The Gospel: Liberal & Conservative
The following is an excerpt from the sermon delivered last Sunday, part of a series I’m doing on how to follow Jesus in a polarized culture. I used Deuteronomy 4 to discuss the constant (conservative) call of Israel to remember God’s work among them, and Jesus’ controversial sabbath healings as an example of his (liberal) tendencies to stretch the bounds of acceptable law observance. I’ve received inspiration from Adam Hamilton for this series, especially from his book Seeing Gray in a World of Black & White. Here it is:
When it comes to thinking through and living out our faith in the world, our culture has set us up to fail. Our talking heads tell us that everything has to be one way or the other: left or right, donkey or elephant, blue state or red state. When we come to the faith assuming that everything can fit neatly into one of two boxes, we lose something very precious: the gospel itself. Jesus was not a Republican or a Democrat, but all too often we try to argue that the view of the world we prefer must have been the view of Jesus. Father James Schall put it this way:
“The division of the world into “liberal” and “conservative” on every topic from politics to our taste in cuisine, clothes, or automobiles is one of the really restricting developments that has ever happened to us. If we are not what is considered popularly a “liberal,” then we must, by some convoluted logic, be a “conservative,” or vice versa. No third or fourth option is available as is usually the case in the real world. 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.” (1)
The gospel is certainly something so marvelous, so transformative and beautiful and powerful, that a simple “left or right” is not remotely close to being able to describe it. Today we are continuing in our series The Extreme Center: Following Jesus in a Polarized World. I’m going to show today how the gospel is both “liberal” and “conservative.” That, of course, is just another way of saying that the gospel is not easily defined one way or the other. The message of Jesus refuses to be pigeonholed into our simple categories, it shatters them, it stretches us, and challenges us with a third way that is neither solely “liberal” or “conservative”: the way of cross and resurrection…
The gospel, then, is liberal and conservative. It’s both, which is also to say that it is neither. The way of Jesus is higher than those cultural divisions. Recognizing that is one way that Christians of all sides and stripes can seek the extreme center together: like Jesus, all of us seek to conserve some things and change some things. None of us are a simple as these labels, even if we claim them strongly. The gospel, the good news that God has entered the world as a human and opened up salvation to all people, also cannot be reduced to one of these categories without making it something unrecognizable.
A few years back there was a commercial on TV that opened with two infants trying to learn their shapes. They had those toys that hollow out different shapes in plastic, like a triangle, a circle, a square, and a rectangle, and the goal is to match them all up. They are both struggling with the square piece, pushing and yelling and twisting, trying to get it to fit into the round hole. Then it flashes forward, both of them are grownup mechanics under the hood of a car. One of them is struggling with a battery, trying to make it fit right into its cradle. He’s banging it with a hammer, and over his shoulder his buddy is yelling, “Just keep hitting it, it’ll fit eventually.” Of course, the lesson was that you don’t want mechanics like this working on your car. All they are going to do is damage your car.
Trying to fit the gospel into the convenient confines of a box like ‘left’ or ‘right’ also does damage. In our polarized culture, Christians of every political persuasion want Jesus on their side, and so he is trotted out to bless this position or Scripture is quoted as simple justification of this legislation. Parties and candidates try to convince us that they are God’s choice, which means that the other side must be against God. All of this does great harm to the gospel. It reduces the message of Jesus to a tool to gain power. It renders unto Caesar what is God’s. On a practical level it harms evangelism, it will turn off all those on the other side who may be searching for God but are suspicious of a God who looks tailor-made for this or that party or issue.
Chuck Colson, a writer and activist whose life was transformed after being put in prison as part of the Watergate scandal wrote this:
“…Christians should never have a political party. It is a huge mistake to become married to an ideology, because the greatest enemy of the gospel is ideology. Ideology is a man-made format of how the world ought to work, and Christians instead believe in the revealed truth of Scripture.” (2)
Friends, the world doesn’t need more ideology. We fight over it; families split over it; countries are torn in two by it; those in power kill for it. The world needs Jesus. Each and every person on this big, round rock need to know the transformative power of Jesus’ love. But party politics masquerading as faith won’t do it. People can smell ideology from a mile away; it stinks to heaven. The gospel, on the other hand, is something so sweet it is unmistakable. The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is too glorious to be contained by our simple categories. It is its own party, its own “side”; the gospel bids us to show love rather than claim power, because Jesus was exalted by rejecting power and submitting to death. So, too, all of us, who find ourselves drowning in a sea of partisan politics, of ideology, of talking heads and pundits, must reject our desire to be “right” and give our desire to win over to Christ. The extreme center, the way of the cross, is the way that asks us to sacrifice everything to him. To play with Paul a little bit: in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, republican, democrat, left, right, progressive, libertarian, socialist, anarchist. However it is we participate in the world, whatever our views are, we are to present them at the foot of the cross, the throne of our true Lord, who bids us to be about Kingdom business. In a world that asks us to choose between black and white, left and right, the only way to win is to refuse to play the game. Let us follow Jesus not with timidity but extremely, with abandon, with gusto, keeping him at the center, and led out these doors by the Spirit to show a divided world a better way. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1. “On Being Neither Liberal Nor Conservative,” http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2005/schall_libcons_may05.asp
2. Quoted in Lyons and Kinnaman, UnChristian.