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Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White
Thoughts on Religion, Morality, and Politics
By Adam Hamilton
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2008 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Are You Liberal or Conservative?
The division of the world into "liberal" and "conservative" ... is one of the really restricting developments that has ever happened to us.... It has to be, we are told, either this way or that. Such a view makes things very simple, I suppose. But it also reduces our minds to utter fuzziness. We are required to define everything as either liberal or conservative even when the two allowable terms of definition are not adequate to explain the reality that they are intended to describe.
—Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
I came to faith in Christ as a teenager. I'd been away from church for years when someone invited me to a small Pentecostal church. While it was the girls in the church who inspired me to return after my first visit, I also found myself drawn to the passionate faith of the people in that congregation. It was in reading the Bible, though, that I actually decided to follow Jesus Christ, inviting Jesus Christ to be my Savior and Lord. I was fourteen.
When I was sixteen I felt God calling me to be a pastor. Upon graduating from high school, I began attending Oral Roberts University (ORU) where I would eventually earn my bachelor's degree in pastoral ministry. I entered ORU as a Pentecostal with very conservative and fundamentalist views. While ORU was certainly no bastion of liberalism, it was there that I found myself stretched and many of my fundamentalist assumptions challenged.
I loved the passion of the Pentecostal church I attended, and I did not waver in my desire to be a follower of Jesus, but I had lots of questions about faith, the Scriptures, and the "fundamental truths" I had been taught. I began reading the minor prophets and then the Gospels once again, and I began to see that God's call was not simply to tell others the good news, or even only that we have a "personal relationship" with him (as life-giving as this is). He also wanted us to do justice, to be concerned for the poor, and to provide help to those in need.
I left the Pentecostal church in college, and began searching for a new spiritual home. I did not want to jettison what I felt was good in my Pentecostal experience—the personal relationship with Jesus Christ, a love of the Scriptures, and an emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit. But I yearned for a church that would link these with a passion for justice, and where the intellect was valued as much as the heart.
In the end my search led me to John Wesley, the eighteenth-century founder of the Methodist movement. His movement, Methodism, was born out of the theological conflicts that preceded him, and rather than finding himself drawn to the extremes, Wesley drew from them all as he articulated a gospel of the middle way. I joined The United Methodist Church when I was nineteen.
Joining The United Methodist Church meant that I would now need to attend graduate school in order to be ordained. I was encouraged to attend a conservative seminary, but I felt that it was important to be exposed to the theological and biblical interpretations of a bit more liberal seminary. I opted for Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. Its place on the theological spectrum may have been slightly left of center, but relative to Oral Roberts it was clearly "liberal."
What I found by virtue of having attended a somewhat conservative college and a somewhat liberal seminary was an opportunity to listen to and explore the truth found on both sides of the theological divide. In the end I came to appreciate both theological liberals and conservatives. Both liberals and conservatives had important characteristics and theological positions that I found compelling. I began to wonder, "Are these my only choices? Am I either a liberal or a conservative? Or is there something in between?"
In the same way, an increasing number of Christians today are finding it difficult to identify with either side of this theological divide. They are not certain how to answer the question, "Are you liberal or conservative?"
A "liberal" pastor I know opposes abortion, but favors allowing homosexuals to enter into marriage-like covenants. He has a heart for evangelism and takes great joy in inviting people to follow Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and he protested the war in Iraq when most of the nation was in favor of it. He even gives "altar calls" from time to time. This pastor would never consider voting for a Republican for president.
A "conservative" pastor I know told me he did not see how he could be a Christian and not be liberal on such issues as the environment and poverty, and he favors raising taxes to address these concerns. He's opened medical clinics for low-income people and has hosted interfaith services in his "conservative" church. And this same pastor all but endorsed George W. Bush for president in the 2004 election. Some have left his church because he was "too liberal," though he embraces all of the theological beliefs of early fundamentalism. As these examples illustrate, even those who use the labels of liberal and conservative to describe themselves don't always neatly fit into these camps.
What is true of these pastors is increasingly true of Christians in general in the United States. The results of a 2006 Pew Forum study of more than 2,000 Americans, entitled "Pragmatic Americans Liberal and Conservative on Social Issues," captures well the fact that a large number of Americans, regardless of the particular label they tend to claim for themselves, already see the world as a bit more gray than their labels would suppose. Researchers found that "Americans cannot be easily characterized as conservative or liberal."
When people ask me, "Are you liberal or conservative?" my answer is usually, "Yes!" My answer is yes for several reasons. First, I see both liberal and conservative as two parts of a whole. When we say that someone is liberal with their giving, we mean that he or she is generous. I want to be liberal in that sense of the word! If liberal is defined as "favoring reform," that, too, captures my heart as a Protestant, because it recalls one of the important Reformation slogans, ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda: "the church reformed, always reforming." If liberal is a synonym for "broad-minded" or "open-minded" then yes, I wish to be a liberal!
If liberal is defined as "favoring reform," that, too, captures my heart as a Protestant, because it recalls one of the important Reformation slogans, ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda: "the church reformed, always reforming."
Yet if "conservative" means holding on to what is good from the past, and being cautious in embracing change simply for the sake of change, then mark me conservative! If being conservative within the Christian community means retaining the historic doctrines of the Christian faith as articulated in the creeds, then I am conservative. If conservative means, as the Latin, conservare does, guarding, keeping, or observing (presumably the treasures of the past), then, at least with regard to many things, I must be conservative.
On the other hand, if liberal means holding to the absolute right of individuals to do whatever they choose, or if conservative means simply seeking to maintain the status quo, I could not be defined as either liberal or conservative!
I might also respond to the person who asks me "are you liberal or conservative?" by noting, "It depends on who is asking." Liberal and conservative are relative terms and all but the most extreme among us are liberal relative to some people and conservative relative to others.
If "conservative" means holding on to what is good from the past, and being cautious in embracing change simply for the sake of change, then mark me conservative!
One of Kansas's most famous pastors is a man named Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, a congregation of around one hundred members. Phelps and the members of his church travel across the country to protest at a number of events, including the funerals of homosexuals and military personnel. Their signs carry slogans indicating their belief in God's judgment on homosexual persons, and on American society for tolerating homosexuality (for more about the group's beliefs, visit their website: www.god hatesfags.com). In 2007, the group protested at the funeral of perhaps the most famous "conservative" pastor in America at the time: the Reverend Dr. Jerry Falwell. The conclusion I have reached about this protest is that, despite the fact that Falwell was seen by most as a staunch conservative, he was "liberal" from Phelps's perspective, and "soft" on homosexuality! Liberal and conservative are relative terms—we're all more liberal than someone, and more conservative than someone else.
Liberal and conservative are relative terms and all but the most extreme among us are liberal relative to some people and conservative relative to others.
Even Fred Phelps isn't so easily confined to a box. For two decades following his graduation from law school Phelps was a civil rights lawyer waging legal battles on behalf of African Americans as he opposed discrimination. He was recognized for these efforts by the NAACP in the 1980s, before he became known for his virulent antihomosexual positions. We human beings are an odd and sometimes confused lot.
Conservative and liberal, then, are terms that might both apply to most of us.
Conservative and liberal, then, are both terms that might apply to most of us. And, in the best sense of these words, most of us likely recognize the value of conserving some things, and being cautious in simply accepting change for change's sake. And we would also recognize the value of being broad-minded, generous, and willing to embrace reform or change when such change is deemed necessary. Many of us are liberal on some issues and conservative on others. Someone more conservative than you thinks of you as a liberal; likewise, your liberal neighbor considers you a conservative.
Even our most basic of ways of categorizing people in our society— left/right, liberal/conservative—point us to the truth that the world is not always black and white, and more often than not, we find ourselves somewhere in the gray between the two.
In the next few chapters in this section I'd like to point out some basic commands that Jesus offers his followers that, if followed, would bring an end to Christians serving as the wedge in America's culture wars. Following these commands of Jesus would allow us instead to be bridge builders, peacemakers, and healers. But following these commands is only possible when we've begun to recognize that the world is not always black and white, and when we've begun to appreciate its many shades of gray.CHAPTER 2
"You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!"
Among the struggles we have as human beings is our tendency to "major in the minors." We describe this in a host of ways: We "can't see the forest for the trees." We "win the battle and lose the war." We struggle to "keep the main thing the main thing." We make "a mountain out of a molehill." While this is a universal affliction of all human beings, religious people excel at it.
Our desire for certainty, our need to be right, and our tendency to miss the point have conspired to keep Christians from experiencing unity, and instead have led to endless divisions within the Christian faith.
Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day for this when he said,
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!" (Matthew 23:23-24)
As he was facing his own death, Jesus prayed for unity among his followers, knowing, no doubt, that they would struggle with their own tendency to strain gnats, argue endlessly over matters of doctrine, and be forever dividing over mint, dill and cumin—Jesus' metaphor for focusing on the irrelevant details (John 17:20-24).
Our desire for certainty, our need to be right, and our tendency to miss the point have conspired to keep Christians from experiencing unity, and instead have led to endless divisions within the Christian faith. In America alone there are over two thousand different Christian denominations and tens of thousands of churches that are independent and nondenominational churches. Though all claim to be followers of Jesus, most have divided over matters of doctrine or ways of practicing their faith. Each feels that their doctrine and practice is more faithful than the others.
In 2007 a document released by the Vatican made front-page news around the world. The document, which intended to clarify the Roman Catholic Church's position on non-Catholic churches, noted that non-Catholic churches are wounded or defective and that Protestant churches are not truly "churches" in the technical sense of the word. What is it that makes Protestant and Orthodox churches—more than 1 billion of the world's Christians— "defective" or "wounded"? The fact that these other Christians do not accept the authority of the pope, and that many do not accept the idea of apostolic succession or the Catholic view of the sacrament of Holy Communion (the Eucharist).
At the time these comments were made, I wrote the following reflections. They capture how "seeing gray" might help different churches and denominations better understand and relate to one another.
From One "Defective" Christian to Another
The world was recently reminded of one of the tragic realities of contemporary Christianity: Christians claim to follow Jesus, the man who chastised religious leaders for their proficiency at missing the point, became frustrated by the religiosity that excluded and judged deficient broad swaths of the populace in first-century Judea, and made it clear that prostitutes and sinners were welcome in the kingdom of God. Nonetheless, these same Christians excel at focusing on theological minutiae while excluding their fellow-followers of Jesus, judging others' faith and churches to be defective.
While the Vatican is at the center of the current flap, it is not alone in holding such views. One Orthodox priest told me that he was not certain what the fate of the world's 1.9 billion Catholics and Protestants would be on the Day of Judgment. Conversely, there are millions of Protestants who do not believe that the world's 1.1 billion Catholics and 300 million Orthodox are authentically Christian. Then there are the internecine battles among Protestants, many of whom believe most of their fellow Protestants are also defective and deficient in their faith.
Jesus, the man who chastised religious leaders for their proficiency at missing the point, became frustrated by the religiosity that excluded and judged deficient broad swaths of the populace in first-century Judea, and made it clear that prostitutes and sinners were welcome in the kingdom of God. Nonetheless, these same Christians excel at focusing on theological minutiae while excluding their fellow-followers of Jesus, judging others' faith and churches to be defective.
In hearing these kinds of conversations, I am reminded of my two daughters, age seventeen and twenty-one. They could not be more different from each other. Their personalities and tastes in clothing, music, food, and boys are worlds apart. Even the churches they are drawn to differ. Though I am a United Methodist pastor, my older daughter, at least while away at college, prefers the rich liturgy of the Episcopal Church to standard Methodist fare. And my younger daughter prefers the "emergent" and "edgy" worship of a church whose pastor wears blue jeans and T-shirts and whose members have piercings and tattoos.
Excerpted from Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White by Adam Hamilton. Copyright © 2008 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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