Spirit of Advocacy

 

dove in stained glass

Herb Montgomery | May 21, 2021


The Jesus of John calls us to not let go of life but to take hold of it, to stand up for that which is life-giving, and to stand alongside the oppressed in our fight against injustice and death in all its expressions. May the same Advocate Spirit that took the side of the oppressed, marginalized, and those pushed to the edges of society in the Jesus story be found again, poured out on us as Jesus followers again today.”


Our readings this week are from John 15 and 16:

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. (John 15:26-27)

“But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, Where are you going? But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:4-15)

As we mentioned last week, these two passages belong to a section of John’s gospel referred to as the farewell discourses. John 16 includes themes repeated throughout farewell addresses: departure and Jesus being on the way to the Father” (cf. John 13:33, 36-37; 14:2-4, 28), Jesus promise to send the Spirit as an advocate (cf. John 14:16, 26; 15:26), the work of the advocated to guide them into truth (cf. John 14:6, 16-17). It’s worth noting how clear and direct Jesus’ speech is in these passages compared to his parables and sayings in the synoptic gospels. In those versions of the Jesus story, Jesus speaks much more cryptically, in parables and metaphors. John does not include that kind of speech.

In the passage this week, Jesus uses the term advocate for the promise of the Spirit. This concept would have held a certain meaning for the original audience, the community of early Jesus followers. By the time John’s gospel was written, the rift between Christians and the Jewish people had become wide, and so John not only includes conflict between these two now-separate communities, but also an alarming amount of anti-Jewish descriptions and antisemitic characterizations of those referred to as “the Jews.” Given how Christians have treated our Jewish siblings throughout Christianity’s history, we must be extremely careful with the gospel of John, and not perpetuate stereotypes or actions that have harmed or even proven lethal to Jewish people. This caution applies to the term “advocate,” too.

Consider the following passages in John’s version of the Jesus story where being removed from the synagogue is a penalty for Jewish people who follow Jesus.

“His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Anointed would be put out of the synagogue.” (John 9:22)

“Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue.” (John 12:42)

John’s Jesus repeats the warning in John 12: “They will put you out of the synagogues.” (John 16:2)

For that first audience, “advocate” would have called to mind actual legal proceedings Jewish leaders initated against Jesus’ followers. The theme of being brought to trial appears in the early synoptic gospels as well:

“When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13:11)

“When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:19-20)

“So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Luke 21:14-15)

“When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11-12)

Can we reclaim this idea of advocacy in life-giving ways within our social context today?

Advocacy means to publicly support a particular community, cause or policy.

In the Hebrew scriptures, advocacy meant perceiving God’s role in our world (God as advocate of the oppressed) as well as the role God’s people were to fulfill.

“God judges in favor of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.” (Psalm 146:7, italics added.)

“Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)

“Happy are those who are concerned for the poor; the Lord will help them when they are in trouble.” (Psalms 41:1)

“Open your mouth for the voiceless, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9)

“How terrible it will be for those who make unfair laws, and those who write laws that make life hard for people. They are not fair to the poor, and they rob my people of their rights. They allow people to steal from widows and to take from orphans what really belongs to them.” (Isaiah 10:1-2)

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6)

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth . . . ” (Isaiah 42:3-4)

Too often, we as Christians have become fixated on helping people reach a post-mortem heaven or escape some mythical hell: our focus is always on tomorrow and never on today. But if we would be humble enough to learn from our Jewish siblings, remembering Jesus himself was a Jew long before the Christian religion ever existed, we would learn how to effectively engage systemic injustice in our world. The Jesus story calls Jesus’ followers to advocacy in the here and now. I so deeply appreciate the words of the late Rev. Dr. James H. Cone on this point:

“The Christian community, therefore, is that community that freely becomes oppressed, because they know that Jesus himself has defined humanity’s liberation in the context of what happens to the little ones. Christians join the cause of the oppressed in the fight for justice not because of some philosophical principle of “the Good” or because of a religious feeling of sympathy for people in prison. Sympathy does not change the structures of injustice. The authentic identity of Christians with the poor is found in the claim which the Jesus-encounter lays upon their own life-style, a claim that connects the word “Christian” with the liberation of the poor. Christians fight not for humanity in general but for themselves and out of their love for concrete human beings.” (James H. Cone; The God of the Oppressed, p. 135)

This weekend, we celebrate Pentecost, which memorializes the pouring out of the Spirit on the early church. What did it look like when this Advocate Spirit was poured out on Jesus? How did that Spirit characterize his life work?

The Spirit [advocate] of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lords favor [cancellation of all debt].” (Luke 4:18-19, cf. Isaiah 61:1-2)

The Jesus story calls to us to have this same Spirit mark our lives today too!

I’ll close this week with words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that still give us much to consider:

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be, and one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. Youre afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or youre afraid that somebody will stab or shoot or bomb your house. So you refuse to take a stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at ninety. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You died when you refused to stand up for justice.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ; Ebenezer Baptist Church; 11/5/67; Atlanta, GA)

This is especially applicable given the recent events in Palestine. The Jesus of John calls us to not let go of life but to take hold of it, to stand up for that which is life-giving, and to stand alongside the oppressed in our fight against injustice and death in all its expressions. May the same Advocate Spirit that took the side of the oppressed, marginalized, and those pushed to the edges of society in the Jesus story be found again, poured out on us as Jesus followers again today.

This Pentecost, may this be not merely our prayer, but our choice as well.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What does advocacy look like for you and how does it inform your own Jesus following? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


Hated by the Right People

lonely road

Herb Montgomery | May 14, 2021


“We should first stop and ask if we are genuinely being hated at all. And if we are, we must also realize It’s not enough to be hated. We have to ask ourselves who is it who is hating us and why. If we are hated by the same social groups that hated Jesus and for the same reasons, then we can claim Jesus’ blessing in Luke. But if we find ourselves opposed by the marginalized because we are actually standing between them and justice, obstructing their path toward a society that recognizes their full humanity, then we need to serious address why it is that our story is so fundamentally different from the Jesus story that we hold so dear.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your instructions. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the instructions you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled. I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your instruction and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your instruction is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. (John 17:6-19)

This passage ends Jesus’ farewell discourse in John’s version of the story (John 14-17). This section is unique to John, and many scholars have compared it to Matthew’s sermon on the mount because of its size and centrality to John’s version of the Jesus story. To the original audience of John, the farewell discourse would have been immediately recognized as similar to a last will and testament of a father or leader of a community, like those found in Genesis 49 or in the Judean document Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Discourses like these were often deathbed instructions to children or final instructions to followers before a leader’s departure. And so they were in John.

This segment in John represents the tenets of a distinct group that emerged within the early Christian community referred to as the Johannine community. Some of what this community believed and taught would become part of the gnostic Christian community a hundred years later, and other portions would provide the foundation for the patriarchal orthodoxy established in the fourth and fifth centuries of the new Church.

Just as the sermon on the mount in Matthew contains Matthew’s version of the central teachings of Jesus, these discourses (John 14-17) contain the language and particular perspectives of the Christian Johannine community, which they attributed to Jesus.

John 17:6-19, for instance, is part of Jesus’ farewell prayer. This prayer was hugely influential in the process of defining the orthodox Christian view of the relationship between Jesus and the Father during the debates and eventual creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries. For our purposes this week, the love between the Father and Jesus is the theme of verses 1-5. The hoped-for success of Jesus followers after the crucifixion and resurrection is the theme of verses 6-10. Once we get to verse 11, the focus shifts to concern for the safety of Jesus followers in a world to which the Johannine community believed they didn’t belong (“They are not of the world any more than I am of the world”).

Being hated by the world is a theme in many sectors of Christianity that has been sorely abused since then. So let’s unpack this idea a bit.

First, Jesus’ gospel of liberation for the oppressed was not initially perceived as good news for everyone. I’m reminded of the words of Peter Gomes in his book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus:

Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others. In order that the gospel in the New Testament might be made as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, its rough edges have been shorn off and the radical edge of Jesuspreaching has been replaced by a respectable middle, of which niceness” is now God. When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the end of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed.” (Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, p. 31)

An example of this is Luke’s sermon on the plain in Luke 6:20-26. Certainly the poor, the hungry, those the present system caused to weep, and those hated by the elite felt blessed by Jesus’ gospel of blessing. Yet those who were rich, well-fed, filled with the laughter of luxury, and liked within their fellow elite social class felt cursed. In the story, the characters of Herod, Pilate and Caiaphas did not perceive Jesus’ teachings as good news but as a threat. And in the synoptics, Jesus was loved among the common people but hated by many of those in power and positions of privilege, so much so that it was the people’s love that initially protected Jesus, making him difficult to arrest and silence (see Matthew 21:26, Mark 12:12, Luke 20:19).

So in the gospels, Jesus’ followers were to expect hatred from the powerful and elite for whom Jesus’ teachings threatened (Matthew 10:22; 24:9; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17; John 15:18). In Luke’s gospel, Jesus goes so far as to say, “Blessed are you when people hate you.” (Luke 6:22) And this is where the teaching can be abused.

People hating you doesn’t mean you’re on the right path. You could just be a jerk! Also, too often we can conflate criticism and hate. Someone not liking something doesn’t mean they want it destroyed. And yet, if you find yourself being genuinely hated as a Jesus follower, it’s important to consider how much social location matters: ask yourself who hates you and what their social location is. If you find yourself being hated by the wealthy, the powerful, the privileged, the propertied, and those who put profit before people, then you’re in the right story.

But what if, as is so often the case within so many sectors of Christianity, we find ourselves challenged by LGBTQ folks, or by women who identify as feminists or womanists, or by people who are not White, or by those who daily struggle economically to scratch out an existence, who feel as if they will never enjoy the privileges of being a citizen of this world?

Then we need to reassess why our story looks so differently from the Jesus story. Jesus was hated, yes. But those who hated him were at the center and top of society to the exclusion and marginalization of others. Jesus was hated by many in the privileged and powerful sectors of his society. Those in the story who lived in a marginalized or disempowered social location loved him.

We should first stop and ask if we are genuinely being hated at all. And if we are, we must also realize It’s not enough to be hated. We have to ask ourselves who is it who is hating us and why. If we are hated by the same social groups that hated Jesus and for the same reasons, then we can claim Jesus’ blessing in Luke. But if we find ourselves opposed by the marginalized because we are actually standing between them and justice, obstructing their path toward a society that recognizes their full humanity, then we need to serious address why it is that our story is so fundamentally different from the Jesus story that we hold so dear.

One last word. Unique to the Johaninne community is an idea that we are in this world but not of it. Whatever this meant for the original Johannine community, it’s not a life-giving teaching today: separatist at best and exceptionalism and possibly even supremacism at worst. Today, we can tell the Jesus story in ways that, like the Jesus of the synoptics, engage this world, our families, our communities, our society, and don’t withdraw from them. We are part of this world. It’s not “the” world, it’s our world. We are not just passing through: this world is our home.

And, according to other passages in the Christian scriptures, we are to be about renewing, restoring, and transforming our world into a safe home for everyone (see Revelation 21:3-5).

So this week, let’s get to it! Let’s get to work alongside those working toward a more distributively just society, one where the full humanity of those presently othered is not only recognized, but celebrated, honored and centered.

A just, safe, equitable home for all.

Will we be hated along the way? Maybe.

But let’s make sure our gospel is good news to the same folks Jesus’ gospel was good news for, and then we will at least be able to say that those who hate us hated Jesus, too. If we do, our heads can hit the pillow each night and, whether we are hated or loved, we can know that we are making our world a better place for all.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. How does considering the social location of both marginalized and privileged communities in our society impact how we read and follow the Jesus story? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Inherent Relationship of Love and Justice

 

clouds in the sky

by Herb Montgomery | May 7, 2021


“There is a way to teach God’s love that is complicit in oppression and is harmful to marginalized communities. There is another way to teach love that can be foundational to the work of transforming our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone . . . Love that only leaves the privileged in a conscience-appeased state so they can sleep better at night isn’t a love worth having . . . We can explore ways that understanding Universal love that lead us, not to private, assured passivity, but to the work of remaining in that love by shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for each and every one of us.”


Our reading this week is from John’s gospel:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Fathers commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down ones life for ones friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his masters business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.” (John 15:9-17)

The intended audience for this passage is the developing community of Jesus followers, and the central theme of the passage is love. Out of all the canonical gospels, John’s expresses the highest form of Christology since the writing of the gospel of Mark. Since then, the community developed its ideas about the relationship between Jesus and Jesus’ Father (see John 1:1-3). In our passage this week, this relationship and Jesus’ relationship with his followers are models for Jesus followers to emulate in their relationships with one another. Love is one of the central themes in John, more so than in Matthew, Mark, Luke and even the book of Acts where the word love does not appear even once.

Consider, by contrast, how often love is the focus of John’s version of the Jesus story:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, italics added.)

“The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.” (John 3:35,italics added.)

“For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed.” (John 5:20, italics added.)

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34,35, italics added.)

“No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” (John 16:27, italics added.)

“I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23, italics added.)

“I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (John 17:26, italics added.)

See also John 10:17; 14:15, 21-23, 31; 17:24; and 21:15-17.

Each of the synoptic gospels addresses love, but none of them repeats the theme to the degree we see in John’s gospel.

There is a way to teach God’s love that is nothing more than guilt management for the privileged, propertied, and powerful, that does nothing more than help them to silence the background noise of their troubled conscience. I’ve also found over the years that many Christians who live in an empowered or privileged social location also name John’s gospel as their favorite out of the four. I wonder if there is a connection.

There’s also another way to teach God’s love that could be foundational to our work to transform our world into a just, compassionate, safe home for all those who are vulnerable to harm in the present system. I’m reminded of the words of Dr. Emilie M. Townes:

“When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isnt very far behind.” (Dr. Emilie M. Townes; Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology)

In 2010, Dr. Cornel West firmly grounded distributive, societal justice work in the soil of universal love when he said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also relied on his deep belief in a universal love and social justice for the objects of that love:

“When days grow dark [sic] and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice which will lead us through lifes dark [sic] valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, in A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings, p. 9)

Love that only leaves the privileged in a conscience-appeased state so they can sleep better at night isn’t a love worth having. If a belief in universal love is only serves to achieve privatized, individual, internal well-being and doesn’t also move us to work publicly for justice within our communities, then we should abandon that belief and kind of love immediately. I agree with James Baldwin who wrote, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” (James Baldwin; The Fire Next Time, p. 47)

The late Thomas Merton went so far as to equate a theology of love with a theology of resistance and revolution:

“A theology of love cannot afford to be sentimental. It cannot afford to preach edifying generalities about charity, while identifying peace’ with mere established power and legalized violence against the oppressed. A theology of love cannot be allowed merely to serve the interests of the rich and powerful, justifying their wars, their violence and their bombs, while exhorting the poor and underprivileged to practice patience, meekness, longsuffering, and to solve their problems, if at all, nonviolently. A theology of love may also conceivably turn out to be a theology of revolution. In any case, it is a theology of resistance, a refusal of the evil that reduces a brother or sister to homicidal desperation.” (Thomas Merton; Toward a Theology of Resistance found in Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, p.121)

I want to offer one word of caution in relation to our passage this week. As I’ve repeatedly said over the past few weeks, John’s gospel speaks to the myth of redemptive suffering more so than any of the other canonical gospels:

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down ones life for ones friends.”

I’ve also written repeatedly about the harm the myth of redemptive suffering does to vulnerable communities so I will not unpack the whole discussion again here. Instead I will offer Dr. Katie Cannon’s words in the foreword to the 20th Anniversary edition of Delores Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness:

“[Williams] contends that theologians need to think seriously about the real-life consequences of redemptive suffering, God-talk that equates the acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse as the way for true believers to live as authentic Christian disciples. Those who spew such false teaching and warped preaching must cease and desist.” (Kindle location 133)

As I wrote in Imagery of a Good Shepherd, there is a difference between empowered people sacrificing and them teaching disempowered people to sacrifice themselves. (Also see Brown and Parker’s For God So Loved The World?) The early church was largely comprised of those who, as Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas often says, didn’t have a wall to even have their back up against. While the giving of some people in privileged social locations can hardly be called sacrifice (see Mark 12:41-44), teaching disempowered people the myth of redemptive suffering can be destructive or even lethal.

I’ll close with Thomas Merton’s timely words:

“Instead of preaching the Cross for others and advising them to suffer patiently the violence which we sweetly impose on them, with the aid of armies and police, we might conceivably recognize the right of the less fortunate to use force, and study more seriously the practice of nonviolence and humane methods on our own part when, as it happens, we possess the most stupendous arsenal of power the world has ever known.” (Ibid.)

This week, let’s explore ways that understanding God loves everyone can lead us, not to private, assured passivity, but to the work of remaining in God’s love by shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for each and every one of us.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Contrast some of the ways a message of love can be used to impede our justice work along with ways a message of love can be foundational.  Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


We Are Not Just Passing Through

Herb Montgomery | March 20, 2020

earth from space


“Our first concern should not be to leave it all behind, but to bring healing to the world around us. Jesus modeled how we can be conduits of healing to this world, and we are to be about setting that healing in motion. We must be about restoration, not relocation; our goal should not be to depart, but to remain, doing as much good as we can in the time we have been given.”


We at Renewed Heart Ministries are wishing you peace during this critical time.

To read how RHM is responding to COVID-19, click here.

In Matthew’s gospel, we read these words from the sermon on the mount:

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)

In this verse, Jesus is focusing our attention on earth, not heaven.

Through history, many Christians have emphasized getting to heaven after death as their ultimate goal. The lyrics of the popular hymn This World Is Not My Home read, “This world is not my home. I’m just a-passing through. My treasures are laid up. Somewhere beyond the blue.”

Yet this focus is a late development in the Christian religion and is tellingly absent from the Jewish teachings of the Jesus described in the synoptic gospels.

This absence in Matthew, Mark, and Luke should challenge or even confront the post-mortem, other-world emphasis in Christianity today.

Consider these two other passages from Matthew:

“You are the salt of THE EARTH. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13, emphasis added)

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, ON EARTH as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10, emphasis added)

By much of White Evangelical Christianity’s focus one would assume Matthew’s gospel instead read, “Blessed are the meek for they shall make it to heaven.”

This departs from the early Jewish Jesus moment, which focused on healing our world, not escaping it. Jesus and his early followers viewed this world as our home. We were not simply passing through it to someplace better.

With a focus on heaven, we have emphasized the spiritual over the material, and defined the material as less-than or “sinful.” This focus has also done immeasurable damage by inspiring complicity with, participation in, or sponsorship of earthly systemic injustice, economic, racial, gendered, sexual, and more. Many Christians also live unmoved by the deep ecological crisis we are now facing as a human race.

What we find instead in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is that Jesus did not focus on getting people out of this place to some far distant heaven. Instead, he focused on bringing justice, liberation, reparation and healing to his fellow earthly inhabitants, in his own Jewish society.

Jesus after all was not a Christian. He was a Jew, and healing our world has a rich Jewish history. Bringing healing and transformation to earthly systems of injustice was the Jewish prophetic soil in which the roots of the gospels grew.

The gospels’ earthly focus traces back to the ancient Hebrew Genesis narrative, as well.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may have dominion over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’” (Genesis 1:26)

The early Christian community, which also persevered for us the last book of the New Testament, ends the canon not with Earth being forsaken for a heavenly dwelling, but with the earth being repaired, restored, and healed.

“I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of Heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God’.” (Revelation 21:2-3)

Whatever one makes of the book of Revelation and its many interpretations, its story ends on Earth, not in heaven.

There are some differences of belief in contemporary Christianity on this point. Some believe we go to heaven permanently at death. Some believe instead that heaven is a temporary resting place before Earth is finally restored. Martin Luther and some Anabaptists such as Michael Sattler believed this in the 16th Century. And still some other Christians don’t believe they will ever enter a cosmic heaven, but believe that death is a sort of “sleep” where they wait on a future resurrection here on Earth.

I’m not personally concerned with these minute differences. I’m concerned about what fruit the beliefs we do hold produce in our lives. Is our focus getting a cosmic heaven while we ignore systemic injustice, oppression, or violence in concrete ways here on earth? Does a person’s beliefs enable and empower them to engage justice work here in our world, now presently?

I don’t believe that as a follower of Jesus, we should be living as if “this world is not our home.” Let’s no longer say, “We are just passing through.”

I remember an advertisement for an interfaith chapel in Atlanta’s international airport years ago. The advertisement had clip art of a kneeling person, and under the image it said, “Because we’re all just passing through.” It was a fitting slogan for an airport where people are literally “passing through” every day.

But the more I pondered it, I don’t believe Jesus taught that. This world IS our home and we have a lot of work to do yet. “ON EARTH as it is in heaven” is a prayer not yet answered, and we are the ones that must answer it. We are the ones we’ve been waiting on, as Alice Walker stated, and Jesus showed us how.

We have to first let go of our fixed idea that this world is evil and something we must escape. No. This world has evil in it, but it has beauty, too. It has injustice, but also compassion, justice, charity, and love. As Jesus-followers, we are called to foster justice and compassion and care where they are thriving. We are called to sow the seeds of life-giving change. We are called to display what our world could look like if it was shaped according the ethics of resource-sharing, mutual aid, distributive justice, the connectedness of people, and the interconnectedness of the communities we belong to.

In Luke’s gospel Jesus commissioned his followers “to proclaim the kingdom of God and TO HEAL THE SICK” (Luke 9:2, emphasis added).

There is sickness in our world—physical, economic, political, social, and ecological. Our first concern should not be to leave it all behind, but to bring healing to the world around us. Jesus modeled how we can be conduits of healing to this world, and we are to be about setting that healing in motion. We must be about restoration, not relocation; our goal should not be to depart, but to remain, doing as much good as we can in the time we have been given.

This world IS our home. We are NOT just passing through; we are here to stay. Even if your beliefs state that at some point in the future you will find yourself elsewhere, it will be at that location that you can sing that you are “just passing through.” The story of the New Testament ends here, on Earth, and for the sake of those that will come after us, we must take up the work on healing our world here today.

This may take some deep transition in our beliefs. It also must create an even deeper transition in our actions.

We must become more concerned with present systemic injustice.

We must become more concerned with ecological destruction as a result of prioritized capital gain.

We must begin to place people and planet over power, profit, and privilege.

If we are to have a brighter tomorrow, we must lay the foundation for it today.

To follow the Jesus of the synoptic gospels is to deeply, humbly engage our communities and our society. What we’ll find when we do is that this kind of work is already being done by many who have been doing it quite a while. We’ll find that they have wisdom that they will offer, if we are humble enough to listen and learn. And there is plenty to do. We can come alongside them, put our hand to the plow, and invest our energy into the work as well.

I’m reminded of the words referenced by Rami M. Shapiro in Wisdom of the Jewish Sages: A Modern Reading of Pirke Avot:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” (p. 41)

We are in this together.

Together we can create beautiful communities of love and justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

And we can.

I’ll close with these words the Jewish Jesus would have grown up hearing read in the synagogues on Sabbaths throughout the year:

“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

HeartGroup Application

It has been shown that we have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful and resilient than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time, and encouraging each of you to stay virtually connected and to practice social distancing. We can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. We ask that when you do go out, you keep a six feet distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. For now, let’s figure out new ways to take care of each other while we are physically apart.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well!

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

Great Joy for All People (Part 3)

Herb Montgomery | January 10, 2020

sparkler on purple background


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


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

And Mary said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s begin with this phrase found above:

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

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

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

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

In matters of immigrant justice, these words could read:

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

In matters of gender inequity, these words could read:

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

In matters of LGBTQIA justice, it could read:

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

In matters of Indigenous justice, it could read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Happy New Year to all of you.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Great Joy for All People (Part 2)

Herb Montgomery | December 20, 2019

red background with gold stars and lights


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


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

Judaism in Imperial Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christianity within Judaism within Roman Imperialism

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

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

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

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

I’m going to color code this Christmas passage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

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

Happy holidays to all of you.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you in the new year.

A Social Jesus

Herb Montgomery | April 12, 2018

picture of man standing before a wall with "Jesus" graffitied behind him.
Photo Credit: Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

“Today, sectors of Christianity that only teach a personal Jesus deeply need a reintroduction to the gospels’ social Jesus. They need to rediscover and understand social salvation contrasted with personal salvation. They need a gospel that impacts the here and now and that isn’t just about the premium they must pay in this life to get a post-mortem fire insurance policy.”


“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15)

“Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?” he shouted at me. I was at the grocery store one evening trying to grab some missing ingredients for dinner. As I left the store I passed a table on the way to the parking lot. There, a group of Christians sat or stood behind the table, trying raising money for their organization. 

I politely smiled in his direction and said, “No thank you.” I was still walking as I heard him call out, “If you die on the way home do you know for sure where you’ll end up next?”

I couldn’t believe there were still Christians who talked like this, with these well-worn phrases as conversation starters. But again, this is Appalachia and as someone born and having grown up here, if you can still find this kind of talk anywhere, you can find it here.

This month at RHM, we are featuring Walter Rauschebusch’s classic work A Theology for the Social Gospel as April’s book of the month. One of the things I appreciate about the early 20th Century Social Gospel movement is that it drew attention to Jesus’ vision for social salvation, not individual, private, personal salvation.

I recently posted this quotation from Rauschenbusch on Facebook: “If our theology is silent on social salvation, we compel [people] to choose between an unsocial system of theology and an irreligious system of social salvation” (Ibid. p. 7). Immediately one person asked, “What is social salvation?” This question reveals more than it asks. 

Firstly, contemporary, privatized, and individually focused forms of Christianity focus their adherents so much on personal salvation and Jesus as a “personal Savior” from post-mortem punishment that those who only encounter this kind of Christianity may have never even heard of the social salvation described in the gospels. 

Seeing Jesus as a social savior is the oldest Christian message. It can be argued that interpreting Jesus as a personal savior, an individual savior, or a private savior is a later interpretive addition not found until Christianity became populated with middle- to upper-class people centered in their culture. 

Secondly, how nice it must be to belong to a social class that’s so privileged that it doesn’t even know what social salvation is, much less imagine it needs it. Countless people face discrimination, marginalization, and exclusion each day and don’t need a textbook definition for the phrase “social salvation” because they know the system all too well. They know what it is to need salvation from societal and social injustice and oppression.

Let’s dive in.

Kingdom

Each author of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke-Acts) place the theme of “the kingdom” at the center of their stories about Jesus.

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15)

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:23)

“But he said, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’” (Luke 4:43)

“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)

“He proclaimed thekingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:31)

I have my own theories about why the author of Acts ties Paul’s teaching to Jesus’ “kingdom” but the fact is that the Kingdom is the focus in the gospels and Paul must come to be associated with it in the book of Acts. Nowhere in the book of Acts is the goal to escape postmortem hell or enter into a cosmic heaven. The coming kingdom is the central theme.

The kingdom theme in the gospel stories served a twofold purpose: it hearkened back to the Maccabean era of hope in restored Jewish independence and it contrasted with the Roman empire (see Daniel 7). Matthew’s use of kingdom is more in line with the first purpose, and Luke’s is more about the second. Mark’s use can be argued to be a hybrid of both. Neither view of kingdom was about saving individuals. Instead they were about restoring distributive justice for a whole community, including all the individuals that made the community. The hope of the kingdom went beyond the personal to the social: it was about social salvation.

Gospel

In the canonized Jesus stories we have today, the term gospel meant the announcement of the coming of this kingdom. It’s important to note that the term “gospel” or “glad tidings” was originally a political term, not a religious one. The Roman empire used it to refer to announcements made when the empire annexed a new territory. The gospel was public announcement, or tidings, of the newly arrived rule of Rome. So the word “gospel” itself was not about privatized, individual, personal change but rather a fundamental social change.

Here are three examples that we have still today of contemporary, secular uses of the term gospel in the 1st Century.

“Even after the battle at Mantinea, which Thucydides has described, the one who first announced the victory had no other reward for his glad tidings [euangelion-gospel] than a piece of meat sent by the magistrates from the public mess” (Plutarch, Agesilaus, p. 33, 1st Century).

“Accordingly, when [Aristodemus] had come near, he stretched out his hand and cried with a loud voice: ‘Hail, King Antigonus, we have conquered Ptolemy in a sea-fight, and now hold Cyprus, with 12,800 soldiers as prisoners of war.’ To this, Antigonus replied: ‘Hail to thee also, by Heaven! but for torturing us in this way, thou shalt undergo punishment; the reward for thy good tidings [euangelion-gospel] thou shalt be some time in getting’” (Plutarch, Demetrius, p. 17, 1st Century).

“Why, as we are told, the Spartans merely sent meat from the public commons

to the man who brought glad tidings [euangelion-gospel] of the victory in Mantineia which Thucydides describes! And indeed the compilers of histories are, as it were, reporters of great exploits who are gifted with the faculty of felicitous speech, and achieve success in their writing through the beauty and force of their narration; and to them those who first encountered and recorded the events [εὐαγγέλιον– euangelion] are indebted for a pleasing retelling of them” (Plutarch, Moralia (Glory of Athens), p. 347, 1st Century).

The phrase “glad tidings/gospel of the kingdom” as the gospels’ authors used it was a way to signal that Jesus and his teachings held a new vision for structuring society. Those who were last in the present arrangement would now be first. Those being marginalized were to be included and centered. Those who were hungry and thirsted for a distributive, social righteousness would be filled (see Matthew 5 and Luke 6). The authors of the Jesus story used “gospel” to mean a change in society or human community that went beyond mere personal nor private change. It was about social change here, social change now. 

Eternal Life

Even when we consider the way eternal life was framed in the gospel stories, an argument can be made that even eternal life is not private, personal, or individual, but communal and social. Eternal life meant the continuance of a community as a whole, not merely continuance for individuals within that community. The path Jesus was pointing toward is a path by which the human race can continue, a path that leads to life rather than extinction for our race and not simply life for individual humans. Eternal life is about having our quality of life rooted in what Parker and Brock call an “ethical grace” lived here on earth, a path of living differently as a society today, here, now. 

“The Gospel defines three dimensions of this eternal life: knowing God; receiving the one sent by God to proclaim abundant life to all; and loving each other as he had loved them. Eternal life, in all three meanings, relates to how life is lived on earth. The concrete acts of care Jesus has shown his disciples are the key to eternal life. By following his example of love, the disciples enter eternal life now. Eternal life is thus much more than a hope for postmortem life: it is earthly existence grounded in ethical grace.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 22)

Death by Crucifixion

Lastly, people don’t get jailed (like John the Baptist) and don’t get crucified (like Jesus) for teaching personal, private, post-mortem salvation. They get in trouble, as we saw last week, when they call out social injustice and call for social change, societal reparations, social redemption, and social salvation. Private change threatens no one, but social change threatens those privileged in the present way of organizing society who would have much to lose if the status quo changed.

Today, sectors of Christianity that only teach a personal Jesus deeply need a reintroduction to the gospels’ social Jesus. They need to rediscover and understand social salvation contrasted with personal salvation. They need a gospel that impacts the here and now and that isn’t just about the premium they must pay in this life to get a post-mortem fire insurance policy. 

There is a need to understand how the life modeled and teachings taught by Jesus have the potential to socially save. They aren’t a myth of redemptive violence and suffering that saves us from divine satisfaction. We can be deeply revived by following the teachings of Jesus, and not merely mentally assenting or believing story details about him. We need a gospel that recaptures the story truth of a resurrection, and not endless gospels that only offer people a cross.

It is to this end that we’ll be turning our attention over the next few weeks. I’m so glad you’re with us on this journey. 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15)


Heart Group Application

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Thank you for checking in with us this week.  I’m so glad you did. 

Wherever you are today, choose love, choose compassion, take action and seek justice. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Healing Our World, Part 1

by Herb Montgomery | October 26, 2018 

picture of snowflake


“’The separation between Church and State is different from the separation of faith and public life.’ . . .  The separation of church and state is about keeping the state out of matters of religious conscience. Separation of church and state is also about keeping the church from wielding the power of the state to enforce its own articles of faith. It does not mean that people of faith and goodwill cannot follow Jesus in advocating alongside vulnerable communities, engaging social good, and calling for just distribution of resources and power.”


“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to heal the world through him.” (John 3:17, personal translation)

This week I want to begin with a fable familiar to many who daily do the work of healing our world. To the best of my knowledge, this story was originally told by Kurt Kauter but I cannot find the original source. 

The fable tells of a conversation between a wild dove and a coalmouse.

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a coalmouse asked a wild dove.

“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.

“In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the coalmouse said.

“I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow – not heavily, not in a raging blizzard – no, just like in a dream, without a wound and without any violence. Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,742,952. When the 3,742,953rd dropped onto the branch, nothing more than nothing, as you say – the branch broke off.”

Having said that, the coalmouse flew away.

The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for a while, and finally said to herself, “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”

In Matthew’s gospel we read these words:

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news [euangelion] of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:23)

This passage begins with Jesus going throughout “Galilee, teaching in [Jewish] synagogues.” It’s important to make a couple of things clear. 

First, the gospels were originally written within a Jewish context: they are Jewish written works. The Jesus of these stories was never a Christian; nor did he promote a new religion. This Jesus was a Jewish man seeking to make change and challenge injustice within his own Jewish culture. These stories have been historically used for anti-Jewish purposes, but I would argue that we should not freeze Jewish people in our minds as the gospel writers framed them two thousand years ago. The gospels are not a reflection of Jewish culture today, and injustice is injustice in any place and in any time.

I believe that we can derive insight from these stories of resistance into how to address injustice in our culture today. Yet we must not use them as tools of oppression toward Jewish people. And this leads me to my second point. 

I want to recognize and name how these stories of resistance have also been used, sometimes even unintentionally, as tools of oppression against people with disabilities. Certain interpretations of Jesus’ healing stories (like we find in this week’s passage where Jesus heals “every disease and sickness among the people”) have been deeply harmful to people with disabilities. Through these stories, people with disabilities have been dehumanized and used as symbols or metaphors that promote ableism. So I begin this week by affirming the full humanity of both Jewish people and people with disabilities. I push back against interpretations of these healing stories that support an idea of “normal” that creates for some of our siblings the perception or feeling that they’re less than. We’ll address this further as we continue. 

As well as telling us that Jesus healed, this passage also tells us that what Jesus was teaching in the synagogues was “the good news (or gospel) of the kingdom.” The term gospel or good news was not originally a religious term about being saved from post mortem torment. It was instead a deeply political term. When the Roman Empire conquered a new territory, it would send out evangelists whose job was to proclaim to the newly conquered territory the euangelion (gospel or good news) that the empire had come and the people of that territory were now part of the Roman Empire. Here are a few examples:

“Even after the battle at Mantinea, which Thucydides has described, the one who first announced the victory had no other reward for his glad tidings [euangelion-singular] than a piece of meat sent by the magistrates from the public mess” (Plutarch; Agesilaus, p. 33, 1st century).

“Accordingly, when [Aristodemus] had come near, he stretched out his hand and cried with a loud voice: ‘Hail, King Antigonus, we have conquered Ptolemy in a sea-fight, and now hold Cyprus, with 12,800 soldiers as prisoners of war.’ To this, Antigonus replied: ‘Hail to thee also, by Heaven! but for torturing us in this way, thou shalt undergo punishment; the reward for thy good tidings [euangelion – plural] thou shalt be some time in getting’” (Plutarch; Demetrius, p. 17, 1st century).

“Why, as we are told, the Spartans merely sent meat from the public commons to the man who brought glad tidings [euangelion] of the victory in Mantineia which Thucydides describes! And indeed the compilers of histories are, as it were, reporters of great exploits who are gifted with the faculty of felicitous speech, and achieve success in their writing through the beauty and force of their narration; and to them those who first encountered and recorded the events [εὐαγγέλιον – euangelion] are indebted for a pleasing retelling of them” (Plutarch; Moralia [Glory of Athens], p. 347, 1st century).

The gospel authors take this language from Rome to tell the story of Jesus who came preaching an alternative vision for human society.

“But he said, ‘I must proclaim the good news [euangelion] of the kingdom of God [as opposed to Rome] to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’” (Luke 4:43, emphasis added.)

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news [euangelion] of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news [euangelion – gospel]!’” (Mark 1:14-15, emphasis added.)

Jesus’ good news was the proclamation of an alternative vision for human society where people carried out God’s will for distributive justice, mutual aid, and caretaking rather than subjugation. In the following passages we see that the gospel authors tied this proclamation to healing narratives as well.

“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.” (Matthew 10:7-8, emphasis added.)

“Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Luke 10:9)

“So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news [euangelion] and healing people everywhere.” (Luke 9:6)

These are parts of the gospels that have been used in deeply problematic ways for people who live with disabilities. I believe the gospels were intended to be stories of survival, resistance and liberation, but have been used oppressively toward many. Rather than using healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing leapers, and driving out demons as ableist metaphors for societal injustices, which I believe they were in the stories, I want to instead concretely name some injustices that we, as Jesus followers, can address in our culture today: racism, sexism and misogyny, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, queerphobia, xenophobia, etc. By concretely naming these issues we can better understand passages like this in John’s gospel:

“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)

The Greek word here translated “saved” could just as accurately be translated as “healed.” What makes this passage special to me is that it is not referencing individuals being saved but the world being saved. It’s not a privatized or personal healing, which too often proves vulnerable to the above type of abusive interpretations, but a collective, societal, communal healing. It’s a call to allow your faith to influence how we relate to one another! It’s a call to allow your faith to move you to engage public life not just your own personal life. This is a very Jewish understanding of faith: our beliefs call us not only to personal piety, but also to public engagement with the work of healing the world. Jesus practices this kind of societal confrontation and healing in his protest in the Temple, the heart of the Temple State of his society.

Tikkun olam (Healing the world) is the Jewish idea of one’s obligation to engage in social action. Seeing Jesus in this tradition leads us to the same conclusion as Latin Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez who saw in Jesus’ “kingdom” teachings a commitment to creating a just society. This commitment means being on the side of oppressed, marginalized, and exploited classes of people. A belief in the healing love spoken of in John 3:16-17 should lead one to “inevitably to go against all injustice, privilege, [and] oppression” (Gustavo Gutiérrez. A Theology of Liberation, p. 135). 

The radical changes we need in our society can only take place through movement building. Yet, while we are building and participating in those long-term movements, we must also be engaged in what my friend Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-executive director at Highlander Center, refers to as damage mitigation. How do we do this? One way is through our votes.

Because people matter, voting matters. Here in America, we make a mistake in how we define politics. For far too many, politics means “parties, partisanship, lobbying, or law.” And while politics can include those things, I prefer how my friend Dr. Keisha McKenzie recently defined politics in a Facebook conversation: as “the distribution of resources and power among people and groups of people.” She went on to say, therefore, “There’s no opting out of it.” Either we become targets of others’ political engagement or we choose to help shape how resources are distributed. Jesus taught distributive justice, and as followers of Jesus, we, too, should care about how power and resources are distributed because their distribution can concretely help or hurt people. Our beliefs and values should move us to engage our public life. As McKenzie explained, wherever we share space with other people and “there are norms governing how you interact with them or a budget governing common resources,” there is simply no way to be apolitical. There is no such thing as political neutrality that doesn’t help the powerful or hurt the vulnerable. When we understand this we can see readily why the late theologian and activist Dorothee Sölle stated, “Every theological statement is a political statement as well.” Believing in a Universal Love leads us to work toward a universal distributive justice for the objects of that love. Being one who “knows the Lord,” in the book of the prophet Jeremiah is defined as “defend[ing] the cause of the poor and needy”:

“Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.’ So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red. ‘Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the LORD. ‘But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion.’”(Jeremiah 22.13-17)

Recently I received an email from Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, President of Auburn Seminary, that said, “The separation between Church and State is different from the separation of faith and public life.” I could not agree more. The separation of church and state is about keeping the state out of matters of religious conscience. Separation of church and state is also about keeping the church from wielding the power of the state to enforce its own articles of faith. It does not mean that people of faith and goodwill cannot follow Jesus in advocating alongside vulnerable communities, engaging social good, and calling for just distribution of resources and power. 

This is why we here at RHM believe that healing the world is not simply about voting but does include voting. The late Ron Dellums used to remind folks that we need both movement building and people in office that can help support those movements. I’ve witnessed this first-hand here in West Virginia. We spend countless hours building movements for social change here in this state, only to have people in office obstruct those changes. The opposite is also true, we can elect solid people as public servants, but if there is not a movement for them to act on, they have nothing to advocate for from the “will of the people.” Those who desire an unjust distribution of resources are putting people in office who will act on their wishes. Again, there is simply no way to opt out. We are either participants in the discussion or we are the targets of others’ agenda. It’s been said that we are either seated at the table or we are on the menu. Given our current social mess, voting, especially for marginalized communities, is only a part of the process of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all, yet it is a part of that process. 

So this week, I want to encourage you to vote your values this November remembering that people matter and will be concretely affected by the outcome. (For some of you early voting is already open.) Also encourage others to participate and vote to ensure all of our communities are truly represented.

Another world is possible. And as Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson says, our work is to “trouble the waters” and “heal the world.”

I’ll close this week with the words of Anne Frank:

“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment, we can all start now, start slowly changing the world! How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make their contribution toward introducing justice straightaway… And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!” (The Diary of Anne Frank)

How can you engage the work of healing the injustice in our world? Who knows? As the story we began with this week reminds us, you may be the last “snowflake” needed. “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”

“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to heal the world through him.” (John 3:17, personal translation)

HeartGroup Application

This week, how can your HeartGroup be a source of healing in your surrounding community?

  1. Take some time to dream up some ways you can be a positive influence for change in your area. 
  2. Discuss what it would take to make some of those dreams a reality. What concrete steps would you need to take?
  3. Pick one of those dreams that you believe the steps to make it a reality are possible and make a plan.  Divide up the tasks that need to be done and start on them.  Before long, that dream will begin to take shape and the healing changes in your area will be closer to coming to fruition.  

Each of us had a sphere of influence. Each of us has something we can do. And we combine those things and work together, it’s amazing what we can actually accomplish. 

Again, to believe in a Universal Love is to work toward a distributive justice for all of the objects of that love.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. 

Picture of a pottery bowlDon’t forget this is the last week for our Shared Table Fundraiser.  You can find out all about it at renewedheartministries.com.  You won’t want to miss out on it.

I love each of you dearly.

Again, another world is possible.

I’ll see you next week.

Salvific Teachings: Womanism and the Gospel

Herb Montgomery | September 7, 2018

 

Picture portraying three Women of Color

Photo Credit: Eloise Ambursley on Unsplash


“Notice that in this passage, which is not at all unique to the gospels, the ‘gospel of God’ is the announcement of the arrival of the reign or kingdom of God, who desires a world that is a safe, distributively just, and compassionate home for everyone. This was indeed, good news to the oppressed, marginalized and exploited of Jesus’ time, and it’s good news in our time as well.”


 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15)

This week we take our third and final look at Jesus’ crucifixion through the lens of the experiences of members of vulnerable communities who daily face marginalization, domination, exploitation and/or oppression. We are going to listen at the feet of one of the greatest womanist theologians of our time, Delores S. Williams.

 

Last week, we considered how many feminist theologians reject the sufferings of Jesus as redemptive because of the lethal fruit this interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion has produced in the lives of women. Womanist theologians hav e the same concern.

 

“African-American Christian women can, through their religion and its leaders, be led passively to accept their own oppression and suffering — if the women are taught that suffering is redemptive.” (Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 161)

 

Seeking an alternative source of redemption in Jesus other than his sufferings, Williams addresses one the most historically damaging interpretations of Jesus’ death: Substitution, or as Williams calls it “surrogacy.” It doesn’t matter whether a theology represents Jesus standing in the place of God or of people. To the degree that Jesus was a substitute, representative, or “surrogate” sufferer in one’s interpretation of Jesus’ cross, then to that same degree surrogacy takes on “the aura of the sacred” and is divinely validated as an acceptable way for people to relate to each other. After all, if Jesus or God both participated in surrogacy, surrogacy itself cannot be impugned without calling the morality or justice of both Jesus or God into question as well. That has a particular import for Black women, historically forced into surrogacy during and following the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. (For further discussion on the oppression of Black women specifically in the context of surrogacy see Sisters in the Wilderness; The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p 40-60)

 

“In this sense Jesus represents the ultimate surrogate figure; he stands in the place of someone else: sinful humankind. Surrogacy, attached to this divine personage, thus takes on an aura of the sacred. It is therefore fitting and proper for black women to ask whether the image of a surrogate-God has salvific power for black women or whether this image supports and reinforces the exploitation that has accompanied their experience with surrogacy. If black women accept this idea of redemption, can they not also passively accept the exploitation that surrogacy brings?” (Delores S. Williams; Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 127)

 

Some differentiate Jesus’ surrogacy for humanity from the historical surrogacy role of Black women under the subjugation of their oppressors by saying Jesus’ surrogacy was voluntary. Williams finds such rhetoric insufficient:

 

“After emancipation, the coercion associated with antebellum surrogacy was replaced by social pressures that influenced many black women to continue to fill some surrogacy roles. But there was an important difference between antebellum surrogacy and postbellum surrogacy. The difference was that black women, after emancipation, could exercise the choice of refusing the surrogate role, but social pressures often influenced the choices black women made as they adjusted to life in a free world. Thus postbellum surrogacy can be referred to as voluntary (though pressured) surrogacy.” (Ibid., p. 41)

 

Williams offers an alternative interpretation of Jesus as a source of redemption. Jesus, she explains, gave “humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life.” This is, by far, my favorite paragraph from Williams on this subject:

 

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

 

Now, it is up to us whether or not we will follow Jesus and practice his vision, whether we will follow this “ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life.” If the world doesn’t seem that different after Jesus than it was before, then it’s not that Jesus’ teachings have been tried and found wanting. As Chesterton stated, they have “been found difficult and left untried” (What’s Wrong with the World, Part 1, Chapter 5).

 

To focus on Jesus’ Kingdom of God theme as “the gospel”, the good news, and the source of redemption holds the most weight in the gospels. The gospels do not define the good news as “Jesus died for you.” The good news of the gospels is, every time, the Kingdom among us.

 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15)

 

Notice that in this passage, which is not at all unique to the gospels, the “gospel of God” is the announcement of the arrival of the reign or kingdom of God, who desires a world that is a safe, distributively just, and compassionate home for everyone. This was indeed, good news to the oppressed, marginalized and exploited of Jesus’ time, and it’s good news in our time as well.

Consider this statement in Luke’s gospel:

 

“ So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the gospel [euangelion] and healing people everywhere.” (Luke 9:6) 

 

What I love about this passage is that it tells us that followers of Jesus were t preaching the gospel far and wide, but Jesus had not yet died, much less been resurrected. What, then, were his followers telling people when they proclaimed the gospel? Whatever it was, their message was a gospel without a cross and without a resurrection. We have to let that confront us. 

 

According to Luke, it is possible to preach the gospel and never mention the cross or the resurrection. What were they sharing instead? They were announcing the kingdom and it was good news! The good news is always primarily about the kingdom, the new social vision for humanity that Jesus taught was possible here and now.

 

Consider  the book of Acts and take note of the gospel they were proclaiming:

 

“But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God . . .” (Acts 8:12)

 

“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)

 

“Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.” (Acts 20:25)

 

“They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus.” (Acts 28:23)

 

“For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance.” (Acts 28.30-31)

 

I believe Delores Williams is onto something significant.  Survival, liberation, redemption, salvation, and quality of life—in the Jesus story these are the themes that come through what Jesus called the kingdom or reign of God. Again, “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.” This is what is salvific about Jesus and his teachings.

 

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

 

As challenging as Williams’ words are to our traditional interpretations, they hold promise, too.y Consider again the book of Acts. Even after Jesus died, the gospel was primarily about the coming of the Kingdom. Jesus had died and was resurrected but the story of the gospel would not include his death  fin its proclamation of the kingdom, and the emphasis when Jesus’ life story was told was not on Jesus’ death but his resurrection. The good news, in other words, was not that Jesus had died, but that he was alive! The Romans couldn’t stop him, and  a rich man’s tomb couldn’t hold this prophet of the poor. He was still out there, still recruiting, still calling people to “follow me.” 

 

Notice the good news now emphasizes his resurrection over his death:

 

“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4:33)

 

“You crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2:22-24)

 

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” (Acts 2:32-33)

 

“You handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, but God raised from the dead.” (Acts 3:12-16)

 

 “. . . Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 4:10-11)

 

“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 5:30-32)

 

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10:36-43)

 

“Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead . . . And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.” (Acts 13:35-38)

 

It is quite possible that atonement theories that focus on explaining how Jesus’ violent death saves us are trying to answer the wrong question. To use Williams’ phrase, a “more intelligent” question might be how do Jesus’ teachings save us? What does salvation mean for us here and now? Why did the proclamation that Jesus was alive inspire such hope among the  oppressed communities of Galilee and the surrounding areas in the 1st Century? However one interprets  the story of Jesus’ resurrection today, we cannot miss that it gave hope as good news to the early followers beyond hope for an afterlife. It gave them hope for this life. The reign of God had come near. The powers that be had tried to stop it, but failed. Another world is possible.

 

If what we learned last week holds any weight, if interpreting suffering as being redemptive is deeply damaging to marginalized and vulnerable communities, then this week we are being offered an alternative interpretation. tThe teachings of Jesus are salvific:  his vision for life and human community, his vision of distributive justice, the golden rule, our loving of one another as the interconnected begins that we are , his call to solidarity with those presently oppressed. These teachings and more point to a way that’s different from the course the status quo is presently pursuing. It’s a way or path to life. And it still calls to Jesus’ followers today.

 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1.14-15)

 

A Special Request

 

This is the time of year when Renewed Heart Ministries needs your support the most.  If you have been blessed by our work, consider making a one time gift or becoming one of our monthly contributors.  Any amount is deeply appreciated. Your generosity enables our much needed work to continue. 

 

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Thanks in advance for your help.

 

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

 

Another world is possible. 

 

I love each of you dearly.

 

I’ll see you next week.

 

 

JESUS FROM THE EDGES

hand holding circle of light

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Herb Montgomery | August 10, 2018


“These societal structures all function based on the variables of race, gender, sexuality, gender identity and expression, current economic status, ability, age, education, ethnicity, religion, criminal record, and more . . . What does it mean for a Jesus follower to take seriously Jesus’ solidarity with those relegated to the margins and/or undersides of his society?”


“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call [those you call] righteous, but [those you call] sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

In previous series, we have discussed how people in Jesus’ society used the labels of “righteous” or “sinner”  to politically, socially, economically, and religiously gain power and privilege for themselves or to marginalize and exploit those who were vulnerable. (You can review this in The Lost Coin and Solidarity with the Crucified Community.) This week I want to build on this idea.

In that society, how well a person conformed to popular interpretations of the Torah determined where they fell on al spectrum between righteous/sinner or clean/unclean. The more righteous or “pure” one was deemed to be, the more their society centered them. They were more privileged. They had power. They were the elite. 

Two groups in the Sanhedrin that competed for power were the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees interpreted the Torah more conservatively than the Pharisees. This made conforming to their interpretation much more difficult. In many cases, their definition of “righteous” was only viable for those who had the economic means to conform, i.e. those with money who could afford to live the way the Sadducees deemed pure. This ensured that the Sadducees remained in power under the guise of fidelity to the Torah. 

The second group, the Pharisees , was much more liberal in interpreting the Torah. This made them much more popular with the masses. Under the Pharisees’ teaching, it was easier to be righteous and avoid being labeled a sinner and thus marginalized. The Pharisees were the popular interpreters of the “teachings of Moses.” Being favored by the majority of the people gave them social power, yet they also preserved their position as the ones who set the standard of “clean” and “unclean.” 

This was a social, political, economic and religious system that produced winners and losers. In this context, an itinerant Jewish teacher from Galilee named Jesus emerged. He stood apart from both schools of interpretation and came preaching a gospel where the “kingdom” belonged to those left out of both the Sadducees’ and Pharisees’ determination of who was righteous. With this in mind, read carefully the following passages. 

Luke 5:30—“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’”

Matthew 9:13—“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Luke 14:13—“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind . . .”

Matthew 11:19—“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Mark 2:15-16—“While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Luke 19:7—“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

Today in the U.S., our system creates winners and losers, too. Politically, we also have two parties that compete for popular approval while gaining power in a system that still privileges the elites. Economically, our system produces enormous wealth disparity, with those who “have not” being the natural result of creating those who “have.” Socially and religiously, we have complex systems that create an us versus them worldview and label those who are in and those who are out. 

These societal structures all function based on the variables of race, gender, sexuality, gender identity and expression, current economic status, ability, age, education, ethnicity, religion, criminal record, and more. Our interconnectedness, our part-of-one-another is continually ignored. Rather than seeing every person’s differences as a testament to the rich variety we possess as a human family, we use these differences to “other” in ways that label some as “righteous” and others as “sinner.” Those of us whose differences place them in a minority category are still members of the human race, and still part of us.

What does it mean for a Jesus follower to take seriously Jesus’ solidarity with those relegated to the margins and/or undersides of his society? How can we live out that kind of solidarity in our context today? What does it mean to stand and work alongside those who are pushed to the edges of our society?

In the 1960s and 1970s, Christians developed a keen awareness of Jesus’ solidarity with those labeled as outsiders, oppressed, marginalized and/or exploited. This emergence was global. In South America, Latin Liberation theology was born. In North America, other liberation theologies, such as Black Liberation theology, Feminist theology, Amerindian theology, womanist theology, and queer theology arose. In the east, Asian theologies of liberation were born. Gustavo Gutierrez comments on the importance of this rising consciousness.

“Black, Hispanic, and Amerindian theologies in the United States, theologies arising in the complex contexts of Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific, and the especially fruitful thinking of those who have adopted the feminist perspective—all these have meant that for the first time in many centuries theology is being done outside the customary European and North American centers. The result in the so-called First World has been a new kind of dialogue between traditional thinking and new thinking. In addition, outside the Christian sphere efforts are underway to develop liberation theologies from Jewish and Muslim perspectives.  We are thus in the presence of a complex phenomenon developing on every side and representing a great treasure for the Christian churches and for their dialogue with other religions. The clarification I mentioned earlier is thus not limited to the Latin American context but affects a process and a search that are being conducted on a very broad front today. These considerations should not make us forget, however, that we are not dealing here solely with an intellectual pursuit. Behind liberation theology are Christian communities, religious groups, and peoples, who are becoming increasingly conscious that the oppression and neglect from which they suffer are incompatible with their faith in Jesus Christ (or, speaking more generally, with their religious faith). These concrete, real-life movements are what give this theology its distinctive character; in liberation theology, faith and life are inseparable. This unity accounts for its prophetic vigor and its potentialities. (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation [15th Anniversary Edition])

Womanist scholar and theologian Jacquelyn Grant comments, “Theology as developed in Europe and America is limited when it approaches the majority of human beings…  nns Liberation theologies including Christian feminists, charge that the experience out of which Christian theology has emerged is not universal experience but the experience of the dominant culture . . . liberationists therefore, propose that theology must emerge out of particular experiences of the oppressed people of God.” (in White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, pp. 1, 10)

Making space for these voices and attending to their insights is so very important. Here at Renewed Heart Ministries we believe that the teachings of Jesus —a 1st Century Jewish prophet of the poor from Galilee—can still speak into and inform our work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation today. For that to be life giving, we must consider those teachings through the lens of the experiences of the people Jesus would have been addressing if he were walking among us today. As Ched Myers states in Binding the Strong Man, “The fact remains that those on the peripheries will have ‘eyes to see’ many things that those at the center do not.” 

From the experiences of those now in a social location similar to the social location of those Jesus taught  we can see how those teachings help us in our work of making our world a safe, just, compassionate home for everyone. As someone who has been engaged in ministry for over twenty years, these perspectives, voices, stories of people fighting to reclaim their humanity in the context of their faith traditions have been the key to helping me rediscover and reclaim my own humanity as well. I resonate deeply with the words of Aboriginal elder Lilla Watson, “If you have come to help me, please go home. But if you have come because your liberation is somehow bound with mine, then we may work together.”  I don’t work alongside communities working for survival and liberation out of charity. It is beside them that I rediscover my own humanity, too.

If one is new to these perspectives, where does one start? One place to begin is by exposing yourself to the writings and works of those who belong to these communities. An easy way to do this is to follow our yearly reading course at RHM. We announce each month’s book at the beginning of each month. You can sign up to be notified of each month’s book by signing up for our weekly news and eSights emails here. The point is not so much where one begins as it is to simply begin. One resource will lead you to another, and over time, you’ll see the difference these voices make to you.

Jesus did not call those who the status quo places “first.” He instead stood alongside those his culture relegated to “last” place (see Matthew 20:8-16). He came not calling the insiders, but the people those in power had labeled as “sinners.” 

What does it look like for us to do the same in our time?

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call [those you call] righteous, but [those you call] sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

HeartGroup Application 

  1. Pick a book from our book list at RHM that you as a group can read and discus together. 
  2. Read a chapter a week and determine a time each week you can meeting to discuss together what you have read.
  3. Discuss how you can put what you’ve read each week into practice and do so.

I’m so glad you checked in with us, this week. Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


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