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Getting in Front of Jesus: The Politics of Progressive Christianity (Part I)

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Parishioners in the church of my childhood often sang the hymn, "I have decided to follow Jesus...No turning back, no turning back." The hymn cautioned disciples about turning away from Jesus. This essay explores the prospect of being disciples by getting in front of Jesus.

To follow a person usually means walking behind that person. Could it be, however, that we follow Jesus most faithfully when we walk ahead of Jesus? I argue for a progressive Christianity that extends the meaning and mission of Jesus into the present and future, rather than promoting an obsession with the past. Defining "progressive Christian" and "prophetic evangelical" (interchangeable terms for me) will facilitate a discussion of the politics of progressive Christianity.

Progressive Christian

According to some accounts, the term "progressive Christian" surfaced in the 1990s and began replacing the more traditional term "liberal Christian." During this period, some Christian leaders wanted to increasingly identify an approach to Christianity that was socially inclusive, conversant with science and culture, and not dogmatically adherent to theological litmus tests such as a belief in the Bible's inerrancy. The emergence of contemporary Christian progressivism was a refusal to make the false choice of "redeeming souls or redeeming the social order."

In the 1990s, many mainline Christian denominations were (and some still are) experiencing a significant decline in membership and cultural influence. The malaise in mainline Christianity occurred as some fundamentalist and conservative Christian communities experienced growth in the United States and across the globe. There are nuances between fundamentalist and conservative Christian denominations. Yet fundamentalist and conservative Christian communities united in the public square to form the "Christian right" -- a network that also included affiliated political, educational, and cultural organizations.

Even the casual observer of culture and politics can identity the considerable influence of the Christian right on public life in the United States during the last 40 years. This influence has extended all the way to the White House. For example, the historian Randall Balmer explores the impact of the Christian right upon the perspectives and decisions of President George W. Bush (God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush).

During the last four decades, it often seemed, at least from the media's standpoint, that all Christians were either fundamentalist or conservative. Yet there are countless persons like me whose understandings of and approaches to Christianity are vastly different from those in the Christian right. We, too, profess to be followers of Jesus. Consequently, we are striving to define and live a type of Christianity that is theologically flexible and hospitable to social diversity. With that broad history in place, let me give further shape to the definition of "progressive Christian."

Progressive Christians believe that sacred truth is not frozen in the ancient past. While respecting the wisdom of the past, progressive Christians are open to the ways truth is moving forward in the present and future for the betterment of the world. Progressive Christianity recognizes that our sacred texts and authoritative traditions must be critically engaged and continually reinterpreted in light of contemporary circumstances to prevent religion from becoming a relic.

As a progressive Christian, I believe that Jesus came to transform social relationships as well as improve people's individual spiritual conditions. I also believe that some of God's noblest aspirations for our world are still being revealed and that our understanding of those divine intentions is being refined. The pastor and theologian James Forbes rightly insists that "Jesus was progressive" and "was open to having his understanding of truth and love broadened" (Whose Gospel? A Concise Guide to Progressive Protestantism, p. 2).

Consequently, those of us who bear Jesus' name should creatively replicate Jesus' progressive stance. Following Jesus requires us to turn our faces as much to the present and future as to the past. The good news of the gospel is progressively unfolding itself and inviting us to proceed with faith and flexibility, instead of an unyielding set of narrowly defined, rigid doctrines.

Prophetic Evangelical

The discussion of the term "progressive Christian" prompts an exploration of another important term, "prophetic evangelical." In the contemporary media, the term "evangelical" has become a synonym for "fundamentalist" or "conservative" Christians. This should not be the case, but often is, since media leaders are tempted by convenient binaries and caricatures of religion.

The term "evangelical" is derived from the Greek word euangelion. The word means "good news" or simply "gospel." Broadly speaking, all Christians should be evangelical in the sense that they are bearing witness to the good news that God's love, justice, and peace are revealed in Jesus Christ. Yet in light of the media's assumption that all evangelicals are fundamentalist or conservative, many progressive Christian leaders are now modifying the word "evangelical" with the adjective "prophetic," thereby creating the term "prophetic evangelical." Prophetic religion involves a willingness to interrupt an unjust status quo so that more people might experience peace and prosperity.

The theologian Peter Heltzel suggests that prophetic evangelicals seek to blend a "vibrant personal piety" with a "political radicalism" that leads to social justice (Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race, and American Politics, p. 17). Prophetic evangelicalism insists that Jesus came to save us not only from our personal sins but also from the systematic sins that oppress neighborhoods and nations. Jesus presented his central theme in social and political terms. He preached and taught consistently about the "kingdom of God" -- God's beloved community where social differences no longer divide and access to God's abundance is equal.

Prophetic evangelicals are deeply devoted to Jesus and, based on that devotion, deeply committed to transforming the social order so that marginalized and mistreated people might enjoy God's abundance. Consequently, as a prophetic evangelical, I believe in Jesus, and I also believe in what Jesus believes in -- justice! The theologian Carol Lakey Hess offers a sweeping definition of justice: "Justice, which includes the defeat of oppressive forces, involves recognizing, engaging, and dispersing power among those who differ from one another" (Liberating Faith Practices: Feminist Practical Theologies in Context, p. 57).

As a son of the African American Church, prophetic evangelicalism is part of my religious DNA. African American evangelical Christians -- who understood that Jesus and justice go hand in hand -- led some of the greatest social reform movements in United States history. For example, the abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights movement were largely the result of the prophetic evangelicalism of African American Christians. These Christians provided a compelling model of how piety and politics can merge to make a nation, and even a world, better. This is why progressive Christians everywhere need to do a better job of recognizing and respecting allies in African American churches, many of whom have never accepted the false choice of "souls or the social order."

Conservative Christianity: A Contradiction in Terms

We have witnessed recently some versions of conservative Christianity that seemingly raise the American flag equal to or higher than the cross of Christ. These versions define patriotism as an unquestioning allegiance to the dominance of American practices and policies. The biblical scholar Obery Hendricks insists that some conservative Christian groups have allowed uncritical patriotism to blunt the prophetic edge of the gospel:

In our time, when many seem to think that Christianity goes hand in hand with right-wing visions of the world, it is important to remember that there has never been a conservative prophet. Prophets have never been called to conserve social orders that have stratified inequities of power and privilege and wealth; prophets have always been called to change them so all can have access to the fullest fruits of life. (The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of the Teachings of Jesus and How They Have Been Corrupted, p. 28)

While prophetic evangelicalism respects the rights and privileges of citizenship, it also recognizes that our citizenship in God's commonwealth necessitates that we pledge allegiance more to the cross than to the flag. When we are more committed to the cross than to the flag, we find the moral courage to be true patriots. Martin Luther King, Jr., that towering prophetic evangelical of the last century, demonstrated how prophetic commitments lead to genuine patriotism.

On April 4, 1967, King delivered his famous address "A Time to Break Silence." He called for an end to the Vietnam War and directly opposed the policies of President Lyndon Johnson, with whom he had collaborated on Civil Rights issues. In that address, King defined for us the true meaning of a "patriot act." A patriot act is not questionable legislation enabling a government to eavesdrop on innocent citizens. A patriot act is clarion proclamation calling a government to do right by its citizens and the citizens of the world. King showed us that patriots love their county enough to tell the truth, even if the price for truth-telling is laying down one's life.

With all due respect to my conservative Christian friends, it seems to me that the terms "conservative" and "Christian" are contradictory. Jesus was not a conservative. He laid down his life in a struggle against the conservative forces of Roman imperialism.

Jesus was a revolutionary. He died not of old age but met a death similar to that of his revolutionary mentor John the Baptist. When Jesus stepped into the Jordan River to be baptized, he declared allegiance to God's revolution, which meant he could not pledge allegiance to Rome's inhumane agenda. Jesus was so committed to his mission of creating communities of love and inclusion that he willingly died for it. For justice, Jesus lived and died. For justice, God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection serves notice that injustice -- and the oppression and death it brings -- will never have the last word.

Consequently, following Jesus does not simply mean repeating what Jesus said. It involves taking the stories and principles of Jesus and of the movement founded in his name and going ahead of him into new and challenging contexts. It also means speaking words of truth to brokers of power advancing unholy agendas.

Reconsidering Biblical Authority: Helping the Bible Behave

By providing greater nuance to discussions of the Bible's authority, progressive Christians can enhance public discussions about religion and justice. I have traveled in recent years to Ghana, England, and South Africa to investigate how biblical interpretation aided colonialism or fueled social liberation. Additionally, I am active in interfaith dialogue. These international and interfaith experiences have reinforced the need to articulate a progressive understanding of the Bible for the sake of cultural harmony.

As an evangelical, I am conversant with the Bible. As a prophetic evangelical, I realize that the Bible's record concerning justice and compassion is ambiguous. A brief discussion of the Bible's role in social oppression is instructive.

The relationship between "colonial" Christianity and unjust biblical interpretation was evident as I visited the slave castles in Ghana where thousands of Africans were enslaved prior to being shipped to the Caribbean and the Americas in the seventeenth through early nineteenth centuries. At the Cape Coast slave castle, the male slave dungeon was underneath the chapel where Europeans were reading and preaching from the Bible. Quite literally, colonial Christianity and its ungodly readings of scripture were propped up by the backs and bones of enslaved Africans.

Furthermore, my interfaith conversations have revealed how exclusive approaches to Christian scripture frustrate interfaith dialogue and cooperation. Colleagues in other religious traditions have indicated to me the problematic nature of certain biblically-sponsored conceptions of Christian evangelism. For example, Christian evangelism that presents Jesus Christ as the only way, the only truth, and the only life perpetuates, even if unintentionally, a genocidal impulse. This exclusive claim can represent the desire to eliminate all "religious others" such as Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews by converting them into Christians.

Interpretations of the Gospel of John 14:6 restricting salvation to Christians come from conceptions of biblical authority that ultimately reject the validity of all other religious traditions and sacred texts. These approaches present an exclusive Jesus who banishes billions of people to hell simply because they encounter the sacred somewhere other than Christianity. On the other hand, the biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine offers a religiously inclusive reading of John 14:6. She creates a humorous, imaginative scene where a narrow Christian protests that Levine, who is Jewish, is saved and admitted into heaven. In order to resolve the issue, Jesus intervenes and responds to the narrow Christian:

If you flip back to the Gospel of Matthew ... you'll notice in chapter 25, at the judgment of the sheep and the goats, that I am not interested in those who say 'Lord, Lord,' but in those who do their best to live a righteous life: feeding the hungry, visiting people in prison ...



[Jesus continues] I am saying that I am the way, not you, not your church, not your reading of John's Gospel, and not the claim of any individual Christian or any particular congregation. I am making the determination, and it is by my grace that anyone gets in, including you. Do you want to argue? (The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, pp. 92-93)

The Bible also has played a significant role in the oppression of women. The theologian Martha Simmons comments on this sad truth:

Women have been written out of history, and their bodies have been made irrelevant and therefore acceptable as sacrifices for slaughter in the Bible and in contemporary churches which do not consider women living images of God with all rights and privileges attendant there to. (Personal Correspondence)

In light of this genocidal impulse against women, the theologian Mercy Oduyoye raises a pertinent question: "What does the gospel, when preached, really do to effect betterment in women's lives" (Mission in the Third Millennium, p. 47)? Furthermore, many Christians use the Bible as a weapon to dehumanize gay and lesbian people and exclude them from full and free participation in the church.

In a pluralistic world, Christians must bear in mind that the Bible has both mediated grace and motivated genocide. Even as Christian ministers stand on sacred ground in pulpits preaching from the Bible, we must confess that the Bible is contested ground. As contested ground, the Bible is saturated by the tragic trail of tears from untold victims of scripture-sponsored violence.

Consequently, Christian leaders must construct notions of biblical authority that acknowledge the Bible's ambiguous history. I offer such an approach in my book Preaching Paul (p. 23):

Many Christians assume that the Bible is supposed to hold us accountable to live the gospel. Is it not possible that God also expects us to hold the Bible accountable -- accountable to being, through our interpretations of it, an ever more genuine witness to the gospel?

Slave castles, concentration camps, and hateful biblical interpretation marginalizing other religions, women, and gay and lesbian people place a question over the Bible: After religiously-motivated violence whose effects continue, what good news does the so-called "Good Book" contain?

Exclusive approaches to scripture that fail to address the oppressive impulses sponsored by, and contained in, scripture will be whitewashed tombs -- antiseptic exteriors masking death and corruption below. On the other hand, nuanced, inclusive understandings of biblical authority openly admit that on certain matters of justice and compassion the Bible misbehaves and is not at its moral best. By forthrightly addressing the Bible's moral miscues and its oppressive statements, progressive Christians can more honestly proclaim the tomb-breaking power of holy hope and inclusive love.