Getting in Front of Jesus: The Politics of Progressive Christianity (Part I)
By Brad R. Braxton

Parishioners in the church of my childhood often sang the hymn, "I have decided to follow Jesus...No turning back, no turning back." The hymn cautioned disciples about turning away from Jesus. This essay explores the prospect of being disciples by getting in front of Jesus.

To follow a person usually means walking behind that person. Could it be, however, that we follow Jesus most faithfully when we walk ahead of Jesus? I argue for a progressive Christianity that extends the meaning and mission of Jesus into the present and future, rather than promoting an obsession with the past. Defining "progressive Christian" and "prophetic evangelical" (interchangeable terms for me) will facilitate a discussion of the politics of progressive Christianity.

Progressive Christian

According to some accounts, the term "progressive Christian" surfaced in the 1990s and began replacing the more traditional term "liberal Christian." During this period, some Christian leaders wanted to increasingly identify an approach to Christianity that was socially inclusive, conversant with science and culture, and not dogmatically adherent to theological litmus tests such as a belief in the Bible's inerrancy. The emergence of contemporary Christian progressivism was a refusal to make the false choice of "redeeming souls or redeeming the social order."

In the 1990s, many mainline Christian denominations were (and some still are) experiencing a significant decline in membership and cultural influence. The malaise in mainline Christianity occurred as some fundamentalist and conservative Christian communities experienced growth in the United States and across the globe. There are nuances between fundamentalist and conservative Christian denominations. Yet fundamentalist and conservative Christian communities united in the public square to form the "Christian right" -- a network that also included affiliated political, educational, and cultural organizations.

Even the casual observer of culture and politics can identity the considerable influence of the Christian right on public life in the United States during the last 40 years. This influence has extended all the way to the White House. For example, the historian Randall Balmer explores the impact of the Christian right upon the perspectives and decisions of President George W. Bush (God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush).

During the last four decades, it often seemed, at least from the media's standpoint, that all Christians were either fundamentalist or conservative. Yet there are countless persons like me whose understandings of and approaches to Christianity are vastly different from those in the Christian right. We, too, profess to be followers of Jesus. Consequently, we are striving to define and live a type of Christianity that is theologically flexible and hospitable to social diversity. With that broad history in place, let me give further shape to the definition of "progressive Christian."

Progressive Christians believe that sacred truth is not frozen in the ancient past. While respecting the wisdom of the past, progressive Christians are open to the ways truth is moving forward in the present and future for the betterment of the world. Progressive Christianity recognizes that our sacred texts and authoritative traditions must be critically engaged and continually reinterpreted in light of contemporary circumstances to prevent religion from becoming a relic.
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