When I was in Seminary in the late 60s, I was deeply influenced by Liberation Theology. I was reminded of this connection recently when the Old Testament reading in the lectionary was the retelling of the call of Moses. It contains these significant words:
“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. . . “
Most scholars believe that the Exodus Event is the perspective from which all of the Old Testament was written. God had delivered his people from slavery. Since the Old Testament is written from this post-exodus viewpoint, the words contained in this significant theophany reveals much about the nature of God. I learned that God reveals God’s own self as the champion and advocate of the oppressed. This theme is repeated in the Psalms and in the prophets and is the major theme of redemption. The day of the Lord’s coming will be a day when God brings justice. The Messiah will be God’s anointed servant who will preach good news to the poor and announce the day of liberation to the captive as Isaiah foretold.
The New Testament proceeds from this perspective. We need only remember the words attributed to the Mother of Jesus in the Magnificat. “He has exalted the humble, scatter the proud, caste down the mighty form their seats, and sent the rich empty away.” Jesus, of course, came preaching the good news to the poor, the acceptable day of the Lord’s favor. The Kingdom of heaven is presented as a place of reversal of the values and powers of this world and the triumph of God’s love and justice. In Liberation Theology, God’s Love cannot be separated from God’s justice.
I came to understand that the Church was not just about saving people from their sins and promising them eternity. The Church is the champion and advocate for the poor, the needy, the marginalized, the alienated, the immigrant, the stranger, in summary “the oppressed.” Indeed, the first converts to Christianity throughout the empire were mostly from the lower and slave classes. And the challenge is that if we are not on the side of God’s Kingdom, we are a part of the oppressor.
I came to understood that as a person raised in the segregated culture of the South that unless I worked for justice, rights and full freedom for all people especially my African American fellow citizens, I was not doing God’s will in my world. I could not separate my personal faith from my public responsibility.
This leads me to say two things, one of which you may already have anticipated. I became in Seminary a part of the movement in the Church that today we call “Progressives.” I supported civil rights, I supported the ordination of women, and I believed strongly in the full inclusion and participation of all people within the Church. The second thing I want to say is that after my post-Seminary personal conversion to Christ and an overwhelming and life changing experience with the Holy Spirit, I did not abandon my belief that God’s Love and Justice cannot be separated. I do not understand how any person can believe the scriptures and be led to any other conclusion.
It was this understanding that has allowed me to continue in the Episcopal Church when many of my dearest friends left it. It was this theological understanding that I carried and proclaimed at the Cathedral of St. Matthew located in East Dallas and where over half our membership are Latinos and many of them undocumented immigrants. It was this understanding that allowed me to proclaim my evangelical faith while also welcoming all people to our community.
Those who know my theological orthodoxy and evangelical enthusiasm often assume that I am a culturally conservative Christian. Indeed many friends who have left the Episcopal Church wonder why I have remained. So now, I have stated as clear as I can the vision of God’s reign that I carry. This is why I describe myself as a “heart strangely warmed conversionist” who like John Wesley believes that true conversion is never merely personal. It was this view that led many Methodist leaders in the early nineteenth century to demand that southern converts free their slaves.
I see this as making me an Anglican in the widest understanding of this term. My roots in Anglicanism are found in the evangelical awaking of the three great W’s of our Faith, Wesley, Whitfield and Wilberforce. I also find them in the early Anglo-Catholics who took to the streets of London and the other major urban areas of England to work with the urban poor.
My movement within the Episcopal Church has been from a traditional Anglo-Catholic beginning, to Liberation theology, to personal renewal and to evangelical faith. Call me mad or confused, but I do not see these as inconsistent. There is one thing that I will not call myself today and that is a Progressive. Often, I do not fit in with the current majority of Episcopal clergy, and in fact, see progressivism in a negative light and hold our progressive leaders responsible for crippling the Episcopal Church and contributing directly to the divisions of Anglicanism that we have in North America today. My central dislike for the present Progressives is not a conservative reaction. It is a belief that they have reduced the passionate gospel of individual and corporate redemption to something a great deal less than good news for the poor. All this came to light one evening while watching late night television.
The nightly reporter was interviewing Bishop John Spong, the then Bishop of Newark. I knew that Bishop Spong was considered as one of the chief spokespersons for progressive Christianity in the Episcopal Church, but I had never given him much attention. This was mainly because as a Yale Divinity School graduate I found him consistently outdated. His gift seemed to be writing books re-stating controversial things discussed twenty years earlier, but then adding one page that seemed tantalizingly radical. So Paul of Tarsus just might have been a self-hating homosexual. Or he would suggest that perhaps the Virgin Mary (who “no modern person could believe a virgin mother”) was actually a victim of rape by a Roman soldier.
On this particular night, Bishop Spong was insisting that he could not accept God as the God often portrayed in the Bible. Take for example he explained the story of Exodus. At this I perked up and began to listen. He directed his comment to the reporter with something like “I don’t really believe that God loved the Hebrews more than the Egyptians.” He went on to say that he could never accept a god who would save the Jews but drown the Egyptians. He concluded that he believed that God loved everyone equally. The reporter acknowledged that this story had always bothered him too. “What about those poor Egyptians?” he asked rhetorically.
By this point, I was standing in front of my television shouting at the Bishop in disbelief. God, I wanted to remind him, did not love both Egyptian and Jew because God loved and sided with the oppressed and not the oppressor. This sappy and feel good theology that God loved everyone seemed to me to be morally offensive. So, I began to listen more closely to my friends in the Progressive side of the Church as to what they were really saying. Surely the majority of them had not surrendered to such sophistry.
I came to a startling discovery. Gone were the prophetic voices of the 60s and 70s of our Church and replacing these were now what I would describe as a group of upper middle class professionals who could not accept a God of judgment and who had centered on the full acceptance of Gay and Lesbians into every aspect of the Church as the primary issue of the day. Their theological justifications for all this were based on an existentialist view of fairness and rights. This became a modified Rodney King theology of “why can’t we all just get along?” For Progressives, it was becoming increasingly clear, the only real problem the Church had were people in it that could not accept the full inclusion of all people. By 2000, the theology behind this had become reduced to “God is love so all love must be of God.”
When I challenged this muddled thinking, I was marginalized as one of those reactionary conservatives who were homophobic and as such did not have to be listened to or given a place of credence within the councils of the Church. I was grouped together with folks like Bishop Iker of Fort Worth whose positions I had adamantly opposed.
Now let me make this clear. I am not saying that gay or lesbian people have not been mistreated. Clearly many have been. Many would be numbered in the marginalized of society and at times abused if not outright oppressed. This part I can understand. Yet, something else has happened in all this that needs to be acknowledged. If the Progressives believe that the Episcopal Church doing same sex blessings or marriages is advocacy of the oppressed, we need to stop and look around. The obvious truth is that most homosexuals in the Episcopal Church are upper class, highly educated, and in many ways privileged people like most other Episcopalians.
I also began to realize that much of the rhetoric in all this was contrary to what was actually happening. Many of our leaders saw us making the Episcopal Church a more inclusive church by being more multi-cultural and multi-ethnic and diverse. Yet, in actuality, the Episcopal Church was becoming less diverse. We had lost thousands of African-American members. Particularly painful for me was the realization that we were largely token in our approach to Latinos. For example, when I wrote an article advocating an aggressive strategy toward Latinos that could make the Episcopal Church a bi-lingual and bi-cultural community in 20 years, leaders of the church reacted negatively. As one wrote to me, “I want an inclusive Church, having that many Hispanic people would not allow space for all the LGTB people.” Clearly, there is a disconnect between what we say we believe and who we are. We are not a diverse ethnic and cultural community and we are becoming less so. Today, TEC is nearly 90% Caucasian. Progressives seem to be choosing sexual diversity because it is the only real form of diversity that is available to us.
In some twenty years, liberation theology and the passionate commitment to work with and advocate the oppressed had dissolved into a well-intentioned group of sexually diverse people repeating unthinking clichés that have almost no meaning to non-Christians and the vast majority of oppressed people living in our world today. A Church whose message is reduced to “God loves everyone equally” is a Church that has lost all prophetic power and witness. The message that God loves everyone is not good news to the poor. For them there has to be something more.
After Bishop Gene Robinson, a gay man living in a same sex partnership, was given consent at the 2003 General Convention, I asked a gay friend of mine who was not an Episcopalian what he thought of all of this. This is what he told me. “Of course, I am happy that a church with as much prominence as the Episcopal Church has done this. I think it is about time you did.” So, I asked him, “Would this make you want to consider joining the Episcopal Church?” He thought for a long time before replying, “I don’t see why it would. I am glad you made the decision, but honestly, if I were going to ever join a church it would have to be for some other reason, something spiritual.” This statement is revealing. It explains why despite all the predictions that the Episcopal Church was opening our doors to thousands of new people who would embrace a church that had taken such a prophetic stand, we then lost 1/3 of our membership in just ten years.
Let me put this as strait forward as I can. The Episcopal Church may have done the right thing and something that many secular people can agree we should have done. But in trying to make the case for full inclusion, we have not made the case for the Church! Those who believe in marriage equality do not see the Church’s actions as prophetic. And they do not need the Church’s advocacy to have it happen. The secularization and diversity of society is making this happen. It is not God’s voice or justice that is wining; it is secularism that is speaking. The Episcopal Church with its strong connections to education and the arts has accommodated to it. Meanwhile, we have not been the spokespersons for the vast majority of the oppressed in our world whether it is sex slaves in Asia, women in Islamic society, undocumented workers in North America, or the victims of child pornography which is the largest form of commerce on the Internet!
There is one further lesson that could have been learned from Liberation Theology that our Progressives have chosen to ignore. God heard the cries of the slaves in Egypt. He sent them a deliverer and brought them out of slavery. He gave them a yearly celebration, the Passover, to remind them that they were once slaves. Yet within just a few generations, Solomon built the Temple and his palaces with forced labor! As one commentator observed, there may be a difference between slavery and forced laborers, but I doubt that those forced into such labor would appreciate it.
The lesson is that yesterdays oppressed can easily become today’s oppressors. In fact, they will, if they forget their own history. They can use their own experience of oppression to actually justify their own oppressive behavior. We need only look at such places as Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mozambique, and dozens of other places to see this sad truth lived out. As has been said, “failing to learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.”
Much of the energy of our current leadership seems to be taken up with defending our past decisions and telling one another that the Church is actually doing well. They ignore the devastating losses of the past few years while forced to “restructure” and make adjustments in budgetary expectations. I would suggest that the reason the Episcopal Church is in decline and trouble isn’t because we have the wrong structure or priorities. It is because we have the wrong God. We want the god who loves everyone. We do not want the God of both personal and corporate repentance, change of heart, and transformation. There is something fundamentally wrong with the Progressives who lead our Church today and sadly their own good intentions make them blind to it.