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!"

The Reactionary Christ

The Starbucks Christmas coffeecup fiasco:

Apparently there are no liberal or conservative Christians in America, only reactionary Christians. Without fail, when public awareness turns its gaze upon the next feast day of the Christian liturgical calendar (except Pentecost, because no one knows what it is), this or that wacky corner of American Christianity will complain about some such nonsense and then it is open season for the reactions.

As a friend put it recently, we are now encountering fourth-level meta reactions: “outrage about the outrage about the outrage.” Every year some piece of nothing is presented as the foundation for quickly building a moralistic platform out of plywood and glue. This year it is Starbucks’ stupid red cups. In response, the holy, morally pure objects of the True Meaning of Christmas are thrust into social media: foster children, refugees, homeless people, poor nations, real religious persecution, the environment, Syria, something about Advent. Never you mind that people spouting these moralist tropes have little to no actual encounter with any of the people they're talking about. Liberal reactionaries need only wait as their conservative brethren dutifully choose the outrage du jour for the season.

Worse, news outlets that pass along the story appear to be reporting on a phenomenon that has no existence outside of one man's viral video and the echoing likes and shares of the unthinking masses. The moderately liberal moralist response to these kinds of non-stories shows the utter lack of politics among liberals. Far from building a constructive political foundation addressing the realities of life in America, liberals are in a constant state of reaction—reacting even to essentially fabricated movements on the right. As for conservatives, their response to this liberal cacophony is to double down on a felt sense of persecution and injustice that allows these kinds of stories to flourish in the first place.

This would merely be a disappointing trifle if reactionary politics were not a hair's breadth from fundamentalist politics. The right and left feeding off each other in the way described above cannot help but devolve into feuding fundamentalisms, each spouting its own doctrinaire moralistic truisms and working to dehumanize and silence its opposition.

What is required is a politics of reconciliation and love wherein disparate individuals are encouraged to hold political tension together and work through problems based not on whatever common wisdom they bring to the table with them, but through encounter of each other and the world with eyes unburdened by fear, hatred, loss, and the will to power.

This is the politics of the cross.

Full On, Balls to the Wall, Pedal to the Metal, Mind-Bending Mystery

Mark Sandlin of The Christian Left has a bio on Time.com that is careful to mention he's from the South. He's a bonafide, capital 'S' Southerner from the South. The American South is where I'm assuming he's from. Except, you know, without all the baggage.

Well, Flannery O'Connor is also from the capital 'S' South and one of her stories was the subject of my last post. Obviously Sandlin didn't read it, because if he had he probably wouldn't have written this.[^1]

Collectively we need to more closely follow the lead of Jesus and lovingly confronting [sic] those who want to turn the Prince of Peace into a tool for dividing and marginalizing. Every time anyone tries to exclude a group of people they dislike in the name of the Great Shepherd, we must pronounce the radical inclusion of a loving God.

I mean that's cool. I get what he's saying. I agree that there's a lot about American Christianity that's distasteful. Sandlin isn't exactly using Jesus to divide and marginalize. But he clearly knows who's a sheep and who's a goat,[^2] who's on the top rail and who's on the bottom, and he just wants to lovingly confront people with that, you know?

That's what Christianity is about, right?

Maybe Sandlin appreciates that Christian grace is a full on, balls to the wall, pedal to the metal, mind-bending mystery. But judging by this article published by Time, I don't think he appreciates it very well. For O'Connor—and increasingly for me, as well—grace goes beyond the eschatological vision of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. We can expect our virtues as well as our failings to be burned away by the mystery of grace.[^3] How then will we tell the sheep from the goats?

We are free to define Christianity as Left as opposed to Right, Progressive as opposed to Conservative, Protestant as opposed to Catholic (as opposed to Orthodox). But I have to believe that we would do better to define it by grace and the paradox of faith.

But hey, I'm probably just jealous that Time isn't publishing any of my own half-baked ramblings.

*[^1]: I have a very high opinion of myself. *[^2]: Matthew 25:31-46 *[^3]: Talk about getting rid of baggage.