Herb Montgomery, self-described itinerant teacher and founder of Renewed Heart Ministries, is one of the speakers at the upcoming Adventist Forum Conference. He talks about listening to communities on the margins, the unsustainability of the North American Adventist church in its current path, and why following Jesus means working toward ending human suffering here and now.
Question: You are one of the speakers at the upcoming Adventist Forum conference with the theme of "non-violence and the atonement." What can we expect to hear at your presentation?
Answer: My title is Victims of Violent Atonement and the Hope for Change. It is important that we listen to the experiences of those who are often the most vulnerable within our religious communities with violent atonement theories.
Within human society, violent atonement theories have not been without their victims. The theology we choose to believe is connected with the ethics we choose to live by. Women, people of color, non-Europeans, as well as those who self identify as belonging to the LGBTQ community have been deeply and negatively impacted by, at minimum, actions of which violent atonement theories have been complicit. Those who have subscribed to punitive substitutionary ways of interpreting Jesus’ death must make time to listen to these voices.
The good news is that the work of listening is being done. Alternate ways of understanding the death of Jesus, rooted in the ethics of nonviolence as taught by that same Jesus, have been explored over the last few decades. The impact of these alternatives on the people on the underside and fringes of our human communities looks hopeful. Time will tell. But when we look at these examples, we do find hope, I believe, for positive change.
Your organization, Renewed Heart Ministries, describes itself as focusing on the words and teachings of Jesus. Your website says: “We believe these teachings have an intrinsic value in informing the work of nonviolently confronting, liberating and transforming our world into a safe, more just, more compassionate home for us all.” What does that mean in relation to the Old Testament practice of atonement?
Great question! I prefer to call them the interpretations and practices (plural) of atonement in the ancient Hebrew scriptures. There is not just one. And often these practices don’t agree even with each other.
Our meaning and purpose at Renewed Heart Ministries grows out of and is informed by the Jesus story. We feel this places us in good company with those in the past and present who have embarked on a critique of the more violent practices of atonement in the Bible as a result of what they have encountered in Jesus. I want to be careful here. We do not mean by this critique that in Jesus we find something that is anti-Jewish. In all the world’s major religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism) we see a transition at certain points in their histories from violent forms of worship and practice, to those much more nonviolent, as each matures. We believe Jesus was part of just such an opportunity for first-century Judea. We also believe that, when understood within his own first-century context, Jesus can also help Christians move from violent forms of worship and practice to much more nonviolent forms and practices, as well.
Has your understanding of the atonement changed over time?
Dramatically. The sector of Christianity I grew up in was fundamentalist Christianity. I can attest that having had to grapple with what the Jesus of Matthew and Luke taught — specifically the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain — my older understandings and interpretations of what Christians call the “atonement" have been dramatically challenged.
Has your understanding of the character of God changed over time?
Yes. This has been dramatically impacted by the teachings we attribute to Jesus, as well. It has also been impacted by listening to the experiences of marginalized and excluded communities that the Jesus story calls us to begin valuing and listening to.
So listening to the experiences of marginalized communities is important, you believe. It seems that Renewed Heart Ministries has allied itself with various "progressive" issues, speaking out on behalf of these minorities, including people of color and LGBTQ Adventists, as you mentioned. You wrote about your experience at Kinship Kampmeeting as one of the most authentic and loving places you had ever been. Why are these social issues important?
Renewed Heart Ministries is not allied with liberal, progressive theology. We see ourselves as resonating more with what is referred to as liberation theology. Both are non-traditional, but there are significant differences between liberal theology and liberation theology, as well as the communities from which those theologies are derived.
Thanks for clarifying. So why are the social issues so important?
Because behind those social issues are real people. I would not say we speak on their behalf, but we do work alongside many of those on the underside or margins of our society. And in doing so we have encountered stories and experiences that ushered us into a deeper experience of compassion for people and a passion for those matters that affect them most.
Also, much of what we have found has contradicted the stereotypes we were socialized to believe. Even among the most marginalized, we have found rich traditions practiced by Jesus’ followers.
We see Jesus emerging within the first century as a healer. It is in this that he called us to follow him. There is sickness in our world. In addition to physical sickness, there is societal sickness. Some of these are the sicknesses of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and economic sickness. At the heart of each of these is myriad of phobias toward anything different from us. If we are followers of the Jesus, we find in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, our first priority is not post-mortem bliss, but being actively engaged in bringing an end to the things that cause human suffering today, here, now, even when doing so calls us to engage in “cleansing” a few “temples,” as Jesus did.
Do you feel the Adventist church does a good job of speaking out on issues of injustices in society? What does it do well and what could it do better?
There are many sectors within the Adventist church. Adventism itself is home to a whole spectrum of what it means to be “Adventist.” I do not feel, however, that the sectors of the official church that I have been exposed to do an adequate job of addressing our contemporary issues of injustice.
Granted, I live in the very northern end of what is referred to as the “Bible Belt.” My straight, white, male Appalachian culture, both inside of Adventism as well as without, is still struggling with sexism and racism, even within the church.
There are individual exceptions, but on the whole, we aren’t even prepared to adequately address the injustice of economic poverty here, much less more national debates of social justice. All the other social issues can be derived from the Jesus story, but the economic ones? These are our springboard in the Jesus story. This is the Jesus that said, “Blessed are you who are poor and woe to those of you who are rich.”
I would love to be introduced to sectors of the official church that are doing this well--not engaged in charity but addressing actual systemic injustice.
One of the things we could do better is to begin listening to our own Jesus story through the experiences of those who are not like us. An example, since you brought it up, would be to listen to our LGBTQ Adventist siblings and their experiences. In our discussions, especially about them, we need to actually include them. Otherwise, it would be like holding a convention on race here in North American Adventism and only having white speakers, or an event addressing women’s equality and only having male voices present, or a discussion on the residual effects of colonialism and only having our European and North American Divisions present at the table. In my opinion, what we could do better is embrace a posture and practice of listening to the voices of those who have not been adequately included in these types of conversations so far.
You speak to groups all around the U.S. Do you find a general consensus among your audiences that more must be done to increase tolerance and respect for different groups of people? What issues do you find people are most concerned about or interested in?
It all depends on age, gender, and race, really. I find among most people under 30 (who will comprise the body of the next 20 years of Adventism) there is a very strong concern and interest regarding compassion (not simply tolerance) and respect for different groups of people. Once you pass that age 30 threshold (and I’m 40, by the way), it really depends. I find that among most white, straight males like myself, we don’t seem to think anything needs much change. The women I listen to tell me a different story. The people of color I listen to tell me a different story. So it really depends on which sector or audience you’re seeking to gain a general consensus from.
Within Adventism, I find an overwhelming number of folks who are very concerned and quite disillusioned with the events of last summer. I hear a lot of feedback over the changes made relating to education, women, and the LGBTQ community. It’s mostly covert, but it’s very much there.
Why did you start Renewed Heart Ministries? Why not work for the church?
I started Renewed Heart Ministries when I left Light Bearers, which is now based out of Oregon. Before that, I taught for the Southern Union out of Florida.
I continued to receive phone calls from the parents of students I was teaching, asking for me to visit various churches and share with their congregations. Those invitations led to me leaving the Southern Union to work for Light Bearers Ministry as an itinerant speaker for about seven years.
In 2005, my mother became very sick, and we moved back to West Virginia to be more present in her life. (She passed away two years ago.) In 2007, we branched out on our own with Renewed Heart Ministries. Why not work for the church? Well, I’ve never been asked by the church to work in a capacity like what I am doing for Renewed Heart Ministries. It’s that simple. I don’t think the church offers salaried positions for itinerant teachers like myself to travel all over the globe and teach in various local congregations. These types of roles are usually filled by administrators traveling among institutions, not teachers traveling among churches. I’ve never been offered employment in a role that is a good match for what I have a passion to do.
Does Renewed Heart Ministries have any full-time employees other than yourself? Or part-time? And where does its funding come from?
There are a total of thirteen of us that are part of the Renewed Heart Ministries team. Two of those are full-time with the rest falling somewhere on a scale between part-time, contracted, or volunteer work. It takes a small community to do what we do. For RHM to provide its ever-changing online content alone takes hundreds of hours each month.
Our funding is from our monthly supporters. Everything we do at Renewed Heart Ministries is for free. We do not even derive income from the many educational events that we do in various venues. We never charge seminar fees. Also, anything we receive over and above our annual budget, we happily give away to other not-for-profits that are making both systemic and personal differences — significant differences — in the lives of those less privileged.
When did you become an Adventist? Why do you remain an Adventist?
I became an Adventist at the very impressionable, young age of 14.
I remain an Adventist for quite a few reasons. Adventism has always been defined from bottom up, not the top down. There are attempts from time to time to change that, but we are a group defined by the discoveries and search for what is true among our people. We began as a movement away from traditional Christian theology in search of what we believed was more true. We, as the people, decide what Adventism is and what Adventism isn’t. I stay, for one reason, because I want to be part of that deciding process, even if at times I’m among a minority of voices. Also, Adventism is where my roots are. I owe a lot to Adventism, both good and bad. I don’t look at it linearly like “remaining an Adventist.” I don’t think of it as leaving this and going on to something else. I look at it more like concentric, ever-enlarging circles. I’m still an Adventist, but my circle has simply gotten bigger. My people now include a much larger circle of people in addition to Adventists. And I hope it keeps growing.
At the end of the day, I’m a human being, part of the human family. We are all siblings, children of God, part of the same divine-human family. And we must learn how to sit at the same family table beside one another. And lastly, there are people I still care about deeply within Adventism. I want to be a part of their journey, too.
How do you see the Adventist church changing over the next few decades?
It all depends on the choices we make. I only know my own version of Adventism here in North America. I think we have quite a lot of security outside of North America and Europe when it comes to longevity.
Here in America? If we prioritize the voices of those under 30, I think we have a good shot of growing into something beautiful. If we remain on our present path, though, I don’t see us lasting here. Financially alone, the institution is too expensive to run without the demographic that will not be here 20 years from now. In America, those pains are being felt now, but they will only get worse. I think (and again this is if we continue to cater to the voices we are presently catering to) we will begin to see properties being sold, slowly at first, and then more and more. Our numbers here will continue to dwindle to a state of institutional “life-support.”
Similar to other denominations who have placed a high emphasis on educating their youth, if we don’t keep up with the discoveries our educated young people are making, they will move on to find groups that are more relevant to what they have discovered. We live in the information age. There no longer remains a monopoly of control over the information people have access to.
What is it like living in West Virginia?
Our state motto is Almost Heaven.
We have a lot of work to do still. There are quite a few people here involved in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, and restoration who are very active in helping West Virginia grow in inclusivity, in equality, and economically. At times, we at RHM partner with some of those here locally for special projects and efforts.
In West Virginia, we have the same struggles and challenges as everywhere else, I suppose, except that those struggles are compounded by the poverty created by our long dependence on the coal industry. In this regard we have our own set of challenges. But I wouldn't trade the people I share life with here in West Virginia. They are beautiful, smart, inventive, and determined. They’d give you the shirt off their backs if you were in need — even if it were their last one. I think the future is bright for the people of this state.
Also, harvest season is upon us. There is nothing in the world quite like witnessing the rich fall colors spread along the rolling hills of Greenbrier county. I was born and raised here. For me, this is home.
The 2016 Adventist Forum Annual Conference, Non-violence and the Atonement, will be held in Silver Spring, Maryland from September 16-18. The keynote speaker is Gregory Boyd (read his Spectrum exclusive interview with Carmen Lau here). Other participants include William Johnsson, Keisha McKenzie, Ronald Osborn, Richard Rice, Charles Scriven and Jean Sheldon. Registration for the event is open now. See the registration page for event details and to register.
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