April 29, 2021

Rev. Dr. Michael Traylor – May, 2021

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29)

“As people of faith, our challenge is to rise above political ideology and lead on moral grounds.  Don’t go right, don’t go left, go deeper.  (Jim Wallis – On God’s Side)

This last election cycle was among the most polarized and divisive election that I have ever witnessed. The degree of violence and vitriol revealed just how sick society is. Too often the dominant political narratives of our regions and family heritage often define our church culture, which in turn defines and informs the church’s mission. In other words, many churches have become co-opted by political agendas and have lost their true identity.

University of Notre Dame Political Scientists recently published a study which sought to analyze the phenomena of the rising population of people who have no religious affiliation over the past decade (Campbell, Layman, Green, Secular Surge, 2021). What they found was that often those who described themselves as non-religious often did so in reaction to political identities of religious movements, regardless of the political orientation of the religious organizations they were most familiar with. Even more fascinating was that the study showed that often those people who considered themselves without a religious affiliation were often very devoted to activism that was often in harmony with churches with a political identity they were adverse towards. This is important, as the authors demonstrate, because people were not offended by political action, advocacy or activism of the church, but the church’s identity being politicized. In other words, saying that your church is conservative, liberal, progessive, or patriotic has a variety of meanings that mean different things to different people. Each of these labels may describe an approach to politics, but are often used as words that either include or exclude people.

This is not solely an American phenomenon. Rwandan Theologian Emanuel Ketongole watched as his Christian nation (over 94% of Rwanda in 1993 identified as Christian) descended into the most horrific violence imaginable. One million lives taken in one hundred days by people who were ethnically similar and in the family of Christ. He would state prophetically:

If Christian-identity has any chance of subverting or at least resisting the tribal loyalties of our time, Christians will have to recognize the ways in which politics, not only shapes our view of the world and ourselves, but also the tribal patterns we so easily overlook.

I rarely use the words “conservative”, “liberal”, “progressive” or even “moderate” to describe anyone or anything. The reason is that I have learned that rarely do those terms represent a concrete and consistent ideology. More often, they are used to represent terms of inclusion or exclusion. Let me give you an example. Conservative can mean to conserve existing values or social order, or it can mean to be risk-adverse (like a conservative investment). Either can be applied to a social policy, politics or even the reading of scripture. However, the interpretation and ideological application and consistency is not widely known by the listeners. For instance, we may desire the neighborhood centered living of the early 20th century (we want to conserve it) but we do not want to conserve the discriminatory practices that prevented many from participating in those neighborhoods. So, when someone speaks of being conservative, it is often unclear what we are talking about. The same could be said for the term liberal. Liberal can mean non-traditional values or a generous approach to something.

One could argue that Jesus advocated for non-traditional values in his Earthly ministry context and could have been described as liberal. Accurately, one could argue that Jesus sought to conserve many cultural values of his day and could be described as conservative. Yet, Jesus specifically worked hard to represent an alternative way to the political identities of his day. His message would support aspects of the revolutionary zealots, the conservative pharisees, the progressive Sadducees and even the isolationist Essenes. In the same way today, many political movements have components of their platform that are consistent with the kingdom message but none can claim that Jesus is “for” them or would identify with them. Either way, the use of the term is often without a specific ideology but a means of identifying a person or policy as part of “us” or “them”.

More often, the use of terms like conservative or progressive has more to do with our identity and affiliations than an actual ideology. When a self-identified conservative person labels someone or something “liberal”, it often has more to do with that person being labeled as “not part of us” than a particular ideological difference. Likewise, a self-identified progressive person sees the label of conservative as someone who is antagonistic to the progress of society.

An appointed pastor in our conference, who considers himself strongly conservative was called a “liberal” by one of their board members because he had a difference in opinion on a style of preaching. The board member’s attempt was to label the pastor outside of the in-group. Both the board member and the pastor were strongly anti-abortion, upheld traditional views of sexuality, and the authority of scripture, but in this case, the use of the identity was not designed to describe differences in ideologies or philosophies, but just a means to disparage the other.

The issue is not whether there are not ideologies or policies used by self-identified conservatives or progressives that are consistent with kingdom ethics. The issue is that the terms speak of an identity that is inconsistent and laden with unintended meaning that most often serves to block, reject, or exclude people who do not identify with the given political label.

As followers of Jesus, we will advocate politically to bring about change as advocated by Jesus, but that is different than using a political label to describe yourself or others. Free Methodist founder BT Roberts often voted for candidates in different parties, refusing to be affiliated with any political party.

Jonah was sent to the pagan nation of Assyria, who had little regard for the ways and the people of God. God’s mission was to call the people of Assyria to come to him. The story revealed God’s care for humanity without regard to their ethnicity, ideologies, or practices. The same mission exists today except that instead of sending a single prophet, we are all “called out” to love our neighbors. We dare not allow our identity in Christ be eclipsed by a political identity that simply rejects some of our neighbors.

I believe everyone, specifically, every church has a Nineveh. Nineveh is a metaphor for people who may be completely different in identity, value systems, and practices but that God loves so much that he sent his only son to die for. The Apostle Paul would state:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (I Corinthians 9:19-23)

The core issue is that of identity and not politics. The kingdom of God is wide enough to include a spectrum of political beliefs, but we must allow our participation in the mission of Jesus define and describe our identity. It is out of that identity, that we are able to extend grace beyond every cultural, political, ethnic, and socioeconomic barrier that exists.