Daily Devotional: Seeing Christ in the Other

body-of-christ.independencemochurchActs 21:37-22:16

What stands out to me as I read Paul’s words before the tribunal, is how in his experience of the risen Christ, Christ tells Paul that it is He, the living Christ, whom Paul is persecuting as he persecutes Christians.

I believe there is a sense in which Christ is ever saying this to all of us.   If we had the ears to hear it, when our Christian ancestors persecuted other believers in the early Christian era of the Roman empire whom they deemed “heretics”, they could hear the voice of Christ saying “Why do you persecute me?”   When later, the Inquisition persecuted and tortured Jews and Muslims in Spain and elsewhere, if we had but listened right we could have heard Christ whispering to us, “Why do you persecute me?” When my ancestors were complicit in the kidnapping of human beings from Africa, selling them into slavery, and keeping them enslaved across the United States – and almost every white family that dates its arrival back that far is somewhat complicit due to how entrenched slavery was into our American economy – I would have heard the voice of Christ saying “Why do you enslave me? Why do you whip me? Why do you take my children away from me and sell them up river?”

JohnGiulianiTheCompassionateChrist_500In truth the cry Paul hears is one made by the living Christ on behalf of all who face persecution in our world. Christ appears in our midst if we have eyes to see and ears to hear saying “Why did you do this to me, or not do what is right to me”, for whatever we do or fail to do on behalf of the cast down, forgotten, and oppressed in our midst we do to Christ.

In my life, I can say there have been times I heard this call – such as when I sat with a man who told me “here’s the thing preacher, I am gay” and by listening to his voice I began to hear the cry of Christ “Why do you persecute me? Why do you kick me out of my church and stand by why people kick me out of their families?   Why do you not embrace me in love?” a cry found in the voice of countless gay and lesbian people.

I also began to hear it far too late, in the voice of people around me of other faiths, as I began to see the living presence I know as the living Christ in them, who began to say “why do you persecute me?  Why do you speak of me as if God does not live in me and through me, though I call God by other names?” as I began to realize the subtle ways my way of living my faith put down people of other faiths by speaking as if only my own path, Christianity, had truth.

black sacred heart of jesusBut also I have to confess times I look back and see I didn’t listen. Or heard but found myself uncertain as to how to respond.  Even these occasions — these moments of conversion to the living voice of Christ — came after already walking down paths that unknowingly caused me to be a persecutor of the living Christ who was to be found in others different than myself.

I think we must listen, learn to look, pray to have our eyes, like Paul’s, opened more clearly, that we may see the living Christ in our midst, in each person be they outcast, friend, family, neighbor, stranger, exile, or seeming enemy. In each we encounter Christ lives. In each we meet we have a call to recognize the living Christ in our midst, and respond in love.

Let’s work together to do that today and all our days.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Nuns on a Bus, Immigration Reform, and Seeing Our Neighbor

Pullen Church

Recently I was blessed to join my good friend David Anderson and his family for worship at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC.   I normally worship on Sunday with the church I am on staff on in Fayetteville, Diversity in Faith a Progressive Christian Alliance congregation.

Due to my work schedule (I serve bi-vocationally as a pastor) I was stuck in Chapel Hill over weekend.   When I arrived at Pullen it was such a blessing.

Pullen is known in Raleigh, NC for being an activist church that opens its doors to all without prejudice, while also speaking out against the many ways the southern culture of North Carolina’s capitol city often puts up barriers to those who are minorities.

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On their website, Pullen beautifully describes their vision:

“You are loved, You are enough.

All people are created in the image of God, an expansive love beyond humanity’s limits. We affirm that there are many paths to God and that no one person or religion holds all the truth. God’s revelation is ongoing, providing relevance and wisdom for society today.

Pullen Memorial Baptist Church is a community of people seeking to be more human knowing that we are created in the image of God. We are seekers with many questions embracing that we can transform and be transformed.

Our community welcomes all: The Certain and the Doubtful; The Excluded and the Included; People who are Able and People who are Challenged; Rich, Poor and In Between; Divorced, Partnered, Single and Widowed; Atheist, Agnostic, Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, Hindu, Jewish or Nothing; Heterosexual, Homosexual and Transgendered; African-American, Asian, Latino; Citizens and Guests.”

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They retain their Baptist heritage by embracing the idea of freedom key to the early radical Baptists who were my ancestors: Soul Freedom, the idea that we each stand accountable to God and can neither ride on other’s coat-tails or judge anyone but ourselves; Bible freedom, which means that we each are responsible to study Scriptures for ourselves and thus we need to respect and embrace that other believers will have very unique interpretations of Scripture which may differ from our own; church freedom, which says that the local church should be autonomous with neither government nor denomination dictating its ministry; and finally religious freedom which both means standing against any attempt to enforce one brand of Christianity on all and also cultivating a healthy respect for people of all faiths.

ImageThey also are in the forefront of the fight right now in North Carolina to stem the tide of racism, homophobia, and neglect of the poor and those with disabilities which are currently coming down from the statehouse.  As a part of this ministry, they have helped as sponsors of the Moral Monday movement.  (You might remember David Anderson sharing about his experience being jailed for his participation in that movement).

The Sunday I joined was a beautiful celebration where people from all walks of life, of all skin hues, both gay and straight, joined in worship as one family.  Perhaps most inspiring to me was its ecumenical approach.  The music was organized along the lines of what I would have expected at a mainline Baptist church.  Yet the sermon was a stirring talk by a Catholic nun, associated with nuns on a bus.

If you are not familiar with nuns on the bus, I’d encourage you to look into their work.

Their website provides the following outline of their mission:

There is still much to be done, and we hope you will continue to journey with us as we advocate for justice for immigrants and all people who struggle at the margins.

During this most recent bus trip, we traveled across the United States — 6,500 miles through 15 states — 53 events in 40 cities — and we were deeply touched by the outpouring of support for comprehensive immigration reform everywhere we went. We ask everyone to continue to press Congress to pass legislation that incorporates the values listed below.

We call for commonsense immigration reform that:

  • Ensures family unity
  • Protects the rights of immigrant workers
  • Acknowledges that our borders are already secure, with only minor changes needed
  • Speeds up processing of already-approved immigrants
  • Enhances the present diversity visa program
  • Provides a clear and direct pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people who are undocumented in the U.S.

Our message is clear: We need commonsense immigration policies that reflect our values, not our fears. Congress must act now!

Sister Simone Campbell gave the message and in it she directly confronts some of the issues of racism, xenophobia, and lack of care for the poor many southern states are facing, including my own state of North Carolina.

You can learn more about Sister Simone and hear her sermon at http://www.pullen.org/2013/07/14/sister-simone-campbell-on-neighborliness/

I would encourage you to examine her work and that of the “nuns on the bus”.  Their work with immigrant families is not reserved to the south, but speaks a powerful message to those of us here in the Dixie-belt.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Beyond Slaving Holding Christianity Part 5: It Is Older than You’d Expect and More Pervasive

Slaveholder Christianity is older than you’d expect and more pervasive

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One of the key issues we explore on the Progressive Redneck Preacher blog is slave-holder Christianity. Slave-holder Christianity is the approach to Scripture which seeks to preserve the acceptance, advancement, and inclusion of one group of people in society and in the church through the marginalizing, dehumanizing, and oppression of another. The classical example here in the southeast United States, of course, is the Christianity observed by most southern Christians in the years leading up to the Civil War. Many of those who owned slaves, who were slave-drivers, and who sold slaves in the south viewed themselves as Bible-believing Christians.

These Christians used very similar arguments to what conservative Christians now use to defend “traditional marriage” as a God-given institution to argue that God approved of and blessed the institution of slavery. It was, they argued, for the good of society, both the good of the freeman and the slave. One could even argue these slave-owning Christians viewed slavery as a means of grace where people they viewed as inferior, barbaric, and backward were introduced to Christianity through the “godly” example of Christian slave-owners. Eventually they even developed an interpretation of Genesis that treated people of color as cursed by God and thus inferior to white people to justify maintaining generations of black people in slavery, and giving other people of color second class status.

Because slave-holder Christianity reached its penultimate form in America during slavery times, it is easy to think that slave-holder Christianity began here in the Dixie-belt and ended with the Confederate States of America’s last defeat to the Union. Nothing could be further from the truth. Slave-holder Christianity has deeper roots than we often admit. This approach to Scripture has popped up in many unique ways throughout the world and throughout history. The logic that undergirds slave-holder Christianity emerges in countless modern ways both in America and even in expressions of faith outside the United States.

Let’s take a look at the history of how slave-holder Christianity developed and how it spread into different forms throughout the Christian world. I think knowing this information will help us determine dangerous trends which can help lead to develop of new oppressive expressions of our faith today, not just here in the south but wherever people are struggling over how to live out the faith in the modern world.

slavery and marriage

The New Testament is somewhat ambivalent about slavery. On the one hand, in the house-lists in Ephesians and in part of 1 Corinthians Paul encourages slaves to respect their masters and not strive to end their slavery. In other places (such as later in 1 Corinthians 7 and also in Philemon) Paul argues for people to embrace freedom from slavery if it becomes possible, and even argues for a particular slave to be freed and in doing so lays the foundation for the anti-slavery argument. But after the New Testament, the earliest records of Christian preachers come out strongly against slavery.

The Religious Tolerance website provides a good summary of the early history of Christianity’s relationship to slavery and other systems of oppression. The earliest Christians in Asia Minor “decried the lawfulness of [slavery], denounced slaveholding as a sin, a violation of the law of nature and religion. They gave fugitive slaves asylum, and openly offered them protection.” They”…declared themselves opposed to the whole relation of slavery as repugnant to the dignity of the image of God in all men.”

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Early Christian preachers and monastic orders stood against the practice. An early preacher Maximum preached and wrote against it. Those who entered upon a religious life were required freedom to their slaves. Another early Christian leader, Theodorus Studita, gave particular directions, “not to employ those beings, created in the image of God, as slaves.”

Polycarp [69 – 155 CE] and Ignatius of Antioch [circa 50 – circa 10 CE] manumitted their slaves on realizing the equality of the Christian law.

One of the great Doctors of the church, who argued for what became Nicene Orthodoxy, also argued against slavery. Gregory of Nyssa (circa 335 to after 394) was the Christian bishop of Nyssa in Cappadocia — now part of Turkey. In his Commentary on Ecclesiastes he criticized slavery:

“As for the person who appropriates to himself … what belongs to God and attributes to himself power over the human race as if he were its lord, what other arrogant statement transgressing human nature makes this person regard himself as different from those over whom he rules? ‘I obtained servants and maidens.’ What are you saying? You condemn man who is free and autonomous to servitude, and you contradict God by perverting the natural law. Man, who was created as lord over the earth, you have put under the yoke of servitude as a transgressor and rebel against the divine precept. You have forgotten the limit of your authority which consists in jurisdiction over brutish animals. Scripture says that man shall rule birds, beasts, fish, four-footed animals and reptiles [Genesis 1.26]. How can you transgress the servitude bestowed upon you and raise yourself against man’s freedom by stripping yourself of the servitude proper to beasts? ‘You have subjected all things to man,’ the psalmist prophetically cries out [Pslams 8.7-8], referring to those subject to reason as ‘sheep, oxen, and cattle’.”

“Do sheep and oxen beget men for you? Irrational beasts have only one kind of servitude. Do these form a paltry sum for you? ‘He makes grass grow for the cattle and green herbs for the service of men’ [Psalms 103.14]. But once you have freed yourself from servitude and bondage, you desire to have others serve you. ‘I have obtained servants and maidens.’ What value is this, I ask? What merit do you see in their nature? What small worth have you bestowed upon them? What payment do you exchange for your nature which God has fashioned? God has said, ‘Let us make man according to our image and likeness’ [Gen 1.26]. Since we are made according to God’s likeness and are appointed to rule over the entire earth, tell me, who is the person who sells and buys? Only God can do this; however, it does not pertain to him at all ‘for the gifts of God are irrevocable’ [Romans 11.29]. Because God called human nature to freedom which had become addicted to sin, he would not subject it to servitude again. If God did not subject freedom to slavery, who can deny his lordship? How does the ruler of the entire earth obtain dominion … since every possession requires payment? How can we properly estimate the earth in its entirety as well as its contents? If these things are inestimable, tell me, how much greater is man’s value who is over them? If you mention the entire world you discover nothing equivalent to man’s honor. He who knows human nature says that the world is not an adequate exchange for man’s soul.”

Yet by the 6th century, already Christianity had begun to widely accept slavery. By the time of the Middle Ages, owning slaves had become an accepted Christian practice, although slavery existed on economic not racial lines. By the time of the forming of the United States, already a racially based slavery system had become firmly rooted on American soil, with many Christian leaders considering it a God-given institution. What changed in the short period between the 300s Ad and the 6th century?

constantine

What changed centered on one name: Constantine. That emperor forever changed the status of Christianity when he chose to become a supporter of the Christian movement and, later a convert, after he wins a definitive military battle after honoring the Christian God in response to a vision of the cross. Before Constantine’s conversion from persecutor to promoter of the Christian faith and the resulting Edict of Milan, Christianity was a minority religion living an alternative lifestyle. To be Christian meant to not be able in most cases to become fully involved in the civic life of the Roman empire. Christians were by and large barred from the Roman military and from government office due to their refusal to worship Caesar as god or share in pagan worship rituals. Often they were not allowed into professional guilds. Because of this they were not invested in the institutions that made the Roman empire run smoothly. The Roman military was one of these institutions but most people fail to realize that slavery was also. Not being allowed to fully invest in Roman culture led Christians to have a freedom to interpret the words of Jesus on their own terms: words that spoke of liberation to the captives, an example that treated Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free as all equally children of one Creator. Taken at face value as the early Christians took them, Jesus’ words called into question the very brutality that the Roman economy, base on military superiority and slavery, was built on.

roman slaves

When Constantine legalized Christianity and began to financially sponsor Christian churches, there was a sudden flood of elite and wealthy leaders in the Roman empire into Christianity. As a religion supported by the state, Christianity began to become invested in its institutions. A crisis of sorts occurred in the church. How can we have such a radical message, that undercuts the Roman way of life, if we are now funded by the Roman government and the Roman elite? This is a part of why Christianity began to accommodate Jesus’ words calling us to love our enemies and avoid violence to make room for Christian participation in the military. It is also why the church began to change its preaching from being against slavery to protecting the institution of slavery. The economy of the Roman Empire, which had moved from being persecutor of Christians to a sponsor of the Christian church, was built upon blood and slavery. To stay in the favor of Rome, the church had to mute its message that in Christ there is neither slave nor free. It had to allow the message of liberation inherent in the Gospel message to become muted and for Christianity to begin to be about the Empire’s version of conservative values.

When I begin to see how acceptance of slavery among Christians grew out of the church accepting the endorsement by the government as its official promoter of cultural values, I began to be hit by some troubling questions about how the church functions today in my culture. And how it has functioned in other times and cultures. How often today and in other settings does the church become less about the message of liberation for all oppressed and reconciliation of all things and all people in Christ, and more about promoting a set of cultural values? How often does it cow-tow to the state and seek to become in bed with government? Whenever and wherever this happens, the church is dangerously close to developing its own slave-holder Christianity and beginning to read into Scripture its own prejudices and bigotries.

We saw a form of such slaver-holder Christianity in medieval Europe where the church often became the instigator of discrimination against women, xenophobia and persecution of Jews and Muslims, reaching its zenith of abuse in the Crusades and the Inquisition.

We saw it when Christian missionaries from the British Empire turned from sharing the Gospel in the terms relevant to the people being reached to becoming enforcers of British cultural values and agents of the British empire in places such as India and Australia.

bonhoeffer

We saw it at work when the Church of Germany by and large chose to lay down with the rising NAZI regime in a Reich-church that promoted German cultural values and NAZI ideology in place of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, turning a blind eye to the persecution of minorities, Jews, homosexuals, and the disabled by the German government. Those few such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Neimoller who resisted this abuse of the faith in the Confessing Church movement became an example of the power of the Gospel to stand against oppression.

We saw this in South Africa in the wedding of Christianity with the ideals of racism promoted during the apartheid regime. The Dutch Reformed Church used the same arguments used by slave-holders in the southeast US before Civil War times to justify enslaving black people as their argument for keeping the people of color in South Africa in second-class status in their country. They became official promoters of apartheid. The bloody and heartless treatment of non-white people under apartheid was all justified by them through the wedding of cultural prejudice to the Christian message.

What can we learn from looking at where slave-holder Christianity emerges?

1. We need to be careful about wedding Christianity to our cultural norms. The Christian Gospel is intended to be a message of liberation that is counter-cultural. The heart of Jesus’ message that the Kingdom of God is breaking into our world is a call for us to see our governments, our way of life (even the American way of life), our received values as being called into question. There are so many ways that many of our cultural givens may prop up oppression, bigotry, discrimination of others. In fact, I would say that this is not just true of southern values or conservative values, but also the values of progressives such as myself. All of our cultural value systems need to be called into question by the Gospel message. We need to look at our received values and ask – Does this set free the oppressed, open blind eyes, proclaim to all God’s favor, open us to the work of the Spirit, and bring liberty to the captives? (see Luke 4). Does it lead us to do justice for all, to be more merciful and compassionate, and each walk humbly with the God of our understanding? (Micah 6.8). Does it lead me to live out the reconciliation of all people and all things in Christ, or live as if we are all at odds? (see 2 Corinthians 5). In so far as it can aid in expressing these Gospel values, that cultural value or expression can be a blessing and gift. Yet when and where it stands against this, it can become the roots of a new theology of oppression like slave-holder Christianity.

2. We need to be careful about the church and the government becoming too friendly. It is important to notice that slave-holder Christianity is birthed out of the church and the state being in bed together. That became an illicit affair that corrupted the church, turning it into a voice-piece for the state more than a prophetic voice for justice and compassion in the community. In many parts of the world, including here in my beloved southeast US, many Christians have begun to clamor for a close relationship again between the church and the state. “Let’s get some Christians into office,” they say. We should be nervous about such a drive, even though it’s often well-intentioned. Historically having the church and state in bed together has ended up corrupting both.

Interestingly enough when we look at the history of how the church began again to cry out against slavery, it begins where it had distanced itself from the government and political power. This move did not begin within the churches and denominations that were wedded with the state government. No, those had an interest in keeping things status quo. Instead it began in radical reformation movements that held to a free church theology where church and state needed to be separate. It is among the early Quakers, Anabaptists, and other groups that rejected a co-mingling of church and state that the call to revisit slavery and to oppose it as contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ began to re-emerge on the scene.

quaker worship

Though my ministry is not a part of the Baptist movement, but a part of the Progressive Christian Alliance, I can’t help but be effected by the tradition of my ancestors who were radical Baptists. In their tradition, a theology of four freedoms existed calling for Christians to recognize soul freedom, the fact that each of us stand before God on our own and cannot judge another person’s soul; Bible or faith freedom, the recognition that each of us must interpret the Bible for ourselves and the church must allow for diverse understandings of and expressions of faith within its community; church freedom, that each local church should be free to shape its theology and liturgy to meet its own local needs as led by the Spirit of God without an outside force whether in the church, the government, or the culture imposing itself upon them; and finally religious freedom which states that the church and state need to avoid co-mingling in order that both can serve their proper function. It is this approach of being willing to refuse to simply become agents of the state promoting its cultural values and instead be a people who can call into question the cultural values prevalent in the state at large that the early free church movements like the Quakers and Anabaptists could challenge the status quo and be a voice against violence, slavery, and oppression. Because of this, one of the things I have begun to call for in my ministry as a conference coordinator for the Progressive Christian Alliance, is for my community of churches and for other churches in the south to re-capture the ethos of these early free church movements. This call to resist the attempt to have the government endorse a specific religious vision or have the church become a voice simply supporting the status quo of traditional values is something to which all of our religious communities need to listen carefully. As a church, in order to resist becoming another expression of slave-holder Christianity we must resist the temptation of power that tempts us to go into bed with government or culture, losing our prophetic voice. We must be willing to be those who announce with early progressive Christians like Walter Rauschenbush that the Kingdom is always but coming, and we need to ever be at work questioning and challenging the ways this world is not yet as it is in heaven.

anabaptist baptizin

Finally we need to watch the money. Where does it flow in and out of the church? And how does it influence our preaching? Our practice? The need to justify the economy of the Roman Empire is a large part of why the Constantinian church begin to move from opposing to supporting slavery. There is a definite connection between previous expressions of oppressive “slave-holder” Christianities and the economic systems of the day. In America at least right now in many situations the church has wedded itself to our capitalistic system, at times embracing a “big business” mentality. In fact in many churches it is the money-making business model of corporate America that is their model. Many churches in many ways resemble more a supermarket or fitness center than a worshiping servant community. With how slave-holder Christianities tend to flow from a desire to justify and prop up the economic system which has come to support the church, this should trouble us deeply. Very easily such a wedding of Christianity to our way of doing business can cause us to muffle its call to be an alternate community, and the church’s need to call out against abusive business practices in our day. It also can make us feel the need to stop crying out against popular practices in our culture which demean, marginalize, and oppress groups in our community because of fearing losing “the bottom line”.

money-worship

Where do you see slave-holder Christianity at work? What are ways you feel today’s church may be getting in bed with government? Be simply promoting cultural norms instead of calling into questions ones that may be unjust? Be propping up our economic practices, and selling out to the almighty dollar?

Let’s be the people standing with Jesus for freedom, justice, and reconciliation.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie.

You progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Jarrod Cochran & the Founding of a Southern Progressive Movement

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I had a recent dialogue with someone online about my blog. It went something like this:

“Progressive Redneck Preacher? You have got to be kidding.”

“I kind of am kidding, but why do you say that?”

“Well, you know, there aren’t any progressives down south.”

“Actually, there are several. I am one, after all. Let me tell you about some others.”

And then I began to share about some of the people I now am posting about in my Country Fried Chicken feature.

“Country Fried Chickens” are individuals who, like me, are children of the south. They were born to southern mamas, and grew up hearing the cry of the whip-poor-will. They grew up swimming and fishing in its rivers. Sweet tea runs through their veins and you can still see the shimmer of fried chicken grease sticking to their fingers. Yet like me they have seen the damage that approaches to the stranger, to the other, and to violence can produce and how ingrained they have become in our culture. These Country Fried Chickens are working to transform our culture to live out the best of our values, and truly be a place all are welcome at the family table as one.

One of the points I raised to this person that didn’t know there were southern progressives was that, not only do we have individual southerners raising their voice, but we also have movements for progressive values that have begun in the south and continue to spread like wildfire throughout our country. The Country Fried Chicken for today is the chair and co-founder of just such an organization, Rev. Jarrod Cochran. Cochran is a Georgia minister who helped co-found the Progressive Christian Alliance.

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The Progressive Christian Alliance began through conversations between Jarrod Cochran of Georgia, Roger and Melissa Mclellan of Alabama, and Terry McGuire of Florida. These southern ministers looked around and saw how the Christian faith in which they had encountered the living and liberating Jesus had become high-jacked by individuals using it to push extreme political agendas. They also so how many had begun to feel that the Christian faith was irrelevant in their day to day lives, joining the late Mahatma Gandhi in saying We love your Jesus, but not your Christianity.

Jarrod also wrote the book Finding Jesus Outside the Box, in which he writes a sort of manifesto for the progressive Christian, outlining key principles for progressive Christian ministry.  These principles become foundational in the work and vision of not just the Progressive Christian Alliance, but many progressive Christian movements.

Beginning in the southeast of the United States, the Progressive Christian Alliance burst forth, and now helps sponsor ministries the world over. Its website calls the Progressive Christian Alliance “post-denominational in that while we actively seek to build bridges between clergy and laity of existing churches and ministries regardless of denominational affiliation; we also seek to, as a community, affirm God’s calling on the lives of God’s children and establish new ministries.” As such it acts as both a network for progressive Christians in all denominational settings, and as an association that sponsors new church plants, new ministries, and new clergy that are committed to progressive expressions of the Christian faith.

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Pastor Heather Marie Janes, pastor of Loving Hands Fellowship, a Progressive Christian Alliance church-plant in Rochester, NY. Janes is an out-spoken advocate for the transgendered community.

Today you can see its work present in churches such as Loving Hands Fellowship of Rochester, New York, which has a thriving ministry and whose pastor Heather Marie Janes is an out-spoken advocate for the rights of transgendered persons in her community. You can see it in my congregation Diversity in Faith: A Christian Church for All People, which serve the Fayetteville-Fort Bragg area of NC, and is a multi-racial, multi-cultural congregation that includes singles, straight couples, and same-gender couples. Diversity has been active in speaking out for the rights of GLBT people, those with disabilities, and the homeless in our community.

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Pastor Jowancka Mintz of Diversity in Faith joining her Progressive Christian Alliance church in reaching out at NC Gay Pride.

You can see it in Open Doors Community Church, pastored by Rev. Daniel Payne, the first English-speaking church in Seoul, Korea to be focused on affirming same-gender couples with the love of Christ. These three churches are examples of church-planting work of the Progressive Christian Alliance, and they consider the Progressive Christian Alliance their “home”.

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Rev. Daniel Payne, who planted Open Doors Community church in Korea.

Yet also the Progressive Christian Alliance acts as a network for leaders in existing denominations. In this role it has partnered with individuals such as Mark Sandlin of the God Article, a Presbyterian minister, and Roger Wolsey of Kissing Fish, a United Methodist minister.

In a previous interview with Patheos, Rev. Cochran summarizes the vision of the Progressive Christian Alliance well, saying “As I and my fellow brothers and sisters in the Progressive Christian Alliance have always advocated, the Church is not a four-walled institution, but but a ministry without walls that surrounds and encompasses everything, everywhere we go. Church does not begin only when there is a pulpit or when the message of Jesus is conveyed through spoken word; it extends to all places and is conveyed by our actions.”

In this interview, Rev. Cochran shares his thoughts as he ends his term of service as Chair of the Progressive Christian Alliance, and prepares for new leadership to be elected for the organization in its upcoming general conference in mid-July.

I think the story of Jarrod Cochran and the Progressive Christian Alliance is a powerful story of what we southern progressives can do when we move forward in faith, following the example and calling of Jesus.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Where do you live? Where does your ministry or progressive work happen?

I live in Atlanta, Georgia. My ministry is focused in “MetroAtlanta”, but I travel throughout the Southeast, occasionally, to guest preach.

Tell us a little about your ministry/work.

I wear several hats. I work at a food and clothing ministry for the needy in my community, I am starting a fledgling church/community in my neighborhood that feeds the homeless, I contribute to several religious publications, and I am currently the Chair of the Progressive Christian Alliance, an interdenominational organization I co-founded with Rev’s. Roger and Melissa McClellan, and Rev. Terry McGuire.

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What would you say is the focus of the ministry you do?

Attempting to live up to the lessons learned in the Sermon on the Mount.

How did you begin this ministry?

It started in talks over coffee, phone discussions, emails, and a desire in my heart to create something that would reach out to those in church who felt they were left in the margins.

How does your work promote progressive values?

We’re inclusive, so everyone has a seat at the table and no one is left behind. We stand up for justice, in private matters and in the public square.

What are some key lessons you’ve learned through this work?

When you attempt to truly live out the radical teachings and example of Jesus, you’re going to make people angry on both sides of the fence as well as receive the ire of fellow ministers and political leaders. But I’ve also found that to reach out and love radically, as Jesus did, is completely worth the price.

What are some key concerns progressives need to be aware of which your work has brought up?

We must be mindful and ever vigilant to never create a leftist version of the Religious Right. I’ve been a part of a few groups that eventually became just that, and as a result, they are either now defunct or irrelevant.

One of the things I focus on in Progressive Redneck Preacher is the relationship between Southern culture and progressive values.

Did you grow up in the South? If so, what are some of you most positive experiences of “the South”? What are parts of it that you struggle with or struggle against? Do you see in any particular connections with your work and southern culture?

The generosity of those in South has always been in the forefront anywhere I go. The struggles I have experienced in the South is the mindset of many people. Most appear to be extremely conservative in thinking and believe that the American flag and the Republican Party were baptized in the blood of Jesus. Linking God with any particular political faction disturbs me.

One thing I discuss a lot on the Progressive Redneck Preacher is the influence of what I call “slaveholder Christianity”, methods of interpreting Scripture bound up in prejudice which aim to exclude people. How have you experienced that legacy?

I was “run out” of my first Church for preaching a message of inclusion and active peacemaking.  This was my childhood church, too. My father was the minister and he had passed away. I felt  the call to be a minister and I imagine that the elders of that church thought they had a minister they could “mold”. Boy were they wrong. After preaching about social justice, poverty, and violence, I was told they didn’t want to hear me preach about those things ever again. I ignored this warning and continued until they eventually kicked me out.

 jarrod3

What are ways your ministry confronts this?

We attempt to focus on the message of Jesus, how his message and example echoes that of the prophets that came before him, and how we can display that radical love and grace to others today. We are also a public advocacy group for inclusion.

In addition to the influence of “slaveholder Christianity”, we discuss how positive movements that grew out of the South, such as the Civil Rights Movement, influence us today. Can you see ways this or another movement has shaped the work you do?

The Civil Rights Movement had a huge impact here in the MetroAtlanta Community. The King/Gandhian doctrine of nonviolence is one we attempt to embody when we are confronted with hostility.

Do you have any advice you’d give to young people sensing a call to do progressive work like yours?

Patience, compassion, and grace. We are not against people; we’re against mindsets. The only way we can truly change the world is through love.

Would you be willing to say a little about where you see your ministry going after the end of your work as chair? And what some of your hopes are personally, and for the Progressive Christian Alliance?

Sure thing! I see myself focusing on starting up “The Progressive Christian Worker”. A movement/church/communion where progressive Christians of all stripes can come and join in worship and advocacy in the style of Dorothy Day and Amon Hennacy’s Catholic Worker Movement. My personal hopes are to continue to grow in my faith, receive my phD in Theology by the end of the year, and maybe eventually be the pastor of a church. My hopes for the Progressive Christian Alliance are what they have always been: to continue to grow into a powerful force for change and goodness, to continue to listen to the Spirit, and to never forget the roots from which we came.

Beyond Slaveholder Christianity, part 2: The Roots of Slaveholder Christianity

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One of the most moving events in my stay in California that I mentioned last time was meeting A. C. Green at an event in Pasadena, CA. A.C. Green is a retired basketball player who made history as the player in the NBA to play the most consecutive basketball games. A.C. Green joined Curtis May‘s Office of Reconciliation Ministries to sponsor a racial reconciliation conference at an ampitheater in the heart of Pasadena, CA to promote reconciliation. The two churches I was serving at joined this ministry in working to tear down walls of racism built over the years both within the church at large and specifically in the greater Los Angeles area.

A. C. Green is a soft-spoken, caring man who happens to be incredibly tall. I am just under six feet and when I stood side by side with him he towered over me. I will always smile and laugh as I remember the sight of him – a tall, athletic black man — standing shoulder to shoulder with my wife – a 4′ 10” lilly-white brunette who at the time was walking with crutches due to her spina bifida. It was quite the contrast!

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That contrast marked one of the beautiful experiences I had moving out of my southern comfort zone, as I spoke about last week. I saw how interconnected all of us are and how our differences of race, height, disability, and background are just some of the beautiful differences that make us able to reflect the beautiful image of God.

As D. C. Talk sings,

We’re colored people, and we live in a tainted place
We’re colored people, and they call us the human race
We’ve got a history so full of mistakes
And we are colored people who depend on a Holy Grace

A piece of canvas is only the beginning for
It takes on character with every loving stroke
This thing of beauty is the passion of an Artist’s heart
By God’s design, we are a skin kaleidoscope

Through working with Curtis May and his Office of Reconciliation Ministries (now called “Office of Reconciliation & Mediation”) I began to hear the stories and experiences of many who had been hurt by the racism and bigotry of the church. Much of Curtis’ ministry was making space for people in the church who had been hurt by abuse of Scripture to talk to people who had their hand in it.

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I still can remember seeing men and women of color share how the denomination where I was serving at the time had previously used Scripture to justify their policies of racism. In hearing their stories I learned of how sections of Scripture such as the curse of Ham and the mark of Cain had been used in Christian history to treat non-white peoples as if they were less than fully human. I heard the stories of how they kept their faith in God through it all, knowing the God they found in Jesus Christ was not behind the bigotry they faced. I heard how some had to flee the south that was my birthplace to find work, to be treated fairly and equally, and how the Scripture was used to justify such racial discrimination.

The beautiful thing was seeing people on both sides of the aisle work through the pain of what they had done and what had been done to them, so that they could forgive each other, let go of the past, and find healing. At each event of the Office of Reconciliation Ministries there were many tears of joy and forgiveness shed.

Yet also for me slaveholder Christianity was laid bare, and made visible to me. This slaveholder Christianity was how the racist policies of the Jim Crow south of my ancestors were justified, and how the previous racist policies of my old denomination, Grace Communion International, came to be whose pain the Office of Reconciliation Ministries was aimed at helping resolve.

What is Slaveholder Christianity​?

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Slaveholder Christianity is the approach to the Scriptures which my ancestors used to justify the enslavement of people of color in the southeast of the United States. The approach they used to justify treating other human beings not as humans but as property and as beasts of burden is still the basic approach to Scripture that was used to justify the racist doctrines, practices, attitudes, and policies which we explored at these racial reconciliation events. I have become convinced that this same approach to Scripture continues to be at the root of much of the prejudice not just toward people of color, but also toward women, toward GLBT people, and toward people of other faiths that we find common in many segments of the Christian church here in the southeast.

This approach to Christianity really reached its zenith in the horrific treatment of black slaves of the United States. Being so far removed in time from the end of US slavery, we can fail to recognize the specter it has placed on our history and how it contributed to the rise of racial segregation, lynchings, and ongoing racial conflict even years after it ended. As theologian James Cone writes, slavery is intimately connected with racism, which “is America’s original sin. It is its most persistent and intractable evil1”. And although we like to picture good Christians as being the ones fighting against the institution of slavery, in truth the church was, like the nation, divided over the topic. In the south, Christian preachers quoted Scriptures to justify slavery just as today largely southern preachers quote Scriptures to justify discriminating against women and GLBT people in the church & society.

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What was the clarion call of this slave-owning Christians? How did they justify their mistreatment of human beings? Many of their statements echo in an almost word for word way what opponents of same-gender relationships and full women’s equality use today. If you change the word “slavery” for “traditional marriage”, you could be quoting many a popular southern preacher in our time. One example is the Episcopal Bishop in the diocese of Vermont, who wrote in 1864 that “the Bible’s defense of slavery is very plain. St. Paul was inspired, and knew the will of the Lord Jesus Christ, and was only intent on obeying it. And who are we, that in our modern wisdom presume to set aside the Word of God … and invent ourselves a ‘higher law’ than those holy Scriptures which are given to us ‘a light to our feet and a lamp to our paths,’ in the darkness of a sinful and polluted world?2” Just as today, they tried to step away from questions of justice, fairness, and compassion, and instead argue that upholding this institution was necessary to defend the sacredness of the Holy Scripture. Ending slavery, they said, was opposing the words of Scripture.

In fact, the slave-holding Christians had developed quite a case: There were many more verses that could be said to affirm slavery than that currently are used to condemn, for instance, gay couples or women’s equality. First, these southern Christians argued slave-holding was divinely sanctioned from of old since such great saints as Abraham were known to own slaves (see Genesis 12.5; 20.14; 24.35-36, among other verses). Based on regulations such as Exodus 21.20-21, these slave-holding Christians next argued that God approves of slave-holding. After all, the very laws God gives Israel uphold slavery by regulating it instead of abolishing it. To them this demonstrates that slavery is not a sin. Just as husband abusing his wife does not make marriage bad, but instead the husband a bad husband, what is a sin isn’t slave-holding but being a bad slave-master. Also, they pointed to how both Paul and Peter encourage slaves to obey their masters in Ephesians 6.5-9, Colossians 3.22-4.1, and 1 Peter 2.18-25, while Jesus never cries out against slavery as a grave evil in the Gospels. This means, slave-holding Christians argued, that both Jesus and the apostles not only recognized slavery existed but also approved of it. If slavery was the great evil that abolitionists claim it is, they argued, surely Jesus would have directly said so. Finally slave-holding Christians argued that slavery was merciful because it drew people from outside their Christian nation into a Christian land where they could hear the Gospel without which they surely would have all been bound to hell-fire forever.

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To further buttress their claims, slave-holders would point to two obscure texts in the book of Genesis – the story of the cursing of Canaan (Genesis 9) and the marking of Cain (Genesis 4). Instead of treating the cursing of Canaan as the drunken ravings of Noah, the slaveholding Christians viewed this event as Noah prophesying God’s will – that Canaan (who they take to be the ancestor of all black people) will have all his descendents placed into slavery as God’s punishment on Ham for his sins. And instead of seeing the mark of Cain as it is presented in Genesis to be – a mark of protection upon Cain preventing him from being killed in vengeance – the mark of Cain is treated as the staining of skin aimed at encouraging society’s vengeance. To them the darkness of one’s skin came to represent one’s sinfulness or the sinfulness of one’s ancestors. Some even went a step forward to argue, as Charles Carroll did in his books The Negro a Beast and the Tempter of Eve that black people were not even human at all, but instead the beasts of the field whom Adam, in their mind a white man, was told to rule over in the beginning of Genesis.

Because of this for southern slave-holding Christians “ who took both slavery and the Bible seriously, the one supported the other. . . [W]hat perhaps offended the southern Christian slaveholder [the most] before the Civil War was the northern notion that he suffered a guilty conscience, was a hypocrite, and could not possibly be a good Christian, since he held slaves. Such southerners took comfort not only from their sens of a superior civilization, but from their Bibles as well. Their peculiar institution was built upon a firm biblical foundation3.”

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If I was a betting man, I would wager you that outside a Klan rally you would have a hard time finding a Christian who for argued for these theological claims today. Despite the many Bible verses slave-holding Christians could quote, under the influence of the Holy Spirit the Christian church determined that God does not intend any human being to be treated as property, and that all human beings are created in the image of God. In almost every Christian church today even here in the deep south, whatever people practice the message that is preached tends to be the skin color does not make anyone any more or less the image of God. Yet when I listened with A. C. Green, my wife, and people of all races gathered at the racial reconciliation events in Pasadena I heard the stories of those who were victims of racism. Many, especially those who experienced that denomination’s previous racist policies they, recalled in those gatherings such texts being quoted to them to justify that church’s long history of racism. Hearing their stories led me to read the works of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and books about their lives like those by Taylor Branch. What amazed me was to discover in those pages the fact that these same arguments from Scripture were used by Christians here in the southeast to justify the whole segregation system under Jim Crow law which led many I met in Inglewood and other historically black neighborhoods in LA to flee the south. What’s more, they were even used to justify the violent lynching and murder of black men and women in Jim Crow days. Sadly “most of the lynchings ‘took place in one of the most Christianized parts of the United States’ and ‘many of the violent spectacles of murderous rampage on black bodies took place on Sunday afternoons – as if to have a picnic of black flesh after church4.’”

The problem which we were confronting that day in the Pasadena auditorium and others like it was not just racism, but also a dominant way of reading the Bible. This racism had been propped up by a way of reading Scripture that took root in our country as a justification for marginalizing and oppressing other human beings, treating them like animals or property. This mindset was about more than just slavery itself. If it had only been a justification of slavery, it would have died out when the institution of slavery died. Instead this approach to Scripture continued, growing like a cancer here in the south. This way of approach Scripture was used to push down people of color with the idea that God said white people can only be successful, powerful, and happy if other races are treated as less than them, pushed down, and oppressed.

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In our next installment on Slave-holding Christianity I want to look in a little more detail about how this approach to Scripture predates the American south and where it came from, as well as how it is manifested beyond issues of race. But I think I would be remiss not to go ahead and make clear that wherever Scripture is used to hold up one privileged group by pushing down another, this same approach to Scripture and Christianity is taking root in a new form.

You see our Lord made very clear to us what our faith was to be about when he said in Luke 4.17-19

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
God has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

and in John 5.39 –

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me,

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So for Jesus, interpreting Scripture correctly isn’t just about lining up a bunch of verses in a neat little row to prove your point. No, as with slavery, such an approach can lead you to a wrong – a disastrously wrong – answer. Christians interpret Scripture correctly when we apply it in a way that it actually points to Jesus and draws us into Jesus’ liberating work of setting free captives, liberating the oppressed, opening blind eyes, and bringing good news to the poor. Wherever such acts happen the Holy Spirit is present, and Christ is already at work.

At the end of the day this is why slaveholder Christianity’s message failed in the south, both in the days of slavery and when it continued to hold the south in its grip in the days of Jim Crow. Jesus was not in interpretations of Scripture that shoved people further into oppression and captivity. Jesus was present in his Spirit where Jesus is still present today: in the midst of those who were oppressed sitting them free.

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And so people like Sarah Grimke, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglas were Jesus’ hands and feet working to set free slaves, and Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and others were Jesus’ voice crying out to end the oppression of racial discrimination.

I would suggest that wherever we see Scripture being used to hold up anyone’s privilege – whether based on race, sexual orientation, gender, or whatever distinction – by pushing down those different to them, marginalizing them, or oppressing them, we see such slave-holding Christianity still holding all of us captive.

What I found there in that auditorium to be true was that who I am is bound up in who others are, and that the myth of oppressive forms of Christianity cannot be true: I can never be free while I push another in bondage. As another great southern preacher named Martin Luther once said, “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”

Lets lay aside our bonds and join in the work of freedom.

And I’m not just whistlin’ Dixie here!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah Royal

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END NOTES

1As quoted by Adrian Thatcher in The Savage Text: The Use and Abuse of the Bible. (Wiley-Blackwell, Kindle Electronic Edition: 2008).

2As quoted by Adrian Thatcher in The Savage Text: The Use and Abuse of the Bible. (Wiley-Blackwell, Kindle Electronic Edition: 2008).

3Gomes, Peter. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. (William & Morrow: New York, 1996), 90.

4Kelly Douglas, as quoted by Adrian Thatcher in The Savage Text: The Use and Abuse of the Bible. (Wiley-Blackwell, Kindle Electronic Edition: 2008).