Tag: progressive christians

Marching for Sandwiches, Marcus Borg and Civility

Social media lit up yesterday after the Director of Civil and Human Rights in the  United Methodist Church decided to hold up a sign on Thursday during the March of Life.  Bill Mefford held up a sign that said “I March for Sandwiches” with the marchers for the March for Life in the background.  A number of pro life folk were upset and wondered why Mefford wasn’t marching for real.  I’m not here to talk about abortion.  (I tend to be in the “mushy middle” on abortion, I tend to see it not as a “good,” but something that might have to be used in either tragic or desparate circumstances.)  I want to talk about the lack respect that is found at time from progressive Christians when they encounter people that they don’t agree with.

Mefford apologized for his stunt.  Via Rod Dreher, Mefford wrote:

It seems my picture of me holding a sign that said “I March for Sandwiches” has been taken entirely out of context and has caused quite a stir among some in the Twitter and social media world. I tend to hate general apologies – when people say they are sorry for “whatever they may have done that offended people.” I don’t think those are very sincere.

I also want to say that when I was at the event holding my sign I received nothing but laughter and cheers. Making folks laugh was my sole intent – it really was! It was afterward when this started making the rounds on social media that the hurt and anger began to rise. I understand why people are angry.

So, I am deeply sorry for the hurt and anger that this has caused people since the event. I honestly love to make people laugh and think, and the hurt and anger that people are feeling is not something I enjoy. At all.

A reader on Mefford’s blog responded:

Bill, thanks for your apology. I’m all for humor, but next time you should remember the golden rule. Ask yourself this: how would you have responded if the marchers in Ferguson or New York this past fall had been met with mockery? I suspect you would not have appreciated it. Even if one disagreed with them, the seriousness of the situation demanded respect. Same with the March for Life.

It’s good that Mefford apologized, but his antics are not that unusual in progressive circles.  More and more I keep seeing some of my friends and colleagues show more conservative evangelicals nothing but mockery and disdain.  I never understood this lack of respect.  I grew up in evangelicalism.  There are things about it that I don’t feel comfortable doing anymore and viewpoints that I no longer agree with.  Some contemporary Christian music is not so good to listen to 25 years later.  I will disagree with many evangelicals over the role of openly gay people in the life of the church.  But I don’t want to disrespect them.  After all, I would not be the Christian that I am today if it were not for my evangelical upbrining.

Mefford might have been trying to make a joke, but that joke didn’t come accross to many folk who are pro-life as a joke they could laugh with.  In their eyes, a joke was being made at their expense.

I’ve been around enough to know the snickers that come up when talking about someone who might have a more conservative faith than ourselves.  In some ways it shows how progressive Christians aren’t as inclusive as they claim.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include that some of the people complaining about Mefford’s stunt weren’t anymore tolerant of other’s beliefs.  Reading Matthew Schmitz’s response to Mefford you can tell he has very little if any respect for Christians and other who might be pro-choice.  Respect is a two-way street, Matthew.

How do we encounter and deal with people who have different beliefs?  We all give lip service to being able to listen and welcoming opposing views, but in reality, we don’t have much patience in our modern society for those that don’t conform to whatever is the status quo in our world.

Which is why Mefford’s stunt is bothersome.  Maybe it was an attempt at humor, but really was that the place to do it?  If someone held up a similar card in Ferguson, MO or in any number of cities where folks gathered to protest police brutality, I don’t think a lot of people would be laughing and for good reason.

What the joke showed was that Mefford didn’t think what was going on before him was worth any thought.  He may have not meant it this way, but his actions said that the pro-life marchers weren’t worthy of respect.

In our social media age,  we can segregate ourselves into walled silos where we don’t have to engage people with different opinions as…well, people. We can treat them as abstractions, caritchures, gross exaggerations of who they are really.

This past week, many in the Christian community were stunned by the sudden death of theologian Marcus Borg.  What was so interesting to see in the hours following the news was the accolades coming not simply from those who agreed with him, but from those who disagreed with him.  This is what Methodist blogger David Watson had to say, revealing a little about Borg’s true character:

With Borg’s passing, we lose another of a great generation of liberals. I don’t mean liberal in the sense of his theology or ethics, though he fit quite well within the world of existentialist and process theology. (Just read his book, The God We Never Knew.) I mean that you could dialogue with him. He was liberal in an older sense of that term as applied to academics. You could have respectful disagreement with him. To my knowledge, he did not belittle his opponents or caricature their positions. His work with N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, is a model of respectful disagreement and discourse. Borg was truly a gentleman and a scholar.

I read his book with N.T. Wright a few years ago for a Sunday School class I was co-leading.  I tend to favor N.T. Wright’s more orthodox views over Borg’s but I was struck about how the book was really a conversation between friends, not enemies.  Maybe it was that friendly spirit that allowed me to see that Borg did have a few good points to make in the book.

As Watson notes, Borg was someone you could diaglogue with.  Christian conservatives have never been the best dialogue partners, but liberals were supposed to be the ones that craved it.  Sadly that’s becoming less the case these days.

In the wake of Borg’s passing, maybe we should be willing to share his large spirit.  Maybe we should be willing to sit down and converse with someone, not to prove them wrong, but to understand them. Pro-choice and pro-life Christians should be able to disagree and yet get to know and respect each other.  Pro-gay and traditionalist Christians should have a meal together.  Evangelicals and Progressives should do a mission project together.

I don’t know what would happen if we did that.  Maybe we would start to see the other as a person, a person that might frustrate us, but a person that God made nevertheless.

May the spirit of Marcus Borg live on in us as we encounter the other.

On the Babylonian Captivity of the Mainline Protestant Church

“Be in the world, but not of the world.”

partisanshipThat was a phrase I heard a lot when I was growing up.  In my evangelical upbringing, there was a stress about living where we are, but not follow the ways of the world.  According to the phrase, we are to follow Jesus and not gods of this world.

Around the time of seminary in the late 1990s, I started hearing talk about”empire.”  The empire was something that challenged the authority of God.  In mainline/progressive churches, talking about empire was their version “not of this world.”  The thinking is based on the depiction of the Roman Empire during Jesus’ time.  It was an all encompassing entity that demanded loyalty and worship.  The empire tends to be used also to describe a modern Rome; namely the United States. In this view, Christians are to resist the power of empire which are rather great.

There is a lot of talk about how we should not fall for the lies of the world/empire and follow Jesus.  But most our talk is just that, talk.  While we denounce the world/empire, we have basically got in bed with the Ceasars of this world.  It’s been well recorded about how evangelicals had a Vegas-style wedding with the GOP.  What is less well-known- especially to those on the inside is how progressive Christians have swallowed whole left-wing politics.  It’s dressed up in churchy language of course, but it’s still a melding of Ceasar and the church.  Many progressive Christians are engaged in politics that is basically left-liberal politics and what I think is very disturbing is that they seem to be unaware that they are just as captive as their conservative sisters and brothers.

None of this is to say that conservatives are any better- they aren’t.  But progressives are not innocent.  Both sides have bought into the conservative/liberal mentality that has become a hallmark of our polarized American society.  Methodist pastor Allan Bevere shares how the church has become captive to the political system:

I immediately think of the (United Methodist) General Board of Church and Society that belongs to the first group, while United Methodist Action (affiliated with the Institute on Religion and Democracy) is an expression of the second group. The former group sounds less Christian and more like the Democratic Party, while the latter group sounds less Christian and more like the Republican Party. Indeed, when I read the anything from either group, I often struggle to see the decisively Christian theological presence in their arguments.

The problem is that both groups that Bishop Carter identifies suffer from their own version of civil religion. James Hunter defines civil religion as “a diffuse amalgamation of religious values that is synthesized with the civic creeds of the nation; in which the life and mission of the church is conflated with the life and mission of the country. American values are, in substance, biblical prophetic values; American identity is, thus, vaguely Christian identity” (Hunter, To Change the World, p. 145). As Hunter rightly notes, the religious right wants to keep America Christian (as they understand it) and the religious left wants to make America Christian (as they understand it). And since both sides are more decisively Democratic or Republican than decisively Christian, the former is unable to apply their concerns for life and hospitality to the unborn, while the latter cannot apply them to immigrants and gays and lesbians. But a consistent ethic of life and hospitality “represents a continuum from conception to death, from the individual to the creation, from interventions in and support of the lives of unborn children and their pregnant mothers, trafficked and enslaved young people, endangered coal miners, incarcerated young men on death row, tortured prisoners of war, the dignity of the aged, and the fragile ecosystems upon which we all depend” (Carter).

As long our UM boards and agencies and organizations (official and otherwise) and we individual United Methodists are nothing more than extensions of the Democratic and Republican Parties, we will not only continue to be selective as to who receives the hospitality of Christ through us, we will also fail to be the alternative to the world that the church is designed to be. One can’t be an alternative when one simply parrots the prevailing political polarities. Until we embrace a consistent ethic of life, our ethic of hospitality will be inconsistent. We will continue to be inconsistent as long as we sound more like the politicians in Washington D.C. than the carpenter from Nazareth.


The problem in mainline/progressive circles is that we can’t really tell the difference between liberal politics and prophetic witness. We tend to think that if someone speaks out against a conservative policy, they are somehow in the same league of Old Testament prophets like Amos. Frankly, if we are nodding in agreement with what the “prophet” says all the time, that person is probably not a prophet.

But as I said before, this captivity is very subtle. I don’t think people are deliberately trying to neutralize the church, but that is what is happening here. We might tell ourselves that the work for a higher minimum wage is part of God’s plans of salvation, but is out work for God or the Democratic party?

I don’t think the answer here is for Christians to withdraw from politics. We have to be able to engage the world around us. But the answer that has elluded me all these years is how can church leaders raise Christians who understand the political landscape and seek to help Christians make choices based on their faith. It’s too easy for churches to just capitualte to the wider culture. What I think is needed is some room for the pastor to help people discern what it means to believe and act in this culture. It’s going to mean thinking long and hard about issues seeking a way that will help the least of these. It might also mean having to deal with someone that has a different ideology. It means working together to work for healing and wholeness with someone you might not agree with. It would mean really asking God to lead us instead of using God a political cheerleader.

I don’t have all the answers, let alone the vision of this change in the church’s public witness.

These Aren’t the Evangelicals You’re Looking For

A few years ago, I was invited by a Lutheran friend of mine to take part in a group of church planters.  I knew these folk came from an evangelical background and my “shields” went up.  Would these people accept me?  Did I have to go into the closet here?

After a while, the woman who was leading the group noticed my hesitancy.  “Dennis, are you gay?” she asked.  She didn’t ask the question in a mean or menacing way, but more to get at what was making me so shy.

Having grown up in an evangelical culture where being gay wasn’t good, the old tapes were playing in my head.  But this woman never turned me away after I told her.  She and her husband welcomed me.

I learned a important lesson that day.  I learned that not every evangelical is out to get gays.  I learned that things had changed in the nearly 20 years since I left evangelicalism.  I learned that there is far more nuance of evangelicals than most progressive Christians are willing to admit.

Recently, evangelical author Skye Jethani wrote a blog post about the reaction of evangelicals after the two Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage.  Jethani was fascinated by the media coverage because it didn’t match what he was experiencing:

One would assume from media reporting that evangelicals are obsessed with two things: politics and homosexuality. In my 30 years of involvement with evangelical churches, parachurch ministries, and mission organizations, I cannot recall hearing a single sermon about homosexuality. In addition, my role with Christianity Today connects me with evangelical congregation all over the country. Politics and gay marriage may arise in my private conversations with pastors, but I’ve never heard them engaged in a worship service. That does not mean these topics are never broached in a church setting, but they reside very, very far from the spotlight. And what about this past Sunday after the “culture shaking” ruling by the Supreme Court? Nothing. I did not hear a sermon, a comment, a prayer, or even a conversation in the church foyer about it. And this silence isn’t limited to LGBTQ issues. In three decades I’ve not heard what I would classify as a political or partisan sermon. Given the lack of politics in my evangelical church experience, why do 75% of young non-Christians say evangelicals are “too political”? How do we explain this gap between what actually happens in evangelical communities and the media’s portrayal of evangelicals? There are two possible explanations. Either my church engagement is wildly outside the norm, or perhaps evangelicals aren’t as devoted to political social engineering as the outside culture seems to believe we are.

So why is there a disconnect between what he has seen and what culture perceives?  Jethani thinks part of the problem is media perception:

…the presence of socially conservative, politically rabid evangelicals fits the narrative advanced by the news and entertainment media. With 24 hours of airtime to fill each day, finding more extreme voices, to say more outrageous things, and incite more conflicts has become the mission of the news media. That’s why last Sunday’s “Meet the Press” pitted MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow against the founder of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed. Are these the two people you want on your news program for an intelligent, respectful conversation about gay marriage? Not likely. These are the people you want at the table when making the news is more valued than reporting it.

I think Jethani is on to something here.  For mainline Protestants, most of our perception of evangelicals tends to be from what we see from the media.  We don’t really hold much interest in getting to know evangelicals with the exception of those that tend to be more progressive.

Last spring, writer Brandon Ambrosino wrote a touching essay of his coming out experience, which happened to take place at Liberty University- the institution founded by Religious Right superstar Jerry Fawell.  If you are expecting a horror story of how Brandon was mistreated by fundamentalists, you will be surprised.  Many of the adults he encountered were incredibly loving towards him.  They might have disagreed with the whole gay thing, but they loved the flesh and blood being standing in front of them.

Last fall, I wrote about how my opinion of social conservatives has changed.  I still disagree with them, but I stopped looking at them as abstractions and more like real people, people you might think are wrong, but people you will still welcome at your table.

I wonder at times if the church needs to be a place where we are able to reach out and befriend each other.  I know it’s hard for lesbian and gay folks who were traumatized by the church to turn around and be forgiving; but I wonder if part of our healing and reminder that God loves us includes reaching out to those that might disagree, not with the intent to change their mind, but to just be present with them.  What if we could spend some time listening to them and visa versa.  Minds might never be changed, but hearts just might be.

I wonder what might happen if we let go of the need to be right and try to be more loving of those with whom we disagree.  I’m not saying we abandon our work for justice, but what if we were able to chat with someone who doesn’t see things like you do and yet remain friends?  What would that say to the world?