Needed: A progressive Christianity to restore the nation’s civic virtues

By Tom Ehrich, Religion News Service, Washington Post,  November 11, 2014

Election 2014: Something important has just happened. Big money bought an election. Fear prevailed over confidence and loathing over reason. The majority chose not to vote, allowing a passionate minority — older, whiter — to change the balance of power. Attack ads drowned out issues. A broken political system tolerated cheating and bullying.

Most worrisome is the absence of the virtues that enable a democracy to function in a challenging world. Civic-mindedness gave way to clever voter-suppression tactics. Freedom of the press got lost in attack ads and deliberate distortions of reality. Respect for opponents is gone. So too is the search for common ground, competing ideas, confidence in the nation, confidence in government, confidence in the future. Gone, gone, gone.

How could this happen? Several reasons — from intellectual laziness to self-serving leaders. The reason that touches my world is the collapse of progressive Christianity as a teacher of civic virtues.

Progressive Christianity is only one voice on the spectrum of religious opinions. But over the years it has had a large impact in its insistence on honesty, fairness, tolerance and humility. Progressive Christians have fought slavery, racial injustice and oppression of the vulnerable. Our search for truth has allowed room for other truths, other voices — a critical attitude in preserving democracy.

Our voice, however, has gotten weak. Our obsession with sexuality and institutional survival rendered us self-referential and timid. As we fought battles that were too much about us, we left the door open to a tragic re-emergence of racism and practices oppressing the poor.

I know that, individually, many of us are deeply concerned and eager to act. Nothing will change, however, until we speak as a community with a more forceful and coherent voice to the very real issues that people are facing. We know our voice can make a difference. Look at what Christian witness contributed to the call for justice in Ferguson, Mo. Look at the Moral Monday demonstrations in North Carolina.

For that voice to grow, we need to let politics into our pews. Not church politics, which are safe, but national and local politics, which tend to be unsafe. We need, for example, to be asking why racism is suddenly out in the open. We need to ask what our own people have contributed to economic injustice. Jesus spoke truth to power. We have tended to send them pledge cards.

We need to respond with theological and ethical clarity to critical issues, not just discern whether we “like” this or that cause. And certainly not sit back while Bible bullies make outlandish claims about what God wants and loathes.

We need to be forming alliances with minorities, the bruised and marginalized, and with people who want to make a difference, especially young adults. We need to stand for generosity and civility and against the politics of meanness that would suppress votes, deny benefits, punish women and minorities and wink at overzealous police power.

Our national and local politics are awash in money and fear. Gone missing are ideas and solutions, and a sense of confidence. Progressive Christianity needs to call out the destructive forces pursuing oligarchy, even when they sit in our own pews.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

For the Bible Tells Me So?

Ultimately, this is where biblical authority rests for Progressive Christians: in relationship.

By Mark Sandlin, June 18, 2014

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Progressive Christian community here.

“It says so right there!”

If you’ve ever had a conversation about a difficult topic (like sexuality, atonement, or social justice) with a Christian who might not self-identify as “progressive,” the odds are you’ve had to respond to this kind of “logic.”

What far too many of us get wrong in that moment is that we keep going. That is a mistake.

It is a mistake because in that moment you should realize that two worlds are colliding. Continuing the conversation is going to lead nowhere while, most likely, further entrenching both sides. It’s a mistake because, to quote Cool Hand Luke, “what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

At the root of this miscommunication is a difference in understanding about the interpretation and authority of the Bible.

Realistically, though, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of a much larger problem. It’s indicative of a divide that is growing in the United States and to understand the divide within the Church we must first understand the one outside of it.

It is tempting to frame the issue as a disagreement on what we value in general or even as a struggle between belief and logic. In the end though, it is about power—either empowering people by including them in asking questions and establishing authority or establishing power over them by telling them what “the answers” are and excluding them from the process.

The whole thing is rooted in control. It’s a question of consolidating control or diversifying it. It becomes a question of homogeneity verses diversity. Should power and control be limited to the few or entrusted to the masses? Do we have a government that is operated by a limited number of powerful people and companies, or is it a government of, for, and by the people?

When this national struggle of where authority should rest and how many people get to take part in it is played out in the Church—particularly in relationship to what biblical authority looks like—the secular concept of “too big to fail,” which protects the powerful and ignores the masses, is parlayed into “too important to be questioned.”

Like “too big to fail,” “too big to be questioned” also protects the powerful but, more importantly, it protects the power itself, power derived from religion. There is little in this world that can control a soul like blind faith. “Too big to be questioned” leverages that reality and insures that the answers that best serve those in control are the only “correct” answers.

Women in the pulpit? “No. Women in their proper place.” It’s the only “correct” answer.

Same-sex marriage? “No. Traditional marriage: one man, one woman.” It’s the only “correct” answer.

Government helping the least of these? “No. They need to help themselves.” It’s the only “correct” answer.

“It says so right there!”

The brilliance of this approach is that it doesn’t need to actually say that “right there.” You just need people to believe that’s what it says. Believe it because you say so. Believe it because it allows them to feel more righteous, more pious, more accepted, and more loved by God. It’s the carrot that keeps people heading in the direction that the powerful ordain. And, it separates the wheat from the chaff, at least in the minds of those who “believe.”

It is time for that kind of biblical “interpretation” to die.

Progressive Christianity is leading the way. As we open the biblical texts and explore them more fully, as technology gives more people access to scholarship, and as we learn to listen more closely to all voices (particularly the marginalized, those the world might see as “the least of these”), we are finding one consistently expressed, overarching, biblical theology: the persistence of love.

Considering the life and teaching of Jesus, it really shouldn’t be surprising. It is the commandment he taught us to hold above all others: Love. It is the commandment he taught us sums up all the others: Love God and your neighbor. It is the commandment he taught us to extend even to our enemies: Love.

Love offers hope. Blind faith offers obedience.

Love offers communion. Blind faith offers division.

When you hear, “it says so right there,” recognize that “what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” It’s not a difference in interpretation. It is not even just a difference in opinion. It is a fundamental difference in approach that is rooted in the controlling ways of the larger society in which we reside. There is no true common ground upon which to grow this conversation. So don’t even try.

Instead, nurture the soil; create common ground. Instead of arguing, extend love. You don’t have to be “right” on this; as a matter of fact, the way they see it, you can’t be. You do, however, have to love one another.

Ultimately, that is where biblical authority rests for Progressive Christians: in relationship. It’s a relationship between each individual and the text, which is augmented by our relationship with God, which is ultimately defined by our relationship with others—even those with whom we disagree.

How do I know? Well, because the Bible tells me so.

Mark is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is a co-founder of The Christian Left. His blog, The God Article, was recently named as one of the “Top Ten Christian Blogs.” He also writes for The Huffington Post and Sojourners. Last year he received the “Award of Excellence” from the Associate Church Press. He’s married to an amazing Baptist minister and has two fabulous teenagers. More than anything (other than peace and justice), Mark wants to have a beverage in one hand and a book in the other as he and his wife look across the shores of Ocracoke, North Carolina. He is a certified geek.