Friday, September 25, 2009

Why I Am A Progressive Christian (Part 1)

Labels are interesting things. They are attempts to define what something, or someone, is. More often than not, we put labels on others as a way of trying to define them, even though we will inevitably misrepresent who they are. In the most extreme cases, we put labels on others with whom we disagree or on those we do not like in an attempt to create a caricature of them. In this sense, labels can be used as weapons to disparage those not like us.

Often, however, we try to find labels to put on ourselves in an effort to define who we are so that others will understand us. But finding the right label to describe who one is can be a very troubling introspective experience. After all, life is always in flux, and it is hard for us to say that any of us are the same person we once were. Moreover, we may not be entirely happy with the conclusions we reach about ourselves. Yet, as Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Many of the evolutionary changes that have taken place for me over the years are those related to what I believe about God and religious faith. Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian environment in the Bible Belt, I rarely encountered diversity. If I did, I was probably too ingrained in the approved way of thinking that I did not even recognize another point of view, and I certainly would not have recognized it as valid. Yet, at this point in my life, as I look back, I am far removed from who I was and what I believed then.

Such evolutions can cause consternation within oneself, as one tries to find the right label to use to describe who one is. This is certainly true for religion, for once you designate yourself as a member of a particular religion you are, to some extent, lumped into a larger stereotype of that religion that is mostly known by the bad representatives of that religion. For me, I am particularly not happy to be lumped in with those on the closed-minded conservative to fundamentalist side of Christianity. But, neither am I thrilled to be associated with some of the willy-nilly liberal brands of Christian faith.

Yet, as I have examined who I am, I have come to accept a label that adequately fits me. This is not to say that this is the final labeling of who I am as a person of faith, but I can say with some measure of confidence that I am happy with this label. I am a progressive Christian.

Many may ask what this exactly means, and some will conclude that it simply means a liberal Christian. After all, as the logic goes, if you are not a conservative, you must be a liberal. But I do not think the label of liberal captures the dynamic essence that the brand progressive communicates. Liberal seems to me to be just as bad a tag as conservative; both communicate the idea of entrenching deeper into one’s position. For me, the label of progressive communicates something more vibrant and more fluid.

Perhaps it would be best to define what I mean when I say that I am a progressive Christian by describing why I am a progressive Christian. This may offer some insight into the path I have taken in becoming a progressive Christian. Moreover, in my detailing this description, some readers may connect with my story.

In an attempt to define what I mean by progressive Christian, I will first address why I remain a Christian and then follow this with the reasons I am progressive in a second post sometime next week.

My being a Christian has a lot to do with growing up that way. I am certainly not the same person I was, and my Christian faith has changed in some very dramatic ways; too many to detail here. But I still remain a Christian, and by this I mean a follower of Jesus; though I am frequently very much the failure.

I must be honest, however, that I often think seriously about abandoning my faith. My own doubts, the intolerance I see from other Christians, and the blatant neglect of many of Jesus’ most central teachings by some Christians, are just a few of reasons I have often turned away from being a Christian.

But I have made, and so far I continue to make, a conscious choice to be a Christian. Indeed, as I understand it, being a Christian, a follower of Christ, is not a one-time choice. It is a day in and day out conscious decision to follow Jesus; one that I struggle to make each and every day. In fact, each day presents the possibility that I will not make that choice ever again.

Yet, I continue to make that choice for two primary reasons. First, Jesus represents for me not so much a savior, but more than anything what it means to be authentically human, and thus if I seek to be the best human being I can be, then I choose to follow Jesus. This does not mean I am very good at it, nor does it mean that it has to be this way for everyone else, but the humanity of Jesus speaks volumes to my own existence in a world of chaos and pain.

Second, I am Christian because it offers to me a community of identity in which I can find fellowship along the journey of life. The Christian community, much like other religious communities, offers a way of finding meaning in the midst of struggle. Sadly, I don’t find this kind of community in most churches, except at a superficial level, but overall my life is made better through being in community with other Christians.

I very much could have discarded my faith many times; probably with little regret. Moreover, I could have replaced my faith with other ways of finding meaning. But to this point, I have not. Instead, I have found a new way of embracing my faith that for me represents a more honest and authentic way of following Jesus. And that is where the progressive part becomes important.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Peacemaking is the Heart of Jesus’ Message

In 1981, the Generally Assembly of the United Nations declared that the opening day of its annual session would be recognized as International Peace Day. Twenty-years later, in 2001, the Assembly determined that September 21 of each year would be known as International Peace Day. This coming Monday, the UN will once again observe International Peace Day.

The heart of Jesus’ message is the desire for peace. At one level, Jesus called people to follow him as a path to finding peace with God. Yet, at a more experiential level, Jesus called people to be at peace with one another. Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount we find one of Jesus’ most forthright statements on the subject, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Given the fact that this statement appears in the list of what has been named the Beatitudes, those pithy sayings that stand as the most important ethical values Jesus lays out, peacemaking must assuredly be a core value and action for Jesus followers. Peacemaking not only reflects Jesus’ teachings, it also mirrors the life of Jesus who came as the Prince of Peace. But what is required to be peacemakers and why must we be peacemakers?

Simply put, and without qualification, the kind of peacemaking Jesus commands requires non-violent responses to evil. One of Jesus’ most controversial statements also comes to us through Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus states, “When someone strikes you on one cheek, turn and offer to him the other one.” While many have tried to live true to this instruction of Jesus, more often than not Christians have found his command to turn from violence unsettling, and perhaps even ridiculous.

But we cannot negotiate with Jesus at this point, for his statement is very straightforward. If this is true, then why do we tend to avoid Jesus’ clear command to turn the other cheek as an essential part of being non-violent peacemakers?

The answer to that question lies in our failure to see that Jesus’ definition of peacemaking also requires forgiveness. The central message of scripture is that God so loved the world that God has forgiven the world. But God’s forgiveness is not based on our paying restitution or in our suffering a penalty. God’s forgiveness flows from God’s unconditional love for humanity and a desire to make peace with us.

Our biggest problem in practicing this kind of forgiveness, and therefore our greatest hindrance to making peace, is that we are vengeful. Our culture tells us that revenge is a necessary part of justice, and when we as individuals, or as a group, or as a nation are wronged, it is only right, even expected, that we seek revenge against the wrongdoers. But is this the message of Jesus?

Gandhi, one of the greatest followers of Jesus’ teachings, said it best when he reflected on Jesus’ command not to seek revenge; he declared, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” While the message of the world is that vengeance is right, and making people pay for the harm they cause us is good, the message of Jesus, and Gandhi, calls us to something greater that reflects God’s own character and action—forgiveness. Forgiveness is the necessary action that leads to peacemaking.

We should not assume, however, that offering forgiveness to others means that those who commit wrongs should not be brought to justice. We cannot simply overlook the wrongs committed by others, and we must name evil as evil. But the passion for seeking justice cannot be fueled by the need for vengeance; it must be empowered by the desire to forgive, to bring reconciliation, and to make peace.

While Jesus’ teachings on peacemaking apply to those of us who seek to reconcile with those who have hurt us personally, peacemaking also extends to conflicts among groups of people, whether local conflicts or wars on the global front. The waging of any war brings destruction to the lives of ordinary people, and wars will never establish lasting peace. The Christian community should condemn such hostilities, because Jesus never called his followers to take up the weapons of warfare and kill their enemies. He has called us to take up the cross of self-sacrifice through which we can find love for our enemies.

Two statements by Dr. Martin Luther King seem relevant to this topic. Dr. King stated, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” Jesus also understood that war could never assure the world of peace; only peacemaking brings lasting peace. Dr. King also said, “Peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of justice.” Peacemaking and peace building require us to work for justice.

Many have understood these principles and have applied them to terrible situations to discover that peace is indeed possible. One example that stands out is what took place in South Africa in the last century. South Africa was a place of violence and hatred due to the laws of apartheid that prevented people of color from having equal rights. Atrocities abounded from both sides, until changes were made that cleared the way for Nelson Mandela to be elected in 1994 as the first black president of South Africa.

However, before his election, Mandela had been imprisoned by the white South African government from 1962-1990. Yet, after Mandela was elected president of his country, he did not seek revenge against his captors. Instead, his government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which offered forgiveness to those who would come forward and admit of their wrongdoings. Mandela knew that peace could not be made by seeking vengeance. Without this commission, South Africa may have continued to be a place of strife and conflict.

On this International Peace Day may we remember those who have worked tirelessly for peace across this world, and may all of us, Christian or not, find ways to work together for a more just and peaceful world.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Jesus and His Cross: The Offensive Norm of Discipleship

The Gospels narrate their stories as if Jesus knew he would be put to death by Roman authorities. While the authors offer backward looking theological interpretations of Jesus, and not necessarily fully historical reports of Jesus’ life, we can be sure that Jesus did understand that he would most likely be crucified. History had told him that to challenge the authority of Rome was treason, and the penalty for treason was death. He knew full well that as he progressed in his challenge to the authorities, both of the Jewish religious power center and the Roman Empire, he would be put to death as a rebel.

But the classic text that interprets Jesus death as the example for his followers as the way they ought to live in the world is Mark 8:34, where the author puts on the lips of Jesus, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This was and hopefully still is the mantra for what it means to follow Jesus. Indeed, it should be the creed that supersedes all creeds.

Our interpretation, however, must not simply be a spiritualizing of what Jesus says, as is common practice among many Christians. To do so would move too far away from the meaning of Jesus’ statement that it becomes unrecognizable. Rather, our interpretation should be one that appropriates the statement to our modern context while at the same time remaining connected to the original intent of Jesus’ words.

We know that the cross was a symbol of Roman tyranny, and that crucifixion was practiced by the Romans on many who were considered enemies of the state. Jesus was far from the only one killed on a cross, and far from the only innocent one who suffered this fate. Thus, in the context of Roman jurisprudence, Jesus was just another enemy of the state that needed to be silenced.

But the earliest followers of Jesus reflected on his death and reached a different understanding of the image of the cross. Though the cross was still a ruthless tool in the hands of an oppressive government, for the followers of Jesus, the cross had shifted from an external symbol of Roman tyranny to an internal symbol of faithfulness for the Christian community. For these earliest Christians, the cross served symbolically as the norm of a community that existed in a world not yet submissive to the rule of God.

The cross became symbolic of the internal ethic of the community and the social formation of that community in opposition to Roman power. The symbol of the cross represented for them a new way of being human; one in which the radical virtues of Christ served as that which formed the character of the follower of Jesus as well as the community of followers.

In the fourth century, however, for the Roman Emperor Constantine, the sacred symbol of Christ, the Chi-Rho, became the symbol of earthly power and might. In essence, a second shift took place that moved the understanding of the cross as a symbol of radical discipleship to one by which to conquer through domination, oppression and violence.

Christianity, then, moved from the marginalized alternative community of disciples who lived out the radical virtues of Jesus, such as loving one’s enemies, turning the other cheek, and lifting up the oppressed, to the dominant population of power in the West that forced conversion, killed enemies, and created a social structure characterized by domination.

In our modern environment, the religious conservative movement has continued to herald this story of Jesus and the cross. The cross has become once more a symbol of political power, and the church has been swept into being part and parcel of one political agenda. Those entrapped by this movement view the cross at a distance, preferring to see it as only an object on which Jesus died for our sins, rather than taking the cross as their own and seeing it as the symbol of radical discipleship and service.

In this sense, modern western Christianity has sought to silence the radical Jesus and his cross, particularly the Jesus that judges the power structures of a society. Modern Christianity has reduced faith to personal salvation, personal piety, and personal spiritual practices, all focused on the individual’s personal relationship with Jesus, which is supposedly made possible only through the substitutionary death of Jesus.

As a result, salvation is focused on the person getting to heaven when they die, worship has become focused on the personal feelings of individuals, and sermons have become life-coaching sessions in which the preacher offers platitudes on how to be a better spiritual person.

But in doing this, Christianity has gagged the historical Jesus and has cloaked his cross. The radical Jesus has been silenced; he has been replaced by a Jesus who permits us to wage unjust violence against our enemies in the name of national security. He allows us to hoard money and possessions in the name of financial security. He consents to our prejudices against people of other races, genders, religions and sexual orientations in the name of cultural security.

It is time for another shift, one that leads us back to the early Christian understanding of Jesus, his radical virtues, and his horrible death as that which consistently challenges our way of living in community with others. Shifting our understanding of the cross back to how early Christians viewed the cross would lead the church to find afresh its identity as an alternative community in which individuals are not formed by power, greed, exclusion, and self-interests, but are shaped by the norms of Jesus and his cross.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Does the Bible Stand Alone as the Sole Basis of Authority?

I was recently engaged in a debate with an anonymous commentator about one of my blog posts. As the debate progressed, the issue of health care came up and, as expected, we were on opposite sides of this debate. My inquisitor claimed that the idea of universal health care was a communist idea, and therefore, not biblical. He challenged me to point him to any place in the Bible where Jesus said that we ought to have universal government sponsored health care.

Of course, I could not offer him what he wanted, a precise chapter and verse, for Jesus never said anything specific about this issue; at least in the way we are currently thinking about it. But his request raises an important issue with which we Christians must grapple if we are to be relevant to our own context, and if we are to live out the true nature of the rule of God in our own world. The big question is this: Does the Bible stand alone as the sole basis of authority?

One of the foundational theological shifts that occurred during the Protestant Reformation was an emphasis on the sole authority of scripture as that which is sufficient for faith. Indeed, Martin Luther’s challenge to the Roman Church was based on his belief that theological doctrines must be based on scripture alone, or as he termed it, sola scriptura, and not on any church authority, whether bishop or council.

Yet, it is difficult to say that sola scriptura has ever been fully practiced even in Protestantism. Indeed, Protestant confessions that have developed since the time of Luther and his fellow reformers are in and of themselves interpretations of scripture that lay out a Protestant set of doctrines. Thus, even the heroes of the Protestant faith did not allow scripture to stand on its own, but offered their own interpretations of scripture. Such is the nature of biblical interpretation.

In the eighteenth century, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, re-framed the understanding of the authority of scripture and the methods by which scripture can be interpreted. Twentieth century Methodist theologian Albert Outler recognized Wesley’s method and christened it the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

In the quadrilateral, scripture holds primacy of place for normative Christian faith and practice. Scripture serves as the foundational authority for the church through its time and space existence in the world, but scripture must be interpreted in light of tradition, reason and experience. Scripture is what the human biblical author believes to be the revelation of God to his specific historical situation. Yet, scripture lives on through the existence of the canon and its interpretation in future generations, who must rely on tradition, reason, and experience to formulate meaning for the church in each specific context.

This means that although the text of scripture continually serves as a basis of authority for the church’s faith and practice, each generation and locality of the church must find its own interpretations that are in conversation with scripture and church tradition, but that are open to reason and experience. In this way, the Bible remains valid as a source of Christian faith and practice, but the literal interpretation of the Bible now has a rational filter through which the text can be sifted so that it remains relevant to an ever changing world.

If we apply this method to understanding the issue of health care, we start not with having to look for where Jesus specifically commands or forbids that health care be universal, for he never said either. Rather, we look first to Jesus’ teachings about having love and compassion for all, and we understand his healings as parables of the rule of God. Here we find solid scriptural grounds for supporting universal health care.

Jesus healed the sick not because he was divine, and not simply because he had compassion on those he healed, though this much is true. Jesus’ healing of the sick was a sign of God’s rule and an indictment against a system that failed to heal and care for those most vulnerable in society. His actions of healing were parabolic actions that proclaimed that in God’s rule, healing is offered to all.

When we view how Jesus’ teachings and healings have been understood in church tradition, we can point to the growth of health care movements throughout the history of the church. During the plagues of the Roman Empire, Christian communities grew in numbers because they offered healing and comfort to the sick. In our more recent history, church denominations founded hospitals, some which still carry the names of those denominations.

Shifting our interpretation to apply reason to this scriptural argument, we can propose first that universal health care, though not specifically commanded by Jesus, was also not specifically forbidden. Instead of basing our position against universal health care on the argument that Jesus never commanded this, a more reasonable argument that is more in line with Jesus’ overall message should lead us to want health care for all. We have the opportunity to bring about a widening of God’s justice for the poor beyond even what Jesus may have envisioned.

Finally, reading scripture in light of our experience, we see that the world still refuses the rule of God. As followers of the Great Healer, we must continually ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” In an age of medical advancement, would not our personal experience of seeing the sick and our desire to live as Jesus wants us to live move us to fight for justice and health for the poor and vulnerable?

I must concede that Jesus never commanded that we have universal health care. But such a request from the person who challenged my argument sheds light on how our understanding of scriptural reading can be too narrow, and can only lead to our faith continuing not only to diminish in relevancy, but more importantly, distance itself from the person of Jesus.