A lengthy essay by Brad R Braxton (Baptist minister and seminary professor) appearing in the Huffington Post seeks to answer this question. Since this blog purports to be about “progressive, religious themes”, we’ll pick up this thread. Braxton writes:
According to some accounts, the term “progressive Christian” surfaced in the 1990s and began replacing the more traditional term “liberal Christian.” During this period, some Christian leaders wanted to increasingly identify an approach to Christianity that was socially inclusive, conversant with science and culture, and not dogmatically adherent to theological litmus tests such as a belief in the Bible’s inerrancy. The emergence of contemporary Christian progressivism was a refusal to make the false choice of “redeeming souls or redeeming the social order.”
Progressive Christians believe that sacred truth is not frozen in the ancient past. While respecting the wisdom of the past, progressive Christians are open to the ways truth is moving forward in the present and future for the betterment of the world. Progressive Christianity recognizes that our sacred texts and authoritative traditions must be critically engaged and continually reinterpreted in light of contemporary circumstances to prevent religion from becoming a relic.
During the recent biennial convention of Lutherans Concerned North America, I attended a breakout session for “progressive clergy” (I was a usurper since I’m not clergy), and the threshold question was raised, “what does it mean to be a religious progressive?” Since time was limited, we didn’t explore all nuances of the question, but we quickly focused on the prophetic. Braxton also stresses the the prophetic nature of religious progressivism.
Prophetic religion involves a willingness to interrupt an unjust status quo so that more people might experience peace and prosperity … Prophetic evangelicalism insists that Jesus came to save us not only from our personal sins but also from the systematic sins that oppress neighborhoods and nations. Jesus presented his central theme in social and political terms. He preached and taught consistently about the “kingdom of God” — God’s beloved community where social differences no longer divide and access to God’s abundance is equal.
Braxton quotes Biblical scholar Obery Hendricks:
In our time, when many seem to think that Christianity goes hand in hand with right-wing visions of the world, it is important to remember that there has never been a conservative prophet. Prophets have never been called to conserve social orders that have stratified inequities of power and privilege and wealth; prophets have always been called to change them so all can have access to the fullest fruits of life.
In response to Fox News resident idiot Glen Beck, who foolishly suggested that social justice is not in the Bible, the President of Union Theological Seminary, the Rev Dr. Serene Jones, penned a tongue in cheek response (quoted here from Telling Secrets blog):
Dear Mr. Beck,
I write with exciting news. Bibles are en route to you, even as we speak!
Kindly let me explain. On your show, you said that social justice is not in the Bible, anywhere. Oh my, Mr. Beck. At first we were so confused. We couldn’t figure out how you could possibly miss this important theme. And then it hit us: maybe you don’t have a Bible to read. Let me assure you, this is nothing to be ashamed of. Many people live Bible-less lives. But we want to help out. And so, as I write this, our students are collecting Bibles from across the nation, packing them in boxes, and sending them to your offices. Grandmothers, uncles, children, co-workers — indeed, Bible-readers from all walks of life have eagerly contributed. They should be arriving early next week, hopefully just in time for your next show. Read them with zeal!
Oh, I almost forgot: we’ve marked a few of the social justice passages, just in case you can’t find them.
What does this mean in actual practice? How do progressive Christians live out the prophetic call to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Of course, one could cite the progressive march toward full inclusion of the LGBTQ community that is occurring in our mainline Protestant churches. For instance, seven LGBT pastors who were previously ordained by Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries but not by the ELCA will be received as ELCA rostered pastors through a “Rite of Reception” this coming Sunday, July 25.
Here’s another example gleaned from today’s blogosphere. Blog friend Susan Hogan reports that “Pastors for peace head to Cuba” (ELCA critic and WordAlone President Jaynan Clark will likely flip out again in response to this report).
A caravan carrying 100 tons of “humanitarian” aid is scheduled to cross into Cuba today, leaders of Pastors for Peace said Tuesday at a news conference at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in McAllen, Texas.
The [group] has broken the U.S. embargo against Cuba 20 times previously. The embargo includes travel and trade restrictions.
Pastors for Peace is an outreach of the New York-based Interreligious Foundation for Community, which delivers aid to Latin America and the Caribbean.
And another from fellow blogger Terence Weldon on Open Tabernacle in an article entitled “Authentic Catholicism”. While discussing the water relief efforts of an African Catholic diocese, Weldon offers the following indictment of the patriarchal, clerical, hierarchal structures of the Vatican:
To judge from either the most outspoken voices of the Catholic right, or from the anti-Catholic opposition, you could easily think that Catholicism’s most distinctive features are an insistence on blind obedience to the Pope and Catechism, and puritanical sexual ethics. The empirical evidence from actual research, shows a very different picture … [Weldon cites two reports which gauge parishoner’s own sense of what it means to be Catholic] Once again, I do not see in there any reference to automatic obedience, still less to compliance with “official” sexual ethics. But in both these characterizations of Catholic “identity”, a sense of social responsibility and concern for the poor ranked high (emphasis added)- which is what the Ghana contribution to clean water is all about.
And then there is the silly charge by conservatives that progressives don’t uphold the moral standards of the Bible. Jesus called his followers to a higher morality that upheld the spirit of the law often in conflict with its letter, to uplift the alien and the outcast, and to love one’s neighbor. Braxton quotes author Amy-Jill Levine who imagines Jesus chiding a narrow minded, exclusivist Christian who wrongly believes his status is based on offering an appropriate creedal confession:
If you flip back to the Gospel of Matthew … you’ll notice in chapter 25, at the judgment of the sheep and the goats, that I am not interested in those who say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but in those who do their best to live a righteous life: feeding the hungry, visiting people in prison … [Jesus continues] I am saying that I am the way, not you, not your church, not your reading of John’s Gospel, and not the claim of any individual Christian or any particular congregation. I am making the determination, and it is by my grace that anyone gets in, including you. Do you want to argue?