The confessions of a heretical progressive

At Patheos Progressive Christian, united Methodist minister Morgan Guyton wrote an interesting post I reacted to.

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Why white Christians need to listen to Amos and Isaiah

“But let justice roll down like waters; and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos 5:24 is a verse that gets thrown around a lot in times of protest like the most recent unrest in Baltimore. Taken by itself, this verse is pretty innocuous. Who’s opposed to the idea of justice and righteousness? But it becomes a very different message when we read it in context, starting with verse 21:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Do you hear what God is telling the Israelites through Amos? He hates their worship. He hates their inspiring, accessible sermon series on Biblical living. He hates it when they go on and on about how much he deserves to be praised. He hates their relevant pop culture video clips. He hates the way that the pianist plays softly under the preacher’s prayer. He hates their smiles and their Jesus jukes. He hates their exhibitionist false humility.

Why does God hate these things? Because they have not produced justice. Old Testament prophets like Amos are unanimous in their declaration that worship without justice is a mockery to God. Isaiah 1:12-17  says the same thing:

When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

What if God is actually angry, just not for the things we want him to be angry about and not at the people we want him to be angry at? Many Christians who like to talk about an angry God define sin in such a way that they could never be the objects of God’s wrath. But what if God is angry at us, the people who love to sing happy songs about him and talk about how grateful and humble we are? What if the rage in Baltimore this past week is part of how God is articulating his wrath against the church that’s supposed to be fighting injustice? If Amos and Isaiah were alive today, they wouldn’t have any qualms about naming the Baltimore riots as a sign of God’s wrath.

I’m not saying that the individuals who burn down buildings aren’t committing sins by doing so. But I do believe the collective rage that has exploded into violence is an expression of God’s wrath. When truth and human dignity have been violated repeatedly in millions of ways as they have in the lives of our country’s black community, God’s wrath is kindled.

To understand this, we have to recognize that God’s hatred of sin comes from a place of solidarity with victims, not sanctimony about law. That’s what Jesus teaches us over and over again in his debates with the Pharisees. God does not hate imperfection and rule-breaking on account of his ego as a lawmaker. God hates it when our collective idolatry and selfishness cultivate a world order that crushes the most vulnerable. Worshiping God is supposed to help us get over ourselves and purge our hearts of the idols and selfish agendas that make us aloof to injustice.

The problem is that worship for privileged people too often becomes an indirect form of self-congratulation just like it was for the people Amos and Isaiah were yelling at thousands of years ago. The more that I go on and on about how good God is, the more likely it is that I’m doing it to show other people how good I am at talking about God’s goodness. Even sitting through “tough” sermons about sin can make me feel even more satisfied with myself for having a dour, sober perspective about the wickedness of humanity rather than convicting me personally into true repentance and humility.

If worship is doing what it’s supposed to do, it’s supposed to melt me. It’s supposed to leave me the opposite of self-satisfied. It’s not supposed to produce a snide scoffer, but a heart that is wounded by God’s mercy and burdened by the need to share it with others. I wonder what Amos and Isaiah would say about the self-satisfied scorn that so many white Christians have been spewing out into social media in response to the rage in Baltimore. What would they say about the efficacy of our worship? Would they tell us to “trample [God’s] courts no more”?

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While agreeing with almost everything he wrote, I couldn’t help but express my frustration with what I view as the selective moral indignation of the progressive crowd.

Here was our exchange.

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Hi Morgan.
I just discovered your blog.
Theologically speaking, I’m pretty progressive since I not only reject Biblical inerrancy but also believe that the Bible isn’t necessarily always more inspired than books outside it.
I’m also completely disgusted by the obsession of Conservative Evangelicals with homosexuality while they find it perfectly fine that poor children do not receive a decent healthcare from the State.
(A concept I developed here).

I completely agree with the general principles about social justice you evoked.

I’ve also no doubt at all that a strong anti-black racism among American law enforcement officials is still alive and well in 2015.

Anti-black racism: people killed by the police accoring to their ethnicity.
Anti-black racism: Given their much smaller proportion in the American population, Afro-Americans are disproportionately killed while not attacking in comparison to Americans of European descent.
It is horrendously shameful this is still the case at the dawn of the third millennium.

But I fear that often times Western liberals can be as callous, self-righteous and harmful as Conservatives.

One perfect example is their widespread belief in the legitimacy of collective punishment which is a logical consequence of their belief in unconditional positive discrimination, the idea that a female person should be favoured over a male person and a black one over a white one, regardless of the life conditions of the two individuals in question.

As I once explained, I think this can lead to quite wicked decisions if their respective well-being isn’t taken into consideration.
I think it is profoundly wrong to disadvantage a very poor man against a wealthy female because the former isn’t born with two X chromosomes.
I think it is profoundly wrong to disadvantage a very poor white person against a wealthy black person because the former isn’t born with the genes responsible for a black pigmentation.

I strongly believe that liberals defending the morality of these actions are NOT “fighting injustice” and rescuing the oppressed.

I believe that if there is to be any positive discrimination at all, it should be based on wealth and well-being and not on factors not directly related to the suffering of the persons.

American scholar Richard D. Kahlenberg wrote a long paper about this:

Another related liberal injustice is the systematic refusal to recognise the existence of racial hatred against white people and/or to condemn it.

While I cannot speak about modern America, I can say that acts of racial violence targeting innocent white folks are very real in France.

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Whilst it isn’t institutionalised, anti-white violence is real. For the sake of the victims, such acts need to be exposed and condemned as racial hatred. Nobody is morally guilty for having the same skin colour as slave traders.

I think that the very worst thing liberals can do consists of misusing such tragedies affecting black people as a justification for the suffering of innocent white persons.
Western liberals need to listen to the prophet Ezekiel who remind us that “the child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.”
By acting in this way, they’re upholding a vicious circle of hatred and planting the seeds of the destruction of us all.

What frustrates me enormously is that some “progressives” I explain my views to call me a “white supremacist” even if they know absolutely nothing about me.

I’m a Germanic Frenchman and after the terrorist attacks in Paris, I’ve been loudly saiying that many Muslims find this appalling as well and that we should absolutely overcome the temptation to lump them together with militant fundamentalists.
I often stand for the right of Muslim women to wear a headscarf in the public sphere and in enterprises if they choose to.

I hardly know any “other” white supremacist who acts in such a manner.

I find it a real pity that instead of challenging any ideas getting in the way of justice, political progressivism has degenerated into the unconditional adherence to a set of dogmas with no tolerance towards heretics such as myself.

I did not write all these things as a criticism of your blog post but rather as an expression of my frustration with the progressive movement as a whole .

I find that the ideas you convey here are really excellent and I’ll surely take a look at other posts you wrote.

My only concern would be the choice of your title.
I agree that white American Christians are more likely to ignore problems of social justice than Christians with an Afro-American background owing to historical and cultural factors.

But is it really true that, on a worldwide scale, white Christians tend to neglect their duties towards the poor much more often than non-white Christians (keeping Jesus’ parable about the poor widow in mind)?
I haven’t seen any evidence showing this.

Finally, it is worth noting that my criticism of liberal biases is not akin to downplaying the extent of the atrocities American blacks still suffer from.

Here is the answer of Morgan.

Thanks for your thoughtful engagement. The title was my weakest point. I wasn’t sure who needed to read Amos exactly. I think we all do.

And my final reply.

Thanks for your quick answer!

I understand you had very good intentions. I think this might unfortunately lead to prejudices against white persons not having this despicable mentality.

I greatly appreciate your humility.
Be blessed.

*****

I was very glad that our exchange remained so friendly. I think that things might have unfolded in a very different direction if I had started out using a culture-war rhetoric. I really think that kindness and humility are two essential moral features which help one not cause or ramp up heated and loveless arguments.

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7 thoughts on “The confessions of a heretical progressive

  1. Marc, I agree with your even-handed approach to this topic. I also believe that privilege is tied more to economic standing than gender or skin color. It is the individual who perpetrates the injustice who has to held accountable, not the entire group. However, when injustice is part of the prevailing culture, it is up to individuals to point it out, and strive to put better leaders into office. In America, our system is supposed to protect the rights of the minority against the power of the majority. Hence, the 14th Amendment, which provides “equal protection” under the law. Unfortunately, America has lost its way.

  2. Hi Marc, it’s been a while since I’ve commented so just wanted to say hi and keep up the good work!

    I think that Morgan’s piece was primarily addressing the group that he belongs to and knows best. And I guess he’s also preaching to the group which historically and currently tend to occupy a privileged position in the world (though there are of course exceptions), so those of whom more can be expected, to paraphrase Jesus a bit.

    But I applaud your fair-minded approach as ever. 🙂

    • Thanks Harvey 🙂
      Yeah, I agree with what you said concerning the privileged group.
      Statistically speaking, white people suffer (much) less from racial hatred than members of other groups, especially if they’re wealthy.
      Yet, that does not excuse hateful acts against innocent individuals who appear to have a white skin.
      Cheers.

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