Progressivism’s Powerless Jesus

I float around a lot of online groups—some of them funny, some of them wholesome, some of them so I can maintain professional connections. But some of the groups I follow are wretched, and I continue to follow the wretched ones because they give me insight into how people very different from me like to think. Several years ago—quite by accident, I assure you!—I joined what turned out to be a group of nationalist white supremacists, located in Australia. I was able to observe, as a fly on the wall, what things got people fired up and motivated. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, and at about the same time, I also joined a group of highly progressive ‘Christians.’ I put the word Christian in scare-quotes because it is not at all clear that any of the members, although they claim church affiliation, retain any real semblance to Christianity. Again, a fly on the wall, I have been able to observe the radically ‘woke’ church from within. 

It is often the case, in my group of progressive Christians, that individual members bemoan the fact that there are inadequate resources for their belief structures. They seem honestly surprised, having bucked the trend of 2000 years of biblical and ecclesiological history, that their replacements are inadequate, underdeveloped, and even unsatisfying. One such moment happened after Easter, when a moderator asked how members had spent their Easter season. This request—made with all the requisite nods to trigger warnings and the need to respect various theological perspectives—led to a discussion of the real meaning of Easter. The following quote, taken from Feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether and correcting distortions from the ‘real’ meaning of Easter, was gratefully posted and received: 

This Jesus did not come to suffer and die, to masochistically offer his blood to a sadistic God to pay for our sins, but to liberate us into a new community of joyful life. 

Jesus died on the cross because the mighty of religion and state did not accept his call to repentance and solidarity with the poor, but sought to shore up their system of power and its ideological justifications by silencing the voice of the prophet. His resurrection means that they did not succeed in silencing him. He rose and continues to rise wherever prophets rise, breaking through the system of lies and offering a glimpse of the true God of life who stands against the systems of worldly power. The cross is not a payment for sin or a required sacrifice of our well-being, but the risk Jesus and all people take when they unmask the idols and announce the good news that God is with those who struggle for justice and communicate loving life.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, Women and Redemption (2012)

Ostensibly, Ruether is redressing perceived errors in theories of substitutionary atonement—and, to her credit, there are frequently gross distortions in how that atonement model is presented. The Jesus she presents in contrast to this more traditional model bears the hallmarks of a revolutionary. He is a “liberator,” opposing the “mighty of religion,” those who rejected his summons to “solidarity with the poor,” because they wanted to defend their own “power.” His revolutionary spirit continues to rise whenever “prophets” (like Ruether?) rise up to stand with Christ—or at least with Christ’s God—against “systems of worldly power.” In summary, the cross has not to do with personal sin but with standing for God against earthly injustice. From my experience, Ruether’s account reads as par for the course in progressive atonement theology. 

It was a few days after reading Ruether’s quote that I had occasion to reread one of Malcolm Muggeridge’s lectures from Christ and the Media. In that lecture, Muggeridge presents a thought-experiment. What if archaeologists, a thousand years from now, uncover a massive cache of our current media? From the evidence of our media and consumption habits, what would they conclude about our society? Of the Christian story and its distortions, Muggeridge surmises the following: 

If any of the archaeologists were interested enough, they could trace the adjustments and distortions of the original Christian texts—always, it goes without saying, ostensibly in the interests of clarification—to conform with the concept of Jesus as a revolutionary leader and reformer, a superior Barabbas or Che Guevara, whose kingdom indubitably was of this world, finding in this textual and doctrinal adjustment an example of the infinite ingenuity of the human mind in shaping everlasting truths to conform with temporal exigencies.

Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media, 55.

To me it is fascinating that Muggeridge, writing in 1976, perceived the trend toward crafting Jesus as a theological revolutionary which bears such evident fruit in the thinking of someone like Ruether. But that middle sentence, almost a throwaway comment, bears further reflection and attention—Jesus as “a superior Barabbas or Che Guevara, whose kingdom indubitably was of this world.” In the Q&A that followed the original lecture, Muggeridge expands on this idea. There he says, 

If you make Christ a revolutionary, then you associate him with power, and there is nothing I can find in the Gospels, that has ever been attributed to him, or that any of the Christian mystics have ever conveyed, which conceivably suggests that his Kingdom could be brought to pass through the exercise of power.

Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media, 91.

The logic may appear opaque at first glance, but this is actually a quite simple—and I believe compelling—claim that Muggeridge is making: if you remove Christ’s spiritual work, you are left with a purely earthly gospel. If you excise Christ’s work to resolve the spiritual problem of sin that stands between humanity and God, then what remains is for Christ to become a merely human revolutionary whose targets are not the redemption of human persons, but the condemnation of earthly injustice alone. If you remove spiritual power, you are left only with categories of earthly power. 

There is no doubt that a critique of power is contained within the Christian narrative; but the witness of our tradition is that the critique of human power is sourced in the supernatural wisdom of God—in the cross that is foolishness to Greeks and an offence to Jews. If we criticize power (and we do, and should, and must!), we critique it from the perspective of the Kingdom of God, that reality inaugurated by the resurrection power of Christ through which He has saved a people for Himself. 

The spiritually neutered gospel of progressive Christians reveals itself to be overly concerned with earthly power. This is the best it can offer humanity, since it has distanced itself from the gospel’s own critique of power. In this way, it trades a greater power for a lesser one; the real, for a shadow of the real. As a result, the best that progressive theology can offer is a critique of earthly power that itself relies on earthly power. Far from escaping the cycle of power and oppression and offering a genuine critique of the world from the perspective of an Eternal Kingdom, progressivism is forced to make use of the inadequate and corrupted tools of earthly power to advance its agenda. In my experience, the most reliable and frequently utilized tool in its kit is that of shame. Note how progressivism’s targeted sting of traditional theology focuses on the shame you ought to feel for believing such outmoded, harmful things. How dare you think religious thoughts that make God a masochist! How dare you espouse a theology that might harm people! How dare you perpetuate corrupted systems of power in your thinking and actions! In so many cases, a simple outrage at traditionalism becomes a surrogate for good arguments. But the deeper criticism remains, because progressivism’s strongest arguments are not birthed from the supernatural love of God, but from the condemning voice of earthly power. 

Karl Popper, in his 1944 critique of Totalitarianism, The Open Society, writes that “The attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell.” Popper is speaking of the utopianism created by following figures like Marx and Hegel, but beneath his insight lies the truth to which we are speaking now: that human power is inadequate for the creation of a just society, a heaven on earth. Not only is it inadequate, human power will actively poison the effort. The only power capable of creating just conditions, of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven down to earth, is that power rooted in the cross and resurrection of Christ—foolish, scandalous, otherworldly—which demands an accounting for personal sin. We require supernatural power for our supernatural problems. Without it, there can be no hope for change. 

One comment on “Progressivism’s Powerless Jesus

  1. gabriel says:

    ..which leads to the inevitable question of whether it really is necessary to own twitter in order to strike up a dialogue with putin :-)


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