Progressive Christians to “Take Back Their Faith” After Disappointing Election

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A week after the election, the Huffington Post published a blog in which Progressive Christians suggested what like-minded Christians should do in order to “take back their faith.”

Still reeling from the election in which Donald Trump was elected president, several progressive Christians pondered the necessary steps to draw a stronger contrast between their brand of kindhearted progressive Christianity, and the kind of conservative, evangelical Christianity that helped elect Donald Trump.

The responses were predictably representative of left-wing Christianity, which centered on re-emphasizing social justice issues and identity politics as the “loving,” compassionate, anti-Trumpian counterpart to the hate-filled Christianity of the right. Also predictably representative was the tone of unearned moral superiority in the responses of the progressive Christians interviewed- and progressive Christians in general.

For example, Rachel Held Evans said,

We’re about to witness firsthand what happens when the established Church compromises its moral authority and sells out the marginalized ― refugees, immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities, sexual assault survivors, the sick and those with disabilities, and LGBT people ― for the promise of power. It won’t be pretty.”

Rev. Jacqueline Lewis, a New York-based pastor, and activist added,

“I’m going to fight for people to have jobs, for everyone to have enough. I’m going to fight against racism and xenophobia. I’m going to fight for black lives. I’m going to fight for LGBT rights… I’m going to fight for love.”

Lewis added-

“Maybe what’s happening is progressive people of faith are finding ways to connect around our shared beliefs that all people are children of God … All of those people are joining together right now, we’re… plotting and planning how to resist together… to me is a new religion, the new Christianity.”

Benjamin Corey suggested that, “This election revealed that a far larger branch of Christianity has been married off to political power than we previously thought,” emphasizing that the religious right is more concerned with political power than the actual gospel of Christ.

Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners and author of America’s Original Sin, claimed, “White Christians voted just like white people in America did, and being Christian didn’t matter much. So how do we teach white Christians, white evangelicals to be more Christian than white? That’s the issue going forward.”

Wallis- reflecting on Jesus’ counsel regarding the relationship between treating a ‘stranger’ and treating Jesus, suggested that pastors allow their churches to become sanctuaries to protect illegal aliens from deportation.

To an extent, there’s some truth about the concerns of progressive Christians. Corey’s observation regarding evangelicals having become too cozy with political power, which has muted the volume, consistency, and effectiveness of their prophetic political witness, is a legitimate concern.

But where’s the moral balance and condemnation of progressive Christians for having done the same? What about Episcopalians, Presbyterians (USA), a segment of Methodists, and other left-leaning Christians who’re guilty of preferring political power and cultural cache to the Christian gospel. Whether one agrees or disagrees, at least conservative evangelicals can be praised for attempting to clarify- or redeem- what it means to be an evangelical and have a responsible and biblically articulate political witness in the age of Donald Trump.

Moreover, why doesn’t the Christian Left (or Right) consistently condemn black Christians and black churches for sacrificing Christian principles in favor of political expediency and influence via an unholy marriage to Leftism and socially progressive causes? This shifting standard of morality is but one issue that persistently undermines the Christian Left’s political witness.

Likewise, and echoing Wallis with a twist, can’t one say with moral clarity that “Black Christians voted just like black people in America did (especially in 2008 and 2012), and being Christian didn’t matter much. So how do we teach black Christians, black (progressive) evangelicals to be more Christian than black? Why isn’t that ever an issue going forward?” And it is an issue. Black Christians should be more Christian than black. One can and should argue that the covenantal relationship between black Christians and Leftism is much more challenging than the partnership between evangelicals and the political right.

However, there’s little truth to Evans’ suggestion that evangelicals who voted for Trump sold out “marginalized” groups for political power. How is she in a position to know the minds, hearts or reasoned intentions of voters who sided with Donald Trump? The charge is not only silly but it isn’t true. It’s meant to dismiss as evil her fellow (white) Christians by projecting a social pox (sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, etc.) upon those who voted against her preferred candidate. Framing it in a simple moral dichotomy that dismisses nuance, and that divorces Christian support for Trump from caring about “marginalized” groups allows Evans and her sympathizers to claim a superficial unmerited moral purity to dismiss everyone who disagrees with them as not only wrong but immoral.

Voting for Trump, directly or indirectly, doesn’t mean the voter is against “marginalized” people and Evans knows this.

The same goes for Lewis’ virtue-signaling bravery as a social justice warrior. All of the sacralized issues she raised are supported or defended without Christian influence every day, so what distinguishes her intentions, purportedly Christian, as being important or necessary? Her ‘new Christianity’ accommodates one-dimensional social identities that compete with the identity that’s required to be grounded in Christ. Lewis should be mindful of Paul’s admonition about teaching a ‘new’ gospel that differs from the one positioned in Christ.

The gospel of progressive Christians is increasingly more about the gospel of Leftism than the Gospel of Christ. Specifically, this social gospel- or social virtue- is really about disassociating oneself, or one’s group, from that which supposedly threatens the common good- what the in-group consensus simplistically defines as a myriad of trendy ‘evils’. It allows the separated to pretentiously claim a false sense of moral superiority over those who reject their definitions and moral claims.

Astute observers realize that this is more about being properly positioned and seen as against manufactured evils- how “moral” and “religious” they look to other like-minded people choosing ‘love’ over ‘hate’- rather than genuine concern for the people/groups these “evils,” it’s claimed, negatively effect.

It’s self-congratulatory virtue vanity, it’s empty, and it violates Jesus’ admonition against practicing one’s righteousness before men instead of calling those they claim to represent to a higher standard of living as disciples of Christ.

This practice of synthesizing identity politics with Christianity is dangerous because of the popular and cultural influence afforded to the Christian Left.

If progressive Christians are concerned about the future of their faith, they may want to consider what faith is really of concern- Leftism or Christianity.

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Book Review: America’s Original Sin

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America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, by Jim Wallis. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. 272 pages

During the past several years, Evangelical Christians have been criticized for their lack of involvement in the fight against racial injustice. It’s said that Christians willingly and consistently engage in Pro-Life issues (and issues concerning the proper role of marriage and sexuality), but are glaringly absent when it comes to the issue and consequences of racial injustice.

In reacting to these criticisms, Evangelicals have attempted to increase their visibility and participation in the ongoing, national conversation on the topic of racial injustice. Recently, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship — an Evangelical campus ministry — held its Urbana 15 Student Missions Conference that had as a keynote speaker a social justice advocate and self-identified supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. Last week, Wheaton College’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics hosted three members of the Ferguson Commission on a panel entitled Change, Healing and Reconciliation: A Conversation with The Ferguson Commission to discuss the findings of the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, in addition to the Church’s response to what many perceive to be blatant and persistent forms of racial inequality.

This week Jim Wallis — author, political activist, and founder of Sojourners magazine offers his contribution to the Evangelical discussion of this culturally sensitive issue in America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.

According to Wallis, this book serves as a “primer on the underlying racism that still exists in America,” and seeks to “talk honestly” about America’s original sin of racial discrimination and how it continues to impact various areas of American life. Wallis argues that white America is obligated to begin the act of contrition — repentance for participating in, and contributing to, racial discrimination against blacks and other minorities. In addition to repentance, Wallis argues that white Americans (which he conflates with white Christians throughout the book) should listen to their “black and brown brothers and sisters” when they tell their stories of racial injustice rather than disregarding these pain-filled experiences as unimportant. For Wallis, these are the necessary first steps toward racial justice and reconciliation.

The book explains that racism is a manifestation of sin — clearly using biblical and theological language to convey the moral evil of racial discrimination. Wallis rightly notes that sin is a theological problem that goes deeper than politics. The book also effectively explains the linguistic and theological contours of repentance. It stresses that repentance is much more than merely adopting an apologetic tone for wrongs committed. Repentance, which follows forgiveness, entails the sincere and complete change of direction of one’s mind (renewal), evidenced by one’s actions (restitution, loving one’s neighbor, etc.). Discussing racism in biblical (moral) terms rather than political terms is a refreshing necessity that should be adopted by Christians and non-Christians alike.

In addition, Wallis laments churches that have “baptized us into our racial divisions” rather than teaching and modeling that our baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, unites us in a way that transcends all earthly limitations. Wallis is spot-on here, and he would have done a great service by expanding the implications of this idea a bit more than the passing glance he gave it.

The book describes the underlying tensions contributing to the current state of race relations in the United States using Ferguson and Baltimore as parabolic examples of the consequences of racial tension. It also discusses in some detail the socio-economic disparities that exist between blacks and whites — including the lower quality of black life in the ghettos, “mass incarceration” and the disproportionate numbers of blacks represented in the penal system, the substandard public school system among other issues, arguing these realities are the result of white privilege and white supremacy. Wallis argues that the root of these disparities is unquestionably found in racial injustice that, because of the shifting racial demographic of the country, not only affect blacks but also other minorities.

That said, having read Wallis’ other work and knowing his political sensibilities direct his religious beliefs, the overall framework and content of America’s Original Sin was rather predictable.

For starters, Wallis says that white racism is an extension of white privilege, but he never explicitly defines “white privilege.” He repeatedly condemns white privilege as if what constitutes white privilege is self-evident. It isn’t. The term “white privilege” is just as intentionally ambiguous as the phrase “Hope and Change.” That is to say it can mean whatever the person invoking it wants it to mean, at any given time, risking contradiction from invocation to invocation. The closest Wallis comes to defining white privilege was to link it to white supremacy. But he didn’t explain how white supremacy — a thoroughly dated but deliberately provocative term — is defined in our contemporary setting.

Likewise, aside from not defining it — but confidently stating that blacks continue to suffer because of it — Wallis never explains how Asian, African, Indian and other immigrants to America without white skin, seem to avoid falling prey to the intentions and negative effects of white privilege. It’s as if they don’t exist so as to preserve the myth.

Throughout the book, Wallis repeatedly suggests that Christians should “talk honestly” about racial injustice, and should engage in “telling the truth about race.” But sadly Wallis doesn’t come close to living up to his own suggestion. As I read the book, I wondered if this truth was objective, or if it was in fact based on how he and others, who share his position on racial matters, (re)define it.

For example Wallis unquestionably claims that all of the socio-economic ills experienced by blacks and other minorities are sourced in the preservation of white supremacy and white privilege. He says this as if the fact that these discrepancies exist are in-and-of themselves, hard evidences of racism. How can Wallis be assured of this? Based on what proof? He gives a number of dizzying statistics that demonstrate the quality-of-life discrepancies between blacks and whites, but he doesn’t give any evidence that validates his claim that these statistics are singularly the result of racism. He does say that “black[s] and [other minorities] are disproportionately consigned to the lowest economic tier is a continuing proof of racism.” He also says that the “systemic and perverse character of racism” in addition to the “cold hard savagery of racism,” is responsible for the declining quality of life among many blacks. The academic and economic experiences of many blacks might contribute a lesser quality of life than their white counterparts — and I believe that in many cases to be true. But, if we’re being honest as Wallis suggests we should be, there are very clear reasons why blacks are academically and economically disadvantaged, and one can argue that racism is but one result. However racism as an explanation in totality, without clear evidence to support such a claim is irresponsible, especially by someone of Wallis’ stature.

(As a side note, the strongest area in which racism can be argued to be actively influential is in the area of education. The substandard education delivered to poor minority children in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and other ghettos across the country is the result of teachers’ unions placing the priority of employing teachers over educating students. That doesn’t absolve black parents from their responsibility of emphasizing academic success by any means. But what’s allowed to happen to poor ghetto children when it comes to education is a national sin.)

Additionally, Wallis argues that blacks suffer these socio-economic maladies because they’re black (because that’s how racism works). No other contributing factors like values, attitudes, behavior and morality are given as reasons or predictors of black suffering. At the same time, whites are successful because they benefit from white privilege. Again, just like the lack of other variables that might explain black suffering, no other reasons are given as reasons or predictors of “white” success. For Wallis, minorities, especially blacks, are never-ending victims of external circumstances, not autonomous beings that are capable of forming ideas, attitudes and behaviors to reduce socio-economic disparities. Thus when Wallis blames all social and economic ills on white racism and ignores black involvement, he engages in the sort of condescending, racial paternalism that re-victimizes blacks, making them powerless when it comes to relying on self-determination to influence and change their own fate. Aside from handicapping blacks, having to constantly beg and depend on external help to solve their problems, he indicts all whites as racists, obligating them (through guilt) to engage in redemptive acts of black charity. That directly contradicts his earlier appeal to the biblical and theological understanding of forgiveness and repentance, which does more to nourish white resentment than it does to cultivate racial reconciliation. And it’s not very Christian.

By reducing the black role in racial reconciliation to the role of a disabled and victimized bystander, the book minimizes the black obligation of forgiveness and repentance. Blacks are not simply in a position to forgive white people for participating and sustaining white racism (where it exists); they’re also in a position to ask whites for forgiveness. Despite the book’s false claim that blacks can’t be racist because they lack the power to implement their discrimination (50), which minimizes black moral responsibility — if racial reconciliation is to become a reality in the church — blacks must be required to ask forgiveness from whites for assuming and projecting racism onto whites where it doesn’t exist. All church-based strategies that seek racial reconciliation and restoration will crash and burn if they don’t include blacks as equals in moral agency, as a result of being created in God’s image in addition to being children of God, and as brothers and sisters in Christ (Romans 8:15-15, Galatians. 4:5–6.)

Repeating the overused cliche’ and untrue narrative that blacks are permanent victims of white racism doesn’t make it any more true simply because it’s accompanied with Christian veneer.

America’s Original Sin argues that racism is a sin that’s deeper than politics, yet the remedy offered appears to be almost entirely political. Though effective change can happen through social and economic policy, the reality is our morality dictates our politics. The more Christian morality influences politics, the more impartial legislation can become. Regardless, Christians shouldn’t wait until politicians pass policies they approve of. Christians have to be epistles that emanate the gospel of Christ in our own communities, living as as ambassadors of redemption and in this case, racial reconciliation. In other words, Christians (regardless of color) should be disciples of cruciformity — conforming to the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Christ in pursuit of redeeming and restoring relationships that have been strained and broken along racial lines.

Ultimately, America’s Original Sin, in effect, attempts to Christianize recycled racial narratives without critically or courageously examining why racial, moral and cultural disparities exist between black and white Americans. Simply laying fault to a white racial boogeyman isn’t productive, nor is it particularly Christian. I can’t imagine too many Christians arguing that racism doesn’t exist. I also can’t imagine too many Christians who don’t want to reduce racial inequality or who’re against racial reconciliation. But attempting to provoke them into action through blame, guilt, bad politics and a watered down gospel isn’t a plan for lasting success because it trivializes both the problem and the solution.

In the age of Black Lives Matter and the social expectation to support its agenda or be slandered as racist, Christian contributions to racial reconciliation should approach this issue carefully. Racial inequality deserves the attention and engagement of Evangelicals but not through a superficial and self-righteous agenda that does more damage than good. It’s simply not enough for Christians to look busy while doing nothing in a self-congratulatory manner like Black lives Matter.

America’s Original Sin left a lot on the table, but should be read more for what it isn’t than for what it is.

Jim Wallis And The ‘Unbiblical’ Government Shutdown

Jim Wallis offered his opinion on the government shutdown via YouTube on Tuesday.  As it happens, I rarely agree with Jim Wallis, biblically or theologically.  I did read his book On God’s Side and found myself agreeing with him on several issues pertaining to achieving what he calls “the common good.”

That aside, Jim Wallis and the so-called Evangelical Left (or is it evangelical Left) that he represents are generally Leftists first, evangelicals second.  That is to say, the people who embrace this nomenclature (evangelical left), particularly Wallis, have allowed their political ideology- which happens to be very left of center, affect their religious beliefs rather than having their religious beliefs affect their political ideology.

This video proves that very point.

I agree with his assertion that most of the talk regarding the government shutdown has been political.  The majority of it should be since by nature, government is political.  But I don’t agree with his position that there is a theological problem regarding the partial government shutdown.  There definitely is a moral problem that consumes our political culture and political class that’s responsible for- and has contributed to- the partial shutdown.   No question in my mind about that.  We can and should talk about the morality- or lack thereof- being a contributing factor to political discord and the current government shutdown, but we don’t need to discuss theology to do so.

According to Wallis, shutting down the government is, in his words, “unbiblical.” And to drive the point home, he repeats the assertion.   To buttress his position, Wallis cites Romans 13, noting that government’s role is to protect its citizens from evil and to promote the good- labeling it the common good, which is a backhand promotion of his book.

Wallis then appeals to several other books of the Bible, saying that not only is government responsible for how they treat the poor but that divine judgment of government will be based on this treatment.

I happen to believe Wallis’ sentiment regarding government’s role as protector and the arbiter of good and by extension, the punisher of evil.  I also believe in divine punishment for our actions- personal and corporate.

But he undermines himself by calling those he claims are responsible for the government shutdown, “political extremists.”  He doesn’t specify who these “extremists” are but it’s very clear based on Wallis’ political persuasion and public history, that he’s clearly referring to congressional Republicans.  Ok, fine, we all have our opinions.

But then Wallis gets away from himself.  He asserts that these political extremists, or “these people,” who are against government are unbiblical for two reasons.  The first is that “these people” want to “destroy the House and shut it down.”  This is a flat out lie, period.  The second is that because government has a biblical responsibility to care for the poor, and “these people” want to shut government down- by definition, they’re against poor people.  That’s right- based on Wallis’ convoluted thinking- hostility to the government equals hostility to poor people and thus, it’s unbiblical.

Lastly he says that the political extremists are guided by ideology triumphing over what “we” label good theology (who’s we, btw?).

I’m sorry, but isn’t there something unbiblical about lying? I can’t imagine invoking straw men arguments is in keeping with loving one’s neighbor. I also don’t think that disingenuously projecting or attributing malicious beliefs or actions onto people with whom one disagrees, hardly qualifies as treating others in similar ways in which one wants to be treated.

I don’t remember Wallis invoking Romans 13 when Barack Obama pushed an unread bill that forced (taxed) Americans into purchasing an unneeded or unwanted product through Congress without bipartisan support.  I also don’t remember him citing the directives against theft, coveting and envy when the president was campaigning for and receiving increased taxation on “the rich,” those who he incessantly demonized and maligned.

Where was Wallis warning or chiding the president and his party about the unbiblical nature of same-sex marriage as the president’s party undermined state and federal laws to push their ideological agenda?  Surely that wasn’t biblical or sound theology.  Although, Wallis would probably counter this proposition as being “sound theology” because he supports same-sex marriage, or “marriage equality,” claiming it is God’s way of “re-covenanting” marriage, whatever that means.

Why hasn’t Wallis articulated a theology of being created in God’s image and the directive against murder when the president’s party continues to worship abortion in the manner they do? Surely he sees and understands the effects abortion has on the poor?

Further, aside from Wallis intentionally distorting the situation on Capitol Hill, who exactly is against government?  How does he know? What was said and when was it said that gave him the understanding that these “political extremists” are against government?

Where is it biblically stated or theologically understood that being against government- which again, is an intentional distortion- is being against the poor?  Where did Paul say that?  Where did Jesus say it?  We can- and should- look to the prophets as Wallis asks.  But the political and cultural context discussed and lamented in the prophetic texts is in no way similar to our political or cultural context, period.  The poor in our context are rich by both biblical standards and by the world’s standards.

This doesn’t absolve us to give by any means, but it is reality.

For Wallis to conflate the notion of reduced government (which is what is actually sought) with being “against” or “hostile” to the poor isn’t just bad hermeneutics, it’s also bad theology and bad religion.

More specifically, it’s actually a transparent, ideological attempt to justify not only the size of government but the status quo of governmental dispensing of provisions to the poor.

Not many people are against giving to, or caring for, the poor.  At the same time nowhere in the Bible is caring for the poor- or being our brother’s keeper- predicated or dependent on the government being the primary facilitator.  Jesus and Paul both teach that we are to have a personal involvement in giving- which is relational in nature and spiritually edifying. The medium of government robs us of the subjective nature of giving, objectifying the recipients and destroying any interpersonal relationship that could potentially be gained.

“Giving” through government absolves us from the very spiritual act and responsibility of giving in that the government doesn’t “give” per se, it redistributes; and what it redistributes, it takes through punitive taxation through threat of fine or imprisonment.  I would argue that the nature in which government “gives” is the cause and source of much resentment when it comes to providing for the poor through social entitlements.

Wallis is guilty of the same thing the Left is guilty of- using poor people as political pawns to obtain ideological objectives- and both couch those objectives in religion to give their motives credibility and cover.  That’s a sin.  To understand this biblically, people have intrinsic worth because they’re created in God’s image, not because of the potential political capital they may hold.

I would say to Wallis that being against government expansion isn’t the same as being against the poor; that’s a foolish, foolish argument. We are not called to give to the poor through the mechanism of government.  Having government temporarily shut down, though inconvenient, can’t in this case be qualified as unbiblical or political extremism.

Wallis does a tremendous disservice to those who attempt to faithfully employ their religious convictions in the political arena by lying the way he does here.