Forgiving a Sinning Brother or Sister Repeatedly

by Herb Montgomery | November 10, 2017

“Safe spaces” are not spaces where everyone’s opinion is equally valued. Safe spaces are spaces where there is a preferential option practiced for the most vulnerable in the room. Safe spaces are spaces where the voices and experiences of the vulnerable are not only believed and validated, but they are also centered. As Jesus taught, the first shall be last and the last, first (Matthew 20:16).

Featured Text:

“If your brother sins against you rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him. And if seven times a day he sins against you, also seven times shall you forgive him.” (Q 17:3-4)

Let’s jump right in this week with Matthew’s use of this week’s saying.

Matthew 18:15: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.”

Matthew 18:21: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’”

This week’s saying is an in-house teaching: it’s about how Jesus followers were to relate to each other. As Deissmann reminds us, “By its very nature Primitive Christianity stood contrasted with the upper class not first as Christianity, but as a movement of the proletarian lower class” (New Light on the New Testament From the Records of the Graeco-Roman Period, 1907, p. 7). And within this lower class movement, survival was a central concern: “Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed” (Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 29). In this early community of Jesus followers, being divided from within was just as much a threat as being divided from forces that opposed the movement from without. As we look at this week’s saying, however, it’s not about forgiving “oppressors” or “enemies” outside of the community. It’s about how to navigate wrongs committed within the community itself. There are different sayings of Jesus that relate to the subject of enemy love. Our saying this week rather focuses on the community of the oppressed: “if your brother or sister sins against you” (emphasis added).

In the community of the early movement, there were those who used to be former oppressors who had chosen to stand in solidarity with this movement, repenting of their former lives and now choosing Jesus’s preferential option for the poor. Speaking of the internal struggle between predominantly white feminism and the struggle for liberation by women of color, Jacquelyn Grant shares, “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” (Jacquelyn Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, p. 191) This week’s saying isn’t empty rhetoric. It values liberation before reconciliation within the early community of Jesus followers. Let’s unpack it a bit.

Internal Divisions

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus states, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25 cf. Luke 11:17). The context in Mark is that Jesus was speaking of the house of one’s oppressors, but it’s a universal truth that applies to any community working for social change as well. Last week, comments by Rev. Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church illustrated once again how internal differences can divide communities engaging the world of survival, resistance and liberation. He reminded me how necessary intersectional resistance is if we are going to make a difference. Those outside of our communities can divide us over our varied identities if we are not careful. “This division creates a kind of fragmented fellowship among progressives with advocates dispersed across a range of issues; income/wealth inequality, workers’ rights, mass incarceration, anti-poverty, education, environmental justice, LGBT rights, anti-violence work, healthcare, voting rights, the list goes on. This dynamic weakens our ability to create a unified front in combating the forces that oppose social and economic justice; forces which are much more unified and better financed than we are” (“The New Abolitionism” – Monetary Reform And The Future Of Social Justice)

We have to work to not allow our differences to divide us. This requires intention. Internal divisions can result from a variety of causes: intention, carelessness, ignorance, and more.

As an example, when I was first introduced to Christian LGBTQ communities, I remember being called on the carpet multiple times by two dear friends in particular. They were committed to the principle of putting liberation first, as a precursor to reconciliation or unity. They were committed to not letting me keep my blind spots or get away with my unintentional but still very real and damaging participation in their oppression.

At the time I believed respectability was required of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people if they were going to make progress in the minds and hearts of straight people. I offered the example of how seeing Christian LGBTQ folks and how that had contradicted every stereo type the kind of Christianity I was raised in had peddled to me of the LGBTQ community.

This respectability, though, was being defined by straight people, specifically certain Christian, straight people, but not required of us, and my friends were quick to call me out on it. Were the only folks of the LGBTQ community worthy of being “counted as human and therefore who get to live in a world that supports their flourishing” the Christian ones? My friends were part of a community that loved me too much to let me get away with treating them differently. It was a community of accountability. And this accountability was vital if our community was to be safe for oppressed people.

We recently covered this when we discussed Jesus’s preferential option for the vulnerable. Jesus’ community practices genuine love that does not allow people to get away with abuse and that prioritizes those to whom abuse would do the greatest damage. This starkly contrasts with the Christian communities I had been accustomed to. I was used to communities of “grace.” I know grace can have different meanings, and too often it means, “We don’t judge people other around here.” It produces an unhealthy environment where anything goes, and forgiveness is prioritized over accountability. Christian communities like that are dangerous for vulnerable people. They are communities where a preferential option for oppressors is practiced, consciously or unconsciously. They use the rhetoric of love but these communities are not loving because they don’t protect those who are most vulnerable.

This is where our saying comes in this week.

“So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” (Luke 17:3-4, emphasis added.)

Jesus’s community practices rebuke and repentance when community members sin against each other. This is a community that seeks to set up healthy boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not. It not only “went out and preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:12), but also required repentance within the community. Repentance is more than saying one is sorry; it is more than apologizing. Repentance also requires someone to change their mind and behavior regarding someone or something. Repentance is a change in how someone thinks about and acts toward someone or something.

And this change in how one thinks about someone or something requires listening, openness, belief, and choice. Examples include White people changing in relation to people of color, men changing in relation to women, straight folks changing in relation to LGB folks, cisgender folks changing in relation to trans folks, and the wealthy changing in relation to the poor. In order to allow one’s thinking to be changed (to allow repentance), you have to be willing to listen to the experiences of those whose lives are unlike your own. You have to be open to believing another person’s experience, and also choose to prioritize that person’s experience in your future choices.

There is a lot of talk today about what is being called “Third Way Spaces,” communities where people simply agree to disagree. Instead of defining community around one of two opposing positions, the community seeks to maintain a unity and cohesiveness without requiring any group to repent or change its mind. These types of communities are fine if we are disagreeing on the “best” flavor of ice cream. But they can be dangerous if the disagreement is over whether a person should exist or not. In matters such as orientation, gender, racial, or economic equality, for example, repentance is the necessary foundation of forgiveness and unity. “Safe spaces” are not spaces where everyone’s opinion is equally valued. Safe spaces are spaces where there is a preferential option practiced for the most vulnerable in the room. Safe spaces are spaces where the voices and experiences of the vulnerable are not only believed and validated, but they are also centered. As Jesus taught, the first shall be last and the last, first (Matthew 20:16).

Seven times

Let’s talk about the part in both Matthew’s and Luke’s use of this saying where it is required to forgive even “seven times.” Understand that if someone makes the same so-called “mistake” seven times, that’s probably indicative that repentance, a change in how someone thinks about something or someone, has not really happened. In Mark’s gospel, we get a hint of what this could mean:

“When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons” (Mark 16:9).

Not the same demon seven time. Seven different demons. These were seven different instances, not the same instance being repeated seven times over and over again. As long as a person is willing to grow, they may have multiple issues they’re going to have to put the work into to deal with. As long as they are willing to do the necessary work intrinsic to repentance, then they can remain in the community. I think of those who were patient with me, who took note of my dedication to growing, my willingness to think differently and do the necessary work on my own, too, in challenging how I thought about things. These friends didn’t give up on me while I was still willing and working to change. I don’t want to be misunderstood. If others don’t bring to your relationship a prevenient willingness and investment in changing, it’s not your job to convince them to. They have to come to this in their own way. Our job is to create communities where reconciliation is built on the preceding foundation of liberation and that possess healthy boundaries of active repentance.

Ignorance is inevitable: our experiences are not all the same. But division is optional. Each of us can choose repentance. And if repentance is genuinely present, forgiveness can be chosen as well.

Unity at the price of silence

What I hope we are seeing this week is that in the early Jesus community, unity was not the highest value. Justice was. Liberation was. Thriving, especially for the vulnerable, was. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail places justice above unity and peace. This letter was Dr. King’s response to several criticisms made by his fellow clergymen who claimed to be allies and “brothers,” but published a letter entitled “A Call for Unity” and asked King to stop his work. King’s letter was the “rebuke” that called them to the kind of “repentance” required by our saying this week.

In my own faith tradition, presently there are those who are calling for ministerial ordination to include women. (I know. It’s 2017 and we’re still having to debate this.) Those opposed to ordaining women are calling for unity. But unity requires a change in how someone thinks about something or someone. There can be no unity while the official position and policy expresses that women are somehow “less than” men. There can be no unity where injustice toward others is not challenged and rejected. There is no genuine unity where injustice is practiced within the community.

I think of the recent interview of Angela Davis by Michelle Alexander hosted by Union Seminary and Riverside Church. In the question and answer session at the end, the dynamic of repentance being prioritized above unity in the relationship between White allies and people of color is discussed. It’s well worth your time to watch the entire interview if you have not already.

Choosing to think and live differently is not always easy, but it is possible. We can choose to center our community in the experiences of the vulnerable. Choosing to forgive is not easy either. Both repentance and forgiveness take work, and it’s worth it. Division only ends up empowering our oppressors.

If your brother or sister sins against you rebuke them, and if they repent forgive them. And if seven times a day they sin against you, also seven times shall you forgive them. Q 17:3-4

HeartGroup Application

  1. Those who feel comfortable sharing, share with the group a time when you found it deeply challenging to listen to another person’s experience, but chose to listen anyway. How did it end up changing the way you thought about something?
  2. Share with the group a time when someone who hurt you chose to change, and how that change impacted your ability to forgive them. Share the result of that forgiveness.
  3. Commit as a group to set up healthy boundaries where we hold each other accountable. Become a group that creates a safe space for the vulnerable among you. Practice Jesus’s preferential option for the vulnerable. Be willing to change.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Wherever you are, keep living in love, love that holds people accountable in our work of survival, resistance, and liberation on our path toward thriving.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

 

The Lost Sheep

Picture of a sheep

by Herb Montgomery | October 27, 2017

“This has implications for our justice work today as well. There are two types of justice work. One seeks to give people equal access to a competitive system where there will still be winners and losers regardless of race, gender, orientation, or other traits. The other is a type of social justice that seeks to include everyone, yet has a radical vision for society of no more winners and losers, and cooperation over competition. In the second vision, people aren’t simply given the education and tools required for them to play the game with equal ability. Rather, we call into question whether the game itself is good for humans to play at all.”

Featured Text:

“Which person is there among you who has a hundred sheep, on losing one of them, will not leave the ninety-nine in the mountains‚ and go hunt for the lost one? And if it should happen that he finds it, I say to you that he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.” (Q 15:4-5a, 7)

Companion Text:

Matthew 18:12-13—“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.”

Luke 15:4-7—“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Gospel of Thomas 107: “Jesus says: ‘The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them went astray, the largest. He left the ninety-nine, and he sought the one until he found it. After he had toiled, he said to the sheep: “I love you more than the ninety-nine.”’”

In Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, this saying is used in different contexts for two different narrative purposes. We’ll look at both.

Matthew’s Vulnerable

In Matthew, this saying about 99 abandoned but safe sheep focuses on the vulnerability of the one lost sheep. Matthew prepares the reader by Jesus saying first, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” (Matthew 18:10)

The context is Jesus’ teaching about children.

In Jesus’ ancient Mediterannean world, children were at the bottom of the social and economic scale when it came to status and rights. Thomas Carney, in The Shape of the Past: Models of Antiquity, explains:

“Age division, and commensurate power and responsibility, were hierarchical, sharply demarcated and significant. Authority ran vertically downward. Age and tradition were revered and powerful . . . Early training was harshly disciplined. It was not until early adulthood that the young person began receiving serious consideration as a member of the family group.” (p. 92)

Here in Greenbrier County, WV, I sit on the board of our Child and Youth Advocacy Center (CYAC). This CYAC brings justice, hope, and healing to children in Greenbrier, and the nearby Monroe and Pocahontas Counties. The CYAC is a nationally-accredited child advocacy center that compassionately and effectively puts first the needs of children who are victims of abuse. In a society where those with access to resources have greater power and social control, children have access to neither power nor resources. In Western society, children have no independent access to the typical avenues to power and self-determination: education, income, or work. They are the most vulnerable to abuse and neglect so child advocacy and children’s rights are much needed. Whatever discrimination we speak of on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability, color, or ethnicity, we must remember that all of these discriminations are significantly compounded when they apply to children who depend on others for both their survival and their thriving.

Matthew points to the singular lamb that receives the shepherd’s preferential option for the most vulnerable in his flock—the “little ones” Jesus taught about.

Gustavo Gutiérrez often states that Jesus’ preferential option for the vulnerable is 90% of liberation theologies, and it’s this preferential option that we come face to face with in this week’s saying. What does “preferential option” mean?

The world of society’s most vulnerable is a world of both poverty and death. Poverty, in most societies, means death before one’s time. Societal vulnerability comes in multiple forms and has different causes, but is characterized by certain ones in a community being considered less than, other, insignificant, or less human. They become dehumanized and objectified. Vulnerability can be simply economic or can also involve gender, race, gender identity and sexual orientation. Because it is complex, vulnerability demands more than individual acts of charity: it requires the work of justice. As I am fond of saying, the prophets did not call for charity; they called for justice. Our tools must help us to identify and then actively resist the unjust structures that cause societal vulnerability.

So when liberation theologians speak of a preferential option for the vulnerable, they do not mean that it is optional. Option in this case means a commitment. It means to opt for this rather than that. In this week’s saying we see a teaching that calls us to choose the side of the vulnerable people in our societies.

Making certain ones vulnerable to benefit others at their expense wounds the entire society. Their vulnerability can only be healed by us “choosing” solidarity alongside the vulnerable. And that is where the preferential part comes in. By “preferential” we mean who should first have our solidarity? The preferential option means subscribing to Jesus’ vision for society where the last become first and the first become last. Jesus’ followers are to stand in preferential solidarity with the “poor,” the “hungry,” and those who “weep” (Luke 6:20-21)

This weeks’ saying calls each of us to stand in solidarity with the ones who are vulnerable rather than remaining safe in our social status among the ninety-nine who are not threatened.

Luke’s “Sinners”

Luke’s use of this saying is similar, but different. He uses this saying to explain why Jesus is standing in solidarity with people whom some of the more popular religious leading voices of his day said are unclean, are sinners, and should be marginalized.

“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)

The use of the label “sinners” in the gospels is specific not universal. Christians today, especially evangelical Christians see the label of “sinner” as applying to everyone. In the Jesus stories there’s a cultural context for the label “sinner.” It was used to refer to Jewish people who were not living up to contemporary interpretations and definitions of Torah observance. (We’ll discuss this at length in next week’s saying.)

In Luke, these “sinners” are responding positively to Jesus’ economic teachings while the wealthy progressive Pharisees are not.

Luke 5:27-28: “After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.”

Luke 19:1-9: “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 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.’ 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.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.’”

Now contrast those passages with this one.

Luke 16:14: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.”

Ched Myers does an excellent job at distilling for us the social and political positions of the Pharisees in the Gospels. The scholarly evidence can be found in his book Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (see pages 75-78 and 431). What I had missed in my modern reading is that one of the tensions between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the Jesus story was political power from their interpretations of the purity codes. (We’ll unpack this in detail next week, too.) The Sadducees kept a tight rein on political power by maintaining a more conservative interpretation of purity that keep them firmly centered as social elites and sole community decision-makers.

By contrast, the Pharisees sought to gain political power by opening up the definitions of purity to more people but still leaving themselves in control of determining who was “clean” and who was “unclean.” The Pharisees’ interpretation of purity according to the Torah was much more progressive or “liberal”, and therefore gave access to more people than the Sadducee’s interpretations did, but it still left them holding all the reins. It was therefore more popular with the masses than the Sadducee interpretation and was what gave the Pharisees their social power.

But whereas the Sadducees appealed to the upper class elites, the Pharisees appealed to those we would today call “middle class,” and the poor masses were still unclean and therefore excluded. Jesus emerged within Galilee as a prophet of the poor. The Gospels are an effort to convince readers that “the Pharisaic social strategy practice, that it is not the populist alternative it seems, but merely a cosmetic alternative to the oppressive clerical hierarchy.” Jesus does this repeatedly in the stories by “raising a deeper issue concerning the place of the poor in the [Pharisaical] social order” (Ibid. p 431).

This brings to my mind the reality I’ve witnessed within more progressive strands of modern Christianity. A Christian group or ministry can be very progressive compared to others, but still be racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist, or capitalist. The label of “liberal” is not synonymous with liberation; and “progressive” does not necessarily mean radical.

Jesus wasn’t a liberal. He taught what could be termed radical liberation. Jesus wasn’t offering people greater access and opportunity in the current domination and/or competition system, but he rather offered an entirely new way for people to relate to each other as humans in community. Because he repudiated the then-present system and had an alternative vision for human community, Jesus rejoiced in centering voices long neglected rather than those who through religious ritual perfection and purity located themselves at the center or top of community power structures.

This has implications for our justice work today as well. There are two types of justice work. One seeks to give people equal access to a competitive system where there will still be winners and losers regardless of race, gender, orientation, or other traits. The other is a type of social justice that seeks to include everyone, yet has a radical vision for society of no more winners and losers, and cooperation over competition. In the second vision, people aren’t simply given the education and tools required for them to play the game with equal ability. Rather, we call into question whether the game itself is good for humans to play at all.

Where Matthew focuses on solidarity with the vulnerable, Luke focuses on including those who have been marginalized as unclean outsiders, announcing their inclusion in the shared table that Jesus is promoting. Both Matthew and Luke give us much to ponder in our work today.

“Which person is there among you who has a hundred sheep, on losing one of them, will not leave the ninety-nine in the mountains‚ and go hunt for the lost one? And if it should happen that he finds it, I say to you that he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.” (Q 15:4-5a, 7)

HeartGroup Application

This past week, Keisha McKenzie directed my attention to an article by Chanequa Walker-Barnes entitled Why I Gave Up Church. In this article, Walker-Barnes asks the question:

“What word does Christianity have to offer for those of us who live with our backs constantly against the walls of white supremacist heterosexist patriarchal ableist capitalism?”

This week I want you to:

  1. Read the article together as a group.
  2. Once you’re finished, take some time to discuss the article together. How did Walker-Barnes affirm what you were already feeling? How did she challenge you? Which of her points, if any, did you agree with? Explain your answers in your group.
  3. Lastly, this week, please remember that 80% of Puerto Rico is still without drinking water and electricity. As Rosa Clemente stated last week, “This is a colonial problem that began 119 years ago.” As a HeartGroup, come up with a way to help.

One HeartGroup shared with me one of their group members had convinced their workplace to have a casual Friday where a donation of $10 or more to Puerto Rico allowed employees to come to work in casual clothing. All income was donated. If you need help knowing exactly how to do something concrete that will help, there are many suggestions right now. An example is Puerto Rico Still Needs Our Help. Here’s What You Can Do. The point is to come up with something your group can do and then take action.

Thank you for checking in with us again this week. Keep living in love, and keep engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration and transformation.

And for those of you who are supporting our work, I just can’t thank you enough. This past weekend proved once again just how vital and much needed our work here at RHM is. We could not exist without you, and I thank you for your financial partnership with us. For others of you who are interested in supporting our work as well, please go to renewedheartministries.com and click donate. There you can become one of our monthly contributors or make a one-time donation. Either way, every amount helps.

Together we are making a difference, carrying on the work found in Luke 4:18-19 one engagement at a time.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Speaking against the holy Spirit 

White dove in the cage, Pigeon locked in a cage.by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And whoever says a word against the son of humanity, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him.” Q 12:10 

Companion Texts:

Matthew 12:32: “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

Luke 12:10: “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”

Gospel of Thomas 44: “Jesus says: ‘Whoever blasphemes against the Father, it will be forgiven him. And whoever blasphemes against the Son, it will be forgiven him. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, neither on earth nor in heaven.’”

Womanism and Spirit

For those unfamiliar with the womanist school of thought, Alice Walker writes, “Womanist to feminist is as purple is to lavender” (In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, pp. xii). Womanism’s origins are among Black women of the African diaspora. And within our context this week, I love the emphasis womanist writers place on Spirit.

Karen Baker-Fletcher, a Christian womanist, explains, “The Spirit is the all-encompassing, inclusive force in which God/Creator, Jesus and all of creation are inextricably entombed.” (My Sister, My Brother, p. 31). She quotes Igbo theologian Okechukwu Ogbannaya: “[Spirit] is like the amniotic fluids—the waters of the womb—that encompasses a child before it is born, and accompany it, flowing out with it as it makes its way into the world as we know it. It surrounds the child and forms the first environment out of which it is born.”

Christian womanists view Jesus as the “human embodiment of Spirit” (ibid.). Spirit is the source of strength and courage to both survive and stand up to individual and systemic oppression. Womanists join love with justice in their discussion of Spirit. Emilie Townes, for example, reminds us that we see the evidence of the Spirit at work when we see justice as the demands of love (see In a Blaze of Glory, p. 143-144). Within a womanist understanding, whenever we see love as engagement of the world of justice for the oppressed, marginalized, or subjugated, we are seeing the Spirit at work.

So a womanist would read our saying this week assuming that the Spirit expresses love through restorative, liberative, transformative, and distributive justice.

I remember an evangelical fourth of July celebration I had to attend once in California where supporters of the Christian Right repeated quoted Paul’s statement, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom [liberty]” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Too often, however, this “freedom” or “small government” rhetoric has not been freedom for the oppressed, nor liberty for those imprisoned and exploited (Luke 4:18). Rather it has been about individual freedom, or state’s freedom to oppress, segregrate, imprison, and exploit.  (For an example read here.)

In other words, for those at the top of an exploitative social pyramid who are privileged, advantaged, and benefited by the status quo, freedom and liberty means something fundamentally different than it does for those at the bottom. One is fixated on the freedom of the individual to do whatever they desire. The other sees that in nature, we are not truly free from one another. As we said last week, we are interconnected. We are part of one another. We are each other’s fate, and what one does affects others. What the individual does affects the community as much as what the community does affects the individual. We are not genuinely free from one another.

The Spirit’s work in Luke is especially helpful for us to remember now:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year for the cancelling of all debts [or “of the Lord’s favor.”]” (Luke 4:18-19, emphasis added.)

The Spirit works in solidarity with those on the undersides and margins of our societies. It calls those among the elite to abandon their advantage, join the rank and file, and work for a society marked by equity, fairness, compassion, and safety for all.

This week, I want to encourage you to think of the Spirit in the context of distributive justice, justice that makes an environment where each person not only survives but also thrives. This is one of the most devastating critiques of capitalism for Jesus followers because capitalism creates wealth disparity between winners and losers.

The U.S., the wealthiest nation in history, is also home to the greatest wealth disparity in history. Today six people possess as much wealth as the bottom 50% of society. Despite being so wealthy, the U.S. is still home to 43 million people who live below the poverty line. As I often say, the game Monopoly is fun for the first two rounds, but the last two rounds are only fun for one person at the table. For everyone else, it’s a slow painful death.

I want to speak for a moment to the middle class in our society. Here in the U.S., we do have a class structure. Below many of us is the lower class. Above us is the upper class, and there are large portions of the middle class of people who have drunk the upper classes’ Kool-aid. These are people who look at the upper class and long to be where they are, who subscribe to their economic philosophies and their societal “solutions.”

Even within Christianity, many people here in Appalachia think that if the poor can simply be taught how to play the upper class’s game of gaining and keeping individual wealth, this will solve poverty. (An example are churches who promote programs such as Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University).

What I want us to stop and consider is whether the game itself has moral ramifications. Is it enough to teach people how to succeed in an exploitative system? In Sayings Gospel Q we rather see a Jesus who critiques the exploitative system itself and casts before his listeners’ imagination a world that plays by a different set of values and priorities.

But I continue to bump into a certain resistance in Christian churches when I speak of Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. Just recently a gentleman came up to me after one of my presentations, stuck his finger on my chest, and said, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let someone else take my hard earned money away from me and give it to lazy poor people.”

I want to try and break down what I see happening here. First within the U.S. the higher one traverses up the class structure the more tax loopholes one can use to legally avoid paying taxes. The U.S. president admitted in the third presidential debate, “I haven’t paid taxes in nineteen years. That makes me smart.”

This legal tax avoidance means that the middle class pays most for social programs that go to alleviate the economic hardships that capitalism produces for the poor. The lower middle class—those who have worked really hard just to eek across the line from lower class to middle class—pays most. They have worked really hard to get to where they are, and I get that frustration.

But what I want us to see this week is that they, too, are being played by the upper class that doesn’t pay any taxes. They get out of paying taxes, unlike us, and they place the majority of the tax burden on others. This predisposes middle class people, even in Christian congregations, to have knee-jerk negative reactions whenever helping the poor is brought up.

Most of the Christians I have the pleasure of giving presentations to are middle class Christians. They are not exempt from what I’ve described above. When Christians hear their Jesus speak of selling everything the have and giving it to the poor, they hear it from their social location and they respond, “But then we all will be poor.”

I would like us to consider that Jesus’ message to the upper class was “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” To the middle class Jesus would instead say, “Do not be afraid little flock, it’s the Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom, too. Seek first Jesus’s new social order,” which the gospels refer to as “the Kingdom.” This is a social order marked by no more classism, mutual-aid among those in the lower class, resource-sharing for those in the middle class, and radical wealth redistribution for those in the upper class. Jesus envisioned class structures being replaced by a shared table with enough for everyone. Every person’s needs are met in the Kingdom, and not in the sense of “just scratching by.” No, no. This is world where everyone is thriving together!

But here is the catch: How does this relate to our saying this week on “speaking against the Spirit.” The spirit Jesus spoke of is the Spirit of liberation and restoration and transformation. It calls those who are in the middle class to stop their love affair with the upper class. Stop standing in solidarity with the rich. Stop making preferential options for the wealthy. Enter instead into a love affair with the poor. Stand in solidarity with the economically exploited. Embrace Jesus’ preferential option for the poor! When we do this, “all these things will be added unto you” intrinsically, because within a community that embraces the values and priorities of Jesus’s social vision, all these things are added to everybody!

“But seek first his kingdom and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

And yet the upper class continually has us think, speak, feel, and act against this “Spirit” that anoints one to bring good news to the poor. Some, in an attempt to delegitimize a world that looks like Jesus’s, use as slurs such labels as “leftist,” “socialism,” “communism” because they know that many people find these words emotionally charged. Some of those who use these terms derogatorily don’t even know what they mean! And others do know and use them accurately, but genuinely want an oligarchy where the world is ruled by the elites.

Stop falling for their fear-mongering.

Stop drinking their Kool-aid!

Recently I watched two documentaries back to back. The first was The 13th, an in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality. Then, at the request of a friend, I watched the documentary Occupy UnMasked, which is an Alt-Right spin on the Occupy Movement written by Steven Bannon and hosted by the late Andrew Breitbart.

Watching these two films back to back is what produced a spontaneous combustion in my heart. There are people today who buy hook, line, and sinker popular misrepresentations of the Occupy Movement. (The movement did have flaws, as all movements do, but was nowhere what Breitbart accuses it of being.)

When the masses have been made solely dependent on corporate elites for survival, this has been massively detrimental to them. And yet, I have family and friends who think that documentaries like Unmasked represent the truth, while documentaries like The 13th are spin. It is calling evil good and good evil. The Hebrew prophets pointed out the same phenomena within their societies:

“Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20)

The term “fake news” was originally used to call out conspiracists whose reporting was without foundation. I have family now who calls news agencies like The Washington Post “fake news.” They are saying things like “I’m simply choosing to believe in the alternative facts.”

Each of these family members also claims to be Christian. And though they might not realize it today, their Jesus stood in solidarity with the oppressed. He taught a gospel that did have a preference, for the poor, the outcast, those forced to live on the edges of society.

Stop standing with those who once were in the driver seat of abuse and want to be restored to that place of power over others once again. Stand in solidarity with and be informed by the voices of those who historically have been abused. Equity will always feel oppressive to those with privilege. Their privilege over others is being removed. Their advantage over others is being removed. But we are making a world that is safe for everyone, including them. They rarely perceive it this way.

Wherever the liberating, holy Spirit is believed to be evil, where it is accused of being dangerous, as it was by Jesus’ enemies among the elite in his own society, these words call us to reconsider:

“And whoever says a word against the son of humanity, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him.” Q 12:10 

HeartGroup Application

Who is telling the truth? Which side should one listen to in the uphill work of making our world a safer, more compassionate, just home for us all? Jesus’ gospel calls us to make a preferential option for the voices of the vulnerable and oppressed, all of them. We cannot afford to make a world that solves the human dilemma at the expense of any group.

Sit down with your HeartGroup this week and

  1. Discuss what difference it makes to define Jesus’ holy Spirit as liberation for the poor, marginalized, and disinherited?
  2. Those in positions of privilege within the status quo will always have a different side to the story. Of course they will, because even if only subconsciously, they want to preserve their social location. What difference will it make to base your preferential option on the perspectives of underprivileged people in our society?
  3. This week choose some well respected news outlets to read and begin asking yourself which side is this person’s perspective making a preferential option for: those with privilege or the underprivileged? Then come back to your group next week and discuss any changes in the “Spirit’s work” that you began to perceive this week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Keep living in love, loving like Jesus, and following the gospel Jesus modeled for us by making a preferential option for the least of these. Wherever this finds you this week, keep up the good work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. We are in this together.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.