Frequently Asked Questions

Big Questions
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Putting [restorative justice] into practice is hard work.

Justice
Q Do harsh penalties reduce crime?
A Getting tough on crime sounds like a good thing to many people who are concerned about justice. It also wins votes. The premise behind the movement toward longer prison sentences for more convicts is that harsh penalties will lead to less crime.

Experience questions that assumption. States that adopted “tough on crime” policies are dealing with large increases in prison populations without a reduction in crime rates. Costs for police and prisons have increased dramatically without improvements in the rehabilitation of inmates. These costs are often accompanied by cuts in crime prevention programs because they are viewed as “soft” on crime. In reality, no one is safer as a result of these policies.

Restorative justice, the approach endorsed by the Christian Reformed Church, takes an entirely different approach. Offenders are held accountable for harm done, but the focus is on restoring both victim and offender so they can live in society again. Putting this into practice is hard work. It is more difficult than throwing people in jail for a long time. But where it is practiced, the results show more promise than long jail time, measured by reductions in repeat crime rates and by restored community life.

Changing the direction of criminal justice systems is a reformation challenge. It starts with asking different questions. All of us can reject “tough on crime” appeals for our vote and advocate for a strong response to crime—one that reflects restorative justice principles.

Related links:
Restorative justice resources (crcna.org)

—Kathy Vandergrift teaches public ethics to university students and advocates for the rights of children.

Faith Formation
Q Two of our adult children are no longer walking with the Lord. I find myself facing a triple-headed monster: I grieve over their faith life, I feel guilty wondering what I did wrong, and I am ashamed to discuss their lives with others at church. How might such a “monster” be dealt with?

A I’m sure you know that you are not the only parent who faces this monster, but that in itself is not very comforting. I find it helpful to distinguish between primary responses and secondary responses.

Your grief is a primary response to this difficult situation. Your feelings of guilt and shame are secondary responses, that is, they are specific ways of processing your grief before the face of God and the Christian community. Your specific secondary responses tend to paralyze your grief and block the healing graces of our Lord.

The good news of the gospel is that you are free, bit by bit, to surrender that guilt and shame; you are free to remember that there are no perfect parents, no perfect children, and no perfect families. You are free to seek graciously safe places where you can be honest about this triple-headed monster and receive godly encouragement from others. You are free to lament in a way that offers your feelings of guilt and shame to the Lord as a sacrifice of praise.

In so doing, you are also free to grow into that strange peace of the Lord that passes understanding, and from that place of peace to love each of your children, allowing the light of Christ to shine through you into their lives as you prayerfully entrust them to the Lord. It’s a complicated and long road, but the Lord walks ahead of us on it.

—Syd Hielema is a professor of religion and theology at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario.

Outreach
Q I heard a friend denounce “progressive Christians” as being wish-washy and lacking spine. Is “progressive” Christianity a bad thing?

A Such labeling is sometimes used to categorize someone or something without having to really think about the underlying issues. The assumption is that someone who is “progressive” has cast off the traditional stances of a “Bible-believing Christian.” I think this is a bit of a mischaracterization. Let me explain.

Folks I know who proudly wear the label “progressive Christian”—and I count myself as one—say that they care deeply about biblical values such as justice, caring for the poor, release for captives by changing our current mass incarceration practices, care for the planet, freedom from addictions, peaceful responses to conflict, and so on. While there may be theological diversity about some doctrines among such folks, they consider themselves “Jesus” people through and through. That is, people who long to imitate Jesus’ sacrificial life, his concern for the marginalized, his extravagant grace for sinners, and his prophetic critique of religious and political power abuses. It would be wonderful if we refused to immediately discount fellow brothers and sisters in Christ because of diversity of emphasis in social values or varying doctrinal beliefs.

A larger concern is how such beliefs and values express themselves in our lives. Tired of theological controversy, an increasing number of Christians are interested in seeing our world “progress” to the point where it more and more reflects the kingdom Jesus came to announce and embody.

Whatever labels we use of ourselves or others, let’s be sure to give people the benefit of the doubt before we denigrate them. That itself would be a good reflection to our watching world.

—Bryan Berghoef is a church planter in Washington, D.C., and is the author of Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God

See comments (23)

Comments

I believe that the term "progressive" christian is the wrong term to use for those who follow the thousands of years old injunctions to be just, care for the poor, release for captives (those unjustly imprisoned), freedom from addictions, and peaceful response to violence.   Christians have done this for centuries, since the time of Christ.  Think of the Quakers and Mennonites who follow anti-war or non-violence.   Think of those like George Muller who built orphanages and provided food for hundreds of homeless orphans in Europe.  Consider the deacons in the early church who provided for the widows. These things are part of scriptural christianity. 

Progressive christianity is more suitable as a term for those who believe that we will be able to shed our historic faith and practice, and even our understanding of scripture, in order to conform to worldly standards and ideologies.  Thus the Jesus seminar people who try to deny the authority of Jesus.   Thus those who suggest that all religions and faiths  have validity.   Thus those who promote worldly sexual standards.  Thus those who promote almost anything simply because the world is doing it, rather than promoting it first because scripture has already demanded it.  The term "progressive" has in it no indication of whether something new will be good or bad, scriptural or non-scriptural.  It has no qualifier for legitimacy, and therefore should not be something worn at all, neither proudly nor ashamedly. 

It is normal and desirable for children to grow into independent adults who think and act for themselves. This implies that they will not always adopt the religion of their parents. The fact that the CRC and its "faith formation" specialists stigmatize this healthy outcome as a grievous tragedy, worthy of parental shame, is disgraceful.

John Zylstra hits a nail squarely on its head in his response to Bryan Berghoef's Answer to the above  Question.  Just perhaps, both Bryan and John are correct in a sense, which would mean that the phrase "progressive Christian" might just be too ambiguous to be meaningful (just like the label "conservative Christian.")

I am quite "conservative," theologically speaking.  At the same time, I have for many decades been one who cares "deeply about biblical values such as justice, caring for the poor, release for captives by changing our current mass incarceration practices, care for the planet, freedom from addictions, peaceful responses to conflict, and so on," as Bryan suggests only "progressives" do.

Don't misunderstand: Bryan Berghoef and I would probably NOT agree so much as to how to do justice, how to care for the poor, how to change our incarceration system, how to care for the planet, how to create freedom from addications, or how to respond peacefully to conflict (and the list goes on), but that's because Bryan's political, economic, legal, and science perspectives are largely taken from today's "political left," and mine are derived otherwise (not exclusively from the left or right).  

Bryan suggests only progressives wan the world to "progress” to the point where it more and more reflects the kingdom Jesus came to announce and embody."  Again, I do too, but I think Bryan's methods (the political left's methods) for getting there would be largely counter-productive.

What is disturbing about this Banner FAQ segment is that it throws Bryan a softball question that sets the stage for his back-handed bashing of anything not "progressive."  Fairly read, Bryan clearly suggests that only "progressives" care about those things that I also care about, despite my not being a theological "progressive."  And if the chain of logic laid out by Bryan is followed, only the goals and perspectives of the "political left" are "truely Christian."  The irony of course is that today's political left in the United States largely self-identifies as non-Christian, perhaps even anti-Christian.

It is really unfortunate that we use the same terms/phases (e.g., left/right, conservative/progressive) to identify both theological perspectives and political perspectives, as if they are inherently in tandem.  Too often they exist in tandem in real people, but that may well be driven by the assumption of real people, given the vocabulary they live with, that they have to be politically right if theologically right, and politically left if they are theologically left.

Sadly, this Q&A segment promotes that purported cause-effect relationship.

Are these questions real or are they simply prepared by the Banner staff? I can't imagine why anyone would ask and expect a reasoned answer in a format like this, in a small church publication to a broad socio-political matter like criminal justice, an issue which has several facets and most thinking people will have quite nuanced  positions on.

Same with the question about "progressive" Christianity. Does this imply a Christian who supports center-Left politics? Or would this be someone who embraces higher-critical bible interpretations, for example. Obviously a big difference. Both of these questions sound to me like straw men.

The Answer to the question, "Q Do harsh penalties reduce crime?" starts out as simplistic and ends up as a political pitch.  I have a couple of decades of experience in the criminal system (usually on the defense side) and on on the whole, I very much favor "restorative justice."  The problem is that achieving what many advocates of "restorative justice" claim as its goals for it ("Offenders are held accountable for harm done, but the focus is on restoring both victim and offender") is far more often than not impossible. Why?  For a number of reasons, but usually because offender neither wants reconciliation nor is not willing to contribute to the restoration of the victim.  And in that case, only the punishment (hopefully harsh enough) can serve to deter.

Right now, I represent a victim of a stranger-on-stranger assault.  My client (high school student) was rather badly beaten by another student for no apparent reason.  Unfortunately, the offender was several months shy of his 18th birthday and so is under the jurisdication of the Juvenile Dept.  The Juvenile Dept (in Oregon at least) is simply not interested in victims, but only the offender.  While my client suffered from cuts, bruises, a concussion, and missed a month of school and extra-curricular activities (with multiple ramifications from that), the offender has being totally "restored" -- in the Juvenile Dept's eyes -- by writing a half-page apology letter (obviously ghost written) and paying a small fraction of the medical costs (less than $240 on a mult-thousand dollar bill).  We (victim and his parents) were willing to participate in mediation, but the Juvenile Dept has cancelled it, deciding rather to impose their penalty (apology letter and $240) and move on.  They are done with this case, having considered their client (the offender) to have been "restored."  Their "kiddo," as they refer to him, is supposedly truly sorry for what he did.  In fact,  the Juvenile Dept is only concerned with the purported "restoration" of the offender, without concern for the victim or his restoration.

Should this offender's penalty be harsher?  Of course.  Indeed, true "restorative justice" would demand that it be harsher.  But it's not.

And this is where this simplistic Answer, turned political pitch, goes wrong.  It assumes that "harsh penalties" are always bad, which is why the Answer, predictably reflecting the left side of the political spectrum, says:  "All of us can reject “tough on crime” appeals for our vote and advocate for a strong response to crime—one that reflects restorative justice principles."  In my client's immediate case, one would have to advocate for being "tough on crime" in order to get to "restorative justice principles."

 

As one who is involved in the work of promoting alternatives to the "tough on crime" mentality, I appreciated Kathy's response to her Question. The deeper I began to delve into the issue, the more I found myself shaking my head and asking why the church hasn't been on the forefront of stepping in and shouting against a deeply troubling and unjust criminal system that is destroying families and entire communities with its harsh policies - particularly in the "war on drugs." By my best observation, the answer is that most are simply unaware or uneducated on the inner workings of the for-profit prison industrial complex. Many are also disconnected to the reality of the negative impact prisons in America have on the incarcerated, and that we have one of the highest rates of recidivism in the world because of our harsh treatment of those convicted. A few alternative prison systems do exist in the US and they are doing remarkable restorative work that results in turning out individuals who not only refrain from repeat offenses, but who go on to become productive citizens. The most basic and effective common denominator found in all these effective systems has been simply treating the prisoner with great dignity and respect as a human being (something many of these individuals have never experienced, by the way). We would do ourselves a favor to take a look at what other nations are doing as well - such as the Norwegian prison system - which creates an experience that completely transforms even the most violent criminals. If what we desire is a civil society of citizens who function well together then, well...sticking it to offenders harshly leads only to repeat offenses and makes our overall situation much worse. But treating humans like animals (or worse in many cases), causes them to act like animals. This should be no surprise. But when we repay evil with goodness, evil can be redeemed and transformed (I think Jesus was on to something). I hope the Banner considers expanding Kathy's response into a future feature article. It would be a wonderful means of bringing more awareness to this issue!
Doug, I wonder how you arrived at the conclusion that Bryan is suggesting that only "progressives" care about the above-mentioned issues. He says no such thing. He only brings awareness to the fact that being a "progressive" does *not* mean what many have *mischaracterized* it as meaning. He is clearing the air for many who misunderstand the term that many Christians today identify themselves with. He is not divisively pitting one view agains the other, as you have done in your comment. There is plenty of space among followers of Jesus for the perspectives of conservatives, progressives, liberals, moderates and everything in between. If a constructive conversation where each view seeks to genuinely understand the other can't even happen in the church, then the church is in trouble. So before you jump to all kinds of false conclusions as to what Bryan was saying, perhaps you would be wise to ask a few clarifying questions of him. As one who routinely moderates political discourse between faith leaders who sit on opposite ends of the political ideological spectrum, it's just a suggestion on something that generally works quite well, in my experience.

Like Christy Berghoef, I think much can be changed in the "criminal and prison system" in the US, although I cringe at saying that just because it is so simply said and the reality so incredibly complex.  There is a federal criminal system, 50 state systems, and probably a separate juvenile system in each of the 50 states.  In each state there are state courts, sometimes county courts, and sometimes municipal courts.  Within the world of "crimes," there are various degrees of misdemeanors, various degrees of felonies, and "pseudo crimes" that are usually called infractions but still more akin to crimes than civil matters.

Certainly, we can point to any one slice of this complex web (like Christy pointing to the so-called 'war on drugs,' such a politically fashionable slice for those on the left) and say "see there, that should be changed!), but in truth, any slice is just a slice, and even that is so complex.  Within the world of drug offenses, there are offenses that are (in Oregon at least) infractions, class C misdemeanors, class B misdemeanors, class A misdemeanors, and class C, B and A felonies (all correlating with differing fact scenarios).  Again, the fact complexity is enormous.

Given the complexity of the "criminal and prison system in the US," why would we want our institutional church that necessarily has zero expertise (less alone awareness) in criminal law, procedure and incarceration practice spouting off about what changes should be made, or how to vote on proposed "harsher penalties"?  About all an insitutional church can possibly do is say stuff like "vote against harsher penalties" or "vote for harsher penalties" or "advocate for restorative justice principles where offenders are truly held accountable."  All such statements are overly simplistic and naive in the extreme.

I'm not saying Christians who are in the field of law or criminology or sociology or some other related field shouldn't be talking about these topics or advocating positions or even developing "alternatives."  And I'd suggest there are lots of Christians out there who are doing all of the above.  But the institutional church?, or the Banner in a Q&A section in response to incredibly simplistic questions of "Do harsh penalties reduce crime?" are answered?  All the insitutional church can really hope to accomplish by pretending to have expertise in this area -- or others outside its sphere -- is to look like a pretender (even if those who happen to agree say "yeah, what the CRC says!")

An aside but related, I represented both convicted criminals (in post-conviction and habeas corpuses cases) for over a decade in my practice.  Although there some treatment that I thought was inappropriate, on the whole I did not conclude -- even being on the side of the convicted criminals to whom I was appointed to represent -- that they were being "treated ... as animals."  I suppose if someone is locked up, one can say they are being treated like animals, but I generally found prison conditions to be surprisingly "nice."  My experience was predominantly at Oregon State Penitentiary, Oregon's most maximum security facility.  OSCI (Oregon State Correctional Institute) was nicer, and the Marion County jail is nicer yet.

My own perspective is that the single best thing we can do to improve the criminal/penal system is to better separate between the mentally ill who commit crimes, the intentional/unintentional homeless who commit crimes, and others who commit crimes.  My county (Marion County) is currently working to accomplish just that.  Won't be easy by any means, but they take obvious note of the fact that they are used as a hotel/dentist/medical facilitiy on a regular basis by "regular customers" who are on first name basis by the jail staff.  On the other hand, I'm not at all inclined to reduced penalties for those who sell certain kinds of illigal drugs, especially to kids to get them "started."  Indeed, I would tend to enhance them, or better yet perhaps, more consistently enforce them.  Again, that's for my home state/county.  Results may vary in every other state/county (another reason for the CRC as denomination not to pronounce in this area of life).

Christy: Answering your question, it's because Bryan says: "Folks I know who proudly wear the label “progressive Christian”—and I count myself as one—say that they care deeply about biblical values such as justice, caring for the poor, release for captives by changing our current mass incarceration practices, care for the planet, freedom from addictions, peaceful responses to conflict, and so on," while at the same time not mentioning that "conservative Christians" similarly care.

    and then too he says:

"Tired of theological controversy, an increasing number of Christians are interested in seeing our world “progress” to the point where it more and more reflects the kingdom Jesus came to announce and embody,"  while at the same time not saying that "Conservatives also care deeply" or arealso interested in seeing the world reflect the kingdom Jesus came to announce and embody,

And again, he clearly creates a sense of juxtaposition between "progressives" and "others" when he indicates that "progressives" are "tired of theological controvery" -- as if "conservatives" are not?

If Bryan truly wanted to convey that "labels shouldn't be used to categorize," I would think he wouldn't then declare pride in labeling himself a "progressive" and suggest several litanies of "good things" that are associated with progressives, whlie not associating those litanies of good things with conservatives as well.

As I said, the "bashing" was "backhand," not forehand.

Maybe we could agree that the labels "progressive" and "conservative" are badly overused, and we shouldn't proudly wear either label?  That is what I advocated for in my very first paragraph.  Could we agree on that?

 

I don't hear anyone - myself included - saying that there are easy answers, or denying the complexity of our criminal justice system.  I too am all in favor of treating mental illness and drug addictions appropriately - rather than throwing them in the slammer.  On this it seems we agree - and I suspect on much more when it comes down to it.

As for prison systems - some are good and some are horrendous. The for-profit prisons have been the biggest culprit in engaging in abusive practices.  And no, of course I'm not talking about simply putting people in cages. I'm referring to physical, sexual, mental, emotional abuse that is all to common and destroys people from the inside out. (That said, the Norwegian prison system has experiemented with putting its worst criminals in walled villages where they live in huts and work the land for food, etc. And no other system has yielded such successful results,  so maybe there is something to said for "uncaging" them.)  The bottom line is that it is unacceptable that any person should suffer abuses that are happening in a place that should be restoring rather than turning people loose worse than when they arrived.

Is it a complex issue?  Yes, it absolutely is.  But in no way do I believe that the complexity of the system ought to be an excuse for not working towards justice.  One need not be an expert of the law to lead these efforts - in fact I would suggest that the most qualified to lead such efforts are the very victims of the botched system. Christians ought not to be silent when the systems they are a part of and support act unjustly. Like the prophets of old - who spoke against surmountable systems of injustice carried out by various nations - so too do we have a responsibility to speak out. 

Slavery was a tangled complex web. But thank God, ordinary people of faith came together and rose up against it. Legal discrimination of people of color (the Jim Crow laws) was a sophisticated issue.  But thank God ordinary people of faith came together and rose up against it. Many of our prison systems today participate in inhumane practices and it is messy and complex, but thank God, ordinary people of faith are coming together and rising up against it.  

In my experience, people who seek to follow Jesus have an aweful lot of wisdom and experience to contribute to the discussion on restorative justice.  As my friend Rev. Rebecca Stelle recently said, "Since the church at its best, is to be a community of reconciliation, redemption and transformation; and since the experience of Corrections, at its best, is to be an experience of reconciliation, redemption and transformation, how might these two entities inform eachother?  How might they be the keys to one another's intended nature?"  These are the questions we need to ask.  We have experienced redemption and are being transformed... into His likeness. If we are truly being transformed then that transformation will be reflected and promoted in the world.

And just to set the record straight, people on the political left, right and everything in between are speaking out about the ways in which the "war on drugs" has backfired. The overwheming evidence speaks for itself and is undeniable. That isn't just some trendy leftist argument, as you suggest. 

I appreciate real world issues being discussed in the Banner, where people of shared faith can explore together what it might mean for us to embody God's Kingdom in this broken world.

 

Yes, I think we both agree that labels are not always helpful. Bryan seems to be specifically addressing the question of a specific label that Christians increasingly do identify themselves with (whether we like the labeling or not) and find themselves vastly misjudged and mischaracterized. I'm assuming Bryan focuses on this specific label in his answer because it is the specific label in question. That term, "progressive" is widely misunderstood in the CRC. Perhaps Bryan identified himself as such in part to further validate the point. It's a classic method of breaking down walls of misunderstanding. "I'm a pastor in the CRC and I'm progressive. And I love Jesus." Jesus sometimes used this method when making a point as well. Please don't make accusations and false assumptions based on what he *didn't* address in the limited space he is given to respond. He did not say the words you put in his mouth. I have a tough time understanding this kind of rush to judgement and assuming the worst that I frequently see among fellow believers. Rather than try to create divisions out of his trying to set the record straight - which was simply the point that those who label themselves as progressives love Jesus and seek to follow him - why not celebrate and embrace a brother who, like you, passionately seeks to follow Jesus?

Christy: Being "against slavery" is infinitely less complex than being "against what is wrong in the criminal and prison system."  It would be pretty easy for us all to agree that "slavery should not exist, period."  But I don't know how many questions would be posed were the institutional church to address the criminal and prison system.  Key questions would number in the thousands.

The more complex an issue is, assuming it is not an "institutional church question" (that is, one which particularly requires the educaiton and experience of theology degrees and related experience to answer), the more the institutional church should excercise appropriate restraint and refrain from pronouncing what the right answers are.

But I think you misunderstand me.  I'm not saying Christians, or "people of faith" as you say, should refrain from full engagement and then some in these and every other issue under the sun.  Rather, I'm saying that we (those of us so engaged) ought not do so under the banner (no pun intended) of the institutional church, in this case, the CRCNA.

There are so many Questions that could be asked in this Q&A segment that do relate to the institutional church.  So why does the Banner wants to act as authority -- which it does when it regularly pontificates on supposed "questions" about areas totally outside the "business of the institutional church" -- on matters of concern that are not close to being within the expertise of the institutional church?  If subject matter competence and approporiateness (sphere sovereignty) shouldn't provide guidance here, then I would think we should expect to see Q&A's about whether dairy farmers should milk their herds two vs. three times a day, or whether Oregon should adopt federal rules styled interrogatories as a standard discovery method?  The CRCNA has as much competence as to those areas.

 

Christy: I don't think I put words in Bryan's mouth at all.  I quoted his own words to support my impression of what he said.  I suspect Bryan chose his words carefully.  He could have said, "like conservatives, I as a progressive also believe ...," (repeated as to his several assertions as to what progressives believe), but he didn't.  Beyond that, Bryan embraced the division created by the progressive/conservative labelling instead of rejected it.  Some may call me conservative (and some not, depending on the subject being discussed), but I would never say that I am a "proud conservative."  That Bryan claims to proudly wear the label of "progressive" (as he does) doesn't help me at all.

What most concerns me about this progressive/conservative labelling in the church (whether institutional or organism) is that it tends to tie one's theology with one's political views.  And its not just that the labels aren't helpful, but that they are quite harmful.  From what I've seen, political positions usually "take the lead" for folks who tie their theology to their politics.  In other words, whether Christians are politically "conservative" or politically "liberal" (and I really don't like that labelling for political perspectives either because it oversimplified and polarizes), it seems to me that more often than not, the political perspective affects the theological perspective rather than the other way around.  Not sure why that is but that's what I've observed.

Your suggestions that Bryan's Answer utilized a "classic method of breaking down walls of misunderstanding" just doesn't help me either.  If a pastor would say, "I'm a pastor in the CRC and I'm progressive. And I love Jesus." -- I would be wondering just why in the world he found it necessary to say he was progressive and whether he was in fact a political junkie first, pastor second.  Which is in fact my objection to so-called "liberation theology" and "social gospel" (by which I mean one's faith positions are molded as needed to achieve or accomodate certain political goals).

Doug, we will have to agree to hold a healthy disagreement on this one. :) I believe faith communities have a responsibility to speak out when they see injustice. Regardless of how "complex" an issue is, I see that as no excuse not to educate oneself, become familiar with various facets of an issue, organize, and work to change what we can. I'm grateful to part of an ecumenical movement in Washington DC that is effectively addressing issues around mass incarceration. Congregations are coming together - many of whom have individuals who have experienced tremendous abuse within the system - to work toward empowering people to speak out and reform a system that has so sadly stripped so many of their very humanity. We are not all experts, and in fact given the complexity of the issue, I would argue that not a single person is- regardless of their educational accomplishment. But people of faith have a very important role to play. Many in our community have experienced abuses within the prison system - my neighbors, the parents of my children's classmates. There is power in the human story, power to move hearts and power to change corrupted systems. And my faith demands that I speak out against such abuses. You could make the case that the abortion issue is a simple issue too, but in reality when one peels back the layers, it's complexity becomes apparent. But the church has not held itself back from speaking out against the injustices within it - and strides have been made! In hindsight, slavery does appear to be a simple issue, but in reality it was extremely complex- with global economies tied up in it - and it took a very long time for the system to change - even the churches disagreed because scripture didn't seem clear to them. But again, on this point we will have to agree to disagree. And honestly, I'm okay with disagreement. I think a diversity of perspective is important in order to have honest and healthy discourse. I also think the Banner is an appropriate place to have these discussions and to bring various perspectives of real world issues to the table of dialogue. But again, on that we will have to disagree.

Christy: It does appear that we will have to disagree on this one, but let me suggest that you may still not be understanding my point, or maybe I yours.  I don't disagree that Christians -- individually and via organizations they create -- should be involved in "all square inches" of life, but that doesn't mean all institutions created by Christians or otherwise existing should be involved in "all square inches" of life.

Your post suggests you don't believe institutional differentiation to be important.  That is, that the role of the state should be defined and limited, as well as that of the church, of the family, of businesses, of schools, etc.  A good resource on this is Jim Skillen's book, The Scattered Voice.  Of course, within the CRC tradition, we refer to this as Kuyperian sphere sovereignty, but the concept was adopted as far back as John Locke (see his Second Treatise of Government).

To have the institutionalized church organization be authoritatively involved in all issues without any sphere limitations brings us back to (regresses to) middle ages Roman Catholic Church rule, where the government and church sometimes fought for, and sometimes combined to create, absolute earthly power.  It was the Reformation that changed that, resultng in a transformation of society that was politically and ecclesiastically free like never before (not to mention free from being burned to death because they were Calvinists).  Certainly, we're not again at risk of being burned at the stake yet, but if we truly don't care or pay attention to institutional differentiation, we will gradually get more and more power concentration, whether in church or government, and the middle ages will start looking familiar once again.  The USSR went through this not so long ago (got rid of institutional differentiation), came out of it, but perhaps is drifting back for another run.

The institutional church, like government, are precious institutions, but inflating (or absolutizing) the mandate of either beyond what it should be is regressive, not progressive.

Again, I am nothing if not one who proclaims there in not one square inch that does not fall under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and many explicitly Christian organizations exist that communally practice that, but to place institutional church structures in charge of deciding the right answer to all questions is harmful, not helpful, and a regression to middle ages Roman Catholic power domination, from whence the Calvinists that went before you and me came out of.

Doug, regarding Bryan's post, I'm grateful you admit that Bryan didn't discredit the "conservative" perspective, but that it was only your "impression." I agree that way too often the church has allowed politics to inform its theology - in fact this is one of the points I made in my book. It was certainly my experience growing up in the CRC as well as the hundreds who have approached me since to say it was their experience as well. For me personally, it was when I began really studying the Bible and seeing Jesus in his cultural context that I loosed myself from any one political perspective and was able to begin to give honest critique to both ends of the political spectrum (including the one I had been a part of all my life) - seeing tremendous un-Christlikeness on both the Right and Left, as well as good intentions and positive aspects of both ends. I'm proud that the CRC as a whole is opening up, validating and showing hospitality to a variety of political perspectives. This is as it should be. Because in my experience growing up, critiquing the Republican Party was on par with critiquing Jesus and some nearly condemned me (literally) for even raising questions! Lets be clear about this: Bryan is first and foremost a follower of Jesus, and his faith and depth of biblical studies inform his political views. It seems to me you misunderstood the point Bryan was trying to make in his answer, and have attempted to possibly make an issue out of something that was not really there. Here's the bottom line on why I think Bryan's answer is important: The CRC has traditionally been hostile to self-identified "progressives." Accusing them of not taking their faith seriously. In fact, these individuals are extremely misunderstood and SO often mis-characterized(!) it's heart breaking, and a real loss for the denomination as a whole. Given their experience, it should be no wonder that they are fleeing the church - our church plant works specifically with these individuals - working to encourage them to come back to being part of a faith community. You would be surprised how many end up leaving the church and eventually God simply because of a very painful church experience. We regularly hear of the painful and difficult experiences they have suffered within their former churches simply because they experienced and expressed the faith differently, their faith informed their politics differently, and they had asked questions about how specific theological understandings can be reconciled to the Bible. As church planters in Washington DC, we can't even loudly announce that we are a CRC church because for those on the outside whom we are trying to reach, that label is one they associate with pain. We try to offer them a different experience of the CRC than they had previously experienced, or a different experience of a more conservative denomination (for those that are coming out of other conservative denominations - which is most of them). I doubt the conservative-minded people in the CRC have these painful experiences of exclusion on a regular basis in their CRC faith communities. And I'm willing to admit that I could be wrong since I'm just going on the individual experiences I hear in Washington DC and also my own experience. Perhaps Bryan is trying to validate these people - to be a voice for them, and to welcome them in the CRC fold. To affirm that even leaders in the CRC are self identified "progressives." We enjoy being able to invite people into the rich history of the Reformed tradition, and the good work of the church through the ages. And we invite them to join in the exciting work of continuing the process of reforming our faith and reforming the world - building the kingdom - for Jesus. Progressives need to know (and more importantly experience) that they are welcome at the table, that their faith expression is equally valid, that their motives and sincerity are not questioned. And as I said, I doubt the more conservative-types need that affirmation as much in CRC circles. But perhaps I'm wrong - because you certainly seem to need that. Jesus continually went out of his way to speak well of and enfold all those whom the Pharisees had cast outside their tight circles of inclusion. Knowing the context of the scripture, we know the Pharisees were seeking to faithful and were not bad people - an incorrect conclusion too often drawn. But Jesus does speak mainly for those who were not included. Perhaps a more healthy way to think of Bryan's post is being a case of speaking up for those who feel excluded from many CRC circles.
Doug, your comment makes it clear to me that somehow we are both missing the point of what the other is saying, because I'm not at all suggesting what you seem to assert I am suggesting. But then, you took Bryan's Q&A in a direction he wasn't going either. So maybe we are all just really bad at written communication. :) Perhaps a face to face conversation is in order one day.

Christy: It would seem we have found common ground.  Over the years, I too have become critical and appreciative of both the left and the right (whether referring to theology or politics, and not at all in locked tandem).  Which is why I complain (even if ad nauseum) about the CRCNA denominational structures speaking authoritatively (whether by Synodical decree or by consistent Q&A's that beat the same side of the political drum) about political issues.  Our oneness (as members of the institutional church known as the CRCNA) is found not in our political alignment but elsewhere.

I WANT to have an institutional church where I can worship God with my brothers and sisters, and at the same time discuss -- even argue -- with them about capital punishment, whether the mortgage system should have been nationalized, free markets, etc.  Doing the latter is our own respective "workings out" of our underlying common confession and commitment that we make together within the same church institutional context.

You suggest that you need to keep the "CRC identity" hush hush in your area because its conservative past pushes people away.  Good that you acknowledge your experience is limited to your area because in our area (Oregon), we have something of an opposite problem.  Good families who come to our church (the CRC is really unknown generally in our area) usually come in part for our local church's theological distinctives (we don't talk politics from the pulpit).  Too often, those good families leave when they start becoming aware -- via Banner for the most part -- of how much our denomination structures are willing to bash or seriously question our own theological traditions (that they came to our church for in the first place), or jump on political bandwagons as if we were a mainline church caught up in the social gospel tradition that values politics over doctrinal perspective.

Respectfully, I believe the hyper-conservative character that you perceive in the CRC is a thing of the past, even if the legacy of that past may persist in varying degrees.  I grew up in NW Iowa and am no stranger, nor fan, of hyper-conservatism (hate the labeling, but ...).  At the same time, history has moved and from my vantage point, we've somewhat jumped out of the pan and into the fire on this point.  But beyond that, the CRC as an institution has taken on a very new practice: even though most CRCers of decades past were "politically conservative," the CRC as an institution did not enter the political fray.  But now that "political liberalism" has come to power, at least at the denominational level, there seems to be no reluctance at all to directly advocate to its members and others for certain kinds of immigration policies, against Israel, against the House Ag Bill, for Hillary Clinton's defiance of a House Committe Chair, against free markets (see Accra confession), for carbon regulation, etc., and directly lobby for particular laws and policies aligning with those perspectives.  And we preach, again at the denomionational level, a certain political bent (via Banner, BOT and ED communications, etc).  I want the CRC as an institutional church to advocate for and preach neither a conservative nor liberal bent on political issues.  At present, if I favor free markets, non-regulation of carbon emissions, increased nuclear power generation, the elimination of auto-qualification for food stamps, and for immigration law reform that does not contain a special "pathway to citizenship" for those who chose to violate US immigration laws, I'm quite clearly on the other side of my own denomination's institutional political proclamations.  That should not be, any more than I should be opposed to my denomination if I advocate for the abolishment of capital punishment.

And this is where I have my biggest complaint with those in the CRC who self-identify as "progressive."  Their self-identity seems to include the proposition that the institutional church MUST be politically active (of course in the direction of their own political thinking), which if continued will ultimately split the CRC along political lines.  Do you think I am wrong in that impression?  Do we have common ground here, whatever our political perpsectives?

I would say we agree, in part. Though I don't take such extreme interpretations. For example, I don't see Bryan identifying himself as a progressive as therefore being a statement that everyone in the CRC must be politically active and "on his side." And I do believe the Banner is the appropriate place to share a variety of perspectives and I appreciate that they do. I would encourage your congregation to write their own articles for the Banner. I have great appreciation for a variety of relevent political or theological perspectives. I don't get all up in arms or threaten to leave the church when I read a perspective in the Banner I disagree with, but rather embrace a diversity of thought and understanding. And I don't think it out of line for the church to challenge commonly held assumptions - political or otherwise - that clearly disregard the teachings of Jesus (whether Right, Left or somewhere in between). We have much to learn from one another and different angles from which to look at things.

Christy: Your immediately above misquotes me is a critically important way.  You say, in opposition to a point made in my post, "I don't see Bryan identifying himself as a progressive as therefore being a statement that everyone in the CRC must be politically active and 'on his side.'" (underlined emphasis added).

I didn't say that Bryan insisted "... everyone in the CRC must be politically active and 'on his side,'" but rather I complained that self-identified progressives seem to insist that "the institutional church MUST be politically active (of course in the direction of their own political thinking)" (underlined emphasis added).  I have no opposition to individual the CRC members, whatever their perspective, being politically active, or choosing not to be.  To the contrary, I regard them as living out their faith if they choose to be (even if their political views are contrary to mine), but don't insist that they do because there is much to do in the world and not every individual can do everything.

But you evade my point (and misrepresent it) when you recharacterize it as you have done.  I stand by my complaint.  When so-called conservatives were "in charge" of the CRCNA, there was no lobbying agency (as OSJ is now), nor did the denominational agencies/officers declare specific political positions and attempt to persuade the CRCNA membership to adopt specific political positions (see my sample list in my post), as if the CRCNA were like AARP (that is, an organizational heirachy that aligns its membership politically speaking, and then wields that political power to attempt to get government to do as the AARP leadership decides for its members).  Whether or not Bryan specifically agrees that the institutional church should be that kind of political actor, most (I'd argue nearly all) self-identified "progressives" in the CRCNA want their institutional church (in this case, the CRCNA denominational officers and agencies) to be their political representative.  And yes, they want the positions taken by those officers and agencies to align with their "progressive" political ideas.  I think that is fairly obvious to the point of being undeniable.  And right now, the CRCNA, at the denominational level, is doing just that.  This Q&A of "Do harsh penalties reduce crime" is but one mild example of it.

As you have said in your immediately above, progressives "don't think it out of line for the church to challenge commonly held assumptions - political or otherwise - that clearly disregard the teachings of Jesus (whether Right, Left or somewhere in between)".  The problem is that there are very, very few political positions that can really be reasonably determined in alignment with or in opposition to "the teachings of Jesus."  Our institutional church bonds relate to theological confessions, not political theory and praxis confessions, but "progressives" (whether Bryan is among them or not) generally don't want to discuss or even acknowledge the difference between the two.

I agree, as you say, that we have "much to learn from one another and different angles from which to look at things," which is why I said some number of posts ago that I want to "... have an institutional church where I can worship God with my brothers and sisters, and at the same time discuss -- even argue -- with them about capital punishment, whether the mortgage system should have been nationalized, free markets, etc."  But when our institutional church (the CRCNA, via is officers and agencies) take positions on political issues and advocate one answer over others, they side with some members (these days with those members having left-leaning political perspectives) and oppose other members (these days with those members having right-leaning political perspectives).  And that squelches discussion because the ecclesiastical authority has declared the right answer.  Worse, it is a breach of trust, if not also its denominational rules (see CO Article 28(a)).

So can we agree that the institutional church (denominational officers and agencies) should not "take sides" (any side) on specific political issues (e.g., the House Ag Bill or a House committee chair withholding foreign aid funds to the PLO), at least where its membership is divided as to those positions and the answer is not very clearly provided by the "teachings of Jesus"

If we can find common ground in the above, we will have come a long, long way.  If not, we are destined to be a denomination that is characterized by combination of theological and political/economic confessions, which would fundamentally change the CRCNA from its century plus tradition of being solely an institutional church.

Doug- Apparently, I'm not hearing you correctly and clearly you aren't hearing the heart of what I'm saying either. I trust you are seeking what's best for this denomination, as I hope you trust the same to be true of me and the Q&A responders. God's peace to you, brother.

Peace to you too Christy.  I actually think we are hearing each other quite well but disagree on very key points.  Church people, CRC'ers especially, often don't like to say they disagree when they do.  I think we pretty similar visions for the organic church, but very different ones for the institutional church.  Most progressives don't like to talk about the distinction because they don't regard the distinction as serving any purpose (they want to do what needs to be done using every tool available).  I (and many others) think the distinction is important, perhaps even critical to the institutional church -- that "using every tool available" to do what needs doing has bad unintended consequences.  Many of us learned these distinctions in catechism when we were kids, but then learned to appreciate the real-world value of the distinctions in real life over the years.

For what its worth, I've had these same arguments with brothers and sisters in non-CRC churches, except they had adopted a political conservative perspective.  Yet I still regard them, and you, as brothers and sisters in Christ.  I'm just still hoping my own (institutional) church can avoid becoming irretrievably politically aligned.

I read the discussion on "progressive Christianity" with great interest.  It seems that the definition of a "progressive" Christian can vary widely.  I would like to draw your attention to the 8 Points found at ProgressiveChristianity.org, specifically at this page:  http://progressivechristianity.org/the-8-points/

I find the second point alarming because it strongly hints that Jesus Christ is merely one of many ways to God.  The previous (2003) version of point two certainly doesn't sound like salvation through Christ alone:   Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God’s realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us;   

 

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