Forgetting the “Protest” in “Protest-ant”
Lately I’ve been wondering how Protestants forgot the “protest” in Protestant. At least in the majority culture, among the group that likes to call itself the moral majority (or now, the Christian Coalition), very little true dissent is happening.
The goal instead seems to be enforcement of religious assumptions much more beholden to this world than the kingdom of God. Which is to say, the majority Christian tradition seems to have sold itself out to capitalism, pledged its allegiance to nationalism, and fallen in love with nativism in place of loving the neighbor. Along the way, it has re-defined Christianity as a religion with a heavy focus on ethics (in particular sexual ethics) all while claiming the focus is on “liberty” (which means, as far as I can tell, the right to bear arms).
In biblical terms, this kind of Christianity has aligned itself with the Pharisees and Sadducees, all the while implementing a rhetorical strategy that assumes it is aligned with Jesus and God against a sinful world.
Perhaps that is the greatest irony–the moral majority, the Christendom Christians, have by and large convinced themselves they’re in the martyr position, standing ground as the minority voice against a corrupt and sinful world.
In such a moment, in the meantime, there are other Christian voices crying out in the wilderness, articulating a true minority morality that is doubly embattled. Not only does it have to fight an uphill campaign against the manipulations of the powerful, the corruptions of capital, and and the ethics of empire… it also has to do so over against the court chaplain of empire, the evangelical bloc.
And it does so all the while tempted to become the very majority it is critiquing, because heck, isn’t it always attractive to have the power?
That, in a nutshell, is what it feels like to be a progressive Christian in North America. You literally cannot fathom how it is that millions of people, who ostensibly follow the same Lord you do, have gotten from point A (Jesus) to point B (xenophobia).
Is this a straw man?
So, at this point, if you’re a progressive Christian, you’re reading this and thinking, “Yes, preach it! Mmmmhhmmmm!”
But if you’re somewhere more in the middle, or if you are in fact a conservative Christian or evangelical of the type with whom I typically disagree, you’re thinking to yourself a few things, including: he’s set up a straw man to knock down, he doesn’t understand us and our concerns, and anyway, he’s wrong, because Lutherans love their country and Christians know what the Bible says about sex.
So let me try this, at least. Will you go with me at least this far, that Christianity as lived by Jesus and presented in Scripture is focused in particular on love of the most vulnerable: the sick, the dying, the lame, the child, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the foreigner, the lonely, the lost?
Because if there’s anything I, as a Christian, believe, it’s that. Jesus hangs out with sinners and tax collectors and riff raff and the poor… like the prophets did before him.
Here’s where we start to part ways, I think, and why this conversation between majority and minority Christians is so awkward, because the next point that comes up is salvation. I get portrayed as a social justice Christian who lacks concern for the eternal salvation of sinners. I don’t have a concern for a lost, or I’m misleading the lost, these are the most frequent ways conservative Christians criticize me (when they don’t just ignore me or call me names).
Concern for the Lost
But I am concerned for the lost, it’s just that my eschatological sensitivity focuses much less on the idea that the lost are anticipating eternal damnation for all eternity, and it is more focused on living as an outpost of the kingdom of God now, being a foretaste of God’s coming kingdom, which means Christians are called to work for a world where people taste salvation now in the present, and gain hope for it in their future life with God.I think where our interests overlap (and there are precious few points where they do, especially when we’re talking politics and social change) are around interests of protecting life. The Christian coalition focuses in like a laser on pro-life topics, because they seek to protect some of the world’s most vulnerable–the unborn.
Progressive Christians tend to say, essentially, okay good, but let’s make sure we are pro-life in the wider sense, which would include things like opposition to the death penalty, reduction in the militarization of the world, campaigns against police brutality, #blacklivesmatter, or more recently, solidarity with Native Americans protecting sacred burial grounds and opposing trans-national pipelines that enrich many while damaging the lands of the poor.
A pastor just up the road from me, former head of the SBC and prominent religious leader, said at his recent meeting with Donald Trump, “This election is about the dignity of human life from the womb to the tomb.”
Yes, yes it is. But how we understand that dignity, and how broadly we construe it, is precisely the rub.
Perhaps the precise kind of Christianity I’ve come to believe in will always be presented with this challenge–that it lacks power and never gains majority status because it joins the minority and lives in solidarity with it.
Perhaps this Christianity will always be changing, growing, adapting, because it intentionally listens to voices either outside the faith, even voices damaged by sinful actions of the faithful, in order to learn how to be better Christians.
Maybe that’s the big difference between us, the root of our division. The moral majority, the Christian coalition, seems to take the stance that sin is outside them, and the call to repentance is a call for a sinful world to turn from its sinful ways and live the gospel in conformity with the Christian majority. Such a Christianity demands not solidarity, but conformity. It welcomes everyone, but only inasmuch as, ultimately, they assimilate.
The moral minority, by comparison, calls the world to repentance inasmuch as it has conformed itself to sinful systems. So it joins the world in solidarity against such systems, taking the risk at times of so giving itself away to the minority that it appears as the minority it associates with.
This is risky assimilation the other way around, and it is precisely the kind of thing I believe real Christians are called to practice, modeled by Jesus himself in his self-emptying. He became so human he was human. Though also God, the human part was not an act. It was the real deal. And he was human to such a degree that he could be perceived as all the things the religious leaders hated about the non-religious. They party too much, live life in family configurations that do not conform to the gold standard of traditional morality, play fast and loose with property, live life so close to God that God comes across as vulnerable, weak, foolish, crazy, in love.
The new moral minority is always going to have to figure out how to confess its faith over against the majority religion, get mocked and ridiculed and scorned, stand on the margins, march in the breach.
It will always be at risk of envying the powerful, seeking to be the majority, and mimetically practicing that which is opposes.
It is not at all easy to be the moral minority. That’s part of the reason we know it’s the way of Jesus.