God the Father, Exclusive Othering, and a Distributive Justice for All

Herb Montgomery | September 21, 2018


“And if Amos were alive this week, he might have said, ‘I hate, I despise your endless religious statements that make you feel pious, protecting your phobias about those whose experiences in life are so different than your own. Away with your worthless statement and drafted expressions of bigotry. Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’” 


“This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’” (Matthew 6:9-13)

This week, we begin a series of articles on Jesus’ revolutionary prayer in Matthew’s gospel, the prayer we label today as “the Lord’s prayer.” This prayer  frames an outline we can use to consider the themes in Jesus’ teachings in Matthew’s gospel. There’s much in it that I believe speaks to our work today of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

The outline of this prayer is:

Our Father in Heaven:
Be hallowed Your Name
Be come Your Kingdom
Be done Your Will

As in Heaven, so on Earth: 
Daily Bread
Debt Cancellation
Deliverance from temptation to evil

Those are the themes that we’ll be looking at. Now, let’s dive right in. 

Our Father in Heaven

Historically, the exclusive image of God as “Father” has borne bad fruit for those who are neither male nor fathers. Some in the dominant social position have weaponized it against those whose differences are “Othered” and then dominated, exploited, and destroyed them. One example aptly laid out by Grace Ji-Sun Kim is how these images of God have been used against Asian American women. In her book Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love, she writes:

“As a poor Jewish peasant teacher from Nazareth, Jesus was marginalized and stood in solidarity with the marginalized throughout the Roman Empire. Jesus’ incarnate life, kingdom teaching, and crucifixion on a Roman cross unveil God as a lover of justice, peace, and liberation.

While Jesus was a revolutionary, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Jesus becomes reimagined as a supporter of empire. Classical theism in the West often emphasizes God as an Almighty Father. This patriarchal concept of God has often been wielded in destructive ways throughout the history of Western Christianity. Through European colonization, too often guided by a patriarchal image of God, indigenous cultures have been dominated and destroyed, Africans have been enslaved, Asians exploited, women have been abused, and the poor have been economically exploited. The male God image mediated through the Almighty Father has often had negative conscious and unconscious effects on women, especially women of color. God the Almighty Father has often been a theological tool used by white men of European descent to subjugate woman and people of color.” (p. 116)

This title for God, “Almighty Father,” has proven extremely vulnerable to being coopted by sexism, racism, colonialism, imperialism, and binary heterosexism for the abuse of those who, though not male and not fathers, are nonetheless bearers of the image of the Divine. For many, the phrase “Our Father” in such a transformative prayer as this is not an appropriate place to begin but a trigger of pain and suffering.

But for those also dedicated to contemplating and following the teachings of Jesus, this first portion of this prayer presents no small challenge. After all, Jesus was Jewish, and  Jewish tradition encourages practicing care with picturing  God in one’s mind’s eye. In the Torah we read, 

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14)

This cryptic description of the Divine within the Hebrew sacred scriptures provides for a universality in bearing the image of the Divine. “I am who I am” is left cryptically defined.  The question could be asked, “Who are you?” We must practice caution against answering the question definitely, for any word that comes next will undoubtedly limit the Divine.  

There is a rich diversity within the human race. And to believe that all of humanity, every member of the human family, all of our human siblings, are made in the image of God speaks to the rich complexity of God, too (See Genesis 1:26).  Our concept of the Divine must become more expansive and inclusive. It is okay to speak of God as male and as female. It’s okay to speak of God as nonbinary and ungendered, too!  God is not just White, but also Black, Asian, and more. God has traditionally been defined within the imagery of heteropatriarchy. We must be careful to allow every person to see themselves reflected in an expansive image of the Divine because “in the image of God has God made humankind.” (Genesis 9:6). And to the degree we exclude anyone from God’s image today, history shows we will exterminate them tomorrow. 

There are many ways to respond to this in prayer. Some of those who understand and practice this way of addressing the Divine in prayer use “Mother-Father God” or “Paternal God.” I’ve prayed, “Dearest Heart at the Center of the Universe.” I’ve also heard “Source of Light and Love,” “God of all nations,” “God of all peoples,” “Faithful One,” “Source of Wisdom,” or “Source of Goodness, Grace, Mercy and Justice.” On June 22, 2017, Rev. Kevin Kitrell Ross, addressed his prayer in the U.S. House of Representatives to the “Loving Presence,” and concluded with “In the name of a love supreme we pray.” 

The Jewish tradition seems to encourage not limiting God with our images of Divinity:

“You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below.” (Deuteronomy 4:15-18)

I will admit that the authors’ intent in this passage was most likely to discourage people from using creation as any kind of referent at all, but I would also argue that this passage, therefore, leaves our image of the Divine as cryptic which also allows for an expansive and inclusive imaging that embraces the rich diversity of everyone. Jesus’ Jewish tradition would have given him sufficient grounds to have addressed his prayer in much more inclusive ways.

So why does this prayer in Matthew begin with “Father”?

We cannot ignore the reality that, like many of the cultures around it, Jesus’ culture was deeply patriarchal. Householders were almost exclusively men. Householders were “fathers.” In rare exceptions, widowed women might become householders. 

But there are some hints of another worldview in the rest of the prayer. It is a deeply economic prayer. Of all the things Jesus could teach his followers to pray for, he teaches them here to pray for enough bread for today, for all indebtedness to be forgiven in Jubilee fashion, and for liberation from evil as a violation from Israel’s covenant with YHWH. I believe, given the other content of this prayer, that deliverance from temptation to evil could have been a direct reference to the way the rich were exploiting the poor in violation of the economic teachings of the Torah. 

 “However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.” (Deuteronomy 15:4-5)

But back to our quest for understanding this prayer’s address, “Our Father.” Given that this prayer is grounded in economic realities, and in the Jewish patriarchal family the father was the householder, the one responsible for ensuring no one in the family had too much while others  didn’t have enough, John Dominic Crossan offers this fitting and possible explanation:

“[The prayer’s] vision derives from the common experience of a well-run home, household, or family farm. If you walked into one, how would you judge the householder? Are the fields well tended? Are the animals properly provisioned? Are the buildings adequately maintained? Are the children and dependents well fed, clothed, and sheltered? Are the sick given special care? Are responsibilities and returns apportioned fairly? Do all have enough? Especially that: Do all have enough? Or, to the contrary, do some have far too little while others have far too much?

“It is that vision of the well-run household, of the home fairly, equitably, and justly administered, that the biblical tradition applies to God. God is the Householder of the world house, and all those preceding questions must be repeated on a global and cosmic scale. Do all God’s children have enough? If not—and the biblical answer is “not”—how must things change here below so that all God’s people have a fair, equitable, and just proportion of God’s world? The Lord’s Prayer proclaims that necessary change as both revolutionary manifesto and hymn of hope. Do not, by the way, let anyone tell you that is Liberalism, Socialism, or Communism. It is—if you need an -ism—Godism, Householdism or, best of all, Enoughism. We sometimes name that biblical vision of God’s World-Household as Egalitarianism but, actually, Enoughism would be a more accurate description.” (John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, p. 3).

Given the cultural context as well as the content fo the rest of the prayer, it could be synonymous to pray, “Our Householder in Heaven.” And Jesus’ point is that the will of the World Householder is that everyone have enough.  Within a Jewish worldview, the responsibility for carrying out that will has been delegated to humans. We have to ask ourselves what kind of world have we made with this responsibility. Jesus is calling for a community of people (the Kingdom) to come into being where the distributively just will of the World Householder is actually carried out. This is a prayer, within the contradiction of a patriarchal culture, that calls for an economic, distributive justice. How this prayer begins may still remain deeply problematic for many. But the prayer still offers us much. There is much to reclaim and to renew our hearts as we continue to work today toward a world that is safe, distributively just, and compassionate for everyone. 

The God who Jesus pictured for his listeners was a God who causes the sun and rain to fall on all indiscriminately. So if someone is going without, we have to look for the obstruction. It’s being “sent” to all, so who and what are preventing what we need for thriving from reaching all? As is often been stated, there is enough each day for every person’s need, but not for every person’s greed. In teaching this, Jesus was accessing his Jewish tradition:

“The poor and the oppressor have this in common: The LORD gives sight to the eyes of both.” (Proverbs 29:13)

“Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.” (Proverbs 30:8)

This distributive justice spoken of by Jesus also has its roots in the way the Hebrew prophets spoke truth to power.

 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)

Crossan again notes, “the primary meaning of ‘justice’ is not retributive, but distributive. To be just means to distribute everything fairly. The primary meaning of ‘justice’ is equitable distribution” (dIbid., p. 2). This was the great Hebrew hope of a distributive justice whose fruit would be peace.

“Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne 
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it 
with justice [distributive] and righteousness.” (Isaiah 9:7)

“The fruit of that righteousness [distributive] will be peace;
its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.” (Isaiah 32:17) 

Amos names the error of prioritizing religious ritual over concern for justice, especially justice for the vulnerable. Two weeks ago now, the same group of evangelicals that produced The Nashville Statement last year put out another ugly statement entitled The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. I’m not going to link to it. It reveals the drafters’ and signers’ gross ignorance of both the gospel and social justice.   How many times do we see Christians practicing extreme care for their religiosity, while either being totally ignorant of or even opposing people’s cry for justice? Gustavo Gutiérrez reminds us, “The kingdom and social injustice are incompatible” (A Theology of Liberation, 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 97). And if Amos were alive this week, he might have said, “I hate, I despise your endless religious statements that make you feel pious, protecting your phobias about those whose experiences in life are so different than your own. Away with your worthless statement and drafted expressions of bigotry. Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” 

Jesus begins his prayer in a way that would have been heard and understood by his original audience. He paints a picture of the human family where everyone has enough to not only survive, but also thrive. 

I believe prayer, meditation, contemplation, and practices like these shape those who practice them. Over the next few weeks as we continue to contemplate this famous prayer, my hope is that it will shape us, too, into people who work to transform our world into a safe, compassionate home for all, regardless of race, gender, religion, culture, ethnicity, education, economic status, sexuality, gender identity and expression, ability, or whatever —a safe home for all, where everyone has enough.

“This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’” (Matthew 6:9-13)

HeartGroup Application

There is a lot happening this week.  

Women all over the country are, again, hearing through our various news feeds and in private conversations family and friends the rhetoric of “boys will be boys,” “he was young,” “that was high school,” and more. Even before a hearing, the use of this rape culture rhetoric continues to perpetuate prioritizing violators over survivors. There is never an “okay” age for rape.  Teenage boys should not get a pass. To say they are not mature enough to understand consent is disturbing. As a father having discussions this week with both my son and my daughters, I’m deeply concerned about the messages being communicated to them right now. And as human being, I witness how these kinds of statements deeply impact the women in my life. I’m deeply concerned for what this continues to say to women, and survivors, and men.

  1. Take a moment this week in your HeartGroup to go around the room and affirm each of the women in your midst. Tell them that you value them. Be voices in their lives this week saying, “This is not okay.”
  2. If any would like to share, make time for the women in your HeartGroup to share how this week has impacted each of them. Listen to them. Let me repeat that. Men, listen to them.
  3. Lastly, put your feet in motion. What are some of the ways your group can engage the work of making our world a safer place for women? Create a list. Then pick something from the list and put it into practice the following week.

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

Another world is possible. 

And remember, this is the time of year when Renewed Heart Ministries needs your support.  If you have been blessed by our work, please consider making a one time contribution or becoming one of our monthly supporters.  Go to renewedheartministries.com and click donate.”  Any amount helps.  And thank you in advance for your support.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Is Transformative Justice Enough?

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“Those who are well have no need of a physician.” (Mark 2.17)

This week, we continue exploring the passage that we looked at last week. Last week we said that the inclusive table of Jesus made room for “tax collectors” and “sinners,” and indicted the religious leaders who looked down on both. There is something else taking place in this passage as well.

Jesus perceived himself as a liberating physician who came not to condemn but to heal. His focus was transformation, not punishment. Tax collectors and sinners were being transformed (see Luke 19.1-9), and yet some of the people, for whatever reason, wanted to see these tax collectors and sinners suffer some chastisement for violating the Torah’s purity laws or for being unfaithful to the political interests of the Jewish people and collaborating with Rome.

I also want to be clear. The tax collectors and sinners were not changing in the ways the scribes and Pharisees wanted them to change, but they were changing. They were abandoning their participation in the systemic oppression of the poor and embracing Jesus’s teachings on the redistribution of their riches to those they had previously robbed.

There are two things to consider.

First: the tax collectors’ and sinners’ changes didn’t match the changes the scribes and Pharisees prescribed. Those who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus will be changed, but those changes may not look anything like the changes that religious onlookers expect.

This is not an “Anything goes if you turn to Jesus” approach. This is the reality that the changes that happen when we decide to follow the teachings of Jesus rarely reflect the values of religions that support and empower the status quo. The tax collectors and sinners who ate with Jesus were embracing Jesus’s bias toward the poor, but not necessarily the purity laws that the scribes and Pharisees passionately defended. And we have no indication that they were being indoctrinated into the mainstream definition of the Romans as the enemy.

Today the same is true. When someone turns to Jesus’s teachings, they may not change in all the ways others may think they need to. Change does occur. But the Jesus story offers transformation and a change in values as well. It is this values change that threatens the onlookers.

Just recently, I was accused of preaching a gospel that doesn’t produce change in the lives of those who embrace it: “Herb is preaching a gospel that tells people they can be saved in their sins.” Nothing could be further than the truth. What this claim misses is that radical change is in fact occurring, just not the changes some critics prescribe. Jesus’s gospel liberates us from both personal and systemic sin, and yet what you define as sin and what Jesus defined as sin may be radically different. We can miss ways people are changing right before our eyes because we don’t have Jesus’ tailor made plan of change for those people. Some status quo-supporting religions define as sin things that aren’t sin but are simply things that the status quo wants to suppress to maintain their societal  position. The personal and systemic transformation that Jesus’s teachings call for is transformation that will ultimately turn the status quo on its head.

Second: Jesus is much more concerned with transformation than with chastisement.

The stories of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah told of the ancient judges who guided the Hebrews before the days of the kings. These Judges were the people’s liberators, not their punishers.

In the books of the Old Testament prophets, justice is primarily restorative and transformative. They do speak of charity, but charity only helps with the immediate needs of those at the bottom of our societies. When justice works personal and systemic transformation, it works at the root of the system itself, and it produces no more societal tops or bottoms. It produces equity.

It may always be important to pull people out of the water who are drowning. But at some point, as Martin Luther King, Jr., taught us, somebody has to ask the question, “Who keep throwing these people in the water?”

When people benefit from the status quo, their gospel tends to define justice as punishment or retribution. These definitions work to preserve the status quo and the benefits that some can draw from it.

By contrast, Jesus’s teachings focus on justice transforming the status quo rather than a justice defined punishing those who violate the rules that preserve the status quo. Both the Old Testament prophets and Jesus taught a justice that invites transformation and not mere penal chastisement.

Hear Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ BUT I say to you, Do not retaliate against an evildoer…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, LOVE YOUR ENEMIES and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:38-39, 43-44, emphasis added.)

The cheek defiance and enemy love that Jesus taught affirmed those being violated, and it also sought creative ways to transform those violating them. (See the presentation entitled The Way of Enemy Love here.) Jesus’s enemy love was not in the least bit passive. It was nonviolent, and it lovingly confronted for the sake of transforming those at the helm of a harmful status quo.

The question I want to ask today is, “Is transformation enough?”

This question is for those who have already been hurt. Is it enough for those who have wronged you to be radically transformed, or do you need them to suffer something punitive as well? Can transformation take the place of retribution? Or is retribution necessary even when transformation has taken place? In my studies over the last five years, I’ve learned that there are two qualities of punishment (For more this see the presentation Do I Have To Believe in Hell? here.): One kind of punishment is transformative, and disciplines for the purpose of awakening and changing those who have hurt others. A second type of punishment is not concerned with transformation, but only seeks to satisfy the claim in the heart of the one who was hurt that says the guilty party needs to suffer.

If the Heart of the Universe is anything like the heart we see in the story and teachings of Jesus, it is primarily concerned with transformation, not penal, retributive punishment. And this insight should challenge all of us.

“An eye for an eye will leave everyone blind”.—frequently attributed to Mahatma Gandhi

 

HeartGroup Application

When I consider the intrinsic value of the shared table, the transformation of those who share the table is, for me, its greatest quality.

As I share here, another indispensable quality of the shared table is the room it makes for those around the table who are unlike us. As we listen to each voice around the table share their stories and experiences, we are challenged to see the world through a different lens than our own and we start out on the beautiful journey of integrating these diverse experiences into a meaningful and coherent whole. We’re each called to choose and work hard at creating a safer more compassionate world for us all.

This week:

  1. Sit down with your HeartGroup and list the similarities and the differences that exist among your group.
  2. Discuss together the differences you feel are missing within your group, what those differences would create if they were present, and active ways you could enlarge your group to include and embrace those differences.
  3. Select one of those ways to put into practice during the week.

Our differences have the potential to scare us, because when we come together, all of us walk away from the table different than when we arrived. But this is just the point of coming together—transformation. When we come to a table such as the one Jesus has set, if we will only listen to each other, every one of us gets up a different person.

It truly is a beautiful journey!

Many voices, one new world.

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

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