I’ve had some interesting conversations (online and face to face) recently with people about psychology professor and blogger Richard Beck’s ongoing series on the need for a “post-progressive Christianity.” He’s covered some interesting terrain in the series thus far, everything from how progressives approach the Bible to the phenomenon of deconstruction to how they understand the role of the church and others. In each case, Beck describes how he has found progressive Christianity’s approach to faith insightful in important ways, but also lacking in others. Hence the need for a “post-progressive Christianity,” however much some of us might cringe at the introduction of yet another “post” into our cultural lexicon.
Yesterday’s entry in the series was on love. Beck helpfully contrasts progressive Christianity’s prioritization of inclusivity and appreciation of difference with the Jesus’ cruciform call to love in a way that goes beyond mere tolerance of difference to actually loving enemies. Further, Beck points out that when it comes to this uniquely Christian call to love, progressives and conservatives both rarely live up to (or even aspire to) the teachings of Jesus:
And yet, when it comes to cruciform love, loving our enemies, progressive Christians are no more loving than evangelical Christians. That’s a hard thing to say, but are progressive Christians doing a better job at loving the people they consider wicked? As we are all well aware, there is an intolerance associated with tolerance, and this intolerance has left its mark upon how love is expressed with progressive Christianity, although many try valiantly to resist this influence. The sad irony is that an ideal of tolerance simply creates a new definition of “evil.” And once that “evil” group is identified, it becomes really hard to love them. In fact, it’s downright immoral to love them.
I got a firsthand example of this a while back. I was speaking with a group of progressive-ish Christians and the topic turned to the loathsome phrase, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” It’s a locution that usually accomplishes very little besides leaving the “sinner” feeling just as hated as the “sin” (and, I suppose, affirming the imagined righteousness of the speaker). One of the reasons the phrase is so detested amongst progressive Christians is because it’s been used primarily by conservative Christians against those they deem to be guilty of sexual sin. One rarely hears “Love the sinner, hate the sin” trotted out in conversations about greed or pride or gluttony. I spoke of my distaste for the phrase for precisely these reasons (and others, besides). So far, so good. We were tracking together up until this point.
“But what if,” I said (perhaps foolishly, in hindsight), “for the sake of symmetry, we were to substitute someone that more progressive Christians would consider to be a ‘sinner’ into the conversation? What if the ‘sinner’ we were called to love while hating their ‘sin’ was a MAGA hat wearing racist homophobe? Would that change our view of the phrase? Would ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ be a good way of describing a faithful Christian approach in this case? Are progressive Christians called to love even those whose ‘sins’ we detest?” At this point, the tone of the conversation took a quite noticeable turn. There was a bit of outrage, a bit of “Those aren’t morally equivalent!” (despite the fact that I had not suggested moral equivalence) and no small amount of visible discomfort. Some people left the conversation entirely. To seek to love people whose views were seen to be morally abhorrent was nothing short of complicity and it was outrageous to suggest otherwise.
I think Richard Beck is right. Cruciform love of enemy is simultaneously the most Christian expression of love and the least practiced by Christians, whether conservative or progressive. This is not particularly surprising. Enemy love is, well, brutally hard. How do you honour the humanity of someone that you are convinced is desperately wrong about really important issues? How do you refuse to label them and write them off? How do you try to see the best in someone who you see as not only misguided but dangerously so, and who is jeopardizing the lives of vulnerable people? How do you stay in conversation with someone whose views you believe represent a threat to much of what you hold dear? Is there even a way to “love” someone while unequivocally expressing your conviction that they are wrong and actively opposing them? Jesus certainly seemed to think so. But, well, we’re not Jesus. Not by a long shot.
To extend cruciform love toward those deemed profoundly unlovable is scandalously impractical and ridiculously counterintuitive. It probably won’t be praised very much and it certainly won’t score many points on social media. It could well result in a lot more losing more than winning, whether it’s an argument or a culture war. The One who calls all Christians—conservatives, progressives, and everyone in between—to love in such a way knows this better than anyone.