I can’t remember when I started calling myself a “progressive Christian”. I think it was probably in the mid-to-late-90’s or so. I was in my late teens and early 20’s, an openly gay college student in Atlanta, and and a wannabe minister. In a time and place where that was pretty unheard of, the courageous church leaders I knew who stood up for inclusion were my role models. They showed me the corners of the church where I could start to envision a life as an openly gay pastor. Even back then we called it “progressive Christianity”.
I came out in the church before Ellen did on TV. I watched a gay bar in my city get blown up. I saw friends of mine live with the everyday slights and pains of homophobia. And I watched and waited as self-proclaimed allies in positions of power whispered their support quietly, but never risked anything publicly. And my then-denomination didn’t change.
At the time I was a little frustrated about that. Frustrated enough that I reached my own limit with the lukewarm church, and left both my geographic and denominational homes behind in search of the kind of progressive Christianity that would let me be my whole self. And, in many ways I found it. I found a place where I could be an openly gay pastor with a wife to whom I am legally married.
It was about that time that the momentum shifted on acceptance of LGBT people too. DOMA was overturned. Opinion polls shifted. Churches opened just a little more. And suddenly I saw people I’d known in the past talking publicly about how they were allies. I saw them taking the mic and telling their own stories. And I saw them calling themselves “Progressive Christians”.
And I didn’t want to be a jerk, but I wanted to say, “Um, excuse me…where were you when we needed you about 15 years ago? Because I don’t remember you saying any of this back when we were struggling.”
So, why am I saying this today? Because after making my peace with the fact that not everyone gets onboard with inclusion at the same time, I’m watching from afar something of an intense breakdown happening among self-proclaimed progressive Christians.
First, I’m a little confused, because I thought I was a progressive Christian, and I haven’t seen them around before. But, it’s okay. It’s a big tent; newcomers are always welcome.
But here’s what’s not okay: after failing to speak out for justice for years, and after leaving LGBT people and a minority of courageous allies to do the heavy-lifting by ourselves, you don’t get to come in and claim to be “progressive” and then not have any kind of progressive values whatsoever when it comes to anything beyond saying “gays are okay now”. Because if you have suddenly become a “progressive Christian” in the last few years because it’s “safe” now to support LGBT people, you are not progressive at all. You are the opposite of progressive. You have not transformed culture by seeking Christ’s justice. You have waited for culture to be transformed and then you have joined in.
I’m not just talking about LGBT stuff here, though there is some real learning yet to be done on that. I’m talking about the way racism and sexism are talked about in the church. I’m talking about putting down the mic you have commandeered and giving it to the person of color, woman, or LGBT person who has never had a chance to tell their own story. I’m talking about making space for some conversation when a woman comes forward and says she has been abused before shutting it down out of your own fears. I’m talking about transparency, and authenticity, the values that the progressive Christian movement has always valued most.
I’ve been watching the discussions online about WX15, “Why Tony?”, and the rest. I don’t know what the truth is about what happened in a marriage I was not a part of. I’m not even going to touch that here. But, I do know that the discussions about it online, and on all sides, have in no way been steeped in the values of the progressive Christianity that I have known for the past twenty years. The progressive Christians I know, many of whom sacrificed career stability, financial gain, and more for their then-unpopular stance, were courageous. They were justice-focused. And they were willing to admit when they might be wrong, and when another voice might need the space to be heard.
Full disclosure: friends of mine are speaking at this event and they are amazing people whose voices need to be heard. The focus should be on them. But this whole conversation has been derailed. Instead, I’ve seen women be told by “progressive Christian” men in the last day that they are “bitching” about abuse. I’ve seen multiple “progressive Christians” shrug off a serious conversation about domestic violence and what it means in terms of the church. I’ve seen people once again grabbing the mic away from people who need a space to speak their truth. I’ve seen a lack of transparency, and an abundance of legacy-protecting. I’ve seen community covenants get broken. And I’ve seen the discussion around what could be an amazing conference that lifts up the voices of women get hijacked and refocused on a man..
Like I said, I don’t know what the truth is here, and I’m not sure I ever will. I also think that all sides of this have dropped the ball multiple times. But I do know the way the conversation is going now has little in common with the values of progressive Christianity. (At least, the progressive Christianity I thought I knew.)
I’m not mad…I’m just not surprised. After all, I’ve been wondering “Where were these folks back when I was a 19 year old would-be seminarian who needed an ally” for years now. Why should their behavior (and I’m talking about people expressing opinions on every side here) be any different now that we’ve moved on to the next justice issue?
I don’t know what the answer is here, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be affiliated with what progressive Christianity seems to have become: just a code-word for “same old church, now with more gays!” Because the progressive Christian LGBT inclusion movement in the church was never just about LGBT people. It was about changing the church for the better for ALL people. And, even though my life might be easier now, we are far than done with our work.
So, “progressive Christians”? Keep the title. Just know that it doesn’t mean what it used to mean. And if it adds something to the portfolios of those seeking celebrity Christian status, so be it. It’s a new day out there, and the new progressive Christianity sells (so long as you’re careful not to ruffle too many feathers with hard truths).
As for me, watching all of this unfold has reminded me that our ultimate faith must be in Christ, and not in human beings, no matter how compellingly they speak or write. And so, I’m putting my hope for the church in the hands of the only person who has never let me, or any of us, down yet.