Against Enticing Little Ones

“Cristo de la Liberacion” (Christ of the Liberation) by Maximino Cerezo Barredo, who’s been dubbed “liberation painter.”

Photo Credit: “Cristo de la Liberacion” (Christ of the Liberation) by Maximino Cerezo Barredo, who’s been dubbed “liberation painter.”

“Our experiences determine not only the questions we ask, but also the answers we get back. Plain readings are not plain but are read through the lens of our own paradigms and fears. And this is one reason why it is so vital, if we are going to make our world safe and just for everyone, that we learn to listen to stories, experiences, and interpretations of our sacred texts from the most vulnerable communities in our society.”

by Herb Montgomery | October 20, 2017

Featured Text:

“It is necessary for enticements to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It is better for him if a millstone is put around his neck and he is thrown into the sea, than that he should entice one of these little ones.” Q 17:1-2

Companion Texts:

Matthew 18:6-7: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!”

Luke 17:1, 2: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.’”

We stumble when we’re learning to walk. This week, we are focusing on those who are walking toward a safer, more just, and compassionate world, and we’ll be considering how as they move forward, others will actively obstruct their path rather than smoothing it out. Obstructionists place stumbling blocks in the way of those moving forward, causing their advance to be harder than it should be.

We are, again, considering one of Jesus’ sayings about “little ones.” As I wrote in Thanksgiving that God Reveals Only to Children:

“The family structure in Palestine in the first century was a hierarchical pyramid with the male patriarch at the top. On the bottom rung of the social ladder, below slaves, were children (see Galatians 4:1).

Social status is typically evaluated by the degree to which one has both power and resources. Those with large measures of control over power and resources operate in higher social positions, while those with very little access to power and resources live at the bottom.

Children have access to neither power nor resources. The typical avenues to power and control of resources are education, income, or work. In our societies, children have none of these, and they are vulnerable to abuse and neglect so child advocacy and children’s rights are much needed. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability, color, or ethnicity are also compounded when they apply to children.”

Our focus in this week’s saying is directed toward the “little ones” Jesus spoke of—the most vulnerable sectors of society. In the Greek, “little ones” (mikros) can not only refer to children, but also any who are vulnerable to exploitation by the status quo. It doesn’t have to mean a young person; it can also refer to a person’s “rank or influence” within a society. Christianity has a long history in doing damage to our most vulnerable and most marginalized.

Native People 

One example in this history is the way Christian preachers and missionaries used the Canaanite conquest and genocide stories in the Bible to legitimize the genocide of Native peoples here in the U.S.:

“Biblical notions of extirpation influenced colonial America from the earliest days of the settlement. In a tract publicizing the new Virginia settlement, Robert Gray expressed the hope that Indians might accept Christianity, but if they did not, biblical commands were clear: ‘Saul had his kingdom rent from him and his posterity because he spared Agag . . . whom God would not have spared; so acceptable a service is it to destroy idolaters, whom God hateth.’” (Philip Jenkins, in Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, p. 133)

During the colonial era, many New England preachers such as Cotton Mather compared Pequot Indians to modern Ammonites and New England to a modern Israel (see Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, vol. 1, p. 553). With this interpretation, if Saul had had his kingdom taken away because he failed to utterly destroy the Ammonites, the new American Christians were not to fail in the complete annihilation of their modern, native “Ammonites” if they wanted ensure their place on this continent, their “promised land.” The genocide of Native people was rooted in Christians’ lethal interpretation of violent Bible passages; it was a genocide they believed God had commanded them to execute.

Slavery

During the abolitionist years leading up to the American Civil War, many Christian preachers quoted Leviticus’ passages affirming slavery and claimed that neither Paul nor Jesus had reversed those passages. One famous preacher, ironically named Moses Stuart, wrote:

“Not one word has Christ said, to annul the Mosaic law while it lasted. Neither Paul nor Peter have uttered one. Neither of these have said to Christian masters: ‘Instantly free your slaves.’ Yet they lived under Roman laws concerning slavery, which were rigid to the last degree. How is it explicable on any ground, when we view them as humane and benevolent teachers, and especially as having a divine commission-how is it possible that they should not have declared and explicitly [so] against a malum in se [something evil in itself]?”

He confidently pronounced that those calling for the end of slavery “must give up the New Testament authority, or abandon the fiery course which they are pursuing” (Moses Stuart, Conscience and the Constitution; with Remarks on the Recent Speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster in the Senate of the United States on the Subject of Slavery, 1850).

Another minister, a Southern Methodist named J.W. Tucker, proclaimed to his Confederate audience fighting for their right to own slaves, “Your cause is the cause of God, the cause of Christ, of humanity. It is a conflict of truth with error-of Bible with Northern infidelity-of pure Christianity with Northern fanaticism.” (Kurt O. Berends, “Confederate Sacrifice and the ‘Redemption’ of the South,” in Religion and the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture, ed. Beth Barton Schweiger and Donald G. Mathews, p. 105.) Tucker’s rhetoric sounds almost identical to the rhetoric of Christians today as they condemn movement in many faith traditions toward the affirmation of LGBTQ people.

Against Women

Christianity also has a long history with patriarchy and misogyny. Roman Catholic writer John Paul Boyer explains in Some thoughts on the Ordination of Women: 

Being a Jew, being a Palestinian, being a first century man—all these are what we might call, in the language of Aristotelian metaphysical, the ‘accidents of Christ’s humanity;’ but his being a man rather than a woman is of the ‘substance’ of his humanity. He could have been a twentieth-century Chinese and been, cultural differences notwithstanding, much the same person he was, but he could not have been a woman without having been a different sort of personality altogether.” (A Monthly Bulletin of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, ())

Womanist scholar Jacqueline Grant rightly states in her book White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus that “the most significant use of this argument” came from Pope Paul VI on October 15, 1976, when he approved and published the following declaration:

“The Christian priesthood is therefore of a sacramental nature: the priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease. The whole sacramental economy is in fact based up on natural signs, or symbols imprinted up on the human psychology: ‘Sacramental signs’, says Saint Thomas, ‘represent what they signify by natural resemblance.’ The same natural resemblance is required for personas as for things: when Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally there would not be this ‘natural resemblance’ which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man. In such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.” (Franjo Cardinal Seper, Vatican Declaration, Feb 6, 1977, p. 6)

Never mind that the church’s own creation story states clearly that both male and female were made in the image of God. There have long been interpretations of these stories that have marginalized, wholly excluded, and damaged women personally and institutionally. Because of the patriarchal nature of many sectors of Christianity, and despite the fact that there are feminist and womanist Christians, some have gone so far as to say that Christianity is a man’s religion.

LGBTQ Fear

Anyone who lived through the 1980s here in the U.S. knows all too well how Christianity has done untold damage to the LGBTQ community, legitimizing the inmate homophobia of straight parishioners through interpretations that are trans-, bi-, genderqueer-, and homo-phobic. For a history that reaches back into the 1970s, the Southern Poverty Law Center offers an excellent history of the modern Christian anti-gay movement, starting with Anita Bryant in 1977. Just a quick read demonstrates how monstrously Christians have mischaracterized this community and used damaging interpretations of the Bible to bolster their mischaracterization. Jay Grimstead, a founder of The Coalition on Revival, bluntly stated that “Homosexuality makes God vomit”. Many similar arguments are rhetorically identical to those Christians in the 1800’s used in their opposition to ending slavery. The Christian Moral Majority didn’t get its start opposing abortion or gay people, but by opposing integration after Brown v. Board of Education. They began a network of private Christian schools to make sure their White children did not have to attend school with Black and Brown children.

I’ve given you four examples of how interpretations of our sacred text have done and continue to do damage to those who are most vulnerable within our society. I also, wrote two weeks ago:

“Interpretations are not eternal. They change with time. As we see the harmful fruit of present interpretations, we can make those interpretations give way to new ones, in the hope that new interpretations will bear the fruit of life. And if we see that our new interpretations also do harm, we will challenge them too. The goal is to continue to seek life-giving interpretations for all, work with people’s well-being and thriving in our hearts, and transform our world into a safe, just, compassionate home for us all. Anything less is not faithful to Jesus or the Spirit of our various sacred texts. Every time you’re tempted to mistake your interpretation for the sacred text itself, remember that interpretations are temporary. It’s okay for them to change, as long as what they change to is life-giving for all.”

In each of the above examples, you can come up with Bible interpretations to oppose valuing and protecting Native people and lands, ending slavery, promoting equity for women, and seeking justice for the LGBTQ community. Some claim they are just reading the Bible plainly. But we never see things objectively. As the saying goes, we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.

Our experiences determine not only the questions we ask, but also the answers we get back. Plain readings are not plain but are read through the lens of our own paradigms and fears. And this is one reason why it is so vital, if we are going to make our world safe and just for everyone, that we learn to listen to stories, experiences, and interpretations of our sacred texts from the most vulnerable communities in our society. This is how liberation theology was born: those in South America read the Bible very differently than their colonial Christian exploiters. It’s how Black liberation theology was born: Black Christians in the U.S. read the Bible radically differently than white Christians read it. It’s how feminist and womanist theologies were born and how queer theology was born. We need these voices and perspectives if we are to arrive at interpretations of our sacred text that cease to do harm.

Today we have a broad swathe of people who want nothing to do with Jesus because of the history of the church as the largest stumbling block in the path of the vulnerable in their work toward a world of justice and compassion. They see a Christianity that seems to habitually do harm, ever landing on the wrong side of history. They don’t see a Jesus who taught survival, resistance, liberation, and justice. They don’t see a Jewish Jesus on the side of the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). Rather, that Jesus is eclipsed by a religion that was formed in his name. This is gives me great reason to pause. I know first-hand how my own faith has been fractured by watching Christian racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia just in my local community here in West Virginia. I love Jesus, but I have zero tolerance for the kind of Christianity my family seems to be surrounded by where we live.

I do not apologize for this week’s eSight. And I don’t believe the truth of our history to be too harsh to share. As someone who loves the historic, first-century Jewish Jesus, I have simply  become disillusioned with the most vocal sectors of Christianity in our culture. Just this week I’ve endured disappointment again as Christians who should have been passionately living out the value of compassionate listening to the voices of the vulnerable, who claim to believe God love’s everyone, were passionate instead to protect their own cherished theology that has been shown to be hurtful to the vulnerable. Does your God love the vulnerable or your theology? Which is it that should be given a priority of worth? As Emilie Townes states, “When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.”  But what happens when you believe God loves everyone and that doesn’t lead to justice? What about when the ones preaching “God loves everyone” are the stumbling block for those working toward a safer, just, more compassionate world for the vulnerable?

As a Christian myself, I take this week’s saying seriously. It was said to Jesus’ followers, and we who take his name today must allow this week’s saying to confront us:

“Woe to the one through [whom stumbling blocks] come! It is better for them if a millstone is put around their neck and they are thrown into the sea, than that they should cause one of the vulnerable to stumble.” Q 17:1-2 

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you to spend some time with the above article.

  1. As a group discuss what challenges this week’s eSight creates for you.
  2. Discuss together where you feel encouraged by this week’s eSight. Maybe encouragement comes just from hearing that you’re not alone in your feelings of frustration toward your Christianity being a stumbling block to so many people.
  3. What are some ways you can move toward interpretations of our sacred texts that are not damaging and don’t create stumbling blocks for those pushed to the edges of our society? Which interpretations can also move you to take tangible, concrete actions as an individual and as a group to stand in solidarity with those walking toward a more just world? How can you smooth out another person’s way toward liberation? As it states in Isaiah:

“Every valley shall be raised up,

every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,

the rugged places a plain.” (Isaiah 40.4)

Thank you for checking in with us this week. Wherever this finds you, keep living in love engaging the work of transforming our world.

And to each of you who are supporting the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, we simply could not do this without you. We have a lot of educational events lined up for this fall. If you’d like to support our work you can do so by going to:

https://renewedheartministries.com/donate/

Or you can always mail your support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Every amount helps. Thank you!

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

Divorce Leading to Adultery

by Herb Montgomery

“Christians taking Jesus’ saying on divorce at face value have forced women to stay in untold situations of abuse. I want to argue this week that in the context of the 1st Century’s economic realities for women in Roman and Jewish patriarchal society, and in the context of the debate between the Pharisaical schools of Shammai and Hillel on divorce, Jesus’s saying about divorce did not judge women but was instead concerned with social justice for them.”

Featured Text:

“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another‚ commits adultery, and the one who marries a divorcée commits adultery.” (Q 16:18)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 5:32: “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Luke 16:18: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Christians taking Jesus’ saying on divorce at face value have forced women to stay in untold situations of abuse. I want to argue this week that in the context of the 1st Century’s economic realities for women in Roman and Jewish patriarchal society, and in the context of the debate between the Pharisaical schools of Shammai and Hillel on divorce, Jesus’s saying about divorce did not judge women but was instead concerned with social justice for them.

Let’s unpack that a bit.

First, within at least Jewish society at the time of Jesus, divorce was the prerogative of the man. The laws were patriarchal:

Deuteronomy 22:13-18: “If a man takes a wife and, after sleeping with her, dislikes her and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, ‘I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,’ then the young woman’s father and mother shall bring to the town elders at the gate proof that she was a virgin. Her father will say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her. Now he has slandered her and said,  “I did not find your daughter to be a virgin.” But here is the proof of my daughter’s virginity.’ Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the town, and the elders shall take the man and punish him. They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the young woman’s father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives.”

This passage is disturbing for multiple reasons, but this week  I’d like to focus on the fact that reparation for the unjust slander in the text would be paid “to the young woman’s father.” There is no reparation to the woman in that case and she would also have to remain married to her offender.

Another disturbing example is found a few verses further on in Deuteronomy 22:

Deuteronomy 22:23-24: “If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.”

Blaming the victim because “she didn’t scream for help” is sick. This law blames rape victims for their own rape. But also notice that the man is punished because he violated “another man’s wife.” The crime is against the other man, not against the woman who is simply “another man’s wife.”

The last deeply disturbing example to consider is just a few more verses even further:

Deuteronomy 22:28-29: “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.”

This is sick on multiple levels, too! The victim of rape must marry her rapist, and without the option of divorce? Again the financial penalty is one that must be paid to the woman’s “father.”

Jesus’s saying must be interpreted in light of a culture where a women had few rights. She could not send her husband away with a certificate of divorce; only men were allowed to do that.

Also, the Torah’s criteria for divorce was problematic.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4: “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled.”

Notice that within the Torah, the only prerequisite for divorce was if the woman “displeased” her husband in any way. Deuteronomy was at the heart of the debate between the Pharisaical schools of Shammai and Hillel. Hillel focused on the “displeasing” portion of this text and stated that a man could send his wife away, giving her a certificate of divorce, for any reason if he was “displeased” with her. Shammai, on the other hand, focused on the word “indecent” and said the permissible reason for a man to send his wife away was if she had committed an indecent act of infidelity, such as adultery. Notice that language. “Only if she” did. His adultery was not addressed because until Hellenistic influence, only men could issue a certificate of divorce. So you have two arguing factions. One said a man could divorce a woman for any reason he chose. And the other sought to limit the justification for divorce only to adultery.

Jesus and Hillel had so much in common in their teachings. Yes, Jesus and Hillel differed on the prozbul. Jesus called for the year of Jubilee where all debts would be forgiven and accumulated wealth redistributed to the poor. But in most every other area, Jesus interpreted the Torah in much the same way as Hillel. In the case of divorce, however, Jesus rejected the school of Hillel and sided either in the gospel of Matthew with Shammai, or in the gospel of Mark, a more stringent rejection of divorce than even Shammai (and Moses as well for that matter) would have been comfortable with.

Let’s look at each.

In Matthew, Jesus states that divorce in the Torah was a concession or an accommodation to male “hard-heartedness” within patriarchal marriages. Reasons could include something as minor as “finding something objectionable or unpleasing” about one’s wife (see Deuteronomy 24:1). In Matthew, Jesus goes beyond Torah and limits the reasons for a husband to divorce his wife to only infidelity.

Matthew 19:8-9: “He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’”

In Mark, we find a Jesus that is even more strident than in Matthew. There is no justification of divorce here, and even the reason of “infidelity” in Matthew is left out. “Whoever divorces his wife,” period.

Mark 10:5-10: “But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” In the house, the disciples ask Jesus again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.*”[*Mark was written for a gentile audience, and within Roman culture women could divorce men as is seen here. In first-century Judaism it remained that only men could serve a certificate of divorce to a woman.]

I would argue that in each of these examples we see a Jesus who is living within the boundaries of his own Roman and Jewish patriarchal social order and marriage. His concern, within those constraints, is justice for women in a culture that disadvantages women, making women dependent on fathers and husbands for survival, with very few exceptions. In more egalitarian marriages, the principle would be the same: distributive justice for all parties involved.

I come from a long history of divorce on both my mother’s and my father’s sides of the family. I am the son of both my mother’s and father’s second marriages. My mother would go on to be married a total of four times and my father, three. I grew up with my mother living despite a physically and emotionally abusive situation, afraid to leave because there had been no case of marital infidelity on her or husband’s part. I see this as a gross misunderstanding of the cultural context of Jesus’ words. In Jesus’ culture, where Jesus speaks of divorce, we see a double standard where men didn’t commit adultery against their wives, but only against the husbands of the married women they may have had sex with. If woman was unmarried, the man paid a penalty to the father of the woman (cf. Deuteronomy 22:29), but it was not labeled as adultery, even if the man himself was married. This was a culture whose adultery laws were written when men were permitted to have multiple wives, as long as the rights of fathers in those wives’s lives were “respected.”

Jesus words in the gospels regarding divorce should not be shallowly interpreted and lifted out of their context to promote injustice and abuse toward women today. This would be to contradict the spirit of justice for women originally within those words.

Nor should they be used today to support patriarchal marriage as an ideal for human society. Speaking of Jesus’ words in the Temple debates (see Mark 12:24-27) where he unequivocally denounces patriarchal marriage as having a place in the world transformed, made just, safe and compassionate for all, Elizabeth Schüssel Fiorenza writes in In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins:

“[Jesus is not claiming] that sexual differentiation and sexuality do not exist in the ‘world’ of God, but that ‘patriarchal marriage is no more,’ because its function in maintaining and continuing patriarchal economic and religious structures is no longer necessary . . . [Mark 12:26-27] replies directly to the question of the continuation of the patriarchal family: in the burning bush God is revealed to Moses as the God of promise given to the patriarchs and their posterity. The ‘house’ of Israel is not guaranteed in and through patriarchal marriage structures, but through the promise and faithfulness of Israel’s powerful, life-giving God. While the God of the patriarchal systems and its securities is the ‘God of the dead,’ the God of Israel is the ‘God of the living.’ In God’s world women and men no longer relate to each other in terms of patriarchal dominance and dependence, but as persons who live in the presence of the living God . . . The Sadducees have ‘erred much’ in assuming that the structures of patriarchy are unquestionably a dimension of God’s world as well. So, too, all subsequent Christians have erred in maintaining oppressive patriarchal structures.” (pp. 144-145)

Today, I hear Jesus’ words this week calling us to prioritize the vulnerable within our societies. Whether that vulnerability is rooted in discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, gender identity, class, education, sexuality, ability, age, culture, language, and/or religion, we are called to put people and their well-being first, even if that means we going against traditional and popular interpretations of our sacred texts. This week’s saying speaks of women being more than disposable objects, easily discarded in consumer-style patriarchal marriages. People couldn’t simply discard or trade wives based on legal loopholes in the Torah without acknowledging the damage done to the women involved. In Spirit, it calls us to reject seeing anyone as a disposable means to our own pleasure and gratification. People matter.

“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another‚ commits adultery, and the one who marries a divorcée commits adultery.” (Q 16:18)

HeartGroup Application

Our saying this week has been used to harm spouses in abusive marriages.

  1. How have you witnessed our saying this week used to keep people in abusive relationships?
  2. Does seeing this week’s saying through the lens of a call for social justice toward women in a patriarchal society make a difference for you?
  3. Discuss as a group which other sectors of society are presently being objectified, used for another sector’s benefit, or scapegoated in the name of community integrity and unity? Brainstorm things your group can do to make a change.

People matter. They aren’t disposable. They aren’t means to another person’s ends. We are worthy of more than being cogs in other people’s machinery.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Where you are, keep living in love. Keep engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. Change is possible. The moral arc of the universe can bend toward justice if we choose to bend it that way.

Thank you, also, to each of you who are supporting our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries. We have multiple events coming up this fall. If you’d like to support our work you can do so by giving on our Donate page.

Please consider becoming one of our monthly donors. Together we are making a difference! This month an attendee of one of our events contacted us via our website and shared:

“I heard Herb speak today for the first time and was deeply moved by his presentation. I came away understanding The Lord’s Prayer from a new perspective and committed to become more involved in social justice. Thank you for your honesty and ability to shed new light on basis truths.”—Attendee in Arizona

If you prefer, you can also mail your support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Thank you in advance for your partnership in the work of making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for us all.

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.

Proclaiming What Was Whispered

Women's March on Washington 2017

by Herb Montgomery

#SilenceIsViolence
Why We Cannot Be Silent

Featured Text:

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

Companion Texts:

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

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

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

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

Matthew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

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

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

“good news to the poor”

“freedom for the prisoners”

“recovery of sight for those in darkness”

“setting the oppressed free”

“year of all debts cancelled.”

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

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

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

I love each one of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Wisdom’s Judgment on This Generation

Memorial candlesby Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Therefore also Wisdom said: I will send them prophets and sages, and some of them they will kill and persecute, so that a settling of accounts for the blood of all the prophets poured out from the founding of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, murdered between the sacrificial altar and the House. Yes, I tell you, an accounting will be required of this generation!” (Q 11:49-51)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:34-36: “Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.”

Luke 11:49-51: “Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.”

Context! Context! Context!

As we begin this week, we must not remove this week’s saying from its context. This week’s saying has a long, anti-Semitic history with Christians using it to persecute, marginalize, and even execute Jewish people. But Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew standing firmly in the long line of Jewish prophets who pronounced judgments for societal injustice on their generations. So first we must see the Jewishness of this week’s saying. Only then will we be able to rightly critique how Christianity has co-opted it and sorely abused it.

We must also keep in mind that Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of this saying were both written after the catastrophic events that took place in their generation in Jerusalem. These are post-trauma writings designed to explain and understand what has just happened for the Jewish people.

I do not believe that the Romans destroyed Jerusalem because the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah. I believe that all human civilizations give themselves an expiration date when the elites’ abuses of the proletariat become the policy of the day. Social abuse eventually catches up with us, and all empires that become characterized by exploitation and economic disparity eventually meet their demise. People long abused rise up. Revolutions occur. Power shifts. The path toward this end for Jerusalem (that would later happen with Rome, as well) is what we are witnessing in this week’s saying.

We know from Josephus that ultimately the lower, poorer classes in Judea and Galilee did rise up and violently revolt. First they revolted against oppression from their own people, and took over the elite’s centralized control of the temple. Then they revolted against Rome in the Jewish-Roman war. This overreach led to Rome’s inhumane backlash in the annihilation of Jerusalem.

In this week’s saying, Jesus warns that if the people continue their socio-economic exploitative path, then just as the prophets had warned before him, that generation would see catastrophic results.

This week’s saying connects us with the Hebrew economic prophets (e.g. Isaiah, Amos, Ezekiel, Jeremiah), who were rejected and in some cases murdered because of their societal critiques. Here in America, during the 1960s, we saw a similar history of repressing calls for change from those whose voices threatened the status quo and those in positions of power and privilege. Some historians refer to the 60s as the era of assassinations. Among those who were murdered were President John F. Kennedy (1963), el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X; 1965), and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968).

Our world has a long history of removing those who threaten our societal structures and the exploitation and injustice that those structures enable. Jesus’ societal structure had its own victims, as ours does. His generation was once again rejecting the call to change, and Jesus was about to have his name added to the long list of prophets and poets who weren’t afraid to name the oppressions of their time or stand in solidarity with those being marginalized and subjugated—even if they ended up losing their life for the dream of an world that is a safe, just, compassionate home for us all.

In the Hebrew scriptures, Abel is the first voice in the narratives to be silenced. He represented the nomadic class in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Northern Africa. His social group was a minority: itinerant shepherd wanderers who moved from place to place as herdsmen. Cain, Abel’s brother, belonged to a larger, more established, and more powerful class of tillers of the soil. They represented those who sought to control land ownership because of their need to work the land. They were the ones who chased off vagabond herdsmen like Abel. In a time when civilization transitioned from wandering hunters and gatherers to more centralized, localized cities, the tillers of the ground were the pivotal population. Abel would have represented the people oppressed by the tillers of the ground, and at the end of this story, Cain is made to wander like his brother to learn what the wanderers’ life was like. His banishment gives him firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to walk a mile in the shoes of those whom the society was pressing down so that others might find a way up. (For more on this, see the article I wrote at the end of 2014 entitled No More Sacrifice.)

Thousands of years later, Zechariah is the last prophetic voice in the Hebrew Masoretic text to be silenced for speaking out against those in positions of power. (The Masoretic collection of Hebrew scriptures ends with 2 Chronicles; see 2 Chronicles 24:20) Zechariah’s history is complex and so is the political agenda of the narratives his name is mentioned in. For our saying this week, it’s enough to recognize that he was one of the bookends of those within Jewish history who had the courage to critique those in power.

As 2016 closed, the book on my nightstand was My Sister, My Brother; Womanist and Xodus God Talk by Karen Baker-Fletcher and Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher. In the chapter entitled “Womanist Reflections on Jesus as Dust and Spirit,” Karen writes:

“The only way to erase those who have died unjustly is to erase memory, but not even memory can be erased permanently” (p. 90).

It is important to remember and never forget the names of those who have given their lives to the work of transforming our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all. Author Susan Jacoby tells us that early 19th Century freethinkers observed the birthdays of freethinkers in the century before them as a ritual that shaped them and inspired them to continue the causes and dreams of those who had travelled that path before them. They remembered them together.

A friend of mine, Charlie Kraybill, curates the Marginal Mennonite Society (MMS) in New York. One thing I appreciate about MMS is their continual work to keep alive the memory of Anabaptists and other historical figures who have worked toward societal transformation. They continually commemorate the dates on which Anabaptists were executed in the 1600s and the dates on which relevant historical figures were either born or died. This is a way of keeping both their memory and our common work alive.

Karen Baker-Fletcher, as a Christian womanist, reflects on Toni Morrison’s text Beloved and its characters’ belief that Jesus is the greatest “ancestor”:

“Whoever Beloved is, Stamp Paid observes that she is a reminder that people ‘who die bad won’t stay in the ground’ — not ‘Jesus Christ Himself.’ Reflecting African pre-Christian and African American Christian worldviews, he suggests Jesus is one of many who will not stay buried because they have died violently. Jesus is one of millions of persecuted ancestors who live in the margins of everyday consciousness. Moving beyond Morrison’s text, one might consider that the ground itself will not hold the blood of murder. Just as the earth cried out at Cain’s slaying of Abel, so it continues to cry out across the centuries against injustice.

Christian womanists might argue that in the ancestral community of Moses, Zipporah, Jethro, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, Christ perfectly embodies the power of the God of Moses, ‘I Am,’ Being-Itself. Jesus Christ as the greatest of the ancestors sustains community.” (p. 91)

Keeping alive the memories of those who have died violently at the hands of unjust systems throughout scriptures and history, and remembering not just the Hebrew Prophets but also more contemporary figures and Jesus as the greatest of them can impact how we engage the ritual of communion.

Communion is a shared meal around an egalitarian table, not a hierarchical structure as is the case in too many churches today. It is not a social pyramid or exclusive circle, but a shared table where we keep alive the memory of those who have been broken and spilled out by unjust systems. This ritual motivates and shapes us today. The very elements of the broken bread and spilled wine, the food we share with one another, could be reclaimed into a very powerful transforming ritual of memory.

Co-opting Memory

Lastly this week, I want to talk about co-opting memory. We spoke last week of unjust systems that make memorials to those they have killed: making memorials is much easier than doing the hard work of actually transforming our world. There is a difference between us keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us and the systems we seek to change co-opting the memory of those it has executed.

Vincent Harding’s book Martin Luther King: An Inconvenient Hero is a great read on how the United States has done this with the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King Day is complicated. On one side, we see the work of those such as Coretta Scott King to preserve Martin’s memory. On the other hand, we see the system King critiqued co-opting him while keeping the changes he called for at arms’ length.

During his life, King called for an abandonment of capitalism and a move toward democratic socialism. He called for the rejection of militarism and violence as the weapons of a global economic capitalist agenda. He fought tirelessly against systemic racism in its many forms. The FBI deemed him to be the greatest domestic threat to America. And yet today he is one of America’s heroes. Not much has changed economically since the days of King’s critiques, and precious little has changed racially. Yet King is memorialized by a government that would still be voicing the loudest criticism of him if he were still alive.

I do believe King should be kept alive in our memory as one of our great transformative ancestors. I also believe that his memory has been co-opted by the very system he sought and failed to change. The next time social protest erupts, watch how quickly critics pull Dr. King off the shelf to try and silence those speaking out.

Martin Luther King Day has just been celebrated by the most violent, militaristic, and capitalist power on the globe and the wealth disparity between the rich and poor and between White people and people of color continues to grow steadily. Last week’s and this week’s saying give us much to consider today.

“Therefore also Wisdom said: I will send them prophets and sages, and some of them they will kill and persecute, so that a settling of accounts for the blood of all the prophets poured out from the founding of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, murdered between the sacrificial altar and the House. Yes, I tell you, an accounting will be required of this generation!” (Q 11:49-51)

HeartGroup Application

This week, I’d like your group to read this article first published in 2013:

Now That He Is Safely Dead: Silencing the Voice of Martin Luther King, Jr.

  1. Discuss the article with your group.
  2. Discuss how the article relates to last week’s saying and this week’s saying, and possible applications to events transpiring in our world today.
  3. What new ways of perceiving has this awakened for you and what actions do you feel called to engage in? Pick one of those actions and do it this week.

Wherever this week finds you, press close to your community. We are in this together. As we preserve the memories of those who have gone before us and these memories spur us onto action in our lives today, together we can sustain the work needed to make those changes happen.

Thank you for checking in this week.

Keep living love, justice, faithfulness, and mercy, transforming our world in both small and large ways into a safer, more compassionate home for us all.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Hearing and Keeping God’s Word

Needle Point As for me and my house we will serve the lord and systematically dismantle capitalism, racism and the cis-heteropatriachy

Image via http://bottleofink.tumblr.com/post/114149250902/as-for-me-and-my-house-we-will-serve-the-lord-and

by Herb Montgomery

“As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’ (Luke 11:27-28; see Q 11:27-28)

Companion Texts:

Not in Matthew

Gospel of Thomas 79.1-2: “A woman in the crowd said to him: ‘Hail to the womb that carried you and to the breasts that fed you.’ He said to her: ‘Hail to those who have heard the word of the Father and have truly kept it.’”

This is our first eSight post US election 2016. We at Renewed Heart Ministries would like to express and reaffirm our commitment. Our already challenging work toward a safer, just, compassionate world for everyone has now become exponentially more difficult. To our friends who are women, people of color, Muslim, non-native born, LGBTQ, and Native peoples, already marginalized, disenfranchised or on the underside of the status quo, I personally can only imagine what you must be feeling over this past week. It is small comfort, I know, but you are not alone.

We at Renewed Heart Ministries will continue to roll up our sleeves.

We are not going anywhere.

We will still stand alongside you.

Our hand is on the plow.

We are going back to work, realizing that our work just got harder.

We choose solidarity, realizing we have a lot to learn from you.

We choose resistance.

We choose survival.

We choose liberation.

We choose restoration.

We choose transformation.

We realize that changing our world is hard work.  And we are embracing the task alongside you.

With that in view, and in this spirit, let’s dive in to this week’s saying.

Thomas’ Version

First this week I want to draw attention to the fact that although this saying only appears in the later gospel of Luke and not the earlier gospel of Matthew, it does appear in the platonic gospel of Thomas. One possible theory is that Luke, Matthew, and Thomas all had access to the Jewish source of Jesus sayings that scholars call Q, and Luke and Thomas chose to include this saying but Matthew simply did not. If this is true, then even with the saying’s absence from Matthew, it is highly likely that we can attribute it the historical, Jewish Jesus.

A deeply Jewish way of looking at humanity that many scholars believe can be traced back to Hillel is that every human being is a bearer of the image of God. Rabbis saw showing disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image as a denial of God and tantamount to atheism. Murder was also sacrilege—whoever shed human blood was regarded as if he or she had diminished the divine image. These teachers taught that God had created only one human at the beginning of time to teach us that “destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world and to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. Humiliating anybody—even a non-Jew—defaced God’s image, and malicious gossip denied the existence of God. Religion is inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You can not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.” (Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions; Kindle Locations 7507-7540)

This background is the foundation I’d like to build on as we consider this week’s saying. It is the truth that the closest I will ever come to God in this life is you, whomever you are. Whether male, female, gender nonconforming, trans, white, person of color, gay, straight, or bisexual, you are my fellow image of God bearer, and in you I behold the varied and diverse image of God.

I believe the gospel of Thomas falls short of this foundation. Thomas’ version of the saying is slightly different from the version in Luke and includes a gender bias: Thomas contrasts honor and rebuke for a human mother with reverence for a divine ”father.” The divine holds the superior place in this hierarchy, and the imbalance matches Thomas’ other sexist sayings including this one at the end of Thomas’ gospel:

“Simon Peter said to them: ‘Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said: “Look, I will draw her in so as to make her male, so that she too may become a living male spirit, similar to you. But I say to you: ‘Every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’” (Gospel of Thomas 114)

Luke’s Version

Luke’s version does not contrast genders or rank the human and the divine. Luke contrasts unilateral hero worship with the value of a community that practices Jesus’ teachings. Let’s unpack this.

The audience’s words, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you,” emphasize how wonderful Jesus is and why he and the mother who gave him birth should be praised. Jesus counters this emphasis with a blessing on the community of “those” who together are “hearing” and “obey” his life teachings, teachings he defines as the “word of God.”

The phrase here for “word of God” is often abused by large sectors of Western evangelical Christianity today. In Western evangelical Christianity, the phrase “the word of God” is shorthand for “the Bible,” which must be read literally and assumed inerrant. But our saying this week uses the word logos. Logos is the word that means wisdom to Hellenistic Jewish, Greek, and Gnostic listeners. The later gospel of John also associated this word with the sophia of Proverbs (cf. John 1:1-3 and Proverbs 8:22-30). This is this wisdom and word that Jesus claims to be teaching.

Also, this saying uses the designation “those,” “those who hear and obey.” Remember, Jesus teachings make very little sense when removed from a context of community. For him to have said instead “the one who hears and obeys” would have contradicted the very wisdom he promoted and wanted his followers to obey. Jesus’ wisdom, his solutions to our world’s challenges, and his call to survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation came through the creation of community. It came through his followers’ embrace of humanity’s natural, mutual dependence.

Community is what gives us the resources to follow Jesus’ teachings. You can’t follow him without community. Community, and how to function as a community, is what Jesus is actually teaching, whether it be through resource-sharing, mutual aid, or wealth redistribution, it’s all done within community. This is why it is “those who hear and obey” and not “the one who hears and obeys.”

Valuing and seeking to create community, and depending on that community to ensure our survival in the future is very different than worshipping an isolated hero for his past acts. Christianity has largely practiced the latter while having to learn from outside sources how to do the former. But, as Alice Walker states, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting on.” This belief is what Jesus is seeking to awaken in his listeners, not as individuals, but as a collective.

Rita Nakashima Brock, in Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, critiques Christianity’s transformation of Jesus into an isolated hero.

“The relationship of liberator to oppressed is unilateral. Hence the liberator must speak for victims. The brokenhearted do not speak to the strong [in] a unilateral, heroic model . . . I believe the above [unilateral hero] views of Christ tend to rely on unilateral views of power and too limited [an] understanding of the power of community. They present a heroic Jesus who alone is able to achieve an empowering self-consciousness through a solitary, private relationship with God/dess. If Jesus is reported to have been capable of profound love and concern for others, he was first loved and respected by the concrete persons of his life. If he was liberated, he was involved in a community of mutual liberation… the Gospel narratives give us glimpses of the mutuality of Jesus’ relationships… Jesus’ vision of basileia [kingdom] grew to include the disposed, women and non-Jewish . . . ‘the marginal,” because of his encounter and interaction with the real presence of such people. They co-create liberation and healing from brokenheartedness.” (p. 65-67)

In Luke’s saying this week, Jesus refocuses his followers on the intrinsic value of the things he taught and the importance of actually putting those teachings into practice. We can’t say too much about this.

My Experience

If watching my friends’ Facebook posts this election season has taught me anything about the Christian circles that I have traveled in over the last two decades, it is that the first ten years of my ministry did not make a significant, concrete difference in the lives of those with power and resources in our societies. The gospel I preached and taught helped those in positions of power who benefited from how resources are structured to sleep better at night. Because of what I taught them, they went to bed each night assured of post mortem bliss and feeling blessed that a God up there in the sky somewhere loved them unconditionally and did not condemn them. 

With teachings like these, why are white, privileged Christians so guilt-stricken? Why are we so fascinated with defining the gospel and salvation as guilt and relief of condemnation rather than as subjugated people’s liberation from oppression, injustices, and violence (See Luke 4:18-19). Why do we escape to hopes of heaven and retreat into private, isolated personal relationships with Jesus? Why are we not more engaged working alongside the oppressed demographic that Jesus worked alongside, and restore others’ humanity as well as our own?

I have been watching friends who have believed and supported the gospel I once subscribed to. And yet my friends are still entrenched in supporting racism, sexism, and classism. The gospel I previously taught did not change or even addressed that bias. These same gospel-believing Christian friends have been the first over the last two years to try to censure and correct my protests of injustice. They have repeatedly justified violence and oppression, or even their underlying beliefs. And all the while they’ve accused me of going off the rails.

I’ve come to a conclusion this week. If the gospel I teach does not challenge racism, sexism, and classism, if it doesn’t inspire tangible, concrete ways to help make the world a safer, just, more compassionate place for those on the undersides of our society, if that gospel allows people to remain bigoted and does not challenge bigotry at its core, that gospel is an unhealthy tree! My Jesus said, we can know a tree by its fruit. And the fruit of such a gospel would not be for the “healing of the nations,” but for the destruction of the human species and possibly the entire planet.

Peter Gomes, in his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus reminds us that it is far easier to talk about Jesus than the things Jesus talked about. Why? Because what Jesus talked about has the potential to change our world.

But if your world is already pretty good, then changing it is not perceived as gospel (good news) but as a threat. In this week’s saying, we are called not to merely praise Jesus, but to practice values centered in the experiences of those surviving, working for liberation informed by the teachings of Jesus, and endeavoring to put those teachings into practice.

We will not always get it right. We will fail at times and there will be times where we succeed. But we can choose a path of preferring to apply teachings that point to establishing justice and recovering our humanity. Those are teachings that would have real effects in our world.

In a tradition that offers religion to help us learn the differences between right and wrong, this week’s saying invites us to practice greater compassion as we learn together what trends toward life and promotes equitable thriving for all.

I’m not going back to what I used to teach. I want to practice compassion, and hero worship is not enough. So this week, I deeply resonate with the words we are contemplating:

“As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’ (Luke 11:27-28; see Q 11:27-28)

HeartGroup Application

1. As a group this week I want you to describe three differences between worshiping Jesus as an isolated hero and being part of a community that experiments with implementing the values he and his followers taught. What does each approach imply for those on the underside and margins of our society?

2. List a few ways that you as a group can move toward being a practitioner of the ethics he taught, as contrasted with being a worshiper of Jesus that largely disregards living out Jesus’ ethical teachings.

3. Pick one of those ways and put it into practice.

Delores S. Williams in her volume Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God- Talk writes:

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

And I could not agree more.

Wherever you are today, thank you for taking time to check in this week. My hope is that your heart is renewed and encouraged, not to simply praise Jesus, but to put his teachings into practice.

The Return of the Unclean Spirit 

(And standing in solidarity with the Native nations on Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas)

by Herb Montgomery

Photo by Desiree Kane

banner being held stating "we are water"

 

 

 

 

“When the defiling spirit has left the person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, and finds none. Then‚ it says, I will return to my house from which I came. And on arrival it finds it swept and tidied up. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and, moving in, they  settle there. And the last circumstances of that person become worse than the first.” (Q 11:24-26)

Companion Texts

Matthew 12:43-45: “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”

Luke 11:24-26: “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”

This week’s saying is challenging to say the least, and as modern people with a more naturalistic understanding of how the world works, we could simply write it off as part of an apocalyptic world view that predates the Enlightenment. I agree with Karen Armstrong, who says in her volume The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions that Jesus and the gospel authors were most definitely “men of their time” (p. xxii). But that does not mean that this week’s saying has no relevance to our work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration and transformation today.

In very general terms, this is a saying that warns about reality after liberation becoming worse, seven times worse, than the state of things before. In Delores S. Williams’ womanist classic, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, Williams writes:

“Among the ancient Hebrews, foreign slaves often fared worse than Hebrew and native slaves. ‘In the case of the maid-servant no release was permitted under ordinary circumstances, for it is assumed that the slave-girl is at the same time a concubine, and hence release would be against the best interest both of herself and of the home.’” See “Slave and Slavery” in the Dictionary of the Bible, pp. 864– 66.”

Notice that these customs were among the laws of a people who had been freed from Egyptian bondage. She goes on to contrast the experiences of male and female slaves:

“In the covenant code (Exodus 20:22-23:33) God identifies the rights of the Hebrew male slave. After six years of enslavement, the male slave gets his freedom in the seventh year. God does not object to Hebrew men selling their daughters as slaves. But the daughters shall not be given their freedom (except under special circumstances) as the male slaves are. God says the slave’s wife (if given him by his master) and his children belong to the slave master. Therefore, even if the slave husband is emancipated, the slave wife and her children remain in bondage. The only way the family can stay together is for the father to remain a slave.” (pp. 112-113)

Another contrast is the difference between Jewish and non-Jewish slavery:

“When non-Jewish people (like many African-American women who now claim themselves to be economically enslaved) read the entire Hebrew testament from the point of view of the non-Hebrew slave, there is no clear indication that God is against their perpetual enslavement. Likewise, there is no clear opposition expressed in the Christian testament to the institution of slavery.” (pp. 113-114)

Nevertheless, we gain a lot from embracing James H. Cone’s theological hermeneutic of liberation, which he grounded in the ancient liberation stories of Israel and Egypt:

“Yahweh is known and worshiped as the One who brought Israel out of Egypt, and who raised Jesus from the dead. God is the political God, the Protector of the poor and the Establisher of the right for those who are oppressed.” (Cone, God of the Oppressed, p. 57)

Cone also stated that “any analysis of the gospel which did not begin and end with God’s liberation of the oppressed was ipso facto unchristian.” (ibid, preface to 1975 edition)

Yet we cannot ignore that in the sacred story, the freshly liberated Israelite peoples went on to decimate the indigenous peoples of Canaan.

RHM’s 2016 Annual Reading Course Book for September was Philip Jenkins’ Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses. In this book, Jenkins reminds us of the years when White, European Christians used the stories of Canaanite conquest to justify decimating the Native American people. These Christians called the Indigenous peoples “modern Canaanites” to legitimize genocide of their peoples and claim their land as White Christian America’s manifest destiny.

This history has influenced how some Indigenous theologians read Exodus: in the preface to God of the Oppressed, Cone acknowledges how Native American theologian Robert Warrior reads “the Exodus and Conquest narratives ‘with Canaanite eyes.’ The Exodus is not a paradigmatic event of liberation for indigenous peoples but rather an event of colonization.”

This week’s saying reminds us that we must necessarily guard against exchanging the dehumanization of being oppressed with the dehumanization of becoming the oppressor. These are different experiences, yet both are fundamentally dehumanizing.

In the words of Paulo Freire:

“In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition, p. 44)

Although what we find in the Jewish scriptures is a collection of stories from a people who had embraced a liberation narrative as their national identity, the Hebrew Bible was still “written from the perspective of the dominant class in Israel” (James H. Cone; God of the Oppressed).

What Does This Mean?

Our saying this week is really about restoring our humanity. In 1st Century language, it describes a person who has been liberated from something dehumanizing yet is later dehumanized by something “worse than the first.”

In similar ways, Western Christianity can trace its roots to the liberation narrative of a 1st Century Jewish, self-educated Rabbi from among the lowest class (see Luke 4.18-19). Yet we must acknowledge the unpleasant truth that Western, White European and American Christians have also been among the most violent people in this planet’s history.

The first generation of Jewish Jesus followers was almost entirely proletarian and believed that militaristic violence was an illegitimate way to reshape the world. They believed that the battles to be fought were in the realm of winning hearts and minds to practices such as mutual aid, resource-sharing, and wealth redistribution.

Western Christianity grew out of these beginnings and become wholly unrecognizable to its origins. Though we grew out of a liberation movement of the oppressed, we became violent oppressors of others during the crusades, Inquisition, the Christian annihilation of indigenous peoples, the Holocaust on European and Middle Eastern soils, and Christian enslavement of African people on American soil.

Our theologians, preachers, and ethicists are simply not in a position to tell people whose experience of life has not been like ours, people who have been the repeated recipients of our violence, what they must do to be like Jesus. Instead, I must be willing to listen to and not stand in judgment towards those presently oppressed in our society. I must learn what it means for me to work alongside others as we work together, each of us, for the recovering of our own humanity.

In the areas of my life where I belongs to sectors of our society that are privileged by the status quo, I must embrace the reality that to be complicit in the oppression of others is to cooperate in crushing my own humanity in order to participate in the dehumanizing of others. When I say that black lives matter, that LGBTQ lives matter, that women’s lives matter, that Native American lives matter, it is not for those lives alone that I say those words. It is also for the regaining of my own humanity.

Either we are all free, or nobody is. When subjugated lives are restored, everyone’s humanity is too.

After he listened to critiques and feedback from “feminist, gay, womanist, Native American, and South African black theologians,” James Cone concluded:

“Human beings are made for each other and no people can realize their full humanity except as they participate in its realization for others.” (God of the Oppressed)

Solidarity with the oppressed is not solely for the oppressed, as if we could be someone else’s savior. We are all in this together, and we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Together we are working to restore and recover our humanities, your humanity, and my humanity. Together, we resist oppression for the survival of our humanities, and hope in liberation despite socio-economic, political, and even religious currents that continually threaten our becoming human once again.

We have the power to think and to do. We have the power to make better choices. This world can be different, if we choose for it to be. In this light, maybe this old saying still does have something to say to each of us:

“When the dehumanizing spirit has left the person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, and finds none. Then‚ it says, I will return to my house from which I came. And on arrival it finds it swept and tidied up. Then it goes and brings with it seven other dehumanizing spirits more dehumanizing than itself, and, moving in, they colonize there. And the last circumstances of that person become worse than the first.” (Q 11:24-26, Personal Paraphrase)

HeartGroup Application

This week I’m asking you, as a follower of RHM, to join me in standing in solidarity with the Native nations on Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas. One of our partners here at Renewed Heart Ministries, Dr. Keisha McKenzie, recently wrote about the Indigenous Earth Network’s latest update from Standing Rock. Keisha encouraged us all take action and help support the resistance efforts there.

Please take a moment to read her update here:

https://mackenzian.com/blog/2016/10/29/update-nodapl/.

Also circulating around Twitter this past week was the meme How To Take Action With #StandingRock for those desiring to help but unable to be there physically.

How to take action with #standingrock

This week, discuss with your HeartGroup what you could do. Anything helps. If you need to get informed first, take the time to do so, then take action.

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

Thank you for taking the time to join us this week.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Knowing the Father through the Son 

by Herb Montgomerypicture of a father and son
“Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son and to whomever the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Q 10:22)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:27: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Luke 10:22: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Gospel of Thomas 61:3: “Jesus said to her: ‘I am he who comes from the one who is always the same. I was given some of that which is my Father’s.’”

Jesus’ Substantiation of the God of the Vulnerable

Last week we discussed how the God Jesus called his followers to envision was committed to the most vulnerable ones in society. The very next saying shows Jesus appealing to direct revelation to substantiate his claim that God was a God for the vulnerable and not just the strong and well-placed. Consider the possible responses to Jesus’ saying from last week—that God had actually revealed truth to those on the margins of their society rather than to their religious sages and learned leaders. Pairing that saying with this week’s implies that the Jesus community attributed this truth to direct revealation.

How did Jesus know that God was the revealer of truth for the vulnerable? That this God belonged to the marginalized and excluded in his own society? This knowledge had been given to him directly from God and he was choosing to reveal it to his followers.

And while this defense of direct and unique revelation may have established the credibility of the Jesus community in their society in the first century, it leaves some big questions untouched in our context today.  In this saying, Jesus says that what he knows was “entrusted to him by his father” and that he also chooses to “reveal” things to the folks he chooses to.

That opens up questions like:

  •                 How do we know we’re getting insights from God or Jesus?
  •                 Are there any other possible sources?
  •                 Does direct revelation have to be validated by the authorities (in Jesus’ case, it wasn’t even though he appealed to and reinterpreted the prophets)?
  •                 How can we distinguish healthy insight/revelation from destructive insight/revelation?

Some modern people worry about whether their interpretations are valid or they are self-deceiving, especially if they’ve been taught that nothing the Holy Spirit reveals will contradict scripture. Could it be that the best way to know whether or not you’re on the right track is to actually follow what Jesus is teaching in this section of the sayings and listen to the voices of the most vulnerable and how they are affected by your “revelation?” This method, which my friend Keisha McKenzie calls Listening for God in the Othered, is a way to test “revelation” by its fruit.

Jesus’ direct revelation was not attested to by the status quo authorities, but he spoke of his father entrusting insight to him as he taught that we need to listen the revelation God has given to the lowest sector of our society: we need to listen to “the children.”

There is a danger in claiming direct revelation and ending the discussion there. Direct revelation is not a method that is reproducible and that we can use ourselves at will.  But we can lean into the truth that Jesus is attesting to in this saying. We can listen to the most vulnerable. We can hear from their experiences whether or not our “revelations” or interpretations of sacred texts produce good fruit.

It’s a hermeneutical method of testing by considering results. (See Matthew 7.16-20.)

My Father

I want to discuss for a moment Jesus’ referring to God as his “Father” because of the problematic nature of gendering Divinity. There are a number of things we must take into consideration.

First, Jesus lived and taught within two deeply patriarchal cultures: Roman and Jewish. We cannot escape the reality that Jesus and those he ministered to moved about within a patriarchal world.

Second, Jesus naming God as Father was less parental and more political. This way of naming God had a historical context in Judaism.

Referring to God as “Father” and having God referring to someone as “son” was a special relationship attributed to Judah’s king and YHWH. In the Psalms, this title was applied to David and it was also extended to Solomon.

Psalms 2:7: “I will proclaim the LORD’S decree: He said to me [David], ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.’”

Psalms 89:26: “He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.’”

2 Samuel 7:12-14: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He [Solomon] is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son.

Matthew’s gospel, a very Jewish version of the Jesus story, identifies Jesus with this language. It makes perfect sense. Matthew’s gospel continually employs imagery of Jesus and God as Father and son, and it is impossible to determine whether this unique rhetoric was original to Jesus or was created by the Jewish community who loved and followed him. What is clear is that this rhetoric was part of the hope for the liberation and restoration of Israel in the first century. At minimum, the followers of Jesus claimed that Jesus’ coming marked the start of this restoration.

Luke’s Gentile community would have used this rhetoric as well, not to associate Jesus with a past Jewish leader but for the purposes of contrast with a present Roman one.

As we covered last December in Two Visions [or Versions] of Peace (Part 3 of 3), this language was also used in the Roman empire to refer to Caesar’s supposed divine ancestry:

“It was Augustus Caesar who, during the time of Luke’s birth-narrative, was entitled Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Here is why.

Rome 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. Augustus, the adopted son of Julius, was like his father deified, or regarded as a god. He was given the title 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 produced a society where an elite at the top benefited from the subjugation of the many beneath them. Luke addresses all four of these aspects in his gospel. In response to Rome’s military power, Luke presents the teachings of Jesus on nonviolence. In response to Rome’s economic power, Luke presents Jesus’ teachings on 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.’ Rome’s theology was larger than Caesar and included the worship of deities such as Mars the god of war, but it included the worship of Caesar as the incarnate representation of the Divine.

As theologian Adolf Gustav Deissmann wrote, it’s important for us to recognize 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”’ (p. 349).

Knowing Augustus’ birth-narratives is also beneficial to us. The story was that on the night of Augustus’ conception, Augustus’ father had a dream in which he saw the sun rising from Atias, his wife’s 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.

Here’s a description from the 2nd Century CE of the divine conception of Augustus Caesar; it 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 herself, 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)”

Our Father

Gendering God as Father creates negative problems in human society but we must also consider the positive shift in Jesus’ teachings. God as Father was no longer an isolated privilege of one king at the top of a hierarchical societal structure. Jesus stands in his own prophetic tradition in affirming the communal nature of this title. The prophets had also shifted away from calling only the king the “son” of YHWH, and spoke of the entire nation as equal claimants to the parentage of YHWH.

Isaiah 63:16: “But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.”

Isaiah 64:8: “Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Jeremiah 31:9: “They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son.”

Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”

Malachi 2:10: “Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another?”

And Jesus, when asked in Matthew to give instruction about prayer, like the prophets before him, taught his followers to address God as “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:9, emphasis added)

Jesus’s teaching affirmed within a deeply patriarchal society that being able to refer to God as a parent was not the privilege of an isolated hero or king, but an egalitarian privilege that the entire community could enjoy. We are all children of Jesus’ God. We are all siblings (cf. Luke 19:9). We are all bearers of the image of God.

Luke also includes some evidence that Jesus used some feminine images for the Sacred Divine. For our time, some think it problematic that these images are domestic, but for Jesus to associate this imagery with God in his society would have been very provocative.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10, emphasis added)

Jesus is accessing portions of his own Jewish tradition in using these feminine images for God. As Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher so aptly points out in the book My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God-talk, within the Torah, God is likened to a Mother Eagle:

Like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft. (Deuteronomy 32:11)

This imagery is both earthy and transcendent, nurturing and independent; it is strong, powerful, and compassionate. The motherly love of the eagle as an image of the Divine holds much promise, specifically for women. (For further discussion, please see My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God-talk, pp. 49-51, 64-65.)

Jesus also used the Mother Hen image as well. Yet, as Karen Baker-Fletcher points out in the same volume, this image reemphasizes in patriarchal cultures negative stereotypes of women as “old hens,” “hen pecking,” and overprotectiveness.

I would strongly argue, though, that in the Jesus stories, we do not see Jesus applying the mother hen imagery to God, but to himself. He states “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” (Matthew 23:37, emphasis added.) For a man in Jesus’ context to have embraced using the mother hen language for himself could deeply affirm men as they strive to abandon harmful stereotypes of masculinity and strive toward becoming more nurturing and tender, as men, just as Jesus was.

We don’t always remember that Jesus grew up with a mother who was likely a widow for most of his adulthood. Jesus would have witnessed firsthand the struggles that women in his society faced. I think it is also telling that Luke includes a statement that women were supporting Jesus’ ministry from their own means (Luke 8:3). As the director of a nonprofit, I can attest that folks don’t financially support you unless they resonate with something you are saying or doing. In Jesus’ teachings, these women must have seen something that liberated them, too.

So what we see this week is Jesus gendering God. We must pair with his references to God as Father examples of him using female imagery for God as well. Jesus used imagery that affirmed patriarchal structure and stereotypes as well as imagery that challenged patriarchal structures and stereotypes. He did both. Like the Jewish prophets before him, Jesus enlarged the image of the divine as parent and saw the whole community having the same equal relationship. And lastly, his reference to his Father in this week’s saying substantiates a relationship where, through direct revelation, YHWH had revealed that to him that YHWH is a God who possesses a preferential option for the most vulnerable, not the “sages” and “leaders” of their society. This could have been deeply subversive in his time.

We’re considering all of these things as we contemplate this week’s saying and its possible application to our work of survival, resistance, liberation, transformation and restoration. Jesus claimed that God, in the patriarchal terms of his own place and time, is a “Father to the fatherless,” and we could add a “Mother to the motherless.” God parents the most vulnerable among us. Jesus calls us to imagine this “God” ourselves, and begin centering the most vulnerable as we seek to understand societal truths from their experiences. I’ll place both last week’s and this week’s saying together for your meditation, as we close. The title that the Q scholars give this section is Knowing the Father through the Son. What does the son reveal to us about the Father? That God is the God of the most vulnerable among us.

“At that time he said: I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for you hid these things from sages and the learned, and disclosed them to children. Yes, Father, for that is what it has pleased you to do. Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son and to whomever the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Q 10:2122, emphasis added.)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, contemplate on your own and as a group the implications of affirming God as both Mother and Father. According to Genesis 1, God made us all in God’s image. How does this shift to a more inclusive image of God challenge the boundaries our culture has created? What does God as both Mother and Father say to you about the value of men and women?
  2. For the next seven days, try something new in your prayer time. If you address the Divine in your prayers, simply try using the phrase “Mother-Father God.” See what this does inside of you. What of your own prejudices and stereotypes does it push against? What might it begin to free you from?
  3. Lastly, journal your experiments with praying like this and share what positive and negative things you discover with your HeartGroup next week for discussion.

Thank you again for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Sayings Gospel Q: What to Do in Houses and Towns

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

People sharing food“Into whatever house you enter, first say:  ‘Peace to this house!’ And if a son of peace be there, let your peace come upon him; but if not, let‚ your peace return upon you. And at that house remain, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the worker is worthy of one’s reward. Do not move around from house to house. And whatever town you enter and they take you in, eat what is set before you, and cure the sick there, and say to them: The kingdom of God has reached unto you.” (Q 10:5-9)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:7-13: “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give. Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts—no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you.”

Luke 10:5-9: “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’”

Gospel of Thomas 14:4: “And if you go into any land and wander from place to place, and if they take you in, then eat what they will set before you. Heal the sick among them!”

Last week we discussed the interdependence in the mission instructions that Sayings Gospel Q emphasized. This week, we’ll look at the way of mutual sharing or exchange of resources and abilities found in this saying.

Survival versus Liberation

A great summary of this section of Sayings Gospel Q comes from the work of Stephen J. Patterson:

“What does it actually mean for the empire of God to come? It begins with a knock at the door. On the stoop stand two itinerant beggars, with no purse, no knapsack, no shoes, no staff. They are so ill-equipped that they must cast their fate before the feet of a would-be host. This is a point often made by historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan. These Q folk are sort of like ancient Cynics, but their goal is not the Cynic goal of self-sufficiency; these itinerants are set only for dependency. To survive they must reach out to other human beings. They offer them peace—this is how the empire arrives. And if their peace is accepted, they eat and drink—this is how the empire of God is consummated, in table fellowship. Then another tradition is tacked on, beginning with the words ‘Whenever you enter a town.’ This is perhaps the older part of the tradition, for this, and only this, also has a parallel in the Gospel of Thomas (14). There is also an echo of it in Paul’s letter known as 1 Corinthians (10: 27). Here, as in the first tradition, the itinerants are instructed, ‘Eat what is set before you.’ Again, the first move is to ask. The empire comes when someone receives food from another. But then something is offered in return: care for the sick. The empire of God here involves an exchange: food for care.

This warrants pause. Food for care. In the ancient world, those who lived on the margins of peasant life were never far from death’s door. In the struggle to survive, food was their friend and sickness their enemy. Each day subsistence peasants earn enough to eat for a day. Each day they awaken with the question: Will I earn enough to eat today? This is quickly followed by a second: Will I get sick today? If I get sick, I won’t eat, and if I don’t eat, I’ll get sicker. With each passing day the spiral of starvation and sickness becomes deeper and deeper and finally, deadly. Crossan has argued that this little snippet of ancient tradition is critical to understanding why the followers of Jesus and their empire of God were compelling to the marginalized peasants who were drawn to it. ‘Eat what is set before you and care for the sick.’ Here is the beginning of a program of shared resources of the most basic sort: food and care. It’s an exchange. If some have food, all will eat; if any get sick, someone who eats will be there to care for them. The empire of God was a way to survive— which is to say, salvation.” (The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins, pp. 74-75)

In Luke’s gospel, the goal of Jesus’ ministry is the liberation of the oppressed:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4.18-19)

This week’s saying describes the way Jesus’ disciples can survive as they work toward that liberation. It reminds me of Delores Williams’ critique of early black liberation theology. Using the Hagar story, Williams explained that “God’s activity” is not always liberation. There are times when, as in the case of Hagar, God provides a way of survival in exploitative situations.

“When our hermeneutical principle is God’s word of survival and quality of life to oppressed communities (or families) living in a diaspora, we put different emphasis upon biblical texts and identify with different biblical stories than do black liberation theologians.” (Sisters in the Wilderness, p. 194)

This week’s saying, seen through the lens of mutual resource-sharing, is a plan of survival. It can also be interpreted as creating a new world while the old exploitative one is still present, building a new society within the shell of the old.

Within the Shell of the Old

I read a great article this past week from the Center for a Stateless Society’s website about Alcoholics Anonymous illustrating how people can create structures that meet their communities’ needs today even as they look forward to one day when the present structures are no longer present. For those not familiar with C4SS, one of the senior fellows of this group is Gary Chartier, professor of Law and Business Ethics and Associate Dean of the Zapara School of Business at La Sierra University.

Jesus showed how to build a new world within the shell of the old, and this was valuable in four ways:

First, the mutualism in Jesus’ sharing of resources enabled his impoverished followers to survive and, together, raise their quality of life despite Roman economic exploitation and the religious complicity of the Temple aristocracy.

Second, it empowered Jesus’ followers to speak the truth about the system that they lived in. Often, people subordinated in systems do not have the power to immediately abandon and separate themselves from their oppression. They are forced into participation against their will. So survival at times can include a type of lying about the system in order to placate oneself that it not that bad, it’s not perfect, but they can work with the present system.

Building a new world within the shell of the old does not require an impossible abandonment of the old world. It enables one to tell the truth about the present system, acknowledging one’s inability to fully escape that system, and still dedicate one’s efforts to creating a new society. We may not be able to escape it yet, but as we learned last month from Tolstoy and Gandhi, at least we can be honest about it.

Third, Jesus’ teachings encouraged his followers to direct their energy toward preparing for their liberation. Too often the need to survive is a reason one can’t abandon a present exploitative system. To use Delores Williams’ example again, Hagar had liberated herself from the oppression of Abraham and Sarah, yet she and her son were dying! They had become free, but to what end? She and her son were now alone in the wilderness and starving, and in order to survive, she had to return to the house of her oppressors.

Building a new world within the shell of the old promises that one will in the future be able to abandon present oppression because a more just society provides for the needs of the community and liberation moves everyone toward life rather than starvation.

Fourth and lastly, building a new world within the shell of the old critiques the present world, waking others to the injustices of a system they may still be complicit in. An unconscious person might ask, why build a different world if this one is so perfect, so “number one,” so “God blessed.” To work on a better world while the present world is in motion helps others to see the problems in the present system and provides an option that meets the needs of humanity without domination and subjugation. This method subverts the present world, allowing people to see and freely choose a better option. Thus they accomplish liberation through justice rather than through violence.

“When Power Resides With the Outsiders”

Lastly this week, I want to draw your attention to something in this week’s saying that I hadn’t noticed, and I want to talk about why I hadn’t noticed it. Dr. Keisha McKenzie beautifully pointed out that what we see in Jesus’ instructions to the disciples is a power dynamic working in reverse.

“So often when we talk about who is welcome or received, especially in churches, the congregation or pastor or elders are usually described as blessers. They have legal and sacramental authority, they often own the property, they can expel people or invite them into membership: we imagine the power to ‘bless’ resides with them.

That’s not the dynamic at work in this verse.

In this verse, it’s the itinerant community that blesses. The power to bring peace moves with them, and reluctant or rejecting hosts can resist it.

This is encouragement for people who don’t have conventional power yet may not realize that they aren’t without all power. Families may be icy tundras and congregations may be just as cold. But we have the ability to offer the mainstream ‘peace’ and wholeness, and they have the ability to repel both.” (Family Memories)

I encourage you to read the entire article. It is spot on!

What I also want to point out is that although Keisha gave a shout out to me for directing her attention to Luke 10, she captured an insight from our saying this week that I would never have seen on my own in a million years. Why? Because I’m an insider in most areas of the culture we live in today. I’m White. I’m male. I’m American. I’m straight. I’m cisgender. It never occurred to look at these instructions from the perspective of an outsider. I missed that! But most of Jesus’ disinherited followers were outsiders too. Jesus was empowering the outsiders of his day in a world where they had been religiously, socially, politically and economically kept out.

This illustrates for me once again why we so desperately need more eyes reading the Jesus story than just White, male, European theologians from the Western so-called “First World.” We need South American voices, we need Black voices, we need feminist voices, we need womanist voices, we need queer voices! It’s from the diverse perspectives and voices of those on the outlying edges of our societies that we can regain the original meanings of the Jewish Jesus story, not because of these identities in themselves, but because of the way people in marginal social positions experience life: they experience life differently from people in the dominant positions of our societies.

The Jesus we meet in the Jesus story resonated with the marginalized and oppressed of the 1st Century. It makes perfect sense that those who share that experience today will see within the Jesus story things that others in a more dominant social position will initially miss. In Western history, “ownership” of the Jesus story has most often been claimed by those in positions of power and privilege. This has almost obliterated the original meaning of the Jesus story to a point where we can barely recover it today. So recovering the historical Jesus is difficult for dominant society groups and may be much easier for those who parallel in our society those with whom the original story resonated so long ago. That story has been buried under interpretation after interpretation of those in positions of power, interpretations that protect the status quo, keeping it in place rather than subverting it from underneath. This is why, I believe, if we are to rediscover the historical Jesus, we must listen to the voices of those forced by society to live on the fringes of our world.

This is another example of our interdependence. We need each other. We need the value of all of our voices, and we especially need those whose experience is different from our own. Together we can integrate all of those experiences into a coherent and meaningful whole, choose to abandon our fear and insecurity toward those unlike ourselves, and work toward a world characterized by what Jesus subversively called the “empire” of God: a community of people taking care of people.

As we work toward a world that looks like this, let’s keep in mind those original instructions from Jesus, which emphasized our interdependence in concrete and practical ways:

“Into whatever house you enter, first say: Peace to this house! And if a son of peace be there, let your peace come upon him; but if not, let‚ your peace return upon you. And at that house remain, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the worker is worthy of one’s reward. Do not move around from house to house. And whatever town you enter and they take you in, eat what is set before you, and cure the sick there, and say to them: The kingdom of God has reached unto you.” (Q 10:5-9)

HeartGroup Application

This week I have a very simple exercise for your HeartGroup.

  1. As a group, write down five ways you feel you depend on one another.
  2. Now share what each of these connections means to each of you. Define them.
  3. Now list three ways that this week you can individually and together lean into these five areas of dependence.

None of us come into this life all on our own. We don’t thrive alone either.

Thanks once again for joining us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

More than a Prophet

(And the Inability of Those in “Fine Clothing”)

by Herb Montgomery

Man in Tux, adjusting cufflinks.“And when they had left, he began to talk to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A person arrayed in finery? Look, those wearing finery are in kings’ houses. But then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet! This is the one about whom it has been written: Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your path in front of you. I tell you: There has not arisen among women’s offspring anyone who surpasses John. Yet the least significant in God’s kingdom is more than he.’” (Q 7:24-28)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:7-11: “As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’”

Luke 7:24-28: “After John’s messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’”

Gospel of Thomas 78: “Jesus says, ‘Why did you go out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind, and to see a person dressed in soft clothing [like your] kings and your great/powerful persons? They are dressed in soft clothing and will not be able to recognize the truth.’”

In the Jewish tradition, the role of a prophet was to be a gadfly to those at the top of the Jewish domination system, both priests and kings. The common thread in their work was a call for justice for the oppressed, marginalized, vulnerable and exploited. The clearest example of this focus is Amos. Hebrew prophets were not prognosticators. Rather they were those who cast a imaginative vision of a future where all violence, injustice, and oppression were put right.

Yet John the Baptist was more than this. He emerged not by casting a vision for a distant hope, but by announcing that the vision long hoped for had arrived. It was here, now, today!

Last week we discussed the differences between the proclamations of John and the actual ministry of Jesus. In our saying this week, however, Jesus reveals deep respect for John and those who followed him. John was the “real deal” calling for social change now! And, he practiced what he preached. He did not come in “fine clothes” and “luxury” bringing good news to the exploited and subjugated. He had abandoned the luxury of the priestly aristocracy (in Luke John’s father was a priest). He was a voice, in solidarity with the exploited, crying out in the wilderness, to prepare the way for the coming that Isaiah had announced.

This connection to Isaiah’s (and Malachi’s) liberation theme was central to the community that cherished Sayings Gospel Q.

Isaiah 40:3: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

Isaiah 57:14: “And it will be said: ‘Build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people.’”

Isaiah 62:10: “Pass through, pass through the gates! Prepare the way for the people. Build up, build up the highway! Remove the stones. Raise a banner for the nations.”

Malachi 3:1: “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.”

 

Inability to Recognize The Truth

This saying appears in Gospel of Thomas as well as in the canonical texts. This gospel captures the inability of those benefited or “privileged” by the status quo to rightly characterize the movements of John and Jesus. Those who represent the institutional establishment, its apologists, and its complicit supporters do not internally resonate with a revolution: they aren’t in a position that enables them to recognize “good news” when it emerges.

In Mark, too, the Jesus movement isn’t perceived as good news by Herod, Caiaphas, or Pilate, but rather as a threat to each. The Gospel of Thomas expresses this universal truth explicitly when it states that these leaders “will not be able” to even “recognize the truth.” The truth could be all around them and they would either miss its significance or proclaim it as dangerous or even heretical. But the oppressed know good news when they hear it.

In matters of theology, and I would now also argue in economics and politics, it is important to listen to the perspectives and interpretations of those who don’t benefit from the present system. In matters of theology, as we have discussed in previous weeks, it is White, colonial, European, and patriarchal theologians that struggle to “recognize” liberating truth, and the Church desparately needs the voices of our liberation, Black liberation, feminist, womanist, and queer theologians. As a result of their places in the present society, they are best positioned to recognize what is genuine good news and what is the same old religious endorsement of exploitative systems that benefit some at the expense of the many or benefit the majority at exclusion and marginalization of a few.

 

Egalitarianism in the “Empire” of God

Also notice that even though John was “more than a prophet,” in Jesus’ subversive “empire,” those considered the most insignificant are esteemed even more than John. Why? This upends the customs of the empire of Rome, but it works because in Jesus’s new world people value and take care of people. Everyone is valued and that which dehumanizes or devalues is systematically dismantled. In Jesus’s new “kingdom,” every person is of equal worth and value. This value is based on their being not on their doing; their essence, not their performance. Their value is rooted in each person’s humanity.

Again, as we have said for the last three weeks, the Q community seemed to place special emphasis on rooting Jesus’s liberation in the “good news” of Isaiah and Malachi, a book written in the same era Isaiah was redacted.

 

What Does This Mean For Us Today?

We’ve discussed the egalitarian nature of Jesus’ social vision at length. What I’d like to focus on this week is the inability of those in “fine clothing” to “recognize the truth.” What does this mean?

This verse reminds me of comments I received the first time I wore blue jeans and a sports coat to a church service I was speaking at: people insisted that my clothes were not quite “fine” enough. It made me wonder whether there was a link between a congregation’s fine clothes and their complicity with a status quo that leaves many impoverished for elite benefits.

The “fine clothing” in this week’s saying represents an economic privilege: it is a symbol. That economic privilege is our spring board to other areas of social, political and religious privilege, too. Today, we can simultaneously exist in positions of privilege and disadvantage in multiple areas of our lives because of the social oppressions that influence our society. A white collar woman has a different set of privileges and disadvantages than a blue collar male. A man of color has a different social position than either White men and women or women of color. A White gay male will experience society differently than a straight man of color and a gay or bisexual man of color.

My most recent encounter with this dynamic was a discussion I had with two LGBT friends. One is a white collar professional while the other is an Appalachian blue collar laborer. Both have the same concerns right now about the protection of their rights in the U.S. Both favor individuals running for office that will stand up for their rights. Yet what surprised me was my professional friend’s inability to see the economic perspective of my blue collar friend. My white collar friend preferred candidates that are pro-LGBT and support corporatism. My blue collar friend supports candidates that are pro-LGBT and have more interventionist, pro-labor policies. I expected that much.

What surprised me was my white collar friend’s inability to understand my other friend’s priorities, even to the point of near insult and derision. Their final parting statement was, “Your candidate would have no significant effect on my life so why should I care about a candidate that won’t affect me at all.”

Politics can get ugly, and this is the season of ugliness here in the States. The intersections of our own privilege and our disadvantage is complex. Our privilege and disadvantage overlap and “intersect” on multiple levels in society and at some point we must ask “What is best for us all?” not just “What is best for me?”

How does this relate to our saying this week? In every area of our lives where we are in a position of privilege, or “wearing fine clothes,” our saying this week states that we are unable to see things as they are for those who are not like ourselves. Someone else’s truth is unrecognizable to us. In that very place, a humble posture of listening becomes important as we labor to transform our world into a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all. We saw this vision last week in the words of Micah, “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). As we each listen to the stories of those whose experience differs from our own, we can learn to build communities where each person receives what is necessary for them to thrive and develop into the best version of themselves that they can be.

But it’s not easy. Our defenses are easily triggered. Listening takes practice.

We typically want to protect and preserve the “fine clothes” areas of our lives, and so listening to the experiences of others can be threatening. In these moments we must make the choice to lean into our discomfort rather than away from it. For it’s in these moments of discomfort that we discover oppressive paradigms and gain an opportunity to reject them.

To each of you who are taking stands and feeling the pressure of being “shaken in the wind,” may this week’s saying be an encouragement to you. Those in “fine clothing” may not recognize the value of what you are doing. But those whom you’re working alongside often will. Together, we can create a world where each of us are equally heard, listened to, valued, and understood.

“And when they had left, he began to talk to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A person arrayed in finery? Look, those wearing finery are in kings’ houses. But then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet! This is the one about whom it has been written: “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your path in front of you.” I tell you: There has not arisen among women’s offspring anyone who surpasses John. Yet the least significant in God’s kingdom is more than he.’” (Q 7:24-28)

HeartGroup Application 

This week, do two things with your group.

  1. First, list all the ways you are different from one another. This list will be rather long!
  2. Second, list all the ways in which you are the same or similar to each other. Then prioritize this list. Which areas of sameness are most important to each of you?
  3. Now, focus on that second list. In the light of the ways in which you’re the same, return to your first list and see if you have more respect for the areas that make your group different as well. Where our differences cause our experiences in society to also differ, maybe, just maybe, we can begin to reach out from our private experiences and stand in solidarity with others.

 

Thank you for joining us this week.

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

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.