I would love to be one of those people who needs to take the Facebook quizzes to know which candidate I side with on political issues. That would indicate I was somewhere in the middle of the liberal/conservative spectrum. I’m not. In fact, I’ve never met someone more liberal than me. I’ve met people who are more libertarian, less pragmatic, more idealistic (believe it or not!) and more of an activist. I’ve met people who are more secular, more atheist or amoral … that’s not more liberal.
I’m a liberal — philosophically, ideologically, theologically, socially, politically. The simplest definition of a liberal is one who is free to challenge the ideas of orthodoxy or traditionalism and to consider new ways of thinking and behaving. Dictionary definitions include words and phrases like “generous,” “broad-minded,” “not bound by authoritarianism,” and “willing to change.” Anyone who knows me well, knows that liberal-ness goes to the core of my being. I’m pretty sure I was born this way.
Lately, though, I’ve been aware that some traditional liberals (is that an oxymoron?) don’t view me as liberal at all. In fact, an elder told me recently that some of her liberal friends view me as a “gay-hating evangelical.” How can this be? Don’t people see my rainbow profile pic? I only voted for a known Republican candidate twice in my lifetime, and that’s because I knew the local candidates personally. I am genuinely concerned with the needs and rights of the marginalized; I am generally anti-military, and I lean towards pacifism and socialism. So what did I do for the Liberals to think I’m not one of them?
Is it because I speak evangelical-ese? Actually, I don’t reject the label “evangelical” at all. I was raised in a conservative evangelical Lutheran church. While I was quick to discard and reject the conservatism and fundamentalism of my childhood religious formation, I couldn’t shake the evangelical. I tried, but it found its way back into my self-identity as I focused on developing my Christology in the 1990’s and 2000’s. I realized I couldn’t call myself Christian if I didn’t have a well-defined and well-articulated understanding of who Jesus Christ really was to me. As I did, the Jesus-language (as opposed to God and Spirit-language) came creeping back into my everyday speech. Spending 13 years in the bible belt of Texas further rooted my evangelical vocabulary. I say “Jesus” a lot — though I refrain from referring to God as “Father” other than in liturgy like the Lord’s Prayer or the Doxology. My Christology, however, remains very liberal.
I self-describe as an Evangelical-Liberal. Not only because my faith is rooted in Jesus Christ, but because my well-discerned purpose and “call” in life is intricately related to the sharing, articulating, and proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. I’m liberal enough to not insist that you call yourself “Christian” in order to reap the benefits of grace. But I’m Christ-centric enough to know that Jesus Christ is the manifestation of that grace — a grace that is ultimately at the core of faithfulness and justice.
That may explain why I am often lumped with the evangelicals. I talk like them. And, dare I say, I like them. In many ways evangelicals are family for me. After all, my childhood church raised me as one. My extended family members are, by and large, either “nones” or “evangelicals,” and I love my family. And, as I do for those I love, I’ll go to bat for them — for their rights, defending what they do well, and standing up for the principles that make us brothers and sisters in Christ. I don’t have to agree with a pastor’s theology in order to stand up for the right she or he has to preach it in our churches. I don’t have to agree with a church’s position on LGBTQ ordination or marriage in order to help them run an effective stewardship campaign, to be a guest preacher or to help them manage conflict in their congregation. For me, being a liberal means that I am always questioning myself and what I “know” in order to go deeper and understand more fully. That means I need to surround myself with people who don’t believe or think or understand or “know” as I do.
The definition of liberal is not about where we stand on divisive issues: like Israeli/Palestine, Gay/Straight/Queer/Fluid issues, Fossil Fuel divestment, fracking or nuclear power. It’s about a fundamental ability to be willing to think about things in new ways, to try new things, to understand the ways of peoples and cultures who are very different from ourselves, to challenge the status quo, to ask “why?” and to not stop asking with every answer.
I think I’ve lost my Liberal “cred,” not because I’m not liberal enough, but because I’m too liberal. I dare to question the ways of the “progressives” too. I am continually frustrated by self-defined “progressive” congregations who will not consider putting technology in their sanctuary because it will “destroy” the reverence of worship. I heard one elder from a liberal congregation tell a presbytery planning team that they could NOT put up a screen in the sanctuary of their church. “Over my dead body,” she said. In one church I served, elders of the congregation rejected any idea that made them “appear” like the evangelical church across town. And I’m fed up with congregations who will consider the use of social media in advocacy of political and social issues, but who reject an active social media ministry to bolster faith development — Bible Study or spiritual practices or Christian friendship — both within the congregation and in reaching those outside of the church.
As I observe liberals in the church, I fear the progressives have become traditionalists. Our denomination, for instance, has a strong history of social justice, and the desire of some liberals is to “return” to those days. With the shift left in the PCUSA in the recognition of same-sex marriage, there is a not-so-subtle and dangerous attitude that we’ve “won our church back.” I’m concerned we may be wedded to tactics and policies of a mid-century liberalism that some hope to establish as the new/old orthodoxy.
I question the effectiveness of traditional liberal tactics for social change. I’ve been sitting on the Social Responsibility and Church Relations committee of the Board of Pensions for the past year, and I now have more questions than answers about the effectiveness of divestment in influencing the behavior of corporations. The work of MRTI is powerful. I’m convinced that divestment is not always the best answer to influencing the ethical and moral decisions of big business.
I had to publicly think through my opinion on last year’s SCOTUS Hobby Lobby decision. I find I cannot side with Palestine or Israel exclusively. I side with both. I can question Israeli politics and not be anti-semitic, and I can question pro-Palestinian arguments without being pro-Israel.
I refuse to side with the “liberals” just because it’s the “progressive” way. Every deeply divisive issue in our church and society is divisive not only because of the polarization of right/left, liberal/conservative, democrat/republican. They are controversial because they affect deeply felt needs; the pros and cons are complicated by conflicting values, needs, and principles. We hurt ourselves when we attempt to simplify these complicated issues to bumper-sticker slogans or blog post headlines.
For me, being a liberal means the future has more of a hold on me than the past. My understanding of the Kingdom of God is not so much a return to the Garden of Eden, but one which is pulling us forward to that “promised land” of new heaven and new earth. The vision of new heaven and new earth is all-encompassing. It includes people of every race and creed; it includes every creature and earth itself. It includes life in all its forms in the whole universe and multiverse. It is a vision which drives me to keep curious, to keep questioning, to keep broadening my horizons, to keep an open mind and heart.
My conservative friends are quick to point out the dangers of my liberal ways. And they are right. I agree, there are times I’m so broad-minded it’s hard even for me to know where I stand. There is value in conserving, preserving, and holding on to truth and heritage. I’m not wired that way … I’m a revealer of truth not a preserver of truth. But, I NEED to be surrounded by preservers. Not to fight with me, but to challenge me. Not to call me names, but to balance my future-mindedness with the strengths of the past. Not to damn me to hell, but to keep my feet grounded enough to find my rock.
This is why it hurts me when I see our denomination splitting and our “big tent” shrinking. I understand why some feel the call to leave the PCUSA, but leaving and being left is painful. I feel the loss, not because I want to make those congregations or pastors or elders or members as liberal as I am, but precisely because I am as liberal as I am. I need them. We need them. We need to be challenged by each other … but, first, we need to respect each other.
I can do that. I can respect my conservative sisters and brothers because I know God made them as they are too. There is no doubt in my mind that my liberal-ness is part of my DNA in Christ. There is no doubt that God made me this way. There is no doubt that being a liberal and prophetic voice in the church and in the world is true to my call and my being, created in the image of God. However, being true to my call doesn’t always make me right. Discerning what Christ wants to do through me, doesn’t mean my determination of right and wrong is right or wrong. Being open-minded and willing to change, means that I risk throwing away some very important ideas and principles if I don’t engage the others God calls to be the conservatives.
Have I lost my liberal “cred?” It seems that way. However, I’m not defined by labels of liberal or conservative, but by aligning myself with Christ. I’m called to question. I’m called to think outside the box. I’m called to re-imagine. I’m called to generosity. I’m called to a willingness to change. I’m called to be a liberal in the truest sense of the word.