The Bible says not to be a selfish, hateful jerk. So you should be progressive, like me. Obvious, right? Well, no. Please stop. Sit down. We need to talk, because you’re hurting our ability to talk about politics in a constructive or loving way when you do that.
I don’t like the attempt to make Jesus into a gun-toting, welfare condemning, war-on-terror condoning hang-em-high Republican. That sort of cultural myopia is just cringeworthy. But if you’re going to condemn it, don’t go and do something just as cringeworthy by saying that to the extent that someone has an ounce of Christian virtue, they’re a left-wing liberal or progressive – just like you. Fundamentalism comes in more than one flavour.
I honestly don’t know whether or not the American “right” would have me. Not that I mind if they wouldn’t have me, because I care more about my values than I do about theirs. But if you’re going to attack them by explaining that your own values as a Christian are biblical and the Bible teaches that you should hold “progressive” values rather than conservative values, you need to avoid certain double standards. Specifically, it’s OK to fault them for simplistically assuming that those Christians who disagree with them politically must therefore not really care what the Bible says, but don’t then turn around and make exactly the same small-minded mistake that you think they are making. Pointing out the cringeworthiness of other people’s assumptions is great, as long as you don’t do it in a cringeworthy manner.
A friend of mine linked me to an article by Benjamin Corey of “Formerly Fundie,” in which he says that reading the Bible made him a progressive, and he gives “10 reasons why I think reading your Bible more frequently will make you a more Progressive Christian.” I read through the list and I just sat there for a few minutes, saying (not out loud) “there’s no hope.” There is no hope, I thought, of getting people to see that they are not offering a liberated perspective that breaks free from the political crap that (especially American) conservatives are often accused of when it comes to their approach to religious faith. What I read was exactly the same kind of lamentable posturing, albeit from the other side of the ideological fence. Here are Mr Corey’s ten reasons.
1. The more I read my Bible, the more I realize that I don’t have it all together.
Growing up I was frequently reminded that the Bible, through the Holy Spirit will convict us of sin… and you know what, it’s true. The more I get to know my Bible the more I realize how deeply flawed I am… which makes me see others more compassionately, because I am reminded that they are just like me.
As I read through this, I was waiting for moment where the conservatives were supposed to stop and say “wait, that’s not true!” But it never came. To characterise non-progressives (i.e. conservatives) as people who think they have it all together and who believe that they never struggle with sin is simply insulting, bringing no light to the reader at all.
Many who want to style themselves as open minded, compassionate progressives simply hate (or act as though they hated) those they deem to be advocating points of view that are too conservative.
2. The more I read my Bible, the more I develop humility.
The Apostle Paul says that we should view our sins as being worse than anyone else, and that we should view ourselves as walking examples of how patient God is with people who can’t get it together. When I am honest about my life, that is absolutely true. I am a walking example of someone who knows how to test God’s patience, and my sins are just as bad as whatever yours might be.
As before, I read through this, expecting to reach a point where I thought “Oh, you’ll lose your conservative readers there. They won’t agree with that.” And again, it simply never came. Are there smug or arrogant conservatives who don’t have enough humility? Sure! Are there smug or arrogant “progressives”? Naturally! In fact there’s a palpable irony at work in an article that calls us to be more progressive, because progressives like the author have better Christian character, unlike those other people. I really see no way out of this, since the author identifies as a progressive and maintains that if we were more compassionate and humble, we’d be more progressive.
3. The more I read my Bible, the more I discover that justice for the poor and oppressed is at the heart of it.
I wasn’t all that concerned about the poor and oppressed until I opened my Bible… and discovered that commands to care for them are all over the place from the Old Testament, all the way through the New Testament. I tried to escape it and explain it away, but I can’t– God wants us to care for, serve, and love these people.
A theme rears its head here, a theme that I will return to later: “I wasn’t all that concerned about the poor and oppressed…” But again: We should care for, serve, and love poor and oppressed people. Take even a godless libertarian like Penn Jillette, and he’ll tell you the same. But non-progressive Christians don’t believe this? Does this really mark a point of difference between those who are “progressive” and those who are not?
4. The more I read my Bible, the more I realize “redistribution of wealth” wasn’t Obama’s idea– it was God’s.
That redistribution of wealth stuff? Yeah, it’s in the Bible and was actually God’s idea. In the Old Testament we have years of Jubilee, restrictions on gleaning your garden more than once, a command from God that there should be “no poor among you”, and prophets who came to denounce the nation when the rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer. Let’s not give Obama the credit– God thought of it first.
It is an almost surprisingly blinkered approach to assume that those who do not believe in caring for the poor your way must therefore not believe in caring for the poor at all.
5. The more I read my Bible, the more I realize that the early Christians actually practiced this re-distribution of wealth.
Those early Christians? Well, for a time they actually practiced some radical economic principles. And, guess what? The book of Acts tells us that there weren’t any poor people among them. They rejected individual ownership, gave their wealth to leadership who in turn, redistributed it according to need.
Someone becomes persuaded that being progressive is more caring and loving, so they start citing biblical passages about giving and loving as evidence that Scripture should make us more progressive.
6. The more I read my Bible the more I realize Jesus taught we need to pay our taxes.
After reading 4 and 5, some are probably saying “yeah, but that was never supposed to be the government’s job”. Well, in the life of Jesus we see him tell someone that he should “sell everything and give it to the poor”, and to yet another we see that Jesus commands us to pay our taxes. So, it looks like we’re not getting off the hook either way– we need to pay our taxes AND give private charity.
Obviously, progressives aren’t the only ones who pay their taxes. So what’s going on here? Well, progressives favour taxpayer funded welfare, and conservatives don’t, preferring private giving. I’m not about to delve into the reasons of either group, that’s just a summary. And what is Mr Corey’s point here? That Jesus said we should pay taxes, and that means that we should support taxpayer funded welfare. The trouble is, it doesn’t mean that at all. That cannot have been what Jesus meant, since there was no taxpayer funded welfare in the world in which he said those words. Again, I’m not denying the legitimacy of taxpayer funded welfare, but to think that this is a good argument for it is absurd. So sure, pay taxes. But this is not a distinctive mark of progressive thought. This simply marks a point of difference between tax evaders and law abiding citizens.
7. The more I read my Bible, the more I realize that God wants us to be people who are quick to show mercy.
The prophet Micah says that “loving mercy” is actually something God “requires” of us. Jesus tells us that justice and mercy are the “more important” parts of God’s law.
And as everyone knows, people who don’t identify as “progressive” are vicious bastards. What? You didn’t know that? But you’re supposed to assume that!
8. The more I read my Bible, the more I realize that God cares how we treat immigrants.
Whenever God lists out a group of people that he wants his people to take care of, immigrants make the cut.
Here, Corey has a point (by my count that’s two so far, even though Corey has reached item number 8 on his list). Attitudes towards immigrants, in Scripture, is a subset of the wider issue of our attitudes towards outsiders and outcasts. And people who are very politically conservative very often want to see tight restrictions on immigration. Australia’s record of treating refugees in particular stands out as an example of how not to treat them (although interestingly it doesn’t seem to have mattered terribly much whether the reigning Australian government was left or right).
Of course there is still a discussion to be had about why immigrants were among those that God called people to look out for. What about people who immigrate illegally, thereby gaining advantages over those who do it legally? Should progressives care about their honesty? My own view of immigration would probably be deemed “progressive,” although in truth it’s a pretty old fashioned conservative view. Mr Corey, like many, identifies progressivism in a very modern way. Classical liberals and libertarians are hardly progressives, yet those outlooks support a fairly open stance on immigration.
9. The more I read my Bible, the more I realize that God will hold us accountable for how we care for the environment.
The more I read my Bible, the more I see that God’s original mandate for humanity, was to care for creation– we were designed for and given the task of being environmental conservationists. In the end? Well, we see that God is going to judge quite harshly those who refused:
“The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth” (Rev 11:18)
Not sure how to escape it– God wants me to care for and protect the environment, so I will.
I’m double-minded about this one. On the one hand there’s a kernel of truth to it. We should care for the environment, and conservatives – or at least some fundamentalists who expect the world to be destroyed at any moment – don’t really emphasise this a lot, and probably not as much as they should (although for what it’s worth, I suspect that progressives generally ignore those conservatives who are not like this).
But at the same time this proof-text method of defending this notion made me gag. Does Mr Corey (or anyone) think that when the book of Revelation was written, the writer was really talking about large-scale pollution of the environment? Does he think earth here means our rivers and lakes? How come “people of the earth” just means the people who live on the earth, but “destroyers of the earth” doesn’t mean the destroyers who live on the earth? Or if, as per Mr Corey’s suggestion, it should be taken to mean “those who destroy the earth,” why suppose that the writer means people whose industry emits gases and sludge? Surely the more obvious target here is nations who make war – a point that could have been incorporated into a critique of some varieties of conservatism.
10. The more I read my Bible, the more I realize that God isn’t judging us by whether or not we get all of our doctrine right– he’s judging us by whether or not we get the “love one another” part right.
This aspect wasn’t a major player in my faith before, but the more I read the Bible the more I realize that God is less concerned with us all sharing the same doctrine but is heavily concerned with whether or not we love each other. In fact, Jesus said this would be the calling card of his followers, and how others would realize we’re actually following Jesus– that we love one another.
Once again, the narrative is being spun that if you’re a conservative, then you’re not loving, and if only you realised that we should be loving, you’d be more progressive, because really, that is the only way to be loving. The shallowness of the argument is such that by this point the reader who isn’t already drunk on the smugness of being a progressive-and-therefore-a-better-person will likely switch off.
Repenting of the past: Whose sins are the problem?
If you think that you were a rotten, awful, greedy, unloving, uncaring, selfish, inconsiderate, judgemental, environmentally irresponsible ogre, then heap that blame on yourself. Repent of your own sins and mourn your old self. Do not try to make yourself feel better by projecting your failures onto those who think differently from you.
Obviously this sort of blinkered shallowness is a bad thing. Obviously it’s deeply reactionary. Obviously it’s little more than a mirror image of the very worst that it seeks to condemn, and obviously it brings very little, if any, light to discussions over why people should favour a politically progressive outlook over a conservative one. It’s no more meaningful than a bullet-pointed list of proof texts for why you should believe the traditional view of hell, including such gems as “because the Bible says hell is real,” or an argument that we should be libertarians because God condemned Israel when they wanted a king, warning them that the king would take their private property. And yet, I am very suspicious, based on Mr Corey’s article along with the comments on it, that those who would wheel out this sort of thing – whether they style themselves as progressives or conservatives – are unlikely to see that they are taking part in this sort of partisan, fundamentalist game. Never do I feel more “in the middle” than when reading this sort of thing.
What can we do about it?
But wait, I’m being all reactionary in nature. True, how about something positive to say about this sad situation? Although I doubt that anyone would consider me a “progressive” (a fact I’m happy with), I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I don’t think that there is a sensible way to go about making a biblical case for a progressive outlook – although whether or not it can be made well will depend on the evidence. What we would have to avoid is simply trotting out biblical principles that those on both side accept, and imagining that this tacitly supports our way of enacting those principles. We would need to seek out examples of the biblical writers calling for people to put biblical principles into practice in the way that we think they should be putting them into practice, and preferably examples where the biblical writers emphasise that this is the right way of putting them into practice. Plus, if the Bible really does extol values that progressives cherish but conservatives do not (so, not something like “love people”), then we would include examples where the biblical writers do this.
So here goes, I am going to tell you what sort of a cumulative case you would have to make for the view that the Bible calls us to a progressive faith:
1. The Bible affirms communal responsibility for the well-being of everyone in the community, as far as this is possible.
This is like the wealth redistribution point that Mr Corey makes. But you’d have to be more careful with the examples. I’ve chosen “communal responsibility” rather than “wealth redistribution” because Mr Corey’s examples really are not examples of centralised wealth redistribution, but they do draw attention to legislative measures for the poor (e.g. compulsory release of debt that takes longer than seven years to repay, legally requiring people to not take every last ounce of produce from their fields, but to leave some for the poor to take etc). We could also include the tithe, something I have commented on before and which is a form of centralised wealth redistribution to the poor (and to those who serve in the temple, but that’s because they produced no tithe of their own, like the poor). Here I think there is a decent case to be made.
2. The Bible does not concern itself with human rights, but is more concerned in general with the greater good.
You might not like this one so much, but individual, enforceable rights, or the sanctity of the contract, or protected freedoms, these are conservative concepts (this is sometimes obscured by the fact that the political literature uses the term “political liberalism”). Collectivism is not a friend of such rights, for it is concerned the with the wellbeing of all, even if it means giving up some of these rights and freedoms. I am not here trying to make this argument or saying that there are good reasons to make it, but if you are going to claim that the biblical material, on the whole, should push us towards progressivism, this is the sort of case you need to make. I think there is going to be a deep conflict between this principle and the biblical concern for the powerless, for what it is worth.
3. The Bible discourages us from interfering with the choices of people who are vulnerable, even if we believe that those decisions are unjust, immoral and hurtful, because this hurts vulnerable people, and the Bible is concerned about the plight of the vulnerable.
To give the push towards a progressive view, it’s not enough just to say that we should care about the vulnerable. Conservatives agree with that. Instead, a progressive outlook, in practice, tends to side with the vulnerable even in cases when it may be judged that they are doing what is wrong. For example, when an unwealthy single woman finds herself pregnant. The conservative take would be to focus on the contemptible conduct of men who get women pregnant without committing to them, calling them to change their ways, on the value and innocence of the new life that is the child (who is, after all, the most vulnerable party), and of our obligation to provide for the woman should she need it. The progressive take, while not necessarily denying these, would be to say that since abortion would release the vulnerable woman from a burden, it would be unloving to deny that option to her when her circumstances are so difficult. Similarly, a man who finds himself identifying with what he takes to be a female persona is thereby made more vulnerable to mistreatment, and while a conservative outlook would take the approach of affirming the way he was created and coming alongside him to support him, difficult though it might be, the progressive take would be that since he is vulnerable and feels that gender reassignment treatment ought to be available to him, it would be judgemental and oppressive (and hence unloving) to tell him that this option would not be appropriate. I am not here suggesting that conservatives always do get it right when it comes to the type of condemnation they dish out to such people (although I would also gently remind my progressive friends not to simply observe that some people hate others who are like this, and to assume that therefore they are good representatives of conservative Christianity).
For what it is worth, I think you will find it very hard to make this case – at least from the Bible.
4. The Bible calls us to think of the morality espoused in the Bible as a guide that we can collapse into the broader virtues that we find in it, rather than looking to the specific application of those virtues as a guide.
This is important. From a progressive standpoint, like it or not, there is moral teaching in the Bible that is just awful. What it has to say about marriage and sexuality, what it (apparently) says about criminal justice, what it says about men and women, what it says about false teaching, what it says about maintaining church discipline – nasty, nasty stuff for progressives. A thoroughgoing progressive therefore really needs to make the argument that the application of moral principles that we see in the Bible is dispensable, even though the moral principles that are being applied are not. I don’t want to be heard as saying that there is no truth to this. Even conservative theologians like the Westminster divines acknowledged the distinction between the application of God’s law that may change depending on the historical context, and the “general equity” of the law, reflecting the principles that are universally applicable. But this is an argument that the progressive would need to be able to make.
5. The Bible teaches, not only that our love for each other is important, but also that the content of what we believe is not very important, provided it is compatible with love.
Mr Corey pointed out, and rightly so (as can be affirmed by any conservative too) that the Bible expresses concern that we love each other, rather than dwelling on doctrine at the expense of love. This, however, does not clearly mark any point of difference between progressives and conservatives. Often it is little more than one of the ways in which progressives express a lack of love for conservative for being too doctrinally concerned, no less than it is an area where conservatives can indeed be too doctrinally concerned. As a movement, theological progressivism, in order to be anything distinct, must be seen as saying much more than this (i.e. that love matters), and it must paint a picture in which condemnation over doctrinal matters is a bad thing in itself. My own observation is that this actually is a hallmark of progressivism. In fact my observation is that not only that progressives tend to say that doctrine isn’t important, but that there is a kind of delight that progressives take in denying historically orthodox doctrine at every opportunity. Have a look through the patheos “progressive” blogs and I am fairly sure you’ll see what I mean. I suspect this may simply be a symptom of the fact that many who see themselves as progressive are really just anti-conservative.
But back to the picture where morality matters but doctrine does not. This is simply not a biblical picture. I’m on record explaining that the theological essentials are relatively few, but they do matter a lot, and for all the condemnation in early Christianity for a lack of love, there is some very strong rhetoric unloaded on those whose theology was out of line. We find warnings about “destructive heresies” that will being destruction upon those who hold them (1 Peter 2:1). We find warnings about people who cause division by deviating from apostolic doctrine (Romans 16:7). We find the admonition to not be blown about by diverse doctrines (Ephesians 4:14). Those who teach false doctrine are listed along with liars, the sexually immoral and those who enslave people (1 Timothy 1:10). There are other examples too. So I think it’s going to be fairly hard to make real mileage here, which is why the argument that Mr Corey actually used just ended up being the claim that the Bible calls us to be loving – something so trivially obvious that it can hardly be called a distinctive of progressivism.
6. The Bible teaches that being flexible enough to have a faith that adapts and changes with the times to meet the needs of today’s people is more virtuous than preserving the faith of those who came before.
This strikes me as fairly important. I know that there are some people who I would identify as progressives who dishonestly re-read history to find out that the early Christians were basically 21st century liberals in terms of their sexual mores, political affiliation and ethics in general. But the more honest readers simply say that Christianity needs to move on. And on. And on (one such blogger argues that Paul was really flexible and challenged the exclusion of Gentiles, so we should likewise move on from Paul, and challenge the exclusion of non-heterosexual lifestyles). I think this is going to be a really difficult task to undertake with integrity because this just isn’t what I see in the Bible at all. But it’s the kind of argument you’ll have to make at some point, if you want to argue that reading the Bible should make us more progressive.
I’ll end the list there, and reiterate that I do not think this argument can be made well, because the evidence really isn’t there. I know that not all of my Christian friends who identify as progressives will endorse all six of these lines of argument (there are degrees of being progressive, just as there are degrees of being conservative), and no doubt some of you might want to add more. It is not always easy to tell exactly what the boundary markers are between conservative and progressive, creating the rather vague notion that progressives are just Christians who don’t really take the beliefs of the historic Christian faith very seriously, or who see Christianity as a vehicle for their decidedly left-wing politics (and I am aware of much less charitable descriptions of the Christian right). The truth is that many of those who I know who might like the label “progressive” are conservative in most ways – but they also believe in welfare or publicly funded healthcare – hardly enough to make a person not a conservative, globally speaking! These arguments are merely illustrative of the types of arguments you’d need if you want to show that reading the Bible should make us, not simply nicer, kinder or more loving, but more progressive across the board (insofar as progressive Christianity really is different from traditional or conservative Christianity). I chose these things because these are the kinds of things that progressives and conservatives actually disagree over. They aren’t just descriptions of virtues that all Christians believe in, rather gratuitously stated to be the property of one side rather than the other.
I swear, the state of blogs to the left and the right are making me feel like more of a centrist every day!