Reflecting on what I mean when I claim for myself the name Progressive Christian*
According to a Gallup poll released this month, 54 percent of adults nationally are unsure of what the word “progressive” means. Add the word Christian after it, and I'm sure people become even more confused. These past eight weeks I have been working through what it means to be a progressive Christian with six other Beatitudes fellows in DC. Defining progressive Christianity is perhaps an impossible task but I am going to explore here what I mean when I claim that name as my own.
Progressive Christianity is, as I understand it, a movement of the Spirit. It is a radical renewal that points us back to our roots (radical) to better seek the kindom of God. The vision of the kindom on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10), Jesus Christ's call to live abundantly (John 10:10), seeking the shalom of the city (Jeremiah 29:7)--- this, for me, is what drives progressive Christianity. We hold onto the idea that we as Christians are called to work within this world for social change.
This radical vision is a rejection of the Christian voice that has within my lifetime been the primary voice in the USA--- that of the religious right. The religious right is a criminal distortion of the Christian faith in so many ways because it has become merely a way to anchor USAmerican imperial, white, male, middle and upper class hegemony rather than a movement that follows the teachings of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. I reject the idea that salvation is only individual, or the idea that being a Christian is defined by opposition to abortion and non-normative sexuality and a blind support of free market capitalism. I claim the name progressive Christian in part to separate myself from this blasphemy.
Progressive Christianity as a movement really came out of the horror of the 2004 election. People of faith woke up and realized that the outcome of the election had been dominated by voices of the religious right--- voices that did not speak for so many of us. This is when organizations like Faith in Public Life and the Beatitudes Society emerged to work together to voice this opposition to the nationalism, militarism, racism, and materialism of the religious right. It was a revival, God's answer to our plea: “Won't you revive us again, so that your people can rejoice in you?” (Psalm 85:6).
Though there is still much to do, the tide has turned. Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, a leading voice for progressive Christians points out that the religious right peaked in 2004, but now the religious right has lost its children because so many young folks are more interested in reclaiming the social justice in the gospel message than participating in the culture wars over abortion and sexuality.
This reclamation of the gospel message of social justice is not, for me, centered on favorite lefty scriptural passages like the Lukan blessings and woes 6: 20-26 (the more radical version of the Beatitudes), but rather on the greatest commandments described in Matthew 22:37-39.
Within these two commandments is a threefold love of God, self, and neighbor that is central to living the kindom vision of the Gospel. The Phoenix Affirmations are a beautiful progressive creed of sorts that are organized according to the greatest commandments. I will highlight three of these affirmations to illustrate:
Loving God includes: Celebrating the God whose Spirit pervades and whose glory is reflected in all of God's Creation, including the earth and its ecosystems, the sacred and secular, the Christian and non-Christian, the human and non-human. (Affirmation 3)
We live in a disconnected culture in which we are often blind to the ways in which God is manifest in everything around us. Progressive Christianity recognizes God’s movement among us, even in spaces like the environment that have been devalued in the evolution of Christian tradition.
Loving our neighbor includes: Standing, as Jesus does, with the outcast and oppressed, the denigrated and afflicted, seeking peace and justice with or without the support of others. (Affirmation 6)
Our God is the God of the oppressed. We see that over and over throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Progressive Christianity puts this revelation back into the definition of what it means to follow Jesus Christ.
Loving ourselves includes: Claiming the sacredness of both our minds and our hearts, recognizing that faith and science, doubt and belief serve the pursuit of truth. (Affirmation 10)
Progressive Christianity is a movement that does not demand compartmentalization of body and spirit in order to participate! Particularly moving to me here is the mention of doubt. When I claim the name progressive Christian, I am acknowledging that I doubt. We have grown up being told that doubt is negative, but I believe that the moment you stop doubting, you have let a vital revelation slip through your fingers.
My exploration of what I mean when I talk about progressive Christianity is constantly evolving. My own understanding of progressive Christianity is that it is (a) movement. But what I have written today is my first attempt to put it to paper. I am always looking for new language through which to understand my relationship with God, so please engage me here.
I want to end with James Cone’s definition of being a Christian from God of the Oppressed because I think it says hauntingly what I am stumbling to find my own language to say here.
All scripture passages are quoted from The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, Priests for Equality (Sheed and Ward 2007). The last quotation comes from James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (Harper San Francisco 1975), 207.
Beatitudes Fellow at Faith in Public Life. The Beatitudes Society is a progressive Christian resource center for and network of faith leaders that offers seminarians like me internships at key national social change organizations. Faith in Public Life is one of those organizations, focusing on "advancing faith in the public square as a positive and unifying force for justice, compassion and the common good," a lot of which is in making the progressive faith voice audible in the media. I believe God has called me to parish ministry, yet I felt strongly that I needed experience outside of parish ministry if I want to be an effective pastor working for a just world. I have not been disappointed with this decision.
This is my final reflection on this experience and I dedicate it (yes, I know that sounds hokey, but this reflection comes from so many of our discussions this summer) to the six other DC Beatitudes Fellows of 2010.