Saturday, February 26, 2011

Progressive Anyone? 9 Articulations


...the job of markets is to serve the common good; allow everyone who works to earn a decent living; help achieve freedom from want, illnesss, harm, ignorance, bigotry, and fear; preserve the natural world; and serve democracy.
George Lakoff, Thinking Points (2006)

Economic progressivism...has historically trumpeted the government fiat as the best instrument of social change — think food safety, minimum wage and labor laws, and also post-Depression financial rules and enforcement agencies. Progressivism's central theory is that government, as the nation's supreme authority, can set parameters channeling capitalism's profit motive into societal priorities.
David Sirota

Progressive Christians, like every other kind, claim to base their convictions in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. For them, that focus is particularly on the biblical call for justice. They don’t try to “prove” its Christian validity by quoting individual Bible verses (that’s an “unbiblical” practice that even the founding fundamentalist theologians of the 19th century rejected). They proclaim its Christian mandate by noting that the call for justice is a pervasive and fundamental element of the biblical witness, and they illustrate it by citing the messages of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, the words of Jesus as reported in passages like Matthew 25 and Luke 4, and the real meaning of Jesus’ proclamation of the coming of the “kingdom of God.”
Delwin Brown

Progressive. The moniker seems to be getting sexier these days. Perhaps it's because "liberal" is so unsexy: marketers for the political and religious right have been tremendously successful over the past 30 years by equating the L-Word with "pagans," "relativists," "heretics" and the "Antichrist" herself. Or maybe it's because the "other half" of Americans are just plain tired of the counterfeit culture war between the left (15% of the population) and the right (33% of the population)--perhaps "progressive" salvifically transcends the two uncompelling packages. Or perhaps, as I've heard over and over, sincere folks have just become fed up with the kind of politics produced by the elitist power marriage between Christian fundamentalists and the Republican Party and they have begun a search for a way to be passionately Christian without embracing American exceptionalism, the justification of war, scapegoating and indifference to suffering.

EasyYolk lives at the intersection of Progressive Christian and Progressive Political Avenues. We are deeply discouraged with the powerful effect that Fundamentalist Christianity continues to have on the hearts and minds of the American people. They have an astounding advantage over other forms of Christian faith in terms of churches, non-profits, publishing houses, summer camps and missionary outposts (all signs of the Constantinian nature of fundamentalist Christianity--it supports and strategically argues for the status quo, a welcome to all those in wealthy and powerful positions). That's a lot of influence and we are convinced these are poisoning the well of genuine dialogue over faith and politics.

We are also disatisfied and frustrated with much of the platforms of both major political parties that have come to dominate the American political scene. And surely, we are "progressive" because quite frankly we are uncompelled by "conservative" and "liberal" forms of faith and politics. But what exactly does it mean to be "progressive?" Here are 9 ways that we consistenly articulate our Christian progressivism:

1. It privileges both personal morality and public policy that benefits unfairly demonized, marginalized, oppressed and left-out folks in our society (what the Bible represents with "orphans and widows" or "the least of these").

2. This inevitably means that living in a country that is supposed to be a democracy (rule by "the people") calls American followers (representing some of "the people") of Jesus to political engagement--advocating, lobbying, articulating, marching, boycotting, protesting, voting and faithfully embodying practices and policies that actually work to make the plight of the poor, elderly, immigrants, people of color, Muslims, homosexuals and women. We are adamant that Christians who choose to "not participate in politics" are making a critically poor choice to abandon public policy to many (but not all) well-funded agendas that are self-interested, narcissistic and down-right harmful to the rest of us. Followers of Jesus must take up the mantle of being lobbyists for "the least of these."

3. One of our overarching convictions is to pursue kinship, a mentality and lifestyle that results in mutuality or solidarity with "the least of these." Kinship goes beyond addressing poverty and injustice towards minorities with service projects, charity or starting a new non-profit (all of which are honorable pursuits). This "beyond" is about building friendships, alliances and political movements with our unprivileged neighbors, acquaintances and strangers.

4. We are well aware that there has been an almost-2000-year interpretive battle over the Bible. We believe that Jesus was thoroughly political. He confronted the religious, social, economic and political leaders of his day. And they killed him. The "kingdom" that Jesus announced (his original message) was "not of this world," meaning that it was an alternative way to the values, virtues and practices of "the way things always are" in the world. Jesus way is always a threat to the power-grabbing, fear-mongering ways of rulers and emperors and governors and priests and kings. This upside-down kingdom valued servanthood, humility and human dignity. In short, Jesus calls all those who dare to call themselves "Christians" to a higher standard that results in bringing heaven to earth. Since Constantine (4th century), those who seek control and power in the world have consistently domesticated Jesus' message to mean something "spiritual" and "future-oriented." This domesticated Jesus usually blames the plight of "the least of these" on their own sin and bludgeons other opinions (no matter how much they resemble the inconvenient truth) through fear and intimidation (and sometimes horrific violence).

5. We seek to expose the fallacies of free market fundamentalism which posits that "the unhindered market" is the greatest force for benefiting everyone. In any and every market-based economy, the government sets the rules for the market. Always. There will always be discriminations, failures and hidden external costs brought on by the invisible hand of the market. It is the government's role to regulate (through incentives, laws and policies) so that the market will stop its unjust ways. Currently, the government mostly supports the profit-as-the-bottom-line mentality that corporations and financial institutions are built upon. This can change. It must change in order to work for the common good. Is there a greater Christian virtue than universal human dignity? Indeed, at the very least, every single person living in the wealthiest country in the history of the world should be able to afford health care, a college education, a modest living space, nutritious food, clean air/soil/water and a job with a living wage. Empathy breeds personal responsibility and hard work. If you don't believe me, just ask the woman caught in adultery (John 8), Zaccheus (Luke 10) and the sinful woman (Luke 7) who were unworthy "sinners" given new opportunities through unconditional grace and mercy.

6. What's the difference between "progressive" and "liberal?" My boy Charles (aka, the "Brain Demon") tells me that the relationship between the US government and Hosni Mubarak is instructive. "Liberals" like Hillary Clinton (as well as just about every "conservative" you could ever possibly imagine) supported Mubarak (calling him "friend" and "ally") because he was the Middle Eastern ticket to stronger "homeland security" and more American imperialist advantages (protecting Israel and plenty of other resources). Progressives, on the other hand, would never support such a relationship that brings less democracy to citizens of Egypt and Palestine while bolstering Israel's chokehold on the region and takes away precious oil reserves from Middle Eastern peoples. Progressives simply do not believe in American exceptionalism. Sure, they are patriotic, but their nationalistic fervor doesn't whisk them away into false fantasies about how much harder working, kinder and generous Americans and the American government are.

This is a crucial intersection of Progressive Christian faith and politics: Christians are those who pledge allegiance to the kingdom of God prior to their country. This even leads some of us progressives to refuse to pledge allegiance to the flag or sing the national anthem. This is not out of hatred or disgust for our country. The opposite: we are simply married to "a kingdom not of this world" and we love America less than we love God's Will and yet we love America so much that we are simply unwilling to keep it the way it is.

7. Our current economic climate is bleak. It started with the bursting of the housing bubble that was caused by a mixture of Wall Street's addiction to greed, consumer irresponsibility & ignorance and government de-regulation. Yet, sure enough, this week we have continuously heard the ramped up "conservative" narrative about how unions and public pensions are the cause of all our budgetary hardships. We do not believe that the answer is just "throwing more government money" at the problem or taxing the wealthy more so the government has more money to spend on poor people (although we certainly believe that progressive taxation is one aspect of the solution). What is needed in order to shore up state, federal and local budgetary matters is to address the root cause of our present misery. If commercial banks were not greatly de-regulated (as they were in 1999 under a Dem President and GOP Congress) and if the SEC and other regulatory bodies had stronger oversight, then perhaps this financial crash may not have happened in the first place and we would not be having these debates right now.

Wisconsin has become a powerful symbol for us progressives because the GOP governor and legislature is not simply trimming public pensions in order to balance the budget. These state leaders cut corporate taxes and now seek to strip government workers of their right to collective bargaining "because the unions have broken the bank" (as GOP Presidential nominee and Fox News host Mike Huckabee claimed yesterday). This is actually a theological question (Huckabee is also an ordained Southern Baptist minister) concerning who is targeted during a time of economic crisis. It comes down to this: Who are the rules stacked against when the going gets tough? All over the US, the conservative narrative seems to be winning: corporations and Wall Street (our wealthiest citizens) get a pass while the poor and working class (as well as the vanishing middle class) get both the blame, animosity and eventually pay the price (in dollars). The GOP loves to talk about "shared sacrifice" as they take away worker rights and benefits, but are corporations really sacrificing right now? All we see are rising profits for corporations and financial institutions as more and more jobs are outsourced overseas. Just the results of the "free market," right? No. The government always writes and enforces the rules of the market. Progressives are those who recognize this and demand a re-write.

8. A key reason for why there are so few "progressives" within both the Body of Christ and the American citizenry has to do with how well conservatives frame the issues. They have successfully captured the hearts and minds of millions of Americans through well-funded PR and marketing strategies that emphasize moral authority, individual responsibility, the "free" market and the purported ability for all Americans to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at Berkeley, proposes that conservatives have the same model for the national government that they have for their own families: the strict father. As Lakoff writes, The family requires a strong father to protect it from the many evils in the world and to support it by winning those competitions.

Progressives, Lakoff laments, need to combat this patriarchal and hierarchical model with a nurturant model that values empathy and responsibility towards "the other." Lakoff again: Remember that to take care of others, you have to take care of yourself. Equally important, parents raise their children to nurture others, which requires children to have empathy for others, responsibility for oneself, and social responsiblity. This is the very opposite of indulgence or spoiling. Progressives emphasize the common good, expansion of freedom, diversity and human dignity. Of course, there is a nice correlation between progressive and conservative theological models: Is God the strict father or the nurturing parent?

9. Lastly, progressives take seriously an ethical approach that is more holistic than "conservative" and "liberal" brands. While the old tired political and religious packages emphasize personal morality/responsibility (conservative) or throwing taxpayer money to alleviate individual suffering (liberal), progressives home in on the complexity of systems. Progressives understand that there is no such thing as the automous individual. We are all rooted in networks (families, communities, jobs, nations) that form us in many ways. The family systems therapeutic model work towards the healing and liberation of the alcoholic by examining (and seeking to change) all the relationships (triangles) within the family that have led to addictive patterns. In our national family, people of color, immigrants and gays/lesbians (to mention only a few samples) have historically been ostracized and discriminated against. This has created an inferiority complex that is passed on from one generation to another.

Changing policy and official stances can (trans)form these minority groups while slowly changing hearts (normalizing) of the "silent majority" who are mostly ignorant or indifferent to the plight of these neighbors and stranger (ie, look at how "hearts have softened" in the years since interracial marriage have become legalized--and we'll see the same thing in the decades to come with our assumptions and perceptions of gays and lesbians as the rules change to reflect human dignity and equality). In short, the old conservative canard that "you can't legislate morality" or that "laws don't change hearts" is simply not supported by history.

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