When it comes to doctrine, we progressive Christians have nothing for which to apologize. We don't believe the old dogma that gets in the way of kindness, inclusion, science, and common sense. No wonder, then, that few of us know much about "apologetics", a major preoccupation of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who memorize answers to the dozens of common objections to their doctrines.
Recently I met with a student in an emotional crisis because she questioned the doctrines of the campus evangelical club to which she belongs. She was deeply disturbed about the origin of the Christian Bible. She rightly questioned the dogma that it is the literal Word of a supernatural God. She realized that the whole edifice of evangelical theology is founded on the assumption that the Bible is the true, final, authoritative expression of God's will. But if the Bible is the product of human beings with their own points of view and axes to grind, rather than directly inspired by The Guy in the Sky, that pulls the ace out of evangelicalism's tottery house of cards.
She asked specific questions, and I gave her specific answers. After forty-five minutes, she stood up and left because otherwise she was going to be late for class. As she walked out the door, I realized that while I answered her questions, I had failed to ask her ones that were just as important. Why does this question matter to you? How do you feel about your doubts and uncertainties? What is at stake for you in this exploration? Are you afraid that if you died right now, you might end up in hell? This is a real concern of many evangelical Christians who harbor doubts about the beliefs they are expected to espouse.
Progressive Christian unapologetics begins with deep compassion for people who have been mortally terrorized with the threat of eternal damnation for failing to accept doctrines that don't make sense to folks like this student who was blessed, or perhaps cursed, with a keen intellect and a natural curiosity.
We have little to defend, but a lot to describe. Because the oppressive religion that drove this smart, inquisitive young woman into an emotional and spiritual crisis has come to define Christianity in America. If we want to be effective in offering a viable alternative, we must explain our faith at three levels: street signs, elevator speeches, and white papers.
Some progressive Christian "street signs":
Love is our God: kindness is our religion
We keep the faith and drop the dogma
Our deeds are our creeds
The Jesus story is a true myth We take the Bible seriously, not literally Questions matter more than answers Our way to God is good, and so are other ways Park your car in our lot, but not your brain God is bigger than our religion God evolves and so does our faith
We celebrate same-sex marriages
A progressive Christian "elevator speech": In loving fellowship, we progressive Christians follow the historic traditions of Christian faith, interpreting and practicing them in light of social and scientific progress. We worship God, who is Love, and we follow Jesus' way of radical compassion. We find grace in intellectual engagement with our faith. We believe there is more value in questioning than in absolute answers. The Bible gives us a beautiful language to express our spiritual experience: we find inspiration in its myths and its poetry. We affirm that other religions can be as good for others as ours is good for us: we are eager to learn from other faiths. We are called to preserve our earth as a heavenly place of peace, justice, kindness, inclusion, and beauty. (More at The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity)
At one point in my conversation with the student, as I was describing the stories about Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures as mythological, she asked: "What about the plagues? You don't believe that the Nile turned to blood?" I answered: "No, but it is still an important part of the myth of the Exodus." Following an apologetic script, she said, "But it could have been an algae bloom in the water that turned it red." If that was the case, the red of the Nile was neither blood nor miracle, but rather a natural phenomenon needing no explanation based on supernatural intervention. One branch of evangelical apologetics consists of attempts to validate the miracle stories of the Bible in this futile manner.
Progressive Christianity offers liberation from such tortured mental gymnastics. There's another way to practice the faith, another way to understand it. One that takes all that energy wasted on defending the implausible, and focuses it on something much more difficult and important: loving our neighbors, and even our enemies, as radically as Jesus did.
(This is a longer version of what I shared on Monday 11-14 with my students in the Public Policy course I teach at the USC graduate School of Social Work. Most of them are very disturbed with the results of the election. About half of them have undocumented relatives, and are deeply concerned with their fate.)
What Happened And What To Do About It
On November 8, 58% of voting-age citizens cast ballots in the presidential election.In 2008, when Obama was elected, 64% cast ballots. When all the ballots are counted, Clinton will have won the popular vote by at least a million.Trump won the electoral college by squeaking ahead in some of the swing states: he was only 68,236 ahead in Pennsylvania, for example.
Donald Trump did not prevail in the election nearly so much as Hillary Clinton failed to win it. Too many people who otherwise agreed with her policies were uninspired by her candidacy.She failed to ignite enough passion to turn enough of them out to vote. Partly this was the result of an outrageous smear campaign against her, perpetrated for decades by Republicans but taken to the extreme in the past year.Donald Trump generated passion from part of the constituency that chose him, but many of his voters disliked him only slightly less than they disliked Clinton. A significant number of Republicans voted against him or just sat out the race.
President Obama explained the election this way, as quoted in today's LA Times (p A7): "... a pretty healthy majority of people agree (with Obama's vision)... The problem was, I couldn't convince a Republican Congress to pass a lot of them (Obama's initiatives)... Having said that, people seem to think I did a pretty good job. And so there is this mismatch between frustration and anger."
Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic voters have been with us for a long time.It remains to be seen if there really is an increase in the percentage of Americans who hold these views, and whether or not we really can credit them for the outcome of the election. The more fundamental cause is the Republican Party itself.Forty years of race-baiting code language by Republicans has culminated in Trump’s outright, unvarnished rhetoric of hate.Forty years of ranting that government is bad and taxes are evil, underscored by Republican mismanagement of government, have mesmerized many Americans into assuming that they can’t count on their elected officials to do anything useful.Six years of absolute intransigence by Republicans in Congress toward President Obama has stymied him from advancing the progressive agenda that reflects the real will of the people.This has demoralized folks across the political spectrum, contributing to many people’s sense that the whole system is futile, rigged, and corrupt.(The antique electoral college system, and its current consequences, only adds to this frustration.) The Republicans created the conditions for a demagogue like Donald Trump to rise to power. And we cannot count on them to clean up their mess.
The Democratic Party hardly has been flawless all this time; far from it. The Bernie Sanders revolution was and still is a healthy corrective to its failings. But let us not presume an immoral equivalence between the two parties.Overwhelmingly, blame must be laid at the feet of the Republican Party for systematically, cynically dashing the belief that our votes can result in social progress.
America may not have drifted into particularly worse racism, sexism, xenophobia, or homophobia, problematic as these prejudices remain. But it has become more frustrated. Most of our people still want what we wanted in 2008 when Obama was elected. Millions of voters have blamed Democrats for not delivering on policies that the Republicans would not allow them to enact. Hillary Clinton was defeated by the resulting demoralization. So it is vital to remember that this election in no way gives the Republican Party or Donald Trump himself a popular mandate to enact their policy platforms.
What To Do About It:
1)Be mindful.Practice meditation and prayer.Be aware of your reactions to the election.Examine your feelings carefully, with warmth and openness and an absence of judgment.Let your feelings be.Only then can you act carefully and intentionally, instead of reacting automatically and uselessly.Cultivate your moral imagination so that you can be profoundly empathetic even towards people you have never met nor ever will meet.Cultivate a sense of deep curiosity, through art and music, through listening to lectures and reading good books.Our national discourse more than ever needs us to be mindful, kind, respectful, open, interested, patient, and non-judgmental with people with whom we may disagree.
2)Be aware.Stop relying on Facebook and Twitter and "talking heads" as your sources for the news. These sources separate people into parallel universes of thinking and voting that barely intersect.They are a big part of the problem that was revealed on November 8; millions of voters blamed exactly the wrong people for the problems they see with the country. Social media flashes headlines based on your preferences, and what you prefer may well not be what you need to know.You’ll get vastly more information by reading good sources than by listening or watching.Read intelligently, professionally-curated news:The Economist Magazine, the New York Times, the LA Times.Read researched books by reputable authors that dig deep into public issues. Identify a few issues you are passionate about, and stay deeply informed about them. It’s our civic duty to know what is really going on, instead of relying on “echo chambers” like Fox “News” or Rachel Maddow. Know your Constitution and defend it: you can count on it being trampled by the Trump administration.
3) Belong. What organizations are politically advocating for the issues that matter to you?You can’t do it all.You can’t be involved in every important campaign that will resist the Trump agenda.So choose one or two, join them, and be seriously involved over time.It is okay to start small; you can grow in your commitment and involvement.Be patient, stick with it. John Oliver's list of organizations to support is a good one. To it I would add Progressive Christians Uniting, which amplifies and organizes the grassroots action of church folks at a national level - I'm an activist for it and a member of its board of directors. Belong to a faith community or a local community organization where you can have ongoing, face-to-face relationships with folks who are engaged with civic life. They will give you emotional and spiritual support to stay engaged for the long term.
4)Protest judiciously.Mass demonstrations can be powerfully useful, but not always.Pay close attention to the leadership of any protest you are inclined to join.Are the people behind it capable of managing the crowd safely and intelligently?Are they able to translate the protest into sustained, effective action afterward?Will the event serve any real purpose other than burning off angry energy?Is there a likelihood that the protest will backfire, serving only to energize the opposition to your cause?
5)Be an every-election voter, and gently urge everyone you know to make voting an unfailing habit.Be a “votivator”: share your voting choices, every time, with your friends and family members.Encourage them to do their own research, of course, but let them know that copying the voting choices of people they respect is a perfectly legitimate “entry level” for democratic participation.The more of us who vote, the more our politicians must attend to our interests and reach out to us for support. Some people are demotivated to vote by the Electoral College. But the fact that at least a million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump will still matter greatly in making the case that the Republicans do not have a popular mandate to move the country backward. Consider running for public office, or vigorously supporting others, particularly young people, who are considering doing so. All politics is local, it is said - certainly all politics starts at a local level. Progressives need to do a much, much better job of creating and maintaining a "pipeline" of talent for political office from the local to the national level.
“That Christianity has to be revealed and embodied in the line of social progress is a corollary to the simple proposition, that man's action is found in his social relationships in the way in which he connects with his fellows; that his motives for action are the zeal and affection with which he regards his fellows. By this simple process was created a deep enthusiasm for humanity; which regarded man as at once the organ and the object of revelation; and by this process came about the wonderful fellowship, the true democracy of the early Church, that so captivates the imagination.... The spectacle of the Christians loving all men was the most astounding Rome had ever seen.” …. “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” Jane Addams, social reformer, founder of Hull House in Chicago, 1892
A week ago, I had a noon meeting in downtown Long Beach. After the meeting, I ran to catch the Blue Line train to get back to Los Angeles. In my haste to cross the street, the toe of my shoe slipped on a slick steel rail, and down I went, planting my face on the cement. I hopped up and kept going, but quickly realized I was bleeding from the nose and lip. My clothes were scuffed and dirty. As I got on the train, people looked at me askance.
I had been transformed from a upstanding professional gentleman into a member of the underclass, in one second.
But when I got off the train, my wife, who is lovely in every way, scooped me up in our Prius and drove me to our nice house in the Hollywood hills, where a shower and clean clothes awaited me. In an hour I was an upstanding professional gentleman once again: bruised and scratched a bit, but otherwise presentable.
"The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life." I cannot think of a more perfect summation of my face-plant incident than this one from the legendary Jane Addams, the mother of the social work profession and of the public child welfare system of America. This sentence was the product of her Christian faith put into daily practice. I "secured good for myself" by choosing and marrying a remarkably wonderful woman, working hard to get through school, and getting and keeping a great job that pays well and affords my family excellent health insurance. But as I sat on the train, stanching blood from my lip with my hankie, I looked around myself at the regular riders on the Blue Line. It's the train that runs through South Central LA. A lot of those folks had nobody to pick them up at the end of the line, nobody to comfort them and whisk them away to get cleaned up and better-dressed. Had they worked any less to get what little they had? Did I deserve my advantages any more than they deserved their disadvantages? In my condition, it was harder than ever to answer in the affirmative.
My face-to-face encounter with the pavement was one of those "values clarification moments". It reminded me why I vote for political candidates who are committed to social justice. striving to create a society that ensures real help in fall-down-flat situations: those disasters that are not "respecters of persons" (Acts 10:34, KJV).
The philosopher John Rawls undergirded Jane Addams' values when he posited a hypothetical gathering of the unborn. What kind of social arrangements would we make if we collectively designed them before knowing what sex, race, ethnicity, nationality, and social-economic status we would enter as babies? It is hard to imagine that we'd choose the current American system of wildly unequal access to good medical care and schools, inadequate social insurance, and extreme differences in exposures to crime and pollution. It is hard to imagine that in a constitutional convention of the unborn, they would fail to choose what prevails in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway: relatively low income inequality, generous social insurance, universal health care, excellent free education for all, lively democracy, freedom of speech, religion, conscience, and enterprise.
I'm voting for the candidates with policy positions that align most closely with this vision. Life is precarious for us all. We're vertical one second, horizontal the next. We're all on the Blue Line train together, hurtling into an uncertain future. We owe it to each other, and to the Divine Love that binds us all together, to set things up so that there will be comfort and care for everybody at the end of the line - no matter the circumstances into which they were born.