One of my most valuable conversation partners on the Internet is a conservative Calvinist campus minister named Derek Rishmawy. In some ways, we are the opposite, since I’m a progressive Wesleyan campus minister, but I think we both recognize in each other a genuine zeal for God’s truth. I have a lot of respect for Derek, and when we do actually agree on something, I usually do a happy dance because I feel like I’m on very solid ground. In any case, just as I speculate about the hidden underlying sacred cows of conservative evangelicalism, Derek did the same about progressive evangelicalism in a recent post. I didn’t so much want to do a point-by-point rebuttal as to offer a more contextualized account of where I’m coming from as a progressive evangelical.
Derek’s basic claim in his post is that there is an “orthodoxy” within progressive evangelicalism as much as we might like to think that we are open-minded boundary-smashers. I think it’s inevitable that any ideological group which synergizes together is going to have a limited range of perspectives that are tolerated within the group. Derek identifies seven issue positions which he identifies with progressive evangelicals: pacifism, gender egalitarianism, Arminianism and/or open theism, anti-inerrancy, interpretive pluralism, anti-penal substitutionary atonement, and marriage revisionism. He then suggests that there are three characteristics to the progressive evangelical ethos that cause us to take the positions we take: an ethic of empathy, a mistrust of power, and the sovereignty of the individual.
I realize that I just listed these somewhat esoteric, theo-nerdish terms without breaking them down, but I didn’t want to spend my whole post doing that so you should visit Derek’s post to get the fully expanded account. I don’t subscribe to all the positions in Derek’s list, nor do I find my ethos to be defined necessarily by the three pillars Derek sees, but I think he made a pretty good stab at it. The main critique that I would make of Derek’s analysis is that it’s ahistorical. There are real historical reasons why progressive evangelicals have the suspicions and proclivities that we have. Of course, most of us really don’t understand that history beyond our confusing personal experience of it. So that’s where I need to start in my account of how I got to be a progressive evangelical.
1) I found poison in the fruit of my evangelical upbringing
I suspect that one thing every progressive evangelical has in common is that we grew up in a conservative evangelical environment and were exiled from it. You can’t really become a progressive evangelical if you grew up outside of the church or in a mainline denomination. Certainly, progressive evangelicals form community and intermingle with Christians of all sorts of origins, but to be progressive evangelical definitively means that you grew up evangelical and found something toxic about the fruit of your upbringing which put you in exile.
For people who grew up in the height of the culture wars in the eighties like me, we heard evangelicals make a lot of hyperbolic, paranoid claims about rock music, homosexuals, and non-believers in the world which were then contradicted by our direct encounters with such people. We were told that Democrats were evil satanic baby-killers, but then we met Democrats who weren’t. We saw evangelical leaders who had the Bible half-memorized behave hatefully, treacherously, and greedily towards one another. Most of the theological caricatures and straw men that conservatives accuse us of making up actually come from sermons we really sat through.
I’ve said before it’s like having a garden with many amazingly nourishing plants that’s been overtaken by poisonous weeds whose roots are incredibly difficult to find. I received so many good and valuable teachings from evangelicalism, but tangled up with them are poisonous ideas whose source is difficult to pin down. I feel like I’m always uprooting some good plants along with the weeds, but I just want the weeds to be gone. To be a progressive evangelical is to be someone in the process of furiously weeding your theological garden constantly second-guessing yourself but with a sense of urgency that seems to outweigh the risks. Does this make for a consistent, confident, systematic theology that has an answer to every rebuttal? Hell no. But Paul said to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” We haven’t had enough time to actually develop a coherent theology; we just know we don’t want the poison that we’ve tasted.
2) I learned about empire
When I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in tenth grade, that was my first exposure to the idea that sharing the gospel with people in foreign countries might be part of an imperialist agenda. Since that time, I’ve learned many disturbing things about how Christianity has been exploited by European imperialists to justify conquering and enslaving people all over the world. I’ve learned about the concept of white supremacy and what was called the “white man’s burden” to make good Christians out of the savages. I’ve learned about indigenous cultures that seemed a lot more Christlike despite not knowing Jesus by name than the Christian white people who slaughtered them.
My exposure to empire caused an earthquake in my trust of popular evangelical presumptions about the world which had already seemed shady to me. The idea that God is so incredibly angry with billions of people who don’t know Jesus that he wants to torture them forever unless the white people go out and share the gospel with them seemed like a mighty convenient justification for “evangelizing” these people by stealing their land and making them slaves. Words like “obedience” became very suspicious to me, not because I personally wanted to be disobedient to God, but because of the way that imperialists so successfully exploited the concept of obedience to make others obedient to them.
Closer to home in southern white Christianity, I have been very disturbed to discover the integral role that white female sexuality had in the justification of segregation culture (we have to keep those horny black men away from our virgin white women). Jerry Falwell and other conservative evangelicals who were defending the “southern way of life” before the civil rights movement defeated segregationism reinvented themselves as a “family values” movement built on the same policing of white female sexuality in which the horny black bogeymen became a hidden subtext.
Basically, I’ve grown wary of any theology which produces a white suburban megachurch as its grand vision of the kingdom of God. Paranoia and hysteria about the wickedness of “the world” becomes an excellent self-justification for middle-upper class white people to circle the wagons and create a gated community where they can “focus on the family.” But that doesn’t look anything like the kind of radical discipleship Jesus was describing when he said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).
3) I befriended some outsiders
As I was learning about empire and growing more wary about Christianity’s complicity in it, I was also making friends with a variety of outsiders: poor people, undocumented immigrants, LGBT people, and non-Christians in general who contradicted the hyperbolic demonization of non-believers that popular evangelical theology needs for its salvation industrial complex to work.
The biggest shipwreck came when I attended a mostly LGBT United Methodist Church in Toledo, Ohio. The people in that church were some of the holiest and gentlest Christians I’ve ever been around. They took their spirituality very seriously, they wrestled fervently with their sins, and they were queer. Whereas I’d found so much poisonous fruit among the Bible-beating evangelicals, I found so much beautiful Galatians 5:22 fruit among the queer Christians. They became my mentors and their hero Henri Nouwen became my spiritual father.
4) I began to read the Bible with a conscious agenda
One of the things I started to notice about Jesus after I was awakened to the existence of outsiders is that Jesus always seems to have an agenda when he uses Old Testament scripture and it’s usually to defend the outsiders and smash the self-assurance of the insiders. I see a parallel between the supposedly “color-blind” way that many white people claim to view the world and the “agenda-less” way that many evangelicals claim to read scripture. The way I see it is you can’t not have an agenda when you’re interpreting the Bible, so it’s better to own up to it and try to emulate Christ’s agenda instead of chasing after some kind of elusive “objectivity.”
When I read the Bible, I’m looking for a word of liberation for my marginalized brothers and sisters. And God has given it to me time and time again. I desire mercy not sacrifice. The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. He has chosen the despised ones to bring to nothing the things that are. The wind blows where it chooses; you hear the sound of it but you know not where it comes from or where it is going; so it is with all who are born of the spirit. Do not call anything impure that God has made clean. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself but is unclean for anyone who thinks it’s unclean.
The Bible is pregnant with good news for outsiders. Jesus makes the hated Samaritan heretic the hero of his story about loving your neighbor. The prodigal father embraces his wayward son much to the chagrin of his self-righteous older brother. A woman who is judged for having had 5 husbands (whatever that actually means; she could have been widowed) becomes one of Jesus’ best early evangelists. A woman who trespasses into the dinner party of a local rabbi and gives Jesus an erotic foot massage has her honor defended by Jesus at the expense of the rabbi who did nothing more than shoot her a dirty look.
I also have found liberating ways of understanding scripture that are stumbling blocks. For example, even though I’m not a pacifist, I do find God’s command for Israel to massacre the Canaanites to be problematic. The archaeological evidence suggests it’s not historical, but God still had a reason to allow himself to be represented in this way. Maybe God is saying that he’s in solidarity with all the outsiders in the world whose lives look like the penniless recently freed slaves that the Israelites were at the time. Maybe God doesn’t consider the sanctity of wealthy Canaanites’ private property to be as high a priority as poor landless people having a place to live. Maybe we should remember how the walls of Jericho came down whenever those crazy black people riot and trash a convenience store in places like Ferguson, Missouri. Now I’ve made the book of Joshua offensive in the way it ought to be offensive.
The centerpiece of the Biblical text is of course the cross. I’m not willing to agree that everything that needs to be considered about the cross has already been said by a bunch of dead old white men, so all we need to do is read and write books that simply confirm how Calvin or Augustine or Aquinas or whoever else already had everything completely figured out. Because it’s only been in the last half-century post-Vatican II, post-Civil Rights, that non-white-male perspectives are starting to be heard.
When I read Gustavo Gutierrez, James Cone, Judith Butler, Delores Williams, Elsa Tamez, Jon Sobrino, Andrew Sung Park, and people like them, I hear a whole different side of the cross that’s completely absent from white evangelical theology. It’s not just atonement for sinners; it’s solidarity with victims of sin. Jesus’ cross is how black Christians survived the age of the lynching tree. Jesus’ cross is how Salvadoran Christians made sense of the martyrdom of their bishop Romero at the hands of the US-trained paramilitary. Jesus’ cross says to the outsiders Emmanuel, God is with you. When Jesus says take up your cross and follow me, he’s not telling me to commit to a banal, easy plan for suburban Christian living in which I do a daily devotional, tithe, and worship regularly. He’s saying you’re not with me unless you’re walking with the crucified outsiders.
5) How I fall into Derek’s list
So having provided that context, here is where I would personally fall regarding Derek’s list of seven issue-positions. He’s about 4 for 7 in describing me, sort of.
1) I’m definitely not a pacifist, because I stand in solidarity with oppressed people even if they use tactics in response to their oppression that I wouldn’t use myself and I also think that God’s wrath is real and legitimate and uncomfortably expressed in the violence of the oppressed against their oppressors.
2) I’m egalitarian in terms of gender because it’s never made sense not to be and I’ve mostly seen gender normativity used for unholy, idolatrous agendas such as the justification of segregation culture and its descendant suburbia.
3) I’m honestly agnostic when it comes to the Calvinist/Arminian debate; I cling to whatever truth about God works for whatever I’m facing because I don’t sit in the aloof distance from real life required to avoid self-contradiction. All I know is that I am where I am because of God’s grace, and the more I see my life as a product of God’s grace rather than my own effort, the more I experience joy and gratitude in my journey. At the same time, I will radically reject any attempt to make God’s sovereignty a stamp of approval on the status quo. God is an unrecognized sovereign, a hooded Aragorn riding secretly in our midst.
4) Regarding Biblical inerrancy, I don’t say any more or less than what the Bible says about itself in 2 Timothy 3:16: all of it is useful and God-breathed, but not necessarily historical and not necessarily composed of discrete facts about God’s character that I can cut and paste into a theological system. And Jesus’ revelation of God is uniquely perfect which makes other revelation even within the Bible inferior by definition: “No one has ever seen God; it is God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18).
5) I do believe in pervasive interpretive pluralism because I believe that God wants to build a body of different parts, not a pile of eyes or fingers, so in order to do that he gives each of us the gospel we need to play the role we’re called to play. We should not be seeking uniformity in the gospels that inspire us, but harmony, just as a body has many parts that are all connected and integrated with one another.
6) I’ve been trying for years to find the right nuance in my take on the cross’s penal substitution: the cross needs to justify us for us to stop justifying ourselves so, yes, some sort of penal/juridical element is critical to its salvation, but this doesn’t mean that God’s hands are tied by the abstract requirements of “justice” or that the cross is God’s anger-management system or any of the other stupid widely circulated caricatures that are promoted every week in the sermons of popular evangelicalism.
7) Regarding Derek’s category of so-called marriage revisionism, I don’t see gender complementarity as a gospel essential and I’ve actually seen it become a dangerous reactionary idol in our time. The Bible was written in a time when patriarchy was the social system used to organize families and protect women and children from sexual violence. Patriarchy meant that men had a responsibility to be fathers and husbands in a particular way. Patriarchy had a purpose in human development, but one of Christianity’s positive contributions to humanity is that it has evolved us beyond patriarchy (c.f. Galatians 3:28), even though it took us 20 stubborn centuries to do that and the tradition-bound church continues to resist this.
My post-patriarchal Christian sexual ethics comes from 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul lays out the purpose of his sexual teachings: “I want you to be free from anxiety… I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.” So those three things are criteria for which to evaluate all sexual activity: 1) freedom from anxiety, 2) good (social) order, and 3) unhindered devotion to the Lord. Thus, I think people of all sexual orientations and gender identities have the same range of potential for sex to become a dehumanizing idol or a means of experiencing divine intimacy.