Reclaiming Progressive Christianity, Starting with Remembering Our Values

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post that two weeks later is still getting a lot of traffic. The title of the piece is “I Don’t Think I Want to Be a Progressive Christian Anymore“, and it is an accurate depiction of how I was feeling at the time. After a little time, though, I’m realizing I was wrong: I do still want to be a progressive Christian.

But here’s the challenge; in the very recent past the term “progressive Christian” has come to be conflated with “emergent Christian” and “post-evangelical Christian”. And I’m not saying that you can’t be one of those things and also be a progressive Christian. This is a big tent movement, and you can. But I am saying that it’s not right to co-opt a term that has been used for several generations to define a theological movement for your own benefit. And it’s especially not right to do it when you are not familiar with, or not willing to honor, the values that progressive Christianity has been trying to model for the larger church for years.

10245585_250411955164792_8829165948251833523_nMy elders in the progressive Christian movement, some of whom are now dead and cannot speak for themselves, deserve more than to have their legacies misrepresented by those who never knew them. And those of us who came of age in the progressive movement over the last few decades are now being called on to bear witness to the history and values of this tradition, and to help to articulate a vision for the future for the movement.

So, I think I do still want to be a progressive Christian. But I want to say a little about what I understand that term to mean, starting with a few values I’ve learned along the way. Here is what I think the progressive church is called to be:

– Transparent

The progressive church has taught me again and again that Jesus’ was right when he said “the truth shall set you free”. It has also taught me that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. One of the Christian men I respect most has a habit of telling organizations with which he works that “I will not be your institution’s secret keeper”. They hire him anyway, and they’re better for it.

– Accountable

We don’t just answer to ourselves (or kid ourselves and others by saying “I answer to God”). We need accountability from our peers. Denominations get a bad rap with some, but a healthy denomination is one of the best ways of making sure that a Christian leader will be held accountable to a high standard. It’s when a clergy person or other leader becomes a long ranger that the trouble happens.

– Prophetic

Wayne Gretzky famously said, “I skate to where the puck is going; not to where it has been.” For progressive Christians that means that we have to be future focused, and innovative. For instance, the progressive church started talking about LGBT rights in the early 1970’s. By contrast, some well-known leaders who are now claiming the progressive labels have just come forward as allies in the last several years. That’s not being prophetic. That’s being popular.

– Repentant

We will make mistakes. We will fail people who could have used our voices. But when that happens, we need to be the first to stand up and apologize. As a former Presbyterian pastor, I often saw people who sat in positions of power never speak as allies. In the past few years many have now come out as allies, which is great. But sometimes I just want a little acknowledgement that they regret not having done so earlier. Likewise, I know there are probably many things I am not doing now that I should be. When I realize what they are, I hope I have the character to confess, apologize, and make amends.

– Humble

True humility is not about putting yourself down; it’s about raising others up. And what I valued most about the progressive leaders in the generations before mine was their humility. They admitted there were things they did not know. They listened to those who were marginalized in some way. And they stepped aside and gave up the mic when they didn’t know from firsthand experience what they were talking about. (And they never drew attention to themselves when they did it.)

– Witness-oriented

The other thing I learned from progressive Christian leaders over the past twenty years is that they were never, ever, interested in celebrity. In fact, they were quick to shy away from the lime-light. They didn’t mind teaching, or speaking, but only if it helped others in their Christian journey. Karl Barth kept a picture of John the Baptist above his desk. In that picture John was pointing towards Christ. For Barth it was a reminder that the task of every Christian was not to gain followers for one’s self, but instead to use one’s life in order to witness to, and glorify, Christ.

– Bold

The progressive Christians I have know are bold people. That’s different than being brash or provocative. Instead, being bold is about being willing to risk one’s status or power for what one believes is right. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s I watched people risk their pulpits and ordinations to stand up for people like me. Some of these same people had done the same thing a 35 years before that when they stood up against segregation. They weren’t fearless; they were scared to death. But they did it anyway. They are some of bravest people I have ever met, and few in my generation can hold a candle to them.

– Non-idolatrous

The progressive Christians who taught me were also well-trained Reformed theologians. They lectured constantly about the importance of confronting idols. And they practiced what they preached. They refused to worship anything other than Christ. They would not worship at the altar of money. They refused to collude with empire, as Walter Wink taught us, choosing instead to confront it. They would not profit on the backs of others, particularly those who have been in any way marginalized. They did not seek power or status or comfort. They sought only God’s will for God’s people.

– Hopeful

When Rev. John Robinson sent the Pilgrims, ancestors of today’s progressive Reformed Christians, off across the ocean he said God had “more truth and light yet to break forth out of (God’s) holy Word”. It was a message of hope. And hope is central to the message of progressive Christianity. Every piece of writing, every sermon, every speech must point to the fact that our hope comes not from our own words, but from the one who is constantly working in this world to create all things anew. And living into that hope means that we get to make the choice to either participate in that work joyfully, or get out of the way.

– Community focused

Progressive Christians value the life and stories of the individual, but we also highly value the community. Our interdependence on one another is what makes us stronger, not weaker. And so we need the voices of many, and not just a few. And so, because progressive Christianity is bigger than any one of us, this needs to be a group discussion. What values would you add? I’d love for you to tell us all about them below.

I don’t think I want to be a “Progressive Christian” anymore.

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.

1006084_237267106479277_264921106_nAt 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.