke’s version of the narratives about Jesus’ birth, the author chooses to center an unlikely community to receive the first announcement of “good news to all people.” This was the community of “shepherds living in the fields nearby.”

In Luke’s society, socially, politically and economically, shepherding filled one of the lowest occupational roles and shepherds bore the brunt of their lower social location. Shepherds were considered untrustworthy, and their work—according to some then-popular interpretations of Torah—made them continually unclean.

The most obvious implication is that the “good news” of the Jesus story first came to a community on the edges of Jesus’ society. His story was going to be first for those on society’s edges, not those in positions of privilege and power.

This narrative contradicts the one that modern, Westernized Christianity has so long used to equate Christianity with social respectability. Today, with few exceptions, the church has often missed out on building relationships and community with people pushed to the fringes of our larger society. I’m being generous when I say it this way: to simply say that Christian communities have “missed out” ignores the reality that the marginalized have been more than simply “missed.” The church has in many cases driven these folks to society’s fringes so that they’re marginalized by the very ones who carry the name of Jesus.

It matters how we understand each version of the stories of Jesus’ birth and what social, economic, political and even religious implications these stories would’ve had for their original listeners and contexts. When we read contextually today, we begin to see a rich field of insights for our work of social justice. Historically, Christians have spent countless hours on apologetics defending certain details in Jesus’ birth narratives but ignored the more socially relevant implications of these stories. One example of a detail we’ve historically focused on is Matthew’s gospel’s virgin birth. This story element would have meant something to those living in Galilee continually bumping up against the Roman myths about the birth of Caesar Augustus. It says little to us today in our scientific age. Yet other elements of Jesus’ birth narratives in both Matthew and Luke still can offer much to us who are working for a world of love and justice today.

How we as Christians hear the Christmas story, read the Christmas story, and interpret the Christmas story matters! Reclaimed interpretations of the Christmas story emphasize details that we can’t afford to miss. Jesus being born into immense poverty, being announced to the socially outcast, bypassing the politically, economically, socially and religiously of the day, and his parents becoming violence-fleeing refugees for the wellbeing of their child—there is an entire foundation here on which to build a framework for Christians who are working toward social justice today.

The story whispers to us of the need for communities to prioritize the poor, the insignificant, forgotten, and the marginalized. These are the people who gathered at this lowly manger and dared to believe that the babe who lay there, this good news, really belonged to them.

The message to the shepherds was, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.” (Luke 2:8–10)

The babe in a manger would not affirm the dominant structure of society of inequity, oppression, exploitation (See Luke 4:18-19). Instead, he would grow up to gather the outcast, the socially marginalized, those labeled and treated as less than by the privileged and powerful. He called for a society that did this, too, and it began with his early followers. Early communities of Jesus-followers were almost wholly comprised of people from society’s edges.

At the heart of Luke’s retelling of the Jesus story (and I believe it was the reason he—unlike Mark and John—included the details of Jesus’ birth) is a desire to contrast Jesus’ vision for human community of no more oppression, exploitation or marginalization with the much larger Roman society they lived in.

We’ll cover these contrasts in Luke in the upcoming weeks leading up to Christmas. I believe they hold wonderful encouragement for those working within or alongside marginalized communities today, especially for Christians who allow Jesus’ teachings to speak into their lives.

And lastly, during this holiday season, in the midst of all that is taking place in the news presently, we must not forget what these stories say to those who are marginalized in our society. We’ll talk about all of this, too. For now, it is enough to meditate on the fact that in the gospels’ birth-narratives about Jesus, it is the marginalized who are centered. It is foreigners, shepherds, the poor, the marginalized, so-called “nobodies,” and even the animals of a stable that gather around the manger to symbolize, I believe, the human community this newborn babe will grow up to speak about. The good news is for them.

People are of infinite value in this story. In these stories, people and communities marginalized by their present society are, especially of immeasurable worth. When I was born, my parents printed and sent out baby announcements to all their family and friends. I don’t know if many parents still do this, but I still have my birth announcement. To think of Jesus’ birth stories in this light, it is the marginalized who are the ones to whom the birth announcements of Jesus’ birth are first sent.

In the hustle and bustle of this season’s celebrations, traditions, and revelry, Christians who still subscribe to various forms of exclusion (xenophobia, racism, homo-, bi-, and transphobias, sexism, etc.) must allow the universal truths this story tells to confront them. If you are a Christian setting out nativity scenes in your home, stop for a moment and look at each of the figurines you’re placing. Who do these figures represent today? How are they represented in your life? Are you one of them? If not, are you living in solidarity with those represented in this scene?

Your nativity scene hints to us that this babe lying in a manger, born into poverty, and surrounded by those on edges of his society, will grow up to cast before the imagination of his listeners a vision for human society and those society considers less-than. His is a story for the powerless, the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized, the unclean, the judged, and the labeled, and excluded, the insignificant, and forgotten. These are the very ones that can gather around this lowly manger and dare to believe that the babe who lies there really is for them.

This last year, one of the RHM recommended reading books was Miguel A. De La Torre’s Reading the Bible from the Margins. Speaking of our nativity scene reminds me of this passage:

“Jesus’s audience was primarily the outcasts of society. This is why it is important to understand the message of Jesus from the perspective of the disenfranchised. The marginalized of Jesus’ time occupied the privileged position of being the first to hear and respond to the gospel. By making the disenfranchised recipients of the Good News, Jesus added a political edge to his message.” (Kindle Location 629)

Jesus’ birth narratives are not calling for societally privileged Christians today to begin including those presently marginalized. On the contrary, the Christmas stories call these specific Christians to recognize that God is already working in the margins of their society. The question for those presently at the center is not whether they will include the presently marginalized at their table, but whether they will participate in the socially transformative work that is already taking place on the margins of their society.

The stories of Jesus are not stories of inclusion where those presently centered maintain their positions of privilege. These are stories about a fundamental change in the way we shape our human communities. And it begins with recognizing the universal truths of the manger scene. Change always happens from the grassroots up, from the margins inward. The question for those at the center is whether they will obstruct those working for a safer, just society, or work in harmony with them.

This is what these stories are saying to me this year. What are they saying to you?

HeartGroup Application

  1. Where do you see transformative work being already engaged within communities that are societally marginalized today?
  2. Pick one of these communities. Reach out to the community you have chosen and find out the needs of those in this community who are doing transformative work.
  3. Discuss with your HeartGroup how your group can help to alleviate the needs you discovered. Picks something from your discussion and put it into practice. Note your experiences. Then share with your group what you’re learning.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative, and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

And don’t forget, all donations to Renewed Heart Ministries this month are being matched dollar for dollar. Through this generous offer, you can your support go twice as far here at the end of the year. Also, we’d like you to invite you to become one of our monthly supporters through our Shared Table fundraiser going on right now. You’ll receive a special gift from us for doing so. To find out more go to renewedheartministries.com and click on the “Share Table Fundraiser” image.

I love each of you dearly.

Happy holidays to you all.

I’ll see you next week.