Reuniting the Material and the Spiritual, Part 3

Reuniting the Material and the Spiritual, Part 3 May 23, 2024



Recently I have been reminded of what Fredrick Douglass wrote about the fruit of these kinds of divisions. If we see the ethics and teachings of the Jesus story as only applying to our spiritual dimensions and not also to our material existence, we can too often slide into contradictions between what we believe spiritually and what we practice materially.

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(Read this series from the beginning at Part 1 and Part 2.)

In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Douglass writes:

“Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.” I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which everywhere surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence.” (Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.)

Some may deem Douglass’ experience an extreme example of the disconnect between material and spiritual worlds. I can’t help but think of the Inquisition, the Crusades, colonial Christianity’s treatment of Indigenous populations, and more. Even today, many Christians have an impossible time applying even the simplest golden rule ethic to the United States’ predatory capitalist economic system. We too distinguish between the spiritual and material.

But what would happen if we took seriously the Jewish Jesus of the synoptic gospels who saw the Divine as concerned about our material everyday lives materially and how his society was shaped to harm those on its margins. This Jesus didn’t traverse the countryside of Galilee to get people to say a special prayer so they could spiritually escape now and experience postmortem bliss later. The synoptic Jesus worked to bring about justice as a manifestation of God’s will being done, “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). This Jesus sought to affect people’s physical realities as a source of healing, life, and liberation, and modeled salvation as relating to one’s spiritual wellbeing and material liberation as well.  

The Jesus we see in the other gospels did not separate the spiritual from the fleshly or material. He taught his followers how to navigate their material world by loving their neighbor as a part of themselves (Luke 10:25-37) and relating to those our societies deems “the least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46). The Jesus of the synoptics announces the arrival of the reign of God in our material world and invites all to be a part of it. He rights injustice, ends oppression, and offers healing alternatives to violence. This Jewish Jesus did not separate the spiritual and material to offer a path of escape from the material world around us. Rather he taught his followers how to lean into the material world in life-giving ways, to bring healing to themselves and those around them, and to shape our material world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all. 


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About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action, and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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