Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Progressive Evangelical?

I've been meeting with a group of folks this fall who are trying to sort out the future of the church -- not The Church, just our little church. We are a decidedly progressive lot and, much to our dismay, our conversations continue to return to a decidedly conservative word: evangelism. We feel a deep sense of calling to reach out into our community and tell people about the faith we share, to invite people to explore it with us, to expand the circle of our small community. And this scares the hell out of us.
The very word "evangelical" gets defined as "fundamentalist" and thus is automatically the field of conservatives. But like so much else in the language of Christianity, it has not always been so. The word now firmly associated in the American mind with conservatives, comes from a simple New Testament Greek word that means "one who brings good news."
Despite what Karl Rove might have us believe, progressives should be bearers of good news. According to Rove's worldview, anyone who criticizes the way things are is by definition a pessimist. The laundry list of situations that progressives must critique and condemn is too long for any blog. The challenge to progressives is not only to continue sharp and clear critiques of the status quo (of war without end, of stagnant economies, of deeper division between the affluent and the destitute), but also to say with conviction and imagination that another world is possible.
This ought to be precisely where progressive people of faith -- or, people of progressive faith -- should be reclaiming the mantle of evangelism. After all, we are the ones who have envisioned a world that makes decisions nonviolently, and we are the ones who have shown precisely how that works in the American South, in apartheid South Africa, in colonial India. We are the ones who have shown how people can come together across racial, ethnic, religious and economic divisions to build more just and equitable communities. We are the ones who point toward one who came preaching good news to the poor, release to the captives, new sight to the blind, liberation to the oppressed and jubilee to those bound by an unfair economy. (And if you doubt that, go read Luke's gospel.)
Advent is a season of preparation and expectation. The word itself means "coming." So let this Advent be a time of hopeful expectation and faithful preparation for the coming of the good news. Now is the time for progressive evangelicals to be loud, insistent, joyous, imaginative, hopeful bearers of good news. Another world is possible.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Into the Breach

How can you be a repairer of the breach if you don't understand the breach? Red State/Blue State, progressive/conservative, Christian/Muslim, Israeli/Palistinian, rich/poor -- the divisions are so numerous that we grab onto any convenient shorthand because the work of truly understanding these differences is overwhelming.
The church I serve in Virginia is part of the More Light network of Presbyterian congregations. Indeed, we are the only More Light church in the commonwealth. More Light is one of those "inside baseball" phrases that only Presbyterians recognize. It simply means that we welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons into the full life of our congregation and work to pull down all of the barriers to their full participation in the life of the broader church.
That said, my congregation is a More Light church in need of more light -- literally. Our 1940s wired sanctuary is a dimly lit space. So we called an electrician who sent us to a lighting designer who came to visit last week.
In the course of conversation, he told me that he is a member of a Christian and Missionary Alliance congregation. Knowing a bit about that conservative denomination and its fundamentalist perspectives on interpreting scripture, I was eager to talk lights and not theology. It was not a day when I felt like letting someone try to hit me over the head with the Bible and its half dozen passages that are regularly used to deny the full humanity of GLBT folks.
But he kept asking questions about the church and I kept answering them, and eventually he had a pretty good picture of who we are. That's when the fun began.
We talked for at least an hour about the theological divide between us. It was more than civil. It was a first step into the breach taken by people who share a common confession of faith, but come at it from radically different perspectives.
He said several times, "I hope you don't feel like I'm badgering you, but this is the first time I've ever spoken with a progressive pastor who comes at these issues the way you do, and I'm just really interested in trying to understand how you got there."
There were no conversion experiences, but there was some small repairing of the breach. He saw a progressive who is not a monster (at least I hope!), and I encountered a conservative whose perspectives are grounded not in stereotypical bigotry, but in a well-understood theological perspective. The conversation was so much richer than any I have had with conservative Presbyterian lay people, who, on these particular issues have struck me over and over again as naive, misinformed and, well, just plain stupid much of the time. This guy is smart, thoughtful and knows his Bible.
Of course, he interprets scripture through a particular lens -- as we all do with any text we encounter. While I see the arc of the story of scripture as primarily about restoring relationships between and among human beings and between creation and its creator, he sees it as a story of God's call to human beings to be holy. Where I read through a lens of compassion, he reads through a lens of holiness. Where I understand justice as love in action, he understands justice a God's judgement on fallen humanity.
So, if this is the breach, how does one operative within it effectively? How do we go once more into this breach with any hope for mending, healing and wholeness?