If you are reading this “Progressive Christian” blog, chances are you already know that Christianity is not a homogenous family. There are deep disagreements. Some of them, like whether or not we actually eat Christ at the communion table, end up being a distinction without a difference, and have no impact whatsoever on the lives of anyone outside the church. Others, like whether Black Lives Matter or whether LGBT+ people have the right to exist, do impact the real world, in ways that touch the lives of the most vulnerable and oppressed among us.
Two days ago, former Evangelical pastor Randy Alcorn posted a column to this same platform (albeit a very different channel) that highlights well the difference between his understanding of what it means to be “Christian” and mine. He titled it, “Black Lives Do Matter, But the BLM Organization Opposes Christian Values: So What Should We Do?” Of course, there are countless evangelical blogs out there making similar points, but this one is lengthy, complex and articulate, which makes it ripe for criticism. Alcorn is also a well-established, smart theologian and writer with over fifty books to his name and a worldwide reputation, which I assume means he can take it.
To be clear, this post is not intended to be a “takedown.” Tactics like that aren’t very Christian to begin with, and the truth is that Alcorn is right on nearly every point if you choose to proceed from his (standard evangelical) set of assumptions. But those assumptions themselves are the shibboleths that divide “evangelical” from “progressive,” and they are worth at least some analysis.
The article opens with a number of paragraphs dedicated to Alcorn’s own credentials, and a plea for a careful, discerning read. Tellingly, Acorn identifies, ”if we were black we would probably think very differently than we do about racial prejudice and instinctively trusting police.” One common thread throughout conservative evangelicalism is that they see a real, concrete, meaningful divide between “we” and “black.” The centered perspective is not that of Christ, or of the entire body of Christ, but is instead that of white conservative Christians. There is nothing in this article that would hint at explicit, conscious racism on Alcorn’s part, but this is just one of many places where an implicit bias toward whiteness and white supremacy shows out.
The formal move to open with Alcorn’s own credentials, too, feels a lot more Pauline than Christian. And this too is a distinct difference in the way we approach theology. While I would agree with Paul’s advice that “all scripture” is inspired and useful (2Tim 3:16), I have noticed a trend where evangelicals tend to rely mostly on on the recipients of God’s word, like Paul or Moses, where progressives tend to rely on the originators of God’s word, in the person of Christ and the promise of the Spirit (Jn 14:15-21). This is true not only in the theology itself, but also in the ever-present appeal to personal authority, reminiscent of Paul’s self aggrandizement (see, e.g., Gal 1) or Moses’ failure to uphold God as holy instead of himself (Num 20:10-12).
Following this introduction, Alcorn moves into a distinction between the plain statement “black lives matter,” which he agrees is “100% right,” and the BLM organization. The bulk of the article is a point-by-point analysis of values BLM holds, compared to what Alcorn lifts up as “Christian values.” The problem, as with most evangelical writing, is that Alcorn relies almost exclusively of conservative logic rather than scripture to make his points. There is no Christ in what he calls “Christian.”
Following is a list of the “values” Alcorn mentions:
BLM Value: “trained Marxists”
Alcorn Value: anti-Marxist
Scriptural backing: none
Other backing: Alcorn directs the reader to “read up on Marxism” without providing any resources to do so. This is clever, as most search results on Google, etc would lead to right-wing conspiracy theories instead of actual Marxist thought, but it is ultimately a common and disingenuous tactic. Alcorn also points out that Soviet Christians he met in 1990 “hated” Marxism. He fails to mention the Soviet Union never actually practiced it.
BLM Value: “reproductive justice” and “autonomy over our bodies”
Alcorn Value: pro-life
Scriptural backing: none
Other backing: Alcorn uses standard boilerplate from the pro-life movement, including several loaded rhetorical questions. He also points to another blog that claims a “war on unborn children.” Alcorn does not mention that a) Christ is silent on the topic of abortion, and b) the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) scriptures offer conflicting views, including, among other things, an actual command to abort fetuses created through adultery (Num 5:11-31). While this is far from a settled theological question, Alcorn’s omissions show an unwillingness to fairly support his argument that the BLM value of reproductive justice “opposes Christian values.”
BLM Value: “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure”
Alcorn Value: pro nuclear family
Scriptural backing: none
Other backing: Alcorn points to an article from the Atlantic showing certain advantages to the nuclear family in American culture, and to a youtube video citing difficulties families in the black community face without supportive fathers, etc. Alcorn fails to mention that most Biblical family structures look nothing like the American nuclear family; fails to make any analysis of alternatives other than broken nuclear families; and fails to even identify what alternate structures BLM might be referring to. Alcorn also makes an inflammatory reference to “gender confusion,” which is another standard, but unsupported, evangelical talking point. Finally, Alcorn links to sports commentator Marcellus Wiley as some sort of authoritative backing (using the age-old fallacy of “if one black person says it”), but the link goes to a video that is “unavailable” for viewing.
BLM Value: “defund the police”
Alcorn Value: “we can’t afford to lose all those good cops…”
Scriptural Backing: none
Other backing: Alcorn links to youtube and twitter to show that at least one person’s life has been saved by a police officer, and at least one black police officer was injured in anti-racist protests in Portland. He also states that “cop friends” have told him “good younger cops are seriously looking into changing careers.” Alcorn makes no mention whatsoever of what defunding the police might look like, how it might change police culture, or what the actual effect would be on “good young cops.”
Alcorn ends this section by stating without any backing at all that “the great majority” of BLM protestors have no idea what the BLM organization stands for, and a reaffirmation of his thesis that while black lives do matter, the organization (he believes) holds anti-Christian values.
Alcorn goes on to convincingly argue “answering with ‘All Lives Matter’ isn’t productive,” which any progressive would agree with, likely for reasons similar to those he listed. He admonishes his readers “don’t read into ‘Black Lives Matter’ to make it say more than it does.” He suggests four alternative phrases, any of which carry essentially the same meaning as “black lives matter” without being a verbatim statement of the organization’s name. Then he gives some intriguing “final thoughts.” He asks his readers to respond to “the ‘Black lives matter’ issue” not as “conservative or liberal,” but as “followers of Jesus”; he asks his readers to “listen well” beyond what evangelicals are (typically) known for; he uses actual scripture to support his (and Paul’s) argument that “everyone ought to examine themselves”; He points out that racism is real; and so on. In the end, he asks all of us to “destroy the barrier” of race in America the same way Paul claims Christ “destroyed the barrier” between Jews and Gentiles—a very laudable, if complex, goal.
A Progressive Response
There are straw men here. There are critical omissions. There are a number of other logical fallacies. But these happen in blogs—certainly mine is not free of them. The main difference, however, between Alcorn’s evangelicalism and my progressivism is that Alcorn relies primarily on doctrine and dogma, while I rely primarily on scripture. If you are an evangelical it is very likely you take at face value that police are good, gays are bad, blacks are not like you, and so on. But these are not the words of Christ. These are the words of your pastor, or of writers like Alcorn who claim to represent Christ. As a progressive Christian, I believe—as Alcorn himself explicitly states—that we are to respond to social issues like BLM as “followers of Christ.” The key difference is that I think Christ is capable of speaking for himself, and any “Christian” doctrine should be rooted in what he has to say.
One way of reading the Bible is as the story of an evolving covenant between God and God’s creation. Throughout scripture, covenants are made and broken. Nations suffer as a consequence. But God keeps trying. Eventually, after Christ completes his earthly ministry, is executed by a police state, and returns to offer final instructions to those who would follow his path, he says:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you (Jn 14:15-17, NRSV).
To what “commandments” does Christ refer? When asked directly what the “greatest” commandment was, Christ quotes Deuteronomy to say, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say, “and a second is like it: ‘you shall love you neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt. 22:35-40; cf. Mk 12:28-34, Lk. 10:27).
Everything hangs on love of God and neighbor, which are essentially the same. Keep these commandments, and the Spirit of truth will guide you. Is it more loving to support shared resources, extended family structures, the right of LGBT+ people to exist, the dismantling of racist police departments, etc—or is it more loving to attack these ideas without fairly representing them or providing any support from scripture?
I don’t doubt Alcorn’s good intentions. But I do object to him representing his personal convictions as “Christian” values when they are not anchored in Christ, and when so many Christians in the world disagree.