Romancing the Book: Evangelical Lessons for Liberal Christians

This is part 2 of 3 in a series of posts called Evangelical Lessons for Liberal Christians.  Evangelicals, much maligned among liberals, nonetheless possess an impressive array of gifts and skills that can benefit the larger Christian community, including those who do not share their beliefs and biases.  Liberal Christians are so quick to self-identify as “not evangelical” or “not that kind of Christian” that we have developed a nasty habit of tossing babies out with the bathwater.  I’m suggesting that we all go outside and recover these babies from the muddy ground outside (although we may have to give them another bath before we bring them back into our house).

Wow… I’m really stretching that metaphor.

In my first post, entitled God Has No Grandchildren, we talked about how evangelicals have done an amazing job of taking personal ownership of their spiritual lives.  For them, Christianity is not a set of dogmas, morals, and rituals to which one defaults by accident of birth.  For them, it is a whole-hearted commitment of one’s self to an ongoing relationship with the divine.

In today’s post, I want to talk about the Bible.

As far as religious communities go, none have had a more passionate love affair with the Bible than have evangelicals.  They tend to take it with them wherever they go: church, work, school, and vacation.  They sometimes refer to it as their sword (a source of strength) and other times as their love letter from God.  Most of the time, they simply call it the Word of God.  They have confidence that the voice of the Holy Spirit is able to reach, comfort, and guide them through these words on a page.  Like newlyweds in the bedroom, evangelical encounters with the Bible are intense and frequent (if a bit messy and awkward).  They tend to devour it, even though they don’t understand much of what they’re reading.

Liberal Christians, on the other hand, tend to relate to the Bible like an older couple in a long-term relationship.  In place of the young lovers’ passion, they have developed a deep respect for its mystery and complexity.  They let those old, familiar words wash over them and anchor them to all time and eternity.  There are still some things they don’t like about the Bible, but they’ve learned how to accept those things and still appreciate the Bible for what it is.

Liberal Christians, while they tacitly accept the appellation “Word of God” as applied to the Bible, tend to cringe at notions of inerrancy and infallibility.  For us, the Bible is not a magical book that was somehow “beamed down” from heaven without flaw or error.  Why then do we still refer to them as the Word of God?  I love the answer given in the Catechism found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979):

We call them (the Holy Scriptures) the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.

I love this answer’s dual emphasis on inspiration and continual speaking.  Liberal Christians believe that the divine Word is speaks to us “in, with, and under” (a phrase I’m borrowing from Luther’s sacramental theology) the human words on the page.  For those of us in the Reformed (and always reforming) tradition of Protestant Christianity, we identify Christ as the true and Living Word of God.  The scriptures, as we have them, constitute a witness to that Living Word.  In other words, the early disciples experienced something extraordinary in the person of Christ and spend the rest of their lives wrestling with what it meant.  The Christian churches have continued to wrestle with that mystery for almost two millennia.  These days, we are less certain than ever about our particular answers, but more convinced than ever about the overall importance of what we’ve found.

In our less glorious moments, liberal Christians have tended to abandon this treasure of the faith to those who would abuse it and co-opt it for their own selfish ends.  Our respect for the complexity and mystery of the Bible has sometimes led us to throw our hands up in despair that anyone could ever know what this crazy book is talking about.  We despise trite and easy answers taken from text on a page, which leads us to sometimes give up hope of finding any guidance at all.  In our very worst moments, we tend to cut and paste the parts we like and throw out or ignore the parts we don’t.  My favorite example of this kind of project is the famous Bible produced by my American forbear, Thomas Jefferson.  He didn’t like the idea of supernatural miracles, so he just cut those parts out.  These days, many liberal Christians have a tendency to cut out the parts about judgment and sex, as if the Bible had nothing valuable to say about these topics.  To be fair, many evangelicals do the same thing.  They underline their favorite verses about individual salvation and “the pelvic issues” while they ignore the passages that emphasize the importance of social justice or suggest the possibility of universal salvation.

The tendency toward idolatry is a human universal, not unique to evangelicals or liberals.  We all have an instinctual urge to recast Jesus as an advocate for our own personal ideology.  We all tend to hear our own voices, rather than God’s speaking to us in the text of the Bible.  Anne Lamott once wrote, “You can safely assume that you’ve made God in your own image when she hates all the same people you do.”

I was speaking with a colleague once at a pastor’s retreat on Christian spirituality.  I was talking about the central role that the Bible plays in shaping our spirituality.  He asked, “Does it have to be through the Bible?”  I responded that it doesn’t have to be through the Bible, but it gets to be.  As Christians, we have the privilege of conducting our collective faith-journey in dialogue with this cacophonous chorus of voices from the past.  I see the Bible as a library, rather than a book.  It’s a messy collection of stories, poems, and letters that chronicle our ancestors’ relationship with God.  They stretched to describe the indescribable.  They failed to capture the essence of the divine in their writings, but they did leave a number of helpful signposts.  I love the scriptures for their messiness.  It gives me hope for myself.  God never gave up on Abraham, Israel, or Peter, so I have every reason to trust that God will not give up on me.

The exercise that has most helped me recover the Bible as a tool for my spiritual growth is a practice developed by monks over a thousand years ago.  It’s called Lectio Divina, which is Latin for “Divine Reading.”  Here’s how it works:

  • Sit down with a short passage of scripture (e.g. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15).  Read it slowly.  Out loud, if you can.  Maybe even stopping at every verse or sentence.
  • Pay attention to any words or phrases that “jump out at you” or seem to touch your life in some significant way.
  • Take a moment to process what that word or phrase means to you right now, in this moment.  You’re not looking for once-and-for-all absolutely authoritative interpretations.  You’re listening for what God is saying to you today through this passage.  God might be saying something completely different to someone else through those same words.  God might say something completely different to you tomorrow through those same words.  The Spirit blows where it wills…
  • Craft a prayer of response to what you think you’ve heard.  This can be a prayer of thanksgiving, a request for help, or a dedication of oneself to service.
  • Sit still for a period of extended silence while you contemplate God’s presence within and around you.  It might help to focus your attention on the normally unconscious act of your breathing or perhaps pick a special word to guide and focus your meditation.
  • Close by reading the passage slowly once more.  Be thankful for what you have encountered in this process.

I think that liberal Christians have an opportunity to re-engage with the Bible in a passionate way.  We can begin our “second honeymoon” with this old partner and rekindle in ourselves the romance we admire in our evangelical brothers and sisters.

Resurrection People

Click here to listen to this sermon for free at fpcboonville.org

Acts 4:32-35

Today, as many of you may or may not know, happens to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  The story of the Titanic is one of the most well-known tragedies of the 20th century (I am, of course, referring to the actual ship and not the movie… although the movie was pretty bad).  I am proud to say that I was a Titanic enthusiast long before the film came out.  I was just a little kid in 1985 when the wreck was discovered by Robert Ballard, the legendary ocean explorer.  When I was learning to read, my mother bought me a copy of a kids’ book called Titanic… Lost and Found!  Later on, my very first “grown up book” was The Discovery of the Titanic by Robert Ballard.  I even own a small piece of coal that once sat in Titanic’s boiler room.  It was recovered from the wreck site at the bottom of the ocean.

In addition to the popularity of James Cameron’s blockbuster film, I think there are many reasons why the story of the Titanic continues to haunt our collective memory and imagination.  One could easily call it a “multi-faceted tragedy.”  On the one hand, it is a story of foolish human arrogance: unwavering faith in “progress” and technology that led to calling the ship “unsinkable,” even though it obviously was not.  On the other hand, it is a story of human vanity.  Titanic’s builders used the cheapest and most brittle of low-quality iron in their construction of the ship’s hull.  They preferred to spend their money on lavish decorations like gold-gilded dinner plates and the magnificent grand staircase that we saw in the movie.  Some scientists have theorized that, had the ship’s hull been made of sterner stuff, it might not have buckled as badly after striking the iceberg.  The ship would still have gone down, but it would have happened much slower and allowed more time for rescue ships to arrive and save lives.  But, in my mind, the greatest tragedy of the Titanic is that it is a story of human prejudice.  Great pains were taken to maintain the distinction between the upper and lower class passengers on the Titanic.  They were not allowed to mix under any circumstances.  There were still many in that day who believed in the inherent superiority of upper class people over others.

These class distinctions were maintained, even after Titanic received her fatal blow from the ice berg.  The crew shut iron gates in the hallways to keep the lower classes below deck.  As a result, people in steerage were blocked from getting to the lifeboats.  Meanwhile on deck, lifeboats for first class passengers were being lowered only half-full.  Apart from the crew, most of those who died on the Titanic were from the lower classes.  This, to me, is the single most tragic fact of the Titanic disaster.  It represents an almost total breakdown in human community.  Artificial distinctions and privileges were maintained, even in a life-or-death situation.  I can’t think of anything else that takes us farther away from what God intends for us as a human family.

It’s easy for us to sit here this morning, look back in time, and shake our heads at their prejudice.  We think we’ve evolved beyond that.  In some ways, we have: most folks these days have dropped the overt sense of aristocratic pedigree that once dictated social relations in Europe and North America.  But, in other ways, we in 2012 are still very much as our ancestors were in 1912.  We still like to categorize ourselves and write each other off for being different from one another.  Some of our distinctions are obviously trivial, such as preference in music or sports.  Other distinctions, like those involving politics and religion, seem to bear more momentous weight in the public sphere.

Looking at the bitterly divided state of things in our society and world today, it seems to me that we too are guilty of maintaining artificial distinctions and privileges among ourselves, even in the face of dire consequences.  Folks seem only too willing to write one another off as “those people” and forego the gentle arts of communication, coexistence, and compromise.  Even after one hundred years, it seems that we have not yet learned our lesson.

I believe the sacred scriptures of our religion offer us an alternative vision for human community.  We read this morning in our passage from the book of Acts a very different scene from the one described on the deck of the Titanic in her final hours.  We are told that the members of the early church were “of one heart and soul.”  So deep was their commitment to God and one another that they abdicated their rights to private property.  Yet, we are also told, “there was not a needy person among them.”  I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds a whole lot more like a hippie farm than a church!

In the midst of this “experiment with socialism,” the text tells us that there is something else going on that is of paramount importance to the church’s identity.  It says that they “gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.”  Somehow, this singular activity of testifying to the resurrection was central to everything else that was going on in their community.

What I find interesting is that the text of Acts doesn’t tell us what they said.  It doesn’t tell us how the apostles and early Christians testified to the resurrection.  To be sure, this is something that Christians continue to do to this day.  Some folks try to “testify to the resurrection” by constructing historical and scientific arguments for the likelihood that Jesus got up out of his tomb and walked the earth again.  Some folks simply tell the story over and over again (like this church does at Easter).  But the most important way that people (back then as well as now) “testify to the resurrection” is in the way they live.

When I look at that beautiful depiction of the early church, sharing what they have, meeting peoples’ needs, and generally being a community “of one heart and soul,” I am struck by that community’s similarity to Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven-on-earth, where “the last will be first” and “the greatest among you will be the servant of all.”  The powers-that-be of Jesus’ time were threatened by his message.  The crucifixion was their final “no” to everything that he was and did.  But the resurrection was God’s resounding “yes” that trumped the world’s “no.”  Truly, where God is concerned, love is stronger than death.  In this chapter of Acts, we have a community where people dared to love like Jesus did.  Their daily lives served as indicators that Jesus’ dream was coming true and that the life of Christ was alive in them.  Their lives together served as a living testimony to the resurrection of Jesus.

This reminds me of the words to an old gospel hymn:

He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and He talks with me

Along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives:
He lives within my heart.

You and I have not had the privilege of physically walking and talking with the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, as the early apostles did.  However, we are not therefore excused from the task of testifying to his resurrection.  We, who claim to be his followers in the world today, give testimony to the world through the presence of the risen Christ in our hearts.  When we allow that Christ-like love to have its way in our lives, it does something inside of us.  It puts us back in touch with the true meaning for our lives and the center of the universe.  We experience Christ, not as an historical figure who lived two millennia ago, but as a living and breathing presence in our midst today.  Like the hymn says, “He lives within our hearts.”

There is another hymn that communicates this same idea.  We sang it as our opening hymn this morning.  Did you catch the lyrics?

They cut me down and I leapt up high,
I am the life that can never ever die!
I’ll live in you if you live in me,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.

Earlier in that same hymn, it says, “I am the dance and I still go on!”  Your life is a testimony to the presence of the living Christ in you.  Wherever faith conquers fear, Christ is alive!  Wherever equality dissolves prejudice, Christ is alive!  Wherever selflessness conquers selfishness, Christ is alive!  Wherever opposing individuals or groups sit down together to seek peace and understanding, Christ is alive!  God’s resounding “yes” trumps the world’s final “no.”  Wherever these dreams become reality in our lives, we show the world with our lives that Christ is a present and living reality, not just some inspirational figurehead confined to the annals of history.  Christ is the dance we dance.  Christ is the undying life within us.  How do we know he lives?  He lives within our hearts!  Just look at our lives and see!

This is good and empowering news for us, but it also bestows a great responsibility upon us.  We need to ask ourselves on a regular basis whether the lives we live, as individuals and as a church, are proclaiming a message of resurrection to the world.  We need to ask ourselves if we are living as resurrection people.  Are we practicing what we preach?  The great American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once said, “Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.”

There are all kinds of big and little ways that we can live as resurrection people.  Some of us will change the world with our testimony.  Most of us will not.  All we can do, according to theologian William Stringfellow, is “live humanly in the midst of death.”  Our little deeds of compassion and care must carry the light for us.  We, through our actions, can create a small community of kindness around us that has the potential to outlast the empires of history.  The Christian church began as a small, persecuted sect in the shadow of the Roman Empire.  Yet, here we are, Christians still celebrating, worshiping, and caring together, centuries after the fall of Rome.  The presence of the risen Christ in us is stronger and more enduring than the dominating force of empire.

Then again, we never know what kind of impact our small acts of kindness might have on the world at large.  There is a story of a young black boy and his mother walking down a city street in South Africa during the reign of Apartheid.  There was a law then that black folks had to step aside when white folks passed their way on the sidewalk.  As this mother and son were walking along, they encountered a white man walking the other way.  As he drew near, the boy was shocked to see the white man step aside and lift his hat as they passed by.  The boy asked, “Mummy, who was that man?”  His mother replied, “That man was an Anglican priest and furthermore he is a man of God.”  The little boy would later say, “That was the day I decided that I wanted to be an Anglican priest and furthermore a man of God.”  That little boy grew up to be Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the pastor to a nation who helped to peacefully dismantle Apartheid and usher in a new era of equality for his country and set an example to the world.  Who could have predicted that his calling would be inspired by one small, illegal act of kindness and respect given one day on a street corner?  Christ is alive!  Christ is risen indeed!

I’d like to close with another story from the Titanic.  In the midst of all the arrogance, vanity, and classist inhumanity of that tragic story, there is the noble tale of Fr. Thomas Byles.  He was a Catholic priest on his way to officiate at his brother’s wedding in the States.  During the night, he was twice offered a space in a lifeboat, but gave it up to other passengers both times.  He said he would stay on board so long as there was a single soul in need of his ministrations.  He heard confessions and said prayers.  The last time anyone saw him alive, he was saying the rosary on deck, surrounded by a crowd of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.  There, in the desperation of that moment, distinctions between race, class, ethnicity, and religion were all erased.  It seems that only grace remained once the gravity of the situation set in.  I find it amazing that, even there, in the midst of this great tragedy, a small group of people encountered the eternal mystery of God together in ad hoc community.  Even as they walked together through the valley of the shadow of death, their lives “gave testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”

One Example of a Common Sense Liberal

Today’s post and yesterday’s (Why Liberal?  Confessions of a Recovering Evangelical) started as one, but my introduction mutated into a post in its own right.  Funny how that tends to happen when you’ve got ADD.

As I’ve said before, there is no such thing as a monopoly on common sense and family values.  Liberals in both the political and religious realms have a justly earned reputation for being elitist and overly academic.  however, I think it’s time we got to work on correcting that, especially if we hope to engage with the hearts and minds of people off-campus.  I don’t mean that we dumb it down or reject the contributions of scholarship; I mean that we communicate what we believe in ways that are more simple and direct.

One person who is already doing an amazing job at this is an older guy in Georgia who owns a peanut farm, volunteers with Habitat For Humanity, and teaches Sunday School at his Baptist Church.  By the way, he is also a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and served a term as President of the United States.

It’s Jimmy Carter.

Say what you will about his presidency and policies (I have beef with both), but Jimmy, more than any other living president, embodies a sense of personal wisdom and human decency that is rarely found among national politicians.  Perhaps that contributed to the fact that he did not serve a second term.  My wife says that Jimmy Carter is living proof that personal integrity doesn’t always make for the best presidents.

This former-president’s most recent project is the production of a study Bible with his own notes and reflections on the text.  This may be a bit ambitious on my part, but I would hope that a project of this magnitude might find its place in history alongside the famous Jefferson Bible.

You can see and/or order Carter’s Lessons from Life Bible at Amazon.com by clicking here.

In order to promote this new publication, Carter gave an interview to folks at the Huffington Post.  I provide a link and invite you to read the interview as an example of one Common Sense Liberal Christian speaking his mind about the faith of his heart.  On a human level, here is an example of how one can be an open-minded, open-hearted, and faithful Christian.

Enjoy!

President Jimmy Carter Authors New Bible Book, Answers Hard Biblical Questions

Why Liberal? The Confession of a Recovering Evangelical

Several months ago, I put up a post on Common Sense Liberalism, where I intentionally began an effort to reclaim the term ‘liberal’ from its pejorative captors in the political and religious realms.  It’s all part of my personal effort to explore what it means to be a ‘liberal’ Christian in ways that transcend the polarizing animosity that is currently ripping our churches and state capitols apart.

If that’s the case, one might argue, then why not abandon the dualistic liberal/conservative language altogether?  There may well be a valid point in that.  However, I’ve chosen to self-apply this particular moniker, instead of the more current buzzword ‘progressive Christian,’ for three reasons.  First of all, it is used an insult.  Commonly accepted group labels like Quaker, Methodist, Unitarian, and Christian had similar origins as insults.  Personally, I don’t mind plucking this term from the landfill of language and bringing it back to life.  I’m a liberal Christian.  Double insult.  “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”  (Jesus, John 15:18)

Second, I don’t think working toward peace, unity, and purity in church and society necessitates the elimination of all distinctions.  I think it involves holding those distinctions differently.  I don’t want to be a watered-down, lukewarm, non-committal, middle-of-the-roader.  I want to be a liberal Christian who understands what respect, decency, and amicable compromise mean in the midst of controversy.

Finally, I’ve chosen to retain the word liberal for personal reasons related to my own journey.  I wrote a Facebook post recently where I compared my relationship to evangelicalism to the relationship between a recovering alcoholic and social drinking.  Some people can be evangelical Christians and live sane, healthy, and balanced lives.  But, for whatever reasons, I cannot.  I’ve spent many years blaming evangelicalism itself for the spiritual wounds I obtained in my late teens and early twenties.  But I think it’s time that I also take responsibility for the ways in which I intentionally chose to sustain an unhealthy relationship with my theology.  I tend to give myself wholly to the things I care about, sometimes pushing past the point of reason.  In a subculture that supported biblical literalism, I pushed it to the extreme.  My friends and pastors supported me in this because they thought I was just “on fire for Jesus.”  They probably had no clue that I was actually nursing a pathological obsession that eventually bordered on the psychotic.  I still think there are many aspects of evangelical culture and theology that are worth criticizing.  However, it’s time that I stop casting them as villains and myself as victim in this story.  It’s time that I own my part in it.  I’m a recovering evangelical, not because evangelicalism is evil, but because I can’t handle it responsibly.

Common Sense Liberalism

I had a fascinating exchange with an old college pal this week.  I mentioned in an email that I self-identify as a Liberal Christian.

My friend responded, “So, what is a ‘Liberal Christian’? When I hear that, it makes me think it’s a code word for ‘Christians who think they’ve figured out how to be pro-choice Democrats, and still be in-line with the Bible’… Seems like they all listened to U2 also…”

While I’m not a registered member of any political party and my views on abortion do not conform to either pro-life or pro-choice platforms, I had to laugh at myself over the U2 comment.  They just so happen to be my favorite band… I guess some stereotypes are true!

After that, I proceeded to this gentle-but-long-winded long-breezed history lecture on 20th century Christians and biblical interpretation.  Unwittingly, I fell right into the two habits that most annoy me about Liberal Christianity: Negativity and Elitism.

Negativity

Have you ever noticed that we Liberal Christians spend a lot of time talking about what we don’t believe?  We don’t accept Young Earth Creationism.  We don’t think the Bible is inerrant.  We don’t believe eternal life depends on accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.  We read books with titles like Why Christianity Must Change or Die and Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally (both of which happen to be good books, by the way).

Elitism

Along with our tendency to accentuate the negative, it’s also pretty obvious that our churches tend to be populated with college-educated, upper middle-class white folks.  We Liberal Christians pride ourselves on being better educated, informed, and enlightened than our Evangelical counterparts.  Just as some Evangelicals tend to hide behind walls of biblical literalism, Liberals tend to hide behind walls of intellectual superiority.  Even though none of us would put it this way, we consider ourselves to be the “one true church” because we have risen above the naïve superstitions of Catholics and Evangelicals.  Despite our claims to open-minded pluralism and tough-minded skepticism, we still claim to be the sole possessors of the “real truth” about Christianity.  Despite our lip-service to diversity, our churches tend to be pretty monochromatic.  Despite our passion for social justice, I once heard someone say about us, “They’ll bake a casserole for every cause but they won’t go to jail for any cause.”  Is this really the legacy left by the Underground Railroad, the Suffragettes, and Martin Luther King?

In response to these tendencies toward Negativity and Elitism, I’d like to see us develop an Affirmative and Common Sense Liberalism.

 Affirmative Liberalism

What do we believe as Liberal Christians?

First of all, we believe in freedom.  That’s what the word liberal means, after all.  We are free to make full use of our minds and hearts as we grow in our faith.  We are free to disagree.  There should be no litmus test of doctrine among us.  Sadly, this is not always the case in practice.  There are just as many mean-spirited Liberals as there are Bible-thumping Fundamentalists.  I once witnessed an Evangelical ministry candidate in my own denomination being publicly mocked in front of her colleagues by a Liberal pastor who asked whether she thought the Second Coming might involve Jesus returning to Earth “in a rocket ship.”  If I am free to question traditional doctrine, others should be free to accept it.  We should rejoice with those whose lives are changed, for example, by a charismatic “born again” experience.  We have every reason to believe that they have truly encountered the Spirit of the Living God.  The difference is that we also believe the same for Gandhi, Buddha, and anyone who has ever scored free swag from the Oprah Winfrey Show.  The mark of a truly Christian Liberalism is when we leave room for those who would not leave room for us.  Personally, I’m still working on that.

Second, Liberal Christians believe in graceWe are all created, connected, redeemed, and sustained by the absolutely unconditional love of God.  No one is exempt from this Good News, regardless of time, place, religion, or sexual orientation.  We are all equally God’s children.  Full stop.  There is no moral standard upon which God’s ultimate approval is based.  This does not mean, however, that there are no moral standards.  We believe in the fair and equal establishment of liberty and justice for all.  It is sometimes necessary to act decisively in correcting behaviors, protecting the innocent, or redressing grievances, but this does not involve a final condemnation or an ultimate devaluing of the whole person.  Human parents must enact discipline in order to shape a child’s character, but eternal punishment is inconsistent with God’s purposes as a loving parent.  What could make you subject your child to eternal torture without relief?  No one is irredeemable.  In short, everybody gets into heaven (if there is such a place).  Alas, Liberal Christians have often failed on this front as well.  One friend of a friend commented that, after leaving her rather Conservative Mennonite church for the United Church of Canada (a prominent Liberal denomination in the Great White North), she was disappointed to find just as much hard-nosed legalism among Liberal Christians.  The difference, she noted, was that Liberal Christians made her feel guilty about recycling rather than masturbation.  Whenever we are overwhelmed by either unfounded humanistic optimism or righteous indignation, we Liberal Christians should remember to keep this song in our hearts: “’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.”

Common Sense Liberalism

Watching certain candidates on the presidential campaign trail has reminded me how many people respond to folksy wisdom more than actual data.  Conservatives seem to have cornered the market on common sense while Liberals cite academic facts and theories.  I refuse to accept the necessity of this arrangement.  We too can make pithy bumper stickers.  We too can appeal to those beliefs and values that lie deep within the human heart and lead us toward a better world.  We too can quote the Bible to support what we have to say.  I’ll even do it in the good old King James Version:

  • “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” – 1 John 4:16
  • “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” – Matthew 25:40
  • “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” – Matthew 7:1
  • “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” – Matthew 7:12
  • “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” – Leviticus 19:18

Liberal Christians believe that God loves everyone.  We believe that all people are created equal in one human family.  We believe in fairness.  We believe in freedom.  We believe that God is a mystery so big that no one can fully understand.  We believe in grace.  We believe in justice.  We believe that diversity makes us stronger.

The term Liberal has become a dirty word in recent years.  It is used in the halls of Congress and churches to accuse, demean, and degrade.  I want to reclaim the term Liberal, especially as it applies to Christian faith.  There are no doubt others who will question my intellectual and moral integrity.  That’s fine.  They can do that.  I’ll try not to argue back.  This is just me trying to figure out what I believe and where I fit in the grand scheme of things.  I am a Liberal Christian.

“Here I stand.  I can do no other.” – Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms

Get Loud

Getting loud... Sue Sylvester knows what I'm talking about.

Earlier this week, I posted an article on Facebook about a Stella Harville and Ticha Chikuni, a couple who was denied membership at Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church in eastern Kentucky because they are an interracial couple.

You can read the article by clicking here.

In the comments, my new friend Jaime asked, “What can I do, how can I have a positive impact as a Christian against this type of hate and bigotry?”  I started sketching my thoughts and decided to post them in my blog, rather than on Facebook.

What can we do?  That’s the big question.  What gets to me at this time each year is the constant, self-righteous whining about “keeping ‘Christ’ in ‘Christmas'”.  If there’s anything that’s going to make Christ mad enough to flip over some tables, I’m guessing it’s probably going to be the above article, rather than ‘Happy Holidays’.  I also seem to remember that the most famous example of Jesus getting THAT angry took place in a house of worship.

I don’t have the answer to that question.  Whoever does will be the next Martin Luther.  All I’ve got right now are a few ideas that I’ve been trying to work out in my life.  I’ll share them here.  If anyone finds them helpful, please feel free to steal them.  Again: no answers, just ideas.

1. Honesty.  I want to own the truth about how racist/sexist/homophobic I really am.  It seems like everybody likes to start these discussions with the phrase: “I’m not racist/sexist/homophobic but…”.  But the cold, hard fact is that, half a century after Martin Luther King, I still live in a country where 85% of the people on death row are African American, women make 75 cents for every dollar a man makes, and the suicide rate among LGBT youth is twice that of their peers.  It’s like we’ve settled into this pattern where it’s okay to BE racist/sexist/homophobic as long as I don’t SAY I am.  As a privileged white, male, heterosexual Christian, I’m thinking it’s time for me to sit with the prophet Isaiah and confess, “Woe is me!  For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet I am encountering the face of reality!”

2. Proximity.  Our culture has sped up the amount and rate of information exchange to the point where it’s all becoming a big blur that goes by while we stay isolated behind ‘screens’ (kind of like I’m doing right now).  We don’t actually have to face each other or get close to one another anymore.  We can just blast them in anonymous comments on YouTube.  We end up saying things we would never say in the real world.  I wonder if it’s really a coincidence that political dialogue became so extremely polarized in the same decade that Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter emerged?  How many members of Westboro Baptist Church have openly gay friends/family?  How many members of the church in the above article have close friends of another race?  Speaking for myself, the point when I started questioning my homophobia came when I realized that some people I love are gay.  I care a whole lot more about sexism now that I have a daughter.  And so on…

It’s hard to hate (or ignore) a group when people you love are part of it.

3. Education.  I am woefully ignorant about issues of inequality and established injustice.  I find that most folks are.  It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve become aware of the difference between personal prejudice and systemic oppression.  Most folks seem to think that racism/sexism/homophobia has to do with their personal feelings.  Cornel West and bell hooks have been most enlightening in helping me recognize that one can have friends of another race and still be racist.  I have a lot more to learn if dismantling injustice really matters to me.

4. Simplicity.  The flip-side of the need for education is our need to keep the message clear to those who are not educated.  The Right seems to claim a monopoly on ‘common sense’, folksy wisdom, and ‘family values’.  We tend to show up with charts and figures of trends and projections.  All of that is super-important because we need the facts to support what we’re saying, but I’ve noticed that a lot of people eventually get lost and check out of the conversation before we’ve even made our point.  We’ve got to find some way to keep it clear, simple, and short.

5. Volume.  I was recently listening to Dan Savage talk about how frustrated he gets when liberal Christians come up to him and whisper, “Psst!  We’re not all homophobic.”  Dan said how he wants to tell them to stop whispering that to him and start shouting it to Pat Robertson.  Progressive types (especially progressive Christians) are so eager to appear different from the screaming Bible-thumpers, we hardly raise our voices at all.  We sit quietly in our churches and don’t bother anyone else… ever.  Well, what if people need to be bothered?  To paraphrase Gustavo Gutierrez: Silence is a vote in favor of oppression.  Being “liberal” or progressive does not equal “politically correct”.  I need to get up off my fat butt, get over my fear of offending someone, get out there where people are suffering, and GET LOUD.

Those are my ideas.  Who is with me?