Last week, the downtown DC campus of Wesley Theological Seminary hosted Transform Network’s 2015 Nation Gathering. Transform Network is a progressive missional community formation network that also develops collective action models for justice. Many of the speakers began with excellent ideas based clearly in Scripture, but then misappropriated them in order to support the progressive policies currently in vogue.
Some of the session topics were laudable, such as examining the problems of homelessness and sex trafficking in the District and the measures being used to alleviate them, the difficulties of family detention and unaccompanied children within the immigration system, and the issues surrounding mass incarceration.
Others, however, were more obscure and questionable, privileging progressive political activism over traditional Christian teaching. One session, entitled “Enacting Intersectional Justice by Displacing Whiteness,” addressed checking privileged assumptions, creating “brave spaces where we can speak into a space with the tools we have,” “resisting imperialism,” and resisting the logic of white supremacy, capitalism, and hetero-patriarchy. This session was led by Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, an “anti-oppression, anti-racist, Trans*gressive [sic.] genderqueer” and the Transform 2015 Theologian-in-Residence.
Drew Hart, an “Anablacktivist” led a session entitled “White Jesus, Good Intentions, and Our Racialized Hierarchy.” Participants were encouraged to “follow Jesus into a clash with the racialized social order.” A panel discussed how seminary graduates can check “educational privilege.” Judy Esber, a union activist with UNITE HERE!, discussed the early church’s collective organizing and it’s relation to today’s labor movements. Shane Claiborne discussed and showed slides of his Simple Way community in Philadelphia, including their protesting in front of gun stores and forging guns into garden tools.
Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners’ explained how the first chapter of Genesis’ statement, “it was very good,” is a statement of just and peaceful relationship between all created things, not merely a statement about the things themselves. An interesting insight but then she quickly attacked the idea that Genesis was historically factual or written by Moses. Instead, she asserted that it was written by priests after the Babylonian exile who crafted it to express their hopes and ideas of justice after the injustice they had experienced in Babylon. While the Babylonians believed that only the king bore the image of God, she argued, the priests wanted to democratize power by asserting that all humanity was made in God’s image. The fastest and surest way to limit people’s God-given dominion, according to Harper, is through poverty and oppression. Harper argued that inequality in education, health care, transportation, and food distribution systems were part of this oppression. She called for the Church to rise up and protest in the streets against injustice from the police, courts, and laws, from the rising housing costs and impoverished schools, from air pollution, and from fast food and liquor stores. “Is heaven good news?” Harper asked “It’s not good enough!” she replied.
Lutheran (ELCA) pastor Alexia Salvatierra spoke on faith-rooted organizing for community change, basing her arguments off Micah 6:8 and Psalm 72. Her session spent significant time on the Old Testament system of the year of jubilee, a theme of Lisa Sharon Harper’session as well. Salvatierra and Harper held this system up as a model for today. This seemed an overly simplistic equation of modern and ancient borrowing levels. Should lenders be required to forgive the debts of students who borrow $80,000 (or more) to attend college? Was ancient Israeli borrowing more likely tied to financial destitution and survival rather than fostering an unsustainable lifestyle? The Israelites did not have to forgive the debts of foreigners, only the covenanted people of God. This fact would seem to preclude any exact comparisons to the secular financial systems of today.
Too often we are content with starry-eyed big government fixes that alleviate our guilt but not the actual suffering. The Scriptural message of human equality is not one of material equality, rather – as Pastor Salvatierra noted, it is seeing every person, and their genuine needs, as infinitely precious. Such a mandate calls us to respect all life – the unborn, the elderly, the disabled, and the gravely ill included. Such a mandate also calls Christians to have eyes open to see the suffering around them and to give sacrificially to alleviate it.
Prudence and experience tells us that simply throwing money at a problem is neither a solution nor effective means to a solution; the Christian call to love tells us that such an approach does not respect human dignity. The ability to effect change made available to Christians is an opportunity to try to achieve biblical justice in the system with which we live, rather than to engage in ham-fisted attempts to warp Old Testament law to justify progressive ideology