Whip It: Text Of the Day for March 1, 2018

In John, one of Jesus’ first dramatic acts is to cause a riot in the temple:

Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

(John 2:15-16)

In the other three gospels, Jesus waits until his final week to riot in the temple. In John, he kicks off his ministry with this protest.

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Caveat #1: This tends to be a go-to story for authoritarian Christians who really like the image of Christ using a whip on sinners. You can tell a lot about someone’s theology by the context in which they deploy this story and whether they ever connect it to other kinds of public protest: Black Lives Matter, for example, or Occupy Wall Street. If someone uses this story to illustrate “how much God hates sin,” then you know they see Jesus as a riot policeman with a baton—not a revolutionary of love. Tellingly, the text never says he used the whip on people, but only on sheep and cattle. He did pour money on the floor and flip tables, but the action he takes toward people is speech: “Take these things out of here.” He never hits anyone.

Caveat #2: These were not kids trying to raise money for a mission trip by holding a bake sale at the door of the church. It helps to know some context. Members of the priestly class could rent space at the temple to make money on the side. Because the priests also judged which animals were worthy to be sacrificed, it was a bit like going to a movie theater or a ball game where no outside food is permitted. In that context, you know your favorite watered-down carbonated fizzy drink will be five dollars, and a candy bar will require a second mortgage. Sacrificial animals could cost ten times the fair rate. So, no, this is nothing like fundraising for the youth group. I’ve heard adult congregation members complain about youth group fundraising by using this scripture, and it makes me want to use a whip on the adults.

This text is a warning about the the way our religion becomes institutionalized: Religious profiteers will certainly try to hijack your mission and distort your values. They will take your focus off of love of God and love of neighbor in order to make a buck. The proper response is to make it impossible for them to do business.

Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 

Text Of The Day

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

Third Temptation: Text Of the Day for February 27, 2018

Matthew’s third temptation of Christ:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

(Matthew 4:8-11)

In Matthew, the third temptation is for Jesus to trade worship of the devil for all the kingdoms of the world.

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Neither worship of the devil nor all the kingdoms of the world are very attractive to me, so it’s a bit hard to wrap my head around this temptation. Many commentators and pastors suggest this was “the easy way” for Jesus to become the messiah.

There are two angles that make this temptation more understandable to me. The first is that Jesus was not a 21st century North American, but a member of an oppressed people living under occupation. I can imagine Satan saying to Jesus, “How well is worship of God working out for you? You’ve been under the heel of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, the Seleucids, and Rome. Had enough yet?” So while the offer is not enticing to me personally, I can certainly imagine being fed up enough to leave behind the Way of Jesus for the Way of Caesar, or to trade Israel’s faceless, mysterious God for a god with some muscles and lightning bolts, like Baal or Zeus.

Here is the second angle that makes this temptation understandable: we can see multiple times in history when Christians have traded their historic witness for power. This was clear most recently in white evangelical support for Roy Moore, but we can also see it in religious wars, inquisitions, colonialism, and the slave trade. Apparently, all that is required is the promise of money and political power, especially when Christians believe—rationally or not—that they are the oppressed minority. The devil is particularly adept not only at wearing religious clothes and masquerading as God, but doing so while offering us the chance to settle the score, to win at our enemy’s expense.

Jesus tells of a Kingdom in which the poor, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, and those who work for peace are “blessed.” If the path you pursue doesn’t bless those people, it’s probably from the devil.

Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 

Text Of The Day

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

Second Temptation: Text Of the Day for February 23, 2018

Matthew’s second temptation of Christ:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
    and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

(Matthew 4:5-7)

In Matthew, the second temptation is for Jesus to miraculously save himself from death by leaping from the top of the temple in Jerusalem and… flying?

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In Luke, this is the final temptation. I think Luke appreciates the irony that in the very next story, after Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth, the congregation also wants to throw him off a high place! (See Luke 4:16-30)

“Leaping from the temple would prove to onlookers that Jesus was divine,” I’ve heard preachers say. “It would be an easy path to becoming the messiah.” I think that’s interesting but wrong. According to the stories, Jesus did all sorts of miraculous things. It wasn’t as if he lacked an audience or needed better PR.

From my perspective, there is nothing tempting or easy about falling from a high place. When I’ve stood near the edge of a cliff and looked over, the blood-deprived tingly feeling in my gut was my body’s quiet but firm way of saying “not today, buddy,”

I suspect this temptation had more to do with Jesus‘ certainty. Christians idolize the “leap of faith,” like leaving one’s home country to be a missionary. When we’re on a mission from God, says the dominant theology, nothing will stand in our way; success is inevitable, and proves that God loves us and that we’re important. If the Creator preserved Jesus from premature death, Jesus could carry out the rest of his ministry without any doubt. He’d never have to pray, “If possible, let this cup pass from me,” or “Why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus, in the wilderness, replies with a reference to Israel’s time in the wilderness, when they asked Moses to prove (again) that God was with them (Exodus 17:7). Jesus’ answer indicates that real faith isn’t so much about leaping and expecting God to catch you as it is about the slow plod through the desert, full of doubt and thirst.

Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 

Text Of The Day

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

First Temptation: Text Of the Day for February 20, 2018

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

(Matthew 4:1-4)

In the story of Jesus in the wilderness, he confronts the tempter three different times. The first time, he is tempted to turn stones into bread.

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Of course, Jesus was hungry, but bread was symbolic and political. The phrase “bread and circuses” comes to us from Rome. The Empire used food both as a reward and a weapon, to punish and pacify occupied territory—like the land where Jesus lived.

Later on, when he feeds thousands of people by the sea with only a handful of loaves and fish, the people are ready to follow him into battle. Mark points out that they sit in groups of fifties and hundreds, which is biblical language implying an army (Mark 6:40; (compare Exodus 18:25 and 1 Maccabees 3:54-57)). John says that after the miracle, the people come and want to make him king by force (John 6:15).

The politics of bread still is still at work today. Alabama is one of the few states that actually tax groceries. A pastor friend confronted an Alabama legislator about it, and he replied, “How else are you going to get money out of poor people?” Whenever politicians talk about “makers and takers,” whenever they blame immigrants for stealing jobs, they are playing the Roman game of weaponizing food. But the alternative is not “bread and circuses” to pacify the poor. The alternative is the living bread. “I will feed them with justice,” says God (Ezekiel 34:16).

When Jesus does provide bread, the miracle is understated. He doesn’t wave a wand and turn stones into bread. That would make him the dispenser. No, the bread appears because it is shared and not hoarded. He also tells his disciples to pray for daily bread. Jesus does not need a huge supply of bread to give out. He needs his followers to share.

The fact is, the world produces enough food to feed everyone on it. What we have is not a supply problem, but a distribution problem. We even use biblical language to describe it: food deserts. We don’t need to turn stones into bread. We need to address the sin that leads to hoarding and inequality. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life,” (John 6:27).

 

Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 

Text Of The Day

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

What’s Your Price? Text Of the Day for February 15, 2018

Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob
    and chiefs of the house of Israel,
who abhor justice
    and pervert all equity,
who build Zion with blood
    and Jerusalem with wrong!
Its rulers give judgment for a bribe,
    its priests teach for a price,
    its prophets give oracles for money;
yet they lean upon the Lord and say,
    “Surely the Lord is with us!
    No harm shall come upon us.”

(Micah 3:9-11)

It is heartbreaking to begin Lent with news of another school shooting. Yet another. Another.

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Lent begins with the story of Jesus tempted in the wilderness. The devil offers Jesus political power if only Jesus will bow down and worship him. He tries to bribe the Son of Man. Everyone has their price, right? As Micah says of his leaders in Jerusalem, “its rulers give judgments for a bribe; its priests teach for a price.”

We know that our leaders are susceptible to bribery and the promise of influence and power. There have been plenty of articles about the NRA’s influence on congress, and the devil’s bargain white evangelical churches have made with the far-right. We are so weary of those who “abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong!”

A lobbyist came to see Jesus. He offered him an endless supply of bread, fame, and political power if only he would worship the devil. The lobbyist quoted the Bible and phrased his arguments in religious language. Jesus was tempted. But Jesus knew the price of the kingdom he was proclaiming. He would pay it himself, and it was not for sale.

The story teaches us that the devil will hide behind moral and religious language as he offers his bribes. Jesus says we’ll know such by their fruit.

The story also raises another question for those of us who follow Jesus: What’s your price?

Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 

Text Of The Day

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

Valentine’s Ash Wednesday: Text Of the Day for Feb 13, 2018

“Then the Lord God said, “It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make them a helper that is perfect for them.” (Genesis 2:18)

Tomorrow is both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. I’ve joked that I will impose the ashes on people’s foreheads in the shape of a heart.

It’s actually a fitting coincidence, when you think about the story of Saint Valentine. He was allegedly martyred by the Emperor Claudius on February 14, 269, for helping Christians under persecution (including performing marriages). I think it’s especially fitting to remember Saint Valentine on this Ash Wednesday for a couple of reasons:

1) My own denomination, the United Methodist Church, is currently struggling with how it will organize itself, since many Methodists disagree over the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ persons.

2) The movement toward Good Friday during Lent is usually portrayed as an individual’s “dark night of the soul,” a journey of penitence and fasting, very much at odds with images of hedonistic romantic love and boxes of chocolates in popular culture. But the juxtaposition and reconciliation of the two is appropriate for Christians, I think. First, because our journey of penitence and fasting is never actually alone. The sin we repent of is not just individual but corporate, so we have partners on our journey. Second, because fasting is a means to an end. Jesus said of his disciples, “They cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they?” (Mark 2:19). Jesus compared the kingdom to a wedding banquet where all are invited, but he indicated there are different times for different behaviors.

Of course, romantic love is idolized in our culture, and many people, both religious and non-religious, have had their fill of it. The idea that we each have a “soul mate” in another human being who “completes us” is pernicious and destructive. 

But romantic love, for many of us, is the first inkling that we have of the Divine. Whether it’s driven by physiology or spirituality, the feeling of losing-youself-while-finding-yourself is mystical. One of my biggest complaints about the hetero-patriarchy is that it has stifled heterosexual men’s religious imagination about God, since it refuses to ever refer to God in feminine terms. The idea that God woos us like a lover, that God desires intimacy with us, and actually loves human bodies enough to hold us accountable for the way they are treated is a corrective that the church desperately needs.

Rome was right to be afraid of Valentine, as it was right to be afraid of Jesus. Love does, in fact, threaten the Empire.


Twice a week (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: Text Of The Day

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

Some thoughts on flags, protest, and symbols

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• I always looked forward to being on the color guard in Boy Scouts. Learning the flag code and participating in ceremonies with the scouts made me aware that we were part of a bigger American story, even if we were just kids playing steal the bacon and learning how to cook over a fire.

• One of my favorite memories of South Korea was encountering an elderly man on the subway, who asked us, “American?” We said yes, and he spent the rest of the trip smiling and nodding at us. When we reached our destination, he stood up with tears in his eyes, took an American-flag handkerchief out of his pocket and waved it to us, saying, “Good-bye, friends!” It occurred to us that he had probably lived through the devastation of the Korean War, and was still grateful that he was not in a prison camp. The flag meant something to him. 

• In the present controversy over kneeling during the anthem in protest, people often claim that this behavior is disrespectful to the military and veterans. This is a red herring. The American flag is not only the flag of the military—it is the flag of the whole United States. It is the flag of women suffragists no less than the Army, and the flag of Japanese internment camp survivors no less than the Air Force. That’s the thing about the flag—nobody gets to own it, because we all own it. This country is run by its people, not a junta. The sacrifice and suffering of soldiers does not trump the sacrifice and suffering of black men lynched for having the courage to register to vote. It is not elevated to some higher or more sacred platform than the brave sacrifice of ordinary citizens whose homes were bombed for protesting injustice.

• The Armed Forces of the United States of America is not a priesthood, though it is often elevated to that position by chickenhawk civilians. While the military (and its various branches) has its own culture, codes, and customs, its purpose is to serve the nation—not the other way around. The veterans I know from every branch who have served proudly are deeply philosophical about their service. They know their colleagues and the people they command(ed) are human beings—siblings, parents, children—who all have hopes and dreams. They are from all different economic levels, races, and backgrounds, and all have their own struggles. The leaders among them think strategically and understand the value of diversity, the importance of outcome-based measurement, how to set clear goals, and how to discern leadership potential. They also understand that life is complicated. They are not politically homogenous. They are people I am proud to know.

• The flag, and the nation it represents, is far younger than slavery, which existed in this land before our nation did, and the effects of which continue to be ignored, redacted, and downplayed by many white Americans. Citizens owe nothing to the flag that they do not also owe to their ancestors. Again, without slaves, Native Americans, women suffragists, civil rights protesters, abolitionists, immigrants, and organizers, there is no American history, and the flag stands for nothing worth respecting. If one does not know something of this history, one does not know the flag, and any gestures toward this multivalent symbol are worthless.

• MLK repeatedly made the point that protest is not palatable to people in power or to those comfortable with the status quo. He pointed out that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and the early Christians were protesters who faced public shaming and death. The people who threw Christians and Jews to the lions also claimed that these people were trouble-makers, ungrateful to Rome (or Babylon), disrespectful, and generally individuals of low moral character. People who protest would not have to protest if everyone agreed with them!

• Nobody’s inferences of disrespect get to have more weight in the public moral universe than someone else’s clearly stated purposes for their actions. Continuing to claim that kneeling is “disrespectful” is an arbitrary judgment. Actions have many meanings: for example, according to the flag code, burning the flag is an acceptable way to dispose of a damaged flag; burning at a protest has a different meaning. If someone chooses to be offended by the proper burning of the flag, or by kneeling at its display, I suppose that is their business. Technically, you are not supposed to applaud at the end of the national anthem, but people do anyway. Nobody storms out of the stadium because people have shown disrespect by applauding. The meaning you attribute to someone else’s behavior is really more about you than about them.

• The commodification of the flag, its use as a bumper sticker, and its appropriation by white nationalists bothers me far more than professional athletes kneeling in front of it. Just as it grieves me that the language of my faith has been appropriated by people like Roy Moore to justify bigotry, it grieves me that the flag has been appropriated by people for the purpose of silencing protest and advancing white supremacy. Those who take the cross and flag as symbols for their tribalism have missed the point of each, and created a national religion that is more about the worship of Molech and Baal than of the God of Jesus Christ, and a patriotism that is more about white supremacy than about civic engagement or support for our shared values.

Dear Jephthah

Alexandre_Cabanel_-_The_Daughter_of_Jephthah_(1879,_Oil_on_canvas)
You thought perhaps
it would be someone else—
a servant, or a servant’s child,
or a child’s pet.
You would trade
in someone else’s grief,
while you made sad eyes
and talked about a greater purpose
and collateral damage
and breaking eggs to make omelettes,
and the cost of discipleship
and each of us bearing our cross
and sacrifice.

 

When she ran out of the door,
smiling,
breathless,
almost as tall as you,
long limbs (where does the time go?)
covering the ground in half the time
(where does it go?)
as your wife,
and the servants
and their children
and their pets,
first through the door,
because she was faster than the wind,

 

I saw your face crack;
I heard your heart break.
Only last month
(or was it last year?)
she asked for a story every night,
followed by a song,
followed by a prayer,
and I hoped you would have the sense
to know that God has no need
for anyone to prove their righteousness.

 

When you swore your oath,
to sacrifice the first creature
who ran out of your door
in exchange for victory,
the chance was slim,
you thought;
and if it did so happen
that it was your child,
then you saw yourself as faithful as Abraham.
In your head,
you were already composing the story,
and you were the hero
because you sacrificed so much.

 

(Do not bring God into this.
Your idea
never entered God’s mind.)

 

You told her to go into the mountains
and bewail her virginity, and so
that is what she told you
she did.

 

I heard what she bewailed:
She bewailed a world
where men trade their children
for the image of their own virtue,
where they prize abstinence and virginity
more than life,
where legislators
and preachers
and pundits
and generals
bereave parents again and again and again,
where people in authority
make foolish oaths,
and stupid laws,
and empty promises,
that keep taking the lives
of queer kids,
and straight kids,
and any child
who sprints out of the door,
full of hope, and excitement, and love.

 

Jephthah, God is tired;
tired of parents grieving
so you can prove
how worthy you are
by sacrificing their children
for your holy war.

 

Jeremiah 7:31
Judges 11:29-40

If Paul Wrote “The Love Chapter” Today

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If I speak Christianese, but do not have love, I am just an annoying advertising jingle for Jesus. And if I have a big blog following, and three best sellers, and if I run a big church, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I become a martyr for evangelism or social justice, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 

Grandstanding is not love. Smarm is not love. Love does not belittle the beloved’s anger. Love does not gaslight, tone-police, or tell victims to reconcile with their abusers. Love does not shrink from conflict, but calls all parties to act like mature adults.

 

Love does not bear all things, because it rejects that which diminishes the image of God in self or others. It does not believe all things; it rejects bullshit, because it is neither naive nor gullible—it rejoices in the truth. It can endure much, but it cannot endure “love the sinner and hate the sin.” See above. Love treats others with the compassion, respect, and dignity we want for ourselves.

 

The internet will end. Politics will end. Blogs, books, and religion will end. Right, now? All this stuff is a pale reflection of the love and justice God has in store.

 

When I was a toddler, I thought “sharing” meant that you give to me. I thought “love” meant you defer to my wishes. I thought Christian paternalism and pity were love. But I grew out of that.

 

I’m not perfect, of course. I’m still capable of self-deception. I’m not as mature as I will one day be, but one day we will all know God’s love inside and out.

 

Sure, faith is important. Hope is important. But you know what’s more important?

 

Love. Mature love.

 

(1 Corinthians 13, for comparison)

Reflection on “The Exodus”

Thanks to everyone who has found this blog by reading “The Exodus.” I’ve appreciated reading the feedback—all of it, positive, negative, questioning, or reflective. I’ve especially appreciated some of the email from folks who shared deeply personal struggles with faith, those who feel alienated by the dominant Christian narrative in our culture, or who simply resonated with the words. I’ve been touched by stories of people who have told me they have left church, but would go to a church if they could find one that said these words.

Thanks to John Archibald and Kissing Fish for helping it to go viral.

I was inspired to write it after reading the Song of Miriam in Exodus. Some scholars believe it may be the oldest text in the Bible.

I just want to offer a few words to folks who have commented, emailed, or shared discussion on social media.

1) In The Four Loves, CS Lewis says that friends are those who “see the same truth.” So I am delighted to make the acquaintance of new friends. When I read something that plucks a string in my soul that vibrates for days, or I’m stunned to learn someone else has put into words thoughts I’ve thought or feelings I’ve felt, I feel less alone. It means a lot to me that some of you have shared that these words did that for you, or that they offered courage, comfort, or challenge. Thank you.

2) For everyone who has been alienated from the church, who told me it is a relief or a surprise to hear Christian religious language used in a way that was not advancing a right-wing agenda, just know that there is a long, long tradition of religious social justice work. I’m part of a grassroots community organizing group called Faith in Action Alabama, and one of our themes is that what we’re talking about is not a thin veneer of religious language over a political agenda, but a deeply-rooted faith response that claims that God is not neutral about injustice, that all human beings are made in God’s image, and that prophetic imagination is part of our calling. I encourage you to find a group doing such work in your area. I also recommend Common Prayer for daily devotional.

While the piece is titled “The Exodus,” I’m still very firmly part of a church. Even an institutional church. But I totally understand the desire to leave both church and nation for a new land. For me, the Good News is that there is an alternative in our midst. “The Kingdom is among y’all,” as JC said.

3) For critics, know that I appreciate thoughtful criticism and read what you write, even if I don’t always reply. I am happy to debate the finer points of policy, government intervention, evidence-based programs that reduce poverty, and the effects of legislation on things like the health of LGBTQ persons and reduction of abortion. I believe in respectful dialogue and giving folks the benefit of the doubt.

But polemic, art, and imagination—not rational debate—is the proper response to oppressive, bullying, tone-policing, white-supremacist, patriarchal theology. Jesus knew this, and his response to the dominant theology of his day is recorded in Matthew 23. I will not legitimize the dominant narrative by speaking on its terms. Doing so is simply throwing pearls before swine, an activity Jesus admonishes his followers to avoid (Matthew 7:6).

I reject any view of the Bible that limits it to how we behave in our personal lives, or that walls off personal faith from the personal lives of marginalized communities under threat. A faith that is strictly private and does not impinge upon public life, that does not inform how we talk about poverty or injustice in the public sphere, that makes Jesus my Personal Savior but not Savior of the World, is a faith not worth having, in my opinion. There are plenty of Dominionists working in our federal government, and their vision of God and God’s Kingdom is directly opposed to everything I love. And retreat from politics into a privileged sphere of personal pietistic religion is not a luxury I—or the church—can afford.

Jesus told us to take up our crosses. This did not mean giving up chocolate, sex, or beer. The cross was reserved for enemies of the state. If your faith does not lead you to stand with the crucified, with black kids gunned down, with LGBTQ families prevented from adopting, with refugees, then I have no interest in your religion. It simply fails the test. I have no interest in following a Jesus who does not offer the cross. Characterize it as “left wing” if you like. That’s hardly a stinging critique in the world we live in. I have yet to see a martyr of the faith crucified by the state for defending the rights of the privileged and powerful.

4) Here are some books that I’ve been reading recently that inspired my writing:
Pamela Lightsey, Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology.
Walter Brueggemann, Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word.
Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium.
Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.

Thanks again for reading, for sharing, and for commenting.
“Be a prophet of the resistance, not a priest of the empire.”