Posted on: 08/20/10:
Getting in Front of Jesus: The Politics of Progressive Christianity (Part II)
By Brad R. Braxton
By Brad R. Braxton
How can progressive Christians "get in front" of Jesus by using the gospel forward to address pressing social dilemmas? In response to this question, I will discuss two moments from Jesus' story and "remix" them. A remix occurs when fresh elements are introduced into an old framework, thereby creating a new story.To read the rest of the article, click here
The Birth of Jesus: A Progressive Remix
According to the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born in a social context where a cruel king worked on behalf of Rome to ensure Caesar's sovereignty. After learning of Jesus' birth, King Herod plots to kill Jesus. An angel warns Joseph of Herod's wicked intentions. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus become immigrants, fleeing the harsh conditions of their homeland to secure safety and a better future in Egypt. Unable to locate Jesus, Herod sends a decree to murder all children in and around Bethlehem who are two years old and under.
Every Christmas, Christians look back to the birth of Jesus. We even replicate the sentimental parts of the story with pageants and live nativity scenes. My progressive remix focuses on the more tragic elements of the story. Instead of looking back and adoring the "sweet little Jesus boy" in the manger, the story can be a launching pad for prophetic discipleship and twenty-first-century social justice activism.
Here is the remix: let progressive Christian communities insist that President Obama and Congress enact just and humane immigration reform. The story of Jesus might have been different if Joseph and Mary had been sent back to Israel from Egypt because they were considered "undocumented workers," or worse, "illegal aliens." There are many Latino, African, and Asian "Marys" and "Josephs" who are returned to deathly contexts because of U.S. immigration laws. U.S. immigration laws should protect and preserve families, especially those already victimized by economic and social oppression resulting from policies benefiting the United States.
Furthermore, progressive Christian communities should insist that our nation become serious about reducing youth violence. How can we read about the innocent children slaughtered in Bethlehem and not immediately think about the innocent children being slaughtered in our cities? In the ancient world, Jesus escaped death as a child because he had resourceful parents with a "holy hookup." But what about those parents in Bethlehem who lacked resources to escape? And what about the countless contemporary parents who lack the means and influence to live in well-policed neighborhoods with safe schools?
In Chicago, hundreds of young people are constant victims of gun violence. How can the United States posture as a leader of peace when we can't even ensure the safety of children in our schools and neighborhoods? If we can raise money and public interest in a failed attempt to bring the 2016 Summer Olympics to Chicago, we can raise money and public interest to fund serious violence prevention measures in Chicago and across the country.
Additionally, in order to prevent the further massacre of young people, progressive Christians must persuade President Obama and Congress to stop the deluge of automatic weapons that floods the streets of our country. We send brave men and women to fight Al Qaeda thousands of miles away but are scared to take on the National Rifle Association right across the Potomac River. By going beyond the story of Jesus' birth, we faithfully follow Jesus into areas of social engagement concerning immigration, violence prevention, and gun reform.
The Death of Jesus: A Progressive Remix
Jesus, a young, innocent African-Asiatic Jew, was sent to the Roman death chamber on trumped-up charges. A brown brother in his thirties wrongly executed by the state -- which century are we talking about, the first or the twenty-first? Indeed, twenty centuries after Jesus' execution, injustices abound and continue to sentence other young, innocent people to death, whether by lethal injection or suffocating poverty. In the name of a just God, this must stop.
Posted on: 07/21/10:
Getting in Front of Jesus: The Politics of Progressive Christianity (Part I)
By Brad R. Braxton
By Brad R. Braxton
Parishioners in the church of my childhood often sang the hymn, "I have decided to follow Jesus...No turning back, no turning back." The hymn cautioned disciples about turning away from Jesus. This essay explores the prospect of being disciples by getting in front of Jesus.To read the rest of the article, click here
To follow a person usually means walking behind that person. Could it be, however, that we follow Jesus most faithfully when we walk ahead of Jesus? I argue for a progressive Christianity that extends the meaning and mission of Jesus into the present and future, rather than promoting an obsession with the past. Defining "progressive Christian" and "prophetic evangelical" (interchangeable terms for me) will facilitate a discussion of the politics of progressive Christianity.
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."
In the 1990s, many mainline Christian denominations were (and some still are) experiencing a significant decline in membership and cultural influence. The malaise in mainline Christianity occurred as some fundamentalist and conservative Christian communities experienced growth in the United States and across the globe. There are nuances between fundamentalist and conservative Christian denominations. Yet fundamentalist and conservative Christian communities united in the public square to form the "Christian right" -- a network that also included affiliated political, educational, and cultural organizations.
Even the casual observer of culture and politics can identity the considerable influence of the Christian right on public life in the United States during the last 40 years. This influence has extended all the way to the White House. For example, the historian Randall Balmer explores the impact of the Christian right upon the perspectives and decisions of President George W. Bush (God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush).
During the last four decades, it often seemed, at least from the media's standpoint, that all Christians were either fundamentalist or conservative. Yet there are countless persons like me whose understandings of and approaches to Christianity are vastly different from those in the Christian right. We, too, profess to be followers of Jesus. Consequently, we are striving to define and live a type of Christianity that is theologically flexible and hospitable to social diversity. With that broad history in place, let me give further shape to the definition of "progressive Christian."
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.
Posted on: 06/28/10:
Lot's Wife: Vain? Materialistic? Or Just Human?
By Miguel A. De La Torre
By Miguel A. De La Torre
The Sodom and Gomorrah story reaches its climax when Lot's nameless wife is turned into a pillar of salt. This nameless biblical woman has been dismissed throughout history as a vain and materialistic woman who, because of her character, deserved her punishment.
The rabbinical text blames the destruction of Sodom on its wickedness, and the transformation of Lot's wife on her unbelief. When people leave wickedness behind, some still pine for their previous evil ways symbolized by glancing reminiscently toward the past. As Jesus would eventually warn: "No one placing their hand on the plow and looking at the things behind is worthy for the reign of God" (Luke 9:62).
Her sinfulness has become normative in modern biblical hermeneutics. For example, The Interpreter's Bible notes that Lot's wife was "the woman caught in the whirlwind of fire from doomed Sodom because she was still too reluctant to leave the wicked city ... she was representative of all those in every time who are caught in the consequences of the evil they cannot quite let go."
Lot's wife's condemnation even comes from the mouth of Jesus, the only other place in the Bible where she is mentioned. When discussing the urgency by which the last days approach those accustomed to luxurious living, Jesus provides us with a warning to "Remember Lot's wife" (Luke 17:31). The assumption is that Lot's wife was narcissistic, seeking the pleasures of this world. This theology is read back into the text, even though the Genesis account is silent about the character of Lot's wife.
All that the text tells us about her is summed up in six Hebrew words that translate to: "And his wife looked back from behind him and she became a pillar of salt." Based on this solitary mention, elaborate character portraits of Lot's wife are constructed. Why? To justify her demise.
If she is not portrayed as a foolish woman with a self-indulging heart, then her punishment would appear capricious, especially if, because she's a woman, Lot did not bother discussing the options facing them as he did with his prospective son-in-laws. After all, the text fails to note any discussion with Lot's wife concerning what could befall them. Verse 15 simply has the angels stating, "Take your wife and your two young daughters ... lest you [masculine singular] be consumed."
For most of us, our sense of justice is offended that the God of second chances, the God of love, mercy and forgiveness would act so harshly, especially when we consider that the text is ambiguous about who was informed concerning the danger of looking back. In order to justify Lot's wife's punishment, she must either be vilified or simply ignored.
Even though her presence is implied throughout the Sodom and Gomorrah story, she remains invisible. For example, when we are told that Lot prepared the two angels a meal of unleavened bread (Genesis 19:3), more than likely it was his wife, under a patriarchal rule, that did the preparing, serving and cleaning up.
Yet, for a brief moment, Lot's wife takes center stage in the story. Lot's wife becomes visible when she looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. This becomes a disturbing tale of a person who is punished for attempting to see the destruction of the city. And yet, when Abram also looked toward Sodom's demise, he is not turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:27-28).
Rather than depicting Lot's wife as either the totality of worldliness or the other extreme of virtuousness, maybe we should see her like we see the rest of us: a human who falls short of the glory of God. As an invisible member within a patriarchal society, she probably did the wash with her neighbors – also nameless women. They might have been present when she twice gave birth, as she might have been when they gave birth to their own children.
She shared gossip and stories with them as she tended her garden, prepared meals or simply rested under the stars after a long day of heavy, menial work. The men of the city may all have been wicked, but these women with whom she shared a similar fate of patriarchal oppression, more than likely, were her friends.
Sodom, with all its imperfections, was her home – just like many of us have made our homes in the entrails of the empire. She might have looked back to see the life that would no longer follow the well-established rhythms of the everyday. She might have looked back to mourn friends swallowed up in God's wrath who were now no more. She might have looked back to say adieu to all the daily rituals and routines that marked her life and provided meaning to her existence.
Who among us would not have also taken a peek, along with Lot's wife and Abram? Those of us who have known exile, being cast from the land that witnessed our birth, are always in a quest to see the cause of our estrangement. Only then can we hope to find healing and create healthy, well-adjusted lives. We look back, lest we forget our identity.
It does not really matter why she looked back. The reality is that we will never ascertain the motives of her heart. The fact is that she looked and was swiftly punished by God. If she did know of the consequences and still looked back, then she committed suicide. But if patriarchal rule meant Lot did not need to inform her of what was occurring, then her looking back was an accident, making her a victim of homicide. Lot's wife is killed because she is prohibited from remembering. There are no opportunities for absolution or redemption offered to her. This is one of those verses in Scripture that is profoundly disturbing, for it seems as if the God of Lot is not the merciful and forgiving God to whom we have become accustomed.
Posted on: 05/25/10:
Will Atheism Replace Religion in America?
By Jonathan Merritt
By Jonathan Merritt
Belief in God, eternity, and other basic religious assertions are questions that have dominated public opinion surveys for some time, but there are some who now believe that non-belief may become the new default. According to a recent American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of more than 54,000 adults, the number of people willing to identify themselves as atheist and agnostic rose from under 2 million in 2001 to 3.6 million in 2008. When you leave out the labels "atheist" and "agnostic," ARIS found that over 18 percent of Americans (as many as 40 million) do not profess a belief in God.To read the rest of the article, click here
Looking over the data, evolutionary psychologist Dr. Nigel Barber attempts to argue that atheism will actually replace religion sooner rather than later: "Atheists are heavily concentrated in economically developed countries, particularly the social democracies of Europe. In underdeveloped countries, there are virtually no atheists," he recently wrote in Psychology Today. "Atheism is thus a peculiarly modern phenomenon."
Why are modern societies fertile ground for blossoming unbelief? With a flair you would expect from a psychologist, Barber gives four reasons:
1) Religion is a comfort blanket for the fearful. In modern societies, social welfare programs abound. These programs reduce public fear, and therefore, reduce the need for religion.
2) Religion may promote fertility since it exalts marriage. But large families are more valued in agrarian societies, not modern ones.
3) Religion is therapy. As Karl Marx famously said, religion is the opium of the people. Modern societies, however, turn to psychologists, psychiatrists, and medical doctors to cope with their emotional and psychological needs.
4) Religious communities are social organizations. In modern societies, however, there are other ways to meet one's social needs (e.g., sport spectatorship).
"The reasons that churches lose ground in developed countries can be summarized in market terms," Barber contemptuously concludes. "First, with better science, and with government safety nets, and smaller families, there is less fear and uncertainty in people's daily lives and hence less of a market for religion. At the same time many alternative products are being offered, such as psychotropic medicines and electronic entertainment that have fewer strings attached and that do not require slavish conformity to unscientific beliefs."
Posted on: 02/24/10:
Are There Secular Reasons?
By Stanley Fish
By Stanley Fish
In the always-ongoing debate about the role of religion in public life, the argument most often made on the liberal side (by which I mean the side of Classical Liberalism, not the side of left politics) is that policy decisions should be made on the basis of secular reasons, reasons that, because they do not reflect the commitments or agendas of any religion, morality or ideology, can be accepted as reasons by all citizens no matter what their individual beliefs and affiliations. So it’s O.K. to argue that a proposed piece of legislation will benefit the economy, or improve the nation’s health, or strengthen national security; but it’s not O.K. to argue that a proposed piece of legislation should be passed because it comports with a verse from the book of Genesis or corresponds to the will of God.To read the rest of the article, click here
A somewhat less stringent version of the argument permits religious reasons to be voiced in contexts of public decision-making so long as they have a secular counterpart: thus, citing the prohibition against stealing in the Ten Commandments is all right because there is a secular version of the prohibition rooted in the law of property rights rather than in a biblical command. In a more severe version of the argument, on the other hand, you are not supposed even to have religious thoughts when reflecting on the wisdom or folly of a piece of policy. Not only should you act secularly when you enter the public sphere; you should also think secularly.
Whether the argument appears in its softer or harder versions, behind it is a form of intellectual/political apartheid known as the private/public distinction: matters that pertain to the spirit and to salvation are the province of religion and are to be settled by religious reasons; matters that pertain to the good order and prosperity of civil society are the province of democratically elected representatives and are to be settled by secular reasons. As John Locke put it in 1689 (“A Letter Concerning Toleration”), the “care of men’s souls” is the responsibility of the church while to the civil magistrate belongs the care of “outward things such as money, land, houses, furniture and the like”; it is his responsibility to secure for everyone, of whatever denomination or belief, “the just possession of these things belonging to this life.”
A neat division, to be sure, which has the effect (not, I think, intended by Locke) of honoring religion by kicking it upstairs and out of sight. If the business of everyday life — commerce, science, medicine, law, agriculture, education, foreign policy, etc. — can be assigned to secular institutions employing secular reasons to justify actions, what is left to religious institutions and religious reasons is a private area of contemplation and worship, an area that can be safely and properly ignored when there are “real” decisions to be made. Let those who remain captives of ancient superstitions and fairy tales have their churches, chapels, synagogues, mosques, rituals and liturgical mumbo-jumbo; just don’t confuse the (pseudo)knowledge they traffic in with the knowledge needed to solve the world’s problems.
This picture is routinely challenged by those who contend that secular reasons and secular discourse in general don’t tell the whole story; they leave out too much of what we know to be important to human life.
No they don’t, is the reply; everything said to be left out can be accounted for by the vocabularies of science, empiricism and naturalism; secular reasons can do the whole job. And so the debate goes, as polemicists on both sides hurl accusations in an exchange that has become as predictable as it is over-heated.
Posted on: 08/17/09:
Empowerment Ethics for a Liberated People: A Path to African American Social Transformation by Howard University School of Divinity professor Cheryl J. Sanders is an interesting and insightful work about African-American Christian ethics. Sanders identifies her book as a useful tool for those blacks who have already experienced liberation Sanders intends to offer these persons a practical ethical strategy to bring liberation to those blacks still suffering from oppression. This focus on those who have already ‘arrived’ is refreshing and necessary. Many African-Americans in the middle class place the onus of liberation on the oppressed. Sanders’ emphasis on the responsibility to empower the oppressed is powerful, timely, and essential.
Posted on: 07/26/09:
Jimmy Carter, who popularized the notion of "born-again Christian," finally decides to break ties with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) because of his stance on gender equality. How will conservative Christian denominations continue respond to the growing concerns for full human equality in a global context where racial, gender, sexual, and class oppression still exist? Is Carter's denominational departure a theological miscalculation or a moral sign of religion's future?
Losing my religion for equality
By Jimmy Carter
Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.
I HAVE been a practising Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention's leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be "subservient" to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.
This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women's equal rights across the world for centuries.
At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.
The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.
In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.
The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.
It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices - as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.
I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge. But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy - and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.
The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. We have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights and have recently published a statement that declares: "The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable."
We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasise the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world's major faiths share.
The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place - and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence - than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.
I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn't until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.
The truth is that male religious leaders have had - and still have - an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions - all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.
Posted on: 06/04/09:
After recently receiving some very disturbing news regarding Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, I have decided to come forward as a Christian and a citizen because such news demands a public outcry. What has occasioned such coming forward is the fact that there are many, including people of color, desiring change within the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Redeemer’s denomination, who are also aware of these (and similar!) problematic matters, yet remain woefully silent. As a Christian, I speak out because the public truth and power of the gospel via its human mediators is at stake. As a citizen, I speak out because every citizen has a responsibility to freely interrogate public claims. As a Christian and citizen, I am even more compelled to speak out when Christian religious figures are involved in public discursive practices that may be bound up with religious meaning and thereby, implicating the Christian faith. And perhaps, as equally important, I have decided to speak up and speak out because Christian love, particularly for those involved, often requires prophetic witness.
Posted on: 12/22/08:
All Too Common Story
“Tom” is a doting father of four kids: 3 boys and one infant daughter. (When Tom’s daughter reaches dating age, dates will need to certainly prove their perseverance with four men to win over.) His three boys are athletic and are all under 14 years of age. So you can imagine and you will be right: Tom is a busy man. I have had the pleasure of teaching Tom at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO. He is a great thinker and student. Tom is a repair man/janitor at his church and he drives an old Ford pick up truck; a truck with a large loading bed. Most importantly, Tom suffers from being kind-hearted.
One Friday evening, Tom was asked by a Christian man [a doctor] to load and deliver some tables and chairs early Saturday morning. Tom initially told the doctor that he was busy and had to get his sons to their various athletic contests and did not want to be rushed; so Tom politely said, “No.” However, the doctor insisted and said to Tom, “I’ll make it worth your while.” Tom reluctantly agreed to help this man not because of his “worth while” offer but because Tom is kind-hearted Christian man.
Rising early the next day and alone, Tom made 3 trips loading and transporting tables and metal chairs in his gas guzzling pick up truck. Exhausted and rushed for time, Tom met up with his Christian friend [a doctor] to see how he might make it worth his while only to be given a whopping $50 dollars! Tom was livid but bit his tongue. Need I remind the reader that this was in May 2008 when gas prices were approaching $4 per gallon? After Tom recounted this story to me, I could have screamed, “No, this is injustice!”
The subject of this article is, “How do we love the rich?”
Posted on: 07/11/08:
Yesterday, I had the privilege of being able to attend a private screening of a new upcoming film - Call + Response. It is a riveting film that deals with some of most surreptitious present-day human evils around the world. And Reformed/Evangelical folks want to talk about abortion and/or gay-marriage all day as though it is the most pressing moral issue of our day. Really?!?! I wish I could say more, but I'm short on time right now.
Check out the trailer:
From the Call + Response website:
Check out the trailer:
From the Call + Response website:
CALL+RESPONSE is a first of its kind feature documentary film that reveals the world’s 27 million dirtiest secrets: there are more slaves today than ever before in human history. CALL+RESPONSE goes deep undercover where slavery is thriving from the child brothels of Cambodia to the slave brick kilns of rural India to reveal that in 2007, Slave Traders made more money than Google, Nike and Starbucks combined.To find out more, click here.
Luminaries on the issue such as Cornel West, Madeleine Albright, Daryl Hannah, Julia Ormond, Ashley Judd, Nicholas Kristof, and many other prominent political and cultural figures offer first hand account of this 21st century trade. Performances from Grammy-winning and critically acclaimed artists including Moby, Natasha Bedingfield, Cold War Kids, Matisyahu, Imogen Heap, Talib Kweli, Five For Fighting, Switchfoot, members of Nickel Creek and Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Rocco Deluca move this chilling information into inspiration for stopping it.
Music is part of the movement against human slavery. Dr. Cornel West connects the music of the American slave fields to the popular music we listen to today, and offers this connection as a rallying cry for the modern abolitionist movement currently brewing.