What The Walking Dead Can Teach Us About Progressive Christianity
This is a slightly longer post than I usually do, but if you're at all interested in the world of progressive Christianity, or at all curious about the future of the church, then I hope you'll stay with me towards the end. A few weeks back I was in Marco Island, Florida at a week long event hosted by Brian McLaren and Convergence. It was called Gathering by the Sea and it was, in part, designed to help various progressive Christian churches and movements begin to converge with one another and work toward a more a just and generous expression of the Christian faith.
One morning Brian was articulating the differences between Movements and Institutions. He argued that, in an ideal scenario, the two entities need one another to make each other stronger and more effective.
As a person who has identified in the past with aspects of post-modern thought I could feel a bit of tension arise in me. After all, any good post-modern will be quick to tell you about their mistrust of the Institution. And it is this sort of anti-Institution/pro-Movement mentality that I imagine played a role in shaping many of the people's lives who were sitting in that very room in Marco Island.
Yet what Brian was saying made a lot sense to me... sort of.
It wasn't until a recent episode of The Walking Dead, though, that I really got it. That I really understood the dynamic between, and the necessary interplay of, Movements and Institutions.
Allow me to explain.
Movements and Institutions
In short, movements and institutions need each other.
To put it simply, an Institution is an organization that preserves the progress that has been made. While a Movement is an organization that makes new proposals and demands on an existing Institution to make progress toward new gains.
As I see it there are three possible outcomes when Movements and Institutions collide. I'm no sociologist, so I'll be both brief and, more than likely, not entirely accurate. But hang with me.
First, a Movement can be successful in its efforts to push against the Institution and end up causing real and lasting change. Consider the Civil Rights Movement of the 60's. It began as a Movement of people with Leaders like King and Malcom who were not okay with the current state of the segregated Institution. The Movement made demands and proposals, inviting the Institution to adopt new values and systems that were more just and equitable. They were ultimately successful in many ways and as a result the Institution changed and began moving towards new gains.
Second, a Movement can be unsuccessful in its efforts to push against the Institution and ultimately just fade away. Having made little to no impact on the existing Institution. Consider the Occupy Wall Street Movement. While they certainly helped raise awareness about some important issues related to economic inequality, and while they added things like the "99 percent and the 1 percent" to our lexicon, they were in the end unsuccessful in moving the Institution toward new gains.
Finally, the third possible outcome is when a Movement is unsuccessful in changing the Institution but becomes successful insofar as it gives birth to a new Institution that assumes the role of preserving the progress the Movement fought for. Consider the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. It began as a Movement, led by Martin Luther, who was not okay with what the Institution (the Church) had become. His famed nailing of his 95 theses were his new proposals and demands he was making against the church towards new gains. The Church did not acquiesce to the Movement, but the Movement didn't fade away. Rather, the Movement evolved into the formation of their own Institution that eventually became what we know as Protestant Christianity.
Neither is Better Than the Other
Here's what was mind opening for me as Brian taught about Movements and Institutions. Movements are not inherently better than Institutions (nor vice versa), contrary to what I've both believed and lived out over these past 7 years.
In all three of my previous churches we spent a lot of time talking about how we were (or at least how we wanted to be) a Movement more so than a "church" (aka, Institution). On some level this felt more, I don't know, spiritual?
I guess it felt more reflective of the Kingdom of God which, as I see it, was a Movement. Of course it was. Jesus did not establish a new Institution. Instead he pushed up against the existing one(s) in all sorts of upending ways. He made new demands on the religious systems, he subverted the political systems, he demanded for progress in the family systems and the communal ways of life.
If Jesus came across an Institution then he undoubtedly called out its flaws and invited it to something new, something better.
Which always just spoke to me as a value statement against Institutions.
If Jesus was against the Institutions then surely that means that Institutions are the problem, right?
Well, I don't think so.
Institutions Are Necessary and Good
I've read more than one articulation about how Jesus never planned to establish a church.
This perspective is common from within Protestantism, that is. Our Catholic brothers and sisters would find this suggestion rather odd.
Jesus was about movement, it is argued, not about setting up some Institution.
But the thing is, as I pointed out above about the three possible scenarios, if the Institution isn't budging, then without some sort of system or structure or intentionality around the new proposals made by the Movement to aid in the preservation of said proposals then it will just fade into oblivion.
To say that differently, Jesus' movement was unsuccessful in terms of changing the Institution. I mean, for crying out loud, he died at the hands of the two Institutions he railed against the most: the religious and the political. But out of that death arose a new religious community centered around the Movement of Jesus that, 2,000 years later, is now the largest religion in the world. How? By becoming an Institution to preserve the gains that Jesus and his followers made.
Are you a woman or an African American? Thanks to a Movement you can vote in our country, but also thanks to the Institution for preserving those gains and not fading away once the Movement died down.
Have you ever benefited from government assistance for food or medial care? Thanks to a Movement you have been seen and helped, but thanks to the Institution for preserving those demands made by Movements.
Do you run a Non Profit Organization? Thanks to a Movement people can write off the donations they make, allowing you to raise money and support your vision, but thanks to the Institution that adopted that progress and preserved it.
It is overly simplistic and naive to rail against Institutions for being the problem or for being evil. They may need to change in certain contexts, absolutely, but if and when they do change then you are going to want that Institution to still remain so that those changes can be preserved.
Rick Grimes, Zombies, and a Sheltered Community
The title of this post is "What The Walking Dead Taught Me About Progressive Christianity," so I should probably get to that now. But I'm hoping your grasp on Movements, Institutions, and the dynamic between the two are a little more expansive and a little more solid. To aid in that effort, I'm want to use an illustration from The Walking Dead that may help.
If you've been living under a rock since 2010, The Walking Dead is a TV show on AMC about the world that is left behind after a zombie apocalypse. The main character, Rick Grimes, leads a rag-tag group of survivors through one death defying storyline after another. Soon the zombies become the lesser threat and instead the greatest challenge is to survive other humans who are also trying to survive. The show is brilliant and even though I loathe all things scary, like the undead, I have come to love this show.
Rick and the group are scouted and recruited by this community of people who have survived the apocalypse by a combination of good fortune and a giant wall. This sheltered community, called Alexandria (aka, the Institution), has barely been impacted by the zombies or by the clamoring of the living to stay alive. They live in a housing development that hadn't yet been opened to the public so that when the world came to an end these refugees found this perfectly manicured community that was virtually untouched. They erected a giant wall around the perimeter of their suburban paradise and proceed to live almost as though the world around them hadn't come to a screeching halt.
Enter Rick, Darryl, Carol, Michone, and the others (aka, the Movement). These warriors have fought tooth and nail to survive one disaster after another. Overcoming countless hordes of walkers (aka, zombies) as well as human enemies like the Governor and the cannibals at Terminus. They know how to survive in this new world.
The penultimate episode of season 5 saw the inevitable clash between the Movement and the Institution. Rick and Carol (most notably) observed the Instituion around them and realized that they were not fit for survival in this new world. Progress had to happen or they would never survive.
In one of the key scenes Rick confronts Alexandria's leader, Deanna, about someone in the community who has been beating his wife. For Rick, in this new world, someone like that is a threat to the whole group and has to be stopped. And in Rick's perspective if the wife-beater doesn't stop then the consequence should be execution.
Deanna says, "we don't kill people. This is civilization."
"Warning someone to stop, or die, that is civilized nowadays," Rick responds.
This is the Movement pushing up against the Institution, making demands on it to evolve, change, and progress.
The season finale played out the inevitable clash between the two entities in dramatic fashion, but we won't know until next season which of the three outcomes will ultimately take place. Will Rick and the gang succeed in bringing about the necessary changes to Alexandria? Will they fail and be banished? Or will they end up, as it were, forming their own Alexandria. Utilizing the resources of the existing Institution and merging them with the values of the Movement to form a new community.
Our church, Sojourn Grace, is nestled in this niche of (for lack of a better term) progressive Christianity. We are firmly rooted in the tradition of Christianity, yet many of our values and beliefs fit within what can be identified as "progressive."
To be clear, progressive Christianity is a Movement.
One of the challenges for those of us who identify as progressive christians within the larger movement is to be mindful of this dynamic between Movements and Institutions in such a way that doesn't cause us to demonize or fear the Institution. It is tempting to carry around with us this chip-on-the-shoulder cynicism towards "religious institutions," and not fully grasp the reality that if we don't succeed in changing the institution then we must be prepared to create one ourselves or else risk losing the gains we've made over the past 10-20 years of progressive/emerging Christianity.
And here's the thing: I don't think we have been, or will be, successful in changing the Institution.
Conservative Christianity (and even more so, Fundamentalism) have dug their heels in on a number of issues that I just don't see them budging on, regardless of the various attempts by Movements. Try as we may, I don't see progressive Christians succeeding in changing the ethos and value structures of organizations like Focus on the Family, Trinity Broadcast Network, or The Gospel Coalition, just to name a few.
So two options lay before us. Either fade away like the Occupy Wall Street Movement and be remembered as an interesting blip on the screen of 21st Century Christianity. Or, get over our issues with the Institution (which is not to say that many/most of us don't have good reason for our issues in the first place!) and do the hard work of ensuring that we preserve the gains we have made.
And this is precisely why Brian McLaren, Cameron Trimble, Doug Pagitt and others have created Convergence. It is their collective effort to wake up to this reality. The reality that the best path that lay before us is to do the hard work of establishing some sort of large umbrella type Institution that will preserve the gains of emerging and progressive Christianity.
It is grueling work. And, like I said, it goes against the natural fiber of how many of us emerging/progressive Christians feel, in terms of our mistrust of Institutions. But these wise men and women have become convinced of the necessity of both Movements and Institutions.
Their Charter begins like this:
Growing numbers of Christian leaders from many traditions - traditional Protestant, progressive Catholic, progressive Evangelical and Charismatic, and others - are coming to shared convictions that are both radical and exciting:
- the future of the church will not simply be a replication of the past, and - it is time for vital, new expressions of just and generous Christian faith to emerge.
If they succeed in their mission, of establishing a network, a system, a collective, an association, an institution, that can preserve the gains made by progressive Christianity, and give voice and realization to the demands that the Movement has made to traditional Christianity, then to me that would just about be the coolest thing ever.
Because I believe too much in some of the things that we are about, and am too convinced that we bring much needed Kingdom Values to the table, to just let this movement die away.
Movements can feel fun, exciting, and sexy. Instituions can feel dull, stuffy, and irrelevant.
Yet the reality is that both are needed in order for society to have its best shot at flourishing.
And the same is true, I believe, for the church.