Is Your Theism An Opiate? 

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. (Luke 10.31-32, Emphasis added.)

The German philosopher and economist Karl Marx’s statement, “Religion is an opiate of the people,” Is often quoted. Does your flavor of Theism function as an opiate for you? Let me explain what this means.

One website estimates that 73% of theists, when faced with injustice in the world around them, do nothing. This is a shocking statistic on its face. And many of you may be part of the 27% it doesn’t apply to. Nonetheless, 73% is an incredibly high ratio.

If this is true, why should it be? It could very well be that many kinds of theism include a belief in the apocalyptic and the afterlife. We talked a few weeks ago about apocalypticism and how beliefs about the afterlife often accompany pessimistic views of the present: people tend to believe that things simply are the way they are in the present and cannot be fixed until the next life. As a result, theists from several religions may look at injustice in this world as an unfixable reality that we must simply accept until God puts it right in the hereafter.

That is the philosophical background we discussed recently. Yet there is another possible reason for theists who do not intervene in injustice, and I’d like to address it this week.

A Personal Relationship With A God That Is Love

The deep disregard for injustice that I’ve witnessed among theists seems to be rooted in a drug-like attachment to a private relationship with a Divine being, and they believe this Being is the very essence of Love. How can something so good yield something so damaging?

If you find great value, meaning, and purpose in a relationship with a Divine being that fits this description of ultimate love, by all means, please continue to do so. And also please hear me out. There is another aspect to this that we must also hold in tension to avoid being spiritually deformed.

Have you ever noticed how a couple that is newly in love can be completely oblivious to the world around them? Hold this illustration in your mind as we continue.

“God Loves You”

I find it curious that the idea of God’s love for us does not surface in three of the four, earliest canonical gospels that we have today. The gospel of John is loaded with this concept, but John’s gospel was not written until the end of the first century or beginning of the second. That means that for most of the Jesus’s movement’s first century, followers focused on the principles of Matthew, Mark and Luke—the teaching that calls us to love rather than to bask in being loved.

In these three early Gospels, Jesus spends his time teaching us how to love God, how to love our neighbor, the marginalized, the “sinner,” and how to love our enemies. There is not one example in these three gospels of Jesus sharing a teaching where the focal point of the teaching was trying to get us to embrace how much we are individually, privately loved by a Divine being.

It’s also curious that in the book of Acts, which is the story of the early Jesus movement growing and proclaiming the gospel, the early Apostles preached the good news without once discussing love. Search the entire book of Acts; the word “Love” can’t be found.

As New Testament historian N.T. Wright stated in the podcast Jesus and the Kingdom of God — Today and Tomorrow, “The good news is not a message about you, it’s a message about Jesus. Now, of course, because it’s a message about Jesus it is then a message about you. But if you say, ‘The Gospel is — God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life — this makes it incredibly me-centered. The gospel is ‘Jesus Christ is Lord!’ The crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the World. And under that great statement there is all the room for you to find new life in the present and in the future. There is all the room for you to find new work to do for the Kingdom, but that’s the Gospel — the message about Jesus.”

The message the early apostles proclaimed was the good news, and that good news was not the news that God loves you. Rather they proclaimed the message that the crucified Jesus was risen and is Lord* of this world.

Lastly, I find it curious that nowhere in the New Testament are we ever encouraged to or told how to have a private, personal relationship with God. The language of “personal relationship” that modern evangelicals are so familiar with simply isn’t there.

The Sermon on the Mount may be the most famous summary of the teachings of Jesus, and even it never encourages us to embrace a God who loves you privately. Rather it’s a list of things for the followers of Jesus to do, not to get to heaven, but to heal the hurt of the world around us. In these chapters, we find teachings about a God who loves THE WORLD. Our God loves the world and the people of the world, and therefore we are called to love them, too. (See Matthew 5.45-48.)

Yes, there are Christians that are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. And there’s another extreme in the cult of the “private Jesus.” We must guard against getting so lost in being loved in a private, internalized, individual love-fest with our own personal Divine being. The risk is of being so wrapped up in how much we feel God loves us personally that we become insulated against awareness of our culpability in the injustice, suffering, and oppression of this world and our responsibility to reduce it.

My own experience is some of the people who’ve given the loudest “amens” to my teachings on a God of love are also the very ones who’ve offered the loudest objections to my presentations on Jesus’s followers being agents of healing, restoration, and social justice.

We must be careful that the message of a God who loves does not simply become a pacifying drug for those privileged in our social/economic/political pyramid, something that absolves them of conviction about our responsibility to act. The message of God’s love must be more to us than something that helps the privileged—us!—to sleep better at night.

Yes, God is love, and, as Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Again, if you, have found great value, meaning, and purpose in having a relationship with a Divine being that to you is the very essence of love, by all means, please continue. But please don’t allow yourself to get so lost in the Divine, Loving embrace that you forget about those around you who your God loves just as much as God loves you yet may not be in as beneficial a position as you are in the present social order. A God who is love, also loves them, and this should cause us to be keenly aware of those whose suffering make our “blessings” possible.

A suffering world cannot find us credible when we speak of a God who is love and yet “pass by on the other side” when it comes to systemic violence. It matters little whether someone is lost in the hope of an afterlife or entranced by their own private spiritual experience if they are not making a difference in the world around them. Both forms can be subtle denials of the way that our Jewish teacher, Jesus, taught us through his life.

The Way of Jesus (and the prophets)

Did Jesus spend personal, private time, alone with God? Absolutely! Here are a few examples.

Mark 1:35—Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

Mark 6:46—After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.

Matthew 14:23—After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.

Luke 5:16—But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

Luke 6:12—One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.

Matthew 26:39—Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed . . .

Notice that Jesus’ time in private prayer empowered him to return to the public scene rather than retreat from it: he engaged the world as an agent of healing and did not perpetually isolate himself. Jesus, like the prophets before him, engaged in a contemplative practice that moved him to action, not withdrawal.

“The prophets have dirty hands (and mouths too sometimes), because you’ll find them wading without apology through the mess of life. Their target audience begins with the church and its religious leaders but extends to nations and heads of state and to corporations with their economic power brokers. They have unabashed social agendas and are not afraid of being perceived as political. Their concern is for the oppressed, the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the enslaved. The mature prophets call for both personal righteousness and social justice. They retreat inward in contemplation then explode onto the public scene as spokespersons for God’s heart and as advocates for the downtrodden.” —Brad Jersak, Can You Hear Me

Speak up and judge fairly;

defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31.9)

In our society, today, the “rights of the poor and needy” include those of all races, cultures, countries, genders, orientations, sexes, education levels, not merely economic status. And this makes it even more important that theists, especially the followers of Jesus, learn how to be agents of healing. Just as our Jesus was.

HeartGroup Application

This week I’m going to let you into something very private for me: my own personal contemplative practice.

I spend a set time every day contemplating the values and teachings taught in the Jesus story. Even if you only have 15 minutes, you’d be surprised what a difference 15 minutes can actually make.

My weekly schedule is:

Sunday: Restoration

Monday: Forgiveness

Tuesday: Reconciliation

Wednesday: Golden Rule / Interconnectedness

Thursday: Nonviolence

Friday: Justice

Saturday: Compassion

This list changes regularly, but this is what it is right now. You can make your own list of values from those in the Jesus story and dedicate some time each day to contemplate them.

  1. Try this yourself. Either create your own list or use mine for now. Set a timer for 15 minutes, and contemplate what each value means; what it looks like in daily life; what its application may be for your own journey; how you can embody this value. Just spend 15 minutes meditating and contemplating each value, daily, for a week.
  1. Journal what insights, changes, challenges, motivations, or benefits this exercise produces in you.
  1. Share your experience with your HeartGroup.

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

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

* We hold the term Lord in tension with the non-kyriarchical teachings of Jesus. (Mark 9.33-35; Mark 10.42-44; John 15:15; John 13.12-15)

Immanuel: God in Solidarity with an Oppressed People by Herb Montgomery

carouselesight

“All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’” (Matthew 1.22–23).

This week I’d like to continue our liberation theme during this Advent season with one of the most controverted elements of the Jesus story. But before you put on your post-modern, naturalist worldview glasses, I’m asking you to put on your liberation from the pyramid of oppression and privilege spectacles instead. In other words, I’m asking you not to look first at what has come to be called “the virgin birth” scientifically, but to look at the “virgin birth” sociologically, first within the context in which the original audience of Matthew would have read it. What is the story truth here?

Matthew, writing largely for a Galilean audience, with a Galilean apologetic flavor, is here referring to a passage in accord with the Jewish culture of that time. Matthew reaches back into the Advocacy/Liberation God of the book of Isaiah, and here draws our attention to the words of Isaiah when Assyria was about to lay waste to Israel.

Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7.13).

The name “Immanuel,” within this context, communicated that even though Israel was headed into a time of being deeply oppressed, they were not to lose hope. A God who would liberate them (much like the God of the Exodus narrative) was “with them.” Immanuel is a name given to a people within the context of the oppression/oppressor dynamic. Oppressors who conquer others always tout that the gods are on their side offering their victory over the oppressed as evidence. I offer the lie of Manifest Destiny as just one example. History (as well as the Civic religion) is written by the conquerors, not the conquered. It is within this context that Isaiah offers a people who are about to be oppressed, not to believe the Assyrian narrative that would justify their oppression, but to hold on tightly to the belief that God was actually “with us”—the oppressed—and deliverance would come. A modern day example would be those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement taking place in America as I write this. In times of longing for deep social change, it becomes imperative for those being oppressed to hold close in their heart the belief that God is standing in solidarity with them in their cause, not their oppressors.

This is what Immanuel means for an oppressed people within its original context. Even though we are victims of oppression, injustice, and violence, God is standing in solidarity with us, and the glory of liberation and what Dr. Martin Luther King called the “double victory” must not be lost sight of.

Read Isaiah’s words just a few chapters later through the lens of a Liberator God who is standing in solidarity with the oppressed, Immanuel. I’ll offer some brief commentary within brackets.

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

[This is a king that will arise from the bloodline of the kings of a conquered and oppressed people.]

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding,  the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

[He will govern with justice and equity, in other words, as opposed to corruption, greed, and exploitative discrimination.]

 He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;

[He won’t govern according to the spin doctors who work for the oppressors.]

but with justice he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

[It would be well to remember this passage as Jesus quotes from it in the Sermon on the Mount when he assures us that in the new world he had come to found, the “meek will inherit the earth.”]

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”

[At this stage of Israel’s understanding, justice would come through killing Israel’s enemies. Jesus would turn this methodology on its head by teaching enemy love expressed through a restorative justice even for Israel’s oppressors. This is why many in Jesus’ day were looking for a messiah that would lead them in militaristic violence against the Romans. Jesus came with the problematic teaching of loving your enemies, saying God’s liberation from injustice, oppression, and violence was for the oppressors too. Jesus called the oppressed to see their oppressors as victims as well of a much larger systemic evil, in need also of being liberated from their participation. This is what makes Jesus’ teaching on nonviolent resistance so powerful. Jesus’ nonviolence has too often been coopted by oppressors, such as that which happened under King James VI in the King’s Authorized 1611 King James Version where Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.39 are grossly mistranslated as nonresistance. Too often Jesus’ words have been hijacked by the privileged to the keep the disadvantaged in their place. Jesus wasn’t teaching passive nonresistance. No, no! In Jesus’ sermon on the mount, Jesus gives three examples of nonviolent RESISTANCE as a powerful means of awakening the conscience of one’s oppressors calling upon them to abandon their participation in systemic injustice and to choose to stand in solidarity with those they once oppressed. It’s what King referred to in his sermon delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, at Christmas, 1957. Martin Luther King wrote it while in jail for committing nonviolent civil disobedience during the Montgomery bus boycott:

“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.’”

Notice Isaiah’s description, which envisions this world with no more oppressor/oppressed.]

Justice shall be the belt around his [this one who would come through Jesse’s bloodline] waist, and faithfulness [to the covenant promises] the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11.1–9)

No more injustice, no more violence, no more oppression.

John the revelator takes this passage from Isaiah and turns it on its head as well.

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will shepherd them with a staff of iron (Revelation 19.15.; notice that the sword is a verbal one, and that the striking of the nations with those words results in the nations becoming the sheep of this shepherd).

We miss so much when we only read the Jesus narrative through the conventional, domesticated lens of a Christianity that has been (with the exception of its first three hundred years) coopted and used by the oppressors (the Constantinian shift) and stolen from the oppressed. The Jesus Narrative was originally good news to the oppressed and seen as a threat to those at the top of sociological, privileged pyramids, a threat that from the very beginning must be removed (Luke 19.47).

Let’s take one more example from the Jesus narrative so we can contrast the two. We’ll be looking at Luke’s version of the Jesus story in Luke 12.

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly’” (Luke 12.13–16).

There are two ways of reading this story. One is through the lens of the oppressors. Let’s look at this first.

Many in positions of privilege interpret this story in a way that presents a Jesus that refused to intervene in “temporal matters.” “Jesus was about saving mankind’s soul,” they say. They misinterpret Jesus’ kingdom to be “not of this world.” And by this they mean to dualistically divide matters of systemic deliverance from the sins of injustice, oppression, and violence in the here and now from the work of “the gospel.” Their focus is purely on personal, private salvation, which typically is concerned solely with post-mortem destinations. Nothing is to be changed in this life. Injustice and oppression are interpreted as part of God’s purpose for this world. People aren’t to be treated with equality. Inequity is God’s way of developing character. Equity is not part of God’s purpose for this world. God’s focus is on saving your soul for heaven.

That’s one way this passage is interpreted. Strange how it just so happens to leave the world of the oppressors unchanged. Jesus’ revelation that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, in the here and now, is grossly missed.

The other interpretation of this story finds its source in looking through the lens of those who are oppressed. Jesus was not excusing himself from temporal matters. Far from it. His entire Sermon on the Mount is about the message that Jesus’ kingdom, although from/of heaven, has arrived here on earth and is about to restructure, redistribute, and restore. Jesus didn’t go around getting people to say a special prayer so they can go to heaven when they died. He sought to bring healing into people’s lives today. The story we have before us is of two wealthy brothers with a large inheritance that is being fought over. Jesus says, “I’ve not come to be the advocate of the wealthy against others who are wealthy.” He asks, “Who made me a judge between YOU?” i.e. an advocate for the rich. It’s as if Jesus is using the contemporary phrase today, “First World Problem.” Jesus had come as a liberator of the oppressed; he marked the return of the Advocate God to Israel. He, according to Isaiah, was to be an arbitrator. But Jesus was not to be an arbitrator for the rich between others who were rich. Jesus had come to be an arbitrator for the poor against the greed of the wealthy. Jesus came to be, not an arbitrator between those at the top of society’s privilege pyramids, but an arbitrator for those at the bottom of those pyramids between those at the top, standing in solidarity with those at the bottom. This is why Jesus tells the brother a story about a wealthy man (like himself) who was seeking to only acquire more and more, adding to his already existing wealth, rather than taking care of those who were hungry, poor, blind, and naked. Jesus is not rejecting being an arbitrator in temporal affairs. Jesus came to turn our temporal affairs on their heads (see Acts 17.6). Jesus is rejecting being an advocate between the greedy privileged against other who are privileged, saying I’ve not come to be YOUR arbitrator. I’ve come to be the arbitrator for the oppressed. I’ve come as Immanuel to those who are being marginalized, disadvantaged, the needy, the impoverished, the downtrodden, the abused, maltreated, ill-treated, subjugated, tyrannized, repressed, and crushed. I’ve come to reveal a God who is standing in solidarity with these. I have come to give these the hope of Immanuel. I’ve come to give them the ability to say with all hope and confidence, “God” is “with us.”

What is the Advent narrative saying to us?

Whether this week you are marching, holding a sign that says, “Black Lives Matter,” whether you are being disfellowshipped this week from your spiritual community because of an orientation you did not choose and cannot change, whether you are continuously never taken seriously because you do not have the correct anatomical appendage, or you are facing an over-commercialized holiday season wondering how you are going to feed your children this Christmas much less give them the Christmas your heart longs to give them, too, you can gather around the manger and dare to believe that the babe who lies there really belongs to you. The baby lying there is Immanuel, the Liberator, the Advocate God, who has come to set the oppressed free, here, now. He is Immanuel, God with you.

HeartGroup Application

In James Cone’s book, God of the Oppressed, James tells of how Jesus was “the subject of Black Theology because he is the content of the hopes and dreams of black people. He was chosen by our grandparents, who saw in his liberating presence that he had chosen them and thus became the foundation of their struggle for freedom. He was their Truth, enabling them to know that white definitions of black humanity were lies.” James goes on to tell of traditions and practices among the slaves that, rooted in the Jesus story, kept them from losing themselves to the white dehumanization and degradation they were continually immersed in.

1. This week I want you to pick up the story of Jesus’ birth found in both Matthew and Luke. I want you to sit with Jesus asking him to change your lens. In matters of gender, race, orientation, and economic injustice, I want you to, in whatever areas of your life that you may experience some level of privilege, try reading this story while placing yourself in the shoes of someone less privileged than yourself. Do your best to read the story from their vantage place.

2. Journal what Jesus shows you.

3. Share what you discover with your upcoming HeartGroup.

This Advent, may you come to know that in whatever way you are “seeking first” the justice of Jesus’ new world, where things are “on earth” as they are “in heaven,” may the liberating, advocating, solidarity standing “Immanuel” give you strength, courage, and hope.

Till the only world that remains, is a world where Christ’s love reigns, may all those things out of harmony with love give way to a shoot of Jesse’s healing, transformative “equity” and “justice.”

The wolf will lay down with the lamb.

Immanuel, God with us.

I love each of you, see you next week.