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Thursday, February 24, 2005

What Kind of Man is a Liberal Christian?

When I identify myself as a liberal Christian, I tend to get a lot of strange looks. It’s the sort of look everyone gave a friend not long ago when he drunkenly exclaimed, “My family’s inbred!” They want to ask questions, but they are a bit afraid of falling off the loony-edge.
Officially, I’m a member of the United Methodist Church, though I can’t really remember the last time I entered one. In my defense, the one just around the corner only has services in Korean. My language skills being what they are – well, to be honest, I like to sleep late on Sunday, too.
I’m the kind of Christian that most of the people I grew up with might not call a Christian at all. I like a cold beer and a nice glass of Scotch on ice. I occasionally smoke a pipe (tobacco only) or a cigar. If you hear me cussing, I’ll defend it by saying that I did spend eight years of my adult life as a sailor (there’s a reason for the stereotypes). As long as I have eyes, I’ll probably look at any pretty girl that walks by me. In other words, I’m the Christian your pastor probably warns you about.
Backslider.
I’m not perfect, and I never claimed to be. I surely have enough flaws (the list above is only the most public of my sins) to keep a confessor busy at least three days a week. But we aren’t called to be perfect. We are called to take up our cross and struggle on and stumble and bloody our knees and get back up again.
It isn’t an easy calling to be a Christian. It means you can never give up. It means that when the deepest darkest days of despair surround you, you cling to the single thin hope that Jesus was telling the truth when he said he would makes us the sons of the living God; that we are loved and he is with us always. It means knowing that you are called to struggle with all your might against everything the world can throw at you, knowing that you are hopelessly inept at fielding your calling, but trusting that somehow you will manage.
It means knowing that you are first and foremost part of the body of Christ. You are an inseparable part of a community united in the belief that a Mighty God rules and ultimately dispenses justice beyond our ability to understand. It is humbling. It is exalting. It is hard.
It is the understanding that I am only a small part of a greater community that puts me firmly in the camp of liberal ideology. It is community – not collectivity and not individuality– that anchors me in this world. I am an individual, yes, but I am an individual who is nothing without God and without the community He has provided. Yet, somehow, I am so vital a part of this community that even the slowly vanishing hairs of my head are numbered.
That sense of community makes me understand the need for Food Stamps and Aid to Needy Families. It forces me not to look away when I see homeless men and women huddled in the subway for warmth. It makes me realize that my grandmother and my mother are dependent on the meager Social Security check they receive and the same is true for millions of other mothers and grandmothers. It makes me hurt when I see the distant eyes of a man whose spirit is crushed by the grinding poverty of working today to pay yesterday’s rent.
A liberal theology of Christianity is one rooted in reality. Even Jesus himself told us that there will always be poor and we can’t pretend that there is an answer that will end poverty. But Christians are called out by their God to serve mankind and to render aid and comfort in times of need – without judgment or thought of reward. Liberals are called out by a shared ideology of community to stand for those who are least able to protect themselves. Oppression, by any other name, is still tyrannical. Both Christians and liberals are firmly set against oppression, in all its many forms.
There will be times when the secular liberal and the liberal Christian don’t agree. There will be times when the liberal Christian and the non-liberal Christian don’t agree. That is the nature of mankind and it simply can’t be helped. This does not mean that it isn’t worth struggling for understanding and consensus. In fact, it simply means that we must learn to exert leadership in the church and in the world.
A liberal Christian should not be a self-identification that is built on oxymoron. It should be a honest evaluation of the heart, mind, and soul and the effort to bring into alignment the best of what is desired in those dark secret places we show to no one. Although we may fail, it is a goal that is set for helping mankind realize its full potential on earth so that God and man may find glory and peace in our accomplishments. It is an outlook that isn’t afraid to look at the hard part of life or to enjoy the good parts.

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