Monday, March 9, 2009

Transforming Theology: "Liberal Christianity is Conservative"

LIBERAL! What does that word mean? Is it a curse word? Does it have any value in describing Christianity?

"Liberal" is a term that is used to describe Christians who are more committed to social justice than to Jesus Christ. They are the left-wing pinko commies who want to help the poor and feed the hungry. They are the tree-hugging environmentalists who drone on and on about global warming. They are the guilt-ridden PC police who incessantly speak up about classism, sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc. They are the grass roots army who thought Barack Obama would instantly usher in a new and glorious age of peace, justice, and equality. They are the enlightened Christians who have managed to transcend superstitious ideas such as the effectiveness of praying to a listening God. They are the science-loving fact-fundamentalists who have rejected the divinity and resurrection of Jesus. They are the relativists who don't believe we can have any meaning or purpose in life. They are the secular humanists who forced God out of public schools. Damn, dirty liberals!

Obviously, this is a caricature of "liberal" Christianity and how their opponents view them. But it makes the point. Liberal is seen as a dirty word. It's often associated with the "high" liberalism of the 19th and 20th centuries. These folks gave liberalism a bad name. They were Deists who thought God was simply their side-kick. They were self-made men who saw Jesus as their buddy along their journey of success. They were supremely optimistic folks who thought they could build the Kingdom of God on earth through democracy, education, and social welfare programs. But soon they were knocked down from their high horse.

The "high" liberals were soon faced with the reality of sin and evil in graphic ways. The Holocaust and WWII pointed out the inappropriateness of extreme optimistic views of humanity upheld in liberalism. Feminists pointed out the sexism and patriarchy in liberalism. Postcolonialists pointed out the imperialism in liberalism. Black Liberation theologians pointed out the racism in liberalism. Queer theologians pointed out the homophobia in liberalism. Postmodernity challenged the Newtonian science of liberalism. The list could go on and on. Soon even liberals began seeing "high" liberalism as problematic.

Thankfully post-liberal liberalism has managed to emerge out of the ruins of "high" liberalism. Process Theology is a great example of this post-liberal liberalism. It retains a commitment to social justice, but from a more nuanced perspective. It retains a commitment to mission, but from a more humble perspective. It retains an ethic of human responsibility, but from a more realistic perspective. And, importantly, it retains a liberal vision, but from a post-("high"-)liberal perspective.

Liberalism is a good thing to be rooted in. It keeps us grounded in our founding documents and founding leaders. Yes, being liberal means conserving the best of our traditions. Looking at the Judeo-Christian tradition and history of the United States of America shows the conservative goal of liberalism.

In regard to the Judeo-Christian tradition, liberals conserve the core teachings of Scripture. Micah 4:3-4 provides a vision of peace where all people have liberty and equity: "they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid." Matthew 25:32-36 provides a vision of judgement whereby God requires all peoples and nations to actively work for a just and fair world: "All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'" Amos 5:24 provides the summary statement of the liberal vision in Scripture: "let justice roll down like waters."

In regard to tradition of the USA, liberals conserve the core principles of our nation. The Declaration of Independence argues that liberty is a core value: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The Preamble to the Constitution talks about liberal goals: "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty." The Statue of Liberty has a liberal vision inscribed on it: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Liberals are the conservatives. They are the ones who want to conserve the ideals that have been the traditional guiding principles. Conserving these principles has led to the great liberal movements of the USA: abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, civil rights, etc. All of these great transitional movements were led by liberal Christians. So, "liberal" is a term that needs to be reclaimed.

"Liberal Christianity" is a good thing. It means conserving and enacting the core social teachings of Scripture - especially those taught by Jesus Christ: peace, justice, love, equity, mutuality, etc. Liberal Christianity conserves those traditional ideals. So it's conservative to support "liberal" things such social justice, peace making, civil rights, marriage equality, LGBT ordination, eco-justice, equal pay for equal work, etc. Liberals want traditional values such as peace and justice for all people. And that makes them liberal with their conservatism.

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