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Brad R. Braxton

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

Posted: 08/16/10 07:45 AM ET

How can progressive Christians "get in front" of Jesus by using the gospel forward to address pressing social dilemmas? In response to this question, I will discuss two moments from Jesus' story and "remix" them. A remix occurs when fresh elements are introduced into an old framework, thereby creating a new story.

The Birth of Jesus: A Progressive Remix

According to the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born in a social context where a cruel king worked on behalf of Rome to ensure Caesar's sovereignty. After learning of Jesus' birth, King Herod plots to kill Jesus. An angel warns Joseph of Herod's wicked intentions. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus become immigrants, fleeing the harsh conditions of their homeland to secure safety and a better future in Egypt. Unable to locate Jesus, Herod sends a decree to murder all children in and around Bethlehem who are two years old and under.

Every Christmas, Christians look back to the birth of Jesus. We even replicate the sentimental parts of the story with pageants and live nativity scenes. My progressive remix focuses on the more tragic elements of the story. Instead of looking back and adoring the "sweet little Jesus boy" in the manger, the story can be a launching pad for prophetic discipleship and twenty-first-century social justice activism.

Here is the remix: let progressive Christian communities insist that President Obama and Congress enact just and humane immigration reform. The story of Jesus might have been different if Joseph and Mary had been sent back to Israel from Egypt because they were considered "undocumented workers," or worse, "illegal aliens." There are many Latino, African, and Asian "Marys" and "Josephs" who are returned to deathly contexts because of U.S. immigration laws. U.S. immigration laws should protect and preserve families, especially those already victimized by economic and social oppression resulting from policies benefiting the United States.

Furthermore, progressive Christian communities should insist that our nation become serious about reducing youth violence. How can we read about the innocent children slaughtered in Bethlehem and not immediately think about the innocent children being slaughtered in our cities? In the ancient world, Jesus escaped death as a child because he had resourceful parents with a "holy hookup." But what about those parents in Bethlehem who lacked resources to escape? And what about the countless contemporary parents who lack the means and influence to live in well-policed neighborhoods with safe schools?

In Chicago, hundreds of young people are constant victims of gun violence. How can the United States posture as a leader of peace when we can't even ensure the safety of children in our schools and neighborhoods? If we can raise money and public interest in a failed attempt to bring the 2016 Summer Olympics to Chicago, we can raise money and public interest to fund serious violence prevention measures in Chicago and across the country.

Additionally, in order to prevent the further massacre of young people, progressive Christians must persuade President Obama and Congress to stop the deluge of automatic weapons that floods the streets of our country. We send brave men and women to fight Al Qaeda thousands of miles away but are scared to take on the National Rifle Association right across the Potomac River. By going beyond the story of Jesus' birth, we faithfully follow Jesus into areas of social engagement concerning immigration, violence prevention, and gun reform.

The Death of Jesus: A Progressive Remix

Jesus, a young, innocent African-Asiatic Jew, was sent to the Roman death chamber on trumped-up charges. A brown brother in his thirties wrongly executed by the state -- which century are we talking about, the first or the twenty-first? Indeed, twenty centuries after Jesus' execution, injustices abound and continue to sentence other young, innocent people to death, whether by lethal injection or suffocating poverty. In the name of a just God, this must stop.

Here is the remix: let progressive Christian communities work tirelessly to abolish the death penalty in the United States. The faulty evidence used to send so many persons to death row should be clear proof of the serious problems with our penal system and the death penalty. A society that supports violent retribution and misnames it "justice" launches an assault against civility and nonviolent restoration. Even as our society maintains its outrage at homicide, social activists Laura Magnani and Harmon Wray remind us of the dangers of revenge:

Our vengeance-soaked culture is in desperate need of being called to higher moral and spiritual ground ... By giving in to the appetite for revenge, our death-penalty system encourages media, politicians, prosecutors, and others to appeal to what is arguably the most primitive strain in humanity. (Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System, p. 72)

The remix also can transform Christian liturgical practice. For instance, Holy Communion, a sacrament commemorating Jesus' death, can promote progressive social justice ministry. Holy Communion is a "two-faced" ritual. One face is turned to Jesus' suffering in the past and the other to Jesus' return in the future. Many churches remain fixated on the past face. Holy Communion should engender hope that the Lord will return to a world no longer tyrannized by inequality, injustice, and death. The words spoken over the Communion bread -- "take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you" -- must take us beyond Jesus in the Upper Room with his disciples to the rooms and shelters where people struggle with hunger every day.

Next to our Communion tables, let there be other tables full of donated food items that congregants can deliver to needy persons immediately after worship services. Additionally, as an extension of Holy Communion, congregations should collaborate to send not just food but also farming equipment to communities in developing countries to enable them to produce their own food more effectively. Holy Communion liturgies also should include practical ways for congregants to lobby local, state, and federal officials for public policies, enabling more equitable food distribution. Holy Communion is a call to holy action. The theologians Andrea Bieler and Luise Schottroff write:

Ending hunger in our lifetime is perhaps the largest political conundrum we face ... The denial of access to food for everyone ... is the biggest challenge for a [Holy Communion] practice that fosters the eschatological imagination that all can be fed. (The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread, and Resurrection, p. 74)

Similarly, the words spoken over the Communion cup -- "drink from it, for this is the blood of the covenant" -- must move us beyond the chalice in the sanctuary to the challenge in the streets of the "blood issue" decimating the world: HIV/AIDS. When I preside now at Holy Communion as an ordained minister, I tell congregants that the "body of Christ" -- from Harlem to Hong Kong -- has AIDS. Therefore, persons drinking from the Communion cup symbolizing Christ's blood will also now have AIDS. Until the disease is eradicated, we are all affected and infected by this global pandemic. If Jesus' blood is really a lifesaver, we who "drink" it must extend compassion and solidarity to persons facing physical and social death as a result of their blood. By going beyond the story of Jesus' death, we faithfully follow Jesus into areas of social engagement concerning hunger and HIV/AIDS.

Jesus' Advance Team

Jesus' stories are recorded in ancient scripture. Yet progressive Christians refuse to lock Jesus in the prison of the past. The meaning and mission of Jesus continue to be revealed and require us to seek new understandings and partnerships.

The theologian Jürgen Moltman paints an inviting picture of the newness and hope of progressive Christianity:

We want to experience the new creations of God's Spirit in other cultures ... Wherever we proclaim God's kingdom, God's people gather together ... and develop their own forms of belief and worship. The new creation is as rainbow-hued and diversified as creation at the beginning. (Jesus Christ for Today's World, p. 147)

Calling us to get in front of him, Jesus says to contemporary followers, "You are my advance team. Just like John the Baptist prepared the way for me in the first century, you must now prepare the way for me in the twenty-first century. If you go ahead of me embodying restorative justice and inclusive love, people might just be ready when the commonwealth of God fully and finally arrives."