I have asked Dr. Bruce Epperly, a Disciples/UCC pastor and professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary to write a series of guest postings. This is the first of those postings. Keep an eye out for the next offering as it will follow up on this most important piece.
Recently, I asked my theology students the following questions: “What would you think of Christianity if the only Christian you heard in the public sphere was Pat Robertson asserting that the earthquake in Haiti was the result of divine punishment? If that’s all you heard, would you want to have anything to do with Christianity?” After a spirited discussion, I reminded my class that for most people, especially persons who have not grown up in the church, Pat Robertson, Fred Phelps, Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, and religious spokespersons who denounce the theory of evolution and evidence of global climate change as demonic are the only Christian voices they hear! Progressive and moderate Christians seldom get a hearing in the public sphere, nor do we often share our witness with passion and clarity.
I spent part of Good Friday in conversation with a pastor who believes that the current political and religious context is calling for a moderate and progressive revival, a 21st century progressive Great Awakening. Yes, I said “revival!” She had been mulling over a documentary, chronicling Billy Graham’s career as North America’s premier evangelist and wondered if progressives shouldn’t initiate such a spiritual revival in our time. Her words, to use the language of my evangelical friends, “convicted” me. They reminded me that we are involved in a type of spiritual warfare and that we, as progressives, haven’t yet gathered a strong team of peaceful warriors to get our message out in the theological, spiritual, political, and public sphere. We seem content with slow decline, when we should be moving forward to take a central place in North America’s future spiritual landscape.
There is a gathering cultural and religious storm in the United States: we see it in the racist and homophobic epithets and death threats directed at members of the House of Representatives; the rise of Christian militia groups; the apocalyptic language invoked by the more radical members of the Tea Party movement, some of which is encouraged by the inflammatory language of media personalities and conservative political figures. Some of this is not new, but the volume been raised and has virtually drowned out the voices of progressive and moderate Christians in the public sphere and on cable television news.
One thing I appreciate about many of my conservative friends is that they are quite emphatic about what they believe. They recognize that the stakes are high, and they want to shape the outcome of the political and religious battles of our time. Perhaps, we progressives need to inject greater passion in our theology and spirituality, so that people will know that there is a Christianity that is open-spirited, welcoming of diversity, spiritually dynamic, supportive of the scientific enterprise whether it involves the theory of evolution, genetic research, or the recognition of global climate change. We need to make our witness known in the public sphere because, more often than not, most people outside of the church are amazed that it is possible to be a Christian and believe that:
The universe is fourteen billion years old.
Evolution is compatible with faith in God.
Humankind isn’t necessarily the center of God’s plan and that other species matter as well.
The bible is inspired but not infallible.
Faithful persons can have serious questions about their beliefs.
Persons of other faiths also receive revelations from God.
Non-Christians, atheists, and agnostics can be “saved.”
Progressives have a prayer life and believe in divine healing.
Persons of faith are interested in saving the earth.
God treasures ethnic, sexual, religious and cultural diversity.
Persons can disagree without hating one another.
The Bible supports an ethic of social concern supports the rights of immigrants and the recent health care initiatives.
Jesus’ had female followers and these women were given the Great Commission before their male companions.
Christianity is a diverse and multifaceted faith.
God is alive, present, and moving in our lives.
God wants us to be free, creative, and adventurous.
God does not cause earthquakes, cancer, or tsunami.
God is into love and not punishment.
We have a role in shaping the future of the planet.
A few days ago at the Easter Service at Disciples United Community Church (http://www.ducc.us/) in Lancaster, PA., the members of our open and affirming, progressive, spirit-centered church, shared seeds of resurrection. Their words witnessed to God’s seeds of resurrection growing through:
Trust in everlasting God’s care for a relative who died in a sudden accident.
Recovery from addiction.
The first steps toward universal health care.
The movement toward marriage equality.
The power of prayer to change lives.
A relative coming home after a two month absence.
A healthy pregnancy.
As my evangelical friends say, “that will preach,” and it preached at Easter in our small community of faith. When we boldly give our testimony, our progressive witness does preach – it is good news of affirmation, revelation, healing, and love that embraces all humanity and welcomes diversity. It is good news that God never gives up even at the moment of death. It is good news that small beginnings can lead to great adventures. It is good news that God loves diversity, cherishes multiplicity, and encourages creativity.
We progressives have a witness that we can be passionate about and can share in heartfelt ways at church, in the public square, and in the media. Nearly a hundred years ago, William James spoke of the “moral equivalent of war,” that is, the willingness for persons to become “peaceful warriors,” energetically and ardently committing ourselves to a great cause. As progressive and moderate Christians, we don’t need to demonize or demean those who take different political or religious pathways, but we need to be strong in our witness, faithful in our quest for justice, dedicated in our spiritual practices, and active in our political involvement. Perhaps, we need our own “revivalists” today – on line, in the community square, in the media, and in our pulpits, for the great cause of healing this good earth and its peoples.
In concluding today’s thoughts, let me ask: What would a passionate, progressive revival look like? Where and how might we get involved in shaping such a revival? What are our “seeds of resurrection?” What words do we need to say and whom do we need to challenge? What role might we play in a theological, spiritual, and political revival today?
Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator, pastor, theologian, and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. (http://www.bruceepperly.com/)