Anne Howard: A Word in Time: Upside-Down Wisdom


An excerpt from Claiming the Beatitudes: Nine Stories from a New Generation

 ". . . It's our questions, I believe, that lead us into the heart of the Jesus story, and that can lead us into the heart of our own stories. All the gospel accounts resound with questions, from "Who do you say that I am?" and "What do you seek?" to the question on the dying Jesus' lips, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" In the questions we can hear the echo of our own doubt, and we can discover the stirrings of an Easter faith, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" and of an Easter commitment, "Do you love me?"

As a wisdom teacher, Jesus taught his disciples with puzzling parables, pithy aphorisms, and challenging questions, inviting them to discover a new way of living by engaging his many questions. When the young lawyer asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus did not recite the law, but answered Semitic-style with yet another question, and proceeded to lead the lawyer through more questioning into his story of the Good Samaritan. The story turned upside-down the conventional wisdom of the day about the limits of neighbor love, inviting the lawyer and all of us listeners ever since to expand our own capacity for compassion.

Conventional wisdom also gets turned upside-down in the beatitudes by Jesus daring to name the poor, the meek, and the mournful as the blessed ones. What could be blessed about poverty or grief? Is this simply the promise of a better day by-and-by, when we die? Do the beatitudes describe some future reward for suffering now?  If blessing is a good thing, it would seem that common sense, and the economic and political norms of first-century Palestine (and twenty-first-century America) tell us that the wealthy bear the signs of blessing, and the powerful, not the meek, own the earth today and will keep it tomorrow. So what kind of blessing is there, and who are the poor in spirit? What is Jesus talking about?

 . . . In these sayings, Jesus is teaching us something about God and what's important to God. With the word "blessed," Jesus is signaling, (as the prophet Isaiah did before him) "God cares about this" or "God commends this." Like all the beatitudes, this is not so much an evaluation-that poverty is good-as it is an invitation to shift our own perspective on what we might consider a blessing and we are invited to participate in God's transformation of our world. Look at it this way, Jesus is saying. This is what God commends: our alliance with the poor, the meek, the peacemaker, and the persecuted.  The good news and blessing, Jesus announces, is that we are invited into a new way of joining with God in creating the kind of world God wants everyone to inhabit.

. . . Jesus' mission, like that of the prophets before him, was to announce the good news of God's kingdom. This kingdom is a real time kingdom, a kingdom of this world. That is not to say, of course, that this kingdom is a place, a kingdom with a king and armies and flags. It is not an other-worldly, spiritual kingdom of the future.  To speak of the kingdom of God is to speak of the presence of God, or the reign of God, whenever and wherever that may be (which of course does not exclude the future.)

. . .When we see that this is a kingdom both "not of this world" and also something very earthly and very political, we can see what a powerful manifesto these beatitudes are. This kingdom is a sanctuary where all are welcome, all are equal, all are nourished. Some scripture scholars translate kingdom as kin-dom, from the Greek basileia, a household, where people live in mutual care, free from patriarchal hierarchy. This kind of kingdom announced by Jesus throughout the gospels is an affront to Caesar's realm and rule, and to any kingdom "of this world" with kings and princes and warriors, along with their slaves and serfs and underlings. This new kingdom, this new reign of God, stands in opposition to the dominating powers of this earth from Pharaoh to Caesar and any empire since. As Marcus Borg wrote, Jesus inverted the notions of kingdoms of his day and instead announced "what life would be like on earth if God were Lord and the lords of this earth were not."

If we were to describe this kingdom, we would use those same words that describe the experience of the presence of God: we would use those key words from Isaiah, words like light, peace, healing, joy, and deliverance from exile. We could say that it is a place where God's passion for justice and God's concern for the poor are realized, and everyone has enough. This kingdom is a place where compassion is not limited to personal relationships but is in fact the fabric of social and political life.  But if we are really talking about something that could happen here, on this earth, in this lifetime then why are we talking about heaven?

Matthew used the term heaven. As a Jew writing for Jews, Matthew was observing his tradition's custom of refraining from the use of the name of God, and therefore called the kingdom of God the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is the same as the kingdom of God named by Mark and Luke. Unfortunately, Matthew's use of the term "heaven" in the beatitudes has caused generations of Christians to presume that these sayings of Jesus describe a world to come rather than the world we inhabit.  Hearing these words as descriptive of our world allows us to hear good news for the oppressed and good news for all of us, as we are invited to participate in God's life, God's justice, and God's politics."

Echoes from the Edge

No Further Questions: Unapologetic Black Love in the Name of God

By Heber Brown, III, 2013-14 Beatitudes Fellow - January 28th, 2014

Jesus can be really frustrating.  He just wouldn't find his place in the existing social order and be satisfied with it.  No wonder the chief priests, scribes and elders wanted him dead.

He had a way of getting on a lot of people's nerves.

He irked people.  No wonder Judas betrayed him.  With the embers of revolution smoldering hot in the spirit of an oppressed people living under the boot of Roman occupation; Jesus chose not to take a predictable route.  No blatant coup d'états for him.  Even when the masses came to make him the leader of the freedom movement, he ran from his adoring crowd and withdrew to the mountain to be by himself.


Well.  They didn't call him a "jerk."  But they did suggest that he had a demon and was literally out of his mind.  That's pretty close.

But of all the things that are sources of frustration about Jesus, his seemingly incessant use of parables probably is high on a lot of people's list.  In a society where we've grown accustomed to "six steps to do this" or "nine steps to do that," - mining deep into the multi-layered meanings of timeless truths challenges our patience.

A lot of people just want Jesus to tell them what to do.  And in many cases in scripture, Jesus rejects those kinds of requests.  However, there came an occasion where Jesus breaks from his usual practice.

In the midst of a protracted and wide-ranging socio-theological debate remembered in Mark 12, Jesus is asked a simple, yet essential question: "What is the greatest commandment of all?"

No parables here.  Jesus engages in straight talk.

"You must love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength."  And though not asked, he continues by saying that love of God is linked to love of neighbor which is linked to love of self.  Though the debate as outlined in this chapter was long and vigorous, Jesus' response prompted no further questions.  With this response, he ended the debate.  However, stimulating insights invite further reflection.

Though "love of self" is last listed; a careful reading of the passage reveals that priority is placed upon it.

The implication is that when one loves themselves, it helps clear the way for love of neighbor and in fact, love of God.  It all begins with loving yourself.  I can't extend to anyone else that which I've not received first unto myself. 

But racism/White supremacy made and makes "self-love" a strenuous feat for those whose skin has been kissed by the sun.

A part of the brutal oppression of African Americans in the United States involved the systemic messaging that worked to have Blacks associate their very being with shame, inferiority, and wretchedness.  "Whiteness" became the normative standard for "civilized" society while "Blackness" was equivalent with being "less than."

The injurious impact of this system of control on Black people has been proven to start at very young ages.  In 2006, then 17-year-old Kiri Davis produced a documentary entitled, "A Girl Like Me," where she reproduced an experiment by psychologists, Kenneth and Mamie Clark.  In the experiment, a White doll and a Black doll were presented to very young Black children to investigate their color preferences.  The children were then asked to pick the "nice doll."  The results of Kiri's 2006 experiment mirrored the findings of the Clarks' 1939 research.  In both instances, the Black children overwhelming identified the "nice doll" as the White one and repeatedly pointed to the Black doll as the "bad" one.

The research suggested that beginning at very young ages, Black children in America are systemically and institutionally conditioned toward internal racism and self-hate.

How can Black youth experience viable love for God and neighbor when being conditioned to accept that they are devalued in this society?  How many more of them would blossom into the change agents and Freedom Fighters that this world needs if only they were lovingly guided into a deep sense and appreciation for self?  This is an issue of utmost concern for those committed to spiritual formation and social change.

This is why I'm launching 60's-styled Freedom Schools and publishing an African Centered Church School Curriculum called, Orita's Cross.  Starting in Baltimore, I'm partnering with many others to spark a movement to encourage Black youth to love who they are and what they are.  As they're guided to understand their "Blackness" as an intentional gift of God's Will, they'll also be invited to a different engagement and expression of Christianity that aligns with their history, heritage, and culture.

Pilot sessions for the Freedom Schools have already begun with a focus on Middle School-aged youth.  In February, I'll share a presentation on my program at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Pastor's Conference - a conference that represents a cross section of progressive African American Faith leaders and their congregations.

The overwhelming positive response suggests that many Black Christians have grown weary with feeling like their ethnic heritage must take a backseat to "pure" expressions of the Faith.  Support even beyond the Black community reveals a wide recognition for the significance and abiding potential of such an undertaking.

In a nation where the blood of Trayvon Martin still cries out, where the "new" Jim Crow still lurks, and where it is a "verifiable fact" that Jesus is the White Savior (according to Fox News Host, Megyn Kelly), the debate about the significance of Black affirmation and its importance for the Christian Church must come to an end.  Because for Jesus, the path to loving God with one's total being begins with little Black girls and boys loving unapologetically the face that they see in the mirror. 

Heber Brown, III is an organizer, activist, writer, and the Pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland.

Finally, the Poet

for epiphany

By John Chrysostom - January 28th, 2014

"This is the rule of most perfect Christianity,

its most exact definition, its highest point, namely,

the seeking of the common good. . .

For nothing can so make a person 

an imitator of Christ

as caring for his neighbors."

Taken with permission from the Beatitudes Society blog.