Better Gospels

At Subverting the Norm 2, I found myself cringing through most of Tony Jones’s “13 points of challenge and exhortation“.  I’d been primed to see Tony as, at best, a ‘difficult personality’, so it was easy for me to seize onto the things he said that angered or unsettled me in order to reinforce the foregone conclusion. Chatting with Christena Cleveland afterward, I was glad to hear that she too was uncomfortable with several points that she thought would be ill-fitting in her home congregation and other Christian communities.  At that same time, though, she found other of the points positive and constructive.  I was looking forward to hearing which points were which.  She said she was planning to write a response, and so I was really interested when she told me the other day that, though she didn’t get to all 13, she’d written a post that addressed one point in particular more broadly.

Christena’s post responded to Tony’s point about loyalty in which he claimed that “[w]e have a better version of the gospel in the West today”.  And for whomever the we refers to, Tony calls for “stick[ing] together in spite of our doctrinal/theological/philosophical differences”.  The trouble may’ve come from the lack of clarity on who “we” designated, because for Christena it appeared to mean white, well-educated males.  I don’t  disagree that that’s how it came across, but I also think Tony’s was talking about a group of white, often educated people whose tolerant, (aspirationally) progressive views and that his emphasis was on the fact that, compared with intolerant voices in American Christianity today, what “we” have to offer is better.  I leave ‘we’ in quotes because  it’s not clear to me given some of Tony’s other points whether I’m included or not.

So if we’re talking about whether the Gospel according to Jay Bakker is a better version than Pat Robertson‘s, I wholeheartedly agree and I am fairly confident Christena would too.  I think her write-up, even though it imperfectly engages Tony’s actual point, addresses the dynamic and the context in which he is making the point.  There was a lot of talk about diversity at the conference and a lot of earnest white people scratching their heads about why there weren’t more people of color, more women, and more queer people there.  (That they weren’t talking much about class is a whole other problem.)  What seems to be said is,”we (Tony’s ‘we’ of progressive Christians fits here) have constructed this wonderful welcoming place, we’ve invited the Other, why haven’t they joined us?”  Perhaps we (and here I include myself) need to step back from “why haven’t they joined us” and look at the “we have constructed this” bit.  These structures are the ones we have built.

I think the major project of white progressive Christianity right now is looking itself in the mirror and trying to make sense of its shortcomings; understanding its privilege and how that privilege has caused and continues to cause harm.  Pride is taken in advocating for same-sex marriage and the inclusion of same-sex-attracted people into the Church; in continuing the uphill battle for women’s equality in society and in the Church; in combatting racism and religious intolerance – trying to be neighborly with Muslims, atheists, agnostics, and other Others.  All of that, is, of course, worthwhile.  But ironically, how these righteous goals are produced and the expectations held for others to reach them can reproduce some of the ugliness being grabbled with in the first place.

This is where I think Christena’s post is really important.  What’s being addressed is not only these goals, but how we pursue these goals, why they are goals, for whom they are goals, and what other absent goals need to take their rightful place beside them.  Take, for example, a perceived pervasive homophobia in congregations of color.  Equality for queer people (or at least certain kinds of queer people) being a major plank of the white progressive Christian agenda can manifest itself in external demands and expectations that look structurally quite similar to other contexts in which white people in America have exercised power over people of color.  Male-driven solutions within the Church for women’s empowerment and inclusion are problematic in a related way.  Outside-in solutions do bespeak a certain sense of “cultural group idolatry”.

So when Tony talks about a better version of the gospel, I think he’s absolutely right.  It is a better gospel for the specific “we” Tony’s talking about because it specifically responds to salient issues in that group.  And I think the humility Christena calls for when two better versions of the gospel bump up against each other at the boundaries of a group and within a group is indispensable.  Drawing on Christena’s discussion of the body of Christ, I would also say that just as one part of the body is attached and seamlessly connected to the next, the lines are blurry between and among congregations and identity groups.  This means that talking about ‘progressive Christianity’ or ‘white Christians’ or ‘Christians of color’ is an imperfect way of talking.  We’re all one and holistic health is best for each and every body part.  At the same time, a cast fitted to the arm that help heal a broken elbow won’t do much for a foot.

I think the best way we can be loyal to the whole tribe is by going out and getting to know it.  Leaving the structures built by those of us who are the kind of people who’ve perhaps had more than our fair share of structure-building and entering into those of others if only to be able to look at our own better and more critically.  We might then be able to return to them and tweak them (or tear them down where necessary) rather than twiddling our thumbs sheltering inside them wondering where everyone else is.  We can approach our own goals with fresh eyes and understand what pursuing them and what how we pursue them means for others.  In this perpetually unfinished process, I think we’ll find better and better gospels.


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