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Progressive Christians: It’s Time to Get Louder

Progressive Christians: It’s Time to Get Louder

I’ve been a “progressive Christian” for as long as I can remember. (Ok, I did a brief stint of evangelicalism in late high school/early college, which led to a crisis of faith and is the subject of a much longer post.) The point is, that for as long as I’ve been Christian, I’ve been a Christian who isn’t “like that.” After I was ordained, I felt like the only way to introduce myself was “I’m a pastor, but not that kind.” Because, you know, I had to get that last part in before people started worrying that I was going to ask them about where they’d be when the rapture came, or launch into an exposition denying science, or perhaps talk to them about how gay marriage is a sin.

You get it, right? So many of us have been defining our Christianity in terms of what we’re not.

And because we’ve been defining ourselves by what we’re not, we haven’t been saying what we are. At least, not what we are as Christians. Most of us have been fighting for the kin-dom of God in all kinds of ways: volunteering at homeless shelters, showing up at city council meetings, voting our values at the polls and holding our reps accountable to our vision of a world where all are truly recognized as Beloved.

But we’ve been doing it quietly.

For sure, in some ways this doesn’t matter. After all, if the hungry get fed and the prisoners get comforted and the sick get healed, it doesn’t matter much whether they knew the person who offered the help was religiously motivated or not. And, I think, in many cases we withheld our religious convictions out of respect. With so many people using religion as a weapon, we wanted to be sure we didn’t accidentally inflict harm ourselves.

But there has been a downside and it is this: with our lack of speech in the public sphere, the only voices proclaiming Christianity were voices of exclusivity.

Now, those of you who are active in mainline or progressive evangelical traditions know that there are churches and churches full of Christians who are eager to make America a more just place. You know that there are churches that are intentionally multi-cultural and are creating rich conversation to heal a racially unjust nation. You know that there are churches who have been on the front line advocating for marriage equality. Or churches who see taking care of the planet as a central part of their mission. (This is Creation Stewardship in church-speak.)

But most people don’t know this.

The other day, in Boulder County, Colorado, where there are any number of progressive churches, someone said to me, “I would be Christian again if I could find a church that was in line with Jesus.” He went on to describe a church that would welcome all kinds of people, work on issues of homelessness, healthcare, racism, religious tolerance or do other things that Jesus actually talked about. (emphasis his)

Here’s the kicker–I could name 5 churches exactly like that within a reasonable Sunday morning drive from his house.

I can only assume that we’re not being loud enough to cut through the noise that is the Christian culture wars today. Honestly, I think it’s because many of us have our own spiritual wounds–the thought of going up against the evangelical machine makes our hands shake and our hearts race.

But people are hungry to experience a community of faith where they can explore this side of Christianity. And more importantly, if this is what we truly believe about God-in-Christ, then it’s our Christian witness to get out there and share it.

So what does that look like? I think it’s mainly about bridging the gap between our faith-selves and our secular-selves:

  • Try showing up in the regular world in your religious t-shirts, hats, and lapel pins. Do it especially in the places where religious conversation has been hurtful. I wore my clergy collar to an anti-racism training a few weeks ago and I’ll tell you, it wasn’t comfortable. There were a few suspicious looks, probably from people wondering what my agenda was. Plus, my ironed shirt and skirt stuck out like a sore thumb in a group of hip Boulderites in their carefully grunge-clothes. But it also meant that I got to have conversations with people that never would have happened if I’d shown up in my civilian camouflage.  As Carol Howard Merritt says, this is our Pentecost moment. We have to “[dress] up, show up, stand up, and pray up, whenever possible.” And while she’s writing mainly to clergy, I’d say this is true for all Christians right now. We have to do whatever we can, in whatever big or small way, to show that while stories of hatred perpetrated in the name of religion might dominate the news, they’re not dominating in real life.
  • Use your digital space. Post articles from faith leaders who are confronting issues of injustice.  Show pictures of yourself at Peace Rallies with a hashtag about following Jesus. Share your denomination’s stance on the issues of the day. Maybe you’ll get trolls. Delete them and forget about it. But not everyone who disagrees is a troll; be willing to enter into respectful conversation and share your views as a person of faith.
  • And if you’re part of a church, see about using your church space to raise your voice. The church I currently serve has a rainbow flag on the bell tower. Another church has a Black Lives Matter sign on their front lawn. A Mennonite church started those wonderful “we’re glad you’re our neighbor” signs that branched out and became a Big Deal.

I know the objection: these are “political” signs…why can’t we just hang something Jesus-y like “all are welcome” or “God loves everyone” and stay out of the political fray? The simple answer is that it’s that’s not clear enough. “All are welcome” is an important theological statement for sure but the casual passer-by can’t tell your “all are welcome” sign from the mega-church down the street’s “all are welcome” sign. And they’ve been around long enough to know that when a church says “all are welcome,” they usually mean “all are welcome to come be just like us.”

Getting louder is going to have to mean stepping outside our comfort zone a bit. Personally, I kind of hate the idea. But I really, really hate the idea of living in a time when people associate Christianity with exclusion. That was never the goal–you know it and I know it. So it’s time to show it to a world that needs to know it, too.

5 Powerful Phrases for an Election Year

5 Powerful Phrases for an Election Year

I used to love this picture:

optical illusion election

I loved how I my eyes would slightly glaze over as I switched back and forth between seeing the old lady and young woman. I would give myself a headache looking at that picture.

“It’s a young woman!”
“No, it’s an old lady!”

The answer, of course, was that it’s both. This is so obvious, it seems silly to say.  But that was the miracle of the illusion—some amazing artist had created a picture in which two contradictory things could be true at the same time.

Now imagine that camps formed around the different viewpoints. “It’s an old woman!” “It’s a young woman!” The argument might become more and more heated, each side gradually losing its ability to see the other’s point of view. Insults would be hurled, families would sit in “pro-old” and “pro-young” areas at Thanksgiving, friendships would struggle to bridge the divide.

We’re living in a moment in which these kinds of arguments rage on. We could name them, right? It takes two seconds to march right down the list of party platforms and see the places where we are fighting over “either/or” when the obvious answer is “both/and.”

This rhetoric has grown especially tense around the topic of race. Last night, a friend shared a hateful video rant against the Black Lives Matter movement. (Disclaimer: it wasn’t his.) You don’t need to watch it—just imagine the worst. As crass and violent as this video is, it’s gaining attention because people are rightfully upset about the deaths of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

For some reason, we seem to be asking the question, “Do black lives matter or do police lives matter?

The answer, of course, is that it’s both. This is so obvious, it seems silly to say.

I’m not saying anything that you haven’t thought already. My friends have been saying this for weeks now. In fact, I think most people know this.

My point isn’t to astonish you with some new truth but to encourage you to stay situated there. Unfortunately, this is going to get worse before it gets better. Election years don’t lend themselves to careful public dialog and this year is a particular kind of mess, with issues of race, gender and safety at forefront.

Those of us who are able to see the picture from both angles have an important, if frustrating, job to do. Keep pointing others to the both/and. I don’t mean that we have to become wishy-washy. The last thing the world needs right now is people who sit on the fence, leaning toward one side or the other depending on which way the wind is blowing. No, the world need bridges. It needs people who are willing to chime in with passion and clarity but still see the goodness in the folks on the other side.

The world needs people willing to listen for love instead of for hate.The world needs people willing to listen for love instead of for hate. Click To Tweet

Living in this gray area will actually be harder than fighting for any one position. It will mean learning a new vocabulary and then using it. It may mean calling out those who benefit by promoting a language of hate, or gently guiding those who have lost their ability to look from another angle. It will mean saying things like:

Do we really have to choose?
Can it be both?
I see it two ways.
I think this is a false dichotomy.
I think that’s true and I think this is true, too.

In case you think this is too simplistic, I’d remind you that culture change happens from the inside out. Every social shift has started small. The good news is this one already has momentum. We just have to keep it rolling.

Talking About Race with Children (The Worst Advice I Ever Gave)

Talking About Race with Children (The Worst Advice I Ever Gave)

Several years ago, as a newly-hired education consultant working for the Department of Human Services, a preschool teacher approached me with a question.

“How do I talk to kids about race and tolerance?”

Being completely unschooled in this topic, I answered this:

“With preschoolers, I wouldn’t worry too much about direct teaching. I would focus more on making it a non-issue. Little kids are so open and accepting naturally. We don’t have to teach them to be non-prejudiced, we just need to provide an environment that keeps them that way.”

My approach here was the “colorblind” approach. The theory goes like this: if we don’t draw attention to race, children won’t either. They’ll grow up accepting difference rather than being afraid of it.

Anyone out there who knows anything about race and prejudice is cringing right now. I know. I cringe just remembering it. Worst. Advice. Ever. Unfortunately, it’s common. A Washington Post article highlights the prevalence of this:

“In a recent study of more than 100 parents, 70 percent fell into this “colorblind” or “colormute” category, and one of the main reasons for choosing this approach was that they did not want their children to pay attention to race and develop biases. More than half of the parents also indicated that they did not perceive a need to discuss race because it had never been an issue.”

Let’s deconstruct a bit.

First, the underlying assumption isn’t bad. Kids are naturally open and accepting. They are actually drawn to differences because their curious little minds are seeking out every bit of information they can find. They are scientists, collecting data about the world.

You know what this looks like. It’s the white 4 year old standing in the grocery store loudly asking, “Mom! Why did that person paint himself?” (A true quote.) Or the black little girl petting a white little girls hair, muttering, “It feels so flat.” (Another true story.)

These are mortifying for parents as we rush to explain that people come in all kinds of skin tones, or that hair comes in all kinds of textures. But overall, they are valuable teaching moments. We make a quick comment about “all people are different and that’s ok.” And we are grateful for our sweet little innocent children who aren’t bothered by these differences at all.

This was the image in my mind as I gave my advice: give children room to be curious, don’t be prejudiced yourself, and kids won’t have to be taught about equality later. Instead, they’ll be reaffirmed in what they already know.

The fallacy is the assumption that this was the only message children would receive. Who knows, maybe this would work in culture that was both diverse and equal. But that’s not our culture–yet.

The truth is, we’re receiving countless, subtle messages each and every day. We see a disproportionate number of minorities working in lower paying jobs. We see more news stories involving people of color in crime. We see more whites in positions of leadership. And our rational, scientific, colorblind-trained brains make the logical leap: this is right. Only the leap is more of a short hop. It’s so subtle, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Somewhere along the way, though, we begin to internalize a message that minorities are somehow “less than” whites.

It doesn’t stop there. We’re fooling ourselves if we think our children aren’t hearing overtly racist viewpoints. They are. As much as I want the age of racism to be over, it’s not. There are still people out there holding genuinely racist views. If I’ve heard it, you know my daughter’s heard it–or will soon. It doesn’t matter if it’s coming from cooky uncle Max, or that old church member we’ve never trusted anyway. Kids will hear these messages. And if we don’t offer an alternative view, the message of discrimination will be the only message they get.

Our silence on the topic of race won’t promote unity.
Instead, it will be taken as assent to the message that’s already being received, sometimes subtly and sometimes loudly: racial differences should be feared and inequality is justified.

It all boils down to this: we have to talk to our kids about race, prejudice and discrimination.

Last February, my daughter came home from school so excited about a lesson they’d had on Rosa Parks. Her eyes lit up as she told me the story.

“Can you believe that Black people used to be treated that way? That’s not fair, Mama. I’m so glad that doesn’t happen any more.”

And her trusting, excited little 8 year old eyes made it even harder to say what I had to say next.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it? And the Montgomery Bus Boycott was so brave, and so important. You’ll get to learn about more things people did to change our laws. (deep breath) But you know what, we still don’t treat people fairly all the time. (I swear to you, her little face fell and I felt like I’d just betrayed Santa Claus.) A lot of times, people with different skin colors are still discriminated against. It’s really, really hard. And really important that we keep working to stop it.”

This was hard, this brief little comment. Harder than it should have been. It was hard for me to overcome my natural tendency toward the “colorblind approach.” It was hard for me to dash her little hopes. It was actually even hard for me to talk about race in modern America, which just proves how ingrained all of this is.

We’re fooling ourselves, though, if we think we can avoid these issues for our children. The truth is, they will have to confront them sooner or later. Either now, under our guidance, or as part of some hard inner work when they’re adults.

I remind myself of this when I’m tempted to avoid these hard conversations. They have to be had sometime–either with me or with someone else. And it’s too important to leave to someone else.