What Does It Mean to Be a Progressive Christian?

I sat with a small group of colleagues one Saturday to engage in the discussion.  We describe ourselves as “Progressive Christians,” but we wondered:  what does that really mean?  As expected, there were a wide range of opinions and insights.

It helps to know that all the members of the group have been engaged in ministry for a couple of decades each.  The group is diverse:  African-American, Korean, Japanese descent, and Caucasian women and men.  We each have very different theological education but we all agree that the traditional theological categories make little sense today.  The traditional categories we learned represent social contexts and understandings about life that are no longer held today.

For example, the foundation of much of Christian theology was articulated when people believed that Earth was the center of the universe and that humanity was the height of God’s creation.  Today we know that Earth is a minor planet in the far reaches of the universe and circles an ordinary star.  In addition, we understand that the ages of humans as the dominant creature characterizes this geological era, but there have been other era and other dominant creatures. Also, homo sapiens are only one species of humans in the genus of human beings.  In other words, the understanding of the human context in the universe has changed.  As Progressive Christians, we recognize that our understanding of God must also change.

As a group, it was easy for us to affirm that Christianity is but one wisdom and faith tradition that holds truth for human living.  It’s the tradition of which we are part, but that doesn’t make it better or worse that other paths, like Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, or Islam.

We also agreed that the essential importance of Christianity is found in the teachings of Jesus as a moral and ethical guide to living.  Throughout the teachings of Jesus, major themes are quite clear:  carrying for others, giving of self, and treating those marginalized in society with deep respect are hallmarks for what it means to be Christian.

As I thought more about this, it struck me how essentially different Progressive Christian is from the very popular American Evangelical Christian understanding of Christianity.  Among American Evangelicals, salvation in the after-life is more important than anything else.  Salvation is achieved by asking Jesus to come into one’s life and heart.  The funny thing about this Evangelical concept of salvation is that it’s not something that can be found in the teachings of Jesus.  Instead, the teachings of Jesus were real life and practical.  It’s pretty clear in the Gospel attributed to John, where Jesus is recorded as saying, “By this will others know that you are my followers:  by your love for one another.”  Even in the Gospel attributed to Matthew, the final judgment at the end of time is based on what people did for others.

I think that the faulty foundation of American Evangelical Christianity has resulted in Evangelical Christians holding positions that appear to be askew from the Biblical tradition and life in the twenty-first century.  American Evangelicals believe that Jesus was born to die for the sins of the world and so that individuals can go to heaven. If that’s true, then essentially everything that happened between his birth in Bethlehem and the cross of Calvary has not merit.    Instead, as is the practice of Evangelicals, a person can simply ask Jesus to save you and it’s all good.  There’s no need to do the difficult work of putting oneself in second place and put those in need ahead of my interests.  If a person isn’t bound to follow the mandate of Jesus to care for our neighbors as exemplified in the story of the Good Samaritan, then there’s no need to root our prejudice from one’s own life.

For me, as a Progressive Christian, what’s fundamental for being a Christian is striving to embody the way of life Jesus taught.  It’s not about pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die.  Instead, it’s the realization that God’s realm is here and now. As a Christian, it’s critical for me to live in a way that’s rooted in the care of others, our planet, and those who will come after me.  After all, that’s the way of living taught by Jesus.  In the end, my colleagues came to the same conclusion.  It’s that which makes us Progressive Christians.

What’s most important in Christianity?  Going to heaven or treating people well on Earth.

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© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Whose Lives Matter?

Which statement is most consistent with your worldview:  Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter?

Do all lives matter?  When that question is asked today, we assume that the topic is related to the people killed by police.  As significant as issues related to policing are today in the United States, asking if all lives matter should draw up to a range of issues.

Among all racial groups in the United States, life expectancy is lowest for Black men.  Life expectancy among Black men is 71.8 years.  The longest life expectance rates in the US are among white women:  81.3 years.  What do these figures indicate about whose lives matter?

What about the rates of people living in poverty?  Native Americans living on reservations face a poverty rate of 39%.  For Blacks, the poverty rate is 26%.  And whites? 9%.  Whose lives matter?

Similar statistics can be found on other measures of quality of life, like access to health care and access to education and good quality schools.  Consistently, Native Americans and Blacks score lowest on all measures that can be used to answer the question:  do all lives matter?  The clear answer is that all lives are not given the same value in American society.

This should not be surprising to anyone in the United States who is familiar with the history of the country.  The Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock did not profess equality for all people. Rooted in Calvinism, they held a firm belief in predestination:  by God’s will, only some lives mattered and they would be saved.  The Anglicans who established a settlement at Jamestown were different, but no better. It was the Cavaliers, the young sons of the English gentry, who came to the New World to establish a feudal system of lords and peasants.  When 17th century English peasant farmers could not be persuaded to come to the American colonies for an indentured life on Southern plantations, African slaves were introduced as the most appropriate workers for the field.  For the Cavaliers who began settlements in the South, only some lives mattered: those of the white gentry.

Today, while we profess a belief that all people are equal, it is clear that some are “more equal than others,” to quote George Orwell.  Access to government, the tax structure, and so many other aspects of American society benefit the wealthy and illustrate that some lives matter more than others.

While this topic has clear political ramifications, it is also deeply spiritual.  How do we view others and their worth?  Are we willing to consider that our view of others has been culturally shaped by values of racism and classism?  Do our actions and beliefs convey unexamined assumptions that some lives matter more than others?

Ultimately, because my worldview is shaped by the Judeo-Christian belief that all people are created in God’s image and likeness and that we are all children of God, I affirm that all lives matter.  But because “Black lives” and “Native American lives” have not been equally included in American culture, it’s critical for me to affirm that Native American lives and Black lives matter.  What is happening to those marginalized in society should be of concern for us all.

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How does your spiritual practice enable you to work for the benefit of those marginalized in our society?

 

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© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Love That Is Disordered

Have there been times in your life when you’ve chosen your own benefit at the expense of others? 

I was spending a few days at an event with colleagues.  After breakfast, a long-time friend pulled me aside to talk.  She quietly told me that she wanted to share something personal and asked that I keep it confidential.  I assured her that the information would go no further.  To my dismay, she shared that she had recently been diagnosed with a chronic, crippling illness.  While the prognosis wasn’t good, her doctor explained that because the diagnosis was made early, treatment would likely extend her quality of life for many years.  She also said that she was only telling me and one other colleague she considered a friend. I hugged my friend and let her know she had my support and that I’d be available should she want a listening ear.  We then went to the next scheduled event.

Later that day at lunch, I sat at a table with some people I knew.  My friend who shared the news of her illness was not there.  But the other person she told was at the same table.  Over dessert, this woman said to the group, “There’s something I have to share with you but please keep it quiet.  So-and-so is very ill and it doesn’t look good.”  The gossip began.

When we left the table, I stopped the woman who shared the news and told her that I was aware the she and I were both given that information in confidence.  I asked why she shared it.  She replied, “The others would want to know, so I decided to tell them.”  She seemed to have no recognition that she betrayed a friend.

In his writings, St. Augustine, the fifth century theologian of the Christian tradition, addressed what he called disordered love.  It’s a great term and simply refers to love that is out of order or wrongly prioritized.  The woman who gossiped and broke an agreed-to confidence  loved the power and influence of gossip more than she loved her friend.  Rather than being faithful to her friend, she chose to betray her friend by sharing information so as to appear “in the know.”

Disordered love seems to characterize many things that occur in our society today.  Many people love greed more than honesty and transparency.  This was the basis of the mortgage crisis of 2009.  Other people love their careers more than their spouses or children.  This leads to broken relationships.  Many people love pleasure and comfort more than responding to the needs of others. This results in growing poverty and homelessness.  It’s not that making money, having comfort, and pursuing a career are wrong.  But when our love of things is out of order, people are hurt.

Augustine believed that sin was essentially disordered love.  As is evident from the examples I gave, disordered love is rooted in individuals having their priorities out of balance.  The result of an individual’s disordered love is communal and social:  it can impact loved ones and friends and, when others share the same misprioritizing of things, can impact societies, economies, and policies.

Love is properly ordered when people are grounded in the reality of who they are and live in right-relationships with others.  I find that being properly grounded in who we are is the primary task of spiritual practice.  Time in prayer and meditation pulls us away from all the clutter of our days and into the simple reality of being people created in the Divine Image.  It’s from that place that we can relate to others in a properly ordered sense of love.

When we learn to spend time regularly, to sit in silent prayer and meditation, we are better able to let go of ambitions that result in disordered love.  Instead, we embrace with humility who we are, experience great peace within us, grow to respect others, and move toward respectful relationships with people in our lives.

What are ways that regular spiritual practice can help you live in right-relationship with yourself and others?

 

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© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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