“He has shown you, O Man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to seek justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly before your God?” Micah 6:8
To my fellow Christians:
I have watched some things over the last two weeks, and I’ve got some concerns. Most of the time, my concerns are based around what we would call “conservative Christians”. However, these past two weeks have led me to have concerns about the other end of the theological spectrum.
I’m talking about “progressive Christians”, specifically “smug progressive Christians.”
Two incidents stand out in my mind that have led me to this concern: the public revelations about Josh Duggar’s sexual assault of several young women as a teenager, and the flooding that is taking place across Texas.
These two incidents may not seem to have much in common at first glance, but they served to highlight a growing trend in progressive Christianity that has me quite concerned.
I’ll start with the flooding in Texas, because the Josh Duggar Scandal has taken up quite a bit of space on the Internet and Progressive Christian Blogosphere. Some of you know that I am a Native Son of Texas. I’ve had quite a bit to say about my home state, particularly about its politics, but I have always spoken as someone who loves the people of Texas deeply. Most of my family still resides there. Some of my best friends reside there. There’s something about Texas that stays in your blood, even with its myriad flaws. Though it has some places that are racist, homophobic, sexist and awful, there are many more places of great diversity, where inclusiveness is the norm, not the exception. Though the political system in Texas is as dysfunctional as they come – and has become far more toxic than I remember – the people of Texas are, on the whole, friendly, hospitable and accommodating.
So, when I have seen the pages of my progressive Christian friends flooded with memes about the hypocrisy of Texas asking for federal aid, it hurts my heart a little. When I have a progressive Christian friend who thinks that God is punishing Texas for all its racism and homophobia, it causes me a great deal of pain. My hometown has been hit the hardest with the flooding, and many people in already struggling communities in Texas are losing their lives, livelihoods and homes because of the natural disasters occurring in their state. This should be a time for mercy and compassion, and I have seen far too much smugness and judgment from the progressive corner of the ring.
The Josh Duggar Scandal is another example. While many progressive Christian voices have used the publicity as an opportunity to bring attention to the larger plight of victims of sexual abuse, the culture of silence that permeates much of the church when it comes to sexual abuse, and the inherent dangers of extreme purity culture… many others have been content to dance on the grave of the Duggars’ credibility. I know the dangers of this; I have probably fallen prey to it myself, whatever my intentions. And anyone in the public arena who uses their influence to judge is in danger of being judged by the same standards. But progressives are meant to be people who eschew judgment in favor of mercy. We are meant to be those who champion a theology of grace, rather than public sacrifice and scapegoating.
And, so, I have composed a small list of areas in which I think that we have lost our way as “progressive” Christians. This is not a comprehensive list, by any means, nor is it to be taken as authoritative. I have, on occasion, had “thus saith the Lord” moments, but I don’t think this is one of them.
1) We have tied ourselves as strongly to a political ideology as conservatives have.
We criticize conservative politicians and conservative churches for using Jesus as a kind of mascot for their “brand.” But, I have noticed over my time in the “progressive” Christian movement that we are as guilty of this as any conservative. Many bloggers will demonize men like Ted Cruz, while at the same time extolling the virtues of someone like Hillary Clinton. The truth is that neither of these people looks like Jesus. Ted Cruz might be a very charitable person in private, even though he publicly criticizes the poor and votes against social welfare programs. Hillary Clinton might care about the poor deeply, even while being as mired in the Military-Industrial Complex and the culture of warfare as the most hawkish conservative.
It’s true that one side of the aisle is more in line with the social values of Jesus, but is it possible that the other side of the aisle has more in common with the message of personal piety that was just as important to Jesus? Is it possible that neither major political movement in America is “more in line” with Jesus than the other?
The problem with the entire idea of “Christianity as political ideology” is that it allows us to harshly criticize one side for its failures, while conveniently ignoring the faults of the other. I’ve talked often about our need to get the church out of politics, and I’ve never seen the need more strongly than I do right now.
2) We seek judgment, instead of justice.
We talk a great deal about social justice in progressive circles, but I’m not sure that we’re really seeking it. I’m not even sure that we know what justice would look like. Justice is a balancing of the scales, a way of restoration – between God and mankind, between people – but we have made it into a form of judgment. When things happen like the uprising in Baltimore, we are far too quick to seek out who is at fault, and not nearly quick enough to seek restoration. There is a need for accountability, certainly, but there is also a difference between accountability and blame. One seeks understanding, the other seeks punishment. If all that we seek is for the guilty to be punished, then we are not seeking justice. We are seeking vengeance and retribution. The guilty need to understand why they are guilty. The guilty need to make peace with those they have wronged. That doesn’t happen when we are all shouting for crucifixion.
3) We don’t recognize that we are what is wrong with the world.
I’ve seen so many memes on the Internet that say things like “If you think that <this> is more important than <this>, then you are what is wrong with the world.” Part of following Jesus is acknowledging that we are all what is wrong with the world. The ones who listened raptly to Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount, the ones who cheered Him when He entered Jerusalem, were the same ones who cried out “Release Barrabas!” when Pilate gave them the option. Even the ones who followed Jesus closely, the ones who swore that they would die with Him, ran away and hid when He surrendered to the authorities. This is why their joy at seeing Jesus alive again after the Resurrection was tinged with shame: they recognized that they were no better, no more loyal, no more faithful than the crowds who had called for His death.
We don’t like this idea in “progressive” Christianity. We don’t like the idea that we are just as guilty of the wrongs in the world as “they” are. Too often, we find ourselves praying loudly, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like these other Christians!” rather than, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” We don’t like this idea, because it might mean that the “conservatives” are right, that we really do need a Savior, rather than just a great moral philosopher. It might mean that following the Way means a total life change, not just a change of political party.
4) We don’t do grace very well.
We want grace for the poor, for the drug addict, for the pedophile, for the Muslim, for the atheist… we want grace for everyone except conservatives. We are just as quick to kick people out of the church as the staunchest “conservative”, even if the people that we want to kick out are different from the ones that they do. We don’t have grace for the hateful homophobe, or for the rampant racist. We don’t have grace for the warmongers or the rich young rulers of our time. We don’t have grace for the Ted Cruzes, the Rick Santorum, the Josh Duggars. We claim that we would have grace if they would just see the error of their ways, but would we really? Or would we rub their nose in the giant pile of crap, wag our finger and say, “Look at what you did!” There are a lot of verses that we like to quote, but the one that we might need to meditate on is the one that Jesus said as He was dying, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
5) We don’t walk humbly before God.
We like to talk a lot about our “prophetic witness”, but we sometimes fail to remember one of the most important traits of a prophet: humility. When Elijah called fire down on the mountain, he didn’t lift his nose into the air and smile smugly at all the false prophets. He collapsed on top of a mountain, and begged God to let him die. His grief at the need for his “prophetic witness” was so great that he could not bear the burden, couldn’t even eat, had to be fed by birds. Jeremiah spent as much time weeping as he did proclaiming the message of repentance. Hosea married a prostitute to demonstrate God’s love to an unfaithful people.
You know who wasn’t a humble prophet? Jonah. Jonah refused to carry God’s message to Ninevah out of fear and disdain… and God humbled him. Then, when Jonah carried the message of repentance to Ninevah, and the people repented… Jonah got angry. Why would God spare those “sinners”? Didn’t God know what evil they had done?
Jonah forgot what we have forgotten: that we are all wandering along the Way, that not a one of us is better or more righteous than the other, that “walking humbly before God” means acknowledging that the message of repentance can come to you as easily as it can come from you.
So, my fellow Christians, can I implore you to put away your swords? Can I humbly suggest that we cease drawing battle lines between each other, and start trying to make peace with one another? Can we seek restoration instead of retribution? Can we stop dancing on the graves of our enemies, and start mourning with those who mourn?
Or, will we continue our Great Theological War, and watch our entire movement become a casualty?
I remain humbly yours,
Michael Brian Woywood