“Don’t be a liberal or a conservative, but a woman or man of faith!” Jim Wallis coined that phrase and we would all be more charitable and Christian if we took it to heart.
The importance of what’s being said here stuck me recently as I read an interview in Sojourners magazine. A young woman, an Episcopalian priest, was being interviewed. She had just published a book with a very strong message challenging us all to be more respectful of nature and was about to set off on a book-promotion tour. The interviewer asked her whether she was nervous because she had written the book in San Francisco, known for its liberalism, but would now be setting off for less-liberal locales, the bible-belt, and other places not known to be as liberal as San Francisco.
Her response contains a lesson: In effect, she said, “I’m not worried. Most people are sincere and I find that, among sincere people, there isn’t any spiteful resistance to God’s word. People resist ideology (and they should) but my experience is that, if you preach God’s word and not liberal or conservative ideology, most sincere people will hear you!”
That’s a valuable admonition.
We must be careful, irrespective of our ideological temperament and leanings, to be, first of all, woman and men of faith, long before we’re liberals or conservatives. We must learn to speak and minister from faith and from the gospel and not from some liberal or conservative ideal.
It is dangerous and counterproductive, at least in the area of faith, theology, and preaching, to self-define. Anybody who presents himself or herself as, before all else, a liberal or a conservative, a social justice advocate, a defender of the tradition, a feminist, an advocate for family values, a gay-rights advocate, an ecologist, a defender of the faith, or puts himself or herself under any label that carries the baggage of liberal or conservative ideology will experience, even before he or she speaks, a fierce resistance (most of which is not resistance to truth or to the gospel but is, rightly, resistance to ideology).
Both liberals and conservatives carry important truths and defend values that must, in the name of God and truth, be defended. But those truths and values are generally too encrusted within liberal or conservative ideology to be palatable to anyone of the opposite persuasion.
For example, if I present myself as a liberal, a feminist, an ecologist, a gay-rights activist, or as a social-justice advocate, roughly half of the population everywhere will already be defensive and suspicious of my truth, motives, and agenda, long before I get to speak a word.
The same is true if I present myself as a conservative, a traditionalist, an advocate for conservative values, or as someone who, above all else, is concerned with proper doctrine, boundaries, safety, and order.
Roughly half the population everywhere will conclude that I have nothing of value to say to them, long before I’ve even had a chance to speak. Why?
Because, in both cases, whether I present myself as a liberal or a conservative, the general experience has been that because of this self-definition, I will be selective in my sympathies, intolerant of those who think differently, incapable of genuinely appreciating what the other side has to say, and that I will use authority or intellectual intimidation to shut down debate and will be mean-spirited towards those whom I perceive as less enlightened or less orthodox than I.
But, and this is the point, if, before all else, I define myself as a woman or man of faith, my first message will not be family values, feminism, ecology, doctrine, tolerance, boundaries, the tradition, the breaking of unhealthy fear and superstition, or even a pro-life or pro- choice position in the abortion debate.
My first message rather will be that: “Everyone is equal in God’s eyes, irrespective of race, gender, or sexual orientation.” “Family, heterosexual marriage, and chastity are key to the survival of the human race.” “Nature may never be abused, but must be properly respected.” “The truth sets us free and we must have the courage to face this.” “Our compassion and embrace, humanly and ecclesially, must imitate the non-selective compassion and embrace of God, who loves everyone equally on this planet.” “Not all religion is equal and faith asks us to commit to a concrete religious family.” “God has revealed definitive religious truth historically and we are wise to look into the wells of our religious traditions rather than try to come to God simply through private experience.” “Jesus came to free us from fear, not to make us more afraid.” “Both the life of the unborn child and the freedom of a pregnant woman must be morally defended.”
Sincere people, on both sides of the ideological fault-line, will not argue with, nor resist, those truths and in those truths we find the truth of both the liberal and the conservative.