Since moving to Arizona for my pre-doctoral internship, I’ve been spending a sickening amount of time in my car. Couple a lengthy commute with my role as an in-home therapist in the rural sections of the greater Phoenix area, and you come to see that my car and I are potentially developing a symbiotic relationship. To endure this newfound predicament, I’ve turned to podcasts in order to pass the time. From the absurd, ludicrously gross humor in shows like the Amazon Book Club, to the well-loved classics such as This American Life, my drives have been filled with information ranging from mind-numbing to thought-provoking. Falling into the latter category is the podcast This Cultural Moment, hosted by pastors John Mark Comer and Mark Sayers. The two gentlemen highlight the historical and cultural movements that shape Western culture to this day, tackling subjects such as the rise of the far right, the danger of the Church losing its identity by selling out to mainstream culture, etc. One particularly fascinating episode highlighted something I have long sensed but struggled to articulate. The two drew comparisons between the Pharisees of Christ’s time and the hyper-vigilant moral progressives of our culture.
In my education and studies, my faith has come to serve as fuel for my deep-hearted values, such as kindness, justice, compassion, and hospitality. It is all too often in our culture that we see these values threatened, and many times it is done under the guise of Christianity. Dehumanizing rhetoric dominates the immigration discussions. Talks of LGBTQ rights are devoid of compassion. Racial injustices are swept under the rug and written off as people being “too sensitive” or “too easily offended.” And while these approaches—particularly this last example—can really infuriate me, Comer and Sayers’ comparison between Pharisees and many progressives also stands out.
When any public figure or celebrity commits a perceived offense toward a typically marginalized group, the uproar and tumult is vicious. Kevin Hart is inundated with angry messages after years-old tweets surface. Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Josh Hader is grilled following the All-Star game about years-old tweets, facing boos for the remainder of the season. Dirt of the past is uncovered and launched as ammunition to discredit and destroy any perceived threat to the moral paradise laid out by progressive thinkers. Any remark from the President is covered online and in news cycles like it is a cataclysmic event. Rightfully, these people’s wrongdoings are called out, but it is done without any recognition of progressive change. Despite labeling itself as valuing progress, progressive morality often acts like a hellfire street preacher: you’re either in or you’re out.
The problem is not that progressive folks misidentify problems. They have correctly highlighted unjust, uncompassionate, and unmerciful aspects of society. The problem is that they seem incapable of or unwilling to incorporate justice, compassion, or mercy into their interactions with people whose actions are not congruent with the progressive way.
Obviously, this is a generalization and is more a commentary on an amorphous moral movement. It’s not meant as an indictment of individuals. But these broad trends are important, particularly when the movement is oozing and gushing with irony. The more progressives choose to emulate the legalistic, punitive methods of Pharisees (and present-day fundamentalist religious groups) the more they will alienate people from their vision.
This is why I continue to struggle with identifying successful progressive movements. At the onset, I agree with the values they are setting out to shape. But so often, these values are pounded upon others like a bludgeon, rather than given lovingly as a gift. What would it look like to send a message about racial reconciliation that is slowly, kindly, and authentically delivered to people who may believe and live differently from you? Perhaps no one has taken the time to validate (without necessarily endorsing) their opinions, and then kindly make a case for a why a more nuanced and compassionate approach is better.
Many folks who do not adhere to progressive values have no interest in doing so because progressive values have been viciously and legalistically presented as the only way to act in society. According to Comer and Sayers, this stems from an ambiguous and ill-defined moral foundation that leaves many people feeling listless. The core end of progressive morality as it plays out in our culture is, “Do not offend. All must be happy.” What an impossible dream.
The goal, then, is to remember what the core for our morality is. For the believer conscious of and passionate about progressive values, the hard work is in aligning those values faithfully and consistently with the way of God as outlined in scripture. The reality is that this will alienate you from both hard conservatives and staunch progressives. You will feel—as I constantly feel—like a puny boat being battered by the sea. The work does not lie in trying desperately to calm the waves, but it instead lies in solidifying reliance on the anchor.
The progressive ethic spends an immense amount of time seeking to calm the waves. Perceived bigots are excoriated online. Lists of banned words and phrases are distributed, often with lackluster explanation of how marginalized people feel when those words are used. Cries of “Racist moron!” and “Bigot!” fly forth incessantly.
But when you know you anchor is Christ, you can begin to spread the gift of compassion. On the basis of love, and on the basis of human dignity, work to spread the contagious compassion that stems from the good news. If you see a deficit in these values from the other side, how can you expect to win them over if you yourself fail to live these values out? Demonstrate in word and deed that picking and choosing your words carefully and lovingly is not simply “PC bullshit,” but is in fact an extension of grace. Show that empathy for immigrants is a Christ-like response. Do not obsess over rigid cultural rules, and extend grace when others say something offensive. If you deeply believe in the values of this cultural moment, spread them with enthusiasm and curiosity, not with fire and brimstone.
Matt Coldagelli (’14) majored in English writing and psychology at Calvin. He’s currently pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology with an emphasis on children and adolescents. He watches an absurd amount of TV and is a certified craft beer snob. His emotional wellbeing is overly dependent on Wisconsin sports, and thus he finds himself often in a state of disappointment. Matt lives with his lovely wife and daughter in Phoenix, AZ.