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Is “progressive” an aspiration or an appellation?

I’ve spent two decades promoting the term “progressive” as an identity for Christians who embrace compassion, science, common sense, and social justice, and who abandon supernaturalism, exclusivism, and oppressive dogma. I’ve been an active participant in a global effort to transform the faith from within, to change the way the public perceives it, and to make Christianity a movement for social progress. By identifying ourselves and our churches explicitly as “progressive”, we have lifted our perspective on the faith to a much higher level of public awareness. Our efforts have legitimized our understanding of Christianity, making it much more accessible to the growing number of Christians who yearn for an alternative way to understand and walk the way of Jesus.

But lately I’m being awakened to the difference between being “progressive” as an aspiration versus an appellation.

“Democracy is not a state.  It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.” These words of dearly departed Rep. John Lewis haunt me.  He devoted his life to democracy. Not as a thing achieved, but as an ideal that guided his steps. His Black experience informed his understanding that being “democratic” is not a fixed identity that Americans can claim. We’ve got a long way to go toward becoming the Beloved Community in which the voice of each individual, regardless of race or status, counts as much as others.

With a group of extended family members, my wife and I are meeting every week to study Layla Saad’s book, “Me and White Supremacy”. I was struck in particular by Saad’s statement that “progressive” white people often identify themselves as allies of Black people.  But she says, in effect, that if you claim to be an ally, you aren’t one. Being an ally is an aspiration – not an identity that any white person ever can fully earn. I can only begin to know what life is like for Black people in America. I can only keep taking steps forward in being supportive and understanding.  Allyship is a verb, not a noun. And only Black people are entitled to tell me how far along I’ve come.

Letting this insight sink into my soul, I’m awakening to the realization that “progressive” as an identity is also problematic. “Progress” ought to suggest an endless process. We never arrive at it.  And the people oppressed by bad religion, systemic racism, or structural poverty are the only ones qualified to measure what progress has been achieved.  The nature of the progress for which we yearn is such that we must be shriven from self-congratulation about how far we’ve progressed. Striving for progress is our common task.  But being progressive is ultimately none of my business.

I don’t propose giving up the term “progressive”. But I’m learning that the current overdue soul-searching of white people in America should inspire other forms of self-examination.  The progress to which we aspire precludes us from any hubris in our usage of the term.  There are only “wannabe Christians”: we’re only as Christian as we are humble about how far we are from comprehending, much less following, the way of the Christ. There are only “wannabe progressives”:  we’re only as progressive as we are able to confess our failure to fully envision, much less effectualize, the Beloved Community on earth.

Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: Musings
Follow on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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