I have been thinking a lot lately about why I call myself a progressive Christian. It could be that I’m getting close to ordination in a progressive denomination, or that I’ve spent the past two years hosting a “post-evangelical” podcast, or maybe it’s this election and the distance that I feel from the conservative church I once called home, a distance I feel sharply whenever I scroll through a Facebook newsfeed.
At any rate, I’m thinking and so I’m writing.
(and, secretly, I probably hope to close the growing distance a little)
I’m progressive because Jesus said his followers would be.
Not in those terms, of course, but clearly.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is depicted comforting his disciples in preparation for his departure “to the Father.” He promises not to leave them orphans, commands them to trust in the miracles he did whenever they doubt his words and, with a hand under their chins (as I imagine it), he lifts their heads and says,
“Verily truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father” [John 14:12].
Whenever I’m asked why I presume to move beyond “what the Bible says” in a clearly progressive fashion, which is all the time (and often in response to my vegetarianism for some reason), I point to this prophecy right here. Jesus proclaimed that his disciples would do greater things in a continuation and expansion of his own ministry.
And they have. Followers of Christ have been part and parcel to movements of abolition, suffrage, and advancements in medical technology, as well as the disciplines of psychology and the sciences (for instance) — efforts which were fueled by the Spirit and teachings of Jesus (for the Christians involved at least), but efforts which clearly moved beyond his explicit ministry.
It could and should be argued that Jesus’ teachings on love necessitated banning slavery, but he didn’t articulate that vision. Later followers did.
That we (even later) followers must continue to go beyond Jesus is a hard truth that we must accept.
Jesus didn’t live in a world where wars and persecution displaced 65.3 million people, or two-thirds of vertebrate animals were wiped out in a span of fifty years, or nukes threatened to end all life multiple times over. New technologies and sciences have led to longer lifespans, giving way to new and tenacious ethical questions. We have the power to affect global climate, potentially colonize other worlds, and send entire species (our own included) into extinction.
In this different world, Christ demands more from us and invites us to do bigger things.
And so do our challenges.
They are so demanding (and the church is so insular), in fact, that all I can muster sometimes is a low-grade rumbling of despair in my soul. But then I see the work of my colleagues, these followers of Christ, championing LGBTQ and immigrant rights, opposing the buildup of trash in Near Earth orbit, sweating in a teepee at Standing Rock, shutting down a private prison, arguing for universal healthcare, pressuring fast food chains to join the Fair Food movement, leveraging blue theology in an effort to preserve an ocean, and I believe again.
Maybe that’s what makes me a progressive Christian?: whenever I come to doubt the relevance of tradition for a world so rapidly changing and precarious, I look at these works done in his name and I believe.