Jim Wallis once coined this phrase: ” The religious right thinks that to be religious you have to be extremist and fundamentalist … and the religious left agrees!”
Ideology makes for some strange judgments. Any pre-prejudice, and an ideology is certainly that, is like a set of glasses that lets you see only one room in a house. That is the case for all of liberals, conservatives and the alike. We make some pretty narrow assessments because of the ideological prism through which we see things.
Thus, for example, conservatives tend to see the quest for social justice as simply the liberal agenda: “It’s the feminists, Green Peace, socialists, and all those social-justice types, who are pushing for all of this, trying to foist their agenda on to the rest of us!” What’s absent here is any sense that the demand for social justice is universal, biblical, Christie, central to Jesus’ message, and as non-negotiable in terms of religion as are private prayer and private morality. The imperative to walk justly and to try to change all systems that do not reflect that is not a liberal agenda or a feminist cause, it is the gospel agenda.
Why are conservatives unable to see that? Self-interest? The way Christian spirituality has been focused in recent centuries? Over-reaction to inflated and simplistic social justice rhetoric? Probably some of each of these. But partly too it is a question of ideology, the conservative prism, which highlights certain key aspects of the gospel even as it fails to see others . One part of the agenda is being protected by refusing to let some other things be part of it. How tragic. Part of the gospel is being seen simply as liberal agenda.
But do the liberals fare any better? Hardly. Liberals today tend to see piety, devotion, obedience, concern for private prayer, concern for chastity, and conscientiousness towards private sexual morality as part of the right-wing agenda, as if piety, obedience, and chastity were somehow conservative virtues . So strong is this idea in some liberal circles that often there is a actual denigration of piety and the concern for private morality. These realities are sometimes seen as a positive hindrance to justice, as if social justice is somehow better served by persons whose private lives are not in order or as if a life of private morality ill-equips one for the cause of justice. Strange logic.
Part of that strange logic too is the idea that justice can be served without regard for how we do in certain areas of our private lives. For example, a recent commentary on the death of Danilo Dolci -a man who worked passionately for the poor but whose personal life didn’t always match his moral stature in the area of justice- attacked as narrow and conservative anyone who criticized Dolci for this and defended his lifestyle with a comment to the effect that a saintly work need not be matched by the prescribed life of a saint.
But, just as for their conservative counterparts, something is blocking full vision here. Isn’t saintly work contingent precisely upon living as a saint does? Can doing and being really be divorced that easily? Isn’t the gospel pretty much equally about both? Piety, chastity, a vigorous concern for private morality are not conservative virtues, the right-wing agenda. They, like social justice , are an integral part of the gospel agenda.
At the 20th anniversary celebration of Catholic New Times in Toronto in 1996, Jim Wallis pleaded passionately for both conservatives and liberals to move beyond these narrow judgments, based so strongly on ideology and self-interest , and integrate into their respective agendas those other parts of the gospel message that, right now, they are neglecting. Among other things, he suggested that “it is time for the religious left to be more religious than left. And it is time for both the left and the right to admit that they have run out of imagination, that the categories of liberal and conservative are dysfunctional and that what is needed is a radicalism that leads us beyond both the right and the left, with their selective categories. That radicalism can only be found in the gospel which is neither liberal or conservative but fully compassionate.”
The gospel agenda, as Wallis so rightly points out, is neither liberal nor conservative. It is more whole, more compassionate, and more demanding than the agenda of either the right or the left. And the following of Jesus calls us to that wholeness.
Mary Jo Leddy, speaking at that same celebration as Jim Wallis, presented this challenge in her address:
“We need to be on fire again, for our hope is nor longer an easy one. We live in a culture of despair within which Pentecost can no longer be taken for granted. Hence we must take upon ourselves the burden of the times and refuse to make the Holy Spirit a piece of private property, but a spirit that matters. The road is not clear but we must make our way by walking.”