In contrast to the conservative Christian focus on “saving souls” from eternal conscious torment in hell, progressives return to Matthew 25, where Jesus builds on the long history of Jewish theology holding salvation as a collective endeavor for the nation rather than an individualistic pursuit.
Jesus tells his disciples that at the end of history, when the Son of Man reigns “all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left” (Matt 25:32-33). Jesus gives his disciples a simple rubric for how the nations will be judged in terms of how they treated their neighbor, and that how they treated the most vulnerable directly reflected how they treated him. He uses first-person language to drive home the point:
- “I was hungry and you gave me food,
- “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
- “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
- “I was naked and you gave me clothing,
- “I was sick and you took care of me,
- “I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matt 25:35-36)
The sheep, which we might think of as stand-ins for Jesus’ followers, don’t understand. They don’t remember Jesus ever needing to be visited in prison or hungry and needing food. When they ask Jesus about this, he responds in verse 40, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The goats – the people who did not welcome the stranger or visit the sick – are sent away for eternal punishment.
Judging a society based on how the most vulnerable are treated isn’t just the foundation of the progressive Christian social witness, but the entire idea of what we call the “progressive movement” in the United States. It’s why we judge the economy not based on how the top one percent are faring, but rather on how much better we as a society have made life for the poor and working class. It’s why we measure the cost of war in terms of lives lost on both sides and why we refuse to allow torture or other means of violence that degrades the dignity of humanity. It’s why we work for racial justice and support reparations so we can finally have reckoning as a nation about the evil of slavery. It’s why we fight for health care as a human right and fight to reform our criminal justice system.
From “Just Faith: Reclaiming Progressive Christianity” by Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons – Broadleaf Books