Gregory recently asked on Facebook if “progressive evangelical” is an oxymoron. Though this is an interesting question, I doubt the future of the planet hinges on the answer. Still, it did get me to thinking about whether these two terms are incompatible and, perhaps more importantly, how I see myself in these terms. If pressed, I think I might be willing to claim this as an identity. I’ve been called worse than an oxymoron.
I suppose the biggest part of the problem is the way these terms are used in the vernacular. Each has become something of a stereotype, labels hurled at the “opposition” with derision and disdain. But as someone who has always been interested in the original meaning of words and how original meaning might help to clarify contemporary usage, it seems to me that these two words are more than slogans. Furthermore, I think they are not nearly as incompatible as some would argue.
In simplest terms, evangel, like gospel, means good news, so an evangelical is one who brings or announces “good news.” Now I know this gets complicated when we try to define exactly what good news is. Some set rigidly literal standards from the Bible as they understand it. This is characteristic of Christian fundamentalism. For many the “news” announced from this perspective is hardly good. This perspective is often equated with being evangelical. So, overreacting, many liberal or progressive folk eschew evangelical and turn their backs on proclaiming the good news. This is sad and unfortunate in a world in desperate need of good news – and, I would argue specifically, the good news of Jesus Christ.
Then, progress – “forward or onward movement toward a destination” – can also mean more than a euphemism for soft-bellied, bleeding heart liberals. It does not necessarily mean getting better and better day by day either, that kind of linear climb toward perfection. Today progressive is often understood as the antithesis of fundamentalism, a way of living in the world without any clear standards, a kind of “whatever” approach to life. But again, I find something meaningful in the idea that as progressives, especially Christian progressives, we are moving toward something. Again, if we are followers, of Jesus, we are moving toward the Kingdom of God or God’s Beloved Community. This is not meaningless meandering.
When I was much younger, I was invited to be a member of the planning team for American Baptist participation in a national evangelistic enterprise called “Key ’73.” As I recall a number of mainline denominations and evangelical groups joined in a loosely coordinated effort to “win souls for Christ.” In those days I was probably more stereotypically evangelical and less stereotypically progressive, but I had already been spoiled by seminary and was well on my way to becoming a heretic.
The reason I mention this is because in those days the Division of Evangelism of the American Baptist Home Mission Board was probably the most progressive group in our denomination. In particular, they had provided significant support for and leadership in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Among my heroes in this group was Jitsuo Morikawa, its director. Morikawa, who had experienced internment as a young Japanese-American during World War II, was someone I have come to understand as a “progressive evangelical.”
Though there was a heavy Billy Graham-style emphasis among the Key ’73 participants, under Morikawa’s leadership, we developed a plan that was radically different. Morikawa, who had equal passion for justice, economic equity, peace and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, kept talking about something he called “evangelistic life-style.” For him salvation (health, well-being, centered in God, alive in Christ, moved by the Spirit) was both personal and social. One could not separate the two. If you were alive in Christ you both shared that good news, boldly, verbally, and you committed your life to working toward making God’s Beloved Community real on earth in the here and now.
If you had found new life in Christ then you were also called to live with compassion, justice, peace, concern for the poor, the outcast, the stigmatized, responsible stewardship of creation, shaping every aspect of your life. At the same time you progress toward righteousness – right living, setting the world right side up – you also share with others what motivates your work. And sharing with others that you are “born again” only has integrity if it manifests in the ways you express compassion, justice, economic equity and peace. For a progressive evangelical, the good news must be proclaimed in word and deed. Salvation is personal and social. Love for God is matched by love for all creation. These are of one piece.
The false distinction between progressive – moving steadily and faithfully toward the Beloved Community – and evangelical – sharing the good news everywhere – has been, in my way of thinking, a serious disservice to Christianity and the church. As we allow the culture wars, especially in this country, to define these crucial terms and divide us into camps, it should be no surprise to see people looking for good news and good ways to turn their backs on us in disgust. It is past time for us to reclaim our identity as progressive evangelicals and bring God’s Beloved Community alive today. This is our high calling.