May Our Sins be Washed Away: Why we must continue to remove judgment and dogma from progressive Christian theology.

Column by Rev. Deshna Charron Shine on 30 April 2020 2 Comments

 

It was 1980, I was three years old, living in a rural town in Colorado, in a tiny house with no hot water, and my parents owned a restaurant and a nightclub. They were a strange hybrid between hippies and wannabe cowboys. New agers who had left the non-stop hustle of Newport Beach, California, their boat and their fancy car, to grow hydroponic food and live off the land in a town that wasn’t fully ready to embrace them. They worked their behinds off though and somehow became a part of the small town community after 8 years. But something was broken. You could say it was their marriage… but that wasn’t quite it. It was more like their dreams, their hearts, and nearly their will.

I was unaware at three. I ran around the forest naked with my dog, rolled in leaves in the Fall, put my red cowboy hat on with my boots and snuggled close to my mama every night to keep warm. I bathed in the big metal tin in the kitchen with hot water from the kettle and ate watermelon on blankets in a sunny field of grass and wildflowers. I was a blissful, chubby faced child with large green eyes that held one’s attention.

You see, a nightclub and a restaurant in a cowboy town meant another kind of hustle. One that had both my parents working 15 hour days and making some highly questionable decisions on the side. Drugs, random people, all-nighters, and making deals with the big boys in town had gotten my dad in trouble on more than one occasion. My mom was at her wits end, wondering if she would ever be truly loved, and ready to leave it all behind with me. My Dad could leave with us, but that was it, she was done. She knew they had to let go of this one dream in order to survive.

Though my dad was a loving, fun, creative, and passionate person, he just couldn’t see how he had gotten to that point in his life. He was full of frustration and disappointment. He was about to lose the love of his life, his family, and everything he had left in the world. He had problems in his marriage, problems at work, and a ton of pressure. He had worked so hard! He was a good person. Why was this happening to him? At a loss of what to do and brimming with regret, he packed an overnight bag and hiked to the top of a nearby mountain. On the way up he kept ticking off the unfairness and the wrong done to him. “Why go home?” he asked himself. “Why should I keep trying so hard? Why am I even alive?”

By the time he reached the top of the mountain, he was so fed up with his life, and all the things people had done, and all the ways he had failed, that he decided he was just going to stay there. He would not return to his wrecked life. He sat near a bottomless lake for hours, just thinking, crying, and feeling utterly alone. Night came… and then morning. He fell into a deep trance state. Suddenly, a huge fish leapt out of the water and then swam toward him. He could almost hear the voice of this strange animal. Was he dreaming? Hallucinating? Dying? It hardly mattered anymore.

And then a strange, seeming out of nowhere thought came to him: What would Jesus do?

My dad had been in communication for years with the local UCC church pastor and their conversations just kept coming back to him as he sat there. He had studied Philosophy and Political Theory at UC Riverside and the history of Christianity had always fascinated him. He knew quite a bit about the story of Jesus but had never fully related to it until that moment.

What would Jesus do? Well, for one, he wouldn’t be sitting there blaming the whole world for all of his problems. He would forgive. One by one, my dad saw the people in his life that he held so much anger toward and felt that just fall away. “I myself have caused just as much pain. I myself am to blame for where I am.” He began to forgive people for all the blame that he had placed on them. “How can I judge others when I myself have made so many mistakes? They are just struggling along in this life just as I am.” All of a sudden, the money owed to him, the arguments, the games, the pride… all of it just began to fall away. It didn’t matter anymore. It was certainly not the load he wanted to carry down the mountain.

He started to relate his experience to the story of Jesus. He thought to himself, “this guy had it figured out and we aren’t even listening.” He realized that he had something to share. Suddenly, there was another way to see the world. He walked off that mountain and everything had changed. This mountain-top experience had relieved him of his anguish. He felt a huge swelling of gratitude and compassion rising up in him. He felt deep sadness for the pain he had caused. When he arrived home, he asked for forgiveness from my mom and then later others. His “sins” were washed away by Jesus. His sins of ego, blame, selfishness, and pride were washed away. That is the beauty in the story of Jesus! That is why he is called a savior. Following the teachings of Jesus can save us from ourselves.

“The invitation of Christ is the invitation to move out of the house of fear and into the house of love: to move out of that place of imprisonment and into that place of freedom: ‘Come to me, come into my house, the house of love.’”  – Henri Nouwen

Shortly after that strange day, my parents sat on a hillside, the wind was blowing through the trees, and I was playing with the dog. My dad shared his story and my mom looked into his light blue eyes and said, “You need to go to Seminary.” They didn’t even know what Seminary really was, but something deep within him knew she was right.

We left everything we owned behind, including our home in Colorado, my parents sold their businesses for $1, and we moved into a trailer in Montana on the property of a cowboy friend. Winter came, the car broke down and we were broke. My parents cut firewood to sell to get by and wondered how they were going to survive. The cat had wandered off into the depths of snow, not yet to return. My Californian parents were shocked by the bone chilling cold and the height of the snow and then they were told it wasn’t even real winter yet. Just because you know what you need to do does not mean the road will be easy.

Four years later, after Seminary at the Pacific School of Religion, we moved back to Southern California to grow a small church. I was 7. For years I watched my dad get up every Sunday and find something meaningful to share with our growing progressive Christian church community. We were radicals back then — fighting for equality, health care and immigration rights. We got death threats from fundamental Christians and my dad left at night more than once to bring a suit jacket and $40 to someone who needed help. I was in awe of the life my parents led and the teachings my dad would share.

35 years later I am still deeply involved in the progressive Christian movement as the Executive Director of ProgressiveChristianity.org, primarily because of what I learned from my dad.

I share this story today for a couple of reasons. One, to remind us all that people come into the progressive Christian movement for a huge variety of reasons, from a vast diversity of backgrounds and with complex stories and needs. Some come from a deeply fundamental family history and have major spiritual trauma they are healing. Others are leaving behind a life of blame and anger. Some are seekers and feel moved by the story of Jesus.

Two, to remind us all that Progressive Christianity does not actually have a linear theology. Due to its very nature the one solid aspect of Progressive Christian theology is an openness and willingness to question others’ and one’s own beliefs. The theology of progressive Christianity is more like a spiral. Always turning, always growing in both directions. And people find themselves entering the journey at many different points in that spiral. I use the spiral metaphor imagery in the hopes of dissolving the patriarchal colonizing linear form of thought theology usually takes.

Progressive Christianity did not actually start at one point and progress in an exact way to an endpoint. There is no end or beginning here. There is no finish line. There is no, “I am way ahead of you,” or “I am past that outdated belief.”

You are just perfectly where you are meant to be on your authentic journey. If someone calls themselves a progressive Christian and you balk because they talk about God in a more personal way or they talk about Jesus as their savior, what does it matter to you? Are they asking themselves, “What would Jesus do?” Are they doing it? That is what matters, not if their story is right or true, but how they are living their lives. And even more important than that is how are you living your life, today and everyday forward?

To be a progressive, one must have the ability to think for oneself, to examine what they have been told and what they read. To be a progressive Christian means we find the courage to both question and to find our own authentic answer. And that takes bravery.  Let’s celebrate our bravery together!

Beyond the core approach that progressive Christians have to living in the world, their theology is actually quite varied. Due to its authentic nature and the ability to question and doubt, progressive Christianity is always being shaped by the people who call themselves progressive Christians. And it will always be shifting and growing and expanding.

Frankly, I am tired of progressives arguing about beliefs and getting all high and mighty. “You aren’t a progressive if you still believe in the literal resurrection.” “You aren’t a progressive if you think of having a personal relationship with God.” “We moved past that years ago.” No, my friends, we didn’t. You shifted in your language and your perception. You shifted in the story you are telling and how you are interpreting the story. It’s just a story. It doesn’t matter if you believe it or not. Every person’s story is just as valid as yours. Just like the story I told today, I am sure that I didn’t get it perfectly right and I took some liberties because I wanted to find the meaning in the story and I wanted that meaning to affect how I view the world.

You know who isn’t a progressive Christian? One who judges others without looking first at him or herself. One who can’t forgive those who have hurt him. One who holds her pride so high, she can’t see that each person’s relationship to the story is just as valid, if it leads them to actually follow the teachings. One who thinks they have all the answers.

Can we please come back to the teachings?(1) Can we please search within our hearts for the mountain top experience of Jesus? To forgive, to be like a child and find awe in our hearts, to stop judging because someone is at a different point in their journey. To love our enemies. To do good to our enemies and expect nothing back. To give and then give some more. To continue to be students and seek for our eyes to be opened to what they are blind to.

Can we focus on entering the house of love? Come with us friends, leave that house of fear! Progressives just entering the journey are a blessing. Welcome them to this house of love! Welcome the doubters! Welcome the believers! Welcome their stories that are true and meaningful to them. Ask them: “How are you living this life? How has Jesus informed your decisions and your actions?” And then listen and learn. Remember, we are all just as blind and we do not know what we do not know. As progressives, we are here to ask questions, to learn, and to follow the teachings.

Maybe it is time for us all to go sit on top of a mountain and stay there until we too can release our judgements, our hatred, our fears, our anger, our lack of ownership, and our pride. Let the fish tell you their stories. Let the trees listen to your cries. Let the ground hold you. Let the sky sing God’s praises. Let the sun bathe you in love. Let the rain wash away your pride. Forgive yourself. And then forgive some more.(2) And when you are ready… come down that mountain and tell your story of how your sins were washed away when you found Jesus. (Or found him again.)

Walk with Jesus. Let Jesus guide your feet, sisters and brothers. And always ask: “What would Jesus do?”

“Oh happy day, oh happy day, oh happy day when Jesus washed my sins away!” (3)

~ Rev. Deshna C. Shine

 

1. Luke 6:27-42. 27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, since God is kind even to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be compassionate, just as your loving God is compassionate. 37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” 39 He also told them this parable: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? 40 The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher. 41 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
2. Matthew 18:21-22. 21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
3. “Oh Happy Day” is a 1967 gospel music arrangement of an 18th-century hymn by clergyman Philip Doddridge. Recorded by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, it became an international hit in 1969, reaching No. 4 on the US Singles Chart, No. … It has since become a gospel music standard.
 

Question

I understand you come from an Evangelical background. Can you help me understand why Evangelicals are so resistant to science? First it was teaching evolution. Then it was homosexuality. Then it was climate change. More recently, a lot of them seemed to think they couldn’t catch COVID-19 so they kept their churches open and resisted social distancing. I just don’t get it.

Answer

Dear Reader,

I do indeed come from a conservative Evangelical background. It would take many books to even begin to explain the shared ethos that leads to this anti-science bias. But let me sketch out three dimensions of it.

First, you can look at the larger history of western Christianity. Back in the 17th Century, European Christians had to deal with first Copernicus and then Galileo challenging the prevailing model of the universe. Then came the Enlightenment in the 18th Century, launching a battle between faith and reason. European Christians responded in two ways, one liberal and one conservative. Liberal Christians were willing to negotiate the scientific and historical claims of the Bible and focus on its deeper meaning. Conservative Christians doubled down on the incorrigible (uncorrectable) trustworthiness of their authority structures (papal infallibility for Catholics, biblical inerrancy for Protestants).

After the Enlightenment, new rounds of challenge just kept coming: Darwin and evolution, Marx and socialism, Einstein and relativity, Hubble and the expanding universe, the Big Bang, etc. Faced with these challenges, conservative Christians enmeshed their identity with the idea of biblical inerrancy, epitomized in maxims I heard as a child: “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it,” and “If the Bible says the whale swallowed Jonah, I believe it. If it said that Jonah swallowed the whale, I’d believe that too.”

For centuries now, standing for literalistic readings of the Bible and standing against science have been baked into the recipe of what it means to be a conservative Protestant, and since the 1980’s, it’s gotten worse, as hard-core Fundamentalists have staged a near-complete takeover of the Evangelical movement. (The few remaining non-fundamentalist Evangelicals by and large have to lay low and speak in whispers.)

Second, it helps to understand the psychology and sociology of authoritarian and patriarchal communities. In a hostile, scary, or uncertain world, many people find safety in the shadow of a powerful authoritarian leader. The leader protects them (or at least gives them the feeling of being protected), and in exchange for protection, the group submits to the leader. The flip side of this arrangement is also important: if anyone dares to challenge the rightness of the leader, the group unites to exclude the dissenter. So, as long as the leaders of Evangelicalism fall in line behind their acknowledged leaders (these days, Trump and his allies, Fox News and its pundits, and all those who are silently compliant with this arrangement), the followers will comply

Third, I would just say, “Follow the money.” Some Evangelical leaders know that if they contradict Fox News or President Trump (who through most of March were minimizing the threat of COVID-19, calling it a liberal hoax, etc., etc.), they will alienate their top givers. Others run such tight margins that staying open a few extra Sundays, even risking the spread of COVID-19, is seen as a business decision. The money follows the conservative message, not the scientific facts (or the actual message of Jesus!), and many Evangelical leaders got where they are by following the money.

These, of course, are generalizations about the system as a whole. Many rank-and-file Evangelicals wouldn’t have any awareness of any of these dynamics. They are captives or victims of the system, “sheep without a shepherd” in the words of Jesus.

~ Brian D. McLaren

 

Comments

 

2 thoughts on “May Our Sins be Washed Away: Why we must continue to remove judgment and dogma from progressive Christian theology.

  1. Dear Deshna: I like your essay very much. However, I’d like to suggest:
    You might need to add “Prejudice”, “Discrimination”, …And now in the terrible onslaught by the Coronavirus attack, be willing to wear the safety masks and learn to cooperate with others and be patient for several months as the Chinese have done until it is all clear. All community groups are discouraged for now.
    A Progressive Christian must take time to look at the scientific history and geography of the first Century Israel when Jesus was born. 1. Jesus was born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem. Nazareth is located in the lower Galilee, which is about 94 miles north of Bethlehem. He was born at least 84 years before the author Matthew wrote his story. Matthew apparently copied from Mark who had never met Jesus, and wrote his story about 74 years before Jesus was born. It would have been very difficult for Mary who was PG to travel the 94 miles to give birth in the desert!
    2. We have no clue who the father was when Jesus was born. But from the story by Mark we know that Jesus had brothers and sisters, and that they were poor.
    3. We all know from those stories that Jesus had learned Hebrew language well because he was able to speak in front of the Jewish leaders with authority and with a good knowledge of the Pentateuch. Those people were amazed at his knowledge. Professor Kevin Forrester had suggested that Jesus could have traveled to Qumran to actually read and learn from the scrolls. Qumran is located east of Jerusalem and Bethlehem and about one mile north east of the Dead Sea. Although it would be difficult for Mary when she was pregnant, but later in the youth of the growing young man of Jesus, 94 miles walk from Nazareth would have been very easy for him.
    Eugene, from Suzhou in China (China is all clear from Coronavirus)

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