liberal

A Short Rant on the Conceit of Always Being a Moderate or Why You May Be All Wrong Because You Think Nobody Can Be All Right

It's been another hellish week. More people dead. The temperature of the country is elevated. People on both sides, #BlackLivesMatter vs. #BlueLivesMatter, have brandished their rhetorical swords. The intensity of the debate seems always threatening to burst into something more violent, even apocalyptic given the right frame.

It's difficult to witness so much raw emotion competing for the moral high ground. The discourse itself strikes many as frightening.

But you know, I’m growing a little weary of a particular brand of centrist who feel themselves to be so above the partisanship that afflicts the rest of us. Not all centrists, of course. I'm talking about the folks who are always sniffing around the edges of debate, arguing that the problem is as much to be found in the format and tone of the debate as in the issue in dispute.

From their standpoint — so conspicuously removed from the theological and political sty in which the rest of us wallow — the “left” and the “right” are merely dupes of liberal and conservative overlords. Whereas these kinds of moderates and centrists see through all the parochial agendas the rest of us are just too simple to perceive.

This heroic cast of self-justifiers glide through life unburdened by a need to take a stand on anything — except on what they believe is the meritoriously self-evident issue of not taking stands. Their orthodoxy can be summed up simply: There is no issue so nuanced that it can’t be cleaved down the middle, leaving two halves that correspondingly (and by definition) miss the truth, which can always be found at some point equidistant from both poles.

Consequently, the only cause over which it is worth getting exercised is getting exercised over causes. Any conviction, on this account, must take a back seat to the primary conviction, which is that no one should hold any conviction more strongly than the conviction that no conviction is worth holding strongly. The tone police brook no opposition on this.

And it is somewhat understandable. Staying so decidedly in the center is the most convenient place because it often requires no real action; it often requires doing not much more than staying in the middle, passing casual judgment on those convinced that some action or another is necessary—that the most important virtue is saying nothing that might be perceived as offensive. And it has the added virtue of looking wise, since by its own definition, it possesses the only real wisdom, which is that the truth of any issue cannot wholly exist on either the left or the right.

But even a casual reading of the Gospels suggests that Jesus worried more about doing the right thing than about being perceived to be doing the right thing. He cared more about speaking the truth as it regards loving one's neighbor than about maintaining a studied neutrality in the face of religious or political partisanship.

Let's be honest, sometimes the truth can be found hovering in the middle. Centrism isn't wrong by definition any more than setting up shop on the left or the right.

But here’s the thing: While those on the left or the right are obviously beholden to narrative structures that offer views of the world from particular perspectives, those in the center are too.The difference, however, is that those committed to life in the center as an end in itself are often the least likely to recognize the debt they owe and the masters they serve.

And when it comes to masters, Jesus repeatedly expressed a few strongly held opinions about that too.

 

Open Doors

By Rev. Mindi

During the entire first half of 1998, from January until June, I attended one worship service. It was the folk mass at my host family’s Catholic Church in England. Before I had left the states for my semester abroad, several people had told me about various churches—Baptist, Methodist, Anglican—that I could attend while I was abroad. But I chose not to. I chose, quite purposefully, not to attend worship the rest of that spring. 

I was at a crossroads in my faith. I had been part of a few conservative Christian campus ministry groups, and found that while I enjoyed the spirit of the music and the community, I could not abide by the legalistic approach to the Bible nor the narrow theology. I was also involved in our campus’ Gay-Straight Alliance group (this was the late 90’s), was reading feminist literary theory and I always claim that my Introduction to Sociology course the fall of my junior year saved me from fundamentalism forever. While I attended a fairly liberal congregation in college, I found my faith conflicted—I loved the spirit of worship among my conservative friends, the relational nature of God in Jesus that was expressed—but not the narrow ideology. During that time in my life, Christian community was stifling. I equated Christian community with conformity, and liberal or conservative, I did not want to conform. So I chose not to attend a worship service.

However, I was in a church, a chapel, a cathedral or other sanctuary at least every week, if not more often. I lit candles in York Minster and Notre Dame, sat and listened to the choir in Westminster and Winchester, and lifted my eyes up to the stained glass everywhere. I sat in the pews and lit candles under the names of saints I had never heard of.

I grew up Baptist, and am a Baptist minister serving in both American Baptist and Disciples congregations. But in those days, having the opportunity in those old Anglican and Catholic churches to pray, to sit and be silent in the presence of God—or even in the emptiness in some of those dark days of my faith journey—helped me in my faith journey.  It is something I lament in the free church tradition, that often we do not have our sanctuaries open.  The few times I have participated in opening the doors of my own churches I have served have been after major tragedies, such as 9/11 and Sandy Hook. Most of the time, our doors are locked.

In the debates about SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) what often gets argued is the need for community—and the assumptions that those who are not in church do not have community. But I am starting to wonder if those of us in the church have been arguing from the wrong angle. Besides the fact that many people who claim to be spiritual gather in other settings for community, what about those who are seeking, or who are spiritual, or even *gasp* religious, but find community stifling? What about those who have been wounded in community?

Are there ways we can be open, be a place of prayer to the public, where people can come and pray, or sit in silence, or listen to music, or light candles? Our Catholic and Episcopalian brothers and sisters, among others, have kept up this ancient tradition, but many of us in the free church tradition have forgotten. We have placed such great emphasis on community that we have forgotten other’s needs. There are times in people’s lives in which community can do more harm than good. But it is the work of the community in providing the space set aside specifically for God, that can reach those in need of solitude.

I still value community and worship together. When I returned from England, it took me a while to get back into church, but I remember clearly the first worship service I attended when I came back was Communion Sunday, and I was never so glad to participate in the breaking of bread and the meal of remembrance with the church I had been raised in, with the people who had always been there for me. But I wouldn’t have appreciated it nearly as much had I not had the time away. I also feel that had it not been for the open churches, the candles in the chapels and the opportunities to pray or sit in silence, I would not have felt as assured of God’s presence even in my own dark valleys.

 

 

Unfortunate Assumptions

By Rev. Mindi

“You have to be in community in order to experience God.”

“You have to be in a covenantal relationship in order for true community to be upheld.”

“To be spiritual but not religious is just a cop-out.”

“We welcome everyone who welcomes everyone.”

All four of these sayings I have heard uttered by more than one progressive, liberal, open and affirming, postmodern pastor or church leader.  All four of these sayings, sadly, make assumptions that actually keep people from wanting to go to church, which I am sure is not their intent.

“You have to be in community in order to experience God.”

When we look at the Bible, we do find many examples of community: the early house churches, the Disciples, the communities of the Hebrews after the exile, Israel and Judah, the twelve Tribes, the band of wanderers in the desert—even going back to Jacob’s family, or Abraham and Sarah and their entourage—there was a community.  However, the statement implies usually that those outside of the church seeking spirituality are not in a community. All too often, we assume someone is not part of an existing community. And I’m not talking a church or Bible study. I meet people all the time who are in community, even spiritual community, without necessarily setting foot into a church or existing church community: book groups, 12-step programs, coffee shop gatherings, the local diner where the locals gather, the Farmer’s markets, the picket lines—there are plenty of places where community happens that has spiritual components. I’ve been part of many communities outside of church where prayer, questioning, meditating, social action, concern and care take place. We need to strip away the assumptions that those outside of the church are not in community already.

“You have to be in a covenantal relationship in order for true community to be upheld.”

What that sounds like to someone who doesn’t use covenantal language on a daily basis (and trust me, fewer in the church actually do than we think they do, but I digress…) is that there is some sort of contract, some sort of membership clause that makes everything official, and if you don’t sign on the dotted line, it’s not official. I’ve had pastors argue this with me all the time. We need to unpack what it means to be in a covenantal relationship. When God makes a covenant with the people of Israel in the wilderness, God does not require them all to sign a contract. Rather, they make an affirmation of faith in the community, together. I’ve seen some churches do this better—a yearly affirmation of the covenant, rather than a one-time membership course and public declaration of membership.  But the assumption is again that people on the outside of the church aren’t in a covenantal relationship, or that those who visit church but haven’t joined aren’t ready for that kind of commitment. They may be ready for that commitment, but don’t want to join through an outdated “you’re in the club” membership system that too many of our churches use.

And there’s also the assumption that some kind of commitment needs to be made verbally or in writing. More and more often, I am meeting couples who are choosing not to get married, or choosing to wait to get married. Like it or not, this is happening more often.  There is a culture shift about what that kind of covenantal relationship means. For some, it is a way of not making such a deep commitment without serious thought and time to be sure this is what they want. For others, they don’t have the same need for themselves to make a legal, binding, contractual commitment—they see their relationship commitments differently. We need to understand this cultural shift, because it also applies to whether or not people want to join a church or any other organized way of being in spiritual community.  While I still uphold the tradition of covenantal relationship in the church, I also understand that others do not have the same need for making a commitment in the same way to an organization—they prefer to be in the group when their heart is in it, and to move on when it is no longer living up to what it claimed to be or fulfilling their needs. 

This attitude is not new—how many members are on your roles who never come to church?  Just because we may claim that covenantal relationship is key for true spiritual community doesn’t mean we’ve been particularly good at it ourselves.  We may need to reexamine what we mean by all of this commitment business anyway.

“To be spiritual but not religious is just a cop-out.”

Our saying this publically is not going to get those who feel spiritual but not religious to engage in any kind of conversation with those who claim to be religious. While you might roll your eyes at the “spiritual but not religious” claim, you’re not doing anything to invite those who feel that way into a conversation.  What we might do is ask them what it means to be spiritual for them, and if there are spiritual practices they engage in. Make a few friends who are spiritual but not religious. In my time as a pastor, I have found them to be my very best friends—people who understand my faith but don’t want to be part of organized religion. They are the ones I can confide in, turn to with my own questions and wonderings. And sometimes they see that we on the religious side can be spiritual, too.  And you might just find that SBNR folks do gather together in their own communities, or come together at prayer vigils, book groups, and other such gatherings.

“We welcome everyone who welcomes everyone.”

In other words, we welcome those who think and look like us. Yup. I’ve heard this from so many liberal/progressive leaders over the years who don’t seem to hear what they are saying. There is no discussion, there is no room for dialogue. And I’m not talking about only welcoming people who disagree with me, but also welcoming people who have been abused and wounded by the church. They may not be the most welcoming people. They may not ever feel comfortable setting foot inside a church. In the SBNR discussion, one thing that gets overlooked is just how many people have been hurt by the church in general. So many of my friends who claim SBNR grew up in a church where they were taught to be ashamed of who they were, where they were made to feel guilty for choices they made as a teenager, who experienced the loss of trust of a leader, who were the victim of gossip and lies in the church.  I know one experience where a child’s parents were divorced in the church, and the gossip and backstabbing that happened in the life of the congregation discussing her parent’s divorce has made her adamant to never set foot in such a place again.

So what do we do?

For one, I think we have to stop speaking such assumptions. I think as church leaders, we need to become more involved in the community around us, specifically finding who and where the SBNR folks are around us. Secondly, we have to stop the public judging. Third, we need to simply stop making assumptions about why people don’t go to church, because those assumptions are what drive every single program designed to reach the “unchurched,” every single change that a congregation makes that is not something they would normally do but in hopes that it might bring in younger people who don’t go to church.  Those changes and programs do nothing but burn us out even more in the long run.  Fourth, we have to have vision.  And that vision has to include the very real possibility that church as we know it, church the way we grew up with it, isn’t going to exist in the next generation.

This is not easy. But I think the stripping away of our assumptions is the first step towards moving forward in this new world as the people of God, followers of Jesus, Christians. If church truly is a people, as the old song says, and not the building, the steeple, the resting place, the programs, the worship service, the coffee hour, the youth group, etc., then we must go and be with the people, and we must listen and learn from them. In order to do that, we must let go of our assumptions: about what people are looking for, about why they don’t come to church, and also, the main assumption that we know better than they do. Because if we did know better, we wouldn’t be in this place, would we?

Coming Out as a Christian Liberal

By Rev. Mindi

I attended and graduated from a small, liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest, a college affiliated with my denomination.  In my first year, I became involved in all of the different Christian organizations on campus, ranging theologically from middle of the road to conservative. The few theologically liberal Christians on campus that I knew (that admitted to being Christian) didn’t attend most of the Christian organizations’ events or kept quiet about being theologically liberal most of the time, as I did for my first year.

But by my sophomore year I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. I didn’t like hiding part of myself just so I could feel like I belonged and fit in to Campus Crusade or any of the other groups. I grew up in a congregation that was Welcoming and Affirming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning folks, and there was a group on campus that was the equivalent of a gay/straight alliance. In addition, my pastor had recently written a book about his journey as an evangelical pastor coming from a place of “love the sinner,” to full acceptance and affirmation of gay and lesbian people. I wanted to share this book with the group and hopefully find a place where I was welcome with my liberal Christian theology.

I attended my first meeting and after about a half hour, I finally introduced myself. When I mentioned I had brought copies of my pastor’s book for free, I heard a collective gasp as people’s eyes grew wide. I suddenly realized they thought I was there to condemn them and I quickly had to assure them that was not the case.  Once they knew I was not only an ally but convinced by my beliefs that God’s love meant a full inclusion of all people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, the tension left the room.  Following the meeting, several people stayed and we chatted about our religious backgrounds.

What followed was story after story of rejection. A Missouri Synod Lutheran who had faithfully attended church with her grandparents until she came out at seventeen and when the church rejected her, she rejected the church and Christianity. A Catholic who now identified as spiritual but not religious. An evangelical Christian who was now an atheist because she had not experienced love from Christians in the way she imagined love was supposed to be.  Story after story after story. 

And finally, a story of acceptance.  After almost everyone had left, a woman who identified as a Quaker and attended the local Friend’s meeting spoke to me. She spearheaded change in the food purchases by the campus cafeteria in regards to migrant worker’s rights and was involved in raising awareness of social issues on campus.  She shared that it was her trust in Jesus’ teachings in why she was involved so much in the local community.  But as far as I know, she never shared about her faith in that way outside of this small gathering, with the few who had not left.

It’s time for liberal Christians to come out and stand up. This week, Jason Collins came out (and I had to look up who he was because I’m not an NBA basketball fan). Sixteen years ago yesterday, Ellen DeGeneres came out on live TV. I was in college, junior year, at a “coming out” party put on by the student group and the one fraternity on campus that did not discriminate based on sexual orientation.  Every day, people come out to their families, to their pastors, to their bosses, to their friends.

How many liberal Christians still hide their beliefs, because they don’t want to rock the boat? How many liberal Christian pastors stay quiet when a member says a derogatory slur, making the excuse that “they are a long-term member, I can’t offend them,” or some other excuse? How many liberal Christian leaders say nothing because “the issue hasn’t come up in my congregation”? 

How many more stories will we continue to hear of people who have been rejected by their church, so they have rejected their church, their religion, or God, altogether?

It’s been seventeen years since I sat in that campus room and came out as a liberal, welcoming and affirming Christian. After that moment, I didn’t hold back from my friends my views. Eventually I dropped out of most of the campus Christian organizations, except for one, the Student Chaplain’s group. My junior year also marked the year I was not alone. While I had known a few other liberal Christians on campus involved in the different organizations, they had kept quiet in public about their views. But my junior year, two others from the Student Chaplain’s joined the gay/straight campus alliance group. And one eventually came out about her sexuality as well.  And that all happened because one night I was hanging out with members of the alliance group and these two Student Chaplains came up to me and I introduced them and invited them to join the alliance group.  

It’s been seventeen years, and yet I know so many pastors still afraid to come out as welcoming and affirming or open and affirming today. It’s long overdue, friends. Come on out. Stand up for equality and justice for all LGBT folks. Even if you don’t think your church is ready to join O&A or W&A yet, they aren’t going to get there at all unless they know their pastor will help lead the way. And you never know what youth is hanging on by a thread, needing to know not only that God loves them, but that God’s representatives in their community—their church and especially their pastor—love them too. Otherwise, I fear that more college campus alliance groups will be filled with the same stories mine was—stories of rejection and loss, instead of stories of Christ’s love, faith, and hope.

Being the Poem: Liberal Christianity as Subversion

This article originally appeared on the wonderful blog, The Seedbed.  Many thanks to Sarah Morrice-Brubaker and the great group of bloggers there.

“It is a tenet of liberal Enlightenment faith that belief and knowledge are distinct and separable and that even if you do not embrace a point of view, you can still understand it. This is the credo Satan announces in Paradise Regained when he says, ‘most men admire / Virtue who follow not her lore” (I, 482-483). That is, it is always possible to appreciate a way of life that is not yours. Milton would respond that unless the way of life is yours, you have no understanding of it; and that is why, he declares in another place, that a man who would write a true poem must himself be a true poem and can only praise or even recognize worthy things if he is himself worthy.” (Stanley Fish, The Trouble with Principle, 247).

Over the last 10 days, I’ve had occasion to be congratulated and insulted (usually with a lot of capital letters), since Douglass Boulevard Christian Church, where I am senior minister,voted to support marriage equality by refraining from signing marriage licenses until LGBTQ people are extended the same rights.  It is surreal to watch people who’ve never met you argue about what kind of person you are. Some people are certain that I wear my hair long to cover up devil’s horns. Others have suggested that our stand at DBCC must signal some latent truth about my own sexuality. While, still others are convinced that I recline only on beds of freshly picked spring flowers, tended to by angels still in their probationary period. But, for the most part, it’s difficult to take any of it too seriously. They don’t really know much about me apart from a few news reports.

There is one criticism, though, that I find difficult to look past. It goes something like this:

The bible clearly says that homosexuality is wrong, and if you say it’s not, then you must not believe the bible.  In fact, you’re only doing what you’re doing because you’re a liberal boot-licker.  Any good Christian can see that you only care about a left-leaning social agenda, not about obeying Jesus.  You should just drop the pretense, and quit calling yourself a Christian.

Underlying this allegation is an assumption that I think liberal Christians need to challenge—vigorously and often. Sentiments like this, it seems to me, center on the conviction that what is most important about following Jesus is believing all the right things about him (e.g., the correct human/divine ratio, the substitutionary nature of the work he accomplished on the cross, the precise blend of personal ethical maxims, capitalist free-market economics, and national pride, etc.). If you happen to raise questions about any of those, or, more actively, to offer disagreement, you will have ventured into some form of vicious heterodoxy unknown since the days of Torquemada. That is to say, that well-known 1960s Christo-hippie chorus has been transformed at the hands of some Christians, so that now it proclaims that “they will know we are Christians by our appropriately worded bumper stickers.” This presumption of the necessity of verbalizing correct belief is what constitutes Christianity for some folks. If you know the right answer, you should be fine. On this account, the church’s job primarily revolves around disseminating correct information, while enthusiastically seeking to overwhelm those whom it perceives to be its opponents.

The claim that I think liberal Christians ought to defend more scrupulously, however, is that the actions they take, the positions they stake out are not merely self-conscious attempts to avoid taking scripture seriously.  Quite to the contrary, in fact.  The liberal Christians I know seek justice for the poor, the marginalized, the powerless precisely because they believe that in so doing they are being faithful to the witness of scripture.  That liberal Christians don't view the bible as some sort of casuistic step-by-step guidebook to discerning, for instance, whether God opposes any Rock 'n Roll not preceded by the qualifier "Christian"  doesn't mean that they don't value scripture as authoritative, any more than saying that conservative Christians who read the Sermon on the Mount and come away from the experience believing that "Jesus would have been cool with thermonuclear weapons" means that they don't value Jesus as authoritative.  It really comes down to the interpretative strategies one employs--an issue I won't try to solve here.  My point is that though liberal Christians read the bible with a different set of assumptions about the kind of truth the bible is capable of producing, it does not follow that they are not committed to the bible--or, less generously, that they are not even Christians--just because they don't share the same set of assumptions as conservative Christians.

I am aware that my description of the value placed on scripture by liberal Christians will be heard by conservative Christians as rationalization, as merely a justification for making the scriptures say whatever liberal Christians want them to say.  And that, I think, is the problem.  It is this primary posture of suspicion that forecloses conversation.  To say that liberal Christians have some ulterior motive in interpreting scripture (while conservative Christians "just read the clear truth of what's there"), is to begin from the premise that liberal Christians are either the overeager but unwitting dupes of 19th century German theologians or 20th century French philosophers, or that they are evil dissemblers disguising themselves as Christians for the purpose of . . . what?  I'm not sure.  On this reading, liberal Christians are being led around by the nose at the hands of their cigarette-smoking post-structuralist overlords, or they are the mendacious toadies of the coming one-world government.  (Let me be quick to point out that liberals can shut off conversation with the same kind of dismissiveness--namely, conservatives as handmaidens of a discredited form of overconfident Enlightenment rationalism, or as rubes and hicks who learn theology at the feet of preachers who've spent too much time in front blow-dryers.)  I think liberal Christians ought not to cede the hermeneutical high-ground.

It's not that liberal Christians are trying to figure out the most diabolical ways to dismantle "old-fashioned Christianity"; instead, the liberal Christians I know love Jesus so much they can't imagine living in a world organized and structured in ways that would grieve him by doing harm to those whom he loves.  Liberal Christians, in other words, aren't just trying to speak the poem correctly; they are, as Milton said, trying to be the poem.  Because as Christians we believe that scripture isn't something first to be understood, and then lived.  It first to be lived, with the hope that understanding will meet us somewhere along the way.

That the way liberal Christians go about honoring Jesus' compassion and concern for justice for those on the outside subverts some conservative ways of reading scripture shouldn't surprise us.  Jesus was always stomping about in someone else's petunias, always dismantling traditional expectations of who's in power, and who ought to go to the back of the line.  He was all about breaking down the walls everyone had always thought were insuperable.  I'm not sure what they call it now, but in liberal Christianity we call it Easter.  And Easter's as subversive as it gets.