You Can’t See When You Turn Your Back

You Can’t See When You Turn Your Back November 18, 2016

In an earlier blog I suggested that in the United States there were two different religions named Christianity. Now an article in Christianity Today has given a good good analysis of the theology of one of these emerging religions, a religion shaped by the theology of Norman Vincent Peal.

If we’ve made an inquiry into the theology behind self-identified evangelicals voting for Donald Trump, we might ask about the theology behind the abject failure of progressive Christians to see this happening. Why were Christian progressives so surprised and  disappointed on election night?

One clue comes from the fact that Donald Trump carried 100 times as many counties in the US as Hillary Clinton. In other words Clinton got all her support from cities while Trump got most of his support from rural areas. This may not have been surprising, but it surprised progressives. They were surprised because rural and small town America are typically not of interest to progressive Christians, or for that matter mainline denominations. The latter are looking for demographic growth and young people, neither of which are found in rural areas. The former, well let’s just say that the “heartland” isn’t interesting exactly because its the heartland.

Progressive theology is driven by a distinction between the center and the margins. We construct center and margin in different ways: in terms of political power, economic power, ethnicity, religion, or class. Regardless progressives believe that the Reign of God is being most fully actualized at the margins. That is where progress is being made.

In progressive theology Jesus came to the marginalized and Jesus came for the marginalized. And Jesus works at the hard boundary where exclusion can and should become inclusion of those outside the margins into the Reign of God. In a liberationist mode God has a preferential option for those on the margins, usually described in terms of wealth but equally class, race, gender, and religion. And since that is where God prefers to be, so progressives prefer to be there as well. Naturally.

The down side of this is that progressives find the center uninteresting. Progress is always progress away from something and not merely toward something. If you belong to that large majority of Christians who are not perceived to be marginalized (and lets face it, not everyone can be on the margins) then you simply aren’t in the place where God’s Reign is happening. Your job is to get out of the center and go to the margins.

This is why progressives have either no interest or a negative regard for megachurches. They appear to be nothing other than a huge center, not a place on the margins or even with margins where you find the  gospel of Jesus among the marginalized.

And this is why progressives paid little attention to the vast swaths of America that were outside our multi-cultural and multi-religious and complexly gendered and sexual cities. Would progressive Christians ever think of Murfreesburough if its citizens hadn’t apposed a mosque? Or of Farmersville without the Muslim graveyard controversy?

To get a progressive to even consider visiting North Dakota it would take a pipeline running across the lands of marginalized Native Americans. To get a progressive to even have a glance at their fellow Christians in the big city suburbs it would take an overt act of racism, misogyny, gay bashing, or anti-Muslim bigotry that indicated at least the momentary appearance of a margin and the marginalized. Progressive theology is like the old “no fear” T-shirts from Nike, “If you aren’t standing on the edge you’re taking up too much room.”

This doesn’t mean that we progressives can’t see the truth when its flung in their faces, Post election progressives (at least most I know) have realized that we forgot people who are not marginalized in obvious terms of race, gender, sexuality, wealth and religion but who are lost and excluded in other ways. So like the Democrats, we’ve been quick to identify with the now obviously marginalized blue collar and rural America. A new margin is a new place to make progress in extending God’s Reign, although the odds of a progressive leaving the city and actually spending time out in the countryside are slim to none.

But maybe the problem isn’t pivoting from one margin to another. Maybe the problem is this entire progressive conceptualization of the way in which God works in the world.

In the New Testament manifestations of the Reign of God appear wherever Jesus encounters people alienated from that reign. Some of these people are on the margins of society when one takes into account power, status, ethnicity, religion, prestige, and wealth. Others are on other margins of God’s Reign. Matthew and Zaccheus could both set fine tables for wealthy friends, but were no more welcome at the tables of the self-righteous religious leaders than a day laborer and a person with a skin disease. And the Roman centurion, rife with the uncleanliness of the gentiles, was welcome at no one’s table but his own.

Going further, the gospels also tell us about victims of demons, disease, death, and hunger. Think for a moment about the woman “with a flow of blood” who had spent all her livelihood on doctors. In 1st century Palestine she clearly was not among the impoverished of the land – people for whom there was neither money nor doctors. Nor was the widow of Nain, whose son Jesus raised from the dead, necessarily on the margins of society. Large crowds don’t usually turn out for the funerals of the marginalized, although reading contemporary social norms into ancient texts is problematic. In any case the issue here isn’t social marginalization – it is the dislocation caused by disease and death. It had a social dimension because of Jewish laws of ritual purity and the diminished status of women without husbands and sons in Jewish society. But the fact that in these cases Jesus announces God’s reign through healing and resurrection suggests that disease and death are the most significant sources of marginalization.

Or consider the Geransene demoniac. He was certainly marginalized in a social sense. Yet living in the wilderness was a result of his spiritual condition, a condition created by demons and dictating that he live in their realm. His restoration through exorcism was on two axis, one social and one spiritual, neither of which alone adequately interprets the meaning of the story. Unfortunately progressive theology frequently cannot recognize this because it typically doesn’t recognize such demonic spiritual dislocation and relocation as real, and thus collapses it into social marginalization and relocation. It is preeminently theology in what Taylor calls “the immanent frame.”

Ultimately social centers and social margins are an inadequate theological rubric for understanding where people are located in relation to God’s Reign. More importantly, they are not the way that most Christians understand themselves in relation to God’s Reign. Like it or not, Christians continue to believe that sin, not least personal sin, is the most marginalizing force in their lives. Disease, death, demon possession, poverty and hunger follow close behind. Thus a righteousness that cannot be reduced to justice, and a healing that cannot be reduced to acceptance is a critical feature of their entry into God’s Reign. And this means in turn that such Christians feel marginalized by a progressive theology that doesn’t comprehend their experience of spiritual marginalization regardless of their social location.

The work of Tex Sample, in particular his works on blue collar Christianity, are quite relevant here. Himself a progressive, as a sociologist he could see that a mainline Christian gospel simply didn’t speak to the existential situation and understanding of what he called “hard living” people. And this presidential election has shown that he was correct. (Hard Living People and Mainstream Christians)

Committed to an inadequate model of God’s mission, progressives turned their backs on people who should never have been left behind. These then turned, for many reasons, to a leader who appeared to be concerned about them and their way of seeing and experiencing the world. We can critique the inadequacies of an evangelical theology that gave Donald Trump credence with voters. But if progressives want to get back in touch we need to abandon our equally inadequate center/margin understanding of Christ’s work and the the mission of the Church. It is often said, and I believe it to be true, that Hillary Clinton was a good progressive Christian. That may have been part of the problem in ways not easily seen from the margins looking out.

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