Why progressives are not as different as you think

In his Eternity opinion piece, James Macpherson rightly asks a question of so-called progressives: progress towards what? What counts as progress? His view is that progressives never answer this question — and probably never can answer — because they have up long ago on objective truth and replaced it with rudderless subjectivism. We are, in his poignant image, ‘like sailors who, having agreed to ignore the stars, have hung our lamp on the ship’s mast and agreed to navigate by it.’

I want to offer a different analysis. The progressivism of our age is, on the whole, still navigating by the heavenly constellations; they’ve just forgotten who made the stars.

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I’ve yet to meet a western progressive — or a conservative for that matter — whose fundamental ethical convictions are not borrowed wholesale from the law of Moses.

The first thing to clarify is that twentieth-century progressives are very rarely raging postmodernists. For every Jacques Derrida there is a Karl Marx, Erich Fromm, Jürgen Habermas, and Charles Mills (to pick four names at random). In the average Twitter storm it might be hard to tell the streams apart, but they flow from very different intellectual mountains.

Take Charles Mills, a contemporary Jamaican philosopher whose work on race and standpoint theory might ring some bells. He borrows from Marxism the idea that people at the bottom of a system tend to know all too well how things really work. He applies this standpoint theory to race relations. If there is racism going on, then as a white person in a dominant white culture I am less likely to know about it. If you want to get a more accurate read on what’s happening, ask the people with a boot on their neck.

Macpherson puts ideas of ‘lived experience’ and ‘my truth’ in quotation marks, suggesting they are ‘fuzzy notions’ and symptomatic of a slide towards relativism. Mills, for what it’s worth, is no relativist: he reckons deconstructionism and postmodernism are dead ends. Standpoint theory is intended as an investigative step towards uncovering the uncomfortable truth about European history and describing the world ‘as it actually is’.

You don’t have to be a Marxist to see why this might be a good idea. In fact, the Old Testament demands we take these kinds of marginalised voices seriously. God hears them, even if nobody else does. Just ask Pharaoh what happens to powerful people who are indifferent to the cries of the oppressed (Exodus 3:7).

And don’t think for a second that God’s people are always on the right side of justice day. The prophets routinely excoriate Israel’s rich and powerful for their economic exploitation of the poor and powerless (Isaiah 1:17, Amos 4:1). When God meets the Egyptian slave Hagar in the desert she names him ‘God of seeing’, because he has seen the way Sarai oppressed her (Genesis 16). If even the great patriarch Abraham could be blind to oppression in his own house, then so can we.

My progressive friends are certainly not drifting aimlessly in a sea of subjectivism …

The irony is, as Tom Holland’s masterful book Dominion reminds us, modern ‘progressive’ conceptions of right and wrong are at their core quite ancient. They are borrowed, not from the merciless Assyrians, nor the empire-building Babylonians, nor the might-is-right Romans, but from the Bible.

The law of Moses kicks off with Adam and Eve’s family tree and follows with the ‘Table of Nations’: two shockingly counter-cultural and anti-racist documents that assert that all humans on earth are part of one family (Genesis 5:1–32, 10:1–32). What’s more, everyone bears the image of God (Genesis 1:27) – so oppress the poor and you’re personally insulting their maker (Proverbs 14:31). As recently escaped slaves, Israel’s obligation towards foreigners and refugees was to do them no wrong, and indeed to love them as themselves (Leviticus 19:33).

While the Akkadian laws of Eshnunna and the Babylonian code of Hammurabi punished the murder of nobles more strictly than murder of commoners or slaves, Moses valued human life the same regardless of sex or social status (Numbers 35:30-34).

I’ll admit, there is much that is irritating and counterproductive about the way the loudest progressive voices in the public square sometimes carry on. I sometimes cheekily offer my more radical activist friends some free homiletical tips: ‘Take it from a preacher, the fire-and-brimstone thing doesn’t work! People seldom change their hearts just because you yelled at them!’

But I never fault them for what, ultimately, they are trying to achieve. My progressive friends are certainly not drifting aimlessly in a sea of subjectivism; they are paddling hard toward half-remembered constellations of justice, equality, and human flourishing — very real fixed points, no matter how dim or incomplete their recollections of them are. We should not mock that.

Andrew Judd is an associate lecturer in Old Testament at Ridley College, Melbourne