I Am Not a Progressive Christian

Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW), Lutheran Pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints here in Denver, CO was a guest on Fresh Air about a month ago. As a friend pointed out after seeing her speak recently, the theological tradition out of which she forms her ministry is nothing particularly revolutionary. Mainline American Protestant Christianity has preached a flavor of her message since the late 1950s. Her genius is how she says what she says, and that she takes this tradition seriously enough to preach it to people the church has overlooked for decades.

Terry Gross assumes in her line of questioning that NBW must be coming out of a younger theological tradition which has been variously dubbed “Progressive” or “liberal” Christianity. Gross hints at this when she asks,

TG: Are you more concerned about people’s actions than their beliefs.

NBW: I’m not even really concerned about their actions, no.

TG: That wasn’t the answer I was expecting.

Gross wasn’t expecting this, because she assumes NBW, as a tattooed, female, swearing pastor preaching to a largely LGBTQ congregation, must also therefore preach about being “radical” and changing the world. But NBW responds:

I don’t monitor people’s behavior, let’s put it that way. So much of Christianity has become about like sort of monitoring behavior and so far it has failed to work as a strategy for making people better… On some level Christianity became about monitoring people’s behavior… like a sin management program. And that almost always fails and often backfires.

To anyone paying attention to American culture, language about sin management systems will bring to mind conservative Christian moralism, especially as it relates to control over what people choose to do with their genitals. NBW speaks to this. But hidden here is also the flip side of the same coin: Progressive Christianity.

Much of Progressive Christianity has defined itself in narrow terms largely interested in the behavior of it's participants. In order to be a "Jesus Follower," and not a mere "religious Christian" (see my posts on the Rohr meme going around 1 and 2) adherents must, for instance: buy local, buy organic, vote Democrat, support full LGBT inclusion, and buy into a community supported agriculture co-op. Personally I'm not against any of these. Indeed, I support them. But I do not support them as prerequisites for full inclusion in the body of Christ.

The Body of Christ—the Church universal and eternal—is a rocketship propelled by the fire of the Holy Spirit. While it may hold a few people inside it, saints and giants of the faith, the fire that springs forth from it is all-consuming, gathering all people, conservative and progressive, all creation, organic and inorganic toward it as it streaks toward heaven. It claims everything for itself, it is irresistible and uncontrollable. As NBW puts it:

My job is to point to Christ and preach the gospel and to remind people that they are absolutely loved and that their identity is based in something other than the categories of late stage capitalism, for instance. That they are named and claimed by god and that this is an identity is more foundational than any of the others and that their completely forgiven and all of their mess ups are not more powerful than gods mercy and God’s ability to redeem us and bring good out of bad… I think when people hear this over and over they become free.

The job of a pastor, of our individual churches, is to appear before everyone and point to the rocketship and stand in awe and exclaim with joy, "Look!"

Advent3, 2014

This post is late, I know. Advent4 is right around the corner and here I am still on Advent3. Like any good American, I'm too busy to really observe Advent for real. So I write blog posts instead.

Sticking with Isaiah[^1] (as I have in my two previous posts in this series[^2]) brings us to hope, which is appropriate because that's what Advent is. Garland instead of ashes, gladness instead of mourning. These are hoped for in the midst of Advent. And implicit in the Christian liturgical observation is that the child born on Christmas is the garland, the gladness, the mantel of praise. Except right now I can't help but think ahead to Good Friday.

When it was announced that there would be no indictment for the death—ruled a homicide by the New York City Medical Investigator—of Eric Garner at the hands of an NYPD officer, people took to Facebook and Twitter to mourn. Many quoted scripture. Many of them quoted scripture from Good Friday, the day marking Jesus' death on the cross. Advent's hope couldn't bear the burden of suffering. Only the cross could do that.

Hope is a work of love. It takes energy and effort to hope, especially in the midst of suffering. But as we hope for the child to deliver garland, gladness, and praise, we do well to remember that his life was not without ashes, mourning, and perhaps even, at times, faint spirit. We remember this not to increase the burden of suffering in the face of hope, but to take full stock of the world the Child enters.

If we hope only for the bright, nostalgic kitsch of nativity scenes, Santa, and holiday cards, we hope for an empty nothing. We deny the full power of the claim that the divine has entered the world in a barn, as the son of an oppressed people yearning for freedom, who truly realized the weight of the world, and who preached gladness but ultimately experienced pain.

The Body Politick

On Monday, the Supreme Court of the Freedom States of Freedom ruled on a highly contentious case. Not contentious because of facts, but because of beliefs that have root in non-facts. You know, opinions. The court ruled 5-4 to allow businesses held closely (like the handful of family members that run Hobby Lobby) to deny certain healthcare coverage if it offends their religious sensibilities. Heaven forbid. No, really; HEAVEN FORBIDS IT.

What we are left with is a stunning new landscape where corporations can have religious identity and individual women are now beholden to those corporate beliefs to navigate their sexual and reproductive healthcare. Now, these are both massive issues that come together in a terrible chaotic mess in this one case. If you want some good summaries of the issue, in case you're not familiar with the ruling or its possible implications, I invite you to read this comprehensive New York Times piece that covers the issue as well as the majority and dissenting opinions. If you want to hear more about the economic and governmental impact of changing corporate/business law, I encourage you to ask a business professor or a tax lawyer. They could help you more than I. If you want to hear more about the social terror that is forcing women seeking gainful employment to adopt the specific and restrictive religious beliefs of their boss which directly impact their bodies, maybe ask a woman. Like, any woman. I'm no expert on these facets of the case, but what I can speak to is the idea of Christianity that's supposedly so important to companies like Hobby Lobby. Without these professions of belief, there wouldn't be a case. So let's briefly look at how that belief works, and just how Christian it is.

Well, the Bible Says…

Stop. No it doesn't. Whatever you were about to say, there's a betting chance it's wrong. Unless you were about to finish with "that we should treat most women as lesser than men by governing their bodies and micromanaging their place in the community" then you're not about to make the point you think you are. The Bible doesn't have anything to say about IUDs or the Plan B pill. And why should it, when the science of the day thought everything needed for a baby was in sperm? Remember, women didn't hold that kind of power for biblical authors.

"But, but, in Jeremiah…" Nope. Calling story, not a biology lesson. Stop it.

You know what it does say? "When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage but no other injury occurs, then the guilty party will be fined what the woman's husband demands, as negotiated with the judges." [^1] That's in our sacred text, so we have to deal with it. This line of thinking doesn't attribute rights to the fetus or to the woman. It attributes rights to male decision as it regards property. So if we as a society are willing to say that viewing women as property is wrong, we can't ignore the second piece, which is that what's going on in a woman's body is now her business. Jesus doesn't say anything about it, which makes it even harder for a legitimate follower of Christ to stake his or her moral and social focus on this particular issue. Gotta find something to focus on that's not laying down all your possessions to follow Christ by helping the poor and caring for your enemies, though, amiright?!

What's going on so far doesn't have much to do with the Bible. Sorry. But because Christianity in America is an extra-biblical activity, maybe one could argue that Christian values as they've developed need religious protection, too. So, how much of what Hobby Lobby wants and what the court delivered are Christian, even in a looser sense of the word?


Christian belief has a lot to do with the body. A LOT. It's a religion of incarnation and bodily resurrection, and so when someone wants to argue about the body as it applies to Christian religious thinking, there's more than enough to talk about. The problem is, the religious protections set by the SCOTUS ruling have nothing to do with Christian doctrine.

There's some mind-boggling hypocrisy[^2] at work. For Hobby Lobby and other "pro-life" advocates, the whole point of being against birth control in all or specific forms is a focus on "personhood." Like, you could be killing a "person" with the Plan B pill (even though there's no respected evidence to prove anything of the sort; though a young gentleman did try to tell me on Facebook that the Plan B pill stopped fertilized embryos from attaching in fertilized lizards. Don't say things like that unless you want people to laugh at you. We do lots of things to lab mice, too, without basing medical and social law on them.) And yet the ruling dilutes the meaning of personhood by attributing personal protections to corporations. Biblically speaking, affording a non-human entity human religious identity is idolatrous. The whole reason we matter so much in the first place (in strictly religious terms, that is) is because we're made in the image of God. We are supposed to be infused with the light of the Divine. Right into our body place!

What this means is that, without a body, it's not Christian. Christ is Christ because he's God incarnate, in a body. And he's got a lot of groupies because his body defeated death, because it got up and left the tomb. It's about the body. That's why music isn't Christian, there's no such thing as a Christian novel, and there's sure as hell no such thing as a Christian business. Though if a business' entire goal was to make a billion dollars ethically only so it could cash out the stocks, empty the vaults, shutter the windows, and lock the doors before handing over that billion dollars to the poor, I'd at least have to think about it. Call me when that happens.

That being said, for the religious person all things are religious; your business practices, your artistic expressions, and your relationships are all tied to how you live your life through faith. But that doesn't make the practices or the fruits of those expressions intrinsically religious. They are born of belief and guided by our bodily actions. The point is, being a Christian means following Christ with your mind, body, and heart. A corporation, by definition, doesn't have those things. It's not a person, as much as previous SCOTUS rulings like Citizens United would have you believe. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, says this:

"As we will show, Congress provided protection for people like the Hahns and Greens by employing a familiar legal fiction: It included corporations within RFRA’s definition of “persons.” But it is important to keep in mind that the purpose of this fiction is to provide protection for human beings. A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends. An established body of law specifies the rights and obligations of the people (including shareholders, officers, and employees) who are associated with a corporation in one way or another. When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people." [^3]

That's some high-class legal BS right there. In any case, as with Citizens United, corporations are viewed as persons, though their structure, identity, and very purpose is analogous to what it means to be a Christian. But if they're not Christian, what are they? As Logan said to me yesterday,

"'Corpus' means body. But a corporation has no body. Is beholden to no one. It exists for nothing but the accumulation of capital, which is itself formless. A corporation's only goal is to escape reality through accumulation of wealth (rather than knowledge/gnosis). And the Supreme Court right now calls that a person."

It's Gnosticism, and it flies in the face of incarnation. However hypocritical the basis, that doesn't mean it can't be afforded religious protections under the current Religious Freedom Restoration Act as the five justices interpreted it. As Eric Posner, a University of Chicago Law Professor puts it, "My initial reaction is that Alito’s legal argument is stronger, but that the law—as now interpreted—is pretty dumb."[^4]

I only partially agree. The law is dumb, and so is the ruling. Especially since the case is founded on a religious objection to an opinion about what certain birth control options do, even when they don't in fact, and this opinion is fueled by religious belief which calls itself Christian but isn't. So Hobby Lobby thinks they're being Christian, the SCOTUS protects their Gnostic identity, and all is right with the world because Jesus wins the sportsball game. Now every Christian business can tell their employees how to love Jesus best (while being productive money-makers, of course). It's a big win for the economic sector, which is Christian. Hmm? What did you say?

Dammit, There are Non-Christian Businesses?!

You're telling me that a closely-held business of any religion can now use this avenue to impose religious restrictions on their workers (i.e., probably just the women)? I had no idea!

While many defenders of the recent decision are quick to point out that Hobby Lobby still supports multiple types of contraception while only rejecting four that they believe are abortifacients, that doesn't mean that another business couldn't "believe" that all types are abortifacients and that their rejection of such methods should also be protected on the basis of religious freedom with the argument of unreasonable tax burden. As Justice Ginsberg noted in her dissent,

"Would the exemption the Court holds RFRA demands for employers with religiously grounded objections to the use of certain contraceptives extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations (Christian Scientists, among others)?"[^5]

Ultimately, this is a decision that does nothing for healthy religious practice in our society and does a whole lot for corporate tax structure. It's a messy business, and it has nothing to do with Christianity. You know what does have something to do with Christianity? Grace. Grace for those who don't live lives like you. Grace for those who live life in the body as you do. Grace for those with decisions to make regarding their own health, identity, and beliefs. A truly Christian business, if such a thing could exist, would recognize that first and foremost. Grace lets us participate in incarnation, which means we, each person, must be the caretaker and decision-maker when it comes to bodily decisions. Grace gives us room to question and believe, which means we are not to be kept by another from seeking what is true and best for what we have been blessedly given. And most of all, grace leaves judgement up to the one from whom grace comes.

Grace and Christian life lived and practiced bodily, daily, looks like loving people even when you don't want to. Tough. Grace isn't easy, but it's not about you. If you're going to call yourself a Christian, remember this: the love of Christ, freely given to you, is to be freely given to others in the name of Christ. Controlling a woman and what she does with her body, especially in the name of her own health, doesn't look like that. Hating others and fighting to control them because they believe what I just said isn't that either. Christianity may be about life, Hobby Lobby, but not the kind you fought for.

Grace and peace to us all.