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

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?