Sometimes, it’s hard to be a progressive Christian

I really shouldn’t respond to things posted on Huffington Post but, well, this piece on Christian Social Ethics really ticked me off. It makes me feel annoyed about being a progressive Christian. Though, to be honest, it is also hard to be a Christian since the body of Christ contains people quite different politically, socially, and morally than me. The gulf between me and, say, Rick Santorum, is vast but that’s the very nature of the church. The problem with God is that God keeps being bigger than me.

But what I really struggle with is when progressives start touting the argument about “conservative” Christianity being Pauline. The problem with that argument is that it tries to do a couple of things: 1) it removes Paul from the canon 2) it tries to get us off the hook when it comes to dealing with statements that Paul makes and 3) it cuts out later Christian thought from Augustine through Martin Luther and down to me. It actually undercuts my theology and I’m (probably) on their side! It also, dangerously, declares my theology and tradition as, somehow, anti-social justice, anti-Jesus, anti-poor, and anti-loving-my-neighbors. It also makes some mistakes because it generalizes Paul, forgets that he collected money for the church in Jerusalem, and forgets that Paul wrote Romans. There is a lot wrong with the kind of argument that Mike Lux is making because it starts in the wrong place. It is arguing for a purity of practice, trying to somehow return to “Jesus” and pull out his “true” teaching as a way to influence current social and Christian practices. It is, in a nutshell, doing exactly what the “conservatives” do but switching to a more socially liberal direction. And that’s fine but if you’re going to undercut tradition, the canon, and use weak exegetical and theological arguments to make your point, you’re going to weaken your argument, not strengthen it.

I completely disagree with what Santorum said but I’m not so sure that he is using liberal the way that Lux thinks he is. Actually, I don’t think Santorum knows what the word liberal is because, when it comes to the concept of liberal in the Christian world (and specifically in Catholic teaching), liberal is a specific thing. My definition (that it’s not liberal to say that Jesus healed the sick and we should to; liberal means saying things like the resurrection didn’t happen) is a product of the development of liberal thought in the 19th and 20th centuries. Santorum is taking the term liberal, as it is used in our current political structures, and merging it with a system of theology that the Catholic church reacted against. He’s also equating theological liberalism with liberation theology (which, honestly, I think is a very hard case to make) and trying to tie those two things together through the social liberalism. He’s combining terms, misusing them for sound bytes, and people ARE BUYING IT. He’s using the term liberal to claim that all progressive Christians are theologically liberal and aren’t true Christians. It’s a fine attempt at word play but it is extremely inaccurate. He might not be doing this combination on purpose but if a writer responds like Mike Lux did, you fall into Santorum’s trap and you begin to make the mistake of throwing Paul under the bus. Take Santorum down for saying that liberation theology is not a salvation theology (how can he even make that claim?). Or, better yet, take him to task for disavowing the language of liberation theology, the same language that Pope John Paul II loved to use when he talked about the God’s “preferential love for the poor.” That’s social justice! Point out Santorum’s own flawed reasoning and have him do battle with his own Catholic heritage!

To claim that “conservatives” or “evangelicals” or the religious right are somehow “Pauline” (i.e. not Jesus Christians) makes the mistake of throwing entire groups of people under the bus for no reason. On Sunday, I preached on what Paul says that the Corinthian community (and Paul) do – “we proclaim Christ crucified.” As a Lutheran Christian, I cannot see myself proclaiming anything else. In Lux’s definition, I’m not on Christ’s side.

In Lux’s defense, he’s arguing against a specific framework or ideology that, in his mind, does not change behavior. He sees a Jesus who ate with sinners and sees professing Christians who don’t match that image. Christians, for Lux, are to be transformative characters in the world. His criticism is a valid and is not a new point to make. But he never actually brings up a counter to the theory. He attacks the outcome of his theory of individual salvation but never counters with a different point of view. Instead, he shuts down the theory by saying that to a true Christian, one can’t be “only Pauline” (whatever that means). He doesn’t argue salvation, he doesn’t argue theology, he instead argues actions, morality, and behaviors. He identifies proper Christianity with proper action. In my mind, he’s making the same theological mistakes that the conservatives he dislikes are making! (but, hey, I’m Lutheran so I would make that jump). In Lux’s eyes, to not do as Jesus did is to, in some ways, be an incomplete Christian. He’s taking Santorum’s quote and using it in reverse, to exclude Santorum and his ilk from the body of Christ. The underlying assumption (the notion of salvation, what that means, where it comes froms, etc) in Lux’s argument is never questioned. Rather, Lux’s version of Paul’s theology gets attack, thrown under the bus, and painted as something wrong. He falls into the talking point trap. And it’s this type of argument that fails to actually encourage debate. It doesn’t engage with the other side. It does what the Santorum does and I really don’t see what’s very progressive about it.

One thought on “Sometimes, it’s hard to be a progressive Christian”

  1. You’re dead on target. This sort of thing has been going on for centuries, and shows signs neither of ending nor of getting any smarter.

    There is an unfortunate practice of creating a fantasy version of “early Christianity” or even of “Jesus,” and then opposing this creation to the purportedly “later” version actually known to history.

    The logical problems here are vast, but boil down to the fact that the documentary evidence doesn’t support most of the fantasy claims. The particular animus toward Paul is a distinct symptom of this illness. (I don’t need to tell a seminarian that most scholars call the [authentic] letters of Paul the earliest Christian documents, and date the various Gospels later.) Elaine Pagels has devoted a lifetime to reconstructing “alternate” early Christianities based on the Nag Hammadi stuff, but they’re still late, minor and derivative.

    From a political perspective, the people who promote these fantasies are typically social liberals, who have inadvertently played into the hands of their opponents. They have bought into the false idea — heavily promoted by the likes of Richard John Neuhaus — that “Christian doctrine” says whatever the social right wants it to say, thus making social and religious conservatisms look as though they are the same thing.

    All of which is why I like to give occasional shout-outs to the tradition of Anglo-Catholic Socialism. It was as theologically reactionary as it could be, but still … well, socialism. And there’s a vast history of Roman Catholic social teaching which isn’t far behind.

Comments are closed.